Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Yglesias, Racial Preferences, and Cascades

Matt Yglesias says, contra Douthat, that there should be less debate and discussion of the pernicious effects of racial preferences at elite schools. These issues affect only a small group of people anyway, and most of the people who narrowly miss one elite school will get into another that is almost exactly as good.

He is right, of course, on these narrow points. Many people who narrowly miss Harvard will go to excellent schools and have successful, comfortable lives. Yes, these issues affect only a small group of people. Yes, there are probably more important things to be done for masses of inner city kids. And yes, there are other public policies that might benefit greater numbers of inner city kids. And yes, upper middle class navel gazing can be annoying.

At the same time, he's effectively making a resource allocation argument. He's saying that the people who write for the NYT op ed pages should pick other subject material, and that wealthy philanthropists should spend their millions on other policy projects. But there's something to be said for grabbing the low hanging fruit -- for getting your brain around a simple public policy problem that just affects a small number of people. Yglesias doesn't address the possibility that perhaps it's better to tackle the easy stuff first.

Also, he misses the point that elite schools' use of racial preferences constrains other universities' use of them. To use the schools in Yglesias's example, Harvard's choice to use racial preferences may mean that many of the minority students who would otherwise have gone to Penn or Columbia will wind up at Harvard. So Penn and Columbia are faced with the option of either a)themselves using racial preferences or b)having far minority students than they otherwise might. This sort of cascading effect goes on down through the pecking order, until one reaches some schools that aren't especially elite at all. The most elite schools are in the best position to stop the cascade. So it's only natural that the debate should focus on them.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Say what you will about "Never Again Should People Starve in a Land of Plenty," at least it had a thesis.

I stumbled upon what is arguably the most ridiculous law review article ever and noted this fact as my Facebook status. One of my FB friends has now blogged it. Some choice extracts:

"We are the speculum in which the other rainbow appears, the rainbow of the other scene."

"Capitalism is the repetition and intensification of the racial genocide of its origin."

"Everyone has a pulse and the way one’s blood beats should occasion no public result. Blood has no history. Blame it on the rain, but no public result should flow from a supposedly history-less fact like falling leaves or race or November or the sound of rats’ feet over broken glass or Southern trees, or so they claim."

(If Virginia Woolf had never been born, would anyone write like this? What about T.S. Eliot and the rest of the high modernists?)

"Post-Bakke, the pain of white-over-black is a phantom pain of the post-amputation sort; the sort that continues, mysteriously, to be felt in the limb that is forever gone."

"Whiteness is a corporate power." Interesting. I always thought it was a limited liability partnership power.

"Post’s presentation brought something with it, a shard of shared experience in the form of a fractal square dance in a physical education class at the Elizabeth C. Barclay School some time, but not much time, after the end of the flowerchildren’s summer of love, it might have been November. I remember falling leaves. And black rain.... The untouchable black was in class, yes, but forever out of season, if they do these things when the tree is green, and that is what made the education of desire, the square dance, both possible and necessary."

The paragraph that Ted Frank flagged: "Consider the Chandrasekhar Limit as a jurisprudence: Death appears as a peculiar shadow, a one-way surface, an event horizon. There is no exit, just a dearly-departed-shaped nothing. Some things are worse than death. How dark can it be? What is the blackness of blackness? The black hole of science and of the fiction of science has a one-way surface, an event horizon, into which objects can fall, but out of which nothing comes, not even light. Is death like this? And what could be worse? Is there a death that is more—and therefore worse—than death? Primitive accumulation is mass murder beyond the limit. "

"The tidal forces of the black hole at the center of every nation state produce the display of the diversities. "

"Death comes in colors."

And no, no evidence indicating that we've been Sokal hoaxed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Another Meritocracy Post

So I promise to stay around here, really. and two weekends straight of houseguests. Sigh. Anyway, you wouldn't be getting what you paid for if I didn't weigh in on Ross Douthat's latest round of comments on educational meritocracy. As anyone who's been here long can guess, I don't much agree with Douthat.

First, to his claim that there should be modest preferences for white Christian conservatives from red states: I might well have benefited from such a policy back in the day, so I've got to be careful what I say here. But... I'm not sure why we need affirmative action for such people, when the best evidence we have (the section from the Espenshade book that Douthat cites) indicates that there may actually be discrimination against such applicants. Wouldn't just.... not discriminating... against these people accomplish the same goal, without having to resort to preferences to boost their (our) numbers? And if it's the case (as I suspect in my gut it is) not that there's active discrimination against these people, but merely that the "soft factors" system works against them, shouldn't we then scale back the importance of "soft factors" for everyone?

Second, I'm more skeptical than Douthat that they/we actually bring much unique in the way of intellectual "diversity" to elite campuses. I mean, I just don't see what authentic red staters have to bring to the table that conservative or libertarian kids from more traditional blue state backgrounds don't. If the point of this exercise is to increase intellectual or political diversity, wouldn't it make sense for these schools to look directly for viewpoint diversity? I suppose Douthat's argument that there's some nexus of viewpoint diversity plus experential diversity that makes red state kids qualitatively more interesting, but I'm not sure I quite see how it works. While I lack hard empirical data, I suspect that most of the red state meritocrats come from more or less Archerist families. Rich Archerist or poor Archerist, red or blue state Archerist, we may well have more in common with each other than we do with the non-Archerists in our midst.

Third, although Douthat ultimately knocks down his own "it's better for the country if the red state meritocrats stay home" argument, I'd like to take a couple extra whacks at it anyway. One, he misses the fundamentally important point that meritocrats who leave are likely to grow up far more incandescent than those who don't. I am of course borrowing the concept from Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own, a sufficiently rich and complex essay that I cannot summarize it justly in this tiny blog post. Perhaps it is easier to describe incandescence by explaining why Charlotte Bronte lacked it, in Woolf's words: "one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?" Woolf was writing about people whose ambitions were checked by gender, not by poverty or geographic isolation, and the writers about whom Woolf wrote of course faced more serious obstacles than the aspiring public intellectual types whom Douthat is discussing. But I fear that talented people whose ambitions are checked for the latter reason are likely, like Bronte, to produce writings marked by "an acidity which is the result of oppression, a buried suffering smouldering beneath her passion, a rancour which contracts those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain." Writing marked by the latter flaw can't be good for national discourse.

I always knew cats were more evil than corporations.

Number of birds killed by the BP oil spill: at least 2,188 and counting.

Number of birds killed by cats: Hundreds of millions to 1 billion annually.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The bar exam is senseless precisely because law is.

As an extremely petite woman, I generally make a point of not picking on any professional bodybuilders whom I happen to run across in the course of the day. One might think that I would therefore avoid criticizing a blog post by Richard Epstein. But sticks and stones can break my bones, whereas blogging can never hurt me that way, so here goes nothing.

Prominent author Elizabeth Wurtzel recently wrote a piece criticizing the bar exam as unnecessary. Wurtzel reportedly failed the exam multiple times, and her public persona has tended to come off as kind of flaky. See in particular the comments about 9/11 as "strange art project" and thinking that if she had been a lawyer after the attacks, she would have known what to do. (Really? Did she not notice that most lawyers were every bit as clueless in the face of unexpected terrorist attacks as the rest of us?) So, yes, maybe she is not the best standard bearer for the anti bar exam movement. I refer interested readers to my Ilya's post for perhaps more coherent arguments against the exam.

Anyway, this prompted Richard Epstein to weigh in with the above-linked post titled "The Bar Exam Isn't Senseless, And Neither is Law." In particular, he takes issue with Wurtzel's assertion that students from Yale who failed the bar were characterized by a "complete inability to comply with senseless rules." Epstein writes in response, "Indeed the insistence that intelligent students can deal with rules that make 'neither financial or intellectual sense' gets it exactly backwards. I am never hired to explain rules that everyone understands. I work in areas that make no financial or intellectual sense, where the herculean task is to put some order in a tiny corner of the overall situation."

If I'm understanding Epstein's argument correctly, though, it's almost the opposite of his title: the bar exam is senseless, precisely because law itself is senseless. I agree wholeheartedly that much of law makes neither financial nor intellectual sense; I admire Epstein as a scholar, and have enjoyed reading his work, precisely because he's so good at illustrating this very point. But forcing people to take a senseless exam about a discipline that is senseless itself is tantamount to arguing that two wrongs make a right. The existence of the exam -- and the other licensing rituals that lawyers must pass through -- gives our merry guild every incentive to make sure that the system stays as complicated and as senseless as possible so that we continue to get rich trying to explain the senselessness to the rest of the world.

The point is precisely that law ought not to be complex or senseless. While senseless complexity benefits us, it hurts thousands of small business owners struggling to figure out what their legal obligations are. It hurts poor folks who want to get a simple divorce and don't want to pony up $500 for even a cheap private firm. Epstein's right that eliminating the exam won't totally solve the problem. But it would at least lower the price of lawyers for those who need them most. It would at least, on net, decrease the overall amount of senselessness in the system.

Note that also, if the exam were really useful at signaling something that other facets of a lawyer's resume didn't, you could just make sitting for the exam voluntary. Who knows, maybe firms would flock to hire only "Virginia Bar Exam Qualified" lawyers or the equivalent from other states.

Monday, July 12, 2010

very brief notes, because I am tapped out of material

1. Minor victory for the cheapness cause: wedding shoes for $32!

2. Am reading The American by Henry James. Christopher Newman strikes me as kind of an Ayn Rand character, and I find it sort of charming to encounter Ayn Rand characters outside of actual Ayn Rand novels. See also. Will Wilkinson on The Emperor's Children.

3. This tart was excellent.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Love, Stendhal, and PUAs

It's hard to find non-stupid commentary on the PUA movement, but this essay is actually quite good:

But even if one accepts all of the PUA rebuttals, even if one is allured again and again by the very real possibility of all the perfume, slender waists and blowjobs one can shake a stick at—even then there is the creeping feeling that something isn’t quite right here, that something must be wrong, that something is missing. And what is missing is: love. Despite the PUA coarseness in this matter—their recasting of love as mere one-itis—love has a chance in this battle because it can appeal to the pickup artists’ own interests....

But what does this celebrated romantic bliss really look like? It is, sadly, a little disappointing. In Strauss’s hands, love becomes merely the opposite of whatever the pickup artists are doing: so, for example, he spends every day with Lisa instead of making her wait to hear from him, as a true pickup artist would in his LTR (long-term relationship) management. In fact, despite the admittedly genuine affinity between the two of them, Lisa’s primary value for Strauss seems to lie in her impermeability to the wiles of pickup technique. But, details aside, it really doesn’t matter what amount of abandon Strauss can muster to tell his love story; that story will always look tepid beside the novelty, incisiveness and sleekness of the pickup-artist narrative. It’s just too overwhelming. Other responses to the pickup artists on behalf of love are not much help either, amounting at most to an unreflective gesture of pity for the pickup artists’ wasted lives. The trouble with all of this is that the failure to provide a thorough defense of “our” values—not just an explication of them, but a rhetorically effective affirmation of them—leaves the way clear for the pickup artists to triumph. We need to make sure that love can stand a chance against the bounty promised by PUA technology; that love can genuinely quell our anxieties about manliness.

hot child, summer in the country

From the Dartmouth undergrad blogs:

Due to the prolonged heat and humidity, the college has identified the air conditioned Novak Cafe as a student "heat relief" and "cooling station."

The cafe has been equipped with 50 cots for sleeping (20 have been set up in Novak room 60). Additional cots can be set up in the main area of Novak as needed. Novak is open and available to students 24 hours a day and will be staffed from 11PM to 8AM each night this weekend by Safety and Security personnel. Students who are in need of a cool place to sleep or who are looking for a comfortable space to study or just cool off should use this space during this heat wave.

Am trying to decide whether I'd have appreciated this back in the day. On the one hand, it would have been a welcome airconditioned spot to sleep in during the hotter days of the required sophomore summer session. On the other, sleeping on a cot in a room with 20 strangers would have been creepy. The real losers: the people who lived in non-College-owned houses that had room air conditioners and flaunted them in front of potential dates.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Also, I don't get how hedonistic spendthrifts are different from superlatively decadent brand name status whores.

Conor Friedersdorf comments on the dilemma of an incoming summer associate who wonders whether bringing a $10,000 Hermes Birkin to her firm will look bad. I tend to doubt anyone would much notice or care. At the risk of stereotyping, certainly the straight guys wouldn't. I'd peg myself as at right around median levels of fashion consciousness for a female attorney -- I'm neither superlatively attuned to this stuff, nor extremely not -- and even I wouldn't know, just from glancing at a Birkin, how much one cost.

I had a cousin who worked for a year or two as a buyer at Bergdorf Goodman. She's worked in management at a number of large department stores and then landed at IBM doing software for retail stores. But before doing that, she was fairly good at securing scandalously expensive things for us at deeply discounted prices. If the young summer associate is asked, mumbling something about a relative in luxury retail could help.

Finally, Conor needs to lighten up re: his claim "[W]ere I ever confronted with a lawyer or an agent or some other professional carrying a small leather bag that cost $10,000, I’d immediately conclude that his or her value system is astonishingly perverted, and that he or she lacks the judgment, perspective and ordering of priorities necessary to do business of any sort with me." I doubt I'd spend that sort of money on a handbag even in the counterfactual world in which I had it. At the same time, expensive handbags can be lovely, lovely things, and who am I to impugn someone else who likes them even more than I do?

This may also be another data point supporting the "lawyers are too obsessive about reputation preserving" hypothesis.

"Until Cryonics Do Us Part"

Great piece by Kerry Howley in the NYT magazine on Robin Hanson and the cryonics movement. My own perspective on this stuff is closer to Hanson's than to his wife.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Miscellany -- conservatism and higher ed edition

1. Dartmouth offers a good return on one's investment. But perhaps leading a life of consequence is priceless, or at least some members of my household might so claim.

2. Interesting post about intellectuals and the conservative movement.

3. Sigh. I suppose it is interesting and possibly worthy of discussion that Elena Kagan wrote about the work of Werner Sombart, German Marxist turned Nazi. Yes, of course it would be bad and embarrassing if she sympathized with his ideas. But agreeing with Sombart that it's interesting that socialism never took hold in the United States does not seem especially strange or embarrassing. Indeed, I can see why libertarians and conservatives might wonder about the same thing, so that we can prevent socialism from taking root here. It's possible that there are other quotes in the thesis that are more damning -- but then why publish this one? See also.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Don't turn economic policy disputes into a cultural crusade, please.

I haven't read the Arthur Brooks book being reviewed, but I really liked Brink Lindsey of Cato's review essay of same.

Yay for the small footed

For everyone's "shortness overanalyzed" files: evidence that women with small feet are more attractive to men than those who are not. Inasmuch as shortness and small feet are highly correlated, yay.

I confess I have always been insecure about how small my feet are, largely because two of the socialite girls with whom I went to high school had exceptionally large feet and often claimed loudly and publicly that this was because doing lots of athletic activities makes one's feet larger. My lack of athleticism made for enough painful moments. Did it have to doom me to a life of not being able to find appropriate sub-size-six shoe options as well? If having small feet is correlated with other pleasant things, though, well, that's some measure of comfort.

On that note, now to look for wedding shoes that in an appropriate size on the Internet. Suggestions warmly welcomed.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


1)So I have finally read Matthew Continetti's much blogged-about "Two Faces of the Tea Party." No, people should not scream at him just because he dares say something bad about the Tea Party. On the other hand, the section where he criticizes Beck's "canon of competing authorities" is kind of odd. Much of Beck's "canon of competing authorities" -- the critique of early 20th century progressivism, his interest in Hayek, and perhaps to a lesser extent Shlaes's and Folsom's work on the Depression -- overlaps with the reading lists and the types of ideas that have been discussed in more highbrow circles for decades. Beck might not be the most sophisticated critic of the New Deal, but it doesn't sound as though his ideas are that far out of the intellectual right mainstream. The conspiracy theory (and no, I don't mean as in Volokh Conspiracy) type stuff, however, is. It's a little strange that Continetti doesn't focus on this distinction instead.

Continetti also seems to conflate "having moderate policy ideas" with "temperamental moderation," i.e. smiling and not seeming too frothing at the mouth when one presents one's policy ideas. It reminds me of point 2 of the critique of Eggers and O'Leary that I wrote a few months ago.

2)Pittsburgh may or may not be hipster, but they are apparently really interested in law and economics there. It's all the more startling because the other cities on the list all have major universities packed with intellectual types who might be interested in law and econ (Berkeley, Stanford, New Haven, Cambridge, Ann Arbor) or have lots of policy wonks (D.C. and Fairfax.) What could be more hipster than a law and econ scholar?

3)Tall libertarian bloggers apparently dislike being tall and would prefer to give their daughters the option of being shorter if it were easy and safe. Out here on the left tail of the libertarian height bell curve, I'd probably do the same to give my daughters (and sons especially) a little bit of extra height. Of course, a lot turns on how easy and safe such interventions really might be in real life.