I’ve long had a weakness for commencement addresses, or at least for what they might be rather than what they usually are, which is why, I suppose, I’ve written them relatively regularly myself. Since no actual college or graduating class has ever asked me to give such a speech, I’ve addressed the graduates of 2014 and other years from what I’ve called “the campus of my mind.” This year, given the increasing strangeness of our American world and the rising debt under which college students labor, I couldn’t resist doing so again.
It couldn’t be a sunnier, more beautiful day to exit your lives — or enter them — depending on how you care to look at it. After all, here you are four years later in your graduation togs with your parents looking on, waiting to celebrate. The question is: Celebrate what exactly?
In possibly the last graduation speech of 2015, I know I should begin by praising your grit, your essential character, your determination to get this far. But today, it’s money, not character, that’s on my mind. For so many of you, I suspect, your education has been a classic scam and you’re not even attending a “for profit” college — an institution of higher learning, that is, officially set up to take you for a ride.
Maybe this is the moment, then, to begin your actual education by looking back and asking yourself what you should really have learned on this campus and what you should expect in the scams — I mean, years — to come. Many of you — those whose parents didn’t have money — undoubtedly entered these stately grounds four years ago in relatively straitened circumstances. In an America in which corporate profits have risen impressively, it’s been springtime for billionaires, but when it comes to ordinary Americans, wages have been relatively stagnant, jobs (the good ones, anyway) generally in flight, and times not exactly of the best. Here was a figure that recently caught my eye, speaking of the world you’re about to step into: in 2014, the average CEO received 373 times the compensation of the average worker. Three and a half decades ago, that number was a significant but not awe-inspiring 42 times.
Still, you probably arrived here eager and not yet in debt. Today, we know that the class that preceded you was the most indebted in the history of higher education, and you’ll surely break that “record.” And no wonder, with college tuitions still rising wildly (up 1,120% since 1978). Judging by last year’s numbers, about 70% of you had to take out loans simply to make it through here, to educate yourself. That figure was a more modest 45% two decades ago. On average, you will have rung up least $33,000 in debt and for some of you the numbers will be much higher. That, by the way, is more than double what it was those same two decades ago.
We have some sense of how this kind of debt plays out in the years to come and the news isn’t good. Those of you with major school debts will be weighed down in all sorts of ways. You’ll find yourselves using your credit cards more than graduates without such debt. You’ll be less likely to buy a home in the future. A few decades from now, you’ll have accumulated significantly less wealth than your unindebted peers. In other words, a striking percentage of you will leave this campus in the kind of financial hole that — given the job market of 2015 — you may have a problem making your way out of.
For those who took a foreign language in your college years, in translation you’ve paid stunning sums you didn’t have to leave yourself, like any foreclosed property, underwater. Worse yet, for those of you who dream of being future doctors, lawyers, financial wizards, architects, or English professors (if there are any of those anymore), that’s only the beginning. You’ll still have to pay exorbitantly for years of graduate school or professional training, which means ever more debt to come.
Does this really sound like an education to you or does it sound more like a Ponzi scheme, like you’ve been scammed?
Do I understand how all this works? No. I’m no expert on the subject. What anyone should be able to see, however, is that the promise of higher education has, in this century, sunk low indeed and that what your generation has been learning how to endure while still in school is a form of peonage. I’d binge drink, too, under the circumstances!
Nobody feels good when they’ve been scammed, but at least you’re not alone on this great campus in needing to reassess what higher education means. Many of your teachers turned out to be untenured part-timers, getting pitiful salaries. They, too, were being scammed. And even some of their esteemed tenured colleagues (as I know from friends of mine) are remarkably deep in the Ponzi pits. It turns out that, as government money flowing onto campus has dried up, the pressure on some of those eminent professors, particularly in graduate programs, to essentially raise their own salaries has only been rising — a very highbrow version of peonage. They increasingly need patrons, which generally means “friendly” corporations. Talk about a scam!
Many of you undoubtedly think that your education is now over and it’s time to enter the “real world.” I have news for you: you’ve been in that world for the last four years, hence the debt you’re dragging around behind you. So, on a day when the sun’s in your eyes and it couldn’t be more apparent that the world’s not what you’ve been told it was, maybe you should apply the principles of the scam artist to the world you’re about to enter. Unless you do so, you’ll simply be scammed again in the next phase of your life.
Like the rest of us, presidents and politicians of every stripe have regularly told you that you belong to the one “indispensible” nation on the planet, a country “exceptional” in every way. As a college-educated American, you’ve similarly been assured of how important you’ll be to that exceptional land.
Get over it. You’re going to find yourself living in an ever greyer, grimmer country — if you don’t believe me, check out the government’s unwillingness to fund essential infrastructure maintenance — to which you will be remarkably irrelevant. And if the political elite, the plutocratic class, and the national security state have anything to do with it, in the future you’ll become ever more so. In other words, you are to be relegated to the sidelines of what now passes for American life.
Behind this reality, there’s a history. Since the Vietnam era, the urge to demobilize Americans, to put them out to pasture, to stop them from interfering in the running of “their” country has only grown stronger. When it comes to the military, for instance, the draft was sent to the trash bin of history in 1973 and most Americans were long ago demobilized by the arrival of an “all volunteer” force. So, today, you have no obligation whatsoever to be part of that military, to serve in what is no longer, in the traditional sense, a citizen’s army.
If that military isn’t really yours, the wars it’s been fighting since the dawn of the twenty-first century haven’t been your wars either, nor — despite the responsibility the Constitution reserves to Congress for declaring war — have they been that body’s. Congress still has to pony up sums so extravagant for what’s charmingly called “defense” that the military budgets of the next seven countries combined don’t equal them. It has, however, little genuine say about what wars are fought. Even when, as with the Islamic State, it is offered the modest opportunity to pass a new authorization for a war already long underway, its representatives, like most Americans, now prefer to remain on the sidelines. In the meantime, the White House runs its own drone assassination campaigns via the CIA without anyone else’s say-so, while secretive paramilitaries and a secret military — the Special Operations forces — cocooned inside the larger military and growing like mad have changed the face of American war and it’s none of your business.
Your role in all this is modest indeed: to pay as little attention as you want, endlessly thank the troops for their “service” when you run across them at airports or elsewhere, and leave it at that. Of course, given the sums, verging on a trillion dollars a year, that “we” now put into the U.S. military and related national security outfits, and given our endlesswars, conflicts, raids, and secret operations, that military does at least provide some job opportunities, though it has its own version of job flight — to so-called private contractors (once known as “mercenaries”).
And if you think it’s only the military from which you’ve been demobilized, think again. In these last years, so much of what the American government does has been swallowed up in a blanket of heavily enforced secrecy and fierce prosecutions of whistleblowers. An expanding national security state, accountable neither to you nor to the legal system, has proven eager indeed to surveil your life, but not be seen by you. In growing realms, that is, what once would have been called “the people’s business” is no longer your business.
Your role, such as it is, is to get out of the way of the real players. As with the military, so with that national security state: Americans are to thank its officials and operatives for their service and otherwise, for their own “safety,” remain blissfully ignorant of whatever “their” government does, unless that government chooses to tell them about it.
The Corruption Sweepstakes
It hardly needs to be said that this isn’t the normal definition of a working democracy or, for that matter, of citizenship. Other than casting a vote every now and then, you are to know next to nothing about what your government does in your name. And speaking of that vote, you’re being sidelined there, too, and buried in an avalanche of money. Admittedly, in the media campaign season that now goes on non-stop from one election to the next, sooner or later you can still enter a polling place, if you care to, and cast your ballot. Otherwise step aside. These days, the first primary season or “Koch primary” is no longer for voters at all. Instead, prospective candidates audition for the blessings and cash of plutocrats.
Just how the vast sums of money flooding into American politics do their dirty work may not matter that much. Specific contributions from the .01%, enacting their version of trickle-down politics, may not even elect specific candidates. What matters most is the deluge itself. These days in the American political system, money quite literally talks (especially on TV). Via ads, it screams. In the 2016 election season in which an unprecedented $10 billion is expected to be spent and just about every candidate will need his or her “sugar daddies,” the politicians will begin to resemble you; that is, they will find themselves dragging around previously unheard of debts to various plutocrats, industries, and deep pockets of every sort for the rest of their careers.
Take just two recent examples of the new politics of money. As the New York Times reported recently, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been supported by a single billionaire auto dealer, Norman Braman, for his entire political career. Braman hired him as a lawyer, hired his wife as a consultant to a family foundation, financed his legislative agenda, helped cover his salary at a local college, helped him right his personal finances and deal with his debt load, and is now about to put millions of dollars into his presidential campaign. Rubio, as the article indicates, has returned the favor. Though no one would write such a thing, this makes the senator quite literally a “kept” candidate. Other plutocrats like the Koch brothers and their network of investors, reputedly ready to drop almost a billion dollars into the 2016 campaign, have been more profligate in spreading around their support and favors.
Now, jump across the political aisle and consider Hillary Clinton. As the Washington Post reported recently, she received a payment from eBay of $315,000 for a 20-minute talk at a “summit” that tech company sponsored on women in the workplace. Over the last 16 months, in fact, she and her husband have raked in more than $25 million for such talks. Hillary’s speeches pulled in $3.2 million from the tech sector alone, which she’s now pursuing for more direct contributions to her presidential campaign. “Less than two months [after the eBay summit],” the Post added, “Clinton was feted at the San Francisco Bay-area home of eBay chief executive John Donahoe and his wife, Eileen, for one of the first fundraisers supporting Clinton’s newly announced presidential campaign.”
Say no more, right? I mean, it’s obvious that no one pays such sums for words (of all things!), not without ulterior motives. No deal has to have been made. No direct or even indirect exchange of promises is necessary. On the face of it, there is a word for such fees, as for Rubio’s relationship with Braman, as for the investor primaries of the new election season, as for so much else that involves “dark money” and goes to the heart of the present political process. It’s just not a word normally used about our politicians or our system, not by polite pundits and journalists. If we were in Kabul or Baghdad, not Washington or Los Angeles, we would know just what that word was and we wouldn’t hesitate to use it: corruption.
The Un-Kept Americans
We are, it seems, enmeshed in a new hybrid system, which fits the Constitution, the classic tripartite separation of powers, and the idea of democracy increasingly poorly. We have neither an adequate name for it, nor an adequate language to describe it. I’m talking here about the “real world” in which, at least in the old-fashioned American sense, you will no longer be a “citizen” of a functioning “democracy.”
As that system, awash in plutocratic contributions to politics and taxpayer contributions to the military-industrial-homeland-security complex, morphs into something else, so will you, whether you realize it or not. Though never thought of as such, your debt is part of the same system. A society that programmatically trains its young into debt and calls that “higher education” is as corrupt as a wealthy country that won’t rebuild its own infrastructure. Talk about the hollowing out of America: you are it. No matter how substantial you may be in private, you are being impersonally emptied in what passes for the real world.
If Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton are kept politicians, then you are un-kept Americans. You are the ones that no one felt it worth giving money to, only taking money from.
Being on the sidelines, it turns out, is an expensive affair. The question is: What are you going to do so that you aren’t there, and in debt, forever?
Of course, there’s a simple answer to this question. Think of it as the Rubio Solution. You could each try to find your own billionaire. But given the numbers involved and what you don’t have to offer in return, that seems an unlikely option. Or, if you don’t want the version of higher education you experienced to morph into the rest of your lives, you — your generation, that is — could decide to stop thanking others for their “service” and leave those sidelines.
They’re counting on you not to serve. They assume that you’ll just stay where you are and take it, while they fleece the rest of us. If instead you were to start thinking about how to head for the actual playing fields of America, I guarantee one thing: you’d screw them up royally.
As you form into your processional now to exit this campus, let me just add: don’t underestimate the surprises the future has in store for all of us. The people who sidelined you aren’t half as good at what they do as they think they are. In so many ways, in fact, they’re a crew of bumblers. They have no more purchase on what the future holds than you do.
You’ve proved in these years that you can get by despite lousy odds. You’ve lived a life to which no one (other than perhaps your hard-pressed parents) has made a contribution. You’re readier than you imagine to take our future into your hands and make something of it. You’re ready to become actual citizens of a future democracy. Go for broke!