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Ogmius Newsletter

Tax Reforms, Tuition Waivers, and the Role of Policy-Relevant Knowledge Production in a Contemporary Society

by Steve Vanderheiden

Florencia Foxley speaks to the crowd as University of Colorado Boulder campus graduate students protest against the proposed tax bill making its way through the Congress. Photo: Paul Aiken.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, December 2, the Senate passed its long-anticipated tax reform bill, having circumvented the filibuster-proof supermajority requirements routinely used to obstruct ordinary legislation when Democrats controlled the chamber with a 51-49 majority. In announcing the vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell remarked that he was “totally confident” that the bill would be at least revenue-neutral, and that he personally believed “that it’s going to be a revenue producer" (Tankersley, Kaplan and Rappeport 2017).

The basis for such a belief is unclear. The Joint Committee on Taxation, which was established in 1926 to assist legislators in “making objective and informed decisions with respect to proposed revenue legislation,” projected that the bill would add over $1 trillion to the federal deficit over a decade, after accounting for any economic stimulus effects.

Only one Senator crossed party lines, with Bob Corker (R-TN) opposing the bill on stated fears that this congressional advisory body might possibly be correct in its estimates.  According to analysts, his 51 Senate colleagues voting for the bill rejected the findings of the institution’s in-house and non-partisan experts “because they felt burned by unflattering analyses of their health care proposals issued this year by the Congressional Budget Office" (Tankersley, Kaplan and Rappeport 2017).

The message sent by McConnell and his fellow congressional Republican colleagues was clear: rather than seeking to make “objective and informed decisions” about public policy, where facts and evidence inform legislative decision-making and relevant forms of expertise are valued for their contributions to the understanding of such facts, questions such as the budget impact of tax cuts are to be settled by reference only to the personal beliefs of individual politicians. Where unbiased expertise becomes an obstacle to partisan or ideological objectives, expertise itself is to be denigrated and cast aside, to be replaced by whatever personal beliefs accommodate the interests of the nation’s donor class. Critics have lamented this “post-truth” turn in U.S. politics and public life as endemic to the Trump era (See, for example, The Economist 2016; Bomey 2018). CSTPR founding Director Roger Pielke, Jr. has actually chronicled that the politicization of science has a longer history.

The U.S. Senate passed the most sweeping tax rewrite in decades in December 2017. Photo: United States Senate TV.

What is new and alarming about the hostility of U.S. political elites toward scientific knowledge and expertise is that it appears now to be moving beyond attempts to suppress inconvenient facts and discredit scientists as mere ideological actors, from a radically constructivist epistemology in which no empirical finding can have more validity than any other (or even unfounded personal beliefs about empirical facts). That hostility is no longer directed only at individual researchers or the findings of scientific bodies that result from processes like peer review, but has been widened to include sweeping attacks against the scientific knowledge production system itself.

Prometheus—for whose symbolic association with the human quest for knowledge CSTPR's blog was named—was tortured by Zeus for allowing mortals access to a systematic understanding of the natural world. As the French philosophes that produced the first Encyclopedia well understood, making knowledge available to the public can be emancipatory, but is also threatening to those whose hold on power is challenged by it.

Knowledge is power, but democratic distributions of power undermine the monopoly control over it previously held by elites.

A generation ago, Prometheanism was among the leading political discourses opposed to state regulatory protection of the environment, embracing this association between knowledge and human progress. Insofar as technical knowledge and the capacity for innovation is unlimited, Prometheans like Julian Simon promised, there could be no real ecological limits to growth, as technology would allow humans to overcome forms of scarcity motivating environmentalism. Competing discourses like this one, along with competing knowledge production institutions like contrarian “think tanks” emerged to challenge an emerging scientific consensus about the need for science-based natural resource management or pollution control policy within a marketplace of ideas in which adversaries still respected that competition. Even climate skeptics sought to influence decision outcomes against environmental protection while allowing genuine scientific research to go forward, obfuscating its findings or exaggerating its uncertainties to confuse the public and delay regulatory action, interfering with knowledge dissemination but not production.

A protest for social media as University of Colorado Boulder graduate students rally against the 2017 tax bill. Photo: Paul Aiken.

In this sense, the bill opens a new and pernicious front in the science wars through an attempt to interfere in knowledge production rather than merely politicizing its dissemination. 

Among the provisions of the House tax reform bill, which was not included in the Senate bill but which could still emerge through reconciliation, is a move to treat tuition waivers for graduate students as income, amounting to an approximately 300-500 percent tax increase on a low-income group that did not appear to have been randomly targeted (Siegel 2017).  Because graduate students train to acquire the knowledge-production skills in their chosen fields, whether these are in the natural or social sciences, humanities, or arts, they pose a threat to those elites seeking a level of control over knowledge production and dissemination not seen in Western democracies since before the Enlightenment. While partly retributive, targeting scholars during their most economically vulnerable time to punish academia for the free inquiry it cherishes but which is loathed by those whose political ends depend upon stifling public access to impartial knowledge, the provision appears to also be partly designed to diminish the future research capacity of these universities and knowledge-based institutions outside of the academy. No longer content to merely suppress knowledge produced by scholars who are dependent upon tuition waivers to make financial ends meet while training at U.S. universities, this provision financially threatens the young scholars themselves, and with them the process of training the next generation of researchers. Indeed, it threatens the future of U.S. leadership in scholarly research, with a chilling effect upon the future production of the kind of policy-relevant research valued by this Center as contributing to the public good, viewing it as a threat to the post-truth politics embraced by the Majority Leader.

As part of a nationwide movement, CU Boulder students walked out of their classrooms and labs last Wednesday in a show of support for their integral role within the university.  This is not a problem for graduate students alone: faculty, administration, undergraduate students, and indeed the public at large all stand to lose as access to graduate education is diminished for all but the wealthy, and society’s capacity to train new knowledge producers is undermined by those threatened by the production and public dissemination of that knowledge. In the short run, we should all remind our representatives about the role of policy-relevant knowledge production in a democratic society, and opposing this pernicious attempt to interfere with it for transparently political reasons. In the long run, we should think about how to better communicate the social value of the research university, and of scholarly research itself, not just to the more educated and progressive members of the public that are already inclined to view it favorably, but also to its indirect beneficiaries, whose support for higher education declines as its suspicion that our educational mission is socially exclusive increases. We in public research universities must also continue to fight to keep access to higher and graduate education economically accessible and socially inclusive, to prevent this kind of anti-intellectual populism from arising in the future and to reaffirm the basic democratic values that inform our knowledge production system.

Steve Vanderheiden, steven.vanderheiden@colorado.edu
CSTPR Faculty, Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder

Bomey, N., 2018. After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump, Prometheus Books.

The Economist, 2016. Yes, I’d Lie to You: The Post-Truth World, The Economist, September 10.

Siegel, E., 2017. The GOP Tax Plan Will Destroy Graduate Education, Forbes, November 7.

Tankersley, J., T. Kaplan and A. Rappeport, 2017. Senate Passes Sweeping Republican Tax Overhaul Bill, The New York Times, December 1.