It may be the creepiest student competition in history. Foreclosure.Com's essay contest may be trivial compared to what Wall Street's doing to undermine our educational system and manipulate our thinking, but it reflects the same warped set of values.
The Campaign for a Fair Settlement's Dan Petegorsky sent me some comments on the contest, which led us to its entry requirements: "You've been tasked with analyzing two foreclosure properties to determine which one is a better investment," contestants are told. "The goal is to maximize profit, whether it is a buy, hold or flip strategy ..."
Opportunity Knocks ... and serves an eviction notice
I began writing about illegal bank foreclosures before Wall Street's criminal actions in this area were widely known. Soon I started receiving heartbreaking emails from people who had been illegally foreclosed upon. A single mother said she'd been contemplating suicide. Another victim said "your article was like morphine to the dying."
"All this time," the homeowner said, "I blamed myself."
But one person's suicidal homeowner is another's investment opportunity.
"The goal is to maximize profit," says Foreclosure.com, "whether it is a buy, hold or flip strategy over the short- and/or long-term."
Young essayists must "select a property" from two foreclosed family homes. One's in Stockton, Calif., where borrowers were inundated with offers of no-doc loans, hoodwinked by inflated appraisals, and assured by their bankers that property values had nowhere to go but up.
Ghost Town Cops
Graffiti artists bomb houses. "Urban miners" steal HVAC condensers out of yards for the copper. Burglars steal valuable belongings left inside ... Prostitutes sneak johns in and turn tricks. Junkies use rooms for shooting shacks. Squatters sometimes accidentally set the house afire.
After the city filed for bankruptcy the Stockton Police Officers Association put up a billboard that said “Welcome to the 2nd most dangerous city in California: Stop laying off cops!”
Still, a criminal in Stockton might get arrested. That hasn't happened yet on Wall Street.
It took an overseas newspaper, outside our corporate propaganda zone, to cite the real reasons for Stockton's fiscal woes: "America's cities are struggling with a lack of infrastructure investment and an almost religious aversion to taxes."
Bankers continued to prosper – thanks to taxpayers – but cities like Stockton soon found themselves struggling, and were harangued with American stories about their alleged "spending binges."
Binges? All of the major banks could have faced bankruptcy without taxpayer help. "Foreclosure.com" did. But there were no essay contests celebrating the money to be made in the ruins of their lives.
Hey, contestants, want a hint? Pick the other house, the one in Chapel Hill. It's the organizers' obvious favorite. And Chapel Hill has another advantage. It's home to the Center For Responsible Lending, which has excellent advice on how to get banks lending to home buyers again in a responsible way.
That would be good for everyone – except the predators, of course.
And speaking of predators: Petegorsky rightly notes that the Blackstone Group is exploiting the foreclosure crisis by purchasing $2.5 billion in distressed properties. And that CEO Steve Schwarzman once compared the elimination of a tax break for hedge fund managers to Hitler's invasion of Poland. (Schwarzman was enraged at the thought of being taxed under the same rules as a Stockton police officer.)
Blackstone's other co-founder is Pete Peterson. He's the billionaire who's financing much of today's phony deficit hysteria through shell organizations which promote government cuts rather than tax increases for people like him.
Foreclosure.Com's contest is a trivial exercise from a small company, but it reflects the misguided values that corporations have spent decades building up through public relations campaigns. And Peterson's equally cynical efforts have succeeded on a much grander scale, driving our misguided national debates about "fiscal cliffs" and austerity economics.
Peterson and his peers, both large and small, are laboring to reshape our thinking and our values to suit their cynical self-interest.
That's the thinking behind the corporate takeover of education. JPMorgan Chase, for example, is financing a $30 million technology center at Syracuse University.
"The Technology Center will bring together students, faculty and JPMorgan Chase employees," said the school's Chancellor, "who will work side-by-side to pool their intellectual capital to make a difference in industry, higher education and our region." The university's website explains:
"Realizing that it needed a pipeline of technologists who could thrive in such a multifaceted, integrated environment, JPMorgan Chase began looking for a partner—a like-minded university ..."
The center offers student internships, too, which ads described as a "feeder" for Chase IT jobs. At least they're paid internships, which makes them less exploitative than other internships. But the jobs they lead to may not exist much longer, at least in this country.
What are the social implications of an educational system in which universities become "pipelines" to morally-compromised corporations? Universities should help students develop the skills and talents needed to create the jobs of the future, not serve as "feeders" for the corporate jobs of the present - or the past.
This degree was brought to you by ...
These corporate relationships can quickly turn universities into product placement schemes, as when JPM execs were featured at a university conference on cyber security. (Prevention of falsified foreclosure documents was not on the agenda.) They also provide big tax breaks - which increase the deficit, Mr. Peterson - and which in this case were used to build a center housing a number of bank employees.
Then there's the matter of academic integrity. When a Syracuse business professor called Dimon a "hero" of the financial crisis and offered him up as a role model for the financial industry - a remarkable idea, given the bank's crime spree under Dimon - then, rightly or wrongly, the taint of corporate sponsorship cast a shadow over his academic judgment.
How's this for product placement? Dimon gave Syracuse's 2010 commencement address in the school's Carrier Dome (named after another corporate donor).
Another Speaker in Syracuse
Like Dimon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke at Syracuse University. But he didn't speak in a stadium. Instead the Nobel laureate was relegated to a dining hall, where he addressed a packed crowd and quoted then-President Johnson on the need to move "beyond opportunity to achievement."
Dr. King proposed a guaranteed minimum income of $3,000 (roughly $22,000 in 2013 dollars) for all Americans. (That may seem like an extreme idea, but Republican President Richard Nixon proposed something similar a few years later - and nearly got it enacted into law.)
Dr. King also proposed a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged in his Syracuse address, including the right to free education.
Education? Free? In the corporate world, education comes at a price - and with strings. A school's role is not to encourage critical thinking, or deepen our understanding of the world. Instead, as stated bluntly in Mitt Romney's higher education platform, universities should "get back to basics" with "higher education programs directly related to job opportunities."
Some might argue that our best and higher selves aren't fed by bank internships alone, that we need the arts, philosophy, history ... But they disagree. They believe that institutions of learning have no purpose, no reason to exist except to serve as corporate America's "pipelines" and "feeders." Theirs is a Matrix-like vision where universities are breeder machines generating living bodies for a vast corporate machine.
To be young and alive: It's the time to dream of a better future - for the world, and for yourself, a time to explore the limits of possibility. And to ask yourself that age-old question: Buy, hold, or flip?
The real contest isn't an essay question. It's a struggle over our values and ethics, over the ways we think and the lenses through which we view our world. Since Dr. King gave his Syracuse speech we've become vastly more unequal in income. Higher education has become unaffordable for millions of young people. Prosperity is shrinking, not expanding.
Dr. King spoke to his Syracuse audience of "the day when the fears of insecurity, the doubts clouding the future, will be transformed to radiant confidence, into glowing excitement to reach creative goals, and into an abiding moral balance ... undergirded by a secure and expanding prosperity for all."
And yet today millions of homeowners live in fear of foreclosure. A day filled with confidence, excitement, creativity, moral balance? Prosperity for all? Not if corporations are calling the shots at institutions like Syracuse University.