The Broad is Back!

January 27, 2017

Too Big to Fail

When the financial crisis of ’07-08 was addressed by incoming president Barack Obama, many Americans were unhappy with the resolution. Yes, we got “back on track,” and things did get better for many. But banks were declared “too big to fail” and were bailed out.  That, I think, was one of the seeds that led to our current president.

For good reason, people blamed the banks. When banks got help and no punishment, many Americans who had lost homes, cars, jobs, and even a lifetime’s work got rightfully angry. And for the next six years that anger brewed.

Sure we got the ACA, which to me will always be Romneycare as I first encountered in when I came back to the US in ’07 and lived in Massachusetts, but I know people who literally had to choose between insurance and food. Even the subsidies through the ACA were not enough. It depends, of course. When I came back to the US the second time, I used the ACA because I had no health care in my part time jobs. I paid a lot but got excellent coverage. My subsidy was about $500 a month, but since I literally paid more into the government in taxes than American Airlines, United Continental, and Hewlitt-Packard, and now it seems, President Trump, my conscience is clear. I have always paid every penny of taxes due, and I am willing to pay them to cover things like medical care and roads and so on.

So in spite of the ACA, we have millions of people who realized that they were unimportant to the government in spite of all its propaganda. Protecting the banks was protecting them, we were told, because if the big banks failed, the economy would suffer.

Well, you know what else is too big to fail? The United States of America. And failing we are.

We have a sitting president who is totally unfit for the job. Yes, he is a businessman who gets things done, (including bankrupting himself and many, many small businesses left in his wake) but countries are not businesses. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about people’s lives. He has not divested himself from his businesses. He has named unfit people for almost every position in his Cabinet. Most are now in the position to make the very wealthy even wealthier. Many of them have outright conflicts of interest.

Many don’t know a thing about the departments they’ve been nominated to head. I could see Ben Carson as Attorney General. I wouldn’t like it, but the man is a physician. But as head of HHD? No experience. And don’t get me started on Betsy DeVos. As a career professor, I am appalled. I have been teaching students who have suffered at the hands of federal interference in education for decades. I’ve seen the steady decline in knowledge and skills. Not intelligence—preparedness. The thought of her policies literally makes me shudder. And I know the meaning of literal.

Ironically, in light of people’s growing fears of more wars, I think one of his best picks for a Cabinet position is Gen. James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. While more hawkish than I’d like, he has the experience needed and is respected by folks in the Pentagon.

But the worst thing I see is the polarization between every day Americans. It’s been growing since the 2016 election cycle started, but instead of calming down, it’s getting worse. We are hating like we haven’t in a long while. We’re mean, petty, bitter, snide, personal, not only to people in government, but to one another.

We call each other names, generalize and stereotype. We’re more openly prejudiced than we have been in the past 50 years, not just against race but against one another based on political beliefs. I was never a fan of being “politically correct,” but I have always been a fan of trying not to offend people. I try to use non-gendered and people first language. I try to use the identifiers people prefer. To me, that’s just good manners and a fulfillment of the Golden Rule. Many quip that the new Golden Rule is “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Not a quip, the truth, and always has been the truth. But if we say we are the best country on earth, let’s treat each other with respect and humanity. Let’s act like the nicest people on earth. Bullying and hatred are not parts of greatness.

Don’t like someone’s choices? Think their life is a sin? Fine. But don’t curse them, threaten them, harm them or kill them. That’s not acceptable. And I’m not looking at one side or another or another here. I see people on ALL sides of the political spectrum acting unacceptably.

The true core values of our country, democracy, equality, and freedom, have eroded at a pace that frightens me. America is the only thing that’s too big to fail. And we are. America is an idea. And ideal, really. And because we are no longer living up to our ideals, because democracy was trampled on for decades, because corporations have the same rights as citizens, we’ve been a functional oligarchy for a long time. Equality in this country is a joke. Some lives are just worth less. Many see this on color lines, but I believe it’s more on wealth lines. The poor of this country have been abused, manipulated, lied to, and used as tools of the ruling powers since the beginning.

Race is also a problem. A middle class person of color does face stereotypes and prejudice. I am not unaware of the problem, and I’m not stupid. My own son identifies as “non-White” and has faced prejudice both from law enforcement and regular folks. But a poor white person has more problems and inherent difficulties than that middle class person of color. I live in a predominantly white place and the problems of poverty I see are only slightly different than the ones I saw in NYC. Drugs, poor education, lack of family structure (I’m not saying a traditional family is necessary, but when mom and dad are meth dealers, life is nowhere near normal), poor nutrition, poor medical care, and the list goes on.

This economic disparity, this racism, this throwback to “traditional Christian values” of intolerance and hatred for those who choose to live outside one’s ideas of Christianity, these are also seeds that led to Trump’s shocking victory.

Folks like to argue that race is the only reason he’s president, but that’s balderdash. Back in ’92, Bill Clinton’s famous campaign reminder was “it’s the economy, stupid” hasn’t changed these 24 years later. We allowed the oligarchy to grow, and now the White House has become the Palace of Versailles, especially the gilded New York White House in Trump Tower. Cronies and supporters are put into positions of power, regardless of ability, and dissent is harshly treated.

I’m not buying into Trump’s rhetoric of “make America great again.” It has needed work my entire life, but it’s always been a great country. Things are possible here. I am the daughter of a construction worker who earned a PhD. I have taught young people who have literally gone on to change the world, young people who grew up in poverty, or were immigrants, or were people of color, or all of the above. They are America. I love my country, and I love its people. We are what’s made America great, but America has failed too many because money rules.

Greed is not one of America’s values. We’re too great to fail, and this is something that needs to be addressed. I am not calling for communism. That was tried and failed in the USSR and China, among other places. I’m calling for competence in government, experts in charge of departments, not political cronies, corporations losing the rights of citizens, and support for measures that give a leg up. I’m calling for democracy to come back, unhindered by lobbyists, restrictive voting laws and outside manipulation, for freedom to come back through solid educations so that people can make good choices and for humans to live as they wish as long as they remember that their rights extend no further than the tip of their noses. That’s what I learned in 7th grade social studies. My rights are for me, and I can not force others to do what I think is right unless it’s something protected by the Constitution. And finally equality. No human being is born better than another. There is one race, the human race. Because of my personal beliefs, I believe we are all brothers and sisters, and I should treat you as I would a sibling. You may infuriate me, you may test me, but at the end of the day, I do love you. But you do not have to share my beliefs. Believe me, most people don’t as I don’t identify as any specific religion. But as members of the same race, we have to work together.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is my manifesto, I guess. We’re too big to fail. We’re an experiment in democracy that needs to backtrack a bit and see where we went wrong. I’m pretty sure I know where that was. Who will join me?

November 28, 2013

I’m Thinking Maybe He Should Reread the Gospels

Many of my friends are abuzz with Pope Francis’s most recent pronouncements.  In his first apostolic exhortation. “Evangelii Gaudium” “Joy of the Gospel” he basically blasted unchecked capitalism and consumerism as “selfish”. I’m beginning to like this guy.  He said a lot of other things, and admittedly, I haven’t read the entire thing (it’s over 50.,000 words long), but unsurprisingly, this topic is what made headlines.

My cousin Dolores (faithful readers have read her ideas here) sent me an email this morning ending with:

Rush Limbaugh called the Pope a Marxist for preaching the gospel of Jesus…astounding!!!

I really think Mr. Limbaugh needs to read the Bible.  Actually, I think a lot of American “Christians” who shout and holler about how “socialist” America is becoming really need to reread the Bible.

Let me direct them to the Gospel of Luke, chapter three, verses 7-14

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (NIV) (emphasis mine)

Granted, this is John the Baptist speaking, not Jesus, but Luke left it in, and really, Jesus gave John His seal of approval, so I think we should take this as, well, as Gospel.

Admittedly, as I tell my students, it’s tough to use the Bible to support an argument, because it’s so contradictory, but we’re talking about basic tenants of Christianity here. I do realize Jesus himself said, “The poor you will always have with you,” but the end of the sentence was “but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11 NIV).  He was responding to a very specific incident.  Here’s the context for those who like to see it:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matt 26:6-13, NIV)

In his comments about the poor, Jesus was echoing the Old Testament in his speech to his followers:

“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deut 15:11, NIV)

A lot Bible quotes, perhaps, but a national commentator just called the head of the Roman Catholic Church a Marxist.  I’m thinking someone doesn’t understand Christianity. Still, when I was in grad school, at a Catholic college, one of my favorite professors, Sister Francine Dempsey, CSJ, mentioned in class that someone once said that the only place Marxism would ever work was in a monastery.

Think about it.

What Marx says about wealth, while political and overtly anti-religious, is basically the same as the message of John the Baptist and his cousin, Jesus.  But they are speaking from a place of Love.  We share because we’re all brothers and sisters, and we love our brothers and sisters.

So I can see why Mr. Limbaugh was confused. Marxism/Christianity. Rather close. (can you hear my heavy sigh?)

And Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to condemn unchecked capitalism. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Church’s Social Teaching), Pope John Paul II (you know, that Nazi-fighting, freedom fighting guy?) wrote:

The tension between East and West is not in itself an opposition between two different levels of development but rather between two concepts of the development of individuals and peoples both concepts being imperfect and in need of radical correction.

(you can read the entire encyclical here)

This wasn’t the first time Pope John Paul went after unchecked capitalism. In 1984, in a speech to fishermen in Canada, he said

The fishing industry has also been concentrated more and more in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Around the globe more and more small or family fishing concerns lose their financial independence to the larger and capital intensive enterprises. Large industrial fishing companies run the risk of losing contact with the fishermen and their personal and family needs. They are exposed to the temptation of responding only to the forces of the marketplace, thus lacking at times sufficient financial incentive to maintain production. Such a development would put the security and distribution of the world’s food supply into ever greater jeopardy, if food production becomes controlled by the profit motive of a few rather than by the needs of the many.

It’s actually a pretty kickin’ speech, and you can find the the entire text at the Vatican website.

And Pope John Paul II was pretty consistent in his economic message throughout his papacy.

Can you imagine Mr. Limbaugh trying to get away with calling Pope John Paul II a Marxist?

So just what did Pope Francis say that has put everyone’s knickers in a twist?

Here are some key passages I found on the website Aleteia:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. (54)

Oh my! That’s the same song I’ve been singing for years.  I’m really starting to like this guy.  And then there’s this:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule. (56)

Some might call hypocrisy here, as the Church doesn’t pay taxes and is incredibly wealthy. But he also called for reform:

“Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” (32)

So, a start.

I despair of America sometimes, where we’re going, what we’re becoming, and I think the reason Rush Limbaugh’s comment goaded me into writing was that it exemplified the ignorance of so many Americans I meet.  As a professor, a teacher, I spend my professional life removing ignorance. But willful ignorance? That’s my nemesis. And since I’ve returned to America the level of willful ignorance I’ve encountered is dumbfounding.

I do have so much to say, and hopefully at least over the Thanksgiving   break I will be able to carve out some time to write.

It’s Thanksgiving in America, the time we set aside to be grateful for our bounty.  To those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful day full of beautiful memories.

September 19, 2013

The Sad and Lonely Death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, Adjunct

A story has been circulating academic newsletters and forums this week, a column called “The Death of an Adjunct” by Daniel Kovalik. It’s terrifying, to me at least, for it tells the true story of 83-year-old adjunct professor of French Margaret Mary Vojtko who died last month in abject poverty.  You can find the story here if you would like all the sad details.

I found the story terrifying because it’s the future I face. Teaching at 83 is not unheard of. I know many people who are working long after retirement age because they can not afford to stop.  In the comments, someone posted, “what about Social Security?”  I was very surprised to learn that there is actually no minimum monthly benefit, but for administrative reasons, the SSA won’t pay less than $1 a month.  And we all know, or should know, that benefits are based on salary. If Prof. Vojtko was an adjunct for 25 years, her yearly salary was low.

Why adjunct? It used to be the domain of grad students or people who wanted to keep their hand in or make a little money. Now I know a number of full time adjuncts, but obviously not all at one school.  I am one, something I’ve bemoaned for a while. I left America (because a Taiwanese school was the only full time job I could get) and was out of the country for well over a decade. Since I’ve come back, nothing full time permanent.

I have glowing reviews from peers and students, and frankly, I am very very good at what I do.

But my income varies and my health coverage is spotty, in spite of my union.  The SSA very helpfully sends me what my social security benefit is currently projected to be when I retire. It’s in the three digits per month still. I have a very very very small IRA because one temp job I had was a year long, so I was part of the Massachusetts Retirement Fund, but when I left I had to roll it to an IRA.  And that’s about it.

I would love to sock away funds for my future, but right now I’m not making enough money for living now. So Prof. Vojtko’s story? This could very well be me in 30 years.

I have hope, of course. Hope of a full time job somewhere in the near future. Or of moving out of America again (which is getting harder and harder to do–everyone’s economy is bad). Or I will finally have time to finish my book and sell it. And then maybe publish another.

I’ve written about the adjunct situation before. Schools have figured out that they can hire “contingent faculty” with little to no benefits, no job security and very little pay. In that way we’re no different from many who work in corporate America. Except most of us have advanced degrees. We’re some of the best educated and least appreciated people in the country. We hear the pundits and the politicians say “We need more educated people in this country.”  But why bother if there will be no jobs?

I didn’t go into this field blindly. When I was deciding between a PhD or law school, I did my research. I talked to people in both fields. I looked at the market research. According to statistics, there would be a 13-20% increase in college teaching jobs. The law field was facing a glut of graduates. Seemed like a wise choice.  And there would have been that uptick in jobs. The hirees of the 60s and 70s were getting ready to retire when I was finishing grad school in the mid-90s. But instead of replacing those who left with other full timers, schools hired two or three adjuncts instead and saved a lot of money.

I can’t totally blame not-for-profit schools, especially the public schools, whose budgets are being slashed. But quality is hurt.

But here I am, living one paycheck away from poverty. I can’t afford to be ill or hurt because I’m allowed one paid sick day per term.  And anything that would entail a few weeks of healing time? They’d get someone to replace me. I get it. Students can’t miss the class time.

Something in this country has got to change. Our colleges and universities were some of the best in the world, but running schools with a majority of adjunct labor is not a sustainable situation. Students suffer; education suffers; America suffers; and the adjuncts suffer.

I cried for Prof. Vojtko when I read the article. She died in miserable conditions, in spite of working hard all of her life. She died alone, stressed, and frightened. I would cry for anyone in that situation. But quite literally, there but for the Grace of God go I.

To anyone thinking of an academic career in America, I have one piece of advice: don’t do it. I love teaching. I don’t teach; I am a teacher. But I can’t live a sustainable life and I know many many others who are in the same boat.

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