A letter to my students

Welcome to Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere.  The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits.  And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine.  This letter is an apology, and more usefully, perhaps a signal to start demanding what’s been taken from you so you can pass it on with interest.

Swindle–what happened? Well, before you were born, Californians now dead or in nursing homes made a remarkable deal with the future.  (Not from California? Keep reading, lots of this applies to you, with variations.) They agreed to invest money they could have spent on bigger houses, vacations, clothes, and cars into the world’s greatest educational system, and into building and operating water systems, roads, parks, and other public facilities, an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. They didn’t get everything right: too much highway and not enough public transportation. But they did a pretty good job.

Young people who enjoyed these ‘loans’ grew up smarter, healthier, and richer than they otherwise would have, and understood that they were supposed to “pay it forward” to future generations, for example by keeping the educational system staffed with lots of dedicated, well-trained teachers, in good buildings and in small classes, with college counselors and up-to-date books.  California schools had physical education, art for everyone, music and theater, buildings that looked as though people cared about them, modern languages and ancient languages, advanced science courses with labs where the equipment worked, and more. They were the envy of the world, and they paid off better than Microsoft stock. Same with our parks, coastal zone protection, and social services.

This deal held until about thirty years ago, when for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves.  “My kids are finished with school; why should I pay taxes for someone else’s?  Posterity never did anything for me!”  An army of fake ‘leaders’ sprang up to pull the moral and fiscal wool over their eyes, and again and again, your parents and their parents lashed out at government (as though there were something else that could replace it) with tax limits, term limits, safe districts, throw-away-the-key imprisonment no matter the cost, smoke-and-mirrors budgeting, and a rule never to use the words taxes and services in the same paragraph.

Now, your infrastructure is falling to pieces under your feet, and as citizens you are responsible for crudities like closing parks, and inhumanities like closing battered women’s shelters. It’s outrageous, inexcusable, that you can’t get into the courses you need, but much worse that Oakland police have stopped taking 911 calls for burglaries and runaway children. If you read what your elected officials say about the state today, you’ll see things like “California can’t afford” this or that basic government function, and that “we need to make hard choices” to shut down one or another public service, or starve it even more (like your university). Can’t afford? The budget deficit that’s paralyzing Sacramento is about $500 per person; add another $500 to get back to a public sector we don’t have to be ashamed of, and our average income is almost forty times that.  Of course we can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.

I’m writing this to you because you are the victims of this enormous cheat (though your children will be even worse off if you don’t take charge of this ship and steer it). Your education was trashed as California fell to the bottom of US states in school spending, and the art classes, AP courses, physical education, working toilets, and teaching generally went by the board. Every year I come upon more and more of you who have obviously never had the chance to learn to write plain, clear, English.  Every year, fewer and fewer of you read newspapers, speak a foreign language, understand the basics of how government and business actually work, or have the energy to push back intellectually against me or against each other. Or know enough about history, literature, and science to do it effectively!  You spent your school years with teachers paid less and less, trained worse and worse, loaded up with more and more mindless administrative duties, and given less and less real support from administrators and staff.

Many of your parents took a hike as well, somehow getting the idea that the schools had taken over their duties to keep you learning, or so beat-up working two jobs each and commuting two hours a day to put food on the table that they couldn’t be there for you. A quarter of your classmates didn’t finish high school, discouraged and defeated; but they didn’t leave the planet, even if you don’t run into them in the gated community you will be tempted to hide out in.  They have to eat just like you, and they aren’t equipped to do their share of the work, so you will have to support them.

You need to have a very tough talk with your parents, who are still voting; you can’t save your children by yourselves.  Equally important, you need to start talking to each other.  It’s not fair, and you have every reason (except a good one) to keep what you can for yourselves with another couple of decades of mean-spirited tax-cutting and public sector decline. You’re my heroes just for surviving what we put you through and making it into my classroom, but I’m asking for more: you can be better than my generation. Take back your state for your kids and start the contract again.  There are lots of places you can start, for example, building a transportation system that won’t enslave you for two decades as their chauffeur, instead of raising fares and cutting routes in a deadly helix of mediocrity.  Lots. Get to work.  See you in class!

UPDATE: Like your political science in musical form? Here’s the way people thought about this stuff back in the day, and maybe should again. Bet there’s a good rap along these lines waiting to be born…

UPDATE 2: Bob Reich adds  insight here.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

106 thoughts on “A letter to my students”

  1. Thank you for this excellent essay! I am sharing it with colleagues across the UC, CSU, and California community college systems.

  2. Oh, where to begin?

    Inexplicably, you left out critical details in your screed.

    I was born in 1958 and went to grade school in the '60s in California. As you alluded, California was much better governed then. We also had far LESS government and lower taxes. Regulation, government "programs" and the Public Sector, contrary to your assertions, have grown enormously since then and inexorably gobble up greater portions of the State GDP, far outpacing population increases and inflation. The largest budget items? Public Sector Union negotiated pensions and spending on Education.

    Californians receive very low quality in return for the enormous sums spent on the Public Sector. And increasingly, they won't be baited by self-serving rhetoric such as yours because they are capable of performing the cost/benefit calculations that politicians, unions and the academic elite fail to do.

  3. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100822/ap_on_re_us/u

    Meanwhile, Los Angeles opens a half a billion dollar school.

    Your citation of a $500 figure is rather baffling and shows a complete disconnect to the economic realty facing middle class tax payers. Family of four, household income of $80k, what percent of after tax income do you think $2k is? Of after tax disposable income?

  4. Ron, I hear the information sector is gobbling up greater portions of the state GDP too. So? Do you miss the 3-5 IQ points that unregulated leaded gas cost you? And regulation has put an end to the LA brown air, air you could see and feel,that had some real substance to it, before the government started meddling with your private car.

    Public pensions are a real problem, but actually related to government by looting public resources instead of investing for value.

  5. cdosquare5, I think $2k is about 2.5%, and $4K is 5%; about 7% after income taxes. What do you make it? That family would have to spend less on some things they're buying privately now (many of them expensive substitutes for public services, like music lessons (or private school!)for their kids, or a pool in the back yard instead of a community pool the kids could get to and meet people at, or part of their back yard in trade for a public park, or one less car in trade for not being ashamed of the condition of those less fortunate). The economic reality is exactly as I described it in my post, as far as I can tell: that family is spending about $50K for private stuff, partly because other options aren't available, and they … their kids, especially, would be better off with a different split.

  6. Michael, although I'm sympathetic to the idea myself, I suspect that the "taxes can build a public pool that's better than your backyard pool" is the sort of thing that *hardens* right-wing hearts. They don't want public pools, they want private pools.

    Here's another way of thinking about it. Imagine a young family househunting in the suburbs. House A, costing $250K, meets all of their space/shelter/work/play needs perfectly. House B is identical to House A and costs $330K. Why? Well, school district A is much worse than school district B. If you buy house B, you just voluntarily paid $80K for better provision of public services; you recognize that public services do something beneficial. If you're willing to do *that* … well, next time please make your $80K payment in the form of taxes (i.e., fund District B properly) rather than in the form of rent.

  7. BM – an even starker way to put this is that the difference between the two school districts amounts to approximately $405/mo. i seriously doubt that the price of quality schools between districts would come out to an extra $4800/yr in taxes. one certainly can't send the kid to a quality private school for that sum.

  8. So using Nomical GDP Per Capita: $1 in 1965 is $12.50 in 2009 [1]. In that time California's population roughly doubled [2], while the budget has more than doubled, ~$50 billion to ~120 billion. I am willing to accept that schools were better before I was born, it isn't exactly a leap of faith. I am also willing to believe that budget vs. population may not be linear. Even allowing all those things, why has the budget grown so? I used a rather generous calculation of the value of a dollar so other estimates would produce worse ratios of apparent quality vs. budget size. There seems to be a general consensus among people that "Government has grown", which seems fair, but why has it grown? More public programs? Has the number of public programs grown faster than the amount collected in taxes such that an increasing number of programs vie for pieces of a smaller pie every year?

    Anyone have any good information on tipping points in publicly funded programs? Would a 10% increase in school budgets state wide result in 20% better experiences for students? Does it also work for parks? We needn't argue about public transportation, it is horrid and shouldn't be so. I ask a million questions because it would seem that in the situation California is in, someone must have looked at these issues. If there is too much government it must be in the budget somewhere that acreage of public parks has increased by x, but costs by y>x, making it obvious that something is happening. Has the work not been done to find out whether or not that thing is necessary or just inefficiencies?

    I am perfectly willing to pony up my share of this budget shortfall but I am more concerned with getting the most for my money, even if it means spending more to get to the point of diminishing returns.

    [1 ]http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/
    [2 ]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California#Population
    [3 ]www.sen.ca.gov/budget/budgethistory.pdf

  9. MM – considering that our state is one of the more efficient in terms of public expenditures per capita i would venture to bet that a reason for the budget/population ratio increase (i'm taking your numbers as correct) is due to (1) the changing composition of the population itself (more old folks) and medical inflation.

  10. BM – While a popular notion that a house's price incorporates aspects of the neighborhood, such as infrastructure and quality of life, this is almost always incomplete. Don't forget that during the real estate boom, homes in South Central LA were going for $450K and half a mil. The school districts, comparatively speaking, were still bad, albeit less so than during the late 80s and mid 90s.

    And furthermore, it doesn't take away from Mike's point that the consumption of private goods to substitute poorly-financed or bereft public goods, in the end hits a middle-income family a lot harder than the alternative.

  11. Mr. O'Hare,

    Not surprisingly — you looked right past and waived off some very good and interesting points raised by Mr. Bischof. Instead — you rattled away about unleaded gas and brown air in Los Angeles. You READ what he had to say but you did not LISTEN nor did you fully DIGEST his points. Instead, you dismissed him. I find this amazing from a man who pointed out that an earlier generation "agreed" on some common goals — and — as you put it — "made a remarkable deal with the future." In other words? They listened to one another. They reached a common point by taking into account the concerns of all people. They did not "dismiss." They listened. Ron brings up some points that really need to be taken into account. Unions today control much of what happens — or doesn't happen — in state government. They call the shots on what how much goes where — what gets funded — and what doesn't get funded. You lay the mantle of blame squarely upon the people who approved Proposition 13 — while conveniently forgetting that the generation before them gave us the two-thirds vote requirement for state budgets. Most of all — you've forgotten what professors should do best: listen.

  12. This entire letter is nothing more than questionable slivers of facts and biased observations strung together into a hyped up hysterical paranoid vision of the future, and depressed bi polar fragmented paranoid observations of the past and the present. What are your comparables?

    Where on the planet shall we go to observe the correct way to do things?

  13. PoliticalBill – So, you pretty much think "listening" means to agree, right? When Bischof posted, his assertion was that we need less government today, because back then there was less.

    Yes, let's have less government because AQMD-LA has done nothing in its existence, because LA still has terrible brown smog, and buses still belch black smoke. Let the rich and powerful control access to the coast, they've proven themselves to be good stewards of the public's access to beaches, especially in Malibu. Speaking of places where people probably shouldn't live (fires & flooding), I think it would be terrific if the State stopped subsidizing fire fighting in areas that are prone to natural disaster. After all, the air tanker and helicopters used to fight these annual fires are such a waste of taxpayer money; not like there's homes there or anything. And let people build whatever, wherever, or build wherever on whatever used to be there. After all, environmental impact reports don't tell us anything about what a WalMart does to the surrounding neighborhoods. Who cares? It's all about the cheap socks anyway.

  14. Although I'm not old enough to remember, it seems like living in California in the olden days was truly cheaper than it is today. California has become impoverished as America naturally had a fall from grace from economic superpower status and the hidden costs of core elements of what made a high-standard of living so affordable, such as air pollution, environmental destruction, suburban sprawl, and a disinvestment in public services, have accumulated. So it is not contradictory that Californians today have to spend more than they used to just to provide the same future for their children. Restoring California's greatness will be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as letting the state slide further into disrepair and mis-governance.

    California has new structural problems to address that weren't around to bother the public fifty years ago: a titanic criminal justice system, deteriorating schools, depleted natural resources and a global economic order more equal than it once was. I'm with Michael that, however troubled the situation we have inherited, it is within our power and exclusively our control to restore what once made California and the UCs great

  15. An after tax calculation is dependent on how we want to treat the employer's share of social security / medicare taxes. Regardless, lets say including sales taxes, property taxes, various fees, state income taxes, etc. gets us to $50k in after tax income. Now, what can we allocated to housing costs? 15 – 20k? Transportation/gas/food? Another $10-$15 k ? Basic utilities, etc? So we are probably at somewhere between $10-$20k of "true" disposable income after simply feeding, clothing, housing, transportation, etc. So $2,000 is 10% – 20% of discretionary income so to speak. And of course, to preserve our beloved Social Security/Medicare systems from the tyranny of Congressman Ryan's "Roadmap", we likely need a 5-7% VAT, etc., etc. Hopefully our hypothetical family has a public employees' pension because they surely will not be able to save much for retirement independently!

    But I will applaud the honesty of your approach: "That family would have to spend less on some things they’re buying privately now (many of them expensive substitutes for public services, like music lessons (or private school!)for their kids, or a pool in the back yard instead of a community pool the kids could get to and meet people at, or part of their back yard in trade for a public park, or one less car in trade for not being ashamed of the condition of those less fortunate)"

    You reject the Democratic lie of simply having to tax only "the rich" to sustain the government that the left wants (as opposed to the Republican lie of omission: Medicare/Social Security need to, and should be, ended as we know them in order to drastically reduce the tax burden). This means ~50% of the salary of all Americans, regardless of means, going to government at various levels.

    Of course, you can gather I think such an approach is completely inhospitable to individual rights and personal autonomy. Imposing some half-baked idea of the "good life" (swimming at the public pool) through the state is deeply inhumane on a social level… It drastically hinders an individual's ability for self-actualization during his one opportunity to live a life.

    Lastly, I think the idea that what ails public education is mainly or even largely a funding problem is incorrect. There are numerous examples of incredible spending on K-12 education in urban/poor/disadvantaged areas with little or no results. The urban Abbott districts of New Jersey would be an example of this, with many spending in excess of $20k annually per student.

  16. @Prof. O'Hare, A few positive data points extrapolated globally is not a statistically relevant justification for a bloated and profligate government that engages in practices no individual or private entity would be legally allowed. And yes, the air is much cleaner than when I was a lad. I'll give you a few more: The Interstate Highway System and the nation's major dams. Let me know when you decide to address the substance of my comments as PoliticalBill made an astute observation regarding your deflection.

    Speaking of the CARB, why are they pursuing standards that are not supported by science? Pending regulations will render today's trucking and heavy construction fleets inoperable in California. I refer to the CARB ginning up regulations to reduce the amount of diesel PM2.5 in the air based on a study by Hien Tran, who lied about having a Ph.D in statistics from UC Davis. With the collusion of CARB Chair Mary Nichols as well, who refuses to reopen the issue for public input. How will the infrastructure spending you advocate for a virtually bankrupt state be accomplished without heavy equipment? How is such malfeasance and mismanagement of public funds and trust go unpunished? These are not small matters to be brushed aside.

    Regarding the CALPERS system, the City of Bell scandal is shining some much needed light on the self-dealing by our elite public "servants", eh? The public, who fund all, directly or indirectly, is rightly suspicious of the promises of utopia by politicians.

    “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” – Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 1

    @BruinAlum, Recommended reading for you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man

    At bottom, these are all veiled arguments for more redistribution of wealth of an existing tax code that is already steeply progressive. Sources:


    Lincoln stated the issue eloquently regarding tyranny and slavery during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates:

    It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

    I can't improve on that other than offering the hint to substitute the political class for the divine right of kings. Nor do I care to engage in endless, circular debates with little prospect of substantive results. I'm too busy producing and adding value as the state is not responsible for my family. I am.

  17. Is this the land of the free or not? I personally am sick and tired of people TELLING me I am responsible for anyone other than my husband and children. I am not!! If I want to be charitable, I will be charitable. But if I choose to not to be charitable, that is MY choice. I have been endowed by my Creator with unalienable rights. The US govt does NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO FORCE ME TO BE CHARITABLE! God loves a cheerful giver, but it is my choice whether or not I WANT to give. GOD gave me FREE WILL!!! So, if you want to give, DO. And if you don't, don't. But don't tell me I have to just because you want to. Think me stingy, I am not, I give plenty! But I refuse to be forced or guilted into giving!

  18. My point. Our govt is too big. Each person is responsible for THEIR OWN WELL BEING. I reap what I sow. And if I choose to sit on my @$$ and not work…then the natural consequence will be I go hungry. Period! If you want a " good life" you have to work for it. That means going to college, trade school, or getting a job. No one deserves anything!

    Get rid of 90% of govt. Keep only what is absolutely necessary. Stock options & Day trading are not necessities. The less the 535 people in DC meddle in our lives, the better!Investing on yoursrlf gives the most return on your investment!

  19. Since your letter focuses mainly on the schools, I think it's important to pay attention to what money in schools gets spent on:

    a) About than 1/3 goes to general education teachers' salaries (pre-K through 12), in all subject areas and grades, and to the materials and supplies in their classrooms. (In my district, 20,000,000 out of a 63,000,000 budget)

    b) About 1/3 goes to special education teachers (5 million), guidance (4 million), supplementary services like speech, psychologist, and OT (3 million) , a child study team to complete IEP paperwork (3 million!), tuition to private schools for other special education services (3 million), and special education administration (1 million).

    c) About 1/3 goes to Health benefits (9.5 million), pensions, other administration (3 million), after-school programs and sports (1 million), and building maintenance and capital improvement.

    The public conversation focuses entirely on a, ignores b out of political correctness, and waves its hands at c. The fact is that IDEA and other special education legislation has had enormous, enormous fiscal consequences for schools, which are by-and-large ignored. Very few of these interventions have been subject to rigorous scrutiny or experimental tests of their efficacy.

    I'm all for accountability for teachers, I'm all for enhanced public services and investment in education. But it has to end up in the classroom for it to make a difference.

    Also, health care expenditures make it very difficult to run a labor-intensive institution like a school as cheaply as you could a generation ago.

  20. @Sick

    Thank you for your call to slash the military since your ridding yourself of "90% of government" obviously eats into the 20% of the budget currently spent on the DoD. I'm sure your new chinese overlords will let you keep every penny that you earn.

    "I suppose I can understand the selfish callous disregard of conservatives, it's their pride in it that passes me by." – Rack Jite.

  21. To everyone on this discussion:

    Without revealing my politics . . I think this is a very brave and frank discussion. Truly, we will never be able to see the other "side" over the hedge between us, but hopefully we will be able to live, shop, and drive nearer to each other knowing we are all human.

    I can't go further without revealing my politics (no, it's not fear, maybe it's a gen-x thing), but I know there is enough dissatisfaction to go around, so don't worry about it too much.

  22. What's sad is that being rich as a state often costs less than being poor. Giving kids a good education and ensuring that they have a good job market to enter when they grow up generates tax revenue. Slashing budgets so that kids can't get well-paying jobs cuts tax revenue, and if some of those dead-end kids turn to crime to support themselves you incur additional costs for enforcement and incarceration. Same thing with public health: treat diseases early, or prevent them from occurring (e.g. by improving air quality) and you've just knocked out a huge chunk of ongoing costs. (Yes, you still have chronic late-life diseases, but, callously speaking, those have less impact on lifetime earnings.)

    You would think a state full of engineers and programmers would understand this implicitly: fixing bugs early in a design, or avoiding them entirely by means of the right tools, is orders of magnitude less expensive than fixing them once your product is in the field.

  23. Not sure where some of you "taxes are too high" guys are getting your info:


    Under Republican Gov. Earl Warren and Democratic Gov. Pat Brown, California epitomized the postwar American dream. Its public schools, from kindergarten through Berkeley and UCLA, were the nation’s finest; its roads and aqueducts the most efficient at moving cars and water — the state’s lifeblood — to their destinations. All this was funded by some of the nation’s highest taxes, which fell in good measure on the state’s flourishing banks and corporations. […]… With the state sitting on a $5 billion surplus, frustrated Californians grumped to the polls and passed Proposition 13, which rolled back and then froze property taxes — effectively destroying the funding base of local governments and school districts, which thereafter depended largely on Sacramento for their revenue. Ranked fifth among the states in per-pupil spending during the 1950s and ’60s, California sank to Mississippi-like levels — the mid-40s — by the 1990s.

  24. hey "sick of"…your idea's been tried. it resulted in the impoverishment of our seniors and stifling of the prospects of a huge proportion of our population. don't pat yourself on the back because of the accident of birth and realize that you do indeed have a social responsibility to help those less fortunate than you. the fact is that societies that support their least fortunate are more prosperous and more stable. selfishness and greed do not make for a good society.

    to the "unions control the state" people out there. seriously? what the hell are you smoking?

    i've never really been shocked at what people can rationalize but the outpouring of half assed fact free invective and for investing in our society and building a shared prosperity is truly amazing.

  25. To Michael O’Hare: “You have to pay for the public life,” said architect Charles Moore about the magnificent Santa Barbara County courthouse. Your letter was indeed eloquent, but Ron Bischof countered with a kind of response that has so often paralyzed all efforts to re-establish a robust public sphere. A careful response to him would be really helpful – Does California have more government today than it did in 1958, and if so why is this “more government” producing such poor results? How do Californians’ spending on the Public Sector compare with that of other states, and what do people get for that? Is the major burden really public sector pensions? One dismisses those criticisms at one’s peril, because your students or whoever is moved by your essay will have to confront all the Ron Bischofs who seem to be totally convinced, and angry, that all taxation is just a waste of their hard-earned money.

  26. "Sick of hands on my pockets says:

    August 24, 2010 at 1:23 am

    Is this the land of the free or not? I personally am sick and tired of people TELLING me I am responsible for anyone other than my husband and children. I am not!! If I want to be charitable, I will be charitable. But if I choose to not to be charitable, that is MY choice. I have been endowed by my Creator with unalienable rights. The US govt does NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO FORCE ME TO BE CHARITABLE! God loves a cheerful giver, but it is my choice whether or not I WANT to give. GOD gave me FREE WILL!!! So, if you want to give, DO. And if you don’t, don’t. But don’t tell me I have to just because you want to. Think me stingy, I am not, I give plenty! But I refuse to be forced or guilted into giving!"


    You couldn't make up a better caricature of a whiney me-generation boomer. I suppose you don't use public roads, public school systems, public sewer systems, public parks or any other public services? Nope, it's all ME ME ME, MINE MINE MINE.

    It is amazing how the greatest generation gave birth to the absolute worst generation of all-time. What a bunch of no good, selfish whiners. The boomers ruined America.

  27. What’s sad is that being rich as a state often costs less than being poor. Giving kids a good education and ensuring that they have a good job market to enter when they grow up generates tax revenue.

    Or, if you don't have a good job market, they go elsewhere. I graduated with an honor's Bachelor's degree from the CSU in mid-70s, went on for a Master's at UCLA and couldn't find a job. The late 70s were a truly sucky time to be a 20-something white male looking for a first job. I went back into graduate school (in the Midwest, this time) and completed my doctorate. I've looked at returning to California a couple of times since and had job offers. I can't bear the idea of trading my ten minute ride to work for a two-plus hour commute.

    BTW, Rob, Professors O'Hare and Kleiman (and a lot of other rational voices besides) are boomers, too. Don't tar us all with that brush you're using on Sick o'hands.

  28. California's decline is simply tracking national decline. It's time to start learning Mandarin.

  29. NorthDakota,

    The link placed above, http://cbp.org/pdfs/2010/CaliforniaBudgetBites/10… answer a few of those questions.

    In terms of Government Spending as a Percentage of Personal Income: California ranks 23rd.

    In terms of Revenue as a Percentage of Personal Income: California ranks 19th.

    California ranks 45th in per pupil spending.

    California ranks 41th in # of state and local employees per 10,000 residence.

    It brings up a point: If we are 23rd in government spending, why is our spending on schools ranked 45th? The list is by no means exhaustive but most of the items displayed on lists of spending as a percentage of personal income are ranked worse than 23rd. Is there a list some with all expenditures? It would be interesting to find out what we are funding that leaves us at 23rd in spending since it isn't schools, MediCal, highways or police.

  30. Well, Ron Bischof, you're clearly a very smart individual, having gone to school in CA in the 60s, when things were SO MUCH BETTER. Thus, Ron, can you quantify precisely how much better things were in those halcyon days of limited government? Can you please tell us just how much faster the "Public Sector" has grown than the state's GDP over the past forty years? And by what amount are pensions and education larger than all other budget items? Please answer these questions and only these questions if you're still around. I notice that in a previous response, you were a little unfocused, talking about CARB and Alexander Hamilton. Just bullet point my questions and respond to them, using data and statistics.

    As an aside, you do realize that when you make blanket assertions, taken directly from right-wing talking points, you sound suspiciously like an ignorant crank?

  31. "Sick of" has this little tidbit

    "Get rid of 90% of govt. Keep only what is absolutely necessary. Stock options & Day trading are not necessities."

    1. Is there a better illustration of how poorly informed and misguided these "slash and burn" types are? Where did anyone get the idea that the US govt is now competing with E-trade or Goldman?? From someone who heard it from someone else, who heard it on talk radio? Oh, well that figures don't it?

    2. On the other hand, if "Sick Of" point was advocating the dismantling of the SEC, then it only highlights that the same people who fell for the conflation of 9/11 and Iraq, are liable to be fooled over and over, and over again. Yes, let's dismantle the SEC, because the masters of these industries have proven themselves in faithfully and dutifully carrying out their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, Enron, Broadcom, Lincoln S&L, Countrywide, Apple, Tyco, AIG, et al. notwithstanding.

    And the problem with seriously answering the Ron Bischofs of the world is that they don't quite understand their own assertion. When someone claims that life was more prosperous in another time because there was less government, and someone else answers by pointing out the various ways in which not only are we more prosperous today, but also healthier and safer, they inevitably invoke hyperbole like "enslavement" and "constitutional remedies" as an answer to policies or views they don't like. Or in other circumstances, they simply provide a wikipedia link that doesn't answer why having the best public university system in the nation would be a burden too heavy to carry, or why having a better public infrastructure system that moves people more efficiently would be akin to the tyranny.

  32. I was born in 1952 and grew up in the California you describe. I think you place the blame starting a bit to late… I graduated from UCSD in 1974 and then-governor signed my diploma, one Ronald Reagan — it was his administration's policies and the politics that they inspired that led to the decline of services, education, and quality of life in California. So I'd say this all started not 30 years ago, but 40 … but whatever, your point is well-taken.

  33. Professor O'Hare,

    Thank you. I apologize for the bitterness that may follow in this comment.

    I am a current UCLA student, a second-generation University of California alum, and a product of California public schools. I will graduate with almost $40,000 of student loan debt – and I had the good fortune of having the Cal Grant.

    Over the last four years, I've seen my friends have break down, drop out, or do horrible things to themselves because of the increasing difficulty of finishing college at every level – UC, CSU, and community college.

    When said friends have expressed their dissatisfaction with the UC in legal, nonviolent ways, I've seen them roughed up and Tasered by police paid for by their taxes and student fees.

    We are not "lazy" as "sick of" might claim. We are not slaves to all-powerful unions, as others on this thread have suggested. We're normal, hardworking, taxpaying, Californians. I'm from a nurse-heavy Asian immigrant family. The only union man in my family is my father, a postal worker.

    Consequently, I have no sympathy for those of you who claim that taxes "guilt" you into giving. I have no respect for those of you who refuse to pay into the system that runs your roads, your schools, and safeguards your children's futures. I hope that you enjoy the short and painful old age that your freeloading and social service cutting has guaranteed you. I hope that your offspring stew with rage when they're passed over for admission to the UCs and CSUs in favor of international and out-of-state students who can pay. I hope that your children and grandchildren curse your memory when they realize that they've inherited economic and political bankruptcy because of your selfishness and shortsightedness.

    There is no "paranoid vision of the future," but a rather rose-colored view of the present. O'Hare says nothing about California's rapidly-increasing prison spending, nothing about the hijacking of the proposition system by those who'd rather spend money snooping in bedrooms than furnishing classrooms, nothing about the political "reforms" and term limits that turn inexperienced legislators into pawns for the hands of lobbyists, and nothing about the a minority of legislators, representing a minority of Californians, who hold the state hostage every year by making the budget late.

    And unions running this state? Don't make me laugh. One of the reasons I've decided to go into labor organizing is because working people are on the ropes, thanks to the heirs of Howard Jarvis. If there was an authentically strong, authentically democratic labor movement in this state, I wouldn't be hearing anti-tax talking points everywhere I turn in CA.

    I'm entirely tired of the one-sided class war waged against youth, working people, non-white Californians, and families, and I'm tired of apologizing for being a "freeloader" when it's those of you who refuse to pay who've crippled my mother under her student loans and me under mine. You've turned a generation of youth and students – many of them your own children and neighbors' children – against you. Congratulations.

  34. Deficit is about *stealing* from the future without the future's consent (because how can the future give consent?) so that you can have stuff in the present. Continuing to grow the deficit isn't "paying it forward"; it's stealing from *your* future in order to pay the bill that the past left you, instead of settling it honestly by hard work and reduced spending.

  35. This whole "letter" is an agglomeration of fluff and nonsense. Lies by paragraph:

    1: Mainly subjective warm and fuzzy BS (not lies per se), but perhaps giving out 110% tests is part of the problem.

    2: "Deserve by contract" – what contract?; there is no contract mentioned. "Deserve by merits" – nobody deserves anything by "merit" purely (in a foot race, you might merit a prize for coming in first, but that's pre-agreed; you don't get a prize for running quickly through an open field). Those falsehoods invalidate most of the rest of the paragraph (e.g., nothing "has been taken" from anybody).

    3: Nobody can make a "deal with the future"; _some_ few people agreed to invest (if by "invest" you mean "throw into an insatiable black hole") money, the rest were robbed. "World's greatest education system" is also a lie if you look at actual statistics.

    4: "Young people" apparently understood nothing of the kind. These robberies also didn't pay off at all, if you're using "pay off" in the same sense, as, oh, to take a random example, investing in Microsoft stock. "Dedicated" and union worker (teachers) don't go together, either; more like letter-of-the-rules fly under the radar until they can collect their fat pensions.

    5: There were no obligations. As to replacing government, when you put out a fire, what do you replace it with? Now, there is a small valid point made there: imprisonment for victimless crimes is huge, and should be abolished. But I suspect that the writer has no problem with imprisonment for some victimless crimes.

    6: If anything is falling apart, it's because money has been wasted on silly projects and overly-expensive union workers rather than the infrastructure. Government likes to shuffle money around like that, because they know that emotional appeals to pay for fire and police have more effect than appeals to, say, erect $1/2 billion high schools. But that was more of a misdirection than a lie, I suppose. California can't afford anything at all, even if there were no deficit. The state has no money at all; it was all stolen. Stossel's "Stupid in America" shows that it's the public schools that fail, and private schools can handily educate their failures.

    7: Blame the state; blame the unions. Spending is not well correlated to quality. Private and homeschooled kids tend to do better, because they cut waste and inefficiency and are directly responsible to parents.

    8: Nobody has the right to be supported by someone else; instead of saying anyone "has to" support anyone else, call for getting the state out of the wealth redistribution business.

    9: Yes, do all that… privately, i.e., without resorting to stealing from people. Lobby for vouchers, and then the elimination of all theft-based ("public") funding for education.

  36. Well, that's one way to welcome people to campus: assault the sensibilities of those who disagree with you and yet are still taxed to pay your ridiculous salary. Hey kids, get used to it, most of your professors see nothing wrong with shoving their half baked ideas about politics and morals down your throat. Tune them out, enjoy the drink specials, and get the credential you crave.

  37. @Chris: Thanks for your smug condescension, blanket "ignorant crank" assertion and demonstration of a classic troll.

    You really should do your own homework and apply the same "standards" for the good Professor as you've set for me. But I'll help you get started:


    You (or anyone else who cares to) can select data sets on that web site or export them to a .csv file for further massaging.

    1992 % of Government spending of CA GDP: 6.87%

    1998 % of Government spending of CA GDP: 8.29% (last year actual data is available)

    2015 % of Government spending of CA GDP: 10.98% (projected)

    FYI, your acceptance of the above data points neither confirms nor invalidates them. If you have credible data sets going back to 1960, I'd be willing to review.

    @MM: Grading according to the curve? Aren't most states in similar dire budgetary straits?

    @BruinAlum The response was a commentary on your method of argument. Since you asked no specific question, I provided no answers. But I note your "do-over".

    Let's not be simplistic. Of course there's a legitimate role of government in the affairs of individuals and groups they freely decide to form.

    I reference principles and natural rights because proponents of centrally directed social engineering have a dismal record of impinging on the freedom of individuals who constitute the driving force of innovation and resulting prosperity of our market economy. These self-appointed technocrats act as a drag, not a force multiplier on real economic activity, leading to stagnation and ultimately failure. Intrusive, paternalistic government directed by a minority of citizens constituting a political ruling class have an enervating effect. See: F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winners in Economics respectively.

    Since they so clearly annoy you, I'm pleased to provide another quote illustrating my point.

    “After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” –French historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)

  38. Turn off comments! Let the essay stand on its own. Readers can agree or disagree, and if they are moved to write a response, they may do so on their web sites. Having unmoderated, misinformed, opinionated comments 10x longer than the original essay just drags down the intellectual level of this web page as a whole. I'm including both those that agree and disagree here.

  39. Not sure where a curve came into my post…I just wish to know why we are close to last in education spending and middle of the pack in revenue as a percentage of personal income. If other states are in as sorry a situation then we are comparing apples and apples.

  40. @LG: The antidote for speech you don't agree with is more free speech! Why the impulse to censor?

  41. @MM Noted. I was asking. Thanks for your response.

    Another question: Is there a correlation between educational spending and measurable results?

  42. The above comments are very interesting. I deeply appreciate the comment that includes a link to the history of the California Master Plan for Higher Education.

    Another point of history is the Morrill Act of 1862 (and related legislation, including the Morrill Act of 1890) that established public research universities in every state of the union. These were established to educate the children of the "industrial classes" (the children of the middle and lower classes) to provide the nation with people with knowledge of agriculture and engineering – both needed by the nation at that time in history.

    The question of who should pay for a student's college education costs is a theme that runs through the entire span of United States history, beginning with the colonial period. The argument that each individual (or their family) should pay for his or her education is not realistic. Such a system would not provide enough educated people to serve the nation's needs. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, only the wealthy could afford to send their sons (yes, their sons) to college. It does not serve the nation to expect each student to accumulate vast personal debt to attain an education that will eventually benefit all of society. We are not isolated individuals. We are a nation and to succeed as a nation we must educate our citizens. It is unreasonable to expect a minority of educated citizens to carry the load for the entire population. I think only about 30 percent of the California population over 25 has earned a bachelor's degree or higher (see US Census Bureau stats). These people who have worked so hard to acquire useful knowledge deserve our praise for their contributions to society – but, they should not have to assume a personal debt when their work contributes to the well-being of the entire society. If we were not dependent on those relative few who pursue knowledge, then I would understand the complaints expressed above regarding the cost in taxes for education. But, we are dependent on those who acquire advanced knowledge – on every scale: city, county, state, and nation. We need our college graduates!

  43. Andrew … back to class, buddy. We wouldn't have to "overspend" now, to recover the remaining shreds of our society and infrastructure, if our economy, do recall the most vast on the planet, were not plundered over the last decade in an orgiastic bout of wealth redistribution that profoundly favored, let’s just say not among other things, and for example, public school systems. Your ghoulish deficits that you seem to disregard the actual source of were all enacted in this time period as you most assuredly can recall, and are of a theme derived prior to that, in the eighties where the folks mentioned by the author did their most fervid frolicking. Let me ask a question that I never seem to get an answer to: why is it not “socialism” when the public monies flow upwards? How is that not redistribution? (Hint: it’s not, and it is.) Extra credit for indicating the baseline reasoning behind these very intentional run-ups of the national deficit. It is, most assuredly, not accidental.

  44. As a Canadian we have always assumed your society is to be emulated in many ways in many spheres of life be it education, medical care, science etc. However since Reagan to Bush I and II and Clinton political discourse has become revolting. Wall Street and financial industries have been the real enemy of the republic. And the rampant individualism of Americans is a detriment to America being reborn stronger. As a Canadian and a view widely held, the American brand has been devalued enormously in the last 30 years. And the comments demonstrate this all too well.

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