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Framing 9/11

[ 132 ] October 19, 2015 |


I have a piece on the strange dynamics that turned George W. Bush into the president that “kept us safe” from terrorism.

Consider the power of what sociologists call “framing.” The cultural frame that the Republican party has so successfully managed to build up since the days of Ronald Reagan is one in which Democrats are weak—kneed appeasers and semi-pacifists, while the GOP is the party of strong, war-like Daddy figures, who know how to deal with foreign threats with unsentimental ruthlessness.

You would think it would be impossible to assimilate the 9/11 terrorist attacks to this frame, but you would be wrong. Such is the power of this pre-ordained narrative that, when America suffered a catastrophic terrorist attack under a Republican president, this inconvenient fact was, for enormous numbers of people, magically whisked down a kind of collective memory hole.

The power of this frame to distort perception is evident if we consider a counter-factual in which something like the 9/11 attacks happened during the term of any Democratic president. Imagine if 3,000 Americans had been murdered by foreign terrorists nine months into the Obama administration. It’s almost inconceivable that it would occur to anyone to claim subsequently that Obama had “kept us safe,” because such a claim wouldn’t be supported by the powerful distortions of a cultural frame that turned the combat-dodging ne’er do well son of George H.W. Bush into some sort of heroic warrior.


Everybody hates a tourist

[ 48 ] October 16, 2015 |


A federal court has tossed out a lawsuit against one of the Infilaw scam factories, on the basis of the ever-popular rationale that it’s the marks’ own fault if they buy the grifter’s pitch:

Last week, a U.S. district court judge in Florida, quoting an earlier decision tossing a suit against New York Law School, said prospective students at Florida Coastal School of Law are “‘a sophisticated subset of education consumers, capable of sifting through data and weighing alternatives.’”

In dismissing the case, the Florida judge said the plaintiffs knew Florida Coastal had some of the lowest admissions standards in the country, and because of that, a rosy employment statistic “would have been a red flag to a reasonable consumer.” The plaintiffs alleged Florida Coastal masked how many graduates held jobs actually requiring a law degree.

LGM readers may remember that last year Drexel law professor Lisa McElroy made a similar argument, although she glossed over the whole awkward “fake employment stats” thing:

I don’t understand why it is deplorable. The students enrolling in law schools have the information about job placement, bar passage, etc. Presumably, they have decided that they will fall on the positive side of the statistics. They make the choice to accept the offer of admission. The law school makes a commitment to educate them to the best of its ability. If the law school is so terrible and lacks judgment in admitting students, why would a student then choose to go there? It’s all in the student’s control.

McElroy has just published a novel about a spunky 112-pound (weight given in text) 1L and her noble law prof mentor at Warren Law School, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Harvard Law School, from which McElroy graduated. She is also an alumna of Dartmouth, and Choate Rosemary Hall. Current costs of attendance for these institutions:

Choate: $217,000

Dartmouth: $269,000

HLS: $255,000

All this must make Drexel ($196,000) seem like a relative bargain, especially given the serious shortage of law schools in the Philadelphia area.

I’ve only read the free preview of Called On on Amazon. I was considering a Go Fund Me campaign to raise the necessary capital to purchase the electronic version, but the ever-intrepid Dybbuk has demonstrated what can under the circumstances be considered the last full measure of devotion to the Anti-Scam Cause by actually reading the whole thing. His review can be found here.

This passage seems particularly germane to McElroy’s attraction to the doctrine of caveat emptor in its most vigorous form:

“Connie [the law prof] sat and watched. For all the crap law school had been taking in the media lately, this was the kind of class discussion that proved all the “law school is a scam” bloggers wrong. She didn’t have to do anything but get the students started with a provocative question. Then they took over.”

The theory here seems to be that since all it takes to get an educationally valuable experience rolling in a Harvard Warren Law School classroom is one provocative question, it therefore makes sense to spend nearly $200,000 to get a JD from, say, Drexel.

One of the prime symptoms of the new gilded age is that people like McElroy, who enjoy high-paying phony baloney jobs at the expense of people who didn’t go to Choate, Dartmouth, etc., often fail to appreciate that a sense of delicacy and circumspection might be warranted when the temptation arises to flaunt one’s privilege.

Why I love to travel: I’ve gotten to attend a Samburu wedding in Kenya, hang out on the ocean floor with sea turtles in Belize, sail through the sky on a parasail with my younger daughter on Block Island, speak to Italian law students about how common law systems work in Genova. What’s not to love?

My most memorable trip: For my birthday a couple of years ago, my husband and I took a luxury white water rafting trip down the Futaleufu River in Patagonia, Chile. As if the Class V rapids weren’t adventure enough, we got stuck in the biggest earthquake in fifty years. We were fine, but getting home was quite a challenge.

My favorite trip with my kids: For another birthday (OK, I’ll admit it, my 40th), the whole family hit Puerto Vallarta for a week. The kids loved the pools and the beach; my husband and I appreciated the great small restaurants and the art culture.

Can’t wait to get to: The Great Barrier Reef. After recent trips to Palau and Belize, I’m now a certified scuba diver and can’t wait to dive down under!

What I love about family travel: The whole family unwinds and hangs out together. There’s usually no cell phone service. We eat a lot of crazy stuff (ice cream for breakfast, squid for dinner, anyone?). No one blow dries her hair. We explore together to find folk art to bring home – all the better to remember our trip.

What I least like about family travel: Our dogs usually have to stay home.

And (in the Paper of Record no less):

I’m back.

Which is to say, I was gone. Two thousand miles away. To a couple of luxury resorts in warm, sunny Arizona. All by myself. While I left my husband and kids back home in cold, gray Philadelphia. On their own.

No, I didn’t have to go. Arizona was not home to a legal conference, or a trial, or a library where I needed to do research. No one in my extended family had died; as far as I know, no one was even sick. There wasn’t even a food festival, or a special art exhibition, or a one-week-only never-to-be-repeated production of some Shakespearean play.

Nope, this here law professor took a vacation. For no good reason at all except that I was on spring break, and they weren’t, and I really, really needed to get away from it all, soak up some sun, and, as it turns out, eat quite an indulgent number of red velvet cupcakes.

Some would say that only a really irresponsible mother would go hot-air ballooning 2,500 feet above the Arizona desert while her kids were in the trenches of state-mandated standardized testing.

Some might question a mother’s midday naps on canopied beach beds when her husband slept fitfully at night, listening for any sound of a tween having a nightmare or sneaking downstairs for a midnight ice cream snack.

And (speaking of snacks), some might wonder whether it was right and just (two concepts important to lawyers like me) to chow down on diver scallops, pork belly, lobster ravioli, and homemade tamales (oh, and the aforementioned red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting) while the family back home sustained themselves on hot dogs, boxed mac and cheese, and the mainstay of working parents everywhere: breakfast for dinner. . .

Sure, I thought a lot about the possible downsides. What if my younger daughter didn’t finish her props for her weekend problem-solving competition? What if the older one got into a middle-school drama and I wasn’t there to listen from the minivan’s driver’s seat while she vented about it from the back? What if my husband didn’t fix them a protein-filled breakfast before their standardized tests?

What if? Would my carefully constructed suburban world collapse? Would they fail the tests? Would the competition be a bust? Would the middle school social scene be turned on its end?

But then I juxtaposed those possibilities against my exhaustion [!] from teaching dozens of law students about copyright protection and the Supreme Court. And against the giant earthquake that struck Japan and my realization of how I’d feel if I died before I crossed “hot air ballooning” off my bucket list. And the fact that I’d been down in the dumps for weeks over the day in, day out routine of kids, snow, dachshunds, meetings, and students. Not I’m saying that I deserved to be down in the dumps (hey, I wasn’t in Japan), but down I was.

I suspect McElroy wasn’t as “down” as the 37% of Drexel’s 2014 graduating class that didn’t have any sort of legal job ten months after graduation (a third of these graduates were completely unemployed) but we all have crosses to bear, novels to write, lagoons to jet ski, etc.

This may be taking the concept of a dog whistle a bit too far

[ 68 ] October 14, 2015 |



Alice Goffman’s implausible defense

[ 230 ] October 13, 2015 |


More than a month after the Chronicle of Higher Education published a 10,000-word article pointing out that it’s likely a lot of incidents related in Alice Goffman’s book On the Run didn’t actually happen, including several that she claimed to have witnessed herself, this is apparently the best defense she has been able to elicit from the world of sociology:

To the Editor:

I strenuously object to the publication of Paul Campos’s “Alice Goffman’s Implausible Ethnography” (September 4).

Its content, filled with innuendo and half-truths, is better suited to a tabloid than to an organ meant to inform on the basis of fact and thoughtful analysis.

What is the point of Campos’s overlong and superficial piece? To dispute the veracity of Goffman’s research. He is entitled to that opinion, but he offers no persuasive evidence. His main objective, it appears, is to discredit, not enlighten.

Sadly, Campos is unable to see Alice Goffman as a true scholar willing to take intellectual and personal risks that people like him would never take.

Let’s be clear: Goffman is not being harassed for the presumed flaws in her research — she is being persecuted for who she is: a young white woman of exceptional talent determined to unearth realities concealed to most Americans. Would she be enduring the same treatment if she were a man?

No, Alice Goffman is the object of a modern-day witch hunt. Envy over the colossal success of her book fuels the prejudice of people like Campos who cannot see Goffman for what she is: a serious intellectual with a genuine and timely story to tell.

Patricia Fernandez-Kelly
Department of Sociology
Princeton University

Obviously this letter doesn’t require any comment, and I present it here solely for its sociological interest.

I would like to take the opportunity, however, to say that I went to great lengths in the CHE piece to phrase my criticisms in the mildest and most careful fashion that a commitment to candor would allow.

Here I will not be so circumspect: It is all but certain that significant portions of On the Run are fabricated. Whatever residual doubt (and it was very residual indeed) I still had about this matter at the time I published the CHE article has been dispelled in the intervening weeks by subsequent developments, including but not limited to the response to the article itself.

Question about Boston cost of living

[ 81 ] October 13, 2015 |


One of the curiosities of the current federal educational loan system is that it allows graduate or professional school students who aren’t in default on such a loan to borrow the full cost of attendance at whatever school they’re attending, with the cost of attendance being determined exclusively by the school. The cost of attendance is tuition plus “reasonable” living expenses while the student is enrolled at least half time. In the case of ABA-accredited law schools, the ABA requires them to disclose what schools estimate reasonable living expenses are for the standard academic year, i.e., nine months.

Schools have two conflicting incentives in this regard. On the one hand, the higher a school estimates the cost of living, the more its students can borrow. On the other, the higher the estimate, the higher the total cost of attendance appears to be.

This mix of incentives leads to large differences in what schools in the same area estimate constitutes a reasonable nine-month COL budget for a law student. For example, here are the current nine-month COL estimates, rounded to the nearest $500, for the law schools in Boston. (Keep in mind that the figures below include an average of around $1,500 for books):

Boston University: $18,000

Boston College: $19,000 (I understand BC is in a suburb)

Northeastern: $19,500

Suffolk: $22,000

New England Law: $22,000

Harvard: $26,000

In other words, BU expects its law students to live in Boston on less than $2,000 per month, excluding book costs, while HLS budgets nearly 50% more for its students. How reasonable do these various estimates seem, given the current COL in the city? Law students are students, but they are also adults (the average age of an American law student is 26). What’s a realistic budget for a young adult in one of the capitals of the new gilded age in 2015?

LGM at the Movies: The Martian

[ 218 ] October 12, 2015 |


I don’t go to many movies these days, so it takes a combination of factors to pull me into a theater. The Martian managed to do so by combining a genre I like, with a director who produced two of the best films in that genre, with a lead actor who is often in good films, all combined with almost uniformly strong reviews.

This post is an expression of genuine perplexity. I thought The Martian was a really bad movie.

It’s as if Ridley Scott took the last two minutes of the original version of Blade Runner — the preposterous happy ending that he was supposedly forced to tack onto the movie by the studio — and blew it up into a two and a half hour gazillion dollar exercise in box office cynicism. The movie is a kind of endlessly extended version of one of those corporate advertisements that features a relentlessly cheerful and exquisitely multi-cultural cast, whose point is to give the viewer the vague feeling that MegaCorp Inc. is all about making the world a better place as opposed to maximizing shareholder value.

The Martian doesn’t feature any actual Martians, but it also doesn’t contain any recognizable human beings. The characters here make Star Wars look like a Bergmanesque foray into psychological realism: the closest the movie comes to gesturing towards any kind of complexity is when the head of NASA says a couple of things that might be interpreted as questioning whether it makes sense to spend untold sums to launch a likely-to-fail mission to rescue one person. Any risk that the film might veer into the gravitational field of even an extremely distant reality is soon quashed, and we’re back to the equivalent of a Coke commercial with very expensive special effects.

One special effect Scott omits is anything beyond the bare outline of the paint by number plot that would get a viewer to care about the fate of Matt Damon’s character. Here is the sum total of what we learn about him (spoiler alert): he’s a botanist, he hates disco music, and he loves his parents. Of course he’s also incredibly resourceful and blandly heroic, but these are not so much revelations as pure generic conventions, that could spew from the MacBook of the laziest Hollywood hack, and apparently did.

Per Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus regarding The Martian is that it’s “surprisingly funny,” which is true if you find jokes about how science nerds are clumsy and disco music sucks funny, as opposed to excruciatingly hackneyed.

The only interesting thing about this movie is the question of why it’s getting so much critical praise. That the 77-year-old Scott seems to be completely out of ideas is sad but predictable, as is the fact that he’s now the kind of director that a studio can trust with a gigantic budget, knowing that he’ll boil the necessary pots to “win” the box office battles.

In The Invisible Bridge Rick Perlstein suggests that the sudden renewed popularity of Horatio Alger novels in the wake of the Watergate indicated a longing in the public for the supposed verities of a supposedly simpler more innocent time, and that this same desire eventually helped get Ronald Reagan elected. Perhaps a similar explanation helps account for why, at the height of the new gilded age, The Martian is being praised to the skies.

Sometimes a bit of police brutality might be nice

[ 106 ] October 6, 2015 |

The specimen in this nine-minute video is Luke Gatti. He seems to have a little too much to drink Sunday night. In the world of the cyber-panopticon, that can make you famous:

The blog entry below is slightly more than a year old, so props to our aspiring scholar for not getting arrested again for 54 weeks:

Apparently Phillips Street, alcohol, Luke Gatti and late night weekends, make for a bad combination. Perhaps because he’s only 18-years-old, but still no excuse for such outlandish behavior.

Arrested two weeks ago on Phillips Street for disorderly conduct (which included calling a detective the N-word), this time around Mr. Gatti seemed to go out of his way to get arrested yet again on that same notorious street, and when taken back to the police station, assaulted an officer.

With his father looking on, Luke Gatti was arraigned this morning before Judge John Payne who set bail at $250, taken out of the $1,000 bail posted over the weekend to get out of jail.

Noting the arrest only two weeks ago Judge Payne said to Gatti, “I’m a little concerned you’re going to pull a trifecta before the month is over.”

Gatti will appear in Eastern Hampshire District Court with his hired lawyer on October 15 for a pre-trial conference.

Unless of course, in the meantime, he gets arrested again.

Violent crime in America: A complex story

[ 94 ] October 2, 2015 |

(1) The United States is on average much more violent homicidal than other developed nations. For example, here are the most recently available homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants for ten countries:

Canada: 1.6
South Korea: 0.6
Denmark: 0.8
Ireland: 1.2
UK: 1.0
Italy: 0.9
Spain: 0.8
Australia: 1.1
China: 1.0
United State: 4.7

(2) Both the violent crime rate and the homicide rate in the US have declined by about half over the past 25 years. Over the past half century violent crime and homicide in America have followed a roughly parabolic pattern:

homicide rate

violent crime

(3) The reasons for the massive run-up in the violent crime rate between 1960 and 1990, and (especially) for the equally sharp decline in the rate since then are not well understood. Many theories have been proposed, but none of them are especially well supported. The most that can be said at this time is that both the run-up and the decline each had many causes, but identifying and sorting out the relative importance of those causes is extremely difficult to do.

(4) Mass shootings intended by their perpetrators to draw media attention have a symbolic cultural significance that goes far beyond their minuscule role in overall crime statistics. Among other things, they throw light on the fact that the United States remains, in comparative terms, a remarkably violent place, although it is true that we are now “only” about five times rather than ten times more violent murderous than our economic peers.

Edited to reflect that the big gap between the US and otherwise similar nations is in regard to homicide, as opposed to violent crime per se.

A not very well regulated militia

[ 87 ] October 1, 2015 |


Message board tips for aspiring mass murderers.

Background on the 4chan board where this thread appeared:

The board is famous for its stories of social awkwardness and nostalgia of the simpler times, as well as discussion of abnormal social behaviour. It is heavily used by NEETs[4] (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) who regret their life decisions and hold anger and disdain over males with active social and sexual lifes. it also containts [sic] Constant discussions about relationships with females and family. Dispite [sic] all of this, the board holds heavy pride in its own nature, with heavy hate over normies or “Normalfags” who do not understand their culture as well as constant calls for a “Beta Uprising”. [T]his has spawned different memes.

Sophisticated behavioral economics experiment reveals elites prefer policies that benefit elites

[ 83 ] September 30, 2015 |

rubin greenspan

Internet-required snark aside, this is actually a very clever study. Two of the authors describe the results in Slate:

Elite Americans are not just middle-class people with more money. They display distinctive attitudes on basic moral and political questions concerning economic justice. Simply put, the rich place a much lower value on equality than the rest. What’s more, this lack of concern about inequality among the elite is not a partisan matter. Even when they self-identify as progressive Democrats, elite Americans value equality less highly than their middle-class compatriots.

This finding has profound implications for public policy. Contemporary American politics presents an enduring mystery. Why does the public policy response to nearly five decades of rising economic inequality remain so tepid, even as large majorities of Americans consider inequality excessive, and even under a two-term Democratic president? Our study, published Thursday in the journal Science, co-authored with colleagues Pamela Jakiela and Shachar Kariv, proposes an answer: Regardless of party, the elite donors whose money dominates politics, and the elite officeholders whose decisions set policy, don’t value economic equality. When the American government abjures egalitarian policies, it is implementing the bipartisan preferences of the American elite.

The study used a variation of the dictator game, which measured both the basic selfishness and the efficiency maximizing preferences of a hyper-elite (Yale law students), and an intermediate elite (Berkeley undergraduates), against a baseline of the American population as a whole.

The experimental behaviors of these three subject classes—once again, making real allocations with real money—revealed stark differences between attitudes toward economic justice among ordinary Americans and among the elite. To begin with, the Berkeley and Yale subjects were twice as likely to be selfish as their compatriots in general. In this respect, intermediate and extreme elites stand together with each other, and stand apart from the rest of the country.

What’s more, elite Americans show a far greater commitment to efficiency over equality than ordinary Americans. And this time, the bias toward efficiency increases with each increment of eliteness. The ALP subjects split roughly evenly between focusing on efficiency and focusing on equality; the Berkeley students favored efficiency over equality by a factor of roughly 3-to-2; and the Yale Law students favored efficiency by a factor of 4-to-1.

Yale Law students’ overwhelming, indeed almost eccentric, commitment to efficiency over equality is all the more astonishing given that the students self-identified as Democrats rather than Republicans—and thus sided with the party that claims to represent economic equality in partisan politics—by a factor of more than 10-to-1. An elite constituted by highly partisan Democrats thus showed an immensely greater commitment to efficiency over equality than the bipartisan population at large.

The authors suggest these findings help explain why drastic increases in wealth inequality in America over the course of the last generation have generated such a tepid political response. Elite preferences have a vastly disproportional effect on political action than the preferences of the population as a whole, and what elites prefer is to grab ever-larger slices of the economic pie. That a lot of these people believe themselves to be deeply committed to egalitarian social policies would not, I suspect, surprise either Karl or Groucho Marx.

On a more parochial but all the more amusing note, Jeff Harrison suggests these findings help explain why so many law professors are such awful people (law professors being essentially Yale law students on steroids, or less metaphorically, Adderall):

Look at the law schools most law professors attended and you know the reason law schools are bastions of greed, self-promotion, self-interest, bogus conferences that are vacations, misleading resumes, demands to teach vanity courses, demands for special treatment including two day teaching schedules, truncated semesters, and extra pay for just doing the job.

It was never a mystery to anyone who thought about it but law school hiring committees fish only in the ponds of the greedy and hypocritical.

School’s bar passage rate collapses after it eliminates admissions standards; Dean blames kids today

[ 66 ] September 29, 2015 |


The debate of the moment in legal academia is regarding why bar passage rates are falling.

While it’s true this question involves various statistical confounders, at bottom it’s not terribly complicated: as the average quality of law students declines, fewer graduates will pass the bar. Indeed, since there’s a three-year lag between declining admissions standards and declining bar passage rates, we are likely to see even sharper declines in the number of law graduates who end up licensed to practice law.

Last year I wrote an article for the Atlantic, explaining in some detail how Infilaw, a for-profit law school consortium owned by Sterling Partners, a private equity firm, was hoovering up ever-larger piles of federal educational loan money, by slashing the already-low admissions standards of the three ABA-approved schools Infilaw owns.

At that time I predicted that the bar passage rates at these schools were destined to collapse, despite the radical steps the schools were taking to keep this from happening. Such steps have included bribing students not to take the exam, and even calling them up the night beforehand to encourage them not to show up.

Infilaw’s administration took great offense at the suggestion that throwing their doors open to anyone with a college degree and an LSAT score (any score) would lead to poor outcomes for their loan conduits graduates on the bar. Since then two more summers’ worth of bar exam results have become available.

Charlotte Law School graduate first time bar passage rate, North Carolina bar exam:

2010: 83.3%

2011: 77.9%

2012: 65.4%

2013: 60.3%

2014: 55.4%

2015: 47%

Note that almost all of the 2015 first-time takers were 2012 matriculants. Charlotte’s 2012 entering class had a median LSAT score in the 30th percentile, while one quarter of the class had an LSAT score in the 19th percentile or lower. These are somewhat lower test scores than the graduates who took the 2014 and 2013 bar exam, and far lower test scores than the Charlotte graduates who took the 2011 and 2010 bar exams.

So who does the law school’s administration blame for generating this striking and eminently predictable correlation? If you guessed “the students they chose to admit even though they had test scores that predicted most of them would fail the bar” you would be correct.

Remarkably enough, the class that took the 2015 exam and recorded an abysmal 47% first-time taker passage rate had far better entrance numbers than the class Charlotte admitted last year, which is scheduled to take the bar in the summer of 2017. That class had a median LSAT score in the 18th percentile, while a quarter of the class had an LSAT score in the 9th percentile or lower. So we’re probably a long way from the bottom yet.

And if you’re wondering whether an ABA law school’s bar passage rate can fall far enough to get it de-accredited, the answer is “technically yes, but in reality probably not.” The reality in this case is that the ABA accreditation standards are absurdly lax. For example, they allow the passing percentage of a school’s own graduates to count toward a calculation of whether a school’s bar passage rate is no more than fifteen (!) points lower than the state bar’s overall pass rate. Thus a school like Charlotte, which has grown at an enormous pace, can pump out so many graduates that the school itself can seriously deflate the entire state’s bar passage rate (and indeed it has), thus making it much more likely that the school will somehow find a way to stay in compliance with the ABA standards.

Speaking of the Second Amendment

[ 46 ] September 25, 2015 |

Kay Daly is running for Congress in North Carolina.

She has a son named Jack Reagan and a daughter named Reagan Joy. The family’s recently adopted albino cat is named Goneril.*

*The assertions in this sentence are products of ethnographic research rather than journalism or social science.

. . . Her webpage is what Stanley Fish might call a rich text. A sample:

Kay’s maternal ancestors arrived in North Carolina in the 18th century and served in the North Carolina Militia during the Revolutionary War. Two of her great great grandfathers – Joel Andrew Ray (whose kinfolk settled in Cumberland and Chatham Counties) and David Absolom Knox (whose kinfolk settled in Rowan and Mecklenburg Counties) – served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Through their mothers, who are first cousins five times removed, Kay is a blood relative of James Knox Polk, the 17th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and 11th President of the United States.

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