Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Mend it or End it? How To Tackle Affirmative Action

One of the issues that has not been talked about much in the 2004 Presidential election is affirmative action in college admissions. This issue is so ideologically charged that there is a dearth of reasonable debate. Still, a bold and politically adept politician could outline the following platform with electoral success and a clear conscience.

1. Call for an End to Legacy Preferences
While a complete end to legacy preferences is unlikely to happen, there is no harm in coming out strongly against them. Is there anything more unfair than under-qualified legacy kids getting into Stanford or Harvard because their father went there, while a first generation immigrant is denied admission despite a perfect SAT score? Politicians should highlight the lack of transparency in college admissions by talking about legacy preferences. Legacy admissions are not just unfair, they are truly un-American.

2. Push for Greater Transparency in College Admissions
One problem for Democratic constituencies will be that greater transparency will give college admissions officials less discretion to admit underrepresented minorities with lower test scores. Still, an honest discussion needs to be started about the impact of affirmative action and other methods on college admissions. Is race the only factor that makes a campus diverse? Even when schools reach the “right” percentages, what is done after students get to campus to make sure that students from different backgrounds actually interact instead of separating themselves into fraternities and ethnic organizations? These questions will lead to hysterical debate on both sides, but this should not deter us from having an honest discussion about affirmative action.

3. Explore a shift to affirmative action based on socioeconomic status
A controversial proposal to be sure, but a willingness to entertain this common sense solution could win moderate votes. First, the focus of affirmative action will remain the same: target disadvantaged students who don’t have the right scores to get into elite universities and give them an extra boost for life experience, etc. Most of them certainly deserve it. But there is no reason that this cannot be applied to rural poor white students or first generation Asian Americans as well as African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. By including other groups, affirmative action can gain a wider political consensus to achieve a socially desirable goal. In addition, the new program will help the poorest, most disadvantaged kids, which was the point of affirmative action in the first place.

4. Call for historic increases in student loan and aid programs:
This part has got to be more than lip service. Pick a large state university in a swing state, I would suggest Ohio State or LSU, and call for the highest percentage increase in student loan and aid programs in history. This should be a huge event with student testimonials and as much coverage as any other policy speech. Young voters are sensitive to this issue even if they are out of college, because many are still paying off college loans. Given abysmal turnout among young people, politicians should give them a good reason to vote and this is one way.



Free Trade's Greatest Ally

If free trade benefited everyone all the time there would be no controversy. Unfortunately, along with the gains from free trade -- higher productivity, lower costs to consumers, the creation of new industries, and the chance for poorer countries to earn foreign currency and develop economically -- come large costs for the industries and workers that get caught in the transition as economies adjust.

In order to get everyone to support free trade, workers who lose their jobs or have their pay cut deserve to get help from the government. Workers who are displaced need to feel that society takes their pain to heart, and that they are not simply cogs in the larger economic machine who can be sacrificed for the greater good. In effect, free trade presents a political paradox: it calls for hands-off government with respect to tariffs and quotas, but hands-on government with respect to increased worker benefits in times of economic transition. For example, wage insurance can be an effective way to protect the stability and quality of life for displaced workers at a reasonable expense. Workers in industries harmed by trade liberalization are paid a portion of the difference between their old salaries and those in any new job they get (if the salary is lower) for a set period of years.

The gains from free trade are too large to be squandered due to protectionist fears and xenophobia, but this is bound to happen if the current Administration refuses to accept the expanded government role that free trade requires. Republicans are so instinctively committed to a ‘less-government’ stance that they seem incapable of promoting the types of policies that will insure a long-term commitment to free trade within the United States. A case in point is the GOP’s continual stalling over the last three years on extending unemployment benefits. Traditional Democrats, on the other hand, are too quick to use government policy to protect inefficient industries (which Bush did as well with steel tariffs) that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

This short-sightedness presents a courageous leader with a huge opportunity. By extolling the virtues of free trade and at the same time emphasizing the need for government intervention to ameliorate the suffering of displaced workers, he or she can become free trade’s greatest ally. Free trade gives America a potential win-win situation, but only with the proper leadership that is not afraid to expand government policies where they are needed.



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