Saturday, September 10, 2011

Just Why Do We Have Employment Discrimination Laws?

A provision in President Obama's proposed American Jobs Act would prohibit employers from discriminating against prospective employees on the grounds that they are currently unemployed. This is in response to reports that some companies are limiting job openings by explicitly turning away job-seekers who are not currently employed elsewhere.

In the Washington Post, Charles Lane takes aim at the proposal, with a hearty concurrence from Jonathan Adler. While I don't have a strong opinion yet on the provision itself (having just learned of it), I have to say I find Lane and Adler to be very unpersuasive critics. Both, in my view, give a short-shrift to the purposes that underlie employment discrimination law -- narrowing its ambition in ways that would not just obviate the need for an "unemployment discrimination" provision, but many other anti-discrimination provisions they claim to support.

Lane makes the case that for some firms in some cases, it is perfectly rational to discriminate on basis of immediate past employment history. For example, a company might prefer a candidate who is up to date on current trends in the industry versus one who would need time to get up to speed. Consequently, we should be reluctant to "assign malicious intent without a lot more specific information", and trust the market to punish firms that do discriminate in an inefficient manner.

Lane's argument could be (and sometimes is) used against all employment discrimination laws (if it's really irrelevant, the market will solve, otherwise, it's rational market choice and should be left alone). Adler at least makes an effort to preserve some of them by analogizing to racial discrimination, where, for much of our nation's history, a company who attempt to hire in a non-discriminatory fashion would be beset by boycotts, intimidation, and violence. Even though racial discrimination is inefficient and race is not relevant to job qualifications, it would persist because no company could break from the status quo and hire racial minorities without incurring huge costs. Employment discrimination laws are justified in such cases to solve a first mover problem (and, notably, companies would prefer such a law to be in place for that very reason).

The first problem with this distinction is that it probably doesn't apply today -- it seems unlikely that in 2011 a company which did hire Blacks would face a coordinated campaign of violence and intimidation as a result -- which means it is hard for Adler to avoid arguing that employment discrimination law as a whole has passed its prime and should be repealed (which maybe he does think, I don't know). But in any event, the second, larger problem is that it doesn't even touch on a different rationale behind employment discrimination laws: that certain sorts of appraisals should be restricted even where they're arguably relevant, either because they're morally inappropriate or because we believe whatever efficiency gains might exist from a free market system are outweighed by the damage done to the discriminated-against group member and general American values of inclusion.

The obvious example on this front is discrimination on basis of disability. One clearly can think of many cases where disability is relevant in an employment decision; and far more where it is isn't so clearly irrelevant so as to demand an inference of "malicious intent". Nonetheless, we bar it anyhow, both because we think the harms it imposes upon the disabled outweigh whatever efficiency gains would manifest from an open market, and because we've made an assessment that such discrimination is morally suspect as a general rule. The ADA, of course, has not been an economic catastrophe -- whatever economic losses it has created by barring "efficient" discrimination we appear happy to absorb as a cost for a more inclusive American society.* Meanwhile, we don't have the ADA because we think employers are malicious -- this is the misleading strawman that tells us that for their to be discrimination, there must be some villain cackling about how much he hates minorities. Not at all -- we often have anti-discrimination laws not because there are evildoers who need to be warded off, but rather because there is a maldistribution of opportunity in our society that we view as unfair.

Now, one element of disability discrimination law (indeed, most employment discrimination provisions -- race is a notable exception) is that if an employer actually can prove that the disability is relevant to bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), then that is a valid affirmative defense. So we don't even ban this sort of "efficient discrimination", we just force employers to back it up. This defense apparently is incorporated into the proposed unemployment discrimination provision. Indeed, it appears that provision is stricter still -- barring such discrimination only when it was the sole rationale for the employer decision (thus giving a pass to "mixed motive" cases, where employment status was one reason among others for the employer's decision).

Lane recognizes these caveats but darkly warns that they'll be "endlessly litigated before settled case law emerged" and thus will act as a deterrent to company hiring (Adler concurs). This is unlikely: as noted, the provisions parallel already extant statutory rules in Title VII. Far from being a judicial blank slate, it overlays itself upon anti-discrimination rules that are quite settled and well-known to HR professionals -- they stand out only in that they track the weakest threads of contemporary anti-discrimination law. It would be difficult to imagine a new regulation that would be more easily absorbed by the business community. Adler's assumption that companies will simply avoid hiring people at all for fear of being sued under the new provision seems more than a little melodramatic.

* It is also possible that there is a separate sort of first mover problem being solved here, where it was irrational for any one firm to recalibrate itself to be inclusive towards the disabled but a net utility boost could come once we unlocked the potential of a hitherto underutilized segment of our society. One thing that I think capitalism does very well is that it is adaptable to varying sets of constraints: when a new restriction is imposed, firms don't throw up their hands and give up, they look for new ways to create wealth and utility consistent with the new regime.

Has the Fever Broke?

The situation in Egypt with respect to Israel has badly deteriorated, with Israeli diplomatic staff forced to evacuate after the embassy was attacked by a mob. As distressing as that scene was -- and it was -- it also appears to be non-representative of either the current Egyptian government or the leaders of the protest movement. Indeed, six stranded embassy staffers were rescued by a team of Egyptian commandos, and the Egyptian government has promised to prosecute those responsible for the attack.

Meanwhile, Bibi went out of his way to praise President Obama for his leadership during the crisis:
Netanyahu praised the United States for intervening with Egypt in order to rescue the Israelis. “I would like to express my gratitude to the President of the United States, Barack Obama. I asked for his help. This was a decisive and fateful moment. He said, ‘I will do everything I can.’ And so he did. He used every considerable means and influence of the United States to help us. We owe him a special measure of gratitude,” Netanyahu said.

That's the sort of language that, to me, is designed to extend beyond the proximate events and heal deeper wounds. If so, it is a welcome development and worth noting.

UPDATE: Speaking of fevers breaking, Turkey is backing off earlier threats to send in its navy in escort of new flotillas. Baby steps, people.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Retaliatory Measures

The Israeli foreign ministry is contemplating various retaliatory measures against Turkey after the latter expelled the Israeli ambassador, cut military ties, and is threatening to provide military escort to any new flotilla seeking to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. It's typical Lieberman fare: pugnacious, probably counterproductive, and forcing the Prime Minister's office to distance itself. The main highlights are beginning cooperation with the PKK (a Kurdish terrorist organization working to establish an independent Kurdish state in Southeast Turkey), including potential weapons sales, and flooding the UN with complaints about Turkey's treatment of minorities (such as the Kurds).

I'm obviously not wild about supplying weapons to a recognized terrorist organization. But I will admit to finding ironically appealing sending a convey to southeast Turkey filled with Kurdish-language instruction books and other educational materials geared towards the Kurdish people. Totally non-violent "solidarity" measures, but I guarantee Turkey would flip out (Kurdish language and culture is heavily suppressed by the Turkish government). And hey, if we're talking about supporting national self-determination for local populations under the heel of another power, well, what's good for the goose....

As for the human rights complaints, both Israel and Turkey long have a habit of using such proclamations as proxies for diplomatic conflicts (see, e.g., declarations regarding the Armenia genocide). Still, it's not as if there aren't serious points of concern that deserve public airing: For example, the Turkish prime minister threatened to expel 100,000 undocumented ethnic Armenians if resolutions regarding said genocide were passed (ironic, no?).

On the other hand, there is no reason to think that UN human rights bodies will give Turkey anything but a clean bill of health no matter how serious its violations are. After all, countries in the UNHRC's good graces can get away with quite a bit: Sri Lanka earned laudations for its actions against the Tamils in the midst of killing up to 1,000 civilians a day. There is no reason to think that the UN holds any particular interest in holding Turkey accountable for wrongdoing, and it will be particularly resistant to doing so when it seen as acting on Israel's instigation, so it is not clear what any Israeli complaints would accomplish.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

How It'll Go

My girlfriend told me that the early response to Obama's speech from various pundit-types was positive. She was optimistic. I, on the other hand, forwarded this account of what we could expect:

Day 1: Media tells us that Obama's speech was decent, relatively noncontroversial fare -- focusing on bipartisan solutions which have a history of support from both parties.

Day 2: Republicans claim that they've never heard anything more radical in their entire lives, and that basically we're witnessing the rebirth of Maoism combined with Nazism.

Day 3: "Is Obama's jobs plan fascist? The controversy brews!"

Cite as precedent: The individual mandate, "based on 1967 borders".

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

There's Always Someone

When various rabble-rousers in Egypt were agitating to annul the peace treaty with Israel, I remarked somewhat smugly that "reputation for rabid warmongering aside, there is no political constituency of note in Israel that has called for a repudiation of peace with Egypt. It seems that once Israel makes a final agreement with one of its neighbors, it is capable of keeping it with little fuss from its citizens' end." So of course I read an Israeli editorial in Ynet that proposes doing just that. Because Lord knows if Israel didn't have its share of morons it would just be too easy.

Fortunately, it does seem like this guy is quite the marginal figure -- there remains "no political constituency of note" making this call that I've seen. And even in Egypt, the claim that there is some groundswell support for annulling the treaty is also badly overstated (the "million man march" that was planned to press for canceling the treaty drew terribly). But still, it's just so, so annoying.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Clarification: We're Dumb

I love it when newspapers issue "clarifications" regarding statements that were actually just flagrantly false. Here's USA Today, "clarifying" that a pay raise "could very well bump you into the next tax bracket, possibly leaving you with less money." As Jon Chait notes, there is no situation where a pay raise could leave you with less money due to increased taxes, because our tax system is graduated. Worse yet, the column was entitled "math tips". Come on, people -- even I can get this.

Spy Games

I remember being quite blase when a story broke about Israel spying on the US. I just didn't find it that shocking. Nations -- even friendly nations -- don't take each other at their word. They spy on each other. It didn't surprise me that Israel spies on us, and I'd be shocked if we don't spy on Israel.

And it turns out we do! Again, nothing shocking here. If anything, the most interesting twist is that the leaker was an Israeli Jew working for the FBI on contract, who was worried about what he perceived to be Israel's overly aggressive tendencies (he gave the info he intercepted to a left-wing Jewish blogger). It's such a delicious inversion of the trope that Jews can't be trusted to put American interests over Israeli ones.

Hell's Kitchen All-Stars: Heroes and Villains

Another episode of Hell's Kitchen, another day where Elise is still in the kitchen. Alas. But I did enjoy getting to see some of my old favorites make a return -- indeed, I'd have liked to hear more about where they are now. I admit to not being the biggest Trev fan, but I adore Jillian, Tennille, and even Van (Season 6 was the first one I saw, so it has a special place in my heart). And as for Ben, well, he was the recipient of one of the coldest Chef Ramsey remarks in the show's history (he pulled Ben aside and whispered in his ear "I want you out."), but I guess that didn't do any permanent damage.

Anyway, someone speculated that this episode was a dry run for a potential "Hell's Kitchen All-Stars". Which is an awesome idea on its own. But what would be even awesomer would be to make it into a "heroes versus villains" affair. Two teams of eight, one composed of fan favorites, the other, famous HK antagonists.

So below is my roster for Hell's Kitchen All-Stars: Heroes and Villains. All participants had to at least make the black jackets, but not win, in their respective seasons. Beyond that, it's a purely subjective assessment on my part. So, without further delay....


Ralph (Season #1, Second Place)
Julia (Season #3, Fourth Place)
Petrozza (Season #4, Second Place)
Paula (Season #5, Second Place)
Ariel (Season #6, Third Place)
Tennille (Season #6, Fourth Place)
Jillian (Season #8, Third Place)
Will/Jennifer (Season #9, ??? Place -- obviously, one of them won't win, and while I'll be shocked if Will doesn't win this season, I can't just assume it).


Sara (Season #2, Fourth Place)
Jen (Season #3, Third Place)
Corey (Season #4, Third Place)
Suzanne (Season #6, Fifth Place)
Benjamin (Season #7, Third Place)
Russell (Season #8, Second Place)
Sabrina (Season #8, Sixth Place)
Elise (Season #9, ??? Place, but apparently she doesn't win).

What do you think?

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Going Proactive?

In the Jerusalem Post, Dana Gordon makes the argument that Israel should get out in front of Palestine's statehood bid by submitting a statehood proposal of its own, with terms that include the necessary protections Israel needs as part of a final resolution of the conflict. This, Gordon argues, would be a "proactive" move by Israel that would allow it to recapture the terms of the debate and stem the international sentiment that it is the primary obstructionist towards peaceful resolution of the conflict.

I do think this is a decent idea, but I also think Gordon oversells it. First, Israel is not "strong now". Israel currently has a historically -- almost comically (were it not also so tragic) -- weak government that almost certainly could not launch a bold stroke like this on such a short timeframe. Second, Gordon is considerably more confident than I that a rejection by Palestinians and their allies would be considered a reflection upon them. Why? The counterargument is easy -- that Israeli demands were unreasonable or illegitimate, and that Palestinians had every right to reject them in favor of more favorable terms -- terms which would come up for a vote several weeks later when the Palestinian proposal came up. It might muddy the waters a bit, but to cast it as some sort of unstoppable move of moral jujitsu is wildly off the mark.

What the proposal does have in its favor is that, in its roundabout way, it effectively restores a situation of bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Israel and Palestine would both be putting their terms on the table, and would know where the other stands. The fact that both plans would be subjected to a UNGA vote would almost be a side theater. I care about as much what the U.N. General Assembly says about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as I do what the Dixiecrat Party has to say about the NAACP. But ignore them. The idea of putting parameters on the table is meaningful, and in that sense I think it is important for Israel to become "proactive" again.