Berkeley's Conservative Voice

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Your Professors Can be Wrong

This seems like a good post for all the new students entering Cal this week. After walking to your first 700 person class and discovering that your professor is a genius, you might be tempted to take his (or her) word as gospel. Don’t. While their arguments may sound irrefutable (and sometimes they are), occasionally they will be just as fallible as your average argument. You just have to dig through the high rhetoric to get there.

Consider this post by UC Berkeley Public Policy Professor Michael O’Hare. The jist of it is that because Californians refuse to pay higher taxes, students are being cheated. It has been widely circulated on Facebook and was even reposted by UC President Mark Yudof. It sounds great, but once broken down is highly questionable.

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.

Ok, that’s probably true, I can get behind that. Go Bears! But wait…

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.

I’ve been swindled? Allright, pitchforks at the ready, now go on!

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.

Wait, I’ve been swindled because I didn’t get what my parents got? So if, hypothetically, my grandparents were really rich and bought my father a Mercedes when he turned 16 and if I didn’t get one when I turned 16 then I was swindled? Even if my not as rich parents couldn’t afford it? But go on…

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.

Yeah old folk pay yer $500 you greedy SOBs! Never mind that about half of you are either children, on welfare, unemployed, or otherwise would never be able pay $500 more per year. So it’s actually at least $1000 per taxpayer, or $2000 per two adult household. Of course, when we take that $2000 from them the first thing they will stop spending it on is discretionary expenditures, most of which are taxable. So when you factor that the economic loss will make the deficit even worse, you are probably looking at (guesstimating) around $3000 per family, to say nothing of the deficits that local governments, most of which rely heavily on sales taxes, would still have. But still, pennies!

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.

Because $8564 is less than $7047, obviously.

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.

True, though increasing their taxes by $3000 a year isn’t going to help their situation.

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!

See you in class indeed. You have a lot of learning to do yourself professor.

The point here is not to rag on Professor O’Hare. Indeed, I happen to agree with him that the state’s education system is broken, but it is because of money being spent ineffectively, not a lack of it. See my last post for an example. I’m sure there are conservative professors who have made just as bad assertations. The bottom line is that even though your professors are the smartest people in the world (literally) they can still make bad arguments.

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