29 July 2020

Academia Should Learn from the NFL

Stephen Kershnar

Academia Should Learn from the NFL

Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

July 27, 2020 

The professional sports leagues are flourishing because they ruthlessly emphasize productivity. Academia should do the same.

 The major sports leagues make a lot of money because they are quite good at identifying and showcasing athletic excellence. Consider, the National Football League (NFL). In 2019, it made roughly $16.5 billion dollars. In 2019, according to CNBC’s Jabari Young, the NFL’s average TV viewership was 16.5 million per game and NFL games finished with 47 of the top 50 telecasts during the season.

The league pays its players well. Action Network’s Darren Rove reports that the players received roughly $8 billion of the $16.5 billion because of the collective bargaining agreement. The NFL’s average salary was $2.7 million, and the minimum salary was $495,000. The other leagues also pay well. The average National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), and National Hockey League (NHL) average salaries are $7.7, $4.4, and $4 million. The minimum salaries are $893,000, $564,000, and $700,000.  

Academia could benefit from the NFL’s emphasis on accountability, information, and merit. Consider accountability. In the NFL, owners, general managers, and head coaches are accountable. Owners bear a financial loss for having a bad team. If the team does not perform, owners fire head coaches, often ignominiously. During the 2013-2016 seasons, Business Insider’s Cork Gaines reports, 19 NFL teams changed head coaches. In 2019, teams fired 25% of the league’s head coaches (8 of 32).   

In contrast, university trustees, presidents, and provosts are less frequently fired. Oftentimes, no one is held accountable when university’s ranking drops compared to its competitors. Rarely are people in these positions fired or paid less when a university gets weaker students, hires worse faculty, or fails to add a reasonable amount to the endowment. Writing in Inside Higher Education, Rick Seltzer points out that in 2011, the average university president had his or her position for 7 years. Background: The average university president is 62 years old. 

In contrast, teams hold NFL players accountable. Their employment, pay, and playing time depend on performance. Players who were the best in the game often fade quickly. For example, in 2015 quarterback Cam Newton was the league’s most valuable player and led his team to the Super Bowl. He now has a one-year deal with the New England Patriots and might not even start. Running back Adrian Peterson won the MVP in 2012 and, although he still starts, is no longer an elite player. Both are paid less than the league average in base salary. 

In contrast to NFL players, professors get iron-clad job security in the form of tenure. This lack of accountability has predictable effects. University of Utah economist Jonathan Brogaard and others found that in the two years after getting tenure, faculty production (publications) fell by 30%. Production fell by an additional 15% through the rest of the decade. The number of important publications they produce fell similarly. Nor does the robust discussion of ideas justify tenure. Cornell psychologist Stephen Cici and others found that tenured professors are risk-averse in that they show little interest in defending controversial ideas. In Cracks in the Academy, Jason Brennan summarizes these and related findings, “once they have tenure, [professors] become lazier, more risk-averse, and more conservative. Giving them a job for life extinguishes the fire under their asses.” From the perspective of performance, it is irrelevant how much of the decline in productivity is due to lack of incentive versus age. The idea of tenure for an NFL player is absurd.  

In the NFL and MLB, teams value players using statistics. MLB Players are ranked in terms of their overall value to the team (wins above replacement or WAR). This allows teams to rank them against other players, whether at their or other positions. Teams also rank players in terms of specific features. Owners and fans rank NFL quarterbacks in terms of rating, yards, touchdown passes, etc. There is no attempt to rank professors in a way analogous to WAR rankings. There is no reason this cannot be done. For example, research productivity could be ranked in how often a professor’s work is cited or the number and quality of publications.  

Even the most obvious test for productivity, value-added to students, is not done. This could be done via by pre- and post-testing students in subjects central to a university education (consider, for example, biology, chemistry, classic literature, history, and math) or their major. It could even be done in terms of students’ future earnings after controlling for ability and demographic factors. Academia rarely, if ever, uses either measure. Instead universities are ranked according to polls that have not been validated. A professor’s teaching performance is not evaluated at all or evaluated via anecdotes, classroom observations, or statistically invalid student evaluations. The Moneyball revolution controls professional sports leagues but has been shut out of the academy.

The difference between sports and academia is most striking with regard to merit. Blacks are 13% of the U.S. population, 70% of the NFL players, and 100% of starting cornerbacks (64 out of 64). The last time a white player started at cornerback was 2002 (Jason Sehorn). Coaches, fans, owners, and players would laugh at the idea of hiring or playing a player because he contributes to diversity. As the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson points out, no one wants to see 87% of the starting players be Asian, Hispanic, or white so that the league “looks like America.”

In contrast, in academia, universities frequently hire faculty and administrators on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, or race. Some universities – including the elite University of California universities – have sunk so low as to give significant weight to prospective professors’ diversity statements in deciding to whom to hire. The weight given to diversity increases the more one moves down the university food chain.

In short, the NFL takes productivity far more seriously than does academia. This is unfortunate.

15 July 2020

Statues, Names, and Tribal Identity

Stephen Kershnar
Statues and Tribal Identity
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 6, 2020

Antifa, Black Lives Matters, George Floyd protesters, and fellow travelers have defaced, destroyed, removed, or sparked plans for the removal of many memorials. The memorials include monuments, plaques, and statues.  

Protesters targeted memorials for confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J. E. B. Stuart. They also went after memorials for union figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, and Ulysses S. Grant. The protesters also targeted historical figures such as Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, and Woodrow Wilson. In Great Britain, Winston Churchill’s statue would have been torn down were it not encased in a steel cage.  

Names are falling even faster than memorials. Schools removed names from buildings, grandiose rooms, and programs. Names include those of confederates such as P. G. T. Beauregard and John C. Calhoun. Other discarded names include those of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Watson, and Woodrow Wilson. The names of Aunt Jemima breakfast food, Dixie Chicks band, Eskimo pies, and Disneyland’s Splash Mountain have been dumped into the filthy trash bin. The Washington Redskins’ name has joined them. The Cleveland Indians’ name will do so shortly.

The removal of monuments is not wrong. When a monument is on government property, no one has a moral right that a monument be left up or taken down. Ditto for names, Still, these changes are bad in that they make us worse off.   

The University of Minnesota-Morris’ Dan Demetriou gives an interesting argument against these changes. First, he argues, liberty and stability depend on tribal identity. Tribal identity occurs when one person sees another as a member of his group. Consider, for example, the way in which family members think about one another. Other examples include how people think about each another when they are in a sports team, military unit, or country. A good example occurred in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Private Ryan views members of his paratrooper unit as his brothers and is willing to fight and die alongside them.   

Without tribal identity, nations break up or become increasingly unfree. Examples of nations that dissolved because of insufficient tribal identity include the European colonies as well as Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. These countries’ peoples never formed a sufficiently strong tribal identity. Other countries without tribal identity (for example, Iraq) are kept together through force. When trust evaporates, governments protect people’s rights through prodigious amounts of force. Consider, for example, how in the U.S., federal and state governments responded to 1960’s antiwar and racial unrest.    
Second, Demetriou argues, a people bring about tribal identity through memorialization. He argues that people make and keep a shared identity by celebrating their past. They celebrate their past by memorializing their art, heroes, tragedies, victories, and so on. This is similar, he argues, to how family members celebrate their tribal identity through memorialization, which they do by putting pictures of their adventures, ancestors, and descendants.

When a family puts a picture of its ancestors on the wall, it is not saying that the ancestors were better than other families’ ancestors or that the ancestors were good people or that they did the right thing. Rather, the family is saying, “This is our past and, thus, who we are.” This binds together those who share this past or see it as their own. Identification with a past need not be genetic. Consider, for example, how an adopted child views his adopted family’s past as his own. Families would react with fury were an outsider to come in and demand that they take down their ancestors’ pictures and throw them in the filthy trash bin, even if their ancestors acted wrongly. They would view this as an attack on them and would be right to do so. 
By analogy, when the Chinese wave their country’s flag, they are celebrating the Chinese people and nation. They can do so without approving of the Chinese government’s appalling past. Mao and his enforcers killed 40 to 70 million people. The Chinese people’s past and, thus, identity includes, but is not defined by, Mao’s savagery. Muslims celebrate Mohammed, despite his antisemitism and practice of enslavement, rape, slaughter, etc. because he and the religion to which he gave rise have in part made them who they are.

Southerners’ past includes confederate soldiers. Stories of their beloved leaders, campaigns, and deaths are part of their past. They rightly understand the demand that memorials for their ancestry be thrown into the trash as deeply insulting. There is nothing conceptually problematic about a person celebrating her past, including her ancestors’ bravery, comradery, and sacrifice, without signing onto their cause.  

Americans are not a racial or ethnic people as are the Chinese, (Asian) Indians, Irish, Italians, French, and Japanese. If Americans are to be a people rather than a grab bag of peoples (blacks, gays, Jews, Mexicans, etc.) who share less in common with each passing year, they have to have a shared identity. The identity is tied to the past and maintained through memorialization. There is no evidence that a tribal identity can rest on a value (for example, liberty) and, in any case, the left’s ongoing war on liberty suggests that this would not be a good bet were it possible.

Seton Hall University’s Travis Timmerman argues that confederate monuments should be taken down and put in private museums or historical sites where they can be put in historical context, cease to be held in reverence, and no longer receive state funding. He is right that it would have been better had federal and state governments not gotten into the memorial business. Similarly, it would have been better if federal and state governments had stayed out of broadcasting, museums, schools, welfare, and other areas in which they make a mess. Still, as long as they are in the memorial and naming business, they should give our past its due.

09 July 2020

Do we have a clear understanding of what racism is?

Stephen Kershnar
What is Racism?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 29, 2020

Nationwide protests and their opponents are debating how to respond to racism. The problem is that racism is such an unclear notion that the debaters are likely talking past one another.

Recent anti-racism protests involve marches, speeches, arson, kneeling, looting, and pulling down statues. Consider, for example, attacks, destruction, or movement of statues of Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and George Washington. The three best-selling non-fiction books are Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, and Ijeoma Oluo’s So you want to talk about race. At schools and universities, there is a good chance that a student will either read Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” or discuss her ideas.

Congressman Al Green (D-TX) recently put forth a resolution that declares unconditional war on racism and invidious discrimination in America and calls for a cabinet-level Department of Reconciliation. This department would seek to eliminate racism and invidious discrimination and have a budget that is 10% of the Defense Department's budget. Our leading political figures (Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Donald Trump) label people and statements racist.

All this talk of racism presupposes we know what racism is. We don’t. Underlying the different theories of racism is the notion that racism is false, bad, and wrong. One theory is that racism is a belief that one race is superior to another. Often the theory requires that basis for the superiority be biological. Superiority might be filled out in terms of importance or consideration/respect people are owed. A second theory is that racism consists of attitudes other than beliefs. Consider, for example, dislike, fear, hatred, preference, and repulsion. A third theory is that racism is a type of action aimed at members of a race rather than a way of thinking about them. Consider, for example, antagonism, avoidance, or discrimination.

None of these theories is correct. Consider the notion that racism is the belief that one race is - on average -  biologically superior to another. If this were correct, then whether racism is true would depend on whether differences in criminality, education, intelligence, out-of-wedlock births, welfare use, etc. are due purely to the environment rather than a mixture of the environment and genetics. If this theory of racism were correct, then the truth of racism would depend on the outcome of contested scientific debates. It does not. Whether racism is true does not depend on whether Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s findings in The Bell Curve hold up. In addition, someone who thinks that one race is superior to another, but attributes it purely to environmental effects, might still seem to be a racist.

More generally, members of races do not have equally valuable lives. The value of an individual’s life depends on how well it goes for him and what effect he has on others. People do not have lives that go equally well for them. Some people have lives that go better because they are longer, happier, and contain more objectively good things (for example, knowledge and love). Some people contribute more to the world than others (for example, by having five children rather than one). It unlikely that on average members of different races have equally valuable lives. On average, whites live longer and are happier than blacks. This makes their lives go better for them.  

Consider next the notion that racism is a difference in attitude toward members of different races. Such a difference does not make one a racist. Consider, for example, someone who prefers one race over another (or, perhaps, dislikes one more than the other) because of perceived differences in criminality, English-speaking ability, insularity, loudness, or obesity. This is not racism. Rather, it is a rational preference based on a perceived difference in features. On a side note, some of these perceived differences are statistically correct generalizations. For example, the rates of obesity and incarceration for racial groups in the US occur in the following order: blacks, Hispanics, whites, and Asians. Nor is it racism to discriminate based on these perceived differences.

If there were such a thing as racism, it would not a behavior. Rather, it would be what motivates the behavior.   

What, then, is racism? I don’t know and neither do you. I doubt that many members of even extreme groups (for example, Aryan Brotherhood, Black Hebrew Israelites, and Nation of Islam) think that every member of their group is better than every member of another group. Some likely have a more nuanced view that relies on a perceived difference in features and a mixed explanation of what causes the difference.

Because racism is not a coherent notion, we shouldn’t spend so much time and effort trying to eliminate it. This is especially true when we could instead focus on inner-city problems such as broken public schools, out-of-wedlock birth rates, and the scourge of overcriminalization of American life accompanied by an ocean of incarceration.  

More generally, it’s time to eliminate the diversity-industrial complex because it focuses on racism and discrimination. Academia and the corporate world spend an enormous amount of money fighting against them. The money would be better spent elsewhere. The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald points out that the University of California at Berkeley diversity bureaucracy costs $20 million per year. UCLA has a Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion who alone makes over $400,000 per year. Clearly, she notes, this money would be better spent subsidizing the tuition of dozens of students. Writing in MarketWatch, Jeanette Settembre notes that American companies spend up to $8 billion a year on diversity training. During a recession, this is an abomination.  

Everyone claims to be an expert on racism and yet no one knows what it is. This is a good reason to focus on other things. One way to do this is to stop pouring money into the diversity-industrial complex.