THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 573 June 1 - 7, 2009
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June 1, 2009
There are two provisions of the Federal Civil Rights laws. One straightforwardly forbids discrimination in hiring on the basis of race. While some -- including me -- might say that the Federal Government has no business telling private companies who they can hire -- if you want to hire only red-headed Bohemian converts to Adventism that's your business -- I think most of us are agreed that public employment, as in a fire department, is very much in the power of Congress to regulate under the Civil War Amendments, and Congress has so decreed. Cities can use any means of selecting firemen so long as race doesn't enter into the matter, and a pencil and paper test of knowledge about fire fighting technology and fire prevention regulations and legal powers and responsibilities of the fire department would seem to be about as relevant a system as you can get -- and since those who grade the tests have no idea of whose test they are grading, there seems to be no way that race can enter into the scoring. It sounds simple enough.
Comes now a city fire department that needs to promote some firefighters to lieutenant and captain. It gives such an examination, and some number of firemen get a passing score. Unfortunately, there are no blacks and only one Latino among those who get the passing score. After some thought, the city attorney advises the city not to use those test results but go find something that allows them to consider more blacks and Latinos. The city acts accordingly, throws out the test, and freezes promotions.
So far this sounds simple if absurd; but as I said, the devil is in the details.
The detail is a second provision of the Civil Rights Act, upheld by the Supreme Court, that decrees that if no blacks are promoted -- if there appears to be discrimination -- then the city can be sued. The burden of proof will be on the city to show not only that the test was relevant and not racist -- but that the test was necessary; that there is no better way to determine who should be promoted to lieutenant and captain. And the city attorney advised the city council that he was pretty sure the city would be sued, and he didn't know how to make the case given the stringent requirements already upheld by the US Supreme Court. (Note: this is one reason why IQ tests, which are the best single predictors of success in most jobs, usually can't be used as part of the employment process: those using such tests would have to prove that the tests are needed if there were insufficient blacks making high enough scores.)
The relevant phrasing is "the law also says an employer can be sued for using a hiring or promotional standard that has a 'disparate impact on the basis of race,' unless it can be defended as a 'business necessity.' " (See LA Times article for June 1 2009)
The city council on advice of the city attorney decided it couldn't afford the inevitable law suits; which is why it scrubbed the test. Whereupon the white fire fighters who had passed the test brought suit. They lost in federal court. A Federal judge held that the city council was within its rights to scrub the test and seek some other criterion for selecting lieutenants and captains. The case went to the Federal Court of Appeals, and Sotomayor and one other Federal judge on a three-judge appeals panel upheld the lower court's decision upholding the city council's right to decide on some other means of selection.
The case is now before the US Supreme Court. It is likely to be overturned, but that is not inevitable. Hard cases make bad law, and this is a hard case indeed. The city council is in a genuine dilemma, and there's no real way out here. The facts are stark: no blacks passed the test. The law clearly allows suits against the city requiring the city to prove that this test is a business necessity. The city doesn't know how to do that, so tried to avoid the inevitable and expensive law suits. Now what?
We can all speculate on the outcome, but either way there's going to be a problem. Either this is another erosion of the power of elected city councils over city management, or another blow against the principle that the law ought to be color blind. Sotomayor (and the other Appeals judge) will probably be overruled but that isn't inevitable, nor is the decision clear cut between liberal and conservative justices.
Hard cases make bad law. In this case the bad law was made by Congress, which decreed that whereas no one would ever expect to devise a useful test to select basketball players that would not produce a disparate impact on the basis of race, those in charge of hiring and promoting police and firefighters must be clever enough to do so.
Yesterday I did a long essay on education and statistics that is somewhat relevant to the above. If you have not seen it, please do so.
I confess fear over the economy. Niven is coming over today and we'll talk about the new book., and I am working as hard as I can. Alas, I have only so much creative energy each day.
Thanks to all of you who subscribe and renew. It's the only way this place stays open.
If you have not read Pravda on the American descent into Marxism, it is astonishing. Pravda. I had a few remarks on that subject in Saturday's mail.
And GM is gone. The government is now the "reluctant owner". One wonders why this semi-bailout with government determining who owns what part of the remains is preferable to simply letting it go bankrupt and restructure.
Derbyshire is always worth reading, but this is book review essay is doubly so. The problem is that it's nearly impossible to have a China-Free house, or even a China-Free room in your house. Chinese junk is ubiquitous.
I have been asked to say more about judicial activism. I will do that tomorrow, I think. I have a good letter on the subject and I will make a good reply.
As I was writing that sentence Niven came in and we went hiking. Back now from a full hike, 4 miles and 800 foot climb (you can see pictures and comment on the route ) then we went to lunch. I have a couple of pages of notes for Lucifer's Anvil. Now it's time to grind on other stuff.
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June 2, 2009
You will find a note on judicial activism in mail.
I got started late today, and I have to get upstairs to work. I should comment on the demise of General Motors, but there's little left to be said. The largest and most powerful corporation in the world (at one time) is in bankruptcy and prospects for its recovery are not great. That's startling.
And California have two weeks to find some way to control state spending. Of course any budget cuts will have terrible consequences, 200,000 students may not make it to college, the state will burn to the ground, and there will be an outbreak of chilblains if we have a budget similar to that of, say, the year 2001. I am assured that any cuts in the enormous education budget will be a terrible blow for the children, and any cuts in "the safety net" will have people turned out into the streets to starve. Any cut in salaries to the unionized state employees will bring disaster to everyone. And so it goes.
There are intelligent ways to cut the budget, but one supposes that this will not be done. "The ship of state is sinking and the governor wants to throw women and children off the lifeboat," says a Santa Barbara assemblywoman; and everyone is startled to discover that raising the sales tax has resulted in lower sales tax revenue. Raising taxes lowered revenue! And what a surprise. Meanwhile those with portable incomes are fleeing the state.
It would be more amusing if I were not in the middle of it. If anyone out there has suggestions on what I should do to get more of you subscribing (and thanks to those who have, and all who renewed) I'm listening. Larger sales taxes can be coped with by not buying much, but larger "fees" for water, garbage collection, and everything else loom ahead. Which is why I had better get up to the Monk's Cell.
We had the Computer Revolution to get us out of the previous crashes. It doesn't look to me as if there's that much productivity increase left in it. If there is it will be -- but then, that's the subject of the upcoming column.
June 3, 2009
The mystery is why, given that the US spends more on education than anyone else, and increasingly more every year, the results are from poor to mediocre. The essay says without exception, but that's wrong. There are some good schools, but generally they are so despite the national system, not because of it.
What there aren't is exceptions to the rule that half the population is below average.
On that score: I am thoroughly aware that in the real world the mean -- the arithmetical average of whatever variable you choose to measure -- is often different from the median -- the middlemost score -- and thus you may have the result that half are not below average -- or, more likely -- that far more than half are below average. Think, for example, of a sample that includes 1000 people chosen randomly; we determine the mean income of that group. Chances are pretty good that the number we calculate will be pretty close to the national average income, and that half those in the sample will have incomes above that average and half below it. Now add Bill Gates to the sample, and things change a lot. But then we all know that. As a tool for discussion of the real world, "half the children are below average" is a useful abstraction. It can also be misleading, and we can get to that later.
The No Child Left Behind goal is to see that all children get some agreed upon minimum score on national achievement tests. When that doesn't happen -- and it can't, for reasons that ought to be obvious to anyone but a hopeless romantic -- then the goal changes to raising the average score. It turns out the best way to do that is to concentrate on the students who are just below target so that they go to just above the target score. This will slightly raise the mean score, so there's a moving target here, but that's called overall improvement. Scores go up, numbers with that score rise, and congratulations and praise are distributed. Of course the practical effect of all this is pretty low, and the return on investment lower still.
We've covered all this before, of course. There's no real mystery here. Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy is sufficient explanation for the failure of the school system. The remedy is pretty much the remedy to most situations stalemated by bureaucracy: what Jane Jacobs called transparency and subsidiarity, which is to say, to the best we can manage it, institutions ought to be paid for by those who control them, and their costs and results should be freely and openly available. Local control of schools will inevitably result in some very bad schools controlled by silly people who get elected to the school board; but if those are truly local (not monstrous bureaucracies like LA Unified), some will be very good, and serve as examples.
It's transparently obvious that nationalization of the school system (through Federal Aid to Education, which came about after Sputnik -- it surprises many to discover that until Sputnik there was widespread opposition to Federal aid to Education on both Constitutional and pragmatic grounds) has not worked. It may not have failed as badly as some assert, but it's pretty grim, largely because the goal is wrong. Instead of trying to give every child in the country "a world class university prep education" we ought to be trying to identify those who can benefit from a university prep education and see that they get it, while devising something more appropriate for the 60 to 85% who ought not be in a university prep high school program.
But doing that requires admitting that many of the assumptions of modern education experts are nonsense.
The remedy here is obvious. Congress has the power to do what it will with the DC school system. I suggest they put the education experts in charge, and give them most -- I dare not say all -- the resources they day they will need. Olympic swimming pools? Tutors? Anything. Spare no expense. At present I believe that average expense per child in DC is about $12,000. Double that. Treble it if need be. And let's see the results.
And when that fails to raise the averages much, and leaves a great number of children behind, perhaps we can denationalize the school system on the theory that the experts don't know enough, and go back to transparency and subsidiarity. Give local school boards local control over both the schools and the school tax. (You can subsidize the really poor districts, but those who elect the school boards should pay a substantial part of the costs.)
Well, I can dream, can't I?
We haven't, and it hasn't been for want of trying: but as I have often said, try it. Do it. Try in the District of Columbia, where Congress has the undoubted power. If every kid in DC benefits from a world class university prep education then it's a lead pipe cinch that everyone else can, and we will all cheer. As I have said, we have many studies showing the enormous national benefits we would have if we can raise national IQ by 5 points! That point is made with lots of numbers in The Bell Curve. No one I know is against Head Start -- but no study can three years later differentiate a Head Start kid from one who didn't get Head Start. We all think Head Start ought to work, we all want it to work -- and nobody can show that it does any good at all.
Whatever system you want to use, try it in DC. Try some here and some there and some in other parts. Try Charter Schools, paid tutors to assist home schools, tutors in public schools, free laptops, -- go from $12,000 per year per student to $24,000 per year per student. Raise teacher salaries for those who succeed.
It won't work, but I will cheer if it does, and I'll sure support trying. But not nationally. The evidence is just too convincing. Half the children are below average, and average won't benefit from a world class university prep education -- and trying to give every child a world class university prep education generally results in fewer kids getting the world class university prep education because the teachers have to spend so much time just getting the lower half of the class through something that looks like a passing grade that they haven't much resource left for the brighter kids who should be taken from above normal to way above normal. But I've said all that before.
If the point above is that it is politically difficult to impossible to fix the school system, then the option is what? Despair? Well, we will run out of money fairly soon now.
In a few hours the President will give his speech to the Muslim world. Of course it is difficult to identify the Muslim world, but perhaps Obama will be able to do so.
And a friend points out that Harvard University is a huge hedge fund with a university attached: that it managed to lose huge amounts of money and now owes about as much as its endowment is worth; and that much of this happened during the presidency of a brilliant economist who left Harvard to become financial advisor to the United States.
It should be interesting to see what happens next, and who bails out what. Incidentally Harvard is no longer hiring junior faculty. And many of its financial managers earned more, a few years ago, than any of its professors.
It's not clear that we have seen all of this story.
June 4, 2009
The second may be more relevant, and I had not heard of it before. It's a bit shocking assuming that this is a fair statement of what happened:
The article was first published in The New Republic and was reprinted with permission.
I have a note that says in part:
I'll answer that tomorrow. Today is rushed.
I will also comment on the Obama speech to the Muslim world tomorrow. My immediate impression is that I hope he isn't serious about universal nuclear disarmament, which he seems to have supported. Such a world is not sustainable without enforcement mechanisms that I cannot believe the United States could accept. But I have not studied the speech.
More later. Today is about to be devoured by locusts.
Given that it's my house, nothing will get done until the Laker game is over. I like professional basketball, but Roberta even more so.
June 5, 2009
It is a fair question; but I can understand how faced with the prospect of endless lawsuits---
It is a question that will come up again and again, too. Do we have any answers?
June 6, 2009
I am working on other stuff just now, and I haven't much time today. I will take this up again Monday, but there is a new interview with Freeman Dyson that is worth your attention. As I say I will discuss it again Monday.
Roland's pull quote is important, but it is not a summary of what Dyson says in this interview. Freeman Dyson is one of the sanest men on this planet. He isn't always right -- we were very much in opposite corners sometimes during the Cold War -- but he is always fair, and he has always looked to the science and the evidence.
Some of the comments posted after the interview are sound. Others are disturbing.
I will again summarize my views on global warming. They are based on evidence that I have yet to see addressed properly by the global warming alarmists. They are also very similar to Dyson's with this difference: I have never come close to winning a Nobel Prize. When Dyson says he is not an expert on the climate models, he is being modest: he has a better understanding of scientific models than all but a very few of the modelers. He may not be familiar with the internal details of the models, but then why must one be? Either the model generates falsifiable hypotheses that can be studied or it does not. Either there is evidence that what the model predicts is actually happening or there is not. Proof of the elegance of the model from the elegance of its internal structure is not proof of its validity.
I have always said that we ought to spend more money on collecting the data and refining our measuring techniques. What I have objected to is the rush to spend money to "fix" things when we don't know what is broken, and we can't prove that anything is broken at all.
I am not really a "global warming skeptic" in the sense that I am skeptical about the warming of the planet; I presume that it is warming, because it has been warming since the end of the Little Ice Age. I am not really a skeptic about the oceans rising, because they have been rising for about 12,000 years now. I am not really a skeptic about the retreat of Northern Hemisphere glaciers (or Mount Kilimanjaro Glacier) because they have been retreating for as long as we have been measuring them, which is centuries.
I am very skeptical that human activity has had a great deal to do with this.
I am also very concerned that the warming trend may halt. Dyson and I are both old enough to remember that the topic of the return of the Ice Age was a standard panel at annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science well into the 1980's. And it is very clear to me that a new Ice Age -- even a new Little Ice Age -- would be a very much more catastrophic event for humanity than any of the Global Warming predictions imagine.
In any event, the Dyson interview is important. I am also concerned about the flavor of some of the comments posted by those who read it.
And I continue to say that this is enormously important, particularly in these economic times.
June 7, 2009
.I have pretty well taken the weekend off to enjoy my second granddaughter, and tonight is the second game of the NBA championship, so not much will get done the rest of the day.
I have been revising the Welcome letter and in doing so I did a few revisions to the index page of one of the reports sections of this chaotic web site. http://www.jerrypournelle.com/chaosreports/cmreports.htm now has a few new and pointers.
I will remind you of it again Monday, but the Dyson interview above is important if you have not read it.
And while I am no economic expert, I do know that the bond market is in many ways more important than the stock market, and much of the news from there is conflicting.
That makes this article both important and disturbing.
This is a day book. It's not all that well edited. I try to keep this up daily, but sometimes I can't. I'll keep trying. See also the weekly COMPUTING AT CHAOS MANOR column, 8,000 - 12,000 words, depending. (Older columns here.) For more on what this page is about, please go to the VIEW PAGE. If you have never read the explanatory material on that page, please do so. If you got here through a link that didn't take you to the front page of this site, click here for a better explanation of what we're trying to do here. This site is run on the "public radio" model; see below.
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