Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Something About Bernie

warning: speaking from significant socioeconomic privilege.


Scott Alexander, writing at Slate Star Codex, has some words:

So presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed universal free college tuition.

On the one hand, I sympathize with his goals. If you can’t get any job better than 'fast food worker' without a college degree, and poor people can’t afford college degrees, that’s a pretty grim situation, and obviously unfair to the poor.


But, well, when we require doctors to get a college degree before they can go to medical school, we’re throwing out [$5 billion], enough to house all the homeless people in the country... Senator Sanders admits that his plan would cost $70 billion per year. That's... enough to give $2000 every year to every American in poverty.

At what point do we say "Actually, no, let's not do that, and just let people hold basic jobs even if they don't cough up a a hundred thousand dollars from somewhere to get a degree in Medieval History"?


If I were Sanders, I'd propose a different strategy. Make "college degree" a protected characteristic, like race and religion and sexuality. If you’re not allowed to ask a job candidate whether they’re gay, you’re not allowed to ask them whether they’re a college graduate or not. You can give them all sorts of examinations, you can ask them their high school grades and SAT scores, you can ask their work history, but if you ask them if they have a degree then that’s illegal class-based discrimination and you’re going to jail. I realize this is a blatant violation of my usual semi-libertarian principles, but at this point I don’t care. (...)


Put that out of your head for a second, and take a tour through the NYT Upshot's data-driven article on the relationship between family income and college attendance:

Interactive graph from The Upshot about the relationship between family income and college attendance.

Okay, now put Scott's thing back in your head.


Scott makes a good point, and here are some more words.

edit: I'll admit, I was too dry in the delivery of this section. My suggestions here are no more logistically plausible than "make public college education free" -- but are likewise intended to make a point about what we should be talking about.

Socioeconomic status is not a protected class characteristic under federal law. As far as I'm aware, this makes it legal to discriminate in hiring based on the family income an applicant grew up on. (Now, you're not allowed to do so in a way that de facto discriminates based on race, so good luck doing so in practice, but...)

Does this seem wrong to you? It seems pretty wrong to me. And if the relationship between socioeconomic status and college is pretty firm (did you go through the Upshot article above?), then discriminating on college degree is, with great statistical power, discriminating on socioeconomic class. After all, if you require that applicants have a college degree, then you will have three times as many applicants from the top 20% (by family income) than from the bottom 20%.

In technical terms, hiring policies that discriminate on college degree status have a "disparate impact" on the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Thus, if it were illegal to discriminate based on socioeconomic status, it would be illegal to discriminate based on college degree. Put another way, if it's legal to discriminate based on college degree, it's legal to discriminate based on class. Put even more suggestively, it's only okay to hire based on unrelated college credentials because it's okay to discriminate based on class.

But Ross, what if a college degree actually is a predictor of job success?

Right, so it turns out that you're actually allowed to impose policies that have "disparate impact" against a protected class if you can prove that you're screening for a "bona fide occupational qualification". (So you're allowed to insist on physical strength as a requirement for working as a firefighter, even if it de facto discriminates against genetically-XX applicants.) If you can prove to a court that a college degree represents a bona fide occupational qualification for the position you're hiring for, go right ahead. But if you're screening out possible secretaries because you think (even if you think rightly!) that college-degree holders are harder workers, and so make better secretaries, then the only reason you're allowed to do so is because it's legal to discriminate based on class.

All this to say, I think that Scott A. is spot-on in his suggestion (with the minor modification that it's class, not college degree, that we protect). There already exists a legal apparatus for enabling social mobility by prohibiting discriminatory hiring -- why don't we engage that, instead of further inflating the college-degree bubble? Or, if we do honestly believe that the right to pursue a college education is fundamental, why not guarantee admission and outlaw class-discriminatory hiring practices, to avoid making college mandatory for those who can least afford spending four years on it?


But there's a larger point to be made here.

It's concerning to me that the most prominent plank in Bernie Sanders's campaign platform is both (1) so popular and (2) wrong. The former is completely understandable -- it's the sort of thing that fits perfectly on a Facebook share and catches on quickly.

The latter is concerning, not because it's obvious -- this isn't a complaint of the sort "how can Sanders be so stupid as to believe [X]?!", because Alexander's solution wasn't obvious to me, either, before I read it. But it is concerning because the popular wrong proposals get citizens anchored on white elephants -- grand, iconic programs which bubbled to the top not because they were correct, but because they were popular and easy to understand.

In the Nyanian pantheon of Elder Gods (as previously discussed by Scott A.), Cthulhu is the god of virulent ideas. Those which are right are more often virulent, true, but most ideas are wrong, and most right ideas are complicated, and most complicated ideas are not virulent, and most virulent ideas are not right. And so I worry that a candidate with popular idea after popular idea in his bag of wonders is not a thing this citizenry is ready for, unless they're half as evidence-backed as they are appealing.

Perhaps I'm growing into a cynical anti-democratism, despite my best efforts contrariwise.

In any case, his ideas sound good! Basically all of them! (I understand that not everyone agrees.) But I worry that the number of them which are actually better than "find the best, not-easy-to-explain way to more-or-less accomplish this good, then spend the savings supporting education for the global poor" is...not large. After all, between you, me, and Bernie Sanders, who's the economist specializing in grand social interventions?

(Hint: It isn't me.)

(Karnofsky/Hassenfeld 2016!)


Wait, and here's another thing. What do the following Bernie Sanders quotes have in common?

edit: Once upon a time, these linked to images posted on Sanders's Facebook page. It looks like they've since been taken down. As for why, your guess is as good as mine.

Over half of all Americans have less than $10,000 in savings and investments... People are not free when they struggle with economic insecurity.

We must make tuition free in public colleges and universities and substantially reduce interest rates on student loans.

If we can spend $6 trillion sending people to war, we can spend $1 trillion to put Americans to work fixing our nation's crumbling infrastructure. Let's rebuild America and create jobs.

The time is now for a Medicare-for-All single-payer program. Health care must be a right, not a privilege.

People should not die young because they are poor. Income inequality kills. That must end. All Americans are entitled to live healthy and decent lives.

answer: They've all conveniently forgotten about the existence of non-Americans living in (global) poverty, whose circumstances make the American poor look, by and large, enviably prosperous.

Go back and read through them:

  • "Over half of all Americans have less than $10,000 in savings and investments." -- More than three-quarters of people worldwide have less than $10,000 in savings and investments, and the majority live in places where the banking system isn't there to provide liquidity in personal debt.

  • "We must make tuition free in public colleges an universities and substantially reduce interest rates on student loans." -- Every $20,000 spent financing a year of American college tuition is $20,000 not spent financing 200 twelve-year primary-secondary educations in the developing world. The cost of putting one American through college is not spending the money to support 800 full educations elsewhere.

  • "If we can spend $6 trillion sending people to war, we can spend $1 trillion to put Americans to work... Let's rebuild America and create jobs." -- If we can spend $1 trillion to put Americans to work, we can spend $1 trillion as a 20% downpayment on ending global poverty forever.

  • "Health care must be a right, not-- Okay, this is a joke, right? We know how to stop malaria. We know how to cure schistosomiasis. The only reason we haven't done so already is because the people with malaria and schistosomiasis had the additional misfortune of being born not here.

  • "All Americans are entitled to live healthy and decent lives." -- Here, Senator Sanders, you and I certainly agree. In fact, I'm certain that we agree on many more statements of this nature, seeing that neither of us see nationality as a prerequisite for basic human empathy.

To steal a rhetorical device from yet another Slate Star Codex post: "There is no reason that 'promote the welfare of the poorest Americans' would even come to the attention of an unbiased person trying to protect basic human dignity from the ravages of capitalism."

After all, it's true that in a better world than this one, poor Americans should be better off than they are. But it's not the first (or second, or third...) thing a reasonable person trying to improve the world would think of.


On some level, I understand people who feel no charitable obligation toward their fellow human beings. I believe I could pass for one in an Ideological Turing Test. The idea that no one is morally obligated to sacrifice for the good of another is abhorrent, but not alien to me.

But I cannot, for the life of me, understand how someone can hold that residents of Montana are entitled to live healthy and decent lives, and that residents of Kenya are not. I cannot understand how someone can believe that, at the level of national policy, one student's college education is more important than 800 others' basic schooling. I do not understand how someone can think that saving one stranger's life from cancer in California is more important than saving twenty children's lives from malaria in Tanzania.

In short, I understand Ted Cruz, and I do not understand Bernie Sanders. And until I do, I don't know whether I'm supposed to vote for the man, or run screaming from his idea of social policy.