By Christopher Newfield
from Remaking the University Webpage
In December I took a break from blogging about universities to write a set of overdue papers. That was interrupted by December’s Thomas Fire, which destroyed houses in Ventura County, including at least one UCSB faculty member’s, and threatened at several points to burn down Montecito and Santa Barbara as well. Thomas wound up as the largest fire in California history, but not the most destructive or deadly. That last part was entirely because of the powers of the public service known as fire protection.
I was traveling when the fire headed off west from Ventura County and entered Santa Barbara County. I obsessively watched live KEYT news coverage and the daily 4 pm meetings, while at other times Facebook messaging the TV station when their burn map wasn’t updating properly or they misidentified a canyon I recognized. My mother and youngest brother also live in the City of Santa Barbara; both were born and raised in Los Angeles; she has been through about 20 wildfires, and has been evacuated in both LA and SB at least 6 times. At one point on December 16th (the date of the photo above), I called her to say, “the new mandatory evacuation zone boundary is your street!” She said, “oh, that’s the other side of the street.” “Mom!” I replied. “Well,” she said, “my side is voluntary. I’m fine.” Later on a deputy who disagreed came knocking on her door, and she wound up flying north to stay with her sister for the next 10 days.
I couldn’t keep myself from comparing fire fighting and higher education during the community meetings. Every day, at least a dozen people representing different agencies spoke in an high school auditorium to anyone who wanted to show up. This included officials from Cal Fire, which I understood to be the lead coordinator of the many agencies involved in the effort, as well as the county sheriff, the local highway patrol captain, the US forestry service, county health, county air quality, animal rescue, city and county schools, the county fire battalion chief, various spokespeople from one or more of the many fire agencies from outside the county, and someone just back from emergency work in Puerto Rico. Each afternoon they described the efforts of what became 8100 firefighters working out of at least 2 base camps, hundreds of engine units, dozens of helicopters, a Boeing and an Airbus bombing the inaccessible slopes with retardant, and the invisible logistics, communication and management personnel along with the folks staffing the evacuation center at UCSB.
The first days laid out the underlying conditions–seven years of drought was now coupled with record low humidity to make the hillsides ready to burn even when the wind dropped, which it did not do reliably. Every day’s meeting updated the public on the evolving strategy, which in a sentence was to use bulldozed fire breaks and water drops and hand crews to push the fire towards the previous burns that Santa Barbara County has in abundance. New fuels don’t burn as well as old fuels–battalion chiefs apparently don’t see trees and brush, just variations of fuels. There were maps and plenty of repetition, especially from the police who wanted people to be patient with the blocked access and crowd control in the evacuated areas. The updates seemed to me to be relatively unvarnished. The tone at least was far removed from the PR messaging that has taken over public communications these days. It stayed rooted in a common problem that the fire agencies were trying to solve with the community. If the first round description of the day’s strategy was a bit too technical, the details were unfolded in questions and answers that went on as long as the audience was willing to stay via direct access to the officials in the room.
These fire meetings were a model of public engagement that I wish universities would use. The problems we address have a more distant horizon, but that’s the only difference.
There’s another issue raised by fire protection. Markets and fees were not involved. What was not happening was the allocation of this public service according to ability to pay. Protection was available to everyone equally on the basis of general provision through taxation. This was true even though private property was at stake–our excuse for charging tuition–such that every homeowner experienced a private market gain (a non-loss) when her house didn’t burn down.
You don’t have to imagine how the critique of “free firefighting” would sound– you hear it all the time with universities. “Fire protection does have some benefit to the national forest, but most of the benefit is to private property owners. Because public fire funding is expensive and lacks market discipline, we are cutting the funding and the basic service, so you are eligible for one free fire department call to your house every three years. If you need more fire service, we have many plans to fit every budget. Those with large private property benefits should buy Premier-level privatized firefighting–our ‘Ivy League Plan’ offers the fire protection equivalent of moving you from the bottom income quintile to the top one percent. For those who need more service but cannot afford it, the state has set up a Fire Aid Program to consider your application on a case by case basis, where you will submit your family financial and fire need information via our 12-page FASFA form (Free Application for Fire Supplemental Aid) . . .”
Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can allocate a public good through market mechanisms–the past four decades of public policy have shown this. The questions are why we would want to, and what we lose when we do. Education and fire protection are public goods and yet, contrary to a truism of economics, they are “rivalous” (the engine at my house is therefore not at your house), and “excludable” (full quality fire protection may cost more than your community can pay). Full quality firefighting depended on pulling dozens of crews from all over California and at least nine other states, on the strictly non-market basis of emergency service mutual aid.
Society has tended to treat higher ed as a private good because it can, because it saves wealthy, powerful people money, and also because it has not grasped the cost. The cost is clear in a fire: private fire protection would have
- a vast bureaucracy for internalizing returns by matching payments and services, which would have undermined Cal Fire-type managerial efficiencies;
- increased overall fire danger by overprotecting wealthy and under-protecting poorer home owners, whose losses would be not only a greater relative catastrophe but would also send embers onto richer roofs;
- prevented the massive general public firefighting effort on which the private firefighting is entirely parasitic;
- destroyed the wall-to-wall public support for an effort that was trying to help absolutely everybody at the same time.
The silver lining in the giant Thomas smoke cloud was the public good that isn’t clotted with private interests. We want our towns not to burn down because of global warming. We want our kids to be smarter than we are, since that is our only hope. In such cases, we finally don’t want to use price signals to allocate according to individual ability to pay rather than to get the broadest allocation of the best possible quality for maximized general benefit.
The glory of civilization is not the market signal but almost its opposite–the intelligence that emerges in general collaboration as people figure things out together for the immediate and the long term. The University of California, Cal State Channel Islands, Santa Barbara City College–not to mention Hollywood High Schoo–are all more like Cal Fire than they are like Genentech. We need a rebuilt public funding model that reflects that basic fact.
Today the helicopters are back, this time chasing floods. Many thanks to all the public personnel who saved (most of) our bacon last year–including the state prisoners on the fire’s front lines. Welcome to 2018, and please keep your eyes wide open.