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Most observers of the American university are intimately familiar with the long-term decline and recent degradation of public higher education in California (if you need a refresher, check out Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal’s excellent overview in the new Dissent magazine). Unless you’re inside CA, however, you may have missed word of the time bomb that’s set to explode there in just eleven days.

California’s government is hobbled by its ballot proposition process, a seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time system by which any state law or constitutional amendment may be put to a statewide popular vote. Though the idea has an undeniable good-government appeal, in practice it rewards Californians with deep pockets and a knack for writing misleading referendum questions — as when a 1964 initiative sponsored by movie theater owners actually banned cable television in the state.

In the last forty years various initiatives have mandated spending on certain budget lines while placing various limits on the state legislature’s ability to raise revenue, squeezing funding for non-mandatory spending and exacerbating the state’s already profound budget problems. This quagmire is one, though certainly not the only, contributing factor behind the defunding of public higher education in the state.

Enter Proposition 30.

Proposition 30 is an attempt to address the state’s education funding gap through two temporary tax increases — a four-year, 0.25% hike in sales taxes and a seven-year bump in income taxes for Californians with annual incomes above $250,000. Revenues raised by the new taxes would be dedicated to public education.

The current California state budget assumes passage of Proposition 30, with various cuts built in should the proposition fail. Though most of the cuts would fall on K-12 education, another $838 million would be shared by the the state’s public colleges and universities, which have already seen $2.5 billion in cuts — and a series of staggeringly high tuition increases — in the last four years.

What does this mean in practice? At the University of California it would mean a 20% tuition hike, in a system where tuition already tops $12,000 a year. At Cal State it would likely mean a 5% tuition hike, the cancellation of a planned tuition rebate, and a reduction of enrollment by some twenty thousand students. Community colleges, which have already turned away half a million students over the last three years, would slash enrollment by another 180,000.

So how is Proposition 30 doing? Not well at all. Support currently stands at 46%, down from 55% a month ago. Voters are skeptical of state government and confused by another similar proposition (if both pass, the one that gets the most votes will go into effect, but significant numbers of voters are planning to vote only for the one they prefer). Additionally, the Los Angeles Times yesterday described Governor Jerry Brown’s campaigning on behalf of Prop 30 so far as “lackluster.”

And if you want to know more about how the state got into this mess, take a look at yesterday’s public statement from UC President Mark Yudof on Proposition 30. “Public higher education in California has been battered by declining State support,” he wrote, and the UC Regents have predicted that without Prop 30, “the ability of the University of California to ensure the high-quality education that Californians have come to expect will be jeopardized.” In that light, he continued, he wanted to make it absolutely “clear that it is neither my official place, nor my personal predilection, to suggest how others should vote.”

Bold words, strong words, from the head of the greatest public higher education system the world has ever known:

“It is neither my official place, nor my personal predilection, to suggest how others should vote.”

This, as TS Eliot wrote, is the way the world ends.

In April the Associated Press published a story that’s gotten a lot of attention from education activists. According to the AP, a quarter of all recent college graduates are unemployed, and another quarter are “underemployed” — working part-time jobs, or jobs that don’t require a college degree. Mitt Romney has incorporated this talking point into his campaign speeches, in a highly distorted version that claims — as he did in Wednesday’s debate — that “fifty percent of college graduates this year can’t find work.”

It’s a huge leap from 25% to 50%, of course, but the claim hasn’t gotten a lot of pushback — in part because a few weeks ago the Politifact website rated Romney’s version of the stat “Mostly True.” I wrote all this up yesterday, and concluded that while Romney was misstating the facts, the AP had screwed up too and Politifact had made a bad call.

Yesterday afternoon I reached out to the AP’s main source, a Northeastern University economist named Andrew Sum who Politifact had also cited in their coverage of the issue.

He wrote back a few hours later, and said that both the AP and Politifact had bungled the story. Here’s how:

The total adult population of the United States is about 250 million, and the total employed population of the country is about 60% of that. But we don’t go around saying that 40% of the population is unemployed, because that wouldn’t make sense. Some people are retired, others are in school, and others are raising kids or hitchhiking cross-country or choosing not to work for any of a hundred other reasons.

And in compiling at their unemployment statistics for young college-educated Americans, the AP apparently made exactly that error.

According to Professor Sum, the employment rate for young college graduates is “in the high 70s,” within striking distance of the AP’s 75% estimate. But as he points out, that figure includes people who are out of the workforce voluntarily — if you add those who have chosen to go to grad school, for instance, the figure rises above 80%.

I haven’t seen Professor Sum’s data yet (I asked late last night, and haven’t yet heard back), so I can’t say for sure what his figures on college-educated youth unemployment are. But they’re clearly more in line with the 6.8% to 9.4% range that I reported yesterday than the 25% the AP implied (and Politifact endorsed), never mind the 50% in Romney’s attack.

And this stuff matters. It matters because for all the flaws in the American university system, higher education is still a tool for social mobility in this country. Unemployment rates are lower in every age and gender and race category for who have college degrees than for those who don’t, and income averages are far higher. If wildly exaggerated claims of college-grad unemployment have the effect of pushing students out of higher ed, most of those students will suffer. It’s just not right.

And that brings us back to the AP, and to Politifact. Professor Sum says the Associated Press “misrepresented” his findings, and that Politifact “ignored” the corrections he presented to them. In so doing, both news organizations have disseminated false information, provided ammunition to wrongheaded attacks on higher education, misled the nation’s students and policymakers, and given cover to repeated blatantly false statements made by the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States.

Like I say, it’s just not right.

October 7 Update | Still no correction from Politifact, and I’ve noticed another, more egregious version of the error elsewhere on their site.

Back in August, a few weeks before they took on Mitt Romney’s version of the 50% unemployment rate claim, Politifact devoted an article to addressing a near-identical assertion in a presidential election ad put together by a group called the Republican Jewish Coalition. Like Romney, the RJC made the false claim that “one out of every two kids who are graduating college right now can’t find a job.”

Unfortunately, Politifact took the same “not having an ideal job is pretty much the same as not having any job at all” tack here that it would later take with Romney’s claim, and judged the assertion “Mostly True.” Even worse, they misrepresent Professor Sum’s findings even more baldly in this piece than in the September one, claiming — in flat contradiction with what Professor Sum told me about his conclusions — that “according to Sum’s research, about a quarter of recent college grads literally can’t find a job.”

October 16 Update | Still no correction, update, or acknowledgment from Politifact, though I reached out individually to each of the writers, researchers, and editors on the story a week ago today. I sent them all a link to this post via Twitter just now — we’ll see if that helps.

I spent a few days in Missouri last week, giving a talk and hanging out with local campus activists. They’ve got a fascinating senate race in Missouri this year, between Todd “legitimate rape” Akin and embattled incumbent Claire McCaskill.

We talked a bit about the race while I was in town, my hosts and I, and so when I stumbled across a lifestream of the campaign’s first debate yesterday morning, I watched a bit of it. As it turned out, one of the first questions was on the post office.

The mail is one of a relatively short list of government services that are explicitly mandated in the constitution, but both Akin and libertarian challenger Jonathan Dine took aim at the USPS, arguing that its current financial setup is unsustainable. (Akin argued that postal rates need to go way up and Dine said he’d be happy to see the end of Saturday delivery and the closing of a bunch of rural post offices.)

Only McCaskill was willing to stand up for the mail, and to say that the current “crisis” in the postal service is a fiction. Here’s the deal:

Until 1970, the Post Office was a regular government agency, funded both through paid services and government appropriations. But Congress began the process of phasing out government support that year, and by the late ’80s federal funding for the mail had all but disappeared. In 2006 Congress went even further, passing a law that mandated that USPS — alone among all federal agencies — completely pre-fund all its retirement benefits. At a cost of billions, and with no help from the taxpayer, the postal service was required to set aside funding for the pensions of postal workers who haven’t even been born yet.

This was a dumb idea in 2006, but it became catastrophic after the financial collapse of 2008, as declines in postal revenue shattered the assumptions on which it had been based. In the last four years, the USPS has run up a deficit of some $20 billion, entirely as a result of this wrongheaded law. Repeal it tomorrow, and the financial prognosis for the USPS is transformed overnight.

Now, the politics of the mail are complex. The 2006 law arose out of previous federal budget shell-games, and there are corporate pressures on USPS policy from a huge number of sectors of the capitalist economy — advertisers, publishers, private delivery companies, even insurers, convenience stores, and winemakers. Postal policy is a mess in a lot of ways, and not all of those pushing to weaken USPS have been Republicans.

But here’s the thing: The mail is the mail. It’s an unsexy but essential component of the government safety net. It’s a public service we need, one that’s used most by folks with the fewest resources — the elderly, the poor, people with disabilities, people with limited internet access.

If you screw with the mail, you’re screwing with people in need. You’re screwing with the common good.

On that stage in Columbia, Missouri yesterday, only one of the three candidates was willing to stand up for the mail, and it’s no accident that it was the Democrat.

Claire McCaskill is no leftist. She’s not even particularly liberal. Her ads boast that she stands at the exact center of the Senate as its “most moderate Senator.” But she’s liberal enough to believe that the postal service is worth protecting, and her opponent isn’t.

And it’s stuff like that which keeps me voting for Democrats, in spite of the drones and Manning and everything else.

Because until the revolution comes, I want six-day delivery.

There’s not much I can say that everybody doesn’t already know about Mitt Romney’s attack on the 47% of Americans who, he says, just won’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” But I do want to make a couple of small points.

The problem Romney has with the Democratic base — the reason they won’t vote for him no matter what he does — has very little with any supposed dependency they have on government handouts. The 47% who pay no federal income taxes are spread out across the ideological spectrum. They include white Alabama retirees, Idahoans on Social Security disability, active duty military. Hell, a third of American voters with household incomes under $30,000 went for McCain.

So that’s the first thing, that he was slagging a big chunk of his own base. But that’s been pointed out before. What’s more important is to note that it’s not just 47% of Americans who believe, as Romney put it, that “the government has a responsibility to care for” poor people, and to provide them with “food [and] housing.”

Because it turns out that this very question gets polled by the Pew Research Center on a regular basis, most recently in June of this year. And they found that not 47% but 59% of Americans agreed that “the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.”

Fifty-nine percent. And that includes 36% of Republicans and 49% of those Pew identified as “high income.”

Now, no candidate for president would ever say they believed that all Americans should be guaranteed decent food and reliable shelter. Americans don’t have such a guarantee now, and they’re not going to get it from the Democrats or the Republicans in anything like the near future. But if every American who believes in such a guarantee voted against Mitt Romney, he’d lose in the biggest landslide in forty years.

This is really cool.

The Student Labor Action Project, a group that works with students across the US on economic justice organizing, has just completed a year-by-year history of its work. Here’s a sample, chosen pretty much at random:


SLAP students at Temple University and University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia waged a campaign against security guard firm, AlliedBarton. Philly SLAP and the city’s Jobs with Justice coalition held numerous marches and protests to try and secure a living wage and benefits for security officers working on campuses and throughout the city. In Vermont, SLAP students also ran a living wage campaign for campuses workers. The National Student Labor Week of Action featured 250 actions on campuses. In addition to living wage campaigns going on throughout the nation, SLAP students also held actions against American Eagle and in solidarity with the Justice at Smithfield campaign.

In 2006, the Living Wage Action Coalition was founded to coordinate living wage campaigns taking place across the country. LWAC grew out of a living wage campaign at Georgetown University, and the students who ran that campaign hoped to create a larger network that could provide trainings, resources, and supports for struggles across the country. SLAP was a major partner with LWAC and provided its expertise to the assist the movement for a living wage.

Carlos Jimenez was hired as the fifth SLAP Coordinator.

This kind of narrative history is crucial to any movement, and student activists may be less likely to produce it than any other group. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to mention something about an organization or movement in a larger work, but had to drop it or cut it down because I couldn’t find a solid overview source and didn’t have time to build one from scratch.

My dissertation was intended to fill one such gap, but there are a ridiculous number of others, many of them huge. Here’s to filling gaps.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out

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