Monday, April 25, 2011

On the drug war

"One of the few “successes” (and I’m speaking ironically here) of the drug war has been to convince people that the negative effects of prohibition are actually the negative effects of drugs.

People see violence on the street and say “that’s because of drugs” when, in fact, it’s because of the drug war. And so they call for more enforcement even though (as we know) that won’t help the problem but rather make it worse."

-- From interesting post on the drug war.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Caitlin Flanagan wrong about something, again

She's in the WSJ writing about why fraternities should be shuttered.

First, the statistic that one in five women are sexually assaulted sometime during the college years is very, very suspect. Heather MacDonald has a good piece about the implausibility of said stat, Of course, this is not meant to suggest that sexual assault does not occur at all, nor does it mean that the claims of sexual assault should be treated with anything with seriousness and compassion. It simply means that the one in five statistic is suspect and should be treated as such, and that Flanagan undermines her own credibility by citing it uncritically.

I'm more open to her claims about why colleges shouldn't permit fraternities. In my own experience, the Dartmouth fraternities did not pose any substantial threat to women. Of course, my experience is only my own experience, and I recognize that other women of very similar temperament and interests had much worse experiences with the Dartmouth system than I did. Experiences just vary like that.

I do worry that the Yale case that she cites will simply make things worse by creating more university bureaucracy and making it harder for universities to respond appropriately. On the other hand, my own experiences lead me to be less optimistic. Getting to the bottom of many of these stories and figuring out how to do right by all involved is surprisingly hard. Is three cocktails too much to make her capable of consenting? What about four? Yes, there should be less due process given to the alleged assailant in one of these cases than is given to a criminal defendant, but how much is enough? Does he get to cross-examine witnesses? What about the cases that involve pure speech -- e.g. the alleged chanting in the Yale case? How to balance students' rights to freedom of expression with the (private) school's interest in promoting civility? These are not easy questions, and most Dartmouth administrators and college administrators generally are not exactly Solons. Rather, in my experience, they are more like friendly but not particularly intellectual Pavlov-trained Labrador retrievers* who have been taught to salivate and run around in hysterical circles if one yelled the word "LITIGATION!" at them enough times. Okay, they rarely just salivate and run around in circles. They schedule candelight vigils, write tendentious and over long e-mails that use the words "diversity" and "community" many times, and bring in outside activists to lecture at equally tendentious panels in which the panelists cite bogus "one in five" statistics like the one above, thus making the Review guys angry**, thus making everything worse. People who are attuned to fearing litigation are not good at responding sensitively and subtly to hard questions. They are not good at nuance, at looking at all sides of an issue, or at

So, if the Yale plaintiffs win, the machine that I describe will amp up more. And don't get me wrong -- I'm sure that on some campus, somewhere, it's accomplished something good. But often times, it doesn't work well at all. And I'd prefer to see institutions left alone so that these situations can be handled with the lightest possible touch.

*Note: not goldens.

**Yes, my dear right-wing brothers in arms, we have sometimes over-reacted to these crises, too. And yes, we have thus been complicit in making things worse.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Constitutional amendments are for losers.*

Jeffrey Rosen asks "Why are conservatives, not liberals, fixated on amending the Constitution?" He claims that the answer is "Populism." Maybe, but a simpler answer might be that liberals already largely have the Constitution that they want.

Rosen notes that "Conservatives didn’t always dominate the market in constitutional amendments. During the last wave of progressive constitutionalism, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Harvard Law graduates like Louis Brandeis and muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell helped mobilize grassroots support for trust busting and anti-monopoly laws by vilifying reckless bankers and oligarchs like J.P. Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller who took risks with “other people’s money.” At the same time, progressives pursued similar anti-corporate goals by successfully championing constitutional amendments that authorized a federal income tax and the direct election of senators.

But, as Alan Brinkley has argued, liberalism began to move away from this populist spirit in the middle of the New Deal, and, in the process, largely abandoned its interest in amending the constitution."

Might I suggest the issue was not a movement away from populist spirit, but that liberals largely got the Constitution that they wanted? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Commerce Clause and economic substantive due process meant something. It put real constraints on legislatures enacting the kind of regulation that progressives wanted. In 1937, in the West Coast Hotel case, the court abandoned that. The legislature became much freer to enact economic regulation. Progressives realized that they had what they wanted - and so they abandoned the project. And, although those precedents have been chipped away at some, the liberals still largely have the Constitution that they want. Conservatives and libertarians don't, which is why we want to change it.

Rosen's comments on the ERA are largely in line with my thesis as well -- once the feminists got the decisions they wanted, throwing their energies into pushing for an amendment seemed less attractive.

*The title's tongue in cheek, of course, but the point is that movements turn to constitutional amendments when they fail to get what they want through constitutional litigation.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie

I have a review up of the movie Atlas Shrugged here.. Although written tonight, the post bears a 1997 date so that readers anxious about spoilers don't inadvertently see something they'd rather not.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Notes on fashion and sizes

One of the unfortunate side effects of the craze for uber-thin models is that the counterparts tapped to model plus sizes generally register more "average" than "plus sized." Given the proliferation of euphemisms like "A. Smith Woman" employed to denote plus sized lines, it can be surprisingly difficult if the designer is trying to showcase women with "normal" bodies a la the Dove campaign or actually marketing specialized sizes. See, e.g., this woman, who looks fairly normal/seems barely smaller than the woman in the plus size advertisement. I therefore can't tell if the dress being sold is supposed to follow normal sizing, be a maternity line, or the like.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On baking red velvet cupcakes

No photographic evidence because a)I procrastinated snapping a picture, and b)they were eaten too quickly. This is modified from a recipe in the Best of America's Test Kitchen (2008) cookbook, which is for a layer cake.

Yield: about 16 cupcakes



12 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons natural cocoa powder (yes, substituting Dutch process is a bad idea)
2 tablespoons (one 1 oz. bottle) red food coloring
1.5 cups (10.5 oz) granulated sugar
Cupcake or muffin liners


1 stick/8 oz. butter
2 cups confectioners' sugar
8 oz. cream cheese (1 package of Phildelphia), cut into 8 pieces and softened
1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract

For cake:

At least an hour before starting; Take enough butter for both cake and frosting out of fridge or freezer to make sure it softens up enough. Cold butter doesn't blend well with sugar, and there is nothing more disappointing than good cakes ruined by annoying pockets of butter. Note that the exact opposite is true for making pie crust.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare cupcake pans with liners.

2. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla, and eggs together in a medium bowl. Mix the cocoa and food coloring in a small bowl until smooth paste forms.

3. Beat the butter and granulated sugar together on medium high speed in a large bowl until fluffy, about three minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl as needed. (If you have a stand mixer, this is a really good recipe to use it for. I did make a variation of this with a hand mixer in my old apartment and it tasted great, but flour spattered all over the place.) Add one-third of flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add half of the buttermilk mixture and beat on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Repeat, ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the cocoa mixture, then mix on medium speed until completely incorporated, about 30 seconds. Using a rubber spatula, give the batter a final stir.

4. Spoon into cupcake liners so that each is about 2/3 full. Bake about 20-25 minutes. (N.b. that the original recipe calls for 25 minutes for the layer cake version.)

FROSTING: With an electric mixer (see above about the hand vs. stand mixer quandary), beat the butter, confectioners' sugar, and salt on medium-high speed in large bowl until fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the cream cheese, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated, about thirty seconds. Beat in the vanilla. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

In partial defense of Ayn Rand -- II

I may or may not have to start a Non-Objectivists' Ayn Rand Anti-Defamation League. To wit, another piece critical of Rand from Andrew Sullivan's blog.

I don't believe, as the reader claims, that Rand believed in the "perfectability of genius" or that genius is "incapable of making an error." This is indeed a peculiar claim, seeing as how Dagny Taggart spent much of Atlas caught in what Rand considered fundamental errors about the desirability of cooperating with the evil "moochers." We see Hank Rearden undergo a similar evolution over the course of the novel. Without these errors on the behalf of generally positive characters, there would not be much dramatic tension, and the novel would be far less interesting.The Fountainhead is similar; Gail Wynand is a tragic hero not because of his lack of intelligence or industriousness, but because he fundamentally fails to grok the nature of mob power.

Rand did say at various points that the nature of reality is such that contradictions don't exist, and so therefore it's impossible to make errors if one has one's premises right. I'm not sure I actually disagree with her much there. I do think she made a crucial error in estimating how difficult it is to get one's premises right with regard to fundamental questions and how easy it is apply fundamental principle to shifting questions of fact. I therefore agree with Sullivan's reader that Objectivism would have benefited from a healthy shot in the arm of what Sullivan has called the "conservatism of doubt." That said, the reader's criticism takes a sensible criticism way too far. In doing so, he may even commit the same error of which he accuses Rand.

Monday, April 11, 2011

In partial defense of Ayn Rand

while what happened to this young woman's family is terribly sad, it is perhaps worth noting that divorce and child custody disputes have a way of bringing out the worst in people. I've personally observed Roman Catholics, Jews, social conservatives, and progressives also act really, really badly in these situations. Objectivism may given the author's father a way of rationalizing his particular bad behavior, but I'm inclined to doubt that Objectivists are much worse than anyone else in these challenging domestic situations.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

On unpaid internships, again

I can't remember if I've written about this before or not, but the New York Times has another article complaining about how unpaid internships are exploitative and evil. The writer calls on the Labor Department to crack down on enforcement of labor laws on these. The article doesn't consider whether such a crackdown would lead firms to offer fewer internships, leaving everyone worse off. Businesses' resources are not infinitely elastic, of course, and it's hard for even the smartest and most conscientious of interns to create much value for their employers. They're not there for very long; I've certainly had internships in which I felt like I'd barely figured out where the coffee maker and the copy machines were when it was time to leave.

Side note: the article's poster child is the son of two public interest lawyers. Even if each parent is a fairly junior public interest lawyer, it's safe to say that the two together are probably earning about $100,000 a year. If each parent is a senior public interest lawyer -as is likely, given that they have a son in college -- it wouldn't suprise me if their combined earnings are about $200,000. It seems strange that they would not be able to lend their son some money for a summer apartment if it were really important to them.

I'll stay mum for the moment on the question of whether these internships violate labor law, not having had the opportunity to look closely at the relevant statutes. But if they do, the law should be changed, period.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

On women, undergrad leadership, and CCOAs

So I'm not up for tackling the grand question of what conservative critiques of academia ought to do at the moment, but while I'm thinking of the subject, here is one that I find not particularly illuminating. In it, the author examines a report by a working group at Princeton that looks at disparities in the number of men and women assuming leadership roles in campus extracurriculars.

The author, John Rosenberg, seems alarmed that the report's writers seem to want "Princeton women to act more like Princeton men." In this case, though, "acting like Princeton men" seems to mean "holding prominent leadership positions in extracurricular activities." It's generally the conventional wisdom that holding one of these positions is good because they provide valuable career benefits at some point down the line.* If men are picking up lots of plum leadership roles and women aren't, and if one assumes that women care at least somewhat about holding prestigious and interesting jobs post-graduation, then that indeed suggests that Princeton women ought to be behaving more like Princeton men. And it seems not awful or ridiculous to wonder if there are sinister forces holding women back from doing so.

What the report writers find is that (mercifully) there appears to be little to no overt discrimination against women. but that women may hold themselves back by being too eager to work behind the scenes, rather than to take on prominent roles. Again I see no reason why it is particularly strange or offensive to raise this issue. Indeed, I noticed on my own undergrad campus (demographically very much like Princeton) that many men and women fell into this pattern. True, the remedy ought not to be quotas in extracurricular leadership positions or affirmative action for women in extracurricular organizations; I would be the first one kicking, screaming, and otherwise waving in my hands should anyone suggest that. Mercifully, this report doesn't do that. True, it does throw out a lot of politically correct gobbledygook, some of which -- "More freshman orientation! More mentoring!" -- seems more like a kitchen-sink collection of favored university bureaucrat projects than a list of projects narrowly tailored to solve the problem under scrutiny.

Still, a sensible remedy can be glimpsed through the fog somewhere off in the distance. It ought to be to tell Princeton's women something like: "People have noticed that women are, on average, less aggressive than men in seeking out campus leadership roles. Of course that's 'on average' -- it's not true in every case. It may be worth reflecting on whether this is a weakness of yours, and it may be worth it to try being a little bit more aggressive at the margin. Not extraordinarily so -- nobody is asking you to remake your personality wholesale or be someone else you're not -- but just to try being a little bit less retiring and see if that makes you more aggressive."

There is an odd whiff throughout the piece that these differences in leadership style must be fixed. And perhaps it is true that some of these differences in personality or leadership style are biologically determines or otherwise difficult to change. Yet it does not seem impossible or unreasonable to suggest to women that they should think about ways of changing their behavior at the margin. Indeed, I've always found conservatives' emphasis on personal responsibility and working on improving one's weaknesses at the margin to be among the more attractive elements of their tradition.

I do think that this report -- and other writing on this topic -- fails to take into account the downsides of hyper-aggressiveness. I recall a panel on gender disparities and the legal profession in law school in which one of the panelists observed that, although there are fewer women making partner at big firms, there are also far fewer women than men who get disciplined by state bars. She attributed this disparity to women's being on average more risk-averse and more careful when it came to playing by the rules. It's not easy finding the right balance between aggressiveness and passivity, between boldly pushing oneself forward and quietly hanging back. It's not good to err in either direction, and both men and women should be trying to aim for a golden mean that can be equally elusive for each of us.

*True, it's entirely possible that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Maybe holding a plum leadership role on campus simply isn't that important down the line. But Rosenberg doesn't actually challenge that piece of conventional wisdom.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Against lawyer licensing, redux

Above the Law has the story of a recent (2009) Touro Law grad, Joseph Rakofsky, who had a D.C. Superior Court judge declare a mistrial due to his incompetence. ATL blogger Elie Mystal uses this story as an illustration of "how the system for preparing people to become lawyers failed." It's true that the young lawyer involved comes off as a buffoon who's none too bright. But the solution is not, as Mystal would have it, to get the ABA to regulate law schools more aggressively.

Mystal sensibly observes that the defendant in this case, Dontrell Deaner-- who will see the wheels of justice turn more slowly, thanks to Rakofsky's incompetence -- pays a real cost here. It is indeed likely that Deaner would have been better off if he'd been able to hire a more expensive, higher-quality lawyer who knew his work better. At the same time, decreasing the number of American law schools and regulating them more tightly will decrease the supply of American lawyers. If lawyers become more scarce, they will charge higher prices. The Dontrell Deaners of that world will have fewer options when they need legal help, not more.

It's not clear things are so bad in this world, either. Deaner was able to notice that things weren't going well in his defense. He approached the judge about a new attorney and was able to get one. Rakofsky's poor performance was the subject of an article a major metropolitan newspaper and a prominent legal blog. Any prospective client can find either easily on the Internet, and I imagine Rakofsky's reputation will dog him for quite a while. And all this without involving the organized licensing cartel! Would that Mystal could see that he's part of the solution, albeit not in quite the way that he might have intended.