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A new standard

[ 83 ] June 25, 2013 |

Over the past quarter century I’ve read a lot of SCOTUS opinions as a matter of professional obligation. The majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder is the worst SCOTUS opinion I’ve ever read, considered simply as an exercise in formal legal argument. And I’ve read Bush v. Gore.

Enjoy your all expenses paid by soon to be unemployed law students Prague vacation (and the $15,000 bonus check that goes with it) C.J. Roberts. You’ve earned it.

Update: I’ll have a piece on this tomorrow morning in Salon.

The Legend of John Sexton

[ 30 ] June 22, 2013 |

This morning’s New York Times features Marty Lipton taking umbrage at the idea that anyone would raise questions about why NYU is lavishing seven-figure annual compensation packages on the Great and the Good in its midst:

Luring the Best to N.Y.U.

June 20, 2013

To the Editor:

Re “N.Y.U. Gives Its Stars Loans for Summer Homes” (front page, June 18):

The board and the leadership team of New York University have led a sustained and successful effort to transform N.Y.U. from a regional university into a world-class residential research university. This has been done by recruiting, retaining and building a community of outstanding scholars, as well as experienced, innovative leadership. It is one of the great success stories in the history of modern higher education.

None of this happened by accident, and none of it happened in a vacuum; other top universities actively compete against us to recruit the same top faculty and academic leaders. N.Y.U.’s loan programs have been, are and will remain a legitimate, appropriate and successful part of attracting, retaining and compensating top scholars and innovative academic leaders.

The board remains wholly committed to continuing the mission of sustaining the academic momentum that has brought N.Y.U. so far. We are wholly confident in N.Y.U.’s president, John Sexton, whose own innovative leadership has done so much at the law school and the university to maintain the university’s upward trajectory.

Chairman, N.Y.U. Board of Trustees
New York, June 20, 2013

Lipton, who is a founding partner of the world’s most profitable large law firm, is here repeating John Sexton’s carefully crafted narrative that Sexton has been a “transformative” figure at NYU, first at the law school, where he was Dean between 1988 and 2002, and as NYU’s president, the post he’s held for the last 11 years. But has Sexton actually “maintained an upward trajectory” for NYU’s institutional reputation?

In the law school world, it’s a constantly repeated platitude that Sexton, more than any other dean, successfully gamed the US News rankings system, in part through a relentless publicity campaign, which among other things invented the loathsome genre dubbed “law porn” by Pam Karlan. By doing so, the story goes, he improved NYU’s reputational status enough to significantly improve its ranking in the law school hierarchy, thereby achieving an almost unprecedented and much-envied feat.

It’s perhaps a symptom of the general lack of empirical skepticism or basic curiosity among legal academics that this story can be exploded by spending a few minutes with a search engine. The US News law school rankings began on an annual basis in 1990, which means they provide a perfect vehicle for testing this hypothesis, given that Sexton’s first academic year as dean was 1988-89 (this is the year that formed the basis for the 1990 USN rankings).

NYU was the 6th-ranked law school in the 1990 USN rankings. 12 years later, at the conclusion of Sexton’s deanship, (and after a massive expansion of the school’s operating budget, and, not coincidentally, the doubling of its tuition) NYU was ranked . . . 5th. I suppose that can count as “maintaining an upward trajectory,” if you give a sufficiently liberal definition to the phrase.

What about Sexton’s presidency? The year before he took over, NYU was ranked 33rd among American universities by USN. Last year the school had risen to . . . 32nd.

Clearly, the only “upward trajectory” here has been in Sexton’s unmerited reputation, and relatedly, his compensation, which among other things now features a lifetime annuity of $800,000 per year once he chooses to retire. All of this, of course, is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, because NYU is a “non-profit” institution.

An American life

[ 16 ] June 20, 2013 |

GQ has an interesting feature story on David Chase and The Sopranos, which includes some vignettes about James Gandolfini. Per the story, Gandolfini struggled with the fame the show brought him, in ways that in retrospect seem unsurprising.

On one occasion, the show’s star simply disappeared for several days, in the middle of an extremely expensive shooting schedule:

The production team had already performed all the acrobatics it could, shooting those few scenes that could be done without its star. The whole operation had been nervously treading water for days; many began to expect the worst—that the pressure, the substances, and the emotional turmoil had pushed Gandolfini over the edge.

Terence Winter, driving into work, heard a newscaster report, “Sad news from Hollywood today…,” and his heart stopped. “It was some drummer for a band,” Winter says. “But I thought, ‘Holy shit! He’s dead.’ ”

Sooner or later, the press, hungry for The Sopranos gossip at the best of times, would get hold of the story, and the upper echelon of producers at Silvercup and at HBO began to prepare a damage-control strategy.

Then, on day four, the main number in the show’s production office rang. It was Gandolfini calling, from a beauty salon in Brooklyn. To the surprise of the owner, the actor had wandered in off the street, asking to use the phone. He called the only number he could remember, and he asked the production assistant who answered to put someone on who could send a car to take him home.

Gandolfini came from what per his wikipedia biography sounds like a pure working class background: his father was a bricklayer and mason, and later a high school janitor, and his mother was a lunch lady. He did graduate from college (Rutgers), but information regarding his life in the decade between then and when he first began to find acting success — his first significant break appears to have been a role in a Broadway production of On the Waterfront in 1992 — is sparse.

It sounds like an interesting story: “struggling would-be actor in New York” seems like an unlikely role for a young man from a working class background to manage to sustain for any length of time. That he did so might help explain some of the intensity and apparent authenticity he brought to the role of his most famous character.

A brief history of Michigan football ticket prices

[ 44 ] June 18, 2013 |

Bo Woody

Here’s the price of a regular admission (not student) University of Michigan football ticket over time.

(All figures are in 2012 dollars, rounded to the nearest dollar. I couldn’t find 1970 and 1980 so I substituted the nearest available year).

1900: $27

1910: $48

1920: $29

1930: $41

1940: $45

1950: $34

1960: $35

1969: $38

1981: $30

1990: $35

2000: $47


(1) Ticket prices remained remarkably stable between 1950 and 1990, even though attendance skyrocketed during the second half of this period. In the 1950s and 1960s average attendance for home games tended to be in the 50,000 to 70,000 range for most games, usually with one annual 100,000 full house against either Michigan State or Ohio State. By the mid-1970s every game was drawing 100,000+.

(2) Starting about 20 years ago, the athletic department decided to “monetize” this demand, as they say in the business schools. Current ticket prices are hard to list straightforwardly, because like so many other things they’ve been stratified into different tranches, as they say at Goldman Sachs. Anyway, the “base” price of tickets is now $65, but the real average ticket price is about double that, because as of 2005 Michigan finally jumped into the private seat license game. The way this works is that if you want a season ticket (almost all tickets are sold as season tickets) you have to first buy the right to buy the ticket, by buying a PSL. These range from $75 for end zone seats to $600 for prime seats. Here’s how it works for a seat on the 15-yard line — that is, more or less an “average” ticket:

Season ticket: $455 ($65 per game for seven games)

PSL: $450

Actual price per ticket: $129

(Because of our amazing tax code, 80% of the PSL is deductible as a charitable contribution to the university, so depending on your tax bracket the “real” price might be more like $110).

For a 50-yard line seat the price is more in the neighborhood of $160 per ticket per game, i.e., a more than quadrupling of the price from what it was 20 years ago in real terms.

All this ignores the world of the one percenters, who since 2010 have been able to purchase luxury suites (demurely referred to as “enclosed seating” by UM’s administrators) at a current annual lease price of $60,000 to $90,000. Each suite holds up to 16 people; however, if you lease one you still have to buy game tickets for anyone who you wish to help ascend to these celestial realms. For the lesser nobility, “club” seating is available at $1,500 to $4,000 per season ticket (club seats are outside, but are protected from some of nature’s fury by being directly beneath the luxury suites, which seems metaphorically appropriate.)

(3) Salary of Michigan’s head football coach, in 2012 dollars:

1969: $131,000

1981: $168,000

2012: $3.25 million

Update: See also

The business of higher ed

[ 56 ] June 18, 2013 |

This piece features more juicy tidbits on the 501(c)(3) racket known as New York University, but its real target is the Educational Administrative Complex more generally.

It features a link to this very interesting –although too conspiratorial and intentionalist as opposed to structuralist — post from a blog called The Homeless Adjunct:

At latest count, we have 1.5 million university professors in this country, 1 million of whom are adjuncts. One million professors in America are hired on short-term contracts, most often for one semester at a time, with no job security whatsoever….earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work…

If you are old enough to remember when medicine was forever changed by the appearance of the ‘HMO’ model of managed medicine, you will have an idea of what has happened to academia….once Nixon secured passage of the HMO Act in 1973, the organizations went quickly from operating on a non-profit organization model, focused on high quality health care for controlled costs, to being for-profit organizations, with lots of corporate money funding them – and suddenly the idea of high-quality health care was sacrificed in favor of profits – which meant taking in higher and higher premiums and offering less and less service, more denied claims, more limitations placed on doctors, who became a “managed profession”. You see the state of healthcare in this country, and how disastrous it is. Well, during this same time, there was a similar kind of development — something akin to the HMO — let’s call it an “EMO”, Educational Management Organization, began to take hold in American academia. From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country.

Can the numbers in the block quote be right? Are there really one million adjunct college professors in a country with an adult population of around 240 million people? The 500,000 tenure track professor number also sounds high — especially given the claim that there are more administrators outnumber faculty — but I haven’t looked at the stats for higher ed generally, as opposed to law schools.

. . . a little digging in the Census data indicates the numbers regarding total faculty are accurate (the claim regarding administrators still seems implausible, unless essentially all staff are being counted as “administrators.”) There were 1.44 million college faculty in the US in 2009, half of whom were classified as part-time, and undoubtedly a significant portion of those classified as full-time were full-time adjuncts.

Anyway, read both pieces.

O bloody period!

[ 95 ] June 17, 2013 |

A friend of mine is bothered by the absence of a standard English punctuation mark that captures something in the emotional spectrum between the matter of fact period and what one might call the “sincere exclamation point.”

Example of the latter:

Thanks for pulling me out of that burning bus!

It troubles him that we also have to make do with what might be termed the hyper-inflationary exclamation point, i.e., thanks for getting me a copy of that memo!

Shouldn’t, he wonders, there be something in between? (I suppose internet emoticons are a manifestation of this urge, but you can’t put a blinking smiley face in formal written texts — not yet anyway, LOL!)

Are there languages that have gradations between the stern “.” and the effusive “!” ?

And what would a good intermediate punctuation mark look like?

. . . does the Japanese “neh” perform something like this function?

Fable of a failed race

[ 39 ] June 14, 2013 |

Permafrost (perennially frozen) soils underlie much of the Arctic. Each summer, the top layers of these soils thaw. The thawed layer varies in depth from about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in the coldest tundra regions to several yards, or meters, in the southern boreal forests. This active soil layer at the surface provides the precarious foothold on which Arctic vegetation survives. The Arctic’s extremely cold, wet conditions prevent dead plants and animals from decomposing, so each year another layer gets added to the reservoirs of organic carbon sequestered just beneath the topsoil.

Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon – an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 petagrams of it (a petagram is 2.2 trillion pounds, or 1 billion metric tons). That’s about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth’s soils. In comparison, about 350 petagrams of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850. Most of this carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable topsoils within 10 feet (3 meters) of the surface.

Second, methane is a very, very potent heat-trapping gas. Whether the permamelt releases CO2 or CH4 depends critically on the soils and state of the land surfaces, which CARVE aims to characterize:

There’s a strong correlation between soil characteristics and release of carbon dioxide and methane. Historically, the cold, wet soils of Arctic ecosystems have stored more carbon than they have released. If climate change causes the Arctic to get warmer and drier, scientists expect most of the carbon to be released as carbon dioxide. If it gets warmer and wetter, most will be in the form of methane.

The distinction is critical. Molecule per molecule, methane is 22 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a 100-year timescale, and 105 times more potent on a 20-year timescale. If just one percent of the permafrost carbon released over a short time period is methane, it will have the same greenhouse impact as the 99 percent that is released as carbon dioxide. Characterizing this methane to carbon dioxide ratio is a major CARVE objective
After its first full year of science flights, CARVE is analyzing data. Here’s what is “both amazing and potentially troubling.”

“Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we’ve measured have been large, and we’re seeing very different patterns from what models suggest,” Miller said. “We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze. To cite another example, in July 2012 we saw methane levels over swamps in the Innoko Wilderness that were 650 parts per billion higher than normal background levels. That’s similar to what you might find in a large city.”

A cartoon is worth several long blog posts

[ 71 ] June 13, 2013 |



Asking the wrong question

[ 53 ] June 12, 2013 |

I have a piece in Salon about how asking if James Clapper committed perjury when testifying about the extent of government surveillance is in one sense the wrong question.

How to get a job, 2013 style

[ 111 ] June 11, 2013 |

business cards

I’m posting this for its sociological interest. The topic being addressed is how to get a summer associate position (SA) after your second year of law school, via on campus interviewing (OCI) if you have middle of the class grades at Michigan (i.e., a top ten law school). Getting a 2L SA through OCI in the weeks just before the beginning of the second year of law school (and then a subsequent offer of post-graduation employment) is pretty much the only way to get a job as a lawyer that pays enough to justify what has become the cost of attending the typical law school. (Michigan’s annual cost of attendance is now around $70,000). BTW the answer to the question “how do you get an SA via OCI at a non-elite school if you have less than top of the class grades” is “you can’t.” Read more…

Nice work if you can get it

[ 72 ] June 11, 2013 |

John Sexton’s game is strong:

According to documents unearthed in a month-long search of public records, NYU Law School has created an array of nonprofits to funnel money into lavish perks for its professors. The money has been used by professors to buy multi-million dollar brownstones and condos in Manhattan and Brooklyn with portions of some loans forgiven over time. In some cases, even the interest charged on the loans has been reimbursed . . .

Ten days ago, the Dean of the NYU School of Law, Richard Revesz, who has served in that post since June 1, 2002, stepped down to head up the Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment, a nonprofit made possible by a $40 million gift from Donald Marron, the former Chairman and CEO for two decades of the Wall Street firm, Paine Webber.

Revesz’ mortgage deals with NYU date all the way back to June 24, 1998 when the NYU School of Law Foundation bestowed on he and his partner, Vicki Been (also a law professor at NYU), a 46.5465 percent interest in a brownstone on West 11th Street in the West Village. The home had been purchased by the Foundation on October 16, 1995 at a cost of $1,450,000. With considerable improvements made by the Foundation, the fair value was placed at $2,664,000 on the date Revesz and Been acquired their interests. The Foundation sold the 46.5465 percent interest to the law professors for $1,240,000 and provided their full purchase price in two mortgage notes. On December 19, 2002, a little over six months after Revesz became Dean of the Law School, the Foundation transferred its 53.45 percent interest in the property to Revesz and Been.

According to documents on file with New York City, large amounts of the interest on the Revesz mortgage loans were not being paid but were, instead, allowed to accrue and be added to principal. On March 30, 2012, Revesz and Been entered a mortgage modification directly with NYU, not the Foundation. The document notes that as of March 30, 2012 there was a combined outstanding principal balance in the amount of $2,180,597 (including capitalized interest) and a second outstanding principal balance of $1,197,661. The deal was renegotiated to reduce the amount of interest and extend the maturity date on the larger balance.

According to NYU’s 2010 federal tax filing with the IRS (the most recent one made public), Revesz owed the University at that time a total of $5,683,652
. It is not known what the amount in excess of the mortgage debt represents.

There’s much, much more in the same vein, including Sexton’s own sweetheart deal, which includes a $1.5 million annual salary package, and which pay him a $2.5 milllion “length of service bonus” in two years. If you’re worried about whether Sexton’s social security payments will cover the co-op fees, don’t: he will also be paid $800,000 per year for life after he retires. (It’s perhaps not purely coincidental that the faculty at NYU Law who are getting the big payoffs –Sexton was the law school’s dean for 14 years before becoming university president — are, like Sexton, closely connected to Wall Street’s regulatory structure, such as it is.)

Anyway, read the whole thing; once you’ve finished throwing up you can cleanse the palate with this amusing juxtaposition. I’ll have more to say about The Lawyer Bubble soon, but for the time being it’s worth noting that uber-Libertarian Richard Epstein (among other things he thinks most of the New Deal is unconstitutional) is now apparently triple-dipping in three federally tax-subsidized ponds: the University of Chicago, where he retains a faculty position, NYU Law School, where Revez paid Hayek only knows how much to reel in yet another prestigious hire, and the Hoover Institution, aka the Taj Mahal of well-heeled right-wing think tanks. No wonder he thinks everything’s just fine in Lawyerland.

Multiple choice quiz

[ 81 ] June 10, 2013 |

Speaking of economic issues, say you’re paid two million dollars per year (plus a million or so a year in perks) to run a research university. What’s the best way to ensure that faculty, staff, students, and random passers-by don’t break their ankles on the crumbling curb in front of one of your buildings? Choose the one best answer.

(a) Build a $35 million sports medicine facility.

(b) Pay a Vice President For Talent, Culture and Human Resources $425,000 per year, to promote wellness.

(c) Assume a repaired curb.

(d) Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy.

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