28 January 2011

Affirmative Action: States versus Feds

Stephen Kershnar
Affirmative-Action Hydra: Cut It Off and It Reappears Elsewhere
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 23, 2011

In this last November’s election, Arizona voters overwhelmingly banned government affirmative action. Specifically, 60% of the voters approved a law that prohibits the government from discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex. Arizona became the 5th state to do so, joining California, Washington, Michigan, and Nebraska. Everywhere statewide voters have been given a choice on affirmative action, they vote it down.

President Obama and the Congressional Democrats have quietly but energetically pushed for more affirmative action. ObamaCare is loaded up with language that requires affirmative action for medical schools and other medical programs. The Dodd-Frank finance bill contains many new offices to monitor race and gender, which inevitably leads to more affirmative action as businesses use preferences to avoid being investigated. The country is thus moving in two directions. The states are slowly walking away from affirmative action; the federal government is sprinting toward it.

Affirmative action, in the sense used in this article, refers to preference for less qualified applicants. It is done for a variety of reasons, among them: it promotes diversity, helps to create role-models, reduces discrimination, compensates for past wrongs, combats stereotypes, promotes equal opportunity, and so on.

A 2008 analysis by Edward Rubinstein of the National Policy Institute and 1993 analysis by Peter Brimelow and Leslie Spencer, writing in Forbes, found that affirmative action costs a lot. Brimelow and Spencer estimated that the cost of these programs was equal to 4% of the economy (specifically, GDP). Rubinstein claimed that the current percentage is higher.

Affirmative action imposes three types of costs. First, there are the direct costs of federal, state, and local agencies to monitor and sue businesses. At the federal level, examples include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. There are many similar institutions in the states and school systems.

Second, as Rubinstein points out, these programs are expensive. Businesses must comply with the regulations, respond to government inquiries, defend against lawsuits, and so on. The Center for the Study of American Business found that for every dollar spent on regulation, about 20 dollars is spent by the private sector to comply with them. Hence, the money spent on government regulation multiplies as businesses try to stay clear of the regulators’ crosshairs.

Third, and most significant, many people pay more or receive substandard goods and services because less capable people have replaced more capable ones. This is not a knock on racial or ethnic minorities or women, both contain many highly talented people. Rather, this results from a system that cares more about race-and-gender bean-counting more than ability. Here are just a few examples of how the system produces victims.

One 1994 study in the Journal of American Medical Association found that only 49% of black and 66% of Hispanic medical students passed their medical boards for the first time (versus 88% for whites and 84% for Asians). This is unsurprising given that the board scores tend to correlate with MCAT scores and affirmative action beneficiaries are let in with much lower scores. Poor performance is a serious matter given that physicians inadvertently cause hundreds of thousands of deaths a year and that medical errors are a significant portion of these cases. A 1998 study in the Journal of American Medical Association found that 71% of newly licensed physicians prescribed potentially inappropriate medication to elderly patients and drug-related illness is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. Graduating substandard physicians ratchets up these risks.

Professor Steven Farron argues that one of the biggest predictors of K-12 students’ performance in is teachers’ scores on competence examinations. For example, he claims that the data show that it has a larger effect than class size or their degrees. To the extent affirmative-action hiring lowers the scores of a district’s teachers, it likely results in children learning less.

A study by economist John Lott found a similar pattern. He claims that between 1987 and 1990, in the 189 cities he studied, the decrease in the number of white male police officers by 6,912 (6%) increased the number of murders by 1,145 and the increase in the number of black male officers by 950 (5%) increased the number of rapes by 300. If correct, police-related affirmative action is a tragedy.

Even if affirmative action did have desirable effects by promoting diversity, generating role-models, combating discrimination, and so on, there is no evidence that I am aware of that these benefits outweigh the above costs. This is unsurprising given the size of the costs. In the absence of such evidence, the same sort of reasoning that leads most people to want the best surgeon and teacher for their child should lead them to want to get rid of affirmative action.

This issue will reappear. The American electorate is getting increasingly polarized on racial grounds. In the last election, Ronald Brownstein writing in the National Journal noted that in the 2010 election for the House of Representatives. 60% of the white vote was for the GOP, whereas 73% of the minority vote was for the Democrats. Among blue-collar whites and college-educated white males, Brownstein points out, the preference was nearly 2-to-1. Even college-educated white women, who gave a majority of their vote for Obama, went 55-43 for the GOP. Brownstein notes that the groups differ ideologically. In 2010, he points out, 63% of whites thought that the government was doing too much, 60% of minorities thought that it was doing too little.

Vdare.com writer Steve Sailer notes that the increasing racial polarization and whites’ distaste for affirmative action opens up an opportunity for the GOP to use affirmative action to win elections. He allows that Obama could preempt the issue by reducing or eliminating them. Given Obama’s world view and political base, this is unlikely. To see Sailer’s point, imagine the GOP landslide that would occur were the remaining 45 states to vote on laws like Arizona’s. This effect will intensify if unemployment stays high.

Because the states and the federal government are moving in different directions on affirmative action and because it is likely something that can motivate the base of both parties, this issue is likely to reappear in the near future. The parties and the mainstream media fearful of the issue’s ugliness and the inconvenient facts that surrounding it will do their best to ignore it, much as they initially did for the recent President Bush’s attempt to ram through amnesty for illegal immigrants. They’ll fail and the issue will flare up again.

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