Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Paul Campos

rss feed

The two Bettys

[ 78 ] October 4, 2011 |

Betty Draper


James Atlas has a terrific essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times on how the higher education game is generating what he calls Super People — applicants with absurdly hyper-competent resumes, who clearly have been groomed since the age of three to Succeed in Life by their obsessive parents:

Graduate and professional school statistics are just as daunting. Dr. Bardes told me that he routinely interviewed students with perfect or near perfect grade point averages and SATs — enough to fill the class several times over. Last year 5,722 applicants competed for 101 places at Weill Cornell; the odds of getting in there are even worse than those of getting your 3-year-old into a New York City private school.

“Applicant pools are stronger and deeper,” concurs Stephen Singer, the former director of college counseling at Horace Mann, the New York City private school renowned for its driven students. “It used to be that if you were editor of the paper or president of your class you could get in almost anywhere,” Mr. Singer says. “Now it’s ‘What did you do as president? How did you make the paper special?’ Kids file stories from Bosnia or El Salvador on their summer vacations.” Such students are known in college admissions circles as “pointy” — being well-rounded doesn’t cut it anymore. You need to have a spike in your achievement chart.

Of course having a “spike in your achievement chart” doesn’t exactly come cheap:

Affluent families can literally buy a better résumé. “In a bad economy, the demographic shift has the potential to reinforce a socio-economic gap,” says Todd Breyfogle, who oversaw the honors program at the University of Denver and is now director of seminars at the Aspen Institute. “Only those families who can help their students be more competitive will have students who can get into elite institutions.”

Schools are now giving out less scholarship money in the tight economy, favoring students who can pay full freight. Meanwhile, Super People jet off on Mom and Dad’s dime to archaeological digs in the Negev desert, when they might once have opted to be counselors in training at Camp Shewahmegon for the summer. And the privilege of laboring as a volunteer in a day care center in Guatemala — “service learning,” as it’s sometimes called — doesn’t come cheap once you tote up the air fare, room and board.

Colleges collude in the push to upgrade talent. “It’s a huge industry,” Mr. Breyfogle says. “Harvard has a whole office devoted to preparing applicants for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.” At its worst, this kind of coaching results in candidates who are treated as what he calls “management projects.

”“They’ve been put in the hands of makeover experts who have a stake in making them look better than they are, leveraging their achievement,” Mr. Breyfogle says.

“We are concerned about that,” confirmed Jeff Rickey, head of admissions at St. Lawrence University, whom I tracked down at the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference in New Orleans. “If they joined a club, when did they join it? Maybe they play 15 instruments, but when they list them out, the amount of time they spent on each isn’t that much.” Mr. Breyfogle is also on the alert for résumé stuffing. “They’ve worked at an orphanage in Katmandu, but it turns out it was over Christmas break,” he gave as an example. “It’s easier to be amazing now.” All you need is money.

Ah yes, the wonders of our “meritocracy,” in which the cream rises inevitably to the top, hard work is rewarded, and the best and the brightest jet from Katmandu orphanages to Princeton eating clubs and 172 LSAT scores!

All this, as Atlas points out, is part and parcel of a society increasingly stratified along class lines, in which the rich get richer, and in the process gain ever-greater advantages in making sure that their progeny have every advantage in the race for those precious slots at the top colleges and professional schools (and from there the top firms and agencies and businesses etc etc).

At the moment American life features a big demographic problem, which is that the baby boomers have all the good jobs, and we’re not going away any time soon. This, more than the current dire state of the economy, is the long-term problem that the education establishment in general, and law schools in particular, must grapple with. It’s one thing to mock the person who “only” got into a Tier Three law school for being unable to get a job (although in fact that person has finished ahead of 97% of the population in the credentialing rat race), but what about the guy who had an A average at a good undergraduate school and a 167 on the LSAT, and finished in the top 20% of his class at George Washington, and can’t get a job? There are plenty of those people now too — because the baby boomers have all the good jobs.

What did that guy do wrong again? Oh right he should have “worked harder” and spent a couple of more holidays in college working on Guatemalan farm cooperatives, and gotten into NYU Law. Except a third of NYU’s third year class is now in trouble, and a lot of the rest of it is looking at big problems three to five years down the road, when they and their 200K loans get laid off by the mega-firms that hired them out of law school. Oh well I guess they should have “worked harder” and gotten into Yale. Because no matter what happens, the thing to remember is that if something goes wrong it’s your fault, or possibly your parents,’ but never ever the system’s, which is fundamentally fair and just if always amenable to some marginal tweaking to make it even better.

Atlas mentions another aspect of all this that deserves a separate essay:

And to clamber up there you need a head start. Thus the well-documented phenomenon of helicopter parents. In her influential book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Judith Warner quotes a mom who gave up her career to be a full-time parent: “The children are the center of the household and everything goes around them. You want to do everything and be everything for them because this is your job now.” Bursting with pent-up energy, the mothers transfer their shelved career ambitions to their children. Since that book was published in 2005, the situation has only intensified. “One of my daughter’s classmates has a pilot’s license; 12-year-olds are taking calculus,” Ms. Warner said last week.

“This is your job now.” I think I’ve seen this movie before, and it didn’t have a happy ending.


Politics and purity

[ 66 ] October 3, 2011 |

I’ve gotten a bit of criticism from a couple of political allies about a piece I wrote this weekend for Newsweek/DB concerning claims that Chris Christie’s weight should be considered a major negative, or even a disqualification, when evaluating his apparently impending POTUS candidacy. Their argument isn’t that my criticism of these claims is wrong on the merits, but rather that this sort of scrupulousness isn’t something “we” can afford at the moment, especially given that “the other side” has no such scruples when it comes to playing the political game.

I’ve heard similar arguments about Glenn Greenwald’s ongoing crusade condemning the Obama administration’s woeful civil liberties record, which as Glenn points out is quite arguably even worse than George W. Bush’s. Yes yes the argument goes — Obama’s record on these questions is indefensible, but do you really want to help elect [parade of horribles] president next year?

There are both principled and practical problems with these arguments. As a matter of principle, everybody has to choose how dirty they’re willing to get and what lines they’re not willing to cross. After all, certain conservative critics of Obama aren’t willing to exploit racist arguments about birth certificates and the like while others are. It’s possible to respect the former people in a way one can’t respect the latter, and the same holds true for liberals who are or aren’t willing to use sexist arguments against Bachmann and Palin, and who are and aren’t willing to use fat hatred against Christie.

As a practical matter, the problem with lesser of two evils rationalizations is that at some point the difference for which one is willing to sacrifice one’s intellectual integrity is so small that one has ended up making that sacrifice for something that’s no longer worth defending. I’m personally getting quite close to that point when it comes to Obama’s civil liberties/foreign policy record. As much as I prefer his domestic policy to that of his likely opponents, there comes a point when it should become impossible to support someone who is carrying out policies that cross certain lines of basic decency. Again, certain conservatives reached that point with the Bush administration on the issue of torture, and certain progressives are reaching that point with the Obama administration when it comes to things such as unilateral executive branch decisions to assassinate American citizens without any legal oversight.

In the end of course everyone must decide for themselves what sort of things they are willing to lend active support. I may vote for Obama again, but if I do it will be with great reluctance.

50,000 people are taking the LSAT tomorrow

[ 142 ] September 30, 2011 |

There are a lot of bad reasons to go to law school. Here are some of the most common:

(8) Everybody in my family is a lawyer

Is everybody in your family also a workaholic with a drinking problem who hates their spouse and never sees their kids? Seriously, as bad reasons go this is a relatively benign one (maybe somebody you know can actually help get you a job), but do you really want to have the same life as your whomever? And law professors may not know very much about the actual practice of law, but I’ve been struck over the years by how few of them seem to have any interest in encouraging their children to become lawyers.

(7) I want to help poor people/save mountaintops from being blown up in West Virginia/stop human right violations in Africa/make a difference in this world.

Cynical law students tend to dismiss their classmates’ interest in doing anything but trying to make money by pointing out how these noble ideals soon crumble in the face of the realities of On Campus Interviewing. But that’s the point: It turns out there’s very little money in law for doing anything other than representing the interests of the rich and powerful. That doesn’t mean people who claimed to want to do something else were disingenuous: more likely they were merely naïve. If you want to go to law school to help poor people, please keep in mind that in America in 2011 nobody who matters gives a rat’s ass about the interests of poor people, so unless you’re independently wealthy or extremely lucky you will not be able to help poor people by going to law school.

(6) I want to be rich

Going to law school in order to become rich is a bad idea. Very few lawyers end up making big money, even loosely defined. If you’re very fortunate you’ll make just enough money to feel poor by comparison to the vastly wealthier people you’ll be dealing with regularly in your professional life. Plus you’ll be making about $12 an hour. Go be an I-banker if working insane hours in the pursuit of filthy lucre is your thing. Oh right — it’s really hard to get a good I-banking gig. (Unlike becoming a partner at an AM100 firm – that’s a piece of cake these days).

(5) Lawyers do all kinds of interesting work

I once saw a T-shirt emblazoned with the message, “Everything you’ve learned from TV is wrong.” Words of wisdom Lloyd, words of wisdom. Most legal work is boring and stressful. Not surprisingly most lawyers are bored, stressed people. (That is, the ones who actually have jobs. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

(4) The previous paragraph is irrelevant to me, because I’m going to graduate in the top ten percent of my class at a T-14, work at a big firm for five years while living like a monk to pay off my debts, and then do what I really wanted to do all along

You get the hell out of here.

(3) My parents will be disappointed in me if I don’t do something respectable instead of pursue my dream of being a ____

Semi-employed permanent bankruptcy is in no way respectable, and there’s a very real risk that that’s where going to law school will leave you. Your parents don’t understand this because their knowledge of what being a lawyer entails is based on TV (see (5), supra). If you want to write the Great American Novel you’ll probably fail, but it won’t be the kind of failure that produces $200,000 in non-dischargeable debt while filling you with self-loathing.

(2) What am I supposed to do with this useless undergraduate degree in English/PoliSci/Sociology/Assyrian Musicology?

It’s a fair question. Here’s the best answer I’ve got: Don’t double down on useless degrees. People who already have educational debt from undergrad and then pay $60K a year in tuition and living expenses to go to law school are like people in a terrible relationship who decide to have a baby because maybe the kid will bring them closer together.

(1) I don’t know what to do with my life

Have you ever said to yourself, “I don’t know what to do with my life – so I’m going to spend three years of it going deeply and irreversibly into debt, in a quite possibly futile attempt to enter a profession that I have no actual desire to join?” I bet you haven’t, because who would ever say something that idiotic? Every year, however, thousands of people are perfectly capable of doing something that idiotic. If they weren’t, half the law schools in the country would be out of business tomorrow.

c/p at ITLSS

Chris Christie and the politics of fat

[ 58 ] September 29, 2011 |

I have an article in TNR on the question of how Christie’s weight might affect a prospective presidential run.

Something I should have mentioned in the piece is that it doesn’t seem implausible there could be some sort of backlash among women voters in this sort of context, given the intensity of the double standards at play in regard to what counts as an acceptable body for men and women politicians in general, and presidential candidates in particular.

I think Bill Buckner can finally stop answering that question now

[ 51 ] September 28, 2011 |


Red Sox lose after leading with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth. One minute later Longoria wins it for Tampa Bay against the Yankees.

Go Tigers!

I see Scott has been live blogging all this below. Craziest night in baseball history . . .

An inquiry concerning human understanding

[ 48 ] September 26, 2011 |


Two incidents from yesterday’s NFL action:

(1) Detroit is punting from their own five in a tie game with Minnesota. The clock is running and Minnesota has no time outs. If Detroit calls a time out right before the play clock expires they will punt with 20 seconds remaining. Instead, they snap the ball with 26 seconds left, essentially giving Minnesota one precious extra play to get into field goal range (Luckily for the Lions some roided up Viking committed a personal foul on the play, probably saving the game and allowing the William Clay Ford ownership era to continue to move in the right direction after a bit of a slow start).

(2) Tennessee is up by three with a first down at their own 38 with 1:40 to go. Denver has one time out which means that if Denver stops the Titans they’ll be forced to punt with about 10-15 seconds left. On first down the Titans gain a yard. On the play they’re flagged for illegal procedure. Denver accepts the penalty rather than declining it, meaning that it’s first down again, thus allowing Tennessee to run out the clock without getting a first down (for extra added incompetence the Titans don’t realize this and run the ball twice, tempting the ghost of Joe Pisarck before realizing they can just kneel).

What you have here is gross clock mismanagement by coaches who collectively are paid millions of dollars to win football games. Any halfway alert fan who knows the rules — and these aren’t unusual or otherwise complex situations — would do a much better job of making these decisions.

There are a couple of explanations for this. The first is that football coaches are idiots but nevertheless a multi-billion dollar industry hires idiots to make key decisions. Now it’s not if there’s nothing to this (see Matt Millen’s brilliant career as an NFL general manager). Still in my view that’s far too simplistic an explanation. NFL coaching staffs have to manage complex operations that involve making hundreds of decisions every week — and dozens during every game — operations which require various kinds of intelligence (strategic, psychological, analytic, emotional etc) to pull off successfully. It seems implausible that coaches make these kinds of simple mistakes — and they make them all the time — because they’re simply dumb people in general.

Rather I think a more plausible explanation is that it’s extremely rare to find all the cognitive skill sets and relevant related experience that one would want a football coach to have in one person. Earlier this month on a flight to Detroit I ended up sitting to a great Michigan football player from the 1970s. He told me several stories about the team’s coach at that time, Bo Schembechler. Most revolved around Schembechler’s gift for inspiring players to believe in their abilities. “Bo,” he told me, “could make you believe that you could have won the Vietnam war single-handedly with a BB gun.” That of course is a much rarer skill than being good at clock management (which Schembechler was almost comically bad at).

Still it does make me wonder why big time football teams don’t employ some geeky kid — heck I would have done it for free for Bo in my younger and more vulnerable years — to just tell the head coach what to do about the clock as he’s busy trying to manage 17 other tasks while getting a bunch of guys to run through the metaphorical equivalent of a brick wall. And this applies to a lot of things in life besides football as well, like political leadership: expecting an inspiring politician to also be some sort of policy polymath is probably unrealistic (not that this is an argument for Peggy Noonan-style Odes to the Virtue of Stupidity, but still).

The Needle and the Damage Done

[ 58 ] September 22, 2011 |

The execution of Troy Davis says some things about our legal system which apply to lots of issues beyond the debate over the death penalty. I had some (very tangential) involvement in this matter, so I think I know the case well enough to say the following with confidence: Davis’s execution was a grotesque travesty of justice, but it also resulted in the legally correct outcome, if by “legally correct outcome” one means what law professors usually mean when they ask if a case was “correctly decided.”

In brief, Davis’s problem was that, if he wasn’t able to demonstrate, after his conviction, that he had not gotten a full and fair trial — and he wasn’t able to demonstrate this, because the trial he got pretty clearly met the standard of what counts as a “fair trial” in our criminal justice system, at least for the purposes of the existing state and federal laws — then the only way he could avoid execution was to convince the authorities reviewing his case that he was actually innocent. (The inimitable Justice Scalia went so far as to declare that even this wouldn’t be good enough for the purposes of a federal court review of his case, because “this Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”).

Davis’s execution was a travesty of justice because, in my opinion, the chances are a good deal better than even that he didn’t murder Mark MacPhail. It’s more likely, in my view, that Redd Coles — the key witness in the case against Davis, and the man who went to the police in the first instance with the claim that Davis killed MacPhail — is MacPhail’s actual killer.

In retrospect the claim that Davis was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for the crime for which he was executed is completely indefensible, but again, as a procedural matter, once Davis was convicted for the crime in what counts in our system as a fair trial (and he was), then as both a formal and practical matter Davis had to prove his innocence to a fairly high degree of certainty in order to avoid execution. This he was unable to do (I certainly don’t claim to know whether Davis was in fact innocent — I personally think the available evidence suggests he was, but that’s quite different from that evidence amounting to a genuine exoneration). So, as a formal legal matter, Davis’s execution did not involve any violation of state or federal law, even though he was probably innocent.

Now this realization should fill any decent human being with a sense of disgust, but it affects certain legal actors with something more like exasperation at the extent to which our current system refuses to achieve “finality” within a reasonable time frame. Justice Scalia’s dissent linked above could not be more clear on this point: what matters to him is whether or not the rules have been followed, and if they have then the execution of a probably innocent man is just one of those prices “we” must pay for all the wonderful things we get from the legal system.

As I have argued elsewhere, Scalia represents an extreme example of a certain kind of judge that positively revels in coming to conclusions that are morally revolting but “legally” sound. Judges of this type like these sorts of cases because they demonstrate that law is a supposedly nonpolitical and intellectually rigorous practice, rather than a touchy-feely exercise in doing what strikes the judge as the right thing.

What, after all, could be more nonpolitical and intellectually rigorous than executing an innocent man, simply because “the law” requires that result? In a perverse way, such bloody logic is a kind of advertisement for the supposed objectivity of the legal system, since we can assume that no sane decision maker would reach such a decision voluntarily. (The great legal historian Douglas Hay explained the 18th-century English practice of sometimes acquitting obviously guilty men on absurd procedural technicalities, such as incorrectly calling the defendant a “farmer” instead of a “yeoman,” in similar terms: “When the ruling class acquitted men on such technicalities they helped embody a belief in the disembodied justice of the law in the minds of all who watched. In short the law’s absurd formalism was part of its strength as ideology.”)

“The law’s absurd formalism was part of its strength as ideology.” Precisely. This insight applies to many more aspects of the legal system than the revolting spectacle of our contemporary system of capital punishment, which in a case such as Davis’s — which is not in this respect was not unusual — psychologically tortures the defendant, the defendant’s family, the victim’s family, and others connected to the case for literally decades before producing what the system then has the temerity to call “justice.” (The climax of this spectacle last night involved Davis being strapped to a gurney with a needle in his arm for nearly four hours, waiting for various legal personages to respond to the question of whether, all things considered, it was finally time to stop his heart with state-administered poison).

That we tolerate this kind of thing so readily helps explain, in its own way, why it sometimes seems impossible to do much of anything about the absurdities and dysfunctions of the system of legal education that legitimates it in the first instance. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: perhaps we tolerate the absurdity of something like the 22-year “process” that resulted in the horror of Davis’s final hours because we ‘re socialized from the beginning of our careers in this system to accept all kinds of absurdity and injustice as natural, inevitable, and therefore legitimate.

(C/P at ITLSS).

You can try out our fitted leather jacket, leather sport coat and retro leather jackets. There is a great saving on dirt bike clothing and dirt bike apparel at our online shopping store.

Law school petition

[ 21 ] September 15, 2011 |

If you work at a law school, attended one, or currently attend one, please consider signing this letter:

“We, the undersigned, believe it is imperative that all law schools provide prospective law school students with information that will allow them to accurately assess their prospects for finding appropriate employment within the legal profession upon graduation from the schools they are considering attending. We therefore call upon the American Bar Association to require all schools it has accredited to release clear, accurate, and reasonably comprehensive information regarding graduate employment, by for example implementing the proposals outlined in Part III of the Law School Transparency Project’s white paper “A Way Forward: Improving Transparency in Employment Reporting at American Law Schools” ( ), so that prospective students may obtain adequate information regarding their likely future employment prospects.”

Institutional affiliation or employer, if applicable
Law school attended and year of graduation, if applicable

*Institutional and employer affiliations are for identification purposes only

If you would like to sign the letter, send an email to:


This letter will not be published, nor will the identities of any signers be disclosed, until at least 100 current law faculty at ABA-accredited schools have signed it. This number represents little more than one percent of the tenured faculty at such schools. I will give occasional updates on how many signatures have been collected from law faculty, employed lawyers, law graduates, and current law students.

My worlds are colliding, and in a bad way

[ 57 ] September 14, 2011 |

rice palin

I remember the 1987 Great Alaska Shootout well. It featured heralded recruits (and Prop 48 casualties) Terry Mills’ and Rumeal Robinson’s first games as Michigan basketball stars, and we all stayed up to watch the first game, which started at midnight Ann Arbor time.

He shoots he scores.

The savage god

[ 11 ] September 13, 2011 |

A lawyer’s story.

Is student educational debt the next financial crisis?

[ 24 ] September 12, 2011 |

In the next few months outstanding student educational debt in the US will hit one trillion dollars (it’s already bigger than outstanding credit card debt). Apparently, until the federal government stopped guaranteeing future private educational loans in the summer of 2010 (all federal student loans are now directly from the government, although private banks still collect a fee for servicing them), private federally guaranteed educational loans were being used to securitize various financial instruments structured around the pleasant proposition that private banks could engage in “risk-free” arbitrage by issuing unsecured loans at high interest that were guaranteed against default by the US government.

Somehow that all sounds vaguely familiar . . .

There’s something happening here

[ 15 ] September 8, 2011 |

I found the comments that are being posted in response to the latest analysis of how utterly “misleading” (to put it as nicely as possible) law school employment numbers are to be particularly interesting.

The situation for current American law school graduates is of course merely a reflection of much more widespread trends throughout this country in particular and the world in general. In short, huge numbers of highly educated young people who had to borrow much or all of the money the spent acquiring extremely expensive undergraduate and professional educations can no longer get anything resembling real jobs. For example, if being a lawyer means actually practicing law (as opposed to being a $25 per hour document review monkey in a windowless room in the bowels of some NYC or DC Kafkaesque warehouse for white-collar serfs) then these people are not and will never be real lawyers. And they’ve got $200,000 of non-dischargeable debt in the bargain, which will be paid off eventually by taxpayers. And again the position of recent law grads is merely a reflection of things that are happening all across society, in any number of fields.

This is not, one would think, a socially sustainable situation.

Page 61 of 101« First...102030...5960616263...708090...Last »