20 August 2014

Two Criticisms of the Ivy League and Responses

Stephen Kershnar
Ivy League under Fire
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 16, 2014

Ivy League schools and their cousins (for example, Stanford and Duke) have recently been criticized for being bad for students and for malicious discrimination. Because of the incredible influence and advantages of these schools, the criticisms are worth considering. In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that my full-time philosophy department colleagues all attended the Ivy League as did my brother and I.   

Why we should care about these schools? First, their graduates have an inordinate influence on the country. The last 28 years of the presidency and the last four presidents have all been Ivy League graduates. The same is true for the current and previous chief justice of the Supreme Court, five of the last eight secretaries of state, and five of the last eight secretaries of the treasury. Given that only 0.4% of college students attend the Ivy League, the influence is wildly out of proportion with the numbers.   

Second, people who go to these schools rake it in. On average, graduates of the Ivy League, Stanford, and Duke make $100,000 or more and graduates of several of them average around $120,000. Given that a significant number of female graduates are stay-at-home mothers who either don’t work or work part time, this figure significantly underestimates what these people make.  

The first criticism comes William Deresiewicz in The New Republic. He argues that students should not choose the Ivy League (or their cousins) because students at such schools are not passionate about ideas, adopt a narrow view of what is important (specifically, affluence, credentials, and prestige), and are too likely to go into a narrow range of fields (for example, investment banking). A second criticism from Ron Unz in The American Conservative is that the Ivy League is moving far away from meritocracy by strongly discriminating against non-Jewish whites and Asians.

Deresiewicz’s criticism of Ivy League students not being passionate about ideas and adopting a narrow view of what is important appears to be solely based on anecdotes accumulated during his decade as an English professor at Yale. My experience, in contrast, was that my classmates loved discussing ideas. However, neither his nor my experiences are much evidence as they are mere anecdotes. Contra Deresiewicz, I find it more likely that Ivy students are passionate about ideas, but also passionate about other things as well (love, career-building, and the arts) and there are only so many hours in the day.

Deresiewicz provides no evidence that Ivy League students value superficial things such as affluence and prestige over family, friends, and a balanced life and no evidence that they value the more meaningful things less than do other college students. Perhaps he should visit the colleges that are ranked among the top party schools.   

Deresiewicz’s observation that Ivy League students choose Wall Street over being teachers, social workers, and clergy is not a bad thing. Finance-related fields (along with medicine and law) pay a lot and, usually, more money makes life go more smoothly.

More fundamentally, people working in finance arguably contribute more to others’ lives than do teachers, social workers, and so on. The idea here is that in a free market, people tend to spend money in ways that make their lives go better. If this is correct, then, finance-related work pays more because people doing it tend to add more to people’s lives than do teachers, social workers, and so on. 

A more interesting argument against attending the Ivy League is Malcom Gladwell’s claim, in David and Goliath, that it is better to be a big fish in a small pond (a college with fewer elite students) than a small fish in a big pond. Perhaps this is true, but it has no connection to notion that the Ivy League makes students less curious, more superficial, and money-oriented.

Ron Unz’s criticism is far more troubling. He provides evidence that the Ivies sharply discriminate against Asians and non-Jewish whites. Data from Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford in their book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal and from Russel Nieli indicate that to have the same chance of getting in as a black student with an SAT score of 1190, a Hispanic, white, and Asian students would have to have SATs of 1230, 1410, and 1550 respectively. For the past 20 years, across the Ivy League the percentage of Asian students has been frozen at roughly 17% despite their increasingly dominating the high school competition in both standardized test scores (for example, SATs) and intellectual achievement (for example, Physics Olympiad winners).

Unz argues that white non-Jews face even harsher discrimination. Worse, this is in part explained by the distaste the Ivies have for their red state activities and values. This harsh discrimination is present even if, as Kevin MacDonald points out, one controls for Ashkenazi Jews high average IQ.

It is unclear what to make of Unz’s criticism. The Ivies are private institutions. They are morally permitted, and to some degree legally allowed, to value things other than academic merit. Long ago moved away from admitting people on purely academic merit, although a few of their cousins (for example, Caltech and MIT) largely do so.

As a historical matter, the elite colleges have gotten much better at picking out the best students. Students in the Ivy League today are, on average, far smarter than their predecessors. These colleges also spend enormous amounts per student (on average $92,000 on student-oriented resources per student) and schools that fail to demonstrate to potential students and alumni that their graduates outperform competitors will quickly lose market share.


In summary, there is little reason to believe that the Ivies are bad for students’ souls. They may discriminate against some groups, but this is not especially troubling given that they are private institutions and, in any case, subject to market discipline. 

06 August 2014

Is the U.S. a nation of a people or an idea-nation?

Stephen Kershnar
Immigration and the Essence of the United States
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 29, 2014

The recent flood of teenagers and others from Central America is undesirable for economic reasons, but it also raises the issue of what about the U.S. is worth preserving. Even if illegal aliens and family-based immigrants paid their own way, it is worth considering whether we want to change our country to accommodate tens of millions of people with a different history, culture, and set of values. In 1960, 90% of Americans had a European ancestry and were Christian. In 28 years, Americans of European ancestry will be the minority.

A country might be thought of as a country of a people (consider, for example, Great Britain, France, Japan, and Israel) or an idea. The idea is likely freedom rather than democracy because plenty of other countries, including our mother country (Great Britain), had and have democracies that function roughly as well as our own. Most people assume the U.S. is a country not focused on a people, but this is not historically true and, on some accounts, not in line with what the founders wanted.   

The notion that the U.S. is committed to freedom is dubious given that, as The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik points out, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoners 5-8 times the incarceration rate of peer nations, and more people under the control of the criminal justice system than were in Stalin’s gulags. In addition, government at all levels take more than a third of what the middle class and rich earn and government spends or regulates more than 40% of the economy.

As a historical matter, it is not clear that the country’s purpose was solely tied to an idea. The immigration pattern in this country suggests that the U.S. was intimately tied to a people who shared a heritage. Even the 1890-1920 immigration waves, which included Germans, Italians, Poles, Jews, and other Eastern Europeans was largely shut down for almost 40 years to allow these groups to assimilate, which they did nicely. In addition, these new immigrants were as well, if not better, educated than Americans who preceded them, had largely similar values and family structures, and, in some sense, had a shared heritage.  

Even if the U.S. is a nation focused on freedom, rather than a people, Americans have a right to protect it by restricting membership.  For example, consider the Chautauqua Institute. The Institute is collective property owned by a largely homogenous group of upscale, left-wing folk, many of whom share a religious and cultural heritage. Now imagine that ten thousand Hasidic Jews want to join the Institute and it is obvious that they will drastically change it. The Institute’s owners have every right to say that the Hasidim may not join in such large numbers. There is nothing wrong, bad, or selfish in wanting to preserve an institution that one loves.  

The recent class of immigrants votes very differently than do natives, especially those of European ancestry. 71% of Hispanics voted for Obama and, on one poll, 75% support bigger government. Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner points out that were the Obama-Romney election to have occurred with the 1980 electorate, Romney would have easily won.

Defenders of increased immigration, such as economist Bryan Caplan, respond that immigrants’ voting patterns will not expand government because immigrants have lower voter turnout, favor the status quo, and will cause other groups to increasingly vote down welfare programs as they become increasingly alienated from the poor and lower class. Caplan’s analysis is likely incorrect, but in any case, why take the risk?

Illegal aliens and chain-migration immigrants are nowhere near as educated as the American populace and have different values and this would likely affect the U.S. For example, Hispanics are more likely to have children out of wedlock than other Americans. Former Heritage Foundation analyst Jason Richwine and others argue that the average IQ of Hispanic immigrants is substantially lower than that of the native white population and that this gap will likely persist over several generations. Among low-IQ immigrant groups, he argues, the gap will produce a lack of socioeconomic assimilation, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market. Even the social benefits of such immigration are less than one might expect given that friendships are surprisingly homogeneous and marriages are more likely to be successful when the couple is similar.

Let me state an obvious aside. There are many Hispanic people in this country who are incredibly bright, talented, and absolutely wonderful people. We are talking about generalities.  

Massive low-skill immigrants might also cause distrust and conflict. Columnist Pat Buchanan points out that a number of nations with diverse populations have faced severe difficulties in recent history. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the USSR broke up. Northern Ireland is now largely independent of Britain. Muslims in Europe are not assimilating and tensions are high. In the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, and Libya are coming apart. In sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia have come apart. The Kurds in places like Turkey and Iraq would secede if they could. It is hard to see why America will be immune from these problems. In any case, it is hard to see how the resulting tensions will promote liberty.  


In short, it is unclear whether the U.S. is a country of a specific people. Even if it is solely an idea-nation, we will have a hard time acting on it if we flood it with people who value other things. No one would expect the Chautauqua Institute members to take in the Hasidim. The same should be true for us.

23 July 2014

Tom Reed II (R-NY): RINO-Style

Stephen Kershnar
Mediocre Congressman: Tom Reed II
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 30, 2014

Tom Reed II is the Congressman for New York’s 23rd congressional district. The district includes not only Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties, but also a number of other counties, including the Corning and Ithaca areas.

When we consider his record, he is your standard-order mediocre member of Congress. He is a borderline Republican-in-name-only (RINO) who is coming perilously close to being a repeat of the perennially disappointing RINO Amo Houghton (R-NY). No indication whether Reed is a good at tickle fights as was his predecessor Eric Massa (D-NY). Clearly, Reed’s RINO ways put him on the edge of deserving a primary challenge. Lucky for him, he is so much better than the Democratic clowns he has and will face that one has no choice but to vote for him.  

His recent grades are quite poor, so he’s been put on double secret probation. He got a 67 (C+) from the National Taxpayer’s Union (a pro-taxpayer’s group), a 49 (F) from the Club for Growth (a group supporting economic freedom), a C+ from NumbersUSA (an immigration-issues group opposing amnesty and the torrent of poor-and-unskilled immigrants), and a 0 (F) from the American Civil Liberties Union (an group opposing government intrusion in people’s lives in non-economic areas). He even got a 52 from the American Conservative Union, 24 points below the 2013 average for Republican members of the House.

Consider the most important issue Congress faces, the federal government’s out-of-control interference with our lives. On the single most important issue he has faced, he shined. He repeatedly voted to repeal and defund Obamacare.

On taxes, spending, and the debt, he has been decent but ran when it counted. In Fall 2011, he supported the Budget Control Act of 2011, which increased the debt by $2.1 trillion. In return, Congress agreed to slow the rate of growth (that is, to increase spending, but do so more slowly than the Congressional big spenders wanted). This was enforced by an automatic sequestering discretionary spending.

In Fall 2013, however, after initially voting to fund the government only if it defunded Obamacare, he then ran for the hills when there was a pitched battle over the country’s fundamental direction. He voted to fund the government at its current level, break the sequester-spending cap, and further run up the debt. In running for the hills, he voted with the majority of Democrats and against the majority of Republican for the same old same old. He apparently thinks that taxpayers from the 23rd district either wanted him to vote with Chuck Schumer and Charley Rangel or wouldn’t remember that he did. We remember. Following his decision to cut and run, as far as I can tell, Reed said nothing when fellow RINOs Chris Collins (R-NY) and Peter King (R-NY) dumped all over Tea Party Republicans. 

Reed defended himself on the basis that the Republican majority in the House had a poor strategy. But contra Reed and Collins, the RINO strategy of repeatedly funding government spending at its currently obscene level, kicking the can down the road on the debt, and allowing the Democrats to stealthily raise taxes is not a strategy, but surrender. Every year of surrender makes supersized federal government and rising tide of debt harder to reverse.   

To his credit, Reed did try to rein in welfare by limiting welfare payments to a reasonable period. Specifically, he tried to put a 5-year limit on one type of welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Family).  This program was intended to provide temporary cash benefits to poor families, but has degenerated in many states to indefinite payments. When linked with exploding numbers of people on Medicaid (1 out of 5 Americans), food stamps (1 out of 7 Americans), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (welfare masquerading as a tax refund), Reed’s effort is noteworthy.  

On the most important foreign policy, war, Reed has a mixed record. In 2011, he voted against putting ground troops in Libya without Congressional approval. This is good as it shows that he believes that a President should not unilaterally commit the U.S. to a ground war. The same is true for the air war, but one cannot expect too much from sorry lot that comprises Congress. On the other hand, he voted against pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. This despite the fact that, as Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) pointed out, it is a terrible idea to leave troops there without an exit plan and with it then costing roughly $100 billion a year. The need to stop pouring American blood and treasure into Afghanistan and Iraq was as obvious in 2011 as it is now.  

On the crucially important issue of stopping the flood of relatively uneducated and unskilled immigrants, especially illegal aliens, Reed voted reasonably well despite the fact that NumbersUSA gave him a C+ in 2013-2014 and a B for his career. He voted to reduce the enticements for amnesty and voted for a minor bill that rejected a rare type of amnesty. He is best seen as earning an incomplete as he hasn’t taken a hard vote on issues such as citizenship for illegal-alien babies (anchor babies) and reducing chain migration, which favors seemingly endless family-based immigration over skills-based immigration.  

On liberty-related issues, his record is poor. In July 2013, the House voted on whether to rein in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) ability to collect vast amounts of data on U.S. citizens. The House was voting on whether to stop the NSA from monitoring citizens’ internet activity and phone calls. After the head of the NSA lied to Congress, the country only found out about this when Edward Snowden blew the whistle. Tom Reed along with Brian Higgins (D-NY) and Chris Collins (R-NY) voted against the bill, thereby showing they have little respect for the Constitution in general and the Fourth Amendment in particular. Side note: Higgins’s abysmal performance continues.

Like any slippery politician, Reed had some lame explanation for his vote, but when it got down to brass tacks, he voted for the NSA over American liberty. In Reed’s defense, he recently voted to end NSA’s warrantless searches of the contents of Americans’ emails and browsing history and its adding a way to bypass encryption software designed to protect Americans’ right to privacy.

Reed has also announced that he is opposed to legalizing marijuana and against abortion and gay marriage.


Reed benefits from yet another weak opponent. Martha “Blank Slate” Robertson appears to not want to announce her positions on the issues. Given the dominant worldview among Democratic politicians and given that she is at best a low-rent candidate, you can bank on her support for Obamacare, tax-and-spend extravagances, greater debt, more welfare, amnesty for illegal aliens, more foreign interventions, and so on. As a candidate she earns an F and that is before style-points are taken off. We deserve a better choice.