The 40th anniversary of the Powell memo is this Tuesday, August 23. Louis Powell’s document articulated a vision and major elements of a plan for how major corporations would reshape social values to produce a milieu more conducive to their interests. As Bill Black wrote:
He issued a clarion call for corporations to mobilize their economic power to further their economic interests by ensuring that corporations dominated every influential and powerful American institution. Lewis Powell’s call was answered by the CEOs who funded the creation of Cato, Heritage, and hundreds of other movement centers.
The result was arguably the most successful proselytization in history. And conservatives are not resting on their laurels. One ongoing effort is to cement right wing values by embedding them in the educational process. As we pointed out in ECONNED and here, that strategy reaped enormous rewards in the law arena. The once fringe law and economics movement, which sought to embed the ideas of neoclassical economics in the legal discipline, is now mainstream, and has served the big businesses who funded this push very well.
The Koch brothers are backing a push deeper into the educational process. One example is the firestorm that erupted over a $1.5 million donation to Florida State University’s economics department. While funding faculty chairs is hardly unusual, the university makes its own appointment decisions. Not here, though. The Kochs trampled over principles of academic freedom in their program on “political economy and free enterprise.” Per the St. Petersburg Times:
Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice or if the hires don’t meet “objectives” set by Koch during annual evaluations.
David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, defended the deal, initiated by an FSU graduate working for Koch. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty’s suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates. Although the deal was signed in 2008 with little public controversy, the issue revived last week when two FSU professors — one retired, one active — criticized the contract in the Tallahassee Democrat as an affront to academic freedom.
The Orwellian twist to all of this is the repurposing of the word “freedom”. “Freedom” is historically a political idea: freedom from oppression. The idea of economic freedom as promoted by libertarians and Chicago School economists, is ultimately hostile to political freedom. Chile under Pinochet, which was a Chicago School experiment, was proof: as one survivor said, “People died so markets could be free.” The Citizens United version of economic freedom means that businessmen can buy political influence with no restrictions. We can see how well that is working out in the US. The level of corruption has gone from being tolerable to rampant in a remarkably short period of time. By contrast, in Australia, a few requirements that are impossible to implement here, like prohibiting paid political ads on TV and having voting be mandatory, has put a damper on influence peddling.
Now that the Kochs have come under more scrutiny, they’ve gotten stealthier in how they proceed. The Tucson Weekly described how the Kochs were funding a “Freedom Center” in the Philosophy Department (!) at the University of Arizona. Unlike the Florida State University initiative, the new center is headed by a 15 year faculty member who is firmly libertarian, which presumably takes care of the need for the Kochs to hover over their baby and make sure it hews to their ideology. In fact, this “center” has the potential to become a right wing think tank under university auspices, which would be a new, ugly beast.
While the article quotes some sources that insist that the new center will be independent, they are all people who are direct beneficiaries, such as the head of the center and the dean of the college who presumably gains in stature from securing more funding. Other faculty members were skeptical:
“I think it’s problematic for academics, and creates potential conflicts of interest,” says David Gibbs, a professor of history and government in the UA’s Political Science Department….
[H]e sees it as “deep lobbying,” or an attempt to place the seal of academic legitimacy on their extremist libertarian views.
“When you think of lobbying,” he says, “you think of a lobbyist coming in to twist a congressman’s arm over a particular piece of legislation. But deep lobbying is where you influence the whole climate of opinion. And that’s what is going on here.
“It’s a very long-term project,” Gibbs says. “Since the 1970s, a lot of rich individuals have been trying with great success to shift the climate of opinion radically to the right. The Koch brothers, of course, have become famous for doing that. There’s really nothing comparable on the left.”
That dovetails perfectly with the Freedom Center, which Gibbs labels “a libertarian think-tank with window dressing.”…
Regardless of who donates what, some find the cash-strapped university’s increasing reliance on outside funding troublesome. Among them is Rachana Kamtekar, an associate UA philosophy professor with no ties to the Freedom Center. “It’s not always going to be possible to ensure that the sources of money are clean,” Kamtekar says. “And that’s the problem with big money. A lot of it is not clean.”….
“The use of the money here is something that I think poses serious problems,” he [Gibbs] says. “In academics in general, and especially in philosophy, debates are supposed to be decided on the merits—that the stronger argument, the one with more weight and logic behind it, should prevail. But what’s going on here has nothing to do with the quality of argument.
“This has to do with money,” he says. “And in my view, that poses very serious problems for the integrity of scholarship.”
Oscar Wilde described a cynic as someone who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. And as pretty much everything in American society now seems to have a price on it, it looks like we may have perilous little of value left.