Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Way Out

As this election season nears the end, my anxiety over the prospect of President Barack Obama isn't so much that if he becomes President this or that bad thing will happen. It's more that given what we know of his inclinations and the path he has taken so far, a hypothetical President Obama (and the things that go with that) is likely to deprive us of the opportunity to work our way out of the fixes that we're in, or will be soon enough.

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he asked me a question. I forget what it was exactly but I remember the answer had to do with Griggs v. Duke Power Company, a court case almost forty years old now. It's an important case, though hardly a household topic of conversation. It essentially means that a company cannot give standardized tests as a significant part of a job application process unless they can show that minority groups score as white males on the test (which it can't, because they don't) or demonstrate that the knowledge tested for is crucial to the performance of the job sought (which is beyond the capabilities of most companies).

This leads to a crucial defect of affirmative action. Beyond contentious issues of fairness or diversity and so on, there's a little known reality that the impact of affirmative action goes way beyond its intended beneficiaries or its "losers". Take a canonical case where there are ten white guys and one black guy applying for four job openings or slots in medical school or what have you. Most of controversy is usually about whether the black guy gets one of the jobs and the criteria involved for deciding one way or the other. But, as a matter of simple math at least three (and maybe four) of the new hires are going to be white guys. So in order to be successful the HR department or the admissions committee has to make intelligent choices between which white guys make the cut. But the straightforward ways of sorting them out disparately impact minority groups and in many cases are effectively illegal.

Which brings me to this (hat tip to Rod Dreher). Our professor friend pulls the curtain back on some of the lazier aspects of undergraduate education, and university life in general for that matter. Even though the perspective of the faculty is new for me, the overall gist is well-known to most intelligent Americans. Why then, as the value of the bachelor's degree is being depreciated, why do so many young Americans continue to devote years of their lives to getting it? Obviously because to do most things prospective employers (and graduate schools) require it. For people looking at a glance, a 22-year-old BA is thought generally accepted to be ready adult responsibilities and an 18-year-old with a high school diploma isn't. Even if the newly minted college graduate didn't do anything particularly compelling while he was there, he has a few years more maturity and has shown the ability to jump through hoops to accomplish an objective, and in many circumstances that's enough.

The important thing to notice in all this, is that this state of affairs is the result of many smaller things that have built up over time to the point where it is taken to be "the way things are". But it is not an inevitable fact of nature. One of these things is Griggs. Probably not person in ten who has been affected by Griggs has ever heard of it.

Now, as far as this presidential race goes, Griggs is completely uncontroversial. As far as I know, neither candidate has said anything about it, and both sides have been pretty quiet about affirmative action in general. Everybody has adapted to that particular status quo.

But now we are in moment of severe economic uncertainty, with the possibility that "the way things are" that we have taken for granted in many ways are in fact up for change. It very well happen that we'll see a different model for "typical" late adolescence than we're used to. For the sake of saving public expenditure, and reducing young people's debt, more of them might try to start their career path at 19 or 20 instead of 23 or 25. This won't happen because of some mandate from Washington, but it will require some changes to make possible. And it's the nature of those changes (overruling Griggs in some way, relaxing child labor laws, less public spending on education), that I think it's beyond hope to expect from President Obama.

McCain hasn't exactly campaigned on this platform, there's no reason to, we're all used to the way things are. But as it becomes clear "the way things are" aren't working for us any more, I hope we can adapt in good ways instead of bad ones.

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