Pluralistic: 26 Apr 2021

Today's links

An animated GIF excerpt from Freddy the Freshman, a 1932 Warner Brothers cartoon now in the public domain. It depicts an anthropomorphic cow in a college beanie and sweater doing a Charleston-esque dance in a frat house decorated with college pennants, while a crowd of anthropomorphic animals in garb meant to suggest college enrollment clap and cheer.

The Big U (permalink)

Writing in Matt Stoller's BIG newsletter, Sam Haselby makes the case that US elite universities – the Ivies – are a cartel that uses its monopoly to reproduce its monopoly, to the detriment of the rest of us.

Mistrust of the Ivies is as old as the nation. They were founded by members of the Puritan "elect" whose explicit project was to maintain the rule of a minority over the majority, in a nation that was steadily increasing its democratic, majoritarian governance.

These schools would produce "leaders" whose credentials would help them secure the reins of power that they were divinely entitled to.

No less than Thomas Jefferson rebelled against this idea, founding the University of Virginia "to counter what he saw as their anti-democratic influence."

America's historical turning points have been accompanied by surges that widened access to higher ed: the great land-grant colleges built after the Civil War, and the Cold-War-driven investment in public ed that incubated the Civil Rights movement.

Today, that tendency of widening access to higher ed is in retreat, while the Puritans' vision of elite institutions for elite individuals whose status entitles them to rule is on the rise in the Ivies, who cloak themselves in the eugenicist doctrine of "meritocracy."

Even as smaller educational institutions lurch toward destruction – shedding 650,000 jobs during the pandemic, relying on non-tenure-track, brutally exploited adjuncts for 75% of their workforce – the Ivies have only grown richer.

The 20 richest schools in America hold endowments worth $311 billion, helped along by tax-favored treatment that benefits wealthy benefactors who bulk up these vast fortunes that go to benefit the children of their ultra-wealthy friends and colleagues.

Even as the US has plummeted in the UN's Human Development Index, its top universities grew in wealth and status, while becoming less accessible: Harvard's acceptance rate was 80% in 1940, 20% in 1970, and 3.4% in 2021.

This selectivity isn't the result of higher standards; rather, it's the result of a more expensive, exclusive winnowing system that sees more admissions from kids of the richest 1% than of kids from the poorest 60%.

The wealth and privilege reproduce themselves. Professors' families are 34% richer than the average US family, and PhDs are 50 times more likely to have a parent with a PhD than the average American.

"American meritocracy has become a complex, inefficient, and rigged system conferring a series of 'merits' on ambitious children of highly educated and prosperous families."

The Ivies epitomize the disastrous, shifting base of the Democratic Party, from representing working people and racialized, low-waged workers to representing "socially liberal," highly educated wealthy elites.

80% of Harvard grads in the mid-Twentieth were Republicans; today 70% of people with graduate degrees vote Democrat.

77.6% of Harvard profs call themselves "left-leaning" while only 2.9% call themselves "conservative."

But what does it mean to be a "left-leaning" institution that preferentially hires and admits only the wealthiest people in the country? If Harvard is "a hedge fund with an educational arm," can it really be "left-leaning?"

The class that Harvard reproduces is Thomas Piketty's "Brahmin Left" – highly educated high earners who – Haselby reminds us – are the same people that the populist right labels "woke capital."

But just because the right deplores a group of people, that's not a good reason for the left to cheer them on. The consultant class of McKinsey-trained, finance-oriented "progressives" do not seek to build a world of broadly shared power and personal self-determination.

Rather, they seek to replace the system in which 150 white men run the world with a "fairer" one that replaces half of those white men with women and people of color.

The technocratic, meritocratic vision sees low-waged, abused workers as having settled to their natural level, in accord with their capacity for self-governance. They need paternalistic protection, not a say in their jobs.

In this view, if Amazon warehouse workers are being maimed by repetitive stress injuries, the answer isn't unionization and workplace democracy – it's an algorithm that task-switches them so they can evenly distribute their musculoskeletal loads.

Haselby calls the Ivies "natural refuges for leftists or progressives in an oligarchy" that are nevertheless "poor environments for democracy or democratic thinking."

A progressive Yale would be one that ended its policy of denying dorm-space to front-line workers battling the pandemic. A progressive Columbia isn't one that allocates $5m for two professorships to study "democracy" – it's one that recognizes its grad students' union.

High-quality public education is a prerequisite for a true democracy. Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal have sponsored legislation to make university free for families earning $125k or less per year, with a focus on state schools and community colleges.

With hundreds of thousands of academics thrown out of work, there's never been a better time to reimagine widespread access to high-quality education, separated from winner-take-all institutions who recirculate the wealth of elite philanthropists to their children.

We have to get past the bizarre resistance from people who suffered under the old system and insist that everyone else endure the same – "I lived with crushing student debt for 40 years, why shouldn't you?" is pure spite.

Haselby: "The regional divide we're seeing, with a few gilded cities and their educational castles, must be broken to have a free self-governing people. That means making education work not just for an elect, but for everyone."

The cover of the print edition of How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.

How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism Part 4 (permalink)

This week on my podcast, the fourth part of a seven (?) part serialized reading of my 2020 One Zero book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, a book arguing that monopoly – not AI-based brainwashing – is the real way that tech controls our behavior.

The book is available in paperback:

and DRM-free ebook :

and my local bookseller, Dark Delicacies, has signed stock that I'll drop by and personalize for you!

Here's the podcast episode:

And here's part one:

And part two:

And part three:

And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the RSS feed for my podcast:

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago EFF releases its Public Music License

#15yrsago Major Canadian artists reject suing fans and DRMing CDs

#15yrsago Frank Zappa’s anti-censorship letter

#15yrsago RIP Jane Jacobs, urban activist

#10yrsago Russian corruption: crooked officials steal multi-billion-dollar company, $230M tax refund, then murder campaigning lawyer

#5yrsago Bellwether: Connie Willis’s classic, hilarious novel about the science of trendiness

#5yrsago Mitsubishi’s dieselgate: cheating since 1991

#5yrsago EFF to FDA: the DMCA turns medical implants into time-bombs

#5yrsago Fantasy accounting: how the biggest companies in America turn real losses into paper profits

#5yrsago A Burglar’s Guide to the City: burglary as architectural criticism

#1yrago Send Pics: ripping, brutal, amazing novel about teens, sextortion, revenge and justice

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

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