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Norwegian Prisons

[ 0 ] April 1, 2015 |


If you are like me, i.e. a good American, you are outraged by those herring choker Norwegians and their prison systems designed to rehabilitate inmates so they can be productive members of society. Real Americans know prison is meant for locking up black people punishing the evil in hellish ways that leave them a mess of a human being who will probably commit new crimes when they get out thanks to their experiences. But it makes me feel better about myself, knowing I support the institutionalized torture of people through solitary confinement, violent guards, substandard living conditions, and gang violence.

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Dead Horses in British History

[ 12 ] April 1, 2015 |


Exciting news on the dead horse front, as intact 2000 year old horse skeleton found in British archaeological dig.

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Ice Cream: The Dessert of Revolution

[ 23 ] April 1, 2015 |


Somehow I came to this point in my life without knowing that Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman once owned an ice cream shop in Worcester, Massachusetts before failing miserably to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in the wake of the Homestead strike. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–the fact that Berkman couldn’t off a bloated Gilded Age capitalist while armed with a gun and a knife is proof that you can’t trust anarchists to do anything right. This wonderful, if fictional, reminiscence by S.N. Berhman of visiting the shop in a 1954 New Yorker article is well worth your time.

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Sprawl: Terrible in All Ways

[ 143 ] April 1, 2015 |


Suburban sprawl is a horrible thing for so many reasons. The environmental impact is enormous, eating up green space, farm land, and habitat. It reinforces racial and class exclusion and de facto segregation. It also externalizes its costs in all sorts of ways with severe impacts on the economy and our lives.

So take this number as more of a starting point than a final answer: A new analysis authored by Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute concludes that sprawl costs the U.S. economy more than $1 trillion every year.

More than half of that, Littman calculates as part of a New Climate Economy research project lead by the London School of Economics, is borne by people living in sprawling places who have to drive more, among other things. About $400 billion of it is borne by other people, in the form of air pollution or traffic congestion, or costlier public services — all of it created not necessarily by consumer demand for big homes and lots of driving, but also by policies in America that encourage and subsidize sprawl.

“An awful lot of auto travel and sprawl is the result of market distortions,” Litman says. He’s talking about policies like the home mortgage interest deduction that encourages large, suburban housing, as well as the fact that we don’t charge people for the true costs of using roads. In a more efficient market, he says, “consumers would rationally choose to own fewer automobiles, to drive less, to rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, and they’d choose more compact home and work locations simply because that really optimizes everybody’s benefits.”

But wait, there’s more!

You can parse the math behind his big number. It doesn’t include the costs in lower social mobility for children growing up in the most sprawling metros. It doesn’t take into account the higher housing costs many families would pay if they moved closer to the city, or the price tag if we built the kind of public transit we’d need to support a denser population. Economic modeling is by definition imprecise — all the more so when we’re modeling a matter like land use that influences everything from the air we breathe to our quality of life.

The other thing about sprawl is that once it is built, it’s almost impossible to fix to turn into a sustainable, dense city. Decent public transportation is probably never going to come to Rio Rancho, New Mexico or Round Rock, Texas because the number of people who can access any given bus or train stop is so few. And while walking core downtowns can be built in these places, one would still have to drive to get to them. Of course, part of the appeal for many of moving to the sprawl is so they never have to walk. A friend was involved in an attempt to bring a downtown to Rio Rancho. It was a total disaster. Not surprising for a city that called their urban planning department “Developer Services.”

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Haggling over price

[ 16 ] April 1, 2015 |


One of the disappointments of my professional life is that no one has yet tried to bribe me. Around the time The Obesity Myth came out I did dozens of interviews, and to the best of my recollection I was only asked once if I had accepted money from any interested parties in the course of researching and publishing my views. I had to report regretfully that no one had thought it worthwhile to attempt to purchase my good opinion.

Happily, it appears that Michael Simkovic, a young and energetic Seton Hall law professor, has already avoided at least this species of disappointment. Simkovic co-published a study last year, purporting to show that the average present value of a generic “law degree” is just shy of one million dollars, and he and his co-author have just published a draft of another paper, claiming that this impressive figure is hardly affected by business cycle fluctuations, and that therefore “the best time to go to law school is the earliest point possible after which you make the decision that you’d eventually like to go. By waiting, you’re spending more of your limited working life working for lower wages.”

It goes without saying that these conclusions are exactly what the legal academic establishment would like to hear. So great is their enthusiasm for these findings that they are, as the intrepid scamblogger Dybbuk reveals, generously funding their further propagation:

Simkovic is a junior law professor at a second-tier law school, and therefore a finding that a law degree is an extremely risky proposition would be adverse to his employer’s interests, and his own — it doesn’t take an econometrics study to deduce a causal connection between the decline in tuition-paying lemmings and the decline in cushy lawprof jobs. But perhaps even more saliently, Simkovic has received grants totaling $220,000 from the Access Group and Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) to fund his ongoing studies of the great value of a law degree. Simkovic collected $120,000 from the Access Group and $100,000 from the LSAC. . .

The Access Group is a nonprofit membership organization comprised of 196 ABA-approved law schools. It touts itself, on its website, as a “leading provider” of student loans for aspiring professionals. As such, it has served as a national originator, holder and servicer of federally guaranteed and private, credit-based loans, funding more than $18 billion of education loans since 2001. On its IRS Form 990, Access Group lists its “primary activity” as being to “support. . . the organization’s student loan borrowers in facilitating timely repayment.” It also seeks to “promote access to higher education through lending programs offered.” . . .

The Law School Admissions Council is the nonprofit that administers the LSAT and facilitates the law school application process on behalf of its 200+ member law schools. According to its Form 990, LSAC exists to “provide services” to member law schools. These services include staging “national forums” to acquaint students with their “legal education alternatives” and holding training and educational programs for law school admissions professionals. LSAC’s gross receipts in fiscal 2013 totaled about 49 million dollars.

One of the many complaints made about legal academic scholarship is that, unlike most research in the social sciences, nobody is interested in paying for it via grants. It’s nice to see Prof. Simkovic demolishing this myth as well.

Unemployed Northeastern, indefatigable chronicler of the griftier aspects of contemporary higher ed, has some choice words about a particularly grotesque aspect of all this:

Michael Simkovic himself has gone on the warpath multiple times about how funding from the Lumina Foundation, which Sallie Mae cofounded and gave $700 million in funding, drives think tanks like Brookings and New America Foundation to create neoliberal studies that recommend federal lending be curtailed, PSLF be repealed, and PAYE be jettisoned in favor of old IBR. See, for instance:

1. ““It’s hard to make sense of a lot of what Lumina is advocating on student loans unless you think of how it would benefit Sallie Mae,” says Michael Simkovic, an associate professor at Seton Hall.” [the linked article relates how Lumina, which was cofounded and solely funded by Sallie Mae, gave New America $3 million and now NA rails against PSLF and federal student lending]

2. “Michael Simkovic, a visiting associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on lending issues, said that if Brookings’s reports on student debt were to dictate policy, they would “boost the profits of the student lenders like Sallie Mae.”” [article relates how Lumina gave Brookings $1.9 million and now Brookings claims there is no student loan crisis]

And here he is, taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from entities with direct stakes in the law school revenue game and writing studies that claim that law school graduates are immune to the laws of supply and demand, wage suppression, bear markets, elitism, etc. As if. To spell it out really clearly for anyone still confused about Access Group, it was a student lender. Back in the dark ages before GradPLUS (2006, I think), a law student could only borrow about $60,000 in federal loans for law school. Access Group competed with Sallie Mae, Nelnet, Citibank, etc. for the ability to extend $80,000 or $100,000 in private student loans to make up the difference. They would bundle those loans into Student Loan Asset-Backed Securities and sell them on Wall Street, of course. Yes, the law schools jointly own a student lending company, albeit a non-profit one (that sits on about $300 million in cash, if I am reading their 990s correctly). As far as I can tell, they haven’t lent money in years, have outsourced their loan administration to third parties, and seem to exist only to provide salaries for their executives.

April Fools!





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Today in American Meritocracy

[ 80 ] April 1, 2015 |


This is a mess:

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is facing debts and liabilities of nearly $1 billion, and has seen a sharp decline in its overall net assets over the past 13 years, according to an analysis of the school’s tax returns by the the student newspaper, The Polytechnic.

In 2000, the university, located in Troy, had assets totaling $929.7 million, the paper reported. But by the end of the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the total had dropped by 55 percent, to just $414.8 million drop. In addition, the university ended nine of the last 13 years with an operational deficit, including $18.1 million at the end of 2013, the paper reported.

The Polytechnic report assigned much of the blame to R.P.I.’s decision to build the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), for which it issued $160 million in bonds to help cover construction costs. Those costs ended up being much higher than originally projected, the newspaper reported.

“[EMPAC] was originally announced on July 5, 2001, with a planned construction cost of $50 million and an expected opening date in Fall 2003. However, by the time ground was broken on the project in September of 2003, the revised construction cost became $141 million, and EMPAC was expected to be ready for opening in 2006,” the paper reported. “Neither of these plans were achieved, with EMPAC finally holding its grand opening in October 2008, with a reported cost that exceeded $200 million.”

The announcement of the school’s plan to help finance EMPAC via bonds also caused Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade R.P.I.’s credit rating from A1 to A2; its rating today is an A3, with a “negative outlook.”

Clearly, this is what happens when you skimp on higher administration costs!

Brond defended R.P.I.’s performance under the guidance of its president, Shirley Ann Jackson, who was hired in 1999. Jackson has led the school in its implementation of her Rensselaer Plan, which has been the guideline for $1.25 billion in investment over the past 15 years, according to Jackson’s profile on the university’s website.

Jackson was paid $7.1 million in 2012, more than any other college president in the nation, and continues to be paid at that level.

Perhaps they should consider hiring Charlie Weis to coach the hockey team; not his primary sport, sure, but he’d be a comparative bargain.

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Game of Thrones podcast: Season 2, Episode 8 — “Prince of Winterfell”

[ 1 ] March 31, 2015 |



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The Erroneous Premises of Third Party Curiosity

[ 243 ] March 31, 2015 |

byrd_courtThose Were the Days!

Tomasky has a good Nation piece laying out the straightforward point that in the current partisan context the electoral choice for virtually any segment of the left is straightforward — pull the Democratic lever.  This is boring, but this doesn’t make it less true.  As always, Tomasky is especially good on of elites advocating heighten-the-contradictions strategies that are notably unpopular with the people upon whom the contradictions will be most heightened.

Max Sawicky has a response that, as always with Max, is worth reading.  But, as always with attempts to argue that third party politics have the potential to solve problems, his response is also highly unpersuasive.  The fatal false premise comes early:

 We can stipulate from the outset that these days, most any Democrat for president will be less evil than most any Republican…It follows that whatever legion of minions the Democrat would bring with her into the executive branch will be comparatively superior as well. This is not really controversial, nor is it really on point.A different issue is the political dynamic of the right-drifting center. As the center drifts right, so do the Democrats.

This was also the core argument of Adolph Reed’s recent Harper’s piece. And the main problem remains that it is transparently wrong. The idea that the Democratic Party of O’Neill/Byrd/Carter is more progressive than Democratic Party of Pelosi/Reid/Obama…I have absolutely no idea how this premise could be defended.

Sawicky continues:

They may be less evil, but they are more evil than in previous periods. Mondale and Dukakis took up bankrupt deficit reduction mania. Bill Clinton destroyed Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Both Clinton and Obama came close to cutting Social Security. With sanctions, Clinton greased the skids for a second war with Iraq.

As it happens, this was the other most crucial failing of Reed’s version of the argument: most of the evidence cited to buttress the claim that the Democratic Party has shifted inexorably to the right comes from stuff Democrats did 20 or 30 years ago (and most of that from periods in which the Republican Party controlled Congress.) There’s also the problem that the many flaws of Democrats from preceding periods are airbrushed out of the story. To the parade of Democrats who endorsed “bankrupt deficit reduction mania” we should probably add…Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who actually implemented austerity policies with disastrous consequences. (When reflecting on this Golden Age of the Democratic Party, we should perhaps also recall such matters as the white supremacy that tainted even the achievements of the New Deal, the segregationists nominated to the Supreme Court, the people sent to concentration camps on the basis of their race, inter alia.)

On the other hand, the tendentious case against Obama consists solely of the fact that he “came close to cutting Social Security.” This is not in fact true — there was never any chance that Republicans would accept Chained CPI in exchange for what Obama was demanding in return — but the Chained CPI deal was still a bad deal and the criticism of Obama for offering it (at least before his re-election, when he apparently thought it might fly) is merited. But if arguing that the Democratic Party is always shifting to the right, you can’t just look at things that didn’t happen; you have to look at things that did happen, and once you consider the most important expansion of the progressive state since the Johnson administration along with ARRA, Dodd-Frank, the Obama administration’s use of regulations to combat climate change and the repeal of DADT, the claim that the Democratic Party is to the right of where it was 40 years ago has no content at all.

Change in the American political system doesn’t come from third parties; it comes from social movements and primaries. The shift of the Democratic Party since the 90s is an illustration of this, not a counter-example.

On final point, on Max’s response to Tomasky’s point about how most Naderites were exempt from the dismal consequences of Naderist theories of electoral politics:

Tomasky suggests that protest votes are easy for bourgeois elitists who will not suffer from the machinations of retrograde Republican governance. This is a little rich. Of course, votes for the Democrats are not costly for elites either. It’s good to be the king, as long as your feet stay dry.

Well, yes, elites will do fine either way; some Nader supporters have lower tax bills thanks to Nader’s vanity campaign, but I don’t think that motivated anybody. But that’s not the issue. The question is what effect vote-splitting has on the most vulnerable people in society, and the answer is that throwing elections to Republicans has very bad effects on them in the current partisan context. If this is what we’re risking, there had better be some important benefit being gained in return. At this point, the fact third-party politics at the federal level has no actual upside becomes highly relevant.

…Max responds, you should read.

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Good Job NYU

[ 9 ] March 31, 2015 |


NYU deciding to open an Abu Dhabi just gets more and more embarrassing for the school. You’d think the school would consider academic freedom and the protections of its faculty in the United Arab Emirates. But of course it didn’t. Because it was always about cashing checks.

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When One Is Being Self-Consciously “Politically Incorrect,” One Is Almost Never Being Funny

[ 293 ] March 31, 2015 |

I don’t know anything about Trevor Noah, and am reluctant to say that individual tweets should ever be a firable offense. I have no reason to think he’s an anti-Semite as opposed to someone with faulty theories of comedy.  Still, all three tweets in the collection starting with the “Jewish kid crossing the road” one get increasingly anti-Semitic. At this point, many people will bring up the defense that you have to be “politically incorrect” to be funny.  I think this is quite silly in theory.  But it’s inapplicable in this case at any rate, given that Don Rickles’s writers might have rejected them for being stale and witless. (“Jewish chicks don’t give blowjobs! Dhat’s da joke!”) Even if we assume arguendo that they’re not motivated by animus, I hope they’re not representative of what he thinks is funny, or his Daily Show might make me look back fondly on Tough Crowd With Rupert Pupkin (which, come to think of it, was a show essentially premised on the idea that as long as you were being “politically incorrect” it didn’t matter if you were being funny.)

…Jessica Winter:

The problem is not that Trevor Noah tells offensive jokes. It’s not even that he routinely breaks The Daily Show’s covenant of speaking truth to power in favor of speaking truth to fat chicks or Thai hookers or, as the Washington Post’s Wendy Todd points out, black Americans who give their kids names that Noah disapproves of. The problem is that Noah’s jokes are so annihilatingly stupid. Are they even jokes? Are they meta-jokes, like the “My arms are so tired” airplane joke he made on his first Daily Show appearance? Or did he mean that as a joke, too?!? Trevor Noah: ontological mystery.


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The Indiana backlash

[ 114 ] March 31, 2015 |

I’m not particularly troubled that some of the backlash against Indiana right now is a bit confused on the law, in large part because the backlash clearly gets the politics so straightforwardly and obviously right. But if I were the backlash coordinator, I’d direct my minions to start following up assertions that “of course it’s not our intent to authorize discrimination against gay people” if perhaps one way they could make their protestation seem vaguely sincere would be to follow 20+ other states and their largest city and make discrimination against LGBT people illegal. Because right now “God told me to” and “gays are icky” are equally lawful reasons to discriminate against LGBT people in Indiana with respect to housing, employment, schools, public accommodations and insurance markets. A group of legislators who really, really don’t intend to authorize discrimination against their LGBT citizens would surely want to do something about that, wouldn’t they?

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Destroying Workers Compensation

[ 18 ] March 31, 2015 |

Orange Man Injured

Workers compensation is under attack. Although the system has never provided benefits at a level that really makes up for the suffering of an injured worker (the only fair system would be 100 percent compensation for lost wages and benefits) and although the system was designed to protect corporations from workers suing them, it still provides at least some benefits to American workers who get sick or injured on the job.

Not surprisingly, in this New Gilded Age, this system, like the rest of American labor law, is under attack. That attack is being led by corporations such as Walmart, Lowe’s and Safeway.

ARAWC’s mission is to pass laws allowing private employers to opt out of the traditional workers’ compensation plans that almost every state requires businesses to carry. Employers that opt out would still be compelled to purchase workers’ comp plans. But they would be allowed to write their own rules governing when, for how long, and for which reasons an injured employee can access medical benefits and wages.

In recent years, companies have used that freedom to severely curtail long-standing benefits.

Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, already allow employers to opt out of state-mandated workers’ comp. In Texas, the only state that has never required employers to provide workers’ comp, Walmart has written a plan that allows the company to select the physician an employee sees and the arbitration company that hears disputes. The plan provides no coverage for asbestos exposure. And a vague section of the contract excludes any employee who was injured due to his “participation” in an assault from collecting benefits unless the assault was committed in defense of Walmart’s “business or property.” It is up to Walmart to interpret what “participation” means. But the Texas AFL-CIO has argued that an employee who defended himself from an attack would not qualify for benefits.

A 2012 survey of Texas companies with private plans found that fewer than half offered benefits to seriously injured employees or the families of workers who died in workplace accidents. (The state plan, which Texas companies can follow on a voluntary basis, covers both.) Half of employer plans capped benefits, while the state plan pays benefits throughout a worker’s recovery.

With a national right to work bill almost certainly coming the next the Republican Party controls all branches of government, we can expect a legislative gutting of workers’ comp to follow. Already the system is severely weakened from what it once was, with huge disparities between states and workers bearing the cost of being hurt. Existing workers’ comp plans cost companies very little, especially those giant corporations like Walmart. But paying anything at all is too much for corporations and we are seeing that principle reenter American life. Workers will regain the right to sue in federal court if employers opt out of workers’ comp. But how confident are you that they will win the sorts of rewards that will force corporations back into the system?

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