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More Annals of the Great Depression: What Divides Us And Why

September 29, 2009, 10:08 am

At Zenith University, like everywhere else, there are budget cuts. There were cuts last year; there will be more cuts this year; one imagines there will perhaps be more cuts next year. Everyone thinks of us as a rich little school, and compared to some we are: compared to many schools with which we are associated (Amherst, Williams) we are not. What compounds the problem (and I won’t bore you with the details) is that up until about a decade ago, the combination of poor investing, insufficient fund-raising and living beyond our means meant that not only did Zenith’s endowment not grow, it shrank dramatically from the bountiful era of owning My Weekly Reader, a period which shaped the expectations and thinking of several generations of faculty still working at the university. Assertions that we are very short of cash are met with varying levels of disbelief, even though we all also know that it is true.

To make a long story short (and not be revealing in ways that will make me even more unpopular at Zenith today than I was yesterday) budget talk reveals many things about the normative assumptions of one’s organization. Chief among the assumptions under discussion in mine yesterday was that the “normal” Zenith employee has, or wants, children; and that the childless among us benefit in countless ways from their colleagues’ desire to have and raise children. Another is the extent to which many of my colleagues believe, despite reassurances to the contrary and the ongoing scrutiny of the budget process by a committee of trustworthy people we elected, that any attempt to curtail faculty benefits and privileges (even those unequally distributed, as I will discuss below) is part of an ongoing conspiracy by the administration to proletarianize the faculty. This conspiracy has been in the works for decades, so its proponents believe, and is now being activated by the global financial crisis, which will allow the Zenith administration to do what they have wanted to do all along: strip us of every last right and privilege.

Loud protests that there is “fat” elsewhere that can be cut rend the land. No one who has made this claim has been specific as to where such cuts might be usefully made, or why, other than the fact that they do not represent direct faculty interests – from what I understand, budgets like financial aid, University Relations and student services are where “fat” can be found. Some colleagues make unproven claims of varying extravagance about how they only came to Zenith in the first place because of the benefit currently under discussion, or that they have turned down attractive offers from other, unnamed, institutions only because of promised benefits that Zenith now threatens to rescind. Still others assert that it is only the excellent benefits that allow people to take moderate-wage academic jobs in the first place, and that benefits cuts will send high quality potential scholars into other fields.

This, of course, ignores the fact that some academics (economists, scientists) are paid dramatically more than others (historians, literature professors); and that there seem to be, depending on the field in question, between ten and fifty well-qualified people for every position at an American college or university. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe all those people teach adjunct because they love the freedom and hate TIAA-CREF.

Of course only in academia would anyone imagine a set of conversations with a dean as a promise, or as some have claimed, a “contract,” to be kept in perpetuity regardless of the financial circumstances of the institution. Even unions have to negotiate their benefits periodically to reflect a new economic climate. In fact, anyone who has had their eyes open lately knows that, except for not getting a raise this year, the faculty has been the last place Zenith has targeted for actual cuts. All the administrative departments are letting people go and not replacing them, and Zenith administrators did receive what amounted to a salary cut last year when their annual performance bonuses were canceled. Offices like Admissions, for example, are doing more with less, processing more paperwork (financial aid requests have grown, as have applications to Zenith) with fewer staff.

So imagine my surprise when, in response to what has been framed as a temporary scaling back in Zenith’s tuition benefit (in which the University proposes that it will continue to grow, probably not at the rate tuitions will increase, but constituting tens of thousands of dollars per dependent child) created a storm of unreasoning protest. Of all the benefits we have, this group of faculty declared, this was the one that could not be tampered with. Imagine my further surprise when, in response to a number of us who have no access to this benefit suggesting that we could support a cut in the tuition benefit equal to all other cuts being made, we were roundly scolded for being ignorant, uncaring, unfeeling and deluded.

This is a more civilized critique than those who questioned child-supremacy used to get: the child-free, regardless of why they were in that position, were until recently routinely spoken of as narcissistic, selfish, or child hating. Now we are just patronized because of our failure to understand why a continuing, although smaller, increase in a benefit we do not receive is something we should be willing to fight for while our own paychecks are frozen and our health care costs rise. That we are also appalled, distressed, and alienated at how quickly the child supremacists are willing to throw us under the bus to preserve a large benefit that we do not share; or that our primary human attachments might be to ourselves, or to members of a non-hetero/homonormative social formation, many of them find naive and morally questionable.

I would like to point out that the loose coalition of the willing that does not consider this cut unthinkable is made up of gay people and straight people; the coupled and the uncoupled; the married and the unmarried; those who have dependent (or formerly dependent) children and those who do not. I mention this because one of the first things people make sure to tell me in particular is that they are not homophobic (you know what? If you feel you have to say this, you are homophobic. I didn’t bring it up, you did.) Several of the kinder scolds suggested that we who were not with the program would understand this issue better if we actually had children and better understood the sacred bond between parent and child. The most ignorant argued that the childless were not excluded from this benefit, and could access it any time we liked by having, adopting or inheriting children. Of all the unspoken assumptions, perhaps the one best masking itself as intellectual common sense was that we who are childless at Zenith do have a moral and ethical commitment to our colleagues’ children, because it is these children who, as adult workers, will earn the professional wages to pay for our government benefits in retirement.

In other words, because I haven’t had children, regardless of how much I have paid into Social Security over the years, I will become a welfare queen in old age. And as I sign my government checks over to the BMW dealership and the grog shop, it will not be just any children who support me in the style to which I am now accustomed, but the children of my Zenith colleagues. That I might have ethical obligations to children who are dependent on a network of adults for the
ir education is not even worth arguing to these vigorous proponents of the nuclear family, nor that I might specifically wish to sponge off them in the future, rather than trust that my colleagues’ children aren’t going to use their fancy liberal arts educations to become itinerant folk singers. That this is a benefit that ought to be extended as part of an equal compensation package granted to every worker for whatever educational purpose s/he chooses (which might require capping the benefit at a certain amount per worker, or per beneficiary) is even more unthinkable to many of those who have Gone Nuclear even though, to date, two of my colleagues who are, I think, heterosexual, have articulated this position. My point is, either we have all earned it, or we all haven’t earned it. Pick one, and that’s where we can start the process of coming to consensus about this little plum in the budget.

No, they respond: nothing will do but an unlimited benefit reserved exclusively for the children of Zenith.

This ugly, divisive incident has reinforced my belief that one of the major, under-examined flaws of New Deal liberalism has been the extent to which it left intact the assumption that our fate, as human beings, should remain tied to so-called traditional notions of the family and the workplace. This was not, of course, an entirely unexamined assumption. One of the most graphic examples of how this played out was Social Security. Labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris’s In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (2001) has documented the lengths to which framers of the original legislation passed on August 15, 1935 went to limit women’s secondary access to funds that were the legal entitlement of a male breadwinner. Kessler-Harris and Linda Gordon, among others, have written about the systematic exclusion of workers, primarily of color, who were specifically written out of Social Security legislation because they were employed in seasonal, at will, or non-organized workplaces.

Although legally these exclusions no longer exist, in fact, they do. Because one’s social security benefits are paid according to the amount and duration of what a worker has paid in, people who enter the workplace late, or work sporadically (often women) have fewer benefits. Because their work takes place in a home or a workplace that is lightly scrutinized by the authorities (a farm, a sweatshop) the immigrants and people of color who do what amounts to day labor often do not have social security contributions made in their names. And we who are prevented from marrying our partners and creating federally recognized families do not inherit a spouse’s Social Security benefits, nor can we designate them to anyone who is not a dependent child.

An even knottier issue, from my perspective, is the extent to which New Deal social legislation, and reforms associated with post-war prosperity and the rise of workplace benefits, depended on the private sector to support middle-class expectations of comfort and security. From what I know about the New Deal state, this dependence had two broad origins. The first was ideological: southern Democrats vigorously resisted any shift of power and authority to the federal government that might eventually be used to overturn racial subordination. A more national political problem for the Roosevelt administration was the danger of totalitarianism that was becoming prominent in Europe and Asia in the 1930s, and the fear that New Deal initiatives would be perceived as socialist or fascist.

What has been less written about is the extent to which the New Deal state simply did not have the capacity to run a large social welfare system and turned to Fordism as a solution. An early prototype of national welfare, the Civil War pension system, was notorious for its inefficiencies and corruption, and because it only extended benefits to Union veterans, was never meant to be comprehensive or permanent. By the time the American state did prove itself capable of creating a fully functional national bureaucracy capable of large-scale taxation and disbursement during World War II, the ideological moment for the creation of a social welfare system had both passed and never arrived. I say passed, because the crisis of the Great Depression was finally ended by putting the nation on a war footing for the rest of the century, thus making prosperity the “norm” and effectively re-stigmatizing the poor. I imagine the ideological moment as never having arrived because, as Kessler-Harris and Gordon point out, the notion that what we now call “benefits” were permanently sutured to the notion that the normal condition of individuals was to belong to a patriarchal family living off a family wage that freed women to be full-time mothers and children to be full-time students. Furthermore, Cold War heterosexual parenting was articulated as service to the state, supported by an elaborate series of tax deductions, workplace benefits and enhanced public education designed to help (white) families become and remain middle-class. “Benefits” are part of that structure, even though we have come to think of them as something we are owed, separate from salary, because we so depend on them to remain middle class. They operate in part as an enticement when the labor market is competitive (not a stage of history we are in right now), and they are a way of shielding what are essentially salary bonuses from the Internal Revenue Service.

Whether the United States, as a cultural, political or economic formation, actually values children is debatable. But what remains relevant from my point of view is that little that has changed over the past several decades to alter the basic assumption among many liberals that workers who are married and/or have children actually deserve more benefits from their employer. Gays and lesbians are now included in this ideology because we are no longer always prevented from marrying and having children (even though these are much more difficult hurdles than the vast majority of heterosexual people understand.) I think this is interesting, because certainly at Zenith, years ago when many of us questioned why unmarried workers were not entitled to health insurance for their domestic partners, the very same people would shrug their shoulders and say some version of, “That’s the way of the world, I guess,” but they also refused the notion that unmarried workers were not being equally compensated. Now that we (the unmarried) actually have such benefits, they forget that they never supported them, or that many of them said openly that the flood of claims from the unmarried would overwhelm the system, causing a reduction in everybody’s benefits.

And this is what they believe, but will not say, about the tuition benefit. They believe that if it is extended to every employee, there will not be enough left for them. All the rest of it is just smoke, mirrors and ideology my friends. But it is also pretty insulting, because it expands the dictates of the nuclear family to all of us who, frankly, do not benefit from it at all. Most important, it avoids the main point: the major systems that have made this country one of the most prosperous in the world have always been discriminatory. Now that they are in crisis, this is glaringly obvious, and falling back on families and family wage models t
o fix that crisis is mere tinkering with a system that was designed to fail in the first place.

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