As a nation, we've been living beyond our means for decades. Retirees have happily pocketed Medicare and Social Security benefits that far exceeded their contributions, millions of families bought houses they couldn't afford, families lowered their savings rate to zero while piling on the credit card debt, investors "flipped" homes and bought equities with borrowed dollars, and the federal government (under Bush and Obama) cheerfully spent trillions more than it collected in revenues. We need only look across the Atlantic to see what reckoning for all this eventually looks like. My naïve hope was that the Occupy "movement" might demand that we stop asking our kids to foot the bill for the self-indulgence and irresponsibility of their elders, whether it's Republicans cutting taxes or Democrats giving out goodies and then passing the buck to the next generation of taxpayers.
The challenges were highlighted yesterday when the National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers reported that states continue to face a dire budget picture. NASBO executive director Scott Pattison noted, "There is not enough money for all the bills coming in. State officials will still be cutting some programs, and increases in funding for any program except for health care will be rare." States will be squeezed as they find ways to boost Medicaid spending an average of 29 percent this year, with many increases ahead in 2014 when states have to comply with the requirements of the Health Care Reform Act. Meanwhile, local revenues continue to decline (due to deflating real estate valuations) and state general fund revenues in 2012 are expected to be $21 billion below 2008 levels.
Given all this, are the Occupiers urging that we raise taxes, cut spending, and start living within our means, so that we stop sticking them with the tab for our lack of discipline? Are they itching to lead by example, inspiring their elders to do better by their own efforts? Not so much. Instead, as the Washington Post's Daniel de Vise reported Monday, the UC-Davis pepper spray incident has pushed that campus of 32,000 into the spotlight--and students are using it to demand--that someone else pay for their college education. As de Vise reported, "The Davis protestors have two comparatively specific grievances: pepper spray and spiraling tuition." The pepper spray thing makes sense, but former L.A. police chief William Bratton is heading up an inquiry on that. Meanwhile, the sticker price for UC-Davis, ranked #38 among national universities by U.S. News & World Report, is the not-so-staggering sum of $13,181 a year.
Tuition would be much higher were it not for enormous subsidies from California taxpayers to higher ed that total about $2.3 billion this year, even as the state wrestles with staggering budget shortfalls and painful cuts to K-12, law enforcement, libraries, youth services, and much else. But students are irate that the taxpayer contribution is down from a high of $3.2 billion a few years back and that this year, for the first time--if you can believe the outrage--UC students are paying more than California taxpayers for their education. On Monday, hundreds of students made their displeasure clear, waving signs declaring "No tuition hikes" and chanting, "No cuts, no fees." Katheryn Kolesar, 27, from Pennsylvania, who chairs the UC-Davis grad student association, told the regents, "The state has let us down, and you have let us down."
Since these students don't seem to be volunteering to staff the libraries or cafeterias for free, suggesting any cost-saving strategies (dialing back on campus amenities, anyone?), or otherwise doing their part to help make the budget work, they're just demanding more free stuff from taxpayers. This is of a piece with other Occupy demands that policymakers forgive student loans and raise taxes on the "one percent" (e.g. somebody else). I understand why the Occupiers would prefer to pay less for college, but not why being asked to contribute to the cost of their schooling means anyone is "letting them down." Indeed, as best I can tell, these students are asking policymakers to cut even more deeply elsewhere so that they can be spared the annoyance of reduced services or increased tuition. I'm no expert on social justice but, even so, I don't think that qualifies.