Monday, November 21, 2011

Don't hollow out the military; shrink it

The military establishment is claiming that across-the-board budget cuts would "hollow out" the military. They are probably right -- the USA probably cannot maintain a global military presence with a smaller military budget.

The solution is clear: pull back on the military's forward deployment and aggressive posturing. For instance, don't establish a new base in Darwin, Australia.

Let's see if that becomes part of the debate. I bet only Ron Paul would make this point.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"See the violence inherent in the system"

Previously, I described how some of the Occupy tactics were inherently radical and were an open challenge to the authority of the established system of power (i.e. law enforcement). In such a situation, the protesters should expect a forceful response. However, that does not mean that I believe that they deserved what they got. A humane (and self-confident) system should not resort to such violence in order to enforce its laws on non-violent resisters.

One of the main distinctions that I made was between breaking the law and obstructing law-enforcement. Law breaking is not radical, especially if the law-breakers passively accept being arrested; obstructing law-enforcement is radical. While I think that the Nov 9 protests at UC Berkeley fall into the later category, the Nov 18 protests at UC Davis seem to be a simple act of law-breaking, yet it was met with a similar level of violence (update below). Here's the video:

Given the brutal responses to these Occupy Cal protests, and other Occupy protests around the country, the public mood is starting to change (at least, mine is). William Lind provides an interesting comment on the tactical achievements of these protests. James Fallows offers some well-worded comments from the mainstream liberal perspective.
this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population... And by the way, when did we accept the idea that local police forces would always dress up in riot gear that used to be associated with storm troopers and dystopian sci-fi movies?
Now brutal police tactics are becoming the issue. Public outrage over police behavior can move in two directions -- reform or revolution. Of course, reform is what mainstream liberals (and probably most of the student protestors) are hoping for; they want a system that is basically like today's, but a little more sensitive to people's rights and needs. The alternative is a radical restructuring of our social relations, which is probably the desired outcome for some of the protesters. The non-violent protests of Nov 9 were bound to provoke some sort of forceful response -- yet they were still not violent. They force observers to ask themselves whether "the system" is worth this sort of violence. My preferred outcome is a little of each -- that we strongly question the law enforcement mandates (such as drug prohibition) that have enlarged our police forces and created constant conflict between law enforcement and much of the public (a hope echoed by E.D. Kain)

It all brings to mind a scene the comic/satirical classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- when some peasants refuse to recognize the authority King Aurthur and are subsequently manhandled into submission:

Come, see the violence inherent in the system.

Update: I found another video of the UC Davis event that shows a broader perspective, and it looks like the line of students were blocking the cops who were trying to leave with a protestor who they had arrested. So these students were obstructing law-enforcement.

Update 2: This 3-part video shows the whole confrontation. In part 2, around 6 minutes, you can see the crowd encircling the cops yelling "set them free" after which a "mic check" is held and someone announces that they cops will be allowed to leave only if they release the people who they had arrested (for setting up camps, or something).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy America

Shit. I'm starting to get the feeling that America is under occupation...

New Video of Police Brutality at Occupy Oakland - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine

What is the economic value of a college degree?

I've been pondering whether tuition-free university education for everyone is a worthwhile ideal (I doubt it). However, some people claim that such opportunities are essential to prevent the economic division of our society into "haves and have-nots". One of the favorite statistics offered by this crowd is the income difference between people with degrees and those without. Any educated person should recognize that such statistics are just the starting point for deciding what the value of a degree is (i.e. correlation is not causation). The obvious considerations is that people who complete college tend to have been born with more opportunities in their life (colleges select for motivated people from higher SES groups), and that these are surely contributing to the income differences, independent of actually attending college. There is also the feature of "indentured servitude" resulting from college debt -- the graduates HAVE to work hard to cover their expenses.

Anyway, I found one good discussion of what the value may be (though it isn't a proper analysis of the factors involved). For the most part it provides recommendations for books and reports looking at the issue.

Something more for me to read.

Occupy Cal: what can you learn at university?

Part I: Occupy Cal, and the function of the university
Part II: Occupy Cal: The exclusive university

The Occupy Cal protestors have accused the university of functioning to divide the "haves" from the "have nots". Everyone recognizes that attending a university can provide economic advantages, and that many people are not able to attend a university (especially not their top-choice), so it's easy to see the logic behind that assertion of divisiveness. I argued that the exclusivity of universities contributes to their economic efficiency and educational effectiveness, so increasing enrollment and decreasing tuition is not an option. How can a university provide its services without excluding a large portion of our society from economic, intellectual, social, and political opportunities?

To address this issue, I intend to examine the benefits that the university provides to its students, and whether the university structure is the only way (or even the best way) for most people to gain those benefits. If there are alternative ways to acquire those benefits that do not require selectivity in admissions, then the university can either reform to adopt those more inclusive practices, or alternative institutions can provide these services to the people who were excluded from the university.

Since the professed ideal of the university is to advance learning, I'll start with that topic (a separate post will address the issue of getting "one's foot in the door" by way of professional networking and credentials). As described below, I do not believe that an institution like the University of California is the appropriate context for most people to study.

To begin, it is worth noting that many people -- both those who hold degrees and those who don't -- dismiss the effectiveness of formal education, especially higher education (see yesterday's comment). Many people are fond of the expression "The only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school.", or dismiss degrees as "Bull Shit, More Shit, Piled Higher and Deeper". I can attest that many people have developed strong critical thinking and writing skills without formal "higher education". There are also many examples of successful entrepreneurs who did not attend a university. A degree clearly is not a perfect predictor of economic or intellectual potential. Likewise, I have seen many students (in both high school and universities) who clearly had no motivation for book learning, and were therefore wasting their time by enrolling in classes; they would have learned more at almost any job.

With that being said, I do believe that many people (including myself) benefit greatly from the education offered at a university. I can think of no better way to quickly absorb a field of knowledge than to have a series of experts tell you what to study and how to verify that you have learned it. During that four-year grind through one abstraction after the next, it can be helpful to have a carrot dangled in front of you (in the form of a degree and the opportunities it offers) to make sure you stay focused and learn the full breadth of knowledge within the field.

What may be apparent for the above regimen is that there is no reason that it should cost $15,000 a year (UC budget pdf). Many universities have placed their curricula online specifically to facilitate independent study, and professors regularly post their syllabi online for their students. If a student studies 10 subjects in a year, then books should cost about $1000 if they are being purchased from the university book store, and work is being done to lower this price. If this is all a university offers (as some people suggest that it is), then a motivated student should be able to teach themselves the standard subjects without the expense or bother of the university.

The problem with the above setup is that it does not provide the student with either the peer group or the expert feedback that can address the student's confusions and assure that he does not walk away with a false understanding of the topic. If simply finding a few study partners were sufficient, then a university would not be needed-- meeting at the local library should be possible. However, it may not be easy to find good study partners from the general population; the academic exclusivity of the university (applied even at the level of individual courses) identifies groups of students with similar capabilities, and the administrative structure of the class pressures students to study the material at the same pace. If we could develop a system to allow independent students to find appropriate study partners -- those who are able to study the topic at the specified pace-- then this benefit of the university would be diminished. One troubling possibility is that by attracting competent students to their community, the university depletes their availability in the outside community, and essentially gains leverage via a network effect and a sort of "vendor lock-in" applying to the higher-education industry as a whole.

But leaving aside the availability of study partners, we still have to consider the traditional explanation for why the university is a good learning environment -- expert guidance. Peers often cannot identify each other's mistakes or explain concepts effectively. Only experts can reliably correct students or answer their questions. This part of teaching is very labor intensive, and since the labor comes from experts, it can be very expensive. To top it off, upper-level classes (in sciences, at least) often cover current research topics and rely on the extensive expertise of the instructor. Sometimes the course material is so new that it has not been synthesized into any standard text, and a detailed syllabus cannot be provided prior to the beginning of the semester. At this level, the content of the course can sometimes be dominated by the contribution of the students themselves, and relies on an extensive shared body of knowledge that can be hard to create outside of a formal program with several years of instruction.

The expense of this type of education forces us to ask "exactly what kind of higher education can be provided to the entire population?". Higher education is typically divided into three categories, and California supports all three as public institutions: the research university, the teaching university, and the community college. The first category is the most expensive to maintain, in part because it demands the highest level of expertise from the faculty (expertise arising from ongoing cutting-edge research). This is what I'm normally thinking of when I discuss the university, and the exclusiveness arises directly from the fact that there simply are not enough experts at this level to teach every student in this style. Furthermore, most students probably would not benefit from the type of instruction offered by these experts; only students who have mastered the broad knowledge of a field of study are at a level to understand what these professors are trying to teach. To top it off, these professors are not necessarily the best teachers, and they stereotypically have a hard time explaining concepts to people who do not already have extensive knowledge of the field.

The alternative is to learn from those experts who decided to focus on teaching, with research being a minor part of their activities (all people who hold a Ph.D. in sciences have successfully conducted research at some point). These professors are often better teachers than the professors who focus on research -- having more experience at teaching, and paying more attention to the theory of teaching. These professors would probably be the main workforce of "universal higher education". At the large research universities they often teach the lower-level classes, and they dominate at the smaller colleges that don't maintain active research programs. The third group of experts are those who have mastered their field of study, but have not conducted research of their own. We commonly see this among high-school teachers and the teaching-assistants at universities, but there is no reason that this level of expertise wouldn't be sufficient for most adult learning. My impression is that many instructors at the community college level have this sort of expertise.

The point of all of this is that when we talk about "universal higher education", we shouldn't be thinking of institutions like the University of California -- we should be thinking of the California Community Colleges. Rather than focusing on the institutions that educate the students with the greatest academic achievement, we should be focusing on the institutions that help the people who have had the most trouble. Even if the coursework offered by these institutions is no more advanced than that offered by many high-schools, there is still value in making these services available to the general public because many people were unable to learn these topics in high school, for a variety of reasons.

Focusing on community colleges rather than 4-year bachelor-degree programs is not only much more cost effective (~1/3 of the cost for instruction, as I understand it), but it also is more compatible with the ideal of a widely-educated population. Community colleges are spread throughout the community (as their name implies), enabling students to take classes without structuring their entire lives around study. This saves a lot of money that would have to be spent on room and board, and also allows a student to attend classes while holding down a regular job or raising children. While universities are attempting to be more accommodating to "non-traditional" (i.e. older) students, the basic structure of the 4-year program is optimized for young adults with no family commitments, and it would be foolish to try to extend that to the entire population.

Finally, we need to consider the elitist attitudes that prevent us from allocating our intellectual resources in a way that includes everyone. This "elitism" does not arise from the pragmatic exclusivity of the institutions of higher learning, but instead comes from our tendency to focus on the pinnacles of intellectual achievement rather than focus on enabling intellectual engagement among the broad base of society. This elitism is expressed in part by the attempts to increase the accessibility to the elite University of California, which necessarily draws resources away from the community college system. This largely reflects the selfish ambition of people with moderate opportunities who want to have the best opportunities, regardless of the poor opportunities that others have.

The other elitism comes from the fact that public science funding is often allocated to pure research in a way that provides no broad educational benefit. The decision to hire full-time researchers at national laboratories necessarily depletes the pool of experts who could be participating in broader (i.e. undergraduate) educational activities. Even professors at academic institutions often acquire so many grants that it eats into the time that they allocate to teaching. Our public scientific funding agencies has decided to pursue scientific advancement that is disconnected from broad education. This may be an appropriate decision, especially if we like our new technologies-- but if we care about public education, we need to consider how these decisions affect the allocation of intellectual resources. Scientific progress will continue at a rapid pace even if all public research funding is linked to broader educational activities, and the academic establishment needs to take a hard look at how it uses the resources that it has before it complains that outside forces are preventing it from achieving its educational mission.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What do university administrators do?

One of the main targets of the Occupy Cal movement is administrator salaries, connecting the increase of these salaries with the increase in tuition. The administrators shoot back by pointing out that their salaries make up a tiny portion of university expenditures, and that the real problem is that the legislature (the EVIL Republicans!) has cut university subsidies.

I don't know what the salaries are at Cal itself, but I've noticed extravagant salaries at other institutions (up to $1 million /year for top administrators), which doesn't always match the salaries of football coaches, but is substantially more than the salaries of even the most prominent professors.

With salaries like this, I'd expect the administrative activities of the university to be seamless-- professors would be able to quickly hire technicians, and graduate students would not have a two-month gap in their health insurance coverage following the annual renewal of coverage. But that's just a fantasy land.

I'd like to know how school administrators command such high salaries, and what they are spending their time on if not actually making sure that the administration runs smoothly. Maybe they are just glorified lobbyists, trying to eek more money out of the state. Maybe they are well-dressed sycophants, drawing money from the pockets of wealthy alumni, or perhaps they are slick PR men running immense propaganda campaigns. Maybe they are exceptionally competent administrators, but their fiefdom is so immense that it is impossible to run it efficiently.

Well, I'll hopefully find an answer as I finish reading Benjamin Ginsberg's essay at The Washington Monthgly -- Administrators Ate My Tuition. Being a PoliSci professor and JHU, he may have some insight (or he may just be venting faculty frustrations).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Cal: The exclusive university

Part I: Occupy Cal, and the function of the university.

Tuesday's protest at the University of California Berkeley campus included a declaration of an "Open University", which apparently is meant to provide a free education to anyone who wants to participate. This action is clearly motivated by the perception that university is unnecessarily exclusive, and consequently divides our society into "haves" and "have nots".

While economic success is clearly obtainable without a university degree, formal higher education is still widely perceived as the most reliable course to personal prosperity. Such education is intended to provide students with useful (i.e. marketable) skills early in their adult lives, but also enables them to build social relationships that will be advantageous throughout life. While most people recognize the value of these opportunities, it is easy to resent the fact that some people have these opportunities while others are excluded. This resentment is especially pronounced if those opportunities improve a person's ability to compete for economic and social goods without increasing the total amount of such goods in our society. I intend to address the social implications of these opportunities in a future post, but for now I want to focus on a factor of university organization that impacts both of them -- the exclusivity of the university.

Plenty of people are unable to attend the university of their choice (or any university at all) -- either they are explicitly rejected during the application process, or they decide that they do not have the financial resources to pay for tuition while also covering food, shelter, and healthcare for themselves and any dependents. Exclusion for financial reasons seems particularly unfair, since it depends more of the economic success of a student's parents than on their own virtues. Furthermore, to the extent that a university education increases a person's future earnings, economic exclusion from the university contributes to a multi-generational stratification of society based on wealth.

The origin of this economic exclusion is obvious -- the university needs money to operate (e.g. maintain buildings and pay salaries), and it therefore needs some way to motivate people to contribute money. The most straight-forward way to raise revenues is to change fees to the people who benefit most directly from the services provided, and exclude those people if they do not pay. Alternatives exist; for example, money can be raised from philanthropists or can be allocated politically. Our current university system relies on a combination of these revenue sources, with complicated mechanisms designed to maintain both accessibility and adequate instructional resources (e.g. scholarships, loans, subsidies, work-study).

The current debate over the role of the university is driven primarily by concerns over increasing tuition and the consequent student debt. The question is how to reduce the burden on the students themselves? One option is to reduce university expenditures, perhaps by increasing administrative efficiency or reducing salaries of the top administrators. The "Open University" model suggests one path to reducing administrative costs -- abandoning the evaluation and credentialing activities of the university. But more attention is given to the loss of political funding for higher education, and protestors seem most concerned with maintaining the status quo for the California educational system.

The other form of exclusivity is based on academic potential. There are pedagogic reasons for this exclusivity -- uniformity of student capabilities makes it easier to teach students simultaneously, and it increases the chance that students will be able to help each other understand the course material. This is the same reason that many courses have prerequisites. Many educational reformers have tried to integrate classrooms with students of different academic ability, but my understanding is that this normally ends up slowing the progress of the most capable students. While it may sound "elitist" to the students who are excluded, I believe it is totally appropriate to seek the company of people who will advance one's own goals while avoiding those who would inhibit them. If this exclusion is institutionalized at the level of the university, so be it.

California has maintained a three-tier system of public higher education, which traditionally allows for some exclusivity on the basis of academic potential while minimizing exclusion based on economic resources. The UC system has traditionally relied greatly on academic exclusivity, since it only had a limited number of openings for students, but everyone wanted to attend due to the extremely low tuition. This structure is changing as the UC system expands enrollment and raises tuition; UC is perhaps becoming more like other universities around the country.

Overall, I think that academic exclusivity is a good thing (in the absence of a good teaching model where all students benefit from a mixed-ability academic community), and while economic exclusivity is unfortunate, it is pretty much unavoidable at the scale of the general population. Economic exclusivity is pretty much unavoidable for anything that has a cost--as a university education does-- and the failure to pass those costs onto the final consumer results in the squandering of resources (I've seen it first-hand). Even with these costs, access can be provided to the most promising and motivated students by way of scholarships. I'd be hesitant to provide such funding to the mass of young adults who drift towards university education with giving much thought to it. These students often have plenty of time but little money, and have yet to realize the value of their time. By placing a dollar amount on the educational services that they are requesting, we can encourage them to think about what they expect to gain from attending university, and perhaps prevent a few of them from squandering a couple years of their lives engaged in activities that are not appropriate for them.

There is always room for improvement in our institutions, and perhaps we will find ways to deliver higher-educational services with less expense, or in a way that does not segregate students based on academic ability yet still enables the most capable students to excel. Until then, the exclusivity of the university is something that we have to work with, and reflects the simple truth that a university education is not right for everyone.

Occupy Cal: Whose univeristy?

The Occupy Cal crowd has decided to set up camp on the campus of UC Berkeley, despite the UC administration's vows to disassemble it. No doubt the protestors will feign surprise/outrage when the police try to evict them.

As indicated by the chants of the protestors, the issue comes down to this: whose university is it? The protestors claim some sort of democratic authority (on behalf of both the university community and the broader public for whom the university was nominally founded), yet for all their democratic/consensual formalities, they are incapable of representing those groups. They are only capable of representing those people who are willing to spend their time participating in those primitive "General Assemblies" and who are willing to lend legitimacy to the Occupy movement by participating. In the end, the Occupiers have no democratic legitimacy.

Still, the Occupiers are attempting to declare themselves as the legitimate government/owner of the university, or whatever other location they decide to occupy. This is bound to draw a forceful response from the other institutions that claim ownership/sovereignty over those sites. In some situations, that conflict may be intentional and necessary, yet I don't see how the demands of these protestors justify such conflict. Their main message is that they want the state to provide additional funding to the university -- but their tactics delegitimize those very institutions that they are seeking to expand. WTF?

In the end, these skirmishes have come down to establishing "the right to occupy" as part of the first amendment right to assemble and petition the government. I don't see the point in picking this fight. I don't want to live in a society where any mob of political activists can just set up camp in any public space -- thereby excluding everyone else from using that space.

I'm not even sure why tents matter -- except that some of the more theatrical activists like the symbolism (even as they ignore the substance). There may be some issue with people traveling great distances to participate in the protest, and not being able to afford proper housing in the area. However well this logic applies to Washington D.C. or Sacramento, I don't see how it could be relevant to these local protests (unless homelessness were some major part of the agenda). My suspicion is that these protestors are simply seeking to emulate the occupation of Tahrir Square without acknowledging the conditions that prompted Egyptians to use occupation as a tactic -- both their vulnerability to kidnapping if they dispersed, and eventually their demand for the overthrow of the government.

In the end, the university does not belong to a bunch of protestors (especially when most are the recipients of services), and declaring an "Open University" does not in any way make the benefits of the university available to the general public.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Cal, and the function of the university

The "Occupy Cal" crowd is pissed about how the University and the police treated them last Wednesday, and are calling for a "general strike" at the University of California Berkeley campus for this coming Tuesday (Nov 15). This is modeled on the "strike" at the Oakland port at the beginning of the month.

I've put the word "strike" in quotes because it does not fit the definition of "strike" as I understand it -- being the refusal of workers to continue doing their regular jobs. In both of the above "strikes", the organizers are seeking to disrupt regular economic activity by bringing in large numbers of protestors who normally do not directly participate in those economic activities.

In this case, someone supporting this action has explained why UC Berkeley is being targeted in this way:
“In calling for a strike, activists realize that the university’s function in society is to create a division between haves and have-nots. Therefore, this is meant as a special kind of strike, one where all those who have been excluded from the UC system converge on the campus and help occupy it. At the same time as we shut the university down, we open it up to all who have been excluded from it,”
This statement brings up some important issues; however, if I were to take it literally, I would say that it presents a view of our society that is both terribly naive and borderline paranoid. Instead, I will be charitable to the authors and assume that they presented this narrow view of things for the sake of rhetorical impact, and for the same reason selected as "the function" of the university one incidental effect of its activity. I assume that they intended to start a conversation among the stakeholders in the University system (UC, and academia as a whole), so let's get started.

What is the function of the university (and UC in particular)? I interpret "the function of an institution" to mean the goal being sought by the people who support and participate in that insititution. With that interpretation, the function of the university (and especially UC) is clearly not to divide our society. Still, divisiveness may be an unfortunate consequence of how the institution operates. An undeniable truth is that the people who participate in the university are often seeking their own prosperity; they are the getters, and are likely to become the "haves". This in itself is not particularly profound -- people regularly participate in activities that advance their own prosperity (from maintaining one's own home, to providing commercial services, to learning skill sets, and even seeking collaborators for projects). This is all normal and appropriate, and it is likewise appropriate that we form exclusive institutions to coordinate activities among people who are capable of advancing each other's productivity.

So how does the university produce social division by providing educational services? Stay tuned for more ideas on how that occurs (to the extent that it does), and what might be done to reduce those divisions.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Do they understand what they are doing?

This past Wednesday, riot police tried to disperse a large group from the campus of UC Berkeley. As pointed out by the Chancellor, the protestors engaged in activities that were outside of what he understands to be the tradition of "peaceful" resistance. I wonder if the protestors understood that they had crossed that threshold, and what it implies about their attitudes towards established legal authority.

For those unfamiliar with the events, this is how I understand the course of events: there was a big rally, then some people set up tents, cops amassed and told the protesters to take their tents and leave, protesters refused. A negotiator said that the protestors could occupy the plaza constantly for a week, as long as no camping equipment was set up and people didn't sleep there. When the protesters rejected this offer, the cops tried to dismantle the campsite, but were blocked by a crowd. The cops then beat their way through the crowd and took the tents.

Here's the video of part:

Here is the core of the Chancellor's letter:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully; they were told to leave their tents, informed that they would be arrested if they did not, and indicated their intention to be arrested. They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers’ efforts to remove the tent. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.


We call on the protesters to observe campus policy or, if they choose to defy the policy, to engage in truly non-violent civil disobedience and to accept the consequences of their decisions.

Basically, the distinction that he is making is between those who use the legal system as a stage on which to protest-- using their arrest for theatrical purpose-- and those who stand outside of the legal system and try to gain sympathy when the legal system imposes itself on them.

This later activity is fundamentally radical, since it rejects the legitimacy of the legal system itself. The only alternative to the use of force is the abdication of authority by either the University administration or the police. We've seen this tactic used repeatedly in the Occupy protests, but it is also paired with rhetoric that suggests that the protestors don't comprehend how these actions are an immediate and radical threat to the establishment (e.g. "stop beating students"). On the other hand, the rhetoric of "occupation" is inherently radical, but it doesn't seem to be a turn-off to the non-radical left. People apparently treat it as nothing more than a brand. But we've also seen this contradiction in the Tea Party movement, where they simultaneously spouted radical rhetoric (including the name) even as they demanded respect from the establishment.

In the end, I'm not sure exactly what these people wish to achieve, or how they expect their actions to achieve these goals. It seems that the protests have become focused on the tactics of protest themselves -- the perpetual occupation of public space for the sake of protest, and camping as a form of protest. Right now, I don't find these to be particularly compelling reasons to get involved.

However, there are some good fights to be picked over this issue. There are plenty of cities with overly restrictive requirements for permits to gather. It may be interesting to see these rules presented as a form of class-warfare, which weaken the ability of regular people to engage in political propaganda, even as the wealthy have the alternative outlet of mass-media.

Why "99%" is not about income

In a previous post, a comment suggested that I am trying to tell the Occupy movement (i.e. the 99%ers) what they care about. The 99% slogan is clearly about income/wealth inequality, yet I insist that the "real issue" is special privileges.

I'll briefly state why I don't think that I'm projecting my own values onto their action:

1) 99% is just a slogan. It cannot encompass the subtleties of the issue.
2) Many of them have explicitly stated that their main concern is that the 1% "give back" to the community that enabled their success. There is apparent tolerance for a large income disparity, as long as there is a social safety net and opportunity for upward mobility (e.g. education subsidies).
3) Many of them have distinguished between the worthy rich (e.g. Steve Jobs) and the unworthy rich (e.g. bailed-out bankers)
4) I'd bet that if you surveyed the group, almost everyone would say that there is a problem with special privilege and subtle corruption of public institutions. A lot of them (maybe a majority) may say that income disparity itself is a problem, but I'd bet that almost all of them would also say that privilege/corruption is a problem. So I think I'm safe if I treat "privilege/corruption" as a concern that I share with the Occupy crowd, and put income inequality (per se) on the back burner.
5) If you follow the campaign finance reform movement (which I think is a big part of the Occupy movement), the concern with wealth inequality is derived from a concern with unequal political influence.

At the end of the day, I also believe that much of the wealth inequality in our country arises from special privileges and corruption of public institutions. Maybe the Occupiers don't agree, but I don't think I'm projecting my opinions on them when I focus on the solution as I see it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The 99% are to blame

This past week saw two "riots" on college campuses. There was a bit of a scuffle with cops as the Occupy Cal group (i.e. the "99%-ers) tried to establish a campsite on campus. Across the country at Penn State, a spontaneous riot broke out following the announcement of Joe Paterno's dismissal for his failure to adequately respond to news that one of his assistant coaches was raping 10-year olds in the team showers.

Each of these confrontations is worthy of much discussion, but what I find most interesting at the moment is how the events at Penn State undermine the narrative being presented by the Occupy crowd.

Joe Parterno is the 1%. Even by the standards of University faculty, sports coaches have extremely high pay. Paterno was bringing in around a million dollars a year, while several other head-coaches bring in multimillion dollars salaries. University payscales are a perfect microcosm of the more widespread inequalities that the Occupy movement decries.

My view is that "gods are not allowed to make mistakes"-- when someone of Paterno's stature and power is this neglectful of his duties, he deserves to be thrown out on his ass. However, consider the reaction of the great masses in the Penn State community -- they defended Paterno, with massive public protest. They embraced the idea that a person like Paterno is above the law; he is so great that he can do no wrong. Even more telling, there was no Karl Rove manipulating public opinion behind the scenes. This was totally spontaneous.

I have read innumerable essays by concerned leftists pondering why the lower classes repeatedly vote against their own interests. These overly partisan egalitarians find the obvious answer -- it's the other party! (i.e. the Republicans). If they would open their eyes, this riot (which is just part of a long-standing phenomenon) would put their partisan theories to lie. There is no need for sophisticated propaganda to create massive inequality. A college education does not cause people to open up their eyes to what really matters. The truth is that most people are morons. Most people are willing slaves who fantasize about having a king. They dream of a benevelent lord who will provide them with bread and circus, absolving them of any responsibility for their own lives.

A half-century of middle class unionism and public universities has done nothing to lessen this peasant mentality among the masses. It's time to consider the possibility that democracy has failed. Democracy is impossible because when power is given to the masses, they give it right back. Those of us who want freedom will have to find it ourselves. If we want a society of equals, we will have to find it separately from the servile masses. We obviously can't physically separate ourselves from them, but we can weaken the institutions that they use to force themselves on us.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Stopping others from working is not a "general strike"

Occupy Oakland has jumped the shark with today's "general strike". From a population of over 7 million (in the San Francisco Bay Area), they managed to assemble maybe 7000 people. Based on this support from 0.1%, they felt that they had the prerogative to shut down the Oakland Port and disrupt the lives of the people who work there. I haven't heard from the organizers, but I can't imagine any reason that the port would be viewed as particularly evil -- it seems that they were just looking for a choke point in the local and national economy.

Protests shut Oakland port, tensions flare in streets | Reuters

If you're pissed at the government, then block government buildings. Leave the port alone.