Monday, March 23, 2015

Yesterday's Solution is Today's Problem (17 Sept. 2013)

            For a while during my academic career, before the Reagan Revolution stomped into submission the American labor movement, I was among a small group of activists trying to organize a faculty union at Miami University in. As we neared the vote on collective bargaining, one of my conservative colleagues said to me, "Come on, Rich! You know that five years after we get a union, you'll be fighting it"; and I said, "Probably," and quoted the old saying I may've just made up, "Yesterday's solution is today's problem."

            Less good as a comeback but more exact would be, "Yesterday's solutions are often today's issues, and, enacted improperly, tomorrow's problems."

            If you have heard of Robert Michels and "The Iron Law of Oligarchy" you know the basic rules with any large organization, snarkily but accurately summarized by Darcy K. Leach —as Wikipedia on Michels saith — as, "Bureaucracy happens. If bureaucracy happens, power rises. Power corrupts." A union would definitely have been a good idea for the Miami University faculty, but, yeah, after a few years it probably would've grown bureaucratic, at least mildly corrupt, and I'd have had my problems with it.

            Indeed, an arresting irony on solutions and problems is the fact that early bureaucracies were formed in order to increase efficiency and fairness. Think about that: a sentence with the words "bureaucracy," "efficiency," and "fairness," and not a single "not" or other negation. Efficient, effective, and fair bureaucracy: what a concept! Or maybe, we'd think, a perverse fantasy. Ah, but if your choice was either (a) some royal autocrat or his semi-literate second-cousin once removed finally getting around to handling your petition and deciding whether or not he liked you and whether or not you'd sucked up enough and bribed enough, on the one hand, or (b) on the other hand a more or less trained, more or less disinterested professional government official following set rules — hell, yes, go with the bureaucrat.

            The system of bureaucracy — complex administrative organization —solved a number of problems and still solves problems; but we don't often hear praise for bureaucratic efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness.

            Another example, from both earlier and later.

            When I was growing up, we increasingly heard horror stories of large state-run mental institutions as incarnations of The Snake Pit (a movie title from 1948) or some "Hotel California" where people were more gently, but permanently,  trapped. Large state mental hospitals, we were told, and some private ones, too, were hell-holes and abominations on the face of the Earth (including the asylum in Camarillo, California, just down he road from where I live). And after the perfecting, sort of, of a range of anti-psychotic drugs, various do-gooders could argue persuasively to close down the large mental hospitals and distribute most of the patients to small local treatment centers and hostels and half-way houses, where they could heal and learn to function in American society.

            By the time I was a young adult, state legislators were thrilled and delighted to vote to shut down the large mental hospitals and did so: there was little political cost from the closings, and the State saved money. More exactly, the State saved money closing down the large hospitals; setting up a large-scale system of local treatment centers and hostels and halfway houses would have cost figurative political capital and a lot of money. The first times I recall hearing the acronym NIMBY — "Not in My Back Yard" — was with resistance to setting up mini-asylums in anyone's neighborhood; and, of course, extensive, labor-intensive, humane care of small groups of crazy people is expensive.

            The upshot over the next few years was that the large institutions were shut down, the patients given their meds and some referrals, and then pretty much sent away.

            I'm overgeneralizing and oversimplifying here, but fuck it: the upshot for us today includes substantial numbers of insane people living with family and among friends unable to take care of them adequately — or homeless and on the streets.

            A major example comes from the excellent research of David Eisenman, a very bright young man at the time who, among other things, served as a number-crunching analyst for Richard Ogilvie, Gov. of the State of Illinois in the late 1960s. As John W. McCarter, Jr. recounts in an oral-history memoir of his years at the University of Illinois, "David worked the tuition issue very hard [… concluding] that low tuitions are a massive subsidy to middle class and upper middle class families. If you really wanted to assure equal access to educational opportunity, what you should be doing is charging high tuitions and then using the Scholarship Commission as a vehicle for providing assistance above tuition and fees to low income families to get their kids in the university system. And really all that the low tuition was doing was providing […] a massive subsidy to the middle class, and secondly it was creating a market system where you had private institutions with extremely high tuition and public institutions with low ones and it was driving the private institutions out of business."

            Variations on this analysis and subsequent policy recommendation replaced scholarship commissions with mechanisms for students to borrow money for college and then repay the loan through a Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program, in what was known as "the Yale Plan" or, in honor or Ohio Governor John J. Gilligan — who pushed for the program — "The Gilligan Plan."

            PAYE currently exists in the US in miniscule form, and there are significant programs in Australia and the UK, and suggestions for private versions for the US.

            Ideally, such a plan would operate on the Federal level, with loans paid back as a surtax on one's income tax, and such an approach would offer a number of advantages.

                        * As a surtax on income tax, people would pay back what they could when they could, through a system that's already established — the IRS — and highly efficient at collecting money. Those who went on to make good money could pay back a bit more than they borrowed, making up for those who couldn't pay back much, or at all. The system could be set up to not quite break even, with the Federal Government and the States pitching in a bit as a public investment. (And "State and Society" would pay for capital expenditures and the research and service functions of the system: the non-educational expenses that serve the public generally.)
                        * Making student pay for their educations would encourage them to take their schooling more seriously.
                        * Cutting parents out of the equation would get rid of a real weirdness in US funding for schools. It's at best odd for the State to pay for educating minor children and then expect parents to pay to school their adult offspring.
                        * PAYE programs would allow more people to go to school fairly easily later in life than "traditional college age." Eighteen to twenty-two is a fine age for school for many people but clearly not for all, not if you believe "College is for grownups."
                        * Most important, one of the results of the upheavals of the 1960s, was that older folk became much less willing to pay for college for "kids" who weren't theirs; increasingly, older folk came to see college students as privileged, ungrateful White children, or (increasingly) not White. PAYE would put the onus of paying for college on what angry White old people (and others) saw as those ungrateful, increasingly darker and more alien undergraduate thugs and graduate-school parasites.

            Anyway, Eisenman and his fellow policy wonks demonstrated quite convincingly that in any State with a regressive tax system — pretty much all of them —low-cost public higher education transferred money from richer people to poorer people. Obviously, this needed to be reformed; and there were several obvious ways such reforms could be accomplished.

            As things turned out, of course, as with mental health, so with education.

            State governments have indeed reduced sharply their subsidies to public higher education. Indeed, faculty and administrators used to joke at Miami U that as the subsidy per student decreased we went from a State University to State Supported to State Subsidized to State Assisted to State Located to "State Annoyed": with the wise and sovereign People of Ohio chipping in only a small percentage of what it cost to run the University.

            And, as Eisenman et al. wanted — and was and is right and just — tuition and fees increased, and increased far more and far faster than the reformers intended.

            What has not happened is compensating increases in no-strings scholarship money nor nation-wide PAYE nor anything like it.

            The 1970s solution to the unjust wealth transfers of low-tuition higher education became the issue of overly rapid increases in tuition in the years following, moving into today's problem and tomorrow's crisis of student debt.

            High student debt lacks the outright cruelty of pretty much throwing large numbers of mentally ill people onto the street, but crushing debt is bad enough.

            Even with the best of will, in a complex world, yesterday's solutions will often become problems. With stingy aging voters, avaricious bankers, and irresponsible legislators getting into the act, attempts at reform can be twisted into low-key horror shows. 

1 comment:

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