…are about the same size and shape. It’s an iron law of sound household management, ignore it at your peril, and I know you will recognize its absolute unvarying truth, that you can put a baseball in your fruitbowl only if you’re willing to take one apple out of it.
So what? Does any sane parent deny his kid a baseball by saying “not until you eat one of those apples in the fruitbowl so we have room for it”? Does anyone take room in the fruitbowl as a signal to go buy a baseball (or a hand grenade, or a powderpuff)?
Early childhood education at time t is inversely correlated with crime rates around t + (10-25); crime is part of a reasonable conversation about kindergarten. But public higher education has little to do with crime, and how much government should spend on each is two (that is, 2, 10 in binary…do I make myself clear?) almost completely disconnected questions. Not one, two. If it’s worth spending X more tax money (using up X worth of economic resources) on colleges and universities, it’s because X will create more net value there than all the other ways it would be used, from bigger houses to wider roads to more-meat-and-less-bread in our diets, not because the waste Mark has documented in our corrections practice has about the same number of zeroes in it as X. It’s worth it (or isn’t) if we’re overspending on prisons or underspending, or have it exactly right. And not wasting Y isn’t a good idea because it’s about equal to X, but because waste is bad whether the savings are best spent on my salary and Mark’s or on something entirely different: Y can create more net value used in other ways, possibly including any of professing, skateboarding, eating more steak, and all the rest.
Education and prison spending are about the same size and shape, but they have as much to do with each other as apples and baseballs. Spurious fruitbowl thinking is a rampant, pervasive bane of sound policymaking. It is a dog’s breakfast of wrong ideas, sloppy language, and imitation common sense. Let me list a few:
(1) Allowing a phrase like the state to slop back and forth between “the citizens who live and vote in California and their economy” and “the government they have elected” especially and most deplorably in phrases like “the state just can’t afford A”. A sentence like that with almost any A in it (decent schools, social services, public transit) is false. If the state has the first meaning, it’s wrong simply because California is a rich jurisdiction even with 12% unemployment, and its people could perfectly well afford whatever A is without starving in the streets (the current California state deficit is less than $1000 per person; not chopped liver but nowhere near the “can’t afford” zone); if it has the second meaning, the whole sentence has to be restated as “Californians have chosen not to buy A for now, though they could if they wanted to.”
(2) Using “can’t afford”, as in the previous example, as a device to stop discussion. “Need” is an attempt at the same end: if you can get your pet project discussed as a need, it has to be funded, because that’s what need means.
(3) Budgeting from revenue. Deciding which goods and services we want to get through private markets and which we want to run through the government system is one set of decisions, and deciding how much of each we want is another. The government share of the total economy should be the result of those two, not a prior constraint. Deciding how big the overall government budget should be and then parceling it out is simply nuts, like forcing a family’s purchases of round objects to fit in its current fruitbowl, or buying a tiny fruitbowl because it’s cheaper than a big one before you think about how to allocate the family diet across steak, bread, and apples. A family’s whole income creates a budget constraint, but not its housing expenditure, or apple spending. And a government is not a family, or a business, despite hokey right-wing metaphors.
(4) Having baseballs by foregoing apples. Why apples? There’s plenty of room for a baseball on the shelf in the hall closet. What I refer to here is ‘deals’ like the idea of tying the higher education budget to prison reform, and there is more of this around than you might think. California’s Department of Fish and Game was originally funded by service charges to hunters and anglers, in the form of game licenses. Acceptable fees for these happened to be about equal to the predicted cost of the agency, and if you think protecting wildlife is a service specifically for people who like to kill and eat it, it made some sense. But since that time, the legislature has assigned F & G a whole raft of important new duties, like managing wildlife reserves and dealing with oil spills in waterways, while demand for hunting and fishing has fallen steadily, but not appropriated funds to do its work because “F&G is funded by licenses”. There’s no reason but ignorance to think the willingness of people to pay for hunting and fishing licenses measures the optimal level of F&G services now, but that’s the way we’re making those important decisions. Another example is the 1930s “deal” that funded rural fairs in the state with taxes from parimutuel betting at horse tracks. It looked at the time like a very clever political deal between conservative rural voters who didn’t like gambling and city slickers with loose morals, but the latter have pretty much lost interest in betting on horse races, at least where the horses actually are; maybe we should have smaller or fewer fairs, but that can’t be the reason, or even a reason.
(5) What is the sound of one scissor cutting? I despise Arnold Schwarzenegger (despite his pretty good environmental record) because he’s the poster boy for enabling infantile thinking in our electorate by never, to my knowledge, using the words taxes and services in the same paragraph…maybe even never in the same speech. A general choice between a low-tax, low-service government (New Hampshire) or a high-tax, high-service government (Vermont) is a discussable, reasonable political issue. But New Englanders understand that they can’t live in the middle of the Connecticut River; if you try to have high services and not pay for them, you drown in debt. Arnold didn’t need his job, or its salary: of all people he could have told us the truth, but instead got elected deploring taxes tout court and has played the same game to the present day. Of course higher taxes are bad and low taxes are good other things being equal, but this is an emotional, vacuous instinct (other things are never equal!), not a political principle. No grownup buys a movie ticket instead of a car because it’s cheaper, nor turns down a purchase without knowing what it is because it costs more than nothing.
What the pug in Men in Black noticed about humans has some resonance here. We tend to think something is bad if it costs a lot, but if it’s a good deal (creates a lot of value for us per dollar) that’s a reason to buy lots and lots of it. Big spending on worthwhile things is a feature, not a bug!
The coincidence of how much less we spend on higher education and how much more we spend on prisons lately is meaningless: whether to spend more on education has nothing to do with whether we can squeeze savings out of the prisons, especially when the overall size of the budget is a completely absurd artifact of Republican cruelty, opportunism and defensive cowardice and ill-conceived constitutional choices like term limits, safe districts, and tax limitations. Mark is right about the existence of good options for less, cheaper, and better imprisoning, but I wish he would eschew the conversation that embroils it with funding education, because that conversation legitimizes all sorts of bad practice and careless thinking down the line.