Friday, December 30, 2005

Gerrymandering, state-style

Matthew Yglesias, responding to this amusing story about a 1930s U.S. plan to invade Canada, notes that Canada was formed in 1867 partly because of fears that Republican leaders in the U.S. would invade Canada to add Republican voters to counteract Democratic votes from soon-to-be rehabilitated South. Actually, the Republicans came up with a better strategy: they divided the Western territories into lots of little states. Support for the Republican party before and during the Civil War was strongest in the Upper Midwest and New England. It would make sense to artificially inflate the number of Senators and electoral votes from Republican-leaning plains states by making more states than the sparse population would otherwise justify.

In 1860, the territories were only Kansas, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Nebraska. In the middle of the Civil War, the Republican Congress hastily admitted Nevada to get its electoral votes 8 days before the 1864 election, meanwhile splitting Utah into Utah and Colorado, New Mexico into New Mexico and Arizona, Washington into Washington and Idaho, and Nebraska into Nebraska, Montana, and Dakota. In 1889, Dakota was split into North and South Dakota, again partly due to pressure to increase Republican control of the Senate.

Of course, this backfired on the Republicans, as many of these plains states later went Populist, but that's the way things go. So if you're looking to blame someone for why Wyoming gets one senator per 250,000 people but California gets one senator per 16 million, you can blame post-Civil-War Republicans in addition to the Founding Fathers.

More on educational equity

Richard Chappell takes issue with my suggestion that people who favor progressive taxation and national health care should also put a premium on helping the least proficient students rather than gifted students. His main point is that there are other reasons besides egalitarianism or Rawlsian social justice to favor progressive taxation and national health care, and these reasons (e.g., utilitarianism) don't necessarily favor focusing on the least proficient students. So basically believing in the former needn't require believing in the latter. That's fair enough.

But I do want to clarify what I meant in the previous post. I was working off Rawls's Difference Principle, that inequality is justified only insofar as it benefits the least well-off. This leaves room for all sorts of qualifications on the claim that we should focus our effort on the least proficient students. For example, gifted students are likely to become scientists, engineers, intellectuals, or entrepeneurs who create innovation and therefore benefit everyone, even the least well-off. (This being analogous to a Rawlsian argument why capitalism is better than socialism, even for the poor.) Or, a focus on mediocrity rather than excellence is a kind of "soft bigotry of kind-of-low expectations" that leads to a general devaluing of education.

Richard also mentions a couple issues I should discuss. Richard brings up the idea of cost-efficiency - that it's less cost-effective to educate less-able students (ie less able students require more effort to get X improvement in education than gifted students), or that you might get more utility out of education the more educated you are (ie gifted students get more enjoyment out of X improvement in education than mediocre students). Aside from questioning the latter suggestion (it's quite plausible that increased intelligence actually makes you less happy), I must disagree even on principle - I think a decent society must, to some extent, give priority to the least well-off [with the Rawlsian qualification that inequality can also help the least well-off], even if this is cost-inefficient. Just think how much extra money we spend on special education - I'd have a hard time arguing that giving disabled students extra attention is wasted money.

I'm sympathetic to Richard's view that intellectual excellence is "an intrinsically valuable mode of human flourishing" (as opposed to material or medical "excellence"). However, I have trouble justifying it and suspect that intellectual excellence is actually instrumentally valuable, in that geniuses discover new scientific theories, create great works of art, and so on. Certainly, it is in some sense better to have a hermit genius who doesn't try to discover new things than a hermit of mediocre intelligence who also doesn't try to discover new things, but it's not clear to me that the former is so much better than the latter that we should spend any money on it.

Anyway, with all these qualifications, it might even be that the current system doesn't give enough attention to gifted students. Given how hard it is to disentangle the facts of the matter (how much do you weigh this gifted student's future discovery of cold fusion against this less-able student's inability to get a decent job?), it's not clear that this discussion has any actual policy implications. But I suppose it's worth discussion anyway, if only to sharpen the tensions between equity and excellence.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Educational equity

Paul Glastris thinks progressives should be concerned with how the No Child Left Behind Act punishes gifted students - the idea being that if teachers are required to put the most effort into helping the least gifted students to bring them up to proficiency, gifted students who need to be pushed to excellence get short shrift.

This strikes me as backwards - if anything, progressives should be less concerned with gifted students than with the most unfortunate students. If we're willing to sacrifice the incomes of the wealthy with progressive taxation and social welfare programs to help out the most needy, if we're willing to sacrifice the most top-notch health care in order to extend coverage to the 40 million who live in fear of financial catastrophe if they get in a car accident, why can't we sacrifice a bit of educational excellence to achieve broader educational proficiency?

As Paul Glastris says, with fewer excellent students, we'd probably end up with fewer scientists, intellectuals, engineers, etc - the people who create innovation and thereby prosperity and better standards of living. But this is equally true of progressive taxation and national health care: high marginal tax rates discourage work and investment among high earners who tend to be the most productive; and national health care reduces the incentive for drug companies to develop new drugs, because they're no longer guaranteed the ability to charge outrageous prices. Equality and excellence are values in tension, and while it's not exactly either/or (clearly you can put more effort into educating both the most and least proficient), you do have to make your trade-offs at some point.

Maybe that's so much the worse for equality. But it seems to me that if you're in favor of progressive taxation and national health care, consistency requires you to favor an emphasis on educating the least-gifted. The NCLB Act has a lot of problems, but from a progressive point of view, shortchanging gifted students while focusing on the least proficient students isn't really one of them (at least in principle - obviously it's bad if it fails at this goal in practice).

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Dover Intelligent Design thrown out

To add insult to injury, a month and a half after the voters of Dover, PA kicked out the school board members who voted to impose Intelligent Design on the school district, a federal judge has now ruled that the teaching of Intelligent Design in public school science class is unconstitutional. Sometimes the good guys really do win...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

South Africa legalizes gay marriage

South Africa's Constitutional Court has ruled that banning gay marriage violates South Africa's constitution, which bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Parliament has one year to change the law before the ruling goes into effect automatically.

What's fascinating to my mind is that this is apparently a complete non-issue politically. According to the NY Times,
But homosexuality here is not the sort of burning social issue that it is on the American political right. ... "It's not one of our political fault lines," said Steven E. Friedman, a top political analyst at Johannesburg's Center for Political Studies, a nonprofit research center. "The major issue in this society is race. That's why people join political parties. The party of social conservatism is the African Christian Democratic Party, which wins 1 percent of the vote. And that's the group of people who feel that this justifies amending the constitution."
I know very little about South Africa - can anyone out there explain why this is so, especially given that the lack of political mobilization against gay rights is apparently not accompanied by a similar societal tolerance for gay people (at least according to the Washington Post's article)?

Uncomfortable office moments

Um, wow.

ME: (still holding door) You'll report me for your having sex in my office?