Stacking the Deck: Austerity Logic in Florida

John Carl Baker

When I wrote my last post about Florida’s plunge into austerity, there was — in theory, anyway — the possibility that some of the 2012 session’s more execrable elements might be vetoed. Although the budget itself was sure to pass (which it did, on April 17th), several of these related bills were still in legislative limbo. But most — including the infamous tax cut for owners of private planes — were signed by Republican governor Rick Scott with nary a quibble. One notable exception, however, was a proposal allowing the University of Florida and Florida State University to raise tuition beyond the current limit of 15% per year, towards what both university presidents repeatedly referred to as a market rate” for higher education.

Their rationale was reductive but did have a certain logic: since the legislature has continually slashed funding for higher education ($300 million just this year), UF and FSU are in desperate need of revenue in order to stay competitive.” As the presidents framed it, a massive tuition hike was regrettable but absolutely essential for the continued functioning and prestige of Florida’s premier institutions for higher education. In the weeks preceding the signing deadline, Scott and the university presidents battled it out the press. FSU president Eric Barron — in an extraordinary insult to the state’s nine other public universities — claimed that UF and FSU simply have the right to charge more given their national prominence and extra accountability,” arguing that it doesn’t make sense to charge the same price no matter what you deliver.”

Taking a less antagonistic stance, UF president Bernie Machen portrayed market tuition as a relatively serene solution to the chaotic cycle of state cuts and administrative hikes. He promised the freshmen of 2013 (and their parents) four years of unchanging rates – if the governor agreed to an instant $2200 increase in yearly tuition, of course. Scott stuck to his standard lines, professing a personal aversion to hikes and questioning whether the bill placed an unnecessary burden on students and taxpayers. The presidents, in turn, excoriated Scott and the legislature for defunding higher education while tying the hands of university officials seeking an alternative source of revenue. As the debate raged in local newspapers, student groups protested the market tuition hikes by demonstrating on campus and publicly appealing to Scott to veto the bill.

He did. A minor victory secured, students immediately shifted their focus toward preventing the seemingly imminent cuts, demanding university officials spend the reserves” rather than fire professors and eviscerate programs. Punitive college budgets soon began trickling out of the universities, just as the presidents predicted” – and students expanded the scope of their activism accordingly.

So far I’ve said nothing about the Florida Democratic Party. That’s because the Sunshine State center-left has absolutely no idea what to do with the higher ed situation and, I would argue, the state debacle as a whole. Although liberal groups like Awake the State and Progress Florida have been involved in opposing Scott’s agenda (largely electronically), they just can’t seem to bring themselves to talk about austerity or even view Floridian politics outside of the two-party frame. Whatever its other merits, at the very least I hoped my original post would introduce the word austerity to the Floridian liberal’s vocabulary, but the term remains conspicuously absent despite overwhelming evidence that the state is going the way of Spain.

Why aren’t liberals talking about austerity? Frankly, I think it’s because most netroots-type groups in Florida have fallen privy to austerity logic, meaning an acceptance — sometimes tacit, often overt — that cuts have to occur. The debate, as they see it, is less about the state’s descent into widespread misery than about the means by which fiscal security and responsible (read: non-ideological”) governance can be restored.

I’d like to offer a few symptomatic examples of this critical blockage. I try to keep up with most of Florida’s left-leaning organizations online and I’m repeatedly annoyed by the liberals’ apparent unwillingness to do anything other than try to make Scott look bad. Awake the State may be the worst offender in this regard. Here’s something they tweeted a few weeks ago:

Who could argue with that? Well, the link takes you to Palm Beach Post op-ed by Rhonda Swan denouncing Scott for vetoing the market tuition hikes. Her polemic accepts the university presidents’ logic whole hog and totally obliterates the perspective of Florida’s student protesters, who — although grateful the bill was vetoed — can hardly be labeled pro-Scott. Swan begins by criticizing the governor for creating a reform-minded task force on higher ed while regularly engaging in such shortsighted decisions as cutting $300 million from the State University System.” But instead of launching into a spirited defense of public funding, Swan characterizes the market tuition veto as yet another of Scott’s financially foolhardy actions. If UF and FSU are to play their proper role as Florida’s collective economic catalyst,” she claims, then they must be allowed to accrue (private) revenue. Swan concludes:

Florida ranks 45th in public university tuition costs. A survey by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute found that 29 percent of four-year public colleges charged varying tuition rates in 2010-11, in large part because of financial cutbacks. Gov. Scott should have added Florida’s universities to that list. Florida’s higher education system doesn’t need a task force. It needs informed politicians making wiser decisions.

This is the typical liberal response to Scott’s austerity régime: decry both the gutting of public funds and the march toward privatization, but propose a solution that (1) accepts the necessity of dealing with a shrinking pie and (2) actually furthers the marketization of state services. As they see it, Scott’s problem is not his policies per se as much as his own individual pathology or excessive partisanship. If only he would appeal to the previously existing and presumably objective technocracy — represented here by the conservative Board of Governors —then presumably his decisions would have greater legitimacy and heft. And, in a classically Thatcherian move, colossal market-based tuition hikes are simply assumed to be the only possible solution to the higher ed budget crisis,” despite the fact that students — whether involved in Occupy, campus organizations, or in anti-cut coalitions like Fight Back FL—entirely reject them and have actively proposed alternatives.

This sort of austerity logic permeates otherwise critical responses to the state’s draconian budget cuts. For instance, an op-ed by Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell (“Florida schools need communities to rally around them”) quite literally claims that since the state legislature refuses to treat public education as a social good, local communities should… privatize further. He writes:

You see, politicians in this state have made their stance on education very clear: Public schools are a second-class priority. Teachers are often treated as the enemy.

Despite pretty talk on the campaign trail, per-pupil funding levels are lower than they were years ago. And there’s a continued and concerted effort to divert money away from traditional public schools and toward for-profit ones.

So, forget the politicians.

Well, OK – that doesn’t sound so bad. They’ve certainly screwed us over. But Maxwell isn’t advising us to take the the streets. Instead, he recommends that Florida’s public schools circumvent politicians by appealing to local businesses, nonprofit organizations, and wealthy donors to ensure their continued survival and efficacy. In other words, he prescribes privatization to fix privatization: a philanthropic fever” of non-public support, as he puts it. Although Maxwell blames the state legislature for defunding public schools, he nonetheless contends that educational excellence starts in our own backyards” through volunteer work, private donations, and corporate largesse. Reading this op-ed I couldn’t help but be reminded of Megan Erickson’s recent critique of the ostensibly left-wing unschooling movement, particularly her description of its comfortable affinity with the neoliberal project. Like Astra Taylor’s idyllic view of the wide-eyed inquisitive child raised among a community of equals — all given the freedom to develop unencumbered by the interference of the state — there is a sugary communitarian coating to Maxwell’s poison pill of austerity: the state has withdrawn, therefore a renewed sense of community is the only means left to provide lifeboats for those cast adrift by the neoliberal hurricane. And yet, the foundations of this community” are the very same entities fetishized by the free marketeers of the Washington Consensus: businesses, philanthropists, NGOs, churches.

The righteous indignation fueling these flawed critiques of Scott’s austerity régime is, however, real. Florida’s rank-and-file liberals are searching for a language in which to articulate their rage; consequently, critiquing the suppositions behind their rhetoric is more productive than mocking them for their political backwardness or collusion with the state’s cowardly Democrats. Pundits like Maxwell and Swan offer the center-left a cozy but defective narrative: I don’t think liberals favor an expansion of the current dystopia, but in their spasmodic fumblings for a critical position they become highly susceptible to this sort of austerity logic.

They’re not the only ones. Austerity logic even pops up in the nominally radical perspectives touched off by a Forbes report that went viral a few weeks back. On April 22nd, Professor of Medicine Steven Salzberg wrote a blog post in which he noted that while UF was proposing the elimination of its Computer and Information Science and Engineering department (CISE), it was also adding $2 million dollars to its athletic budget. Despite Salzberg’s disclaimer that he was not saying that UF has chosen football over science,” most readers disagreed, expressing their outrage all over the internet. Indeed, it seemed like every Floridian to the left of Charlie Crist linked to Salzburg’s post or one of the related reports, as did, notably, our friends at Exiled Online. But my concern is less with the claim’s facticity than with the presuppositions behind its truth-claims. Implicit in the belief that UF is increasing one budget while lowering another is the idea that one of these factors is necessarily more legitimate, and that the cuts — which must occur — should disproportionately impact the most frivolous (i.e. the least productive) of them.

There are two problems here. The first is the acceptance of the necessity for budget balancing: if one factor goes up, in other words, the other must go down. Instead of debating why cuts are even on the table (or why UF officials are doing nothing to thwart the privatization of the university beyond giving lip-service to the need for state funds), the argument becomes one of productive hierarchy: which program has the greater utility? This quandary creates the second — and I would say more pernicious — problem: productivism.

Voyou had a provocative and relevant post several years ago about the importance of fighting productivist impulses on the left. Discussing the demonization of Paris Hilton for being a lazy, undeserving heiress and the concomitant praise heaped upon innovators” like ruthless capitalist Steve Jobs, she wrote:

Hilton seems to get a lot of stick not just because she’s rich, but because she hasn’t either earned her wealth or used it in some kind of worthwhile way. To a communist, on the other hand, this is one of Hilton’s most positive qualities. Certainly, on any reasonably calibrated ethical scale, Paris Hilton is obviously superior to, say, Bill Gates or George Soros. There’s a name for the sort of argument involved in criticizing the useless” Paris Hilton: productivism. The problem is that it completely misunderstands what’s wrong with capitalism. The Marxist theory of exploitation is not based on a distinction between those who are productive and those who are idle; note that the only way that such a distinction could be made is on the basis of a moralized notion of productivity which is itself the defining feature of capitalism. As Marx and Engels say in the discussion of Proudhon in the Manifesto, to criticize capitalism on these grounds is to argue that capitalism be maintained, but that it no longer be capitalism.

When radicals leapt to the defense of UF’s CISE department, then, they did so in terms of a productivist cut out the useless idle chaff” framing comparable to the budgetary tough choices” that inevitably ensue from austerity measures. (Nevermind the fact that unpaid student athletes” have produced billions of dollars for universities, entertainment conglomerates, apparel companies, and various other profitable enterprises.) If you think I’m overstating the productivist impulse behind both the football/​academia debate and the Save CISE movement as a whole, check out the latter’s website. It includes an entire Letters from Industry” section, wherein representatives from Microsoft, Google, and other tech corporations extol the value-creating virtues of the CISE program. Here’s Matt Ingram, a hiring manager at McKesson:

We recruit because the top talent chooses the University of Florida and because the CISE department turns out students ready to join the workforce. So not only are you diminishing the value of the degree, you are now saying the University of Florida is not interested in getting top talent and thus actual JOBS for students! In this economy to say you are investing less in a field that has one of the highest pay and placement rates is preposterous and un-defendable.

Or, check out the CISE FACTS section, featuring soundbite-ish factoids designed to be cut-and-pasted into online appeals for continued funding:

We teach thousands of nonmajors, and approximately 600 undergraduate majors, 400 masters and 131 PhD’s with 32 tenure track faculty and at this moment, only 3 nontenure track faculty! CISE is generating 17% of the college’s primary source of income (weighted student credit hours) while only costing only 10% of the college. The Dean herself admitted during her Apr. 12 interview with students that the CISE department has the highest revenue/​cost ratio in the college.

If we’re going to stop the privatization of everything, we’ve got to stop playing by privatization’s rules. The moment we use cost-effectiveness” or productivity” as bulwarks against austerity measures, we’ve basically ceded irretrievable ground to the neoliberal looters. A broad movement against austerity in Florida (and elsewhere!), will necessarily include a variety of perspectives, from liberal moderates to social democrats to radical leftists. But such a movement will only form if it can agree on a single shared principle: no cuts, period. In this regard, we should all learn the lessons of Quebec, where a minimal programme” (absolute opposition to an 82% tuition increase) served as the collectively-held kernel around which the student movement congealed. As Peter Hallward noted recently in the Guardian, the clarity and simplicity of the programme fostered a lucrative political environment in which far more radical proposals, such as universal free education, found a prodigious and receptive audience. Unifying around a basic, publicly-declared goal isn’t just a way to stave off the current crisis: it doubles as a forum in which a genuine left alternative can be proposed, critiqued, and, hopefully, established.

Austerity logic obviates such a possibility. And that is why it should be opposed, in all of its guises.

John Carl Baker is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. He has previously covered Florida’s austerity measures for Jacobin.
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