25 June 2015

Police, Drugs, and Shame

Stephen Kershnar
The Police Should Feel Ashamed When They Arrest People for Drugs
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 23, 2015

Recently, there was a significant drug bust in Dunkirk. Earlier, there were the usual stream of SUNY-Fredonia students being ticketed or arrested for marijuana. At issue is whether the police, prosecutors, and related officials should feel ashamed at what they’re doing.   

Two weeks ago, The Observer reports that six Dunkirk homes were raided in an attempt to prevent people from distributing and using cocaine and heroin. A smorgasbord of agencies were involved in planning or carrying out the raid the houses including the Drug Enforcement Administration, Southern Tier Drug Task Force, Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office, Dunkirk Police Department, Fredonia Police Department, and county SWAT team. Six Dunkirk and four Buffalo residents were arrested. Money was obviously dumped into this effort.

SUNY-Fredonia’s paper, The Leader, reported that in one weekend at Fredonia State, eight students were arrested or ticketed for marijuana. Such tickets and arrests are a staple of college life at Fredonia.

Drug laws trample liberty. A free country leaves people alone. More specifically, a free country leaves people alone when they are not engaging in force, fraud, or theft. The idea that people should be left alone explains familiar rights, such as the rights of free speech, religion, association, property, gun ownership, and so on.

Philosophers differ as to why the state should leave people alone. John Stuart Mill argued that the state should leave us alone because it almost always makes our lives go worse when it interferes with them. John Locke argued that people should be left alone because such interference fails to respect the fact that they, and not their government, own their bodies and labor. Robert Nozick argued that such interference is wrong because people have a basic moral right to shape their lives according to their own vision, even if the government has a different vision.   

The right to be left alone doesn’t depend on whether someone is doing something that is good for him or his neighbors. It protects those who want to have an open marriage, drink copious amounts of alcohol, eat so much they become obese, get garish tattoos, or join the Westboro Baptist Church regardless of whether these choices are wise or whether they create the sort of community favored by mothers of young children. 

Part of being left alone is the right to put what you want in your body, whether it be tattoos, penises, or gallons of soda. This applies to drugs. No one seriously believes that the occasional use of some drugs (for example, marijuana) is very bad for you, but even if it were, the right to be left alone protects it anyway. Alcohol prohibition and drug laws don’t leave people alone. Instead, they treat adults as undeserving of control over what goes in their body and thus like children.   

There might be an exception to the right to be left alone for certain types of public goods. These are things that benefit nearly everyone and for which it is impractical to make people pay for their individual use of it. Examples include clean air, national security, and roads. This clearly doesn’t apply to drug and alcohol prohibition as it doesn’t benefit everyone. Also, people can have a drug-or-alcohol free life regardless of what others do and, hence, can individually pay for the benefit.  

Enter the police. In our system, the legislative and executive branches get to decide what acts are illegal and when they should be pursued. The police’s job is to do what higher ranking officials tell them to do. They don’t make the law, they just enforce it. Still, they should feel ashamed when their job requires them to trample on people’s liberty. My guess is that plenty do.  

By analogy, consider the police who had the unenviable task of enforcing alcohol prohibition knowing full well that in most cases alcohol consumption was harmless fun and, in any case, part of American freedom. They must have felt disgusted about what they were doing. If they didn’t, they should have. The same is true of those who got assigned to crack down on gay bars in New York City (see, for example, the Stonewall riots). Similar feelings should have been present in police who got stuck with the job of arresting people for buying or selling raw milk in the last decade, interracial sex and marriage in the 1960’s, or speaking out against World War I.   

The police’s feeling ashamed at what they do is not unique. Airmen who conducted Bill Clinton’s illegal war in Serbia might not have wanted to throw their career away, but knew or should have known that they were engaging in an illegal war (no declaration of war and no Congressional approval or funding). The same is true today for immigration and naturalization officials stuck with implementing Barack Obama’s blatantly illegal amnesty for illegal aliens. The assignment of morally distasteful tasks is true for many jobs, but it’s just more obvious when the distasteful task involves trampling on liberty.  

The drug prohibition crowd might try to defend what the police are doing by arguing that drugs are not something that free people should be allowed to use unless they get permission from a doctor, nurse-practitioner, or pharmacist. They might argue this because drugs are addictive, flow to children, or make people vicious. The same is true for alcohol and no adult thinker wants the U.S. to prohibit it again. More importantly, this defense involves a misunderstanding of liberty. There are less restrictive ways to prevent addicts from committing crimes or people selling drugs to children than a blanket ban on drugs and liberty always favors these less restrictive ways. By analogy, drunk driving can be prevented without criminalizing alcohol.

The drug prohibition crowd might argue that it is the police’s job to stop people from using drugs and, in the past, alcohol. I agree. I’m merely arguing that they should feel discomfort, if not shame, when doing so.  

10 June 2015

Spousal Hiring in Academia: Hiring in part on whom you're sleeping with

Stephen Kershnar
Spousal Hires in Academia: Sparse Resources Given to Bedfellows
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 8, 2015

There is an interesting issue as to whether universities should hire couples hire the partners of other faculty and do so without judging them better than other job candidates.   

In academia, only about a quarter of instructional faculty get plum tenure-track positions. Professors who are romantically partnered often want to find tenure-track jobs at the same university or, at least, within reasonable commuting distance. Without such positions, they have to choose between one person’s having to leave academia or a commuter marriage. This is hard on a marriage and not great for children.  

Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger et al. found this issue is central to many professors’ lives as more than a third of them have an academic partner (for example, a professor or research scientist). In some areas, the percentage is even higher. For example, 83% of women scientists are partnered with another scientist.

In response, universities increasingly hire couples. Schiebinger et al. found that while the proportion of academics who are coupled with another academic has remained constant, the hiring of couples has shot up over the last four decades, going from 3% in the 1970’s to 13% in the 2000s. One in every ten faculty is now brought in as part of a couple hire. Women in particular are focused on having their partner hired as the most common reason they give for turning down a job is the lack of a job for their partner. On a side note, SUNY-Fredonia and Buffalo have made spousal hires, the latter does so regularly.

Critics of spousal hiring argue that it brings problems. First, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Joseph Kay (an English professor writing under a pseudonym) notes that academic couples often vote as a bloc. This is a problem in that if a colleague offends one, he risks losing two votes on important issues like tenure and promotion. Second, Kay points out, there are problems with conflicts of interest. A spouse has to recuse herself in any matter specifically addressing her spouse. The concern is that information on a campus leaks like a sieve and that the ensconced spouse will too often hold a grudge or retaliate against those who voted against her spouse.  Third, Kay notes, there are landmines in spousal hiring. If a couple were to split up, an embittered former couple does not make for a happy department.

Fourth, Kay notes, affirmative action guidelines requiring people not be favored based on their personal life go out the window. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis points out, universities increasingly hire and give perks to people, based on whom they’re sleeping with. There is also the moral and legal issue of whether preference should be given to unmarried couples as well as married ones. There are federal and state laws against discriminating on the basis of marital status. These also go out the window. 

On the other hand, Stanford’s Schiebinger and Princeton history professor David Bell points out spousal hires are an important tool to recruit and retain the best faculty. This is likely the best argument for it, although it justifies hiring the spouses of star professors and not your standard issue professor.

Bell further argues that spousal hiring is a way to get faculty involved in the university as professors who have commuter marriages often avoid serving on committees, skip out of office hours, and regularly take unpaid leaves in order to spend more time with their spouse and children, all of which results in their having little presence on campus.

Both Schiebinger and Bell claim that spousal hiring adds to the quality of life of the professorate who get the jobs. This claim is odd in that the benefit to married professors comes at the expense of other professors not partnered up to a winner, so it is hard to see why this does anything other than make some professors’ lives go better at the expense of others. The extremely tight market for tenure-track spots makes this tradeoff unavoidable.

The real concern over spousal hiring is that it leads to professors being hired who would not have gotten the job were they not married to a winner. This is a problem given that faculty often spend 30 or more years at a university and a mediocre or worse hire results in decades of subpar teaching and inferior research. A university might judge this worthwhile if the primary spouse is a star, but often this is not the case.

I should note that Schiebinger et al. did not find a difference in productivity once one controlled for rank and gender. Bell reports a similar anecdotal finding. I find this to be implausible and in conflict with my observations, but, if correct, this merit-based objection fails. It is implausible because merit-based hiring processes tries to focus on best predictors of academic success and it is hard to see why, on average, people with less promise are as successful as those with more. By analogy, it is unsurprising that in the NFL, first round draft picks are, on average, better than those drafted later.  

In other areas that we care about (for example, Presidential cabinet and Fortune 500 executive boards), we would be wary of someone hired in part based on whom he married to. It is unclear why academia shouldn’t be wary for the same reason.  

There is also the issue of resource allocation. Departments or areas within a department are often given to spouses who research and teach in areas that are needed less than other areas. There is only a small chance that a secondary spouse is an expert in exactly the area or department a university most needs. Thus, each such hire is likely to result in a misallocation of university resources. This is a severe problem in those universities that do not have large faculties.   

In the end, spousal hiring should probably be used as tool to recruit and retain star faculty. It is a way to pay them more. Resource allocation and, perhaps, merit argue against it being a regular part of hiring. 

27 May 2015

New York K-12 Spending: Education pigs feed at the trough

Stephen Kershnar
New York School Budgets: Are voters on drugs?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 25, 2015

This past week New York voters approved of the budgets for 99% of the state’s 669 school districts. This beat last year’s 98% passage rate. This is a problem.      

A little context is in order. Writing in Syracuse.com, Sarah Moses reports that in 2015 the taxpayers in the school districts paid on average (median) approximately $23,000 per student. That is not a misprint. Note this only applies to school districts where taxpayers get to vote.

New York spends more money per student than any other state. According to a 2015 study by the New York state Policy Office, Education Team, and the Division of Budget, the state spends 84% more than the national average and roughly $8,000 more per pupil per year (2012-2013 figures). This is not just a matter of its just outspending Southern states. It vastly outspent neighboring states, including New Jersey (13% more), Connecticut (20% more), and Massachusetts (38% more). Note that these states are richer in that they have significantly higher per capita and per household incomes.  

Fredonia and Dunkirk are no exceptions. In 2015-2016, Fredonia will spend $21,423 per student, which is an impressive 6.5% increase in per pupil expenditure in a single year. Dunkirk is only slightly better, spending $20,580 per student and with a 2% increase in per pupil spending.

You might think taxpayers are getting a lot for their money. You’d be wrong. The New York State Department of Education found that in 2014, roughly 64% of grades 3-8 students were not proficient in math and 69% were not proficient in English. Again, the numbers are not misprints. New York is ranked 32nd or worse in 4th and 8th grade math and English scores (bottom 40% of its class). In 2012-2013, roughly a quarter of New York’s high school students failed to graduate high school in four years, which resulted in New York being ranked 33rd in the country. Worse, only 38% of graduating seniors have scores indicating that they are ready for college and this likely overestimates overall college readiness.  

Not only is there little accountability at the district level, there is little accountability for teachers. In 2013-2014, roughly 96% of teachers were rated effective and a mere 0.7% (sadly, not a misprint) were rated ineffective. Side note: teachers can be rated neither effective nor ineffective. Does anyone seriously think that only 0.7% of workers in any industry are ineffective, especially in a government-run industry? Does this jive with your experience at work?

This result is made even more suspicious when one realizes that education majors have, on average, among the lowest SAT scores in college and that intelligence (which tends to correlate with SATs) is a fairly good predictor of job performance. I should note that many teachers did not major in education.

These sorts of figures should anger teachers as much as the rest of us. There are many highly effective and hard-working teachers and it should piss them off when their good works are reversed by ineffective and unaccountable peers.    

It’s clear that that taxpayers are paying a lot for a little. Public school apologists will quickly respond that even good teachers can’t make up for low intelligence, poor parenting, or economic and cultural deprivation. They’ll quickly add that far too much of the money goes to disabled students and this is mandated by law. They’ll likely point out that the money isn’t going toward teachers, pointing out that, according to National Center for Education Statistics, from 1970-2012, non-teaching staff have increased vastly more than the increase in students or teaching staff. This might all be true, I suspect much of it is, yet this doesn’t explain why New York students are doing worse than over half the other states or why it can’t spend at the level of Connecticut or Massachusetts.

My main problem with the level of education spending isn’t just the poor results, it’s the crushing tax burden it requires. Even if New York were to have the top ranked schools and excellent accountability, the taxes needed to pay for this level of spending are simply too much. People have projects in life. They want to get married, have children, invest in their businesses, and go on vacation. Requiring they take a few thousand that could be earmarked for these things and hand them over to the schools is unreasonable even if the schools were operating at peak efficiency. It is unreasonable for the same reason that forcing citizens to spend a few hours every week laboring at the school would be unreasonable. Many people would rather spend their time and energy elsewhere and there’s nothing wrong with that.
For some people, their tax burden is on par with their mortgage. For some retirees, the taxes painfully cut into their fixed income. For the vast majority, it’s an obnoxious imposition. The fact that parents of school age children seem to incredibly ungrateful for the amount of hours their neighbors had to work to pay the roughly $23,000 a year for their children to go to a public school just adds insult to injury.

One way to see that the spending is unreasonable is to ask whether parents of school age children would choose to spend $20,000 or more a year on their child’s education with all the bells and whistles (for example, an array of sports teams, gym, art, music, theater, nurses, school psychologists, and guidance counselors) or would they opt for a less expensive package, perhaps one that focused on the core of a successful education (for example, math, English, and history)? Almost undoubtedly they would opt for the less expensive package and if parents don’t think the extra money is worth it, neither should taxpayers.   

Taxpayers should stop giving school districts a blank check. An obvious first step would be to cut spending down to the level of neighboring states.