Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Afternoon at Lafayette College

Professor Brandon Van Dyck and his student Abdul invited me to speak at Lafayette College as part of their Mill lecture series.   About fifty students and several faculty members attended my talk, and students both in favor of and opposed to political correctness were in the room and spoke reasonably and frankly.   It is to  Lafayette’s credit that it has allowed Professor Van Dyck to initiate the program, although I am told that some of the faculty have attacked it.  One of the points that Professor Van Dyck and others made during the discussion is that some professors at Lafayette have criticized the program and its speakers without attending any of the lectures.        

My topic covered a combination of the Langbert, Quain, and Klein article “Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology,”  which appeared in Econ Journal Watch last year, as well as some recent findings on which I’ve been working.  The recent findings concern liberal arts colleges, which I’m starting to conclude have more variance in their partisanship than do research institutions but for the most part are as one sided as the social science departments of research institutions.

I found it gratifying to meet a number of conservative students at Lafayette who question the left orientation of their education, but I found it even more gratifying that several left-oriented students attended the talk and were willing to debate with me and with Professor Van Dyck.

Students who defended colleges’ left orientation raised these points:

                1. In research on faculty voter registration, nearly half the population is either not registered or not affiliated with a party, so nonresponse threatens the validity of the Langbert, Quain, and Klein findings.

                2. Students who protested Charles Murray’s appearance and other conservative speakers’ appearances at Middlebury College and elsewhere have the right to protest their institutions’ allowing such speakers to appear because the institutions are private, and the students have the right to see that their tuition money is used in ways of which they approve.  Moreover, Herrnstein and Murray’s book The Bell Curve is racist.

                3. The one-sidedness of faculty voter registration does not matter because left-oriented professors can fairly depict both sides.

                4. Republicans are often opposed to science, and many question the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Nonregistration as a Threat to Validity

First, although the research I’m doing is archival and not survey based, the problem of nonregistration parallels that of survey nonresponse. 

As this article by the American Academy of Political and Social Science says, nonresponse threatens the validity of most social science survey work. As I pointed out to the student,   left-oriented observers raise this issue with respect to this research more frequently than they do with studies done byNeil Gross, studies done to support left-oriented positions, or neutral studies, such as those of the US Census.  I have never heard a news reporter comment on the nonresponse rate for the unemployment statistic survey, which in most years is four or five times greater than the unemployment rate.  The nonresgistration rate in our research is less than the proportion that we have found to be registered.

That said, since all social science survey research is threatened by nonresponse, it is important to triangulate or to find multiple methods of measuring the same variable.  Studies of the left orientation of faculty have included opinion surveys, which of course also suffer from nonresponse but a different kind of nonresponse.  As well, both opinion surveys and voter registration studies of faculty political affiliation are being done on multiple kinds of samples.  The different forms of studies do not find appreciably different results. 

As results from different kinds of studies and from different kinds of samples accumulate, the results become more certain and better understood.  My point is that virtually no survey work ever done does not suffer from nonresponse, and nonresponse is important only if it correlates with the findings. If there is no correlation between nonresponse and partisan affiliation, then nonresponse has no importance to the study.  If there is a correlation that is strong enough to change the findings, then we may fairly ask why the findings do not appreciably change when different populations are surveyed and different methods are used.

Charles Murray

With respect to the second point, which concerns Charles Murray’s not being allowed to speak, colleges should be forums for open debate.  They are not ideological or political advocacy organizations that permit only one viewpoint.  The left protested the McCarthyism of conservative politicians because McCarthyism did not permit the views of communists to be openly expressed. It is telling that now left academics and students advocate that views of conservatives should not be allowed to be openly expressed. 

Religious institutions that permit only one religion to be advocated openly state that the religion is fundamental to their mission, but secular colleges do not claim to be political advocacy organizations in part because Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code predicates institutional tax exemption on not engaging in lobbying or ideological advocacy.  Political organizations are not entitled to tax exemptions.  Hence, if students wish to claim that their institutions are at root political advocacy organizations, they will need to pony up the difference in tuition cost between exempt and nonexempt institutions.

More importantly, the purpose of universities should be to teach citizenship, rational debate, and learning rather than closed minded advocacy.  If Middlebury and other colleges teach advocacy instead, then public support for them should be revisited.

I read Herrnstein and Murray twenty years ago. I do not recall any racist claims in their book, although I was once called to the carpet of a departmental chair because of a student’s claim that Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals is racist. (I recount the incident here.) My recollection of Herrnstein and Murray is that they make the general point that IQ is important to a wide range of public policy issues.  In my own field, human resource management, IQ has been repeatedly shown to be a valid predictor of job performance.  

Merriam-Webster defines bigot as follows:

A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.
Although the racial variety is the most common application, one can be a bigot in a variety of ways, and students who, in the face of science, violently object to well-reasoned, scientifically supported findings because of obstinate commitment to their own prejudices are themselves bigots. Middlebury and all other educational institutions should encourage students to think scientifically and reasonably and to abhor bigotry of all kinds.

Teaching Both Sides

With respect to the third point, the ability of faculty to teach both sides of a question, I have worked in higher education for 26 years, and I have never had a departmental colleague who could give a fair exegesis of libertarian economic theories like those of Hayek and von Mises.  I have no doubt that many economists can, but many cannot.  The same is true of classical liberal ideas. The most influential economic writer was Adam Smith, but I have repeatedly heard his statement, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices,” misinterpreted to mean that Smith supported economic regulation.  The statement is made at the end of a chapter in Wealth of Nations that criticizes gilds and argues that regulation does not work.

A good example of the incompetence of many left-oriented academics with respect to (Lockean) liberal thinkers is a book I reviewed in 2012 for Frontpagemag, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Robin misunderstands, misconstrues, and appears not to have read the von Mises material that he claims to critique.  If a left-oriented professor like Robin who claims to be able to write a book on conservatism botches his understanding of von Mises, I doubt that many left faculty can do a good job. 

Global Warming

With respect to the last point, I am not enough of an expert in geology to comment on climate change, but I did say that the claim that “science is settled” is profoundly anti science.  As Popper points out in his Logic of Scientific Discovery, theories are never proven; they are only disproven or falsified. As I pointed out to the student who raised this point, those in the church who believed that the science was settled imprisoned Galileo.  The politicization of science, as the Democrats have done with respect to global warming theory, is more profoundly anti science than the doubts raised by global warming skeptics.  
One of the few professors in the room was a science professor who rejoined that he was a global warming denier.  He said that the evidence is not nearly strong enough to have policy implications. Amen. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Steven Volynets on Political Correctness

My former Brooklyn College student, Steve Volynets, wrote this email protesting the increasing political correctness in American culture.  He sent it to Prof. Jonathan Haidt, the founder of Heterodox Academy and an exceptional social psychologist and philosopher.  Steve recounts  9/11, when he was my student. On 9/11 I had breakfast with my former professor, Eric Flamholtz from the UCLA business school.  My later meeting in a diner with Steve and Endrhis, then my students, completed the cycle.

Dear Dr. Haidt,

I am writing to thank you for speaking out against the growing suppression of viewpoint diversity on college campuses and elsewhere in academic and intellectual discourse.

I am not a professor, or even a student. I am a fiction writer. Last year, I wrote an article for New York Observer in which I took issue with Roxane Gay’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, “Purity,” questioning the merit and wisdom of conflating the novelist with his fictive characters. My piece went viral and prompted what you have described as Twitter "flash mobs" against me, some initiated by other established authors and contributors to the New York Times (screenshots attached).

For reasons I cannot fathom, Jonathan Franzen has been described as a misogynist and personally made the target of attacks both on social and legacy media. No one can seem to provide an objective explanation as to the nature of or reason for these attacks, yet they persist. Since my Observer article appeared, I have seen others express similar disdain for Mr. Franzen. Last year, I learned that he and Jeff Bezos were scheduled to appear on Jeopardy from a Facebook post by a writer and creative writing professor, who referred to them both “the most insufferable guys.”

I was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where, as kids, we used to describe to this manner of speaking as “talking shit.” Not a beacon of decorousness perhaps, my old neighborhood (at least not until the arrival of the Food Co-op), still I have been taught that making assumptions about people I have never met or gotten to know personally was wrong. So I decided to challenge this writing professor by simply asking her if she ever met Mr. Franzen, to which she responded by calling me a “Franzen apologist” and blocking me from her list of friends.

No one should have to apologize for writing a work of fiction, I thought, recalling the painful experience of Salman Rushdie as well as those of dissident authors from the Soviet Block. More than that, I imagined a creative writing student, one inspired by Jonathan Franzen’s novels, having to take this professor’s class. Could this student freely express her passion for Franzen’s prose, to quote it in her papers and in-class discussions, to ask questions about it and expect dignified answers, to engage with it critically without risking punitive grading or, worse yet, being dismissed as an apologist? That I do not know the answer to this question troubles me.       

I have always believed that when it comes to art, one cannot be disabused of one’s emotional or intellectual cathexis any more than one can be forced to fall in or out of love. To regard fictional characters, images and narratives as inherently doctrinal, or as reflections of an author’s personality, strikes me as absurd as conferring a moral judgment upon a movie actor based on a role she plays. Yet this, along with sharp stands against "cultural appropriation," is the guiding principle for writers and critics like Roxane Gay, who not only express this view in op-eds for the New York Times – which is perfectly acceptable and, indeed, should be encouraged – but also sit on editorial boards of literary journals, judge writing contests and fellowship application. Needless to say, I do not risk applying for those contests and fellowships after making my disagreements public (and as a working artist, I could use the support).

I was also heartened by your mention of Mitchell Langbert’s study during your presentation at Duke. It is fair to say that Professor Langbert is quite to the right of me politically. He is also one of the most important teachers I've ever had. So it was sickening to learn that he has been treated so dismissively and with such contempt by his own colleagues. It was in his class that I was introduced to a book that had transformed my understanding of urban life, Robert Caro’s ‘The Power Broker,’ a text that I return to again and again. Nor could I have written my J Journal story about Bernie Madoff, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, if not for Prof. Langbert, whose lectures on financial markets had fueled my leaps of fancy into Wall Street myths. Koch brothers or not, I don’t recall Prof. Langbert, a dedicated pedagogue and scholar, ever peddling cheap right-wing propaganda in his classrooms. But I do remember the afternoon of September 11, 2001, sitting at a table with him and my college buddy, Endrhis Santana, in a diner just outside the Brooklyn College campus. The air still smelled of smoke and we spoke freely (something one could do in those pre-social media days) of our shock and anger. After years of teaching, Prof. Langbert must have seen thousands of students just like us – immigrant kids with side jobs, trying to make it through a city school. After we were done, the hardline laissez-faire hawk that he is, Prof. Langbert paid for our food.

I never thought I'd see anything like this, not at CUNY– the mounting suppression of free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses is a disgrace.  

I am not a professor. In fact, I never even finished graduate school, having dropped out of the MFA creative writing program for some of the aforementioned reasons. I cannot become a member of the Heterodox Academy. Still I join, if only in spirit, your worthwhile cause.

Steven Volynets

McCarthyism at the American Federation of Teachers

Dear President Trump:

I am reading a report by the American Legislative Exchange Council on inefficient pension fund practices. The report is entitled Keeping the Promise: Getting Politics Out of Pensions. I was disturbed to learn that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is using its financial power to attack pension fund managers whose private political views diverge from the views of the leadership of the AFT. This is authoritarian and fascistic, and I find it disturbing that a union that is supposed to support education, which requires the free exchange of ideas,  attempts to use its economic power to silence and suppress individuals whose views diverge from theirs.  The American left has whined about McCarthyism for the past sixty years, but the AFT’s actions are no different from Senator Joe McCarthy’s.

I ask that you investigate the American Federation of Teachers.  An organization that engages in suppressive political behavior should not be entitled to a tax exemption.  As a member of a union that unfairly diverts a large share of our dues to the fascistic bigots of the AFT, I urge you to look into taxation of labor unions and a rethinking of the privileges public sector labor unions have enjoyed. 

The report says this:

Another form of divestment is the effort by some interest groups to pressure pension funds to divest from certain fund managers on account of their personal political beliefs. Perhaps the most notable example of this effort has been led by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  In recent years, the AFT has promoted a divestment campaign targeting hedge-fund managers who have supported initiatives with which they disagree. The AFT has targeted some hedge-fund managers for their actions supporting school choice and favoring defined-contribution  public pension systems. This is particularly threatening given AFT’s influence over an estimated $1 trillion in public defined-benefit plans, many of which hold investments in hedge funds as part of their portfolio.


Mitchell Langbert

Friday, April 14, 2017

Right to Work President Mark Mix Visits My Classes

Mark Mix, the president of the National Right to Work Committee, visited my classes on April 6.  The Institute for Humane Studies and the John Templeton Foundation funded the event. It was a success. The students were engaged, and alternative viewpoints about forced unionism were expressed. The National Right to Work Committee covers the event here.