Wednesday, July 20, 2011

E-mails I should never send

Dear Ivy Club of DC,

Thank you for sending me those last three e-mails about events for Ivy singles. I am, however, happily married to a partner of suitable wealth and I.Q. percentile. That said, I am still all in favor of finding suitably pretentious places in which to drink overpriced martinis at work at which I can pretend that I am "networking" for my "career." (Husband of Suitable I.Q. Percentile and I do not yet have offspring. Yes, we know we are disappointing Charles Murray.) Please, in the future, consider scheduling some events for the rest of us, too?

No love,

Isabel Archer

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thoughts on the politics and nerdiness of Harry Potter

This is a fun, light-hearted post on the politics of Harry Potter, but at the same time, sorry, I have to try to claim the series for Team Libertarian. Some of these points are obvious. Re #1, nobody actually thinks that torture is good, but there's disagreement along the political spectrum at what exactly constitutes torture. And re #5, nobody on any side is in favor of bad intelligence. What's hard is sorting out the good from the bad.

Re #2, it's entirely possible that the Longbottoms are wealthy and were able to pay for institutionalization out of private funds. I believe that they are described as an old wizarding family at various points. Neville also sounds a bit grand for a poor kid's name. Besides, it's also possible to have a small social welfare program for people who are long-term incapacitated, like the Longbottoms, without creating a true single payer system that also funds more routine care.

Re #3, Arthur Weasley seems underpaid and underapreciated. Despite his hard work for the Ministry of Magic, he's frequently shown struggling to make ends meet. Also, other wizards seem to undervalue the positive synergies that could come from combining the cool Muggle technology he studies with magic (e.g. flying cars). If the wizarding world had a more vibrant private sector, it's possible that his innovations would more readily reach a wide audience. Also, one must consider the possibility that Dolores Umbridge and Cornelius Fudge (whose problematic dithering is mentioned elsewhere in the piece, but not here) get on top not by accident, but because inherent flaws in the system encourage the worst to rise to the top.

And re #7, yes, inherited wealth can be corrupting. At the same time, Harry himself inherits substantial wealth from his parents and seems none the worse off for it. Draco is a twit, yes, but the counter-example of Harry as non-twit indicates that progressive taxation is hardly essential to save the world from privileged twits.

Elsewhere, I agree that Harry is actually more of a jock rather than a nerd.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Penelope Trunk comes out against travel

See here. Constant Readers may see overlap with something I posted here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Plus one

Like every other semi-tech-savvy-ish twenty-something in the country, I've secured an invite to Google Plus and started playing around with the Circle feature. It's a pretty cool solution to the eternal quandary of what to share with which of one's friends. The dog haters need not be bombarded with micro-updates about the latest developments regarding little puppy Willow's upcoming arrival, and my guy conservative friends need not be bothered by my fashion dilemmas.

Of course, this all works for politics. I can create a separate circle for libertarians and another for libertarians plus conservatives and easily share only thoughts that will likely be agreeable to each group with them. On the one hand, this is good; Facebook is not a great forum for political debates, and I don't want to annoy my non-libertarian friends (say, people from high school or childhood) with the kind of crankery that my D.C. based policy friends eat up. On the other, it means that I miss opportunities for conversion. Not that anyone's likely to undergo a radical conversion overnight thanks to a 400 character update; I get that. But maybe a slow and steady accumulation of exposure to alien views might slowly move an acquaintance in a new direction. It would be sort of sad -- not tragic, but a little bit unfortunate nonetheless -- if embrace of Google's new platform makes people less likely to encounter opposing ideas than they would be otherwise.

Monday, July 11, 2011

David Brooks discovers supply and demand, sort of

In some ways, I feel sorry for David Brooks. He has a gimlet eye for observing upper-middle-class people and making fun of them/us, which I suppose is how he first skyrocketed onto the national scene with Bobos in Paradise. Unfortunately, when he tries to write about actual public policy, things just fall apart, and suddenly lots of bloggers jumped on him for being a fake conservative. Take, for example, this:

Princeton students don’t usually face extreme financial scarcity, but they do face time scarcity. In one game, they had to answer questions in a series of timed rounds, but they could borrow time from future rounds. When they were scrambling amid time scarcity, they were quick to borrow time, and they were nearly oblivious to the usurious interest rates the game organizers were charging. These brilliant Princeton kids were rushing to the equivalent of payday lenders, to their own long-term detriment.

Perhaps I am missing something, but is this not just normal supply and demand? The less you have of something, the more valuable it is to you, and the more you are willing to pay for it? Should I be troubled that none of Brooks's advisors or editors seem to have noticed this and made this point to him?

Would that he could just stick to his comparative advantage and keep making fun of latte drinkers.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

On lower court judges' interpretations of constitutional provisions

Orin Kerr has a post up at Volokh titled "What if Lower Court Judges Weren't Bound by Supreme Court Precedent? He makes the sensible point that reasonable people are sure to disagree on interpretative issues, and that if lower court judges were left free to decide constitutional cases according to their ideas of what the true Constitution says, that there would be more uncertainty in the law. I agree, of course, that uncertainty in the law is very bad. However, getting the substantive law wrong is an as or more important problem. All of the reasons why Orin points to as to why lower court judges are likely to disagree with each other also apply to Supreme Court judges. The choice is between lower courts' making judgment calls about what a confusing constitutional provision and some of them getting it wrong, meaning that some parts of the country live under the wrong rule, or one high court wrestling with a difficult constitutional provision and possibly imposing the wrong rule on the entire country. If some parts of the country live under the wrong interpretation and others under the right one, it's more likely in time that the parts of the country living under the wrong rule will see the superior reasoning of the better interpretation. Whereas if the entire country is living under a bad rule that only the Supreme Court can overturn, it will take much longer for the right rule to win out.

I should note also that I don't think there's much reason to think that the Supreme Court is more likely to get difficult interpretative questions right than the lower courts. The most talented jurists of a particular generation often don't make it onto the Court. Presidents don't want to take a chance on radicals or on gifted lower court judges who don't fit neatly into a particular ideological camp (see, e.g., Richard Posner). Or they want to appeal to particular demographic groups (see, e.g., the controversy over whether Sonia Sotomayor was really the best person Obama could have picked for that slot.)

Leaving that aside, wisdom of crowd effects might also be relevant here. A group of several hundred lower court judges trying to come to the right conclusion about difficult interpretative questions might be more likely to come to the right conclusion than a group of just nine Supreme Court judges.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Bryan Caplan, call your office.

I tag Bryan Caplan to write something about Lori Gottlieb's latest anti-helicopter parenting diatribe. Given Gottlieb's very public neurotic personal history, reading her take on how to lead a sane life briefly inspired me to pen a pitch to The Atlantic titled "Meditations on Becoming A Giantess."

It feels weird to be contrarian, since in some ways, I agree with a lot of what Gottlieb says here. A lot of the parent behavior that she is describing really does sound over-the-top and kind of crazy, and I agree with Gottlieb that the people doing this stuff should stop.

As someone who's followed recent coverage of Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I'm interested also in the tensions between Caplan's arguments and Gottlieb's. They both seem to agree that a lot of modern helicopter parenting is crazy over the top. But they are disagreeing on how much harm helicopter parenting can do in the long run. If I'm reading Caplan correctly, he predicts that the kids of the typical helicopter parent will grow up to be about as successful and well-adjusted as they would be if raised under a different parenting regime. Gottlieb, on the other hand, seems to think that helicopter parented children will be more neurotic than others over the long run because of how they were raised.

I note also that Caplan's thesis equally well predicts why more children of helicopter parents end up in therapy than others; helicopter parents are the kind of hyper-conscientious people who want to squeeze every last ounce of Good out of their kids. Their kids inherit this hyper-conscientiousness and thus turn to therapists to squeeze every last ounce of Meaning out of life. Maybe they'd have done the same even if they'd been raised by cavemen.

It is a little odd that Gottlieb views ending up in therapy as a badge of personal failure. Most of the psychologists that I've known are more positive about their profession. They say things like, "Oh, everyone needs some help from a professional sometimes to work through difficult times." The Dartmouth student counseling office used to proudly advertise that 50% of the student body saw a therapist at some point during their four years there. I'm a little skeptical of their confidence in therapy myself, but my views are somewhat uncommon in left-leaning upper-middle-class circles.

If more parents accept Gottlieb's thesis, when in fact Caplan's thesis more accurately explains helicopter kids' behavior, then some families could end up worse off. It was hard for parents to learn how to be adequately emotionally involved under the old parenting models. Now Gottlieb tells them that they have to worry about mastering a whole new set of ideas about parenting. This can be exhausting! But it might be unnecessary, if genetics really are more likely than parenting to determine a whole range of adult outcomes anyway.

It is true that some helicopter parenting behaviors make parents' life more difficult in the short run, and Caplan thus urges parents to avoid them for that reason. But Gottlieb really seems more concerned with adult outcomes here, rather than short-term utility to parents. Finally, Gottlieb encourages parents to keep doing some of the things that Caplan urges them to drop -- e.g. the throwaway line about letting kids drop guitar lessons if they decide they're not interested in them. As Caplan argues, though, the long-term payoff of taking guitar lessons are probably pretty low anyway.

Side note: Gottlieb's diatribe also kind of lacks focus. She describes a cluster of modern parenting behaviors that are all stereotypical of a certain kind of upper-middle-class family, but doesn't quite pull apart which she thinks are most harmful. Are parents supposed to introduce their kids to more competitive activities, i.e. avoid the soccer leagues where everyone gets a trophy and put them in tougher ones? Or are they supposed to quit taking them to soccer practices altogether and let them run around the neighborhood inventing their own games? But what if the neighborhood pick-up games are none too competitive? Are parents supposed to hire math tutors? Gottlieb hints at no. But if the math tutor can help a kid get better in math via dozens of drills, isn't that a lesson that hard work and persistence pays off, which is something of which Amy Chua (whom Gottlieb cites approvingly) would approve? One can be left with the impression that one is sure to land one's kid in therapy no matter what.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

No to Caylee's Law

I'm nodding at everything my friend Josh Blackman says in this post about why a "Caylee's Law," or federal law making it a felony for parents not to notify law enforcement within 24 hours after a child goes missing, is a horrible idea. I am especially in favor of this because I was horrible at using cell phones for long periods of my life. This is mainly because I am a writer, not a phone talker, and would often forget to charge my phone or have it with me because I could happily go for weeks or days at a time without using it. I am better at this now that I have an i-phone that has text and e-mail capability, although really, if I could get a phone that had no voice plan, I totally would. Anyway, at various stages of my young adulthood, my parents would panic due to my poor cell phone maintenance habits. Once, they actually did call the police on me because I went for twelve hours without returning their calls when I was an IJ summer clerk; another time, they came close because I left my cell phone in a drawer in my desk at the social science research firm where I was an RA for two days over the weekend without noticing it. Actually, I wasn't a minor on either of those occasions, so the law might not have applied. But if cell phones had been more widespread when I was actually a minor, I can see these sorts of things going much more awry. In my case, this just let to considerable egg-faced embarrassment over my absent-mindedness. But if lots of conscientious parents do the same thing, then police departments will get overwhelmed with a lot of not-very-meritorious calls that potentially siphon resources away from more meritorious complaints, potentially leaving everyone worse off and less safe.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Pro-Commerce Constitutional Tradition

I'm often sort of meh about Ramesh Ponnuru's columns, but "The Supreme Court Isn't Pro-Business, But It Ought To Be" is an exception:

The problem with the conservative defense of the Roberts court is that it’s too defensive. The court ought to be pro- business. It shouldn’t twist the law to serve the interests of corporations. But there’s no getting around the fact that the promotion of commerce -- and particularly its protection from politicians in the states who would exploit or block it -- was a major reason we replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution in the first place.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mark Bittman on home cooking

Mark Bittman argues that the way to make food choices simple is to cook. This is sort of...yes and no. Yes in the sense that I like to cook and enjoy trying out new endeavors, some of which readers might see documented in posts here. Yes in that I think some beginning cooks overestimate how hard it is to learn the basics. No in that I think he's overstating the financial savings to cooking, especially if one has a small family. It is much cheaper to buy a salad that has five or six different kinds of vegetables in it at a Cosi or Chop't than it is to buy ingredients to make same at home, unless one wants to be caught eating the same salad over and over for several days. Ditto, say, the ingredients for a sandwich that has fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and pesto on it.

Also, I'm not sure if it is so much easier to be health conscious at home than it is out. I have a good sense of what the not-gut-busting lunch options are close to my office, and I imagine most working people have same. And iconic American comfort food -- think meatloaf, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, seven layer salad with jello and marshmallows in it - can be quite high in calories and fat. Isn't it more accurate to say that one can be equally conscientious in either venue?

Another nit: what is with the bit about serving one's guests a cake full of sugar and artificial ingredients? Most cakes that I have made contain some combination of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, baking powder and/or baking soda, and sometimes chocolate or fruit depending on the type of cake. Which of those ingredients is artificial? I suppose I have put red food coloring in red velvet cake, but that is a pretty narrow (if delicious) subset of the genre of cake.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

I've seen those English dramas, too; they're cruel.

A report that Oxford University had changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.

-- The Christian Science Monitor