Yet UChicago’s outsize pay increases, trustee-associated contracts, and overall lack of transparency and accountability do not seem to be the result of passive governance.
Instead, all currently available information indicates that an unknown number of UChicago’s trustees and top echelon administrators are purposefully exploiting an absence of formal checks-and-balances in order to enrich themselves at the expense of the university and taxpayers’ investment in education and research.
Furthermore, because a majority of UChicago’s trustees appoint future trustees, change is only likely to come through public outrage, then informal, inefficient mechanisms like faculty votes, online petitions, and withdrawal of alumni donations.
To say the university has merely become too top-heavy risks making the trend seem relatively benign. At UChicago and elsewhere, the administrative class is gobbling up money with abandon, imperiling the public interest, and foreclosing on students’ futures.
It’s tough to say for sure, but the pro-democracy demonstrators of the “Umbrella Revolution” might just be the world’s nicest protesters.
The crowds camping out across Hong Kong have already set up a recycling system, and teenagers can be seen sorting through rubbish at every protest site. On Twitter, there are even photos of kids helping the trash man load his truck.
Some protesters have set about distributing food and water. Others are handing out face masks to help protect against tear gas, and grandmothers offer surplus umbrellas. In the local parks, protesters stick to sidewalks and don’t trample the grass.
They are efficient, and unfailingly polite.
I had come to SpaceX to talk to Musk about his vision for the future of space exploration, and I opened our conversation by asking him an old question: why do we spend so much money in space, when Earth is rife with misery, human and otherwise? It might seem like an unfair question. Musk is a private businessman, not a publicly funded space agency. But he is also a special case. His biggest customer is NASA and, more importantly, Musk is someone who says he wants to influence the future of humanity. He will tell you so at the slightest prompting, without so much as flinching at the grandiosity of it, or the track record of people who have used this language in the past. Musk enjoys making money, of course, and he seems to relish the billionaire lifestyle, but he is more than just a capitalist. Whatever else might be said about him, Musk has staked his fortune on businesses that address fundamental human concerns. And so I wondered, why space?
Musk did not give me the usual reasons. He did not claim that we need space to inspire people. He did not sell space as an R & D lab, a font for spin-off technologies like astronaut food and wilderness blankets. He did not say that space is the ultimate testing ground for the human intellect. Instead, he said that going to Mars is as urgent and crucial as lifting billions out of poverty, or eradicating deadly disease.
‘I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.”’
Musk has been pushing this line – Mars colonisation as extinction insurance – for more than a decade now, but not without pushback. ‘It’s funny,’ he told me. ‘Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, “Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.” They imply that humanity and civilisation are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school,’ he said. ‘I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.’
I entered the shark-infested waters of high finance with a short sale. It was the worst ethical decision, but finest, most profitable business moment, of my adult life. It was an informative, even transformative, experience. People are too hesitant to talk about such dealings, especially because most people make shitty financial decisions (like me), but this sheepishness perpetuates systemic financial illiteracy.
As a species, the American-brand human is reluctant to talk about fiscal failure and our own constant victimization at the hands of faceless corporations. Furthermore, our misplaced “ethics” in dealing with big business, a group devoid of anything resembling morality, hurts regular people and society as a whole. If I could legally find a way to screw over a bank, I’d do it without hesitation. The financial industry would screw me six ways from Sunday to save a nickel. The least I can do is return the favor. I only wish I had more homes to short-sell.
Violence as a primary form of communication has become normalized. It is not politics by other means. It is politics. Democrats are as infected as Republicans. The war machine is impervious to election cycles. It bombs, kills, maims, tortures, terrorizes and destroys as if on autopilot. It dispenses with humans around the globe as if they were noisome insects. No one dares lift his or her voice to protest against a war policy that is visibly bankrupting the United States, has no hope of success and is going to end with new terrorist attacks on American soil. We have surrendered our political agency and our role as citizens to the masters of war.
Even if our faltering incomes present an obstacle to personalization, the new economy has offered fixes here, too. As early as the 1980s, digital technologies meant banks and other companies could not only approve credit in minutes, instead of days and weeks, but also more easily sell loans to Wall Street investors and use the proceeds to make still more loans. As the supply of credit has risen, banks have grown much more creative, and aggressive, in marketing loans for home improvement, college education, vacations, boats, debt consolidation, even cosmetic surgery. These days, it’s hard to think of a product, a service, a lifestyle choice, or even an identity that can’t be financed. Whatever our income level and aspiration, a consumer proposition lets us pursue experiences that deliver the biggest emotional or aspirational “return on investment”—a level of personal efficiency that we have embraced as avidly as the corporate world embraced computers and financial engineering.
But this new efficiency has had serious downsides—not least in the mismatch between the self-gratifying power available to consumers and consumers’ ability to manage it all. Humans, it’s safe to say, were not designed for a world of such easy gratification. Decades of research suggest that our brains, adapted for a prehistoric world of scarce resources and infrequent opportunities, are wired to prioritize immediate rewards and costs and to disregard rewards and costs that occur in the future. This natural bias against the future, so essential for our ancestors, is an Achilles’ heel in a modern economy built around immediate pleasure and deferred pain.
If we could step back a century, before the rise of the consumer economy, we would be struck not only by the lack of affluence and technology but also by the distance between people and the economy, by the separation of economic and emotional life. People back then weren’t any less wrapped up in economic activities. The difference lay in where most of that activity took place. A century ago, economic activity occurred primarily in the physical world of production. People made things: they farmed, crafted, cobbled, nailed, baked, brined, brewed. They created tangible goods and services whose value could be determined, often as not, by the measurable needs and requirements of their physical, external lives.
That relationship changed with the rise of the consumer economy. Sophisticated, large-scale industrial systems assumed the task of making many of the things we needed, and also began to focus on the things we wanted. As the consumer economy matured, an ever-larger share of economic activity came from discretionary consumption, driven not by need but by desire, and thus by the intangible criteria of people’s inner worlds: their aspirations and hopes, identities and secret cravings, anxieties and ennui. As these inner worlds came to play a larger role in the economy—and, in particular, as companies’ profits and workers’ wages came to depend increasingly on the gratification of ephemeral (but conveniently endless) appetites—the entire marketplace became more attuned to the mechanics of the self. Bit by bit, product by product, the marketplace drew closer to the self.
On the surface, stories of video game addicts like Brett Walker may not seem relevant to those of us who don’t spend our days waging virtual war. But these digital narratives center on a dilemma that every citizen in postindustrial society will eventually confront: how to cope with a consumer culture almost too good at giving us what we want. I don’t just mean the way smartphones and search engines and Netflix and Amazon anticipate our preferences. I mean how the entire edifice of the consumer economy, digital and actual, has reoriented itself around our own agendas, self-images, and inner fantasies. In North America and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree in Europe and Japan, it is now entirely normal to demand a personally customized life. We fine-tune our moods with pharmaceuticals and Spotify. We craft our meals around our allergies and ideologies. We can choose a vehicle to express our hipness or hostility. We can move to a neighborhood that matches our social values, find a news outlet that mirrors our politics, and create a social network that “likes” everything we say or post. With each transaction and upgrade, each choice and click, life moves closer to us, and the world becomes our world.