In C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), the troublesome Eustace Scrubb, shirking his work, wanders off, only to find himself in the presence of a dragon. And not knowing the ways of dragons, Eustace himself becomes one. The narrator identifies the principal source of Eustace’s trouble:
It is hard to suppress schadenfreude as legislators offer proposals to tax the endowments of our elite universities. Their administrators and professors are overwhelmingly Democratic—indeed left-liberal Democrats. They regularly support candidates who want to raise taxes on for-profit corporations and individuals.
Even more piquantly, most of the taxes proposed would target only wealthy universities. Of course, soaking the rich is de rigueur for the left-liberal. And the most serious proposals are coming from blue states, like Connecticut, that are desperately seeking new sources of revenue as business and individuals flee the state’s already onerous taxation and its job killing regulations.
Nevertheless, these are bad ideas.
Perhaps the biggest technology story of the year is also the most general—the recognition that machine intelligence is poised to displace more people in the labor market more rapidly than ever before. Among many other treatments, two economists wrote a well reviewed book, the Second Machine Age, on the subject, the financial commentator Nouriel Roubini took note of the trend, and the New York Times recently wrote a long piece trumpeting the development. I wrote about machine intelligence’s imminent invasion of the legal space. But this news is all around us. Google and others are developing self-driving cars. Self-service kiosks are replacing cashiers.
The cause of this development is the most important phenomenon of our age—the relentless exponential increase in computer power. Until a certain level of power is reached, computers cannot compete with humans. But once they get into a domain they can improve rapidly until they oust human competitors.
Last week, in what promises to be the start of a protracted and important judicial battle, a judge in California struck down five statutes in the state’s Education Code on the grounds that they prevented children attending public schools from receiving an education that is commensurate with their state constitutional right to equal protection under the law. The statutes judged unlawful were those preventing Californian district school boards from withholding tenure from incompetent teachers or firing them once they had gained it, plus another obliging them to give priority to their more long-serving, but less effective, teaching staff over more recent, but more effective, teaching appointments when, for economic reasons, lay-offs had to be made.
This story is sadly, I think, more than an isolated incident.
A seventh grader from Calgary who stopped a bully from stabbing a classmate was reprimanded by the school for his act of bravery and sent home. Briar MacLean told the National Post he was sitting in study class last Tuesday, when the bully began “poking and prodding” his victim. Briar recalled seeing the bully putting his classmate in a headlock, and hearing the unmistakable “flick” of a pocket knife.
“I heard them say there was a knife,” said the 13-year-old, who instinctively tackled the bully, prompting the teacher, who was on the opposite side of the room at the time, to take notice. Briar thought he had done the right thing until three periods later when he was called into the vice principal’s office to be reprimanded.
The boy’s mother, Leah O’Donnell, was called and told that her son had been involved in an incident and was trying to “play hero.” She was further informed that Sir John A. Macdonald junior high school does not “condone heroics,” and her son should have sought out a teacher instead.
“In the time it would have taken him to go get a teacher, could that kid’s throat have been slit?” O’Donnell recalled asking the vice principal. “She said yes, but that’s beside the point. That we ‘don’t condone heroics in this school.'” In the aftermath of the incident, the bully was suspended and Briar was sent home.
In a statement released after the story appeared on the front page of The Calgary Sun, the school’s principal Michael Bester insisted Briar was not disciplined, but reiterated that he should have asked a teacher for help and that “it s not recommended that students intervene in incidents such as this to ensure their own safety.”
There are two possible bases for the principal’s apparent position – a happy story and a cynical one. The happy, public interest story is that, while this case turned out ok, allowing “heroes” might lead to more children being harmed – whether the bullies, the victims, or the heroes. The cynical, public choice story is that the principal does not want “heroes” intervening because it creates problems for the school administration and lessens their control. Obviously, there is a close analogy here to disputes about private self defense and gun control/police issues.
My French brother-in-law recently asked me over the telephone whether I was proud of the relatively good performance of British athletes in the Olympic Games, to which I replied that I was not; rather, I was completely indifferent to it. After all, the performance of North Korean athletes was likewise relatively good, for reasons having perhaps more to do with stick than carrot, and no sensible person would conclude anything favorable about North Korea on the grounds of the prowess of its athletes.
Personally I rank such prowess rather low on the scale of human accomplishment, and my own view is that the country that always comes out best from the Olympics, the only one, as far as I know, whose government takes a principled stand against official encouragement of such prowess, is India. Of course, being a free country, it does not actually prevent anyone from devoting his life to throwing the javelin or putting the shot further than anyone else in the world, but on the other hand does nothing actively to encourage him. Bravo India, with so large a proportion of the world’s population, and so small a proportion of the Olympic medals! It is the hope of the world.