Friday, September 28, 2007

What Can Burma Teach Us?

What lessons are we to learn from the events in Burma? There is much talk of the nobility of the protesters and the brutality of the government. And Wretchard, with whom I reluctant to disagree but will nonetheless, speculates that things have reached a critical pass, and that the next 48 hours may be crucial because the Burmese army may be splitting.

Just as a remover very far observed, I suspect this is unlikely. The military presumably benefits more than anyone else in society from its dominance, and overturning the status quo would be particularly painful to them. Set against that is the presumed unwillingness of the military to massacre civilians, but set against that is the ability of the rulers to exploit ethnic and urban/rural resentment and mutual ignorance and draw on specific military units accordingly, much as the Chinese communists did in launching the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

But the most painful thing to watch is the seeming helplessness of the mostly nonviolent protesters. Burma has been down this road before; massive protests in 1988 were met with ruthless gunfire by the military, and Burma has been a black hole for human dreams ever since. The BBC has accounts of similar behavior, although less dramatic, by the military now.

Can nonviolent protest work? There is at least one pressure group devoted to the proposition that the answer is “Yes.” They argue that nonviolent protest is effective, even preferable to violent rebellion. It clearly worked in the American South, British India, the Philippines, Chile, South Korea (though, consicuously, not North Korea) and Eastern Europe. But just as often it fails, as imprisoned dissidents all over the world and the survivors in China and Burma can testify. An official of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict was on the BBC this morning arguing that the Burmese strategy is working, but I am skeptical; those who have power do not give it up unless the consequences of not giving it up are worse. That Burma is so isolated (I have never met a Burmese immigrant, or seen a Burmese restaurant in America, for example, which suggests that few people leave Burma, unlike Thailand or India) makes the government more powerful. And the nature of the oppressor matters too; Ferdinand Marcos, for all his flaws, was no Hitler. Martin Luther King’s tactics worked because they took place in America. Gandhi’s march to the sea would have been spectacularly ineffective if he were a Ukrainian protesting Stalin instead of an Indian protesting His Majesty’s Empire. Nonviolent protest makes good TV; a Burmese Second Amendment would have kept Burma free.

And what of China? The Chinese government makes a great show of its policy of “noninterference” in the “internal affairs” of other societies. But this is a silly formulation. When a government is at war with its people, a refusal to sanction or condemn a government is taking a side, of the government. The Chinese government takes a hardline realist stance in foreign relations; foreign policy is about pursuit of natural resources, business opportunities, and nothing else. Their past support of the dictators would surely weaken their position if a democratic government were to be swept in. And the Chinese cannot tolerate a neighboring dictatorship being swept out of power by street demonstrations and replaced by some sort of consensual government; the power of the example for China’s own people would be unacceptable. It is sometimes argued that the threat of an Olympic boycott will force China to be more sensitive, but such a boycott is practically unthinkable, the dream merely of Darfur activists who slam the “Genocide Games.” The status quo gives China locked-in natural resources and an intimidated Burmese population, and that is the way they like it. As Chinese economic influence expands, expect the decline of moralizing foreign policy not just in Burma, but everywhere.

In short, I expect this all to end very badly.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Draft the Elderly!

Ilya Somin has a mischievous article in today’s Opinion Journal suggesting that if “national service” – the kidnapping of young people for two or three years to serve in the military or perform whatever other tasks (cleaning up national parks and teaching in inner-city schools today, shuffling paperwork in the Department of Commerce tomorrow) Congress demands they do - is so all-fired important for the country, why not conscript the elderly too?

Military service aside, a 65-year old is a far better fit than the young on both the cost and benefit sides for such “service.” The elderly have much more human capital because of their age (offset only partly, probably, by depreciation of human capital due to cognitive deterioration). They will thus be far more productive, if that is the word, in most forms of government service. The opportunity cost of a year doing service is far less for the elderly, who are not even in the labor force, than for an 18-year old, who would otherwise be spending the year making human-capital investments that will yield enormous returns over his entire working life.

So why not write up the laws immediately? Because the elderly vote at much higher rates than the young, making such a proposal political suicide. This suggests “national service” proposals are not about improving our young people or serving the country. They are about getting politically cheap labor to serve politicians’ purposes.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

When the Law is All We Have

Thomas Sowell has a piece discussing, in the current controversy between black and white students in Jena, Louisiana, the one thing has been forgotten – the law:

The slogan “No justice, no peace” has been used to justify settling legal issues in the streets, instead of in courts of law.

Neo-Nazis have now helped demonstrate what a dangerous slogan that is, since different people have opposite ideas of what “justice” is in a given situation.

Long after the imported demonstrators have left, and the national media have lost interest, the families of the black youngsters involved in the school altercation will have to live with the knowledge that their privacy and security have both been lost in a racially polarized community, with vengeful elements.

The last thing the south needs is a return to lynch-mob justice, whatever the color of whoever is promoting it.

Back in the 1950s, when the federal courts began striking down the Jim Crow laws in the South, one of the rising demands across the country was that the discriminators and segregationists obey “the law of the land.”

But, somewhere along the way, the idea also arose and spread that not everybody was supposed to obey “the law of the land.”

Violations of law by people with approved victim status like minorities, or self-righteous crusaders like environmentalists, were to be met with minimal resistance — if any resistance at all — and any punishment of them beyond a wrist-slap was “over-reacting.”

The notion that there is a “people’s will” that governments frustrate and which must therefore be acquired by mass action is often a very dangerous one. It is just as problematic in Jena as it is on the other side of the world, in Nepal, as I noted last year. There are two views of government that have long dominated the Western political conversation. In one, shared by the American founders, all people are members of this or that special interest, and all wish to seize the reins of government to get it to promote that interest, by putting the rest of society to work in pursuit of it. The government must be thus restrained to prevent one group - the rich, militant environmentalists, whoever - from dominating the rest of society. In the other, there is a unitary public interest, and it is the job of the government to carry it out. Government thus must not be restrained but indeed empowered to do what must be done (to "break a few eggs," in Lenin's famous phrase). If it fails to do so, then “the people” must defy the law until it is remolded, consistent with this interest. (This is sometimes phrased, not entirely accurately, as the difference between a republic and a democracy.)

But, as the famous scene from A Man for All Seasons reminds us, when the laws are cut down in the name of the public, we stand naked before evil. Remember that the next time someone goes on about “the people united, will never be defeated,” or some such. Liberty is a fragile thing, and the law, once corrupted, moves it closer to the breaking point.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Bourgeois Virtues

This past Saturday I had occasion in a sports bar to catch parts of several college football games. Periodically, they would show shots of increasingly deliriously happy fans of the team that was winning at that particular time. In the bar, too, fans of one team got happier and happier as that team’s fortunes improved. In both the bar and in the stands on TV, the fans appeared to me to run the whole ethnic gamut of an increasingly diverse society, and that they were all so happy together, united in common purpose, prompted me to think about American mass culture and its effect on ethnoreligious harmony.

Mass culture is not without its faults in this regard, and is often marketed to targeted ethnic groups. The old WB television network, for example, was seen as the “black network,” and different kinds of music are routinely pitched to different audiences. I suspect that producers of country music or the guys who run Larry the Cable Guy’s career don’t spend much time targeting blacks or Asians, for example.

But I think mass culture, particularly its American incarnation, has a surprisingly (and beneficially) corrosive effect on the walls that divide us, walls often erected purposefully by the modern multicultural industry. While president, Bill Clinton once gave a speech to one of the civil-rights organizations (unfortunately, I cannot remember which one), in which he didn’t mention civil rights at all. Instead, he talked about foreign policy and other issues of equal concern to the entire country. Either in or after his speech, as I recall, he went out of his way to note that blacks care just as much about the foreign policy of their country as members of any other group. Of course he is right about that, and it was right of him to give a speech like that in a place like that.

But companies like Starbucks, General Motors, and Microsoft knew this long ago. In their world, black, white, red, and yellow are not the most important color; green is. They have tried to create coffee, cars, and software that appeal to the buying power of all our politically fractious citizenry. People of all groups want quality products and pleasant experiences; the incentives for the mass-culture producers to give them that is a force for assimilation, for common ground. Even mass culture initially targeted at or created by particular ethnic groups does not remain within those cells for long. Nonblacks buy hip-hop music, young Latinos watch the Simpsons, and everybody sees the other as considerably less strange. Linguists too have noted the tendency of young people to consciously adopt speaking styles of young people and other groups. Slang spreads across racial lines very quickly among teenagers.

As far back as the nineteenth century, people like Marx and Engels knew that one of the most compelling effects of a rising middle class – which they scornfully dismissed as the bourgeoisie – was that it annihilated traditional class distinctions. Engels at least found much to mourn in this, which is a little surprising in that Marx saw the rise of the bourgeoisie as scientifically inevitable, a necessary precursor to socialism. And Engels’ scorn for ordinary middle-class values and culture is far from unique. In an essay that got a lot of attention when it was written, David Brooks traced some of the history of what he somewhat clumsily called “bourgeoisophobia,” a hatred of achievement and commercial drive by ordinary people who were seen as not really deserving their success. Success and recognition, in the minds of such people, ought to derive from what university you went to, what family you come from, whether you are the holder of a traditionally respected occupation, etc. But the bourgeoisie grant respect not on the basis of who you are, but on the basis of what you can do. And in the minds of people used to getting respect simply by dint of tradition, this is unacceptable.

But the beauty of seeing the world in these terms is that you are less inclined to make ethnoreligious identity the defining feature by which you judge someone you just met. And mass culture in particular is wonderful because it is accessible to all. If the Buckeyes or the Gators or the Longhorns are succeeding, the fans of those teams are equally happy to share their delight with anyone, no matter what he looks like. So too, interest in what the latest celebrities are doing or a new flavor at Starbucks cuts easily across ethnic lines. Mass culture, in other words, is good for harmony.

To be sure, there is much about mass culture to lament; ten minutes watching reality television is enough to convince me of that. And there are no guarantees that mass culture promotes getting along. The soccer stadiums in Europe are often filled with vile racism; black players are taunted with monkey chants and bananas, and players on road teams traditionally associated with Jewish ownership are greeted with threats to send them all to Auschwitz. There may be something peculiarly American about this effect. But I doubt it; such pop culture as manga and movies has done much to allow people in the Northeast Asian societies of Japan, Korea, and China to see the neighboring societies not as foreign devils, but as the source of tremendous creativity, which they admire. It is not the sort of plan for fraternity that a rarefied, ivory-tower intellectual would draw up. But perhaps for that very reason it is better.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Too Many People?

Slate has a review of a new book called The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. It ends enthusiastically and begins thusly:

Oh, if we all just disappeared. According to The World Without Us, Alan Weisman's strangely comforting vision of human annihilation, the Earth would be a lot better off. In his doomsday scenario, freshwater floods would course through the New York subway system, ailanthus roots would heave up sidewalks, and a parade of coyotes, bears, and deer would eventually trot across the George Washington Bridge and repopulate Manhattan. Nature lovers can take solace in the idea that the planet will thrive once we've finally destroyed ourselves with global warming. But Weisman takes the fantasy one step further: Let's not wait for climate change, he says. Let's start depopulating right now.

It is not a promising start for a review. “The world” cannot be better or worse off. “Better” or “worse” implies some way of defining “good” and “bad,” which the earth, not being a sentient being, is incapable of doing. We could ask whether the earth will be better or worse for human purposes; this would be a much more intelligent way to proceed. If we did so, we might still get to a question the author and the review tackle, namely whether there are too many people on the earth.

Are humans bad for the planet human species? Partly. In their consumption decisions they deprive others of resources, including others in future generations. Most of these transactions are correctly mediated by prices, so the benefits offset whatever costs are imposed. Some, of course, are not. The hysterical zero-populationist (or population-decline advocate, which Mr. Weisman may be) focuses on the effects of human choices on finite natural resources such as oil, and on warming of the earth, which changes the possibilities for future generations. The oil objection is easily dealth with. It is indeed a scarce resource, and if I use it you can't. But time is a scarce resource too, and if a scientist doesn't have enough time to cure cancer because he can't drive, that is a real cost. It is the function of the price system to weigh choices such as these. As for global warming, the things that generate it are the by-products of beneficial activities, which we would also be deprived of without the people whose activities are warming the earth; this suggests that the solution to these problems is to mitigate the costs (e.g., through anti-pollution laws), but to have the kids anyway so as to continue to reap the benefits.

And oh, what benefits they are! The Slate article obsesses about environmental costs, as if these were the only effects of humans on other humans. But humans, by entering into the market, bring huge benefits. Everyone they trade with reaps benefits from that trade. Humans create ideas that widen our horizons; they figure out ways to explore the universe; they invent the Internet; they write As You Like It and Beethoven’s Ninth; they climb Mt. Everest, just because it’s there. And they provide immense love and joy for their friends and loved ones. Do these benefits outweigh the costs from missing markets for polluted air and water? It is impossible to say for sure, but it seems likely. And Americans, inhabiting the most productive and one of the freest societies in the world, create these benefits disproportionately; they should perhaps be breeding faster than anyone.

The logic here suggests that if anything we have too few children. All of the problems other than pollution that the alleged overpopulation of humans is said to cause – malnutrition, taxing the water supply, etc. – are either in decline because of better economic policy and the fruits of human ingenuity or are solvable through good economic policy and the price system. So too climate change is amenable to remedies that are low-cost but that allow us to continue to achieve our goals and dreams.

The hatred of much of the current environmental movement for humanity itself is one of its most alarming aspects. In obsessing about only one kind of cost, they ignore all of the benefits that humans provide. So once you have settled down, get busy having children – you’ll be doing everyone else a favor.

Thanks to Steven Landsburg, to whom I owe some of the arguments in this piece.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007


When I was younger there were two things everyone knew about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The first was he had built the foundations of much of modern American society, and of subsequent liberal (in the American sense) political success. Indeed, part of what drove the Democratic party to hard times by the time of the disastrous Carter presidency was excessive nostalgia for Roosevelt and John Kennedy at a time when the body politic had changed (which looks much like Republican lionization of Ronald Reagan now).

And the second thing we all knew had to do with the measure of his opposition. There was a certain sort of older person who despised FDR, and he was the relic of a bygone age – someone who had never reconciled himself to the progress represented by Social Security and farm subsidies, who could only angrily fulminate against that socialist traitor to his class.

But I have just read Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man - the story of the Great Depression, starting during the second Coolidge term and ending with the 1940 election campaign. It is a different Roosevelt that is depicted there. Ms Shlaes herself leaves much unsaid, but the nature of the New Deal comes through inescapably. Among the things that Roosevelt did that seem disgraceful seventy years on:

Propaganda. The extent to which FDR used New Deal arts and culture activities – designed merely to provide work and buck up the spirit of a sullen land – is shocking. Movie directors, photographers (Dorothea Lange, most famously) and unemployed reporters were put to work by the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theater Project, etc. with instructions, some explicit and some sotto voce, to promote the New Deal and Roosevelt. A theater director used her public works to trash Wendell Wilkie, whose opposition to the federalization of the power grid was a thorn in FDR's side. This was propagandizing (radical, given how much FDR was proposing to change American society) on an immense scale and on the taxpayer dime. It makes the outcry several years ago over an Education Department grant to the talk-show host Armstrong Williams look ridiculous.

Thuggery. The administration engaged in numerous politically motivated prosecutions of wealthy businessmen, in an attempt to make the others fall into line. Andrew Mellon, former Treasury Secretary, stout believer in the free market and man of impeccable reputation, was the most famous. He was acquitted, as was the utilities executive Samuel Insull, but both were in many respects broken by the experience. But they were rich, and in FDR's way, so their rights were of no consequence.

More revolting still was the behavior of the National Recovery Administration, which quickly took the role of setting prices and wages in a huge variety of companies, in conjunction with unions and management. It seems incredible now that such an expansion of government power would be tolerated, but so desperate were the times that it was welcomed by many. Among those who did not welcome it were the Schechter brothers, immigrant poultry merchants in New York. Soon after the NRA was established they were beset by inspectors seeking to find a way to encourage the government takeover of the poultry business. The inspectors were able to justify charges of paying wages that were too low, selling unfit chickens, and, incredibly, selling a chicken to a customer that he had requested instead of giving him one randomly (a higher-quality chicken at the minimum price required by the NRA presumably being a way to evade the minimum-price laws). The charge of selling unfit chickens was particularly galling, in that the brothers sold kosher food and thus answered to a much higher authority than Roosevelt and his minions. The brothers ultimately won at the Supreme Court, which found the entire NRA unconstitutional. That the brothers are so unknown is a shame; their resistance to the intrusion of FDR on free commerce ranks them with Rosa Parks as civil-liberties heroes.

Collectivization. Many of Roosevelt’s senior advisers had traveled to Stalin’s USSR together in 1927, and they found much to admire there. Some of them grew queasy in the 1930s as the deaths mounted, but their attempt to collectivize American society once they got their hands on power was profound. Farming cooperatives were set up with taxpayer funds, promoted by government artists and heavily subsidized. Private utility properties were gradually stolen, first through subsidized competition and then through outright takeover, through the construction of the Tennessee Valley Authorities and other public utilities. When he took office, federal law ran 2735 pages. In one year of his administration 10,000 pages were added. The Supreme Court before “the switch in time that saved nine” stopped some of the worst of it, but America was irreversibly changed.

A sense of limits. FDR believed the Depression ushered in a period of permanent stagnation. The state had to expand its control of society to manage the bust that capitalism’s fatal excesses had brought about. The problem was to manage pain, not to ensure the conditions for Americans to achieve ever-broader human dreams. This is a notion that Jimmy Carter would embrace during the oil crisis of the 1970s, but which most other American politicians have rejected. Indeed, it was one of Bill Clinton’s great achievements to embrace globalization as an optimistic trend to be managed rather than a destructive force, a belief far from universally held by the modern left.

Arrogance. Roosevelt constantly changed his mind about how to apply his newly obtained power, with devastating effects on entrepreneurial confidence. He raised taxes arbitrarily; he imposed new limits on business conduct and then repealed them when they failed; he randomly targeted businessmen for prosecution. He adjusted the gold standard repeatedly on a whim, once contemplating raising the price of gold by $0.21 because 21 was a lucky number. The breathtaking willingness to alter the incentives and possibilities of millions of Americans without regard for the consequences is the classic hallmark of the know-it-all social engineer. His officials contemplated relocating entire communities and sought to set the “proper” prices of thousands of goods. The more famous court-packing plan is only one of many examples of his insatiable desire to discard the framework of American society in pursuit of greater control over the lives of others.

The promotional work for the book emphasizes the way Roosevelt created the modern special-interest state, turning farmers’ incentives from those provided by market prices to those provided by the political system, and locking labor and management into eternal government-mediated conflict, all the better to force them to pony up with political support and campaign funds. One might also note the deification of untrammeled democracy; much of Roosevelt’s language invoked the often-specious notion of a unitary “public will,” before which all of government, including the independent judiciary, should bow. All in all, FDR radically transformed American society for the worse, but all in all we could have come away even worse than we did.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

More on the Pakistan Boomlet

Earlier this year I briefly noted that Pakistan may be on the verge of a significant economic takeoff, something very much out of character for that country in recent years, and something that India began to do years ago. The Wall Street Journal has now noticed, on their front page:

Pakistan's political scene is growing more clouded, but a clear demonstration of confidence in the country's future is coming from an emerging economic force: entrepreneurs.

Scores of new businesses once unseen in Pakistan, from fitness studios to chic coffee shops to hair-transplant centers, are springing up in the wake of a dramatic economic expansion. As a result, new wealth and unprecedented consumer choice have become part of Pakistan's volatile social mix.

The article goes on to note, accurately, that political uncertainty - the looming return of two astonishingly corrupt prime ministers (Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif) who ran the economy into the ground in the 1980s and 1990s, and the ever-present threat of Islamist mayhem - could still undo the incipient miracle. And the vast, desperately poor majority of Pakistan's huge population has yet to taste much of the fruit of several years of growth. But economic reform has stimulated entrepreneurship and foreign investment, and Pakistan looks a lot like India c. 1995 or China c. 1982. Pakistan may be a test of the hypothesis that economic growth corrodes support for radical Islam. It bears watching.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Happy Labor-Cartel Day

Today is Labor Day. It is not, as one might hope, a holiday to honor the dignity and meaning of work itself, but of a particular type of citizen who identifies himself as a “worker.” It is not a particularly helpful term in that, for example, an associate at a law firm who works 80 hours a week does not qualify as a “worker,” but it is a useful one in the political market. But it is not just workers but labor unions who, in the eyes of the media, have come to symbolize Labor Day. (See here for an example of the conflation of the holiday and the institution.)

The phenomenon of the labor union is troubling for both philosophical and economic reasons. The philosophical reason is not so obvious, but worth teasing out. Labor unions are about restricting the freedom to bargain, not just for their members but for those who would rather not be members. Federal and state law subsidizes labor-union growth in a variety of ways. For example, federal law prescribes a procedure whereby employers must negotiate with unions in some circumstances via the National Labor Relations Board. Some states have laws enabling the closed shop, in which workers who do not support a union are banned from offering their labor to a particular employer without not just joining but having their paychecks docked (i.e., their money stolen) to support it.

Neither consumers nor employers get legal benefits like this. The subsidy of union organizing is identical to procedures that would allow producers to cooperate in setting prices and wages, which is of course not only not protected but actually punished by federal antitrust law. Or consider consumers who are allowed not just to boycott individual producers (which they have every moral right to do), but to use the government to ban other consumers from patronizing them. This is what unions have achieved, and this legislative edifice clearly contravenes the idea of equality before the law, the principle that citizens should not receive special privileges or bear special burdens because of extraneous considerations - because they receive paychecks instead of write them, for example. Members of labor unions are simply treated better than the employers with whom they bargain and the consumers who contemplate buying the products the employers and workers produce together. The freedom to contract is asymmetric, applying to union members but not to those who want no part of a union, nor to employers.

And economically unions are simply a legal cartel – a group with legal sanction to limit competition in the market for labor. Their leaders have mixed incentives – to support their members’ interests so the leaders can continue to lead, but also to divert union funds in pursuit of the leaders’ own interests. A model of unions as legally protected cartel leads to several quick implications, all of which are borne out.

- Labor-cartel leaders should be somewhat corrupt. They should earn unusually high compensation, including benefits. The historical record of the Teamsters is the most vivid example, but others are legion. The tendency to steal – to advance leaders’ interest rather than members’ – is limited only by the competitiveness of union elections, which has historically also been restricted by the leadership, and the zeal of government prosecutors.

- Labor-cartel leaders should advocate restricting competition in product markets, so as to protect their members’ above-market compensation. And indeed they are among the greatest opponents in industrialized countries of trade liberalization, which benefits consumers immensely. They advocate union-only government contracting, along with limits on competition for labor in such contracting, all of which is bad for taxpayers.

- They should also advocate limits on competition in labor markets, just as producers will be in favor of limits on competition in product markets. The most disgraceful way in which this has played out is the largely unknown history of organized labor’s racial violence and enabling of racial discrimination. For a union, any set of criteria for limiting labor-market competition will do, and for American organized labor the expansion of government limits on minority participation in the labor market has been a favorite tactic. (For example, organized labor was instrumental in achieving provisions in the California constitution of 1879 banning California contractors and corporations chartered there from hiring Chinese workers.) Paul Moreno, author of a solid book documenting this history also has a Labor Day article in today’s Opinion Journal summarizing his findings.

The activities of organized labor significantly delayed economic progress for blacks in much of the post-Civil War era. And such movement notables as Samuel Gompers, Mother Jones and Eugene Debs engaged in actions or used language that would immediately be dismissed as racist if they emanated from a politician, especially now.

- Labor-cartel leaders should emphasize the interests of their current members at the expense of hypothetical future ones. And it is common for unions to oppose labor-saving technological innovations, to accept cumbersome two-tier wage systems under which newer hires earn less in lieu of everyone earning an intermediate wage, to be heedless of the cost of labor restrictions on job creation in other firms, and the like.

The good news is that despite their immense legal advantages, unions have been in decline for some time. Indeed, both Forbes and Mark Steyn have Labor Day pieces on the extent to which rising prosperity has made the stale efforts at cultivating “working class” solidarity obsolete – the “workers” would rather enjoy their weekend than march in some stuffy Labor Day parade. The only exception is government unions, which have been in ascent for some time. Since governments can limit competition for their services much more effectively than private employers, by simply passing off the costs to taxpayers, this is unsurprising.


Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Diversity Wizard

We all remember the climactic scene of the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her nervous comrades at last learn that behind the curtain is not a mighty wizard, but an ordinary man made extraordinary through artifice and fear. I thought about this scene when reading about a recent disgraceful incident, from the point of view of freedom of inquiry, involving the State Bar of California and its entanglement with the diversity empire.

Richard Sander is a law professor at UCLA. Recently published a famous article that used GPA and admissions data to conclude that law schools, in their pursuit of affirmative action and diversity, had created a severe "mismatch" problem. In particular, in their zeal to increase the representation of "Hispanics," blacks and American Indians, elite schools had admitted huge numbers of such students who were ending up at the bottom of their class or not even graduating. He argued that many of these students could succeed in law school, just not at the schools to which they were admitted. In addition to causing them to waste time and expense, their admission prevented the admission of someone else who was more likely to graduate. The argument was very familiar to those who remember the outcome of California's Proposition 187, which banned affirmative action in undergraduate admissions at that state's public universities. Enrollment of members of these groups at the elite campuses of Berkeley and UCLA plummeted, but rose at Cal State campuses and at lower-level University of California campuses, along with graduation rates.

Professor Sanders’ claims about law-school mismatch understandably and properly came under scrutiny from other academics who are supporters of affirmative action; this process is how we are supposed to get at the truth. And so Professor Sanders proposed to deal with some of these criticisms by looking at bar-passage rates in California. If passage rates for the aforementioned groups were unexpectedly low, that would be an argument in favor of the mismatch hypothesis.

But the bar is refusing to give him the data. The primary argument is that student privacy would be violated, even though it is not hard to imagine a way in which the data could be anonymized, just as tax-return data are routinely for scholars who investigate the effects of the tax system. Indeed, the Berkeley law professor Vikram David Amar is a critic of Sander's findings, but nonetheless argues that the privacy rationale is weak and that Prof. Sander should have access to the data.

The obstinacy of the California bar is emblematic of much that goes on these days when someone attempts to turn the conversation on issues of diversity and multiculturalism in a direction different from that in which the diversity wizard wishes it to go. Many of the 88 Duke faculty members who disgracefully piled on the lacrosse players who turned out to be innocent have now retreated to the bunker of the idea that even if in this case they were in error the issues they bravely called attention to (a mob attempt to railroad innocent men evidently not among them) are still what matters. Larry Summers is hounded out of the Harvard presidency for raising an idea for debate – that discrimination may not be the entire reason why women are “underrepresented” (relative to what, and why that is the appropriate comparison, is never made clear) in the hard sciences at elite research universities. The proper response of a scientist, at a university, would have been to debate the idea; the more absurd it is, the more easily it falls. But Harvard faculty would have none of that.

And so it goes. Particularly in the U.S. and the U.K., there is no idea so charged with voltage as questioning the dreary academic conventional wisdom about ethnoreligious differences in social outcomes. Indeed, that we are so locked into thinking about these outcomes purely in group terms, thinking that easily morphs into group-based remedies, is a sign of how the diversity wizard still reigns supreme. That the diversity empire is so unwilling to have its claims scrutinized might suggest to a cynical person that they are afraid of what the data will tell us. And indeed Adam Smith is said to have said that the university is "a sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection after they have been hunted out of every other corner of the world." Pull back the curtain. There is nothing there.

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