Affirmative Action Is Irrelevant

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Or practically irrelevant.  I echo Matt Yglesias's point:

Peter Beinart, like all good heterodox liberals, thinks we should curb race-based affirmative action in college admissions in favor of something more focused on class. I'm open to this idea, though I'd like to see a specific proposal rather than a vague suggestion. But every time I hear this debate I have to wonder why we're having it. The presumption that you can solve any significant problem of social justice in America by fiddling with Ivy League admissions policies is dead wrong, as is the idea that the main challenge poor people of any race face education-wise is that they might not get into an elite college.

The issues that obsess the upper middle class tend to get a disproportionate focus from people trying to solve "social problems". The feminist debates about working vs. staying home are one example of this; so are many of the debates over education.  I hate to swipe at Elizabeth Warren again, but I do think it's relevant to wonder how housing in good school districts came to loom so large in her thesis.  These are problems for a very small percentage of people in a handful of cities who are obsessed with getting their kids into a very selective school, and are faced with tight zoning limits on the housing that can be constructed in the "best" (read, most affluent) school district.  Naturally, to many people who live in those cities, that obsession seems universal.  But it's not. 

Most of the stuff I've seen--including work by Warren--shows that people who declare bankruptcy are less educated than the general population; according to Warren's paper, in 2001 less than 10% of her consumer bankruptcy sample had a college diploma.  For most of the country, going to college at all is a more important goal than getting into Harvard, and everything I've read on the subject indicates that parents who have not finished college themselves are much less likely to understand how to navigate the system, or to make fine distinctions between various schools.

Moreover, outside of that handful of cities, you don't necessarily see the Northeastern phenomenon of nice houses in bad school districts, and vice versa.  In newer cities, you don't get the scads of beautiful old neighborhoods full of run-down quasi-mansions, because the newer cities were, for one reason or another, unsuitable for mass development before the advent of things like air conditioning, motor cars, or modern building materials.  The building boom of the 1950s was followed by roughly a doubling of the average new American home, which means that unless you live in a city that was already pretty large around 1910, the nicest housing stock is often some of the newest.  It's also where the best schools in town tend to be.  So it's not so easy to tell whether people were seeking more house or better schools; in lots of places, those are the same thing. 

But these are tradeoffs that virtually everyone who works in the policy community thinks about a lot, because they live in places where there's often an enormous tradeoff between size and school district.  It's not surprising that this colors how they think about the rise in housing expenditure over the last fifty or so years.

This is not to make fun of liberals or conservatives who think that more poor kids ought to go to Harvard; that would indeed be nice.  But the fact remains that very few kids are going to go to Harvard, no matter how you play around with their admissions formula.  Good primary education, on the other hand, could help millions.  It requires vigilance to root out the assumption that what's good for the urban upper middle class, is good for America.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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