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Watch out for Baumol's "Cost Disease"

Posted By: Ross Mitchell on November 19, 2003
I am sorry, but I don't know how many work places are not air conditioned, though certainly agricultural field workers to do not have AC.

However, we should also ask:
Should schools be air conditioned?

My point here is that we have to watch out for the "cost disease" described by Baumol, which he says applies to both education and health care. Since education and health do not directly return a profit or taxable benefit, the systems that support these personal and societal values can easily increase in cost at rate far greater than inflation.

Of course, we may decide that a greater share of our wealth should be transferred to schooling and the health care system, as opposed to other facets of the political economy, but without this decision we cannot afford to add all of life's amenities in equal share to the schools as we do to other endeavors. Eventually, other valued structures, services, and enterprises will have to receive less support without an increased rate of government revenue. This is particularly an issue since it is difficult to know how much, if at all, the increased costs are going to be offset by lowered costs associated with better health, greater employability, more competent and responsible performance of daily living, etc.

And regardless of the collective commitment to making a priority for resources to be transferred to the education (and health) systems, resources are scarce, not limitless. For example, the energy consumption of AC/heating, computers, transportation, etc. has costs associated with pollution, destruction of landscape and habitats, infrastructure development, etc. I am neither advocating the abandonment of technological advance nor interfering with the efforts to improve the lives of those who do not share the same creature comforts, but I do think we cannot pretend that overcoming nature is truly possible nor necessarily life sustaining.

On a different point, drawing directly from the historical insights reported by Weiss and Brown, and by Gold, we really do have to ask how much time should we expect children to attend school for their education and when is that time best scheduled?

It is abundantly clear that schooling served the police interests of the urban dwellers as much, if not more than, the educational interests of the community. The shift to the multi-track year-round calendar in Los Angeles in recent decades -- primarily a cost-saving measure in response to not enough school housing for the number of students enrolling -- demonstrates how the schools remain an important part of urban policing. When the calendar changed it was obvious that knowing whether or not children should be in school instead of on the streets became more complicated. There were no days when you should expect all school-age children and youth to be in school during school hours. The LAPD found it more difficult to quickly and easily be part of the system of social support for the prevention of truancy and crime because they could no longer assume that young people were supposed to be in school!

In looking at the history and the present of the political economy of public schooling, particularly the notable element of the calendar, I think we have to recognize that the ideal must be balanced with the sustainable. If we allow our beliefs and desires to outstrip our capacity then the net result is loss.
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