The Reactionary University Critiqued by a Reactionary who Ignores Reactionary Economists

By William K. Black

Victor Davis Hanson begins an article with an interesting title: “America’s Medieval Universities.”  His fundamental critique of the universities is:

“Employment rates for college graduates are dismal. Aggregate student debt is staggering. But university administrative salaries are soaring. The campus climate of tolerance has utterly disappeared. Only the hard sciences and graduate schools have salvaged American universities’ international reputations.

For over two centuries, our superb system of American public and private higher education kept pace with radically changing times and so ensured our prosperity and reinforced democratic pluralism.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to the 21st century. Colleges that were once our most enlightened and tolerant institutions became America’s dinosaurs.

Start with ossified institutions. Tenure may have been a good idea in the last century to ensure faculty members free expression. But such a spoils system now encourages the opposite result of protecting monotonies of thought.”

Some of these statements are accurate, though Hanson (a recovering classicist at Hoover) provides no logical basis for blaming the universities and tenure for the faults.

Hanson’s Errors about University Education, Employment & Austerity

Employment rates for college graduates in the U.S. are not “dismal.”  Today’s news provided further proof of the opposite.  The title of the June 6, 2014 AP article is “COLLEGE GRADS ENJOYED BIG EMPLOYMENT EDGE IN MAY.”

“U.S. employers loaded up on college-educated workers in May.

A hefty 332,000 new jobs last month went to those who finished college, the Labor Department said Friday. That caused the unemployment rate for college graduates to dip to 3.2 percent from 3.3 percent in April.

It was further evidence that businesses increasingly value educated workers, even when an advertised job doesn’t call for such a degree. The most recent estimate from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that, on average, a third of college graduates work jobs for which their degrees aren’t necessary.

The odds of finding work are poor for those who have spent no time on campus. They lost jobs last month. The number of high school graduates who were employed fell by 100,000 in May, and their unemployment rate rose to 6.5 percent from 6.3 percent.”

A college degree greatly increases the likelihood of employment, particularly at higher paid jobs, and that advantage is increasing rather than decreasing.

More fundamentally, the U.S. employment problem remains too little demand for goods and services, which leads businesses to have too little demand for workers.  The same is true in the eurozone, but the austerians are far more dominant there in setting the self-destructive policies that have led to grossly inadequate demand.  University education does not determine aggregate demand.  Macroeconomics can supply demand deficiencies and even the IMF has admitted that fiscal stimulus has proven substantially more effective than the IMF claimed.

The obvious question is where Hanson has been – and Hanson’s policies are wholly predictable from his dogmas.  He is a huge fan of austerity, and has no clue about sovereign currencies.  He thinks the U.S. is “insolvent” and should react to inadequate demand by making it more inadequate through “fiscal discipline.”  This is the 70th anniversary of D-Day.  Here’s a thought exercise: imagine Hanson as President of the U.S. during World War II.  He could tell the troops: sorry, we can’t afford to put a full division ashore because we’re “insolvent” and must exercise “fiscal discipline.”  Go storm the Normandy beaches with a single brigade stripped of mortars, machine guns, and Bangalore torpedoes.  Nations are not “just like” households.  Nations with sovereign currencies that borrow only in their own currency and have floating exchange rates are not remotely like households.

Hanson and those who share his dogmas (such as Timothy Geithner) are the central reason why the recovery in the U.S. – while vastly superior to the EU – has not been much faster.  Hanson’s “reactionary” economic dogmas have made employment prospects for university graduates in EU periphery, Spain, Greece, and Italy, so “dismal” that university graduates typically emigrate.    These three nations, which have one-third of the eurozone’s total population, are suffering a Second Great Depression due to austerity.  University graduates’ unemployment rates in these three countries are roughly ten times the U.S. rate.   But for surging emigration, the periphery’s unemployment rates would be much higher than their already horrific levels.

Student Debt & Austerity

U.S. university “student debt” is “staggering.”  The reason for that is also clear.  The biggest single reason is the dramatic reduction is state support for public universities.  Where has Hanson been on this issue?  He’s a fervent supporter of “fiscal discipline” through reduced government spending.  As State budgetary support falls sharply, tuition must rise sharply.  Tuition rises combined with reduced scholarship support must lead to greater student debt.  Hanson is, again, actively making the problems he decries far worse.

Another material, but far smaller, cause of increased tuition is that “university administrative salaries are soaring.”  Have the states like Wisconsin and New Jersey now run by hard-right governors taken the cleaver to these rent-seeking university “administrat[ors]” and other senior government officials?  No.  Indeed, they’ve typically done the opposite by creating ever more lucrative sinecures for their cronies.  Think of how Governor Christie used the Port Authority to create lucrative non-jobs for political hacks.

How about Hanson?  Is he a leader in the fight to restrain the massive increase in inequality brought about by these elites in the private and public sector?  No, once again Hanson is an impassioned contributor to the problem.  In an article entitled “The Idol of Equality,” he mocks and disparages any efforts to go after the exploding compensation extracted by elites.

Tenured Professors with Frozen Wages v. Untenured Administrators with “Soaring” Pay

Hanson then attacks tenure, but even he does not try to claim that the salaries of tenured faculty explain the rise in university students’ tuition and debt costs.  Tenured faculty salaries at public universities are generally frozen and have been for several years.  This is particularly common for faculty in the social sciences – the faculty that most enrage Hanson.

The university administrators are not tenured – they could be pushed out and their successors’ salaries and ever expanding fiefdoms slashed – but conservative governors rarely take a cleaver to those “soaring” administrative salaries and the rapid rise in the number of administrators.  There are ideological attacks against top administrators at the Universities of Virginia and Texas, but they are not based on cost savings.  Indeed, it is common in conservative states to provide golden parachutes to the top administrators when they are asked to leave.  Instead of cutting “soaring” administrative salaries they supplement those salaries in the unusual case where a top administrator is pushed to resign.

Reactionary Economists Disappear from Hanson’s Tale

As to the prevalence of orthodox dogmas in particular university fields, we at UMKC economics can vouch for that fact.  The typical economics department and business school faculty has zero heterodox economists.  UMKC’s economic department is one of four surviving heterodox departments in the Nation – and we teach both orthodox and heterodox economics.  No orthodox economics or finance department offers its students the option of studying a program of heterodox thought.  They may offer a single course that discusses a single heterodox approach, e.g., Marxism, but it is almost invariably impossible to study the diverse streams of heterodox thought outside a literal handful of heterodox programs.

Even in response to the abject failure of theoclassical economics over the last 30 years, the medievalists became ever more dominant.  Hanson, of course, champions the economic medievalists and their “monotonies of thought.”  The infamous 1971 Powell memorandum set out the game plan for business interests to take over the academy.  The test bed for that exceptionally successful strategy was economic and finance programs.  The total triumph of what Hanson labels the “reactionary” academics is most obvious in economics and finance.  The triumph occurred despite their track record of disastrous policy, predictive, and methodological failures and their personal failures of integrity and morality.

So, did Hanson attack this astonishingly harmful and intellectually dishonest “monoton[y] of thought” in economics and finance?  No, Hanson loves and chants medieval economic dogmas at every opportunity.  His “creation myths” about money are still (implicitly) based on medieval gold standards.  If he became the President of UMKC his first priority would be to destroy our department.  His charge would be heresy from the one true theoclassical faith that defines his world.

Conclusion: Radical Social Transformation Despite the Triumph of Medieval Economics

Hanson had the misfortune of living and teaching too long.  Despite his rant against universities as “reactionary,” he has witnessed a transformation of universities and society that terrifies and enrages him.  The causes he has devoted his career to fighting – gay rights, marriage equality, gender equality, and rights for Latino-Americans have all prevailed.  He looked out at university classes that went during his career from overwhelmingly male to predominantly female.  Gays came out of the closet and openly into his classes.  Latinos surged and prospered.  His class increasingly reflected the diverse hues of Californians.

Hanson has written about his fear of encountering groups of young black males, how his father and he were traumatized by separate attempted assaults against by young black males, how his father warned him about the danger that groups of young black males posed to his life, and how he felt the need to warn his son about that same danger.  Hanson would have felt that fear and trauma many times on campus as affirmative action transformed campuses from overwhelmingly white to rainbow hues.  Hanson is a vehement opponent of affirmative action, but the repeal of affirmative action came too late to protect him as a professor from the repeated trauma of encountering groups of male black students on campus.  Only blacks commit the notorious crime of DWB (“driving while black”).  Now we can add another crime unique to black perpetrators – WOCIGWBM (“walking on campus, in groups, while being a black male”).

Hanson has lived long enough to see the policy he most fervently supported succeed.  Affirmative action has been eliminated.  With any luck, he will be able to return to teaching given the repeal of affirmative action and the desired sharp fall of blacks attending California universities. It is expected that the fall in attendance will be greatest among black males.

Hanson and his fellow sufferers of PTBSD (“post traumatic black stress disorder”) will able to enjoy the newly purified, and far more medieval, campuses in which the incidence of DWB and WOCIGWBM are greatly reduced.  As Hanson has emphasized, he is not traumatized by the presence of individual black males.  The continued token presence of a few black male students on campus after the elimination of affirmative action, therefore, will not interfere with Hanson’s recovery from PTBSD.

Please join me in wishing Hanson a prompt and complete recovery from PTBSD and in welcoming him back to full-time teaching.  He can blaze a pathway to recovery that demonstrates to other traumatized colleagues at Hoover that it is now safe for them to return to full-time teaching.  I encourage Hanson to use his first lecture in each class he teaches to play “dad” and warn the students, particularly the white females, about the danger to their safety posed by groups of young black males should they leave the safety of their newly purified campus.  He could follow that up by screening Woodrow Wilson’s favorite flic: “Birth of a Nation.”

4 Responses to The Reactionary University Critiqued by a Reactionary who Ignores Reactionary Economists

  1. Joe Twomey

    Is another reason for the rapid rise in tuition the distortion that the student loan bankruptcy law changes have wrought? With a much reduced requirement for risk assessment, the banks can throw more money at students, and then the schools get their share. Just a story/narrative that seems to make sense, but I don’t know whether it might be true or not.

    Thanks for all you do.

  2. 99.9% of People can’t get past the fact the household budget analogy does not apply to governments with independent central banks. The ignorance has nothing to do with raw intelligence but is a reflexive way of thinking. “Printing money” has been twisted into a pejorative phrase which appeals to the emotions much like the threat of being downstream from a faulty dam devastating everything in its path.

  3. Aren’t there a couple other heterodox programs when you look at programs that offer just bachelors and masters?

    Two off the top of my head are University of Denver and Wright State University.

    • As a graduate of Wright State’s BS and MS program I can speak to it. It is housed within the College of Business and as such caters to business. Both are applied degrees rather than theoretical. The upshot is that half the faculty is heterodox and a good many of the electives give one the opportunity to explore alternative views with complete support of the faculty. If one wants to come out of there as a die hard neoliberal it is possible. If one wants a more reasonable outlook as to how the world really works, that is possible as well but it is up to the student to decide.