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Are increases in law school and undergraduate tuition due to cuts in state funding for higher ed?

[ 97 ] June 18, 2014 |

It’s an article of faith among many progressives — see several comments in this thread for example — that the radical rise in tuition rates at public universities and law schools over the last few decades is in large part due to severe reductions in state aid to these institutions.

The actual numbers don’t support this belief: in fact they pretty much contradict it.

When reading what follows, I would ask readers who are enthusiastic supporters of public education in general, and public higher education in particular — as indeed I am — to imagine the arguments being made about supposed cuts to higher ed being applied to government spending they don’t like. In those contexts, I think, parallel claims that government spending on X or Y has been “slashed” would be considered transparently disingenuous by those who aren’t big fans of the military industrial complex, or farm subsidies, or tax breaks for SUV owners, or what have you.

As to the numbers themselves, I’ve found annual data on public university tuition and total state spending on higher ed going back to 1982. Here’s what they show: (Around two thirds of law students attend private institutions, or pay unsubsidized out of state tuition at public law schools, but for the purposes of argument I’ll accept the claim that rising resident tuition enables tuition increases at private schools).

Total state funding for higher education rose continually for the quarter century between 1982 and 2007, to the point where such funding was 55% higher, in constant dollars, at the end of that quarter century. This came as quite a surprise to me. I graduated from a public university in 1982, and have taught at another one since 1990, and for all of that time I’ve been hearing about the financial pressure put on public universities by cuts in state funding.

It turns out that university administrators and their publicity organs often use a rather special definition of what constitutes a “cut” in state funding for higher education, which they define as any relative decline in state tax revenues, relative to state spending overall. In this – and pretty much only this – sense, state funding for higher ed has “declined” over the course of the past several decades.

Now an alert reader will ask: shouldn’t the total level of state support for higher ed be adjusted for overall population growth? Yes it should – except the problem with this argument is that there weren’t more traditional college-age people in America in 2007 than there were in 1982, because in the early 1980s the tail end of the baby boom was passing through college.

It’s true that a much higher percentage of traditional college-age Americans are going to college now than in the early 1980s, to the point where by 2007, state subsidies per full-time equivalent public college and university student were only 10% higher than they had been in 1982 – but of course arguing that this means public support for higher ed rose only modestly during this time begs a bunch of crucial questions (Imagine arguing that military spending had “really” gone up by just 10%, because even though such spending was up by 55%, there were now 50% more people in the military).

It’s also true that state funding for higher ed declined sharply in the wake of the Great Recession, which put state budgets overall under tremendous stress, and that such funding is only now starting to recover. Total state funding for higher ed fell from $88.7 billion in 2007 to $72.2 billion in 2012, before beginning to climb again to $75.1 billion in 2013 (all figures are in 2013 dollars). This makes for a total increase in state funding for public colleges and universities between 1982 and 2013 of 32%, and no doubt the decline in such funding in the years immediately after the investment banks did a couple of trillion dollars of damage to the American economy played a role in tuition increases over the past five years.

But the vast majority of the increase in tuition at public universities in general, and public law schools in particular, has nothing to do with declines in state funding between 2008 and 2012, because the vast majority of that increase took place over the previous 25 years, when state support for higher ed was increasing sharply.

Average resident undergraduate tuition at public four-year institutions in 1982: $2,423 (2012$)
Average resident undergraduate tuition at public four-year institutions in 2007: $6,809 (2012$)
Average resident undergraduate tuition at public four-year institutions in 2012: $8,655

Average resident law school tuition at public law schools in 1985: $4,280 (2012$)
Average resident law school tuition at public law schools in 2007: $17,114 (2012$)
Average resident law school tuition at public law schools in 2012: $22,933

Public undergraduate tuition rose 181% in real terms between 1982 and 2007, while public law school tuition shot up an astounding 300% over this same period, even though, again, total state funding for higher education increased by 55% over this quarter century. (There were 74 public law schools in 1982, and 80 in 2007).

Total state funding for public higher education is not, of course, the same thing as total state funding for public law schools. Perhaps law schools have received a smaller proportionate share of the increases in state subsidies for higher ed over the past 30 years.

Nevertheless, the overall numbers here are so extreme that arguments to the effect that increases in public law school tuition are in any significant part due to cuts in state subsidies are surely wrong.

The tuition puzzle

[ 74 ] June 17, 2014 |

This is the first of what will probably be several posts about the extraordinary increases in law school tuition over the past half century (In this as in so many other respects, law school is merely a particularly extreme version of something that has happened all across higher education in America).

First, some numbers:

Law School Transparency has done a nice job graphing what has happened to law school tuition since 1985, in both current and inflation-adjusted dollars. Private law school tuition has gone from just over $16K to just under $42K in 2013 dollars. Public resident tuition has gone up even more sharply, from $4,300 to $23,000, again in constant inflation-adjusted dollars.

These numbers are startling enough, but they obscure the extent to which by the mid-1980s tuition had already skyrocketed over the course of the previous 25 years. LST is using data the ABA posts on its web site, which only go back to 1985. Looking back to 1960, private law school tuition averaged around $7000 in 2013 dollars, while public law school tuition was perhaps a third of that, i.e., essentially nominal (These estimates are based on Harvard’s and Michigan’s law school tuition at the time. They assume that tuition at HLS was around 20% higher than at the average private law school, which has been the norm over the past three decades, and that Michigan’s resident tuition was typical of state law school resident tuition. If anything this latter estimate probably overstates public law school resident tuition in the 1960s).

This is, in the context of normal economic activity, a remarkable situation. People often speak these days of a “tuition bubble,” but a classic price bubble involves a sharp short-term run-up in prices, followed by an even more sudden collapse when the bubble bursts. For example, the US housing market was relatively stable between 1970 and 2000, with median home prices staying between $150,000 and $180,000 in real terms. The housing bubble featured a five-year run up, during which the median price rose by nearly 70%, before falling back to pre-bubble levels just three years after the peak.

By contrast, the law school (and to a somewhat lesser extent, the higher ed) tuition “bubble” has now featured more than 50 years of basically continual real price increases, with essentially no retrenchment. This has led to prices rising in real terms not by 70% in the short term, but rather by 500% for private law schools and 900% for public law schools — and in the long and continuous term.

Is there anything else in the contemporary economy that has featured similar sustained price increases? The only examples I can think of are the ownership interests in certain professional sports teams, some extreme high end luxury goods –paintings by famous artists and the like — and of course health care, in regard to which spending per American increased by 7.6 times in real terms between 1960 and 2009.

The markets in NBA teams and Klimt paintings involve a few dozen extremely rich buyers, whose behavior can be explained readily enough by concepts such as the declining marginal utility of income and the perverse attractions of Veblen goods. The market for law degrees involves more than 100,000 people at any one time, while that for higher education in general involves more than ten million simultaneous purchasers. Why are Americans willing to pay literally five or ten times as much, in real terms, as people paid two and three and five decades ago for essentially the same thing?

In the case of health care, the answers are by now well known, involving the profound distortions created by third party payment systems, in the context of the purchase of a good that often doesn’t allow for any meaningful price competition. Indeed it’s now universally acknowledged by disinterested observers that the American medical system is a textbook example of massive market dysfunction, leading to severe overpayment for a good that is provided by the medical systems of every other developed economy for a small fraction of the price, with little or no loss of quality.

In the case of higher education in general, and law school in particular, the answers are not as well understood, in part because until very recently the American higher education establishment had done a masterful job of selling the idea that higher ed was a “great investment” at almost literally any price. Only in the last few years has that idea begun to be questioned in any serious and sustained way.

In subsequent posts I’m going to look at some of the factors that have produced this increasingly destructive social situation.

Our man in Baghdad

[ 130 ] June 12, 2014 |

Hardened by years of battle in neighboring Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is routing the forces of a modern nation-state and gathering land with the ultimate goal of establishing an alternate form of governance, an Islamic caliphate.

“This is not a terrorism problem anymore,” says Jessica Lewis, an expert on ISIS at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. “This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain.”

In capturing Tikrit, famed as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, Islamist militants whom the secular dictator had not tolerated were moving south down Iraq’s main highway toward Baghdad. Lewis cited reports that Abu Ghraib, the city just to the west of the capital, was also under assault from ISIS forces that have held Fallujah and much of Ramadi since January.

“We are using the word encircle,” Lewis tells TIME. “They have shadow governments in and around Baghdad, and they have an aspirational goal to govern. I don’t know whether they want to control Baghdad, or if they want to destroy the functions of the Iraqi state, but either way the outcome will be disastrous for Iraq.”

ERBIL, Iraq — Kurdish officials said on Thursday that their forces were in firm control of the strategic oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq after government troops had abandoned their posts, introducing a new dimension into the swirling conflict propelled by Sunni militants pressing south toward Baghdad.

“The army disappeared,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, two days after militants aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria swept across the porous border from Syria to overrun Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then began a thrust toward Baghdad, capturing the town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on Wednesday. The apparent involvement of Kurdish pesh merga forces drew new lines in the patchwork of allegiances and alliances, adding disciplined troops whose allegiance to the central government in Baghdad is limited. With its oil riches, Kirkuk has long been at the center of a political and economic dispute between Kurds and successive Arab governments in Baghdad

Suggested thesaurus for op-ed auto-column generation this week:

Resolve, dithering, Munich, plenty of blame to go around, leadership, surgical strikes, limited aid, Vietnam, Caliphate, exterminate the brutes, next six months.

Right-wing judicial activism, part 7,563

[ 115 ] June 11, 2014 |

A California trial court judge has decided that children in the state have a constitutional right to be exposed to an equal percentage of bad teachers, and that the relevant state statutes violate this right, because they provide for tenure decisions regarding teachers to be made after two years of employment, rather than three.

Sensing perhaps that “some” might consider this kind of thing to be legislating from the bench, the judge goes out of his way to point out that he’s just following the law, and that there’s no political component to his decision whatsoever:

This court stresses legal positions intentionally. It is not unmindful of the current intense political debate over issues of education. However, its duty and function, as mandated by the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of California, and the Common Law [wut?], is to avoid considering the political aspects of the case and focus only on the legal ones. That this Court’s decision will and should result in political discourse is beyond question, but such consequence cannot and does not detract from its obligation to consider only the evidence and law in making its decision.

(Emphasis and pomposity in the original)

Speaking of politics:

Students Matter, the non-profit that funded the multi-million dollar suit, is founded and primarily funded by David Welch. Welch made his fortune in fiber optics, first serving as CTO of SDL when the company went through a $41 billion merger with JDS Uniphase in 2000 and later founding Infinera.

In 2010, Welch founded Students Matter, claiming his “passion for public education arises from his roles both as a parent of three school-aged children and as an employer in two highly successful start-ups in Silicon Valley.” Students Matter was unique, as an investigation by Capital & Main discovered, because Welch “had virtually no background in education policy or any direct financial stake in the multibillion-dollar, for-profit education and standardized testing industries.”

However, Welch quickly cozied up to organizations and individuals that work to privatize America’s once-great education system:

Yet Welch and his nonprofit play a special role among a group of other nonprofits and personalities whose legal actions, school board campaigns, op-eds and overlapping advisory boards suggest a highly synchronized movement devoted to taking control of public education. The David and Heidi Welch Foundation, for example, has given to NewSchools Venture Fund, where Welch has been an “investment partner” and which invests in both charter schools and the cyber-charter industry, and has been linked to the $9 billion-per-year textbook and testing behemoth Pearson. Welch has also supported Michelle Rhee’s education-privatizing lobby StudentsFirst, most recently with a $550,000 bequest in 2012.

StudentsFirst also turned up on an early list of Students Matter’s “advisory committee” that included ardent education privatizers Democrats for Education Reform, Parent Revolution and NewSchools Venture Fund. Both StudentsFirst and NewSchools Venture Fund also appear on a list of Vergara supporters that includes the California Charter Schools Association, along with Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent (and onetime Vergara co-defendant) John Deasy and former Oakland Unified School District superintendent Tony Smith.

Meanwhile, Welch lives in Atherton, home to the most expensive zip code in America, where the cheapest house on the market in 2013—”a 1,194-square-foot, two-bedroom bungalow”—listed for $1.2 million. And Welch is in good company, with Eric Schmidt, Charles Schwab, and Meg Whitman all living in the Valley enclave. So with his own children facing no meaningful obstacle towards obtaining a first-rate public education, Welch “recruited” nine children primarily from low-income communities, “saying teacher job protections harm their ability to get the ‘adequate’ education they are promised in the state constitution.”

And that tactic, argued in court by a legal team co-led by George W. Bush’s Solicitor General Theodore Olson, paid off today in the courts.

Meanwhile, even the liberal Obama administration etc etc:

The ruling was hailed by the nation’s top education chief as bringing to California — and possibly the nation — an opportunity to build “a new framework for the teaching profession.” The decision represented “a mandate” to fix a broken teaching system, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Cantor sings the blues

[ 221 ] June 10, 2014 |

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor loses the primary election in his district to this guy.

Apparently Cantor’s primary sin in the eyes of the Tea Party was being “soft” on immigration.

If Cantor accepts defeat (he could run a write-in campaign I suppose) this will reduce the number of Jewish GOP House members by 100%.

As of now, the general election is shaping up as a Randolph-Macon faculty throw down, with likely debate topics to include “The Atlantic Slave Trade: Historical Atrocity, or Pareto-Maximizing Market Solution?”

Hillary Clinton, Public and Private (selections from the unredacted transcript)

[ 99 ] June 9, 2014 |


Sawyer: Let’s talk about your family’s income after the two of you left the White House. Your husband has been paid more than $100 million to give speeches, and you’ve received two multimillion dollar book advances, as well as being paid $200,000 per speech. Does this seem . . . I’m searching for the right word here . . .

Clinton: Wrong?

Sawyer: Well not wrong, exactly, and of course certainly not illegal, but some might say it’s unseemly for public officials to profit from their time in office in this way.

Clinton: No, I’m pretty much going to go with wrong. It’s wrong, first, because it’s completely obscene that we have an economic system in which some people “earn” one thousand or ten thousand times as much income as other people. Second, while this would be wrong under any circumstances, it’s especially wrong because the people who earn $12,000 per year are usually doing something that has obvious social value, like taking care of children, or cooking food, or cleaning things that need cleaning, while the people making $12,000,000 or $120,000,000,000 per year are usually doing things like speculating in the financial markets, or giving banal speeches to people who speculate in financial markets — two activities that have no apparent social value whatsoever.

Or, to choose another example at random, perhaps they’re doing interviews like this one, in which a celebrity journalist who is paid $12,000,000 per year asks a celebrity politician questions written by someone else about the celebrity politician’s basically fake “book” — also written by someone else, needless to say.

Sawyer: This all sounds very radical, and not appropriate for a network audience. Why do you take the money if you feel this way?

Clinton: I don’t know — why do you take the money? Oh wait, I think I know the answer to my own question: because it’s there! But “because it’s there” doesn’t mean that it’s right that it’s there. It shouldn’t be “there” in the first place. Or if it’s going to be there, 70% or 80% of it should go to the government, just like back when the American Communist Party managed to get Dwight Eisenhower elected president.

Sawyer: Doesn’t saying things like this open you to charges of hypocrisy?

Clinton: Diane, we’re both part of the same hypocrisy.

Consumer fraud

[ 80 ] June 4, 2014 |

Ticketmaster has, pending final approval, settled a class action suit, brought on behalf of people who paid fees that, according to the plaintiffs’ allegations, were categorized in a fashion that made them appear to be actual transaction costs rather than profit to Ticketmaster.

On paper, the settlement is supposedly going to cost Ticketmaster around $400 million; in reality, it will cost the firm perhaps $20 million and maybe less than that. (Ticketmaster enjoyed profits of nearly $300 million last year, on revenues of $1.37 billion).

The settlement works like this: if you bought a ticket via Ticketmaster between 1999 and early 2013, you’re eligible to use a $2.25 discount code on your next purchase of a ticket via the firm. You get one discount for every ticket you bought, up to a limit of 17, so in theory you could receive as much as $38.25 in “damages.” The quotation marks indicate that these types of damages are pretty tricky entities, in economic terms.

The discount codes are in effect in-store coupons, which means that to collect your damages you have to buy more of what Ticketmaster is selling. Ticketmaster processing fees vary a great deal; a check of the Denver web site indicates that they can run anywhere from $7 to $19.95 per ticket. On average, a $2.25 discount appears to represent around a 20% savings on processing fees.

When you think about it, which needless to say everyone making money off this litigation strongly encourages you not to do, it’s quite unclear whether those discount codes that will be redeemed (which will end up being a small percentage of potential theoretical total, since most eligible class members won’t bother, either out of ignorance of this great “deal,” or unwillingness to invest time and effort to cash in on it) will cost Ticketmaster anything at all. The marginal cost to Ticketmaster of issuing another ticket to A Night With Lionel Ritchie must surely be close to zero, which means that lopping 20% off what it charges for that sale merely reduces the profit on the transaction — that is, assuming the transaction would have taken place anyway.

If on the other hand the availability of the discount code is what causes the purchaser to decide to buy the ticket, offering the discount code is increasing Ticketmaster’s profits in that instance. In other words, the plaintiffs in this case are to a significant extent actually paying for the “damages” they are putatively collecting, which means that the $400 million this is supposedly costing Ticketmaster is largely an illusion. Even on paper, the settlement only contemplates that Ticketmaster will end up issuing around $35 million in discount codes, and again, to a significant extent the codes Ticketmaster does issue will end up making rather than costing the firm money.

So who (besides, oddly enough, the defendant) is making money off this litigation?

(1) The plaintiffs’ attorneys, who are slated to collect around $15 million in fees, as well as a couple of million in litigation costs.

(2) Greenberg Traurig, which represented Ticketmaster.

(3) UC-Irvine’s new, wildly expensive, and totally superfluous law school, which is getting $3 million for — this is the kind of thing you could never put in a novel — its Consumer Fraud clinic. The $3 million represents a quasi-charitable cy pres donation by Ticketmaster, given to a deserving entity chosen by the judge. It would be fascinating to know how Judge Kenneth Freeman hit upon the idea of making UC-Irvine the object of his judicial bounty. (Here’s Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s sworn declaration explaining why his institution should be allowed to wet its beak a little).

What the Onion is up against these days

[ 254 ] June 3, 2014 |


If I were to make a Borat-style mockumentary about the absurdities of the modern university, its star would be a critical theorist from some central European country with a name featuring several diacritical marks who gets paid vast sums by various institutions to churn out obscurantist arcana featuring many citations to Lacan etc. while making it clear to his adoring acolytes that he hates them even more than he hates humanity in general.

Also, he would have a cat on his lap during interviews, like Dr. Evil.

And he would say things like this:

“I hate giving classes,” Zizek said, citing office hours and grading papers as his two biggest peeves.

“I did teach a class here [at the University of Cincinnati] and all of the grading was pure bluff,” he continues. “I even told students at the New School for example… if you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A. If you give me a paper I may read it and not like it and you can get a lower grade.” He received no papers that semester.

But it’s office hours that are the main reason he does not want to teach.

“I can’t imagine a worse experience than some idiot comes there and starts to ask you questions, which is still tolerable. The problem is that here in the United States students tend to be so open that sooner or later, if you’re kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions [about] private problems… What should I tell them?”

“I don’t care,” he continued. “Kill yourself. It’s not my problem.”

(I don’t know anything about Zizek, who may well be a world-transforming genius of a thinker for all I know, but as Ezra Pound said of Finnegans Wake, “Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly be worth all that circumambient peripherization.”)

via taxprof

Stairway to Freebird, RNC edition

[ 135 ] June 2, 2014 |

I’m on the RNC’s blast email distribution list, so I get an involuntary daily glimpse into the workings of The Scream Machine (I rarely read the emails themselves, but the subject lines are invariably masterworks of terse meaning, much in the way the title “Snakes On a Plane” tells you all you need to know about the essential mise en scene of that film in four monosyllables).

Without bothering to either search my inbox or google, I will try to recall from memory some of the many Obama administration “scandals” the Machine has recommended to my attention (readers can no doubt remember more):

The family without health insurance that had granite counter tops.

Solyandra (sp? Never found out what that one was about. Something lobbying favoritism boondoggle something).

The slut young lady who wanted the government to pay for her birth control.

The IRS persecuting people who file for 501(c)(3) status because they were conservatives.

Standing up for thugs in hoodies.


The government web site that didn’t work.

Releasing Dangerous Terrorists just to get back a no-good deserter.

Like I said I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch, but anyway this play list is kind of lame. The problem here I suspect is that asking why the Machine is constantly revving up another fake scandal is like asking why a classic rock station keeps playing I Can’t Get Enough of Your Love. It’s just what they do.

And I bet the reason it “pays” to do it is roughly similar: because there’s a built-in audience for the nostalgia value. All these stories are attempts to re-live the magic of the Year of Lewinsky just one more time, in something of the same way that hearing something off Led Zeppelin IV for the 10,000th time is supposed to take the audience back to their own magic moments.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Yes, Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)


[ 14 ] May 31, 2014 |


On LGM’s 10th anniversary, I’d like to thank the Founders for inviting me to join the gang all the way back in 2008. For me it was a timely invitation, as a decade-long stint as a weekly columnist for the Rocky Mountain News was about to end, due to the paper’s demise.

I’m also grateful to the management of our anarcho-syndicalist commune for allowing me to integrate the 19 months I spent producing Inside the Law School Scam into LGM’s capacious platform.

For me, this blog’s greatest strength is its eclecticism, both in regard to the perspectives of its front pagers, who have supported positions as varied as “Derek Jeter is annoyingly overrated” to “Derek Jeter is overrated, but dreamily handsome,” to “who exactly is Derek Jeter again?”

This seems like a good time to share my Derek Jeter story: A friend of mine was the star of the Kalamazoo Central High School baseball team, and was named captain going into his senior year. He was at that time certain he was going to be a professional baseball player. On the first day of practice, a ninth grade kid showed up to try out for the varsity. By the end of the day, one dream of professional baseball greatness was defunct.

Some wise person said recently that we live in an age in which “everyone has a platform but nobody has a career.” Writing for LGM isn’t yet a career (I’m still waiting for George Soros’ checks to clear), but it remains a great platform, not least because of our erudite if occasionally batter-soaked commentariat. You’ve brought us fame and fortune and everything that goes with it — I thank you all.

Madness and evil

[ 247 ] May 29, 2014 |

This post is one of what may be several about Elliot Rodger and his crimes.

I read Rodger’s manifesto, My Twisted World, this past weekend, and have been thinking about it since. I’ve also dipped a reluctant toe into the cesspool of PUA, Anti-PUA, Incel, and related dark corners of the internet. At this point all I really have are questions, so I’ll start with this one: What does it mean to claim that Rodger was mentally ill? More precisely, in what way(s) was Rodger suffering from mental illness?

I would suggest, very tentatively, that to categorize Rodger as “psychotic,” or “delusional,” or “grandiose,” or “autistic,” even if these diagnoses turn out to be accurate, (he may well have been some or all of these things; I’m not a mental health expert, and even if I were I wouldn’t be attempting a diagnosis on the basis of nothing more than what is no doubt an incomplete and in some ways misleading and self-serving document) risks, perhaps, obscuring the cultural and political significance of Rodger’s crimes by placing them within an explicitly therapeutic frame.

The thoughts that follow aren’t intended as an argument for some particular position, but rather as starting points for further conversation.

(1) Whether or not Rodger was crazy, he is, in his manifesto, remarkably lucid. He is obviously intelligent, and is even a fairly good writer — or would be, if the flow of his prose wasn’t constantly being derailed by his obsessions, which make reading the whole document an exhausting experience. He even has something resembling a coherent ideology: one which as an empirical matter appears to be flat-out bonkers (I am not using DSM terms here), but which he has worked out and brooded upon endlessly, in excruciating detail.

(2) To read My Twisted World is to read an explicitly political document, and indeed an apologia for an explicit act of political terrorism, in the narrowest and most precise sense of that much-abused term.

(3) Again, I have no competence to judge the extent to which, or in what ways, Rodger was mentally ill, but as a member of the human race I do feel qualified, subject to important caveats, to comment on the moral character of the author of these atrocious acts. My Twisted World may or may not be a glimpse into various manifestations of madness; but it is certainly a window into evil.

By the end of his life, Rodger had given himself over completely to what had become a bottomless well of resentment, entitlement, self-pity, and unbounded egoism. Not once in the text’s more than 100,000 words does he manifest the slightest concern for any other person on the face of the earth. He is, in this document, a man who lives for nothing but to luxuriate in his endless grievances against the world and everyone in it. Indeed it’s almost impossible to believe that he could, by the end, have given them up, even if a blonde (a word that appears 62 times in the text) Victoria’s Secret model had walked up to him as he sat in front of a Santa Barbara pizza stand and spontaneously offered to carry him off to a world of “heavenly” (a word he uses 11 times) pleasures.

By the time he wrote My Twisted World, Rodger had fallen deeply in love with his hatred (a word he repeats 52 times) — of women first and most of all — and indeed he lived for nothing else but to indulge that romance. That may be a form of madness, but it is, to the extent that he was still capable of choosing to be something or someone else, the purest form of evil.

You know who else also opposed free speech?

[ 221 ] May 23, 2014 |

Scott’s post linking to Chris Taylor’s thoughts on various bits of meta-commencement commentary alerted me to this Onion article actual op-ed by Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter.

Scott and djw have already pointed out that commencement speeches are highly ritualized forms of institutional identity maintenance, and therefore political gestures of a very specific kind, rather than occasions for real intellectual engagement, let alone actual debate.

So Carter’s protest that objecting to showering Condi Rice et. al., with honors (and money) at commencement ceremonies is an example of shutting down legitimate academic debate is nonsense on its face, and I’m not going to belabor it.

Nor do I want to comment on Carter’s remarkable contempt for the people whose debt-leveraged tuition payments fund his salary, at Taylor does a fine job of thrashing him on this score.

Instead I’d like to comment on the appalling intellectual laziness of Carter’s complacent description of what universities are supposed to be doing:

In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas. Pure argument was our guide. Staking out an unpopular position was admired — and the admiration, in turn, provided excellent training in the virtues of tolerance on the one hand and, on the other, integrity. . .

[On the other hand] there are your fellows at Rutgers University, who rose up to force the estimable Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser, to withdraw. The protest was worded with unusual care, citing the war in Iraq and the “torture” practiced by the Central Intelligence Agency. Cleverly omitted was the drone war. This elision allows the protesters to wish away the massive drone war that President Barack Obama’s administration has conducted now for more than five years, with significant loss of innocent life. As for the Iraq war, well, among its early and enthusiastic supporters was — to take a name at random — then-Senator Hillary Clinton. But don’t worry. Consistency in protest requires careful and reflective thought, and that is exactly what we should be avoiding here.

The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.

Again, leave aside the point that commencement speeches aren’t and as a practical matter can’t be occasions for genuine intellectual engagement and debate. What ought to astonish us here is that someone who is purported to be a serious scholar of, among other things, church-state relations, argues for a version of the academy that is both impossible to take seriously and a perfect reflection of the conventional wisdom regarding the academy’s failures (aka the supposed dominance of “political correctness”).

It ought to be obvious to anybody who thinks about for ten seconds that actually making the pursuit of a “diversity of ideas” and “pure argument” the paramount values of an academic institution –as opposed to, say, the pursuit of knowledge — is ultimately inimical to the latter. Consider one of an almost infinite number of possible examples: Should a university history department — in the name, needless to say, of tolerance for “unpopular positions” and the paramount importance of celebrating a diversity of ideas, arguments, and viewpoints — invite David Irving to give a talk on the disputed question of whether the Nazi regime operated extermination camps? Better yet, should Irving be appointed to a faculty position on some optimally tolerant history faculty?

Now it would be simply dishonest to try to wriggle out of answering this question by claiming that the question of the existence of the Nazi extermination camps is not in dispute. It’s in plenty of dispute — although, not, it’s important to emphasize, among actual historians. Now what is an actual historian? An actual historian is, among other things, someone who would be (unlike David Irving as of 2014, although not as of, say, 1970) a person whom it would be reasonable for a history department at a real university to invite to give a talk, or to perhaps consider appointing to its faculty. And there are certain historical viewpoints — such as the claim that the Nazis did not operate extermination camps — that properly disqualify people who hold them from being in that category.

The reason for this is that genuine intellectual debate quickly becomes impossible if tolerating the diversity of ideas trumps the pursuit of knowledge. And there isn’t any magical formula for determining when tolerating certain ideas interferes with the pursuit of knowledge to a sufficient extent that those ideas can’t be tolerated within an institution, such as the university, that values, or ought to value, the pursuit of knowledge above and beyond the toleration of diverse viewpoints. Indeed in one sense the pursuit of knowledge could itself be defined as an attempt to determine which ideas should and should not be tolerated within a community dedicated to its pursuit.

(I won’t comment here at any length on Carter’s trivialization of any protest against the war crimes of the Bush administration via the cheap rhetorical trick of simply assuming that the people protesting those crimes wouldn’t hold Democratic enablers of those crimes to the same standard, or on his remarkable use of scare quotes around the word torture).

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