The mayor and city council of New Orleans have proposed a budget that cuts funding to the public library by 40 percent. Voters will decide whether to approve it on December 5th. If they do, an essential public service and community institution will be gutted. And you can soon expect to see the same thing happening in your own city or town.
The problem with public libraries is that while they are hugely popular, they are also in tension with the prevailing political and economic ideology, which suggests the government should run like a business, cutting costs and measuring the worth of every service by its market price. Libraries offer useless knowledge, the joy of intellectual discovery. A McKinsey consultant, looking at a public library, would wonder why it isn’t charging usage fees to its patrons, or why it has many shelves that few people visit, and what its economic value to the city is. To the extent governments think like McKinsey consultants instead of like human beings, libraries will always be under threat, because they seem like a “luxury” rather than an essential good. After all, if government does not provide free housing or free healthcare, why is it providing free knowledge, when one must be housed and alive before all else? (The correct answer to that question is that government should be providing housing and healthcare as well rather than axing library budgets.)
The insidious and frightening thing about the cuts to the New Orleans library, and the reason that people who do not live in New Orleans need to pay close attention, is that those trying to make the cuts are also trying to convince us that they are not doing what they are obviously doing. When austerity comes, it is not branded as austerity, just like mass firings are branded as “restructurings.” It is branded as something good, something efficiency-maximizing, something that no reasonable person could disagree with. LaToya Cantrell, the mayor of New Orleans, is not going around saying that she wants to decimate the public library. She is saying that she wants to expand economic development and early childhood education, and she is denying that what she is proposing would hurt the library in any way.
I recently received a propaganda email from a PAC called “Action New Orleans” encouraging me to vote “yes” on the mayor’s proposed budget changes. Action New Orleans says that if I vote for the propositions that are on the ballot, I will be saying “yes for local progress” and “address[ing] the problems that we urgently need to solve without raising taxes,” and we will “join other progressive cities around the country in allocating dedicated funding to early childhood care and education.”
They’re not just using pleasant progressive-sounding language to pitch the austerity budget. They’re also using outright lies. The mayor falsely claimed that her budget was an attempt to “reduce taxes,” when it wasn’t. (Now they pitch it as something that would not raise taxes, but that’s actually a bad thing. We should be raising taxes! When local governments need revenue the rich need to pay up—and we already give giant unnecessary tax breaks to corporations.) Flyers supporting the cuts “falsely asserted that the Bureau of Governmental Research, a non-partisan think tank, supports the propositions” when the Bureau of Governmental Research actually opposed the plan and urged residents to vote down the proposals. As excellent reporting by Michael Isaac Stein in the nonprofit New Orleans Lens has shown, the mayor even illegally used the city’s official Twitter account to push the plan.
It is important to understand the way that nefarious actions by governments are disguised as benign so that people won’t notice what is going on until it is too late. For example, in this case voters are told that the new budget increases funding for “early childhood education,” giving “scholarships to low-income preschoolers.” Who could oppose scholarships for low income preschoolers? But when we think for a moment about what that means, we realize that preschoolers shouldn’t need “scholarships”: what is actually happening is that a large amount of tax money is being handed out to private schools to take a small number of children. In other words, money that would have gone to the library is being given to private academies so that they will give seats to poor children, which they should simply be required by law to do. Jules Bentley of the Bayou Brief dug into the “early childhood education” proposal and concludes that it seems like a sham, that it will only help 100 children (out of thousands in need) and seems much more like “some kind of scheme to hand the public’s money to shady for-profit private companies.”
Propaganda can be incredibly effective in misleading you. In this case, the city had the library itself put out a fact sheet advocating the budget cuts, which flipped reality on its head, suggesting that if the proposal failed the library would have its budget cut, while if the proposal succeeded the library would “continue fulfilling its mission of transforming lives.” Voters, then, will think their vote has the entirely opposite consequence than the one it would actually have, and they will have been told this by the library itself. (The executive director of the library has shamefully teamed up with the mayor to push the cuts, because you can never trust an executive director.)
You’ll hear endless buzzwords designed to obscure reality. Our mayor and officials have talked of “right-sizing” and the need to “find new efficiencies.” The library budget cuts have been described as “part of a modernization effort, where we’re trying to bring in more technology and use data to really home in on the things that citizens need.” Efficiency and modernization are abstractions, and it’s important to demand specifics about what is actually being proposed in the real world. How does “more technology” change the fact that the library budget is being cut by 40 percent? Isn’t “homing in” just a euphemism for cutting things? When you drill down and demand real answers, you find that the obvious is true: you can’t cut budgets without making public services worse. The city’s Director of the Office of Youth and Families has promised the library will implement “cost cutting measures… that wouldn’t impact services for the public.” But when she tried to give an example of what this would be, she cited “data on what people are checking out,” showing “about 50 percent of the collection was not actually checked out.” I am sure you know what is being said here: we could eliminate about half the library catalogue, because it isn’t being checked out. Nevermind the importance of access to a wide range of knowledge. We could pick the five most popular books and keep those and call it a library, which is exactly what will happen if you let the consultants run your government.
We are in a particularly dangerous time for public services. It should be the case that in the middle of a disaster, government steps up its efforts to keep the public afloat. Instead, as Naomi Klein documents in The Shock Doctrine, in periods of fear and instability, pseudo-“reformers” take advantage of a crisis to jam through measures that, in normal times, the public would be up in arms about. Private for-profit companies are, by their nature, sociopathic in their quest for profits, meaning that they see it as their duty to seize any opportunity to extract money from new sources. The library is a potential cash cow. It is just sitting there. Of course charter school companies and developers should try to mislead the public into diverting its library funding into their own pockets. It is their job to try to lie to you to help themselves, and in a crisis that job becomes much easier. (Likewise, it was the “job” of cigarette companies and fossil fuel companies to mislead us about the social costs of their products. They did this very successfully.)
I call this “nefarious,” even evil, but it’s important to note that it’s not the product of mere maliciousness. You may wonder why a Democratic mayor would want to hurt the library (especially one who was once far more supportive of it). The answer is that Democratic mayors subscribe to neoliberal ideology, under which hurting libraries is actually good. Bad people do not think they are bad, and that is part of what is so dangerous about them. They probably sincerely believe that they are helping “early childhood education” and “development,” because they live in a world of buzzwords in which these two abstractions are inherent goods, and never bother to interrogate their real-world meanings. After all, “development” just sounds good, doesn’t it? Like “growth.” How could growth be bad? Would you want shrinkage? Of course not.
It is important for all of us to be vigilant about attempts to convince us that bad things are good using euphemisms and buzzwords. The fight to kill libraries will come to your town. It will come because it has to come. The library has money, the library cannot justify itself under neoliberal logic, there are people who see it as a moral duty to root out inefficiency and maximize private profit. You must be prepared to fight to save precious public assets. The death of the library, the privatization of the postal service, cuts to Social Security and Medicare—all of it will happen if the abstract forces of economic logic are allowed to govern us. We can counteract those forces through organizing and fighting, and we must, or else the institutions that others worked so hard to build for us will be taken overnight. It can happen. It has already happened here: New Orleans privatized its school system after Hurricane Katrina (firing its unionized, largely Black teaching staff in the process), a paradigmatic example of the Shock Doctrine at work.
The good news is that this stuff can be stopped. The most important lesson of the infamous Milgram experiment is not that people will do horrible things to each other if told to do so by an authority. It is also that horrible things can be stopped if just a small fraction of the group points out how horrible they are. In the experiment, people were willing to administer electric shocks to victims if commanded to do so, but if one person refused, their neighbors were also likely to refuse. The people who do bad things have constructed a world of euphemism upon which reality never intrudes, kind of like the criminal bosses who can instruct their subordinates to “take care of problems” and never admit to themselves that what is really happening is murder. It becomes much more difficult to sustain the illusion if someone is there persistently demanding to know what “development” really means or helping people understand how they’re being manipulated. The only way library cuts can pass is by being sold as support for the library, because people don’t want library cuts. If the public understands reality, then, the library can be saved, but unfortunately, with cuts to local journalism, governments and the wealthy are held less and less accountable and can get away with more. When they declare that we are in an “emergency” or there is a “budget hole,” if there is no one to loudly say “Yes, but why can’t you tax the people who have all the money rather than taking away critical services?” then they are more likely to sound persuasive. It is our job to ask that question over and over and refuse to shut up until they admit that they are making a choice to destroy public services rather than do anything that would demand greater sacrifice from the well-off. That’s what the “No on 2” campaign has been doing here, as library and other city workers, Friends of the New Orleans Public Library members, and DSA members band together to fight the cuts. Groups like this refuse to accept austerity as inevitable, and should give us confidence that we do not have to passively accept the unacceptable.