The austerity policies now in force across the world have been proven to be based on a false premise, the finding of two Harvard economists who made an error in their calculations.
What an appalling and far-reaching mistake!
But, rather than admit it, governments continue to drive us down the same road in a frenzy of slash and burn which is needlessly slowing the world’s recovery from economic disaster. Disaster, as we all know, which was caused by the very institutions we have trusted to lead us.
In our own country, states were largely independent of the federal government until the 1960s, when the federal government began to provide resources to states to help out when states can’t raise taxes enough to keep up with their growing responsibilities. State taxes are subject to competition from neighboring states, and citizens in some states have limited toe growth of property taxes. As a consequence, states have searched for ways to lower their expenses, and lowering support for state universities has been one way that minimizes political backlash.
Land grant universities began during the Civil War, and flourished for a century. In recent years, however, states have found that running a good university system was becoming a burdensome responsibility, and now only about fifteen percent of the total cost is furnished by the states. In order to finance themselves, universities charge tuition like private universities. Their tuition is lower than for private universities because of state aid, but costs are still substantial.
Poor students need to borrow to pay for their education as a result. In bygone years, parents educated their children and children looked after their parents in their old age. The last part of that bargain was socialized in the Great Depression by Social Security, which has gone some way toward preventing an impoverished old age. But as wages have stagnated and even gone backwards as a result of this century’s economic meltdown, getting an education, especially through the college years, has gone into crisis.
Political support for Social Security, despite recent rumblings about taxing it, remains strong; but support for state universities has not. The general public unfortunately sometimes thinks of the costs of college education in terms of pay for college professors and administration, and as a result, when states have to cut spending to balance their budgets, or when federal austerity reduces grants to states, the universities take a hit.
And, of course, politicians think mainly about paying off the national debt without thinking of the consequences of cutting the legs out from under education.
Demographics share the blame for this as well: Our population is aging, and we have many more old people than we used to. Old people vote, and children do not. Therefore, politicians tip the balance of their decisions toward their voters, and education comes up short. Support can be mobilized for Social Security, but not for the universities.
We must take a hard look at these circumstances, because our current path is taking us far from economic leadership in the years to come. The United States in the 20th century , because of its emphasis on quality education, spread innovation and new ways of thinking throughout the world. But as we continue our present slide downward, fewer and fewer of our young people will be able to complete enough education to become what their parents and grandparents did, and other countries which are now emphasizing education, such as China, will become the centers of innovation and progress.
North Carolina’s university system was once the pride of the state, recognized as one of the best in the world. Sadly, as “slash and burn” takes over in Raleigh, short-sightedness is making a mockery of our history.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If we recognize the danger and confront it, we will renew our commitment to a universally accessible education from birth through college, and we will understand that federal austerity harms local and state education by reducing the cascade of tax revenues from the federal government to the states, and then to the cities.
More on this subject in a later article. Watch this space!