Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Yglesias, Racial Preferences, and Cascades

Matt Yglesias says, contra Douthat, that there should be less debate and discussion of the pernicious effects of racial preferences at elite schools. These issues affect only a small group of people anyway, and most of the people who narrowly miss one elite school will get into another that is almost exactly as good.

He is right, of course, on these narrow points. Many people who narrowly miss Harvard will go to excellent schools and have successful, comfortable lives. Yes, these issues affect only a small group of people. Yes, there are probably more important things to be done for masses of inner city kids. And yes, there are other public policies that might benefit greater numbers of inner city kids. And yes, upper middle class navel gazing can be annoying.

At the same time, he's effectively making a resource allocation argument. He's saying that the people who write for the NYT op ed pages should pick other subject material, and that wealthy philanthropists should spend their millions on other policy projects. But there's something to be said for grabbing the low hanging fruit -- for getting your brain around a simple public policy problem that just affects a small number of people. Yglesias doesn't address the possibility that perhaps it's better to tackle the easy stuff first.

Also, he misses the point that elite schools' use of racial preferences constrains other universities' use of them. To use the schools in Yglesias's example, Harvard's choice to use racial preferences may mean that many of the minority students who would otherwise have gone to Penn or Columbia will wind up at Harvard. So Penn and Columbia are faced with the option of either a)themselves using racial preferences or b)having far minority students than they otherwise might. This sort of cascading effect goes on down through the pecking order, until one reaches some schools that aren't especially elite at all. The most elite schools are in the best position to stop the cascade. So it's only natural that the debate should focus on them.

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