SLATE: Kludge Not
Career College Central Summary;
A few years ago, Johns Hopkins University political science professor Steven Teles wrote a wonderfully insightful essay titled “Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy.” In computer-programmer slang, a kludge is a clumsy or awkward patch that keeps a system working without addressing its fundamental problems, the equivalent of duct tape on a busted-up fender. It might be temporarily effective but also sets up problems down the road. “When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program,” Teles wrote, “one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows.”
America’s government, Teles argued, is addicted to kludges, just like Steve Ballmer–era Microsoft. To avoid ticking off entrenched interests, or voters who are suspicious of government even though they not-so-secretly want its help, Washington has come to specialize in roundabout, inelegant policy ideas that fix old difficulties but create new ones. Obamacare, which was designed to leave most of our unfathomably complicated and expensive health care system in place while expanding insurance coverage, is the most obvious case. But another example, Teles writes, is “our Byzantine system of funding higher education.”
I found myself thinking about that observation last week, after President Obama unveiled his plan to make community college tuition free for every student “willing to work for it.” The announcement surprised and delighted many liberals, who tend to believe that the government has an obligation to provide a basic education to everybody in the country. In post-industrial America, that increasingly means at least a couple years of college. Ipso facto, free higher education is a good idea. But philosophical reasons aside, the Obama plan is also exciting for the simple reason that it isn’t another kludge.
To understand why that’s so important, we need to talk about why college is so expensive in this country in the first place. It’s a complicated story, but the basic outline is this: For several decades now, colleges have failed to control their costs. At the same time, budget-pressed states have cut per-student funding. Combined, those two forces have pushed public colleges and universities to increase their tuition. (You can argue over whether government defunding or out-of-control spending is more important, but both have played a role.) The federal government, seeing all this, has tried to combat rising prices without demanding too much from states or schools, instead offering loans, grants, and tax breaks directly to students so they can afford an education.
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