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Archive for the ‘race and ethnicity’ Category

Many people are concerned about income and wealth inequality. I am not concerned about economic inequality as such; I care about absolute poverty (how many people live in misery because of wretched physical conditions), and I care about a broad distribution of opportunity (everyone’s having a “fair shot” at economic success), but I don’t see it as a problem if someone earns vastly more money than someone else, just as I don’t see it as a problem that poorer people tend to have more leisure time than richer people. Only those consumed with envy could see economic (or leisure!) inequality simpliciter as a problem, right?

But I actually don’t think people on the left care about economic inequality or leisure inequality or inequality of looks or appealing personalities or anything else of value, in themselves, either. They care about economic inequality because they think it has negative consequences, particularly for political inequality, and because they think it is a symptom of some deeper problem. I disagree on the first count and agree on the second. Let me explain.

Does Inequality Have Bad Consequences?

The fear of the left is that in an unequal U.S., the rich will “buy” politicians to do what they want. As a result, we will get more pollution and more redistribution that flows from the middle class to the rich. The so-called “oligarchy study” (the term “oligarchy” never actually appears in the paper) went viral recently, showing that the preferences of wealthy Americans (and organized interest groups) matter for policy change in the U.S., while, controlling for the preferences of wealthy Americans, the preferences of other Americans make little difference. But wealthy Americans and average Americans actually have similar views on most issues, and where they diverge, the wealthy often have clearly superior views: less likely to loathe immigrants and gays, to fear free trade, to oppose marijuana legalization, and to be narrowly ideological. In addition, the wealthy tend to be more skeptical of taxation and welfare programs than the non-wealthy — your views on whether that difference is problematic may vary according to your views of the welfare state.

Still, let’s assume that the influence of the wealthy on U.S. politics is baleful; does that mean that growing economic inequality would reinforce that baleful influence? It remains unproven whether more inequality will mean that the rich pay more in campaign contributions and get more out in policy terms. The most likely explanation for why the rich are influential is simply that they have similar levels of education and status to politicians and move in the same social circles and care about the same sorts of things. Studies looking at how campaign contributions “buy access” to legislators generally come up with very weak results. To take just one policy example, federal air pollution regulations have always ratcheted up, and air quality in the U.S. is vastly improved relative to 50 years ago, in part due to regulation and in part to technological changes. Rising inequality certainly doesn’t seem to explain these trends.

A bigger problem with the U.S. political economy (more…)

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The Economist has come out against race-based affirmative action in the United States, a surprising (to me) move given the magazine’s socially left-of-center outlook (e.g., for legalizing drugs and banning handguns). Indeed, the way in which affirmative action as currently practiced discriminates against Asians even more than against whites is difficult to justify. (I argued here that state-sponsored affirmative action is not inherently unjust.) Moreover, the paternalist case against affirmative action cannot be dismissed out of hand:

[After California banned affirmative action, t]he number of blacks and Hispanics enrolled fell, particularly at the flagship schools, Berkeley and UCLA.

What was more surprising was that in the entering class of 2000 a record number of black students graduated on time. Mr Sander and Mr Taylor argue that previously low black graduation rates were a result of the mismatch which occurs when a student granted preferential admission winds up at an institution for which he is not academically suited. He begins at a marked relative disadvantage and falls behind quickly. His grades get lower and lower and in the worst cases he loses confidence and fails to graduate.

Mr Sander and Mr Taylor attribute a host of bad outcomes to mismatch. For example, more black than white high-school seniors aspire to science and engineering careers, but once in college twice as many black students as white abandon those challenging fields.

Note that if you buy this argument against affirmative action, you should also oppose “legacy” preferences in affirmative action (and rational parents would not oppose the move, leaving no apparent constituency on the other side of the question).

Nevertheless, affirmative action in the United States is not as noxious as ethnic and racial preferences in many other parts of the world. In Sri Lanka, ethnic Sinhalese university applicants receive large preferences relative to ethnic Tamils. The reason seems to be nothing other than that Sinhalese are the majority in the country, and they will damned well discriminate against minorities however they please. (Such is the reality of democracy in the developing world.) In Malaysia, Malays and other bumiputera receive wide-ranging preferences in education and business. (For instance, firms must have at least 40% Malay ownership.) Chinese and Indians suffer.

So in most of the world, “affirmative action” just means that politically dominant ethnic groups get to repress the politically subordinate. But in the United States, affirmative action does not mean the translation of the ethnic majority’s political power into other spheres of social life. Blacks in the U.S. remain a small minority of the population and thus suffer from collective political disadvantage (due in part as well to their overwhelming support for one political party, which leads politicians to take their votes for granted). Eliminating all educational and economic advantages for blacks will alienate most of them. Of course, many African-Americans oppose affirmative action — but most still support it and see a role for it. The Supreme Court should be reluctant to impose a judicial solution to a sensitive political problem. A sweeping ruling constitutionally prohibiting virtually all racial preferences in all walks of life is more likely to increase racial tension than diminish it. The justices should apply the law but do so humbly, with the understanding that nine justices cannot foresee all future political contingencies.

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The Supreme Court yesterday decided to take up a new affirmative action case from the University of Michigan, along with the case from the University of Texas they are already considering. I don’t know what the Supreme Court will decide, or what it ought to decide on the basis of constitutional text and judicial precedent (although the appeals court’s logic in upholding Michigan’s program seems wildly tortured to me), but libertarians do not necessarily oppose state-sponsored affirmative action. Yes, that’s right: even state-sponsored racial discrimination can be justified for libertarians.

Now, affirmative action is generally not a big issue for libertarians. I’ve never heard a libertarian spontaneously bring up affirmative action as an important area of government overreach. It certainly doesn’t exercise libertarians the way the drug war, perverse economic regulations, protectionism, failed foreign wars, and even Bloomberg’s soda ban do. Nevertheless, my impression is that most libertarians oppose all state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of ascriptive criteria (race, gender, religion, etc.), except where necessarily related to the legitimate task or purpose the government is undertaking.

But deontological libertarians also believe in restorative or restitutive justice. And it cannot be denied that governments in the United States have historically harshly discriminated against African-Americans. For libertarians, those governments are morally required to compensate the victims of their injustice. For that reason, libertarians support financial “reparations” for victims of segregation.

But what about broader programs like those in university admissions that are intended to benefit all blacks? The last Jim Crow laws and practices were forcibly stamped out in the 1960s, almost 50 years ago. Does that mean that blacks born after the days of legally mandated segregation deserve no compensation? Not at all. Descendants of those discriminated against still carry some of the burdens of that discrimination. As generations pass, identifying the present-day victims of past injustice becomes more difficult and, eventually, impossible. Reparations for slavery would be difficult to implement justly; reparations for dispossession of Native Americans even more so. But within one or two generations, we can still identify victims and come up with plausible measures of the compensation they deserve. By analogy, I can’t imagine that any libertarian would say that the family of someone murdered by police don’t deserve any compensation, even though they were not the “first-order” victims of injustice. They still suffered injustice.

But don’t racial preference programs benefit all members of a racial minority group, whether or not they are descended from victims of gross, systematic, state-sponsored injustice? For instance, an immigrant from Africa could benefit from Michigan’s affirmative-action admissions policy. Here there are two points to make. (more…)

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