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What would happen if a major political party engaged in obstructionism toward a new presidential administration from Day One?

[ 20 ] January 6, 2017 |

That is a Deep Thought raised in this New York Times piece, which is focused on the controversy at Talladega College, a tiny, very poor (it doesn’t have the extra $60,000 it needs to pay for this “honor”), historically black institution, which agreed to send its new band to perform in the inauguration:

And beyond Talladega, the controversies raise tough questions for Mr. Trump’s most ardent critics as his presidency dawns: What is the proper response to a president as polarizing as Mr. Trump? Should the office of the president be honored, no matter who fills it? Or should there be four years of pure rejection and defiance?

And if Mr. Trump’s opponents refuse to participate in his presidency, can critics on the right do the same thing to some other president-elect in the future?

I rate this question “troubling.”

*Doesn’t The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hate Trump?  What’s up with sending their band? (I assume the Barzini family is forcing the Rockettes to perform so that’s less mysterious).

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Grab them by the wallet

[ 290 ] January 4, 2017 |

A particularly asinine “debate” has broken out regarding Simon & Schuster’s sacred constitutional right to pursue the profit motive at the expense of any regard for human decency (This noble principle is normally referred to as “the free market,” and criticizing any aspect of it is very triggering for Real Americans, so watch yourself and your neighbor too).

Here’s a vigorous defense of that principle from eventheliberal Josh Barro:

Wait, so now we’re attacking publishing houses for publishing books by people we disagree with?

Milo is awful and I’m sure his book will be stupid. But pressuring publishing houses toward viewpoint restriction leads somewhere bad.

Barro is aware that this isn’t a first amendment issue, since nobody is suggesting that the government should prohibit Milo from publishing his dreck with whoever is willing to associate themselves with him in exchange for money.  But he’s apparently taking the view that Simon & Schuster should engage in no viewpoint restriction whatever, beyond the (obviously considerable) viewpoint restrictions inherent in pursuing profit to the exclusion of all other considerations.

He’s also arguing for the principle that it’s inherently wrong to criticize S&S for following this maxim, since criticizing publishers for pursuing profit to the exclusion of all other considerations  “leads somewhere bad.”

Barro’s position, in short, is that it would be wrong to criticize any publisher for publishing any book because of the book’s content, because doing so would have worse consequences than publishing that book, no matter what the book contained or argued for or caused.

That obviously intelligent and well-informed people can take such a view is, I suggest, a symptom of considerable cultural and intellectual decadence, as opposed to merely an individual cognitive failing.

As for Milo himself, I’m reminded of an observation in Orwell’s essay on Salvador Dali:

The two qualities that Dali unquestionably possesses are a gift for drawing and an atrocious egoism. ‘At seven’, he says in the first paragraph of his book, ‘I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.’ This is worded in a deliberately startling way, but no doubt it is substantially true. Such feelings are common enough. ‘I knew I was a genius’, somebody once said to me, ‘long before I knew what I was going to be a genius about.’ And suppose that you have nothing in you except your egoism and a dexterity that goes no higher than the elbow; suppose that your real gift is for a detailed, academic, representational style of drawing, your real métier to be an illustrator of scientific textbooks. How then do you become Napoleon?

There is always one escape: into wickedness. Always do the thing that will shock and wound people. At five, throw a little boy off a bridge, strike an old doctor across the face with a whip and break his spectacles — or, at any rate, dream about doing such things. Twenty years later, gouge the eyes out of dead donkeys with a pair of scissors. Along those lines you can always feel yourself original. And after all, it pays! It is much less dangerous than crime. Making all allowance for the probable suppressions in Dali’s autobiography, it is clear that he had not had to suffer for his eccentricities as he would have done in an earlier age. He grew up into the corrupt world of the nineteen-twenties, when sophistication was immensely widespread and every European capital swarmed with aristocrats and rentiers who had given up sport and politics and taken to patronising the arts. If you threw dead donkeys at people, they threw money back. A phobia for grasshoppers — which a few decades back would merely have provoked a snigger — was now an interesting ‘complex’ which could be profitably exploited. And when that particular world collapsed before the German Army, America was waiting. You could even top it all up with religious conversion, moving at one hop and without a shadow of repentance from the fashionable salons of Paris to Abraham’s bosom.

This is not to suggest that Milo possesses anything resembling Dali’s actual talent.  As Orwell notes, Dali “is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings.” But the psychological type, and the pecuniary motives it creates, are easily recognizable in both cases.

Returning to the merits of the current controversy, it’s apparently necessary to point out that people who do morally disgusting things for money should be criticized for doing so, especially when this kind of pimp-whore relationship isn’t a product of any economic desperation, but rather of simple unvarnished greed on the one hand, and furious attention-seeking narcissism in the other.

 

Should the Clintons and Jimmy Carter attend the Trump inauguration?

[ 352 ] January 3, 2017 |

I realize Bush the Elder isn’t in the best of health but I suspect he would be there under different circumstances. Seems like Jimmy Carter could pull the health card very easily if he were so inclined. Apparently he isn’t:

 

Washington (CNN)Former President Bill Clinton and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will attend President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration later this month, aides to both Clintons told CNN on Tuesday.

Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush will also attend, the 43rd president’s office said in a statement Tuesday.
“President and Mrs. George W. Bush will attend the 58th Presidential Inauguration Ceremony on January 20, 2017, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.,” the statement read. “They are pleased to be able to witness the peaceful transfer of power — a hallmark of American democracy — and swearing-in of President Trump and Vice President Pence.”
Previously, Jimmy Carter was the only former commander in chief who had publicly said he would attend Trump’s inauguration. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, will not be attending due to his health, a spokesman has told CNN.
Former presidents traditionally attend the ceremonial transfer of power at the US Capitol.
Despite being a fellow Republican, Bush did not vote for Trump on Election Day, a decision Trump later deemed “sad.” Bush’s father voted for Hillary Clinton, according to sources.

As for the Clintons I haven’t thought this through, and in an unprecedented development will therefore not comment on their choices in the matter.  But don’t let that stop anybody else (Seriously I’m very interested in what people think about this.  It’s obviously crucial not to legitimate or normalize Trump any more than absolutely necessary, so that means drawing various sometimes hard to draw lines).

 

 

The real Latin American invasion

[ 52 ] January 2, 2017 |

Paul Krugman points out some similarities between Donald Trump and various despots from Central Asian spinoffs of the Soviet system.   His points are all valid, but the column is an indirect reminder to me of a question I’ve been mulling over for awhile now: why has so comparatively little attention been given to the remarkable extent to which the Trump phenomenon appears to represent the development of a Norteamericano version of a classic Latin American caudillo?

It’s not as if this has escaped notice altogether:  This Foreign Affairs article from May does a nice job of locating Trump within a historical arc that features such figures as Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna,  Rafael Trujillo, Juan Peron, and, more recently, Carlos Menem, Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chavez, and Rafael Correa, among many others.  Mexico’s greatest living essayist, Enrique Krauze, published this cautionary piece in Slate a few weeks before the election.

Nevertheless for every article pointing out the many ways in which Trump and Trumpism signal the emergence of a northern version of the classic caudillo, there must be dozens of pieces invoking various transatlantic figures and their associated political movements, from Mussolini and Berlusconi in Italy, to Putin and other post-Soviet figures, to You Know Who himself.

This, I think, is a reflection of the lamentable extent to which both elite and mainstream political discourse in the United States continues to basically ignore Latin America, even in situations in which the salience of Latin American history to the contemporary North American situation should be overwhelmingly obvious.

The classic Caudillo is a charismatic populist, who attacks the existing political and economic establishment with what might be called trans-ideological enthusiasm.  He claims that he and he alone has the ability to solve the nation’s problems, and to be the voice of the dispossessed.  He bullies his opponents, he persecutes any media who do not grovel before him, he boasts of his supposed sexual prowess, he has a narcissistic and therefore unquenchable thirst for public adulation, he is openly contemptuous of formal legal restraints, and he talks constantly of restoring the nation to its former grandeur.  To bolster his political base he uses the latest social media to speak as directly as possible to his followers, cutting out traditional forms of governmental and journalistic intermediation.  And he loves to make lots of absurd and expensive promises, often in the form of spectacularly ridiculous government projects, many of which are designed to keep out or expel contaminating and subversive foreign influences.

All of this raises the question of how Trump has managed to smuggle (unconsciously, no doubt, as the odds Trump knows what the word caudillo means are about as good as the chances of the Raiders winning the Super Bowl next month) this formerly Spanish-speaking strain of authoritarianism across the nation’s apparently poorly guarded ideological border.

I suspect the answer has to much to do with the extent that the United States economy is coming to resemble many a Latin American breeding ground for narcissistic despots.  In terms of relative levels of economic inequality, the U.S. now looks much more like Latin America than Europe, and the trend is only getting stronger.  As Omar Encarnacion notes:

In classic caudillista fashion, Trump has been quick to exploit the anger of those whose economic livelihoods have been upended by declining incomes, especially the white working class. He has bashed “the establishment” for neglecting “the little guy” and promised to bring back jobs outsourced to China and Mexico by forcing American companies such as Apple to produce their goods at home and by renegotiating international trade agreements. Trump has also displayed a penchant for demagoguery that few caudillos, past and present, could match. Central to Trump’s plan to “make America great again” is to build a wall from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico that would keep “rapists, drug dealers, and criminals” from entering the United States; to impose a moratorium on Muslims entering the United States; to allow torture as a weapon in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS); and to “open up” libel laws that would allow for the prosecution of journalists who criticize public figures such as himself. In pushing for these policies, Trump, like many caudillos, has capitalized upon his status as a political outsider. This status, Trump argues, best allows him to blow up the current political system and to replace it with something that would work for everyone, but especially for those feeling left behind.

Of course there are vast differences between the United States and the Latin American countries in which caudillismo has flourished, but if there’s anything the last year should have taught us is that banking on the supposed health and resilience of American political and cultural institutions is looking like an increasingly shaky bet.

All of which is to say that, especially now, it would benefit us all to pay much more attention to both the history and the present circumstances of our various southern neighbors.

 

What is (was?) rock music?

[ 222 ] December 31, 2016 |

This TNR piece presents itself as a tentative obituary for . . .  what exactly I’m not sure.

The genre hasn’t been this irrelevant in ages,” writes Alex Shepard.  (My emphasis). His piece concludes:

And then there was Desert Trip, derisively and accurately labeled “Oldchella,” the mega-concert featuring Dylan, The Rolling Stones (who incidentally released their first good album in three decades in 2016), Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, The Who, and Neil Young. In one respect, Oldchella was a fitting jewel in the crown of 2016: a testament to rock’s decaying influence.

Rock music has not been this irrelevant since the late 1950s and early 1960s, when its momentum was stalled by Elvis joining the Army, Buddy Holly crashing into an Iowa cornfield, and Chuck Berry being sent to prison for violating the Mann Act. Very little can be said for Don MacLean’s saccharine and embarrassing “American Pie,” a song which persists entirely because baby boomers are especially prone to a particularly smug version of nostalgia. Rock came back from the dead once before, when it was brought back to life by four young men from Liverpool. But this time it looks like it may be gone for good.

(On a side note, the sentence about “American Pie” reads like something that got inadvertently left in after a bunch of other text was cut in the edit.  At least I hope that’s what happened, because otherwise it’s just weird).

The trouble with this kind of argument is that it’s been a long, long time since the phrase “rock music” described anything that could be even loosely described as a coherent musical genre, if indeed it ever did.

If “rock music” means “music written and performed by people who are recognized by general cultural consensus to be rock musicians,” it covers everything from “Sweet Little Sixteen” to “California Dreamin’,” to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to “If You Leave Me Now” to “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)”, to “Punk Rock Girl,” to a whole lot more. Hell  let’s just do this with one band —  a band many would consider the archetypal representative of the purported genre:

Get off of My Cloud

When Tears Go By

2000 Light Years from Home

Prodigal Son

Moonlight Mile

Fool to Cry

Faraway Eyes

Etc. etc.

All of which is to say that “rock music” (formerly rock and roll; a semi-interesting question is when it got shortened), to the extent it exists as a cultural category at all, does so more or less along the lines of Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity:  You know it when you (or somebody) hears it as such.  In that sense I doubt it’s dying, or even can.

 

 

 

Sad

[ 507 ] December 30, 2016 |

Greenwald and Carlson, having established to their mutual satisfaction that reports of Russian interference in the election should be viewed with extreme suspicion, moved on to the question of just why it was that the Post would publish such a scurrilous report. “It is so weird that Russia is the focus … ” mused Carlson, “and yet, all of a sudden, Russia seems to be villain number one. Why is that? It seems strange.” The obvious response —Russia is the focus because it interfered with an American presidential election — had already been dismissed, so Greenwald supplied a different explanation for why Russia was suddenly the object of tough coverage in the media. Greenwald explained that Democrats ginned up hostility to Russia entirely for political reasons:

“One of the really interesting things is, in 2012, when Mitt Romney ran against Barack Obama, the Democrats mocked Romney mercilessly for depicting Russia as the number one geopolitical threat […] And throughout the Obama presidency, he tried accommodating Putin, he didn’t arm anti-Russian factions in Ukraine, he tried cooperating with him in Syria, it was really an election-year political theme that the Democrats manufactured out of whole cloth, that the Russian, that Putin posed some existential threat to the United States, that they’re our enemy […]”

It is true that, in 2012, the Republican Party had staked out a more hawkish stance on Russia than the Democrats. But the Democrats were hardly praising Putin’s regime. The dispute between Obama and Romney was a relatively narrow one centering on whether Russia was literally America’s number-one enemy, or whether that distinction belonged to Al Qaeda. In his 2012 convention speech, Obama said, “You don’t call Russia our number-one enemy — not Al Qaeda, Russia [Laughter.] — unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.”

Greenwald presents Obama’s chilly relationship with Russia as nothing but an election-year ploy. He omits any mention of the event that changed the tenor of U.S.-Russia relations: the Russian attack on Ukraine. Obama responded to the invasion by imposing sanctions on Russia in 2014. That event, not some election-year need to gin up a foreign bogeyman, is what generated tension between Obama and Putin. For Greenwald to depict the administration’s chilly stance toward Russia as “an election-year political theme that the Democrats manufactured out of whole cloth” is a complete fantasy.

Carlson agreed that there was “only a political motivation” to explain Obama’s criticisms of Russia.

After this point was agreed upon, Greenwald went beyond merely questioning the certainty of the Post’s reporting and denounced “wild, elaborate conspiracy theories.” “To sit here and sort of suggest that Vladimir Putin lurks behind every American problem, to concoct these wild, elaborate conspiracy theories, to try and convince Americans that Russia is this grave threat to the United States … ” he explained, “I think it’s incredibly dangerous.”

Note that, at the beginning of the segment, Greenwald was just asking questions about how solid this reporting really was, and by the end of it, had described the Post’s reporting of a finding shared by the CIA and FBI as “conspiracy theories.”

“That’s the way it seems to me!” agreed Carlson. “So, it’s great to hear you say that, it makes me feel less crazy.” And the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already, it was impossible to say which was which.

Asked for his opinion of Breitbart News, acclaimed journalist Glenn Greenwald praised the news site’s editorial integrity and said the site was “very impressive in terms of the impact they’ve been able to have.”

While Greenwald was clear that Breitbart contains content he “sometimes find repellant” and Breitbart writers and articles he’s highly critical of “just on political grounds,” he gave Breitbart News high marks for “giving voice to people who are otherwise excluded.”

Note that second link is to Breitbart.

Scenes from the class(room) struggle Pt. 2

[ 96 ] December 28, 2016 |

Part One here.

In a new study, Lauren Rivera and Andras Tilcsik reveal the enormously powerful effects class and gender, and the complex interplay between them, have within a particular elite hiring market (associate positions at large law firms). Some further thoughts:

(1) It’s often said that big law firm hiring is an unusually meritocratic process within the context of the competition for elite professional positions in the US economy.  The logic of this claim is that all you have to do to get an associate position in Big Law is go to an elite law school and not finish too close to the bottom of your class (with “too close” varying from perhaps bottom 5% at Yale to bottom 40% at Georgetown).  And all you have to do to go to an elite law school is get a high GPA and LSAT score, since law school admissions are almost completely numbers driven, so, unlike the elite undergraduate admissions process,  it doesn’t matter how many “other-centered” volunteer projects you worked on aka how much time and money your family had to create an altruistic-appearing application for their special snowflake.

There are a bunch of problems with this claim.  First, getting a high GPA and LSAT are themselves not exactly pure meritocratic achievements.  For instance, the struggle to get a high GPA is aided greatly by attending an elite private undergraduate college that pretty much gives everybody As because hey they got into Harvard so . . .

Second the LSAT is a very learnable test, especially if you have that time and money thing going for you again.  Getting high grades and high test scores is to a great extent a reflection of inheriting lots of capital, of both the pecuniary and the cultural kind.  It would be an exaggeration that “merit” in the context law school admissions means “high class status,” but it’s not a gross exaggeration.  (The fact that an occasional working class kid will score a full ride to Williams, sweat blood to get a 173 on the LSAT, and then get admitted to Harvard Law School is a most convenient fact from an objectively anti-egalitarian ideological perspective, since such paragons can be paraded before us endlessly as proof that the system is really “fair” if you squint just right).

Third, the supposedly meritocratic and therefore implicitly class-neutral nature of law school admissions — and by an increasingly tenuous extension subsequent legal employment — overlooks the truly fantastic cost of law schools, and especially elite law schools, in America today.

Here’s why this is a key factor in replicating and protecting the economic and social status quo:

Suppose a non-privileged law school applicant (NPLSA) has, despite the enormous advantages privileged applicants have in obtaining such numbers, combined GPA/LSAT credentials in the 99th percentile of applicants.  NPLSA can apply to, say, Columbia, and will probably get in.  But here’s the rub: having numerical credentials in the 99th, as opposed to say the 99.6th percentile means that NPLSA will have to pay sticker price to attend Columbia, as indeed around 60% of Columbia law students do.

And what’s the sticker cost of attendance these days?  Oh it’s just a modest $91,450.  That’s for nine months by the way — summer expenses not included.  And this COA is based on the school’s shall we say optimistic estimate that a student will pay $1,393 per month for rent and utilities in Manhattan and environs.  And the tuition portion of this cost is going up by 4% per year, so the annual nine month COA is going to be $100,000 by the time NPLSA is a third-year.

All told, if NPLSA borrows the money from our accommodating federal government to go to CLS, he or she is going to have around $336,000 in debt when the first bill becomes due, six months after graduating.

Now, given these staggering totals, here’s a surprising little statistical nugget: 41% of Columbia Law School’s 2015 graduating class had exactly zero law school debt at graduation!  Now why is that?  Because lots and lots of unambiguously rich kids go to Columbia Law School.  This in turn is a reflection of how much easier it is for upper class people to display “merit” via the purchase of high GPAs and LSAT scores. But I repeat myself.

Moving right along . . . many a defender of the law school (and by extension the social) status quo will wax avuncular to our hypothetical NPLSA, and advise this person who doesn’t know what boat shoes are to apply to a non-elite law school, where his or her sterling academic record will surely garner a full tuition scholarship.

As plans go, this one is so simple it’s brilliant: go to law school for “free” (not counting living expenses and opportunity cost), finish at the top of your class, and then get one of those fancy law firm jobs without all the soul-crushing debt.  Tastes great and less filling!

Which brings us back to Rivera and Tilcsik.  There are two big problems with this plan. First, law school grades are fairly unpredictable, so going to a particular law school with the intention to finish at the top of the class is a Plan A that’s badly in need of a Plan B.  But the problem that’s more germane to R&T’s findings is that finishing at the top of your non-elite law school class is a great way to get an elite legal job — if you’re already part of the upper class (And also a man. See below.)  If not — too bad, so sad: you aren’t going to be a good “fit” for our “firm culture,” dontcha know.

So maybe you should take on that $336,000 in debt (soon to be $400,000) to go to Columbia after all, where you can “compete” against the two out of every five of your classmates who have no debt, a parent who is the GC or maybe the CEO of a company that bills out tens of millions a year in legal fees to the big firms where you’ll be trying to get a job, and lots of boat shoes.

(2) Another rationalization that the defenders of the status quo will deploy when presented with things such as R&T’s finding that big law firms discriminate pretty much consciously against upper class women compared to upper class men (and even perhaps compared to lower class women, although not nearly to the same extent) is that the reasons people in these firms give — informally of course — for doing so are “good” reasons, with “good” here meaning “arguably profit-maximizing.”  Basically the argument, stripped of rhetorical flourishes, goes like this: To succeed at a large law firm, you must, to a greater or lesser extent, dedicate yourself completely to your work.

People who have any interests outside of work, such as occasionally seeing or — let’s get really radical here — playing a role in raising their children, aren’t going to be maximizing profits as much as people who would rather do really important things like proof-read financial documents.  Instead, their lack of “commitment” to (highly paid, high status) work will lead them to take up trivial pursuits such as bringing into the world, and subsequently nurturing and raising, a tolerably socialized human being or three.

Since the average woman “chooses” to dedicate herself to the latter activity much more often than the average law firm associates “chooses” to spend any time, quality or otherwise, with his children, then the fact that big law firms don’t want to hire people, aka women, who make the former choice is just a reflection of the inevitable and just and right and efficient workings of our beneficent Market (blessed by its name), as opposed to a horrendously unfair, inhumane, and soul-destroying rat race, one feature of which happens to be the continuing reproduction of massive class and gender inequality.

 

 

Scenes from the class(room) struggle

[ 200 ] December 28, 2016 |

Lauren Rivera, author of the interesting and important book Pedigree, has just published a study with Andras Tilcsik  that offers a fascinating glimpse into the way class and gender dynamics interact in the creation of elite professionals. Read more…

RIP Carrie Fisher

[ 98 ] December 27, 2016 |

A dark year gets darker.

I’m not much of a Star Wars fan, but the first movie retains a charm that hasn’t faded for me.

I also loved her in When Harry Met Sally.

Damn.

Julian Assange, social analyst

[ 239 ] December 26, 2016 |

I wonder why Wikileaks only published stuff that harmed Clinton?  It is a deep and abiding mystery.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has offered guarded praise of Donald Trump, arguing the president-elect “is not a DC insider” and could mean an opportunity for positive as well as negative change in the US.

Assange described his feelings about the US election results in an interview as “mixed” before going on to sharply criticize Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and providing a more ambivalent assessment of Trump’s ascent to the White House.

“Hillary Clinton’s election would have been a consolidation of power in the existing ruling class of the United States,” Assange told the Italian newspaper la Repubblica.

“Donald Trump is not a DC insider, he is part of the wealthy ruling elite of the United States, and he is gathering around him a spectrum of other rich people and several idiosyncratic personalities.”

He added: “They do not by themselves form an existing structure, so it is a weak structure which is displacing and destabilising the pre-existing central power network within DC. It is a new patronage structure which will evolve rapidly, but at the moment its looseness means there are opportunities for change in the United States: change for the worse and change for the better.”

In the week leading up to the election, Assange used his whistleblowing website to publish a cascade of emails connected to the Democratic party and the Clinton campaign.

Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative and associate of Trump, said in August that he had been in communication with Assange over an “October surprise” to foil Clinton. WikiLeaks began publishing emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and the email account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in October.

It is impossible to know how much the email disclosures affected the outcome of the race, but there is little doubt the revelations harmed Clinton’s prospectsduring the crucial last weeks of the campaign.

Added by popular demand:

Assange, who briefly hosted his own talkshow on the state-owned television network Russia Today, has long had a close relationship with the Putin regime. In his interview with la Repubblica, he said there was no need for WikiLeaks to undertake a whistleblowing role in Russia because of the open and competitive debate he claimed exists there.

“In Russia, there are many vibrant publications, online blogs and Kremlin critics, such as [Alexey] Navalny, are part of that spectrum,” he said. “There are also newspapers like Novaya Gazeta, in which different parts of society in Moscow are permitted to critique each other and it is tolerated, generally, because it isn’t a big TV channel that might have a mass popular effect, its audience is educated people in Moscow. So my interpretation is that in Russia there are competitors to WikiLeaks.”

Dozens of journalists have been killed in Russia in the past two decades, and Freedom House considers the Russian press to be “not free” and notes: “The main national news agenda is firmly controlled by the Kremlin. The government sets editorial policy at state-owned television stations, which dominate the media landscape and generate propagandistic content.”

Democracy in action

[ 470 ] December 23, 2016 |

A Trump voter from a rural Kentucky county in which Trump won 82% of the vote:

The insurance we had before, we ended up paying about $1,200 a month for a family of five. It just kept going up each year.

So we ended up dropping it.

We didn’t have health insurance. And we went for maybe two years with no insurance until this came out. We really didn’t go to the doctor because it cost too much.

So for the past two years, we had the Healthcare.gov. It’s made it affordable.

My husband ended up getting sick this year. He has non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver.

He’s lost all this weight and all this muscle tone. Some people don’t recognize him that he’s known for years until he speaks and they recognize his voice.

But it’s been great to have health insurance, because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to not have it with all the treatments and things that he’s had to have done.

When we didn’t have health insurance, we didn’t go and get blood work and all that stuff done to be checked to see, you know, how his liver was doing.

He was taking medicines that could damage the liver for the cholesterol and all that stuff. But because it costs so much to get blood work done … [the doctor] wanted it done every three months, and he would do it maybe once a year. . . .

I’m not really a fan of [Obama’s] policies, but I like the fact that he gave me health insurance. And I have been worried about the fact that, you know, is it going to go away because, like I said, we’re in a situation now where I can’t afford to pay $1,200 a month. And I can’t go without insurance because he has to have it in order, you know … a transplant could be a million dollars. . . .

I don’t know. I guess I thought that, you know, [Trump] would not do this. That they would not do this, would not take the insurance away. Knowing that it’s affecting so many people’s lives. I mean, what are you to do then if you cannot … purchase, cannot pay for the insurance?

You know, what are we to do?

So I don’t know. Maybe he’s thinking about, you know, the little people that are not making the big money, like what they make in New York and Washington and all the places that, you know, this is not, you know, something — this is people’s lives that’s being affected.

Meanwhile:

On Wednesday, Planned Parenthood made recordings of the 90-minute focus groups—held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Phoenix; Las Vegas; and Milwaukee—available to a group of journalists.

For opponents of Trump, the recordings make for excruciating viewing. They show how myths about Hillary Clinton’s corruption proved more influential than facts about Trump’s. “I really didn’t trust Hillary at all, and that’s why I went with Trump,” said a new mother in Harrisburg who’d been undecided until the last moment. “He’s more honest than her.” Some of the conversations make clear the role sexism played in the election. “I didn’t know if I was ready for the first woman president,” said a pretty, pregnant blonde 27-year-old woman in Phoenix. “I know how emotional I am, so … “ But if they’re maddening, the focus groups are also revelatory. They suggest that the Clinton campaign made a fatal mistake in depicting Trump as outside the bounds of normal conservatism. Clinton’s camp had hoped that doing so would lead Republicans to defect. Instead, it helped some people who distrust conservatism to reconcile themselves to Trump. . .

n Phoenix, two middle-aged women in the Trump-only focus group said they wouldn’t support him for re-election if he signed away funding for Planned Parenthood. “It’s a deal-breaker,” said an earthy 58-year-old in a plaid work shirt. “It will rob women of basic fundamental rights. I’m talking about female health care, which includes abortion. Which includes birth control. I think birth control is the greatest gift that they gave for womankind.” Added a 44-year-old, if Trump attacked Planned Parenthood, “I’d be pissed off as hell.”

This leads to an obvious question: If these women think defunding Planned Parenthood is a deal-breaker, why did they vote for a candidate who promised to do exactly that? After all, in a September letter addressed to “Pro-Life Leaders,” Trump pledged to strip Planned Parenthood’s federal funding unless it stops performing abortions. But many of the people in the focus groups didn’t know he’d made this assurance, and those who did didn’t take it seriously. It seemed as if Trump’s lasciviousness, which Clinton hoped would disqualify Trump with women, actually worked in his favor. The focus group participants couldn’t imagine that Trump would enact a religious right agenda. “He’s probably paid for a few abortions himself,” said the 58-year-old in Phoenix, eliciting a roomful of laughs.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Who can solve the mystery of why California bar exam pass rates are falling?

[ 170 ] December 21, 2016 |

The deans of California’s several hundred ABA-approved law schools (actually 21, but there are dozens of California-accredited and unaccredited ones as well, including my personal favorite, Taft law school, a strictly online operation named after America’s healthiest president, and the alma mater of Orly Taitz, the Atticus Finch of the Birther movement) are up in arms about how many of their graduates failed the state’s bar exam this past July.  The first-time pass rate for ABA graduates was 62%.  Until they started slipping three years ago, the typical first-time pass rate for ABA law school grads was generally in the mid-70s, so the latest numbers represent a substantial decline.

Erwin Chemerinsky wonders whether the California bar is secretly making the test harder, in a covert campaign to raise barriers to entry:

The State Bar needs to be much more transparent and explain this statistical drop. Is it a result of a conscious desire to limit the number of attorneys in California, a goal which should be widely condemned? I have heard many speculate that this is what is going and the State Bar would be well served to address this concern directly.

I’m going to try really hard not to be rude here.  Chemerinsky has been dean of a California law school for nine years.  His job is to get the students the school charges $45,000 to $51,000 per year in tuition to pass the California bar.  That’s literally his main job.  Not in the sportscaster sense of literally, but literally literally.  And he apparently doesn’t know anything about the California bar exam, unless he’s feigning ignorance for political purposes, which I’m pretty sure would be unconstitutional.

The California bar exam grading process is already transparent.  Anybody who is interested can look up the technical reports on how it’s done.  The exam has two main parts: the Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE), and the California portion of the exam.  The MBE is a scaled and equated test, which means that the scores of each administration are adjusted to reflect the relative difficulty of the exam.  And the grading of the California portion of the test is always curved to the MBE.  In other words, to the extent possible in this wondrous age in which we live, the variation in pass scores on the exam is a product of the ability of the people who take it to pass it, not by any variation in the exam itself.

Again, we’re not talking about knowing Allen Iverson’s lifetime free throw shooting percentage here.  We’re talking about understanding the grading of the test your students have to pass to qualify to engage in legal practice, which, I repeat, is pretty much a law school dean’s main job.

OK, deep breath.  Serenity now . . . But Erwin the Unready isn’t done yet:

But I think that the more important question is whether the bar exam is measuring the skills that show a person is likely to be a competent attorney. Having taught students preparing for the bar for over 30 years, I am very skeptical and would like to see much more careful consideration of how to devise a bar exam that measures what it is purporting to assess: basic competence to be a lawyer.

That’s a really great point.  We wouldn’t want to have too many wildly expensive and unnecessary barriers to entry now would we?

Except . . . guess what’s by far the best predictor of whether somebody is going to pass the bar?  No you don’t have to guess because I’m going to tell you: law school grades.  These are uncannily good predictors of likely bar success or failure.  At my own school, we recently did a study of every graduate over a five year period and found that law school class rank, when considered by decile, was a perfect predictor of the future risk of bar failure.

So if the bar exam isn’t measuring skills that show a person is likely to be a competent attorney, what exactly is law school — which takes three years not three days to complete, and costs hundreds of times more to attend than the bar exam itself — measuring?  Besides the ability to pass the bar exam of course.  Ironic, isn’t it? (Not sportscaster irony, irony irony).

So why are bar exam pass rates falling? David Faigman, the new dean at UC-Hastings, is particularly interested in this question, given the remarkable drop in the pass rates of the school’s graduates.

Pass rates of Hastings graduate first-time takers of the California bar exam:

2010:  80.3%

2011: 78.6%

2012: 76.4%

2013: 74.2%

2014: 68.4%

2015: 67.5%

2016: 51%

Faigman, to his credit, didn’t sugarcoat this disaster in an email to students and faculty, calling the 2016 numbers “horrific.”  The 2014 and 2015 numbers had been unacceptable, he wrote, but this latest performance “takes unacceptability beyond the pale.”  Nevertheless he lambasted the state bar examiners:

As an aside, let me express my utter incredulity with the conduct of the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California.  The pass-rate for first-time takers of ABA accredited California law schools was 62%.  In comparison, New York’s bar-pass rate was 83%.  The California Bar is effectively saying that 38% of graduates from ABA accredited law schools are not qualified to practice law.  This is outrageous and constitutes unconscionable conduct on the part of a trade association that masquerades as a state agency.

Well . . . maybe.  There’s certainly an argument to be made that the California bar is too hard, although as far as I know Hastings wasn’t making it when 80% of their grads were passing it on the first try not long ago.  But this is a side issue.  Faigman’s primary concern, of course, is with the question of why the school’s bar passage rate has collapsed.

This is one of those questions that’s actually very easy to answer, but since the answer is economically unacceptable, more esoteric explanations must be jury-rigged one way or another:

[Faigman] wants Hastings professors to adjust their testing techniques so students can have more practice with the bar exam’s timed, closed-book format, and he suggested that additional midterm exams could provide students with valuable feedback.

“I think our basic obligation as a professional school is to ensure that our students and graduates are prepared to practice law, and that means training them to be great lawyers, which Hastings has been very good at historically, but also ensuring that they get through the entrance exam to be a lawyer,” Faigman said Tuesday. “As I’ve been very honest about and very clear about over the last few years, we as a faculty have not done as much in that regard.”

Again, this ignores the awkward fact that most law school exams are apparently similar enough to the bar exam to function as excellent proxies for it in regard to the risk of failure.  It also puts forth, or at least implies, the implausible theory that widespread and radical pedagogic changes at Hastings between 2007 and 2013 played a major role in the collapse of the bar passage rate of its grads between 2010 and 2016.

In fact the real explanation for that collapse is as plain as day: Hastings slashed its entrance requirements in the face of cratering application totals.  Here’s the median and 25th percentile LSAT score for the school’s entering classes (keep in mind that almost everyone takes the bar for the first time three years after they matriculate), along with the size of the 1L class in each year:

2007:  163/160   (401)

2008: 163/61     (426)

2009: 164/161   (469)

2010: 164/160   (383)

2011: 162/157    (414)

2012: 162/157   (317)

2013: 159/155   (333)

There’s a moderately strong correlation between LSAT scores and law school grades, and an extremely strong correlation between law school grades and bar passage rates, so . . .

BTW Hastings’ last three entering classes have pretty much the same credentials as the entering class of 2013 so I doubt that trying to get professors to change their teaching methods will lead to any changes in bar passage rates, but it will provide many opportunities for selective bureaucratic harassment, which is what could be called a silver lining from an administrative point of view.

Anyway, as bad has Hastings’ bar results were they were still better than those of seven other ABA California schools:

Western State: 42%

Southwestern: 38%

San Francisco: 36%

Golden Gate: 31%

Laverne:  31%

Thomas Jefferson: 31%

Whittier:  22%

Again these are all first-time taker rates.  (Second-time etc. takers have much lower rates naturally).

If the ABA actually adopts its proposed new standard requiring 75% of a school’s graduates who take the bar to pass it within two years of graduation (final approval could take place in February), the carnage is going to be something to behold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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