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Romney’s America Doesn’t Need Public Colleges

A Romney presidency would pose an obvious hardship for the country’s public colleges and universities. Romney and Ryan, austerity candidates, make no secret of their desire for further cuts in public spending (with no exemption for higher education). But Romney’s now-famous “47-percent comment” highlights the danger ahead for the private revenues that public-college leaders have counted on to replace shrinking public support.

The biggest private revenue stream is, of course, tuition. Public colleges are now running into national political opposition for their tendency to raise fees at somewhere between two and four times the Consumer Price Index. Given the extraordinary debt bubble those price increases have created, they are also up against the limits of students’ ability to pay.

This means a renewed fixation on philanthropy, which in turn means pursuing “game changing” gifts in the eight-figure range. Public colleges are increasingly in the business of asking for money in salons and ballrooms much like the one in which Romney was secretly recorded during a fund-raising talk to the 0.01 percent who paid $50,000 a plate to be in the room with him. These are the only people with the means to really move the needle for a college fund-raising operation.

What the 0.01 percent heard was a Romney bootstraps story in which college played no part: “Without a college degree, [my dad] became head of a big car company and ultimately a governor.” His father-in-law, he continued, was the son of a Welsh coal miner, and his higher education was limited to the General Motors Institute of Technology; his defining moment was when he “started a little company,” as opposed to staying in wage work at GM. Both sides of the Romney family are distinguished in this story by their spirit of enterprise rather than by their education.

When Romney does grant the need for knowledge workers, he describes them as an import from other countries: “I’d like to staple a green card to every Ph.D. in the world and say, ‘Come to America, we want you here.’” The business advantage is that every foreign brainworker’s education is supported by taxpayers in India, Taiwan, Singapore, Spain, Ireland, Mexico, and so on, which means that their skills come free to their American employers. A Romney economy that gets most of its STEM knowledge from abroad has proportionately less need for a large-scale system of colleges at home.

This not-so-good news for American colleges is as close as Romney comes to conceding the value of labor. Paul Krugman has pointed out that disdain for regular work is not a Ryan-like extremism but a now-mainstream conservative idea: “The modern Republican Party just doesn’t have much respect for people who work for other people, no matter how faithfully and well they do their jobs.” And indeed, in his talk Romney transitions directly from wanting to import Ph.D. immigrants to mocking their blue-collar counterparts, whom he defines as people of “no skill or experience” and who in Obama’s America are “welcome to cross the border and stay here for the rest of [their lives].”

Public-college leaders have to hope that a Romney administration would agree with them on the value of translating “unskilled” to skilled labor through some kind of college. But for Romney to care about large quantities of public-college and public-university graduates, he would have to see them as makers not takers; that is, as people who produce surplus capital in quantities large enough to be taken seriously by Romney and his Wall Street backers.

In fact, Romney sees only two sources of wealth creation. One is exploited, captive factory labor, Chinese-style, which Romney describes at length in Germinal terms, though without Émile Zola’s revulsion for the servitude and the desperation. Outsourced mass labor is, of course, a core strategy in the modern American economy, with Apple being only the most famous company to demonstrate how it can be used to make enormous profits.

The other source of wealth is capital, deployed by entrepreneurs. The centerpiece of Romney’s economic strategy is further cuts in income- and corporate-tax rates combined with “keeping current low tax rates on dividends and capital gains.” Growth follows automatically from liberating capital from any but the most minimal obligation to support the society in which it operates, including support for the formation and maintenance of labor.

The point for Romney is that his categorical opposition to taxing capital means that, as a result of his election, “the markets will be happy” and “we’ll see capital come back.”

Romney unthinkingly rejects the economic function of the middle-class workers who are by far the most important economic product of public colleges. Their growth was predicated on the belief among leading postwar educators and policy makers that American affluence had come to depend on the strength of its “knowledge industries.”

As the then president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, put it in his influential 1963 book The Uses of the University, “the university is at the center of the knowledge process”—both because it creates economically valuable knowledge through its research and because it provides “more and more people raised to higher and higher levels of skill.”

Mass quality for the white- and pink-collar work force was the essential economic contribution of the postwar college. Educational quality scaled up only because of the public funds that built the public college.

In contrast, Romney is typical of a contemporary business and political class that sees capitalism, in David Brooks’s choice phrase, as “an inherently elitist enterprise.” As such, the last thing it needs is a highly skilled mass middle class, which is a drain on profits.

What elitist capitalism wants is first, entrepreneurs—think the still-influential Joseph A. Schumpeter, not the easily lampooned Ayn Rand—who must be freed from the need to support the mediocre majority if they are to receive the appropriate incentive of monarchal wealth—and last, mass labor stripped of unions, environmental regulations, and the other cost-bearing preconditions of middle-class life.

Romney’s 0.01 percent will indeed give generously to elite institutions that produce excellent skills in small numbers—Stanford Business School, Harvard Law, and so on. This has nothing to do with high-quality colleges on a large scale. To the public-college leaders who want to dislodge huge gifts for their institutions from Romney-style capitalists, I say, good luck. Their future simply doesn’t need public colleges.

Christopher Newfield is a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2008).

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