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Cultural knowledge and personal responsibility

[ 150 ] January 9, 2013 |

Somebody — I think it may have been the most overrated philosopher of all time, J.S. Mill — said that truth goes through three stages. First it’s mocked as absurd. Then it’s declared to be against religion. Finally, it’s said to be what everyone has believed all along.

I think we’re getting to stage three in regard to the proposition that law school has turned out to be somewhere between a very risky proposition and a flat-out ripoff for the vast majority of people who are attending today, and who have graduated in recent years.

This statement, which as little as three years ago would have been treated as either “crazy” or at the least a gross exaggeration by almost everybody in legal academia, is rapidly heading toward the status of conventional wisdom. One sign of this is that a National Jurist poll of the most influential people in legal academia, which was conducted by surveying a group made up in large part of law school deans, has selected Brian Tamanaha as #1 on this list, with Bill Henderson as the first runner-up, should Brian for any reason not be able to fulfill his duties at some point during his reign. (Modesty forbids me from pointing out that I won Mr. Congeniality).

Think about that: law school deans — probably the single most status-quo regarding group within legal academia — selected somebody who wrote a book arguing that the current model of legal education in America simply doesn’t work any more, and is in need of radical reform, as the most influential person in the business.

In other words, the conventional wisdom about law school, both within higher education and in the culture at large, has been changing with lightening speed. This is important to remember when people start reflexively victim-blaming recent grads and even current law students for not being more reasonably prudent rational maximizers of their own utility when they signed up for this thing of ours.

Consider, for example, the class that will be graduating this spring. The class of 2013 applied to law school in the fall of 2009, which means that it is mostly made up of people who got serious about going to law school no later than 2008 or so, if not much earlier (it takes most people awhile to study for the LSAT, pull together letters of recommendation, etc.).

Think about what information was available to prospective law students five years ago about immediate outcomes for law graduates, let alone the long term career trajectories of aspiring lawyers. Compared to today, there were almost no warnings about the fact that, because of the rising cost of law degrees and long-term trends in the market for attorneys, the net present value of a legal education had been declining for at least two decades, and was likely to continue to do so. Bill Henderson made his very first public observations about the bimodal salary distribution around this time. (This Tamanaha post at Balkinization, which is barely two and a half years old, indicates implicitly how little these trends had been recognized outside the still very underground world of scamblogging).

All of which is to say the extent to which responsibility for acting on what has suddenly become the “obvious” truth that law school is a high risk enterprise can be imputed to law graduates and even current law students is very limited. Indeed the cultural lag time involved pushes me, at least, toward the conclusion that only people who enrolled in law school this year can be reasonably held responsible for having some realistic sense of what they are getting themselves into.

Back to basics

[ 210 ] January 4, 2013 |

Since there seems to be some interest in it, I’d like to clarify a few things about what exactly my position is on various weight and health-related matters.

(1) Obesity does correlate with some increased health risks, and to a largely unknown extent, has a causal role in some of those increased risks. However:

(a) The extent of the correlations is greatly exaggerated.

(b) The extent to which the correlations are causal is also greatly exaggerated, since the baseline assumption tends to be that correlation simply equals causation in this context.

(c) Obesity does not appear to even correlate with increased mortality risk until weight levels that are higher than those of most people in America defined as obese.

(2) Overweight (BMI 25-29.9) does not correlate with increased overall health risk in any meaningful way, and correlates with lower mortality risk than so-called “normal” weight. Most people who are categorized as weighing too much by public health authorities are in the overweight category.

(3) Obesity also correlates with decreased health risk in certain contexts. For example, among people who have cardiovascular disease (the single biggest cause of death in America) “obese” people have better survival rates than non-obese people. This is the so-called “obesity paradox,” which is only a paradox if you take it as axiomatic that obesity is unambiguously a bad thing from a health perspective.

(4) Individual attempts to achieve significant long-term weight loss fail in the the overwhelming majority of cases. Public health interventions designed to produce weight loss fail uniformly. Dieting doesn’t work; furthermore the difference between “dieting” and eating disordered behavior is merely one of degree. Eating disorders are common consequences of dieting.

(5) It is not known if significant long-term weight loss is beneficial to health. Attempts to answer this question have been stymied by (4).

(6) Being moderately physically active appears to eliminate most or all of what increased health risk is observed among “obese” people.

(7) The Health at Every Size movement advocates healthy lifestyles for people of all sizes, including children of all sizes. I strongly support such advocacy. Examples of the HAES approach to these issues, broadly speaking, can be found here, here, here, and here, among many other places.

(8) The official government definition of a a “normal healthy weight” of BMI 18.5 to 24.9, besides being without any scientific foundation, is inherently stigmatizing to people who are not “normal” or “healthy” in these misused senses of the words normal and healthy. (This BMI range isn’t statistically normal, nor does it correlate with the lowest health risk). Stigmatization is, among other things, bad for peoples’ health.

(9) This issue is strongly gendered. Weight oppression is, among other things, a form of sexism, as body surveillance is far more intense toward the bodies of women and girls than toward those of men and boys.

(10) Telling fat people, and especially fat children, that it’s bad to be fat, and that they wouldn’t be fat if they had healthy lifestyles, is both false and destructive.

Does Let’s Move stigmatize fat children?

[ 330 ] January 4, 2013 |

Michelle Malia Sasha

Lindsey Beyerstein writes:

If I recall correctly, Paul was very critical of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program for supposedly being fat stigmatizing. Which is odd because “Let’s Move” is about the warmest fuzziest, least fat-shaming initiative in public health history. It’s all about how great it is for everyone to run and play and add eat veggies.

Yes it is about that. But what it’s mainly about are the following claims, which have been front and center of the campaign from Day One:

(1) There are way too many fat kids in America — so many that it’s a full-blown social crisis.

(2) Being a fat kid is bad, because you are going to have lots of health problems and probably die several years earlier than thin kids.

(3) If we get kids to run and play and eat more veggies then we can reduce the percentage of fat kids in America by two thirds, back to the levels of fatness observed among children in America in the 1970s. This will save enormous sums of money in health care costs, because thin kids will end up costing much less to society than fat kids.

From the Let’s Move web site:

Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation

Let’s Move! is a comprehensive initiative, launched by the First Lady, dedicated to solving the problem of obesity within a generation so that kids born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.

As part of this effort, President Barack Obama established the first-ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity to develop and implement an inter-agency plan that details a coordinated strategy, identifies key benchmarks, and outlines an action plan to end the problem of childhood obesity within a generation. The goal of the action plan is to reduce the childhood obesity rate to just five percent by 2030 – the same rate before childhood obesity first began to rise in the late 1970s.

What inspired the First Lady to pursue this goal? It turns out the personal really is political:

WASHINGTON — Her daughters were 6 and 9, and Michelle Obama was like any other working mom — struggling to juggle office hours, school pick-ups and mealtimes. By the end of the day, she was often too tired to make dinner, so she did what was easy: She ordered takeout or went to the drive-through.

She thought the girls were eating reasonably well — until her pediatrician in Chicago told her he didn’t like the weight fluctuations he was seeing.

I was shocked because my kids looked perfectly fine to me,” Obama says. “But I had a wake-up call.” Like many parents, however, “I didn’t know what to do.”

Today, the self-described “mom in chief” is launching Let’s Move, a campaign to help other parents deal with a national health crisis she describes in epic terms.

The goal: to eliminate childhood obesity in a generation.

“It’s an ambitious goal, but we don’t have time to wait,” the first lady said in an interview with USA TODAY in her spacious office in the East Wing of the White House. “We’ve got to stop citing statistics and wringing our hands and feeling guilty, and get going on this issue.”

She says she intends to “sound the alarm” about the epidemic.

Once upon a time — a time known as the 1970s — America wasn’t like this. Again, the Let’s Move web site:

Thirty years ago, most people led lives that kept them at a healthy weight. Kids walked to and from school every day, ran around at recess, participated in gym class, and played for hours after school before dinner. Meals were home-cooked with reasonable portion sizes and there was always a vegetable on the plate. Eating fast food was rare and snacking between meals was an occasional treat.

Now call me paranoid, but some people might find just a hint of a fairly reactionary social agenda lurking amid that idyllic picture of the way we were. (It should be unnecessary to add that there’s practically no evidence for this portrait of a bygone age. We don’t actually know if kids or for that matter adults are less physically active than they were a generation ago, or if they consume more calories).

In all seriousness, note how this is being framed: It’s Mom’s job to solve this “crisis,” by making sure the kids have a magically obesity-repelling home cooked meal every night. (It would also help if there were somebody home to make sure the kids are safe when they bike or walk home from school, and that they don’t spend all afternoon with the X-Box).

Let’s Move is about creating an America with as few fat kids in it as possible — with “fat” here being defined in such a way as to put kids like Malia and Sasha Obama in a problematic weight category. (BTW the reason that five percent of American kids were “obese” in the 1970s is that the definition of childhood obesity invented ten years ago by a CDC task force simply took the 95th percentile of childhood BMI in the 1970s as the cut point for their definition of childhood obesity. Science in action!).

The campaign is defined by its very name as a campaign against fat kids. Its description of the “crisis,” and its explicit goals in terms of measuring effectiveness and ultimate success in the fight against that supposed crisis, are defined exclusively in terms of creating an America with as few fat kids as possible. And it does so within the context of a not so latent reactionary social frame, in which the problem is in significant part that Mom works outside the home and isn’t “there” for her kids to whip up a delicious and nutritious home-cooked meal that would win Alice Waters’ seal of approval.

How this isn’t supposed to be stigmatizing of fat children is beyond me. How it reflects anything that could be described as a progressive social agenda is if anything even more mysterious.

The obesity myth revisited

[ 167 ] January 3, 2013 |


I have an op-ed on the new JAMA meta-analysis which concludes that a BMI between 25 and 35 correlates with a lower mortality risk than that observed among so-called normal weight people. (In America, the former group includes nearly 80% of everyone who public health authorities claim weigh too much).

I’m not under the illusion that a three-million person study authored by five distinguished senior scientists and published in the nation’s leading medical journal is going to actually cause anyone in a position of authority to reconsider anything — for reasons that I allude to in the piece, the actual data still have almost no effect on public policy in this area.

Still, it’s an encouraging sign that the obesity racket continues to be exposed as a product of an invidious combination of cultural obsession, and the economic interests that obsession generates.

A brief note on hazard ratios: Something that ought to tip off the skeptically-minded about the degree to which the focus on weight has nothing to do with mortality risk per se is just how minor the correlations observed in this area are. For example, it’s true that the fattest people in this study — those with a BMI of 35 and above — had a 29% higher mortality risk than the “normal weight” (sic) reference group. But what people tend not to take into account about these sorts of statistics is that, for most demographic groups, baseline mortality rates are extremely low, which means a few extra deaths will produce an impressive-sounding spike in relative risk.

For example, if you compare the risk that a 50-year-old man will die within the next five years to that of a 50-year-old woman, you’ll find that the man’s mortality risk is 71% higher. That sounds pretty bad, especially if you happen to be a 50-year-old man, but what this actually means is that the man has a 2.51% chance of dying over that five-year span, rather than a 1.47% chance. And note that this hazard ratio is nearly two and half times higher than that found among the very fattest people. So among the middle-aged, gender correlates far more powerfully with mortality risk than even the highest levels of “obesity.” (No word yet on what the government plans to do about the masculinity epidemic).

And of course we shouldn’t lose sight of the even more significant fact that we’re talking about correlations in observational studies, rather than any clinical demonstration of real causality. But when you can’t even demonstrate a correlation in the data for your thesis, you should probably reconsider it.

Barry Alvarez pays himself $118,000 for three weeks of temp work

[ 59 ] January 1, 2013 |


Barry Alvarez probably isn’t hurting for cash, seeing as he gets paid a cool million per year to be the University of Wisconsin’s athletic director, which doesn’t actually sound like that demanding of a job, but whatever.

In the first week of December UW’s football coach Bret Bielema signed a contract to coach Arkansas next year, and it was decided that he shouldn’t coach the Badgers in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. So the team needed an interim head coach for the game. The normal procedure in this situation is to name one of the assistant coaches to take over the top job for the team’s bowl game, but Alvarez, who had been UW’s football coach for many years before ascending/retiring into the AD position back in 2006, decided he’d coach the team instead.

As a reward for taking on these extra duties (which consisted of overseeing ten days of practice and coming up with a game plan, which turned out to feature running a total of three different offensive plays and punting a lot) he also decided he should be paid $118,000 on top of his regular salary. In addition, he also decided he should get a $50,000 if the team won.

They didn’t.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere about the Market and Meritocracy and how much money ends up being available for rewarding management when you don’t actually have to pay your labor force . . .

New Year’s Eve & the Aesthetics of Trying Too Hard

[ 148 ] December 31, 2012 |

New Year’s Eve is the most overrated of holidays. Nothing squelches a potential good time faster than the sense that one is obligated to have a good time, which is what New Year’s Eve feels like. This is an example of a more general phenomenon, which could be called Trying Too Hard, or TTH.

TTH can be fatal to the success of many otherwise worthwhile projects, and although I don’t have the inclination at the moment to develop a general theory of TTH, I’d like to throw out a few illustrative examples:

Finnegans Wake

Born To Run (song, not the album)



The Super Bowl

Compare Eric Clapton’s version of Little Wing to Jimi Hendrix’s.


Ask the experts

[ 89 ] December 27, 2012 |

Which NFL team had the worst draft last spring? The consensus among draft experts was: the Seattle Seahawks.

I’ve only seen the Seahawks a couple of times this year, but a friend breaks it down like this:

Seahawks 2012 draft:

-1/15: Bruce Irvin (DE, WVU)
-2/47: Bobby Wagner (LB, Utah State)
-3/75: Russell Wilson (QB, Wisco)
-4/106: Robert Turbin (RB, Utah State)
-4/114: Jaye Howard (DT Florida)
-5/154: Korey Toomer (LB, Idaho)
-6/172: Jeremy Lane (CB, Northwestern State)
-6/181: Winston Guy (S, Kentucky)
-7/225: J. R. Sweezy (DE, NC State)
-7/232: Greg Scruggs (DE, Louisville)

Outcomes of the guys who have played:

-Bruce Irvin: 2nd on the team with 8 sacks. Limited to being a rush end only, but pretty solid at that for a rookie.

-Bobby Wagner: Star starting MLB: 3 INT, 80 tackles, 2 sacks.

-Russell Wilson: Star starting QB as a rookie. 2868 pss yds, 63%, 7.7 YPA, 25 TD/10 INT; 431 rsh yds/3 TDs.

-Robert Turbin: Second string tailback. 78 rsh att, 359 rsh yds (4.6 YPC); 18 rec, 169 rec yds.

-Jeremy Lane: 2nd string LCB; 2 starts, 9 tackles.

-Greg Scruggs: 2nd string DE. 9 games, 2 sacks, 5 tackles.


-ESPN (Kiper): Value: D-, Overall: C-, lowest rated draft.

-Sportingnews (Iyer): D, lowest rated draft (“They went for head-scratchers when more reliable prospects were on the board.”)

-Yahoo!Sports (Cole): D- (“You don’t spend a third-round pick on a guy who’ll be lucky to be Seneca Wallace.”)

-SBNation (Thorman): C, 6th worst draft

-CBSSports (Prisco): C+

-SBNation (Van Bibber): B

-Sports Illustrated: C

-Fox Sports: B (“Their entire draft was one shocker after another”) C+

-Rotoworld (Silva): B-

-Tampa Tribune (Ira Kauffman): D, lowest rated draft.

-USAToday (Davis): 26th best of 32 drafts

My favorite quote is the Yahoo scribe’s take on Russell Wilson, which could be translated “I don’t actually watch college football, so I’ll randomly compare this player to another black guy who played QB for Seattle.”

Russell Wilson’s passing stats in college:

11,720 yards, 109 TDs, 30 INTs, 7.9 YPA, 8.4 AYA

Seneca Wallace’s passing stats in college:

5,289 yards, 26 TDs, 27 INTs, 7.4 YPA, 6.5 AYA

Next you’ll be telling me the widow of that Nigerian general isn’t really going to wire me two million dollars

[ 24 ] December 27, 2012 |

Here’s a nifty variation on the law school scam, parasitical internet predator division: provides the following services to its clients:

How The Process Works

I. Fill out the application.

II. Submit payment [$89. An $110 savings from the regular price of $199]

III. A career counselor will contact you via email to discuss career opportunities.

IV. We begin searching and applying for jobs on your behalf through a real-time database of hiring firms, as well as relationships with law firms and legal recruiters.

V. You will be contacted directly by those firms that are interested in you.

Don’t bother to contact the site to try to figure out where, if anywhere, your resume has been submitted though, because:

Since we work with outside recruiters, they do not provide us the name of the Firms
that are considering our candidates for employment. We inform the Firms who we are and that they may receive duplicate resumes directly from our clients. We’ve found that in those rare instances where we duplicate our efforts with our clients, it can’t hurt for a potential employer to see your resume twice.

So doesn’t even purport to contact any employers! It merely claims to send your resume along to “outside recruiters,” whoever those might be.

Of course all of this is immaterial, since the chances of anyone ever getting any legal job via second-hand resume spamming can be safely calculated as zero.

My favorite detail in all this is that the image used on the web site is the first image that’s pulled up if you Google “stock legal image.” Way to go the extra mile guys.

h/t JDU.

Things on the internet

[ 82 ] December 26, 2012 |

[Edit: Potentially disturbing photo moved below the fold out of deference to the delicate sensibilities of the LGM readership. Note the effect is, to quote Woolsey, J., more likely to be an emetic than an aphrodisiac, NTTAWWT]

(1) I’m tempted to ask SEK for a semiotic analysis of this: Read more…

Forced gift giving, employee edition

[ 48 ] December 21, 2012 |


The law school that employs me as a tenure-track faculty member has what I hope is a fairly unusual practice: Each year faculty members — I’m unclear whether this includes the non-tenure-track faculty, who are full-time employees but paid quite a bit less than the tenure-track people — are asked to contribute to a holiday gift for the law school’s staff. I understand the ratio of faculty to staff has become roughly 1:1 (this helps explain skyrocketing tuition among other things) so in effect it’s as if each faculty member is buying a holiday gift for a staff member.

Of course this ends up turning into pretty much a straight cash transfer, in the form of a “Christmas bonus” from the faculty to the staff.

I find this practice distasteful, since:

(a) The faculty are employees not employers. If the powers that be want to take some of the money currently being paid to the faculty and pay it to the staff in the form of higher salaries this should be done directly, not through informal social pressure.

(b) The whole thing has an unpleasant and rather absurd air of noblesse oblige, especially since every year the faculty ends up getting a bunch of cap-doffing thank you emails from the staff, which staff members no doubt feel pressured to send because the social dynamics of the situation.

I suspect a bunch of other people on both sides of this awkward transaction feel the same way, but nobody wants to be that guy (or gal) who says so.

Scalia, law school etc

[ 24 ] December 20, 2012 |

What if Napoleon had had a B-17 at the battle of Waterloo? What if Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia had been on the Supreme Court at the same time for the last 25 years?

I’ll be discussing the future of law school(s) here between 1 and 1:30 eastern today.

Crime scene

[ 41 ] December 19, 2012 |

Knoxville police announced this afternoon that a badly beaten rhetorical device, believed to be that of Irony, was found in a dumpster behind the University of Tennessee Law School. Police Commissioner Eric Blair described the scene as “one of the worst cases of its kind I’ve ever seen,” and promised that “heads would roll” once the responsible parties were identified.

Members of the public with any relevant information are encouraged to call a special tip line set up by authorities.