Pedantry - Moved to

Wednesday, July 02, 2003
They issued the visa

So, I'm going to be in Prague for a four-day weekend starting tomorrow night. *Whew*

Anyway, Enetation is acting up and showing zero comments even when there are multiple comments on posts. I suppose I can't complain about their poor service since I don't pay for it.

The new blog is almost ready, the only remaining issue is choosing a domain name - "" is taken. So, anybody got a good idea for a blog name? The wife is pushing blog*scott, but I'm not convinced. I have to admit that Ann Coulter - for all that she is an evil monster - has still chosen a good name for her blog: Coultergeist. I, however, am suffering from a lack of creativity in this respect.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003
It has come to this

This is the new sponsor at If you missed the animated part, click here and then reload the image. This ad accompanies an article on the famous Pentagon Papers decision at, highlighting the sharp contrast between the Supreme Court in Hugo Black's dying days and under the current chief justice.

Does anyone else remember when arbitrary search and seizure were things that happened in communist countries and third world dictatorships, when for such a thing to take place in Europe was considered shameful and in America nearly impossible? Does anyone remember the days when the most controvertial issues the ACLU was involved with were whether the KKK had the right to hold protest rallies?

It seems like such a long time ago. That this needs to be said is depressing enough, that it happens to be the unvarnished truth is horrifying.

Why I'm against affirmative action in education

[I wrote this just as the new blogger was released. Because it's an oversized post, I could not publish it and had planned on putting it up on the new blog when it goes online. Unfortunately, that will be at least a week in the future, so I'm putting it up here in two parts.]

The recent US Supreme Court decision on affirmative action has elicited a surprising range of opinon in the blogosphere. However, let me take this opportunity to be a contrarian liberal: I'm against affirmative action in education. My reasons do not have to do with a distaste for racial preferences. I do have a distaste for them, but real life is full of inequitable situations and trying to give the underdog an advantage is the most natural response in the world. One of the conclusions I have come to in evaluating my own career is that I've had some incredible advantages and some extraordinary runs of luck, and that those things are the major source of my relatively decent standard of living. Hard work has had precious little to do with it.

I've seen hard work. Manual labour at minimum wage is hard work. I had a job like that once, hefting boxes at a Sears warehouse. I lasted six weeks before I was fired. So much for hard work. I've written code for most of the last decade. Programmers are among the most profoundly lazy tradesmen in the world. Even government is more efficient than the tech firms I've worked in. I can not imagine how any rational person - especially any well-to-do person - could think that income or income security has any relationship to merit.

No, it's not that affirmative action bothers me on some moral level that gives rise to my opposition. In fact, I'm still largely in favour of affirmative action in employment, where it has largely disappeared. I'm against affirmative action in education because it has stopped working.

There was, at one time, hope that affirmative action in education could really serve social equality. First, the idea was that it would break down racial barriers to education. By getting a few non-whites into good universities, people hoped to undermine purely racially driven resistance to admission. Second, there was hope that a virtuous cycle could be created, where non-white students could become non-white profs and admissions cousellors who would in turn be more willing to admit other non-whites.

This did not happen and it's not entirely clear to me why it failed. The hypothesis that makes the most sense is that there has been a general increase in class based discriminiation. The best prep schools make it easier to get into the best colleges, and the better public high schools make it easier to get into the middle quality colleges. If you don't have the money to get into the best prep schools, it's much harder to get into the best colleges. If you live in a slum, your poor high school will reduce your odds of getting anywhere beyond your local community college.

This has some advantages as a hypothesis. For one thing, it not only explains racial inequality but also the demographics of suburban and rural white poverty - those folks known as poor white trash. This analysis leads one to think that racial inequality in education is part of a larger issue of class inequality. Class issues are bread-and-butter for the old left.

Of course, abolishing affirmative action doesn't solve the problem either, and I do not support just getting rid of it without an alternative plan, especially since recent American governments have not shown a good record of following through on things. Even if affirmative action's genuine value were zero - which I am not claiming - it is currently the only thing keeping race issues from disappearing from the American political scene altogether, and America is nowhere near egalitarian enough to safely forget about its inequalities.

There have been a variety of proposals over the last few years for outright class-based affirmative action, but they too pose problems. Consider, for example, the widely advanced idea that a state should guarantee university admission to the top students in every high school. Since high schools tend to be very sharply segregated in the US (not just by race but also by class) this seems like an effective form of affirmative action for universities. However, there is an underlying flaw. Although schools are very segregated, they are not completely segregated. The top few percent of students in each school will still be drawn disproportionately from the most privileged students. Given the inequalities in outcomes even within a single school, if a school is 90% black and 10% white, we might well find that half of the top 10% of students were white.

This sort of affirmative action will still not favour students in proportion to their disadvantages. Furthermore, this plan's success depends on the degree of segregation in the school system, something most people want to see disappear. It does no good whatsoever for disadvantaged students in more integrated neighbourhoods and school systems.

Part 2

So, let me propose a radically egalitarian idea which makes no particular racial, class or geographic distinctions but which I think stands a far better chance of addressing structural inequalities in education. Every university which receives government aid must open 50% of all its undergraduate admissions to high school graduates chosen by lottery.

This has the benefit of guaranteeing that at every university the number of students of any particular demographic class will on the average be proportionate to at least half of their demographic strength among high school graduates. If non-whites get 30% of high school diplomas, then at least 15% of Harvard's freshman class will be non-white. That's a lot more affirmative action than most universities have now.

One of the great shocks I had going to Stanford after attending many other universities (I've now studied at nine post-secondary schools in all) was discovering that despite its repuation as an elite school, it wasn't really harder than any of the others. In fact, it was often easier. The enhanced access to resources meant that fewer classes were sink-or-swim experiences and there were a lot more TA's and tutoring resources than in public universities. I suspect that the proportion of students who flunk out of elite schools is lower, not higher, than in ordinary schools. I talked to other students there, and many of them agreed that getting into Stanford is difficult, but that staying in is not.

Of course, one might expect more students to fail if Stanford admitted a more representative cross-section of society, but the ones who passed would know that their degrees were worth just as much as the ones who were admitted on SAT scores. If they pass, they will have gone to the same classes and had the same grades and the way they were admitted would not give them or any potential employer a reason to think their degree was worth less. If - like Yale when Bush attended - failing students all get "gentleman's C's", then there is no reason not to spread the benefit of an unmerited degree at an Ivy League school more widely across society.

Furthermore, the most disturbing argument against affirmative action - the claim that non-whites can never tell if they deserve their positions or not because of affirmative action - would disappear. Random is random, and no one could claim that their privileges were the result of their skin colour. As an additional benefit, since this programme would benefit disadvantaged whites in the same way, it would be difficult to claim the programme is serving a minority at the majority's expense. The only people disadvantaged at all are the already privileged.

Personally, I've never found credible the argument that people's self-esteem is damaged by the idea that they've been the beneficiary of a preference. It doesn't sound very much like anyone I know. Does George W. Bush's self-esteem suffer because he has clearly been the beneficiary of unearned privileges? I strongly doubt it. If people started worrying about whether or not they've earned what they've got, I suspect anyone trying to be fair-minded would come to the conclusion that the world is full of people with no less merit than they have but who are far worse off.

The remaining argument I need to shoot down is about money. Since the total number of students at any particular university would remain unchanged, there is actually no additional cost to government. It may not be an optimally efficient way of allocating the education budget to spend the cost of an elite education on students who have not been selected for their aptitudes. However, I doubt anyone actually involved in a university thinks the current allocation scheme is terribly optimal anyway. Besides, inequality in access to education - whether by race, class or some other demographic characteristic - is also hugely inefficient. What are the odds that a budding Einstein from South Central LA is going to end up in Stanford anyway?

I am absolutely convinced that there are a great many people unable to gain access to elite educations who could make as much productive use of it as those who do gain access, and I am equally certain that many who do get such educations now gain little from it.

Lastly, choosing students randomly makes it possible to actually evaluate education quality. It is very difficult to determine if the good outcomes derived from attending a particular university are because of its service quality or because of the selectivity of admission. If half of the students are randomly chosen, the quality of the graduates will much more closely reflect the quality of the education offered. If the randomly chosen half at a particular university is particularly successful, then you can feel reasonably secure in attributing it to some aspect of the university environment.

Of course, there is little chance that universities - much less the American government - will accept such a scheme. It undermines the whole idea that an education, as opposed to a university, can be elite. But, it does offer a model of education in which social status plays a much smaller role in determining outcomes.

Canada Day

In celebration of the 136th anniversary of the passage of the British North America Act, we here at Pedantry are, in the name of peace and understanding with our southern neighbours, posting the Apology to Americans broadcast earlier this year on the CBC programme This Hour has 22 minutes.

On behalf of Canadians everywhere, I'd like to offer an apology to the United States of America. We haven't been getting along very well recently and for that, I am truly sorry.

I'm sorry we called George Bush a moron. He is a moron, but it wasn't nice of us to point it out. If it's any consolation, the fact that he's a moron shouldn't reflect poorly on the people of America. After all, it's not like you actually elected him.

I'm sorry about our softwood lumber. Just because we have more trees than you doesn't give us the right to sell you lumber that's cheaper and better than your own. It would be like if, well, say you have 10 times the television audience we did and you flood our market with great shows, cheaper than we could produce. I know you would never do that.

I'm sorry we beat you in Olympic hockey. In our defense I guess our excuse would be that our team was much, much, much, much better than yours. As a way of our apology, please accept all of our Canadian NHL teams, which one by one are going out of business and moving to your fine country.

I'm sorry about our waffling on Iraq. I mean, when you're going up against a crazed dictator, you want to have your friends by your side. I realize it took more than two years before you guys pitched in against Hitler, but that was different. Everyone knew he had weapons.

I'm sorry we burnt down your White House during the war of 1812. I see you've rebuilt it! It's very nice.

I'm sorry for Alan Thick, Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Loverboy, that song from Sharif that ends with the high pitched end note, your beer. I know we have nothing to do with your beer, but we feel your pain.

And finally on behalf of all Canadians, I'm sorry that we're constantly apologizing for things in a passive-aggressive way which is really a thinly veiled criticism. I sincerely hope that you're not upset over this, because, we've seen what you do to countries you get upset with.

For 22 Minutes, I'm Anthony St.Joseph, and I'm sorry.