Continuously opining, intermittently publishing.

Let’s Not Get Political

Posted by oshane | Leave a comment at the end of this post.

Background (long)

The Wyoming Constitution, replicated in Title 97 of the state statutes provides,

The university shall be equally open to students of both sexes, irrespective of race or color; and, in order that the instruction furnished may be as nearly free as possible, any amount in addition to the income from its grants of lands and other sources above mentioned, necessary to its support and maintenance in a condition of full efficiency shall be raised by taxation or otherwise, under provisions of the legislature.

Wyo. Stat. § 97-7-016 (2007) (emphasis added).

Here at the University of Wyoming, the trustees decided several years ago to interpret this provision as guaranteeing tuition “as free as possible” as a provision primarily for resident undergraduates and secondarily for graduate students and non-residents. Before, tuition had been generally adjusted upward at a rate of 3% per annum, but after this decision, the trustees, given that approximately 52% of the student population are resident undergraduates, decided to subsidize the necessary increase in tuition for resident undergraduates by doubling the increase for graduate students and non-residents.

Thus, apparently before I arrived to the law school, my tuition had been raised by 6% from the previous year (excluding a separate allocable increase for the law school itself). Next year it is slated to be 5% and my third year is unknown. Meanwhile, resident undergraduates have been seeing no increases.

Last year, several law students went to the vice president for student affairs and other entities to appeal, post hoc, the increases as unfair, because they favored resident undergraduates at the literal expense of the law students and the rest of our graduate and/or non-resident compatriots. (This year, the group of law students has begun to enter the process in a more timely fashion and in future years expects to have a more significant impact on the way tuition increases are decided. Side note: the pharmacy students expressed similar frustrations, but were all too happy to let the law students argue for them).

Objectively, graduate, professional and non-resident students still have (one of?) the best value(s) for their education in the country. As a transplant from the West Coast, I am thrilled at how inexpensive it is to attend law school and still receive education from excellent professors here in Wyoming. This issue does not raise my ire, because a 6% increase, though non-uniform, is still predicated on and limited by the inexpense of the previous year’s base tuition. Disclaimer: I will be making application for residency, given our full and complete move to Wyoming, but as a professional student, I will still face the same higher percentage increases, just on a lower base.

On the other hand, as a quasi-outsider, I found the discussion very interesting, and though it does not pragmatically upset me, I do logically agree that a system of tuition increases tiered to favor one class of people over another is manifestly unfair, precisely (and definitively) because it is inequitable.

This discussion arose two days ago in a Town Hall meeting held at the law school, and I was privy to a smaller post-meeting discussion in the “break room,” where several students were lamenting the idea that the State Constitution’s equality-in-admission clause and the nearly-free-tuition clause imply that tuition increases should be done uniformly and that the trustee’s have chosen to favor resident undergraduates.

These students are native Wyomingites, so leaving the issue of whether Wyoming should favor residents over non-residents (even as the Equality State) aside, I empathize with their frustration that as professional students, they are expected to bear a greater load of the overall cost of the university than undergraduates, especially when the Wyoming Constitution provides that higher education should be as free as possible.

The Issue

As I was buying a 7-UP, I interjected with something along the lines of, “Tiering costs to favor one class of people over another is unfair. That’s exactly why progressive income taxation is manifestly unfair” (never mind that income taxation, tiering or no, is a form of indentured servitude [read: slavery]).

The student who was speaking immediately responded, “While I am probably inclined to agree with you, let’s not make this discussion political.”

The discussion wasn’t very formal given that we were all running to class anyway and it was among friends and peers, so it is not as if I was derailing the purpose of a meeting by bringing up a larger point.

I found it bizarre that he wanted to cut off my commentary as “political” presumably because it involved taxation. This prompted me to think, given that my analogy was perfectly apt (costs imposed upon a large number of people for a public service with tiering of those costs created to favor one group of people over another), why would his first response be to avoid discussion because my point was “political”?

Agreed: my point was political, but couldn’t one consider tuition increases imposed oligarchically and unilaterally for a group of people (students) reliant upon ongoing (educational) services where switching costs are high to be a political question? Why did he implicitly believe that the question of tuition increase was not political?

Is it a matter of locality? What is it about local issues that cause people to rally around their own just causes to combat perceived or real injustice where national issues are to be avoided as “political”?

This is why civic republicans in the 1770s-1790s believed that the purpose of government, which was to effect the common good by way of virtue, was best effected at the local level with strong, frequent communal interaction. It is true: people who care deeply about rights and wrongs are more apt to try to mend problems locally.

Or is the dichotomy between political and non-political a derivative matter of choice? Government, almost by definition, is a method by which one set of people impose their will upon a larger set of people. Is taxation a “political” question because we have little pragmatic individual choice in the matter once tax rates have been decided whereas tuition increases, though inconvenient, are not “political” because do not prevent a student from switching, i.e. matriculating elsewhere?

(Switching out of the corrupt and overbearing U.S. tax system is nearly impossible).

Again, my point was political, but not just so. I really meant, as I am wont to do, to make a pedagogical point to my fellow students, which was, “Do you understand that the frustration you feel about inequitable tuition increases can and should be applied and augmented when you think about how income taxes are administered in this country?”

Why should the non-residents and graduate students subsidize the resident undergraduates? Thought experiment: imagine many years into the future where tuition increases for non-residents and graduate students had compounded so much that the resident undergraduates were paying about the same amount (~$94/credit hour), but a resident professional student was paying the same amount for law school as law students at higher ranked private schools in the region. What would happen? We would see an exflux of students to go to school elsewhere. The unfairness would have reached an inflection point. This is basic human action, i.e. basic economics. People gravitate toward incentives and move away from disincentives.

Of course, the trustees will never let that happen, because they realize that while a certain amount of unfairness is good for the effecting their political purposes, too much will suffocate the incentive of the students who are subsidizing the preferred class of students. The University of Wyoming trustees are also not predisposed to increasing costs at random and though we may think they are wrong in their interpretation of the Wyoming Constitution, the scenario in the thought experiment will also never occur, because there is no rampant spending outside of the purview of the university.

Contrast this to the federal government, which, with each passing year seems to expose us to more and more obligations for which we have no desire and which have nearly nothing to do with living as Americans. The incentive of the Government is the same, but far more insidious, because its perception of its own scope is limited only as far as the east is from the west. A certain amount of unfairness toward their subjects is good for effecting the myriad and conflicting political purposes of our rulers in Washington. Again, too much will eventually suffocate the incentive of the wealthy and middle class who are subsidizing the poor more and more. In fact, progressive taxation and secret-taxation-by-inflation (the value of the dollar goes down and so do your dollar-denominated investments) will eventually turn the more and more of the middle class to poor. But that may be acceptable to the Government as it attempts to linearly program the maximum amount of power and wealth it can accrue before the system bursts. How long can it squeeze the wealth-makers and job-providers before the system collapses on itself?

Meanwhile, it may be simply easier for me to ignore such intractable politics and simply figure out how I can avoid paying an increase of $1000 next year as a non-resident law student.

One Response to “Let’s Not Get Political”

  1. chevas says:

    What’s up 7-up? A lot of people abuse discussions of politics by A.) assuming you are of one flavor or another, B.) by filibustering the conversation with ranting, or C.) by making every point of discussion related to politics. Most people have experienced one form of this kind of abuse or another regarding politics (and religion). It’s frustrating to those of us who would like to still have a meaningful conversation on the subject.

    The solution is to have boundaries. We need to tell the people who do A, B, and C to STFU, to speak with us as human beings and not political drones, or just exit.

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