19 April 2017

Andrew Cuomo's Excelsior Scholarship: An Idiotic Policy

Stephen Kershnar
Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship: Stupidity on Parade
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 1, 2017

            Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship makes college tuition free for the middle class. This is an embarrassingly stupid idea. Full disclosure: I am a professor at a SUNY university.

            In the last election, presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton put forth plans to make college free. Cuomo jumped on the bandwagon, making state colleges and universities (government schools) tuition free for the middle class. Here is how Cuomo’s plan works. New York taxpayers will pay $163 million to make college tuition free at state colleges for those students who families make up to $100,000 in 2017. This will rise to $125,000 in two years. Tuition is roughly $6,500 a year. This does not cover room, board, and fees. These cost roughly $14,000 per year. The scholarship only applies to students who go to school full-time, graduate in four years, and stay in the state for four years after graduation. If a student doesn’t stay, the scholarship becomes a loan.

            Writing in The Washington Post, the Urban Institute’s Matthew Chingos points out that this plan does nothing for the poor. Chingos points out that Cuomo’s plan (unlike Sanders’ and Clinton’s plans) covers the difference between tuition and the student’s existing financial aid (read: college welfare). Poor students who would have gotten more than $11,000 in education-welfare (via Pell Grants and a state specific program), in effect get $0. They still have to come up with roughly $10,000 to cover room and board. In contrast, students from middle class families making $75,000-$110,000 will in effect get roughly $6,000. Cuomo thus decided to give the middle class $6,000 and the poor $0. He could have targeted the money toward the poor via the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) or other programs, but decided that the middle class needed the welfare more.

            The taxpayers are getting hosed on this and it will get worse. Anyone who thinks that the poor will not eventually be taken care of has no idea how leftist, especially minority, politicians think and vote. The middle class will shortly begin screaming like stuck pigs that room and board need to be covered and that the four-year requirement must be scrapped and politicians will accommodate them. Predictably, then, the cost of this program will explode.

As the state increasingly fails to cover the cost of forgone tuition, state colleges will ratchet up housing and food costs as a form of backdoor tuition. Grade inflation will also get worse. Professors increasingly won’t endanger or flunk a student knowing that this could cost him his scholarship.

            The poor and especially minority students will not get this benefit or, if they do, will have to pay it back. The New York Times’ David Brooks points out that most poor, and especially minority, students do not graduate in four years. In fact, he notes, fewer than half of black and Hispanic college students at state colleges graduate in six years. They will thus not get the scholarship or be victimized by the scholarships becoming loans and backdoor tuition.

            The higher education system and the tax burden in New York will worsen. Private colleges will not be able to compete against free colleges and a significant number will shrink or close. This will reduce competition and thereby hurt the overall system of higher education. It will also redistribute students into government schools, thereby driving up taxes. This will occur despite the fact that New Yorkers already pay the highest taxes in the country (see Tax Foundation).

            It is unclear whether it will even benefit the middle class students who receive the scholarship. The scholarship requires that they live in New York for four years after graduating. On average, this will harm their ability to move to jobs that provide the most opportunity and pay the most. Over a career, it is likely to reduce to lifetime earnings more than $26,000 ($6,500 welfare per year x 4 years). Instead, this is a protectionist measure that like other protectionist measures redistributes money from one group to another and does so inefficiently.

Also, as Brooks points out (citing Northwestern University’s Chenny Ng), studies show that making education free results in students working less hard and being less likely to graduate. It is strange how paying for college makes students work more likely to graduate.

            The most disturbing aspect of the program, though, is not that it makes things worse for the poor, minorities, taxpayers, higher education, and, likely, middle class beneficiaries, it is its unfairness. Over a lifetime, Georgetown University’s Anthony Carnevale and colleagues found that a college degree adds roughly $1 million in lifetime earnings over a high school diploma. A professional degree adds $2.3 million. There is nothing fair, just, or caring about using government force to take taxpayers’ money and give it to middle class families whose children go to college, especially when these children will make lot more money than those who don’t go.
   
This is a disgusting redistribution of wealth, much of which will go to the upper middle class.  Consider, for example, Fredonia’s student body. It tends to come from the upper middle class with a median family income of $97,000 and with 4 out of 10 coming from the top 20% of family incomes (2013 numbers from The New York Times).

This disgusting redistribution to the upper middle class is made worse by the fact that the money is given away in a haphazard manner. If the state really cared about benefitting New Yorkers, it would give scholarships to those majoring in engineering, computer science, and finance and not to those majoring in elementary education, fine art, and drama because the former majors’ skills are so much more valuable.

It would also require graduates work full-time for the four-year period after graduation. In addition, it would exclude those with low SAT scores and low high school grade point averages.


Even if a college degree doesn’t add anything to an individual’s productivity, but merely signals higher intelligence or better work habits, there is still no reason to take more money from people who are shoulder the most crushing tax burden in the country and give it to adults with these competitive advantages.  Andrew 

17 April 2017

For Legalizing Hard Drugs

Stephen Kershnar
Legalize Hard Drugs: American Freedom at Work
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 3, 2017

            It’s clear that marijuana should be legalized. The more interesting issue is whether other drugs such as ecstasy, LSD, cocaine, and heroin should be legalized.

            Consider the following background. The U.S. locks up an incredibly large number of people. It has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Writing in The Washington’s Post, Michelle Ye Hee Lee notes that the U.S. incarcerates 478 per 100,000 people. In contrast, other countries incarcerate far fewer. Consider, for example, Australia (130 per 100,000) Canada (188), Japan (51), and across Europe (134). What makes this fact so horrifying is that the victimization rate in Western Europe is roughly the same as it is in the U.S. The U.S. has been turned into a lockdown nation due to a variety of “get tough” laws that include truth in sentencing laws, mandatory minimums, mandatory drug sentences, life sentence without possibility of parole, three-strikes laws, and so on. 

Roughly 3% of the adult population is under the control of the criminal justice system (incarceration, parole, or probation) at any one point in time and this population churns, constantly sweeping new people into its gaping maw. Some populations are especially likely to be swept in. Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, The Sentencing Project notes that for U.S. residents born in 2001, roughly one in three black men and one in six Latino men will be imprisoned at some time in their lives.

            Drug laws are one of the causes of this ocean of incarceration. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one out of two federal prisoners and one out of six of state prisoners are there for drug-based offenses. In 2015, roughly half a million people were incarcerated for drugs. This number has exploded from the mere 41,000 who in 1980 were incarcerated for drugs. Most inmates currently locked up for drugs were neither high level dealers nor had prior criminal records for violent offenses.

            Why think that buying and selling drugs should not be punished or, at very least, should not be incarcerated?

First, there is the argument from rights. People consent to government to protect their natural rights and rights derived from them. One person’s natural right is a claim against a second that the second not interfere with the first’s use and enjoyment of his body or property. Among the natural right a person has is the right to put whatever she wants into her body, whether it is unpasteurized milk, another woman’s finger, tattoo ink, alcohol, or drugs. When people consent to the American government’s authority, they have not waived this right. This can be seen via the text and structure of the Constitution as well as the assumptions made by those who wrote and ratified it. People thus retain the right to use drugs for the same reason they have the right to engage in sodomy, it is a natural right that has not been waived.

            Second, there is an argument from the many benefits of freedom. According to Heritage Foundation, economic freedom correlates with per capita income. Other studies show economic and personal freedom robustly correlate with happiness. The best interpretation of these studies is that increased freedom makes people wealthier and happier. Drug prohibition lessens freedom directly, by trampling on a natural right, and indirectly, by the many ways the governments trample on people’s rights against search and seizure in the pursuit of drugs. The recent atrocities in the Philippines being a case in point.
  
            One objection to these arguments is that hard drugs are just too dangerous to legalize. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that in 2015, 52,000 people died from drug overdose, including 13,000 from heroin.

One reason to be skeptical of this argument is that these tragic deaths occurred under a brutal and unforgiving system. This tragedy is then used to argue that we should make the system even more brutal and unforgiving. Perhaps we should try legalization accompanied by education campaigns and more opportunities for treatment. We did this for alcohol.

Our freedom should not depend on whether undisciplined yahoos can handle it. For example, the U.S. protects the Westboro Baptist Church’s freedom to picket military funerals and people’s right to buy Everclear’s 191 proof grain alcohol regardless of whether either is a good idea.
   
In addition, it is unclear whether the cost of drug use outweighs its benefit. While the tragic death of thousands is bad, the pleasure that people millions get from drugs is good. People drink alcohol because they enjoy it. That pleasure would be lost were alcohol again prohibited. Similarly, drug use would generate more pleasure than it currently does were drugs no longer prohibited. For example, some friends tell me that ecstasy is more fun than Jack Daniels.  

A second objection is that drug use is not part of American freedom because people get addicted and addicted people are unfree.

If this objection were true, this would be a good reason to prohibit alcohol and cigarettes, but it’s not. Not every drug user gets addicted. Consider those who dropped acid in Vietnam or at Woodstock. More importantly, freedom includes the right to engage in risky activities when such activities do not wrong others. For example, the government allows allow adults to drop out of school, become uneducated-and-unwed mothers, and waste their money on cult-like religions (for example, Scientology) even when doing so risks poverty, indignity, and a loss of control.  

A third objection is that hard drugs should be prohibited in order to keep them from children and teens.

The problem is that this argument has no logical stopping point. The same is true for alcohol, cigarettes, pornography, premarital sex, and MMA fighting. You can’t have a free society if the laws are designed to make the world perfectly safe for 13-year-old girls.


As the first step in eliminating the lockdown nation, drugs should be legalized or, at the very least, not punished via incarceration. 

23 March 2017

Middlebury Students and Professors Shame Themselves

Stephen Kershnar
Middlebury College Riots over Charles Murray
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 20, 2017

            On March 2, 2017, Charles Murray came to Middlebury College to discuss his book about the breakdown of the white working class. He was accompanied by Allison Stanger a leftist professor who was supposed to moderate discussion of his ideas. After being drowned out by protesters, Murray and Stanger moved to another part of the campus to live stream their talk. Protesters made it difficult by banging on the walls and pulling fire alarms.

When Murray and Stanger left the building, one protester grabbed Stanger’s hair and another protester shoved her. The upshot was whiplash and a concussion requiring a visit to the hospital. Were it not for security guards and other protectors, the mob likely would have ground Murray into the dirt.

With guards holding off the howling mob, Murray, Stanger, and a college vice president got into a car and locked the doors. The mob then surrounded the car, banged on its sides and windows, rocked it, and climbed onto the hood. The car had to inch forward to avoid hitting anyone. The three then drove to a dinner venue, but when the mob discovered them, they fled again.

Encouraged by several faculty members, the protests had been organized for about a week. The protesters’ reasoning was that because Murray is a racist, white nationalist, discredited pseudoscientist, eugenicist, anti-gay, and so on, his talk was hate speech. Because hate speech does not deserve to be heard, the protesters concluded, they should forcefully keep him from speaking.

This protest followed the violent mob that prevented libertarian commentator Milo Yiannapoulis from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley. The mob decided that he engaged in hate speech and, hence, other people did not have the right to hear him speak, even at a state-owned campus. His alleged hate speech consisted of such obvious points as criticizing Muslim countries that condemn gay people to death (Yiannapoulis is gay), challenging Facebook for censoring its customers, and arguing that mass third world immigration is bad for the hosts.
  
It is odd that protesters thought that Murray’s discussion on the white working class should not be accessible because of his prior work on intelligence and race. It is odd too that there was so little interest in hearing about the prior work, especially since his conclusions are likely true and relevant to today’s incessant discussions of race, class, and immigration. 
      
The first thing to notice about the protests against Murray is the degree to which his findings in the controversial part of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) have held up. Leaving aside what most of the book was about (isolation of the cognitive elite), critics attacked Murray for claiming that (1) differences in intelligence are in part heritable and (2) races have different distributions of intelligence and the differences is in part heritable (more specifically, not known to be purely environmental). The first claim is widely accepted. The second is plausible.   

The claim that intelligence is heritable is supported by studies that attempt to isolate the relevant statistical factors. It is also supported by studies of identical twins. These studies show that identical twins have intelligence levels that are closer than are those of non-identical twins, normal siblings, and other pairings. Murray and his fellow author, Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, estimate that for populations, 40-80% of cognitive ability, as measured by IQ tests (tests that measure general intelligence), is inherited and the role of inheritance increases as people go from infancy to adulthood. A 1996 American Psychological Association task force on intelligence drew a similar conclusion. For late adolescents and adults, they estimate heritability at 75%. In contrast, by late adolescence, the effects of family environment are surprisingly small.

As a side note, IQ scores have been validated. They correlate with grades, SAT scores, income, and performance ratings in many occupations. There is reason to believe that differences in intelligence cause the different performance levels. IQ scores also correlate with undesirable features such as out-of-wedlock births, criminality, welfare use, and so on, though the strength of correlation varies. Even if intelligence were not inherited, it still is relevant to understanding differences between populations.

Herrnstein and Murray also argued that we do not know that the sizable difference in the black-white distribution of IQ scores is purely environmental. The evidence here is mixed. Proponents of the genetic explanation, such as J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen, point to studies involving transracial adoption, IQ scores for mixed race populations, a worldwide pattern of race and IQ scores, greater IQ difference the more the test is focused on general intelligence, and so on. Critics challenge these findings. Herrnstein and Murray’s argument that the difference is in part genetic and in part environmental is plausible because they fit with a number of lines of evidence.   

Murray and Herrnstein never supported racism, eugenics, fascism, white nationalism, etc. These labels are as false as they are offensive. Murray’s mixed race children are not what one would expect from a racist.    

Even if Murray were racist, fascist, sexist, etc. that is still no reason to violently prevent people from listening to his ideas. As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, free speech is useful because the marketplace of ideas tends to separate true ideas from false ones in the same way that a marketplace tends to separate better goods from worse ones. Mill also argued that false ideas sometimes contain a kernel of truth, a kernel that is discoverable by discussing the ideas. In addition, Mill and others have pointed out that discussing ideas forces people to discover why they believe what they do. This makes them better thinkers and, Mill adds, more virtuous.


Middlebury protesters and their faculty cheerleaders were wrong on Murray’s ideas and don’t understand the value of free speech. Instead of discussing ideas with one of America’s most important intellectuals, Middlebury students engaged in thuggery. What a shame.

08 March 2017

Parents may intentionally create gay children

Stephen Kershnar
Should parents prefer heterosexual children?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 6, 2017

            With improving technology, it is only a matter of time before parents can (largely) determine their children’s sexual orientation. When they can do so, should they refrain from having gay children?
           
Depending on the theory, sexual orientation focuses on desire, behavior, or self-identification. There is a continuum of orientation from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual and all points in between. In his 1994 book, The Social Organization of Sexuality, sociologist Edward Laumann found that while 2.4% of men and 1.3% of women define themselves as gay or bisexual, have same-gender partners, and express homosexual desires, many other people have mixed desires and behaviors.  
           
There is evidence that sexual orientation has both genetic and environmental influences. Identical twins are more likely to have the same sexual orientation (if one is gay, so is the other) than fraternal twins and non-twin siblings. Still, genes account for less than 50% of the variation in sexual orientation. Thus, while there appears to be a genetic influence on whether someone is gay, it is not genetically determined. In addition, there are other factors that correlate with non-heterosexual orientation (for example, hormonal differences in utero and childhood sexual abuse and maltreatment). It is very controversial whether certain environmental effects (for example, abuse and maltreatment) influence sexual orientation at all or, if they do, their strength.  

            The environmental influence can also be in seen in that adolescent’s sexual patterns are surprisingly fluid. In particular, sexual desires in gay and bisexuals adolescents is more unstable than that of heterosexuals. Some studies indicate that large numbers of adolescents with same-sex attractions later become exclusively heterosexual. Even adult men have fluid orientations, University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond reports that 35% of gay men reported experiencing opposite-sex attractions in the preceding year and 10% reported opposite-sex behavior. Diamond earlier found that women’s sexuality was surprisingly unstable. For example, one study using Laumann’s data found that women who attended college were nine times more likely to identify as lesbians compared to those who did not.

            Arizona State professor Lawrence Mayer and Johns Hopkins professor Paul McHugh point out that gay, bisexual, and transgender people have higher rates of mental health problems and social problems. They have increased rates of anxiety disorders, depression, suicide attempts, and make greater use of mental health services. They also have increased social problems such as domestic violence (victimization and perpetration) and substance abuse. The suicide attempt rate for transgender people is alarmingly high even when compared to gays and bisexuals. Note that this is an increased rate of problems for a population, many non-heterosexual people do not have any of them.

The most common explanation for this is that most, if not all, of the mental health and social problems are due to social stressors such as discrimination, prejudice, stigmatization, and hiding one’s identity. We don’t know, though, whether social stressors account for all of the additional problems.

            In the future, and likely in the near future, we will have the ability to screen and, perhaps, control the genetics of our offspring. This might occur by screening sperm and egg, selective abortion, changing the in utero hormones, or changing the ways genes express themselves (epigenetics). With this ability, should parents choose heterosexual children?

            Other things being equal, people prefer to have happier, healthier, and smarter children. The above problems suggest that one way to have happier and healthier children is to avoid having gay ones. Also, even if the mental health and social problems of non-straight people go away, perhaps, due to decreased hostility to gays, heterosexual parents might still want children similar to themselves. This is unsurprising. This also explains why parents usually prefer to adopt children from their own racial or ethnic group. Also, because on average heterosexuals have more children than gays and parents often want more grandchildren, they often will prefer heterosexual children.

By the same token, gay parents might want gay children, again because they are similar to themselves. Even if their children were, on average, less happy than straight children, gay parents would not be harming anyone by selecting gay children. Gay children would not be better off had they not been created and the straight children who never existed have no ground for complaint. If there is nothing wrong with being gay or having gay sex, and I don’t think there is, then it is not wrong to select gay children. Still, in the absence of knowledge about what is causing greater mental health and social problems in gays, there is reason to hesitate creating gay children.

More controversial is whether parents may cause their children to be gay.

It might be argued that it is wrong to choose to create one type of person rather than another. Seven states ban abortions performed to select sex or race (Arizona, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota). Similarly, the World Health Organization tells governments to eliminate such abortions while at the same time endorsing a right to an abortion. 180 countries have signed on to its recommendations. However, this line of argument is confused. No one is wronged by sex- or race-selection abortion who is not also wronged by abortion in general. If the second does not wrong anyone, then neither does the first. This ban on sex selection is particularly bizarre in that the biologically normal sex ratio at birth is 2-6% more boys than girls. It is not as if there is equal or natural ratio of boys and girls that should be society’s target.

It might also be argued that selecting children based on sexual orientation will worsen gays’ and bisexuals’ social position or have fewer political allies. Even if this were true, this is not a strong enough reason to trample on women’s right to an abortion or parents’ right to control whom to create.


The days when parents can choose whether to have straight or gay children is rapidly approaching. There is nothing wrong with their choosing what they want and the law should stay out of it.

23 February 2017

Should the State University of New York at Fredonia raise or lower its admission standard?

Stephen Kershnar
At the Crossroads: The State University of New York at Fredonia
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 19, 2017

            The State University of New York at Fredonia has declining enrollment and it faces a decision. It can emphasize student quality or quantity and shape its identity in so doing.

Fredonia has had at least 5,000 students per year and usually more than 5,300 students from 2000-2013 (roughly, 5,100 in 2000 and 5,800 in 2010). After that the student body has been getting smaller. It was down to roughly 4600 students in 2016 and will likely be noticeably below that in 2017.

The percentage of freshmen in the bottom half of their high school class has also increased over the years from 9% in 2000 and 12% in 2010 to 17% in 2015. On the other hand, there has been an increase in the strongest freshmen (top 10% of their high school class) from 15% in 2000 and 16% in 2010 to 19% in 2015. Thus, the average freshman appears to be losing ground in the sense that she is less likely to be in the top half of her class. Still, the school is attracting more of the strongest freshman, at least as a percentage. The freshmen numbers can mislead though because, at least until recently, they did not include disadvantaged students (Educational Development Program and Full Opportunity Program). If these students were included, the numbers would likely be worse.   

Along the way, the quality of Fredonia’s students relative to its competitors has declined. Its SAT range (25% and 75% percentiles) has its students tied with SUNY-Purchase for 8th. It ranks below competitor schools such as Brockport, Cortland, Geneseo, New Paltz, Oneonta, and Oswego. It is also behind the university centers (consider, for example, Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook). It does, however, rank ahead of competitor schools such as Buffalo State, Old Westbury, and Plattsburgh. The SAT is a moderately good predictor of grades and its predictive power increases when combined with high school grade point average.

Whether Fredonia is diverse depends on the type of diversity in which one is interested. On average, it is a school for students from New York’s upper middle class. More specifically, the undergraduate population is mostly from New York (96%), heavily white (75-80%), and majority female (57%).

Fredonia’s student body tends to come from the upper middle class with a median family income of $97,000 and with 4 out of 10 coming from the top 20% of family incomes (2013 numbers from The New York Times). Nearly, 1 out of 6 students comes from the top 10% of incomes, but almost none (less than 1%) come from very rich families (top 1%). These families do better than the average family in Western New York. In 2015, the median household income of Western New York was $57,000.  

Surprisingly few of Fredonia’s students come from poor families. Only 5% come from a poor family (income from the bottom 20%). So while 20-25% of its students are racially or ethnically diverse, far fewer are from poor families. 

In different ways, Fredonia’s elite competitors, Geneseo and Buffalo, have similar profiles. Geneseo is similar in being 60% female and 79% white. However, on average, its students come from richer families (median family income: $125,000). Buffalo’s undergraduate students on average come from families who make about the same as do the families of Fredonia students (median income $99,000), but it is majority male (56%) and much less white (50% white) than Fredonia or Geneseo.  

Faced with declining enrollment and a slight drop in the ability of the average student, Fredonia has to decide what to do. It could change its admissions standards. If the standards are lowered, then the school will have more students, which will allow it to offer more programs and hire more faculty and staff. On the other hand, the cost to the school’s reputation might be significant. This could be costly if this were to make it more difficult to attract students, especially better students, or if it were to lower faculty morale. Also, the caliber of education might worsen if the quality of students’ education is affected by their classmates’ ability. If the school were to raise standards, this could have the opposite effect on enrollment, number of programs, reputation, morale, and, perhaps, learning.

Before deciding what to do with admissions, it is worth considering what justifies Fredonia’s existence? Because it is a state school, Fredonia is in part funded by coercively obtained tax dollars, sometimes taken from taxpayers who make less than families who send their kids there. This makes it important that the school’s justification be made clear.

If what justifies Fredonia is that it provides equal opportunity, then the school should be focusing on increasing the number of students from poor or otherwise disadvantaged families. The idea here that students from upper middle class and richer families will have plenty of educational opportunity without Fredonia and its peers. Increasing the focus on disadvantaged students might be done, for example, by shifting resources to the programs for disadvantaged students. It also might be done by emphasizing programs that serve the disadvantaged. Consider, for example, education, social work, and criminal justice. Another way this might be done is by shifting merit-based scholarships to need-based ones.   

Alternatively, if the school is justified by its economic contribution to New Yorkers, then it is less clear that resources should be spent on disadvantaged students. Both a student’s SAT scores and her family’s socio-economic status affect her graduation rate. As Jason DeParle reported in The New York Times, among those college students whose families were in the bottom half of income distribution and who had below-average test scores, fewer than one in ten graduated from college. If the state wants a good return on its investment, those students should not be the focus of the state’s efforts.   

Fredonia’s mission will get even murkier if, as Governor Cuomo proposes, the state makes college tuition-free for most students. It is unclear whether spending even more taxpayer dollars should move the school in an equal-opportunity direction or economic direction.


Perhaps the first step then in deciding what to do with Fredonia’s admissions standards is to decide what justifies it. 

08 February 2017

In Defense of Trump's Delay in Refugee Admission

Stephen Kershnar
Donald Trump’s Delay in Accepting Refugees
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 6, 2016

            Donald Trump put a temporary three-month delay on people coming into the U.S. from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. He limited refugee admission to 50,000 a year. After he did so, all hell broke loose. Among other things, he has been harshly criticized for implementing a Muslim ban, breaking new legal ground, violating the Constitution, and failing to recognize that refugees are the children of God.  

            The criticism is unbelievably ignorant. First, because the delay is not a ban and does not apply to the five most populous Muslim nations, it is not a Muslim ban.

Second, this does not break new legal ground. President Carter delayed Iranian immigration in 1980 and President Obama delayed processing of Iraqi refugees in 2011. The ban does not violate the Constitution because people who are neither citizens nor residents and are not held by the U.S. government do not have Constitutional rights. Even if they did, they would not include a right to immigrate to the U.S. There is an issue as to whether the policy violates the 1980 Refugee Act or the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, but in any case the issue is not a Constitutional question.

The Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops charged that by implementing this policy, the country fails to respect the dignity of potential refugees. 50,000 refugees a year was, roughly, the average for the George W. Bush and Obama administrations at least through 2015 (data from the Migration Policy Institute). The country admitted fewer in 2002-2003 and 2006-2007. The Obama administration had planned on opening up the spigot (110,000 refugees in 2017), but luckily neither he nor Hillary are in a position to do so.

More generally, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2013 there were more than 14 million refugees. We already let in roughly a million immigrants a year. Unless we are going to admit millions more per year, there has to a limit. Trump set forth a generous limit. Saying that this fails to recognize refugees’ dignity is childish nonsense.

There is good reason to believe that Trump’s delay is tied to security. First, citing Germany’s intelligence agency, Reuters reports that ISIS is sending fighters disguised as refugees to Europe. Writing in the Washington Post, Sudarsan Raghavan reports that a 2015 poll found that one in five Syrians supports ISIS. At the very least, this tells us that we should consider whether our vetting process works.    

Second, as National Review’s David French has pointed out, given the string of horrific attacks by Muslim immigrants and their radicalized children, it is clear that our current approach and that of our European brethren is failing. Consider the string of attacks in Boston (marathon bombing), Brussels, Chattanooga, Fort Hood (American soldiers shot), Nice (truck attack), Orlando (gay nightclub slaughter), Paris (Charlie Hebdo and later concert slaughter), San Bernardino, 9-11, and on and on.  French points out that we know some Somalian immigrants and their children launched jihadist attacks in the U.S. and tried to leave the U.S. to join ISIS. Even if only a few of these attacks were done by refugees from the seven countries, the fact that the population is vulnerable to be being radicalized makes them a threat worth taking seriously.   

That the risk is not worth taking can be seen when one considers other undesirable features of some members of these groups. First, their anti-Semitism and anti-gay attitudes make them bad neighbors. Muslim anti-Semitism is causing Jews to flee France. Elsewhere gays are fleeing Muslim populations. We should be hesitant to subject American Jews and gays to such hatred. Fun fact: Herald Sun reports that six of the seven delayed nations ban Israeli Jews from visiting.  

Also, according to Rick Noak, writing in The Independent, mostly Muslim immigrants from North Africa (for example, Morocco and Algeria) sexually assaulted nearly 1,200 German women on 2015-2016 New Year’s Eve in seven German cities. Also, from 1997-2013, nearly 1,400 female children and teenagers were sexually trafficked, abused, raped, and abducted by Muslim British-Pakistanis in England. We should think long and hard before subjecting American women and girls to such misogyny.

Consider the threats or attacks made against Salman Rushdie, Pam Geller, and the Danish cartoonist who drew Mohammed (attacked with an axe) as well as the killing of moviemaker Theo van Gogh. We might consider whether this population will enhance or lessen our free speech.   

Financially, refugees are a bad deal. Writing in Breitbart, Caroline May found that in 2013, the Office of Refugee Resettlement reported that of the of Middle Eastern refugees to the U.S. accepted between 2008 and 2013,  91% percent received food stamps, 73% were on Medicaid or Refugee Medical Assistance and 68% percent were on cash welfare. Assuming that over a lifetime, the average refugee receives $300,000 more in government benefits than she pays out in taxes (a conservative estimate based on a Heritage Foundation study of illegal aliens), the 50,000 immigrants that Trump wants to let in this year will cost U.S. taxpayers $15 billion. This is plenty generous.   

If we must continue to flood the country with immigrants, we should choose the best and brightest or, at least, people who don’t hate our way of life. By analogy, Cornell University chooses elite students. There’s no reason why the American people can’t choose their neighbors in a similar way.    

Leaving aside the refugee issue, the country has added nearly 131 million people since the 1965 immigration bill, 55% came from immigrants and their descendants (Pew Research Center). I don’t see a good argument why the country should keep on adding people at such a fast clip. By 1980, the country was plenty crowded.


Trump promised the American people that he would sharply reduce, if not stop, the torrent of immigrants (legal and illegal) flooding our country. Americans voted for him in large part because of this promise. He should live up to his word and not waste time with such a sissy half-measure. 

31 January 2017

New York State: Schools Way Out of Control

Stephen Kershnar
Education Spending and the Middle-Class-Parent Test
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 23, 2017

            New Yorkers who just paid their taxes have got to be wondering why they let their schools spend beyond any sense of decency.   

            Consider the spending orgy. Emma Brown writing in The Washington Post report that in 2013, the U.S. states’ education spending averaged $10,700. This is generous. In contrast, New York spends $19,800, $9,000 more per student than average. This is outrageous.

To see this another way, consider that in 2013, New York school districts spent $59 billion on the public elementary-secondary school system. Only California spent more ($66 billion) and it has nearly twice as many people. All this spending accomplishes little. Nationally, the Education Week Resource Center found that New York’s schools are at best average when compared by math and reading proficiency in the 4th and 8th grades. 

Even in this big spending state, Dunkirk and Fredonia hold their own. A 2016 Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data found that per student Dunkirk spends a piggish $25,200 per student. Fredonia is less piggish, but still plenty piggy, at $21,500 per student.

Someone has to pay for all this spending, which unsurprisingly leads to a weighty tax burden. The U.S. Census Bureau (again using 2013 numbers) found New York to be among the select few states that spend more than $55 on schools per $1,000 in personal income.

            New Yorkers’ generosity can be seen in that fellow citizens in effect give the average family with two children $40,000 a year. This gift is rarely accompanied by gratitude. When was the last time you heard a mother of three children thank her fellow citizens for the nearly $60,000 in benefits her family was given? You are more likely to hear her complain about some benefit she thinks her children are entitled to, but didn’t receive. When the complaint comes from an unwed mother without real income, this is a bit much.    

            Here is a rule of thumb for when school spending is an unjust burden on taxpayers. If most middle class parents would not spend their own money for a school with all the bells and whistles, it is wrong to force others to do so. On this test, if most middle class parents would not pay an extra $9,000 a year for a school that has gym, shop, art, music, drama, etc., then taxpayers shouldn’t be made to do so. The same is true for afterschool drama, music, and sports programs or for the army of extra administrators as well as the nurses, guidance counselors, psychologists, and so on that drive up school costs. The underlying idea here is that if the person who most loves a child and stands to benefit from her success does not think a school with all the fixings is worth the money, neither should taxpayers.  

            Even if the amount of money spent on schools were reasonable, it is worth considering whether more of the spending should focus on core subjects, specifically, English, history, math, and science. It is an interesting question whether the array of programs and employees lessen the focus on the most important subjects.
   
A common objection to the above line of criticism is that regardless of whether they have cheap parents, the discretionary programs benefit children. Because children should be our priority, the spending is worthwhile.

One problem with this objection is that it is unclear whether these programs would disappear if they weren’t in the public schools. Many children do not receive free or subsidized food and yet eat well. Similarly, many sports and arts programs would exist in the private sector were they not paid for by taxpayers. Travel teams in soccer, hockey, and wrestling and private dance studios are often very well coached and run, and are at least as good as their public school counterparts. If the concern is for the poor, then they could be subsidized directly in the way that Medicaid, food stamps, and free school lunches do so. Surely, this is more efficient than making taxpayers pay for recreational activities of doctors’ and lawyers’ kids.  

            A second problem with this objection is that not every benefit is worth the cost and it is far from clear that outside of the core curriculum, government-school programs in states like New York and California are worth the cost. Were the money spent on such programs returned to taxpayers or, perhaps, spent by the government elsewhere, it would do quite a lot of good. Whether it would do more good than the current spending on discretionary programs in government schools is an empirical question and not that one can be answered merely by citing a benefit to students.

            The real problem with the spending level, though, isn’t whether it is displacing private programs or making the world a better place, it’s the sheer weight of school taxes. Were New York to have excellent schools, rather than mediocre ones, taxes would still be too damn high. People have their own projects in life. They want to have children, buy houses, invest in their own businesses, give to charities, or work fewer hours. Forcing them every year to hand over thousands of hard earned dollars for other people’s children is unreasonable, especially when the money is spent guidance counselors, golf coaches, school psychologists, additional administrators, and so on. Many people would rather spend their money on themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For some people, their property tax burden costs as much as their mortgage. For some retirees, taxes painfully cut into their income. For all but the wealthy, property taxes in New York are obnoxious. The fact that parents of school age children seem to ungrateful for how hard their neighbors had to work to pay for their children to go to a school with all the bells and whistles just pours salt into the wound. 


New York needs to reduce school spending to a decent level. 

11 January 2017

Celebrating Christmas and Opposing Hell

Stephen Kershnar
Underlying Christmas is the Offensive Doctrine of Hell
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 26, 2016

            Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a fun, beautiful, and loving holiday. While Jesus’ birthday is not known, it is most often celebrated on December 25th. The holiday celebrates the idea that God came into the world as a man to atone for other men’s sins. Underlying this picture, though, is the threat of hell. Hell is everlasting suffering that is forced onto those who fail to love God, are unrepentant sinners, or otherwise fail to avail themselves of the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. Thus, a joyous holiday has in the background one of the most mean-spirited doctrines in all of Christianity.

The belief in permanent hell or annihilation is part of the Catholic and many Protestant traditions. The notion that many will not be saved can be seen in Luke 13:23 and Matt 7:13-14. In addition, the New Testament appears to refer to hell. For example, there are references to “everlasting destruction” (Thessalonians 1:9), “eternal fire” (Jude 7), “tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). On some lines of Catholicism and Protestantism, then, God sends some people, the devil, and some fallen angels to hell.

The argument that God would not send human beings to hell is straightforward. God would send someone to hell only if justice permits it as a means of punishing them. Justice permits such a punishment only if someone has does something infinitely wrong or has an infinitely bad character. Human beings do not meet either condition.

            Consider whether a human beings could do anything to another human beings that might result in their deserving an infinite punishment, such as hell. In general, a person cannot infinitely wrong another person and rarely, if ever, tries to do so. Killing, murder, and rape are finite wrongs in that they cause others a finite amount of lost years or suffering. Murdering a young man, for example, might take away seventy wonderful years, but this is still a finite loss.

The only chance one person has to infinitely wrong another is to send the second to hell. This might happen, for example, when one person kills an atheist immediately before he was about to repent his sins and atheism. But a person they can’t send another to hell unless hell already exists. This begs the question as to why God would create hell. It makes no sense to create hell if the only thing someone can do to deserve it is to send another there.   

            People also cannot do anything to God that would result in their deserving hell. Most people do not wrong God. More specifically, people do not violate God’s rights by touching his body or taking his stuff. Nor do they directly harm him in other ways. Few, if any, even try to wrong God. They wrong other people through murder, rape, theft, etc., but this does not wrong God unless he owns people. God doesn’t own people because they’re not his property. Specifically, God doesn’t own people the way that ranchers own cattle. Even if human beings were to wrong God by killing or damaging his property, the wrong is not infinitely serious unless, again, hell exists.

One objection is that God does not impose hell. Rather it is a choice of the people who choose to separate themselves from God. However, if God intentionally makes the consequences of people’s choices harsh, this makes it a punishment. Consider this analogy. If a school principal sets up a system whereby the janitor whips students who get caught dealing drugs, he punishes them, even if, in some sense, they’ve made themselves liable for the harsh treatment. Similarly, if God sets up a system when people suffer greatly for refusing to accept him in their lives or for sinning, he punishes them.

A second objection is that in allowing people to go to hell, God merely refuses to provide them with wonderful benefits rather than harming them. By analogy, if a man pays for only some neighborhood children to go to a fancy private school, he doesn’t wrong those whom he doesn’t pay for. The idea here is that hell is separation from God and with it comes the loss of his love as well as the loss of purpose and community. Because there is no duty to give out these wonderful benefits, those sent to hell have not been punished. However, if someone can provide a wonderful benefit to another and can do so at no cost to himself, failure to do so indicates too little love and kindness. Sending persons to heaven is a benefit that God can provide at no cost to himself and hence his failure to do so would show that he has too little love and kindness. This is impossible for a perfect being. 

A third objector might respond that life in heaven is only possible for a person who chooses to join God. Heaven, the objector argues, would be miserable for someone who does not accept God or rejoice in his love. The idea here is that a human being who does not deserve heaven would suffer there because he is unsuited to join God. However, in accord with love and kindness, God would then provide a life that is as good as possible for those unsuited to join him. He would not condemn them to eternal fiery punishment. If this is not possible, then a perfect being like God would annihilate them rather than send them to hell.


It is a shame that such a joyous holiday celebrates the fact that the celebrants will avoid hell while many of their brethren will roast in the eternal fire. Better to have a doctrine based on love. Better yet, a doctrine that is true.