Friday, January 24, 2003

Must Read: If you are interested in questions of Affirmative Action, black underperformance in school, and income/wealth inequalities, you MUST READ Ted Barlow. Here's the post I found most interesting, scroll around to read more. 30-second summary: White Americans have about 7 times more wealth than Black Americans, even at the same income level. Performance in college correlates well with wealth, but not with income. Oh, and "anti-poverty" programs discourage saving and investing by counting assets against recipients (that's not nuts--if you have a lot of savings, why do you need welfare? But still...)

Someone needs to be thinking hard about this and what it means for achieving equality.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Abortion and poor children: Ampersand has a marvelously unfair cartoon portraying pro-life conservatives as horrible hypocrites: they oppose abortion, but don't support strong welfare to pay for living children.

My first reaction is classically libertarian: You don't have to support government welfare programs to support poor children. Food banks, churches, and private charities all do fine work, and it is possible--especially for christians who tithe--to claim plausibly that one supports poor children without supporting government programs. This is a common liberal mistake: believing that if the government isn't doing something, then no one is doing it.

My second reaction is somewhat more openly heartless: don't breed 'em if you can't feed 'em. It is not the least bit difficult not to get your girlfriend pregnant (I've been doing it for years). Pro-choice types tend to act as if contraception doesn't exist, or as if pregnancy via surprise immaculate conception were common. Pregnancy (usually) results from behavorial decisions made by the pregnant woman (with due attention also paid to the father of the child). So for a woman to demand handouts as a result of her own bad choices is a little rich. If I break my neck driving at 150 mph, should the government pay for my health care?

Still, on a practical policy level, we can't let children starve, and we will always have stupid people making stupid decisions. So perhaps government welfare will always be a necessary part of life, and perhaps it's foolish to oppose it. But the "hypocricy" portrayed in this cartoon just isn't there.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Roe v. Wade: So today Roe v. Wade is 30 years old. I'm not sure how I feel about this one. To begin with, the decision iteslf is crap. Read it sometime and try to find a coherent argument--lots of prenumbras and emanations, but not much more. This isn't textualism, or originalism, or anything vaguly like a meaningful method for understanding the Consititution: this is pure make-it-up-as-you-go-to-get-what-you-want-ism. It always amazes me how some people can vigorously support Roe, and then turn around and ignore the First Amendment issues surrounding campaign finance "reform," or insist that the Second Amendment means nothing. Then again, if you are a devotee of the make-it-up school, it presumably all makes perfect sense.

But I'll say it: not all that is good is Constitutionally required, nor is all that is bad Constitutionally forbidden. Bad things can be allowed, or even required, by the law, just as good things may be forbidden. It is foolish to make all of one's political leanings in to Constitutional questions. To illustrate this point, I think it's useful to contrast Roe with the infamous Dred Scott decision. For if Roe represents make-it-up-ism with a (perhaps) desireable result, Dred Scott is solid textual and historical analysis with an abominable outcome. Taney declared that black Americans could not be citizens under the Consititution, and frankly, it's hard to argue with him on historical or textual grounds. Thank heavens for the 14th Amemdment, which explicitly overruled him.

As for the outcome of Roe, I'm ambivalent. There are so many options outside of abortion (contraception comes to mind, or, failing that, adoption) that I find it hard to accept the abortion-on-demand dogma. I've never gotten any one pregnant, so I don't think it's that hard to avoid. On the other hand, abortion, like cocaine, will always be with us, and from a public-health standpoint, it's probably better that abortion shoud occur in a safe clinical setting rather than in back alleys. But it still looks an awful lot like murder, and I doubt I'll every regard it as anything but a necessary evil at best. As I said, I'm ambivalent. But I certainly will not be celebrating.
Paul Krugman v. Ann Coulter: The lefty blogosphere, including my buddy Ted Barlow, is all a-twitter about this bit of adolescent jackassery from Paul Krugman:
liberal and a conservative were sitting in a bar. Then Bill Gates walked in. "Hey, we're rich!" shouted the conservative. "The average person in this bar is now worth more than a billion!" "That's silly," replied the liberal. "Bill Gates raises the average, but that doesn't make you or me any richer." "Hah!" said the conservative, "I see you're still practicing the discredited politics of class warfare."

Now, if Ann Coulter said something this stupid about liberals (that is, when she says something this stupid) Ted would be (will be) all over her for her foolishness. Why, then, do so many anti-Colterites seem so pleased with Krugman's similarly lame-brained destruction of a straw man?

OK, I admit, some economic measures (like GDP) mix the really rich in with the really poor and thus give a deceptive picture of "average." This is Krugman’s main point here—that an “average” small-business tax cut of $2,000 is, in reality, a much larger tax cut for larger “small” businesses and little or no tax cut for really small ones. Fair enough.

But no conservative actually argues that Bill Gates' wealth is good for its own sake. Rather, they argue that the manner in which Gates acquired his wealth--namely, by building a large company that makes products people want, directly employing thousands of people along the way--is desirable. Neither I nor any conservative economist wants large concentrations of wealth--we want the wealth- and job-creating innovation which produces those concentrations of wealth as a side effect. We don't want to destroy the concentrations because we know they are the incentives which motivate people to innovate.

And, of course, the argument for this tax cut may be similar; it may be targeting certain taxes which impede growth and job creation, and it may be that little tiny businesses will get no tax cut because they aren’t paying this particular tax, similar to the manner in which poor people can’t get income tax breaks because they don’t pay income taxes. I don’t know anything about the tax cut proposal in question, and Krugman is too busy calling Bush a liar to tell us anything else.

Paul Krugman is supposedly a smart guy; he probably understands the Bush tax plan better than almost anyone. Why, then, does he prefer invective to information? Why does he warp the arguments for the tax cut in question so severely? Is he too dumb to understand what conservatives are really thinking, or is he simply afraid to tell us the truth, because then we might not agree with him?

Either way, comments like this put him into the same class as Ann Coulter. Once again I'm forced to ask: how is it that he can possibly command any respect?

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Diplomatic "success": The Russians are declaring their talks with North Korea "successful" because Kim Jong Il didn't spit in their face when they proposed a nuclear-free Korean peninsula in exchange for economic aid to the north.

Sounds like a retread of the 1994 "Agreed Framework" to me, which, in case the Russians haven't noticed, the North Koreans breached in 1998 and continue to breach today.

Not that I have any better ideas, but isn't doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results simply insane?
Blinding Flash of the Obvious: "We are greatly concerned that a military strike against Baghdad would involve considerable and unpredictable risks for the global fight against terrorism."

--Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister

War, unpredictable? War, risky? You're kidding, right?

I'm starting to wonder if Den Beste's speculations aren't correct.
"Disproportionately poor: I exchanged emails with Sam Heldman regarding AA. He brought up the point that black people are disproportionately poor, and thus part of black underperformance in school is due to poverty.

This is a common argument, and a really terrible one. It has its roots in "cosmic karma" thinking--some black people get shafted by the system, so we should offer special rewards to blacks to make it up to them, even if the shaftees and the rewardees are different people.

The relevant question is not "are black people on average more likely to be poor than white people." It is "are black college applicants on average more likely to be poor than white college applicants." We can't make life better for people in the ghetto by offering suburban blacks special perks.

Even if black (and hispanic) college applicants are more likely to be poor than whites or Asians, the mere existence of an imbalance is not a good argument for race-based affirmative action. Consider: if the white poverty rate is 10%, and the black poverty rate is 20%, one could correctly argue that blacks are poor twice as often as whites. But if AA is based on race, then 80% of the recipients will be non-poor--a decidedly unjust result. Indeed, it may even turn out that NONE of the poor blacks end up getting admitted to college, because all of the "black" slots are taken up by suburbanites. It is hard to argue that this is a just or desirable result, even by the standards of AA proponents. If it is unjust for a privileged white student to take the place of a poor but hard-working black student, surely it is also unjust for a well-off black to take that spot. (N.B. I made these numbers up. Please don't yell at me if they're wrong.)

So I'm back to asking for reasons why we shouldn't replace race preferences with class preferences. Perhaps class preferences have their problems, but the come a lot closer to achieving the alleged goals of AA. Conservatives have jumped on Berkeley's "life challenges"-based approach as being "race preferences in disguise," but for my part I'm willing to give it a chance. It might be badly flawed, but it's at least an attempt to move in the right direction.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Great Pro-AA blog post: Sam Heldman makes the case for race-based preferences, and does a hell of a good job of it. This is the best defense of AA I have ever seen, hands down.
First, you've got to figure out why we admit people to public universities. It's not as a reward for making good grades in high school. It's so that we can improve our society -- spending public resources to expand the minds of a lucky relatively-few, so that they will go on to do things that will make the world better. Admission is not an entitlement that arises from being smart. It is a matter of being chosen to be the subject of a public investment. Second, we have decided that we ought to invest in just about as many minority kids, proportionately, as white kids. Why? Because it seems pretty obvious to us that this is the way to improve the world -- not by reserving this public good mostly for white folks, but by spreading it around. The world will be better more quickly, we think, if there are black lawyers as well as white lawyers, Hispanic engineers as well as Anglo engineers, etc.

Wow. Good point. But...would you want to drive over a bridge if you knew one of the engineer's primary qualifications was his skin color?

Seriously, this doesn't answer what to me is the fundamental question: why should certain minorities need preferences to gain admission in the first place? This isn't about having a pool of equally-qualified candidates and carefully balancing their racial mix--it's about lowering standards, sometimes a lot, to get that mix. And that, to me, is the fundamental flaw of AA, and the one which makes it look like tokenism. This especially true at the graduate level, when any injustice should already have been corrected by undergraduate AA--you can't convince me that a law school applicant from Harvard was stymied by racism or should be regarded as "underprepared." The incredibly lame reposte is that legacy kids and athletes get their standards lowered, so why not minorities? The appropriate reply is the editorial cartoon pages of school newspapers, which regularly mock whiny rich kids and meathead athletes. Is that the company in which minority scholars wish to find themselves?

Still, this is a serious defense of AA which deserves very serious consideration by opponents.

UPDATE: Because I'm an idiot, I forgot to mention that I found Sam's post via Ampersand, a far left blogger who is a good read for conservatives looking for a rational representative of the other side.
Veteran's Benefits: I just can't get excited about the recent decision to refuse new enrollment into VA health programs for certain veterans. Let's review: in order to be refused for treatment you must:

--Not be currently under treatment by the VA.

--Seeking treatment for a non-service related medical condition; injuries and conditions resulting from your time in service are covered.

--Making more than $35,000 a year.

What, exactly, is wrong with these rules? I would have altered in income test a little--limiting enrollment to those who make below some set amount AND have no other health insurance. But as a rule, why is it objectionable to make the VA a last resort for veterans, rather than a first resort?

Some woman who served in Vietnam was complaining on NBC that if "something" happened to her employer's health program, she would have nowhere to go. Um...if something happens to your job--like you lose it--you won't be making any money, and therefore, you will be eligible. And, given the way she dressed, I find it hard to believe that she was suffering and could not afford private insurance.

As a rule, I want to see veterans cared for. But in tight budget times, can't those veterans who are making decent money look after themselves, so that the government can afford to care for those who can't look after themselves? Shouldn't the destitute be our priority, whether in housing assistance or VA hospitals?