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“Don’t Look At Us. We Didn’t Do it.”

[ 94 ] February 26, 2015 |

You can accuse the co-ACA Troofer-in-Chief of many things, but having shame is not one of them:

“If they’re not looking at some kind of contingency plan, I think that’s irresponsible. It’s kind of like hostage-taking,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and one of the architects of the legal challenge.

I can’t even. The problem with the argument is that Adler and Cannon are both taking and shooting the metaphorical hostages, and they’re asking Obama to tell the public that everyone is fine while the hostage-takers look for a getaway car.

And what Adler is asking is for the Obama administration to lie to further his campaign to willfully misread the ACA to strip insurance from millions of people. There is no meaningful contingency plan the administration can put into action. They cannot force Republicans in Congress to pass anything (let alone anything that would make the problem better rather than worse.) They cannot make states establish exchanges. They cannot repeal basic economic facts. The fate of the newly uninsured will be mostly beyond their control, unless Adler thinks that the administration’s response should be “John Roberts has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”

If the troofers can eke out a bare Supreme Court majority for their argument, then the health insurance markets in a majority of states will thrown into chaos. This situation will not change in many of the states anytime soon, and the result will be plenty of unnecessary suffering and death. That’s not a threat; it’s a fact. Adler should own it, not join his political allies in pretending that there’s some magic fix Obama will pull out if his hat after it happens.

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Is Roger Pielke the victim of a McCarthy-style witch hunt?

[ 60 ] February 26, 2015 |

mccarthy

Earlier this week Erik flagged a NYT story revealing that one of the most prominent climate change skeptics had failed to disclose, as he was required to do, that he’s gotten a lot of funding from energy interests.

This story is part of a real problem, since Wei-Hock Soon is far from the only climate change skeptic whose professional expertise and/or motivations are open to legitimate question.

In the wake of the story, US Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking member of the House of Representatives Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, sent a letter to seven institutions, requesting information regarding the funding sources of seven academics whose work has been associated with some aspect of climate change skepticism.

One of those institutions is the University of Colorado, which got this version of the letter on Tuesday, regarding Prof. Roger Pielke, who teaches in the Environmental Studies Program. Pielke is none too happy about this development:

[L]et me make one point abundantly clear: I have no funding, declared or undeclared, with any fossil fuel company or interest. I never have. Representative Grijalva knows this too, because when I have testified before the US Congress, I have disclosed my funding and possible conflicts of interest. So I know with complete certainty that this investigation is a politically-motivated “witch hunt” designed to intimidate me (and others) and to smear my name.

For instance, the Congressman and his staff, along with compliant journalists, are busy characterizing me in public as a “climate skeptic” opposed to action on climate change. This of course is a lie. I have written a book calling for a carbon tax, I have publicly supported President Obama’s proposed EPA carbon regulations, and I have just published another book strongly defending the scientific assessment of the IPCC with respect to disasters and climate change. All of this is public record, so the smears against me must be an intentional effort to delegitimize my academic research.

Pielke came to Rep. Grijalva’s notice (or more realistically to that of his staff, about which more in a moment) because he has testified to Congress regarding his research on the relationship between extreme weather events and climate change. Pielke says he takes the same view as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regarding this matter. To quote the latter: “Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded.” Whether and to what extent there’s a relationship between carbon emissions and such events is a hotly debated topic among mainstream climate scientists, so Pielke is understandably aggrieved that his position on the matter has gotten him labeled a climate skeptic or denialist by various lazy and/or dishonest people.

What seems to have happened here is the Congressional staff members who were tasked with identifying climate skeptics whose financial ties might be worth inquiring into further did a poor job of distinguishing between actual climate skeptics and somebody like Pielke.

I have a lot of sympathy for Pielke, as the root of this kerfuffle seems to be Pielke’s disagreement with an Obama administration science adviser, John Holdren:

When Holdren links specific weather events to human-caused climate change—such as the California drought or the cold winter—he is exaggerating the state of scientific understandings.

His subsequent attack on me has him serving not as science advisor to the president, but rather wielding his political position to delegitimize an academic whose views he finds inconvenient. We academics wouldn’t stand for such behavior under George W. Bush and we shouldn’t under Barack Obama either.

Naturally, it’s disconcerting to have a member of Congress send a letter to your employer, suggesting if only by implication that you may be a bad or corrupt scientist. Furthermore, Pielke argues that his sworn testimony to Congress regarding the sources of the funding of his research makes those sources a matter of public record, which in turn makes the letter to his administrative superiors demanding to know what those sources are superfluous, and perhaps even vaguely threatening.

On the other hand . . . Pielke’s reaction to all this seems in its own way equally excessive. His blog post on the matter features a photo of the cover of Joe McCarthy’s magnum opus, and he says that the “smears” to which he’s been subjected are chasing him out of the climate change research business permanently:

The incessant attacks and smears are effective, no doubt, I have already shifted all of my academic work away from climate issues. I am simply not initiating any new research or papers on the topic and I have ring-fenced my slowly diminishing blogging on the subject. I am a full professor with tenure, so no one need worry about me — I’ll be just fine as there are plenty of interesting, research-able policy issues to occupy my time. But I can’t imagine the message being sent to younger scientists. Actually, I can: “when people are producing work in line with the scientific consensus there’s no reason to go on a witch hunt.”

When “witch hunts” are deemed legitimate in the context of popular causes, we will have fully turned science into just another arena for the exercise of power politics. The result is a big loss for both science and politics.

This strikes me as evidence of both political naivete and an unduly thin skin. While Pielke has good reason to be deeply annoyed with Griljava’s letter, comparing it, or the criticism he’s received from Holdren, to a McCarthyite-style witch hunt is ridiculous. When you get involved in a politically contentious issue, people are going to criticize you. Some of these criticisms will be unfair, and some will be flatly dishonest. Your personal motivations and professional competence will be called into question, often by morons whose sum total of knowledge on an issue to which you’ve devoted years of study consists of bullet points they read on a blog somewhere. That’s how the politics game is played, even when it involves questions of science (or “science” as the case may be).

If stuff like this is going to chase you out of the arena, you’re going to make the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt cry.

Anyway, Pielke’s petulance is leading right-wing critics to characterize him as a Galileo-like martyr to the cause of climate skepticism. Rich Lowry:

[P]roponents of a climate alarmism demanding immediate action to avert worldwide catastrophe won’t and can’t simply let the science speak for itself.

In fact, for people who claim to champion science, they have the least scientific temperament imaginable. Their attitude owes more to Trofim Lysenko, the high priest of the Soviet Union’s politicized science, than, say, to Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics whose work was shunned by Lysenko for ideological reasons. . .

It has to be counted a small victory in this project that Pielke will no longer be an obstacle. . .

And so the alarmists have hounded a serious researcher out of the climate business. All hail science!

The other day, the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, quit amid a sexual harassment scandal and noted in his letter of resignation: “For me the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion.”

Is it too much too ask that the man in charge of a project supposedly marshaling the best scientific evidence for the objective consideration of a highly complex and contested phenomenon not feel that he has a religious commitment to a certain outcome?

Why, yes it is. The kind of people who run inquisitions may lack for perspective and careful respect for the facts and evidence. But they never lack for zeal.

Now this isn’t completely false. Like any other contentious issue, climate science produces its zealots and true believers, whose dogmatic commitment to a certain viewpoint isn’t open to revision in the light of further evidence. But of course such people can be found on both sides of any policy debate. And in this case the debate among scientists remains extremely lopsided, for reasons that ultimately don’t seem to have much of anything to do with bad motivations on anyone’s part.

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David Attewell on the Greek Deal: The Bad, The Good, and the Weird

[ 27 ] February 26, 2015 |

(now that the substance of the Greek deal is known, I’ve brought back David Attewell to sort through the tea leaves for us)

Facing the potential exit of Greece from the Eurozone, the Troika and the Syriza-led government agreed something of a ceasefire on Monday. For the next four months, the Greek government will continue to receive financial support (mostly to pay back its Northern creditors), and its banks will continue to receive liquidity support from the ECB. But the real action is in the substantive terms of the bridge program. What kind of settlement has Greece gotten, and how will this impact European politics going forward?

For Stathis Kouvelakis of Syriza’s Left, the deal is an abject failure for the government. For Sony Kapoor, and Jamie Galbraith, it was a climb-down for Germany. For Krugman, “Greece did o.k.

So who’s right?

Read more…

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Drafting!

[ 122 ] February 26, 2015 |

I find reading Matt Taibbi to be a deeply frustrating experience.  He has enormous strengths as a writer, including a gift for metaphor.  His weaknesses lay mainly in an inability (or unwillingness) to provide helpful context to the details that he supplies.  These strengths and weaknesses are on glaring display here:

Unlike the NBA, where phenoms like LeBron or Kobe are spotted as young children and whose draft stock often remains more stable than that of young football players, the NFL is a sport where overpaid GMs regularly miss by a mile. They allow MVP-caliber players like Tom Brady or Terrell Davis to fall through their fingers all the way down to the bottom rounds, by which time the Mel Kipers and Todd McShays have talked themselves hoarse and millions of fans are still paying close attention, praying for aSeabiscuit-type miracle ending. It’s no coincidence that ESPN plays up draft-malpractice stories like The Brady 6 as they get closer to the event.

None of this is quite wrong, but if it’s possible to have a less informative paragraph about the contrast between NBA and NFL prospect projection without being outright false, I’d like to see it. NFL prospects are harder to project than NBA prospects for a lot of reasons, including differences in how systems interact, and in how the human body matures. Virtually none of this has anything to do with the acumen, or lack thereof, of “overpaid” NFL GMs and scouts.

Taibbi also tackles the Mariota-Winston competition, with unsatisfactory results. As far as I can tell (and I’ve been following this fairly closely) there is no human professionally associated with the NFL who cares that Winston runs a much slower 40 than Mariota. And then Taibbi tries to shoehorn the competition into a ready-made storyline:

In years past, there have been several controversies involving highly rated African American quarterbacks and draft experts. Longtime Pro Football Weekly writer Nolan Nawrocki, whose face is certainly on the Mount Rushmore of draft analysts and who is known for his Tolstoy-length, book-style draft reports, infamously blasted Newton as having a “fake smile” and for being a “con artist” who “comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup…”

And thus began SubtextBowl 2015. Get ready for a ton of Winston-Mariota hype chock full of loaded dog-whistle language, some of which will probably be below the belt. Winston is clearly the more gifted passer, but Mariota, a talented Hawaiian often celebrated for his consistency and quiet leadership, is already being showered with the laudatory overachiever clichés normally reserved for white wide receivers, who in the draft are always compared to Wes Welker and inevitably described as “gritty,” “hardworking,” “coachable,” “blue-collar,” “humble,” and possessing of a “high football IQ.”

Again, it’s not as if this is quite wrong; it’s just not particularly applicable to this story. The ghost that’s haunting Jameis Winston isn’t Cam Newton, it’s Johnny Manziel. It’s kind of ironic and deeply unfair that a pro-style African-American quarterback is suffering from the sins of a dual-threat white QB, but there you go. Mariota is a better fit for the stereotypical African-American dual-threat quarterback who can’t transition to the NFL, although it’s interesting that people haven’t brought up Tim Tebow more often. And for what it’s worth, all the reports on Winston that I’ve seen thus far have indicated that he performed very well in team interviews.

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These Things I Believe

[ 26 ] February 26, 2015 |

Dutch beer available in North America is indeed the worst.

And while we’re dealing with arbitrary Deadspin lists, this is very solid. Craig might be the most irritating and least funny recurring character on a first-rate sitcom ever. I would put Chris Traeger at #30, and maybe move Anne Perkins and especially Dr. Saperstein up a notch, but otherwise it seems about right.

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The War Against Rahm

[ 85 ] February 25, 2015 |

Excellent analysis from Weigel. One of the many interesting takeaways is Emmanuel’s failure on the city council races:

Emanuel’s weakness was felt all across the ballot. He’d created a super-PAC, Chicago Forward, to bail out 17 of his allies on the council and to beat progressive incumbents. Only seven of them won outright: Will Burns, Mike Zalweski, Danny Solis, Robert Maldonado, Margaret Laurino, Pat O’Connor, and Debra Silverstein. The rest were forced into runoffs, including Deb Mell, the sister-in-law of disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Meanwhile, Chicago Forward had lobbed mailers at two aldermen–Scott Waguespack and John Arena–who’d asked the SEC to investigate the legality of donations to Emanuel from the executives of companies managing the city’s pension funds. Arena narrowly missed a win and will head to a runoff; Waguespack won outright.

It was not all progressives wanted, but it was not what the super-PAC had wanted either. The progressive bloc was expected to expand to 12 of the council’s 50 seats.

“The good guys won Round One,” said Working Families Party national director Dan Cantor in a statement. “Forcing Mayor 1% into a run-off is a remarkable achievement. Along with the run-off, the progressive caucus on the Council is poised to make gains.”

Perlstein explains how Emmanuel was forced into a runoff:

Perhaps what turned some voters against Rahm at the last minute—or motivated them to go to the polls in the first place on a cold Chicago day that started out in the single digits—was an Election Day exposé that appeared in the British paper the Guardian by investigate reporter Spencer Ackerman. “The Disappeared” revealed the existence of Homan Square, a forlorn “black site” that the Chicago Police operate on the West Side.

There, Chicagoans learned—many for the first time—arrestees are locked up for days at a time without access to lawyers. One victim was 15 years old; he was released without being charged with anything. Another, a 44-year-old named John Hubbard, never left—he died in custody. One of the “NATO 3” defendants, later acquitted on most charges of alleged terror plans during a 2012 Chicago protest, was shackled to a bench there for 17 hours.

It “struck legal experts as a throwback to the worst excesses of Chicago police abuse, with a post-9/11 feel to it,” the Guardian reported. And for a candidate, Rahm Emanuel, who ran on a message he was turning the page on the old, malodorous “Chicago way,” the piece contributed to a narrative that proved devastating.

Indeed, the mayor faced a drumbeat of outstanding journalistic exposés all throughout the campaign. The Chicago Sun-Times reported on Deborah Quazzo, an Emanuel school board appointee who runs an investment fund for companies that privatize school functions. They discovered that five companies in which she had an ownership stake have more than tripled their business with the Chicago Public Schools since she joined the board, many of them for contracts drawn up in the suspicious amount of $24,999—one dollar below the amount that required central office approval. (Chicago is the only municipality in Illinois whose school board is appointed by a mayor. But activists succeeded—in an arduous accomplishment against the obstruction attempts of Emanuel backers on the city council—to get an advisory referendum on the ballot in a majority of the city’s wards calling for an elected representative school board. Approximately 90 percent of the voters who could vote for the measure did.)

The Chicago Tribune reported that of Emanuel’s top 106 contributors, 60 of them received favors from the city. Another in-depth investigation discovered that City Hall had lied repeatedly about a signature initiative of the Emanuel years, automated cameras that issue tickets for the running of red lights. The administration insisted the cameras led to a 47 percent decline in “T-bone” crashes, when the true number was 15 percent—and they also caused a corresponding 22 percent increase in rear-end collisions. That reinforced suspicions that the cameras weren’t installed for the safety of “the children,” as Emanuel sanctimoniously insists, but are a revenue grab, a regressive tax that falls disproportionately on the poor.

I have no idea if the anti-Rahm movement can finish the job — evidently, Garcia is a significant underdog — but I hope so. Moral victories are nice but victory victories are better.

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Transit/urbanism links

[ 113 ] February 25, 2015 |

that I might be blogging about if I had time to blog at the moment.

It’s somewhat shocking that even in the one American city where it’s generally widely acknowledged a car is not necessary, we still have such absurd parking requirements. So this is very good news. Good for DeBlasio and the planning department; when it comes to housing costs parking minimums matter.

Speaking of housing costs: significant construction of new units and rent increases often occur simultaneously, providing a handy cum hoc ergo propter hoc for people who’d like their anti-development preferences to fit more comfortably with their broader political views and/or stated preference for the availability of less expensive housing. But the dodge doesn’t work; supply and demand matters. Even in San Francisco.

Although it relies on a single study from Australia a bit more than I’d prefer, this is a thoughtful reflection on the issue of ‘mode bias’ in public transportation. That riders prefer trains to buses is clear. What we should do with that information isn’t. The worst public transit fad of the last couple of decades, the return of the (toy) streetcars–expensive and shiny but stuck in traffic, and slower than buses–is a good example of overcompensating for perceived mode bias.  I would be curious to hear any SoCal readers thoughts on the characterization of the Orange Line–and its local perception–presented here.

On the urban planning consequences of children mapping slums in India.

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Game of Thrones podcast: Season 2, Episode 1 — “The North Remembers”

[ 3 ] February 25, 2015 |

We have now arrived at Season 2 of the Game of Thrones podcast and — if you can believe it — we’re now recording them in real time. No longer will be ignorant of what happened later in Season 4, as we’ve now seen all this episodes.

Now our ignorance will be limited to what’s going to happen in Season 5, but still! Progress!

Works Attewell discusses (warning all these posts contain spoilers for all five books):

  • Sansa I (deconstructing knighthood and Sansa the survivor)
  • Tyrion I (Tyrion and the Small Council, Tyrion and Cersei)
  • Bran I and II (Bran’s wolf dreams and the Northern political story)
  • Dany I (Dany in the desert, the prophet narrative)
  • Jon I, II, III (the Great Ranging from the Wall to Craster’s Keep)
  • Prologue (Doomed Maester Cressen)
  • Davos I (the Burning of the Gods, Stannis’ letter)
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The NCAA

[ 43 ] February 25, 2015 |

As always, the NCAA is standing up for what is right and good in the world:

Baylor walk-on running back Silas Nacita announced he has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for accepting impermissible benefits while he was homeless last summer.

Nacita, a backup who rushed for three touchdowns last season, walked on to the Baylor program in the summer of 2014 after being homeless for a year.

“A few months before enrolling, a close family friend approached me and said they didn’t want me sleeping on floors and wondering how I was going to eat the next meal,” Nacita wrote on his @Salsa_Nacho Twitter account, “so they insisted on putting me in an apartment and helping out with those living expenses.

“Because I accepted that offer instead of choosing to be homeless, I am no longer eligible to play football and pursue my dream. I had no idea I was breaking any rules, but I respect the decision of the NCAA.”

Can we somehow get rid of this organization?

[PC]: The NCAA is a tax-exempt charitable non-profit organization, which means that its leaders are engaged in public service. Here’s how certain “key employees” were compensated for serving the public interest in fiscal year 2013 (these numbers are no doubt quite a bit higher now, with the advent of the non-profit football playoff):

Mark Emmert, President: $1,707,966

James Isch, Chief Operating Officer: $1,013,063

Donald Remy, Executive Vice President: $619,663

Bernard Franklin, Executive Vice President: $566,121

On the other hand, Roger Goodell got paid $44 million to do no one is sure exactly what for the NFL last year, so I guess these guys are practically giving away their public service, all things considered.

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Today In Statutory Interpretation

[ 38 ] February 25, 2015 |

I’m agnostic about the outcome in today’s other case, Yates v. U.S.  But two passages from Kagan’s dissent are worth quoting.  This is the one that will get the attention:

While the plurality starts its analysis with §1519’s heading, see ante, at 10 (“We note first §1519’s caption”), I would begin with §1519’s text. When Congress has not supplied a definition, we generally give a statutory term its ordinary meaning. As the plurality must acknowledge, the ordinary meaning of “tangible object” is “a discrete thing that possesses physical form.” A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form. See generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960). So the ordinary meaning of the term “tangible object” in §1519, as noone here disputes, covers fish (including too-small red grouper).

But with respect to a certain other case the Supreme Court will be hearing next month, this paragraph is more relevant:

That is not necessarily the end of the matter; I agree with the plurality (really, who does not?) that context matters in interpreting statutes. We do not “construe the meaning of statutory terms in a vacuum.” Tyler v. Cain, 533 U. S. 656, 662 (2001) . Rather, we interpret particular words “in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.” Davis v. Michigan Dept. of Treasury, 489 U. S. 803, 809 (1989) . And sometimes that means, as the plurality says, that the dictionary definition of a disputed term cannot control. See, e.g., Bloate v. United States, 559 U. S. 196, n. 9 (2010). But this is not such an occasion, for here the text and its context point the same way. Stepping back from the words “tangible object” provides only further evidence that Congress said what it meant and meant what it said.

This a concise explanation for why the ACA’s opponents needed to invent a fantasy alternate history of the statute. Nobody really disputes that statutory language has to be read in the context of the structure and purpose of the statute as a whole, and doing so yields a clear answer.  Even if the isolated phrase “Exchange established by the State” represents a “glitch” — as the troofers themselves thought before their constitutional challenge failed and they needed another straw to grasp at — then the case is over; the I.R.S was doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, interpreting the statute as not being at war with itself. Hence “the Moops invaded Spain,” only that reading makes no sense on its face and is inconsistent with the understanding of all relevant actors. (And while we are of course bound by what Congress enacted, not by what by what members of Congress subjectively intended, the actual views of the people who drafted and voted for the legislation are certainly relevant evidence when determining the purpose of the statutory scheme.)

…I should be clear that I’m just quoting Kagan to illustrate a point.  In terms of whether this reveals anything about how King v. Burwell will actually be decided, I’m definitely on Team Bagenstos:

I should note, however, that Brianne Gorod sees reason for optimism.

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Today Among Our Benevolent Local Overlords

[ 30 ] February 25, 2015 |

From the statement of facts in Kennedy’s opinion for the Court today in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission:

In the 1990’s, dentists in North Carolina started whiten­ing teeth. Many of those who did so, including 8 of the Board’s 10 members during the period at issue in this case, earned substantial fees for that service. By 2003, nondentists arrived on the scene. They charged lower prices for their services than the dentists did. Dentists soon began to complain to the Board about their new competitors. Few complaints warned of possible harm to consumers. Most expressed a principal concern with the low prices charged by nondentists.

Responding to these filings, the Board opened an inves­tigation into nondentist teeth whitening. A dentist mem­ber was placed in charge of the inquiry. Neither the Board’s hygienist member nor its consumermember par­ticipated in this undertaking. The Board’s chief opera­tions officer remarked that the Board was “going forth to do battle” with nondentists. The Board’s concern did not result in a formal rule or regulation reviewable by the independent Rules Review Commission, even though the Act does not, by its terms, specify that teeth whitening is “the practice of dentistry.” Starting in 2006, the Board issued at least 47 cease-and­-desist letters on its official letterhead to nondentist teeth whitening service providers and product manufacturers.

[…]

These actions had the intended result. Nondentists ceased offering teeth whitening services in North Carolina.

Some local regulations of business are, of course, valuable protections of the public interest. Some are straightforward protection rackets. The one at issue here is pretty clearly one of the latter, and one appropriate remedy for this kind of regulation is the application federal antitrust law.

Today’s case held that the Board of Dental Examiners was not exempt from the Sherman Act. While state actors are exempt from federal antitrust law, nominal state entities in which the state delegates to business interests with minimal supervision don’t qualify for the state action exemption. The four Democratic nominees and Chief Justice Roberts sided with the majority. Alito (for Scalia and Thomas) sided with the sovereign dignitude of the states over the interests of consumers.

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Thank you for your service?

[ 146 ] February 25, 2015 |

On Sunday the Times had a piece about how some (many?) military veterans don’t like to be “thanked” for their service by civilians:

To some recent vets — by no stretch all of them — the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who, while meaning well, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their own sons and daughters.

To these vets, thanking soldiers for their service symbolizes the ease of sending a volunteer army to wage war at great distance — physically, spiritually, economically. It raises questions of the meaning of patriotism, shared purpose and, pointedly, what you’re supposed to say to those who put their lives on the line and are uncomfortable about being thanked for it.

Mr. Garth, 26, said that when he gets thanked it can feel self-serving for the thankers, suggesting that he did it for them, and that they somehow understand the sacrifice, night terrors, feelings of loss and bewilderment. Or don’t think about it at all.

“I pulled the trigger,” he said. “You didn’t. Don’t take that away from me.”

It’s an interesting piece, which raises implicitly various tangential issues:

(1) I have the impression that in post-9/11 America the public glorification of the military has intensified quite a bit. Obviously there’s always been a lot of this, but it seems much more pervasive today. A trivial but symptomatic example: at PGA golf tournaments, there’s now always one hole tended by a member of the military. The flag on the pin, which normally merely marks the hole number, is a US flag, and the competitors are obviously expected to engage in a public display of thanking the service member. Readers can no doubt think of many similar semi-compulsory rituals. Needless to say this sort officious celebration of the military’s role in American life ought to raise the awkward question of what exactly what that role has been in recent decades. Yet the politically fraught character of this ritualized gratitude isn’t something the piece acknowledges. (The piece also uncritically reprints the urban legend that Vietnam veterans were spit on after returning home from the war).

(2) These sorts of rituals raise a number of other awkward questions. For one thing, the Times’ piece treats military service as if the typical experience of a service member is something akin to the experience of the veteran profiled in the article, who nearly died in a muddy ditch in Afghanistan, down to his last bullet, with he and his comrades being raked by Taliban machine guns. But the vast majority — according to this article 85% — of military veterans never see combat of any sort, let alone the kind of horrifying experience described in the Times’ piece.

For that 85%, military service ends up being a fairly ordinary job, featuring generally low pay but excellent fringe benefits. In other words, the 85% are in many ways typical government workers, and needless to say nobody is thanking the typical government worker for his or her service — they’re more likely to be complaining about that worker’s supposedly easy work schedule, and the inherent unfairness of those sweet, sweet benefits (They have real pensions!).

(3) The larger issue here is what the concept of “public service” ought to entail. For example, the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has, comparatively speaking, very generous provisions, relative to its standard loan forgiveness programs, requiring only ten rather than 20 or 25 years of repayment, and, crucially, not treating the debt forgiven as income at the end of the repayment period. This seems more than justifiable if, for instance, a law graduate benefiting from PSLF is choosing to represent indigent defendants for a $45,000 salary as opposed to getting paid many times that to work for a big law firm, but framing the matter that way creates an unrealistically easy case. (For one thing, only a very small percentage of law graduates could be faced with such a choice, even in theory).

A wide variety of jobs constitute performing “public service,” technically speaking. For example, Nora Demlietner, who announced yesterday — no doubt in the wake of a friendly chat with the university’s president — that she was “stepping down” as Washington & Lee’s law school dean, two and half years after taking that job, is a public servant, and would be eligible for PSLF loan forgiveness, if she should find herself in need of the program’s provisions.

This seems unlikely, as she’s been paid more than three million dollars since 2007 to “serve” as dean of Hofstra’s and W&L’s law schools. I doubt that the members of Hofstra’s 2011 graduating class, who were trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to get any sort of legal employment at all at the same time Detlietner was interviewing for her new gig at W&L, are inclined to thank her for her service.

To be fair, Detlietner’s “public service” seems the epitome of altruism in comparison to the sacrifices being made by her bosses at Hofstra and W&L, both of whom were or are currently pulling down seven figures annually to “serve” the public interest.

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