Privatization is <em>The</em> Issue

Photo of the name Berkeley embossed on a wall.

Privatization is The Issue

George Lakoff

The California Master Plan speaks of “state-supported higher education.” There is a good reason.

Government has two moral missions: protection and empowerment for all its citizens. Protection goes beyond police and law enforcement to protections for consumers, workers, the environment, investors, retirees, and victims of disease, injury, and natural disasters. Empowerment includes public roads and buildings; adequate systems for communication, energy, and water; functioning banking and insurance systems; and of course, education. No one makes a living in this state without protection and empowerment by the government. And those who get more out of protection and empowerment by the state have a moral obligation to pay more to sustain them.

It appears that the top 1% of individual taxpayers pays about 45% of the state’s income taxes, and that the same top 1% own about 50% of the assets in the state. They are so rich that after paying all that they remain the top 1%. Have these folks amassed their wealth by working that many more hours than the average worker? No. They have amassed their wealth because the companies they own or invest in are empowered by having state-subsidized water, state-built freeways and public buildings, a state-protected environment, other state-based systems of protection of many kinds, and especially state-educated employees and state supported university research.

The protection and empowerment that have come from our universities is staggering. There are obvious cases: medical research and university hospitals and clinics; the computer industry and its spin-offs in media, film and the arts; environmental science that has led to the maintenance and improvement of our environment; the wine industry coming out of UC Davis; tens of thousands of people trained in business, law, and economics; our public health system; and on and on. The university is more than an economic engine: it is a quality of life engine. And when it is truly public, it is a moral engine.

And it is especially a moral engine because it educates millions of Californians. Education is about more than making money. It is about coming to know the world, about learning to think critically, and about developing the capacity to create new knowledge, new social institutions, and new kinds of businesses. It is about each of millions of people becoming more of what they can be. That is the real promise of California. It is our system of higher education that delivers on that promise.

The reason that the Master Plan designates “state-supported higher education” is that higher education contributes a disproportionate amount to the protection and empowerment both of individuals and of corporations, and to the creation of a California civilization.

All discussion of moral issues must start there, with the systemic and moral effects of higher education.

From this perspective, the university-as-factory metaphor is not only inaccurate, but it is immoral. It is both because it hides all that — all of what public universities are about.

The university-as-factory metaphor sees the university as a factory producing educations in the abstract and selling them to students and/or their parents. All discussion of raising tuition or taking more out-of-state students who pay more tuition is based on that metaphor. The central argument is that students (or their parents) should be paying what the product is worth, economically, over a lifetime, and that they shouldn’t be complaining about fee raises because they’re getting a relatively good deal. The factory metaphor misses almost everything. It obviously misses the enormous contribution to the economy of the state as a whole. But it also misses all the other forms of protection and empowerment, as well as the shaping of California civilization.

The factory metaphor even misses on its own terms; it misses vital economic truths. Yes, if you have a university education, you have the opportunity to make more, perhaps more than a million dollars more over a lifetime, than if you don’t. But that also means you will pay a lot more taxes to the state, and the company you work for will make more money. Imagine taking all the extra money that the UC and CSU graduates make for themselves and their companies, and estimating how much more they pay in taxes than if they hadn’t gotten a higher education. Now imagine taking all that money that came from a state-supported higher education and using it to support higher education. I suspect there would be no budget shortfall in the universities and a lot left over in profit for everyone. That is what the Economic Engine metaphor claims, namely, that the knowledge and innovation coming from graduates of state-supported universities create far more wealth in the state than the educations cost.

The issues being played out at the University of California are ultimately the same moral issues being played out on the national stage, on health care, on the environment, on the economy, on foreign policy, and in just about every other issue area. The questions are large. Is democracy, as President Obama has said, based ultimately on empathy, on citizens caring about one another? Yes, he says, that is why we have principles like freedom and fairness for all, not just for the rich and powerful—because we care about our fellow citizens. That is why government has the moral missions of protection and empowerment for all, equally.

The privatization issue goes well beyond public education. It is about whether we have a democracy that works for the common good, or a plutocracy that privileges the wealthy and powerful. Privatizing the world’s greatest public university is a giant step away from democracy.

George Lakoff is Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley and the author of Moral Politics, among many other works.

This article can be found in the September/October 2009 newsletter.