Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Austerity is Expensive

James Baldwin once noted that being poor is expensive, and that people who’ve never been poor don’t know that.  He was right.  If your car is old and unreliable, you lose job opportunities due to breakdowns, and emergency repairs throw your budget into disarray.  If you need to use a laundromat to do laundry, you lose time and energy on a task that other people can do in the background.  When you live in a low-income area, other people’s issues are inescapable; when you live in a more affluent one, you can buy a certain insulation from them.  Their issues can become your issues.

The same principle applies to institutions.  Paradoxically, austerity is expensive.

From a layman’s standpoint, I’d say that American treatment of passenger rail is a clear case of expensive austerity.  The maintenance nightmares in, say, the DC Metro, the BART in the Bay Area, or Penn Station in New York are all direct and predictable side effects of too little maintenance for too long; at this point, their cost in both direct repairs and lost productivity from delayed riders outstrips any marginal savings on maintenance.  Similarly, many Amtrak routes are both slower and rarer than they should be; as a result, ridership dwindles, which leads to still more cuts.  At a certain point, the service becomes so degraded that it’s hard to argue for saving it.

Colleges have direct and indirect costs of austerity, too.  For example, not replacing full-time faculty who leave can lead directly to an inability to offer enough sections of certain courses to meet enrollment demand.  That leads directly to reduced enrollment, which forces - wait for it - more cuts.  The upfront savings from not paying somebody are more than consumed by the lost revenue from sections that couldn’t run.  

But the long run costs, while subtler, can be more devastating.

One, as with trains, is deferred maintenance.  That’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when money for new construction is easier to find than is money for maintenance and renovation.  In a given year, deferring some expensive repairs can be prudent, but you can’t do it forever.  Small leaks become big ones, and eventually, patches of patches of patches fail.  When that happens all at once, the collateral damage -- lost property, cancelled classes, and, in the worst cases, injury -- can make the deferred costs look like bargains by comparison.  

Another is stasis, which leads inexorably to loss of quality.  Yes, conference travel can be expensive, and I grant without argument that some people are good at blurring the line between professional and personal travel.  But my nightmare isn’t that someone goes to a conference and sneaks out to an interesting lunch place between panels.  I can live with that.  My nightmare is that someone with tenure doesn’t go anywhere, ever, for decades.  It’s a sort of deferred maintenance, but for the intellectual infrastructure, and it has similar effects.  It leads to losing touch with developments (and people) in the field.  The effects are gradual, but cumulative, and they start to show in performance.  

Reduced performance is the greatest cost of austerity.  It happens in several ways.  As people stop traveling, they lose touch.  As more full-timers get replaced by adjuncts in high-turnover fields, hiring managers gradually lower the bar to the level necessary to get the classes covered.  Eventually, a sort of fatalism sets in, in which ambition itself is brushed aside with a cynical wisdom based in just enough truth to be hard to refute.

I mention all of this not because I have access to the Money Fairy -- I don’t -- but because in the absence of a willingness to try something different, austerity is the default path.  In the very short term, it’s easier than taking a risk.  But over time, it catches up to you.  I’d rather take some risks while the roof is still holding.  It’s cheaper that way.