Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Liberals and Elizabeth Warren

My previous post mentioned the controversy over Elizabeth Warren's claim to be a native American. The facts, as best I can determine them, are that she put herself on the minority law teacher list in her listing in the faculty directory of the American Association of Law Schools, from the mid-eighties until after she received tenure at Harvard, represented herself as native American to both the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, and was so listed in federal filings by both universities. 

When questioned, Warren explained that she believed, from family tradition, that an ancestor had been Cherokee. When the issue arose during her 2012 senatorial campaign, supporters claimed to have documentary evidence that one of her great-great-great grandmothers had been listed as Cherokee. It eventually turned out that the claim was based on an assertion in a 2006 family newsletter—no actual documentation ever appeared. For an account from a source friendly to Warren, see this Mother Jones article. For a much more detailed account from a critical source, this web page.

Most of the controversy has been over whether Warren's claim was true, but that does not strike me as the interesting question. I not only have no documentary evidence with regard to any of my great-great-great grandmothers or even my great grandmothers, I don't even know their names. And, in any case, what is relevant in evaluating Warren's behavior is not what is true but what she believed.

I will assume, therefor, that Warren really did believe that she had a distant ancestor who was Cherokee. We are still left with the case of a woman who took advantage of preferential hiring policies designed to benefit disadvantaged minorities by claiming to be one in spite of not being a member of a disadvantaged minority in any meaningful sense. 

That is not admirable behavior, but neither is it, in my view, strikingly wicked—people quite often game systems for their own advantage in one way or another. But then, I am not a supporter of affirmative action. One would expect those who are to see it as a modern version of the proverbial offense of stealing pennies from a blind man's cup, diverting to her benefit resources that were supposed to go to other and worse off people. Yet Elizabeth Warren has not only not been ostracized by the liberal community, she has become one of their leading figures.

I can only see two plausible explanations. The less likely one is that most liberals do not really believe in their own proclaimed principles, do not care whether affirmative action policies actually benefit the people they are supposed to benefit. The more likely one is that this is an example of tribal behavior. Warren won back a blue tribe senate seat from a red tribe usurper. That gives her a free pass, the social equivalent of a get out of jail free card. Any evidence against her, however clear, is obviously enemy propaganda to be ignored.


At 10:59 AM, May 12, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

I don't for sure know if this is the case here since I'm not following the story, but I suspect it's also a case of the selective use of the "Who cares? It doesn't impact how good a job he/she does" defense that you saw a lot during the Clinton/Lewinsky and John Edwards scandals.

At 11:01 AM, May 12, 2015, Blogger Tom Hudson said...

Am I missing something, or are you saying that this flaw is enough to ostracize, regardless of her good qualities or who her opponents are?

At 11:51 AM, May 12, 2015, Anonymous David (not Friedman) said...

I always prefer to believe that people believe what they say. Or at least that they believe they believe what they say.
But I see liberals attacking conservative blacks as traitors, excusing the most horrific offenses against women and gays as long as they are performed by non-Westerners, and and advocating higher taxes on the rich while cheating on their own taxes.
In the end, I have to wonder if I am being naive.

At 12:07 PM, May 12, 2015, Blogger Gil said...

I think your intuition about tribalism is correct.

Regardless of what people say, many actually care more about whether people seem to be on the right team than what they do (or the consequences of the team's policies).

At 12:14 PM, May 12, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tom: I am saying that this behavior would be a reason to ostracize her from the standpoint of people who really believe in affirmative action. I should qualify that by the fact that some people believe in repentance, that after someone who has done bad things admits it, apologizes, and shows evidence of a change of heart, a second chance may be appropriate.

But Warren has never apologized for her behavior or in any way suggested that she thinks she did anything wrong. And the people who claim to believe in affirmative action not only haven't ostracized her, they have done the opposite, put her on a pedestal as their anointed leader. That seems bizarre.

At 12:36 PM, May 12, 2015, Blogger Joshua Kronengold said...

I'd argue that it's a matter of simple realpolitick.

Warren listing herself as native/minority was unethical. But she's still the most effective current progressive politician in the US. So people who support her policies and what she's willing to support and say are going to be willing to ignore an unethical decision she made 30 years ago.

At 4:29 PM, May 12, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...


But why is she effective, given that she has a record of having betrayed the very principles she claims to defend? That's the puzzle.

I can easily understand someone who agrees with her politics voting for her on the theory that the alternative is worse. But in deciding which candidates to push forward, I would think evidence that someone was willing to betray her principles would be a reason to prefer someone else. For one thing, it means that actually getting her into power might not have the results you want—there being lots of additional opportunities and temptations at that point.

Wouldn't you prefer to push someone who, so far as you could tell, actually believed in the principles he was preaching?

At 5:14 PM, May 12, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

BTW, as of today at least, Warren's Wikipedia page has been scrubbed of any mention of this controversy.

At 6:24 PM, May 12, 2015, Blogger maurile said...

Warren says that identifying herself as Native American had nothing to do with gaining an advantage in employment. If we take her at her word, that exonerates her from the charge that she was stealing pennies, doesn't it?

At 8:01 PM, May 12, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Wouldn't you prefer to push someone who, so far as you could tell, actually believed in the principles he was preaching?"

I'm not sure about that. Surely what is relevant is the particular way in which she betrayed her principles. If she advocates a law that they agree with, but unfairly takes advantage of it herself, she's still providing (what those who support the law consider) a net benefit overall. The negative impact she has by exploiting it in this way is minor. I imagine if her betrayal of principles had been of the form of supporting right-wing laws when it suited her, the negative reaction from her would-be supporters would have been much stronger.

To put it more simply, I presume that supporters of affirmative action simply take people gaming the system as a negative, but unavoidable, disadvantage of this law, which is outweighed by its positive points.

At 2:42 AM, May 13, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...

I agree with the last Anonymous. It is the old saying that the end justifies the means. It may even be quite a chutzpah like in this case...but quite frankly, if I were convinced that a politician is going to bring a lot of what I see as a good while at the same time preaching water and drinking wine, I would still support him.

Of course, this can backlash. The politician may end up antagonizing the undecided people who are not entirely partisan. But it seems (judging from across the ocean) that the american politics has become increasingly divided into red/blue tribes that are hostile to each other with very few "moderates" in the middle (or people like libertarians or other minor groups which do not perfectly fit in one or the other of the two). Then one does not really have to care about "the others", because they are not going to support "us" anyway. Also, one could be worried that someone who preaches water and drinks wine is also going to do it in important ways - like supporting the other tribe for personal gain. But since this would likely backlash very fast with the result of not getting elected again and not being able to profit in the "unimportant" ways, it is probably not worth it for Warren.

Also, maybe in an extreme partisan atmosphere, conceding to making a mistake could be simply seen as a sign of weakness towards the "enemy" by others on her side. But hopefully it is not as bad as this (save for the most extreme partisans). However conceding would show that these policies are prone to abuse, therefore perhaps not as great and less efficient in helping the "less fortunate". Not admitting it means that "we" don't have to start thinking about whether it really is good. People do not like to second guess their sacred beliefs and are very good at coming up with bogus reasons not to do so (I often encountered that pattern when talking to deontological libertarians among others).

At 6:42 AM, May 13, 2015, Blogger jimbino said...

One of the stated purposes of affirmative action is diversity. If so, what contributes more to diversity than a lily-white Cherokee?

At 2:52 PM, May 13, 2015, Blogger Roger said...

Affirmative action is largely about promoting privileged members of certain minorities so that they will be role models for the others. That is why we elected a privileged black president, isn't it?

At 7:09 PM, May 13, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Warren got a pass on another issue, also.

I hear all this, you know, "Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever." No! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there -- good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads THE REST OF US PAID FOR. You hired workers THE REST OF US PAID TO EDUCATE. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that THE REST OF US PAID FOR. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work THE REST OF US DID.
-- Elizabeth Warren

When something is used jointly, and paid for jointly, by a number of people, it's fair if each person pays in proportion to his own usage. If someone (like the rich man, under progressive taxation) pays more than proportionately, then, a fortiori, it's unfair to accuse that person of using facilities that "the rest of us" paid for. Yet this is precisely the accusation that Elizabeth Warren levies at "the factory owner".

This illogical statement of Warren is rarely questioned. She got another magical pass from her friends regarding this example of very bad accounting.

At 4:13 AM, May 14, 2015, Blogger Roger said...

Warren's class warfare is what is making her popular.

At 4:42 AM, May 14, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

Warren used to be a Republican. That doesn't come up much.

At 11:59 AM, May 14, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People who share her ideas will just interpret any criticism as slander from conservatives or woman haters. Selecting to see facts this way is a part of that tribalism explanation. Surely it would benefit the individual to not put their minds in a state like this in the first place, but on the other collective actions run more smoothly if people dont get too hooked up on details. Or behave too rationally.

At 1:08 PM, May 14, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

Maurile: I am willing to believe Warren's claim that she believed she had a Cherokee ancestor. I am not willing to believe the claim that, in listing herself in the AALS directory as a minority (not specifically Amerind) she wasn't trying to get an advantage in employment, since that's the only plausible reason for her to do so.

At 1:13 PM, May 14, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous: I'm not arguing that Warren's gaming of the system is a reason why liberals shouldn't believe in affirmative action. I'm arguing that it is a reason they shouldn't believe in Warren.

Pushing someone who doesn't really believe in your principles, as demonstrated in her behavior, as the star advocate of those principles strikes me as an odd and risky thing to do.

At 1:27 PM, May 14, 2015, Anonymous AMW said...

Apropos the sentiments of this post, I think it's worth pointing out that even if Warren's ancestry is as she has claimed, it would make her about 3% Cherokee. That only barely edges out my Cherokee ancestry, which is nil.

Moreover, whites and Asians are estimated to have about 1 - 4% DNA that is Neanderthal in origin. Consequently, Warren is about as Cherokee as she is a Neanderthal.

At 3:56 PM, May 14, 2015, Anonymous Dain said...

See, David, the problem is that you're an Enlightenment liberal. Stanley Fish explained why Warren is OK - albeit indirectly - in an infamous op-ed bluntly stating the importance of tribalism (no pun…) and the friend/enemy distinction.


Basically, after tallying up all relative merits and demerits, Warren comes out OK. She's high profile and spends her time attacking people WORSE THAN HER, in the eyes of progressives, and thus boosts morale on the left.

At 4:19 AM, May 15, 2015, Anonymous Julie K said...

It would be hard to condemn Warren without condemning the entire system of affirmative action that judges a person not based on who she is but on who her great-grandmother was, and regularly benefits people who do not come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

Also, if Warren really was hired because of affirmative action, I think her employer is more at fault than she is.

At 7:17 PM, May 15, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fault for Affirmative Action does not come from employers for doing it, it comes from the state.

Discrimination lawsuits can be arbitrary and extortionate, so employers who want to survive have to do everything they can to ensure that they do not have a "hostile work environment". This is the same reason they do mandatory diversity workshops (despite either not working or working in the other direction), and is the same reason they have to fire people for their political views.

At 1:00 PM, May 16, 2015, Blogger dd-b said...

You call it "gaming the system" and seem to imply that she's being somehow dishonest. But so far as I can see, her fault was in accepting without verification family stories.

Also, nothing I've seen suggested that she benefited from affirmative action. Possibly the universities she worked at benefited from being able to list her as Native American.

At 3:34 PM, May 16, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

dd-b: As I thought I made clear, I don't think the question of whether she really had a Cherokee great-great-great-grandmother is the central issue.

She didn't describe herself in the AALS directory as one 32nd Cherokee, she described herself as a minority law teacher. Having one distant ancestor who was Cherokee isn't what we normally mean by describing someone that way.

If you don't think she expected to benefit by affirmative action, why do you think she listed herself that way? Given that the universities did list her as native American, isn't it obvious that they considered that a desirable feature in a faculty member, hence something that made them more likely to hire her?

Obviously, we can't prove that she wouldn't have been hired without that, but I don't see any plausible explanation of her behavior that doesn't amount to trying to get favorable treatment by claiming minority status.

At 6:41 PM, May 17, 2015, Blogger Miguel Madeira said...

"I am not willing to believe the claim that, in listing herself in the AALS directory as a minority (not specifically Amerind) she wasn't trying to get an advantage in employment, since that's the only plausible reason for her to do so."

She can simply have pride in her (supposed) cherokee ancestry(I imagine that for most "liberals" beloging to a "minority" will be a matter of pride, like to a marxist is to have a claim to be "working-class"

At 11:22 AM, May 18, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

Miguel: Pride in Cherokee ancestry would be a reason to tell people about it. But simply listing herself as a minority law teacher doesn't do that. It does put her in a group which everyone in the relevant market knows gets favorable treatment.

At 2:10 PM, May 18, 2015, Blogger Riverdale Mom said...

I am 1/8 American Indian and even though I am dusky skinned with high cheekbones and long straight dark hair and eyes, I write down white.

And yes, I carry the allele that is only in Native American populations because I was curious about the story and had no proof. I am sure she can afford the $129 and put it to rest...lol.

At 2:12 PM, May 18, 2015, Blogger Riverdale Mom said...

They are. To claim it for those purposes, it is the only ethnic designation, that requires tribal membership.

At 12:46 AM, May 19, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

Riverdale Mom:

Presumably having that allele is strong evidence that you have Native American ancestry, but not having it doesn't mean you don't, only that some of your ancestry is from other populations.

At 7:48 AM, May 19, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm not arguing that Warren's gaming of the system is a reason why liberals shouldn't believe in affirmative action. I'm arguing that it is a reason they shouldn't believe in Warren."

I know - I'm taking affirmative action just as one of a large number of policies, both already existing and future proposals, which liberals and Elizabeth Warren both support. The same would apply if she were to introduce a new policy popular with the left and then unfairly take advantage of it herself in some way. I'm assuming that the good she brings by supporting the things she does is believed to vastly outweigh the harm she does by taking advantage of it in an unreasonable way herself.

Whether she is to be trusted would seem to depend on what she would lose in terms of her public image rather than her morals. Liberals presumably believe that Warren would not be able to make a political about-face and start pushing ideas they dislike. I think it's arguable that even if she were morally consistent, that an opportunity to gain by betraying her principles would be too great to pass up - and so her reliability is judged on whether she will have those opportunities, not on whether she has or hasn't done very minor damage by unfairly exploiting purportedly good policies.

At 10:04 AM, May 20, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Liberals presumably believe that Warren would not be able to make a political about-face and start pushing ideas they dislike."

Barack Obama? On the other side, George Bush?

Obama campaigned on (among other things) transparency and (mild) willingness to relax the War on Drugs. Bush as a conservative--before sharply increasing government spending and federal influence over local schooling.

Or, for an older example, FDR, who in his first presidential campaign attacked his opponent for being a big spender.

At 11:36 AM, May 20, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Barack Obama? On the other side, George Bush?"

Very true. I didn't necessarily mean to imply that this belief was justified in this case, though, only that that's what I suspect is the reason for it.

As a general rule, would you trust a politician more based on your understanding of their morality/consistency/personal convictions, or on what you think they would or wouldn't be able to get away with? I think the latter is probably a more useful metric - the problem being that in practice, politicians end up being able to get away with quite a lot.

At 11:31 AM, June 01, 2015, Blogger JWO said...

Or they feel it is admirable to relate oneself to a persecuted minority.

Hebrews 11:25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.

They might really believe that it is net detriment to call yourself native American even with the advantage you might gain due to AA.

I notice that children of mixed marriages tend to relate to more persecuted group and it is in fact more looked down upon to call yourself a member of the more advantaged group.

At 11:52 AM, June 01, 2015, Blogger JWO said...

BTW 2 of my grandparents are from Sicily and recently their was study that showed the average Sicilian is 20% African, so I should be 10% African, perhaps it would be noble to call myself black.

At 4:32 PM, June 01, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

"They might really believe that it is net detriment to call yourself native American even with the advantage you might gain due to AA."

Not if you are an academic listing yourself in an information source used by potential employers. I have not seen any evidence that she claimed to be Native American in any other context.


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