Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In partial defense of vapid heiresses

Via Above the Law, I came across a profile of a law student who's a character on a reality TV program called "Cut Off." The premise of the show is that the pampered heiresses are cut off from the luxuries that they've been surrounded by and are now going to be forced to learn how to make it on their own. Among other things, they have to learn how to do housework.

It's perhaps a bit odd that the description of this show would rub me the wrong way. Certainly Ms. Rose comes across as lacking in perspective, and that's putting it charitably. But it stuck in the craw perhaps because I've been reading a lot lately on gender gaps in science, technology, and engineering. Every once in a while I'll stumble across an interview with a woman who winds up dropping out of an academic career to drive her kids places.* Economically, this is probably irrational; the extra income from a highly educated woman's second gap ought to make it possible to hire someone to drive the kids places and still leave quite a bit of extra money left over. But I suspect that there is something else going on -- namely, the sense that it is not quite nice, somehow indeed anti-American and aristocratic and a bit absurd, to hire help to do these things for you.

Thus a few years ago, I remember lots of snark from blogs about some enterprising Harvard students setting up a cleaning service for dorm rooms. I don't think the costs were especially high, but in any case, the cost of cleaning was probably not especially large compared with say, the costs of a new outfit from J. Crew or what many Harvard students might spend on bar tabs in a month. Yet it seems there's far less snark directed at students who can afford and choose to spend their money on either of the latter.

I see this also in the immigration debate. Occasionally, people will express anxiety about creating a permanent underclass tasked with doing domestic work. A disproportionate share of New York's domestic labor force in the 19th century was Irish, and they of course seem to have done okay at moving up through the American social hierarchy. Besides, presumably most people would not leave their homeland for domestic labor in the United States if house cleaning on American soil didn't seem like an okay deal. Being a maid in the United States probably is better for many of these people than still more crushing poverty in Third World countries. Yet again, the issue seems not primarily one of not understanding economics -- but rather, the sense that defending the desirability of working as hired help violates egalitarian taboos.

I'm not sure what the causes of this taboo are. I recall encountering essays in my nineteenth century literature classes in college about the "Angel in the House." The authors claimed that the cult of domesticity sprang up in the 19th century as the bourgeois middle class grew in strength and numbers thanks in large part to the Industrial Revolution. The new bourgeois defined themselves as superior to the lazy and effete aristocracy in part by highlighting the virtues of their hard-working housewives, the veritable angels of the hearth. Some of the same attitude may have percolated down to our own world, even though the tensions between the new industrial bourgeois and the aristocracy have long since faded into obscurity. It makes it all the sillier then that we retain the attitudes of the domesticity cult, especially since they may hold back talented women from pursuing otherwise valuable and interesting projects.

So, VHI1, I encourage you to leave your spoiled heiresses alone. Assure them that their domestic incompetence is okay. Do your part to cut down on the ambient guilt about domesticity floating around in the world. Who knows, maybe you'll help net the world some interesting scientists.

And yes, I know that this post is yet another example of why I am unabashedly right wing, even if I'm not easily classifiable on the rest of Mr. Millman's axes.

* This prompted a long dinner table monologue from me yesterday about how what we really need to do to close the gender gap is a)abolish zoning laws and b)implement school choice programs, as both of these developments would make dense urban development attractive and thus let families live in places where kids could get to their soccer games and violin lessons themselves. Still, actually trying to write anything about how zoning laws and lack of school choice options lead to gender disparities in science careers would probably read a bit too much like unified field theory of all my crankish preoccupations.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


1)Possibly best moment in Facebook or Twitter, ever: Cato has an intern named "Adam Smith" this year. Whenever he comes up to bat in their softball games, the other Cato interns apparently stand up and chant "Wealth of Nations" all together. One of them was Twittering this from the game. I don't know why I think this is approximately the most endearing thing ever, but I do.

2)I'm sort of sad that Elena Kagan did not refer to the Mets in her opening statement and thus forfeited a chance to go out with Craigslist Guy. I was kind of rooting for the dude. My intellectual interest in the rest of the hearings has now fallen off significantly. I realize that this may destroy whatever ounce of credibility I have left, but I don't really care.

3)Tyler Cowen has a post possibly for my anti-travel files.

4)Memo to Ross Douthat: my Ilya has the market cornered on writing about political ignorance.

Monday, June 28, 2010

In partial defense of hook-up culture

The Phi Beta Cons crowd are beating the anti-hook-up culture tocsin again. I may be repeating things I've written elsewhere, but it's been a few months, so here we go again:

1)This round of posts cites a particular study for the proposition that women, on average, find casual sex more depressing. That may well be true, and of course I'm all in favor of scientists studying these phenomena as objectively as possible, without having to worry about the political correctness of their conclusions. But... knowing what's true on average tells you very little about what's true at the tails of the distribution, and/or what the correct choices ought to be for any individual woman. Like... looking at the average LSAT for all female test takers wouldn't tell me nothing about whether I ought to go to law school, and whether I ought to have chosen the particular law school that I did. But... at the same time, looking at my actual score, and knowing what made sense given my priorities and interests, was infinitely more helpful in making a law school decision. So, too, I'd like to know how much variability there is among both men and women.

2)The narrative that hook-up culture is disproportionately bad for women doesn't resonate well with my own experiences. I concede that my undergrad friends and I are not representative of the general population in all kinds of ways, but let me at least throw my own anecdotal experience out there. Especially since I'm far closer in age and gender to the target population than most of the PBC staff...

The most truly casual couplings I saw at Dartmouth (and to a lesser extent later) didn't seem to be especially bad for either women or men. The true Don Juan types -- the dashing seducers who care not for settling down -- are easily spotted from a mile away. It's kind of fun to refer to them with Victorian slang terms like "dandy" or "coxcomb," which indicates that their kind have been at this stych for a long, long time. One would have to be very, very unforgivably stupid to wake up next to one and start daydreaming about picking out a house in Westchester together and whether to send the kids to private vs. public school.

No, what's much harder about hook-up culture is that it makes thing more complicated for pairs that could plausibly have had a long term relationship, but for whom some slight mismatch in interest makes it impossible to get things off the ground. Things play out like this: guy and girl meet in the dorm, in an extracurricular activity, whatever. They go to lunch a few times or spend a few evenings in the library. They click on the basis of some shared interest -- often as not conservative or libertarian public policy in the circles that I ran in, but it could be science fiction, web comics, certain film directors, any number of things. I suppose some of the social activities that the pair did together at this point would be considered "dating" under a 1950s use of the term, but would've been more commonly called "hanging out" in the idiom of my own day. Elizabeth Blackwell used to refer to these interactions as "orbiting," as in the pair were kind of like astronomical entities orbiting around each other at that point. It was a cool term, I thought, but one that never gained much traction outside a circle of about five of our friends.

And after a few weeks of this, they find themselves at some event where the libations are flowing. They get to trading witticisms, which thanks to the libations flow faster and more easily than before. And one person thinks, "Ah ha! At long last, our beautiful friendship is maturing and ripening into something deeper, more wonderful!" And the other is thinking, "Okay, so I'm not sure I necessarily want to get married to this person. But it's Winter Carnival, and I've been lonely lately, and it's okay to do casual things with people I don't necessarily want to marry, right?" Thus cue, a la Hitchcock, to trains rushing off in the distance, or possibly birds circling outside the window. So we get to the next morning, and one person is thinking, "At long last! A relationship is nigh!" and the other is all "But it was just a one night stand. I thought we allowed that in this day and age, right. Right?"

It's true that the hook-up in the short run often makes things more confusing for our hypothetical couple. But in most such cases, the real problem is that these people's interests were on a collision course. One person simply had much more invested in this situation than the other. Sometimes this was because of obvious disparities in the partners' looks, social skills, or other conventionally valued attributes. The biocons would no doubt say that 99% of these situations turned on either the girl's being ugly or the guy's lack of "Game." Sometimes yes, which is why people read these guys, I suppose. But in real life, the actual issues at stake often seemed a lot more subtle. Also, often times the guy turned out to be the most attached person in this type of situation. Women were more likely to try to be nice to a desperate admirer, to the point of completely confusing the guy. Men, on the other hand, tended to cut ties more cleanly and more quickly when it was evident that a female friend had much more invested in prospective romance than he. The point is that the problem is the disparities in interest make these situations miserable, not the fact of the hook-up forcing the disparities out into the open.

Friday, June 25, 2010

L'affaire Weigel

Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel has resigned after e-mails of his to the private "JournoList" made it out into the media. I was initially hopeful that Weigel's blog would have some interesting content. Sometimes it did, but I was disappointed by his rather glib coverage of the DOJ's abrupt dropping of the New Black Panther Party case, a matter that I won't write about in detail here because it's too close to home (home = work.)

Still, although some of Weigel's comments (e.g the bit about Matt Drudge lighting himself on fire) were certainly intemperate and over the top, I don't really think this is the sort of thing that ought to be a firing offense. (Or, as may be technically more accurate, the sort of offense that leads to a strongly encouraged resignation.) After all, he did send these comments to a private e-mail list. A large private e-mail list, to be sure. But, as Alyssa Rosenberg writes at Washingtonian, this still raises questions about the motivations of the person who leaked Weigel's e-mails in the first place. Like many other conservatives and libertarians, I was upset about Stephanie Grace's being raked over the coals when a controversial private e-mail of hers was leaked. There was too little said at first about the possible motivations of the person who leaked Grace's e-mail to BLSA, and the same thing is also true here.

There's another Weigel/Grace parallel in that each scandal invokes a)what types of communications ought to be considered truly private and b) what norms ought to be used to judge intemperate but at least quasi-private communications. As is often the case, Julian Sanchez makes some great points in a post about the Tracy Flick-ization of public life: "Lots of folks seem oddly resigned to living in a culture where anyone who is even remotely a public figure must expect to be defined by the least flattering thing they've ever said or done. Let the public mask slip for a moment--heaven forfend you're foolish enough to do it in a recordable online context--and you've only yourself to blame when, predictably, it becomes the focus of today's Two Minute Hate. Is this a culture anyone actually wants to live in? Forget the cost to the public figures--does anyone really want to live in a world where the only people prepared to risk engagement in politics are either so rigidly self-disciplined and boring that they provide no fodder for these outrage kabuki rituals, or such consistent over-the-top blowhards that no particular comment stands out as a focus of outrage?" Julian's touching on many of the same themes that I did in the Grace post, so let me say that I agree wholeheartedly.

Again as is entirely predictable, Tyler Cowen also has smart things to say. Cowen calls our current norms "a tax on the moody, the volatile, the web-savvy, the non-mainstream, and a subsidy to in-control smooth talkers and careful writers." Let me add that they're also a tax on online extroverts who are real life introverts. Without our laptops, we'd probably just keep hiding inside our houses reading because real humans are loud and scary; I think Tyler himself conceded this point in Create Your Own Economy. Real life extroverts, please understand -- if you make us too cautious about leading our lives online, you'll effectively deter us from one of the best ways we have of comfortably connecting with the rest of humanity. Do you really want that? Please to think of the children, real life extroverts?

Oh, and because D.C. libertarian circles are tiny, and because this sort of thing seems virtually obligatory in posts of this type -- I've met Weigel a couple times at happy hours and such, but I doubt either of us could pick the other out of a line-up.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


1)Robin Hanson on shyness. This has never worked for me. In fact, I get tripped up into thinking that I share something special with extrovert friends and then realizing I don't at all. But YMMV.

2)I also wrote everything down in law school. I can't try to take notes selectively. Otherwise, I'd lose focus all too easily.

3)I really want to read Stuart Buck's new book titled "Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation." Here's an intriguing review by John McWhorter.

4)A long and thoughtful response to two of my previous posts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Some really good writing on immigration

Via an excellent blog post from Tim Lee guest-blogging at Megan McArdle's usual spot, I came across an equally fine piece by Philippe Legrain on immigration in Forbes. I'd long suspected that our country let in fewer people of particular origins than would make economic sense, and therefore I've never found it surprising that so many of them resort to illegal tactics to come here and escape the poverty ailing them at home. I had no idea, though, that it would take approximately 131 years for a 30-year-old Mexican worker with an HS diploma and one sister in the United States to get a U.S. green card. That really is utterly crazy, and statistics like this really ought to be trotted out more frequently in public debate whenever people ask "But why don't more Mexicans come here legally?" The answer -- "Because our current law makes it too difficult. And people who want something badly enough will do whatever they can to do it, even if illegal -- c.f. Prohibition" -- is made all too plain by the Forbes stats.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Archerism and the Meritocracy Cult

This is another long post that is not particularly time sensitive because I am mostly out of blogging material, and because Pnin is not here to distract me with actual talking instead of writing. I suppose I could try to hook what I am about to say to an annoying William Deresiewicz essay about meritocracy, except that it is actually less annoying and does less in the way of getting educational meritocracy wrong than another annoying essay he wrote several years ago. A better hook would be the various interviews with Thomas Espenshade about his newish book on the racial achievement gap, in which he calls for "a new Manhattan Project" that would consist of social science researchers trying to find ways to close the achievement gap. I am not against a new Manhattan Project per se -- the racial achievement gap is certainly a serious enough problem -- except that my first blush reaction is that it is mendacious nonsense to pretend that we do not have any idea how to close achievement gaps. Of course we bloody do.

It requires a self-conscious act of charity for me to remember that the relevant achievement boosting principles may not be obvious to people who did not grow up immersed in a weird educational meritocracy cult. Like charity, immersion in the educational meritocracy cult begins at home, and so I refer to the eccentric belief system into which I was inoculated as Archerism. (Using the surname of my pseudonym also makes for a far prettier label than using my real last name.) I know that it is somewhat lame to take things that are not religious rites and compare them to religious rites, and that I am nothing if not a hypocrite for doing so. If it helps, this is not a new idea that I just came up with -- when I had to take World Religion as a seventeen-year-old high-school senior, I remember sitting up straight during a lecture that defined the words "millenarian" and "eschatology" and thinking that, while I did not know anyone who actually thought about Jesus this way, it accurately described my family's attitude toward elite higher education.

The core tenets of Archerism are simple, simple enough that young children imbibe them without much trouble. First, education and hard work are everything. Second, education and hard work are everything. Third, your parents and your aunts and your uncles have everything that they have through hard work. (Sometime in the 1950s, the superintendent of schools in my mother's town invited one of my uncles to discuss how every single kid in my mother's family had proven so adept at scaling the educational ladder, a story I heard a few dozen times growing up.) Fourth, scaling the educational meritocracy is a sufficiently difficult and important project that one cannot begin it too young. So infant Isabel learned to tell squares from triangles; so three-year-old Isabel took apart and put together a puzzle of the 50 states about 200 times, so many that telling the difference between Wyoming and Colorado was easy; and so it was that a typical visit to a department store housewares section was an occasion for an impromptu lecture on Josiah Wedgwood. Protesting that I was too young for any of this would have seemed as silly to my committed Archerist mother as saying that she was too short to do calculus.

A streak of quasi-Shintoist ancestor worship runs through Archerism. That is not because Archerism is rooted in any one religion; anything but. I grew up exposed to a Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox inflected strain of it; Archerism syncretically absorbed the Christian teachings about self-discipline, hard work, and some crusading Christian spirit, but almost nothing whatsoever about the virtues of charity and poverty. I first heard the line about it being as hard for a rich man to get to heaven as a camel through the eye of a needle and blanched when I was ten, as it was so much at odds with the Horatio Alger inflected values I had imbibed elsewhere. I liked the martial hymns I learned in church -- a delightfully Archerist frisson of excitement still goes down my spine whenever I hear the chorus of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- but I cannot for the life of me sit back and enjoy passively letting the spirit of the living God wash over me. We Archerists are hard-wired for marching. Eventually, the Christian values gave way to my Archerist values, which I suspect is the real reason that I am now an agnostic, aside from the glib rationalizations that I've advanced elsewhere.

Rather, Archerism owes its filial piety strain to the fact that the world beyond the Archerist family home hearth is almost universally hostile to its tenets. When I got to kindergarten, I didn't think it extraordinary that my parents had already been working with me on reading for years. I was a bit shocked to discover that everyone else was still working on the alphabet, having apparently whiled the last five years away in playing with non-educational superhero figures and catch and stuff. Nor did things much change as I progressed through the system. By middle school, I was wasting what felt like unconscionable amounts of educational time kicking soccer balls and listening to lectures on safe sex at school, while my mother gently urged me to read Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser at home. Meanwhile, most of my peers accepted what adults told them, which was that the pep rallies and dances were supposed to make us well rounded and well adjusted.

My high school released the seniors and juniors three hours early the afternoon of prom so that the girls could make their salon appointments. It occurred to someone on the faculty that some of the sophomore girls might have dates with seniors, and shouldn't they be let go early too? But, in the interest of preserving educational time for the non prom attending majority of sophomores, normal sophomore classes went on ahead as planned.

My lone social coup in high school was to secure a prom invitation from a boy two years older, a friend of mine from the Quiz Bowl team. He was a proto-Yalie then, the son of two mathematicians who went to get on a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard, and perhaps the only person I knew then who came of age in a family as solidly Archerist as mine. Either we knew each other from invisible crosses drawn on our foreheads, or perhaps it was the large repositories of trivia that we each knew from years of the impromptu lectures in housewares departments. We did not date -- that would have been succumbing to the official propaganda about well roundedness, which would have been beneath us -- but we made an exception for his senior prom.

So it was that I found myself sitting in a regular sophomore English class the afternoon of prom, when my teacher asked, "Why are you here?" I did not tell her the real answer -- that daring to ask my mother to miss a class, in a core subject like English, because of a salon appointment for prom would have been tantamount to volunteering for crucifixion. I instead mumbled something about the importance of not missing the regularly scheduled vocabulary quiz, not sure how to respond properly to an adult so fundamentally befuddled about what was sacred in life.

The problem apparently exists all the way up the socioeconomic ladder, what with all the upper bourgeois New York Times reading parents who fret about all stress in their children's lives. No wonder that, for the reasons David Friedman might observe, Archerist children naturally feel closer to their parents than to their peers.

All of this might sound rather suffocating, which is why there are so many news stories about Asian children who feel smothered by their demanding parents. But these stories miss the crucial tension at the heart of Archerism, which is that it has never quite decided whether it is a cult about salvation by works or a cult about salvation by grace. This is not necessarily a knock against Archerism; the Christians have not figured this out about themselves either, and indeed Europe went through several centuries of bloodshed while the partisans of salvation through works and salvation by grace tried to sort this out. To our credit, the internal conflict among Archerists has been much tamer, at least so far.

So far I've focused on the more conventional, Archerism as a cult of salvation through works story. Indeed, this hardscrabble immigrant story of success through hard work is a common one, and it has great power and purchse. But this narrative, alone, produces lots of burnout victims. Rather, there comes a moment in the lives of many Archerist teenagers when they discover the potential for... grace.... at the heart of their faith. Mine came through writing. And so too moments of almost religious ecstasy snuck up on me repeatedly as a teenager when I'd lose myself in some old book too big and probably too deep for me to understand. So I came to suspect that the Western literary canon embodied what was closest to what the more conventionally religious call the divine. If I were to experience grace on this earth, I had to learn how to work with words, and I had to be damn serious about it. My calling demanded nothing less than the most stoic self-discipline. My friend, the biophysicist in embryo, had the same kinds of almost mystical experiences about his chosen field of study.

We were not alone -- veterans of Archerist families keep writing memoirs and novels describing their experience of grace through knowledge and through books. We are all so deeply weird, and feel so misunderstood, that we cannot help but take pen to paper in the hopes that someday we'll actually be able to explain ourselves to the rest of the world.

It is perhaps impossible to reconcile these two strands of Archerism perfectly. Markets being what they are, I suspect that even in a more perfectly Archerist world, there would always be lower demand for ex-Archerist poets than for ex-Archerist bankers. Some Archerist children would have to choose less than ideal occupations.

So, to return to the first paragraph of this post: we know how to raise achievement. It's easy. Just get everyone to mimic the ways of Archerist families. Some of us have a tendency to hold forth at great length on the charms of our cult, and as I said above, there are plenty of memoirs and novels written by people who survived this sort of upbringing and came to love it.

Relatedly: stop feeding taxpayer money to schools that are hostile to Archerist ways. Stop throwing taxpayer money into teacher training classes about the merits of giving children math problems on red vs. purple paper (yes, I had a friend who went through a teacher training course on this very topic.) Stop feeding prospective teachers this nonsense about well-roundedness. Start talking to them about the power, beauty, and grace of having knowledge instead. Order principals to give a stern reprimand to any librarian who ever tells a child not to read a book because it will be too hard for her. When fifteen-year-old girls in inner cities have babies and bring them to school, have each teacher tell the young mother that it is really wonderful that she lives in a town with a public library, and that it is highly important that she takes her DaShawn there at least once each week. Starting now, preferably, even though DaShawn is only one and cannot read yet, because he would appreciate being read to from the picture books. (This last is a particularly time-honored tactic of Mother Archer.) Heck, make it unthinkable to institute a program for girls to leave class three hours early to get ready for prom. I could go on this vein, but you get the idea, sans a multi-million-dollar Manhattan Project...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Things People In My Social Circle Like That I Do Not Understand: The Case Against Travel

So I am not sure if I actually totally buy the argument sketched out below, but at some point, I need to get this contrarian argument off my chest. That is: I don't really get travel. Like... I don't totally abhor it, but I don't understand the fuss that socially normal upper-middle-class people make over planning trips and talking about trips with their friends and showing other people photos. It is possible that none of them really like it, and that all of them are just pretending to like it in the interest of seeming socially normal. Heaven knows I've played those kinds of signaling games myself. But somehow, I doubt that this is the only explanation.

Some possible explanations: one, that travel was just oversold to me at a tender age. I think of the high school guidance counselor who was convinced that it could be a really, really good idea to take time off and travel, maybe do humanitarian work in Brazil or live with a family on a Rotary exchange scholarship in Belgium or something. Because travel was good for Personal Development; I was apparently severely Personally Underdeveloped*; and Personal Development was really more important to Harvard and Yale than SAT scores. Which made me want to yell, no, b.s. (Jerome Karabel hadn't yet published The Chosen, , in which he meticulously documented the anti-Semitic origins of the Ivy League's obsession with said Personal Development b.s.That is good; if he had, I might have been too tempted to throw it at people in those days.) I did not opt for the whole year abroad, as I could not have taken an additional year of asking, as per the title of the Daria movie, "Is it college yet?" I did secure a Rotary Exchange scholarship to live in the Spanish Canaries for a few months before my senior year of high school. It was nice, and I learned a bit about how to make tortilla espanola and secured a lovely pair of delicate heels that I still wear out to cocktail parties on occasion. I also wrote a college essay about it, because writing a college essay about Ayn Rand or anything else that really mattered to me would have been suicidally egg-headed. Still, though, I felt badly that my life was mostly unchanged.

Ditto my experience living in Paris as a Dartmouth student. There was the unfortunate and perhaps statistically unlikely accident that I blundered into a health conscious host family that hated meat, fat, etc. Lesson learned: I do not look or feel good when my weight falls into the 80s. There's a line in Caitlin Macy's The Fundamentals of Play to the effect that it takes a very special kind of person to miss Connecticut while in Paris. Maybe; I passionately missed Hanover the entire three months that I was there. Not because I am a country mouse -- as Pnin and others who know and love me will attest, I am anything but -- but because I'd finally found my educational meritocratic spiritual homeland. I had friends for the first time, dammit, and I was nothing but loath to leave them.

So I guess there are three benefits that travel is supposed to have, according to the people who like it. One, there's the aesthetic and educational experience of getting to see new places. Two, there's the benefit of observing cultural differences. Three, relaxation. I'll talk about each in turn.

I think #1 is the strongest argument for travel, but even that it is oversold. Yes, it's nice to be able to walk around Notre Dame Cathedral and see it in the flesh, as opposed to merely looking at slides and discussing it with a group of twelve other art history students. But I maintain that slides and books about places are underrated. First, because there are no hordes of tourists and crying babies and what have you packed into the art history seminar room. Second, because the typical tourist experience is often necessarily more shallow than reading journal articles about a particular cathedral and then sitting around discussing them while looking at slides. Third, because it is easier (for me at least) to process material by reading it than by hearing a tour guide talk about it.

The argument for #2 is that travel enhances cross cultural understanding or some such thing; this is the point that my guidance counselor was trying to make, I suppose, with her briefs about Personal Development. Maybe the problem is that I am still personally underdeveloped, but at least at some general level, the argument seems trite. Yes, people are different. Cultures are different. Is there really anyone who doesn't know this?

More seriously, my most interesting adventures in understanding the range of human difference and behavior haven't come through travel. They've come through friendships, through the kind of conversations that you can have only with someone you've known for years who sees the world through eyes very different than your own. Probably the best experiences I've had in this vein are via the constant negotiation in romantic relationships, where I've really had to engage with difference up close and constantly. Though I suppose living with roommates does this at some level too.

It's perhaps instructive here was that the reason I missed Hanover so much while in Paris as that I felt like I'd finally found a congenial if foreign culture, and I didn't want to stop trying to get my arms around it. I'd gone from a decidedly average background to near the top of the educational meritocracy. I was strung out on code switching. France was the last thing I wanted or needed.

#3 refers to a very different type of trip. Lying on pretty beaches and so forth. But I'd rather relax at home. Again, it's easier to read there. And I'm more comfortable when I'm surrounded by familiar things. Plus, there's the administrative annoyance of packing and so forth. Which is relevant for the others, I suppose, but the cost of packing there seems low relative to the benefits.

*I think she was referring to my love of Ayn Rand novels, not my height or my cup size, but I can't be sure.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Contra Dahlia Lithwick, I would sneer if Elena Kagan started dressing like Miley Cyrus.

So a while ago, I suggested that I'd have thoughts on Deborah Rhode's The Beauty Bias . Dahlia Lithwick recently published a review in Slate, and I'm sort of plumb out of blogging material, so here goes nothing.

I have *some* sympathy with Rhode's notion that appearance bias is a problem worth fretting about. At the risk of navel-gazing, but in the interests of full disclosure, my own priors on the subject are odd: back somewhere around the age of twelve, my self-image got stuck at "ugly girl" and refused to come unstuck, despite what has sounded like years of attempts at desperate flattery. I once had a roommate who would occasionally make wry comments about other women's weight or looks, in the tone of oh-we-pretty-girls-can-get-away-with-it. It felt like being back in elementary school when we'd divide into Red and Blue and Green teams for Field Day, and I'd forget it was Field Day because I thought the whole exercise was beneath contempt and accidentally show up in a green shirt even though I was actually supposed to be on the Red team.

Still, this book isn't really addressed to me. It's not addressed to people who are worried about the public choice problems associated with expanding equal employment opportunity bureaucracy, or people who get generally concerned about expansions of state power on libertarian grounds or what have you. In several places, Rhode talks about passing the law to "raise awareness" of the problem or the like, a statement which makes me want to scream and throw things when I am not in a calm frame of mind and murmur "Yes, but unintended consequences" when I am.

In fairness, Rhode does try to meet libertarian-ish types a little bit, as Lithwick says, by pointing out that few claims have been brought in the jurisdictions that have actually enacted such laws. And, in most of these cases, the appearance discrimination claim was brought in conjunction with a more conventional anti-discrimination claim, e.g. race or sex. Rhode tries to use this as evidence that the burdens on employers will be light, claiming that most solve problems through voluntary education and compliance. Maybe, but voluntary compliance and education of workers still isn't free. Consciousness raising still takes time away from producing goods or services, a point that Rhode doesn't really acknowledge.

In a sense, there's a collective action problem here. The argument would go something like this: women would all be better off if we stopped sinking so much time and money into trying to look good. But it's in the interest of each of us individually to keep trying to look as good as possible. So all of us keep frivolously plunking down money for gym memberships and highlights instead of channeling the cash into 401(k)s and mortgages. It's true that legislation can be an effective response to certain types of collective action problems. It's not an argument Rhode makes explicitly herself, though in my view it's the most compelling argument for legislation. The problem is, though, that Rhode's proposed legislation would deal purely with employment discrimination, and I don't know that most women spend money on frivolous appearance-related things primarily for purposes of enhancing job prospects. So the only way to remedy the collective action problem is through some sort of sumptuary law, which would go far further into the realm of impinging onto personal freedom and choice than conventional employment discrimination laws.

As Lithwick notes, Rhode also writes at some length about dubious diet and anti-aging products. She wants legislation to combat misleading claims about their effectiveness. But unless I am missing something, people who are lied to and misled already can bring tort actions under fraud, products liability, etc. Though I know less about this area, I imagine that many states already also have consumer protection statutes in place that are directly on point. It's not clear to me why additional legislation is necessary, unless it is just to make people feel better -- a rationale that I reject as a matter of first principle, for reasons discussed above.

There's also an odd chapter at the end where Rhode discusses the obesity crisis. I am all in favor of people trying to eat sensibly, exercise in moderation, and so forth. I doubt that anyone (other than possibly Christopher Hitchens?) isn't. More controversially, I'd be delighted to slash corn subsidies so that cheap corn syruped products are less of a temptation. But the anti-obesity advocates propound an orthodoxy - think the "How dare you eat non-organic! How dare you do only cardio, without appropriate interludes of weights!" crowd -- that's every bit as self-righteous and obnoxious, if not more so, than the beauty and fashion industries. So I'm not sure how much net happiness we gain by focusing on health instead.

N.b. that there is a lot of anti-discrim dork fun that could be had writing about standards of proof and McDonnell Douglas and so forth, but I am not feeling quite that dorky today.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


1)I feel like I should like this essay, but I don't. I mean, I loved my humanities education and wouldn't want to trade it for anything. I'd like other people to have the same experiences. But this program sounds like just so much annoying upper-middle-class hazing forced on otherwise competent people who had better things to do.

2)I like this post about Barack Obama and Elena Kagan. Yep, Kagan and Obama are both pretty much pure Girondins. Takes one to know one and so forth, I guess.

3)David Bernstein has an essay on anti-discrimination law at Cato Unbound that is superb.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Short libertarians are nerdier than tall ones.

Friends who are planning to come to the exciting Archer/Pnin wedding, it's cool with me if you want to Twitter/Facebook/blog/whatever your way through my wedding. Tim Lee's right that such behavior need not be inherently anti-social. Sometimes it's easy to whip out a smartphone while your date powders her nose, or while you're waiting in line for cocktails. And also as Lee says, having an online record of funny or trenchant comments can actually make the experience richer.

I fear, though, that our wedding may out-nerd #McSudleman in at least one tiny way: we have a liveblogger lined up. This sort of started as a joke. Pnin made up a spreadsheet of all of the wedding guests that left one column for "Role." I dutifully filed in the blanks for bridesmaids and what have you and then started making up fake roles for everyone else, like "Defender of Civil Rights" or "In Charge of Products Liability Issues." (Yes, I know, I have too many lawyer friends.) I appointed M. Blackman the official "Digital and Social Media Coordinator" and then quickly sent him a Google Chat message to share this fact. Thus the liveblogging idea was born. Later on, we agreed that Josh would also try to livestream a video of the ceremony on the Internet so that Pnin's grandparents could more easily follow along. Who knows who else would actually do the same, but I guess I'm happy to try to please the curious.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"But surely there is a reasonable middle point between helicopter parenting and searching-for-your-child-by-helicopter parenting."

(Title stolen from of a friend of a friend on Facebook, reproduced here without permission because I thought it was dazzlingly clever)

Since I imagine nearly everyone knows the facts about Abby Sunderland's rescue, may I just throw out a brief plea that her parents not be prosecuted? Not because the adult Sunderlands weren't silly; they may well have been.* But because not all forms of silliness deserve to be prosecuted criminally. And because the United States would be a better place if it weren't quite so fashionable to call for the DA's office to get involved anytime anyone does anything that is silly.

Note also the relevance of the general concepts of specific and general deterrence. I doubt the Sunderlands are likely to repeat their mistake after al the current negative public attention. Nor does there seem to be any massive epidemic of parents sending their children on dubious sailing adventures across the world. After all, such adventures lie beyond the means of all but some tiny minority of parents anyway. So I don't see much point in a criminal prosecution from a general deterrence perspective either. Well, I suppose it would make scolds who enjoy conspicuous public displays of emoting feel good about themselves. But that's precisely a temptation to which I don't want people to give in.

Nobody has yet proposed naming some sort of child protection legislation after Miss Sunderland yet. That's all to the good; I hope nobody does.

*I'm actually not clear how silly or dangerous this was. Abby Sunderland's website says that she's been sailing since infancy and that she logged in thousands of miles of practice sailing before her attempted around the world adventure. Maybe she was just as skilled a sailor as many adults who safely undertook the same journey. It's really hard for someone like me who can't remember which side of a boat is port and which is starboard to tell.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

In praise of weird autodidacts

So my Facebook feeds have exploded with comments to the effect that after Glenn Beck's discussion of Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom rocketed to #1 on Amazon. Some of my friends are cheering, but others are more sneering.

Count me more in the cheering camp. It's been years since I last listened to Glenn Beck, but I like to think of his followers as being sort of the conservative versions of the ne'er do wells who worked in the bookstore with me when I was a teenager. The kind of autodidacts who are a little bit weird and a little bit crankish and a little bit rough at the edges. I used to be one of them. Then, thanks to the meritocratic educational establishment, I went away to college and started hanging out with a mix of fellow weird autodidacts but also more normal, graceful establishment types from places like New York and San Francisco. And then I woke up one morning in 2002 and the rough edges were gone. I am still not sure how this happened. But this puzzle is central enough to understanding myself that I am willing to slog through David Brooks columns, even the really annoying wrong-headed ones about libertarianism, all because Brooks seems to know something that would help me understand all of this. Note also that the weird autodidact kid is the saving grace of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, which would otherwise contain far too much insufferable upper-middle-class navel-gazing to be readable.

There are days when I miss my rough edges. I was more passionate then. In some ways, I was more creative then, more willing to go out on limbs, and less Elena Kagan-ishly careerist. It has to be good for the world to have more weird autodidacts out there. Kudos to Beck for giving them a nudge on their way.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hi, I'm back

1. This is awesome:

He taught or lectured several times in the United States, including serving as a visiting professor at Bard College in the fall of 1987. At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson harassing the (then little-known) model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: "Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men." Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

2. "It seems that I am, after all, more capable of shedding tears for the central argument of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding than I am for a failed marriage or even for a deceased parent. I am not at all sure that is admirable, but it is closer to the truth about myself than I have ever come before." I empathize.

3. Are there actually any academics out there who think that "the United States is now, and has been throughout its history, the chief engine of injustice and oppression in the world?" I've spent a fair amount of time in the trenches with lefty loon academics. And, like, yes, there are plenty who think that the United States has sometimes been an engine for injustice and oppression in the world. I'd agree with that statement if the "sometimes" is kept small enough. See, e.g., chattel slavery -- I don't think any serious person could disagree that the slave trade was an engine of injustice and oppression. The lefty types and I just disagree on how often the United States has been an engine of injustice and oppression. But "chief" is too strong a word for nearly all of them, I think.

4. Intrepid blog commenter Phoebe, this one's for you: California has just voted to ban plastic bags and requires stores to charge for paper bags.

5. It would be awesome if the tea party guys started opposing the war on drugs.

6. There should be a category of posts devoted to finding the most ridiculous career advice directed at young attorneys. The latest entrant: don't use the word "I" in interviews. Also, not directed at young attorneys, but ridiculous nonetheless: dinging any applicant who asked the receptionist for a pen when filling out a form.

Friday, June 4, 2010


1)So it turns out San Diego is actually more bohemian than average. My bad. What, so you can't find everything out about a place within three days? Shocking.

2)One of my enemies called me a self-styled conservative once. I intuited that it was supposed to be an insult, but I couldn't quite figure out why. Robin Hanson says I shouldn't have worried about it.

3)In case anyone is wondering, I'm definitely a real life introvert who's an online extrovert.Social media is totally a useful shortcut for unpleasant small talk and so forth.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On being too hot to be a banker

Blog friends, what do you think of this Village Voice article titled "Is This Woman Too Hot to Be a Banker?" The gist of it: female banker Debrahlee Lorenzana got repeated warnings about her provocative dress at Citibank. She claims that she tried to tone down her look, but to no avail. Her managers kept making comments to her about her appearance. Then she was fired with little other reason given other than the history of complaints about her wardrobe.

So that readers can better judge this situation for themselves, there is a series of photos accompanying the Village Voice article. My own take, briefly: as a heterosexual female, I'm probably not in the best person to judge a woman's looks, but I'll grant readily that she's quite attractive. Some of the clothing in the pictures doesn't seem risque, but others... seems to push the boundaries of what the more conservative workplaces I've been around would consider appropriate. I would as a general rule avoid visible cleavage (see, e.g., the tight fitting turtleneck in #14), brightly colored snakeskin heels (see #8), and heels over about 3' or so (hard to tell exactly from some of the pictures). The suit in #13 looks fine. The tightly fitted jacket in #25 might be OK in some of the more business casual environments I've worked in, but I might be more cautious in a more conservative environment like, say, a bank. I hasten to add that there are some significant exceptions to this rule; some of my best friends work for Reason and all, where I understand the office environment is every bit as laissez faire as its writers' economic views. But it is generally the better part of valor to assume that the environment in which you're working is more toward the conservative pole than otherwise. That said, it sounds like Lorenzana's managers could have been significantly more tactful about this all.

This is interesting also because I've been reading Deborah Rhode's new book on appearance discrimination on the Metro. I'm not convinced by Rhode's arguments, for reasons which I may write about in a later post once I've actually finished the book. But it's interesting to think that there are these reverse appearance discrimination cases out there which don't seem to fit particularly well into the framework that Rhode is describing (though in fairness, they simply may be described at a later point in her book.)

Finally, I can't believe I am actually typing these words, but I am really curious to read what Ann Althouse thinks of all of this.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


1)It is hard to find fair-minded writing about Ayn Rand. This piece by Charles Murray is a lovely exception to the general rule.

2)So what are the least bohemian cities in the U.S.? Granted, I was only there for about three days once, but San Diego has to be near the top of any list. It's lovely, but it's not remotely bohemian.

On the other hand, D.C. shouldn't be on the list; there's too much at least Bobo-ishness happening in, say, U Street or the Atlas District or what have you.

Neither should Allentown. It's not cool, and although it technically qualifies as a city under Pennsylvania law, it does have a teeny tiny bohemian subculture. Granted, said bohemian subculture is limited to the block of Nineteenth Street that has Hava Java and the Civic Little Theater, a few ne'er do wells who worked at the same bookstore that I did in high school, and these people whom I also met in high school who were interested in Unitarian Universalism. True, there may also be a block of San Diego that has an independent coffee shop and a small theater that can barely support itself, and probably also there are some ne'er do wells who work at a bookstore and even some Unitarian Universalists. But rent is more expensive there, and the ne'er do wells probably look around at the nice stores and things and conclude that maybe they really ought to apply to law school if they ever want to be able to afford Whole Foods. In Allentown, it's much easier to stay a bohemian ne'er do well because it's harder to know what you're missing by not joining the urban haute bourgeoisie.

3) I'm experiencing weird Sotomayorian empathy for Barack Obama. Maybe he's from Vulcan too.

4)While hell is freezing over, let me note that a Dahlia Lithwick column is making me happy.

5)When I see the words Revolution House, I unwittingly think of Marxist permanent revolution. Marxist revolutions were mostly tragedies, but this Craigslist ad is just pure farce.

6)Markets in everything: online dating assistants emerge as a trend.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On not understanding Ian McEwan's philosophy of life

(Spoiler alert, in case anyone actually wants to read this novel...)

I don't really grok Ian McEwan's view of life. Oh, he's a fine prose stylist, I grant that. But I read On Chesil Beach on the train back from Massachusetts yesterday and was reminded of this point. Like his Atonement, the novel centers around a single catastrophic incident that has tragic ramifications on the characters' lives for decades to come. Specifically, it's the tale of the love lives of young Edward and Florence, newlyweds ensconced in a lovely hotel on Chesil Beach on their wedding night in 1962.* We learn that they are both virgins and that Florence may be timid to the point of frigidity. There is a hint of incest in her past, like the NYT review says, but it's far from clear. Their first attempt goes badly, the two of them argue bitterly, and Florence packs up and goes home to her parents. They're divorced on grounds of non-consummation. Edward then drifts through life aimlessly, and he apparently never found a woman he loved as much as Florence. The End.

This would all be very moving, except that I do not find it convincing that such single catastrophic incidents ever have tragic implications for decades to come. I mean, Edward could have written Florence a letter. He could have gone to her and tried to talk to her. She could have talked to him. Florence's mother was an academic -- yes, a fairly conservative anti-Communist academic, but one suspects not a total Victorian either. Couldn't she have sat her daughter down that first night and been, like, yes, the first time is scary and weird for a lot of people, but you really can work through this if you really love the guy? Really, one wonders, do two people this lacking in basic communications skills (as therapeutic argot would have it) have any business trying to get married at all? This incident therefore really shouldn't be regarded as a tragedy, but a positive blessing -- it's hard to power through this sort of mess in the best of circumstances. And if things never worked out for Edward better, well, then it's because he was a callow loser.

See also my anti-Lori Gottlieb blogging. There was a chapter in her odious magnum opus where she quoted all of these sad women who kept reminiscing about the one perfect guy whom they let get away on their twenties, all because they were too damn picky. And I read it and was not very convinced. Like, they didn't really think that there weren't hundreds of times that they could have reached out to the guy and tried to do something about it? And that if they didn't, things were probably meant to happen that way? And, like, it also did not occur to them to shrug and say "Hindsight bias" in response to all of this maudlinness?

Perhaps it is only because I have been extraordinarily fortunate that I've never been able to sigh grandly and declare myself the victim of a single turn of fate. But I do not think so; it would have been fun to be an ill-used heroine at various points.

I am also trying to figure out if my unwillingness to believe in dramatic turns of fate has any particular left/right ideological valence. I don't think so, but I'd appreciate feedback.