A week after the election, I folded myself into the front seat of a small rental car and left Washington, D.C., for the highlands of southwestern Virginia. The destination on my GPS device read Radford University, a small public college located an hour’s drive from the West Virginia border. Radford’s picturesque campus is nestled into a double bend of the New River, a north-flowing body of water believed to be older than mankind. The Blue Ridge Mountains loom on the smoky horizon to the east, the Allegheny Mountains to the west.
I’d been invited to Radford to talk about the rising cost of college and why storytelling (of the type published here at TomDispatch) matters in the fight to rebuild a quality, affordable higher education system in America. At stake was the abandonment and hollowing out of public colleges by a generation of anti-government politicians, and the burden borne by young people who need that degree, albeit one with shrinking value in an anemic job market. But the students I met on campus — better-off and poorer, younger and older, some the first in their families to try for a degree — didn’t need to hear my spiel. They lived it every day.
One student told me about enrolling in a private college after high school, then dropping out because he couldn’t pay the tuition. So he joined the Marines and did two tours in Iraq to assure himself of government money for college when he got back, if he got back. Another nodded knowingly when I mentioned the “Himalayan-sized mountains of debt” accrued by so many collegians today. He later said he was already resigned to a near-lifetime effort to pay off his student loans. That was just the way it was, he assured me; others agreed. Afterward he shook my hand, thanked me for visiting, then walked out into the night. The folks at Radford had invited me to share what I’d learned as a journalist covering higher education; yet I absorbed at least as much as the students I was supposed to enlighten about what it is like for those struggling in our underfunded, stretched-thin, public education system.
The downsizing of higher education by states facing budget crunches in bad times is no aberration. It’s been a long, slow burn, the legacy of a hardline brand of conservatism that champions defunding government and giving private interests, including Wall Street, ever more control over American life. Conservative activist Grover Norquist, a fixture in the ongoing “fiscal cliff” talks in Washington, once infamously said of government that he wanted to “reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” There you have it. That kind of thinking, as historian and TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, points out, has blighted not just public universities but also the blue-collar heart of America, leaving a trail of broken communities struggling to rebuild and reimagine the lives they once had. Andy Kroll
The Archeology of Decline
Debtpocalypse and the Hollowing Out of America
By Steve Fraser
“Debtpocalypse” looms. Depending on who wins out in Washington, we’re told, we will either free fall over the fiscal cliff or take a terrifying slide to the pit at the bottom. Grim as these scenarios might seem, there is something confected about the mise-en-scène, like an un-fun Playland. After all, there is no fiscal cliff, or at least there was none — until the two parties built it.
And yet the pit exists. It goes by the name of “austerity.” However, it didn’t just appear in time for the last election season or the lame-duck session of Congress to follow. It was dug more than a generation ago, and has been getting wider and deeper ever since. Millions of people have long made it their home. “Debtpocalypse” is merely the latest installment in a tragic, 40-year-old story of the dispossession of American working people.
Think of it as the archeology of decline, or a tale of two worlds. As a long generation of austerity politics hollowed out the heartland, the quants and traders and financial wizards of Wall Street gobbled up ever more of the nation’s resources. It was another Great Migration — instead of people, though, trillions of dollars were being sucked out of industrial America and turned into “financial instruments” and new, exotic forms of wealth. If blue-collar Americans were the particular victims here, then high finance is what consumed them. Now, it promises to consume the rest of us.
Scenes from the Museum