Mitchell’s Musings 9-18-2017: Little Things Can Mean a Lot

15 Sep 2017 9:36 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 9-18-2017: Little Things Can Mean a Lot

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Economists have a concept of “externalities” which are generally categorized as causing market imperfections. Externalities can be positive or negative. They typically involve side effects of some activity that do not directly find their way into the costs and benefits of whoever is undertaking that activity. Air pollution is often given as an example of a negative externality. If you run a factory with a smokestack polluting the air, the cost of that pollution is borne by others; it does not enter into the calculation of building or running the factory unless some outside regulator steps in and requires mitigation or taxes the pollution output in some way.[1] As a reverse example, if you improve your house, you may well raise the property values of neighboring houses. But you won’t obtain those external benefits – your neighbors will - and so individual homeowners may underinvest in home improvements.

The notion of externalities comes to mind at this writing as UC-Berkeley is preparing to host a conservative speaker – Ben Shapiro – at the invitation of a student group, despite perceived threats of violent protests. The new chancellor of Berkeley has decided to do whatever is necessary to have the talk go forward. She is partly doing it to protect notions of free speech and academic freedom on campus. I suspect she is also doing it for a more general reason, a public perception that universities in the U.S. are themselves becoming intolerant – sometimes in the name of tolerance. She is trying to avoid a negative externality that may not affect Berkeley, but does spill over to the larger academic world.

What’s the evidence of a growing negative public perception? As the survey chart above suggests, the general polarization in national politics – particularly during and after the 2016 presidential election – is showing up in public attitudes toward academia. Democrats tend to have a positive view of academia; Republicans have tended to have a negative view in the past couple of years.[2]

If you are the head of a university, even in liberal-leaning California where the Republican Party has drifted toward state-level irrelevance, you have to view that trend as a Bad Thing for the larger academic community. But, as noted, the specifics of what happens at Berkeley – particularly in California – largely flow externally. A good deal of the effort at Berkeley with regard to the Shapiro talk has gone into security. A university official put out a news release going into some detail on the steps being taken for security reasons.[3] Unfortunately, included in that release was the following language:

We are deeply concerned about the impact some speakers may have on individuals’ sense of safety and belonging. No one should be made to feel threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe. For that reason, the following support services are being offered and encouraged: (Links to counseling services followed.)

In short, the wording of the news release inadvertently encouraged the “snowflake” narrative that has widely circulated in conservative media as part of a more general denigration of higher ed. The first item reproduced in the Appendix to this musing comes from the conservative Flashreport website and explicitly uses the snowflake terminology with regard to Berkeley-Shapiro. But note that a similar theme was found in a Yahoo news report which, in turn, picked up a report from mainstream Newsweek.

Both of these items poke fun at the notion that the mere presence of Shapiro on campus was likely to cause psychological problems for students. It goes along with the trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc., that have been much parodied, particularly on the right. While the author of the news release may not have foreseen that his wording would become a source of mockery, it was a negative externality that should have been avoided. It’s a little thing, a negative externality, which ends up becoming a bigger thing.

As for Shapiro himself, I will confess to never having heard of him until the controversy over his invitation arose. Although he was invited by campus Republicans, apparently – at least in the past – he has not been a supporter of President Trump. So he might be viewed as controversial within conservative circles. He may be challenged by his immediate hosts at the presentation.

But I have no idea as to what Shapiro will say at Berkeley. According to the campus newspaper, some faculty are arguing that because he just has opinions they find offensive – or because he might engage in hate speech as they define it - he shouldn’t be allowed to speak. That position is another negative externality for academia. The public may not be friendly toward Nazis marching in Charlottesville, but Shapiro is hardly that.

The fact that the First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court (and the Berkeley law school dean), says Shapiro has a right to speak at a public university, is seemingly not persuasive to those folks with such views on the Berkeley faculty.[4] I am going by a description in the campus newspaper, so I may not be doing their viewpoint full justice. But like all negative externalities, the constraining effect on the behavior of those articulating that viewpoint is less than it should be. The cost is borne elsewhere.


Postscript: According to the campus newspaper, the Shapiro talk went off without violence. Seven hundred people showed up for the talk. Others engaged in what was reported to be peaceful protest.[5] Police deterred others who might not have been peaceful.






[1] The assumption is that those individuals adversely affected by the pollution in practice cannot collectively negotiate a deal with the factory owner.





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