California Tuition Blues

by Victor Davis Hanson
Tribune Media Services
In so-called March in March protests, thousands of students in California universities recently demonstrated in outrage over spiraling tuition costs. At both the California State University and University of California multi-campus systems, tuition hikes in recent years have far exceeded the national average. Meanwhile, universities slash classes, cut key research, and rely even more on exploited and poorly paid part-time lecturers and graduate-student teaching assistants.
Yet against whom, exactly, are these cash-strapped students demonstrating? After all, their college faculties are unionized, largely liberal, and sympathetic to their plight.
Campus administrators likewise want more state money for universities. But, unlike the beleaguered faculty, their numbers by some calculations have increased 221 percent between 1975 and 2008. At CSU, there may be one administrator for every full-time faculty member. Why, then, were not the students calling for their administrators to return to the classroom, and thereby provide additional classes at reduced cost?
Do the students fault the governor and the legislature for unwise spending priorities that have led to funding cuts and tuition hikes? Not really. Governor Jerry Brown is a liberal Democrat. Both the state senate and the state assembly are overwhelmingly Democratic — and have been for years. In fact, state officials largely spoke in favor of the student protests.
Are the students instead angry at the state’s public employees, who on average make more and are better pensioned than their counterparts in other states? Or do protesters connect the state’s escalating costs that divert money from universities with California’s massive number of illegal aliens — whether in terms of the soaring costs of social services, billions of dollars sent as remittances to Mexico, or the incarceration costs of 30,000 Mexican nationals in the state prison system?
Does state money allotted to other discretionary areas, from things like preliminary funding for envisioned high-speed rail to restoring salmon in the state rivers, come at the expense of students?
The cash-strapped protesters would probably not think so. Instead, they seem to believe that the causes of all their troubles are the proverbial “rich” who are not “paying their fair share.”
True, in California any new taxes must be approved by a supermajority of two-thirds of the representatives in the legislature. But that impediment to hiking taxes was passed years ago, and through a popular ballot proposition as a grassroots reaction to perceived out-of-control taxes. In fact, while the governor is currently seeking ways to raise sales taxes and to hike taxes on the higher incomes, California’s gas, sales, and income taxes are already among the highest in the nation.
Just 1 percent of California taxpayers are already providing 45 percent of the state’s income-tax revenue. And such income taxes now fund half the budget.
But unfortunately, in recent years the number of upper-income earners in California has radically shrunk — by a third between 2007 and 2009 alone. Apparently, wealthy Californians are either fleeing to nearby no-income-tax states or have become less well-off after years of economic downturn, higher taxes, and overregulation of business. Meanwhile, the number of California’s Medicaid recipients grew at 70 percent of the general population increase over the last two decades.
In short, there are no longer enough rich Californians to tax further to make up the state shortfalls. Nor can Californians explain why nearby states, with far less natural riches and without state income taxes, seem to be no worse off than California.
Where, then, lies the solution to the students’ protests? Without a rainy-day reserve fund or a growing economy, there are only a limited number of ways to solve California’s chronic budget problems.
The state can keep cutting its once-generous entitlements and liberal social services, as well as public employees’ salaries, to divert money to its colleges. Or it can keep raising fees for state services. Or it can start creating new material wealth by encouraging development of the state’s vast resources in gas, oil, timber, minerals, and agriculture, whose production has been curtailed in recent years. Or it can lobby the federal government to enforce immigration laws.
Or California can raise taxes across the income spectrum to make up for the diminishing revenue from a vanishing 1 percent.
Yet protesting students would probably believe all those solutions were either unfair or unnecessary. The result is that we are left with mostly liberal students angry at mostly liberal policies of a mostly liberally governed state.
The once-utopian visions of 1970s California — unionized public employees, more state lands off limits, more regulations, higher taxes on the wealthy, vastly expanded social services, de facto open borders — have at last mostly come true, but apparently not in the fashion anticipated by most Californians of those long-ago times. In cash-strapped Greece, when similar things happened, protesters blamed the Germans. But without Germans, whom can Californians blame but themselves?

©2012 Tribune Media Services
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