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Why Do We Think Plutocrats Know How to Run the Nation?

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Siva Vaidhyanathan has a good piece at Slate about the absurd firing of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan. Despite widespread support from the university community, Sullivan was canned last week for reasons that remain unclear, but seem to revolve around her not bringing in enough powerful billionaires to consult about the changes she planned. This made them mad, one in particular. Peter Kiernan, hedge-fund billionaire and big time contributor bragged in an e-mail (watch the reply all button!) that he engineered her firing, evidently because she didn’t solicit his opinion. This can happen today because states have so deinvested in public schools that philanthropists write huge checks that universities rely on to survive.

But there’s a deeper issue here:

Kiernan, who earned his MBA at Darden and sent his children to the university, has been a longtime and generous supporter of both the business school and the College of Arts and Sciences, where I work as a professor. Earlier this year he published a book called—I am not making this up—Becoming China’s Bitch. It purports to guide America through its thorniest problems, from incarceration to education to foreign policy. The spectacle of a rich man telling us how to fix our country was irresistible to the New York Times, which ran a glowing profile of Kiernan and his book on Feb. 29.

At some point in recent American history, we started assuming that if people are rich enough, they must be experts in all things. That’s why we trust Mark Zuckerberg to save Newark schools and Bill Gates to rid the world of malaria. Expertise is so 20th century.

Like many of the problems of today’s world, I chalk this up at least in part to the triumphalist nature of extremist early 21st century capitalism, where the world’s last secular ideology goes almost completely unchallenged. Without an articulated alternative to capitalism, the combined power of money, politics, and media conspire to present a three-part message–business has the answer to all of our problems, government is a problem that must be eliminated, and corporate titans are powerful because they are the most deserving and smart and thus they can solve societal problems if we only listen to their sage wisdom.

Of course, some Americans have always wanted to put its capitalists on a pedestal. The difference between the past and present is that there used to be organized movements of working-class people who completely rejected this absurdity. Today, corporate propaganda is so overwhelming with corporate dollars owning both political parties and corporate media fawning over their masters that organized opposition is limited. The extremist nature of modern capitalism has destroyed unions, moved jobs overseas, and left average Americans suffering from the betrayed dreams of unemployment, underwater mortgages, and unmanageable debt. And while a half-decade of economic stagnation and corporate malfeasance combined with Occupy Wall Street to help challenge the endless media message that our capitalists are godlike figures, we’ve only just begun pushing back against two decades of this corporate messaging.

And thus we allow Bill Gates to create education policy and billionaires to order university presidents fired.

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