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Archive for January, 2013

A Solution in Search of Some Data…

[ 87 ] January 31, 2013 |

This is an odd idea:

Should Colleges Ban Double Majors?

Tucked in a list of suggested reforms issued last week for how U.S. colleges could increase graduation rates is a recommendation that schools “narrow student choice” in order to promote completion. It’s an interesting idea — one that seems to go against the notion of college as a place to explore options and experiment with courses in divergent fields — that is all the more curious since it is included in an open letter from the nation’s six leading higher-education organizations.

“Sometimes we create a culture of dancing for more years than you have to, rather than getting out the door,” said Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and chairman of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which issued the Jan. 24 letter. ”I think institutions have a responsibility to reset that balance.”

Do double majors improve a student’s marketability?

Whether a second major actually makes a student more attractive to an employer is unclear — little data exists on the subject.

Do double majors slow degree progress, or prevent graduation?

At the same time, however, Tepper says his research does not suggest that students who double-major are more likely to drop out of college. He also found that having an additional major increases the time it takes to earn a degree only slightly, if at all.

And so…

So why, then, are prominent figures in the higher-education community promoting the idea of narrowing student choice?

“I’m not sure that the word ‘narrow’ is quite the right word, it’s clarity that we’re really trying to achieve,” said Gee after embarking on a media tour to promote the letter. “I believe very strongly in the liberal arts education. We don’t want to take away those options. We want to provide clarity to students for how they can get through the system much faster — that would be the way that I would put it.”

Well, that clears things up. Without data to indicate that double majors actually slow progress, seems to me a touch premature to suggest that they ought to be banned. Also seems that “banned” here effectively means just that a student cannot be granted a credential for taking a sufficient number of courses in a second major. I don’t understand why denying a student a credential (even if it doesn’t seem to add much to job market/grad school attractiveness), should be an institutional priority.

If I had to guess, I’d say one problem is that double majors create messy statistical and accounting issues that administrators find unpleasant.  I’d also guess that administrators are desperate for any means of pushing students through faster, as graduation rate affects ranking, and that they’re willing to try just about any kooky scheme for making that happen.  Student intellectual curiosity is an inconvenience.


Working-Class Literature

[ 160 ] January 31, 2013 |

Labor Notes has an interesting survey of working-class literature, asking organizers and activists about their favorite class-conscious novels.

Admittedly, when I became a professor I stopped reading novels. This is literally the single biggest thing I don’t like about my job. I feel incredibly guilty if I read anything not related to a) my research, b) teaching, and c) political stuff for the blog. Obviously there may be some time management issues here….

Anyway, the three clear winners in my mind are John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and the last third of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Dos Passos isn’t taken too seriously these days and his late life turn to conservatism, which seems to be more about Hemingway being mean to him during the Spanish Civil War than anything concrete, makes him seem pretty superficial in his politics. But then what’s so different about that than for millions of other people. The USA Trilogy at its best tells great stories about working-class people. White people admittedly. I’ll probably be pilloried for this choice. But I still like reading them and occasionally pick them up.

On Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath is a better book than In Dubious Battle and certainly has the ability to inspire one to a class consciousness perhaps never really achieved by most of the characters themselves. I always wondered what would happened to Tom Joad. I assume he would have joined the army in World War II and come back to found an evangelical church in Orange County sometime around 1947. Maybe I’m too cynical. But despite the difference of quality in the novels, In Dubious Battle is probably the best book we have about labor organizing itself.

I know some people have problems with the end of Invisible Man, but I think the cluelessness of the communists about why race actually matters in this country and how this undermined the possibility of radical change in the first half of the twentieth century is elucidated in really useful ways by Ellison.

What’s very much not a good class-conscious novel is Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, which is about as anti-union as American literature gets. Big unions, mean state hospital nurses, just another institution bringing down our independence, right Ken? Better to pass out acid like candy I guess. Was shocked to see one of the people surveyed list it.

As for the Gilded Age, If I never read The Jungle again, it’ll be too soon; Edward Bellamy is even worse and Frank Norris, well, I guess. I suppose I expected someone to name Jack London’s The Iron Heel but I’m glad they didn’t. Maybe the overt racism of London is too much to get over.

In any case, at least this should be a good reading list for me.

Duck Hunting, Gun Nut Logic, and Other Gun News

[ 183 ] January 31, 2013 |

Back to my favorite topic.

As everyone should know by this point, there’s absolutely no logical or historical basis for the idea that people have the right to walk around fully armed without any restriction at all. The NRA only took up this position as part of white backlash in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan supported gun control when guns meant armed Black Panthers, the American West of the 19th century was filled with towns that banned guns except for law control, there’s zero evidence that the Founders believed anything even remotely approaching what the NRA is arguing, etc., etc. Among the laws that restrict guns are hunting laws.

Rep. Mike Thompson, the California Democrat charged with crafting gun safety policies in the House of Representatives, keeps talking about ducks.

More specifically, duck hunting.

“Federal law prohibits me from having more than three shells in my shotgun when I’m duck hunting. So federal law provides more protection for the ducks than it does for citizens,” Thompson said earlier this month during a panel discussion on gun violence at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, also on the panel, was delighted by the line. “That’s a very powerful point,” Emanuel said. “My instinct is we’re gonna hear more of this line going forward.”

As it turns out, federal law places strict regulations on the types of firearms that can be used when hunting migratory birds, rules hunters have abided since the 1930s. Duck hunters are only allowed to use a shotgun, 10 gauge or smaller, that carries no more than three shells. If the shotgun carries more than three shells, the hunter is required to “plug” the gun so that only three shots can be fired before reloading.

Hunting laws have restricted gun use going back to the 1890s or early 1900s. These laws were controversial at the time because they restricted the killing of animals by working-class people, but in the modern context these laws are completely accepted. And they are a useful evidence point when it comes to gun control. There’s plenty of precedent to control types of guns, ammunition, hunting seasons, etc.

Of course, the response to this will probably be jihad against hunting laws. After all, it’s not like gun advocates are afraid of owning the crazy. Take Gayle Trotter, a conservative activist and gun extremist. Testifying before the Senate this week, Trotter argued that women needed guns to protect themselves from scary home invaders and would-be assaulters.

“An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon,” said Trotter, a mother of six. “And the peace of mind she has … knowing she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened violent criminals.”

Thing is, Trotter also advocates for policies that promote violence against women.

Despite her strong emphasis on the need to prevent violent crimes against women at home, Trotter is an outspoken opponent of the Violence Against Women Act, a law designed to aid women faced with domestic violence. In 2012, she wrote on the Independent Women’s Forum’s blog that VAWA infringed upon the rights of men who were falsely accused of domestic abuse. The law would also embolden “false accusers,” who would take “needed resources like shelters and legal aid … denying real victims of abuse access to these supports,” she wrote. Trotter and the forum characterized VAWA as “reckless demagoguery.”

VAWA=”reckless demagoguery.” Arguing for unrestricted guns at all costs so women can theoretically protect themselves in a legal world that Trotter hopes does not provide safeguards to women=”respectable commentary.” Gotcha.

Meanwhile, Americans by the thousands continue to die from guns. Slate has teamed up with the twitter feed @GunDeaths to create an interactive map of the people killed by gun violence since the Newtown Massacre. As of right now, it is 1478. Depressing stuff.

The Unnecessary Hazards of Clothing Production

[ 12 ] January 31, 2013 |

Terry Allen has a useful overview of the unnecessary health risks of clothing production experienced by largely female workforces in the developing world:

These expendable workers, mostly young women, cycle out when they become too infirm or, like Willi, land other jobs. Most of the health threats affect only workers, but some travel with the garments as they are exported, largely to the United States, Canada and Europe. Clothing and bedding that boasts it is “easy care,” “permanent press,” “stain resistant” or “wrinkle free” may have been treated with formaldehyde, which is embedded in the fabric. A 2010 U.S. government report found unacceptably high formaldehyde levels in clothing manufactured in Bahrain, India, China, Pakistan, Thailand and Indonesia. Samples from dozens of other countries contained “acceptable” levels of formaldehyde. In the United States, the toxin is not regulated in clothing, and “acceptable” is a fungible construct, especially when it comes to exposing infants and toddlers. Consumers who use formaldehyde-laced fabric can experience skin, eye and nose irritation and allergies.

Inhaled formaldehyde is more lethal. A known carcinogen, it is implicated in leukemia and multiple myeloma. The danger is exacerbated by dust, prolonged exposure, close quarters, humidity and heat—the very conditions that define sweatshops. Some major-brand clothing and shoes contain the toxin nonylphenol, “a persistent chemical with hormone-disrupting properties that builds up in the food chain” and is hazardous even at very low levels, Greenpeace warns. Again, workers sustain the greatest exposure.

The garment industry’s tangle of contractors, sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors allows manufacturers and sellers to plead ignorance. When news broke that its Faded Glory brand had been manufactured in the Tazreen factory, Wal-Mart claimed it wasn’t in control of its supply line. But it and the other corporations that produced goods there—Disney, Sears and Sean Combs’ Enyce label—are quite capable of tracking the sources of their products when it’s in their interest to do so.

With China’s wages surging, and even India’s at double Bangladesh’s, Dhaka is not motivated to crack down—even though implementing safety standards would add only 10 cents to the cost of a T-shirt, the Worker Rights Consortium estimates.

A prominent display of Faded Glory brand garments at my local Wal-Mart sparked an urge to buy one, douse it with lighter fluid and set it ablaze in the parking lot—in memory of the millions of poisoned, underpaid and flammable workers who pay a high price so we can stuff our closets with cheap clothes.

A couple of things.

First, this is a story with a long history. Capitalists have sought from the first days of industrializing to maximize profits in the clothing industry by using young, exploitable female labor. Forget all the garbage said by capitalists from the Lowell factories in the 1820s to maquiladora managers today about women having more nimble fingers, this is an excuse to gender the work female in order to pay them less.

Second, that this labor still exists is offensive. Health protections for industrial labor are at least a century old and most of them don’t cost that much. Doesn’t matter though. That extra 10 cents for a shirt, well that’s violating freedom! Or something. The opposition to implementing safety, health, and environmental standards, as well as paying decent wages, isn’t strictly economic–it’s an objection in principle to having to invest one cent more into production than absolutely necessary. Some may celebrate this as freedom. Those people don’t work in these conditions.

Torture Advocate Decries, Joins Campaign to Suppress “Immoral” Political Discourse

[ 44 ] January 31, 2013 |

We’ve already discussed the campaign to suppress political speech at Brooklyn College. Dershowitz’s argument now is that the event could be acceptable…if it included him:

“The event shouldn’t be cancelled, but the political science department should withdraw it’s [sic] support, or alternatively the political science department should invite me or someone else that represents an opposing point of view and give equal endorsement.”

Here’s a question that comes immediately to mind: Does Dershowitz believe that there should be a counterpoint when he expresses his views, including his grotesquely immoral defenses of torture? Funny thing:

It’s odder still when Brooklyn College associate professor of political science Corey Robin notes that Dershowitz has delivered the college’s Konefsky Lecture. It’s a lecture decided on and invited by the political science department, which has included multiple political speakers before, and, more to the point, it is offered without counterpoint, entirely alone.


Alan Dershowitz is so committed to both an open two-sided dialogue and an open vigorous debate on torture that he gave a 2008 Brooklyn College lecture in which he discussed torture at length. Alone.

The Brooklyn College panel might be great; it might be a fiasco; it might be confused or embrace propositions we think morally wrong. What it’s not, right now, is worthy of being tied to big-name, galvanic media-friendly words of outrage like “blackballing” and “racism,” while dealing in tropes of academic censorship. But this is par for the course with Dershowitz, the law’s most enduring concern troll. Hypocrisy in defense of claiming victimization or demonizing your opponent is no vice. It’s not even an effort on par with skipping over a puddle. Dershowitz can worry about one’s ability to speak freely before academia after likely burying Norman Finkelstein’s academic career. He can publicly hound a respected jurist and UN commissioner until the man writes a bizarre op-ed retraction utterly disavowed by fellow members of his own commission, ignore the contradictions and declare himself on the side of the angels.

So, apparently, colleges have a moral obligation to have “balanced” panels…in cases where the speakers might disagree with Alan Dershowitz. Hacktacular!

To echo Mobute, to defend the department’s decision to host the BDS panel should not be taken to mean that I’m supportive of BDS. In particular, I think they’re completely and disastrously wrong to advocate an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. (Although you know who else is at best skeptical of boycotting Israeli scholars? Judith Butler, which may suggest that the discussion will be more critical and complex than its critics assume.) But this is beside the point — if BC can invite Alan Dershowitz to defend torture, it can certainly have a discussion critical of Israeli policy that might involve advocating remedies I disagree with. They should be allowed to make their case. And it’s clear that even Dershowitz doesn’t believe that every political speaker has to be balanced with a “counterpoint,” because that would be stupid.

Trains and transportation subsidies

[ 96 ] January 31, 2013 |

In 2008, the Passenger Investment and Improvement Act was passed and signed into law. An unfortunate feature of this law was a provision to sunset Amtrak subsidies for shorter routes (those under 750 miles from endpoint to endpoint), requiring the states (most of which already cover a part of the subsidy) to cover the costs of those routes. This means that federal funding for Amtrak going forward will focus more on subsidies for the less useful, less efficient long distance routes, many of which offer an expensive sort of “train cruise” experience for niche market of wealthy train aficionados*and little use for anyone else. Meanwhile, efficient services with times already competitive with driving between (for example) Chicago/Milwaukee, Portland/Seattle, Sacramento/Bay Area, and Albany/New York will soon cost those states more money to support. The good news is several of these trains have been steadily increasing their farebox recovery rates and as such the needed subsidy has been declining. This is true systemwide, the needed subsidy is as low as its been since 1975. It’s possible that if this law were to go into effect in 5-10 years rather than now, it might not even be necessary for some of these routes, as 100% farebox recovery is not implausible. But as it’s hitting now, in a time of austere state budgets, even the trivial subsidies currently needed might be a touch battle. Some thoughts on Cascades’ future from the always wonderful Seattle Transit Blog.

This law is a very small example of the truism that Republicans claim government doesn’t work, and set out to prove it. It will focus Amtrak’s subsidies on long distance routes like the “Robert Byrd limited,” AKA the Cardinal, a train that meanders three times a week from New York to Chicago in a cool 30 hours, with stops in approximately 437 small towns in West Virginia, while passing through a major population center, Cincinnati, in the dead of night–in other words, the sort of line that’s always going to rely on a hefty government subsidy to exist. This law is designed not so much to save Amtrak money, but to make Amtrak look more like what Republicans claim it looks like.

I was inspired to write this post when I stumbled across this excellent post:

A new report from the Tax Foundation shows 50.7 percent of America’s road spending comes from gas taxes, tolls, and other fees levied on drivers. The other 49.3 percent? Well, that comes from general tax dollars, just like education and health care. The way we spend on roads has nothing to do with the free market, or even how much people use roads.

“Nationwide in 2010, state and local governments raised $37 billion in motor fuel taxes and $12 billion in tolls and non-fuel taxes, but spent $155 billion on highways,” writes the Tax Foundation’s Joseph Henchman. Another $28 billion of that $155 billion comes from revenue from the federal gas tax.

Even more interesting is to compare roads to Amtrak, a favorite target of self-styled fiscal conservatives in Congress. Amtrak recovers about 85 percent of its operating costs from tickets — a relative bargain compared to other modes. Even accounting for capital costs, Amtrak — which operates mostly on privately owned tracks — covers 69 percent of its total costs through ticket prices and other fees to users.

I was immediately annoyed with myself, because while I know that the driving equivalent of user fees (gas taxes and tolls) don’t come close to paying for roads, and that Amtrak’s subsidies are modest and declining, but I never but these two things together in my mind; a certain sort of right-wing narrative about trains had colonized a part of my mind; even though I knew better, I hadn’t been able to put those facts together to make this clear and obvious point–drivers are subsidized at a higher rate than train passengers, and this is true even before we consider the public health and environmental externalities from driving.

In other transit news, a toll is being considered for I-90 across Lake Washington. Residents of Mercer Island (per capita income, $124,000; median home value, over $1 million, lacking many basic services a town of 20K very rich people might have due largely to extraordinarily restrictive zoning laws) compare this development with turning their home into “Alcatraz.”

*To be clear, I’m not deriding said aficionados.  If I were rich I would definitely be one of these people. One of these years, when I plan far enough in the future to get a decent room rate, I’m going to take the Empire Builder to Seattle. But our transit subsidies shouldn’t prioritize such things.

The Loomis Brothers’ Super Bowl Podcast

[ 12 ] January 31, 2013 |

A.k.a. “Why you don’t let SEK name your podcast,” is now available:

Download it here, and subscribe here.

Law and Economics

[ 36 ] January 31, 2013 |

The New York Times has a front-page story about the ongoing collapse in the number of people applying to law school (from 100,700 in 2004 down to about 54,000 this cycle, with a 38% total decline over the last three years alone). The story features some nice quotes from Brian Tamanaha and Bill Henderson regarding the dysfunctional economics of law school, which is important, because as any legal philosopher can tell you, in this culture the ontological status of an epistemological insight is greatly enhanced when it appears on the front page of the NYT. (“They wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true.” F. Nietzsche, trans. J. Jackson.)

Oddly, the story fails to mention the crucial role the law school transparency movement, to which the Times gave such valuable attention in 2011 in a series of prominent stories, has had in all this. It’s hardly a coincidence that most of the collapse of the applicant pool has taken place over the last two years, which happens to be when something resembling accurate employment and salary statistics have been extracted from law schools via political pressure.

The story also features this strange claim:

“We have a significant mismatch between demand and supply,” said Gillian K. Hadfield, professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California. “It’s not a problem of producing too many lawyers. Actually, we have an exploding demand for both ordinary folk lawyers and big corporate ones.”

She said that, given the structure of the legal profession, it was hard to make a living dealing with matters like mortgage and divorce, and that big corporations were dissatisfied with what they see as the overly academic training at elite law schools.

This is a very peculiar use of the word “demand.” Big corporations have put the squeeze on BigLaw, because they’ve decided they will no longer subsidize the training of junior associates to do work people trained to be lawyers should do. Even more problematically for the Cravath model, they’ve also decided they won’t pay BigLaw rates any more for essentially clerical work. So firms can’t bill out a lot of what first and second year associates do, and a lot of other work that such people did is now outsourced to the document review mills and to non-lawyers.

In other words, client demand for various services that used to fatten the bottom lines of the big firms has imploded, not exploded, because it has been shifted to other service providers, or is no longer billable when performed by the firms themselves. This is a structural not a cyclical shift: it’s not as if GCs are going to decide that when and if more deals are being done it’ll be OK for firms to bill out monkey work at $300 an hour again.

The “overly academic training” at law schools has nothing to do with this. That’s an issue about failing to train people to do legal work. The collapse in demand from BigLaw clients is a product of the realization that a large amount of work traditionally done by lawyers can be done by non-lawyers with either no loss of quality, or not enough loss to make it worthwhile to pay the added cost of having lawyers do it.

The claim about “ordinary folk” is even stranger, but it’s one that’s being made a lot these days by legal academics desperately searching for a raison d’ paycheck. The argument goes something like this:

(1) Many people in this country who could benefit from legal services aren’t getting those services because they’re too expensive.

(2) Those services are too expensive because law school costs too much.

(3) If future lawyers could go to law school without incurring so much debt, they could afford to offer legal services at a price that far more people could afford to pay.

(1) is certainly true. (2) and (3) are just wrong, and obviously so.

The cost of legal services has almost nothing to do with the cost of law school. Why would it? No client cares about how much it cost you to get a law degree, which means that no client is willing to pay more for legal services because a lawyer has a lot of educational debt. This theoretical claim is confirmed by empirical observation: there are literally hundreds of thousands of lawyers in America who went to law school when it was radically cheaper than it is today, and it’s not as if they charge lower rates than recent law graduates (if anything they charge on average more more, because clients will to some extent pay for experience as a proxy for competence).

There are also hundreds of thousands of people with law licenses who are barely making a living by practicing law (A 2009 survey of Alabama lawyers found that 23% of the respondents with active law licenses had an income of less than $25,000 in the previous year). Such people are charging the absolute minimum they can charge while still maintaining an ongoing business.

The notion that the hundreds of thousands of lawyers in solo or very small practices in this country could somehow operate by billing out their services at X dollars per hour (with X being a figure that lots of “ordinary folk” currently priced out of the market for legal services could pay) if only law school didn’t cost so much is one of those ideas that sounds intuitively plausible until you actually think about it for three minutes, which is apparently why people in legal academia don’t.

The reason ordinary folk don’t pay for legal services even when in theory they could benefit from them is exactly the same reason they don’t pay for a lot of things they could in theory benefit from: because they don’t have any money for those things after paying for more pressing needs like food, shelter, clothing, medical expenses, transportation to work, etc.

Comments such as Hadfield’s indicate the lengths that legal academics will go to in order to talk themselves into believing that the basic problem isn’t really the basic problem. And that problem is that the economic demand in this country for people with law degrees will employ (at best) half the people who are paying us to grant them law degrees.

The Day In Hackery

[ 33 ] January 31, 2013 |

TNC on Mamet:

All jest aside, I find the process that produces this sort of work to be utterly amoral. I’ve said this before, but this is the kind of writing that would get you bounced out of any decent essay writing class at a credible university. Words have meanings. You cannot change the fact that Thomas Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses because it’s unfortunate for your argument. Unless you have a name like David Mamet.

The message one derives from this is that power gives you the privilege of lying. If you are big enough, if your name rings out far enough, you may make words mean whatever you want them to mean.

Part of the problem is Newsweek publishing political analysis by people who have no actual expertise on the subject. But that’s not the only problem — not only that arguments should stand on their own, but Niall Ferguson has every expert credential you could want, and his heavily promoted anti-Obama story was every bit as replete with howlers and puddle-deep talk-radio cliches as Mamet’s. As Coates says, the ethos at Newsweek seems to be that if you’re any kind of celebrity you’re under no obligation to get things right. I have a hard time believing that nobody at Newsweek knew about the political experience of Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson et al. Hell, before he “forgot” it because it was inconvenient to his immediate line of bullshit Mamet knew it. It’s just that they apparently don’t care if a big name lies to their readers as long as he (and let’s be frank, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be a “he”) has a name that’s big enough.

Meanwhile, speaking of lazy cliches how can we forget Mr. Tom Friedman.

Bigots of the Day

[ 66 ] January 31, 2013 |

Tennessee legislators.

Turn of the Century Paris in Color

[ 12 ] January 31, 2013 |

What an utterly wonderful set of color photos from Paris in the early 20th century. I love black and white photos and black and white cinema but seeing these things in color really changes one’s perspective.

Patty Andrews, RIP

[ 9 ] January 30, 2013 |

One of the last links to World War II-era popular culture has passed.

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