16 May 2018

Moral Problems with Green Policies

Stephen Kershnar
Morality and Sustainability
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 14, 2018

            Global warming (or climate change) is the post 1950’s increase in the Earth’s surface temperature. On some projections about the 21st Century, the surface temperature is expected to rise somewhere between 0.5 to 8.6 Fahrenheit. Consider, for example, a 2013 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The effects of warming will depend on the region, but might include changing levels of snow and rain, expansion of deserts in the subtropics, more extreme weather (for example, heat waves, droughts, floods, and heavy snowfall), retreat of glaciers and sea ice, rising sea levels, greater ocean acidity, and species extinction. These things might affect human beings by lessening food production and raising sea levels near populated areas.

            In response to this, the California Energy Commission recently decided to mandate solar panels on new homes. This requirement is pricey. The Wall Street Journal reports that an average rooftop solar panel system costs roughly $19,000. It notes that at a 5.5% interest rate over 30 years, this will cost a homeowner an additional $107 per month, although 40-75% might be gotten back by energy savings. It gets worse. The cleaning costs of these panels are $300 to $500 per year and the repair costs average $650. The cost to the particular homeowner might get dumped onto taxpayers, but then homeowners still pay for the mandate through taxes. Given California’s problem with affordable housing, the commission is likely smoking too many doobies.

            There are a variety of other policies that might reduce global warming. Examples include coerced or subsidized recycling, reducing fossil-fuel use (see nuclear, solar, and wind power), changing transportation patterns (for example, by concentrating people in cities and discouraging flying), changing behavior (for example, vegetarianism and fewer children), and cutting down fewer trees (for example, smaller houses). Assuming that some of the benefits of these policies would take decades, and perhaps a century, the issue arises as to whether they are morally required and even whether they benefit the people they are trying to help.

            One concern about these changes if they are done for people a century or more into the future is whether they merit our charity. Economist Steven Landsburg argues that people in the future will be much richer than we are today. For example, according to the United States Regional Economic Analysis Project, the average American earned roughly $50,000 in 2017. On average, people’s income increased by 2.17% from 2058 from 2017. If this pattern continues over the next century, future Americans will make, on average, $431,000 (in today’s dollars). It seems that poor people suffering today are a better choice for our charity than very wealthy people in the future. By analogy, it seems that charity is better spent on people in the South Bronx than people living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (average income $311,000). 

            It is not even clear that the pro-environmental policies benefit future people. While reducing global warming might lessen environment-related harm, it comes at the cost of one type of benefit, more economic growth (including technological change). It is unclear if the harm that is avoided is greater than the benefit that is lost. By analogy, consider a dying man who is deciding how to benefit a grandchild he hopes his daughter will create in a decade or two. It is a real issue as to whether he should do so by paying for his daughter’s education and thereby improving the grandson’s childhood resources or by paying for a fifty-year bond that will eventually make his future grandchild very rich. Similarly, it is a real issue as to whether we can more effectively benefit people decades from now by investing in increased productivity or reducing future environmental harm.   

            Landsburg and others further argue that it is unclear whether we have a duty to benefit people well into the future. Most of us think that we have a greater duty to benefit people close to us than people distant from us. This is why most people would be willing to sacrifice a lot for family and friends, but not for strangers halfway across the world. For example, many people would take in their family or close friends were the need to arise, but are unwilling to take in Sudanese families who are in danger of starving or being killed. Similarly, most people think it is okay to spend money on alcohol, cable, luxury cars, and vacations even though they could have done without and instead donated to money to combat preventable death and suffering in the third world. People who will live a century from now are no closer to us than strangers in distant parts of the third world. If we do not have a duty to sacrifice for the latter, at least not a strong duty, then we don’t have such a duty to the former.  

            In addition, many of the future people do not yet exist and so do not now own property that will be damaged by future climate change. As a result, it is hard to see how failing to lessen climate change violates their moral rights. If Richie Rich owns a mansion on the Hamptons and memorializes a perfect summer by blowing it up, he doesn’t wrong anyone. It might be wrong to damage or destroy current people’s property, but it is unclear that current climate change will do so in the near future. Nor is it clear that the cost of global-warming damaged property (for example, in the Maldives) is anywhere near as large as the immense benefit that increased economic growth brings about. Consider how many people benefit for every 1% increase in economic growth in the developed world.

            Green policies are probably not morally required. It’s not even clear that they benefit the people they aim to help. The moral case for mandated solar panels, subsidized recycling and green energy, and so on remains unconvincing.

02 May 2018

Against Weak Majors: Universities Should Focus on What Matters

Stephen Kershnar
Winnowing Out Weak Majors
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 30, 2018

            Some college majors are clearly worthwhile. For others, it is less clear. With college becoming an increasingly risky investment, weaker majors should be discouraged.  

            Consider college as an investment. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, roughly half (53%) of students who in 2009 were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities graduated within six years. Jaison Abel and Richard Dietz of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that in 2010, 62% of U.S. college graduates had a job that required a college degree. Thus, roughly a third of students who enroll in college graduate in a reasonable time and get a job that requires a college degree. According to The Institute for College Access & Success, the average college graduate who borrows money owes roughly $30,000 in loans. Many people would be hesitant to purchase an investment that cost so much, but was unlikely to generate a positive return.
There is also a significant opportunity cost for going to college and not graduating or graduating and being unable to find a job that requires a college degree. Giving up years of income and on-the-job training in one’s 20’s is a serious cost. This is in addition to tuition, room, and board. These costs matter to society because oftentimes other people pick up the bill. Taxpayers pay through the nose for other adults to go to colleges. Writing in The Atlantic, University of Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos reports that in 2014 the federal and state governments spent roughly $7,500 per college student ($160 billion total). Listening to college administrators whine about lack of government support involves such a break with reality that one wonders if they are sniffing glue.   

In addition, Americans as a group owe far more in college loans than they owe in credit card debt. More than one in nine people with student loans default. When they do, someone has to pick up the tab. This is usually other people who borrow money. Ominously, taxpayers back up the debt.

Enter the problem of weak majors. Weak majors have some combination of these features: lower salaries, higher unemployment, weaker students and a less important subject matter. They include art (drama, music, studio, and visual arts), communication, education, ethnic and gender studies, foreign languages, and recreation (physical fitness and, also, parks, recreation, and leisure). Stronger majors include accounting, economics, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Some majors are harder to categorize. Consider, for example, English, psychology, and sociology.

Government dollars are a scarce resource. Spending them on college major that has less value to the student who majors in them, less value to society, and less knowledge-related value results in taxpayers getting less bang for their buck. This also results in fewer dollars to spend on first responders, infrastructure, medical care, or, more importantly, to be returned to long suffering taxpayers. Federal and state governments should discourage weaker majors by lessening, if not eliminating, the number of public colleges and universities that are permitted to offer such majors, transferring some of the subsidies from students with weaker majors to those with stronger ones, and when supporting private colleges favoring those that concentrate on stronger majors.

The argument for families and professors discouraging students from declaring these majors is that they are often a poor choice for all but those who are most committed to or who most enjoy those majors. No parent wants to see her child unemployed, underemployed, or frustrated by graduating but being unable to find a suitable job. Similarly, professors want the best for their students and should advise accordingly.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the lower paid majors include the art, education, recreation, and psychology. This applies to both recent college graduates and those with significant time in the workforce. The pattern for graduate work on these fields has a similar pattern (with sociology added to the list). The unemployment rates for recent graduates for some of these fields are high, although some of them reverse course later in their career. Consider, for example, art.   

Several of these majors tend to have students with lower IQs than other majors. IQ here is estimated by average SAT scores for majors. Here, again, we see some of the usual suspects: art, communication, education, and psychology.  

Some of the more difficult calls have to do with a field’s importance to knowledge. This seems relevant in that majors in comedy, martial arts, and sex might be popular, but lack content that is sufficiently important. Subjects such as English, psychology, and sociology are important to our knowledge of ourselves as people, animals, and members of groups. On some accounts, although not ones that focus on economic value, the importance of a field of study in part makes it worthwhile, even if it has a lower return on investment than other fields.

The weaker fields are sometimes ones that depend on other fields. For example, communication does not have its own body of knowledge or methodology, but instead depends on other fields such as economics, literature, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. The same dependency is true for education, ethnic and gender studies, and recreation. The upshot of this is that their contribution to our understanding of ourselves and the world is less than the fields on which they depend. Some of the fields (consider, for example, gender and ethnic studies) focus in part on social justice and activism, which detracts from their value. Still other fields, such as foreign languages, not only depend on other fields, but also teach skills readily available in the market.

Lavish education buffets cost real money. The people who pay some, or all, of the bill should ensure that the buffet excludes substandard dishes. They should do so by discouraging majors that are less valuable to the students who major in them, less valuable to society, and that have less knowledge-related value.

01 May 2018

Anti-Gun Protests Are Mistaken

Stephen Kershnar
Marches, Guns, and Confusion
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 16, 2018

            Last month (March 24th), there was a massive anti-gun protest in Washington, D.C. and over 800 satellite protests. It is estimated that it involved at 1.2 to 2 million people, thus, making it one of the largest protests in U.S. history. The protests were in part a response to the shooting in Parkland, Florida. The protesters demanded that some adults be stripped of their right to buy or own guns (18-21 year-olds), universal background checks on all gun sales, closing a gun show loophole, restoring the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

            Locally, hundreds of Fredonia middle and high school students and Dunkirk high school students walked out of school to support restricting people’s gun rights. The Fredonia principal, Jeffrey Sortisio, praised the walkout. He tweeted, “Several hundred Fredonia Middle and High School students participated in the National School Walkout today. So proud of our students for their solemn approach to remembering the Parkland victims.” Hundreds more local residents protested in favor of Washington Park in Dunkirk on March 24th in favor of the restriction. Dunkirk City Attorney Richard Morrisroe even went so far as to blame gun owners’ culture and belief in the Second Amendment. He said, “What you’re fighting is a cultural battle. It’s the culture of gun ownership, the culture of Second Amendment rights.”

            A little perspective is helpful. According to Alan Reynolds of the CATO Institute, using data from the far left Mother Jones magazine, the number of mass-shooting deaths (unrelated to gangs, drugs, or domestic violence) between 1982 and 2018 averaged 23 per year. He notes that this means fewer people die from such mass shootings than die from falling or the flu. Ditto for drowning in a bathtub. There are roughly 51 million children in public school. Even if half of the mass-shooting deaths occurred in schools (12), and they don’t, high school sports pose a greater risk of death than does mass shooting.   

Also, the suggested remedies would likely have no impact on the number of random mass shootings. Consider the attempt to strip out gun ownership rights of 18-21 year-olds. Economist John Lott argues that there were 64 U.S. mass public shootings since 1998 and 10 were carried out by people under 21. He notes that 5 of the 10 were already too young to legally purchase guns. Hence, trampling on the gun rights of millions of Americans rests on the claim that the 5 would not have illegally obtained their guns anyway.

Consider next universal background checks. Lott claims that background checks on private transfers would not have prevented a single mass shooting. In addition, he argues, from 2000-2015 states that had universal background checks had twice the rate of mass public shooting as those that didn’t have the law.

            Consider last the assault weapons ban. As has been pointed out in countless places, in the U.S., very few people are killed by rifles as opposed to handguns and shotguns. According to the FBI, in 2016 only 3% gun homicides (374 of 11,004) were done with a rifle and it’s likely that a significant number of these were not assault weapons.

            However, even if the focus on mass shootings in schools were not overblown and the proposed remedies likely unhelpful, there is the little issue of the Constitution. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a gun and that this right does not depend on whether an individual serves in a militia. This conclusion is supported by a wealth of arguments, including the plain meaning of the language of the operative clause, the structure of the Bill of Rights, the protection of other individual rights in the parts of Bill of Rights that use nearly identical language (see, for example, the  First, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments), the history of the Amendment (see, for example, English common law), what was likely intended by those who drafted and ratified the Constitution (consider, for example, the right to own a gun in four state constitutions that were in place before the Constitution was ratified and the Amendment’s drafting history), original meaning (as indicated by relevant dictionaries), and so on.

            Taking away the Second Amendment rights of Americans age 18-21 is no more constitutional than taking away their First or Fourth Amendment rights. Consider, for example, whether the Constitution permits the government to deprive 21-year-olds of their right of free speech or their right not to have their bodies or houses searched without a warrant and probable cause. Perhaps the Second Amendment permits some of the other proposed restrictions, but even if it does, it still remains an issue as to whether this would decrease American freedom.  

The protesters’ unconstitutional proposal with regard to 18-21 year-old adults is matched by the poor judgment of school leaders who greenlit the walkout. No one seriously thinks that one of the local principals would allow a mass walkout if the students wanted to protest the region’s out-of-control property taxes, repeated hiring of teachers who were not stellar students in college, or New York’s continued criminalization of marijuana. It is blackletter law that the school authorities may not engage in viewpoint discrimination in deciding which speech to permit.  

Similarly, local attorneys are not going to talk about the fight against the culture of First, Fourth, or Eighth Amendments because it is unclear what this would mean other than that many people (consider, for example, voters and judges) think these Amendments should be followed.

Legal rights and freedom do not give way merely because respecting them makes students feel unsafe or even makes the population’s lives go marginally worse. This is why it is wrong for the state to prohibit hate speech even if it is morally wrong and makes people feel less safe. Parallel reasoning applies to gun ownership.