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Money for nothing

[ 48 ] October 31, 2011 |


This story in the Economist does a good job of capturing the broad outlines of a crisis that’s been building in higher education for a generation now: that is, ever since colleges and universities realized they could expand their financial operations via tuition paid by federally-guaranteed loans, that could be issued with little or no consideration given to whether those who took out the loans would be able to pay them back.

The government employs all sorts of accounting strategies to keep the real default rate on student loans looking lower than it actually is, including generous deferment options, very long delinquency periods before loans are declared in default, and Income-Based Repayment, which for most people who employ it is likely to result in default in all but name. Even so, with the current putative delinquency rate already over 10%, and sure to climb much higher as various deferment options stretching back to 2008 expire, this trillion-dollar mountain of debt is becoming a front-burner political issue (the Occupy Wall Street protests are surely playing a role in the issue’s sudden prominence).

Last week the Obama administration announced it was moving up various changes in IBR previously slated to take effect in 2014 to next year (the most significant is that the period of government-financed peonage will be reduced from 25 to 20 years). And Ron Paul is highlighting the extent to which funding higher education through student loans ensures massive inefficiencies in the market for that service.

Now obviously it goes without saying that Ron Paul is crazy. (Interestingly, people who do any serious questioning of a status quo from which the economic elites benefit always turn out to be “crazy.”). But consider the effect that limiting federal educational loans to a maximum of say $10,000 per year for tuition would have on, to pick an example at random, law school tuition. Is it possible to provide a “quality” legal education for $10,000 per year?

Given that 30 years ago many private law schools were charging no more than this in 2011 dollars doing so at present would not seem to require any innovations on par with the invention of the microprocessor or the 99-cent gordita. Indeed, given the staggering advances in information technology over the last 30 years, it ought to be far cheaper to provide the same quality of legal education that was being provided for $10,000 in 1981 for much less, or to provide a higher quality of education for the same price law degrees were being sold at the dawn of the Age of Reagan.

Anyway, if public money for tuition were limited to $10,000 per year, does anyone seriously doubt that dozens and dozens of law schools would soon discover that it was possible to operate with precisely that annual tuition? Instead, these schools are charging four and five times that, for the simple reason that they’re being allowed to, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. (Another outcome of this change is that USNWR would suddenly discover that it doesn’t make sense to reward law schools for achieving the maximum possible financial inefficiency, which they do now by using expenditure per student as a proxy for quality).

Indeed, it would make far more sense, in terms of both financial efficiency and economic justice, to simply give law students $10,000 per year of government money to spend on their education, than it does to allow them to borrow $70,000 per year, as many now do, in high interest non-dischargeable government loans.

Again, law school costs as much as it does only because of a system of debt financing that allows those costs to be decoupled almost completely from any rational calculation regarding its benefits. It’s true that law students borrow absurd amounts of money to go to law school because law schools publish phony placement and salary statistics that make those borrowing decisions seem far less reckless than they are. But we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the government’s remarkable willingness to allow law schools to charge literally whatever they want at the (eventual) expense of the American taxpayer also plays a role in signaling to those students that borrowing $200,000 in high-interest non-dischargeable debt to go to a non-elite law school is not as insane a decision as it would otherwise appear to be.


Changing the law school climate

[ 15 ] October 26, 2011 |

Over the past few months I’ve found that, when it comes to the crisis facing law students and graduates — and therefore, eventually, law schools — law faculty and administrators tend to fall into four categories, which can be analogized to the categories people fall into regarding their reactions to climate change. (I’m not making any assertions about the merits of various climate change arguments in this post, as it’s a subject I know nothing about beyond what I read in the papers. What I’m interested in is the usefulness of the analogy).

First, you have your flat-out Deniers. These are people who simply deny there’s any crisis. For example, you have people who deny altogether that the earth’s climate is warming. The law school analogy is the professor (there is, I am reliably informed by one of his colleagues, at least one such law professor, who interestingly is middle-aged and doesn’t seem to be suffering from senile dementia) who denies that the cost of law school has risen relative to inflation.

Most Deniers are not quite this extreme: they’ll acknowledge the earth is warming, but they’ll claim this is a natural cyclical process, rather than a product of human activity. The law school analogy are faculty and administrators who acknowledge costs have gone up and the employment situation is bad at the moment, but who treat all this as a natural, cyclical, and most of all temporary situation, that has essentially nothing to do with what law schools have done or not done, and which will simply go away without any action on our part.

I know quite a few people in this category: They cite the (needless to say imaginary) employment stats from a few years ago, when “96%” of our graduates were “employed,” and say there’s every reason to believe we’ll be back in that situation as soon as the economy picks up again. As for the costs of legal education, they dismiss this part of the crisis with various hand-waving gestures, usually based on some vague belief that legal education is far better now than it was a generation ago, and that a better product is inherently more expensive. The bottom line for them is that the extent to which there’s any crisis at all is exaggerated, and in any case it’s all cyclical, while the skyrocketing cost of law school isn’t a product of what in the climate change literature is referred to as anthropogenic forcing, but rather of Newton’s fifth law of thermodynamics, which holds that, all other things being equal, education is priceless and can therefore not become too expensive even in theory.

Then you have your Fatalists. The Fatalists acknowledge there’s a crisis, admit it’s to a significant extent human-caused and likely to get a lot worse, but argue that at this point there’s little or nothing we can do about it. In the climate change world, these are the people who argue that even cutting carbon emissions by quite a bit won’t do much to forestall the future effects of our existing social arrangements, given what we’ve already put into the system, and who in addition point out that it’s pretty much useless for, say, the U.S. to cut back significantly on emissions if China and India don’t.

The law school analogy are people who admit the employment situation is terrible, that it’s going to get worse, and that it’s been made worse by the collective behavior of law schools, but who argue that there’s not that much law schools can do to improve it, short of the climate change equivalent of radical de-industrialization (i..e, closing half of the law schools currently out there). In particular, Fatalists emphasize there’s literally nothing individual schools can do by themselves, since this is a classic collective action problem.

The third category is made up of the Inconvenient Truthers. The ITs take the same basic view as the Fatalists, with the crucial difference that they believe that, with a combination of enough consciousness-raising and concerted political action, the collective action problems can be overcome, and many of the worst effects of human-caused climate change can be headed off, or at least ameliorated at an acceptable cost. The law school analogy consists of the people inside the system who believe that radical reform is both necessary and possible.

At this point, the ITs in both the climate change and law school world are largely dedicating themselves to trying to overcome ignorance, social inertia, and most of all the the considerable power of those vested economic interests who have the most to lose from any serious attempt at reform, and who are therefore doing everything they can to keep people in either the first category or the fourth.

The fourth group consists of the Sleepers — the people who just aren’t paying much attention to this issue one way or another. In the world of climate change, the Sleepers are people who have a vague sense that there’s a fierce argument out there about how global warming is either a potential environmental catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, or an insidious myth fabricated by tree-hugging wackos, or possibly something in between. But since the consequences of what is or isn’t happening are still somewhere off in the medium to distant future, the Sleepers basically ignore the controversy altogether as they continue to live their lives in the same fashion they did before anyone started trying to raise the alarm about rising global temperature.

Although in terms of behavior Sleepers are indistinguishable from Deniers, they’re not, unlike the latter group, ideologically committed to the idea that Everything Is Fine: rather, they’re just not paying attention yet. This makes them (perhaps) more promising prospects for the efforts of the ITs, although it’s important not to underestimate the extent to which inattention can sometimes be even more difficult to overcome than conscious denial.

In the law school world, I would guess the vast majority of faculty, and even a surprising percentage of administrators, are at this point Sleepers. There are probably about equal numbers of Deniers and Fatalists, who are being harassed by a still-tiny cadre of Inconvenient Truthers. But whatever the proportions may be, any serious reform effort requires finding a way to move as many people as possible out of the fourth category and into the third.

c/p at ITLSS

Italy’s Northern League

[ 15 ] October 25, 2011 |

I know nothing about Italian politics, but this doesn’t look good:

lega nord

(This apparently translates as “Guess who’s last for housing, jobs, and health care?”)

The Northern League seems to waffle between advocating strong federalism and actual secession from Italy of the northern region it calls Padania, which is its name for what was once known as Cisalpine Gaul. It currently has 59 members (9.5% of the total membership) in the Chamber of Deputies.

Pat Buchanan and the politics of nostalgia

[ 21 ] October 24, 2011 |


TPM has a selection of quotes from Pat Buchanan’s new book (although I noticed they didn’t feature any from the chapter “Throw the Jew Down the Well: A Critique of Contemporary Neo-Conservatism”). There are a bunch of doozies, but my favorite is this one:

Perhaps some of us misremember the past. But the racial, religious, cultural, social, political, and economic divides today seem greater than they seemed even in the segregation cities some of us grew up in.

Back then, black and white lived apart, went to different schools and churches, played on different playgrounds, and went to different restaurants, bars, theaters, and soda fountains. But we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.

Perhaps indeed! An inevitable consequence of becoming aware of unmarked categories (i.e., realizing that America includes lots of different peoples and lots of different cultures) is that various kinds of social divides suddenly “seem” greater than they formerly seemed.

Let be be finale of seem.

I was watching the Auburn-LSU game this weekend. Literally 95% of the players were African American. When I was a little kid these schools had no black players — and I’m not that old. Then around 1970 or so USC went to Birmingham and kicked the living daylights out of a top-ranked Alabama team, and suddenly Bear Bryant started having doubts about the merits of Plessy v. Ferguson. A few years later I heard him doing color commentary (snicker) on the broadcast of a USC-Oklahoma game, and he had the poor taste to note that Sam Bam Cunningham had done more for integration in Alabama than Martin Luther King.

How to spur economic growth

[ 28 ] October 17, 2011 |

Insights from laid-off big law firm associates at my other place:

At October 17, 2011 7:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

BL1Y- are you saying that selling houses back and forth to each other again and again is not a viable engine for genuine economic growth?

At October 17, 2011 8:13 AM , Anonymous BL1Y said…

Yes, you can’t grow an economy by passing houses back and forth.

What you need to do is draw up some paper work, pass it off to several other people, have them pass their pieces around in a circle, and then gather them back together, give them back to you, and then you hand them off to a lawyer, who divides the papers up among another group, they pass them around, hand it back to the lawyer in charge, who then hands it back to you. Now, you hand those papers to the other party to the transaction, they divide them up among their staff, pass them around, collect them, hand them off to the lawyer, have their lawyer divide them up, pass them around, collect them, and pass them back. …And then you pass the houses back and forth. THAT is how you grow an economy.

The Clueless Generation and Occupy Wall Street

[ 83 ] October 16, 2011 |

Obviously Americans born between 1946 and 1964 (the most common definition of the baby boom) are an extremely diverse lot both sociologically and politically. In this piece I’m addressing a particular subgroup: complacent professional types who have anywhere from vague to sharp memories of 1968, but who don’t understand what those kids occupying Wall Street — and now many other places — think they’re doing.

Occupy Denver: Freedom of the Park

[ 36 ] October 14, 2011 |

occupy denver

Over the past three weeks a loose coalition of people have been gathering in Veterans Park, directly in front of the Colorado state capitol in downtown Denver. Calling themselves Occupy Denver, they’ve been meeting to express solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.

Under what currently passes for normal conditions in these United States, Veterans Park is a popular venue for some of Denver’s estimated 16,000 homeless people, as well as an open-air market for illegal drugs. In the past few days, as the Occupy Denver movement has picked up support, it’s been providing food (most of it donated by sympathizers) to the homeless, as well as holding two general assemblies per day to discuss what their goals ought to be. (I was told by participants that since the protests started the open drug trade has pretty much disappeared). Occupy Denver has no formal leadership or organization; its activities have been modeled on an attempt to engage in what used to be called participatory democracy.

On Monday, a few participants put up a couple of tents and spent the night in the park. By last night, the number of tents had grown to 50, filling much of the park’s space, which is about the size of a couple of large city blocks. Yesterday afternoon, Governor Hickenlooper came down to the park and informed the protestors that they were violating a state law by camping overnight in a public park. Public parks in Colorado are technically open from 5 AM until 11 PM, although it’s possible to get a permit to camp overnight. Occupy Denver had applied for a permit for overnight camping but the state refused to grant one. Later that evening leaflets were distributed, telling the protestors that if they stayed in the park past 11 PM they would be arrested.

At 3 AM a contingent of about 100 riot police arrived to enforce this threat, although apparently no arrests were made until about 6 AM. At that point about 23 protestors were arrested, the rest were forcibly removed from both the park and the sidewalk in front of it (to which the curfew law doesn’t apply) and the tents and other temporary structures put up by Occupy Denver were taken down and seized. The governor then announced that the park was being closed for the day, supposedly because it was “unsanitary” and “unsafe.”

I went down to the park this morning, and spoke to several protestors. Robert Chase, who is with a medical marijuana advocacy group, described how the temporary structures the protestors had placed on the sidewalk were destroyed. He complained bitterly about how the riot police ringing the entire perimeter of the park (when I was there the riot police outnumbered the protestors by about a two to one margin) were being used to arbitrarily interfere with freedom of speech and assembly.

Richard Bluhm, an older man holding a sign that encouraged passing motorists to honk in solidarity (many did) described himself as a “concerned grandfather” from the Denver suburbs, who had been down to the park 11 times in the past two weeks, after dropping his grandson off at the special needs school he attends in Denver. He wore a button reading “We Are the 99%” and told me “I’m here because I’m worried about my country, and this is the only game in town.”

Rachel Boice, a University of Colorado graduate student, described how the twice-daily general assemblies operated. I asked her what she thought the movement was trying to accomplish, and she said its main goal was to achieve “separation of corporation and state.”

Scott Greene, an earnest and passionate young man taking time away from his day job to participate, emphasized how non-violent everyone had been, and how therefore the protestors had been taken aback by the force that was used to remove them both from the park and even from the sidewalk in front of it. He encouraged me to return for tomorrow afternoon’s rally, which he promised would be the biggest yet (Tomorrow a group of Navy veterans have a permit to use the park, which I suspect has something to do with Gov. Hickenlooper’s sudden decision to use force to disperse the protest).

I spoke to Trooper Richard, one of the about 100 state troopers in full riot gear, asking him if they were going to be deployed around the park’s perimeter all day. He wasn’t sure; his orders were to stay at the park until further notice. I asked him if this show of force didn’t seem a bit excessive given how innocuous the protestors seemed. He asked me if I had been here early this morning, and I said I hadn’t, but that the protestors who had assured me they had been completely peaceful at all times. “We need to be prepared for every possible outcome,” he replied.

Our leather jackets for juniors and petite trench coat provide a real star look to long trench coat. Beside this we carry a wide variety of racing jackets and heated motorcycle clothing.

Ivy League grad discovers hard work no longer rewarded in America

[ 86 ] October 13, 2011 |


Via Krugman, we have this quote from somebody who seems to have an unconscious desire to be shoved up against a wall and shot, by representatives of the less productive sectors of our society:

Options Group’s Karp said he met last month over tea at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York with a trader who made $500,000 last year at one of the six largest U.S. banks.

The trader, a 27-year-old Ivy League graduate, complained that he has worked harder this year and will be paid less. The headhunter told him to stay put and collect his bonus.

“This is very demoralizing to people,” Karp said. “Especially young guys who have gone to college and wanted to come onto the Street, having dreams of becoming millionaires.”

Seriously these people are impossible to satirize. If only they would all go Galt.

A left wing professor is something to be

[ 26 ] October 11, 2011 |

Any critique of the set of powerful social institutions that work together to create contemporary American legal education must be as it were political all the way down. (Few things annoy me as much as the conceit trafficked in by “reasonable” centrist types that there are obvious non-ideological solutions to serious social problems, which invariably involve adopting the reasonable centrist’s obviously reasonable views. You can find this conceit in pretty much any Tom Friedman NYT column, and in many a law school classroom, textbook, and law review article that discusses “policy,” so-called).

It’s true that at present legal education in America is so screwed up that it’s possible and indeed necessary to critique it from literally any coherent ideological position. Libertarians should despise the market distortions produced by its cartel structure and its phony employment stats, cultural conservatives ought to be appalled by the nihilistic tendencies of its standard jurisprudence, i.e., law somehow creates moral obligations although nobody can say why, mild Obama-style liberals should be discomfited by how terribly expensive the whole thing has gotten, and actual leftists, assuming such people even exist any more within the American legal academy in practice rather than in “theory,” ought to hate just about everything about the entire enterprise, given that at present it’s a practically perfect machine for replicating and reinforcing class privilege in its most invidious forms.

I started looking into this business in a systematic way about a year ago, and over that span I’ve developed sympathy for all these critiques: or perhaps more accurately potential critiques, since in many ways the most striking feature of the legal academy at present is the absence of genuine critical perspectives of any kind. My sense — and I sincerely hope I’m mistaken — is that the whole thing has gotten so comfortably numb that it’s almost impossible to get people to pay any attention to the extent to which in legal academia is in a state that’s summarized with a certain piquant cogency by this gentleman’s observation.


Anyway, I find this lack of engagement most aggravating in regard to those of my colleagues who consider themselves in any way liberal or even left. (I have a lot more respect for the Ayn Rand types: at least they don’t pretend to care). If the continuing indifference of law school administrations and faculties to the increasingly scandalous disjunction between the cost and value of legal education demonstrates anything, I suppose, its that class interest trumps putative ideological commitment just about every time. This isn’t exactly something that qualifies as an original or interesting observation, but for some reason I still find the fact itself annoying as heck.

I suppose I’d like some sort of acknowledgement on the part of these sorts of people — people who “care” about social injustice — that every time we vote to buy ourselves more goodies we’re voting to raise tuition on that ever-growing proportion of our students who can’t really afford to pay what we’re charging them for what we’re selling them. Maybe, just maybe, we should stop doing that — or at least we should, under present circumstances, figure out a way to buy ourselves fun new toys (usually described as “improving the quality of what is already the best legal education available anywhere in the world”) without charging more than we already charge for our unspeakably valuable services.

Really, why shouldn’t every law school in the country at a minimum freeze tuition right now? (Actually law school tuition should be cut drastically but I’m trying to be realistic here). Can we at least discuss that option before hiring six more people and opening two new centers, and building a new this and that chock full of environmentally conscious “green” design features? And before you get to that, yes I realize law school faculties, and even law school deans, don’t set tuition themselves in some direct non-problematic fashion. There are a bunch of central administrators to deal with as well. And a serious collective action problem. And the extent to which the cost of education is a Veblen good. And lots of other problems too. Guess what — politics is hard! And in the end this is all about politics, not about the centrist’s complacent vision of “reasonable people pursuing reasonable purposes reasonably.”

c/p at ITLSS

There’s something happening here

[ 42 ] October 8, 2011 |

Look at this.

Then read this.

A question

[ 72 ] October 7, 2011 |

Is anybody here willing to defend this?

The charms of baseball

[ 27 ] October 7, 2011 |



Last night’s game highlighted one of baseball’s most striking features, which is the completely different quality the game takes on in high stakes situations. Most of the time baseball is boring. I don’t mean that as a criticism: The typical regular season game means so little that it’s possible to half-watch it in a comfortable detached way, even when you’re actually in stands. This makes it quite different from the way in which one (and by one I mean me) experiences football or basketball or hockey, in which something is always happening or at least on the verge of happening.

Baseball consists largely of nothing happening: it’s three hours of standing around punctuated by about two minutes of combined action. (Yes I’m ignoring the subtle confrontation that is every pitch sequence to every batter. The point is during a regular season game you have to be either 12 years old or a grown-up fan of truly geeky intensity to get much catharsis from that confrontation, when it’s the third inning of a mid-June game between a couple of .500ish teams that probably aren’t going anywhere this year).

This quality is captured well by John Updike, in my all-time favorite piece of sports writing, his essay on Ted Williams’ last game:

For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.

The players — well most of them anyway; you can leave the room now, Mr. Ivie — always care, but we don’t have to, or not nearly as much — which is why a baseball game is in its own way a perfect accompaniment (ideally through a radio) to a lazy summer evening.

But in the heat of a pennant race, or in the post-season, all this changes, gradually at first, but then with startling suddenness, so that the game is transformed for all but the most casual fan into an experience of passionate intensity that equals or exceeds anything in sports. Last night’s game at Yankee Stadium, in which for the last two hours the entire season for both teams seemed to hang in the balance on almost every pitch, was a perfect illustration of how the very same game can be transformed from a pleasant background murmur into the most relentlessly excruciating of sports. And the key to the remarkable intensity of that transformation is precisely that, 99 out of 100 times, nothing much is at stake.

This is not the sort of quality that lends itself to our 24/7 contemporary sports world of constant fake hype and manufactured excitement, which is why most of the time baseball seems in many ways an anachronistic sport. And that too is part of its charm.

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