Monday, January 08, 2007

Affirmative Action is a Tax - Not!

I have the feeling that this post by Kevin Carey, responding to this article in the New York Times, is going to cause some controversy.

Too Many Asians at Berkeley?

First, not all students get the same opportunities in K-12 schools. Black and Latino students, on average, are forced to attend schools that receive less funding, are taught by worse teachers, have less access to advanced curricula like Advanced Placement tests, and generally suffer from the hard bigotry of low expectations. Affirmative action helps students who would have come to the admissions process with better credentials if they’d been given a fair shot to begin with.
Of course this justification for affirmative action breaks down when we consider that schools in affluent neighborhoods also do a poor terrible job in educating minorities. Ironically a few charter schools with relatively inexpensive techniques manage to succeed at what affluent schools can't.
Affirmative action is basically an educational opportunity tax on white people. Like progressive income taxes, it redistributes resources from people who have a disproportionate share to people who need them more. This seems unfair to white people who themselves come from less advantaged backgrounds, and it probably is. But it’s no more unfair than applying the same tax rate to the rich person who earned every dollar from the sweat of his brow as to the person who inherited his money and got a cushy job in the family business. Policies are by nature imperfect, and in the end it’s still better to be rich than poor in America, and white people still enjoy huge advantages that others don’t. Having to settle for a slot in a slightly less competitive college moves the traditional losers in the zero-sum affirmative action game—unusually smart, well-qualified white people—from being in the 99.999th percentile of luckiest people on the face of the Earth to about the 99.998th. They’ll be fine. (emphasis mine)
Actually affirmative action is a tax on asians, not white people so a more apt anology would be taxing self-made successful people who got what they earned by hard work, and leaving people with family wealth alone.

Perhaps instead of enrolling more people to fail, colleges and universities should concentrate on graduating the blacks and hispanics that get to college based on actual merit.
The third justification for affirmative action is diversity, which is certainly important—it makes sense for colleges to create an academic environment with broad, differing perspectives, backgrounds, and beliefs. But I tend to value diversity less than the first two justifications for affirmative action, mostly because of how the idea gets used and applied in practical terms. Proponents don’t do a good job of explaining the theoretical limits of diversity as a value, the degree of its benefits or cases when it should be subordinate to other things. Nor do they seem eager to discuss the fact that some perspectives, backgrounds, and beliefs are more worthwhile than others.
I suppose to rebutt Kevin's arguments I could point out this recent article in the Financial Times that points out that diversity isn't all its cracked up to be, but I actually think diversity is a good thing. Perhaps its because I was raised in a multi-ethnic family, or because I am in the miliary and unlike most of America actually work in a functional ethnically diverse workplace.

Me and my brother and sisters.

Unfortunately, the United States seems to react instinctively to any problems with blunt force solutions. (In politics and in education). Instead of acknowledging or addressing the root causes of the achievement gap, we have attempted to just bandage over the wounds without treating it for infections.

There are methods of affirmative action that don't rely on racial preferences. Perhaps if we improved education for all, we could at least equalize the playing field, so we didn't have to feel guilty about the results.