George Will gets it

Nov 15 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm not a terribly big fan of the op-ed political columnist George Will.

But he's got an op-ed in the Washington Post that makes some good points about academia and the Republican Rush to tax endowments.

Yes, its only the "very rich" universities. And why shouldn't they (as in the very rich corporations and the very rich individuals) pay their "fair share"?

Because [some subset of us] believe that Universities are different from other large corporations. [set aside the concerns that Universities have a product. Set aside concerns that Universities are being run like a corporation. these are important discussions. just not here, not now.]

So before I start on what was good in Will's piece, the idea of universities being different does bring me to one of my problems with Will's piece: its reeks of the exceptional attitudes that the owning class uses to justify it's own existence. The piece uses Princeton as an example, partly because, as Will discloses, he was once a trustee of Princeton. He says:

Great universities are great because philanthropic generations have borne the cost of sustaining private institutions that seed the nation with excellence.

Yes, but also, depending on how far back in history you wish to go, there are some problems with this. Firstly, this excellence was carried out on the back of enslaved peoples. This must be acknowledged. And dealt with. Secondly the definition of "excellence" has evolved with time, and certainly excluded not only people of color (once free), but also Jews, Asians, and in general anyone who wasn't deemed as having the potential for greatness. Even now, there are arguments about the percentage of Jews and Asian-Americans who belong at such great places.

Will has clearly been sensitized. He points out what Princeton has been doing to rectify this, and that legacies (children of alums) are only 13% of this year's entering freshman. And that this endowment drives financial assistance for the those that are not part of the financial elite. I think the Major Private Universities still have a ways to go in addressing these issues, but its a lot better than when I was going to college, and that was better than when my parents went.

Moving past these issues, albeit for a moment, there is value in things that Will says in this piece.  He explains, with some clarity what  "supervisory taxes" are, taxes that are imposed on private foundations, as well as what a "operating foundation" is (link from his article). These are important legal distinctions that impact on who pays taxes and how much. We can turn up our noses at boring legalese, but if you want to fight the battles, you need to know what the ground rules are. This falls into the same basket as getting Al Capone on tax evasion.

But the thing that I found most interesting in the article, especially in the light of the current tax bills working their way through Congress is Will's continuing commitment to small government. I may not believe in small government, nor in the standard libertarian line, but part of what frosts my shorts about the current legislation is that the current hypocrites-in-charge are fine with "reduce government" except when it comes to things that their corporate puppet-masters deem important. Thus, we have a run-away bloated military. Republicans are all about "limiting the budget deficit", except when they are not, for political reasons. Here is the damning paragraph from his piece:

Government having long ago slipped the leash of restraint, the public sector’s sprawl threatens to enfeeble the private institutions of civil society that mediate between the individual and the state and that leaven society with energy and creativity that government cannot supply. Time was, conservatism’s central argument for limiting government was to defend these institutions from being starved of resources and functions by government. Abandonment of this argument is apparent in the vandalism that Republicans are mounting against universities’ endowments.

I am outraged at what the Republicans want to tax and what they want not to tax. The hypocrisy, it burns.

4 responses so far

  • David says:

    "To raise less than $3 billion in a decade — less than 0.005 percent of projected federal spending of $53 trillion — Republicans would blur important distinctions and abandon their defining mission."

    I feel this critique will fall on deaf ears. The Republicans have proposed to slash similarly priced government functions that have been proven to provide a positive ROI to free up money for a larger military or tax breaks for the 0.1%.

    Also, are only private universities "great" and able to provide the nation with "excellence"? I feel like there are more CEOs with engineering degrees from public universities working for companies who build things or create ideas, than ones from private institutions. Those folks seem to be over-represented at banking companies (who seem to only make money for the 1%) and the Supreme Court.

    • potnia theron says:

      This is all true, and part of what I object to in Will. The *local* Republican fallout to public universities is far more devastating than taxing Harvard's endowment.

      • PaleoGould says:

        Which is connected to another point that George Will both partly gets, and partly elides. Conservatives are always up for defending established institutions in theory (based either on knee jerk reactionaryness or the (more sensible) small c-conservative view that surviving the vissicitudes of time and chance indicates something worth preserving). But they are in practice always oddly selective about what insititutions they actually do defend in practice. Land grant universities are, at this point, established civic institutions that have proved their worth to civil society many times over. Yet it is Harvard and Yale being threatened that gets Will bellyaching.

  • becca says:

    Both university endowments and estates should be taxed at 100% beyond a certain level. Dynastic wealth corrodes democracy. Historically, we relied on disease and war to mix up economic fortunes. If the tax code doesn't do it, those are the alternatives.

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