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Occupy Harvard Pro-Con

99 Percent Occupy Harvard Poster

Image taken by The Crimson

Our Responsibility to Occupy Harvard

By Ben Beachy and Jason Rowe (HKS)

Since the Occupy movement entered the gates of Harvard Yard, too much discussion has focused on the gates themselves, not the responsibility of those of us who study behind them.

One of the gates—Dexter Gate—bears the following inscription: “Enter to grow in wisdom.  Depart to better serve thy country and thy kind.”  One of our country’s most pressing challenges in the wake of the Great Recession—how to replace runaway inequality with shared prosperity—is precisely the challenge that the Occupy movement addresses.  We are thus surprised by arguments that posit the aims of “Occupy Harvard” as antithetical to the stated mission of Harvard.

True, Harvard students present an unwieldy embodiment of the 99%. Our ivy-covered degrees do connote privilege.  But doesn’t privilege bring more responsibility, not less?  Endowed with many opportunities, we should be particularly compelled to further the interests of the 99%.

How should we fulfill such responsibility while at Harvard?  We can start by getting serious about economics, by studying and debating potential responses to the yawning wealth gap.  Unfortunately, many of our core economics courses are not so serious.

While the outside world endures the aftershocks of epic market failure, we sit inside Econ 101 classrooms and breeze over such failures as quiet footnotes to the thesis of perfect markets.  Under the reassuring assumption that investors are ever-rational machines of utility maximization, we can forget that the subprime housing bubble ever happened, because, theoretically, it didn’t.  While behavioral economics could inject a needed dose of reality (and ideas for preventing future crises), such post-1970s thinking unfortunately has not yet entered most mandatory economics curricula.

Now that irrational exuberance has tanked the economy and jettisoned jobs, how do our microeconomic classes teach us to respond?  According to our problem sets, the unemployed should lobby for the abolishment of the minimum wage and then wait until prices adjust to get hired.

Not even Newt Gingerich would endorse that plan.  But our simple models do.  That’s because they externalize the equity gains of real responses (subsidizing clean energy jobs, investing in infrastructure, etc.) and summarize their impact as “deadweight loss.”  As satisfying as it is to erase those inefficiency-laden triangles from our graphs, the unemployed probably do not find erasure of their job prospects similarly satisfying.  If Harvard is to prepare us to push forward policies in the interests of the majority, we will have to push Harvard’s economics courses to internalize the realities of that majority.

While asking Harvard to better train us as advocates of the 99%, we should ask the university itself to be a better advocate in its employment and investment practices.  “Occupy Harvard” did so by imploring Harvard to negotiate a just contract with custodians struggling to pay the bills replica watches uk.  Thanks to concerted custodial pressure, Harvard soon complied, handing a landmark victory to those who clean up our mess.

Harvard should now demonstrate similar accountability to the 99% through its investment portfolio.  In the name of increasing its $32 billion endowment, Harvard has invested in shady private equity outfits like Emergent Asset Management, a contender in the escalating race to acquire appreciating African land.  Field research reveals that such land deals have tended to sacrifice family farmers’ livelihood and food security in exchange for unfulfilled promises of jobs and technology transfer.

Our financial aid need not come on the backs of African farmers.  Sound investments do not require unsound ethics.  Such is the conclusion of a host of studies showing equivalent performance between responsible and irresponsible investing.  Such is the premise for hundreds of Harvard students pursuing careers in social enterprise and microfinance.  It’s time that Harvard invests in the 99%.

In sum, Harvard should be a university that directs our minds and money to the interests of the 99%.  But it won’t do so unless we ask.  With the Occupy movement now behind Dexter Gate, now is the time to ask.

 

Occupy Harvard is Poorly Conceived replica breitling

By  Alex Pak (HBS 2013)

As much as I am a fan of both social movements and camping, what is occurring on our campus under the guise of Occupy Harvard disturbs me.

Occupy Harvard Tents

Image taken by JONATHAN WIGGS of the Boston Globe

My perception of Occupy Harvard is that it is less of a social movement than a proxy war being waged by unions for leverage in labor negotiations.  (The fancy tents erected in Harvard Yard were supplied by the Service Employees International Union.)   I find it immoral to recklessly spend the social capital of young students for personal gain.  The compensation of Harvard custodial workers (who receive competitive wages and benefits) is used so that Occupy Harvard can quote sensationalist figures such as the 180:1 ratio in compensation between the highest and lowest paid employees at Harvard.  Focusing on these types of statistics only encourages non-productive dialog around the outliers (the top and bottom 1%) rather than meaningful discussion on how to create jobs and economic growth in the U.S.

Another concern that Occupy Harvard raises beyond compensation is centered on the companies that the Harvard endowment is invested in through the Harvard Management Company.  I find it ridiculous to expect this institution to be held accountable for every one of the thousands of companies that their fund is invested in.  As a diversified investor who owns index funds, am I personally accountable for the behavior of all the companies in the S&P 500?  Effectively, the Occupy Harvard movement is requiring Harvard to invest only in socially responsible (by their determination) companies with potentially lower returns and higher risk, increase the pay for their faculty, and maintain the benefits that come from a growing and healthy endowment (generous scholarships, etc.)  These demands seem to be in direct conflict with one another.  Of course Harvard should take steps to limit investment in unethical companies if it is under their direct control when brought to their attention, but given the size and scale of Harvard’s endowments, I suspect that regardless how they choose to invest, they will always manage to offend someone.  Like most social movements born of frustration, Occupy Harvard has many complaints yet offers little in the form of solutions.

So let’s get to the rallying cry of Occupy Harvard that they want “a university for the 99%.”  (Cue eyes rolling across the country)  The vast majority of Harvard students ARE part of the 99% and are here in part due to the generous need-based scholarships that Harvard provides to even the playing field.  As the son of blue-collar immigrant parents, I find it a bit sad that my attempts to better myself through education here at Harvard are summarily dismissed as the product of a self-perpetuating system of elitism.  Criticizing students who are part of the 99% because they may become the 1% some day is ridiculous.  Most of my classmates aspire to make a positive impact on society and we need encouragement, support, and guidance; not judgment.

I empathize with the frustrations of many who are part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and I freely acknowledge that capitalism in its current form does not adequately address many issues of social justice.  I see value in dialog that helps us understand the tenuous balance between business as an engine for societal progress, our role as stewards of the environment, and our duty to preserve the dignity of the human person.  Issues of corporate greed, accountability, and business ethics are important ones that absolutely should be discussed, debated, and shared.  However, Occupy Harvard genuinely offers none of this and the reality is that at best it is an unproductive use of time and at worst it’s a distraction from the real issues that we need to address.


November 29, 2011

3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Occupy Harvard Pro-Con”

  1. Aryt Alasti says:

    Mr. Pak, it would appear that despite your parents’ blue-collar background, you haven’t taken the trouble to get to know any of the custodians who clean your facility, as it would behoove you to do before making facile assertions about their “competitive” wages. Many of Harvard’s custodians had their hours reduced after endowment losses resulted in university-wide budget cuts, and in quite a few cases tge work load was not cut back correspondingly. A large number of these people have been unable after years’ time here to get more than part-time hours; some have only been able to get even the part-time schedule by working several hours at a time at two different periods of the day, so that if a second job is involved (as is not uncommon, especially for those who have a family to support), life is very difficult, with the remuneration involved being – believe me – not what you qould want to be earning after laboring in such a way all day. The language barriers faced by a majority of Harvard’s custodians conveniently mute their ability to communicate and advocate for themselves, so the perennial declarations about adequacy of their circumstances, from some of the privileged, transient student community members with whom they share facilities, would go entirely unanswered were it not for the selfless devotion to our critical labor issues which fortunately has manifested itself here for many years. Prior to the Living Wage Campaign of 2001 and Harvard’s subsequent adoption of its “parity” policy, outsourced service workers at Harvard were unquestionably suffering from discriminatory exploitation. Until this year’s Dining Services contract was agreed upon, most of those employees had to fend for themselves without recourse to unemployment benefits during summers and the J-Term. Without unions to represent and negotiate for the personnel here, and without students whose determination to make the world a better place has be made this place among the first priorities, Harvard’s history has shown that the rights of support staff, their quality of life and prospects for “pursuit of happiness” would be low on the scale of administrative concerns. I speak as someone with close to 20 years of utmost dedication to this institution, at a number of facilities.

    Certainly no one involved with Occupy Harvard is dismissing your efforts to better yourself. You seem to agree that there are some fundamental issues which Occupations seek to address which are valid. Iy you ascend to the realms of the 1%, perhaps some of the dialogue taking place all over this country and around the world as a result of these actions will still resonate in your thinking, and you will therefore be more likely to embrace contributing to society’s wellbeing according to your means, giving back in recognition of and gratitude for your great good fortune. You will work incredibly hard to achieve your sreams, yet be cognizant that many will never have that opportunity no matter how great their sacrifice. At present, it is you who is dismissive of others’ efforts.

    If you doubt the feasibility Harvard adopting responsible-investing principles, look to the examples being set by two pension funda in California with resources far greater than Harvard’s billions – CalPERS and CalSTERS – which have been trending in that direction for some time, and are now committed to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) guidance for the totality of their investment endeavors. Harvard, on the other hand, made quite a bit of money at the beginning of this year upon the sale of Massey Energy, a company which has wreckes havoc on the environment with its mining operations, neglected safety requirements, with fatalities resulting, and which was sued by employees in a pay dispute. When vast sums of money are being deployed with little to no regard for negative impacts, the consequences for the world we hope to better can be directly and significantly counter to what Harvard and its schools and programs have declared to be inherent in their missions. When one explores what successes there have been with very substantial returns on investments with an ethical orientation, there are many; the desirability, necessity and opportunity of this mode of operating are increasingly being recognized world-wide. I think it’s inevitable that ultimately Harvard will share in that recognition, and that Occupy Harvard’s page in the history of our university will be much referenced in studies of how that process took place.

  2. Umang Kumar says:

    Dear Alex:

    Thanks for taking the time to reflect on Occupy Harvard (OH).

    1. You do not back your “perception” of OH being a “proxy war being waged by unions” with any solid references or sources other than the issue of the tents — which really proves nothing beyond the fact of the generosity of SEIU, in my opinion. In what sense this could be their “proxy way,” is also not clear as OH has not been making any demands lately on their behalf.

    2. As to investments, you are saying much of what we have been saying: that Harvard make socially responsible and transparent investment choices. As a business student you surely know that doing proper research on the holdings of the investment instrument one employs/uses/purchases is a standard operating — and advisable — procedure. We, of course, understand that not every investment may be possible to be researched beforehand. But we expect that if some inconsistencies are brought to light, if some unethical investment practice demonstrated, that Harvard take notice.

    3. The 1% that all Occupies target, including OH, is the percentage of the population that wilfully accumulates wealth and even influences policies to ensure such a skewed distribution of wealth. I do not think OH has any objection to any sort of an intellectual or material enrichment that benefits the entire society. We as Harvard students fully understand the resources and opportunities for betterment that Harvard affords. Maybe we are just hoping that such opportunities be used for the larger good of the society and not inculcate attitudes and acts of elitism.

    I think OH is indeed trying to start a conversation the “real issues” facing us today. It is a process and there is fuzziness. If you come down and meet us at our info-tent during the day, hang out with us and even participate in some of our meetings or actions, I am sure you will get to understand us better.

    Best

    Umang

  3. Aryt Alasti says:

    My apologies for the numbers of spelling typos in the above comment. I found it not possible to review the text, after typing it out on phone’s screen.

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RECENT COMMENTS
  • Aryt Alasti says:

    Mr. Pak, it would appear that despite your parents’ blue-collar background, you haven’t taken the trouble to get to know any of the custodians who clean your facility, as it would behoove you to do before making facile assertions about their “competitive” wages. Many of Harvard’s custodians had their hours reduced after endowment losses resulted in university-wide budget cuts, and in quite a few cases tge work load was not cut back correspondingly. A large number of these people have been unable after years’ time here to get more than part-time hours; some have only been able to get even the part-time schedule by working several hours at a time at two different periods of the day, so that if a second job is involved (as is not uncommon, especially for those who have a family to support), life is very difficult, with the remuneration involved being – believe me – not what you qould want to be earning after laboring in such a way all day. The language barriers faced by a majority of Harvard’s custodians conveniently mute their ability to communicate and advocate for themselves, so the perennial declarations about adequacy of their circumstances, from some of the privileged, transient student community members with whom they share facilities, would go entirely unanswered were it not for the selfless devotion to our critical labor issues which fortunately has manifested itself here for many years. Prior to the Living Wage Campaign of 2001 and Harvard’s subsequent adoption of its “parity” policy, outsourced service workers at Harvard were unquestionably suffering from discriminatory exploitation. Until this year’s Dining Services contract was agreed upon, most of those employees had to fend for themselves without recourse to unemployment benefits during summers and the J-Term. Without unions to represent and negotiate for the personnel here, and without students whose determination to make the world a better place has be made this place among the first priorities, Harvard’s history has shown that the rights of support staff, their quality of life and prospects for “pursuit of happiness” would be low on the scale of administrative concerns. I speak as someone with close to 20 years of utmost dedication to this institution, at a number of facilities.

    Certainly no one involved with Occupy Harvard is dismissing your efforts to better yourself. You seem to agree that there are some fundamental issues which Occupations seek to address which are valid. Iy you ascend to the realms of the 1%, perhaps some of the dialogue taking place all over this country and around the world as a result of these actions will still resonate in your thinking, and you will therefore be more likely to embrace contributing to society’s wellbeing according to your means, giving back in recognition of and gratitude for your great good fortune. You will work incredibly hard to achieve your sreams, yet be cognizant that many will never have that opportunity no matter how great their sacrifice. At present, it is you who is dismissive of others’ efforts.

    If you doubt the feasibility Harvard adopting responsible-investing principles, look to the examples being set by two pension funda in California with resources far greater than Harvard’s billions – CalPERS and CalSTERS – which have been trending in that direction for some time, and are now committed to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) guidance for the totality of their investment endeavors. Harvard, on the other hand, made quite a bit of money at the beginning of this year upon the sale of Massey Energy, a company which has wreckes havoc on the environment with its mining operations, neglected safety requirements, with fatalities resulting, and which was sued by employees in a pay dispute. When vast sums of money are being deployed with little to no regard for negative impacts, the consequences for the world we hope to better can be directly and significantly counter to what Harvard and its schools and programs have declared to be inherent in their missions. When one explores what successes there have been with very substantial returns on investments with an ethical orientation, there are many; the desirability, necessity and opportunity of this mode of operating are increasingly being recognized world-wide. I think it’s inevitable that ultimately Harvard will share in that recognition, and that Occupy Harvard’s page in the history of our university will be much referenced in studies of how that process took place.

  • Umang Kumar says:

    Dear Alex:

    Thanks for taking the time to reflect on Occupy Harvard (OH).

    1. You do not back your “perception” of OH being a “proxy war being waged by unions” with any solid references or sources other than the issue of the tents — which really proves nothing beyond the fact of the generosity of SEIU, in my opinion. In what sense this could be their “proxy way,” is also not clear as OH has not been making any demands lately on their behalf.

    2. As to investments, you are saying much of what we have been saying: that Harvard make socially responsible and transparent investment choices. As a business student you surely know that doing proper research on the holdings of the investment instrument one employs/uses/purchases is a standard operating — and advisable — procedure. We, of course, understand that not every investment may be possible to be researched beforehand. But we expect that if some inconsistencies are brought to light, if some unethical investment practice demonstrated, that Harvard take notice.

    3. The 1% that all Occupies target, including OH, is the percentage of the population that wilfully accumulates wealth and even influences policies to ensure such a skewed distribution of wealth. I do not think OH has any objection to any sort of an intellectual or material enrichment that benefits the entire society. We as Harvard students fully understand the resources and opportunities for betterment that Harvard affords. Maybe we are just hoping that such opportunities be used for the larger good of the society and not inculcate attitudes and acts of elitism.

    I think OH is indeed trying to start a conversation the “real issues” facing us today. It is a process and there is fuzziness. If you come down and meet us at our info-tent during the day, hang out with us and even participate in some of our meetings or actions, I am sure you will get to understand us better.

    Best

    Umang

  • Aryt Alasti says:

    My apologies for the numbers of spelling typos in the above comment. I found it not possible to review the text, after typing it out on phone’s screen.

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