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[ 58 ] August 25, 2015 |


Having demonstrated that that, discounted to present value, a law degree from an American law school is worth on average just under one million dollars, Michael Simkovic has turned his attention to a genuine social crisis: the billions of dollars in lost earnings suffered every year by prospective law students, who have made the serious, and eminently preventable, mistake of not enrolling in law school

The blame for this multi-billion dollar catastrophe is easy to ascribe: ongoing bad publicity, based on a sensationalist media environment, that promotes TV shows like “Suits,” which I’ve been told is about document reviewers being paid $15 per hour to be basement-dwelling helots for law firms that use them for casual and mind-numbing labor, and Legally Blonde, a film which has been compared The Seventh Seal in regard to the existential dread in which it envelops the viewer.

Earlier this month, I charted the overwhelmingly negative press coverage of law schools and the legal profession over the last 5 years and discussed the disconnect between the news slant and economic reality. To the extent that news coverage dissuaded individuals from attending law school for financial reasons, or caused them to delay attending law school, newspapers will on average have cost each prospective law students tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The total economic harm across all prospective law students could easily be in the low billions of dollars.

What can we learn from this?

Accurate, informed, and balanced news coverage does not happen of its own volition, particularly in a world where sensationalism and negativity attract eyeballs and sell advertising. …

Luckily, a spate of bad PR is a far from insoluble problem: Read more…

The politics of sociological consciousness

[ 254 ] August 24, 2015 |

s & c

This weekend, the NYT ran an interesting article by a former waiter at one of New York’s Michelin three-star restaurants, who is now a graduate student:

In a playground for the superrich, I was an overpaid chaperone wearing a bespoke suit. Gluttony was common. So was sex; more than once we had to interrupt coitus in the restroom. Once a woman asked to leave her baby at the coat check. When the maître d’ explained that dinner lasted at least three hours, she stared back at him, unfazed. “Yes, I know.” Grown men wearing Zegna and Ferragamo would sit at the bar chanting, “We are the 1 percent!”

The nightly grotesquerie was almost exciting. But something happened after spending too many nights delivering four- or five-figure checks on silver trays. Estrangement did set in. I imagine pick-up artists experience something similar. You learn what people want from you, and, for a while, you get a high making all the right gestures: the perfectly timed joke, the wry smile. But, deep down, you feel nothing.

Read more…

The ethics of ethnography

[ 133 ] August 21, 2015 |

the wire

One of the ways that I can accustom myself to inconvenient phenomena is to imagine that I will stand trial for ethnographic malpractice. An attorney has brought a claim against me on behalf of my study’s readers. The trial will be held at a courtroom near the site of study, and witnesses who know about my subject will be called. The important thing about these witnesses is that they will be the ones I most fear hearing from because what they know is least convenient for the impressions I have given the reader.

Mitchell Duneier, “How Not To Lie With Ethnography,” Sociological Methodology (2011)

I have an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Alice Goffman’s book On the Run.

It’s both 10,000 words long and subscriber-only, so here’s a quick summary:

(1) On the Run is full of improbable stories of various kinds. In the article I looked into several (there were many others that I didn’t have room to explore), and was unable to confirm any of them.

(2) Assuming the events she described actually happened as she described them, most of the stories I investigated could have been confirmed, in least in part, with a little cooperation from Goffman herself. She declined to provide almost any, citing confidentiality concerns. (She ended up answering one question about one issue, and the implausibility of her answer only brought her veracity into further doubt).

(3) Goffman is abusing the concept of subject confidentiality in order to keep her work from being fact-checked. I determined the identities of most of her primary subjects, as well as the location of what the book calls the “6th Street” neighborhood, without much difficulty. It was made clear to her that neither I nor the CHE had any interest in compromising the anonymity of her subjects, even though we were under no ethical, let alone legal, obligation to protect them from her failure to do so. It was also made clear to her that she could be interviewed on background, in a way that would preserve subject confidentiality completely, and which, if even a couple of the stories investigated in the article then checked out, would have led to the article not being published. Again, she refused.

(4) Nobody at Princeton, which gave her a doctorate on the basis of the research that eventually became the book, or the University of Chicago Press, which published the hardback version, or the American Sociological Review, which published Goffman’s article featuring much of the book’s quantitative data, actually checked any of Goffman’s purported research, beyond confirming that she did hang out on 6th Street for a time, and did know her research subjects. (A similar level of investigation led Jesse Singal to conclude a couple of months ago that On the Run is “almost entirely true.”).

(5) This spring, the University of Wisconsin, where Goffman is on the faculty, conducted an investigation, which led to a public statement that concerns about research misconduct on Goffman’s part were “without merit.” The documents generated by this investigation are subject to the state’s open records law. I filed a request for those documents two months ago. As of today the university has failed to comply. (According to regulatory guidance from the Wisconsin attorney general’s office, a request of this type should be complied with within ten business days).

(6) All of the above raises questions about how social science work in general, and ethnographic work in particular, is evaluated and rewarded. From the article:

In May 2015, the academic world was rocked by news that a paper published in Science appeared to have been based on a fake study. The paper was co-authored by Donald Green, a prominent political scientist at Columbia, but it was actually the work of Michael LaCour, a graduate student at UCLA. The paper reported that a single brief conversation between people who had a stake in the issue and those they were interviewing could lead to significant changes in attitudes toward gay marriage.

The most striking aspect of the LaCour scandal is that, at no point in the submission, review, and publication process did anyone — including Green, the paper’s reviewers, and the editors of Science — have any basis other than, apparently, an implicit faith in that process for their belief that LaCour’s data were genuine.

The Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy had this reaction:

Science is often bitterly competitive but it depends on honesty. It is not set up to weed out liars. Imagine what research, or talks, or conferences would be like if you had to routinely question not simply the quality or competence but the actual honesty of speakers. The same goes for supervision. Consider having to check not just the quality of your grad students’ work, but whether they were lying to you about their data. Much of what we do would become simply impossible.

To which a skeptic might reply: If science is bitterly competitive, and it isn’t set up to catch liars, and there are great rewards for liars who don’t get caught, then one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in social science to realize that this system will produce a whole lot of lying, and that a lot of that lying won’t ever be discovered.

It’s not yet clear that Goffman engaged in the sort of wholesale fabrication that LaCour committed, but it’s also far from clear that she didn’t. And that fact points to a problem that goes far beyond Alice Goffman and On the Run.

College endowments and “affordability”

[ 39 ] August 20, 2015 |


Following up on yesterday’s post regarding a proposal that rich universities such as Yale should be required to spend more of their endowments, in part to make college more affordable, it’s worth noting that going to Yale College costs its students essentially nothing.

Average debt at graduation for 2013 Yale grads: $2,081

Eastern Connecticut State on the other hand . . .

Average debt at graduation for 2013 ECSU grads: $22,040

Which school is more “affordable?” Well Yale’s cost of attendance for 2012-13 was $59,320, of which $42,300 was tuition. ECSU, by contrast, had a total COA of $23,395, of which $8,911 represented in-state tuition (it’s safe to assume the vast majority of the school’s students are paying the in-state rate).

How can this be? The answer is twofold: a whole lot of kids from really rich families go to Yale, and those that come from middle class backgrounds (in HYP land, “middle class” means a household income in the low six figures), or the (very) occasional kid who somehow manages to get in despite growing up in abject poverty, i.e., a family income of less than $60,000, pay either massively discounted tuition, or — in the case of our $60,000 Jude the Obscure — no tuition or room and board.

As to how exactly Yale affords the beneficence it bestows upon the lower orders, the following graph is instructive:

Endowments III

The problem with proposals to force colleges to use endowment funds to make higher ed more affordable is that the vast majority of institutions of higher education in the US have no endowment to speak of. Even the 95th percentile institutional endowment on the graph above (Connecticut College — it’s like rain on your wedding day) is a mere $278,000,000, i.e., barely more than one percent of the Smaug-like hoard that has piled up in New Haven over the years.

Over the past few decades, a handful of schools have acquired wealth uncountable — at this moment there are probably ten American universities with endowments of at least ten billion dollars — while a few dozen others have gotten enough money in their endowments to fund a significant percentage of their operations. But the 90% to 95% to 98% of schools outside the magic circle have gotten close to bupkis. This pattern is reminiscent of something else in the American economy, which in turn may bear some causal relation to these various developments.

Charity begins at Yale

[ 90 ] August 19, 2015 |


Vic Fleischer has a piece in the NYT arguing for a federal law that would require non-profit higher ed institutions to spend at least 8% of their endowments every year (the usual percentage spent is 4% to 4.5%, and it’s often based on several-year average of the endowment principal, so when endowments are going up rapidly, as they have been recently, the actual percentage spent of the current endowment total can be far lower).

This hoarding behavior is especially obnoxious, given where a lot of the money that is spent ends up going:

Who do you think received more cash from Yale’s endowment last year: Yale students, or the private equity fund managers hired to invest the university’s money?

It’s not even close.

Last year, Yale paid about $480 million to private equity fund managers as compensation — about $137 million in annual management fees, and another $343 million in performance fees, also known as carried interest — to manage about $8 billion, one-third of Yale’s endowment.

I am but a simple country faux-lawyer, largely untutored in the ways of high finance, but this seems like a truly fantastic ripoff of what one of its former presidents called the best finishing school on Long Island Sound. Yale paid six percent of that portion of its endowment managed by the Masters of the Universe to said Masters, for their priceless 480 million dollars-worth of wisdom?

How could whatever marginal investment value the wizards of hedge fundery provided over, say, a dart board, justify this kind of fee structure? The answer is . . . look over there, a new student center!

Kenneth C. Griffin, a hedge fund manager, gave Harvard $150 million in 2014. In May of this year, Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chairman and co-founder of the private equity giant Black-stone, pledged $150 million to Yale toward a new student center. John A. Paulson, another hedge fund manager, topped them both when he gave Harvard $400 million in June.

While nobody has suggested that quid pro quos were involved in these cases, these gifts high-light the symbiotic relationship between university endowments and the world of hedge funds and private equity funds.

“Symbiotic” is a polite word, but I can think of another biological metaphor which might more accurately capture the increasingly intimate relationship between elite universities and the .001%.

. . . Howard, in comments:

This kind of behavior at colleges, foundations, and other non-profits, is one of the great case examples of the interlocking nature of the one-percenters. There quite literally is no case at all to be made for the fees paid to hedge fund and private equity managers: after-fee returns can easily be shown to lag a simple s+p 500 index fund over any meaningful time increment.

And yet, institution after institution goes right ahead because no one questions it: everyone – the board, the administration, the money managers themselves – is complicit and paid off in one way or another, as Donald Trump is only too happy to remind us.

How do you appease billionaires who hate a social program almost everyone else loves?

[ 67 ] August 17, 2015 |

jp ,morgan

Mr. Burns: This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That’s democracy for you.

Smithers: You are noble and poetic in defeat, sir.

Krugman points out that this is the painful conundrum faced by GOP presidential contenders:

Wealthy individuals have long played a disproportionate role in politics, but we’ve never seen anything like what’s happening now: domination of campaign finance, especially on the Republican side, by a tiny group of immensely wealthy donors. Indeed, more than half the funds raised by Republican candidates through June came from just 130 families.

And while most Americans love Social Security, the wealthy don’t. Two years ago a pioneering study of the policy preferences of the very wealthy found many contrasts with the views of the general public; as you might expect, the rich are politically different from you and me. But nowhere are they as different as they are on the matter of Social Security. By a very wide margin, ordinary Americans want to see Social Security expanded. But by an even wider margin, Americans in the top 1 percent want to see it cut. And guess whose preferences are prevailing among Republican candidates.

You often see political analyses pointing out, rightly, that voting in actual primaries is preceded by an “invisible primary” in which candidates compete for the support of crucial elites. But who are these elites? In the past, it might have been members of the political establishment and other opinion leaders. But what the new attack on Social Security tells us is that the rules have changed. Nowadays, at least on the Republican side, the invisible primary has been reduced to a stark competition for the affections and, of course, the money of a few dozen plutocrats.

What this means, in turn, is that the eventual Republican nominee — assuming that it’s not Mr. Trump —will be committed not just to a renewed attack on Social Security but to a broader plutocratic agenda. Whatever the rhetoric, the GOP is on track to nominate someone who has won over the big money by promising government by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent.

Nothing calls for a quasi-Maoist intervention more than when a soft-handed journalist or bloviating politician opines that it’s no big deal to raise the retirement age to 70, because after all people are living so much longer these days, and work has all sorts of social and even spiritual benefits. Anyone who says things like that should be forced immediately to shingle a roof in San Antonio, preferably in August.

What if Ted Kennedy had announced during his 1980 presidential campaign that one of his chief foreign policy advisers

[ 61 ] August 14, 2015 |


. . . was going to be Robert McNamara?

One of the fair-goers asked the Republican presidential candidate during his appearance on the Des Moines Register Soapbox whether he was being advised by Paul Wolfowitz, George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of defense and the architect of his Iraq War policy.

Jeb Bush tried to spin the question away from his legacy as the son and brother of the last two Republican presidents, but he did so awkwardly.

“Paul Wolfowitz is providing some advice,” Bush said. “I get most of my advice from a team that we have in Miami, Florida. Young people that are going to be … they’re not assigned, have experience either in Congress or the previous administration.”

He continued: “This game, the parlor game that’s played, you know, where you have 25, 30 or 40 people that are helping you with foreign policy, and if they have any executive experience, they’ve had to deal with two Republican administrations — who were the people that were presidents, the last two Republican? I mean, this is kind of a tough game for me to be playing, to be honest with you.”

Mmmm, beer.

On “hard work”

[ 87 ] August 12, 2015 |


“I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist. “What a fellow you are,” said the overseer, “and why can’t you help it?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear, so that no syllable might be lost, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was continuing to fast.

Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”

One of the most basic ideological divisions found in political life can be measured by the extent to which someone agrees with this statement: “Rich people are rich because they work hard, and poor people are poor because they don’t.”

Now of course only a complete idiot would agree with this statement without any reservations or caveats. So no more than 30% of the public in the US, approximately. (I kid. Somewhat).

But it would be interesting to measure the extent to which people agree with it, with 1 representing a perfect correlation between “hard work” and wealth, 0 representing no correlation between the two, and -1.0 representing a perfectly inverse correlation. Since we’re on the internet here and not in the pages of Science or the University of Chicago Press it’s OK to just make up our data, so in that spirit I would bet that your average GOP primary voter thinks the correlation is .87, while your average progressive blogger is going to put that number way lower, and indeed quite possibly in negative territory.

There’s an important definitional ambiguity here though, which is, what exactly is “hard work?” I’m assuming that what people call “work” can be sorted into two categories:

(A) Something people do because, and only because, they’re paid to do it. (“Paid” here means receiving a benefit, not necessarily pecuniary in nature, to do it. I don’t like mowing the yard, and I’m not paid money to do it, but I get the psychic benefit of a neatly trimmed less than feral yard by doing it, even though I wouldn’t mow the yard absent this “payment.”)

(B) Something people do because they enjoy doing it, and would do it even if they weren’t being paid.

For the purposes of the above analysis, only (A) should count as “work,” and in particular “hard work.”

The reason this distinction is critical is that sometimes people get some sort of moral credit for “working hard” at things that they positively enjoy doing for their own sake, which is ridiculous. Academia is a particularly good place to observe various “hard workers” who are actually lazy as hell when it comes to doing any work. For example, Professor X is a very “hard worker” when it comes to his writing, which he loves, and his teaching, which he likes, but he does a lousy job on committees, he blows off office hours, he writes half-assed peer reviews etc. because he doesn’t actually like to do any of that stuff, so he puts minimal effort into it. Prof. X is the opposite of a “hard worker,” because he manages to get away with doing almost nothing he doesn’t want to do anyway, without regard to whether he’s getting paid. But he may well “work” 60 hours a week, if (B) counts as “hard work.”

Anyway, my own view is that the whole idea that there’s a strong positive correlation between hard work, properly defined, and wealth is pretty absurd. (A difficult intermediate case, conceptually, is the person who loves to make money for the sake of making money, not primarily because money allows him to buy things. That is, the person derives pleasure from the mere fact that “working hard” correlates for him with making money, because he loves the idea that he’s making money, even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy the things money can buy. So even though he wouldn’t bill 2300 hours per year proofreading financial documents if he wasn’t being paid big money to do it, he “enjoys,” in some perverse sense, proofreading financial documents at 11 PM on a Friday night because he’s “making lots of money,” not because he actually enjoys either proofreading or the consumption/leisure money can buy).

Age is just a number — now updated to include first-ever LGM tennis blogging

[ 65 ] August 10, 2015 |

barry sanders

Unless you’re an NFL running back.



Age of winners of men’s grand slam tennis events, 1973-2015:


Inoculating the herd

[ 74 ] August 7, 2015 |


Apparently a couple of Michigan tea party legislators who were having an affair decided that the best way to handle the eventual revelation of their liaison would be to smear one half of the happy couple with a fake email, claiming he had been caught having sex with a male prostitute. The idea was this false claim would then “inoculate the herd” (their political supporters) when the true claims became known, since a straight up affair would seem positively benign by contrast.

State Rep. Todd Courser planned the distribution of a fictional email alleging he had sex with a male prostitute in a bid to conceal his relationship with Rep. Cindy Gamrat, according to audio recordings obtained by The Detroit News.

Courser, a Lapeer Republican, said on one recording the email was designed to create “a complete smear campaign” of exaggerated, false claims about him and Gamrat so a public revelation about the legislators’ relationship would seem “mild by comparison.” . . .

A now-former House aide recorded Courser in mid-May directing him to send Republican activists and operatives an email that would appear to be from an anonymous political enemy that said Courser had been “caught behind a Lansing nightclub” having sex with a man.

During the May 19 meeting, Courser instructed Graham to send rank-and-file Republicans across Michigan what he called “an over-the-top story that’s obscene about me.” It was designed, Courser said on the recording, to “inoculate the herd” — an apparent reference to Courser and Gamrat’s followers in the tea party movement.

“It will make anything else that comes out after that — that isn’t a video — mundane, tame by comparison,” Courser, a married father of four, told Graham.

“I need a controlled burn,” said the lawmaker, who used the term three times during the meeting.

I haven’t had any coffee yet this morning so I don’t want to leap to any conclusions, but this strikes me as a less than optimal way of handling this sort of thing.

You and the Atom Bomb

[ 121 ] August 6, 2015 |


70 years ago today, much of Hiroshima was obliterated by a nuclear weapon. A few days later Nagasaki suffered a similar fate. It says something about the indescribable barbarism that was normalized during the second world war that the act of instantaneously incinerating 200,000 people, most of them women and children, was considered at the time not merely defensible, but actually laudable, by many people who a few years earlier had been sickened by something like the bombing of Guernica. (Today one can still turn to the pages of the Wall Street Journal for a paean to the virtues of the atom bomb.).

A couple of months later, George Orwell wrote a prescient essay, which pointed out that the political significance of this terrifying new weapon depended on how relatively easy or difficult it would be to manufacture (I believe this essay features the first modern usage of the phrase “cold war.”)

For forty or fifty years past, Mr. H. G. Wells and others have been warning us that man is in danger of destroying himself with his own weapons, leaving the ants or some other gregarious species to take over. Anyone who has seen the ruined cities of Germany will find this notion at least thinkable. Nevertheless, looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.

Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’.

70 years on, it seems remarkable that only nine nations are known to have nuclear weapons, and even more remarkable, given the history of the first half of the 20th century, that these weapons haven’t been used to blow significant parts of civilization, if not the world as a whole, into a million little pieces.

I was in college at the height of the nuclear freeze movement, and at that particular moment it seemed that the thick shell of denial surrounding the eschatological significance of a world featuring tens of thousands of nuclear weapons was breaking down, as reflected by things such as Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, and the television program — which caused something of a sensation — The Day After.

Then the moment passed, and everyone went back to sleep.

Ballghazi, a continuing series

[ 86 ] August 5, 2015 |

brady house

We shook hands and I started away. Just before I reached the hedge I remembered something and turned around.

‘They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’

I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.

Having read through a good chunk of yesterday’s NFLPA document dump, including all of Tom Brady’s direct and cross testimony before The Lord Protector of the Shield, let it be known by these presentments that:

(1) The NFL’s case against Brady is a joke. It doesn’t even come close to meeting the (absurdly lax) evidentiary standard of being more probable than not that Brady knew “in a general way” that some monkey business was allegedly happening to his balls. It’s increasingly clear that Goodell et. al. prejudged this case and then went looking for any evidence to confirm their conclusion, while ignoring everything that contradicted it.

(2) Exponent is a hack outfit that provides bespoke “expert testimony” to suit the precise desires of whoever is writing the check. (Yes, very shocking).

(3) Paul Weiss has billed the NFL around three million dollars (so far) for its services.

(4) All of this doesn’t necessarily mean that a federal court would overturn Goodell’s sanctions against Brady, because the relevant rules give Goodell a lot of discretion to make substantively horrible decisions without being overturned. But the decision to suspend Brady for a quarter of the season, which probably means something like 10% of the rest of his career, is totally indefensible.

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