Thursday, June 30, 2011

On partisanship

As speaker, Gingrich discovered that Republicans are too good for their own — um, good. “The difference between the well-thought-out, unending and no-holds-barred hostility of the left,” he wrote, “and the acquiescent, friendship-seeking nature of many of my Republican colleagues never ceases to amaze me.” Democrats flatter themselves with the mirror image of this fantasy, of course, pretending to be envious of the robotic efficiency of Republicans and the freedom of action allowed them by their utter lack of conscience or shame. Self-awareness is not listed in the catalog of traits required for faithful partisanship. About the true nature of their enemies, however, if about nothing else, professional Republicans and Democrats are both exactly right.

-- From Andy Ferguson's look at Newt Gingrich's literary output, interesting throughout.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On animals

Some readers may be aware of my love of darling bears.Here is an interesting essay by Holden Caulfield about a prominent Polish bear. Okay, the essay is not actually by Holden Caulfield, but the author's narrative style is kind of alarmingly similar to the fictional Mr. Caulfield.

See also this, which is fascinating. I wonder if I'd have wanted to go to it when I was in Argentina last year if I'd known about it. On the one hand, it would be fascinating, and I do love gorgeous animals. On the other, there is the threat of being eaten by a lion, and I do wonder if the animals are being drugged, sedated, or otherwise harmed to keep them from rising up against people. Current plan: maybe try this when I am like 90, so that it's not as though I'll be that long for this world in any case?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gary Johnson v. Ron Paul As Communicators?

This post by economist Steve Horwitz about a blogger conference call with Gary Johnson is a few weeks old, but I thought I'd flag it anyway as of interest since it's not as though the information in it is time sensitive. I think I've said before on here that while I like Johnson a lot, I agree with Horwitz that he has a near zero chance of winning the Republican nomination, and so I'm reluctant to get too attached to his candidacy. The comparisons with Ron Paul are also especially interesting. Like my husband, I think that Johnson comes off as less kooky than Paul and that this lack of kookiness could be a real boon for libertarianism. Horwitz's claim that Paul is better at popularizing economic ideas is an interesting one, though, and suggests a real weakness for Johnson's campaign going forward. While I hope that isn't true, and is not something I've noticed personally, I can see how it could be a point of real liability. I would just be disappointed if that's indeed the case.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

House of Stark Theme Song

I was listening to Sunset Tree for the first time in a while walking to work yesterday, and it occurred to me that the below is an excellent candidate for the Official House of Stark Theme Song. I occasionally picture the Starks and direwolves dancing around to it or singing it together. This keeps coming up at inappropriate times and is an unfortunate distraction from being a lawyer.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A mental room of one's own

Via Phoebe, a Slate article by a young writer who undertakes an expensive and difficult new exercise and dieting regimen in order to lose weight for her wedding. At the end of the piece, she tries to cast this project as feminist, basically arguing that this is not really about vanity but in fact about health.

As Phoebe says, there's nothing wrong, per se, with paying someone to show you how to lift weights and doing so regularly yourself (I've done it and so has my husband, although not in anticipation of the wedding). Nor, perhaps, is there with setting a still-healthy but lower-than-necessary body weight. But -- again as Phoebe says in that post -- it's a bit silly to claim that this is somehow less objectionable than the more traditional and usually classified as not very feminist beauty rituals.

What I find particularly pernicious about exhortations to difficult weight loss regimens is that they demand so much more time than the traditional beauty rituals. I had a friend in high school who once observed to me that every night when she sat down to do her homework, she heard a little voice in her head saying "You ought to be burning calories! You ought to be burning calories!" And, like, she knew she more or less had to do her homework; failing out of high school or not attending college were not especially viable options for her. Nonetheless, constantly, there was this distracting voice.

The more conventional kinds of beauty rituals don't demand that much of you, time-wise. The skin care gurus ask for fifteen minutes a night and maybe a facial every few weeks. Conventional wisdom has it that maintaining the right hairstyle takes a few minutes of styling in the morning and a Saturday afternoon at a nice salon every six to eight weeks. Even my wedding makeup took less than half an hour to apply, and the gurus usually say that you're set for the day following fifteen minutes of application in the morning.

The health mavens ask much more. There is the daily or near-daily workout of the variety that Grose describes in the article. There was the specialized diet that she had to follow, and all the explanations it entails -- no to the co-worker offering you a slice of birthday cake, no to the friend offering you a glass of champagne to celebrate her engagement, or no to the study group members just agreeing to take a break and get Papa Johns for dinner. It's true that Grose's restrictions were short term, and that many people break down and say yes in some of these situations, figuring that good habits the rest of the time can buy them such indulgences. Still, the health mavens often do extract guilt from those who say yes to such occasional temptations.

I don't think it's an accident that the most over-the-top men's rights type websites focus so much of their ire on heavy women. Surely the PUA gurus don't find blotchy skin, chapped lips, or acne attractive. Such tarnishes on female beauty are readily apparent any workday riding the Metro or walking around my city and I imagine most others. Yet the ratio of angry PUA posts inveighing about why more women should diet or work out more frequently vs. those about the need for more lip gloss or expensive facials is steep indeed. It's almost as if what they want -- consciously or not -- is for women to feel guilty every waking second that they don't spend on pursuits designed to please men. They show relatively little interest in telling women to fix what they can at the margin -- five seconds putting on a gloss that will make the lips look a little bit bigger and fuller -- and instead leap to "must spending your every waking hour on a treadmill."

The orthodox feminist response to pieces like Grose's is usually to say that women ought to strive for "self-acceptance" at whatever weight they are at. This is sort of true, but also sort of wrong. What ought to be feminists' goal should be something like a mental mini-version of Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own. I've struggled with how to put this as this post languishes in Save as Draft form, but the broad idea is that there ought to be mental space away from the need to please men. The self-acceptance people remind me too much of the dreadful middle school workshops on body image where we had to stand around and recite affirmations like "I love the body the way I am." It sounded craven, ridiculous, and redolent of fundamentalist religious cults that sensible adults were generally urging me not to join. No, what I want for young girls like my high school friend is something like the ability to shut off the repeated voice saying "You ought to be burning calories!" in favor of a voice saying "Yes, but one has to do work now." By the grace of work, by the knowledge that work is important, the burning calories voice then yields to the work voice. And only in doing so does one ever attain the kind of incandescence that Woolf prized. There's no self-acceptance in her vision of incandescence; one becomes a vessel of something else in Woolf's vision, and the self sort of fades away entirely. Modern feminists would do better to cast their arguments about body image anxieties in terms of "These worries are a distraction from the pursuit of incandescence," rather than to focus on the goofy cult rituals about "self-acceptance."

Econ. consequences of GA immigration law

Via one of Megan McArdle's guest bloggers; very interesting.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


i'm not understanding why many pundits seem to think that Pawlenty's decision not to more vigorously defend his coinage of "Obama-omney care" in Monday night's Republican debate. OK, so he didn't defend this particular portmanteau. But he stuck by the broader point that he was trying to convey, which was that Romney's MA health care plan is a lot like the Obama policy that many conservatives and libertarians dislike. This is the point that matters, not a slogan that is really awkward to say or spell. Besides, Pawlenty's approach had the effect of making him seem like a nice guy who doesn't want to insult his rivals on stage. That should be a feature, not a bug.

On Merzi

Delicious mango fantango and good somosas. The tandoori chicken was nice and tender. On the other hand, the naan was uninspiring -- I've made better at home -- and the side vegetables were sort of blah. Maybe I should order just two somosas and a drink if I go again and call it a light lunch. Or else opt for a rice bowl or something else as the base for my lunch.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Richard Epstein Trivia in the New York Times

From a New York Times article about summer jobs of the rich and famous:

Perhaps Another Career

Richard A. Epstein, a law professor at New York University and a libertarian scholar, worked at a gas station as a mechanics’ assistant in the summer of 1957. The garage job was the idea of his father, a prominent physician. Expecting his son to follow in his footsteps, Dr. Epstein wanted him to develop more than mental dexterity — as Professor Epstein put it, he was “to learn how to use my hands.”

How did it go? “I did watch, and occasionally unscrewed a spark plug,” he recalled, but the expertise he developed most robustly was "ferrying in cherry Cokes from the nearby restaurant."

He added: “I learned about cars, but what I mainly learned was I didn’t want to work on them.”

Treating Epstein here as a celebrity is maybe a little weird, but I'm not going to protest too much.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Buenos Aires bans salt shakers

((via) I wonder if this will just lead cooks to try to salt food to taste before it comes to the table? For people who suffer from an almost clinical tendency to over-salt their food (like me), we'll be less inclined to sprinkle our food heavily with the salt shaker. But those who like very little salt (like Pnin) and almost never touch the salt shaker might well wind up eating more.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Back from a really dear friend's graduation party in Rochester, New York this weekend. It was a wonderful time, but I'm feeling a bit scatter-brained and exhausted after seven hours' drive. Perhaps more substantive posting to follow. In the meantime...

1. A very good sentence, from Robin Hanson: "We often give and consume advice more to affirm our ideals than to usefully improve decisions."

2. Actually, I prefer reading Hayek on the beach. Indeed, reading this reminded me of nothing so much that somewhere in the world there is a photo of me with two other Koch interns in swimsuits, posing with copies of The Constitution of Liberty. This is because we had a day off from work and decided to hang out together at the Volta Park Outdoor Pool while bringing along one of our reading assignments. While I suspected at the time that this thing was sufficient to render me non-confirmable as a Supreme Court justice, I figured my LSAT score and ideologically lunatic views were bigger obstacles.

3. Dear people who were referred to this blog from Google searching for "Richard Epstein god": yes, he is pretty amazing and awesome. Still, much as I love him, I'm not sure that anyone should be referring to him as a deity just yet.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Possibly my favorite Volokh post title ever

In defense of pie

This writer is wrong, wrong, wrong. Gloppiness of the sort that he describes is not a necessary bug of pie as a food. See generally the Cooks Illustrated website for advice on how to avoid such problems. Most foods can be made badly, and so it makes little sense to judge them adversely based on how bad a dish is at its worst. The writer also overlooks the awesomeness of chiffony sweet pies that are not fruit-centered; see, e.g., the Cook's Illustrated recipe for grasshopper pie. The French silk chocolate pie also looks equally splendid, although I've yet to try it. It has even occurred to me that silky chiffon pies ought to be the next cupcake trend, although I have it on good authority that macaroons are more likely to be the next cupcake. Second, the pointed criticism of savory pies is odd -- empanadas, done well, are among the most amazing foods there is. Chicken pot pie is equally excellent.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Wise words

"My point is: when we talk about politics, the intuitions that we bring to the game from the world of small-scale interpersonal relations can easily betray us. The guy who 'seems authentic' and 'makes you want to trust him' is the guy to be nervous about – because he has a kind of charisma that is powerful. He is not earning your trust; almost by definition, he’s conning you. That doesn’t mean 'don’t vote for that guy' – precisely because that guy has that power, he’s likely to be more effective. It means don’t trust that this 'authenticity' means what it might mean in an interpersonal context of long and stable relationships. You don’t really know who any of these guys are. The one thing you can know for certain, though, is that they aren’t who they want you to believe they are. Because they want you to believe that they understand you, personally, and they want tens of millions of other people to believe the same thing about them. And that’s just not humanly possible."

-- Noah Millman at The American Scene.

Monday, June 6, 2011

NYT letter writers and class-based affirmative action

Phoebe has a post commenting on Flavia of Ferule and Fescule's reaction to a New York Times letter to the editor regarding socioeconomic affirmative action in college admissions.

A few thoughts:

Yes, SAT scores do rise with family income. That said, even for students coming from relatively well-off families, average SAT scores are not high enough to put one in the running at most very selective schools. The letter writer's scores (1300 out of a possible 1600) do put her solidly above average for test takers from any family income category. According to the data shown at the link, test takers coming from families earning over $200,000 averaged 563 verbal and 579 math. So our writer's score looks about 150 points higher than average for the very wealthiest students about whom the College Board has data. She may well be slightly less well-off than that -- it's entirely conceivable that a family with an income in, say, the $120,000 to $140,000 range could pay full freight at Bryn Mawr and spare a daughter from having to work at an after-school job -- in which case her numbers look slightly better compared to her socioeconomic peer group. Though I am not really in a position to tell people how they should feel about standardized test scores that are a few years old, on balance, I'd say there's no reason why she should be ashamed of her scores.

Second, the idea that a plucky kid from a poor background with lackluster test scores will blossom academically once given elite educational opportunities seems intuitively appealing. She had to work much harder than her privileged peer, the argument goes, and that work ethic will serve her doubly well once she actually gets to an elite institution. Maybe -- I can certainly cite anecdotes about college and law school classmates who fit this profile -- but the hard data is far from clear that these case are typical. Economist Greg Mankiw has a post here indicating that wealthier students actually do better grade-wise than their poorer counterparts, controlling for standardized test scores and other credentials. Though I have not read the Kahlenberg or some of the other studies cited at p. 8 (fns 14-16) of this paper, it appears that they also support the claim that the SAT doesn't systematically underpredict poor students's future performance.

I suppose that one might still claim that students from poor families are still likely to overperform their scores at some point after college. They'll become more successful alumni, even if they weren't more successful students. Maybe, but there are several problems here. One, it's difficult to measure what success beyond college looks like. It involves making a host of complicated value judgments that I'm not sure it's appropriate for admissions officers to try to make. I mean, does an elite school make a mistake by admitting a kid with a 1600 SAT who gets a 3.9 GPA in physics and then decides that he really wants to drop out of the rat race to start an organic farm? What about a woman with the same stats who decides that she wants to be a stay-at-home mom? Isn't it simpler and far more attractive to just have admissions officers focus on the narrower goal of picking people who will be good college students? Two, I'm also not sure that basing admissions on likelihood of success as an adult actually helps the socioeconomically disadvantaged. The George W. Bushes of the world do fantastically well for themselves because of their money and connections. An admission policy that sought to maximize the number of successful alumni would probably wind up bringing more of these types into elite universities, not fewer.

Finally, focusing this debate on preferences worth about fifty points may be a red herring. As the Schwarzschild paper I linked to above suggests, many champions of socioeconomic preferences favor them at least in part as an alternative to racial preferences. (Indeed, many of the commenters at the Ferule and Fescue post seem to muddle the two issues, though there are distinctive arguments for and against each.) Others perhaps see class preferences as a way of making sure that admissions officers treat poor students from all racial and ethnic groups fairly. It's thus worth noting that racial preferences are much larger than that at many universities;
this study cites a 190-point gap between the median SAT scores for black and white students at the University of Michigan undergrad and a 240 point gap between median black and Asian scores. I can't find a version of this chart online, but numbers presented in Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom's America in Black and White look similar. So if a university starts giving out 50-point socioeconomic preferences in lieu of the current scheme of race preferences, it will have to turn away many racial and ethnic minority students who would currently be accepted. On the other hand, if a university used both racial and socioeconomic affirmative action, many would find themselves in the strange position of giving a greater degree of preference to wealthy racial minorities than to poor students of other racial backgrounds. So I suspect that universities are unlikely to adopt a system of class preferences as limited as the one described in Leonhardt's article. And with larger preferences come larger trade-offs.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


1. This post reminds me of
this exchange from Whit Stillman'sBarcelona:

Fred: Maybe you can clarify something for me. Since I've been, you know, waiting for the fleet to show up, I've read a lot, and...
Ted: Really?
Fred: And one of the things that keeps popping up is this about "subtext." Plays, novels, songs - they all have a "subtext," which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what's above the subtext?
Ted: The text.
Fred: OK, that's right, but they never talk about that.

Incidentally, if you haven't seen this movie by now, you really should have.

2. Obligatory link to John McWhorter on drug policy.

3. Mapnificient is cool.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Silly Dartmouth faculty letter

A number of Dartmouth faculty members have signed a letter criticizing the College for awarding an honorary degree to former president George H.W. Bush. Now... if they'd just limited themselves to the paragraph where they say that it's a good idea to limit conferrals of honorary degrees to academics and people working in pursuits closely related to academia, this wouldn't bother me. I'm not sure I share their view -- an individual university probably disadvantages itself by opting out of the rat race by not giving honorary degrees to celebrities, and in the end, that may actually hurt serious faculty endeavors. But it's still a respectable argument.

But they don't. They try to justify the claim by pointing to specifics about 41's record. A few of the claims are non-ridiculous, although they may well represent distortions or exaggerations of the truth. But the sentence about his "Goldwater Republicanism" is a bit odd, since he was better known later in his career as VP and President for being a centrist and pragmatic Republican. Thus all the to-do about his famous comment about lacking the "vision thing." Despite the comment about Medicare being socialistic, it is not as though 41 ever actually tried to do much to scrap it or even scale it back while in office. But leaving aside the truth of the matter asserted, why exactly is it so bad for an honorary degree recipient to hold such views? Why are these views so far beyond the pale?

Ditto the comment about "criminalization of policy differences." Does it not worry these people that, in a highly partisan political environment like Washington, such abuses are possible or even likely? Do they not agree that criminalization of policy differences could be a real problem for an elected official, even if it wasn't on the facts of this case?

(I actually know very little about Iran Contra, since I was more interested in crayons at the time that it was happening. Still, I am not the only person in the world who knows very little about the specifics of the scandal, and the letter writers ought to be doing more to explain to the uninitiated why precisely this comment is so horrible.)

Notes on commuting

Slate on why long commutes are evil. Oddly, the study described doesn't seem to break out commutes that all or in part involve walking in assessing the health detriments associated with commuting. I walk 15-20 minutes to the train each way in the mornings, and while that may not make as much as a difference to overall health as other forms of exercise, I imagine it's worth something.

It also presents another wrinkle for Bryan Caplan's ""have more kids" project. It's obviously hard to raise a large family in a small apartment in the middle of the city without feeling severely cramped. So the projects of "become happier by having more kids" and "try to become happier by moving closer to one's place of work" are inevitably in tension. It's true that Caplan's advice may still be useful to people who have already chosen one place of abode; zero kids vs. one kid might make a real difference in happiness to the couple who has already opted for the small urban department, and the pair of commuters who have opted for the suburban McMansion might receive a significant boost in happiness from having a fourth child rather than sticking with three. Fair enough. But if your choices are, say, having one child and living close to work or having a second child and needing to move to a larger home that's more distant from work, then the marginal price of the second child might be unusually steep.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Odd rhetoric from defenders of Arizona's immigration laws

The Washington Post has a story summarizing the Supreme Court's decision in Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, regarding whether federal law pre-empts an Arizona law that provides for the revocation or suspension of business licenses as a penalty for knowingly employing illegal immigrants.

I am not an expert on pre-emption, but as I understand the relevant doctrines, the majority of the Court got this right. I am more troubled by the outcome as a pure policy matter. Consider the bizarre comments by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that appear in the Washington Post article about employers taking down "Help Wanted" signs. It's a rather striking visual, so much that if I were working for a group that is opposed to this law, I'd avoid pulling out such a stark image right away. It would feel too emotional and sensationalistic. Yet... someone who actually supports this thing is using this image. Perhaps she meant to suggest that only employers who hang up signs that say "Help Wanted, Illegal Immigrants Only" signs will have to take them down. This would be kind of silly because nobody ever actually hangs up such a sign, for obvious reasons. I suspect the vast majority of employers are happy to take as many applicants of whatever immigration status that they can get. But Brewer's weird misstep does, however inadvertently, underscore an important truth: some firms are going to take down Help Wanted signs, period, because of this law. Businesses are really, really afraid of litigation. Some might look at this law and conclude that making sure that someone is legally in the country requires work and trouble. They face a really, really big risk of punishment -- losing their license, what Chamber provocatively called the "business death penalty" -- if they get it wrong. Loss aversion comes into play. And on the other hand, if an employer appears to be discriminating against people of a certain race or ethnicity, the specter of liability under Title VII and state anti-discrimination laws arises. One might very well rationally conclude that getting all of this right is just too much time and trouble and that it's just easier and safer not to hire right now. So this law will hurt lots of people seeking employment who aren't illegal immigrants -- people whose families have lived in America for many generations.

The argument made in the second half of Brewer's quote is more subtle, but still wrong. It boils down to, "Only the bad guys want to hire workers who aren't legal, and the law won't hurt the good guys." I don't think the bit about the law not harming good guys is true, for the reasons I just spelled out above. But I would frame the issue regarding the bad guys differently. There is some group of employers who are choosing not to hire legal workers because it's too expensive and too difficult. So they're resorting to hiring illegals instead because they can pay them lower wages and avoid entanglements with a complex regulatory and legal system. In other words, the real issue is that minimum wage laws and the regulatory and legal system prevent some legal workers from being hired. Rather than cracking down on illegal immigrants, would not the simpler solution be to let American employers hire native-born and legal immigrant workers at lower wages than they can currently and/or lessen the regulatory burdens on them? Yes, libertarian as I am, I'm willing to concede that some of our current wage and hour and health and safety laws are useful. But if these laws make hiring so expensive that lots of employers are looking outside the system to avoid them, then that is a huge cost that must be weighed against the other benefits created by such laws. (It may be worth noting here that even Barack Obama -- far from being a crazy libertarian as he is -- agrees with me at some level of generality about how to do cost-benefit analysis.)

Jim Harper has a good post at Cato-at-Liberty that covers some of this same ground.

Finally, I'm sort of puzzled that the employment parts of the Arizona law don't attract more attention and outcry relative to the "papers please" sections of it. I actually think the employment sections are far worse in terms of their potential for collateral damage to the broader national economy. Is this just a function of modern coalition politics -- i.e. liberal civil rights groups and business interests just don't work well together and are bad at attracting attention to their shared issues? Or is something else going on?