Phi Beta Cons

Divestment: A Hollow, Feel-Good Gesture from the Campus Left

Duke University economics and public policy professor Michael Munger has a wonderfully entertaining and often hilarious blog titled Kids Prefer Cheese. In a recent post, he discusses the “pointlessness” of some universities’ decisions to divest their endowments of controversial stocks–stocks tied to industries labeled by campus stakeholders as reprehensible or, in the case of Stanford University, creators of “substantial social injury.” (Earlier this month, Stanford announced that it will divest from stocks directly associated with the coal mining industry because that industry, according to the university, contributes to global warming.)

Munger points to a May 9 New York Times op-ed in which economist Ivo Welch wrote, “Even if Stanford divested itself fully of all its stocks, both fossil and nonfossil, it would probably take the market less than an hour to absorb the shares. It would not lead the executives of the affected companies to engage in soul-searching, much less in changes in operations.” 

For some campus constituencies, the facts surrounding a particularly reviled industry or the effectiveness of divestments don’t matter. What matters is symbolism, good intentions, and self-congratulatory protest. Munger writes:

The problem that I see is that “protest” in the U.S., especially by U.S. college students, has been relegated to a kind of extra-curricular activity. It’s fine that it’s pointless, because it’s like an internship. The whole object of the exercise is the improvement of the protester, not the effectiveness of the protest.

That quote reminds me of many Occupy Wall Street protesters, the pretend anti-war movement of the early 2000s (which was largely just an anti-George W. Bush movement), and others who have, over the years, railed against things like sweatshops and free trade while living a parentally and governmentally subsidized middle-class existence. When it becomes chic to protest, don’t expect such spoiled dissidents to be persuaded by facts, logic, or basic economics.

Jesse Saffron — Jesse Saffron is a writer and editor for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a North Carolina-based think tank dedicated to improving higher education in the Tar ...

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