Monday, May 30, 2016

Your Tax Dollars at Work

I’m nerdy enough, at this point, that a tweet from Scott Jaschik about advertisements he saw in an airport will trigger fond memories of reading unassigned books of political economy back in the 80’s.  And confident enough to own it.

Scott mentioned seeing ads in the Denver airport on behalf of Colorado’s community colleges.  That’s not surprising in itself, but the ads weren’t targeted at prospective students; they were targeted at taxpayers more broadly.  He raised the question of tax dollars being used to generate support for using more tax dollars.

And I thought back fondly to reading a cheap used paperback copy of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society one summer in college.

Among other things, Galbraith made the point that public spending faces an uphill battle in an affluent society because it doesn’t usually advertise.  And when it does, it’s usually at the wrong times.  The only time you see “Your Tax Dollars at Work!” signs are when you’re stuck in traffic due to construction.  That’s not the time to close the sale.  Meanwhile, private companies are enlisting the greatest minds of our age to track our buying habits, monetize our data, and make it ever easier to separate ourselves from our money.  As Galbraith noted, every new ad is both an ad for the product or service, and an ad for private consumption. Multiply that by decades, and the pressure for public austerity becomes steadily greater.

Galbraith was wrong in the short term -- the book predated the Great Society by only a few years -- but over the long term, the insight has held up.  

Community colleges, and state regional colleges, have been buffeted by the forces of public austerity for years.  The Great Recession intensified the trend.  As subsidies have decreased relative to overall budgets, public colleges’ business models have come to resemble those of tuition-driven private colleges.  

But that model doesn’t really fit their mission.  A private college, even a non-profit, can define its niche and follow the market.  A community or state college has a public mission given to it.  That mission may make it harder to, say, build up the endowments on which the more successful private colleges rely.  

The tension between a market orientation and a mission of access comes to a head when working with students who have needs beyond what the private colleges would expect to see.  They outsource the most challenged students; we don’t.  That means we get increasing numbers of students who are homeless or precariously housed; students with limited English language exposure; students with multiple behavioral and learning challenges.  We’re here for that, but in a tuition-driven model, those students don’t come close to covering their costs.  They couldn’t if they wanted to.

In that light, what the Colorado schools are apparently doing makes a lot of sense.  They’re taking Galbraith’s insight to its logical conclusion, and confronting the issue head-on.  If they need to compete with the private sector’s advertising, well then, that’s just what they’ll do.  Hate the game, not the player.

In my perfect world, the people seeing those ads would be mildly put off by them, and ask the obvious question: why do they need to advertise like this?  Colorado passed a law a while back called the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) that put some harsh restrictions on public spending; I’d be surprised if most citizens knew exactly what consequences it entailed.  If the ads generate a helpful discussion and a move towards a sustainable solution, I’d consider the money well spent.  If the game rewards that kind of move, it’s time to change the game.

If public funding matched the public mission, that kind of advertising wouldn’t have to exist.  It shouldn’t.  That’s as true now as it was back in 1980-something...