Have We Dug Through to China Yet?
By Ken Andersen
Growing up in Iowa, I was often digging postholes, foundations, trenches, etc. Not fun work, I often asked my father if the hole was deep enough. His typical reply, “Have you reached China yet?” I don’t know if a straight line from western Iowa through the earth’s center ends in China. But the image of digging, and digging, and digging ever deeper has stuck with me. Digging ever deeper is a concern for three areas linked sequentially in this editorial: Illinois’ budget crisis, political polarization, and our communication environment.
Illinois Budget Crisis
My editorial last spring, “Illinois: Will It Shoot Itself in the Other Foot?” concluded, “We will shoot ourselves in the other foot.” No surprise! We did. The legislature failed to confront the structural budget deficit, failed to cut spending, failed to pass a tax increase. This meant and will mean cuts to higher education, further delay in paying bills, going deeper in debt to fund pensions, further decline in the state credit rating and an even bigger state deficit facing us in FY2011 and 2012.
The University of Illinois has yet to receive all the money owed to it by the state from last year. It has not received a penny of the money due for this year starting July 1 and will not for some time. It anticipates another cut in that budgeted amount. Other public higher education institutions in the state are in the same situation. Tuition continues to rise and access to a higher education is ever less assured. UIUC lost 30 faculty members last year it wanted to keep. The average increase in salary they made by moving: $60,000. In-state tuition is now second highest in the Big Ten.
Time magazine, repeated news items, editorials, and business leaders are saying the only hope of a vibrant future for the country is greater investment in education—growing our human capital. Response: Illinois and other states are cutting funding for higher education. We cut income taxes for the wealthy, pass the immediate and delayed costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on to our grandchildren, but we cannot support a system of higher education, once the best in and envy of the world. Once in first place in terms of 25 to 34 year-olds holding college degrees, we are now 12th.
National awareness of problems in Illinois continues to grow with headlines in the national press such as a lead article in the New York Times business section “The Illusion of Savings: Several States Join Illinois in Risky Pension Accounting” (Sept. 20, 2010) and “A State Unconvinced That Its Culture of Corruption Will Ever Fade.” (Aug. 19, 2010).
Our estimated budget deficit is $14 billion. If you add in pension liabilities, other state obligations and the estimate of cumulative liabilities as Eden Martin does, the cumulative deficit is $160 billion.
At what point will the state deal realistically with its own self-inflicted wounds? Are the legislators and governor ready to face the need for a tax increase and a shift of focus to the needs of Illinois rather then their own reelection? When will they shift to a focus on policy issues rather than political power issues? The current election cacophony gives little hope of change. No matter how the election turns out, it seems our past is our future. Why so? For most in Springfield, being elected trumps dealing with the urgent problems confronting the state and the culture of corruption lives on.
Funding of Political Polarization
The current national elections are setting new spending records: resulting in the highest proportion of negative ads in history, largest expenditures by known and unknown contributors and candidates, and historic low ratings of Congress. Meg Whitman spent over $160 million of her own money in her failed pursuit of becoming Governor of California.
But the largest shifts in funding have come from the ability--thanks to the Supreme Court decision treating corporations as individuals--of corporations and individuals to hide contributions. So organizations, some with known titles, others with creative labels that belie their purposes, pour huge amounts into selected races. The flurry of ads in the Chicago market in the Senate rate is but one example. For the 2010 election nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce poured in $75 million; American Crossroads (tied to Karl Rove) $65 million, and they pledge to continue during the lame duck session of Congress. American Action Network, one of the major funders in the Illinois Senate race, spent at least $26 million.
Millionaires such as the Koch brothers have provided support for many of the Tea Party rallies and candidates although their objectives do not align. The rise in partisanship is linked to this flood of money into the political arena. This does not exempt a news network that repeatedly queries guests. “Do you believe Obama is a Muslim?”
What does this money buy? Clearly, it buys lots of ads, predominantly negative ads that are known to drive up the negatives of candidates. The ads may not shift as many votes as they do opinions that persist beyond the election. Why is the U.S. Congress held is such low esteem? If the major refrain is that guy is no good, sum all the individual claims over the whole of Congress, add in the attacks over legislation (death panels), and the polarization of Fox News and MSNBC, it is surprising that the rating isn’t zero. The result of, “He is no good!” countered by “He is no good!” yields a typical conclusion: “You are both right!”
But more importantly, that money buys access to the candidates including the opportunity to draft legislation. That explains a great deal of the legislative maneuvering including the anti-regulation push in terms of legislation and enforcement that puts us at risk whether focused on food production, pharmaceuticals, coal mining or oil drilling.
Excess partisanship not only spreads malaise among the electorate but also creates a continuing inability to address the most of the significant policy issues confronting the nation.
Our Communication Environment
All the noise in the communication jungle may be one reason Illinois politicians have not heeded the thoughtful rationales for proposals to cope with the budget crisis, a crisis created by failing to heed past warnings leading to the current morass. Similarly the infusion of huge sums of money that distort the election and legislative processes links to using communication as a means to unworthy ends.
Innovations in communication linked to the internet such as email and Facebook have brought an array of concerns differing in quality and quantity for those of past years. We are learning about being “phished” and scammed via the internet, whether for bank account numbers, credit card info, or moving funds out of Nigeria. Too few learn it is not wise to put content on Facebook you don’t want a future employer or your mother to know. Individuals are learning is not to push send in a fit of anger. Launch something into cyberspace and give up assurance of privacy and risk becoming “viral.” Each of us, I warrant, forges all of this at times whether teen or oldster.
The demise of traditional journalism and responsibility for fact-checking seems linked to the development of blogs that increasingly provide the basis for significant misinformation and rapid spread of intentionally inaccurate as well as accurate information. Stories become “too big to dismiss” by the press. Leaks no longer demand verification by a second source. Do not discount the impact of attention to Lady Gaga, the latest celebrity overdose or peccadillo in taking us away from significant policy issues of war, job loss, or personal or collective budget concerns.
I see two areas are of particular concern. One is illustrated by the story of Shirley Sherrod. An existing tape was edited to make her appear a “reverse” racist and given wide publicity by Andrew Breithart via his Web “Big Government” and picked up by the major media. Result she was summarily fired by the Secretary of Agriculture. The original tape illustrated her overcoming bias in responding to the need of a white farmer. The Secretary of Agriculture did not see necessity of verification? In our first response, did we?
To work efficiently communication depends upon a high level of mutual trust. We tend to trust what we see and read. Given modern technology that is not longer a valid approach. A technician can take one note and digitally replace it in an operatic aria. Experts can shuffle the words in an interview, remove or add a cigarette in a photo. Great fun on Leno’s Tonight Show; incredibly dangerous in the real world of politics and personal decision making.
Have we lost the sense of individual and collective responsibility to provide a zone of privacy for ourselves and others? Individuals casually send photos of themselves naked via cell phones or post them on Facebook. We will never know if it was homophobia that prompted a Rutgers’ student to turn on his Webcam in their dorm room after being asked to give his roommate privacy. Transmitting those images goes extends beyond a personal invasion of his roommate’s privacy. We know that promising violinist Tyler Clementi committed suicide even though we cannot know all of the elements that brought this result. Politicians railing against homosexual life styles may advance their own interests. Do the suicides of gay teens link to just such expressions as well as lack of support from parents and peers? We live in space conditioned by the communication climate.
Facts Matter! Words matter! Images matter! Motivations matter! Ethics matter!
Having taught speech and communication for approximately 40 years I know there are no clear, easy solutions to the issues posed by the decline in civility and profusion of technologies. We do need to reverse the old adage “Trust but Verify” to “Verify then Trust.” I have long advocated that every communication curriculum should include a course in communication ethics and such courses are growing in number in higher education.
We cannot wait that long to beginning education about the uses and misuses of communication using to communication technologies. At an early age we teach about inappropriate touching and what is appropriate and inappropriate in communicating. But elementary and secondary schools and higher education must assume one more burden: preparing students to live in a communication era in which the “rules” are changing and recent technologies have outraced our ability to use them wisely to enhance communication rather than to serve destructive purposes or limit the utility of the communication process.