Saturday, May 31, 2008

Immigration in Three Countries

Theodore Dalrymple writes on how three societies handle the immigrant problem – which we might define as, accepting the equal dignity of immigrants, and their rate to come and pursue happiness and improve our society, without their turning our society into all the intolerant, opportunity-destroying ones they fled to begin with. He argues that France and the UK each get only half the puzzle right. First, France:

That France, as a result of the Revolution, has for a long time been a secular state de jure, rather than merely de facto, as is Britain (where religious tolerance is an outgrowth of custom, not law), enabled it to abolish headscarves in the public schools without incurring the odium of anti-Muslim bigotry. The ban simply accorded with the state’s secular founding philosophy. Multiculturalism, that is, is not compatible with the founding Enlightenment mythology of France; assimilation, not integration, is the goal. Everyone learns the same history in France; and nos ancêtres les gaulois comes to express not a biological but a cultural truth—and an easy-to-understand one, at that.

France, in other words, has its creation myth in its Revolution, and anyone of any ethnicity or race can (and, more importantly, must) adhere to it. As to the UK:

There is another major difference between the Muslim areas of France and Britain, however: this time, to Britain’s advantage. The relative ease of starting a business in Britain by comparison with heavily regulated France means that small businesses dominate Britain’s Muslim neighborhoods, whereas there are none in the banlieues of France—unless you count open drug dealing as a business. (This is one of the reasons why London is now the seventh-largest French-speaking city in the world: many ambitious young French people, Muslims included, move there to found businesses.) And since many of the businesses in the Muslim areas in Britain are restaurants favored by non-Muslim customers, the isolation of Muslims from the general population is not as great as in France.

It does no good, in other words, to tell the despised minorities they are equal if the lack of economic growth means economic dynamism is not able to overcome the ordinary prejudices against them. Thus, the ideal society requires a powerful sense of national identity plus economic freedom – America, to a very second-best approximation. All those immigrants studying for their canned citizenship exams and being hokily sworn in amid all the American flags, combined with the freedom to go out and start your own business or enhance the productivity of someone else’s – this is the recipe for tolerance in a diverse age.

One could quarrel with some of his specifics – the French national principle of secularism through aggressive sterilization of the public square, for example, requires them to discriminate against devoutly religious students by preventing them from adhering to their dress and other religious requirements in the public schools. This is a fairly obvious breach of freedom of religion. But the whole article is an interesting read for a very pressing problem faced by the world’s most advanced countries.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Affirmative Action and its Discontents, Around the World

On opposite sides of the world, two stories of the perils of ethnic politics. The BBC tells of protests by the Gujjars in India:

Thousands of protesters from India's Gujjar tribe have burnt tyres and blocked key roads into Delhi in support of their demand for better treatment.
Tens of thousands of paramilitary troops and policemen have been deployed to maintain order.

Over the past week, at least 41 people have died in clashes between police and Gujjars in Rajasthan, western India.

Only below does the BBC clarify what is meant by the who-could-be-against-that? phrase “better treatment”:

The Gujjars say they want to be placed on an official list of disadvantaged tribal groups that benefit from preferential recruitment to government jobs and educational institutions.

The Indian affirmative-action system is much vaster than that in the U.S. Soon after independence the central government created a list of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, groups that because of isolation in the former case and Hindu traditions in the latter were judged to be systematically disadvantaged. Almost as soon as "reservations" (as affirmative action is known there) began efforts began to make the list of eligible groups bigger, and to expand the prizes available. While the SC and ST lists are fixed in stone, this restraint has been evaded in at least two ways. First, not wasting a moment on political correctness, the government created a category called “Other Backward Classes,” which it can expand (in exchange for political support) at any time. Second, whenever a state splits into multiple states (as has happened several times), the new governments get to draw up lists all over again. Recently, (highly controversial) efforts have been made to extend the reservation system to India’s prestigious technological institutes, the MITs of the subcontinent.

Meanwhile, in America, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education, universities are now working extremely hard to make sure their students get put into the right boxes:

Colleges should continue to collect detailed data on their students' racial and ethnic identities, notwithstanding new federal guidelines that will categorize many students simply as "two or more races," two scholars urged on Wednesday at the annual conference of the Association for Institutional Research.

Among other things, Hispanics/Latinos are being urged to classify themselves racially as well as by the artificial status of Hispanic/Latino or not, so that (for example) "black" "Hispanics" get counted as black too. Mixed-race students are being put into the proper piles – half-“Asian,” half-“white” students, for example, are to be counted as Asian, but those of mixed white/aboriginal status are not being counted as American Indian, because such status is apparently being used opportunistically by people who are really “white” to take resources from the true Amerinds.

Thus, the classic dynamics of ethnic (or religious) preferences, and the subsidy of group identity generally, in politics. Every group diverts resources to claiming a share of the pie, in part by investing in their own group’s particular identity capital. This investment presumably comes at the expense of allowing individuals to define their own identities, or to define themselves first as Americans and only secondarily by the ethnic adjectives preceding “American.” Additionally, people try to increase the number of ways in which ethnic-capital should be rewarded – from mere seeking out of minority suppliers in government contracting (the original LBJ vision of affirmative action) to higher-education representation to higher-education academic departments to sufficient employment "diversity" to, perhaps one day, explicit representation in legislatures.

The Chronicle also reports that “in a paper that they distributed at Wednesday's session, Mr. [C. Anthony] Broh and Mr. [Stephen D.] Minicucci write that the two-question format ‘amounts to a visual statement that groups are not treated equally in higher-education policy.’”

It evidently never occurs to Mr. Broh or Mr. Minicucci that in America groups are not supposed to be treated equally. Individuals are.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Presidential Idol

Tonight is the final episode of the American Idol season. I am not a fan of the show, but appreciate its appeal. It occurs to me that the Idol process is underutilized. I propose that it be extended to politics – call it "Presidential Idol."

Neal Gabler wrote a book awhile back called Life: The Movie, in which he contended that politics is now entertainment. We think of politicians and their foibles the way we think of movie stars or rock musicians and theirs. The 24-hour news cycle, the need to hold viewers, means that political coverage is about who’s up, who’s down, who had the play of the day, etc. have clearly given us a different kind of politics and politician. The book was written during the Clinton years, when we got far more for our politico-entertainment dollar than we have a right to expect, but there is still something to his thesis, I think.

And so I propose that American Idol be extended to politics. Perhaps the president could be selected through a year-long series of elimination shows. The Ross Perots and the Mike Gravels could be knocked out, amid great hilarity, in the early weeks, and then the serious contenders could step up, plucked from obscurity in Mississippi or Montana. The panelist of judges would perform much the same role that George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert do now. The final rounds could be carried out through a competition in which contestants sing, dance, identify (or mis-identify) world leaders and work through minor inconsistencies in the answer they gave to some question eight weeks ago and the one they gave two weeks later. If necessary, we could hold the first rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire, before taking the show on the road. In fact, electing a president this way would make it considerably easier to break the Iowa/NH stranglehold; simply have the production company decide on its own to move the early rounds around every four years.

This proposal would even increase voter turnout, which I’m told is a good thing. Repeatedly dialing the phone late into the night until you get a chance to vote for Hillary! (or Barack!, or, most tantalizingly, John!) is just as good a way of voting as voting by mail, as is done now in Oregon. Sure, there are constitutional and campaign-finance issues, but those can be finessed away as they usually are. And if there are worries about whether it will make good television, perhaps they can try it with some state legislative district in flyover country first. How much worse could it be (and how different is it, really) from what we have now?


Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Gas surely is expensive these days. So why isn’t the government doing something about it? (Whether it can or should is a question certainly worth asking, but play along.) After all those oil executives were perp-walked into those Congressional hearings, all we have to show for deliberative democracy is a bill that stops the stockpiling of oil into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which everyone who voted “Yes” agrees is a meaningless gesture. (Just once, I'd like to see an oil exec refuse to testify, saying that his daily business of producing gasoline and getting it into pumps all around the country at a price that eliminates shortages and surpluses is difficult work, a problem that no group of Congressman with political tools and incentives could hope to solve, so he's too busy to come in and give the Congressmen their sound bites today.) There is certainly no shortage of ideas about what to do – open up areas currently off-limits to drilling, subsidize public transportation, etc. Some of these ideas are bad, but surely a compromise could be found.

Could, but probably won’t, because the incentives of politicians often work against actually legislating. The most widely used model in political science is probably the median-voter model, which asserts that people’s preferences on an issue are distributed on a bell curve. The greatest votes are to be had in the middle, and so competitive politics forces us there, i.e. toward compromise and away from all-or-nothing. This is, I think, a reasonable model of macro-politics (not too much welfare state, not too little either), but often fails as a model of micro-politics.

It is probably true that Americans would prefer some Democratic and Republican proposals passed together to nothing passing (or only something trivial passing, like the SPR pause). But politics is about winning elections, not about doing what the people want. If politicians on both sides can plausibly blame the other side for inaction, inaction is what we will get. This outcome is more likely if the population knows or cares little about the details of policy, or if citizens with the most extreme preferences (who will reject compromise) have unusual sway in politicians’ decisions.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It may be that gridlock by design (even deceitful design), like government divided by party, helps restrain government spending and growth. Liberty does not have a big constituency, and so a Congress full of vituperation and blame may be a Congress that doesn’t need to grab more money and write more freedom-destroying rules. (This meme has been out there for awhile, but see a dissenting view here. )

The incentive for gridlock is perhaps why extremists so often go to court to get their ends, as in the recent California Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. A bare majority of a high court is enough to get sweeping change enacted, and judges typically do not have to please the electorate by cultivating blame for the other side. It is certainly a reason not to get romantic about politics, to invest your hopes in it. Politicians have incentives too, and often they do not lend themselves to solving “public” problems.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Making Good Governance in China

Does economic freedom promote political freedom? No one argues that it does for certain, but many (Milton Friedman, most famously) have argued that it is a necessary condition. Few nations put the proposition of inevitability to the test like China. A vast increase in economic self-determination (at the individual level) and wealth appears not to have been accompanied by an improvement in governance or human rights.

That view is misplaced. First, the average Chinese citizen can chart his destiny in the market to a much greater extent than before. He can get an education pick his employer, change jobs, migrate, make his way in the world in ways that his parents could not. Second, there is some evidence that for all the problems that clearly remain, Chinese governance is improving too.

I was struck by the second picture above, and its relation to the first - two heads of government on television with loudspeakers in a time of crisis. Admittedly, the second one appears in an official Chinese government press story, but it nonetheless reminded me of the images of President Bush using his own loudspeaker at Ground Zero soon after 9/11. The Chinese press is currently full of images showing Chinese officials being Johnny on the spot. We expected President Bush to be there, because public opinion demanded a show of strength, but what about Prime Minister Wen? He answers to no electorate, and Chinese leaders certainly felt no obligation to go on TV after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which may have killed 750,000.

But more than ever before the Chinese government answers to its people because it must. People expect economic growth, they expect their economic rights to be respected, they expect public services (including earthquake relief) to be delivered effectively, and they will turn against any government that fails to accomplish these tasks. All is not rosy, to be sure. Public discontent can legally exist, but the Communist Party still reigns supreme. Nationalism in China is very powerful at the moment, and an accountable government could in theory be turned in a more angry direction than more sagacious officials would like by such nationalistic pressure in the event of a crisis. Chinese people can say these things they couldn’t a generation before, but they still can’t say that the Chinese Communist Party should be replaced. The laogai prison-labor system and violations of the human rights of the weak and powerless are still entrenched. (And along with many others, this blog, recall, apparently can’t even be read in China.) China in 2008 is not Denmark in 2008 with respect to basic freedoms or the rule of law. But it is not China in 1978 either. (The new buildings, bought with new wealth, appear to have survived the Sichuan earthquake much better than the older ones from a poorer time.) China’s greater economic freedom is taking it, three steps forward and two back, toward being a more responsible nation.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Stanley Crouch has always been one of the most eclectic voices in the American conversation; even when he goes astray, he is worth reading. Here he is on the “elitist” charge against Sen. Obama:

Columbia- and Harvard-educated, bad-bowling Obama is an elite, the conservatives - and the Clintons - claim. He is out of touch with the working class, they say.

It has become commonplace for the predictable millionaire puppets of Fox News and their conservative talk radio counterparts to present themselves as the voices of the working class in combat with an educated elite from places like Harvard.

But beneath those cliches fester ideas that are deeply anti-democratic.
They are anti-democratic because they scoff at this basic truth: Education is the key to social mobility in our country. The stereotyped working class has no innate limits. It has produced the majority of doctors, engineers, architects, educators and others who realized the dreams of their families by studying hard and moving into careers quite different from those of their parents and their neighbors.

Education has always been viewed as suspect by everyone from slave owners to totalitarians. Wherever in the world you find them, they share one hostility: They hate books.

The presidency is not an Academy Award for Best Performance as a bowler, a fast food gobbler, a whisky and beer guzzler, a hard-hat-wearer or a hunter. We ought to know how far leadership capabilities are from surfaces, slogans and costumes.

This is a little unfair. It is not education and achievement that Americans resent, but the belief of some of our most educated that America is broken, and it is their job to fix it. Mr. Crouch is correct that we do not necessarily want presidents who can bowl well or shoot straight, but neither do we want a president who sees himself as a divine Master Engineer, a trait found not in the upwardly mobile highly educated per se, but in a certain sort of highly educated person more generally. (If you have the time and the temper, see an example of snotty overeducated elites proposing to burn down all that they inherited in the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the 1960s radical left.)

I am aware of no American who resents the child of the “working class” (a term that I don’t much care for) who from humble beginnings makes it big. Sen. Obama is as admired as any other American in this regard. What is resented is the equating of degrees with the right not just to govern, but to rule. It is the sense of entitlement that sometimes accompanies (excessive) education that rightly gives the average American pause. He knows that the marriage of ideas and power is often a dangerous one. This is why he resents, for example, Sen. Obama’s now-notorious armchair psychoanalysis of why white rural Pensnsylvanians “cling to” their guns and their God. It suggests that Sen. Obama is a doctor, there to cure them of some deep sickness that is all that stands in the way of Sen. Obama’s (or any progressive’s) master plan for remaking America in the face of centuries of tradition and its hidden wisdom. This has been the way of things in America for a long while; resentment of elitist overlords dates at least as far back as Andrew Jackson’s electoral campaigns.

Books are not the problem. People who think books tell them how to manage the lives of others are the problem.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

We Won.

Promoting his new book The Post-American World in Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria notes the relative decline of the U.S. in every arena save the military one:

We are living through the third great power shift in modern history. The first was the rise of the Western world, around the 15th century. It produced the world as we know it now—science and technology, commerce and capitalism, the industrial and agricultural revolutions. It also led to the prolonged political dominance of the nations of the Western world. The second shift, which took place in the closing years of the 19th century, was the rise of the United States. Once it industrialized, it soon became the most powerful nation in the world, stronger than any likely combination of other nations. For the last 20 years, America's superpower status in every realm has been largely unchallenged—something that's never happened before in history, at least since the Roman Empire dominated the known world 2,000 years ago. During this Pax Americana, the global economy has accelerated dramatically. And that expansion is the driver behind the third great power shift of the modern age—the rise of the rest.

At the military and political level, we still live in a unipolar world. But along every other dimension—industrial, financial, social, cultural—the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance. In terms of war and peace, economics and business, ideas and art, this will produce a landscape that is quite different from the one we have lived in until now—one defined and directed from many places and by many peoples.

He goes on to argue that the U.S. retains substantial economic strength, mainly because of its unique attractiveness to energetic, creative immigrants, but will never dominate the world as it has since 1989. Maybe, maybe not, but I think we are entitled to a victory lap or two.

In a 2003 speech to Congress, Tony Blair remarked, “As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but, in fact, it is transient. The question is: What do you leave behind? And what you can bequeath to this anxious world is the light of liberty.” He turned immediately from that to the war against militant Islam, but it is striking how much of what decent people dreamed of in the darkness of the early 1940s, and then during the most frightening stages of the Cold War, has come to pass. America has built a profoundly better world during its moment in world history.

Global trade is as free, and as widespread, as it has ever been. The construction of binding agreements among nations to restrain their protectionist urges has created wealth all over the planet, and moved hundreds of millions of people from the grinding poverty and constant flirtation with death that has always been their lot to the prosperity invented by the Western world. The US certainly did not invent the idea of free trade as a moral crusade (the British did, during the debate over repeal of the Corn Laws), but used its influence to entrench economic freedom around the world, from which political freedom may (but need not) germinate.

Consensual government too has spread worldwide. It is true that a huge proportion of the global population still lives under dictatorship of one sort or another (and parts of it, e.g. Russia, have slid back just in recent years), but poke through the data at Freedom House on the extent of civil-liberties protection and democratic governance now, and compare it to the 1970s. Even where authoritarianism still prevails, as in China, it is of a much more relaxed sort then it used to be. China still has prison factories and executes large numbers of criminals, but one man (Mao Zedong) no longer has the power to starve millions, to turn society upside down, to empty out the cities. Chinese citizens (they are not "comrades" any more) have the power to sue some of their public officials and win sometimes, even if corruption is still rampant. Prosperity has given the average Chinese considerably more control over his destiny than he had only twenty years ago, not least the freedom to leave if China limits him too much.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, war is in decline. There are terrible exceptions, particularly in the Congo, but both internal civil conflict and nation-state war have been falling for twenty years, in part because there is more to lose from warring given how much there is to gain from trading.

When FDR and Churchill wrote the Atlantic Charter, and when Harry Truman desperately tried to organize a meaningful response to Soviet expansionism in the late 1940s, things looked bleak. Our “crises” now (several hundred thousand home foreclosures, higher food prices generating riots in the more isolated and economically mismanaged regions of the world, which conspicuously now do not include the historical basket cases of India and China) seem trivial next to the things that used to preoccupy our leaders.

To be sure, there are irritants in the "post-American world." The ideology of Islamism, with its atavistic inability to live peacefully with people of other faiths and its efficacious promulgation primarily through a sort of transnational, oil money-funded mafia family, is one. Another is the inevitable rising tide of nationalism in China, which will behave like other rising powers before it and demand respect at the geopolitical table commensurate with its rising economic heft. This nationalism (multiplied by resentment over past humiliations at the hands of the West) could, as it did in 1914, lead to reckless war.

But our grandparents would’ve been glad to have these problems. So enjoy your moment on the victory stand, America. Costly though they have been for your own constitutional values, your sacrifices have borne extraordinary fruit, mainly for people around the world who are not even Americans. It is more and more an American world, no matter how "post-American" it is.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Not many people outside of academia these days remember Lani Guinier. She was President Clinton's ill-fated first nominee for attorney general. She was one of at least three academics (Robert Reich and Donna Shalala were the other two) that President Clinton named to his Cabinet, which surely must be some sort of record.

Her nomination ran aground when people began looking into her work. She was a democratic theorist who was dissatisfied with the way American elections are typically conducted – people vote for one candidate, and the candidate who gets the most votes wins. As obvious as that system sounds, there are many other ways to run an election. One could allow people to rank candidates for example, with second or third rankings counting, but less than the top ranking. Or one could have a European Parliament- or Israeli-style proportional representation system, where people vote for parties, and parties get seats in parliament in the same proportion in which they got votes. She argued that many communities, particularly minorities, could not get meaningful representation in our longstanding first-past-the-post system. It turned out that a lot of Americans didn't think much of that idea, and her nomination was quickly dropped.

I thought of her as I watched the Democratic primary process unfold this year. The reason Senator Clinton was able to hang on as long as she did was that Democrats toward their convention delegates in primary states by proportional representation, rather than through the winner of a primary getting all of the state's delegates (which is the way the Republicans generally award theirs). This was done to make the election more "fairly" represent the sentiments of Democratic voters. But it led to lots of unintended consequences, in particular the inability of Senator Obama to drive Senator Clinton from the race.

This process is suggestive of a major fallacy in how many of us think about politics, including but far from limited to Professor Guinier. There is a naïve belief that there is some perfect Rousseau-type public will waiting to be discovered. Elections need to be organized so that they will detect it, so that this public will can be implemented.

This belief is flawed on at least two counts. First, it is not obvious that the momentary public will ought to be implemented in anything like its totality. It is the function of the Constitution, and its explicit enumeration of rights, to prevent just such a thing. (Some of us paid attention in our high-school government classes, some of us didn't.) Second, it is impossible in any event to even define, let alone detect, some conception of the public will that everyone would agree on in advance. The result is that rejiggering election laws lead to unintended consequences. Elections are held on the premise of solving a series of public problems, the problems fail to be solved in part because they are far beyond the ability of public officials using force and zero-sum rearrangements of wealth to solve them, people with unconventional views (who were often most insistent to begin with that government could solve these problems) find that their ideas are chewed up in the maw of conventional politics and blame this for the failure of politics, and so the system has to be "change" yet again. (Think of how often a country like Italy has changed its election laws.)

In extreme cases, people become so disenchanted with the inability of the messy system to achieve the results that they want that they cast their lot with extremists who promise to get us "beyond politics." They promise to worry only about solving problems, and not to be tied to any particular ideology. This of course all too often leads to disastrous consequences. European-style extremism has not found very fertile soil in the United States or in Great Britain, where the first-past-the-post system is also used. To be sure, much of the failure of various totalitarianisms to take much root here has to do with our nature -- Americans temperamentally simply don't cotton to the politics of mass movements and higher universal purpose. We take our cue from the Federalist papers, which warned us about the constant dangers of faction hijacking the government machinery to attack the people's liberty. (That the language of getting beyond politics is so prominent in the American left these days is disturbing for these reasons, but that is another story.) But our system, which goes out of its way to avoid having every view, no matter how extreme, get a seat at the table of power forces public officials away from these extremes. This forced centrism has probably done a lot to limit the growth of government that has so plagued other advanced societies. Even though my views tend toward the extreme on matters of personal liberty, we would be fools to change it.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Windfalls and Hot Air

Mark Finkelstein at Newbusters has an interesting analysis of Sen. Clinton’s TV appearance this weekend. In discussing high gasoline prices, no fewer than 13 times does she make a verbal attack on oil companies, suggesting very strongly that their gouging behavior is why we are paying upwards of $3.50 for a gallon of gas, and suggesting (evidently in her world supply curves never shift left) that we can impose a “windfall profits tax” without affecting the incentives to produce oil. Several questions suggest themselves:

1. If oil companies can gouge, why didn’t they have enough sense to gouge in 1998, when I could get gas for less than $1.00 a gallon? Why did they watch oil prices plummet from $39 to $11 a barrel in the early to mid-1980s?

2. If “windfall profits” justify a “windfall profits tax,” do “windfall losses” justify “windfall losses subsidies”? (I am almost afraid to ask that one, for fear that the answer for most politicians will be “Yes.”)

3. If oil companies gouge gasoline prices, why do gasoline and crude oil spot-market prices move in lockstep over decades, even though both prices are set by the interaction of thousands and thousands of traders in highly competitive markets? Can speculators really be orchestrating prices to this degree?

4. How is it that we have access to any gasoline at all, given the dramatic rise in demand for oil in rapidly developing societies in Asia, South America and elsewhere? How did it come to be that our gas pumps are full rather than empty in such circumstances? Did it have anything to do with risk-taking and initiative by oil companies? If we tax “windfall profits,” will it make it easier or harder for Americans to procure the products that rely on crude oil?

5. Given that the big Western oil companies control less and less of global oil supplies (and state oil companies in places like Russia and Venezuela control more and more), why are oil companies still the target of anger among a certain sort of politician as much as they were in the 1970s? Could more state control over oil have anything to do with falling production in places like Venezuela, and could that have perhaps more to do than Big Oil with tighter global supplies?

Sen. Clinton is running for president on the platform of being ready for work on day one, so I’m just askin’.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

SAT Scores Up; Colleges Panic

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article about the fact that very-high SAT scorers make up a much larger proportion of the student body at elite colleges than they did in 1989. (Some data are here.) If that is all I tell you, how do you interpret this? Surely the most sensible reading is that competition for these colleges is much higher than it used to be. The amount of positions at elite colleges is fixed, but the population of young Americans, and the emphasis they and their parents place on getting into a name-brand school, forces these scores up. The average Harvard admit is simply going to be a far better student than he was in 1989. Presumably this is a good thing, for Harvard and the country.

But that is not how the Chronicle interprets the findings. Instead, it reports that:

Two recent studies conclude that selective colleges give excess weight to SAT scores to improve their college-guide rankings, but they could attract more minority and low-income students by giving more consideration to other admissions criteria.

In other words, the main impact of better SAT scores is that (some) minorities can’t access the most elite higher education. The argument is phrased as “high scorers' share of selective-college enrollments has risen largely because of the institutions' ‘attempts to climb the pecking order of various college ranking systems.’” By this is meant the sorts of rankings that show up in places like US News & World Report. This “[hurts] the prospects of low-income and minority applicants, who are less likely to post high scores.”

Several things to chew on here. First, the authors of the studies cited in the report appear to take it for granted that emphasis on getting better rankings is bad. But given how opaque the quality of college education is (price alone is a surprisingly poor guide, unlike, say, a men’s suit), rankings surely help consumers (i.e., parents) make better decisions. Colleges arguably should be trying to climb these rankings for the same reason that restaurants and car-makers try to get good ratings from food critics and Consumer Reports.

Second, it is uncritically assumed that admissions of poor and “minorities” (by which is really meant “minorities other than Asians”) are objectively too low. But scholars such as the UCLA law professor Richard Sander (whose very important work I have noted here and here) that using criteria other than standardized tests and GPA, at least in law schools, results in mismatch – non-Asian minorities are admitted to the top law schools at higher rates, but drop out and fail bar exams at much higher rates, meaning that their time is basically wasted (as is the time of the students who didn’t get in because they did). The passage of Prop. 187 in California, which banned all race-conscious affirmative action at state universities there, had the salutary effect of increasing graduation rates of non-Asian minorities who were admitted to UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz or Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo instead of Berkeley or UCLA.

Ultimately, whether SAT scores are overrated in the admissions calculations that universities make depends on their predictive power – do students with high scores graduate at higher rates and get higher grades without having to make such special accommodations as easier majors or extensive tutoring services. If not, then admitting lower-SAT students will require investment in this special help that the students in whose stead they were admitted may not need. Is the SAT informative compared to other things in the admissions packet? Are the ratings the colleges want to climb useful to parents and students? What kind of admissions policies make for the best students? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I do know they are the questions to ask; the ethnic makeup of the student body is a considerably lower-priority question.