Cowardice Pays: Reflections on Academic Abdication and a Paul Krugman Lecture in Iowa City
Recently I heard the renowned liberal Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman speak before a packed crowd loaded with liberal-Democratic professors in a classic old college auditorium at the University of Iowa (UI). Just half an hour before his lecture, I had been sitting in an Iowa City coffee shop when one of the left UI students I know told me about the event. Reflecting that I must have cited at least twenty clever Krugman columns in my political writing over the last few years, I trudged off to hear the great public intellectual.
"We're Not Coping With This Very Well"
I found Krugman's talk horrifying in two ways. The first horror lay in the depth and degree of the global economic collapse that Krugman described and in the related absence of a remotely adequately policy response that he noted. As Krugman made clear, the national and global economy is in some very deep shit and its not about to climb out anytime soon. The current crisis has "outstripped anyone's expectations," Krugman said, and it's only getting worse. A big part of the problem, Krugman observed, is the tepid response of governments, who show little willingness to undertake the coordinated forms of corrective regulatory and (neo-Keynesian) fiscal policy required to contain the damage. Obama's stimulus plan is too small for the scale of the crisis and the new administration lacks the brains and/or courage to undertake the necessary financial interventions, including temporary nationalization of the nation's top (and largely "insolvent") banks. Krugman wants the new administration to introduce a "new New Deal"  but he is rightly dubious about the Obama team's willingness to go that route. "We're not coping with this very well," Krugman said, adding that he is "shocked."
The second horror was Krugman's deafening silence on basic things we could do to move beyond "shock" and begin to "cope" in decently progressive ways. Suggesting (at the start of his lecture) that popular anger over the economic collapse is not particularly "helpful," Krugman had nothing to say about the role that citizens might play in putting our economic lives on a sound, sustainable, and socially responsible foundation. The message at the end of his lecture carried a strong whipped-dog smell about it: Krugman hopes that national and global policymakers will undertake more aggressive measures as the crisis deepens and their "knowledge base" expands. He finished by recommending that we all read Liaquat Ahamed's book "Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World," a study (Krugman said) of "how very smart bankers messed up the global economy in the interwar period."
During the question-and-answer period, nobody in the heavily PhD-laden audience seemed perturbed or at odds with this whimpering conclusion, containing no call or guide to positive popular action. One student had her hand up to question the wisdom of wishing for capitalist policy masters to fix the economic mess from on high. But the Q and A moderator only gave the microphone to academics, who made arcane comments related to obscure matters having nothing to do with growing social misery (the Times recently reported that "tent cities" for the homeless have appeared in more than a dozen cities across the country) and popular needs.
"Progressive Can Only Hope He Has the Audacity"
I was reminded of a Krugman column the Times published six days after Obama's election. Titled "Franklin Delano Obama," it spoke intelligently against reactionary arguments that Obama must not undertake bold and progressive policies. But Krugman fell far short by concluding that "Mr. Obama's chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-term economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives can only hope that he has the necessary audacity."
Progressives can only hope that Obama and other members of the national and global political and investor classes can exhibit the wisdom and courage to save the day? Hello? With all due respect for Liaquat Ahamed (whose book I intend to read), Krugman might want to take a look at Howard Zinn's bestselling volume A People's History of the United States and Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward's classic study Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed and How They Fail (New York: Vintage, 1979) to review some (frankly) elementary lessons on how progressive change occurs. These volumes demonstrate in rich historical detail how direct action, social disruption, and the threat of radical transformation from the bottom up ("thunder on the left") forced social and political reform benefiting working- and lower-class people and black people during the 1930s and the 1960s . Zinn, Piven, Cloward, and numerous other authors show the critical role played by grassroots social movements and popular resistance in educating presidents and the broader power elite on the need for change.
The better aspects of the New Deal didn't just spring from the minds of the economic and political elite - Franklin Roosevelt's "Brain Trust." They were largely won at the rank-and-file level, in the streets, neighborhoods, and contested workplace terrains of Depression-era America .
Today, as in the Thirties and Sixties, we can be sure that Obama and the Democratic Party will not move off the corporate and military center unless, in Howard Zinn's words, "the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find dangerous to ignore." (Zinn, "Election Madness," The Progressive, March 2008).
"The 'Defibrillator' the Economic Doctors Have to Avoid" in a "Top-Down Society"
Moving off center is required not only to fix the current crisis but also to mitigate its terrible consequences in the present. There's much that could and should be done to help ordinary people right now. Useful and urgent remedies include a moratorium on foreclosures, a rollback of credit card interest rates and finance charges, mandatory work-sharing programs (without employee income reductions), the suspension of payroll taxes, and the provision of cheap mortgages. Other desirable actions include restoring pre-1981 capital income tax rates, restoring union organizing and bargaining rights (with the Employee Free Choice Act), restoring family cash public assistance entitlements, real progressive national health care reform on the single-payer model that prevails in the rest of the world's "capitalist democracies," and large-scale public works programs to soak up the expanding army of unemployed .
There's a long list of unmet social and popular-economic needs that could and should be quickly met by government as millions more Americans are thrust into destitution and homelessness by impersonal "market" (corporate/state-capitalist) forces - by the remorseless logic of the profits system. These are basic things that renowned "progressives" academics and intellectuals - economists above all - should be advocating for in solidarity with unions, anti-poverty groups, community-based organizations and the like. But little advocacy along these lines seems remotely evident even in this time of "shocking" capitalism-imposed crisis. For his part, the great "progressive" "public intellectual" Krugman said nothing about such vital and obvious measures. Neither did the liberal academics who spoke after his lecture.
The problem, I suspect, is that the policies and adjustments that ordinary people deserve and require right now tend to work against the doctrinal requirement that the United States function as "a top-down society" in which wealth and power always flow inexorably to the rich. As William Greider recently noted on the Public Broadcasting System's "Bill Moyers' Journal," the U.S. "has now been, for some years not exclusively, but mainly a top down society...You go into workplaces and hear the same things said as you hear about politics. Well, I know what's wrong here, but they won't listen to me. I don't have any voice in the matter. Or investors, small investors, putting their money in mutual funds. Well, they're not listening to me. Look who they're giving this money to." (PBS, March 27, 2009, read transcript at www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/03272009/transcript4.html )
My strong sense is that the famous economist and his professor-rich audience reflexively accept the "top-down" obligation that nothing be seriously advanced that might "substantially raise the relative power of working people" (in Mike Albert words)or challenge the existing concentration of wealth and power. Since helping people "cope" amidst the current Great Recession would require some significant redistribution of wealth and power, these restraints (generally respected by academic economists, including even many who call themselves "left" and "progressive") amount to consigning millions to destitution. As radical economist Mike Albert recently noted, "It is as if someone's heart stops and the defibrillator is parked right near to the patient's bed. However, there is also a silent order from the Hospital's administration - a kind of unspoken bylaw of medical policy: doctors cannot use the defibrillator. Doctors, and in our case it is doctors for the economy, have to resurrect the patient, but they can't do it with the defibrillator. What is the 'defibrillator' the economic doctors have to avoid? Redistribution of wealth and power" (M. Albert, "Demand, Don't Succumb: A Short-Term Program Addressing Getting Out of the Current Economic Crisis," ZNet, March 26, 2009).
"The Academy Has Become Self-Pacifying"
Not that I expected otherwise at a major university. Neo-McCarthyite right-wing notions about "leftist" academia are based on fantasy on the whole. Krugman's abdication is widely shared across the liberal-academic enclaves of Obama Nation. It has been the campus and campus-town norm since long before the heavily Wall Street-sponsored Obama phenomenon arrived to prick and drain the boils of "angry" majority progressive peace and justice sentiment. As the veteran left-liberal Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin noted lasted year in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: 2008):
"Thought a combination of government contracts, corporate and foundation funds, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially so-called research universities), intellectuals, scholars, and researchers have been seamlessly integrated into the system. No books burned, no refugee Einsteins...During the months leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, university and college campuses, which had been such notorious centers of opposition to the Vietnam War that politicians and publicists spoke seriously of the need to 'pacify the campuses,' hardly stirred. The Academy had become self-pacifying" (p.68).
"...Public universities, such as those as at Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison, played a leading role in the organization of antiwar activities [during the late 1960s and early 1970s.That none of those institutions was ruffled by antiwar agitation at the time of the U.S, invasion of Iraq in 2003 testifies to the effective integration of universities into the corporate state" (pp. 165-166).
Here in Iowa City (a ground-zero Obama and major[research-]university town), the absence of visibly engaged left faculty is quite pronounced. Reflecting on the marked dearth of publicly radical-activist academics in this quintessential campus town, I  was compelled to say the following to a small crowd that gathered (marking the sixth anniversary of the ongoing and apparently now semi-permanent U.S. occupation of Iraq) to protest the new president's rehashed imperialism in downtown Iowa City the day after Krugman's visit:
"I believe it's my responsibility to speak the truth even when it is inconvenient to power and to those who subordinate themselves to power. And one uncomfortable truth right now is that this town and university are overloaded with highly educated (and deeply indoctrinated) people who willfully subordinate themselves to power. I have two questions for all the supposedly left liberals and 'progressive' academics and writers living and working here. My questions are like the ones parents of college students and other young adults often ask their children. The first question is 'where are you? We can't seem to reach you. You're not returning our calls.' The second question is 'what in the Hell do you think you are doing with your lives?'"
"Let me expand my second question a little: 'what are you working on right now that is so special and important that you can't take some time to understand and act against the deepening crises of our time and the dominant ruling power structures and ideologies behind those crises?'" 
Regarding the current economic crisis, the "self-pacifying" (non-) response of academics (economists most significantly in this instance) is disturbing to behold as more and more Americans are evicted, foreclosed, and thrown out of work and into poverty.
Some of the left students and activists around my current home town find the surrender and related public invisibility of the "liberal" and "left" professoriate surprising. Having been born into a liberal-academic household and having spent a fair portion of my adulthood in and around "higher education," I do not. As I see it there's nothing strange or even disappointing about moral and political capitulation in the college and university world.
By my experience and observation, academic culture and work routine are deeply conservative. They breed stifling, narcissistic indifference to the real world beyond the ivory tower and hostility to ordinary working people. They inculcate deeply ingrained habits of cowardice, elitism, and isolation. Professors spend disproportionate time and energy in sheltered, arcane, and incestuous (inbred) discussions with each other. They develop authoritarian habits and a related "know-it-all" mindset from lecturing captive and powerless student audiences. They often suffer from mental, moral, and physical torpor related to endless hours crouched over examinations, papers, theses, application files, committee documents and other clerical material.
They naturally fear losing things they value - foundation support, sabbaticals, university grants, promotions, media access, and more - if they step too boldly outside their assigned official functions of supposedly "objective" and "value-free" research and instruction . At the same time, however, they get real rewards for not growling too audibly at the corporate (and military and political) masters' leash. Being a whipped dog with tenure can be a pretty good deal for many of them.
If I might say so, the professors' lives here in Iowa City are a pretty sweet deal. The "pleasures of academe"  in Iowa City are considerable: lovely homes and a big but not too big campus (Madison- and Ann Arbor-like sprawl is not a problem); beautiful football Saturdays and lifetime job security and great coffee shops and good musical acts and cultural events (e.g. Krugman last week, Jimmy Carter, Michael Chabon, Daniel Ellsberg, Second City, and Bob Dylan over the last two years, and Chomsky three springs ago) coming through town, decent schools for your kids, a famous local (fiction-)writers' workshop, summers (and even spring breaks) in Paris, London, and Rome, sabbaticals, intense relationships (some appropriate, some not) with graduate students (whose job prospects do not remotely match those of their [ ] mentors), and a rich local menu of counselors, Yoga classes, natural foods, restaurants, taverns, bookshops and more. It's a border-line utopia for a lot of the professoriate, to be perfectly honest.
Here and in other Obama-friendly campus environments, I know more than a few tenured progressives (including a handful of armchair Marxists) who are pretty damn satisfied with life as it is - and not very "impressed" with ordinary working peoples' capacity to do much of anything about corporate rule anyway.
"Academic co-optation" is not just a "cynical" radicals' fantasy. It really exists across the middle and upper reaches of "higher-education," where engaged radical sentiments and activism are commonly seen as naïve and un-professional and where cowardice can pay quite handsomely. And if it can explain the conservatism and indifference of state university professors deep in the heartland, imagine how far it can go with a heralded, Nobel Prize-winning Princeton academic who also holds down cherished column space at the nation's leading newspaper of record?
Paul Street (email@example.com) is a veteran radical historian, political commentator, and author in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008). Street will speak on urban and institutional racism at North Central College's Koten Chapel in Naperville, IL on Thursday, April 23, 2009, 7:30-9:00 pm. He will speak on Obama's First Hundred Days at the Urbana Civic Center on the evening of Thursday, April 30 (exact time pending) in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois .
1. Citing a recent major "raging debate" within the economics profession about the 1930s New Deal, Krugman noted that its real problem was "not that it didn't work (it did)" but mainly that "it wasn't big enough," largely because Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed to scale it down in response to conservative and business pressure during and after 1937.
2. Another leading liberal economist who hopes for a "new New Deal" (under Obama) but exhibits no sense of the role that working-class agency and left organizing played in creating the original New Deal (and progressive change more broadly) is Robert Kuttner. In his revealingly titled book (published just before the election) "Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency"(White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, September 2008), Kuttner fantasized about "how great Presidents overcome great crises." With the U.S. facing "the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression," Kuttner argued, "our next president will need to become a truly transformative leader - like [Franklin] Roosevelt and Lincoln..." In Kuttner's view, Obama has the stuff of which "greatness" is made: the new president "unmistakably possesses unusual gifts of character and leadership.". Obama could "be that rare transformational leader," Kuttner claimed, because "his personal odyssey, writings, and speeches suggest a capacity to truly move people and shift perceptions as well as bridge differences...they suggest more a principled idealist than a cynic." Kuttner dreamed that the recession Obama inherited would spark him to apply his "truly transformative" self in progressive and even "radical" ways. Consistent with this Great Man approach to history (his book was dedicated to "presidential historian" Doris Kearns Goodwin), Kuttner's book contained a chapter dedicated to the proposition that "great presidents" (like Lincoln, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Obama) "animate" and "educate" the "people on behalf of expansive uses of progressive government." By using "the moral power of the presidency" to "lead by teaching and the force of [their] own character," Kuttner argued, these Heaven-sent heads-of-state show the people the way toward progressive change from on high. This childishness aside, the last two-thirds of Kuttner's book contained some useful and aggressively advanced progressive policy recommendations, reflecting in part the fact that Kuttner is at least not an academic.
3. For some useful historical research and narrative, see Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (New York: Times Books, 1993), pp. 196-305.
4. See Jack Rasmus, "Obama's Economic Plan vs. an Alternative," Z Magazine (March 2009); Mike Albert, "Demand, Don't Succumb: A Short-Term Program Addressing Getting Out of the Current Economic Crisis," ZNet (March 26, 2009; and John Cassidy, "Harder Times," The New Yorker (March 16 2009): 41-42.
5. Whose absence from higher education strikes the anti-leftist academic scold and arch-administrator (and occasional New York Times columnist) Stanley Fish as richly appropriate. Fish finds my openly left politics (insofar as he understands them) inconsistent with the properly "narrow" pursuits and calling of "higher education." See Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 69-70 and 81 for discussion of "Paul Street's" supposed onetime inappropriate desire to subordinate academic integrity to radical political agendas. Amusingly enough for a monograph published by a high-powered academic press and arguing for the objective "transmission and advancement of knowledge" (the only true academic project), Fish's editors couldn't bother to prevent him from ignorantly advancing a multiply inaccurate description of me. Fish calls me as "a social researcher in Chicago...who left the academy and now spends his time leading teach-ins and doing other politically oriented community work." That's wrong on all counts. A small matter, but Oxford University Press (and Fish) should be embarrassed nonetheless. Professional editors and fact-checkers do not generally permit such egregious errors in my experience as an author.
6. By "act," I meant something more than voting once every four years in the quadrennial corporate-crafted narrow-spectrum and candidate-centered "electoral extravaganzas" (Noam Chomsky's term) that pass for the only "politics" that matter in the United States . As Chomsky noted in 2004, on the eve of the next-to-last presidential spectacle: "A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, 'That's politics.' But it isn't. It's only a small part of politics. ..The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction - often in close conformity to majority opinion - is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can't be ignored by centers of power... In the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome." See Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City, Lights, 2007), pp. 99-100. The Iowa City/UI professorial cadre seemed quite involved in the electoral aspect of politics during the pivotal 2008 Iowa presidential Caucus and during the 2008 general election but it was and remains almost completely missing in action when it comes to the "main task" and the "serious political action" that Chomsky wrote about.
7. Here I am speaking of those already with tenure. Junior non-tenured faculty members are naturally disciplined also by the fear of blowing the chance to attain lifetime job security (tenure) - no small plum! - if they do anything that might help them seem too political and too radical for the reputation and "values" of their department and university.
8. See historian James Axtell's nauseating book Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education (University of Nebraska, 1998).