Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Our federalism

Mr. Tower: "Mr. President, I honestly do not know whether there is a need for the Federal Government to take an active role in the area of youth camp safety."

-- 118 Cong. Rec. 5815 (February 28, 1972).

Grimaces, throws pencil at wall.

ETA: Later in the same hearing: "In effect, such a plan would mean complete federalization of camp safety standards."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Advice for Young Libertarians Just Starting College (or About To)

Recently, the New York Times had a series of columns of advice for freshmen starting college. I'm hopelessly late to the party, I know. But I am a daughter of one of the most idiosyncratic quarter systems in the country, so I don't feel too badly about thinking that college should start in late September. Also, in keeping with my prior posts on whether libertarians should go to law school, I'd gear this post to libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives.

1)In choosing your university, weigh selectivity more than you weigh ideological fit. If you have the opportunity to go to the type of university that gets trumpeted in college guides as "highly selective" or the like, take it. I type this with some trepidation because I've had many friends go through majority conservative/majority libertarian schools like Grove City and Hillsdale and loved them. Indeed, these schools have excellent connections within the conservative and libertarian movements. Their curricula are light on P.C. fluff and heavy on the classics, and these schools also seem to have lots of small classes. So you'll probably learn to read and think better there than you might at more moderate schools posting similar selectivity stats.

I don't particularly to make the elitist case here at length. Pointing out that Harvard has an excellent alumni network or that Yale degrees are attractive to employers feels awfully dog bites man. I do want to highlight the benefits of going to college with lots of smart liberals. You will never have such a rich social life again as you will at college. You live with your friends, after all; eat meals with your friends, etc. You won't be surrounded by nearly as many friends and potential friends again after you graduate. Especially if you work in the D.C. conservative and libertarian community, your social circle will be dominated by other libertarians and conservatives. You'll never have as good a chance again to make friends with lots of smart left-liberals. By going to a Hillsdale over a Brown, you miss a great chance to figure out what the left is thinking. I will probably never quote Ann Coulter again, but actually she's right on here with her third point.

The Harriet Miers debacle brings me to a related point. Left wingers find it harder to dismiss people who have been successful in the universities they dominate. Let me say again: at the tedious chore of earning your adversaries' respect, there's no substitute for learning how to write and think well. Or so I repeat to myself over and over as I struggle to hit those lofty goals. Still, having a pedigree that liberals have to respect isn't a bad first step.

The left likes to criticize conservatives who exude a victim mentality. As they should. Don't fall prey to the victim trap yourself.

2)Don't major in government. Minor in something useless, like art history. Pnin and I split on the first point. I ran for my life after two classes in the government at Dartmouth. I found the prevalence of partisans spouting talking points insufferable. I have one or two acquaintances from there who did not seem to be so much attending college as racking up a slide show of college memories for the 2022 Republican Convention. History was much more bearable for me. If you're studying the ancient Romans, you can still have fun and lively debates. But the debates don't map as neatly onto left/right fault lines as they do in government. So you don't have to worry as much about your professors or classmates looking down on you for right of center views. Pnin, on the other hand, thought that the political science department at Amherst was actually less politicized than most of the other social science departments, including history -- his other major. So your mileage may vary.

As to minoring in something useless, I say this for several reasons. People who spend their lives fighting pitched ideological battles can become... brittle... and weird. Defining "brittle" here is a classic Potter Stewart problem, and I don't know that my time (or yours) is best spent trying to nail the type down precisely. But you ought to remember that there are real, beautiful, fascinating subjects of inquiry hors de combat. Minoring in something useless will let you daydream of the day when, after Obamacare is defeated and the Leviathan slashed, you can go be a classics professor or run a gallery in good Cincinnatus-like fashion.

Second, ideological battles are hard. They will take a great deal out of you. Our adversaries are strong, and you'll lose frequently. You need something else to nourish you through tough times. And no, "Miller Lite" is not a sufficient answer. Sure, it's fine in the short run. But it helps if you have a few paintings or poems in which you can lose yourself when the Leviathan just doesn't want to succumb.

The Little Undermatch Girl

Economists William Bowen and Michael McPherson have a new book out on American colleges. I haven't read it yet, but an interesting excerpt from the New York Times review:

The first problem that Mr. Bowen, Mr. McPherson and the book’s third author, Matthew Chingos, a doctoral candidate, diagnose is something they call under-matching. It refers to students who choose not to attend the best college they can get into. They instead go to a less selective one, perhaps one that’s closer to home or, given the torturous financial aid process, less expensive.

About half of low-income students with a high school grade-point average of at least 3.5 and an SAT score of at least 1,200 do not attend the best college they could have. Many don’t even apply. Some apply but don’t enroll. “I was really astonished by the degree to which presumptively well-qualified students from poor families under-matched,” Mr. Bowen told me.

They could have been admitted to Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus (graduation rate: 88 percent, according to College Results Online) or Michigan State (74 percent), but they went, say, to Eastern Michigan (39 percent) or Western Michigan (54 percent). If they graduate, it would be hard to get upset about their choice. But large numbers do not. You can see that in the chart with this column.

In effect, well-off students — many of whom will graduate no matter where they go — attend the colleges that do the best job of producing graduates. These are the places where many students live on campus (which raises graduation rates) and graduation is the norm. Meanwhile, lower-income students — even when they are better qualified — often go to colleges that excel in producing dropouts.

Already, left-leaning blogs have picked up the story, claiming that it undermines conservatives' claims that beneficiaries of affirmative action are harmed by being placed in excessively selective schools.

I haven't read the Bowen/McPherson book at all, so I'm ill-positioned to nitpick closely (or at all.) But I'm not so sure. Just because under-matching is bad doesn't mean that overmatching is good, of course. I wonder also if some hidden variables aren't driving Bowen/McPherson's results. Students who voluntarily under-match aren't randomly selected. Maybe under-matched students pick less selective schools close to home because they have disproportionately burdensome family obligations, and the family obligations explain why they don't graduate.

Papa Archer, who taught in a small-town/rural high school for several decades, also used to have elaborate theories on this point. There were certain kids, according to him, who just seemed to have real trouble letting the world of high school go. They under-matched rather than go too far away. Or they'd hang around their old, blue-collar high-school friends and never quite immerse themselves with college. Kids who were more adventuresome and ambitious were more likely to stick it out and make it to graduation. Maybe; accepting that theory would smack a bit too much of self-congratulation.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Adventures in ev psych

In the spirit of intellectual adventurousness, I've started reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. Pnin is tired of listening to my vexed inveighing against evolutionary psychology as the discipline is presented in the blogsophere.* So Pnin has encouraged me to start reading real, serious evo psych types, and Steven Pinker is apparently at the top of most people's such lists.

I made it through the first couple of chapters, which admittedly felt like a re-hash of Philosophy 3 at my college. A fair enough overview of a few centuries of Western thought, that is, but not especially juicy. So I skipped ahead to the chapter on gender. Pinker does concede that there is considerable variation within each gender, and that evolutionary psychology's findings don't justify the adoption of policies that constrain women's choices. All well and good. But I can't help but think that he didn't anticipate the full force with which reactionaries might seize on his findings.

He says in several places that he isn't aiming to be political. Again, well and good. But he then discusses divisions between "equity feminists" and "gender feminists" and explicitly takes sides for the former. Which is fine with me -- in many ways, my views are more similar to the equity feminists -- but it's a bit odd not to recognize that favoring one faction in this debate is a political statement. Secondly, I'm not sure Pinker correctly characterizes the cacophony of views within the gender feminist camp. But I'm really the wrong person to try to analyze them.

Then there's his discussion about rape, in which he makes light of gender feminists' notion that rape is not about sex, but rather about power. He's right to discredit some of the extraordinary closed-mindedness and shouting down of academics whom gender feminists have shouted down. At the same time, saying "Rape is about sex" makes it sound like consensual sex and rape are fungible experiences. Common sense and practical experience would dictate that they're not; plenty of my male friends in college kvetched about not getting laid enough. None ever just started ravishing women at gunpoint on the Hanover Green to alleviate a dry spell. It's fairer to say that rape is about the need for sex intertwined with something else -- individual pathology, the lack of self-restraint, the will to power, or what have you. I don't really think Pinker would disagree with me, but his chapter's not really clear on that point.

At another point, Pinker cites to equity feminist Wendy McElroy about questionably consensual sex on college campuses. McElroy mentions that women who drink heavily at fraternity parties and dress provocatively are, in effect, leaving keys on the hoods of a car parked in New York City and expecting it not to be stolen. Maybe, but I remember my friends' misadventures rather differently. I came to Dartmouth believing, full stop, that the female gender was divided between two castes of attractive and unattractive. The attractive women looked like models in magazines, or the sirens in movies, and there were few of them -- perhaps 10% of the population, maybe less. The other 90% were essentially relegated to spending lavish sums of money and time on the treadmill, formulating proper low-carb and low-fat diets, in the frantic hopes of breaking into the attractive caste. Members of the unattractive caste could break into the attractive caste-- sort of the way that a girl with my transcript could make Harvard University, but wasn't necessarily guaranteed to -- but it was by no means easy. In fact, the whole system of mating, as I imagined it, resembled the American upper-middle-class educational meritocracy much more closely than it resembled any actual system of mating I've ever observed. I was vastly unprepared to find that male desire worked quite differently than I'd imagined. I avoided being raped by the kind drunken frat boys described in McElroy's example, but I got myself into some unnecessarily embarrasssing minor scrapes nonetheless. Yet the problem wasn't gender feminism gone awry -- it was, rather, the outcome of exposure to not-especially-gender-feminist-friendly media culture.

Side note: someone ought to write an essay on the Game/bio-con movement as an example of meritocracy gone awry. The Gamers' obsession with scoring, ranking, and status all feels eerily familiar to anyone who's been through the upper-middle-class meritocratic competition. Moreover, most of Game's practictioners seem ex-nerds raised in that tradition. Ross Douthat probably has the comparative advantage here vis-a-vis me, seeing as how he is a)far more famous and b)generally more inclined to hate on American educational meritocracy than I am.

More thoughts on Pinker later...

*For the record, this is not a slur against Auster, who isn't even an evo psych proponent himself. It is a slur directed against some of the bloggers discussed in that thread, to whom I'd prefer not to link directly.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Research request

I've already posted this to my Facebook profile, and I imagine everyone who reads this already follows me there. But I'm curious if someone with more spare time -- and possibly accces to a more plush version of Lexis or J-STOR -- could look into how accurately Michael Gerson characterizes the studies he cites in this Post column. I don't have the highest regard for him after the train wreck of his libertarianism and Second Life column. But perhaps I'm being uncharitable. And while I disagree vehemently with Gerson's conclusions again here, I do want to make sure my intuitions are grounded in data.

ETA: Kerry Howley actually did some digging into Gerson's stats. Turns out my intuitions are right.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jonathan Chait on Ayn Rand

Will Wilkinson has a characteristically excellent post up schooling Jonathan Chait on Ayn Rand. It should be required reading not only for puffed-up computer engineers threatening to go Galt over small tax increases, but for right of center 20 year old interns at AFF happy hours who think that people who dislike law firm jobs must be inherently incapable of "thinking like winners."

Federalism v. decentralization fail?

Harry Reid: We live in a country that is a Federal Government. What does that mean? It means, as I learned in college, that you have a central whole divided among self-governing parts. What are those self-governing parts? It is the State of Nevada, it is the State of Florida, it is the State of Tennessee, and it is the State of Hawaii-plus 46 others; none better than the other. Hawaii is equal to Florida, to Tennessee, to Nevada. 152 Cong Rec S 5637.

Would that not be simply a decentralized government?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


1)A new study indicates that women with masculine first names do better in law than those with conventional first names. I wonder if the cause isn't gender discrimination, but rather that women with masculine sounding first names are more likely to come from a certain type of family background. When I was in college, I had a few female acquaintances with first names like Crosby or Marston. Girls with such names were usually from uber-WASPy backgrounds and had all the privileges -- expensive prep school educations, fancy golf and tennis lessons, excellent connections, etc. -- that come with that kind of upbringing. It's not really surprising that these women do better than other lawyers from less exalted backgrounds.

2)A great column from Gene Healy on the 9/12 protests.

3)Another great essay on "Taking the Right Seriously."

Mail call

As Constant Readers know, Pnin and I recently moved to Arlington. At our new house, we have a wall mount mailbox that looks sort of like this.

We noticed a day or two after moving in that the mailman wasn't picking up outgoing mail. It just sat out in the box. Pnin, vexed at this situation, had me call the Arlington post office early one morning. I explained the issue to our mailman's supervisor, who offered the following:

Mailman's Supervisor: Is there a flag attached to your mailbox?

Isabel: No. It's a wall mount.

Mailman's Supervisor: Well, if there's no flag attached, then there's no way for the mailman to know if there's any new mail for him to pick up. You gotta, you know, let him know there's mail there.

Isabel: I hate to sound snarky, but, like, he could look insidethe mailbox.

Mailman's Supervisor: Well, but they don't always do that. They put the mail in the mailbox and then they don't look to see if there's new mail to pick up.

Isabel: But surely we aren't the only people in America who have a wall mount mailbox. If wall mount mailboxes were really that outre, they, you know, wouldn't be sold at Home Depot.

Mailman's Supervisor: What does outre mean?

Isabel: Foreign. Exotic. Weird. I don't know. The point is... can you please tell your mailmen to look inside the wall mount mailbox when they come to our house?

Mailman's Supervisor: Well, I can, but my men won't always look. You should get a mailbox with a flag. Or you could get a flag for your mailbox.

Isabel: Maybe, but we'd really prefer not to go to the trouble if we can avoid it. And a flag on our existing mailbox would look silly.

So the next day, Pnin posted the following cautionary note to the mailbox:

Dear Postal Worker,

Please make sure to pick up the outgoing mail. Please do not just leave it there, as happened yesterday.

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter. I very much appreciate all of your help and your good work.

[Timofey Pavlovich Pnin
1234 Our Street
Arlington, VA, XXXYZ]

For a week, the note worked like a charm. Pnin took it down on Saturday and, lo and behold, the mailmen left behind the outgoing mail again today.

We are at our wits' end. Do we give in and shell out for a new mailbox -- of the stand-alone and be-flagged variety? As I indicated above, other people have wall mount mailboxes and do not have this problem. How? We could leave Pnin's note out again. But it doesn't seem to be much of a permanent solution. Although I found it sort of cute, he fears that others will not, and he does not want our guests to see it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ad coelum FAIL

"Native Hawaiians, like other indigenous cultures, could not grasp the concept of fee simple ownership of land. The concept of owning land was as foreign to them as the concept of owning air would be to us today."

-- Sen. Daniel Akaka, 152 Cong Rec S 5558

Non-lawyer readers, see Wikipedia for a simple explanation of the ad coelum doctrine.

And yes, I really did just need to write a post that had that title.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The self-esteem trap

I was home with the senior Archers this weekend and came upon Polly Young Eisendrafth's The Self-Esteem Trap sitting upon a chair. I'm a sucker for searching essays about the manners and mores of my generation, and the description -- "Today's children and young adults are suffering from a number of symptoms, including obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to accept responsibilities and feelings of either superiority or inferiority. According to the author, instead of contentment and positive self-regard, kids raised to believe they are extraordinary or special are more likely to be unhappy and disappointed" -- seemed to fit.

To Eisendrath-Young's credit, some of what she describes sounds familiar. At the same time, I came across psychological studies in college suggesting that sufficiently broadly based personality descriptions resonate with almost everyone. I recall one in which a college professor gave his students a personality test; gave all 100 exactly the same description; and something like 70% of them called the results very accurate. So I fear that nearly everyone feels "pressures to be exceptional" or "unreadiness to accept responsibilities" at some point or other -- self-esteem movement or none.

Eisendrath-Young does a good job excoriating the excesses of the self-esteem movement. That's all well and good, but I'm not sure how many parents and teachers ever embraced the most extreme claims of the self-esteem trend even at its zenith. I fear also her proposed solution -- recognizing that being ordinary and connected to human communities leads to happiness -- may be a cure as bad as the disease. The self-esteem movement was silly because it bred arrogance, yes, but also because most kids intuitively mistrusted the fake egalitarianism at its core. The excellent writers, violinists, and athletes in any middle school are often successful not merely because of superior work ethics; talent also matters. It was farcical to pretend that everyone was the same merely for the sake of ensuring that everyone's self-esteem stayed high. Contra Eisendrath-Young, it's equally farcical to pretend that everyone is equally ordinary so that nobody suffers from feeling exceptional. The point particularly comes out when Eisendrath-Young sighs about the problems of one young woman who has an Ivy League undergrad degree and another Ivy graduate degree and secondly about a 14-year-old boy who's taking college courses. These young people have gifts that aren't strictly ordinary; why pretend that they are, and why expect them to fall for it?

Eisendrath-Young contrasts her angsty ex-Ivy Leaguers with her own blue collar childhood. Her family had its problems, she acknowledges. But kids had greater autonomy then, were less coddled and sheltered from the world's problems, and therefore became more resilient. Also, families obsessed over education less, which meant that even bright children like her grew up without feeling arrogant about their academic achievements. Maybe, although there were plenty of working-class families in the 1950s that were obsessed with education; I'd cite my own mother's family as an example, along with virtually every novel or memoir ever written by a New York Jew. Second, Eisendrath-Young doesn't the possibility that families changed not in response to the self-esteem movement, but in response to the increasing returns on investment in higher education. The lucrative blue collar jobs that Eisendrath-Young's male high-school classmates easily secured simply no longer exist. Given these economic changes, isn't it rational for parents to value education more -- even if there are problems that come along with that mentality?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Not a glorious profession, because it is not a glorious class

Forgive the possible violation of anticipatory nepotism, but the Volokh Conspiracy's Kenneth Anderson has interesting post in which he links to a long essay titled "A New Class of Lawyers: The Therapeutic as Rights Talk." There's much in there that relates back to my project of trying to answer definitively whether libertarians should go to law school.

1)Anderson's observations about how the problem with law is not the deficit of professionalism, but rather an excess in professionalism that overwhelms all else, ring true to my experiences. Anderson's description of the "good" large law firm lawyer as a therapeutic authoritarian also sounds much like the ideal to which my law school classmates and I were taught to aspire.

I chuckled particularly when I read his description of "good" large firm lawyers at p. 1076 as the advance guards of the EEOC; when I tried to convince law firms that I was interested in employment discrimination during OCI, several firms asked me how I as a woman felt about defending employers in harassment cases. I sensed an honest answer -- "I'm president of my law school's Fed Soc, idiot; please see line 3 of my resume" --- would have been impolitic. So I mouthed bromides I didn't really believe about the important work that corporate firms do to bring about "compliance" with laws I'm not convinced are just.

What's relevant to other libertarians here is that I imagine many of them will respond the way I did to this sort of rhetoric. Most of us are ornery Randian individualists deep down. We don't particularly like guilds, and sweeping conceptions of the demands of professional life kind of creep us out.

2)Not related to my larger blogging project, but I'm struck by how much closer my understanding of social deviance (p. 1082-3) is to Herbert Morris's than to most normal right-wingers. I still think there are huge Hayekian knowledge problems with trying to cure deviance via state-imposed solutions, many more than nearly anyone on the left acknowledges. After all, even if one accepts the state as therapist analogy, a good therapist first does no harm. But I recognize that this moral intuition puts me at oods with most other conservatives and libertarians. I'll have to think more about that.