Friday, November 25, 2011

Solidarity Comrades! Pepper Spray Galore

I did not think that I would have an opinion that is compared to fascism or Naziism.  Having read so much about the news going on around the rest of the world, it is an odd experience for the news to be where I am.  It is something that makes me even more skeptical of what I may read, considering the onslaught of lies and hyperbole from an issue that I do not think is worthy of anything more than local concern.  I have been relieved to hear that many of my friends and colleagues are similarly disgusted with the bloated coverage of a relatively trivial event.

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

Given that this is probably the most popular perspective that the public has been exposed to, it is of little surprise that they are vehemently outraged.  The above paragraph is part of Assistant English Professor Nathan Brown's open letter calling for Chancellor Katehi's resignation.  It would seem to be a scathing report of police brutality that deserves serious scrutiny.  The only problem is that none of it is true.  The police did not use batons to push students apart.  They did not push people's heads into the ground.  They did not hold anyone who was pepper-sprayed.  There were unfortunately two students hospitalized for treatment, but there is no indication that anyone was seriously injured.  No one had pepper spray forced down his or her throat.  The pepper spraying may have been an excessive use of force on the protesters, but it was no massive display of unprovoked police brutality.  Professor Brown's histrionic rhetoric has obfuscated the situation.  No, Chancelor Katehi and police forces are not "the primary threat to the health and safety of our university community." 

It is not so much the message of the Occupy Wall Street protesters that I have a problem with.  I am not going to hide the fact that I am unabashedly liberal, and I do see a problem with the rampant inequality in the country.  I am not going to get very political here, except say that I think that the movement has oversimplified the problem and the "solutions" are implausible and economically illogical.  Unfortunately, instead of developing a more coherent agenda, the protesters turned a legitimate gripe into a "non-violent" war against the police and the "system."  The pepper spray victims have been recognized as heroes in the eye of the media and public opinion.  Regardless of the legality or the morality of the police's actions, I think that it is simply wrong to view disobedient citizens as "heroes" for ignoring police orders.

Most people are simply lacking in perspective of the situation.  The "Occupy Davis" movement had gained little headway, regularly displaying a couple of broken signs and a few tents in a park in downtown Davis.  The police made no attempt to disband this.  However, when some students decided to set up tents on the quad, the administration told them that this was not permissible.  I do not think that it unreasonable to prevent the center of campus from becoming a tent city.  This does not diminish the right of students to express themselves freely.  However, even after days of warning, the students refused to move their tents.  They were given a final deadline of 3:00 on Friday and they still refused to budge.  The police were called in to dispatch of the tents and evacuate the protesters from the quad.  I do think that a riot squad was excessive; the movement was still relatively small.  However, it is a bit misleading to say that the protesters were simply peaceful.  They were breaking campus rules, and would not budge even when the police came.  I was not actually present when the police arrived, so I cannot give a full account on what transpired.  However, I can offer some perspective based on eyewitness accounts and Youtube videos.  

After the police took down the tents, the protesters proceeded to form a blockade on the quad sidewalk. I guess that is what they call peaceful civil disobedience.  However, I do not think that it unreasonable to prevent such a blockade and it is certainly not an assault on free speech to do so.  Many of the protesters seemed to heckle the police, with a few shouting "Fuck the police, from Davis to Greece."  The police attempted on multiple occasions to convince the protesters to unlink arms and leave the quad.  There was no sudden police action on the heckling crowd.  After a three-minute warning, a policeman showed the crowd a pepper spray bottle and shook it for a couple of seconds.  Instead of dispersing, the protesters held firmly and most put their heads down.  Among the protesters who were finally arrested, at least one went limp so he would be "violently" dragged away, while another resisted by curling up into a ball.  Anyone who thinks that this is a violent suppression of speech needs to get some perspective on actual police states, like Egypt and Syria.  If the pepper spraying at Davis is one of the most significant examples of police brutality in America, then there is no police brutality in America.  There are many tangible problems in America, and we must do more than link arms and deride the authorities and the privileged to solve them. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Harvard, Economics, and Occupy Wall Street (hopefully more to come)

There have been many things that I have wanted to write about, but I have been more than a little lazy in putting my thoughts into words.  To be honest, I actually haven't been following the Occupy Wall Street movement that closely.  I will say that I am not necessarily supportive of the movement.  Then again, if you know me, you know that I am highly skeptical of almost everything.  I believe that recent controversy at Harvard is an example of the protest movement gone wrong.

The source of conflict is the professor of introductory economics at Harvard, Gregory Mankiw.  It is no secret that universities are made up of overwhelmingly liberal professors, so perhaps it is inevitable that a rather prominent conservative would cause quite a stir.  A group of students wrote an open letter to Mankiw explaining their opposition to the class's conservative agenda.  Around 70 students conducted an organized walkout on his lecture. I am somewhat dismayed, but not completely surprised to see a complete lack of understanding of basic economics from the Harvard students.  The letter states that "[t]here is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory."  Of course, it ignores the fact that the first semester (as in current semester) of the course covers microeconomics, while Keynes is famous for his macroeconomic theories.

This response to the letter and ensuing walkout is a good description of my feelings towards the issue.  There is absolutely no reason to believe that Mankiw is denying students a quality economics education.  I doubt that the material is much different from the material taught in AP Economics at high school.  Some of protesters have brought up issues of rent control and the minimum wage as examples of bias.  I remember both of these issues used as examples of the problems of price ceilings and price floors.  While there is certainly debate over the real effect of the minimum wage on unemployment, especially at its current level, there is nothing wrong with using it as an example of the theoretical impact of price controls.  Both are probably mentioned in every introductory microeconomics class.  Perhaps the students should attempt to understand the material before blindly disregarding it.

Having followed Mankiw's blog for the past few months, I can say with certainty that I have many conflicts with his proposals and opinions.  He is definitely a conservative in his economic policies, but he is not a blind political conservative.  For example, he is an enthusiastic supporter of a carbon tax, which also happens to be my ideal economic policy implementation.  Although I often disagree with Mankiw, I respect him as a PHD economist and a reputable source of economic happenings.  The departed students should trust his knowledge of basic economics.  There is nothing wrong with learning from someone that you disagree with.  Just suck it up and go to class.