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A simple test

[ 186 ] April 12, 2016 |


Here’s a guide for politicians on how to handle ethnic humor in the United States of America in 2016:

Question: Is it OK to tell a joke making fun of some purported characteristic of an ethnic group, or other suspect classification, if you are not a member of the group in question?

Answer: No.

(I seem to remember that Polish jokes were a regular feature of Johnny Carson’s monologue in the 1970s. That was before liberal fascism though).


It’s not over till it’s over

[ 261 ] April 5, 2016 |


For someone who has the nomination supposedly locked up, Hillary Clinton is sure losing a lot of primaries (seven of the last eight counting Democrats Overseas). According to FiveThirtyEight Sanders needs to win about 58% of the remaining vote to catch Clinton in pledged delegates, which sounds extremely unlikely, but . . .

As for the Republicans, Trump losing by 17 points might well mean something, although it’s just one state, and a state where right-wing talk radio went all out against him. FWIW the Iowa electronic markets now have it as 44% Trump, 27% Cruz, and 28% the field. Stock up on the popcorn.

O when may it suffice?

[ 41 ] March 31, 2016 |


Here’s a little glimpse into how an elite law school’s (Columbia) core revenue has changed over the past 40 years.

Core revenue: Effective tuition — sticker minus discounts — + expendable endowment income + unrestricted annual giving.

(This of course isn’t all of a school’s revenue, as it excludes research grants, auxiliary income, for example revenue from student housing that’s above cost, rentals etc.)



Sticker tuition: $17,050 (2016$)

Effective tuition: $17.1 million (2016$)

Total students: 1,050

Endowment income: $7 million (2016$)

Annual giving: $1.5 million (2016$)

Total core revenue: $25.6 million (2016$)

Median US household income: $47,350 (2016$)


Sticker tuition: $32,720 (2016$)

Effective tuition: $40.5 million (2016$)

Total students: 1,350

Endowment income: $16.1 million (2016$)

Annual giving: $2.8 million (2016$)

Total core revenue: $59.4 million (2016$)

Median US household income: $52,730 (2016$)


Sticker tuition: $62,700

Effective tuition: $80.2 million

Total students: 1,460

Endowment income: $28.2 million

Annual giving: $5.9 million

Total core revenue: $114.3 million (2016$)

Median US household income: $53,347 (2014 figures)

Those of a statistically-minded bent can extrapolate out to when CLS’s bottom line is going to get to a billion. Just kidding. Maybe.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

[ 258 ] March 30, 2016 |


You would cry too if it happened to you.

By far the likeliest scenario for the outcome of the GOP delegate race is that Trump gets a plurality but not a majority. Right now I’d put the odds as being about 70% Trump plurality, 25% Trump majority, 5% everything else, including bad accidents, which let’s face it are far from unknown in situations in which extremely powerful political institutions see genuine disaster looming.

A lot of what’s left of the Republican party is trying to game out what to do on the basis of the assumption that Trump gets a plurality that’s not merely formal (in other words what happens if he’s a significant number of delegates short, so that flipping a couple or three dozen doesn’t get him over the line).

By this point I’m guessing that a lot of these people are in triage mode, and are assuming that, absent some unforeseen developments, the 2016 presidential race is pretty much a lost cause, and the goal should be to avoid too much down ballot carnage. As Scott points out, either a Trump or Cruz candidacy is likely to be disastrous for the GOP in terms of winning the presidency, and perhaps in terms of other races.

Thus the fact that the only even vaguely democratic alternative to nominating a plurality-winning Trump is Cruz complicates things. Cruz, like Trump, is an almost-certain loser in the general, so why go through the trouble of denying Trump the nomination to pick a horrible candidate that everybody in the establishment hates with a white-hot passion? The answer I suppose is that there’s a good argument a Cruz candidacy would do less down ballot damage, and especially less long-term damage with Hispanic voters. But is that enough of an incentive to arm-wrestle the nomination away from Trump? I doubt it.

The third alternative is to pick somebody who basically didn’t win any votes, either because nobody voted for him or her, or because the white knight wasn’t a candidate at all. I just can’t see this happening. Yeah back in the 19th century some candidates who had a plurality of delegates going into the convention didn’t win the nomination, which ended up going to somebody coming out of right field. That’s about as relevant as as arguing that Zach Greinke should throw 60 complete games this season because Old Hoss Radbourn did it back in the day. A choice that ends up simply ignoring the entire primary process would probably do more down ballot damage than choosing either Trump or Cruz.

A fourth alternative is to let Trump get the nomination and then run an alternative third-party candidate. I think this is a little more likely than a white knight, but not much. It takes a lot of organizational energy to even put something like this together, and I question whether that will be available after the powers that were have finished slamming Jack Daniels and Xanex while watching Patton on repeat loop. (BTW what are the odds that Trump is consciously or unconsciously modeling his schtick on George C. Scott’s speech to the troops? Scott even looks like Mussolini).

TL;DR: It’s going to be Trump, and it’s going to be a full-on disaster for the GOP.

No billionaire left behind

[ 109 ] March 28, 2016 |

koch brothers

This piece is a little too reductive for my taste, but the author makes some good points:

The modern Republican Party has devolved into a tax avoidance scam for rich people. The scam is a masterpiece of psychological manipulation, in which the racial, cultural and economic anxieties of (mostly white) voters are exploited, in order to get those voters to support policies that transfer ever-greater percentages of wealth from themselves to the top 0.1 percent.

It really isn’t any more complicated than that. Everything else – the “culture wars,” the continual hysteria about terrorism, the non-stop rhetoric about how the mainstream media, the universities, the scientists, and basically the rest of the modern world are all biased against conservatives – it’s all just so much noise, designed to solve the tricky problem of how to get ordinary people to support economic policies that make them poorer and rich people richer. . .

Besides lying about the estate tax’s actual effects, Republicans rely on two other widespread fallacies to convince people who will never pay any estate taxes that they ought to favor lessening the tax “burden” on idle trust funders, living off piles of inherited wealth.

One is captured by the statement, attributed to John Steinbeck, that in America “the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In other words, optimism bias leads people to wildly overestimate the odds that someday they, too, will be in a position to bequeath vast sums to their families.

The other fallacy is even more basic and pernicious: contemporary Republican ideology is built around the idea – rarely stated outright, but implied by so many GOP policies– that taxes in general are simply immoral, and indeed a form of theft. The estate tax is wrong, according to this line of reasoning, because it’s wrong to “penalize” people for being rich, even if they got rich by inheriting somebody else’s money.

This preposterous notion is at the very core of the modern Republican Party, and its centrality is a prime example of how the GOP has become nothing more than a cleverly disguised grifting operation, run for the benefit of the rich.

The age of innocence

[ 219 ] March 26, 2016 |


Here is this week’s top reader comment, as chosen by New York Times’ readers and journalists:

As someone who was in Tower 2 in the 9/11 attacks, I know all too well what it feels like to live in a city under siege, always fearing the next attack.

I am saddened that we are in a world that creates people who see no alternative for their lives than to die violently, taking as many innocent people with them as their crude homemade devices will allow.

What we all are losing in this battle is our ability to live our lives devoid of fear. There is a lot to be said for being able to go to a park or a concert or the subway and not worry about the potential for violence and bloodshed.

I miss the innocence of a pre-9/11 world where that was the norm. My heart of course goes out to the victims of this latest attack. I hope we find our way through this violence someday, but I see no immediate answers or a clear path back to those innocent days.

lgt525 in Ann Arbor, Mich., reacting to the terrorist bombings in Brussels on Tuesday.

If you live in Ann Arbor — as opposed to say, the general vicinity of Baghdad — fear of terrorism is almost completely irrational, although I suppose one should make allowances for someone who was at the WTC on 9/11.

It’s well known that driving from Ann Arbor to Chicago is 10,000 (or whatever) times more dangerous than the dangers posed to Americans or Europeans by ISIS. This statistical truth seems to have little effect on peoples’ psychology. As for “innocence,” 9/11 took place a few months after the end of a century that featured mass slaughter of both combatants and civilians on an unprecedented scale, so it’s not as if lgt525 has to think back to the 30 Years War to find historical examples of a less innocent time than the present.

Fear of terrorism is created by terrorists, of course, but their efforts would be fruitless if not for the continual cooperation of the mass media, most especially including elite media such as the Times, whose editors ought to know better than to amplify social panics that they themselves help create.

But fear sells, and that’s the only thing that counts (any more, or is that just more ahistorical nostalgia for an age of a more responsible press?).

Torture has now been normalized into a “policy” question

[ 184 ] March 22, 2016 |

abu ghraib

Ladies and gentlemen, your elite media at work:

A particularly nauseating example of the media’s approach to such matters could be seen in a pair of interviews that NBC’s “Today” did with presidential frontrunners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In particular, both interviews contained such irresponsible and morally bankrupt conversations about torture that you wanted to throw something at the television.

Trump was, of course, despicable, offering not even a single word of condolence to the victims of the attack. But what was worse was the questions Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie put to him. Challenging they were not. All of the “Today” show’s queries were framed so as to get Trump to illuminate just how far he would go in his efforts to combat such attacks, rather than grilling him whether that approach was either right or proper.

In a particularly disgusting back-and-forth, both anchors quizzed Trump on whether or not he would torture Salah Abdeslam, the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks who was captured by Belgian authorities a few days ago.

“What would you say would be appropriate in terms of what they can do to him at this moment to get any information that they can about possible further attacks?” Lauer asked. “When you say do whatever they have to do, can you be specific?” Guthrie followed up. She then bluntly asked him if he thought that torture worked. Trump, unsurprisingly, said that he did.

Nowhere in this conversation was there any suggestion that torture is an obscenity, that the very fact that two of the most high-profile journalists in the United States were speaking so casually with the likely Republican presidential nominee about torture on national television was symbolic of America’s moral degradation. The closest Guthrie got to any of this was when she said that “some people think that kind of harsh interrogation technique works…and others say that it doesn’t work.” What a brave stance.

The show also spoke to Hillary Clinton by phone later in the morning. Clinton had declined to come on, but Trump’s willingness to phone in must have made her reconsider. Lauer and Guthrie were no better in their approach to her. Every single question came from a hawkish angle.

“Could something like this happen here?” Guthrie asked. “Is this something that people should fear?” Lauer then had this doozy of a question about torture and surveillance:

“It seems, Secretary Clinton, that information is so vital when it comes to combatting terrorism, and that is why perhaps—perhaps—you hear some people say when you get a key suspect like the one who was taken into custody in Brussels last Friday, maybe you should use some enhanced techniques to get information out of that person. It also may be why, if you look at this country in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings that you just brought up, a lot of people say, ‘wait a minute, Apple, you’ve got to unlock that phone that was left behind by one of the shooters because it’s crucial that we get that information.’ Is that simply just a logical step that people take after events like this, and do you agree with it?

It would be difficult to find a better example of a question that was at once so objectionable and so fact-free. Clinton—whose speech before AIPAC on Monday was a timely reminder of just how unrelenting she can be in her bellicosity—declined the chance to give a ringing condemnation of torture, saying merely that it wasn’t one of the “tools” that law enforcement should be using because it wasn’t effective. She also chided Europe for not being as hawkish in its security response to terrorism as she had wanted it to be. “They were reluctant to impose the kind of strict standards [the United States was] looking for,” she said.

Thank you George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And let’s not forget your running dogs: Jay Bybee (rewarded with a federal appellate judgeship for his work), John Yoo (who Berkeley gave an honorary chair in 2014), Alan Dershowitz, and many, many others.

The estate tax, the GOP, and the new gilded age

[ 145 ] March 22, 2016 |

gilded age

A March 15 letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R – Kentucky) from the Family Business Coalition, and signed by more than 100 organizations and business groups in the United States, has called for the US Senate to take action to repeal the estate tax.

The letter noted that the House of Representatives voted in April last year to repeal the tax, and that Senator John Thune’s (R – South Dakota) mirror legislation to the House-passed bill “has already amassed support from the majority of the Republican caucus.” . . .

The burden that the estate tax places on family businesses and farms was the subject of much discussion in the House, and the Coalition’s letter emphasized that the tax is “unfair” and its negative effects “make permanent repeal the only solution.”

“It makes no sense to require grieving families to pay a confiscatory tax on their loved one’s lifetime savings,” the Coalition added. “Often this tax is paid by selling family assets like farms and businesses. Other times, employees of the family business must be laid off and payrolls slashed.”

It pointed out that the death tax “currently accounts for less than one percent of federal revenue, … [and its repeal] would spur job creation and grow the economy. There is a good argument that not collecting the estate tax would create more economic growth and lead to an increase in federal revenue from other taxes.”

“In addition,” the letter continued, “the estate tax forces family businesses to waste money on expensive insurance policies and estate planning. These burdensome compliance costs make it even harder for business owners to expand their businesses and create more jobs.”

This is an almost Platonic encapsulation of Republican donor class propaganda, or less politely, politically-motivated lying.

The current federal estate tax is the most progressive tax out there: Only the estates of very rich people will ever pay anything under it. The individual exemption under the tax is $5.45 million, and the survivor in a marriage gets all of her or his spouse’s exemption, meaning that the couple’s exemption is $10.9 million. This in turn means that around 499 out of 500 Americans aren’t going to pay any estate taxes at all under the current law.

But decades of Republican lies about mythical family farms and small businesses having to dig around in the couch cushions to pay mean old Uncle Sam have had their effect: a Gallup poll finds that 54% of Americans favor Cruz’s and Trump’s proposals to eliminate the estate tax altogether, and only 19% oppose it (the only encouraging thing about these numbers is that 26% of those polled said they didn’t know enough about the issue to have an opinion on it).

The argument for eliminating the current estate tax consists of weapons-grade plutocratic ideology: Since only extremely rich people pay it, it will generate “only” $246 billion in revenue over the next decade (imagine arguing that a social welfare program was going to cost only $246 billion). And since that $246 billion will come at the cost of forcing extremely rich people to pass on less of their wealth to what trusts and estates lawyers call “the objects of their bounty” that’s a cost we cannot as a society force these people to pay in good conscience, because [step in argument missing].*

*I’m honestly puzzled about what’s supposed to go in these brackets. That taxes on people who inherit vast sums of wealth are immoral by definition? Any other possible candidates?

Working-class White is the New Black

[ 152 ] March 18, 2016 |


When DJW and Shakezula wrote about Kevin Williamson’s insights regarding the moral degeneracy of the white working class, most of those insights had not yet immigrated over the National Review’s pay wall. Now NR has granted the whole piece a cyber-green card, and . . . mangoes:

Williamson’s thesis is not exactly novel. Indeed, it’s part of a series of conservative screeds that could be called “Working-Class White is the New Black.” The problem with “those people,” you see, isn’t that their jobs, their communities, and their whole way of life have been destroyed by global capitalism. It isn’t that being thrust to the margins or the heart of poverty tends to create stresses that break apart families. It isn’t that economic calamity leads to substance abuse as an eminently predictable form of self-medication.

After all, these sorts of structural explanations for social breakdown are only supported by social science, which, like reality itself, is known to have a strong left-wing bias. Williamson and company’s right-wing critique, by contrast, is supported by the very interesting theory that roughly two-thirds of America’s white population suddenly developed poor moral characters, around the time that “The Brady Bunch” went into syndication.

Ah yes, “The Brady Bunch.” Behold conservative cultural studies, as brought to you by the National Review:

The manufacturing numbers — and the entire gloriously complex tale of globalization — go in fits and starts: a little improvement here, a little improvement there, and a radically better world in raw material terms (and let’s not sniff at those) every couple of decades. Go back and read the novels of the 1980s or watch “The Brady Bunch” and ask yourself why well-to-do suburban families living in large, comfortable homes and holding down prestigious jobs were worried about the price of butter and meat, and then ask yourself when was the last time you heard someone complain that he couldn’t afford a stick of butter.

OK I asked myself, and the answer is: last week. Does Williamson actually know any middle-class — let alone working-class or poor — Americans? The average income of the other half, the bottom 50% of American households (that’s 160 million people) is $26,520 per year. That’s barely more than $2,000 per month, before subtracting payroll and state taxes. If your entire household is living on $2,000 per month, you can bet you’re worried about the price of butter and meat.

Ted Cruz is trying his level best to make Donald Trump seem like a better choice

[ 141 ] March 17, 2016 |

gaffney cruz

I’ve argued that Trump’s willingness to pump racist rhetoric and nativist xenophobia to 11, along with his open affection for authoritarian strongmen who murder protesters and unfriendly journalists, pose a fundamental threat to the American political system in a way that makes even Barry Goldwater On Steriods With the Libertarian Streak Replaced by Cult-like Fringe Evangelical Fanaticism (BGOSWTLSRBCFEF for short) seem like the lesser of two very evil evils.

Presenting Ted Cruz’s new foreign policy team:

The first name on the list? Frank “Obama is a Muslim” Gaffney, Bloomberg reports. Gaffney is the Joe McCarthy of Islamophobia. His think tank, the Center for Security Policy, is dedicated to raising awareness about the jihadist infiltration of the American government. For Gaffney, Barack Hussein Obama is but the tip of the iceberg — in truth, the Muslim Brotherhood has placed operatives throughout the federal government. Among their top agents: Clinton adviser Huma Abedin and anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist. In conservative circles, it’s one thing to accuse liberals with foreign-sounding names of “stealth jihad.” It’s quite another to say the same of a white male libertarian who has devoted his life to the noble cause of widening the income gap. After Gaffney wrote a full book on Norquist’s alleged sharia schemes, he was banned from the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference. (The strongest verifiable evidence of Norquist’s jihadist sympathies appears to be that his wife is a Muslim-American).

Here are some other things that Gaffney believes:

1. Saddam Hussein was behind the Oklahoma City bombing.

2. Obama incorporated the Islamic crescent into the logo of a new missile-defense group.

3. By appointing a Muslim-American to New Jersey’s state judiciary, Chris Christie may be complicit in treason.

Gaffney isn’t merely a disseminator of conspiracy theories; he’s also a disseminator of methodologically flawed studies, including a poll that Donald Trump has used to justify his Muslim ban.

Cruz’s other advisers are nearly as alarming. His list includes three other employees of Gaffney’s think tank, along with former assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy, author of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America; Iran-Contra schemer Elliott Abrams; and Michael Ledeen, a former Reagan official who once said, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

You couldn’t do worse than that if you tried (that’s not meant as a challenge, Donald).

Does this portrait remind you of anyone?

[ 72 ] March 16, 2016 |


Because it had nothing to do with business

[ 215 ] March 16, 2016 |


Thoughts on the Garland pick:

Obama’s decision to nominate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court is what in technical legal terms is known as a gangster move. It puts Senate Republicans in a basically impossible position – as if the 24 GOP senators up for re-election this November didn’t already have enough problems, what with the ticket almost certain to be headed by a full-fledged disaster of a presidential candidate. (It’s actually hard to say whether Donald Trump or Ted Cruz is less electable, but either of them is basically a worst-case scenario for down ticket GOP candidates.) . . .

Confirming Garland before next year, however, is almost out of the question. Such an act would throw the GOP base, already in the throes of the belief that they have been “betrayed” by RINO squishes, into a rabid frenzy that would make the average Trump rally look like graduate school seminar.

So Garland almost certainly won’t get a vote, or at least not until next year. But that decision in turn has a non-trivial chance of playing a role in flipping the Senate back to the Democrats. Indeed, the only scenario in which a vote on Scalia’s now-vacant seat is likely to happen this year is this one: October rolls around, and it has become all too clear to Senate Republicans that Donald Trump or Ted Cruz is going down in flames, and that he will be taking a whole bunch of GOP senators with him. Only then, perhaps, may they decide that Obama has made them an offer they can’t refuse.

By then, however, they may well find that today’s offer has been withdrawn. In any case, no matter what happens, Obama will expect them not to take it personally. After all, it’s just business.

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