Thursday, November 18, 2010

Permanent Austerity

In a discussion last week, I realized that the common denominator to so many of my personal hobbyhorses is fatigue with the climate of permanent austerity that seems to have settled upon public higher education.

Off the top of my head, I can come up with several reasons why we seem to be stuck in permanent austerity mode..

First, there's the basic open-endedness of mission. How much education is enough? How many programs should we run? How small should we let sections get? Which services should we provide? Whose salaries are too low?

That's in contrast to, say, heat. We spend money heating buildings, but there's an upper limit to the amount of heat that's desirable. Above a certain point, it's actually destructive; there is actually such a thing as enough. With a mission like “meeting the educational and workforce needs of the area,” though, it's hard to say how much is enough. In practice, we tend to let the budget set the definition of enough. From the perspective of any given program – or any prospective program – there's always more need. And from the perspective of anyone with a particular interest, there’s always a new program to add. This is also part of why adding programs is sooooo much easier than subtracting them.

Second, we're caught in a vicious pincer movement. State aid keeps dropping, but health care costs keep going up at several multiples of the rate of inflation. Over several years, these twin movements can beat even the most elegant budget into submission. Both trends are essentially out of the college's hands, which makes them that much harder to handle. When health insurance costs go up, say, ten percent a year for a decade, but state aid is actually moving backwards, the squeeze is real.

I'm not terribly hopeful for a short-term reversal of either trend. State aid is reliant on a combination of tax revenues and allocation decisions. Tax revenues still trail what they were a few years ago, and other areas of real need in the state budget don't have alternative revenue sources (like tuition). It'll be a long time before we climb out of that, if we do. And since Obama chose to forego single-payer health insurance in favor of trying to appease the private insurers, and the Republicans are resurgent, I don't see any improvement here either.

Third, we've defined what we do in a way that defeats productivity improvements. We measure learning in units of time. Until we stop doing that, no amount of efficiency-tinkering will make enough of a difference. A three-credit class required forty-five hours of seat time thirty years ago; it still does. On the employee side, pay raises based entirely on seniority mean that labor costs are almost completely divorced from performance. Add seniority-driven raises to lifetime tenure to the lack of mandatory retirement, and you have a perfect inflationary spiral. Any industry without productivity improvements is in for a world of economic hurt sooner or later.

Fourth, unlike almost every other sector except health care, we have to invest in technology even when it doesn’t improve our own productivity. IT is a monster expense that just keeps growing, and many of the more specialized programs have to spend megabucks to keep current with developments in the field. (Do you have any idea what patient simulators cost these days?) All that investment doesn’t show up in our own productivity, in “dollars per hour” terms.

Fifth would be the various unfunded mandates. “Compliance” is one of those magic words that diverts money from other things. In the 1980’s, the college didn’t even have an office for students with disabilities. Now it encompasses a series of offices, with several full-time employees and lots of assistive technology. The money for that is purely internal. Similarly, with every new reporting requirement we need appropriate software, usually with consultant costs.

Sixth, though, and I know some folks don't want to hear it, is flat-out plutocracy. In the worst recession in several generations, the main political debate is over how much to cut taxes on the very wealthiest. That's so staggeringly obtuse that even pointing it out seems futile. The recent New York Times budget widget was inadvertently revealing; when I used it, I got a surplus in 2015 and a tiny deficit in 2030. All I had to do was to raise taxes on the wealthy back to Clinton-era levels -- we’re not exactly talking Sweden here -- and stop fighting wars of choice. That’s it. That’s all it took. Doing nothing more than that, I could put the budget in surplus, which could go, say, for aid to the states to preserve basic services. This ain’t rocket science.

But those choices are considered so far out of the mainstream in American political discourse that you’re considered self-discrediting for even bringing them up. The budget widget’s first several options all involved cutting money to the middle class and poor -- that’s what gets you taken seriously now. Suggesting raising the retirement age marks you as a sober realist; suggesting pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq makes you a loony lefty.

Yes, public higher ed has some severe internal challenges. Some are self-inflicted, like tenure and the credit hour; others are externally imposed, like state cuts and the repeal of the mandatory retirement age. The internal culture only works when there’s growth; when there isn’t, we exploit the hell out of adjuncts to maintain the comfort of the superannuated. But even granting all of that, it’s hard to get ahead of the curve when the political culture beats up on any public servants who don’t carry guns. As long as wars, health insurers, and financial services companies keep bleeding us dry, no amount of internal reform will make up the difference.

Sorry for the rant. Every so often, I just get tired of beating my head against a wall.