VOTE YES: Affirmative Action Is Bad For State’s Business Climate, True Equality

David Littmann, Detroit Free Press, October 2, 2006

On Nov. 7, voters will be asked to pass the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, ending Michigan’s practice of favoring some individuals and classes over others. For Michigan’s economic sake, they’ll need to vote YES. Here’s why.

A state’s business climate is highly dependent on justice, both perceived and actual. Job growth does not occur when employers, investors or workers discover politicians and the Constitution of a state confer special preferences to one kind of worker over another. The same injustice occurs when policies offer tax breaks to one firm and not to one of its competitors. The same misallocation of resources is inevitable when state or local regulations favor one type of investment over another.

Michigan’s sinking economic, financial, real estate and employment fortunes reflect the quicksand of policies that have for decades afforded special privileges to a chosen few at the expense of the many. For Michigan it has become painfully clear that U.S. and international marketplaces prefer environments where government policies are more flexible and attuned to realistic market incentives.

The state’s set of special preferences, rather than general preferences and incentives, smack of contrivance, rather than a genuine quest for excellence. When a justice system degenerates into policies that install political overrides to the natural, competitive order, its economy also degenerates. Michigan laws are unwittingly announcing that this state lacks the wherewithal to compete.

Because markets thrive on incentives that apply to those who want to work, study, invest and profit, Michigan needs to revisit the efficacy of financial targeting and hiring-preference policies. To do otherwise is to broadcast to the world that (1) Michigan is a paternalistic state, interested in currying favor with particular interest groups but not with its entire constituency; and (2) Michigan is cultivating a climate of resentment and divisiveness that threatens labor productivity and morale. Furthermore, the state’s current attitude impairs profits by raising regulatory and enforcement costs, thereby injuring risk/reward ratios on capital investment or new business start-ups.

Michigan has relied on race, gender and legacy preferences, to cite only a few realms, when it comes to college admissions and workplace hiring and promotion. It does so under the guise of correcting the wrongs of bygone eras. But preference-based policies look backward, not forward. Economically, they will never jibe with the “value added” fundamentals that guide the global economy. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has rebuked much of Michigan’s preference-peddling.

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The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative has been vilified by special interest groups that fear that their “protected” individuals can’t make it in the workplace or in schools of higher learning. This is false pessimism. What opponents really fear is MCRI’s capacity to return self-confidence, self-esteem, hope and prosperity to millions of Michigan households. What sends tremors through the opposition is that once these men and women demonstrate they no longer need special privileges, they’ll cast off their “protectors” as well.

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Civil rights is never a straightforward subject, and Michigan is once again the site of a major controversy. In November, voters will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action.

The debate is bewildering. Both sides claim the true legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both sides lament the achievement gap. Both sides purport to cherish inclusion.

What’s really going on?

That question is easy to answer. Voting for the amendment would get rid of affirmative action as it’s practiced today by the State of Michigan.

But what exactly is affirmative action? In higher education, affirmative action is a policy that gives universities the discretion to take race and sex into account as one “plus-factor” among many when making an admissions decision. That’s pretty clear, whether or not you agree that it’s right.

But some supporters of the amendment have muddied the waters by insinuating that affirmative action allows a school to “pick winners and losers based solely on race and sex.” Some have even claimed that affirmative action is basically a quota system.

That makes everyone nervous. Nothing seems more alien to the American creed than a group quota that disregards individual merit.

But it’s important to realize that the charge of quotas is almost always leveled against a civil rights policy—justified or not. It was justified in 1974, when Alan Bakke sued the medical school at the University of California, Davis. The school did actually reserve 16 places for minorities (out of 100) in the matriculating class. But the accusation of quotas was not justified in 1945, when New York power broker Robert Moses directed it against a proposed state law against discrimination. The law was simple; it prohibited discrimination in employment.

For much of U.S. history, whenever a controversy over civil rights has erupted, “quotas” is almost always the first criticism to emerge. That makes it even more important for Michiganders to remain clear-sighted.

The reality these days is that affirmative action is not a quota system.

Instead, it’s a highly restricted policy that must to adhere to tight constitutional boundaries. When the Supreme Court gave affirmative action a new lease on life in 2003, it set clear limits on what was permissible. The court ruled out racial quotas, set-asides, separate tracks, automatic point systems—any setup in which race or sex was made the defining feature of the application.

Only affirmative action of the kind implemented at the University of Michigan Law School was allowed by the court. There, every applicant was evaluated individually. Race or gender was only one of many factors that could contribute toward the diversity of the student body.

That’s the real policy at stake, and it’s not radical at all. In fact, it seems rather mild. But it’s most certainly a policy that the November amendment would end.

I hope that Michigan doesn’t end the kind of affirmative action the Supreme Court approved. As a college educator, I think there is value in having a diverse campus. I have seen it firsthand in the classroom, where students of different backgrounds have a chance to engage each other personally to learn about their differences—and to see what they have in common.

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