Wandering Eye: The brilliance of ClickHole, rethinking university endowments, and more

John Paulson's $400 million gift to Harvard's endowment just reinforces and perpetuates economic inequality, says this Quartz piece. Matt Phillips argues that Harvard doesn't need the money, and anyway, the endowment will just invest the gift in more big hedge funds like the one Paulson runs (though Paulson personally does not run any money for Harvard). Still, he says, "It siphons many billions of dollars out of the operational economy and directs them to a rarified world of finance, influence, and affluence." Phillips suggests a small tax on endowments of $500 million and up. Back in April, the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed to this study that argues for an end to the tax exemption of the endowments of very large private universities. In it, Jorge Klor de Alva and Mark Schneider say that the capital gains exemption amounts to a $105,000 annual subsidy for each Princeton student. For comparatively modest Rutgers, the subsidy is but $12,300. The proposed remedy? A 0.5 to 2 percent tax on large college endowments to be directed toward more modest colleges. Here is the thing, though: Klor de Alva is president of the Nexus Research and Policy Center, a nonprofit that appears to have close ties to (and has advocated for) the for-profit college industry. Schneider is former president of the University of Phoenix. So it's come to this? The choice is to either nibble a little at massive endowments and direct the money to the for-profit sector, or accept the status quo? Here's a crazy idea: Tax Paulson and people like him directly, at very high marginal rates. Direct that money toward public-sector colleges and universities so that they have the capacity to teach those who need them the things they need to know. Oh, and one other thing: College is not for everyone. Recast the economy so that people without college degrees are financially viable if they can get full-time work. A $15 minimum wage would be a start. (Edward Ericson Jr.)

 

If you've ever perused the Rich Kids of Instagram Tumblr, you may have felt a tense, anxious sense of disgust at the profusion of wealth and excess. A similar feeling may rise up from your gut when standing in a museum full of centuries-old European society portrait paintings. Adam Stoneman, in an essay in Jacobin, draws fascinating comparisons between these two trends that are hundreds of years apart, looking at select rich kids' Instagram photos between 2012 and 2014 and European oil paintings between 1650 and 1750, showing how elitism and privilege are signified by images. "Like the photographs shared on Instagram," he writes, "the oil paintings of this period call attention to the subjects' prestige and status — and illustrate the role of depiction in asserting and reinforcing social privilege." He bolsters his arguments with John Berger's "Ways of Seeing," which taught us, as Stoneman writes, "how to read images politically." Stoneman also compares the Instagram photos to Dutch Vanitas paintings, which depicted objects such as pearls, globes, and books (and others of varying social significance), along with a skull, as a reminder that life is ephemeral and everything dies. "The photograph, by contrast," Stoneman writes, "is devoid of such heavy symbolism: it is literal in its sterile display. This is not death but deadness, a cold and inhuman sensation. There is no time in the photograph, no life or death, only the instruments of capital." (Rebekah Kirkman)

 

If you've spent a significant time on the internet—and if you're reading this, there's a good chance you have—your click-driven travels have taken you to ClickHole, the Onion's site parodying the viral content that clogs our lives and social media feeds. Slate has an interesting reported essay on ClickHole, offering a look into how the writers work and, more imporantly, waxing poetically on why the site is so damn good. Referring to the post "7 Classic ’90s Toys That Weren't Fun Anymore After 9/11," writer Dan Kois says: "I loved its audacity; I hated the reminder that online media, which I both make and consume avidly, panders so grossly to readers' generational identities and employs such banal emotional shorthand for real-life tragic events. That is to say, when I read it, I simultaneously laughed and felt bad. It turns out this is the platonic ideal of a response to a ClickHole story." Further down, Kois hits on something that cuts a little close to the bone for us media types. "The rise of social networks and their ability to determine the fortunes of media companies by delivering millions of readers—or not—with the flick of an algorithm feels existentially destabilizing," he writes. "These market forces threatening our careers are ever more apparent but no less inexorable, and we all need the uniques, and so—to paraphrase a 2011 observation by an ex-Facebook analyst about Silicon Valley—the best journalistic minds of my generation are battling each other for Facebook’s attention." (Brandon Weigel)

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