The Controversial X Percent
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 10 2002 4:57 PM


Dear Tony,


We appear to have reached consensus that the military trials order was atrociously drafted. Done. I'll respond to your other two points in reverse order.

As to the Bush plan to carry out the promised sharp reductions in nuclear weapons by storing warheads rather than destroying them, your eloquent letter and the Financial Times piece had me racing toward the conclusion that this plan seems so stupid that only boneheads could have devised it. Right-wing boneheads at that. I was diverted momentarily from this path when I noticed two things about the Washington Post story on the same subject today, by Walter Pincus, who knows his stuff in this area. He stressed the news that the Pentagon plans to reduce the number of operational warheads from 6,000 to 3,800 over the next five years. Not until the seventh paragraph did Pincus mention, without much excitement, the plan to store rather than destroy the warheads. He mentioned the critics in passing. He quoted a Pentagon official as saying, "I believe the Russians are doing a very similar thing." And he noted that "the Clinton Administration also stored warheads it reduced."

So, it seems, Bush is proposing to follow Bill Clinton's example here. Maybe you don't have to be a right-wing bonehead to support this plan. And maybe the Financial Times did not tell the whole story. Yesterday's New York Times noted that the storage plan "seems to reflect the concerns of many conservatives and military officials that Russia could one day again become a nuclear rival, or that China could amass enough nuclear weapons to pose a threat." Would China be less likely to build 5,000 nuclear warheads if it knew that the United States could stay ahead without breaking a sweat by taking 2,200 out of storage? Maybe. Maybe not. The nuclear deterrence game has always struck me as a combination of chess, poker, and contract bridge, involving such complex if-we-do-X-then-they-do-Y calculations that I would not aggressively second-guess apparently bone-headed decisions until after hearing out the boneheads who support them.

Still, I am concerned that the store-the-warheads plan may have a high cost in addition to the ones you mention: It may undermine Putin's historic effort to bring Russia around to a far more friendly and less adversarial relationship. Bush has recently made this harder for Putin—who is trying to drag along a reluctant, anti-American military establishment, among others—by announcing withdrawal from the treaty limiting missile defenses. " 'The more steps [Putin] takes without having something to show in exchange, the more criticism he will face among the ruling elite,' " in the words of an expert quoted by the Financial Times. Helping Putin help us seems more important than planning for some far-away contingency. So, I am sympathetic to your bottom-line view that it would be better to destroy the warheads. Pending input from the boneheads.

As to efforts to increase racial diversity, I am all for them—except when they take the form of systematic use of dramatic double standards for the purpose of increasing black and Hispanic representation by discriminating against better-qualified or equally-qualified Asians and whites. And that is exactly what the Harvard admissions department and a lot of other institutions do.

I think you may be too quick to analogize appointing a Supreme Court justice to employment, college admission, etc. High-level appointments are always fundamentally arbitrary, political decisions. Merit matters, of course, but there is no objective way to measure qualifications for the court, and Sandra Day O'Connor's were pretty good. Nobody has a right to "fair" consideration for such a position. And politics always looms large. Dwight Eisenhower (to his subsequent regret) appointed Earl Warren because Warren had extracted a promise when he delivered California's delegates to Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican Convention. Reagan and Clinton had their political reasons for choosing distinguished women for the court. The first President Bush had his political reasons for choosing a black conservative. And the next justice—no matter who the appointing president—is very likely to be Hispanic. That's politics. But I don't think that ordinary jobs, government contracts, and seats in colleges should be awarded on the basis of politics.

I like the Texas top-10 percent plan that you mention for the same reason that I like Jeb Bush's top-20 percent version in Florida—even though it drew a huge protest from the entire civil rights and black political establishments, complete with screams of "racism," "Jim Crow," tears of rage, and a march on Tallahassee, because Bush was proposing to use this plan as a substitute for traditional racial preferences. (Those, by the way, go mostly to the children of relatively affluent black leaders like those who led the protests, not to the ghetto kids who will benefit most from the top 20-percent plan.) The good thing about admitting the top X percent of graduates of each high school in the state—including schools in poor, black (and poor white) areas where average SAT scores and the quality of teaching and learning are very low—is that this promotes racial balance not by doling out racial preferences but by rewarding students who have worked hard and achieved distinction despite being born disadvantaged. Such students have demonstrated pluck and ambition that may enable them to achieve well in college and beyond even though they will arrive less well prepared than their more affluent peers.

That's not the way traditional affirmative action works. The way it works, to create a reasonably representative hypothetical, is that when a low-income Asian (or a middle-class white) applicant with an A average and 1,400 SAT's is competing against an otherwise similar, high-income black applicant with a B-plus average and 1,200 SAT's, most of our elite universities would probably admit the black kid ahead of the Asian or white kid, on account of race. (The black-white average SAT differential at Harvard—about 100 points, last time I checked—is not as great because Harvard gets a huge percentage of the tiny number of African-Americans nationwide with SAT scores above 1,400.) This sort of process, used systematically and extended nationwide, seems to me very unhealthy. I have some sympathy for the kind of minor thumb on the scales to increase diversity that Justice Powell endorsed in the 1978 Bakkedecision. But the history since thenshows that if you give the devotees of systematic, heavy racial preferences an inch, they will take a mile. And so they have.




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