What Can We Afford?

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.(Earth Charter, 2000)

I noted earlier this week in an article I was reading yet another telling graph of how our domestic inequality has grown.

I was reminded of this graphical depiction later in the week as my employer announced that it was giving some raises to the football coaching staff. They could afford the $1.6 million raise to the head coach as well as the additional roughly $800,000 or so they added to the wallets of the nine assistant coaches (none of whom was making less than $100,000 before this windfall). I wrote a while back about the runaway inflation and other concerns with big time sports.

On the other side of the ledger I looked to see what our lowest full-time employee earns – $10.38/hour, or $21,598/year. A living wage calculator for our area would suggest a wage for a single mom with one child would have to be $18.50/hour, but the university can’t afford to pay these folks that much. If they had let the head coach scrimp by on his $2,000,000 salary, that extra $1.6 million could have brought 76 minimum wage single-mom workers up to a living wage (whoops, I forgot he received an additional $2,000,000 longevity bonus – evidently what you get if you don’t get fired or flee to another job). If you add the longevity bonus and the other coaches’ raises, nearly 200 single-moms could have a sense of economic security they don’t at present know.

But we can’t afford it. Higher education institutional practice mimics the nation at large in increasing inequality. In our citadels of higher(?) learning there appears to be a culture of entitlement. But where that term usually gets applied to those on the lower rungs of the economy with impunity, we never see the term applied to those in the top 10% or 1%. The belief pervades the institutions that the work of universities is so important and so profound as to warrant accelerating raises at the top, while those at the bottom hope for a boost near the inflation rate. I’ve heard the whine of too many PhD’s and administrators making over $100,000 annually who feel under-compensated and violated because of it, while exhibiting not the slightest concern for those who clean their offices, prepare their food, haul away their trash, and who struggle daily on the cusp of economic insecurity.

Thus the story coming this week from St Mary’s College in Maryland where they are discussing a 10 to 1 maximum salary cap. At our institution the ratio is in the neighborhood of 130 to 1. In fairness I should note that our university president has returned her raise several years running and only makes 23 times our lowest paid employee. As for what the fair ratio might be, I’ve written more on that possibility before. My biggest concern is that we don’t even discuss the idea that there could be salaries or wealth that is too much.

Our university will defend these raises behind the myth of the marketplace that forces them to pay so much for football or basketball victories. And by their actions like these they surely place these outcomes as more valuable than providing a living wage for their lowest valued employees. But this isn’t only a problem in higher education. We see astronomical salaries for professional athletes, and former politicians of all stripes leave government to lobby for whatever cause will pay them millions, see this newly released expose on the billions used to curry favor in government.

Perhaps more troublesome to me is that the recipients of this largess somehow feel entitled to it. Since they are themselves college educated as are the ones who made these decisions, it suggests to this observer that college degrees aren’t necessarily the best tonic for the planet or those we share it with. The problem is that until the Occupy movement focused our attention on the realization that the 1% was running away with our resources while most struggle, the gross and growing inequality was not a visible issue at all. See for example Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz’s “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%

As many books reviewed over the past couple of years in this blog have made clear, the trajectory noted in the graph that began this blog continues unabated and it is all but ignored by higher education. Also this week the University of Minnesota  and University of Nebraska padded their own head football coaches to $2.1 million and $3 million respectively. But it isn’t just university athletic salaries that seem never to be enough. Many institutions of higher education  act as though exempt from responsibility for their ecological footprints. While we rightly invest in some energy efficiency and conservation technologies, we continue to add more and more and more square footage of space that we heat and cool and light. We count as another victory any investment that offers a high rate of financial return regardless of the societal or environmental harm it creates elsewhere.

 American Decline

Winning is everything in big time NCAA football and basketball programs. The evidence in this graphic makes that evident better than any string of words I might use or even the recent examples cited above. The near absolute silence on this seems stunning to me. But then where campuses have been leaders in steering society away from injustice — Free Speech Movement, Vietnam Anti-War Movement, Civil and Gay Rights, Apartheid Divestment, etc., it has been largely under the impetus of students – not the faculty or administration. Is the silence based on apathy, a sense of entitlement, fear of backlash, or perhaps in hopes of a trickle down theory of more coins in our own pockets someday from the same system?

The question of what we can afford on a finite planet with one earth family and one common future is arguably the most important one we face. As the 100 Nobel Laureates who signed the following Declaration in November of 2001 warned us:

The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals but from the legitimate demands of the world’s dispossessed. Of these poor and disenfranchised, the majority live a marginal existence in equatorial climates. Global warming, not of their making but originating with the wealthy few, will affect their fragile ecologies most. Their situation will be desperate and manifestly unjust. 

The runaway wealth and inequality must stop. Who will be brave enough to challenge the powerful? Kudos to St. Mary’s College for confronting the issue. But where is Thomas Paine when we need him?

The following two tabs change content below.
Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

Latest posts by Terry Link (see all)