July 28, 2005

Affirmative Action and its Mythologies

Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Glenn Loury try to bring a bit of economic analysis to bear on affirmative action in a new paper: "Affirmative Action and its Mythologies." The first myth they discuss is one that's always seemed a bit bewildering to me: namely, the fiction that employers or educational institutions can somehow, magically, pursue affirmative action goals effectively without imposing "quotas". Hogwash, say these two:
[T]his distinction between goals and quotas is dubious, because to implement either a goal or quota requires that a regulator credibly commit to some (possibly unspoken) schedule of rewards/penalties for an employer or an education institution, as a function of observable and verifiable outcomes. The results engendered by either policy depend on how firms or educational institutions react to these incentives. If the penalty for certain "bad results" is sufficiently severe, then people will tend to say that a rigid quota had been imposed. If penalties for bad results are minimal, then the people will tend to say that a flexible goal has been adopted. Clearly, this difference is one of degree, not of kind.
Word up. Additionally, you can run into this sort of case, in theory: say the government is simply in the business of enforcing nondiscrimination rather than quotas. So Employer X comes under suspicion, say, because it's been hiring a disproportionately low number of minorities, though perhaps this is due to a low number of minority applicants or some other complex HR reasons. Whatever. Point is, the regulatory regime won't always be privy to all these "mitigating factors" and could in theory punish Employer X for discrimination. To avoid this possibility, Employer A may well end up adopting an implicit quota system regardless. Basically, it's hard escaping quotas so long as affirmative action remains a goal that's enforced with any sort of rigor.

Eh, come to think of it, conservatives have been saying the same thing for years, especially after Bill Clinton's "Mend It Don't End It" jingle went live. Ah, well. While they're at it, though, Fryer and Loury also take the time to knock down the popular idea that "color-blind" attempts to pursue racial diversity—such as the Texas state university scheme to automatically admit the top 10 percent students from all high schools—are a more efficient way of doing things, although admittedly much of this debate hangs on what people think the purpose of a university should actually be.
-- Brad Plumer 3:07 AM || ||