I “periodically” receive e-mails complaining that my posts are sometimes too openly partisan politically. My response to those complaints has been that I have persistently criticized the Department of Education and other Democratic agencies and initiatives that have been seemed to represent a desertion of progressive values. A few of my correspondents have then pointed out that in making that argument, I have essentially been doubling down on my partisan political stances by deriding Democrats for behaving like Republicans. I would prefer to use the terms “progressive” and “Far Right” because I think that they are sometimes more accurate than party identifications, and my motives are not to promote one major party over the other but to promote one value set over the other. But I do not think that it is simply a reflection of my partisan bias that Republicans have become so consistently “Far Right” in their ideology that I seem to have nothing positive to say about the policies that they are advancing.
Take, for instance, the recent federal budget put forward by Paul Ryan. Before considering several elements of its directly related to higher education, it is worth considering its broader impact.
The Ryan budget proposes draconian cuts to federal spending, cuts absorbed almost entirely by domestic programs. It completely ignores that one of the main reasons why this economic recovery has lagged behind previous recoveries is that Republican-dominated state governments in many states have continued to pursue tax cuts for corporations and for the most affluent at the cost of continuing support for school districts, local governments, and social-service agencies. This approach has led to large reductions in public-service jobs. Beyond the direct impact of those eliminated positions on the level of service provided to taxpayers, which has led to a wave of tax levies at the local level, the job losses have also reduced private employment by taking those wages out of local economies. In addition, the cuts have put additional unemployed workers into the competition for those positions that have been created by the recovery. In short, the unemployment rate would be considerably lower and the percentage of available workers in the workforce or seeking work would be considerably higher–both by several percentage points–if Republican legislatures and governors had not abruptly reduced public-sector employment for the benefit of “job creators,” who have very obviously not been creating anything close to a comparable level of employment.
Ryan’s budget proposals would have a net economic effect comparable to eliminating several major employers—the equivalent of GM, Ford, GE, and Exxon-Mobil all going bankrupt—over the space of a decade. The federal government is a behemoth, and abrupt, draconian approaches to reducing its size are going to have a disastrous impact on the broader economy. They are not going to do anything to “grow” the economy. This sort of approach is radical political ideology operating in defiance of simple common sense.
More specific to higher education, the Ryan budget proposes to reduce the monies available for Pell grants and then to freeze the funding at those reduced levels for a decade. Not only is there no allowance for any adjustments to reflect inflation or any other economic factors, but the funding of the program is shifted entirely to discretionary sources—meaning that the funding will be among the first things slashed in any economic downturn.
Of course, if we are serious about expanding access and improving affordability, we need to be expanding federal grant programs and not reducing them. But beyond that reality, this proposal will only exacerbate the escalation of student indebtedness, which has not only increased to over $1 trillion but is also increasing at an accelerated rate—currently by several hundred billions of dollars per year. And that debt has already started to have a major impact on the broader economy, reducing the amount that young households—and what would otherwise be our most upwardly mobile young households—have to spend on housing, vehicles, and durable goods, all sectors that are at the core of the consumer spending that accounts for three-quarters of the national GDP.
In addition, the Ryan budget would reduce funding for all programs not directly connected to high-demand employment, completely ignoring that most job openings simply are not—and never will be–in the STEM fields because more than 70% of employment is now in service, rather than in research and development and production.
Lastly, the budget completely eliminates funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, completely discounting the very low cost and very high impact of those programs, especially on communities outside of the largest urban areas. Hypocritically, the proposal to cut this funding is justified with the argument that it will reduce “political interference” in the services that those programs provide—as if the “political interference” is somehow a broader problem and has not come almost entirely from the Far Right. If you are trying to illustrate circle logic to your students, this is a very good illustration of it.
Moreover, the reduction of these programs will have little impact on the most affluent, who will continue to have access to very highly-endowed and high-priced arts institutions in the major urban areas. But it will have a huge impact on the access to the arts of most ordinary Americans everywhere. Thus, it is another reflection of the Far-Right advancement of an increasingly bifurcated society, in which an increasingly affluent, very small minority enjoys increasing privileges at the expense of the quality of life of the vast majority of Americans.
So, the easiest way for Republicans to avoid this sort of “partisan” criticism is for them to stop advancing proposals such as the Ryan budget that both insult our intelligence and undermine the very American values that they purport to be sustaining—the core values of equal opportunity and a decent quality of life for all Americans.