The news of deaths from bird flu in Indonesia is pretty scary. Although, as I’ve mentioned recently Indonesia has made a lot of progress in many respects, the handling of this threat so far seems to show the worst of both worlds: all the ill ffects of authoritian habits combined with the timidity of weak politicians. There have been a lot of coverups, and an unwillingness to tackle the necessary but unpopular task of slaughtering affected flocks of birds. Things seem to be improving now, but there’s a long way to go.
It seems very likely that, sooner or later, bird flu will make the jump that permits human-human transmission, and quite likely that a major flu pandemic will result. The world, including Australia, is very poorly prepared for this. One thing we could do to prepare is to adopt a national program encouraging annual flu vaccinations for everyone, instead of just for limited categories of vulnerable people.
The main benefit of this is not that the shots would provide immunity against a new and deadlier flu variant (though there might be some limited benefit of this kind) but that we would have the infrastructure, production facilities and so on to undertake a mass vaccination against such a variant if it arose. As it is, it seems likely that many countries will be scrambling to get access to an inadequate world supply of vaccines, but if Australia and other developed countries ramped up normal levels of production, it would be much easier to generate extra supplies for our neighbours.
I haven’t looked into it, but my guess is that, even without considering the possibility of a pandemic, the benefit-cost ratio from such a measure would be pretty high. Flu is very costly in economic terms, and I suspect that, if pain and suffering were thrown into the balance, a program of universal free vaccination would come out looking pretty good.
Notes I wrote this in 2005 thinking about new flu strains. The only difference I see with “novel” viruses is that the time taken to produce the initial batches of a vaccine is likely to be longer. As is usual with my policy advocacy, little if anything has been done along the lines I suggested.
I gave a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice last month, and it occurred to me that some of you might find it interesting. The following is the text I talked from (with one joke that I extemporated added to the text because I remember it – there was several others that went down well, but they are lost to posterity).
I should start by saying I’m not an expert on the admissions process or on enrollment management, although thanks to my association with the Center and attending this conference a few times I know much more than a normal professor would. Or should. I’m not an administrator.. I’m a college teacher and a philosopher, and those roles each give me different reasons for humility when addressing the people who take real responsibility for managing our institutions. So please don’t take what I am going to say as criticism or as telling you how to do your jobs. It’s neither. (I know when people say that you shouldn’t take what they are going to say as criticism that usually means they are going to criticize you but…. well, I’m not). What we try to do as philosophers is offer intellectual resources to people to help them see problems slightly differently, and thereby perhaps to find better solutions – not to tell them what the solutions are. And it’s a good thing our job isn’t telling people what the solutions are since I don’t know what they are. As you’ll see.
I was asked to talk about transparency in admissions, and I’m going to do that, but I am also going to talk a little bit about transparency in other areas of our shared enterprise.
One of the immediate triggers for the theme of this year’s conference was the Varsity Blues scandal. On the one hand the scandal was… scandalous…. On the other, it involved behaviors that, while they fell the wrong side of the line we draw between legal and illegal behavior, reflect an underlying view, held not only by the perpetrators, that the line is kind of arbitrary. What the frauds wanted was to be able to buy places at the colleges their children wanted to attend. Most things can be bought, and the rich are used to being able to buy them.
One, tempting, riposte to their thought would be ‘Places cannot be bought; they can only be earned through merit”. But our existing practices already violate that principle. To some extent, subject to some threshold of “merit”, and only at high price, places can be bought, directly. But, also, to some extent, with a certain level of probability, so can “merit”, as it is standardly understood: you can buy high quality tutoring for the SAT, expensive places in private high schools, expensive piano, violin and acting lessons, and, even if your child attends a public school, off-season participation in the sports success in which helps in admissions. Whatever talent you have, money helps you make the most of it. It helps quite a lot. I’m not asking you to be especially sympathetic, but it is surely not surprising, in the current social and political environment, that highly privileged and entitled people who are used to buying what they want feel slightly miffed when the college place of their choice isn’t directly purchasable. Maybe they think that fudging a bit on the application forms isn’t so different from fudging a bit on their taxes, which they are confident that many of their friends are doing, and quite possibly, some of them do occasionally. (When I say ‘fudging’, by the way, I mean…lying. And when I say ‘a bit’ I mean…a lot.
Most of you were not shocked by the scandal. But a lot of people who don’t know our industry well were shocked, not just because the behavior was scandalous, but because the scandal highlighted some of the many ways in which individual “merit” is superseded by other factors in admissions, factors that we take for granted but, to others, seem surprising at best and shocking at worst. I was struck last semester by the excitement a group of my freshmen, one of whom had acquaintances caught up in the scandal, displayed as they shared stories of the various, they think nefarious, ways that candidates gain preference in the admissions system.
In other words – it shone a light on our industry in a way that made us, briefly, more transparent than we usually are.
Let’s talk a bit about transparency. Transparency’s not an all-or-nothing matter, but it comes in degrees. Suppose your windscreen is fogged up on the inside, and a bit dirty on the outside. Put on the defogger, and it becomes less opaque, but not fully transparent. Clean the outside and you have something approaching full transparency. Paint the window black, and you can’t see a thing, even if your defogger is great.
Transparency not only admits of degrees, but is relative to the observer. It’s more or less difficult to see through something depending on where you are in relation to it and how good your eyesight is. And, we see anything better if we’ve have seen before, and if we’ve been trained to look at it. The glass covering the Mona Lisa is just as clean for me as it is to an art historian, but even so we register different things. To me, it’s just a picture of someone with an unnerving smile. We’ll see why this matters soon.
One of the most opaque features of selective higher education is its mission. It’s opaque partly because there is real disagreement among the stakeholders, and even within each group of stakeholders, about what our purposes are; partly because ‘mission statements’, which have numerous purposes apart from stating what the mission is, try to paint the institution in the best possible light; and partly, because ideology plays a convenient role of rationalizing behaviors that aren’t entirely honorable. There’s a cultural assumption, for example, that higher education is a means to equalizing opportunity and facilitating social mobility. For individuals, selective higher education is indeed a valuable way of moving up, but as a whole we do not seem to play that role for society. To have any chance of doing so the socio-economic profile of our student bodies would have to be the exact inverse of what it is, because we’d have to be moving massive numbers of students up the ladder that wealthier families have all sorts of ways to prevent their children from falling down. Our enrollment practices would have to change drastically. If you tried to do that, you’d be stopped, by leaders, by alumnae, and, let’s not forget, by professors, who, at least those that do much undergraduate teaching, are quick to complain if their students have nor already received the kind of massive investments that, in our society, are not available to most middle and lower income children.
I’m not complaining about the fact that we do not facilitate social mobility. We could do more good in that respect, and less harm, than we do, but not much, because we are not ivory towers insulated from the real world; but framed by a social environment that has unequal opportunity built into its fabric. I’m just pointing out that the myth of social mobility fogs up the windscreen, making our mission itself somewhat opaque.
Others will say more about this tomorrow, but I’d like to propose that we try to be more transparent about one element of our mission: The duty we have to attend to the public good. At minimum, we are recipients of considerable public largesse—even private colleges receive large amount of public money, some of it opaquely in the form of tax credits and tax free growth of 529s and endowments. Selective public institutions enroll future public servants – nurses, doctors, police officers, teachers, social workers, counsellors – and, in particular, they enroll large numbers of the future leaders of those fields. The same is true of professions which, though mainly pursued in the private sector, have important impacts on the public good – human resource managers, accountants, and, depending on your viewpoint, maybe bankers and professional investors. Even if we understand how limited our capacity is to facilitate social mobility, seeing our mission as guided substantially by the public good helps us think a bit differently about merit – which, according the principle I entertained – but did not endorse!—earlier, should be the sole basis of admissions.
Because instead of seeing merit as something possessed by the applicant, we see it as something possessed by the cohort that we create, in relation to the institution they inhabit, and the public good to which, in concert, they can contribute.
Demographic changes are well under way in America that mean that increasing number of college enrollees will be Hispanic, increasing numbers will be working class, and increasing numbers will come from low income families. The public is changing, and our enterprise should be calibrated better to serve the good of that public.
This gives us two kinds of very good reason to seek to create access for members of these growing populations. One is so that the internal diversity of the class prepares all the students, including those who are not from those populations, better to serve them. The other is that we have reasons for conjecturing that, on average, members of those new populations are more likely to use the gains they make from higher education for the public good.
So that’s how we should redefine merit – not in terms of past achievement but in terms of the optimal prospective contribution that our educational resource can make to the public good. (Note, optimal, not maximal, because the public good isn’t everything we should care about).
Optimal prospective contribution is a property of the cohort not reducible to the properties of individuals, because of interaction effects. But also because, for all but the wealthiest institutions, their ability to enroll one kind of student is limited by the enrollment of other kinds of student. Specifically, students who can pay more than the cost of enrollment can cross-subsidize those who cannot pay as much as the cost of enrollment. Students who can afford to pay more the cost of enrollment will, on average, anyway, succeed in the competition for positions that affect the public good, so we have to enroll some of them so as to improve the quality of their influence. As well as because they contribute the resources that enable us to equip other students better to serve the public good.
With all that said, let’s return to transparency and opacity.
Opacity of at least three kinds works against the new populations. You’ve all thought a lot about the first two, but my guess is that you’ve thought less about the third.
i)In admissions processes – they need to know what they need to do, and need to know that, in fact, the institutions are actually accessible to them, otherwise they won’t apply. And transparency is not just a matter of stating average SAT/ACT scores, GPAs, etc, and saying that we seek diversity, and stating that legacies, and athletes, get preference, and publicizing the price at which admissions standards are lowered. There are other ways of being opaque. Consider this Columbia admissions question which a counsellor vented about on twitter a couple of weeks ago:
“what exhibits, lectures, theatre productions and concerts have you liked best in the last year?”
Now, I know that you can all think of excellent counter-cultural answers to that question that you would reward with lots of admissions points. But many of those we need to enroll see that question and think – wrongly, but not absurdly – that it requires them to have gone to exhibits, lectures, theatre productions, and concerts, because, although it is transparent to us, it is not transparent to them. They look at the question the way that I look at the Mona Lisa, whereas we look at it the way that an art historian looks at the Mona Lisa. And the way I look at the Mona Lisa is entirely sensible!
ii)Financial aid. What someone with the relevant background sees as a discount-able sticker price, a student from a low-income family see as the price they’d have to pay. I regularly teach students who should have gone to SLACS where I know they’d have incurred less debt than at UW Madison: when I ask why they didn’t, they just say ‘my family couldn’t afford it”. The net price calculators improve matters, but they are challenging to use: for many prospective students the net price calculator is a defogger for a windscreen the outside of which is really filthy.
iii)Third, and this is what you’ll have thought less about, though I obsess about it: The quality of instruction. There’s a lot of bad teaching, and avoiding it requires institutional knowledge that more advantaged students have more access to (and less advantaged students have less access to). “Take the teacher not the class”. “Take smaller classes” ; “Find professors who like teaching” “Go to office hours” (‘what do I say there?”). “Take classes you’ll enjoy”. If your parents or siblings or uncles or aunts attended a selective college, or if you’re in the Greek system, or if you have had the right advice in high school, or if you aren’t too worried about getting a major that enhances your earning power, you are much better placed to navigate the problem of instruction than otherwise. High quality instruction is a scarce resource on a campus. I’m convinced that the worst instruction has negative effects on enrollment, especially of the more vulnerable students¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬, at least in the Midwest, because, especially for less advantaged students, the response to poor instruction is, too often, a sense of personal failure, rather than of justified anger.
Would transparency improve things? Greater transparency of the kinds I’ve described in admissions and financial aid would enhance our ability to enroll new populations, by enhancing their ability to see opportunities that they really want. And I have complete confidence that if we could achieve a modicum of transparency about the quality of instruction, low quality instruction would become less common and high quality instruction less scarce. This is because it would be easier for all stakeholders to hold faculty accountable to a standard that all stakeholders think they should meet and that even faculty themselves, when they talk about these things in public, endorse (even if they resist being held accountable).
Is transparency generally better for accountability? I think the answer to this is yes. So the scandal that broke last year made vivid all sorts of admissions practices that, despite the resentment of some of those who engaged in fraudulent behavior, enhance access for people like their children: preference for athletes, legacies, the existence of Chancellors or President’s discretion, even (though not at UW-Madison I am glad to say) the children of faculty. To the extent that powerful stakeholders (which for my institution, includes legislators and the general public) disapprove of these practices, transparency will hold them in check.
But transparency – like the accountability it facilitates – is a double edged sword. If the public disapproves of preferences on the basis of race, transparency around those preferences, by making us more accountable, makes it more difficult for us to do. And then there is cross-subsidization. Think of university budgets in which colleges and units cross-subsidize. University budgets are remarkably opaque, and it is their very opacity which helps prevent net revenue-producing units, and colleges, from lobbying effectively to undermine the units and colleges that are net consumers of revenue. Of course, some of those cross-subsidies are indefensible. But others—in my institution I’m pretty sure that Philosophy subsidizes less frequently taught languages, and I know that it subsidizes the School of Education—which are extremely valuable, might not be accepted by whole faculties that really understood their extent. They might! But transparency is risky.
Let’s finish by returning to transparency in admissions. Now we understand that transparency facilitates accountability. Whether accountability leads to better outcomes depends on the will and the competence of the principals who are able to enforce it. Some admissions practices that work against the public good are, probably, dependent on opacity, because the people with the power to hold us accountable would frown on them: for example, preference for faculty members. Others – I’m reasonably confident that legacy preferences work against the public good – may be less vulnerable when light is shone on them. But we should also be concerned about the admissions practices that do serve the public good, and whether they would survive the glare of transparency given the will and competence of those in a position to hold us accountable. To give my own institution as an example: I wouldn’t want to make the extent of racial preference in admissions too vivid for our legislators, because I’m not confident they’d support it to the extent they should; similarly, I’m happy for the faculty – and the suburban population – not to understand fully the extent to which we give preference to rural students (and, by extension, that we deny opportunities to students from Madison itself).
I wish I had a conclusion! Admissions should be holistic, and largely geared to the good of the public – because that is the core of our mission. Transparency is good insofar as it helps us to do this, and not insofar as it inhibits us. It is, like all swords, double edged: maybe we should just be careful which edge we sharpen!
 This was the joke I extemporized. A young African-American woman in the audience, an undergraduate who works in the Office of Admissions at her college, and had been brought along by her Dean, shouted out “Lying” and “a lot” in unison with me, which I thought was bold, but rather magnificent, in a room of 100 or so senior professionals.
Sometimes you are reading a novel and it is so extraordinary that you think, is this the best thing I have ever read? For me, that feeling probably comes on about once a year, so there are quite a lot of books that have evoked it. Still, that they do says something, and the latest to have sparked it is Anna Burns’s Milkman, the Booker Prize winner from 2018.
Milkman is, all at once, a tremendous linguistic performance, a triumph of phenomenology, am insightful account of sexual harrassment, a meditation on gossip and what it can do, a picture of the absurdities of enforced communitarian conformity, and a clear-eyed portrayal of what it is to live under the occupation of a foreign army and the domination of the necessary resisters to that army who are, at the same time, friends and family, sometime idealists but sometimes gangsters, bullies and killers.
Anna Burns’s sentences, the stream of consciousness of her 18-year-old narrator, loop back on themselves with further thoughts and reconsiderations. The voice is a combination of personal idiosyncracy and northern Irish English, i.e. comprehensible to speakers of other versions of English but sometimes odd or disconcerting. You can’t skim and get the plot. You have to hold on, read each sentence, and sometime start it again.
Very few of the characters or persons mentioned have real names (I count two). Instead we are treated to maybe-boyfriend, chef (who isn’t a chef), ma, da, wee sisters, eldest sister, third brother-in-law, longest friend, Somebody McSomebody, wrong husband (a few of those) and so on. The town or city is not named, though it would be surprising if it were not Belfast. There is a statelet, a state “over the water”, another “over the border”, the state forces and police, and the renouncers (locals who renounce the state in question) and the defenders (locals who defenders). The people in the enclave where the narrator lives are of one religion and the renouncers hold off both the state forces and those of the defenders, who are of the “opposite religion”. Many people have died, including nearly whole families, because of the political problems. Some are killed by state forcers or defenders, but others, suspected or accused of being informers, by the renouncers. The renouncers depend on the good opinion of the community who thereby exercise some constraint on their power. While the location is what it is, one imagines similar dynamic being played out on West Bank and Gaza, in parts of Syria, in Colombia, in Baghdad, in Kabul, in Kashmir.
I’ll not spoil the plot for those who haven’t read the book, beyond saying what we know from the first page, that the central theme is the unwanted and menacing sexual attention of Milkman to the narrator, who is not a milkman but a fairly senior figure in the paramilitary renouncers. Milkman does and says very little, but communicates, without saying much, what may happen if she doesn’t comply with his plans for her. The very depiction of that dynamic between them and how he gets in her head is chilling. You should read it for yourself but.
A brief plug for an important new (and affordable) book: every home should have one! David Owen has long been know for his thoughtful contribution to philosophical debates around migration, and now he has published a brilliant short book, What Do We Owe to Refugees? in the same excellent Political Theory Today series from Polity that my own book appears in. David’s book is highly readable and gives a solid introduction to the main controversy that runs through modern debates on refugeehood, namely, whether we should adopt a “humanitarian” or a “political” conception of refugees and what we owe to them.
A humanitarian conception of refugees focuses attention on them as needy persons forcibly displaced through no fault of their own. They may be fleeing persecution, or war, or natural disaster or environmental collapse, and the duties that we have to them flow from our common humanity. It is their neediness and not the specific cause of their neediness that is the most important factor. A political conception, by contrast, sees refugees as victims of a special wrong, the denial of political status, of effective citizenship through persecution by the very state whose obligation it is to include them as citizens and to guarantee and respect their rights. Refugeehood as conceived of by the political conception is an internationally-recognized political substitute for the membership that has been unjustly denied by a person’s persecutors.
As David sets out in a wonderfully-informative chapter on this history of refugeehood — did you know that the first refugiés were Huguenots escaping from Louis XIV? — both conceptions of refugeehood are present both in the history of refugees and in the political and legal documents and institutions that have structured international practice over the years. Currently, for example, the focus on persecution in the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol admits most naturally of a political reading, but the practice of UNHCR, the international body that is tasked with administering refugee issues, is much broader and includes much humanitarian assistance.
The key animating idea of the book is centred on the relationship between the institution of refugeehood and the current international system, conceived of as a normative order. On the one hand we have a world that is territorially divided among sovereign states; on the other, we have a cosmopolitan commitment to the idea of human rights and those sovereign states are the primary vehicles through which human rights are (in theory) protected and realized. This international order is one that is maintained and reproduced by the collective of states themselves through their mutual recognition of one another and through their sustaining of international norms and institutions. Obviously, things often go wrong with the result that human beings are left unable to assure their basic rights on the territory of the state that is theoretically charged with protecting them. Refugeehood therefore functions as a “legitimacy repair mechanism” for the global normative order whereby those whose vital interests require crossing an international border to protect their rights are given a functional substitute membership by states other than their own, those states act “in loco civitas“. Doing so not only meets the needs of these displaced persons, but also upholds the legitimacy from which the receiving states benefit.
Whereas much of the debate around refugeehood has oscillated between the political and humanitarian paradigms, David argues that the duties picked out by “in loco civitas” vary depending upon the reasons for refugee displacement and proposes a differentiation of responses which he terms “asylum”, “sanctuary” and “refuge” that answer to whether the individual is a victim of targeted persecution, generalized violence or episodic events (such as natural disasters) respectively. I can’t do justice to the whole of David’s discussion here, but his proposal is that victims of targeted persecution need access to a state which can provide them with a robust protection of their rights and that doing so plays an expressive role in condemning the persecuting state; that sanctuary primarily requires the provision of a substitute social home and this may, allowing for considerations of fairness, be best accomplished in states with similar cultures or existing diasporas that can provide adequate social protection and opportunities; and that refuge will often be the most temporary provision of all, persisting while the cause of the immediate displacement is fixed.
David also addresses questions of “fair shares” in the context of a protection regime that is conceived of as project where states must do their bit to uphold a legitimate international order, and what the duties of states (and refugees) are when states are failing to play their part or, as now, actively thwarting the functioning of a just protection regime. He argues that the refusal of those fleeing persecution, war and other drivers of forced migration to accept the containment regimes put in place to thwart them constitutes a kind of justified global civil disobedience and resistance to an international regime that purports to be legitimate but which fails to supply the protection for human rights and needs which it officially promises.
I have a new piece up at the LRB blog on the UK’s post-Brexit immigration plans. I argue that at the core of the plans is an intention to treat EU migrants and others as a vulnerable and exploitable workforce and that the logic of denying a long-term working visa route to the low paid leads to three possibilities: either the businesses that rely upon them will go bust, technology will substitute for labour, or the UK will have to start denying education to young Britons so that they become willing to be the underpaid workforce that picks turnips and cleans the elderly in social care.
Like most recreational tri-athletes, I don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the top levels of the sport, let alone in the separate worlds of swimming, cycling and running. But I took notice last year when Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon distance in under two hours, a barrier long thought to be unbreakable, and one that reminded my of my failed attempts to break four hours over the same distance.
Kipchoge had plenty of help in his effort, including pace runners (providing an added drafting benefit) and a guide car projecting laser light on to the track to ensure exact pacing. These non-standard features mean that the time doesn’t count as a record for the marathon event.
Apparently, the biggest boost, however, came from his shoes, Nike’s recently released Vaporfly’s which incorporate a special carbon plate and a foam designed to return as much as possible of the energy expended from the impact of each pace. In subsequent events, runners with Vaporflys have produced winning times as much as 4 per cent faster than would be expected. And, it seems, the benefit is just as great, or even greater, for middle-aged slowpokes.
As with similar innovations in swimming and cycling, there was a lot of pressure to ban these technological marvels. But the International Olympic Committee, unwilling to take on the might of Nike, decided to allow the shoes, while trying to limit further innovations.
So, should I lay out $A300 or so for a pair of these marvels, which apparently may last for only a couple of hundred km (YMMV)? For the moment, I’m not going to. I’m going to have one more try to break four hours, and for this purpose I’m racing against my (not quite as old) self, not other competitors or even the clock. Once the technology becomes general, I’ll no doubt adopt it like everyone else.
In the meantime, what really appeals to me is the claimed capacity of cooling wristbands to lower body temperature. Even in moderate temperatures, I end events drenched in sweat and temperatures in Queensland aren’t always moderate. Does anyone have any experience/thoughts on this?
A bit of a collector’s item this (taken in 2016). In Ireland there are many British postboxes with the sovereign’s initials that have been overpainted in green by the Irish government since independence. This one, on the Falls Road in Belfast could not be of a type that would appear in the Republic of Ireland because the monarch in question, Elizabeth II, came to the throne after Irish independence, but has been overpainted by Irish republicans in Northern Ireland. In the event of a united Ireland, we could expect official overpainting.
Posted after a bit of twitter discussion with Declan Gaffney and Joel Walmsley yesterday. Joel has a blog on Irish postboxes.
A united Ireland just got closer, but not in a good way. It looks like the only competent and respected SoS for Northern Ireland in I don’t know how long is being sacked by the PM today. Julian Smith, helped hugely by the NI electorate finally losing patience with Sinn Fein and the DUP, managed to get power-sharing and regional government functioning again. He put the effort in to understand his brief, and even managed to talk some sense to his peers in cabinet about why it’s a terrible idea for British soldiers to be impervious to criminal prosecution for ‘historic’ offences. (Conservatives who are usually so worried about moral hazard in other walks of life seem not to notice the huge incentive for the Ministry of Defence to stonewall investigations until prosecutions are difficult or impossible.)
So it was probably inevitable that in an era of ‘my country, right or wrong’, Johnson would sack the only NI SoS interested in or capable of ensuring a modicum of justice for civilian victims of the armed forces in NI. The main reason for sacking Smith seems to be to pander to the Sun/Mail newspapers, not the actual armed forces where discipline and consequences are sort of the point. Then again, the prime minister has lived his whole life without personal discipline, and ensuring that consequences are only for others.
The consequences for others this time are likely to be; power-sharing in Stormont falls apart again or staggers on so dysfunctionally it may as well not. The NI protocol, with its legal and quasi-constitutional consequences for Brexit, is probably breached. And the party whose central political strategy is based on the illegitimacy of the British state in NI will benefit perhaps even more than it just did in Ireland’s general election. And while I am viscerally, perhaps even genetically predisposed to shiver in disgust at everything Sinn Fein says and does, and to wish the left in Ireland had better to offer, I have to admit that, on this, they are not wrong.