Why Hoxby is Wrong

When Professor of Economics Caroline M. Hoxby ’88 announced in her Crimson Op-ed on Monday that she was resigning from the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP), we could not help but wonder at the timing of her announcement. On the very day that HCECP both released its preliminary findings confirming poverty wages at Harvard and held a public forum at ARCO, Hoxby cast a pall over the committee proceedings. She attacked as unprincipled a number of committee members appointed by former University President Neil L. Rudenstine because, she claimed, they do not respect “a diversity of opinions” in the Harvard community.

Perhaps the problem here lies in how Hoxby categorizes “opinion.” When she writes that “apart from hearing from administrators and contractors who have presented institutional information, [the HCECP] has heard exclusively from groups lobbying for the living wage,” she would have us believe that University administrators and employers have come before the committee merely to offer objective, statistical accounts of the workplace, as in how many employees are on the payroll.

That’s not the kind of institutional “information” we heard from Associate Vice President for Facilities and Environmental Services Tom Vautin, who made his presentation to the committee during Monday’s forum. Vautin delivered the administration’s rationale for outsourcing. Despite the bureaucratese, the message was clear: it’s all about competition delivering a quality product and keeping workers in line. In short, the University’s current “opinion,” which is far from neutral or unbiased, is that a living wage is unnecessary, and that outsourcing is not only essential, but in many cases preferred.

Moreover, Hoxby seems to have diminished the role she was supposed to play in the HCECP. She accuses the committee’s membership of lacking balance since its very inception: “It contains several people who have an explicit pro-living wage agenda and it contains no one with an opposing agenda.” A curious locution. Who, if not Hoxby, opposes the progressive economics of a living wage at Harvard? As a conservative economist who does not otherwise hide her criticism of unions in her scholarship on school choice and who clearly wants a chorus of opponents of the living wage behind her, she has no good reason to misrepresent her politics on the committee, except, of course, if she wishes to misconstrue “diversity of opinion.” For more than a decade conservative ideologues on college campuses, on the airwaves and in think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the John M. Olin Foundation have done a remarkable job of scrambling substantive discussions on social justice issues by merely accusing their opponents of being “politically correct.”

Hoxby does not use the phrase, but it’s everywhere implied in her editorial. Opponents of the living wage—despite their considerable lack of public engagement with this issue—have been “demonized”; expression for them is a “punishing” affair. The disdain for free speech goes even deeper, Hoxby asserts: a faculty member on the committee allegedly “argued that Harvard students should not be allowed to express their views.” Furthermore, according to her logic, those on the committee and in the community who are undecided about a living wage might as well be called advocates for a living wage. We’re apparently victims of a dictatorship—albeit a benevolent one given our grade inflation—where proponents of the living wage have been so wildly successful that all of Harvard feels the crushing weight of one opinion. Even if we set aside the fact that many students and faculty are, sadly, not at this time being vocal about their positions on a living wage, Hoxby’s portrait of the Harvard community as in the thrall of the living wage campaign strains credulity.

What Hoxby would like us to forget is that Harvard’s administration did not want a meaningful discussion about its poverty wages to take place until principled students, workers, faculty, alumni and citizens made their opinions vocal. In fact, the administration did not make possible a free exchange of ideas on whether Harvard’s labor relations were fair. Of course, anyone on campus was free to speak out, but the administration believed it had a prerogative to ignore the “diversity of opinion” on work conditions for Harvard’s exploited service employees. The students who sat in at Mass. Hall did so only because their many requests for a democratic process had been rebuffed, most notably when Rudenstine appointed an ad hoc committee that excluded worker and student representation.

The sit-in was a strategy in line with the rich and long tradition of principled, non-violent protest actions that have forced the powerful to listen to the dispossessed. The great successes of the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s have prompted even conservatives to acknowledge that these social protests have helped to move the nation closer to its founding promises of freedom and equality. These movements were not an affront to democracy; they were an embodiment of it. On the local level, last spring’s sit-in played an equally important role in bringing more voices into our community’s decision making process at Harvard. We must remember that the HCECP itself is a result of this democratic mobilization.

Could there be an instrumental motive underlying the timing of Hoxby’s resignation from the committee? It appears so. Rather than allow the committee to do its work, Hoxby seems to have opted for tactics so beloved among conservative ideologues: when losing the struggle for public sentiment on issues of social justice and moral responsibility in the “free market” of ideas, what better way to stop the fight for a while than to invoke charges of McCarthyism against those who disagree with you?

If Hoxby and others who ostensibly share her views truly believe in the democratic process, she will rejoin the committee to ensure that its members continue to hear the opinions of both sides. Of course, it might just be that when she writes that “the committee has not heard one presenter who has made a positive case against the living wage,” she suspects what a broad consensus of workers, students, faculty and alumni have known for quite some time: opponents are hard-pressed to make “a positive case” against the reality that the world’s richest University can and must pay more than poverty wages to all its workers.

Bradley S. Epps is a professor of Romance languages and literature. Tom Jehn is an expository writing preceptor. Timothy P. McCarthy is a lecturer in history and Literaure. The authors fully support a living wage.