Sunday, June 12, 2005

Information LIteracy, The Lesson of Viet Nam, The Higher Ed Budget Morass

My favorite columnist in the Times is Frank Rich, he of the sharp tongue and penetrating insight. In today's piece, which ties together Watergate and the Bush administration’s cowing of the press, Rich argues that the Bushites have gone to places Nixon and crew could only imagine by the way they manipulate information. (In this case keeping out of the spotlight the WMD disinformation that was practiced to get Tony Blair on board for Iraq.)

Rich also calls Iraq another Viet Nam. My personal lesson from Viet Nam, one that I wish the country had learned but apparently not, is that authority must justify itself. Of course, Nixon as historic exemplar and Bush II as quintessential personification do not. Bush acts with extreme hubris, practicing the old bait and switch rather than trying anything even remotely approximating honest debate on the issues.

Of course Nixon fell, though 30 years later the current generation gets a spin rather than reality. This is Rich at his best:

"Mr. Colson said, oh so sorrowfully, on NBC's "Today" show, condemning Mr. Felt for dishonoring "the confidence of the president of the United States." Never mind that Mr. Colson dishonored the law, proposed bombing the Brookings Institution and went to prison for his role in the break-in to steal the psychiatric records of The Times's Deep Throat on Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg."

In spite of Rich's stinging commentary, however, we must remember that he is a partisan democrat. Viet Nam itself happened under Johnson. And Enron, of course, was a stepchild of Clinton, who had produced a New Economy capable of enormous (though fictitious) growth rates and encouraging a suspension of incredulity (and of reasonable accounting practices) that invited the rich and powerful to behave just like P.T. Barnum. I'm far from a fan of the Bushies, never having voted for a Republican president, but one must consider the broader ethical environment. The Bushies are brazen to be sure, but they didn't invent that. My parents loved Clinton, but I never warmed up to him. I thought we were getting spin from the get go. I still think that.

How's a kid growing up today to know what the truth really is? One of Rich's other points is that the culture gets its information from the movies. But the movies are out there to entertain and make a buck. Rich's article titles indicates that the "follow the money line" was not in the book by Bernstein and Woodward. I read the book 30 years ago. I don't remember anything I read 30 years ago. But I've seen the movie maybe 5 or 6 times, mostly on TV, probably the last time only a few years ago. And on that I suppose I'm typical.

So Woodward is Robert Redford, Bernstein is Dustin Hoffman, Deep Throat is Hal Holbrook, and "follow the money" is an invention of the screenplay, but one we all believe is part of the original account. Most kids in college today have seen the movie, I bet, but how many of them have read the book? Perhaps a generation from now Nixon will be remembered as going to China (a line in one of the Star Trek Movies) but not as a President who resigned from office. This rewriting of history is scary.

So I started to think how much of the same thing happens in Higher Ed. Consider this little factoid. When I started in 1980-81, my salary in Econ was $19,500 and that was right at market. This year the starting salary for a new assistant professor in Econ in in the high $90's. Over a 25 year period that is a growth rate of almost 7% a year. That is phenomenal. And, of course, Econ is not exceptional as a discipline in this regard.

Who's talking about it? As far as I can tell, nobody is. Public universities like Illinois are crying uncle under the economic strain, but is anybody doing anything to curb the cost escalation? It's the old bait and switch. Nixon would be proud. Imagine him as Provost.

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