Environmentalism Could Use Some Ideological Diversity

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Environmentalism, once a point of mutual agreement between liberals and conservatives, is flagging under the demand to meet the highest standards of left-wing activism. For an example, look no further than the latest craze in pop environmentalism: local straw bans.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that straw bans—local laws prohibiting restaurants from giving straws and other single-use plastics to customers—are springing up across America. All told, 28 US cities, joined by a growing list of businesses that includes Starbucks, have so far banned or limited the use of plastic straws or are considering doing so.

While these bans are moving at a steady clip in progressive enclaves, they haven’t been without detractors. As one might expect, the plastics and restaurant industries aren’t thrilled, and the bans have exasperated others who point out that plastic straws make up about .03% of the plastic that enters our oceans each year.

Those objections were never destined to blunt the enthusiasm of the celebrity-fueled campaign to #stopsucking. But another argument, made from within the ranks, has proven far more effective: Several disability advocates have pointed out that plastic straws, considered by most an item of convenience, are in fact essential to the dining experience for people with mobility issues. By outright banning them, they argue, these cities and businesses are forgetting about and harming disabled people.

The traction of this counter—the same argument has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, Time, the Guardian, NPR, Teen Vogue and many more outlets—says a lot about how far left environmentalism has moved. The appeal of behalf of the disabled is effective because it, like other forms of progressive activism, appeals to the moral touchstones of protecting victims and promoting equality. Environmentalism, though practically a poster child for non-partisanship, is often pitched the same way: save the rain forest, protect the environment, the victims of climate change. This has no doubt added to its polarization, as this messaging is less effective with moderates and conservatives.

The progressive desires to protect victims and strive for equality have unquestionably been the impetus for much positive change in American society. But they can also be a weakness: left unchecked, progressive movements can auto-cannibalize as these motivations are pursued at the expense of all else—including their original goals.

A few notorious examples: The now-defunct Cape Wind project, which could have farmed enough wind energy to power 200,000 homes, met with tremendous resistance from Massachusetts residents who cited concerns about the effects on local fish and bird populations (as well as some less noble complaints about the view). The Ivanpah solar tower faced constant legal and political resistance from California environmentalists, despite estimates that it would prevent the emission of 500,000 metric tons of carbon per year. Dams and other forms of hydroelectric power, responsible for close to half of all the renewable energy generation in the United States, are also known to provoke the ire of green activists.

In each case, progressives who otherwise champion the worthwhile goal of cleaner energy are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The desire to avoid harming anyone vulnerable at any cost can lead to paralysis. In environmentalism, where big changes are difficult and marginal actions more tempting, the costs are more likely to be borne by those for whom a seeming inconvenience can be a prohibitive obstacle. That can be uncomfortable under normal circumstances, but when advocates are overwhelmingly hyper-sensitive to the “losers” side of the equation, as progressives often are, it can be downright intolerable.

Yet if we mean to make an omelette, eggs must be broken. While I personally think the straw ban craze is more performative than functional, there will no doubt be times when our society will have to make trade-offs to protect our natural world. If you think “the rich” alone will bear these costs, you’re kidding yourself. I’m not saying that environmentalists should be okay with making the lives of disabled people harder (and in this case, the workaround suggested by disability advocates—that restaurants simply stop offering them to everyone and keep some on hand for requests—is entirely reasonable). What I am saying is there will be tough choices on the road ahead, and environmentalism must decide if it will pursue left-wing purity or practicality.

Should it choose the latter, it will need to diversify its support. There won’t always be a happy marriage between impactful environmentalism and progressive values. For environmental groups to weather the political storm, they’ll have to be able to tap sources of support from outside the left.

Of course, this isn’t a one-way street; people outside the political left will have to start caring about these issues in much more visible ways and be willing to push their representatives. As it is, they’re giving up their chance to shape a movement and be part of the conversation. Unfortunately, for the moment, conservative political environmentalism remains somewhat niche. That’s a shame because the long-term viability of life on Earth is perhaps the greatest and most complicated matter concerning humanity. It would be foolish to think any political faction could tackle it alone.

This post originally appeared on Merion West

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Business Is Getting Political—and Personal

As anyone reading this blog is undoubtedly aware, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current White House Press Secretary, was asked last month by the owner of a restaurant to leave the establishment on the basis that she and her staff felt a moral imperative to refuse service to a member of the Trump administration. The incident, and the ensuing turmoil, highlights the extent to which business has become another political battleground—a concept that makes many anxious.

Whether or not businesses should take on political and social responsibilities is a fraught question—but not a new one. Writing for the New York Times in 1970, Milton Friedman famously argued that businesses should avoid the temptation go out of their way to be socially responsible and instead focus on maximizing profits within the legal and ethical framework erected by government and society. To act otherwise at the expense profitability, he reasoned, is to spend other people’s money—that of shareholders, employees, or customers—robbing them of their agency.

Though nearing fifty years of age, much of Milton Friedman’s windily and aptly titled essay, The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Profits, feels like it could have been written today. Many of the hypotheticals he cites of corporate social responsibility—“providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution”—are charmingly relevant in the era of automation anxiety, BDS, and one-star campaigns. His solution, that businesses sidestep the whole mess, focus on what they do best, and play by the rules set forth by the public, is elegant and simple—and increasingly untenable.

One reason for this is that businesses and the governments Friedman imagined would reign them in have grown much closer, even as the latter have grown comparatively weaker. In sharp contrast to the get-government-out-of-business attitude that prevailed in the boardrooms of the 1970s, modern industry groups collectively spend hundreds of millions to get the ears of lawmakers, hoping to obtain favorable legislation or stave off laws that would hurt them. Corporate (and other) lobbyists are known to write and edit bills, sometimes word for word.

You could convincingly argue that this is done in pursuit of profit: Boeing, for example, spent $17 million lobbying federal politicians in 2016 and received $20 million in federal subsidies the same year. As of a 2014 report by Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks corporate subsidies, Boeing had received over $13 billion of subsidies and loans from various levels of government. Nevertheless, this is wildly divergent from Friedman’s idea of business as an adherent to, not architect of, policy.

As business has influenced policy, so too have politics made their mark on business. Far more so than in the past, today’s customers expect brands to take stands on social and political issues. A report by Edelman, a global communications firm, finds a whopping 60% of American Millennials (and 30% of consumers worldwide) are “belief-driven” buyers.

This, the report states, is the new normal for businesses—like it or not. Brands that refrain from speaking out on social and political issues now increasingly risk consumer indifference, which, I am assured by the finest minds in marketing, is not good. In an age of growing polarization, every purchase is becoming a political act. Of course, when you take a stand on a controversial issue, you also risk alienating people who think you’re wrong: 57% of consumers now say they will buy or boycott a brand based on its position on an issue.

This isn’t limited to merely how corporations talk. Firms are under increasing social pressure to hire diversity officers, change where they do business, and reduce their environmental impact, among other things. According to a 2017 KPMG survey on corporate social responsibility, 90% of the world’s largest companies now publish reports on their non-business responsibilities. This reporting rate, the survey says, is being driven by pressure from investors and government regulators alike.

It turns out that a well marketed stance on social responsibility can be a powerful recruiting tool. A 2003 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business found 90% of graduating MBAs in the United States and Europe prioritize working for organizations committed to social responsibility. Often, these social objectives can be met in ways that employees enjoy: for example, cutting a company’s carbon footprint by letting employees work from home.

In light of all this, the choice between social and political responsibility and profitability seems something of a false dichotomy. The stakes are too high now for corporations to sit on the sidelines of policy, politics, and society, and businesses increasingly find themselves taking on such responsibilities in pursuit of profitability. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate. But as businesses have grown more powerful and felt the need to transcend their formerly transactional relationships with consumers, it seems to be the new way of things.

Smith College Protests: Beneath Outrage, Statistical Confusion

Two leaked letters between staff and administrators at the Smith College School for Social Work have led to mass student protests of perceived institutional racism.

Professors alleged that admissions staff were doing a disservice–particularly to minority students–by admitting unprepared students to the program, despite “overwhelming data that demonstrates that many…students, including white­-identified students, cannot offer clients a social work intervention that is based upon competence, skills and ethics.”

The unnamed source of the leak, as well as students, took umbrage over some of the terminology and implications of the letters, citing “violent, racist rhetoric.”

Protests at Smith College are somewhat of a perennial occurrence, but this case is particularly interesting because it deals in part with matters that can be verified through existing data. Moreover, arguments from the students present good opportunities to debunk common fallacious assumptions and underscore the importance of viewing statistics in proper context.

The first such assumption is that members of differing groups should be expected to achieve similar results and outside factors are to blame when this isn’t the case.

Contemporary politics are inundated with references to various forms of inequality. Why would we expect that there would be huge differences across people of varying (ethnic) groups except when it comes to academic performance? Indeed, racial achievement gaps are a widely acknowledged phenomenon.

For this reason, student Chris Watkins’ statement that a “disproportionate amount of black and Latino students” are under review, which can endanger their chances of graduation, isn’t enough to indicate racism. There’s no reason to assume that black and Latin students as a group would do as well as whites or Asians besides that we might find it ideologically appealing.

The second assumption is that multivariate groups of people can be divided neatly by single variables. Speaking of black, Latino, and white students assumes that the students that fall into these categories share all other variables that might affect educational performance.

Students could just as easily be separated by family income or some other variable that correlates to academic success. We wouldn’t expect black students from poor, single-parent households and upper class black students whose parents are Ivy League alumni to succeed at the same rates, even though both are black. Any discussion of racial outcomes that doesn’t take other factors into account is too blunt to deserve much weight.

Even if racism were a factor in determining which students are put on review, as Watkins seems to allege, the proportion of students on review by race wouldn’t tell us that, which brings me to my third point: Gross statistics are easily digestible, but can rarely be trusted to convey the nuances of a situation. Discrimination could be inferred statistically, but Watkins is looking in the wrong place for evidence.

In 1991 the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that after adjusting for several factors, blacks loan applicants were rejected about 17% of the time, compared with 11% for white applicants. The Boston FED felt that this was enough to infer racial discrimination on the part of lenders, which confirmed an existing belief held by the researcher.

It was only later that a writer at Forbes pointed out that racial discrimination would be evidenced not in the percentage of rejected applicants, but in the default rates of the borrowers. Lower rates of default among black borrowers would indicate that their applications were being held to tighter standards than comparable white applications. Since black and white default rates were even, it appeared that race was not a deciding factor in the lenders’ decision-making process.

We can apply the same logic to this accusation of faculty racism at Smith College. It’s not enough to demonstrate that a higher proportion of black and Latino students are placed under review; we need to know they’re outperforming white students who are also placed on review, or inversely, if among students not under review whites had a lower GPA than black and Latino students.

Similarly, we can evaluate the complaints of Professor Dennis Miehls and the “Concerned Adjuncts.”

If, as the letters from staff seem to imply, unqualified students were being admitted because of an administrative predilection for non-academic qualities,[1] we would probably find some evidence of that in the incoming GPAs (or other metric of gauging academic preparedness) of students under review relative to their successful peers. Since the Smith College MSW program doesn’t require applicants to take a GRE, work experience, undergraduate GPA, and SAT scores might be the best such indicators.

In a school so often embattled by protests and accusations of racism, students and faculty should take this chance to quantitatively assess whether or not racism is affecting the performance of minority students on campus. With any luck, someone with access to the right data will perform a competent analysis.

[1] It would hardly be the first time a university admitted based on preferential characteristics that had nothing to do with academic success. Among students admitted to medical schools between 2013 and 2016, black and Latino students have lower median GPAs and MCAT scores than white applicants, who are similarly behind Asian applicants. Among applicants with comparable MCAT and GPAs, black and Latino students are far more likely to be accepted, indicating an admissions preference.