Monday, January 31, 2011

The curious case of Kelley Williams-Bolar

Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African-American woman from Ohio, will spend 10 days in jail and be placed on probation for two years for having falsified papers so that her children could attend school in a wealthier white neighborhood. As the linked post puts it: "A poor BLACK woman on public assistance is being jailed for sending her kids to the rich white school. I’m not arguing whether this is how it should be looked at–I’m saying that's how it is looked at."

Yes, some of the commentators have invoked the point that she broke the law, and yes, the rule of law matters. At the same time, this still feels like a stunning example of the well-documented toward the overcriminalization of everything. Why, precisely, is a civil penalty not an appropriate remedy for the alleged wrong that the taxpayers have suffered? Why is jail time a necessary deterrent? Should this not worry us regardless of the race of the defendant? (Reading this brought back childhood memories of reading and re-reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which the poor Irish-American heroine Francie Nolan's mother similarly bent the rules to get her daughter into a better school. I remember specifically a scene in which Francie picks out the house she was supposed to be living in for enrollment records purposes and how she subsequently regards it with special loving care every time she walks by it.)

And why in heaven's name does this need to be a felony? That the felony conviction might prevent Ms. Williams-Bolar from being able to get a state license to practice her profession of choice is just so much more grist for the libertarian mill.*

Finally, is it too cheap and glib to point out that this is an argument for a system with a greater degree of school choice? If Ms. Williams-Bolar had been able to use education tax credits and/or vouchers toward the $800 cost of attending the school in the wealthier district, all of this might well never have happened.

*ETA: the one thing that gives me pause about this case is that if there's an argument for denying licenses to any type of professional based on prior felony convictions, it's in the case of teachers and school aides. At the same time, however, it is also illegal for convicted felons to teach kickboxing classes at the local YWCA and can make it more difficult to get barber's or cosmetologist's license. At a gut level, I find none of this necessary for retributivist reasons, and though I lack the data, I also doubt that any of this does much to serve in the way of deterrence.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


1)Here is a good piece about whether the repeal of DADT will lead to increased ROTC presence at elite universities.

2)There's a movement afoot in New York to ban i-pod use while jogging and crossing streets. It's rare that Adam Serwer and I agree about anything, but he is completely right that music is one of the best ways of alleviating the dullness of exercise. I highly recommend Teaching Company lectures as well.

3)What happens when a professor tries to take an easy class and make it hard? One of my college roommates repeatedly enrolled in legendary "gut" classes only to find that the class was being taught by a professor determined to shake things up and make the class harder, much to her frustration.

As for me, attempts to take the easy way out academically never worked that well. Apparently I have a comparative advantage at dealing with curmudgeons, who tend to want to make me a special pet. In dealing with normal, well-adjusted professors -- let alone popular and beloved ones -- this advantage seems to fall away entirely. It's true that this might be partially ideological - faculty who share my political views are perhaps more likely to be curmudgeonly and difficult, whereas lefties are more likely to be touchy-feely -- but I don't think that explains this phenomenon entirely. Not that it matters anymore, however, given that I'm probably out of school forever barring a sudden, unexpected rush of desire to obtain a Ph.D.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Notes on eminent domain and urban renewal

I was re-reading Berman v. Parker, the landmark 1954 eminent domain abuse case that paved the way for the infamous Kelo v. New London, just this week. I got distracted trying to find photos of the condemned property on Google Maps; in lieu of the condemned department store, it appears that there is a little-used baseball diamond and some hideous 1950s apartment buildings. So I was intrigued to see these photos showing the extent of the destruction... er, "urban renewal."

View Larger Map

If you're unfamiliar with the history of eminent domain and urban renewal, the NAACP/AARP amicus brief in Kelo is an excellent short introduction. To summarize: eminent domain power has historically often been abused to target racial and ethnic minorities. For a particularly chilling example, see the quotations from the Minnesota AG at p. 8 of it. While it's unclear if the Southwest D.C. condemnations at issue in Berman were as clearly motivated by racial animus, they nonetheless fell disproportionately on racial and ethnic minorities.

And with what result? Well... nobody I know seems to like the revitalized Southwest; mostly, people seem to work in the socialist realist government office buildings that exist there and then go home as soon as possible. Well, I did take two Russian classes at the USDA grad school facility in that area. The classes were cheap and relatively useful, but again, L'Enfant Plaza was just dispiriting. There's not much in the way of food and drink aside from a good French sandwich place in the basement of the building. Also, it was all too easy to find myself getting out of the Metro at the wrong stop and find myself wandering around some barren windswept plaza that the 1950s urban planners fancied clean and modern, a full seven blocks away from where I was supposed to be. I am glad that I never actually wandered onto a clean and efficient highway ramp into oncoming traffic, although I may have come close once or twice.

Someone should write a long article comparing and contrasting the failure of SW with the revitalized areas of D.C. where people actually like living. Take the U Street Corridor, which was probably a far more blighted slum at its nadir in the 1970s and 80s than Southwest ever was. Yet it's become a place where people do actually want to live again, and all that accomplished without any use whatsoever of eminent domain. In fact, the 19th century architecture is often cited as an important element of the area's charm. So, too, do some of the less-than-super-upscale businesses that have been there forever, like the iconic Ben's Chili Bowl. And the density of the buildings is actually a feature, not a bug; it's easy to find a place to grab a cup of coffee or a sandwich.

(Yes, OK, I concede various pompous Yuppie and Yuppie-hipster affectations afflict U Street. In spite of them, I maintain it's a vastly more interesting place to live than Southwest. Nor do I mean to minimize some of the conflicts that inevitably arise following waves of gentrification. Again, though, the gradual change associated with gentrification seems preferable to the shock and displacement associated with having one's property taken directly.)

((Does anyone know the name of the department store that was taken in Berman? It doesn't appear in either the SCOTUS case or in the opinion of the lower court. It would require digging through microfiche copies of WaPo, I suppose, but I don't really have that kind of time or inclination...)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Baking Project: Almost No-Knead Whole Wheat Bread

Via (what else?) Cooks Illustrated. Getting the timing for the 8 to 18 hour rise, followed by two more hours, is definitely complicated and kind of weekend only territory. Still, it was pretty delicious.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (10 ounces), plus additional for dusting work surface
1 cup whole wheat flour (5 ounces)
1/4 teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
2 tablespoons honey
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water (7 ounces), at room temperature
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons mild-flavored lager (3 ounces)
1 tablespoon white vinegar


1. Whisk flours, yeast, and salt in large bowl. Stir honey into water, then add water, beer, and vinegar to the dry ingredients. Using rubber spatula, fold mixture, scraping up dry flour from bottom of bowl until shaggy ball forms. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 18 hours.

2. Lay 12- by 18-inch sheet of parchment paper inside 10-inch skillet and spray with nonstick cooking spray. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and knead 10 to 15 times. Shape dough into ball by pulling edges into middle. Transfer dough, seam-side down, to parchment-lined skillet and spray surface of dough with nonstick cooking spray. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until dough has doubled in size and does not readily spring back when poked with finger, about 2 hours.

3. About 30 minutes before baking, adjust oven rack to lowest position, place 6- to 8-quart heavy-bottomed Dutch oven (with lid) on rack, and heat oven to 500 degrees. Lightly flour top of dough and, using razor blade or sharp knife, make one 6-inch-long, 1/2-inch-deep slit along top of dough. Carefully remove pot from oven and remove lid. Pick up dough by lifting parchment overhang and lower into pot (let any excess parchment hang over pot edge). Cover pot and place in oven. Reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees and bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake until loaf is deep brown and instant-read thermometer inserted into center registers 210 degrees, 20 to 30 minutes longer. Carefully remove bread from pot; transfer to wire rack and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

According to Google Ads, I'm male.

Heh. I'm surprised, given the number of fashion and baking type sites that I visit. Ah well.

Our not-that-superficial scholars

Because I have sometimes written blog posts about the manners and mores of my generation, Pnin sent me an editorial titled "Our superficial scholars" by former Congresswoman and ex-Rhodes Scholar Heather Wilson. In it. Wilson laments the over-specialization and excessive pre-professionalization of today's college curricula. She seems to base her indictment on her interviews with Rhodes Scholar candidates. This may not be the best pool of evidence; Rhodes Scholarship interviews are high-pressure situations (duh), and it's natural for candidates to try to play to their strengths. There are few settings in which it is a worse idea to shoot one's mouth about topics about which one knows little. I recommend happy hours instead.

Of the examples of alleged hyper-specialization that Wilson gives, two don't actually look much like examples of hyper-specialization. Take the student who started a chapter of Ground Zero on campus, an organization that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons, yet "hasn't really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral." There, the problem seems to be that the student hasn't thought about basic objections to a cause that's important to her. (It's possible that Wilson's point is that the student is so devoted to her academic work that she hadn't any time to reflect on her extracurricular activities -- even one that was important enough to her that she was willing to undertake the hard work involved with starting a club. That seems unlikely, though.) The same thing seems true for the young service academy cadet. That person's weakness seems to be that she's thought too little about basic concerns about her profession, not that she is overly pre-professional or too narrowly specialized.

Her other two examples are trickier. To start with the aspiring comparative government scholar -- yes, it is probably good that she know more about the American constitution, but I'm not really sure it's necessary. And as for the biochemist, I understand completely why an aspiring biochemist might not want to say much about the PPACA. It was a thousand-plus page of highly complex legislation that was confusing even to experts. Nancy Pelosi's much-ballyhooed "We need to pass the health care bill so that you can find out what's in it" underscored the legislation's inscrutability. It was also of course deeply politically controversial. There's no reason why an aspiring biochemist, whose real interests lie elsewhere, should be expected to have any special insight into this thicket. I can understand entirely the decision to say, "You know, I'm inclined to support it, but it's not really my area of expertise. Let me tell you about X part of my research."

Indeed, there is a real danger of underspecialization -- thinking that one knows more than one does about a complex topic. Wilson's biochemist example suggests that she may be too inclined to risk underspecialization for my taste.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Richard Posner's anti-Bluebook broadside

"There is an argument for a uniform understanding of signals of case authority (such as “accord,” “see,” “see also,” “cf.,” “but see,” “contra”), and The Bluebook offers a set of definitions. In fact there is little uniformity in the use of the signals by law clerks and other legal writers. The Bluebook’s effort is unobjectionable and takes up little space, so I am not disposed to criticize it. But what is the point of such rules as that “[i]n law review footnotes, a short form for a case may be used if it clearly identifies a case that (1) is already cited in the same footnote or (2) is cited (in either full or short form, including ‘id.’) in one of the preceding five footnotes. Otherwise a full citation is required. This reads like a parody, but is not. There are more than 150 pages of such 'rules.'"

The rest is available here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Thoughts on politicians and reality television

So I have never actually seen an episode of Sarah Palin's Alaska, not so much out of devotion to the principle that presidential candidates should possess gravitas, but more because I find that working the television is complicated and I am never sure which remote I am supposed to use to change the channel. It does occur to me, though, that there if there were to be a show called Barack Obama's Chicago, which would entail, like, candid interviews with the UChicago Law faculty and most importantly clips of Obama playing basketball with Richard Epstein, I would so watch that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Notes on fashion

So I have not actually bought this skirt, given that Banana Republic appears to send me coupons every five minutes for some sale or other, and I happened to be in their store today during one of the four-minute stretches in between the coupons. Note that there is a nude color also in the store, as well as the silver one, and I will have to decide which one is more practical, or else be non-frugal and opt for both. Note also that, contrary to how it looks on the model, the skirt hits just above the knee on your humble 5'0 correspondent.

Also, I have spent years trying to find the perfect white eyelet skirt.* This comes about as close to the Platonic ideal mounted on my brain as I'm likely to come in this world, although I do blush at the price. So it, too, will have to wait for another day.

One of the more vexing things about the shortness of culturally appropriate windows of opportunity is that this means long social seasons of spring weddings for your loyal correspondent while all of her friends scurry to settle down right before hitting 30. On the one hand, this could be fun, because it means an excuse to buy lots of cute dresses. Take this one, which is lovely, but which alas Nordstrom did not have in my size.

Oh, and for those of you who simply must have some political and intellectual heft in your fashion blog posts, go read Matthew Yglesias sneaker tariffs post, which is quite good.

*I also have far too much mental energy invested into trying to find the perfect black cardigan. I did have an excellent one for a while between about 1999 and 2005, but all future successors have been too itchy or too floppy. The quest continues.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Libertarians and Morality

We're not totally immoral, just different.

I haven't read the Haidt paper -- indeed, there appears to be no hyperlink given at Reason -- but just Bailey's summary. I do wonder in which direction the causation runs. Do people sympathetic to certain political ideologies modify their moral beliefs accordingly? Or are people with certain moral intuitions hard-wired to take up certain political beliefs? One way to test this, I guess, would be to look at the stability of moral foundational beliefs over time...

Second question: to what extent does Haidt's work control for education? I would guess that the disgust reflex would be low among highly educated people generally. See, e.g., the the stupidity of the blood transfusion question on the purity reflex test. So what one might be seeing might be that libertarians tend to be very educated and answer in similar ways to other highly educated types?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Toward a less grandiose conception of higher education

So I am reading the slip opinion of for Fisher v. Texas, the University of Texas affirmative action case. It of course quotes at length from Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court affirmative action case concerning the University of Michigan's law school. It is possible that I am just being cranky, but one of the weirder facets of both this opinion and Grutter is all of this talk about building a diverse "leadership class" and that it is apparently necessary for it a)to be diverse, so as to have "legitimacy" and b) that even the individuals within it who are not "diverse" to have some threshhold exposure to diversity to be better leaders.

This conception of students at selective colleges and universities as members of some elite class of Platonic philosopher guardians is nice, and I suppose I should be flattered that I have been presumably included in the group. Except that neither of the selective-ish institutions that I have attended really seemed to be in the business of fostering anything close to a Platonic philosopher guardian class. There were a small number of hyper-networked over-achievers hellbent on cracking into the Washington power structure, true. But there was also my friend who wound up living in a van for awhile, and the two acquaintances who moved to San Francisco to start a band. I'm sure there are also plenty of future stay at home moms, and others who make piles of money doing boring-to-me things with numbers and chemicals that I don't understand, who are not really leading anything in a broad sense. This is not meant as a slur against any of these people; the numbers and chemicals guys are actually creating jobs and moving the economy forward. The stay-at-home mothers raise great kids, etc. By not heating up an apartment in winter, the van guy helps solve our nation's fossil fuels problem.

But the point is that even the most exquisitely sensitive admissions office is going to pick lots of people who are not destined for philosopher guardianness. That is probably as it should be. There are not that many jobs at The New Republic. Hyper-networked aspirant philosopher guardians are kind of annoying, and they should be discouraged from these pursuits as much as possible. All of this fretting over getting the perfectly diverse mix of these philosopher guardian class right seems kind of twee and annoying. More institutional humility from these schools and their admissions officers would be nice.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Caitlin Flanagan writes something obnoxious, again.

Caitlin Flanagan has written another stupid article about sex and dating. I am not sure that I have anything to say about this topic that I did not the last time that a social conservative wrote a stupid article about hook-up culture, so consider this post merely me renewing most of my objections. See also Jezebel for some more pointed criticisms of this particular effort.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Long weekend bake, part deux

Cooks Illu$trated challah. This was surprisingly easy and delightfully good. Pnin, who is the actual Eastern European Jewish member of the household, did comment that this version is crustier and less soft than others that he's eaten, but that he also likes challah that way. Others' mileage may vary. This is also delicious as French toast the next morning, so it is probably a better Saturday (or Sunday, in the case of a long weekend) bake than a late-weekend one.

3 - 3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (15-16 1/4 ounces), plus more for dusting work surface
1/4 cup sugar (1 3/4 ounces)
1 envelope instant yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick), melted
1/2 cup warm water plus 1 tablespoon (about 110 degrees)
1 large egg white (for wash)
1 teaspoon poppy seeds , or sesame (optional)
1. Whisk together 3 cups of flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in medium bowl; set aside. Mix together 2 eggs, egg yolk, melted butter, and 1/2 cup of water in bowl of standing mixer fitted with dough hook. Add flour mixture to wet mixture; knead at low speed until dough ball forms, about 5 minutes, adding remaining 1/4 cup flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, as needed to prevent dough from sticking. Whisk reserved egg white with remaining 1 tablespoon water in small bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

2. Transfer dough to very lightly oiled large bowl, turning dough over to coat with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Gently press dough to deflate, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size again, 40 to 60 minutes.

3. Lightly grease large baking sheet and set aside. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface. Divide dough into 2 pieces, one roughly half size of other. (Small piece will weigh about 9 ounces, larger piece about 18 ounces.) Divide large piece into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece into 16-inch-long rope, about 1 inch in diameter. Line up ropes of dough side by side and pinch ends together (see illustration 1). Take dough rope on bottom and lay it over center rope. Take dough rope on top and lay it over center rope (illustration 2). Repeat until ropes of dough are entirely braided (illustration 3), then pinch ends together. Place braid on baking sheet. Divide smaller piece of dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece into 16-inch-long rope, about 1/2 inch in diameter. Braid together, pinching ends to seal. Brush some of egg wash on top of large loaf and place small braid on larger braid (illustration 4). Loosely drape loaf with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until loaf becomes puffy and increases in size by a third, 30 to 45 minutes.

4. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Brush loaf with remaining egg wash and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds, if using. Bake until loaf is golden brown and instant-read thermometer inserted into side of loaf reads 190 degrees, 30 to 40 minutes. Place baking sheet on wire rack. Cool loaf completely before slicing.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Speaking of the frivolously sugary

I have trouble keeping track of the love lives of actual celebrities. Sometimes my husband and I stand in the Safeway checkout lines and try to figure out how many people we can identify who are pictured on magazines. On our most recent visit, I think we could figure out who Brad and Angie were, but there was some woman who we could identify dating a guy named Mark who we could not. My husband is better at this than I am, largely because he sometimes reads about some of these people on the sports pages, which is why he could explain to me who the Kardashians (sp.?) are. It is true that I sometimes read fashion magazines, and he does not, which contain articles interviewing celebrity . But I mostly skip the articles, which are long on musings about astrology, annoying folksiness ("I was just such a nerd in high school") , and scientifically unfounded diet advice ("My friend Dr. Throttlebottom is amazing. He showed me the One True Faith about how pomegranates are loaded in super-cala-fragalicistics, as is whole-wheat pasta, and now I eat whole-wheat pasta tossed in pomegranate juice for lunch every day!") Instead, I concentrate on looking at pictures of pretty clothes and the occasional useful article comparing lipstick brands.

That said, I am far from above the instincts that drive others to read these magazines. I have instead channeled them into unhealthy fascination with the personal lives of prominent libertarian and conservative bloggers. The fracas over Todd Seavey's denouncing ex-girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer in pointed personal terms on a CSPAN televised panel was tailor made for indulgence of said unhealthy obsession. Just when I thought the dust had settled, apparently Seavey is doing a Month of Haters series on his blog in which he responds one by one to each of his detractors re: the C-Span incident. Alpheus of Athens and Jerusalem is right that this makes for oddly gripping reading. The world is mad, but gloriously so.

Cooks Illustrated Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes

The$e are utterly glorious, although alas far too fussy for all but long weekends. I counted something like six bowls piled up in the sink by the end, all of the too big to fit safely in the dishwasher variety. Note also that these are amazingly tender -- I think it's the bread flour? -- but that also makes them difficult to frost. Getting them out of the cupcake pan is a delicate matter in and of itself, and then they threaten to crumble when one lifts them up to frost.

I also don't recommend the accompanying frosting. Somehow, egg-white based buttercreams never fail to disappoint me; I'd appreciate guidance from someone who has better luck. My first batch was grainy and ugly. I resigned myself to throwing it away and resorting to my more tried and true approach of throwing confectioner sugar, butter, and vanilla into a stand mixer until it coheres into something resembling my Platonic ideal of good icing. At least the latter turned out well.

Ganache Filling
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate , chopped fine (see note)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar
Chocolate Cupcakes
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate , chopped fine (see note)
1/3 cup (1 ounce) Dutch-processed cocoa
3/4 cup hot coffee
3/4 cup (4 1/8 ounces) bread flour
3/4 cup (5 1/4 ounces) granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 recipe Frosting
1. FOR GANACHE FILLING: Place chocolate, cream, and confectioners’ sugar in medium microwave-safe bowl. Heat in microwave on high power until mixture is warm to touch, 20 to 30 seconds. Whisk until smooth; transfer bowl to refrigerator and let stand until just chilled, no longer than 30 minutes.

2. FOR CUPCAKES: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard-size muffin pan (cups have ½-cup capacity) with baking-cup liners. Place chocolate and cocoa in medium bowl. Pour hot coffee over mixture and whisk until smooth. Set in refrigerator to cool completely, about 20 minutes. Whisk flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

3. Whisk oil, eggs, vinegar, and vanilla into cooled chocolate-cocoa mixture until smooth. Add flour mixture and whisk until smooth.

4. Divide batter evenly among muffin pan cups. Place one slightly rounded teaspoon ganache filling on top of each cupcake. Bake until cupcakes are set and just firm to touch, 17 to 19 minutes. Cool cupcakes in muffin pan on wire rack until cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes. Carefully lift each cupcake from muffin pan and set on wire rack. Cool to room temperature before frosting, about 1 hour.

5. TO FROST: Mound 2 to 3 tablespoons frosting on center of each cupcake. Using small icing spatula or butter knife, spread frosting to edge of cupcake, leaving slight mound in center.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Continued misadventures in Isabel's being a horrible person

Exhibit A. Though blog comments sections are often not worth reading, this one has some gems. There is the woman who decided that she wanted to make friends with her elevator-mates at work because she thought that this would make things better if she got stuck in an elevator because of terrorism. Lower down, there is the "thoughtful" woman who routinely leaves seasonally appropriate happy holidays notes to her garbage man and the recycling guy.

I realize that this lack of interest in others' lives probably makes me evil and horrible. My mother certainly often urged this sort of friendliness on me growing up, and it has absolutely refused to stick. It is true that relocating to a less than Peyton Place like D.C. has helped, as has having a job where I can justify the need to check e-mail at virtually every conceivably appropriate time and thus avoid social contact.

Perverse though it is, I am actually kind of applying the Golden Rule here. I've worked in policy since law school and thus have never really had clients to speak of since. But the clients that I did have during law school clinics did not really know anything about me as a person, and I frankly was kind of glad they did not. It is true that one of my clients was a gay chicken farmer from rural Georgia who was on the hook for possessing kiddie porn, who was descended from a complex and confusing family tree involving what my supervisor and I thought were multiple instances of incest, although we were admittedly having trouble when we actually tried to draw the relevant chart. Point being that we did not have much in common, so it did not really trouble me that he did not want to be my friend. There was one who used to go on extended rants about how it was unfair that you could get in trouble for stealing a car and then driving to drive it around without having a driver's license, the latter part of which rants could put him in good company at the Cato Institute, except that he never seemed particularly interested in my life either.

See also Jonathan Rauch.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Best available evidence shows that Arizona shooting is not Ayn Rand or Friedrich Hayek's fault.

Dear people who are coming to this blog for the first time via Google:

I am intrigued that so many of you are coming here who are Googling "Ayn Rand" and "Arizona shooter." Presumably your question seems to be, was Jared Lee Loughner influenced by Ayn Rand? The answer is no, so far as anyone is able to tell so far.

Ditto for those of you who have come here looking for whether Jared Lee Loughner was influenced by Friedrich Hayek. Again, there have been no media reports indicating that he was.

For those of you who are Googling "Isabel Archer" and "economist"; I am not, in fact, actually an economist. Neither is the Henry James character whose name I have adopted as a pseudonym. Although now that I think of it, I kind of like the idea of Isabel reinventing herself as an economist after the novel is over. So from now on, I am just going to pretend that she in fact did.

Arthur Laffer and His Napkin Revisited

Very good sentences from Daniel Mitchell at the Cato at Liberty blog:

The Laffer Curve is one of my favorite issues... But it is a very frustrating topic. Half my time is spent trying to convince left-leaning people that the Laffer Curve exists. I use common-sense explanations. I cite historical examples. I even use information from left-of-center institutions in hopes that they will be more likely to listen.

The other half of my time is spent trying to educate right-leaning people that the Laffer Curve does not mean that “all tax cuts pay for themselves.” I relentlessly try to make them understand that there is a big difference between pro-growth tax cuts that increase incentives for productive behavior and therefore lead to more taxable income and other tax cuts such as child credits that have little or no impact on economic performance.

Preach it, brother.

Things That Are Vexing

Why are there so many newspaper websites named after cities, rather than the newspaper itself? If I am Googling around for local news stories to support a point, it's extremely annoying to have to waste time looking around to see if I am actually planning to cite the Podunk Gazette or the Podunk Herald Tribune. Often, this basic information is surprisingly and maddeningly elusive.

I fail to understand what the countervaling interest is. Is it that if you hold the domain name, you will be seen as the authentic voice of Podunk?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Confidential to Rooster Cogburn: I never understood Negotiable Instruments either.

Pnin and I saw True Grit on Sunday night. As the linked review says, the film is lovely. There are beautiful scenes of Texas and Arkansas, and, as Kurt Loder says in Reason, the opening scene of Mattie Ross's father's dead body in softly falling snow, illuminated only by a porch light, is a master class unto itself.

As Amanda Marcotte says, this is quite the feminist movie. The heroine, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, is both smart and brave, and it is clear early on to whom the title refers. There are impressive scenes showing her physical courage. But what's most interesting to me, and what seems to have gone unnoticed elsewhere, is just how much law talk there is in this movie. In a crucial scene near the movie's beginning meant to establish her intelligence and toughness, Mattie successfully gets the better of a horse dealer because she knows the law. She actually throws out the word "replevin" during this sequence, which summoned for me all too vivid memories of 1L., Ditto a scene in which Mattie and her Texas Ranger companion ponder the differences between malum prohibitum and malum in se. And there's my favorite line in the movie, in which Mattie's U.S. Marshal companion* tells her that he tried to be a lawyer, but he just couldn't get his head around negotiable instruments. Likewise, there are any number of other references to settling things "at law" or "going to law." **

I have not seen the older John Wayne version of the movie, but Pnin tells me that he does not recall nearly as much legal chatter in the first version. I'm left wondering why. One possibility is that this is merely in line with the Coen brothers' choice to let in more dialogue from the Charles Portis novel. Another is that the message of all the law talk is clear: to be a powerful person in Mattie's world, it's important to know the law. Mattie succeeds because she does. The flattery falls nicely on my ears. Still, in a less litigation-happy world, knowing the law would be a less important criterion for becoming a powerful and successful person. It's perhaps an unfortunate sign of just how litigious we have become that the link between "knowledgeable about law" and "powerful" is so neat and tidy then.

Of course, the law was simpler then than it is now. It's far less likely today that even a whip-smart fourteen-year-old could master the skills necessary to carry out business deals that Mattie Ross does. There's just a more confusing thicket of laws and regulations to wade through regarding any transaction. It's a shame that it's so much harder for people of any age to transact business without the help of specialists.

*This is possibly a stupid question, but there seem to be federalism problems with the way that the U.S. Marshals service is set up in this movie. Rooster Cogburn is going after Tom Chaney for a homicide that took place in Arkansas, which is a state law crime. At least, we're not given any facts indicating that there would be some kind of federal interest in prosecuting Chaney. So why then are federal officials chasing after Chaney for a state level crime? Is it because Chaney had fled into Indian Territory, and U.S. marshals and only they had jurisdiction to look for outlaws hiding out there?

**For cringeworthy lines about law in other recent popular movies, my favorite is Rashida Jones's character's comment to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network that she is "a second year associate specializing in voir dire." Is there any second year associate anywhere in this whole great country who actually specializes in voir dire?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Neo-prohibitionism, child obesity edition

"The recently passed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (PDF) offers some positive steps to improve how our children eat in schools. But in trying to make schools nutritional oases, public health officials have unwittingly unleashed the black market genie ready and able to fill the void left by departing sodas and snacks. Now, budding student entrepreneurs are rushing in to meet the demand for snacks and beverages that are no longer available legitimately.

Once again, well-intended legislation has not considered how market forces might affect the intended outcomes. Here are some examples:

• Following the passage of the Texas Public School Nutrition Policy, which banned candy, enterprising students at Austin High began selling bags full of candy at premium prices, with some reportedly making up to $200 per week.

• Similarly, young entrepreneurs at one Boca Raton (Florida) middle school make runs to the local Costco and buy candy bars, doughnuts, and other high-calorie snacks in bulk. They then offer these goodies for sale in an environment that has supposedly eradicated such goodies.

• An eighth-grade student body vice president in Connecticut was forced to resign after buying Skittles from an underground "dealer."

• The U.K. has also seen its share of black market trade in banned foods, snacks, and beverages, with schools in Oxford, Dorset, and Essex reporting healthy underground markets trading in food contraband. The plots ranged from kids selling McDonald's hamburgers in playgrounds to bicycle-riding entrepreneurs hauling bags of soft drinks and milk chocolate for sale."


Another Chua post

Shannon Love has an interesting and thoughtful post on the Amy Chua article, although I don't really agree. First, the word "teamwork" as applied to anything I did in K-12 education leaves me cold. There were the two science teachers who decided that, rather than teaching science according to top-down methods, we would teach each other in teams. To assess our competence at teaching each other, our grades on quizzes would be averaged together. This was a fantastic deal for the relative slackers in each group and a nightmare for the more diligent. Two of the girls in my group and I would try to drill each other while failing to dissuade the other to put away her nail polish bottle and focus. The whole misadventure did convince me that incentives and free-rider problems matter and also unfortunately made me more susceptible to Ayn Rand than I would have been otherwise, which I think was not actually not supposed to be the point.

Second, even under Chua's overly narrow conception of what counts as an appropriate activity, some teamwork is still possible. I would be surprised if neither of her daughters ever performed in an instrumental ensemble, for example. In my own case, because I am terrible at all manner of athletic activities, I wound up being captain of my high school's quiz bowl team. We were largely seen as being less public-spirited and well-rounded than the athletes, much to our frustration. But we did think strategically about division of labor and other teamworkish type things. My husband says much the same thing about debate at his high school, which was predominantly disproportionately Russian Jewish and various Asian immigrants. (He told me once that a coach from another high school once commented on the perpetual lack of native-born Americans on the Lexington team.) The same thing seems to be true of various math and science type competitions, although I didn't really participate in very many past middle school.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Talking Civilly About Pension Reform

Rick Hills has written a post offering conservatives advice on how to talk civilly about pension reform. I'm a libertarian, not a conservative, and some of my detractors would probably just actually sa that I'm a crank. But some of this probably applies to me anyway, so I'm willing to take a bite.

Still, a concern about the proposed solution of referenda:there seems to be a classic public-choice-ish problem here where the diffuse interests of a large group (the taxpayers) diverge considerably from the interests of a small group (public employees who are self-interested in receiving generous pensions.) The public employees have every incentive to form powerful interest groups that would campaign aggressively for generous pensions. The diffuse mass of taxpayers -- the group that should care the most about promoting fiscal responsibility for self-interested reasons -- have far less incentive to care. Given these incentives, I imagine that many non-public-employees would sit these elections out altogether, and/or that others would follow the public employee interest groups' lead. The result might well be liabilities as large or perhaps larger than we're seeing now.

Voter ignorance is a real concern here; as Ilya has written about before, many voters are unaware of even much simpler facts such as which party controls the House of Representatives or the names of their own senators. Fifty-seven percent of voters didn't know who Newt Gingrich was immediately following the controversial 1994 elections. As Ilya also notes, better informed voters often choose to follow political news as a form of infotainment. Newt Gingrich is a colorful figure who's fascinating to read about; pension reform can seem dry even to professional policy wonks. Getting the electorate to participate in these referenda and to make well-informed decisions will be difficult.

I freely admit that the current systems for setting public employee pay have their own perverse incentives and problems. I'm willing to entertain the possibility that the system Hills proposes would be marginally or incrementally better than what we have now.

On Tucson, II

This is also very sensible. Particularly important words for legislatures to live by: "My rule of thumb is a strong presumption that any law named after a victim is poor public policy enacted by legislators who confuse voting against a law with voting against an innocent person."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On Tucson

"Any call to cool "inflammatory" speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper's in 1995, "The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say." Rauch added, "Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too. Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights.

Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I'll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me."

-- Jack Shafer in Slate

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tigress Dnieperist Future Mother

Law professor Amy Chua has an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." In it, she defends traditionally strict Chinese methods of child-rearing over "softer" Western approaches. I have written on similar topics before, and so I agree somewhat with Chua -- although I would probably be far less strict than she. Half an hour of music practice will be enough for the future Pnins.

I am puzzled, however, by her emphasis on classical music performance as the extracurricular of choice for her children and by her equally fervent rejection of theater. (She notes that her daughters were never allowed to be in a school play and later, that no Chinese kid would ever proudly announce to her mother that she'd gotten a part in the school play.) I'm no expert, but the odds of being able to forge a career in classical music performance vs. acting seem about the same. Both are winner-take-all fields in which, unfortunately, most entrants won't win. Maybe that is Chua's aim, but I don't think it is for the typical Asian or otherwise Archerist-inclined parent. Rather, I always thought of academics as preparation for typical white-collar jobs as the true centerpiece of an Archerist upbringing.

Oh, and because I am a loon, I sometimes even fantasize about creating an Archer-Pnin dynasty of future libertarian law professors. Being a prawf is basically one of the most splendid jobs in the world, of course. Chua -- who is married to fellow Yale professor Jed Rubenfeld -- should understand this as well as anyone.

If the point is therefore in most cases to equip a child with some skills transferable to typical white-collar jobs, wouldn't theater actually be slightly better? Theater imparts some useful public speaking skills, after all. This is useful not just for offspring aiming to fulfill my weird dynastic ambitions, but also for litigators, corporate managers, and many other attractive careers. Former actors are good at reading body language and at modulating their voices to fit various social situations. My cousin is one of the few double majors in theater arts and math in the world. Though what she does day to day now draws more on the math, she said that she's aced every interview she's ever gotten because of all that theater training.

Actors also have to be unusually sensitive readers of text. I noticed in high school and college that classmates who had been in lots of plays were often much more insightful when discussing Shakespeare than those of us who had no such experience. Skill in close reading is extremely valuable in literature and of course law. Again, woo dynastic ambitions! Even future engineers and scientists usually have to take some literature and composition courses in high school and commonly in college. A's in high-school English are probably a nice plus even at science-oriented institutions like MIT or Caltech.

Pnin also raises the point that it is a bit ironic that Asian parents are shown here as so devoted to classical music over theater. Chinese drama has a long and storied history, whereas the introduction of Western piano and violin is a much more recent development.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Notes on trendy burger places

Okay, so it is probably ridiculous to admit that I have lived in Arlington for over a year -- and in greater D.C. for two -- and never been to Ray's Hellburger before tonight. The only excuses that I can claim are that 1)when I used to come to Arlington for meetings of my fellowship program in 2008-9, it was always so swamped that my friends and I decided not to bother with the lines and wound up going to Five Guys instead and 2)that Pnin has been avoiding red meat recently. But I am not bound by his anti-red-meat concerns, he is away in San Francisco giving aid and comfort to the enemy at AALS, and I did not feel like making an elaborate dinner for one person.

So I figured I'd check it out. What's good enough for Dmitri Medvedev is good enough for me. Even if Barack Obama does not understand unimportant things like health care and the Constitution and judging, he does understand actually important things, like the fact that D.C. residents are wusses when it comes to snow. Maybe cheeseburgers could be among the other important things about which he is right.

I tried a Lil Devil with Brie, mushrooms, onions, and garlic. The waiter recommended medium rare, which I think comes out a touch too pink. I'd try medium next time. Still, the seasonings are lovely, and the meat was juicy, delicious, and succulent. The buns are good, too. I suspect BGR in Old Town may be a notch better, but it's close enough that I'd need a blind taste test to be sure.

Good burgers are also something that can be imitated relatively easily at home. It's true that getting good meat -- the expensive grass-fed stuff -- is key. I've never been hard-core enough to experiment with purchasing different cuts of steak and grinding them up myself in the food processor, although it might be worth experimenting with before some future picnic. Getting the buns right is probably trickier. I imagine that the right homemade recipe is probably vastly better than most supermarket varieties. But I've never seen one by which I've been intrigued.

Their sweet potato fries are surprisingly meh. I've made better myself. I recommend the Cooks Illu$ recipe.

The chocolate milkshakes are heavenly. But they're giant. I wouldn't order one just for myself again. I could safely share with at least one other person, possibly two.

In some ways, it's lovely that D.C. and environs are becoming such an interesting restaurant city. That is, I'm certainly benefiting personally. But I fear that the thriving restaurant culture reflects the increasing concentration of wealth -- and with it, the increasing power of government -- in our increasingly imperial fair city. Apres nous, le deluge?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Health of Fusionism Update, CPAC Boycott Edition

Potential fusionist crack-up warning: some socially conservative groups are boycotting this year's annual Conservative Political Action Conference because of the CPAC board's decision to include GOProud, a gay conservative group.

I doubt it will surprise anyone that I'm perfectly fine with the decision to include GOProud. The boycott also strikes me as especially silly because GOProud's actual policy agenda appears quite modest. Most of the federal legislative priorities that have to do with domestic economic policy and hawkishness on foreign policy. Only two of the issues mentioned specifically have to do with gay rights -- DADT repeal and opposing a federal marriage amendment. In other words, approximately half of its federal legislative agenda having to do with gay rights amounts to a call not to change the status quo. The other half involves deferring to the military's policy judgments about what is appropriate for their services. Notably, the group says nothing about pushing for gay marriage or civil unions at the state level; about expanding either federal or state anti-discrimination laws to cover gays; or about expanding the reach of federal or state hate crimes laws. An interview with the group's founder also says that GOProud split off from the Log Cabin Republicans because the former group wasn't conservative enough. So despite the comments in the Washington Times article about CPAC's yielding to the forces of homosexual extremism, GOProud seems rather the reverse of extreme.

As far as the comments about libertarian arrogance toward social conservatives, I am perhaps not the best person to talk because I am actually quite arrogant toward many social conservatives. This is not them, though. It's me. I am basically insufferably arrogant toward people of most political persuasions -- left, right, and center. I am trying to change this, however, and to be more polite and civil toward everyone. Still, I note that there is plenty of social conservative arrogance toward libertarians in the world. I doubt I am the only libertarian in D.C. who has ever thought that, for various social and career reasons, it would just be so much easier if I could be a social conservative.

It is true, as one of the gentlemen interviewed in the Washington Times article says, that this is not a libertarian PAC. I realize that as a libertarian who is not a conservative, I have little right to tell them how they ought to run their movement. But let me paraphrase Ronald Reagan slightly and say that a government big enough to give values voters everything they want is also big enough to take it away. We libertarians can help values voters live according to their preferred norms, free from government coercion. We can help lower the stakes of politics, so that left-liberals are less inclined to use the state to impose their values on more traditionally minded voters. It's in their interest to try to keep us a little bit happy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In partial defense of a non-vapid heiress

Yes, Conor, It Girl New York debutante Susan Nagel is the quintessential girl that everyone loves to hate. She's blonde, poised, attractive, and has a seemingly perfect academic extracurricular resume.

But let me note two positive trends in the article:

1)There was a thread at Phoebe's a few weeks ago about how it is no longer acceptable for rich society girls to just be "ladies who lunch." They have to at least pretend to be interior designers, movie producers, or what have you. In some cases, the pretense is silly. But it's a great statement about the advance of feminism (classically liberal and otherwise) that even the women who least need money are embracing the joys of hard work.

2)She's a huge James Madison fan. Although we are not told much about Nagel's politics, most of her charities of choice -- the article mentions "sustainable organic agriculture" and "social justice" -- sound like standard limousine liberal fare. Madison was arguably one of the most libertarian founding fathers. It's heartening to see interest in Madison and constitutional history come from people who do not come off as Tea Party-esque cranks.

Who knows, maybe Nagel could even be a spokesperson for the Harlan Institute.

Monday, January 3, 2011

What if a Reason magazine explainer on non-libertarians unfolded like so?

"Non-libertarianism gets caricatured as the responsible, mainstream, expert consensus supporting branch of American political philosophy. Yet so much of what it advocates is at odds with the country’s founding. Of course, the slaveholders that wrote the Constitution without giving women the right to vote weren’t exactly libertarians either, even if they did limit the federal government in various ways. In fact, non-libertarians have enjoyed uninterrupted power in the United States for the whole of its history, non-libertarians were particularly instrumental in the political beliefs of the slave-holding Confederacy, and for all the disastrous foreign wars, violations of civil liberties, and fiscal nightmares created by non-libertarians during their uninterrupted domination of all three branches of government, voters still prefer them."

-- Conor Friedersdorf, writing a clever parody of that stupid NY Mag article about libertarianism.

The parody is clever, but here's the serious part:

And as I survey the biggest policy disasters in recent American history – the push liberals made in California to vest public employees with obviously unsustainable pension deals, the conservative approach to the Iraq War, the non-libertarian, bipartisan consensus that we ought to continue waging a War on Drugs in scores of countries despite the utter implausibility of victory in that struggle – I cannot help but conclude that it is the serial refusal of non-libertarians to grapple with the world as it is that causes our country the vast majority of its avoidable trouble.

What about a voter who wants to grapple with the world as it is? I think he or she ought to conclude that libertarians hold very little power in this country (as Beam points out), that a Congressional majority that would implement their least mainstream ideas – returning to the gold standard, for example – is utterly implausible, and that electing more libertarians like Ron Paul is far more likely to advance the most popular libertarian policies, like an end to marijuana prohibition, smart cuts to the Pentagon budget, and rolling back the nanny state. Instead, non-libertarian pundits delight in focusing on the least likely libertarian ideas to be implemented, and pointing out real flaws in theoretical libertarianism – the Civil Rights Act dustup, for example – that have little bearing on actual political questions that face America. In this sense, it is non-libertarians who are making the ideal the enemy of the practical, and I wish they'd stop it.

Aside from some serious reservations about the Ron Paul part, I wholeheartedly agree.

In which I attempt more regular posting

I know that I promised in my last post that I would stop blindly linking to John McWhorter posts without substantive commentary on them, but I can't resist nodding my head at his broadside against the War on Drugs:

[W]ith no War on Drugs there would be, within one generation, no “black problem” in the United States. Poverty in general, yes. An education problem in general—probably. But the idea that black America had a particular crisis would rapidly become history, requiring explanation to young people ...

That is neither an exaggeration nor an oversimplification. It comes down to this: If there were no way to sell drugs on the street at a markup, then young black men who drift into this route would instead have to get legal work. They would. Those insisting that they would not have about as much faith in human persistence and ingenuity as those who thought women past their five-year welfare cap would wind up freezing on sidewalk grates.