The first few times I read Plato, I got annoyed at the format. His books are written like really didactic plays; probably half of the dialogue consists of Socrates’ various interlocutors saying things like, “It is certainly so, Socrates” and “Indubitably, Socrates.”

That said, the format does allow for a certain economy of expression. So in that spirit, here’s my attempt at an updated dialogue. My interlocutor is a politician who’s off the record.

Pol: You should run your college like a business.

Me: You mean charge more than the cost of production?

P: No! Don’t raise tuition! That’s like a tax increase!

Me: But that’s what businesses do. They charge more than their costs. That’s how they make profit.

P: No, no, no. I mean, be self-sufficient. I can’t get re-elected if I raise taxes to cover your costs.

Me: Oh. So we can fire people as needed to get costs down?

P: No! We have very restrictive laws about that. I can’t let the unions get mad at me!

Me: Can we at least offer early retirement incentives to get costs down?

P: No! Do you have any idea how that plays with the public?

Me: Hmm. So we should run like a business, but we should charge less than the cost of production, we’re not allowed to raise prices and we’re not allowed to cut costs.

P: Exactly! Be innovative! Be entrepreneurial!

Me: Entrepreneurial. So you’ll invest lots of venture capital?

P: Don’t be ridiculous. I mean, be self-sufficient.

Me: But without control over either prices or costs?

P: You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.

Me: I suppose we could ramp up our fundraising game. That might help.

P: Now you’re talking! Of course, we’ve been reducing the value of tax deductions for charitable contributions for years now. Side effect of tax cuts for high incomes. Sorry ’bout that.

Me: In a pinch, I guess we could sell off some property …

P: Great! Of course, as a public institution, you wouldn’t get to keep the proceeds. Maybe we could use the proceeds to provide tax incentives to lure businesses here!

Me: We’re already here.

P: Yes, but you don’t pay property taxes. With the right incentives, we could lure businesses.

Me: The right incentives?

P: You know, like tax abatements.

Me: So they wouldn’t pay taxes, either?

P: Don’t get cute. They’re the private sector. Have you tried partnering with them?

Me: Yes, we’ve been doing that for decades. We replenish the workforce.

P: Do the students make enough to pay back their loans? I’ve heard about those.

Me: Our median student debt is zero. Also, we don’t set wage levels. The private sector does. Ask them.

P: Maybe if we conditioned your funding on graduate salaries …

Me: So if they did well, we’d get more?

P: Nice try. No, we’ll motivate you to do better by cutting your funding.

Me: I thought businesses were rewarded by profit.

P: That’s different.

Me: It is certainly so, Socrates.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
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Tuesday, January 26, 2021