USAID and Paul Schuster Taylor: continued

Migrant Mother and Academic Freedom

Goodbye to Mr. Chips and the Ways of God

Over the centuries, the role of universities has changed, but two essential purposes have endured: to serve as a center for scholars and to teach certain basic subjects that might be useful for students in later life. The earliest universities were associated with the church.

The first teachers were generally clerics, a fact still remembered in the caps and gowns on graduation day. Early American universities, like Harvard and Princeton, were sponsored by Protestant denominations, often serving to train missionaries and pastors.

Constant schisms among Protestant sects and a massive immigration of Catholics and Jews after 1880, made Protestant-controlled institutions increasingly unviable, leading to the weakening and eventual discarding of religion as the foundation of university life.

By the twentieth century, most American universities were secular and, many, such as Wisconsin and Berkeley that sheltered Paul Taylor, were state-owned. Secular academics, unlike religious clerics of earlier times, do not take vows of poverty, humility, or service to the ways of God.

Like most of us, they dance to the tune of those who provide their funding, which now is largely the government.

Academics dance to the tune of those who provide their funding

Many consider teaching the young to be an unpleasant chore, to be avoided if possible. Mr. Chips is not the model they emulate.

As these 'educators' rise in the academic hierarchy, they are often able to push much of the actual teaching off on professors-in-waiting: PhD candidates who must do their bidding.

The phrase 'publish or perish' refers to the need of scholars to be sufficiently well-known and credentialed to attract financing so that they may receive a financial grant that will allow them to spend their time on whatever meets their fancy.

Escaping Pedagogic Drudgery

In his 'oral history', Paul Taylor tells how his mentor at Wisconsin, John R. Commons, had received enough money from the Carnegie Foundation to finance his writing of a four volume work on industrial labor history. He longed to do something similar on agricultural labor in California; this would allow him to escape the dismal task of teaching.

After four years of didactic servitude, he eventually landed financing with a branch of the Department of Labor that allowed him to travel around for three years the United States studying Mexican migrants, liberated to invent his own 'field work'– free at last from pedagogic drudgery. He next got an assignment to do research in Latin America, financed by the Guggenheim Foundation.

As Professor Taylor became ever more proficient in grantsmanship and skilled in the perfectly legal art of leeching funds from American taxpayers and the foundations of dead entrepreneurs, he came in 1958 upon the mother-lode of boondoggles, the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID, then as now, operates as a luxury travel service for college professors and unemployed consultants – the Abercrombie & Kent of academics seeking an all-expenses-paid, luxury international tour-vacation.

USAID: The Mother-lode of Boondoggles

The terms of reference for USAID assignments are, of necessity, extremely light in substance. Typically, a consulting job that can be done in three days will be allotted six weeks. USAID officials are bureaucrats that rarely know anything about the subjects for which they hire advisors – their knowledge and interest is focused on USAID regulations and contracting.

Each year they have a budget which, if not spent, may be cut in the next period, along with their careers. Since USAID bureaucrats are short on substantive knowledge, the terms of reference for advisory contracts are usually drawn up by one consultant, executed by a second, and audited by a third.

Often the terms of reference are obsolete by the time the contracting bureaucracy hires the advisors, who are finished and home again by the time the auditors do the customary white-wash of project performance – which is what government officials expect.

Consultants are never asked to give the money back for doing a shoddy job. USAID consulting rates are about fifty percent of fees charged in the private sector, but since the work load is one-tenth, the arrangement is ideal for someone looking for a paid sabbatical or luxury travel.

The arrangement is ideal for someone looking for a paid sabbatical or luxury travel

Because of the low fees – a typical government 'cost-saving' measure – advisors are either second-rate, out-of-work consultants, academics on sabbaticals, or free-lance scholars seeking convenient financing and time to write a book.

The bureaucracy of USAID contracting is so complex and burdensome that intermediation is now largely in the hands of specialized firms – the so-called 'Beltway Bandits'.

Initially, private contracting for USAID was handled by consultants with high government contacts, such as the office of Robert R. Nathan, the New Deal advisor to FDR. The business is now dominated by the major international auditors or their consulting cousins.

Although the rates paid by USAID are nominally low, they can be almost doubled for advisors acting as self-contractors. Long-term overseas assignments include allowances for travel, vacation, schooling for children, and living expenses, plus tax exemptions for U.S. citizens.

For those who know how to use the system, a long-term foreign assignment with USAID can offer a standard of living equivalent to a salary of $500,000 in the U.S., when tax exemptions, expense allowances, and relative living costs are taken into consideration.

Contracts with the World Bank can be even more generous.

The foreign governments that are the beneficiaries of this largess also take advantage of the system to use USAID as a travel service.

Many contracts are tied to programs to send foreign government employees to the U.S. for graduate training, seminars, and other forms of expense-paid international travel. Everyone involved with USAID comes out a winner, except the U.S. taxpayer, who doesn’t know or care what is going on.

Even Congress is remembered in USAID contracting – the USAID mission to Indonesia for many years maintained a project in Bali for the express purpose of giving visiting Congressmen an excuse to visit that resort island.

Professor Taylor and Dorothea used public money to travel to more than two dozen countries and see the world. Paul Taylor’s assignment with USAID was to act as a 'community development' specialist, which he admits in his 'oral history' as being an assignment in which no one told him what to do and with no clear responsibility, except to turn in a diary on leaving a country, indicating how he had kept busy.

Indeed, USAID officials would ask him what he wanted to do, arranging hotel accommodations, meeting him and Dorothea at the airport, even in countries that were not on his official schedule, and chauffeuring them around the countryside so that Dorothea could take quaint, exotic pictures that she could later sell to Bank of America or anyone else, or donate to museums, while using the strong dollar to collect bargains in heavy and exquisite sculpture, ceramics, paintings, bronzes, artifacts, and antiques in a dozen countries – sending this 'priceless’ booty back to the U.S., free of charge via the Army Post Office, with parcel post fees starting only from San Francisco.

Freedom From Constraint

Paul Taylor, the academic, was very much like Dorothea Lange, the artist. They both wanted freedom to do what pleased them, with someone else picking up the tab. He sought someone to pay for 'academic freedom'; she needed financing for 'artistic freedom'.

When Paul discovered that he could jazz up dry government reports on migrant labor with Dorothea’s photos, thereby attracting attention at the highest levels and stimulating action that would 'do good', it was a marriage of mutual benefit.

By becoming involved with government, he became less of an 'economic scientist’ and more of a political zealot, hardly noticing that his independence and 'academic freedom' was suborned in the process.

Lack of precision in gathering the facts is symptomatic of a propagandist

The lack of precision in gathering, checking, and reporting the facts about Migrant Mother is symptomatic of a propagandist rather than of a social scientist whose impartial eye is seeking truth.

Professor Taylor’s scientific and academic ethics were swayed by his perception that the ends justify the means. His actions included hiring Dorothea as a typist and later a social worker, when in fact he intended that she work as a photographer – a position for which there was no budget.

To pay for films and developing, he misclassified expenses, in essence 'cooking the books’. Years later, laughing, he tells how he did this in his 'oral history', confident that his ethical outlook would be accepted.

This, of course, was petty stuff compared to corporate fraud during the Great Bubble of the 1990s, but the moral compass of university professors is relevant when executive positions throughout society require a college degree.

Government and Academia

The manipulation of the universities by government was perhaps inevitable – the outcome of an increasingly heterogeneous population, the expulsion of religion from academia, inadequate cost control, and the mass-marketing of college degrees.

However, the New Deal was certainly a catalyst that accelerated the process.

With regards to Migrant Mother and the deeds of George West (the journalist), Paul Taylor (the professor), and Dorothea Lange (the photographer), we might say, like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, that

'the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world',

which would be true, until their ethical standards and intentions are replicated ten thousand times and become generalized.

Migrant Mother: the Big Picture

During the Great Depression, about 1.3 million Americans moved to California seeking a better life, but this was only one percent of the U.S. population. This migration was part of a movement that extended back many decades and that eventually transformed California into an economic power­house.

Of these migrants, only 130,000 were farm workers. This was more than local agriculture could absorb, causing unemployment until city jobs were created during the Second World War.

The influx of Dust Bowl migrants to California during the Depression was less than the number of homeless people in New York City during the 1990s (estimated at 176,000) when Clinton was president.

There were less Dust Bowl migrants during the 1930s than homeless people in New York in the 1990s

However, during the Great Bubble, there was no Dorothea Lange or Paul Taylor to promote despair and distort historical perspective by dismal photos of New York street bums.

There is no U.S. postage stamp showing a homeless 'forgotten man’ sleeping on a subway grate in winter in Manhattan, with the label 'America Survives the Clinton Years'.

Paul Taylor, like many New Deal radicals, was not so much a progressive thinker as a reactionary. He tried to turn back the clock and impede the natural adjustment of society to new conditions under capitalism.

Agriculture was changing, favoring large, well-capitalized, technically-oriented farm corporations, rather than the small, self-sufficient family farm of earlier times. Nevertheless, Taylor sought to break up large agricultural holdings and re­distribute land to small, inefficient farmers – fighting to bring back the family farm.

He conspired with the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Workers of the World to unionize migrant labor in order to artificially raise labor costs and called on Washington to subsidize labor camps for transients.

When H. L. Mencken wrote of the New Deal being infested by 'half-educated pedagogues' and 'starry-eyed uplifters', he might have been thinking of Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange.

August 30, 2020


(1) 'Interview with Dorothea Lange”, Popular Photography, February 1960.

(2) San Francisco News, March 10, 2020.

(3) San Francisco News, March 11, 2020

(4) 'Paul Schuster Taylor”, Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley 1973. Available from the Online Archive of California;

(5) 'The Heart of a Woman”, Geoffrey Dunn, Santa Maria Sun, 'One of the most famous photos in American history – Dorothea Lange’s'Migrant Mother’ – was taken right here in Nipomo. It captured the heart of the public and moved a nation, but it didn’t tell the whole story.”

(6) 'The Heart of a Woman”, op cit.

(7) 'Migrant Mother – The Story as Told by her Grandson”, Roger Sprague Sr.,

(8) 'The Heart of a Woman”, op cit.

(9) San Francisco News, March 10, 2020

(10) 'Migrant Mother: 1936”, Paul Taylor, American West, May 1970, Volume VII, Number 3

(11) 'Maynard Dixon: Images of the Native American”, Donald Hagerty et al., (San Francisco: The California Academy of Sciences, 1981), p 90.

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