The Cost of "Doing More With Less"

We have less funding for the things that really matter while paying much more to compensate for austerity policies.

November 23, 2015

Such strange things can happen when you starve systems that were once considered worth funding because they benefit all.

One of the most surprising lessons of #Ferguson was that cash-strapped municipalities were making up shortages in their budget by collecting excessive fines from citizens. Imagine being a police officer whose job has been turned into revenue collector. That’s not what you signed up for – serve and protect, sure, but first bust enough people to contribute to your salary. Some small municipalities near Ferguson relied on fines for over half of their budget. As residents grew poorer, the need to fine them grew greater. Having to nail people to pay the bills opens a crack in our civil system where racism and unequal treatment can take root and thrive. 

Today I read about another new practice in the way we fund law enforcement: civil asset forfeiture, whereby law enforcement agencies can seize assets from targets of investigation, even if they are not convicted of a crime or even charged. A blogger recently noted that the government now seizes more property than burglars do. Are we working with a new definition of “criminal justice” these days?

Curious practices like these thrive when raising taxes is politically radioactive, times are tough, and alternative forms of fundraising are relatively easy - even if disastrous in the long run for the commonweal. There are at least two problems with this entrepreneurial substitute for everyone paying their share. One is that the burden is unevenly distributed. Those with the least are often the ones most disproportionately taxed because they’re less able to resist, and the hunt for funding invites profiling for those without power. The other is that it forces a public service into an adversarial relationship with the public they’re supposed to serve. When we’re told to do more with less, we end up building a costly apparatus for generating income while cutting things that actually support the organization’s mission. That distorts everything.

As it has in higher education. When public colleges and universities have to make up for the loss of public funding, they tax students directly by raising tuition. They replace full-time faculty lines with adjuncts to pay the salaries of professional fundraisers. Winning big grants, winning over donors, and winning the admissions race require new resources, while the real work of the institution gets pinched and starved because it’s not directly generating income, even when it's the "product" the "customers" came for. The public becomes distrustful of higher education because it costs too much - because we aren’t sharing those costs collectively - and it’s warping the academy.

I’m pondering how this weird sleight of hand of doing more with less affects academic libraries. We aren’t increasing our fines or seizing backpacks to make up budget deficits, thank goodness, but we are trapped in a strange world where everyone needs to publish more to prove their worth. That requires more access to more research, even for small institutions, so we’ve outsourced much of our collection building, first to aggregators of electronic journals who can provide us the most for the money; now to individual publishers as we stretch our budgets by buying access to one article at a time for one user at a time. There’s nothing collective about it. Temporary access for individuals comes at the expense of access for many and access in the future. It's hard to do otherwise, because we're judged by the way we serve our immediate users and the current goals of the institution (retaining tuition-paying students, for example, or supporting the needs of faculty getting grants), not how we serve the greater good.

As you might guess, I believe open access to scholarship can help us get out of this bind, but only if we do it right. Doing it right means finding an equitable way for us all to pitch in. Publishing costs money (though it  can cost less than when a 30-40 percent profit isn't baked in). Better we figure out how to share the cost of making scholarship public so that it isn’t distorted by complicated schemes that turn scholars into competitive entrepreneurs who have to find ways to fund their own publishing services. Unless libraries are willing put time and money into creating common solutions, we'll all end up paying far too much.  


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