Field notes from a failing state

On Wednesday evening I attended a “teach-in” sponsored by the local chapter of student “government” at Berkeley, the Senate of Associated Students of the University of California.  A half-dozen faculty (not me) offered ten-minute perspectives on current events, which are heading to a university-wide walkout on Sept. 24; Friday the Senate voted unanimously to support the walkout, as the faculty guests urged.

The event itself was frustrating; the room was much too small, so the mostly student audience was packed in with many standing and all sweating miserably, and more were looking in the door from the corridor. There were perhaps 200 in attendance, which raises the question, what is the meaning of such an event when the student body numbers about 30,000? My colleagues, from several different departments but, oddly, no-one from political science or public policy who might have expert knowledge of the situation, mostly played variations on the theme that budget cuts at the state level are wrecking public higher education in California and that this is especially bad for current students and alumni as the value of their degrees is being damaged, and more generally for higher education as a path up the socio-economic scale. The student chair insisted that the discussion period only allow questions, not statements, from the audience, so we didn’t learn anything about what students were thinking. And I was uncomfortable with the tone of the discussion generally, on which more below.

Note was taken of my school’s decision  to teach Bob Reich’s very popular course in a lecture-only version for two units and a lecture-plus-discussion version for four, owing to underfunding the GSIs needed to staff 25-person discussions for everyone who wanted to enroll. The clear implication that the learning of ten students in a lecture course equals that of five in a course with discussion sections has not been examined enough, either to refute it or to implement it. Lectures (limited only by the size of a room and the wattage of the sound system, I guess) are much cheaper per unit: if units are the measure of learning, as indeed they are the only thing we use, the opportunities for costcutting holding ‘productivity’ constant are awesome (never mind putting it all on the web). As Reich is an especially conscientious mentor of GSIs, this cut will have consequences for future teaching; the GSIs whom he will not train will be less effective teachers of their students when they become professors. Of course our normal practice, including courses required for minor and major programs, is for the prof to set a limit on enrollment with a waiting list maintained by the registrar’s computer.  Students are allowed to enroll in courses in tranches, with freshmen last and athletes first. As we hack at our course offerings, it becomes more and more difficult for students to graduate in four years. The whole system is an outrage, as we admit too many students in order not to lose their fees, but the students seem oddly resigned to the abuse.

The university president has passed down orders that we not take our required furloughs on teaching days. [Mark and I disagree about what to do here.] On the one hand, this protects the students who are already being mistreated through no fault of their own; on the other, it makes us complicit in deceiving the public into thinking state services can be funded less and less with no actual consequences. I will probably turn a session scheduled for something else into a discussion of the state’s budget and politics, which is easy for me but not such an easy letoff for a microbiologist.

Most of the traffic on the university crisis listserv I’m subscribed to has been about finding ways to tell the legislature and the governor how much damage they are doing to Berkeley by cutting UC funding. This is important, but I fear that coming from us it’s too easy to dismiss as special pleading.  The costs of the state’s Republicans’ mindless, heartless refusal to consider any ratio of the government budget to the state’s economy but “less!”, and their intolerable constitutional stranglehold on policy, are much broader: not only Berkeley’s, but the whole University system, and the Cal State and community college, and the K-12 system are going in the toilet, and so is our infrastructure of every kind.  We should be advocating for the single moms who need day care, the unemployed who need a bus to get to a job, the kids who need a real education if we’re to do anything for them in college, and hope for some reciprocity.

One thing that bothers me more about this campaign to get a larger slice of the pie while wringing our hands about the injury to our students is the invisibility (that I take as prima facie evidence of nonexistence) of any serious effort to improve our own performance as teachers. One of the first economies of the new regime was to close the office of Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning: there is simply no activity on my campus that anyone from Toyota or P&G or Southwest Airlines or any competent private firm would recognize as a quality assurance program for pedagogy. I’m newly on the Faculty Senate Committee on Courses of Instruction, and at my first meeting I learned that COCI defers to department judgment about what and how to teach; indeed, our main function is to compare the number of student work hours a prof expects to the units the course counts for.  Courses are approved without reference to assignments or exams or anything the students will do, and without any indication of mechanism for continuous improvement or evaluation of the offering over the years. There is a Teaching Committee, but its function is to give an annual award on the basis (so my former dean informed me) of student evaluations (which we know are uncorrelated with learning); one year I called them to ask where I could see videos of the winners in the classroom, look at their assignments, etc. so I could learn and imitate them; the staffer who answered the phone said no-one had ever asked that, but she guessed I could call the winners and ask them. On the way out of the COCI meeting, my head spinning, I asked the chair “where is the quality assurance function for teaching at Cal?” and she said she had no idea.

Note that the entire state budget deficit this year amounts to about a pack of cigarettes, or a couple of lattes, per family per day. California is hurting economically, with high unemployment and a lot of pain. But it isn’t going broke, unless you deliberately confuse a society with its government of the moment. What’s happening to us is a combination of wilful ignorance with moral decline. The first element is distinctively Californian intellectual fecklessness and wishful thinking (until about a decade ago, it was common to use the word if in connection with the next earthquake, not unlike discussing what to do if the sun goes down this evening), abetted by elected officials more concerned with getting their next jobs and being liked than doing their current one. They passed out non-nutritive candy, policy meth, instead of leadership and we kept asking for more, but neither reality nor the financial markets are mocked indefinitely.

The second is larger and uglier, the new legitimation of “I’ll do my share, but not a penny more. Unless I can get away with a little less…” as a moral code.  Previous generations of Californians invested enormous resources in a capital stock of roads, parks, schools, universities, museums, concert halls…and most important, very well-educated citizens, even against the grain of an extractive “dig it up, sell it, and move on” formative cultural history.  The current generation was expected to keep it in repair and pass it on with interest, having benefited so greatly from using it, but they have decided that, nice as it was to use the education and the infrastructure the greatest generation left them for free, it will be even nicer to just stop maintaining it, let it go to weeds, spend the savings at Wal-Mart, and leave their children with an educational system Alabama would find familiar, unemployable and sitting in traffic. I suppose this is legal but it’s despicable behavior: intergenerational equity is real equity and even though posterity never did nothin’ for me, my forebears did a lot, the debt is real, and it can only be paid forward or reneged on [UPDATE: James Wimberley points out that welsh is an ethnic slur, as obvious now (blush) as it was opaque when I used it. With an interesting if apocryphal history.]  The Kingston Trio had a corny song, Desert Pete [starts at about 0:48] that pretty well sums it up, and it keeps going through my mind these days.

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.

13 thoughts on “Field notes from a failing state”

  1. Your hypothetical microbiologist almost certainly pays their own salary from outside grants, and subsidizes the U. from overhead charges on those grants. And yet their pay has likely been cut as well.

  2. You accuse the California population of immorality for not preserving what their fathers built, but the population of California that once paid the taxes to build Berkeley has mostly been driven out by third world immigrants.

    Per this link here:

    California public schools are only 28% non-hispanic whites. I'd imagine it was something like 80% in the Pat Brown era of great public works.

    Prop 209 was supposed to give this group equal footing in UC admissions, but your friends running the UC system have with a great deal of creativity evading the intentions of this law, as evidenced by the persistence in differing admission rates by race when controlled by objective admissions factors.

    Yet the rump of the states rapidly shrinking white population, which no longer feels too much invested in the state, will continue to be able to veto most to all new taxes for the foreseeable future.

    You can have a population willing to fund a big and munificent government, or you can have a large third-world immigrant population. But you can't have both, especially not for long. The libertarians at the WSJ have long realized this. Even having your paycheck suddenly cut 10% doesn't appear to be enough to show you. Instead you blame the state's "greedy" taxpayers who are already paying a state income tax of 9.4%, the highest in the USA.

  3. "but neither reality nor the financial markets are mocked indefinitely."

    Well actually the state is still able to borrow at very low interest rates. Bondholders know we'll get bailed out by the feds if the state ever actually runs short of cash. The state's debt to gross product also isn't that bad.

    I think the issue is we're just about out of the accounting gimmicks that allow running of budget deficits, requiring either tax increases or budget cuts.

  4. A very good and very sad post. I'm glad I live in NJ, though we've got our own problems.

    The comments on teaching are particularly worthwhile. Let me make two brief points: a) University-wide centers of teaching improvement have wonderful people and great ideas, but for various institutional reasons sometimes don't influence teaching improvement much. A huge challenge is to integrate their work with that of actual departments, since the department culture, including the reward structure, often provides more stimulus to pedagogical improvement than the remote teaching center that is (too often) unknown to faculty. b) How empirical is it to say "we know" that teaching evaluations don't correlate with learning? A lot depends on what we look for in the evaluations. Stephen Feldman (Sociology, SUNY – Stony Brook) has done some very interesting work on the elements in evaluations that do correlate with learning. Often these are ones that neither faculty nor students want to respect (student perception that a class is well-organized, for instance). Worth a look.

    Dan Tompkins

    Temple Univ.

  5. "Bondholders know we’ll get bailed out by the feds if the state ever actually runs short of cash."

    Bondholders may think that, only time will tell if they "know" it, in the sense of true belief. Add "justified", and I'd say "knowing" it is already off the table, given a federal government that's running up against the limits of it's own borrowing power already.

  6. Brett: The US will never run up at a borrowing limit because the federal reserve is always happy to buy its debt. This is virtually an accounting indentity. At some point excessive borrowing via the Fed will lead to inflation, but we are in a deflationary environment right now so that's a pretty remote worry.

    Re the states: the fed's extraordinary powers include bailing out state governments without congressional authorization, and the current composition of the fed would certainly do so if it came to this. Otherwise the borrowing costs of all state and local governments would increase. Hey, if you disagree buy some California credit default swaps, i'm sure our Wall Street overlords have more CDS written on the state than the state's total outstanding debt.

    As Michael O'Hare noted, California's economy is still plenty big and can easily support its government via taxation. It would not have much negative effect on the state and its people if the CA gov repudiated or defaulted on its debt and lost access to debt markets, but it would on the rest of the country.

    Government debt default scenerios are fun to think about, a nice combination of poly sci, econ, and game theory.

  7. Matt Yglesias makes the same point that racial diversity means we can't have a large progressive government:

    …if you put the argument a certain way—”racism has a lot to do with opposition to social insurance programs in the United States” people get very upset. But if you say something like “European social democracy works because post-WWII European countries were so homogeneous, but mass immigration is causing consensus around the welfare state to break down” then you come to expressing something approaching conventional wisdom among the center and right in the United States. These strike me, however, as nearly identical points of view just being expressed slightly differently.

    The modern left's strategy to eat its diversity cake and have big government too is to (1) propagandize that whites benefit from government largesse in places like CA in proportion to what they pay in taxes, for example _always_ putting a white face on media profiles of welfare recipients, poor public school students, and the uninsured and (2) try to squelch whites from organizing for their own interests.

    #1 works pretty well but requires control of the media but #2 fails because while "X is bad for whites" may not be acceptable political discourse, racial coding of political discourse is easy.

  8. Dave, you might want to learn to hyperlink to posts that you reference. Not doing so is bad manners.

    You might also note that you come close to slandering Yglesias there, because Yglesias is implicitly criticizing the dynamic you appear to suggest he endorses. Yglesias says that the consensus among the American Center and Right can fairly be expressed in different terms that reveal the inherent stupidity and potential racism of their outlook. He doesn't say that he agrees with that outlook. Indeed, and especially once you read the parts of the post that you elided, it seems fairly plain that what he's saying is that lots of poorly-off members of the majority are too busy defending their status relative to worse-off minorities to embrace programs that would benefit both themselves and the minorities.

  9. "Brett: The US will never run up at a borrowing limit because the federal reserve is always happy to buy its debt. "

    The US will never run up against a borrowing limit, if you measure borrowing in nominal dollars. It can always keep adding zeros to the currency. Perhaps eventually using exponential notation to conserve ink.

    But the US most assuredly can run up against a borrowing limit, if you measure borrowing adjusted for inflation. Borrowing as an activity which actually provides you with new resources is dependent on somebody willing to make a loan to you who has something of value to loan. The ability to add zeros to the currency is not all that valuable, if nobody wants the currency.

    But I suspect that you express the consensus view in Congress, which is why I'm betting on a good deal of inflation in the long run. Only an economy in the tank is staving it off.

  10. Warren, I agreed with Yglesias that the "diversity undermines progressive government" argument can be expressed in two ways, the "center-right" method that is morally detached, and the left version that includes a normative label of "racism." I don't care to argue which one is better, they say the same thing factually and both are correct. I guess I missed any "implicit" argument that whites living among a large and much poorer minority population are stupid for not voting for government programs that disproportately tax them and benefit the minority.

    Again, whites are about 60-65% of California voters but only 28% of public school students, and their share of the best UC schools is not much higher. Again I'm not too interested in the morality of this situation, but rather I think it is odd that anyone would expect this situation not to undermine white support for public education. Immoral or not, the position of the state's rump white minority as expressed by the state GOP seems prefectly rational. Haven been driven from California's public school system, they will do whatever they can to avoid paying for it.

  11. "… welshed on". Please retire the phrase. Cf: take French leave (= filer à l'anglaise), jewed down, Greek vice – add your own ethnic slur.

  12. “… welshed on”. Please retire the phrase. Cf: take French leave (= filer à l’anglaise), jewed down, Greek vice – add your own ethnic slur.

    Other candidates for the memory hole: the phrases "Gypped", "Indian giver" (that last especially ironic) etcetera etcetera …

  13. I am offended by your use of the insulting word "corny" in the update. This is nothing more than an ethnic slur against those from Cornwall.

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