By Galen Maloney
Before you give kudos to the President’s recent proposal to make community colleges free, take a moment to consider that Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland and Holland all offer their citizens free higher education. Not just free community college for those with a 2.5 grade point average and who attend at least half time, like Obama’s proposal would stipulate, but free to everyone regardless of grades or economic status.
Before you dismiss that idea as European and socialist (or both), consider that California’s university system offered free education before 1970. The California Master Plan for Higher education of 1960 banned tuition. Graduating with debt has become so commonplace that we forget this was mostly unheard of 40 years ago. In 1978 the passage of Proposition 13 curtailed California’s revenue and marked the beginning of our hate/hate affair with “enrollment fees.” When Meg Whitman ran for Governor of California, she proposed a capital gains tax that would have reduced state revenue by $10 billion. Another report came out that same year stating that elimination of tuition at UC’s would have cost $3 billion.
So, why have we been settling for less, and why has it taken so long for Obama to come out with even this modest proposal?
A good answer to the latter question lies in numbers like 36.4 percent, which was the percentage of eligible voters who voted in the recent midterm elections. This abysmal turnout resulted in the Republican control of both Houses of Congress and put democrats into strategy mode. The demographics of the country favor the Democrats and American voters are steadily getting more diverse, which will favor future democratic office seekers.
But in order to transform these demographics into real political advantage, democrats must inspire their base and clearly distinguish themselves from the Republicans. This proposal by Obama is simply the opening move in a long chess game with the intention of highlighting the differences between the two parties and paving the way for future posturing further illuminating the differences between the elephants and donkeys.
However, the more important question is why should we settle for these breadcrumbs? Obama was supposed to represent real change? What happened to the emotion and possibilities of 2008? Why do other developed countries invest in their youth with subsidized education and healthcare, while we consistently choose to invest in incarceration and the economic elites?
Well, to put it simply, the system happened.
You don’t change a system dominated by the economic elites with one man or one election, no matter how charismatic the candidate is or how catchy his slogan was. We have to understand that the system we have now is part of an agenda. Corporations pay minimal amounts in taxes. Hedge fund billionaires and a kooky pair of Koch brothers can spend to their radical heart’s content. The U.S. Supreme Court protects the obscene corruption of public elections and we prioritize incarceration over education.
Don’t take my word for it. Read up on the Black Panther Movement and how they were systematically undermined by our government, or go see “Party People” at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, watch “Kill the Messenger,” about how the CIA introduced crack to urban cities, or go learn about how well Socialism did in countries where the CIA unleashed its political correction program. Read up on the history of Civil Rights, Farmworker rights, Environmental Rights, LGBT rights and you will surely see a pattern. Positive social change requires a great deal of action and awareness.
In our current political climate, the word “socialism” has been hijacked by the right wing of this country as derogatory and abominable. But “social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy” on some level is quite necessary to solve the many challenges of our time. The free market espoused by the economic elites benefits the very few at the expense of the many. We have a long way to go, but a good start involves seeing the big picture. Terms like “left” and “socialism” are not bad.
Neither is free education. Take Obama’s proposal for what it is – baby steps. But we have to fight to make sure that the stairs are going to the right place. Otherwise, the agenda setters and economic elites will continue to disparage any positive program that doesn’t involve maximizing profit over people.