Monday, December 03, 2007

Universities and Contempt for the Middle Class

By Richard Vedder

Two astute social scientists, Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel (hereafter, K and S), had a great op-ed in yesterday's edition of the Los Angeles Times.K and S argue that liberals are once again gaining the upward hand in American politics after a generation in the political wilderness. Yet, the Democrat party today has a different agenda than the one they had a generation ago, or so says K and S. A generation or two ago, Democrats were interested in workers and lower middle class issues --bread and butter issues like wages, health care benefits, low cost educational opportunities, etc. This emphasis started to dissipate when liberal intellectuals like the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., became prominent in the Democratic Party, and has accelerated since.

Today's Democratic Party is greatly influenced by wealthy liberal elites, many of them closely associated with universities --latter-day Schlesinger clones. These "gentry liberals" are not so interested in the bread and butter issues that would have absorbed Harry Truman's time if he were alive, like the housing bubble and its aftermath or rising tuition charges, but rather broader economic and social issues like global warming and gay rights. According to K and S, the Dems are interested in trendy issues of interest to intellectuals; the Republicans are interested in keeping businesses happy and taxes down on the affluent, neither party really much cares about bread and butter issues important to the middle class.

I think K and S have it mostly right and this is one reason why higher education cost containment is only now slowly coming to the forefront as a major issue --despite widespread angst among middle class parents. One reason college intellectuals don't push tuition containment is simple -- it might reduce their income. Regressions Matt Denhart, Gordy Ruchti and I have been running generally show a positive correlation between tuition fees and faculty salaries. Take money from parents (higher tuition) and give some of it to professors. Thus the Democrats have been slow to jump on this issue (and the Republicans even slower), just as they are not about ready to promote tort reform despite rising health care costs simply because it will offend big donors. Academics provide a lot of the intellectual fire power (such as it is) and some of the money for the Democratic Party, so the Dems are going to give the colleges that employ their allies a relatively easy time.

There are, however, limits to this. As anger amongst parents of future and present college students grows, the political elites are starting to respond --after all, elections are coming up and these concerned people are articulate, moderately affluent citizens with high rates of voter participation. Dropping ever larger number of dollars out of airplanes over college campuses to appease their liberal allies is a strategy now being overshadowed by rising anger from the rank and file voters.

The mystery to me is why Republicans have not taken this issue on. They are losing market share among upper middle class persons who are heavily concerned about rising college costs. The academy is their natural enemy anyhow. Why not take money away from the bad guys (in their way of thinking) --liberal academics -- and give it to the good guys (middle and even upper class parents paying the bills for college?). The massive income redistribution from Joe Six Pack to liberal intellectuals associated with government largess towards universities surely is not in the narrow interests of the Republican Party --nor, do I think, in the interests of the broader community of American citizens. As I keep reminding readers, there is probably a negative correlation between government higher education spending and economic growth.

In conclusion, let me also mention that Charles Miller and Kevin Carey had a marvelous op-ed on higher education about a week ago in the Houston Chronicle . One higher education entrepreneur friend called it the best short appraisal of higher education he had ever read.


Poly Muthumbi said...

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TC said...

Pauline Maina, At the present time financial aid is important, but there must be a transition to a point where tuition must level off or drop - thus reducing the necessity for federal financial aid. With the government increasing the money supply for financial aid, colleges will continue to raise tuition. At some point, the increase in money for financial aid and tuition hikes will collapse. Maybe what will get the ball rolling is that college becomes so expensive that funding it drives grads into insolvency (defaults). What goes up, can not go up in perpetuity.

Another home run Rich - great piece.

Bill said...

Looking at this as a federally sponsored "redistribution of weatlth" from (I assume red state) Joe Six Pack to (I assume blue state) liberal universities should be kept in the context of overall tax flows, which on a macro level distinctly favor red states over blue states. We'll be more than happy to give up our edge in higher education funding providing the great mass of our taxpayer dollars that flows towards the red states is also curtailed.

Also, the Houston Chronicle article is excellent though, perhaps, I view it as such for different reasons than Prof. Vedder. As someone who views our top public flagship universities (Big Ten, UC system and a handful of others such as UVA, UNC, Texas and Washington) as the both fundamental cornerstone of our higher education system and historic engines of social mobility, I loathe the idea of their being substantially weakened through an academic arms race with our private universities.