The Page Principle of Political Prejudice

CLARENCE PAGE

October 27, 1992|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- "GU,'' for ''geographically undesirable,'' is one of the most remarkable terms the singles world ever produced. It refers to some hot number you just met who suddenly turns cold, in your assessment, once you find out that he or she lives too far away to make a continuing relationship conveniently worthwhile.

Sure, it sounds like a typically stupid, cold, callous, self-centered and dehumanizing me-generation thing to say. (Whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion of ''I'd go to the ends of the Earth for you''?) Still, it states frankly the sort of economics-based judgments we make just about every day, whether we realize it or not.

One who realizes it and just won a Nobel Prize in economics for it is the University of Chicago economics professor, Gary S. Becker. To say Mr. Becker has a keen grasp of the obvious is not a put-down, since many of his revelations have been far from obvious to those who make government social policy.

His calculations, for example, that love, marriage and family life respond much more quickly to economics than to any manipulations of politicians, no matter how well-intentioned, help us understand why welfare laws that deny benefits to mothers who live with the fathers of their children actually discourage stable family life instead of encouraging it.

''People marry when the utility expected from marriage exceeds the utility expected from remaining single,'' Mr. Becker once said. ''They expect to maximize the amount of household-produced commodities such as the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love and health status.''

Just so. Similarly, couples divorce when the utility of staying married falls below the utility expected from getting divorced. Good marriages are based on good business decisions, says the professor, cold-blooded, perhaps, but highly rational observations that can be provable on a chalkboard.

Of course, human beings often think and behave irrationally. Some people lose money by marrying, yet do it anyway. Some can't afford to have children, but have them anyway. Some tough it out and try to stay together even when it would be worth their time and money to split.

Why? Well, even a Nobel Prize winner can be ''puzzled'' sometimes, which is why I was particularly intrigued by a column Mr. Becker wrote in Business Week a few months ago about the touchy subject of affirmative action.

Like other great legal and economic thinkers of the free-market ''Chicago school,'' Mr. Becker thinks quotas and other affirmative-action programs probably do hurt some individuals. For one thing, they cater to minorities with political clout and leave other needy individuals behind. But, he adds significantly, they probably don't hurt much, in light of all the fuss so many people make about them.

''I don't like group quotas and other aspects of affirmative-action programs,'' he writes. ''But I am puzzled by the hand-wringing and anger of those who are opposed, especially some intellectuals. Although no one has even rough estimates of the social costs and bene- fits of these programs, I strongly suspect that certain other subsidies and regulations do more damage.''

His examples include tax breaks to the housing industry; the declines in labor-force participation of elderly persons induced by the tax on Social Security benefits; and higher consumer prices due to quotas on imported cars, textiles, computer chips and, until recently, steel.

Opponents may argue that affirmative-action programs are worse than other programs because they benefit according to inborn characteristics, like race, gender or national origin. Mr. Becker points out that other programs similarly help selected small groups. Subsidies to agriculture are unavailable to people who grow up in cities. Every government program hurts somebody, the professor says, often including members of the groups that benefit.

Black leaders have long noted that affirmative-action programs were, as a matter of law and politics, no big deal compared to other programs that help select groups, particularly in the way they try to level a playing field that has been tilted so long that our society is still paying the price.

So, why all the ''hand-wringing and anger'' expressed by opponents of affirmative action? No need to be ''puzzled'' by it. I refer you to the Page Principle of Political Prejudice: ''Politicians will jump at the chance to exploit fears of quotas (and other forms of race- and gender-baiting) when the utility expected from preaching fairness, social justice and the mutual good is exceeded by the number of votes they can get from fearful whites.''

Common sense should tell us that everyone, including white males, benefits in the long run from a system that equalizes job and educational opportunities and improves the productivity of all segments of our society. We would all be much better off if volatile, economically depressed and socially isolated areas like South-Central Los Angeles were producing jobs instead of crime, tension and fear that benefits no one but the security industry.

So, why so much attention to tearing down affirmative action and so little to bringing about truly equal opportunities? Maybe it has something to do with the way some people have been declared ''racially undesirable.''

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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