Thursday, January 29, 2009

Class, the word of the day is "rent-seeker".

Given that we live in open society, in which the socially acceptable and polite ways of airing one's opinion to policymakers and the public are accessible to all, one ought be very careful about mass protests. It's one thing for the otherwise voiceless to stand up as a show of their own humanity, as in the civil rights movement, but another for ordinary people or, I dare say, the socially privileged, to raise a ruckus when they can send guest opinions to the Tucson Citizen, call their legislators, run and support candidates for office, or merely sign up for the legislature's Request to Speak system. Gathering in mass, shouting, chanting slogans, inevitably disrupting quotidian activity becomes in this case a form of bullying.

In no case is this more true than when rent-seekers gather to protest. One can get no further from the civil rights movement's mass demonstration of humanity. The rent seeker is a bully acting in a manner that is perversely economically sensible: he has more to gain from spending time asking for favors than you do in spending time stopping him--he relies on you simply handing over the lunch money. The mass protesting rent seeker is a more noxious breed: give us what we want or else. To us Americans, this is almost foreign, something we see in Europe, the lumpens taking to the streets every time someone moves to push them off the dole.

It came home yesterday, however, with over 1700 students gathering in Arizona's capitol to chant silly slogans, make categorical pronouncements about the value of higher education that even expert economists cannot make, and get more press than is their due simply because 1700 angry people is always newsworthy. In some ways it's analogous to the European situation: students are relatively idle and, especially if they attend a state university, the economic rewards for raising a ruckus are great.

Or maybe they aren't. Remember that these demonstrations are already foreign to the American experience, but furthermore that Arizona has a Republican-controlled legislature and a new "libertarian-Republican" governor. Certain legislators, especially Tucson-area Democrats, will by default be sympathetic, and in politics one tends to disregard bad behavior from one's side. But as noted by Evan Lisull over on the Desert Lamp, the protesting students need to appeal not just to reflexively friendly legislators but also to moderate Republicans like "Captain Al" Melvin, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The first step in doing so is to not be offensive. Taxpayer-funded lobbying is not only offensive to advocates of good government, it's a topic to bring up if you want with near certainty to raise an Arizona Republican's blood pressure. The students weren't lobbying per se but as AFP's Tom Jenney clarified for the third time students who received class credit to go stand in the crowd and chant slogans were doing so on the taxpayer's dime. If you are thinking that nobody will be offended as the matter hinges on subtle distinctions, consider that Tom Jenney is someone to whom legislators and their more active constitutents, especially in Maricopa County, listen. Moreover to project such a sense of entitlement is guaranteed to offend. It's your right, eh? Then what about those kids who did better than you in high school and are going to University of Chicago? Why should Joe and Jane Taxpayer, who may not have went to college, who may have sent their kids to private college, or who may even have went to the U of A, pay so that you can get self-edification on the cheap? An experiment for those who think that only fringe old-fashioned classical-liberals take exception to the notion of higher education as an entitlement: bring it up to freshman legislator Frank Antenori, who last year didn't mince words about it, while campaigning, at the University of all places!

With all the talk of the need for a unified front, of students, grad students (including this ABD 'blogger), and faculty of all three universities to have a common line, you'd think there was a strategy, but I don't see one. None of the ostensible leaders, not Michael Crow, not Robert Shelton, not "Tommy" Bruce, are trying to appeal to the values or personalities of those in power. The trouble with any mass protest, aside from shades of bullying, is that it can easily degenerate to catharsis. When the crowd boos the House Education Committee chairman when he says he's making efforts to keep cuts low, it's clear that no attempt is being made to find common ground with the other side, let alone make accommodations and work constructively.

But perhaps most aggravating to a spectator is the seige mentality. There is no "other side". There is a State with a budget shortfall There are three universities which bring at least some benefit to some people in the state. (Whether there is a net benefit to the individual taxpayer, I cannot say.) Those who work at the universities, who study at the universities, live in the state and will be worse off, just like their neighbors, if the legislature caves in to their demands, leaves university funding alone, and cuts basic governance.

The Legislature will, of course, not cave in. The question on my mind is whether the words of Michael Crow, Robert Shelton, and the students who were out chanting today will make legislators more or less sympathetic to the universities. Maybe to hold this against the universities as institutions would be spiteful, but giving someone the bird--and that's what failing to acknowledge someone's values is--is not an effective way to ask a favor.

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