Monday, October 7, 2019

Travel bans are dumb and hypocritical

I am subject to a travel ban. No not that one, which is much, much worse. Rather, I fall under the one that, since January 2017, prevents me, other CSU and UC faculty, and all state employees from using public funds to travel to states that California Attorney General Xavier Beccera decides is violating California anti-discrimination law. 

For example, under AB 1887 I would be denied reimbursement for travel to North Carolina to research the effects of its silly public bathroom laws, or to present an argument about how silly they are at an academic conference there. AG Beccera’s list has recently grown to 11

Many of these states have been targeted for their attempts to carve out accommodations for private religious groups who are connected in some way with public services and funds. Texas and Oklahoma, for example, do not require child welfare services to place children in same-sex or single parent households if doing so would violate religious or moral convictions or policies central to these groups’ mission statements.

Kansas falls under the travel ban because it doesn’t require student groups at public universities to have an “all-comers” policy for organizational leadership positions. In other words, Kansas is banned for a policy that would have implicated California until pretty recently. It strikes me as an odd deficiency in humility to be so vindictive against Kansas for missing a moral discovery that California state officials have only just made. It took California legislators years and years to finally get this right, but Kansas is held out for official sanction for failing to follow along right away.


Part of the absurdity of the California ban is how selective and arbitrary it is. South Carolina made Beccera’s list last year for a carve-out for faith-based private child placement agencies like those in Texas and Oklahoma, but California is apparently fine footing the bill for a conference junket to Southeast Asia where, in Singapore and Malaysia, male homosexual sex is simply illegal. 

Also, I could get reimbursed for a work trip to Nebraska, despite their law denying marriage rights to people afflicted with a venereal disease, but not if I attend the Gender Infinity Conference in Houston, Texas this year. 

Iowa is on the no-go list for a recent legal change to prevent Medicaid coverage for gender reassignment surgery. But California legislators apparently take a different approach to the fact that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, since my reimbursement request for my trip to the Big Easy last year went through without a hitch. 

Finally, I think it’s odd to reflect on what the ban says about how the state regards the primary value of funding faculty travel for the purpose of research and conference participation. 

I would have thought that the reason California taxpayers are implicated in my travel expenses has something to do with a view about the putatively public goods character of the research and scholarly activities that take me across state lines. Before, I would have considered this view a little optimistic. But now I know California legislators just don’t see it that way at all. It rather seems that all this funding is just a subsidy for conference centers, hotels and restaurants, which legislators want to avoid directing to the bad, undeserving states. (For, surely, they can’t actually think that AB 1887 will actually affect legislative changes there).

In that case, the state should probably just eliminate all travel funding for university employees. That is, if the funding just enriches out-of-state room-and-board service providers, and there’s really no meaningful return to taxpayers, then the expenditures seem illegitimate. If not, though — if something like the optimistic view is right — then colleagues should be able to secure funding to participate in the Annual African American Children and Families Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa in February (despite Iowa’s addition to the list last May). Hampering colleagues’ research in this way sure seems like a poor way to promote social justice.

Especially if there’s anything to the idea that we learn and influence more effectively through exposure and contact than by drawing lines and keeping separate. The latter strategy tends to lead to increased polarization and, for those with minority positions in conservative states, actually could cut off those who might benefit from national alliance and support. 

These risks aren’t worth what amounts to not much more than legislative moral grandstanding and the opportunity to signal they have the right virtues. 

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Meritocracy as the Best Form of Government

Jason Brennan (2016) argues against democracy in significant part by relying on many empirical studies demonstrating that the public largely is politically ignorant and has various cognitive biases that make a rule by the people unreliable.  For example, most voters don’t know the platforms of the two major candidates, carry a host of false social/political facts, aren’t swayed by public deliberation, and are deficient in instrumental rationality.  Instead, Brennan posits an epistocracy, which is rule of the knowledgeable.  This view has roots in Mill.  Voting power is distributed according to competence, where for example, those who have greater epistemic virtues can have votes that carry greater weight.  An epistocracy may also be set up such that only the knowledgeable can vote.  An epistocracy can better address the political psychology findings as compared to a democracy.
As the data shows that socially advantaged groups in the U.S., such as wealthy male republican Caucasians, generally have more political knowledge than many minority groups like women and African-Americans, Brennan anticipates the Demographic Objection (DO).  DO states that for an epistocracy, advantaged groups will have more voting power over others. Thus, we will have unfair policies favoring the advantaged.  Brennan responds by writing that experiments show that minority groups are unlikely to know how to promote their own interests and that advantaged groups mostly vote for their perceived national good, which will be to the benefit of minorities.  It’s better for minorities if we restrict voting power largely to, for example, rich white republican males.  
The problem with Brennan’s epistocracy is that the perceived national good from most of the advantaged group – viz., rich white republican males – can harm relevant minority groups.  It looks like most republican voters’ perceived national good is to keep Trump in office despite discriminatory rhetoric and policies.  For example, Gallup shows that a nearly unanimous majority (91%, Sept 3-15) of Republicans approve of Trump.  This isn’t beneficial to relevant minorities but can lead to a tyranny of the “knowledgeable.”
Also, the studies showing that minorities largely have deficiencies in knowledge of politics and in promoting their own self-interests fail to measure for deficiencies regarding knowing when their own respective group is being discriminated against.  This is a key omission from such studies as discrimination can be an issue that carries overriding importance for minority groups.  Contrarily, there is data suggesting that minorities groups are aware when they are facing discrimination and know how to vote against it.  For example, a Fox News poll shows that 83% of African-Americans disapprove of Trump on race relations.  Hence, I conclude that Brennan is unable to account for DO, and his epistocracy does worse than a democracy in light of DO. Minorities should be allowed to vote and have their vote carry substantial weight.
Brennan then may claim that an epistocracy can adjust to take into account knowledge of discrimination.  However, even so, the many other aspects of political knowledge, such as economics, political science, U.S. history, and sociology, will favor wealthy Caucasians which will give them a more powerful vote.  Given their superior overall knowledge, they likely should be able to drown out the minorities.  If not, then it’s questionable whether Brennan’s view is a true epistocracy or rule of the knowledgeable.  The DO objection remains.
While Brennan’s discussed studies against democracy are formidable, I advocate a specified version of a meritocracy, or rule by the merited, as it can better handle the worries stemming from the empirical data than a democracy.  Moreover, unlike an epistocracy, it can better account for DO.  Meritocracy has its roots in Confucius and Plato.  It stands opposed to the unadulterated rule by the largely ignorant masses that should be feared with a democracy.  
With a meritocracy, in order to run for office at the national level, political candidates must 1) take relevant classes, such as economics, informal logic, political science, history, environmental science, and political philosophy, with high marks, 2) pass non-ideological tests, and 3) have experience leading in local government while scoring high on various indices such as on decreasing crime, helping underprivileged groups, and maintaining a healthy economy.  

Medical doctors must take relevant classes, such as biology, physics, and chemistry, as an undergraduate student, pass tests on these courses with an extremely high GPA, attend medical school, and must take medical entrance and board exams.  They also must take periodic tests as a medical doctor to make sure that one is current on medical advancements.  They must be in residency to gain experience.  By analogy, politicians, with the fate of many more lives on their hands, must also acquire an education and experience in political leadership and must demonstrate their virtue and merit.  If we have such requirements for a medical doctor, then how much the more we should have such requirements for those future politicians who will make decisions on a nation’s healthcare, economy, education, warfare, environment, laws, etc.  There is good reason for having requirements to be a doctor given the gravity of the job and the technical skill required.  All the reason more to have stringent criteria for being a political leader given the gravity of the job and the more diverse technical knowledge required to perform the job well.  

Those many candidates who jump through these hoops then must be elected from a democratic vote.  Of course, public fully funded universities is a prerequisite for my system so that all may have an opportunity to run for office in terms of acquiring the requisite education.  A meritocracy diverges from an epistocracy in that everyone has an equal vote.  A meritocracy focuses immediately on the virtues of officials rather than voters.  
I contend that this meritocracy does better than a democracy in that, although not foolproof, it is more likely to have virtuous officials than a democracy alone in light of the political psychology data.  It also is able to address DO better than an epistocracy in that everyone carries an equal vote.  Moreover, officials will have taken classes in ethics and must demonstrate prior successful experience working with minorities.  Hence, my meritocracy appears better than an epistocracy and democracy. Winston Churchill once said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms…” However, this is false as my meritocracy can at least make it more likely that our leaders have merit.

John Park
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State