18 February 2015

Colleges Overreacting to Hoaxes

Stephen Kershnar
Academics and Hoaxes
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 17, 2015

 Here is a prediction. There will be a high profile incident of racism or sexism on a major college campus in the next year or two and it will turn out far different from how it is portrayed in the resulting media feeding frenzy. The incident will cause wailing and gnashing of the teeth on campus, especially from the administration, but little attention will be paid once the response proves to be an overreaction. My prediction is based on the last decade.   

Exhibit A in this pattern is the infamous Duke Lacrosse case. In 2006, an African-American stripper (Crystal Gail Mangum) falsely accused three members of the Duke Lacrosse team of raping her. Duke cancelled the lacrosse team’s season and forced the coach to resign. The prosecutor (Mike Nifong) was up for reelection and he recklessly pushed the cases even as evidence of the players’ innocence piled up. Mangum’s various accounts of the evening were inconsistent, they conflicted with the other stripper’s account, two of the players had strong alibis, the DNA evidence failed to support Mangum’s story, and so on. Nifong even conspired to hide evidence that supported the players’ account. So outrageous was Nifong’s conduct that the next year (2007) the North Carolina Attorney General proclaimed the players’ innocence and labeled Nifong a rogue prosecutor. Nifong was later disbarred for his conduct and briefly did jail time for trying to hide the DNA evidence. The players sued and received a substantial payout from Duke for how it treated them. Jesse James Deconto and Joseph Neff, writing for CNN, speculate that Duke might have paid the three as much as $50 million. A few years later, Mangum stabbed a boyfriend and is now doing real time for murder. For anyone familiar with Mangum’s track record, her imprisonment is sad, but unsurprising. 

The actions of the crazy left faculty at Duke’s actions were noteworthy. Eighty eight professors at Duke (Group of 88) signed an advertisement two weeks after Mangum claimed to have been raped. The advertisement was incoherent, but it described Duke as a morass of racism and sexism. “Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday … We’re turning up the volume in a moment when some of the most vulnerable among us are being asked to quiet down while we wait.” The advertisement suggested that the players were guilty (Why else release it two weeks after the incident?) and that the rape and the response to it reflected the prevalence of racism and sexism at Duke. 

The signatories were the usual suspects. More than half the faculty of three departments signed it (African and African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, and Cultural Anthropology). Foreign Languages (Romance Studies) and the English Department also had scandalously high percentages of faculty who signed. The signatories ignored statistical evidence that it is rare that white men rape black women and, in general, seemed to have little concern for the evidence.

On a side note, SUNY Fredonia invited one of the signatories (Mark Anthony Neal) to speak at Fredonia this Spring.

There have also been a string of campus hoaxes in which colleges have reacted in absurd ways. Nicely summarized by Ashley Thorne writing for the National Association of Scholars, the most absurd example occurred at Oberlin. There, a few alleged hate crimes were followed by an alleged sighting of a Klu Klux Klan member walking across campus. It was most likely a person wearing a blanket on a cold night. This sighting caused classes to be cancelled and rallies and marches to occur. Thorne points out that it later turned out that the supposed hate crimes were perpetrated by two pro-Obama students. One of them told campus police, “I’m doing it as a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.” Overreactions also occurred at other elite institutions, including Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Williams.

The campus administrations and faculty of some of these schools should have been wary of hoaxes. As Thorn points out, there have been a series of documented campus hoax crimes in recent years, including Trinity International University (2005), George Washington University (2007), the University of Virginia (2007), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2011), Central Connecticut State University (2012), University of Wisconsin at Parkside (2012), Montclair State University (2012), and Vassar College (2013). Yet none of this stopped the faculty and administration at Oberlin and elsewhere from treating the hate crimes as if they were real and dredging up tired theories of racism, sexism, and classism. 

Another side note. In Fall 1995, a cross was burned on SUNY-Fredonia’s campus. I do not know if it was a hoax.

What these cases have in common is the use of dubious incidents to push the claim that society oppresses minorities and women. When the incidents were exposed as hoaxes, this is not treated as a counterexample to oppression theory. Nor is it treated as evidence that the theory’s proponents are unreliable experts, at least when responding to particular incidents. There is also a concern about who comprise the faculty who were at the center of the Group of 88 and their peers at other elite schools. That the theories of racism and sexism are problematic just adds to the overall concern.


What would be interesting and worthwhile is if Las Vegas laid odds on the truth or falsity of the next three allegedly racist incidents on campus. There’s nothing like money to cut through the academic fog.   

07 February 2015

A Vicious Attack on the Rich

Stephen Kershnar
In Defense of the Rich
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 3, 2015

For President Barack Obama and the left, class warfare never ends. His latest budget plan proposes to soak the rich by raising capital-gains taxes yet again, jacking up the inheritance tax, and creating a new tax on banks. Earlier, he floated a new tax on college savings accounts, but this was embarrassing even for his fellow class warriors. He even proposed a new tax on corporation’s overseas profits. All this is on top of the new taxes included in Obamacare.

One thing is clear. Obama is a child. He has done nothing to reform federal entitlements, such as Social Security, Medicare, despite the fact that they constitute roughly half of federal spending and pose a threat to the government’s solvency. By the time he leaves office, he’ll have added almost as much public debt as all previous Presidents combined. His latest budget contains, roughly, half a trillion dollars in debt. The fact that the current deficit is not much larger is in part due to the budget sequester that the Republicans had to ram down his throat.  

It is worth considering why the rich are constantly being vilified and asked to pay more. The standard reasons given are fairness and efficiency. It is hard to see why it is fair to make the rich pay more. By analogy, consider members of a Jewish temple in rural Connecticut. The richer members pay more money ($10,000) and a higher percentage (5% of income) per year than middle class members (they pay $1,000 and 2%). Poor members go for free and their children get free instruction, books, and kosher meals. This arrangement might be a good way to allow the Jewish community there to flourish, but if poor members demand that, as a matter of fairness, the rich pay more, they are ungrateful takers. What seems most fair is that members pay the same amount.  

Similar to the rich members in the above case, in the U.S., the rich pay far more than their share. According to the Tax Foundation in 2010, their effective income tax rate was more than double that of the middle class and they pay far more in total dollars. They also pay the lion’s share of the corporate, capital gains, and inheritance taxes. Unlike the rich and middle class, the poor pay little, if any, income taxes. In fact, a significant number make money from income taxes through a welfare program called the Earned Income Tax Credit.

It is unclear why fairness demands that the rich pay more than the middle class and poor. People pay the same amount for McDonald’s hamburgers because they receive the same burgers. This seems fair. Why shouldn’t the rich pay the same amount for government services as everyone else? Arguably, fairness requires that the government should be more like McDonald’s in that people get what they pay for. 

Not only do the rich pay more in, but they likely take out less than do the middle class and poor. The poor get free or subsidized medical care, food, housing, education, utilities, and so on. These goodies are expensive. What’s more, a large portion of the bloated government would likely wither away if government officials couldn’t rationalize their job in terms of what they are doing for the poor.

The middle class also takes a lot out of the system in the form of Social Security and Medicare payments, money that is paid out of tax revenue in a pay-as-you-go system. These programs’ alleged surplus isn’t real. Rather, it consists of IOUs held by one government agency against another. Current benefits are paid out of current tax revenue. It is unclear whether the middle class is taking more out than they are putting in. 

While there are exceptions, many poor people are not deserving of large gifts of other people’s money. They are victims of their own choices. Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector points out that if people do three things (1) graduate from high school, (2) marry before having children, and (3) hold a job, the chance of being poor is low. This can be a challenge growing up in many neighborhoods, and some people have just plain bad luck, but, for most people, it is not too much to ask.

Nor did rich people make poor people worse off by stealing from their stuff. Much of the wealth in our society is from intellectual and entrepreneurial breakthroughs concerning products and business rather than monopolizing limited natural resources. Consider, for example, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Steve Jobs. It is not as if the rich people are Grinch-like thieves who stole from the poor while they slept.

Efficiency also does not provide a strong reason to raise taxes on the rich. Economic freedom (for example, low taxes and strong property rights) correlates with higher income. It also correlates with greater happiness and higher life expectancy, which is arguably what we should care about rather than focusing on money. Raising taxes on the wealthy reduces economic freedom and will, on average,  make us poorer and less happy. Some studies have even found that economic freedom correlates with economic equality. In any case, the gap between the rich and poor has widened during Obama’s presidency, suggesting that his punitive taxes on the rich have not had their intended effect. 


A common response to this is to concede that neither fairness nor efficiency favors raising taxes on the rich. Still, the respondent claims, basic decency requires that we be compassionate toward the less fortunate and the government redistribution wealth is one way this is done. Perhaps this is true, although I doubt it, but demanding more of the rich when they already pay at least one of every three dollars they make to the government is not compassionate. Instead, it makes the rest of us ungrateful takers.  

21 January 2015

Government Paying for Higher Education

Stephen Kershnar
Free Community College? Too much college?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 19, 2015

President Obama has proposed making community college free. This is a bad idea and it is worth considering whether the state should be in the business of subsidizing higher education at all, let alone at the current high level.    

Obama’s proposal is intended to benefit 9 million students. His administration claims that when implemented, the typical full-time community college student would save $3,800 per year, although the student would have to maintain a C+ average to get the freebie. It further claims that it would cost $60 billion over 10 years. The vast cost overruns of the major federal programs suggest that the number is much higher. Obama’s proposal is to have the federal government pick up 75% of the tab, the states pay the rest.  

Why is this a bad idea? First, community colleges are failure mills. Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute points out that only 20% of first-time, full-time students at community college students get their degree in three years and it is a two-year degree. It is unlikely that making students invest even less in their education will make them invest more time and energy into their studies.   

Second, McCluskey argues that after accounting for grants and scholarships, tuition at these colleges is already free for many members of families earning less than $65,000. Thus, we are largely focused here on making community college free for the middle class and rich. This is hardly a priority.

Third, writing in The New York Times, Catherine Rambell points out that tuitions and fees at colleges and universities have skyrocketed in the last few decades. Since 1985, the price of these institutions have increased roughly two and a half times faster than that of consumer goods and far outpaced the exploding price of medical care. Opening the money spigot will further increase the cost of education, even if it is shifted from students to taxpayers.  

Fourth, writing in The National Interest, Kevin James points out that federal funding will undoubtedly lead to increasing federal control of community colleges. Giving more power to the architects of Obamacare and their Congressional brethren is just a bad idea.   

The interesting issue is why we subsidize college education at all, let alone community colleges with large drop-out rates. College is a good deal. Economists Janice Eberly and Kartik Athreya point out that college graduates earn more than 50-70% more than high school graduates and that money spent on education has a rate of return roughly twice that of the stock market. Also, as economist Bryan Caplan points out, a college graduate is 7 times more likely than someone with only a high school degree to marry a college graduate. Thus, college graduates often get a sizable marriage bonus. It is unfair to force taxpayers, especially those who didn’t go to college, to pay for such a good deal. We are talking real money here. Writing in The New York Times, Jason Deslisle estimates that the federal government is spending at a rate of more than a trillion dollars a decade on higher education.

One defense of subsidizing college is that doing so is necessary to give poor people equal opportunity. If this were correct, then the state should subsidize the poor directly through grants and subsidized loans rather than paying for middle class and rich students. Not only are the latter a large percentage of college students, they’re an even larger percentage of those who graduate.    

There is also the issue of how much money and opportunity the poor should be given. They already pay little, if anything, in taxes and often receive free or subsidized food, housing, medical care, welfare, and K-12 education. Enough already.  

A second defense of subsidizing college is that education provides benefits to society, independent of the benefits college graduates themselves receive, and we want to give students additional incentive to go to school as a way to provide society with more of these benefits. That is, education has positive externalities.  

If the extra money put into higher education leads to an explosion in spending by colleges and universities, then it is unclear whether the extra money will serve as an incentive for more education. The concern here is that government subsidies will be diverted to hire new armies of administrators and staff rather than to lower the price of a college education.    

Also, weaker students traditionally have not graduated at very high rates and subsidizing them is likely a bad investment both for them and for the community. If the justification for spending taxpayer money on higher education is to produce positive externalities, then it should probably be spent on better students, rather than wasted on those who did poorly in high school and are unlikely to graduate from college.  

There is also a theoretical issue as to whether education has positive nor negative effects on the communities (externalities). Economist Bryan Caplan points out that much of what colleges and universities teach has little relation to the real world and students often don’t retain much of what they learned. Far too many students fail to pick up even the critical thinking skills that are thought to be useful across an array of jobs. On Caplan’s signaling theory, employers pay more for college students not because they’ve picked up valuable workplace skills, but rather because a college degree is evidence that such workers are more productive. The idea is that it signals that, on average, they have higher IQs, better work ethic, or conform to workplace norms. We should be hesitant to spend taxpayer money into higher education without being confident the signaling theory is wrong. Even if it is wrong, we might want to limit taxpayer subsidies to fields that clearly teach workplace-skills, such as engineering, medicine, and accounting.   


For those of us who work for public universities, this argument is disturbing, which is different from saying it’s mistaken.