Smoot, Hawley, and HUDS

Jingoism is in the air. You can smell it in the halls of Congress, where pandering politicians wax patriotic while inserting protectionist measures into recovery legislation. But you can also find it wafting from the eggplant parmesan in Harvard’s dining halls, which have adopted a rash of interhouse restrictions that make things dicey for those not lucky enough to sport an Adams sticker on their ID cards.

The economic nationalism plaguing Washington requires more than House masters to stop. But the gustatory nationalism sweeping Cambridge is within our control, and maybe the time has come to reconsider the way we regulate student meals.

Restrictions on interhouse dining are widespread and, unsurprisingly, follow a geographical pattern: The far-flung houses—Currier, Cabot, Pforzheimer, Dunster, and Mather—have no regulations at all. Meanwhile, the more conveniently located guard their prime real estate carefully. All require non-residents to come accompanied by a house member for weekday dining. On top of that, Adams, Quincy, and Kirkland have adopted “community nights,” banning outsiders altogether once every week. Combine this with Lowell’s wholesale blockade during opera season, and you have a cumbersome set of barriers standing between students and their chickwiches.

Perhaps more notable than the regulations themselves, though, is the fervor with which they have been enforced this winter. In mid-February, Eliot residents symbolically removed their pants during dinner in a peculiar protest of non-resident diners. And, last Tuesday, Adams resident Vincent M. Chiappini ’09 decided to take matters into his own hands to keep undesirables out of his dining hall. Donning shorts and a T-shirt, Chiappini sat on top of a lifeguard chair and wielded a bullhorn, shouting down interlopers and casting them out into the street.

When asked about his antics, Chiapinni explained to me that “It’s really a question of capitalism. Some win, some lose.” But, like the pleas of inefficient industries looking to the government for protection from foreign competition, his logic is flawed. The current system does not, in any way, resemble capitalism. In fact, it represents a kind of blind socialism in which a central planner distributes resources with no consideration for efficiency or equity and then walks away.

This arrangement manages to combine the inefficiency of state direction with the unequal distribution of the free market. Under HUDS-ism, students have no control over where they are allowed to eat, so Quadlings who spend long nights working at The Crimson or Matherites returning from rowing practice just as dining halls are closing find themselves out to dry. The system is also not, in any meaningful sense, “fair.” The common assumption that house residents have a right to eat in their dining halls unhindered by overcrowding stands on shaky foundations—what did any of us do to merit such treatment?

As an Adams resident, I enjoy privileged access to one of the most convenient dining halls on campus, but I owe my providence to nothing more than the random output of the computer program that sorted my blocking group. I won the housing lottery, but I just as easily could have lost. Behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, I know that I would not want to run the risk of not only being forced to live in the Quad, but also having to eat there.

So here’s a proposal for dining hall restrictions whose effectiveness is belied by its simplicity: There should be no restrictions of any kind. Any upperclass student should be allowed to eat in any dining hall at any time. Resources for food and staff should be allocated by HUDS in proportion to mealtime swipes to ensure that there are enough supplies and service at each location. Some of the more popular locales will no doubt be plagued by overcrowding, but this is a sacrifice that I—and that I think we all, behind the veil of ignorance—would be willing to make. Moreover, the problem should, to some extent, take care of itself as students with greater flexibility decide to relocate to less popular dining halls in order to avoid the rush.

In the long term, with House renovations on the horizon, overcrowding could be more thoroughly addressed by expanding the most conveniently located dining halls. Adams House master Sean Palfrey, for example, has long campaigned for the administration to add a second floor to his dining hall. If he ever gets his wish, then dining hall lifeguards will become a thing of the past.

In the meantime, though, it’s time for Cambridge to internalize the lesson that Washington should have learned back in 1930, when the restrictive Smoot-Hawley Tariff helped plunge the United States into the Great Depression: Protectionism may be intuitively appealing and politically convenient, but it’s a one-way street to nowhere.

To paraphrase a Harvard grad: There is not an Eliot College and a Lowell College and a Kirkland College and a Cabot College—there’s Harvard College. While I may just be a skinny kid with a funny name, that’s some change I can believe in.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10, a Crimson editorial chair, lives in Adams House.