Friday, March 15, 2013

robbing the 99%... in the name of the 99%

In an engaging, sacred-cow tipping essay in the March 2013 issue of the Literary Review of Canada, economist George Fallis sketches a portrait of what he calls Canada’s Surprising One Percent. The subtitle of the essay brilliantly sums up our current state – Never have so many been paid so much to care so little.

Noting that Canada has enjoyed a “steady reduction in after-tax poverty” in the last three decades, and that much of that reduction is the result of the very government intervention Occupiers demand, Fallis wonders about the “jumble of incoherent complaints” that came out of last year’s Occupy protests. If the 99% in Canada is, in fact, not being slowly crushed by the unstoppable advance of poverty and a crumbling social democracy, then why do we feel so threatened?

Fallis finds his answer by taking a long honest look at Canada’s actual 1% of top wage earners, who have indeed seen their compensation packages rise sharply in comparison to the average among the rest of us. But instead of blaming just the usual caricatured fatcat bankers and robber barons of industry (though these figures certainly exist in his paradigm), Fallis posits it is the relatively new one percenters in education, media, business and culture who are failing our society, mainly by abdicating the very responsibilities of leadership for which they are so handsomely paid.

Jane Jacobs, Fallis writes, argued there are five pillars of our culture that we depend on, including higher education and the self policing of the learned professions. These pillars are showing signs of decay. Universities drift away from educating toward credentialing. Legal and accounting fraud increases; neither profession can be trusted any longer to “maintain stability, honesty, and good order for the common welfare.”

I’ve wondered elsewhere at the outright gall of extraordinarily well compensated university administrators campaigning to further impoverish the already underpaid cultural underclass, and the tenured professors enjoying guaranteed income for life (plus generous bonus and benefit packages, sabbaticals and extremely flexible work hours) who lend authority to this attack on workers’ rights by theorizing about an ill-defined common good that demands others make far less than they do.

I’ve also wondered at media supercorporations (making record profits through concentration and vertical integration) who demand more and more from their workers with no compensatory rise in pay. That is precisely what’s happening right now with freelance contracts attempting to scoop up every single income-producing right from writers while offering pay that was standard thirty years ago.

And it’s also what’s happening as a 1% class of college and university administrators, faculty leaders and chief legal counsels spread the doctrine of expanded fair dealing throughout education. In the fair dealing model, on display across the educational sector in aggressive new policy statements, writers and artists are expected to provide their work for free, while tuitions shoot ever upwards, and more and more of the actual work of education is foisted on underpaid sessional instructors. Who profits from this ironically named expropriation? Certainly not the students, who are all headed for the same kind of treatment from the 1% after graduation.

What George Fallis leaves out (though I’m hoping he’ll get into this in an upcoming book) is how the 1% manages to get away with its absurd financial success on the backs of a majority who really should have the power and will to force greater (actual) fairness.

I think the answer lies with those overpaid theorists, who have somehow managed to mask their own privilege. Nothing surprises and depresses me more in the current copyright battle over compensation for educational use than running up against the underclass of “free culture” true believers – the students, library workers and adjunct teachers who wave a fair dealing banner with all their might. To them - absurdly - artists and writers averaging $24,000 a year in real wages represent the elite and entitled.

Somehow, a handful of wealthy faculty and administrative bosses have convinced thousands of their lessers to hit the streets in a protest against paid work – a protest absolutely designed to make sure those same students, library workers and adjunct teachers will never rise to the level of economic comfort and safety as that enjoyed by the intellectual leaders of their movement.

Well played, 1%... well played.

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