College

California's Costly Experiment With Online Community College Is a Textbook Example of Government Failure

This should be a lesson for anyone who thinks the government should run health care, child care, and just about anything else.

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There are two basic ways to provide goods or services. The first is to let people sell whatever they choose as they seek profit (or do so on a nonprofit basis out of a sense of mission). Through a system of voluntary arrangements, businesses succeed or fail based on their talents, dumb luck and the fickle demands of consumers.

The second is to empower the government to extract money from the general population through taxes and fees. Instead of competing to lure consumers, public agencies provide goods and services at the direction of bureaucrats appointed by elected officials. "Customers" pay whatever they're billed—and are stuck with whatever is offered.

Oddly, Americans increasingly believe that the second way best provides for the necessities of life even though it's based on force and politics—rather than freedom and choice. Despite the ever-growing list of governmental failures, people want the government to offer healthcare and even educate our children.

Let's take a small example from the world of public education. K-14 schools grab at least 40 percent of the state's $267-billion general-fund budget. Private schools and publicly funded (but privately operated) charter schools handled the COVID-19 emergency with amazing efficiency and aplomb, by quickly transitioning to distance learning.

One need only read the news reports of the public schools' disastrous attempts at online schooling—and at how the teachers' unions dragged their heels on school re-openings. Despite these hard-to-ignore results, the Legislature is advancing legislation (Assembly Bill 1316) that clamps down on charter schools that specialize in distance learning. Bureaucracies really hate competition.

Meanwhile, the California State Auditor recently released a report about the state's online charter school, known as Calbright. Created by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, this state-run college has operated so incompetently that a Legislature that has never seen a government program it doesn't like has been trying to shut it down.

The Legislature created Calbright because of a failure of the public community college system to provide adequate at-home learning for adults in the 25- to 34-year-old range who lack a college education. As usual, the reasons for creating a new government program were reasonable—but also, as usual, the resulting program is a disaster.

As the auditor explained, the college "did not develop a detailed strategy for how and when Calbright would spend the more than $175 million in state funding it expects to receive through June 2025 to accomplish key milestones. In the absence of such a plan, the purpose of its spending to date is unclear, and neither the Legislature nor the public can effectively assess its progress. The majority of its students have either dropped out or stopped making progress in their studies."

If the first way were at work, a school that performed as poorly as Calbright would go out of business and students would choose a better alternative. With the government way, the state's taxpayers lose tens of millions of dollars. In most cases of government incompetence, the agency might get even more tax money to address its problems.

The state legislature might actually shutter Calbright—but not because it is any more incompetent than other publicly run schools. In this case, unions and their supporters oppose Calbright's existence because they want the money instead spent on more faculty for the brick-and-mortar community college system. None of this nonsense should surprise anyone.

Years ago, I attended a conference of government planners where a speaker mocked the first way, as epitomized by 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith. "The rich," Smith wrote, "are led by an Invisible Hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the Earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants."

The speaker thought it astounding that people still believe as Smith did—that allowing individuals to pursue their self-interest will lead to the greatest good for the vast majority of people. The Invisible Hand sounds incomprehensible compared to, say, letting experts direct the economy based on "science" and noble concepts of the "public good," but it's also the reason that we live in a relatively peaceful, productive and wealthy society.

Recently, I needed a specialized part to repair a bathroom faucet. I went to the hardware store and had several choices at minuscule cost. A planner in the California Department of Widgets didn't figure out what plumbing assemblies should be produced and then sold at a neighborhood store. Instead, an invisible series of manufacturing, distribution, and retail arrangements accomplished that feat.

The same magical dynamic could work for education—and certainly for online schooling. Supporters of Calbright argued that the state needed to provide working students with an alternative to for-profit providers, but again we see that government direction never lives up to its grandiose promises.  How many Calbrights do we need before we understand that point?

This column was first published by The Orange County Register.

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  1. As is clear from the example of China, central planning is much more efficient than the free market. How can a system without someone to direct things possibly work? You need to have a plan for things to work!

    And don’t bother pointing to all the numerous examples of how central planning inevitably fails, the people running those schemes were incompetent fools, we now know better than they do, it will work this time.

    1. China isn’t a centrally planned economy. It’s an autocratic police state sitting on top of a remarkably laissez-faire market. The government imposes almost nothing in the way of hard regulations (though if you aren’t friends with the right people you will suffer no end of mysterious extra-legal problems until you fail).

      1. “Remarkably laissez-faire market” — you sound a little ignorant of modern China. For example, Beijing is very hands-on when it comes to enviornmental issues. They recognized that local governments were taking quick development money without doing the reviews necessary to prevent catastrophe.

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      2. “It’s an autocratic police state sitting on top of a remarkably laissez-faire market.”

        It is not a hallmark of fascism to not own but control the means of production? I’ve long though that China moved into this realm, under the guise of communism, decades ago.

        1. Yes, that’s the definition fascism. Our current best example is Obamacare.

      3. “though if you aren’t friends with the right people you will suffer no end of mysterious extra-legal problems until you fail”

        I have had several Russian friends describe the USSR and present day Russia in the same way.

        1. Come to think of it, I have had several Americans describe doing business in Chicago the same way.

          1. I’ve heard the same about New Jersey

      4. Not to mention, should you manage to embarrass the government, your good fortune could get you killed. Like using lead paint on whatever the cheap plastic stuff they sold to us.

    2. Isn’t it funny how the very people who denounce American Exceptionalism resort to it the moment that it is pointed out that their grandiose plans have failed elsewhere?

    3. The best form of government is a good czar. Unfortunately, there are very few good ones.

    4. “How many Calbrights…before we understand…” In Russia, it took 74 years of 5-years plans that failed before Russians rebelled against communism, replacing it with fascism, another form of socialism, so…? Before communism, czars/nobles ran Russia. Again, it was still an economic system based on force, threats, no choice, no property rights. So, socialism, sold as a new system to serve the masses, used the same means as the old system and the means determined the result, but that is ignored as people focus of the goal, as if means were irrelevant.
      The means, not the goal, determines the end. Coercion is immoral/impractical.
      Freedom, i.e., politically, liberty, works, but enjoys no support. The US Empire is coercive govt., at home/abroad, born in liberty, dying from a faith in force instilled from childhood by authoritarians.

  2. “Oddly, Americans increasingly believe that the second way best provides for the necessities of life even though it’s based on force and politics—rather than freedom and choice. Despite the ever-growing list of governmental failures, people want the government to offer healthcare and even educate our children.”

    Here’s a thought- if the private sector had at all solved these challenges already then there’d be absolutely no need for the government to get involved in the first place.

    1. Actually, there is ALWAYS a reason for big government to get involved. And I am betting you know what that “reason” is.

      And, there is a yuge difference between local governments (counties, municipalities, or neighborhoods), addressing a problem, rather than the Feds or the States dictating “solutions.”

      1. yuge difference indeed. One is waaay more incompetent than the other.

      2. The problem with regulations is that the government is not dictating solutions, its dictating punishments and its up to you to figure out how to skirt around the regulations with minimal impact on your wallet.

    2. And you miss the point. Again. Deliberately.

    3. If the government had at all solved these challenges already then there’d be absolutely no need for the private sector to get involved in the first place.

      But as is the case in private hospitals, private schools, private banks, private anything….governments the world over and throughout history have done a piss poor job of doing anything competently let alone well and the private sector has been able to deliver better results at less cost.

      If the government is so effective at delivering results why has the War on Poverty lasted more than a generation, the War on Drugs for 40 years and the War on Terror for 20?

    4. What a damned fool you have turned out to be!
      Almost every single problem government “fixes” was caused by government intervention last time around.

      1. At the risk of repeating myself and stop me if you’ve heard this before: This time it’s different.

      2. Hear! Hear!

    5. It’s not that people want government to provide these things, it’s that they want government to pay for those things, and when government pays the bill, people are far less critical of the results than they would be if they were footing the bill. Reason# 1,028,575 why government is so preposterously incompetent and inefficient.

    6. Why is anyone responding to Tony’s sock account.

      1. I call it the temptation of trolls. It’s like a train wreck, very hard to not watch, or respond to all of the straw men it produces.

    7. Yes, no complex system of living things could ever function without a grand plan and hordes of dedicated managers.

      So, you are a creationist?

      1. Government created it. As we all know, we didn’t build this, government did.

    8. The private sector does offer healthcare and can educate children, shitlunches.

    9. “How many Calbrights do we need before we understand that point?”

      According to raspberry dinette, aka Tony’s sock, there is no limit as long as the intentions are good by him.

    10. “…Here’s a thought- if the private sector had at all solved these challenges already then there’d be absolutely no need for the government to get involved in the first place…”

      Here’s another thought: Lefty shits like you claim to know what those ‘solutions’ should be for every one. And you’re full of shit.

    11. Call me a cynic, but I frankly think that a large portion of the ‘problems’ the government wants to solve are consequences of how it tried to solve those problems last time.

      You say ‘health care’ is a mess? How much of that mess is a result of past meddling? The government has been screwing around with ‘health care’ (Provider price setting and the health insurance market) more or less constantly since WWII, and it started earlier. What we see now is a huge pile of bandages, with very little idea what’s underneath.

  3. I took a few classes there. “Street Yoga”, “Recyclable Tent Construction”, “Heroin Production”, “NARCAN Administration” and of course, 18 courses in “Community Organizin”.

  4. I tend to think sometimes there are scale issues as well. NH has a state operated liquor store system and a state sponsored online charter school. Both work reasonably well. The liquor store prices are the lowest in the Northeast and the charter school has a comprehensive set of offerings. Neither are drains on state coffers.

    So although I’d still prefer both are private, Government operated things can work when they’re established with the right incentive structures.

    1. Your state liquor stores are open for like 8 hours a day.

      If prices are the lowest then that will be because the difference is made up through hidden taxes elsewhere.

      1. Lowest in the Northeast…that qualifier says it all. They’re competing with Massachusetts and Maine, two of the craziest states when it comes to alcohol taxation and regulation in the US. Other than the Pacific Northwest and Utah, New England is the most expensive place to drink in the US.

        He also think Qatar is a very open and free Arab society…better than Syria or Iran, amirite?

    2. “So although I’d still prefer both are private, Government operated things can work when they’re established with the right incentive structures.”

      What incentives? Both are operated by civil servants who a) want a job and b) want a pension.

    3. The sheer size of California is most definitely one of the reasons California is dysfunctional.

      1. Now do Earth.

        1. Nobody has established an Earth government, thank goodness.

      2. The sheer size of California is most definitely one of the reasons California is dysfunctional.

        And yet it was much, much better a mere 30-40 years ago. Could it be all those immigrants from the East Coast, Midwest, or South?

        1. I personally saw two immigrations that were kind of bummers. A bunch of people from the east coast in the 1990s, which destroyed a lot of the beach bungalow era vibe in L.A. Then immigrations of Marketing and Financial management types into Santa Clara Valley that destroyed the semi-hippy vibe of high-tech companies.

    4. Government operated things can work when they’re established with the right incentive structures.

      Yeah – to this day the best-run utility I’ve ever seen is the power company owned and operated by the City of Lodi, CA. They have a carve-out from the PG&E domain, and in the context where you have the choice between “private” behemoth PG&E, which is a monopoly tightly shackled by the state, and a publicly-owned utility operating over a relatively small, low-density area, the publicly-owned utility operates way better.

    5. WA state used to have state run liquor stores. The state consistently lost. Only running a monopoly.

  5. I had a think the other day, wondering why people continually support government running things even when they admit show poorly they run other things already. It comes down to predictability. Just as businesses hate arbitrary changes in regulations and are happier with lousy over-regulation than unpredictable light regulation, so are people happier without lousy predictable government service than unpredictable businesses who are cheaper and have better service and more variety.

    A lot is related to government already sticking its nose in so much of our daily lives. It dulls people’s annoyance at government ineptitude; they already have to deal with forms and burrocracy and lines and terrible service from burrocrats with attitude, so it’s tolerable to have to deal with them yet again if it eliminates the uncertainty of figuring out which private business to deal with.

    1. Most people have never been exposed to the idea that there is any alternative to the government running things. It doesn’t help, of course, that most people are products of public schools.

      1. Yes! And of course government schools “teach” how great government running stuff is.

        1. And of course government schools “teach” how great government running stuff is.

          The saving grace being that they, of course, suck at it.

  6. A very common liberal trope is that the US spends much more on health care than enlightened Euro nations, and gets worse outcomes. Thus government control is better.

    But they never mention (and probably don’t know) that the US spends more on K-12 education than those same nations, and gets worse outcomes. Why is this not condemnation of government control?

    1. A very common liberal trope is that the US spends much more on health care than enlightened Euro nations, and gets worse outcomes

      And isn’t that at least in part because we have a lot more elective health care on offer here? I.e., in this country you’re free to spend your healthcare dollars on things that don’t impact the Public Health metrics, while in other countries you are not?

      I would be interested to see what those numbers would look like if we excluded all US spending that wouldn’t be allowed in Europe. I suspect we would find that the efficiency of European health systems is rather overstated.

      1. And how much of the health care spend goes into the pockets of lawyers in big lawsuits, or their insurance companies? The litigousness of the US is what drives up health care costs.

        1. Partly, but a big chunk is the disconnect between the provision of services and the bill

          Since my most folks are paying a copay and nothing more, there is no incentive to ask about price, alternative services or the necessity of a procedure.

  7. Medicare for All does not mean the government would run health care. It just means it would pay for it.

    1. No, it means it would pay for part of it, at least at the current scale of health services. Magic fairies would pay for the rest. (And convince providers that they have to accept Medicare patients.)

    2. “Medicare for All does not mean the government would run health care. It just means it would pay for it.”

      That is NOT the way it works in the real world. Government regulates every program in which it invests money. Politicians will, ultimately, decide who gets care, and also the nature of that care.

      1. Death panels are coming….no, they are here already. Medicare is pretty selective sometimes. Medicare for all would merely subject millions more to the vagaries of the bureaucracy – one from which there is NO EXIT.

    3. Not just pay for it – government would also set standards of care. Hard pass.

    4. Parody or retard?

  8. About a decade ago I was at a GOP convention manning a booth. The next booth over was a major political candidate who basically hired a bunch of college kids, without vetting, to man her booth. And they were idiots.

    The one guy wandered over to see what we were about, and it was clear from the start that he was a raving progressive who was only manning a booth at a GOP convention to earn points for his Poli Sci class. I was explaining that were a free market organization, and he immediately had the same reaction as in the story to Adam Smith. Silliness that no one with a college degree should pay any attention to.

    He then went on to assert that the government does indeed directly manage the economy at all levels. Trying to explain how markets work, I asked how he thought apples made their way to the grocery store. “Do you think there is a government committee that decides how many apples your local Safeway should receive in the morning? And from which farm they should come?”

    His answer, “yes”. And he was being serious. He had this idea that during the night all these government lorries went around distribution inventory to stores.

    A Poli Sci student from a major university. It’s ten years later. I bet he’s working from some congressmen. This scares the shit out of me, but what puckers my sphincter more than anything is the thought that he was not alone.

    It’s not so much that too many people are statist, it’s that too many people don’t have the first fucking clue as to how the world works. People who are in their early to mid twenties before they even get their first job.

    1. “A Poli Sci student from a major university. It’s ten years later. I bet he’s working from some congressmen. This scares the shit out of me, but what puckers my sphincter more than anything is the thought that he was not alone.”

      And then add to that that many Senators and Presidents would struggle with walking into a grocery store and buying groceries, or doing a load of laundry, or changing a flat tire.

      1. He’s secretary of Transportation.

    2. There needs to be a constitutional amendment banning the practice of Marxism. Then we can filter these people out. They do too much damage to tolerate them any further.

  9. “Private schools and publicly funded (but privately operated) charter schools handled the COVID-19 emergency with amazing efficiency and aplomb, by quickly transitioning to distance learning.”

    This may be mostly true, but to assert it as a blanket and unqualified statement is just wrong.

    1. Yes, he should have added: “Almost all…” and “…learning, while the public schools wasted a whole year of schooling, largely due to evil teacher’s unions and scare-mongering politicians.”

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  11. Of course, California has to step in an set up an online education course. Because we all know, there is a dearth of information, knowledge, and instructional material on the internet.

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  12. [The Invisible Hand sounds incomprehensible compared to, say, letting experts direct the economy based on “science” and noble concepts of the “public good,”]

    Except that “science” and “public good” seem to translate into “The factory that makes the product is located in the committee chair’s legislative district.”

  13. But as is the case in private hospitals, private schools, private banks, private anything….governments the world over and throughout history have done a piss poor job of doing anything competently let alone well and the private sector has been able to deliver better results at less cost.( https://wapexclusive.com ) If the government is so effective at delivering results why has the War on Poverty lasted more than a generation, the War on Drugs for 40 years and the War on Terror for 20?

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  15. Whenever you ask yourself whether the Federal government is amazing at unintended consequences, study the rise and outcome of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It has spent so much money we could have bought every American a house and a rental property, and not concentrated poverty. The scariest words you’ll ever hear are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

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