From David Frum's review in Sunday's New York Times of That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, which was reviewed here on Friday:
How about this statistic from Friedman and Mandelbaum: "Thirty years ago, 10 percent of California's general revenue fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons. Today nearly 11 percent goes to prisons and 8 percent to higher education."
Well, how about it? Mr. Frum — along with Messrs. Friedman and Mandelbaum — seem to suggest it demonstrates misplaced priorities, or some kind of drift in the wrong direction. But part of what that prison spending goes toward is keeping violent criminals off the streets, preventing them from perpetrating more crimes against innocent victims. A quick Internet search shows that the number of murders in California declined sharply, to 1,972 in 2009 from 3,411 in 1980, even as the population of California grew over the same period to 37 million from 24 million. Perhaps prison conditions during that period have also improved to be more humane. If the increased prison expenditures are because of a powerful or overpaid corrections officers union, that could be a problem. But if it has resulted in a sharply lower crime rate in California, making it safer to live there, perhaps the conditions today are preferable to those 30 years ago.
Likewise, what this statistic about general revenue funding for higher education tells us isn't how healthy or unhealthy California's higher education sector is, but rather how much of California's general revenue fund is going toward it. California lawmakers voted to raise tuition at the University of California's elite law schools and medical schools, figuring that lower-middle-class California taxpayers didn't need to be subsidizing the tuition for doctors and lawyers who would end up making lots of money. If the University of California is just as strong or stronger than it was 30 years ago, but more of its bills are being paid by the federal government (via Pell Grants and research contracts and competitive grants) or by voluntary donations by alumni and tuition payments by students rather than by California taxpayers, that isn't necessarily a bad thing, either. The UCSF medical school is widely considered among the nation's best, and U.C. Berkeley's law school routinely ranks in the top ten on the U.S. News survey, so it's not as if the system has been devastated. If anything, out of state students may be more willing to go to school there knowing that there are fewer violent criminals roaming the streets waiting to prey upon them, because more of the criminals are locked up in prisons than 30 years ago.
Of course, in an ideal world, would the prisoners not be prisoners and instead be graduate students in comparative literature? Sure. But it's not clear that such a world would be achievable by the simple act of the California legislature deciding to reallocate funding away from prisons and toward higher education. If California has more criminals and fewer university students now than it did 30 years ago, that's deplorable. But if it has the same number of criminals, but a larger proportion of them now are behind bars rather than at large threatening the population, that's a good thing, or at least preferable to the alternative.