Friday, April 18, 2003

Efficacy of Race Preferences

The justification-du-jour for race preferences in college admissions is the need for diversity among students. As Julian correctly points out, this justification can only stand judicial scrutiny if race is used as a *proxy* for diversity of viewpoints and experience, it being “settled law that mere racial diversity is invalid on face as a state purpose.”

If that’s so, then it seems to me that race preferences for diversity purposes should have to meet some kind of *efficacy* test. If their goal were the promotion of racial diversity per se, then efficacy would be a no-brainer: obviously a program that gives extra weight to members of underrepresented groups will tend to increase their representation (indeed, if it didn’t, then the opponents of the program would have no basis for objecting). But if race preferences are acceptable only as an instrument for attaining some other goal, then the question arises as to whether that other goal is actually being furthered by the policy.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it’s not. It may be difficult to measure diversity of viewpoints and experience, but as a first approximation, we could look at party membership or ideological self-identification. The question would be whether the race preference policies had increased the representation of currently underrepresented political views on campus, relative to institutions without such policies. Now, I haven’t seen any recent data on the political views of students, but according to a recent study, ideological diversity among *faculty* is ridiculously low. Liberal faculty often outnumber conservative faculty by 10 or 20 to one, whereas liberals and conservatives are approximately equal in the general population. If the views of students are anything like those of faculty, then a policy designed to increase viewpoint diversity would have to increase the number of right-leaning students enrolled. What is the chance that a preference for minority races would have such an effect, given that minority groups are typically more left-leaning than the general public?

I could be wrong. Maybe race preferences do increase diversity, perhaps by creating more balance between the moderate left and the far left. Diversity of experience could be another matter -- it's more plausible that minority students differ from the majority of white students in their economic background than in their politics. (But economic background could be targeted directly; there's no need for a proxy for something easily measured.) Still, if the constitutional case for race preferences now rests solely on the achievement of diversity of viewpoints and experience, shouldn’t there at least be an attempt to measure the output? If separate water fountains for blacks and whites were justified on the basis of the state’s compelling interest in encouraging good hygiene, we would either (a) reject the policy on its face, or (b) demand at least some evidence of the policy’s efficacy in improving public health. In the case of race-preferences, since we haven’t rejected them outright, shouldn’t we confront the issue of efficacy?

I’m guessing that the courts would rather not rely on such a test, because efficacy lies in the traditional province of the legislature. The Supreme Court would rather judge constitutionality on the basis of text and reason, not social scientific data. But on the other hand, if a policy’s results are so radically at odds with its supposed goals (or “compelling state interests”) as to cast doubt on whether they are its actual goals, the Court should be less willing to bow to the legislature’s judgment. And that seems pretty likely to me in the cases at hand: proponents of race-preference programs are now justifying them on the basis of diversity because that’s the only constitutionally valid argument left to them. Some of them *might* care about diversity, but I suspect most would happily sacrifice viewpoint diversity on campus if it implied the inclusion of more right-wingers or fewer members of minorities.


Thursday, April 17, 2003

Love Is a Direction-Field

More evidence for the analytical perspective on love and marriage.


The Legacy of Bart Simpson

This is beyond funny. Check out the original article, and do a search for "heywood." I wonder if Stu Pedaso also attended the rally? (Thanks to Radley for the pointer.)


Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Nazi or Commie...Who Would You Rather Have a Beer With?

In a discussion of the ethics (as distinct from law) of boycotting or refusing to deal with people who express political views with which one disagrees, as in the Dixie Chicks fracas, Eugene makes the following observation:
If we hear that a friend refuses to have dinner with people who are Nazis or Communists, we'd probably think he's acting properly; we might think the same if he refuses to do business with them, or perhaps even if he refuses to hire them (though I suspect that some people may have a different view as to the latter).
If Eugene had left out the phrase “or Communists,” this sentence would not have given me pause. But I suspect that many people would *not* treat Nazis and Commies with equal distaste. For some reason, Commies are granted a pass where Nazis are not. Why?

In terms of the sheer number of people killed by these two ideologies, Communism is arguably the worse of the two. This article estimates that the USSR killed 61 million people, as opposed to 20 million killed by Nazi Germany. Of course, the USSR had a much longer period of time in which to do its murdering – over 70 years versus about 12. So while communism was worse in terms of total body count, Nazism was worse in terms of body count per year. The fact that communism killed so many more people in total tells us something significant: part of what made communism so bad was its sheer persistence. But let’s not split hairs: both Nazism and communism resulted in the death of tens of millions of people.

Back to the original question: why are people more tolerant of Commies than Nazis? One explanation: Communists are seen as having made an error of fact, whereas Nazis are seen as having made an error of value. Communism simply misunderstood the crucial role of decentralization and private property in creating incentives for productivity, innovation, and use of private information. It was an error of economic science, not moral belief. Nazism, on the other hand, had at its core a visceral hatred of certain groups. Now, this error of fact versus error of value distinction might *explain* the different treatment of Nazis and Commies, but I’m not sure it *justifies* it. The distinction only provides a defense of historical communists, not present-day communists, because no present-day communist can be unaware of the terrible results of communism as an economic (and political) system. Also, some might argue that communism makes a value error as well, by failing to give proper weight to the moral autonomy of the individual. From this perspective, the difference between Nazism and communism is that the former gave weight to the (severely limited) moral autonomy of at least some people, whereas the latter gave no weight to the moral autonomy of anyone. Perhaps communism could be credited with at least having been an equal opportunity offender (though in practice it was not – Jews were notoriously badly treated in the USSR).

A related explanation focuses on the difference of intent. The communist wants a world in which people are happy and well-fed, whereas the Nazi only wants one in which *particular* people are happy and well-fed – the rest can go to hell. Again, the argument doesn’t quite work for present-day communists – but perhaps they can be accused of being just monstrously ill-informed or misguided, not ill-intentioned.

A third explanation is the greater association of the failure of communism with the bad guys in charge. It’s common to hear present-day Communists say that the communism of the Soviet bloc was not real communism, because it was hijacked by the likes of Stalin and Ceaucescu. Here, too, there is an analytical problem: communism as envisioned by philosophers was a literal impossibility, which meant that the apparatus for central control of the economy would inevitably be used and abused by a privileged class. And as Hayek argued in the Road to Serfdom, there are incentives inherent in such a system for the worst to rise to the top. But present-day communists obviously don’t buy that argument (or haven’t heard it); they think that a properly designed communist system would work after all, avoiding the depredations of would-be despots. I think that belief is dangerous and factually wrong, but it’s not the kind of belief that would warrant classifying the believer as a “bad person.”


Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Coolest Defunct Website Award

Check out James Thornton’s Theory of the Week site. It hasn’t been updated in over a year, but when it was operative, each entry featured a brief description of some theory, principle, or concept. Some of the items covered are Occam’s Razor, the Gaia Hypothesis, the Butterfly Effect, and the Peter Principle. As far as I can tell, there are only 30 entries, though others might be archived somewhere. But what a great idea! We should encourage this guy to start the site up again. Maybe he just needs more ideas for theories to include.


Monday, April 14, 2003

Agoraphilia 2.0

So I’ve finally gotten around to updating the blog template to include (a) a comments feature and (b) a longer list of blogs that I actually read, including – get this – a couple by authors I usually disagree with.

You can blame the changes on Chuck, whose email cattle-prod prompted to me to make the changes. It was also Chuck who let me know that turns out to be a porno site. I’m rather amused by the prospect of horny guys accidentally finding politico-economic commentary, while geeky blogger-wonks are treated to unexpected flesh. Of course, the intersection of those two demographicss might be fairly large.


Tax-Me Driver

A couple of readers have taken me to task on my post below about “the new poll tax.” They point out that the sheer annoyance of having to fill out tax forms might be sufficient to mobilize votes for politicians in favor of tax simplification. As Chuck argues:
However, you forget that for many people--perhaps almost everyone--the big annoyance of paying taxes is the massive amount of time and the collosal invasion of privacy that occurs while they're paying. No one likes to pay large amounts of money for anything, be it a college education or taxes, but it's the sheer idea of making it DIFFICULT to fork over your money that makes taxpaying so instinctively odious.
Makes sense to me, though I’m still not sure it outweighs the other factors I mentioned. In my case, filling out the forms is a pain in the ass *and* I never get a refund, so it’s hard for me to say how much of my annoyance is attributable to each source. I suspect the people who pay few or no taxes (a surprisingly large number) are also the people whose taxes are simplest. Your taxes start to get seriously complicated when your income either is relatively large or comes from multiple sources. But hey, I could be wrong.


Sunday, April 13, 2003

Ecce Homo

Kieran Healy reports that a large majority of Republicans believe that homosexuality is a choice, whereas a large majority of Democrats believe that homosexuality is genetic. As Mark Kleiman observes, this is another example of people’s amazing ability to fit their empirical beliefs to their desired policy conclusions.

The issue of homosexuality’s origin seems to be a hot topic at the moment; it came up on Julian’s blog a few days ago, and he was responding to a couple of posts (here and here) by Matthew Yglesias on the same subject. Julian makes the excellent point that sexual orientation could also result from nurture at such a young age that it could hardly be considered a choice even if it’s not genetically encoded. In other words, to draw a sharp dichotomy between choice and genetics is to commit the fallacy of the excluded middle.

In any case, I’m with those (like Julian and Matthew) who think the answer to the origin-of-homosexuality question shouldn’t matter. Even if one’s orientation is innate or otherwise unchosen, the conservatives are correct to observe that the *action* is chosen. I’m heterosexual, even though I don’t recall ever choosing to be – and yet I have the shocking ability to refrain from heterosexual sex. The real issue is whether homosexual sex does harm to anyone other than the participants – and the obvious answer is no. (Or more to the point, it needn’t harm anyone else. If we implement a public health system that socializes healthcare costs, then anything that increases the likelihood of health problems for oneself – including high-risk sexual behavior – could harm others through the expenditure of tax dollars. But that kind of harm doesn’t follow from the act itself, only from the policies imposed by the legislature.)

I once mentioned to a homosexual friend that I rather hoped homosexuality would turn out not to have a genetic (or otherwise unchosen) component, because then the conservatives would have to accept it as a pure choice (in the broader sense of choosing one’s orientation as well one’s action) that is nevertheless *none of their damn business*. My friend replied, “Well, you’re clearly not homosexual.” His point being that, for whatever reason, people are more inclined not to punish X if X is not a matter of choice, whether or not X is something that causes harm to others. For those who have a dog in the hunt on this issue, it’s more important to get the right policy than to get it for the best reasons. If I were homosexual, I suppose I’d cheer any evidence of a homosexuality gene, simply because there are many voters who would choose to support my “choice” in that case.