Intended Consequences - July 8, 2013

We all have experienced unintended consequences, i.e., results of our actions (or, at least, actions that have some bearing on our lives) that surprise us. The way some people seem almost to rely on them, they must live in a state of perpetual amazement. I am not hinting that there really is no such thing as unintended consequences, only foolish people. Indeed, none of us can know the consequence(s) of every action. Nevertheless, there are so-called unintended consequences that we should have intended, for example, consequences from actions that we have witnessed over and over again.

Perhaps my worry results from the fact that I live in a world of actions from government, and government is forever using unintended consequences to excuse rank stupidity or duplicity.

Let me take one good example that has a decisive impact on publishing, especially scholarly publishing, even though the initial action had nothing to do with publishing. This concerns government grants and, especially, loan programs for college students. On the face of it, how could one object to such largess? Is it not to the benefit of the country to encourage higher education? to see to it that people may improve themselves whatever their socio-economic background? to make the college life accessible to more and more people? I think the jury is out . . . and, moreover, may never come back at all.

No doubt, these grants and loans benefit a great number of people: teachers and, now, with the ever-growing proletarianization of what we used to call the profession of teaching, the teachers unions; until recent action that nationalized loan programs by the government, banks; universities, of course; insurance companies, until such time as it is subsumed into a government monopoly; money managers and others who will help the final recipients of the money; and, naturally, lawyers, our greatest growth industry, sadly growing in inverse proportion to its usefulness to society.

One body who does not benefit from government grants and loans are students (and their parents), who are saddled with enormous debt that is growing exponentially.

A couple of questions come to mind: where does the money go? Why, to the colleges, of course. And there is no relation between inflation, say, and the increase in tuition. In fact, this is not new at all. During the period 1986–1995, when our four children attended universities for the bachelor’s degrees, the average yearly inflation was 3.54%, but the tuition increase per year was 7%, twice the inflation rate. If the government got more generous with terms and amounts, this money found its way to the universities. It has not stopped. College professors teach fewer hours, have longer and/or more numerous sabbaticals; students have larger and larger debts at graduation.

This cannot be an unintended consequence; it’s been going on much too long for any but the treacherously stupid to fail to see it. But government solutions to big mistakes are always to make bigger mistakes, to enlarge a program that has failed, to double-down on disappointment. It is not pretty.

As for publishing, one of the totally intended consequences has been the deterioration of education itself, the reworking of the university into a high-brow vocational school, with the result that students find themselves in the predicament of having to seek classes that can aid them in finding a job.

As a publisher in the humanities, it is worrisome to me that the very fields that once attracted students to complete their academic period in their lives is seen more and more as an area with no job possibilities and, therefore, to be avoided, since college means, for more and more, a period of life remembered as one for the accumulation of debt.