American Oligarchs Think They Can Get Away With Murder
Kim Kardashian, American Oligarch, and ex-wife of rapper Ye, recently caught some attention in the media after her advice to working women, “Get your f*cking ass up and work!” went viral due to its tone-deafness. Many fans and viewers criticized that it was in very poor taste for Kim to give advice to the working class when she, herself, has not worked a blue-collar job since 2006.
This particular incidence of tone-deafness is not without precedent. Just two years ago at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when many Americans were experiencing isolation and quarantine in their now undersized abodes, American Oligarchs were suffering through their two-week isolation in their mansions and yachts while commiserating with the thousands of Americans who were impacted financially by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The above example compiled with examples of any large company not passing their Covid-19 profits onto its employees shows me that once a person or entity has accumulated enough money, ethics are no longer a concern. This frightening fact comes on the backs of shockingly tone-deaf quotes and brash decisions about projects and wages with late-stage capitalistic undertones. Mediums such as social media have given the lives of the fortunate an amplified voice with which they can espouse their views.
While free speech in social media is important for a functioning society, the same coin can also give way to normalizing the near ridiculous thoughts and wishes of the overtly wealthy. Once normalized, no one would bat an eye at American Oligarch Kim Kardashian announcing that women ought to get off their asses and work or billionaire Elon Musk trolling politician Bernie Sanders who dared suggest that the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, which would benefit all people.
Anti-community-oriented behavior like this should not be normalized nor should it be acceptable in any way to give to the welfare of the people. Aside from tasteless epithets, these overtly wealthy Americans are performing even more gaudy actions than they’re openly discussing.
One such instance that comes to mind is the billionaire space race. This race was a friendly competition between Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson who have a combined net worth of over $400 billion, which reached a boiling point in 2021 when both billionaire Richard Branson and billionaire Jeff Bezos each made their own self-funded trips to space.
These two trips were the culmination of a multi-decade pissing contest that wasted potentially billions of dollars and contributed to several hundred tons of greenhouse gasses being released into our atmosphere.
One singular rocket launch (test or not) releases approximately 300 tons of carbon dioxide (the most abundant greenhouse gas) into our atmosphere over the course of a few minutes, to say that privately-owned companies should have this amount of impact on our environment just for the pleasure of visiting outer space seems completely ludacris.
With the precedents such as those above, the point that you can do anything with money is as pungent as ever. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that the rich believe that this saying goes double for them.
As their exploits and rhetoric spiral out of control, I am reminded of Ye’s newest album “DONDA 2,” and the Yeezy album “STEM PLAYER.” This album was a follow-up to his previous album “DONDA” which served as a reflection on Ye’s deceased mother and his recent separation from Kim Kardashian.
In the lead-up to these two albums, fans and bystanders witnessed the most depraved public relations campaign of all time as Ye made Instagram post after post in a desperate attempt to express his artistic prowess while expressing his love for his ex-wife.
Amidst the release of the original “DONDA” album came the release of the Yeezy “STEM PLAYER,” which is a sort of digital audio player or DAP that is capable of splitting regular MP3 music files into their constituent instruments. This device could be bought following the release of “DONDA” on streaming platforms with the album preloaded on it.
This move was both tone-deaf and outright greedy as the majority of his fans were unwilling to pay $200 for an album from a man who has created such a poor image for himself online. Those who did for over the $200 for the device were ultimately disappointed by a half-baked desperate album that feels more like a demo tape than a complete project.
Distasteful tweets and rocket launches aside, the wealthy elite of the world have long used their money and notoriety to buy forgiveness for their many transgressions. While we as humans are prome to error and often err on the side of idocy; billionaires have developed the mentality that everything they do must be on some amplified level. The kardashian have been in the spotlight for the past decade due to their polarizing public appearnace and determiniation to publicize their entire lives. Therefore, the tansgressions of the Kardashian are anything but hidden yet seldomly talked about.
Featured photo by Unknown author is licensed under CC BY-ND.
Pitt is home to many forms of creative expression. The Pittsburgh community is bustling with outlets to explore the creative arts — concerts, museums, and art exhibits can always be found somewhere on campus.
Nestled away on the Cathedral of Learning’s 5th floor is Pitt’s English Department, which hosts Pitt’s experienced and talented literature and writing faculty. Yet, not enough credit is given to the dedication and passion of the Pitt professors that foster creative outlets and inspire their students.
One distinguished professor, Yona Harvey, has a particular love for poetry as it has significantly shaped her life. Poet Yona Harvey is author of the works, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love (Four Way Books, 2020) and Hemming the Water (2013), which won the Believer Book Award for Poetry and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award respectively.
Yona Harvey worked with professor Roxane Gay as co-author of the Marvel Comics’ World of Wakanda. Harvey currently works as an associate professor at Pitt, and was in April this year was named a Guggenheim fellow.
Yona Harvey spoke with me about her experience with writing poetry and being a part of the Pittsburgh community.
She discussed writing poetry for the first time and the value it holds in her life. She also shared her creative process that inspired her previous poems, and she gives advice for those who wish to write poetry.
How did you first start writing poetry?
I think I first started writing it in middle school. My mom took me to a reading. I was supposed to see… Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, and Nikki Giovanni couldn’t make it that day so I just ended up seeing Margaret Walker, who is also phenomenal.
She was the first black woman to go to the Iowa Writers’ workshop. She read this poem, and it made my aunt cry. And I just thought, “what is happening?” I had never seen anything like that.
I just felt like, “I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to write things that move people.” That’s my earliest memory of being connected to poetry.”
Did you instantly start writing poetry in middle school, too? Or was it a process throughout the years after this experience?
I think it was a process. I did have a really good Language Arts teacher who would let me read little stories for the class. It was a process because living in Ohio, even though I knew who Nikki Giovanni was and even though I was introduced to Margaret Walker, I still didn’t feel a writer was anything that I could be. I didn’t even know how that happened. So yes, it happened over time. I had to leave home to actually do it.
How has your experience in Pittsburgh shaped your writing, if it has at all?
I think it shaped my writing in that it’s a city that you can kind of disappear into. I lived in New Orleans before living here, and New Orleans is not conducive to writing. There is so much to get into there. [In] Pittsburgh… the winters are clearly longer and colder and there are a lot of other writers here.
And I feel like even though I can be isolated, I feel like I’m burrowed in alongside other writers who are burrowed in, so I feel like it’s conducive in that way.
Have you written any poems about Pittsburgh or the Pittsburgh community?
That’s a great question. Yes… I have a poem in my first book called “Hurricane” and it actually blends New Orleans and Pittsburgh together. So my daughter was born in New Orleans, but in the poem we’re actually at the little carnival that Carnegie Mellon used to do every year.
I’m not sure if they do it anymore, but my daughter wants to ride a ride called the “Hurricane,” so I let her get on that ride in Pittsburgh and in the poem i have a flashback to New Orleans when she is a baby… a hurricane is coming and we’re in the house, and so I just blend those two scenes together.
How do you think poetry writing, or writing in general, transfers over to comic book writing? Or what’s the intersectionality between genres of writing?
I think for poetry and comics, I always say the line break, the panel break, and the page turn in comics are connected. You get one impression when you’re on a line in a poem and then you can manipulate that image when you break the line and add additional information to the poem, and the same thing happens in a comic book.
[Say] you’re looking at a close up of a scarf and all you see is maybe the color, and then the neck, and then in the next panel you see “Oh, it’s the Marvel character Storm,” or whatever. You can manipulate in that way, and I love that connection between the two.
Did you like writing comic books more than poetry or does poetry still have your heart?
It’s apples and oranges, you know? Poetry satisfies a certain kind of feeling. It tends to be more internal. In comics I feel much more aware of the audience and community. So it’s just a different part of the brain, a different kind of activity.
I do love the reach of comic books. To me it’s more intergenerational, so I love getting teenagers’ perspectives, or middle schoolers’ perspectives. I feel like we’re all more united in comics, [at least] certain comics, than is the case for poetry.
How do you choose your words, or the structure of your poems? What inspires you?
I think it usually starts with sound. I grew up in a deeply Pentacoscal family; it was very noisy at church and [there was] lots of music and sound before I could even speak. I was surrounded by music.
So I think that is where all of my writing comes from — sound. Even if I hear someone on the street, or music, or when people make little clicking sounds with their mouth, or their pencils are tapping, it comes out of that. And then the poem takes shape from there.
Could you tell me how you decided the structure of your poem “Gingivitis, Notes On Fear”?
That one is more of a departure, so it just came from a long meditation on September 11th. It’s one of the few poems of mine that starts visually. I’m literally observing my daughter run her tongue over her teeth in the bathroom mirror. So I’m helping her get ready for school in the morning, and then when I saw the one tooth next to the space, that’s what brought the towers.
It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, but I couldn’t write about it in a way that didn’t seem cliché, easy, uncomplicated. It suddenly came to me when I was watching her in the mirror. That one was definitely more visual.
What do you wish people will take away from your writing?
That’s a good question. I don’t know that I want them to take away so much as, “Be still for a minute.”
I feel like I can’t totally control what they take away, but I hope that I can capture their imagination, or their sensibility. Or maybe even disrupt… some pattern in their lives, so that they’re just still for a minute and able to think differently.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I probably would add — you don’t need anyone’s permission to write. You don’t need your professor’s permission, you don’t need my permission, you don’t need Marvel’s, and that is the most beautiful thing about writing. You just need a notebook and a pen and you’re good to go.
So just be persistent and trust all the stories and all the poems you feel are inside of you.”
It was a bleak winter evening, and after a long, stressful day, I was ready to head over to Pitt’s “Eatery” to get some food with friends. While I was getting my drink, my friends had already come back with their food: cheeseburgers, pizza, fettuccine alfredo with chicken — the whole nine yards. Hearing that there was a vegan station for students like myself, I made my way over, only to find three humble dishes of beans cooked in tomato sauce, brown rice with raisins, and sweet cauliflower (do not get me started on this one).
The truth is that while Pitt prides itself on being an environment of inclusion and diversity, one place where it seems to be falling behind is its food. For years, Pitt has been struggling to address the needs of those with dietary restrictions. This is especially true for those who adhere to a plant-based or vegan diet, where at times, options are either too expensive, of poor quality, or nutritionally inadequate. Regardless of what I might say, I am not the only one who feels this way.
James Lane, a freshman studying finance, who is also vegan, says that Pitt’s vegan food “would make for a great weight-loss program,” saying that “the vegan food at the dining hall is so bad, sometimes I just skip meals altogether.”
Lisandro Montalvo, a sophomore majoring in psychology who also trains in powerlifting, says that being vegan at Pitt is “damn-near impossible.” He adds, “I do not even rely on the meal plan because it is overpriced, the food is not good, and does not allow me to recover in time for my next powerlifting session … many times in the vegans section of the dining hall, there is not even an actual protein being served.”
Breaking down the vegan options with on campus-dining at Pitt, it comes no surprise why students feel this way. In the Dining Hall, most of the sections serve very basic, stripped down versions of more complete meals. Take a look through the Pitt Vegan Masterlist online, and you will find that as a vegan, your options are pretty limited. You can usually choose from one of five things: pasta with marinara sauce, a hummus wrap with vegetables, french fries, a vegetable sandwich with ketchup and mustard, and the infamous veggie burger.
These options at first glance, may seem substantial and “pretty good for a vegan.” However, when these meals dominate what you are eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they simply get monotonous. These “options” also tend to be low in calories, protein, and certain essential vitamins and minerals, but it does not need to be this way.
For example, at the Chipotle down the road from The Eatery, you can get a burrito with guacamole, sofritas (a plant based protein), black and pinto beans, salsa, and rice — a far more complete meal, than the $15 bag of “beyond meat chicken tenders” in Market to Go and Forbes Street Market (a purchase that would usually cost you $5.99 at whole foods).
I took my concerns to Resident Student Association President Danielle Obisie-Orlu to gain further insight on how the university was accommodating vegan students. What I thought would be an innovative, enthusiastic response to this issue was underwhelming to say the least. The answer essentially followed the lines of “The Dining Task Force has been working closely with those in charge to make students’ voices heard,” yet there was no mention of anything being done. This statement becomes even more egregious when you consider that vegan meals can be made nutritionally adequate and affordable with the littlest bit of effort.
To gain some inspiration into how vegan cooking can be made easy and affordable I took a trip to “All India,” an Indian restaurant in Shadyside. It was another long day for chef Harshat Bhavishyajot, who was rolling out rotis and parathas for the night’s dinner service.
The kitchen itself was haphazardly decorated with the smells of 30 different spices, ranging from fenugreek seeds to Garam Masala, and in some miraculous way was able to support the relentless stream of uber-eats and Grubhub orders despite its humble size. When I interviewed chef Bhavishyajot, he was managing several pans, pots, and a whole tandoori oven — a daunting task that was made to seem less serious by the smirk hidden behind his thick, black mustache.
When I asked about making vegan food and whether or not it was difficult, he said: “No, no, no, it is really quite easy, we simply replace any non-veg ingredients with vegan.” He then pointed at a tray of Sooji Halwa, a semolina pudding dessert native to his home region of Punjab, and said “this dessert is usually made with ghee, but we just replace it with sesame oil. It is very simple and very good.”
He then explained that in the Sikh regions of Northern India, many dishes are already made vegetarian, and combine different plant based ingredients like chickpeas, potatoes, cauliflower, spinach, dhal (lentils), peas, and more. When I asked him how expensive the dishes were to prepare, he said “very cheap, almost free.” To elaborate on his point, a student can get an order of samosas, chana masala, and two large pieces of roti for under $15.
The truth is providing delicious vegan options that cover a student’s nutritional bases is not an ambitious pursuit, and has been done all over the world for thousands of years.
Whether you are vegan, or vegetarian for ethical, health, or religious reasons, it is time that we give all Pitt students healthy, reasonable food.
This past December, TV screens were dominated by lacy dresses, extravagant balls, and dance cards. With its beautiful scenery and fabulous ambiance, Netflix’s new original series, “Bridgerton”became television’s “diamond of the season.” The show, which Netflix projected would have 63 million views within the first 28 days after its release, garnered 82 million views in that period, making it one of the platform’s most popular series.
“Bridgerton”follows the story of the Bridgerton family, specifically, the oldest daughter Daphne as she enters Regency-era London society in 1813 as a debutante looking for a husband. The show is based on a series of novels by Julie Quinn and was produced by Shonda Rhimes, who is known for producing other smash hit shows like “Grey’s Anatomy”and “Scandal.”
Excitement for “Bridgerton” began with the release of its trailer, which seemed to promise an alternative history with a more inclusive Regency setting featuring a diverse cast of characters. Of course, inclusivity and Regency-era do not historically go hand in hand. Instead of focusing on historical accuracy, “Bridgerton” seemed to set out to be an alternative history and a fun show for people of all different identities to find representation in. However, despite the hype and popularity, the series did not live up to these expectations. Rather than the diverse Regency series that the trailer promised, the show features queerbaiting, colorism, and a scene with nonconsensual sex.
Many viewers of the teaser trailer noted and celebrated the promise of LGBTQ+ representation in the show; the trailer features a moment from what appears to be a queer sex scene, as two men are in each other’s embrace. This was particularly exciting because the TV and film industry, especially within the Regency-era genre, lacks queer representation.
However, the representation and narrative promised in the trailer are not delivered. Upon viewing the show, it becomes disappointingly obvious that instead of including a queer narrative, “Bridgerton” engages in queerbaiting. Queerbaiting, as defined by BBC, is “the practice of using hints of sexual ambiguity to tease an audience.”
The show does include a queer character, Henry Granville, an artist who befriends one of the Bridgerton brothers, Benedict. However, Henry is an underdeveloped, minor character who only appears in a few scenes. Many viewers, including myself, expected Benedict to be another queer character, but instead, his lover is a woman who works as a modiste (a dressmaker).
So, not only does the show lack the important representation that viewers were excited about, but it capitalizes off of the promise of LGBTQ+ representation, ultimately capitalizing off of the LGBTQ+ community. The community’s broad identity is used to generate more views, but the show ultimately fails to include this underrepresented identity in television, resulting in a disappointing and hurtful bait-and-switch scenario, which, in the end, diverts attention from other media that actually features LGBTQ+ representation.
“Race-baiting” and Colorism
“Bridgerton” creates a similar false promise with racial representation. Regency-era pieces particularly lack diversity. Viewers of color would be hard-pressed to find representation in principal characters of popular pieces like the 2005 Pride & Prejudice film or even the 2020 remake of Emma. Instead, in this genre, people of color seem to be erased. If they are present, they are often cast as servants or background characters. Modern viewers of color are left trying to connect and identify with characters that rarely look like them. So, it is unsurprising that the racial diversity present in the trailer generated a lot of buzz. However, this expectation went unfulfilled.
Although it is not an official term, in her YouTube video, “Race-baiting, queer-baiting, colorism, featurism, and performative diversity,” Khadija Mbowe, who makes video essays analyzing the social implications of different media,defines race-baiting as “a branch-off term of queer-baiting.” It involves using promises of diversity to draw in viewers, which “Bridgerton” does with its trailer. Still, when watching “Bridgerton,” it becomes clear that the people of color shown in the trailer are mainly extras and, in Mbowe’s words, are “mostly just decorative.” She also points out the lack of Asian and Latinx characters, which proves the shows’ lack of commitment to truly providing representation for members of many minority groups.
Of course, “Bridgerton” does feature Black characters in principle roles. Unfortunately, colorism, defined as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin,” has a clear role in the casting; the Black characters that do have larger roles, such as Simon (the Duke of Hastings) and Marina, are lighter skinned.
As Mbowe points out, the few darker-skinned Black characters fall into hurtful stereotypes. For example, Simon’s father, who is darker skinned, is arguably the most villainous character of the show, based on his cold and harsh treatment of his son. This plays into the horrendous stereotype that those with darker skin are more immoral or even more dangerous.
Instead of the racially representative show that viewers were excited for, “Bridgerton” falls into the all-too-common and harmful conventions of colorism and stereotyping.
Perhaps the most troubling and harmful part of the “Bridgerton” series was the inclusion of a rape scene. It must be noted that the show does not include a trigger warning for rape.
At the end of the sixth episode, Daphne engages in a sexual act that her partner is uncomfortable with, has been avoiding, and does not consent to. As she does so, he calls her name in protest and afterwards, he exclaims, “What did you do?” It is clear that he feels hurt, uncomfortable, and violated by what Daphne has done.
Despite his reaction, this act is never addressed as a violation at any time during the show. Instead, it seems as if the viewer is supposed to sympathize with Daphne and consider this scene as an example of her taking control in her relationship. It is clear that the show’s creators did not recognize that this scene lacks consent, and thus is a representation of sexual violation.
If this scene is considered necessary for the development of the show, then the creators should have developed commentary or framed the scene in a way that makes it clear that this not a healthy representation of sex, and instead is harmful and should not be recreated. A representation of nonconsensual sex requires not only a trigger warning for rape but also a clear acknowledgment of the violation.
I would argue that the scene is unnecessary and instead undermines the main relationship of the show. Although Daphne feels hurt by Simon hiding why he cannot have kids, having her rape him undermines her likeability for viewers. As the main character, Daphne is meant to be loved and sympathized with by the viewers. Instead, we are left with a very sour taste in our mouths. Furthermore, at the end of the season, viewers are left scratching their heads as to how Daphne and Simon have made up without addressing this violation and the underlying issues within their marriage related to sex and having children.
Overall, this rape scene not only sabotages Daphne as a character and the believability of her relationship with Simon, but it also provides a harmful representation of sex, seemingly passing rape off as acceptable.
Some may argue that “Bridgerton” is meant to be light-hearted and fun. They may feel that this analysis is unnecessary. However, arguments like this only further justify the need for criticism of content like “Bridgerton” — a lack of criticism fosters indifference to problematic content, such as a casual rape scene that has real-world effects. This is especially true for a show as popular as “Bridgerton.”
Overall, these issues in “Bridgerton” are representative of larger patterns and issues within media production and the entertainment industry. Even if these issues exist in media that is meant to entertain, it is important to consider their implications; the media we consume helps form societal realities, norms, and morals.
People learn from what they watch and recreate what they see on the screen. Real representation helps people feel seen and affects the possibilities they are able to imagine for themselves. The relationships shown on screen — sexual and not — are recreated in reality. So, although it is fine to enjoy the beauty and frills of “Bridgerton,” these elements cannot overshadow the broader implications of the show.
This is not to say that “Bridgerton” should be boycotted. Season 2 of “Bridgerton” is on its way and with it is the possibility of improvement.
The fifth season of NBC’s “This Is Us”premiered last fall and, while the meaningful drama typical of the show was in full effect, something was distinctively unusual — or perhaps, it was too familiar for comfort.
Production delays kept fans on the edge of their seats until the October season premiere. With the first episode of the new season, we finally catch up with each of the characters after waiting seven long months since Season 4’s finale last spring. One of the main characters, Kevin, finds out he’s going to have a baby. But when he goes to tell his sister the good news, he does so while standing six feet away with a mask on his face. Later in the same episode, we see Kevin and his partner, Madison, at the hospital after she experiences some pregnancy complications. Again, both Kevin and Madison are wearing masks, as is the doctor.
If it’s not yet clear what I’m alluding to, the creators of “This Is Us” decided to incorporate COVID-19 into their Season 5 storyline. And they’re not the only ones. ABC’s “The Conners”and CBS’s “All Rise” made the same creative choice. Even NBC’s “Mr. Mayor” imagined the setting of a post-COVID-19 world for its debut season.
To put it rather bluntly, I’m not the biggest fan of these choices. While I wholeheartedly believe that network television should at least attempt to relate to its audience and address important topics, the COVID-19 pandemic feels too complex for these shows to portray justly. It simply doesn’t feel like these shows are able to capture the intricacies of a year-long health crisis in a half an hour or hour-long weekly episode. At best, it’s simply unrelatable; at worst, it trivializes the dire circumstances brought about by a once-in-a-century global virus outbreak.
In addition to my personal feelings on the matter, there is also scholarship behind why this may not be the most appealing narrative to audiences. The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Larry E. Sullivan, provides a definition of escapism that speaks to a part of the reason why many of us watch television in the first place. Escapism is “the avoidance of reality by distracting the mind with some sort of entertainment…Entire entertainment businesses—radio, television, films, video games, and so on —have flourished on the premise that their programs or products help people escape.”
If part of the reason we watch television is to escape from our daily lives and experiences, perhaps grounding these shows in our coronavirus-engrossed reality is not the way to go.
To me, this leveraging of the familiar characters from “Sesame Street”to communicate important information about COVID-19 is a great way to ease anxiety during a scary and confusing time for kids (and adults, too). Programs like this can offer clarity for people who may otherwise have a hard time grasping the pandemic. I would venture to say that viewers of “This Is Us” and the like are already intimately acquainted with the “new normal” that COVID-19 has brought. They’re living it.
While I don’t wish to judge all of this content too harshly — there are certainly bigger fish to fry, and these shows and films aren’t necessarily bad — I do wonder how network television will handle the slow movement back to normalcy post-pandemic, whatever that may look like. Are the creators of these shows committed to their pandemic plots for as long as it takes to control the spread of the rapidly evolving coronavirus? We’ll see.
Divestment continues growing in concern with students on Pitt’s campus. Already, a group of students called Fossil Fuel Free Pitt has collated against Pitt’s fossil fuels investment and continues to pressure university executives to reallocate their funding elsewhere.
They have occupied common areas and toted megaphones and posters from class to class. They have stormed various intersections through Pitt’s urban campus, the same ones that are overlooked by big, orange eyes from Boulevard of the Allies. The message is clear: Pitt’s student body demands that the university withdraw investments from oil behemoths.
Climate-related harms threaten the livelihoods of adult-life for many students; the permanent harms from centuries of environmental damage are upon this generation of students. As representatives and economic investors of the University, students are demanding that the University drastically reform their investment model to contribute to a cleaner, eco-friendly future for themselves andfor the student body.
Eagerness to “fight-the-man” typically bulldozes the nuances of such justice movements. So, how exactly does Pitt invest their money, and what’s at stake for the institution ? Why should the University care about the harms caused by big oil? What is the University currently doing, and how could they make it better? Here’s your Pitt edition guide to the argument of divestment.
Pitt’s Economic Model: A Non-Expert’s Explanation of How Pitt Invests
The University of Pittsburgh is a public, nonprofit institution, which requires the university to operate under an economic model that does not prioritize revenue. These nonprofit models prioritize ventures that contribute to the holistic quality of the university, such as the expansion of educational and research-based opportunities, the renovation of the William Pitt Union, shampooing the smog off of Cathy, and so forth.
Of course, Pitt also pays its professors, deans, and relevant administration with the revenue the school is able to bring in from tuition, merchandise sales, room and board, investments, etc. This ultimately incentivizes Pitt to invest their money in certain projects and equities that are likely to make a profitable return, regardless of the University’s technical — and conveniently tax exempt — status. Enter: energy and oil!
In 2019 the energy and oil industries amassed 2.47 trillion dollars. Even after the major damages brought on by the pandemic, the market still earned around 1 trillion dollars by the end of 2020. With the industry growing by trillions of dollars annually, the decision to invest in energy and oil companies and projects that reap the benefits of those margins is a reasonable economic strategy for an institution looking to make money.
One can see how and why Pitt would want to place their money in a highly profitable industry; however, the moral andfinancial risk associated with investing in institutions that are perceived as being (at best) morally ambiguous, far outweigh the return Pitt will get on their investments.
The Obligations of the University
One of the primary reasons why students want Pitt to divest is to mitigate the harm brought about by big oil. In other words, since major universities have the most money to invest in various oil companies, pulling their large investments will put pressure on the oil companies to alter their harmful practices. Theoretically, companies that use these investments will not be able to financially sustain their practices without the necessary funds from major contributors — like universities. If oil companies can’t engage in destructive practices, then the harm that those practices bring about will be reduced. The divestment movement asserts that if Pitt doesn’t divest from these types of harmful practices, then Pitt is complacent and just as accountable for the damages brought on by them.
Arguments regarding morality and harm mitigation, with consideration to the aforementioned moral principles, are twofold. First, all existing institutions (and people, for that matter) have an obligation to protect the health of future generations. Second, a university that claims to be dedicated to bettering its community should not engage in practices that will bring harm to that community. These two ideas are the foundation of the divestment movement’s moral concerns with Pitt’s investment allocations.
All members of existing generations have an obligation to take care of the world for the sake of future generations. If existing institutions are engaging in practices that pose a significant threat to future generations, such as investing in harmful oil drilling practices and pipeline construction, then we must convince them to stop participating in those practices.
Future generations have no agency in the institutional practices of today. When existing institutions and industries do not exercise caution in practices, they have a massive impact on people who are unable to make decisions about those practices but who will have to live with the consequences of them. You’d expect a reasonable agent to avoid participating in something that is going to bring about some harm to their children and grandchildren .
Pragmatically, Pitt as an institution has already entrenched itself as a future-looking institution by the nature of investing, contributing to the community, establishing professor tenures, research projects, and more. Engagement in these practices has demonstrated Pitt’s clear investment in technology that could benefit future generations, and therefore recognizes their obligation to future people. This is intimately related to the way Pitt portrays itself to the community.
As explained by Jeremy Moss in their essay “The Morality of Divestment,” since Pitt portrays itself as a benefactor to the community, then they shouldn’t engage in nefarious revenue practices that directly violate their public image. Therefore, Pitt should invest in all levels of their future, not merely ones that are deemed profitable. In fact, by only engaging in profitable future endeavors, Pitt is not upholding its nonprofit status, again in violation both with the way they project themselves to the public and to their solvency as an institution.
Burst the Big Oily Bubble
Now that we understand why Pitt has invested in fossil fuel companies, and why they are morally obligated to pull those investments, the issue becomes how they plan to balance profit and morality.
However, as concerns about the environmental harms from fossil fuel companies continue to grow, concerns about the possibilities of a ‘carbon bubble’ grow with it. Chelsie Hunt and Olaf Weber explain the nuances of the carbon bubble in their essay “Fossil-Fuel Divestment Strategies: Financial and Carbon-Related Consequences.” They argue that since the value of fossil fuel companies is linked to their reserves of energy sources, if governments penalize companies for using these energy sources, then those companies will no longer buy or invest in those reserves — rendering them useless.
Those now-worthless investments cause their investors to lose money, miss out on their expected return, and economic turmoil if they don’t have a diverse investment portfolio. For a nonprofit like Pitt, a major loss of expected return could result in consequences, such as higher tuition prices for students, cutting salaries for professors, and cutting research programs. In these instances, the University would actually be sacrificing the very thing that makes them a nonprofit. Not only does this make the University appear disingenuous from a public relations standpoint, but the participants in the University, particularly students, are bound to bear the brunt from the profit loss. To avoid this, the University should diversify its investment portfolio into green and renewable energy companies and research projects, if not for the betterment of ethical energy consumption, then at least to create a safety net of diversification.
Lastly, diversifying investments away from fossil fuel goliaths and into green energy is also likely to produce highly profitable publicity for the University. Prospective students will be drawn in by the University’s modern investment strategies as well as their truthful dedication to bettering the community. Students passionate about these types of green energy products will attract be attracted to the University’s energy conservation and environmental engineering.
As the world continues to suffer from the harmful effects of climate change, the demand for more environmental engineers is growing, and the University has the unique opportunity to educate them. While bad investment is not likely to disincentivize prospective students from attending the University, green investment can incentivize students who otherwise wouldn’t have considered Pitt. Divestment can help the University construct a narrative about how they continue to help their community — one that isn’t undermined by their involvement with environmentally harmful practices.
So, What is Pitt Doing? (The Answer: Not Much.)
Unfortunately, the University fumbled their response to this pressure. The Ad Hoc Committee on Fossil Fuels released an out-of-touch statement given by the University that was full of vague promises and unclear goals. While the report promises that they’ve “cut investments by 45%”, the companies that they are cutting out are significant to the divestment process. For example, if Pitt invested 45% of their fossil fuel funding on smaller energy companies that aren’t as harmful as large companies, then the cut in their investment has an insignificant effect on the harms the divestment movement seeks to mitigate. Furthermore, there is a significant lack of transparency in their financial documents. The University has made no effort to translate complex banking documents that would otherwise reveal where they are keeping most of their investments. Instead, the public is forced to rely on the interpretations published by the Ad Hoc committee, which, as previously discussed, comes across as unreliable. Pitt’s current efforts towards divestment come across as lazily acquired bones that they decided to throw to the ravenous public.
Should Pitt divest from fossil fuels? This question, or, more accurately, an answer to this question, has been stated with increased frequency and intensity as a variety of internal and external forces have converged on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.
In my opinion, the answer to this question is a simple ‘no’, but that answer only came after trying my best to weigh the importance of best arguments on both sides. My level of confidence with “my best” concerning this issue isn’t high, though, so I’m presenting my reasons why Pitt shouldn’t divest in the hope that I’ll find better reasons for why it should.
The continued survival of the University of Pittsburgh is a good thing. Hopefully, this isn’t a contentious claim, but I’m going to over-explain it anyway. The reason why I believe this claim is valid is because the survival of Pitt allows for other things that are more provably good. A small-scale (but very important) consequence of the continued operation of Pitt involves its current students.
If the University were to close, then it would be unable to award its students the degrees and other qualifications it agreed to provide to them when they enrolled, which is a breach of trust that is bad in and of itself even without the consideration of all the now wasted time and money that these students put into their education.
If the reason why the University closed in this hypothetical situation was because of factors entirely out of its control, then it would be fair to say that Pitt is not at fault for failing to live up to its promise to students, but if the University could have reasonably prevented itself from shutting down, then it should have.
On a slightly larger scale (in terms of numbers), the closing of the University would force all of its current employees to have to find employment elsewhere. Even if it can be argued that all of these employees can find better jobs, the fact that they were forced to do this rather than being allowed to decide on the matter is a bad thing that the University should have done its best to prevent from happening.
There are also more pragmatic reasons why the closing of Pitt would be a bad thing, such as the fact that the closing would likely lead to a reduction in the economic activity of Oakland as students and faculty would no longer spend money in an area they don’t live and work in. I could go on about this point for a while by rattling off the economic, academic and sociological benefits of operating a public university, but at this point, I haven’t described how the continued survival of Pitt is related to divestment, which makes everything I’ve said so far irrelevant to the topic at hand. To approach relevance, we’ll need to discuss one key thing any institution needs to survive: money.
It’s All About the Money
Pitt needs money to operate. As Pitt is a publicly funded but privately operated institution, this money can come from five sources: 1) funding from federal and state governments 2) tuition 3) private donations and grants 4) profit from services and rent 5) interest on its endowment.
Unfortunately, all of these revenue sources have drawbacks. Sources #1 and #3 make the University financially dependent on third parties like politicians in Harrisburg and corporate bodies. If these groups decide one year to not give their money or to make their funds conditional, Pitt is immediately screwed over.
Doors #2 and #4 are problematic for a litany of reasons, including the fact that at some cost of attendance, prospective students are going to decide they would get a better return on investment with their/their parent’s money by going to trade school, getting educated abroad or, God forbid, attending Penn State.
This would leave Option #5 as the only choice for long-term funding if this was a standardized test. Since we are talking about the realities of financing a public institution that educates and employs thousands of people, it would be for the best to check that relying on the endowment is actually the least bad option.
The big drawback of relying on the increase in the value of assets for profit is that those assets could become worthless. Fortunately, this downside can be controlled for by diversifying the endowment into different assets within different parts of the economy, so that if one market or asset spontaneously lost all value, the endowment would keep on keeping on.
A sufficiently diversified endowment would ideally never shrink, meaning that it would provide at least the same amount of revenue every year. None of the other sources of funding can compete with that level of consistency, so the endowment is the best option for long-term funding.
The significance of everything that has been mentioned so far will become clear as we answer one last question: How would the endowment pay for Pitt’s operating budget forever? Here is one (somewhat verbose) answer:
The [Consolidated Endowment Fund] will be invested generally in a diversified, risk-controlled manner that optimizes long-term total return potential without sacrificing the integrity of the assets or the ability to meet ongoing spending obligations.
This sentence states all of the three investment objectives of the University’s endowment, but since it only alludes to the third objective, I’ll restate them for clarity; the endowment should be diverse, risk-controlled and profitable, in that order of importance. Diversity is the most important objective of the endowment for the reason I already mentioned — it protects the value of the fund from random market failures. Risk control is important because market collapses aren’t the only reason assets lose value. Companies can declare bankruptcy, the over-inflated value of a good can be corrected, governments can intervene in the stock market, etc., etc. Monitoring these non-catastrophic events and making sure to keep endowment money away from assets that regularly experience them is key to maintaining long-term stability. Last and certainly not least, profitability is important because of the fact that the endowment grows via compound interest, which makes even a small increase in the yearly return generate a dramatic increase in the future size of the endowment.
With that question answered, we can finally talk about divestment. Currently, the University of Pittsburgh has 5.8 percent of its four billion dollar endowment (about $230 million dollars) invested into entities that directly produce fossil fuels. See the Report of Ad Hoc Committee (pgs 3 & 9).
For the sake of argument, let’s say that all of this money could be withdrawn today without issue and invested somewhere else. There are two choices for where this money could go; the money can either be invested into safe assets the University is already invested in (reducing diversity) or the money would go into an asset the University had previously passed over (increasing risk). Both options necessarily increase the risk to the endowment and thus make a future with a perpetually operating, no-tuition Pitt further out of reach.
The Devil We Know
I’m done talking about divestment as it relates to Pitt. As good as I think my arguments about why Pitt shouldn’t divest are, these points are irrelevant to people who believe that the key issue of divestment isn’t who is divesting but what they’re divesting from.
It is time to discuss the multinational corporation in the room: Exxon-Mobil. BP and its ilk are infamously bad actors. I could leave it at that, but I think a case study of a particularly dubious action by Shell will help to explain Chevron’s motivations in doing bad things.
In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, operated by the Exxon Shipping Company (as it was known at the time), ran aground in the Prince William Sound and spilled billions of gallons of oil. As groups harmed by the spill started to file civil suits against Exxon, the company made claims against the U.S. Coast Guard, asserting that the Coast Guard bore some responsibility for the spill since they allowed tankers like the Exxon Valdez to deviate from the normal shipping lane through the Prince William Sound — one of the events that led to the spill — and so should have to compensate Exxon for all of the settlements it had to make to the victims of the spills.
While Exxon ultimately did not go through with a lawsuit against the Coast Guard on these flimsy grounds, it spent over a decade fighting legal battles with victims of the spill who demanded restitution that would end in a Supreme Court decision ruling in favor of the company.
The tenacity with which Exxon fought to not have to face consequences for its actions might be attributed to a variety of potential motivations, but I’m going to make the possibly bold claim that Exxon, then and now, is motivated by greed, not malice. This is a hard thing to prove in a satisfactory way since BP has done a lot of bad things throughout its history, but I believe that proving that Shell is evil is even harder, so I’ll be operating under the assumption that Chevron is ‘merely’ greedy.
Because I asserted that one of the most distasteful things Exxon-Mobil has done in public — and in its long history of terrible actions — was motivated by greed, it would follow that it operates almost entirely with a profit motive. Otherwise, BP would probably choose not to constantly damage its public image in the pursuit of even the smallest profit.
Profit-motivated behavior is thus a hallmark of Shell, including in how it uses its financial assets. As a publicly listed company, Chevron has two ways of accruing capital: revenue from the goods it provides to its consumers and investment from third parties. This capital is then spent by the company in order to reward the stakeholders of the company and to increase its future profitability.
The problem with this state of affairs is that Exxon-Mobil makes its profit and invests its capital in fossil fuel extraction processes that are hugely destructive to the environment and human health. Naturally, the solution to this issue is to prevent BP from extracting oil through divestment, right?
Yes, but no.
To understand the reason why not, we must realize that divestment fails to understand why Shell does the things it does. Chevron extracts oil and gas because there is a demand for the good that they have the means of supplying. This demand will exist regardless or not Exxon-Mobil gets capital from investors, simply because there are and will be billions of people who use oil and natural gas either directly or indirectly as they live their lives.
So as long as the demand for fossil fuels stays high, and since any money that Shell has at its disposal will go towards maintaining its ability to supply fossil fuels, no reduction in the amount of capital investment BP gets per year is going to impact its short-term ability to extract fossil fuels.
Divestment does have a few long-term impacts on Chevron, but none of them involve combating climate change. The first effect occurs if the amount of capital divested from Exxon-Mobil is small compared to the size of the company, as would be the case if Pitt were to divest. A reduction to BP’s capital investment per year is a reduction, no matter how small it is, so Shell has to make a choice between reducing expenses or accepting a relative deficit (since Chevron doesn’t have the capacity to change the price of oil or natural gas in a profitable way).
With the profit motivation I argued for earlier, Exxon-Mobil will choose to cut spending on its least profitable expenses. This includes things like research and development programs, salaries for its workers, maintenance and safety checks on its equipment and most certainlynot the extraction, refining and transportation of fossil fuels.
If anything, small-scale divestment increases the environmental and human costs of the fossil fuel industry as BP responds by cutting any program that was intended to increase the long-term profitability of the company by improving its public image, preserving the environment, or protecting its consumers and workers.
You’re probably thinking that the counterintuitive effect of what I’m describing as small-scale divestment will go away if we just divest more, but there are several problems with this assumption. I’m going to handwave the most daunting issue with this argument by assuming we can divest enough money from Shell to make it unable to maintain its current extraction capacity. The next issue with such a fantastically large divestment from Chevron is that in its attempts to keep itself afloat, Exxon-Mobil will make huge cuts to its workforce and leave tens of thousands of people unemployed.
Admittedly, the impact of this effect is insignificant when compared to the flooding of low-lying coasts or increased desertification, but it becomes unacceptable when paired with the other problem: nothing changes about climate change.
Even if we went so far as to drive Shell to bankruptcy, the demand for oil and natural gas that Chevron profited from would still exist and will be met by an expansion in supply from Exxon-Mobil. The consequences for not meeting energy demand — the collapse of the transportation system and power grid — are too great for anything else to happen. Of course, if this does happen, then the only thing divestment did was put a new coat of paint on the same fossil fuel conglomerate.
What Lies After
I wish I could say that being right about not divesting would make me happy. Unfortunately, my arguments against divestment require me to accept all the harms BP will cause with the capital it already has on hand because at least some of it is helping to pay their workers.
I would be thrilled to find a way have Shell not use part of Pitt’s endowment to build a pipeline that also doesn’t happen to cause all of various drawbacks I’ve talked about. But if such a solution can’t be found, then I guess I have to deal with my right answer. And when I say ‘deal’, I don’t mean that we should develop a passive tolerance of Chevron’s bad actions because they are currently unavoidable. Instead, I’m stating that the best way to manage Exxon-Mobil is to make it irrelevant.
If aggressive steps are taken to increase the production and lower the cost of green energy, then the inelastic demand for oil and natural gas that sustains BP and make Shell such a tempting investment opportunity go away. It’s only after this process that I think divestment has a chance to deliver net benefits to the environment and human health.