Some thoughts on Kent State

07/05/2012 § 2 Comments

May 4 was the anniversary of the 1970 shootings at Kent State. Strangely, May 4 is also Star Wars Day, but I haven’t been able to think of a witty way to connect the two.

To review:

In May 1970, students protesting the bombing of Cambodia by United States military forces, clashed with Ohio National Guardsmen on the Kent State University campus. When the Guardsmen shot and killed four students on May 4, the Kent State Shootings became the focal point of a nation deeply divided by the Vietnam War.

I was a young child in 1970, so I don’t remember much of it. When I was older, my mother did talk about those days. We lived outside of Washington, D.C., and she was taking classes in the city. She stayed home (with two kids) when the protests broke out. Apparently, the police were rounding up people — not just protestors — and using anti-vagrancy laws to arrest them. She said they arrested people for not having a dollar on them. What I remember most about her story was the sense of disorder and unrest.

How can economics help us think about the Kent State shootings? And then, how can it help us think about the Occupy protests and the reactions? Here are some possibilities:

  • They represent the limit of economics. One possibility is that economics doesn’t have much to say. These are political and social activities, not commercial ones, so must be analysed and understood from those perspectives. This isn’t satisfying for two reasons. First, economics has been happily colonising other social sciences for years, so there must be something economics can tell us. Secondly, protests and responses involve alternative uses of the same resources — land, labour, capital, management, natural resources — that are used in conventional economic production. That is, they involve trade-offs. They therefore have economic impacts.
  • They are extra-market bargaining. We could take a law-and-economics approach, and suggest that individuals are seeking to maximise their welfare using the most efficient means. Sometimes, that involves going to a shop and buying something. In other cases, that may mean applying political/social pressure. Protesting is thus rent-seeking, just like flying an MP in a helicopter to your mansion outside Auckland, but for people without helicopters. Or mansions. What this doesn’t explain is the ferocity of the response. Why shoot people for rent-seeking?
  • They are about institutions. Lacan famously said, ‘structures do not march in the street’. The same could be said of institutions. Institutions like property rights and legal rights don’t march in the street, but that doesn’t mean they are absent from these protests. These conflicts could be viewed as contests over the control and design of institutions: in the conflict between the property right to control activities on a college campus and the personal right to express oneself, where is the balance? And then, because economic activity flows from the specific configuration of property rights, these protests are ultimately about the shape of the economy. This possibility has a serious corollary: it means that institutions must be defended in order to survive.
  • They are mistakes. One debate over the Kent State shootings was whether they were intentional or the acts of a few scared Guardsmen. They same thing has happened with the UC Davis pepper-spraying: the report says that the spraying was un-authorised. But this is a cop-out. This is bringing God or Fate into the equation. Appealing to ‘mistakes’ means that anything can be explained, and nothing.
  • This is (a) production. Perhaps the two sides are mounting a production of Protest! One can think of it as a stochastic production system with an uncertain outcome. The two ‘sides’ are even somewhat co-ordinated, in the loose sense of co-ordination between the marketing and engineering departments in a Dilbert corporation. This raises the question, who is the consumer? Are these performances intended to demonstrate to ‘the public’ or some media audience that differences of opinion are still allowed, but in the end order will be restored? This possibility puts these events in the same register as a medieval carnival, temporarily upending the social order ultimately to preserve it. However, this seems a callous way to describe the deaths and injuries that result.

Ultimately, trying to use economics to talk about protest and response seems to raise two important issues often missing from economic analysis: governing and power. I need ways to include them in my work, models to help me make sense of them.

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§ 2 Responses to Some thoughts on Kent State

  • Jack Hirschleifer, The Dark Side of the Force
    James Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty
    Part III of Tullock’s The Social Dilemma

    Most of my library is stuck in boxes in storage. Eventually we’re supposed to get great big bookcases that’ll serve as cubicle dividers. And then maybe a quarter of my library can come out of storage.

    I do like 4 May in general though. It’s our daughter’s birthday. Her middle name is Leia. I like that Susan’s caesarean had her sufficiently drugged up that I was able to sneak that one through.

    • Bill says:

      Thanks, Eric. Good to have some idea of where to start reading.

      It’s criminal to have books in storage. They must be there, ready to be plucked from the shelf and consulted.

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