Noam Chomsky on Student Debt and Education

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Edward Radzivilovskiy,
Deputy Opinion Editor, Washington Square News

February 27, 2013

Edward Radzivilovskiy: Since the start of the Occupy movement, many protesters have put matters concerning rising tuition costs and student loans among the top of their demands. During her campaign, Jill Stein provocatively compared student debt to a modern form of indenture. And you have expressed a similar view, arguing that student indebtedness is a technique of indoctrination and control. Could you please elaborate on that?

Noam Chomsky: Well the first question that arises is whether there is an economic necessity for student debt. I don’t have to tell students what the numbers are. It’s over trillion dollars, beyond credit card debt. So is there an economic justification? There are a number of ways of testing that. So for example, we happen to be right next door to a poor country — Mexico. [It has] quite a good university system. It doesn’t have all the things we have — it’s a poor country. But it has a very high quality, high level of instruction. I’ve taught there, been there. It’s free. There was an attempt by the government some years ago — ten or fifteen years ago — to raise costs slightly, and this led to a national student strike. The country was practically closed down, and they backed off. In fact, last time I was there about two years ago — there was an administration building that was still occupied by students from the student strike long before it was turned into a community center.

That’s Mexico — a poor country. Just in our northern border — in Quebec — where tuition is higher than Mexico but not at our level — there was an attempt by the government a couple of months ago to raise the tuition. There was a student strike in Quebec, joined by much of the population. It led not only to backing off on that proposal but actually to change in the government. A lot of changes — there were protests against neoliberal policies and much more.

There are rich countries that have a very high level of educational systems — among the highest are Finland and Germany — both free. If you go back in American history, to the 1950s, it was a much poorer country then than it is now. Tuition wasn’t exactly free but it was pretty close to it. Under the GI bill, a huge number of people went to school at government expense, meaning no tuition essentially and very low fees. I was a student back in the 1940s in an Ivy League college. Tuition was about 100 dollars, maybe the equivalent of 800 dollars today.

These comparisons suggest very strongly that there is no real economic reason for high student debt. So we have to then ask what it’s doing. It is part of a much more general process. Over the past generation, thirty odd years, there has been a major assault on the population. Basically the neoliberal era. That’s one of the reasons we have the slogan 1% and the 99%. We are back to levels of inequality among the highest in history before the great depression. There has been economic growth during these years, but it’s overwhelmingly gone into very few pockets. Latest figures I saw indicate that there are 400 people in the United States who have as much wealth — more wealth in fact — than the lowest 180 million. Wages have pretty much grown very slowly — more or less stagnated for most of the pop and sometimes declined. Meanwhile there has been enormous wealth going into a tiny percentage of the population. The 1 percent and 99 percent imagery isn’t exactly right. It’s more like one-tenth of one percent if you look at the way graphs actually work. That has led to a lot of consequences. It’s not an economic necessity — it’s not happening at comparable countries. There are a lot of other effects. So for example the OECD, the organization of affluent countries, the so called-developed countries, just did a study of social justice in 31 of OECD countries. The US was 27th, right above Mexico. You have to remember this is the richest country in the world with enormous advantages that no one else has. And there are other studies of infant mortality, maternal health, lots of measures and US is way down at the bottom of the rich countries –around 20th or 21st, which is just totally scandalous.

In fact healthcare is a remarkable case. We have about twice the per capita cost of other rich countries and relatively poor outcomes, in addition to tens of millions people dying every year because they have no insurance. The new program will dig into that a little, but nowhere near where it should. For people who are worried about the deficit — which they shouldn’t be — it’s declining and not that serious — the deficit would be erased if we had a healthcare system like comparable countries. The reasons are not terribly obscure. It’s the only virtually privatized, lightly regulated system in the world. So it’s highly inefficient with huge administrative costs: advertising, profit for private companies, huge salaries, a lot of waste, cherry picking, and all kinds of things.

There are a couple parts of the US system, which are government run: one is the VA system — Veterans Administration. That’s kind of like European countries, about the same level of costs and efficiency. Medicare, which is government run, is much more efficient than the privatized system. The costs are going up and there is a lot of talk about the burden of Medicare — but that’s because it has to work through the privatized insurance system. Its own administrative costs and others are quite low in comparison. It’s quite interesting to look at the proposals that are now being discussed. So one of the proposals for dealing with the deficit problem (which again is not a major problem — the banks care about it but the population doesn’t and they’re right) that is being bruited around is that the age of Medicare eligibility should be increased. That’s quite an interesting proposal. For one thing, it’s got a class basis. Professionals, white-collar workers, and so on tend to live longer than truck drivers and construction workers and people doing hard manual labor. As you move up the level at which Medicare eligibility comes, you are essentially harming the poorer working people, benefiting the wealthier, educated sedentary. Even more interesting is the fact that raising the age is a move from a more-efficient system to a less-efficient system. So it’s actually more costly.

But the way cost is measured is just ideological, not an economic necessity. If costs are transferred to individuals, they are not considered costs. If it’s a business, then it’s a cost. If it’s the government, it’s a cost because the rich don’t like to pay taxes and business of course wants to have profit. If you can find a way to transfer costs to individuals, then that is called savings.

You came up here on a train. The train from New York to Boston takes almost the same amount of time as when my wife and I took it did 60 years ago. If you were in any European country, it would take a third of the time probably. And that’s a cost, but a cost to you, not a cost to Amtrak or to the government. And it’s the same — you know I had to fly yesterday for some talks. If you fly on an airplane, in order to save money for the private carriers, they don’t circulate air. Well, there’s a cost to that too … one of the costs of not circulating air is that it circulates diseases. So if somebody on the plane has a cold, everybody ends up with a cold or the flu or something. But that’s a cost that is transferred to individuals and therefore it doesn’t count when you measure efficiency. Incidentally this is happening at the universities too.

As the universities get more corporatized … during this period of sharp rise in tuition, not for economic reasons I think, there has also been an enormous increase in the ratio of administrators to faculty. There are a couple of studies on this. Benjamin Ginsburg, a well-known sociologist, has a book on it called The Fall of the Faculty. It discusses the sharp rise in number of administrators and the tendency to have professional administrators. Universities used to have administrators from the faculty who took off for a couple of years and went back. But a lot of the administrators are now professionals. They come from business schools and have a business school mentality. And you have to look at the bottom line — a way to save money and get what’s called efficiency. And they use the corporate economic model of efficiency. So if the costs are less for the institution, it’s more efficient. For example, if you could reduce the proportion of faculty to teaching by getting temps, low paid teachers like say graduate students who will have low salaries and no benefits, if they can take over the work of highly paid faculty, that’s efficient. It’s not efficient for the students. They’re not getting the same level of education surely. It’s not good for the graduate students either. But that’s called efficiency. All of this is going on in parallel as part of a whole neoliberal onslaught, which is very harmful to the population, but very beneficial to the masters, the super-rich. They are doing fine. After they caused the latest financial crisis, the big banks, the perpetrators are richer than ever, bigger than ever. Corporate profits are reaching records, bonuses are huge, and so on. The population suffers, but not them.

This relates incidentally to some things Occupy is doing. One of the projects coming up is called Occupy the Economy to deal with the tremendous concentration of wealth which carries along with it concentration of political power. That’s almost reflexive: as costs of election skyrockets, you have to depend on rich and corporate donors. This ends up controlling the political system, which is shredding. You can see it very clearly. I could go through some of the details. And going after that is a critical point.

ER: What kind of actions should we students — for example at NYU — pursue? Obviously we need to organize and create student groups, but what other more specific tactics would you suggest so that we can go beyond merely communicating this message about debt as a form of entrapment and indoctrination, and move to demanding substantive change of some sort.

NC: You can look at the model of other countries. For example the ones on our borders: Mexico and Quebec. The protests in Mexico, remember, were about a small increase in essentially free education. But it swept a large part of the country. In Quebec it drew in a large part of the population. It was tied to concerns of many other people. It’s not just the students who are suffering from this. The attack on the population is much broader. That’s why you have a situation in which, unlike what I described — what you all know — a kind of stagnation for the majority of the population. Especially for the poor people it’s much worse. For the black population, wealth was almost wiped out by the last recession.

In many places, in the US too, historically the student movements have been in the forefront of large-scale social change. So for example [if you look at] the changes in this country — there have been a lot of progress in the last 40 years or so — a lot of it came from student initiative. Take the civil rights movement. There have been civil rights movement efforts for a long time, but one major spur to it was around 1960, when a small group of black students sat in on a lunch counter, got kicked out and arrested, brutalized, and others came. Pretty soon you had the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, you had freedom buses, students from the north coming down … It was the cutting edge of what became a mass movement which achieved some goals — not all — but some goals. The women’s movement — a lot of it came from young women, organizing consciousness awareness groups and pressing demands. The environmental movement — a lot of it has come from student activism — not 100 percent. The anti-war movement — it was very clear it was mostly students. And this is true of many other cases in this country and elsewhere.

So the students can become a galvanizing force, and not just for their own personal concerns of “I don’t want to be in debt for the rest of my life” but because it is part of a general social problem — part of a general attack on the population. It should be possible to link up with other sectors that are suffering under the same attack in different ways, like say people working for the minimum wage. There was a time during the period of significant growth in the country during the 50s and 60s, when the minimum wage pretty much tracked productivity. That started to separate about thirty plus years ago. If the minimum wage had kept up with productivity, it would probably be two or three times as high as it is now. That means people working at the minimum wage are paying the costs of the wealth of the one-tenth of 1 percent. When you pull down the minimum wage, you pull down all wages. These are all broad issues that the student movement can help galvanize, move forward with.

ER: What do you make of the increased professionalization and specialization among undergraduate departments in universities? By professionalization, I mean that the curriculums are under more and more pressure to respond to the ‘demands of the market’ such as ‘getting a job’ etc. In addition, and in tandem with this in some respects, it seems there is a great push to make some fields seem as much as exact sciences as possible. For instance, the humanities seem to be under great attack because they do not produce ‘tangible’ ‘outcomes and assessments’ that can be fit onto a balance sheet determined by market logic. What should happen to traditional humanities disciplines from your perspective given these pressures?

NC: Depends on whether we want to live in a civilized world or not. The wealth and richness of life doesn’t come from having more gadgets in your hands. It comes from literature, arts, decent society, decent human relations, and many other things that you can’t put a number on. Marketization of life is another form of destroying it. This was well understood by the working classes in the early ages of the industrial revolution, in fact all through their modern history. You go back to the 19th century, there are quite good scholarly studies on it: the British working classes in Dickensian England [where] it wasn’t very pretty had a very high level of culture. They were reading contemporary literature, what we call classics now. The studies contrast the high proletarian culture with the philistinism of the aristocratic culture.

The same in the US. You go back to the early industrial towns right around here in fact — eastern Massachusetts — the young women from the farms who were coming into the mills bitterly condemned the fact that their culture was being destroyed — they were turned into tools of production instead independent people. An Irish artisan, say a blacksmith in Boston, if he could get a little money, would hire a young boy to read to him while he’s working. I can remember it — it went on into the 1930s — I was a kid and my family, mostly unemployed working class and mostly in New York, never had much formal schooling — for some a couple years maybe. But they were going to Shakespeare plays, talking about the Budapest string quartet, discussing the latest debates in psychoanalysis between Freud and Stekel, and every possible political movement. And there was working class education, in which incidentally a lot of quite good scientists and mathematicians participated. There was work written for worker’s education. There were worker education programs, a lot of them run by the unions and so on. A lot of that has been beaten out of people’s heads. But it could be restored. That’s a decent society.

If you go back to the 19th century labor press, which is very interesting, it bitterly condemned industrial society as taking away [workers’] freedom, independence, and their integrity as human beings. In fact wage labor in the mid 19th century was considered basically the same as slavery; the only difference was that it was temporary. In fact that was such a popular position that it was a program of the Republican Party in the mid 19th century. It was a program of the Knights of Labor, the huge labor movement that was formed. There was an interesting slogan that was emphasized by a lot of working people — the slogan that described what they call “the new spirit of the age” that they are trying to ram down our throats: “gain wealth forgetting all but self.” It has been over 150 years of massive efforts to try to indoctrinate people into that belief, but it’s so inhuman and savage that it doesn’t work except at the periphery. Marketization of every aspect of life is part of this.

If you look at the colleges, the state colleges in the country — a lot of them — in order to preserve profitability — are actually reducing expensive programs where there are jobs, like engineering, computer science, and nursing because they are expensive programs and are turning to cheaper programs. And as you say, the humanities are kind of marginalized. You can’t put a number on developing creative writers or individuals who can appreciate and contribute to the arts and general culture. And that’s a very harmful effect on the society altogether. So you have to decide what kind of society you want to live in. I think these are among the reasons why the US ranks so low in general social justice. It depends what values you have.

ER: In a recent public forum with Angela Davis, you reiterated one of MLK Jr.’s most famous statements — that the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. Of course it also takes people to bend that arc towards justice. What role do universities serve in a “just” or “democratic” society?

NC: Universities ought to be the place where as many people as possible — like say the GI bill — have the opportunity to develop their creative capacities, their independence, their joy of discovery, their ability to work with each other to achieve desirable social ends that they can figure out. When students are in a university they are really at the freest time of their lives. They are out of parental control. They don’t yet have to devote themselves to putting bread on the table. A lot of freedom and opportunity — and that’s the point of a university. Actually going back to Mexico — a poor country — a couple years ago there was a leftist Mayor in Mexico City. He actually opened up a university in Mexico City which is not only free but has open admissions with support for students who are not quite up the academic standards. And it’s pretty impressive. I was there, visited it, talked to students, and talked to faculty. That is just what a university ought to be. It ought to be open to the community and draw people in, just like workers education programs did. These opportunities ought to be available to everyone. They are at the forefront of creating the opportunities for a decent society in which a sane person ought to want to live.

ER: I’d like to shift to a different topic – In light of Barack Obama’s second inauguration, what is your opinion about role of the left in the United States. It seems to me there is an effort among the democrats to depict the President, as a victim of capitalist machinations – is this effort a mistake? Should the left in the United States hold Barack Obama more accountable?

NC: Accountable to what? There is no indication that he has any intention or ever had any intention or interest in bringing about progressive changes. He is basically a moderate republican. In fact it’s commonly said now that the moderate republicans have disappeared. The Republican Party is a party of — what Governor Bobby Jindal called them a couple of weeks ago — he said we are now becoming the stupid party. What happened to moderate republicans? They are now mainstream democrats. New democrats. And Obama fits pretty well within that spectrum. He came into office in 2008 with a huge popular support, and the country was going into a huge economic tailspin at the time. So the first thing he had to do of course was to pick an economic team to deal with the problems. Take a look at whom he picked. He picked the people who had created the problems — what are called the Rubin boys — the ones who are the forefront of deregulation, building the big banks, providing government insurance policy which encourages risk, too big to fail policies, and so on. These are the people who were picked. There are other highly competent economists including Nobel laureates, people like Stiglitz or Krugman and many others. They were never invited.

In fact the business press — Bloomberg News (business journal) — actually reviewed the appointments when they were made and had an interesting article about them. It went through each person who was appointed and ended up concluding that half of these people should not be on an economic team; they should be getting subpoenas. They are the ones who are the perpetrators of the crisis we are now in. That gave it away pretty quickly. Obama came in with huge labor support. The labor movement had a few serious requests — good, right ones. One of them was EFCA — the card check ability. There was a huge attack on unions and they wanted to go back to a rational way of organizing, which most workers want incidentally. Obama promised it but forgot about it right away. Same on healthcare. A majority of the population favored some kind of rational, national healthcare system. There was one residue of that left in Obama’s program — the public option, which he gave away with almost two-thirds of the population supporting it.

The US is I guess the only country where there is legislation that bans the government from negotiating drug prices, so drug prices are way higher than elsewhere. By the way I found only one poll on that — which found that about 85% of the population was opposed. He made no effort to deal with that. The claim was: “well, he can’t get it through congress” and so on. But the President has a lot of power. He can appeal to the population and be a leader. There have been presidents who did do that. But you have to want to do it or be pressured to do it by large scale popular movements.

ER: You often associate justice and democracy. However some may argue that the concept of justice and the concept of democracy are antitheses of each other. In other words, the protections of personal liberties and majority rule are not compatible. NYU Professor of Politics Pasquale Pasquino argues that by using the word “democracy” to encompass a broad range of things, the word loses any real value, and this can have a detrimental effect when we want to make substantive change happen. How do we resolve this paradox?

NC: I think we resolve it the same way Aristotle did. If you go back to the first major book on political theory, Aristotle’s Politics (Aristotle was of course dealing with Athens, a city, and he was talking about free men — not people, so not slaves or women), Aristotle discussed various kinds of political systems and decided that democracy was maybe the least bad so that’s the one we should prefer. But he pointed out that there is a real problem with democracy. The problem is that if everyone is free to vote then the ones who are enfranchised — the poor — will use their voting power to redistribute the property of the rich — in other words to achieve justice. And of course we don’t want that. He had a solution. But first I should note that Madison raised the same problem at the constitutional convention. Madison was talking about England, the model they were thinking of. In the constitutional convention he discussed the fact that in England if everyone had the vote, again excluding the people who were not allowed to vote like women, the poor would use their voting power to carry out we would call land reform (these were mostly agricultural societies) and that’s unjust.

So Aristotle and Madison faced the same problem as the professor you are mentioning — the conflict between democracy and justice and had opposite solutions. Aristotle’s solution was to reduce inequality, and he proposed to what would amount to welfare state measures on a city scale, not on our scale: communal meals and things like that, which would reduce the level of inequality. And then you wouldn’t have the mass of the poor taking away the property of the rich. Madison’s solution was the opposite: we should reduce democracy. And that’s the way our system is constructed. If you look back at the Madisonian system — the constitutional system — power was to be in the Senate, and the Senate of course was not elected, remember. The Senate, as Madison explained, constitutes the wealth of the nation, the more responsible set of men, those who sympathize with property owners and their rights. The executive was mostly an executive at the time. So powers were in the hands of the wealthy. There is a House of Representatives and that’s more democratic — it was then, isn’t now — for all sorts of reasons. That had much less authority and power because it was too democratic. And there were other devices to factionalize the population and so on. Now, the population didn’t really accept that. It was a radical population at the time. There are long struggles through American history to try to achieve justice within a democratic system. And it’s a bitter class war that goes on all the time.

We are now in a period — roughly this generation — where the class wars turned sharply in favor of extreme wealth. So we not only have the distribution of wealth that I described, but it also has immediate consequences for democracy, and they’re known. There is good work in professional political science studying attitudes and policy and the correlation between them. We have a lot of information about public opinion through extensive polling, quite good polls. The basic result that comes out of gold standard work — Martin Gillen’s and Larry Bartels’ and others — is that about 70 percent of the population is essentially disenfranchised. The lower 70 percent of wealth and income — their attitudes have no influence on policy. And as you go up the income level you get slowly more influence. When you get to the very top, you essentially get what you want. Well, it’s a kind of democracy. Everyone is allowed to push a button or something. But it’s nothing like a functional democracy. That is probably one of the main reasons why a lot of the population just doesn’t bother voting — and it tends to be the poorer part. Nobody has really investigated it, but probably it’s just an intuitive understanding that it doesn’t make any difference, you know, “why should I bother”. When you get to the House of Representatives, it’s quite interesting. That began in the constitutional system as more democratic part of the government. Now it’s the opposite. So in the last election — 2012 — the democrats got a considerable majority but a small minority of the seats, for all kinds of reasons including legislative gerrymandering and the role of money in politics.

There is a very good study by Thomas Ferguson … who studied the role of money in elections. He has found that in the last congressional elections, there is almost a perfect correlation between the percentage of the funding that a candidate receives and the probability of the candidates being elected. So take the Republicans. When you look at the proportion of funding they received, as it goes up, more are elected, almost in a straight line. And the presidential election — it was almost over 2 billion dollars this time. Now there is a lot of talk about how money didn’t work, because Sheldon Adelson spent 100 million dollars and didn’t get what he want. But that’s not true. Everyone who funded got what they want. The candidates who are in office thanks to the huge funding are beholden to the funders. They are the ones who bought their positions effectively, and if they want to stay in office they are going to have to go back to them. So it means they have to do what they want. It wasn’t a big surprise that Obama when he came in, in 2008, with a huge support from the financial institutions, turned to shining their shoes, doing what they want to do. So that is neither democratic nor just.

ER: The point you made about voter apathy I think resonates a lot with students in universities such as NYU. There is not only voter apathy at [schools like] NYU to vote in general elections. I think there is just apathy about what students can do within their schools to demand some kind of change. For example, NYU is considering it’s next massive expansion plan — called 2031 — and of course tuition is going to keep on rising. But students are virtually completely not involved in the decision making process. The faculty as well is not involved very much. So the administration is making moves and it is expanding, and the students feel like “there is nothing I can about it. I don’t have a voice. Therefore, there is nothing I can do.”

NC: Well it’s drilled into our heads from childhood that there is nothing we can do. It’s all too big. I think that’s one of the reasons for the crazy gun culture in the country. A lot of people feel like “look, I gotta defend myself somehow, from the government, from power or something, so I’ll get a gun. It’s not my government — I can’t organize with other people and vote.” Actually an interesting reflection of this is the attitude towards taxes. If you do a thought experiment and imagine a functional democracy, what would people think about taxes? Well April 15th would be a day of celebration. We are getting together to fund the projects that we decided on. What’s better than that? Here it is a day of mourning because some alien entity — a big thing out there — is hovering over us and it’s going to steal our money from us. That is a good indication of how low the conception of democracy is, and it’s substantially because it does not bring about justice. If you want people to function in a democracy, it’s going to have to lead to a just outcome.

ER: Professor Chomsky, thank you very much.