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“The ”Twas the Night before Christmas’ of commencement speeches”

[ 23 ] June 6, 2014 |

It’s a tradition of which most New York academics and an increasing number of graduates of New York colleges will be aware: Charles Schumer coming to various commencement ceremonies to tell the same story. (SPOILER: he doesn’t get the girl…or the scholarship!)

I actually find it sort of endearing, to be honest. It’s short and non-pompous, at least, and certainly can’t be explained by political ambition. (He’s not up until 2016 and in any case will for all intents and purposes be running unopposed should he seek another term.) He’s not using the speeches to shake down the universities for a fee. Both he and the students seem to get a kick out of it, so why not.

“Republicans Should Be Banned From Obtaining Health Insurance, Because They Have A Special Form of Cooties. Of Course, I’m Not A Doctor.”

[ 218 ] June 5, 2014 |

Jon Chait recently observed that the recent practice is for Republican politicians to conclude their climate change trooferism gibberish with the punchline “I’m not a scientist.” This works for the medical profession too. Let’s say you’re a Republican politician, and are not surprisingly a hateful misogynist so you want to prevent some forms of birth control from being covered by insurance plans, especially the effective ones. Of course, such a policy is unpopular, so it’s convenient to use abortion as a pretext. Only IUDs generally don’t work as abortifacients even if you subscribe to the utterly nutty idea that causing a fertilized egg not to implant is causing an abortion; they prevent fertilization. Now you have a way out!

The anti-choice movement has been claiming for awhile that hormonal contraception works this way, despite having no real evidence for that contention, so there were immediate concerns that HB 351 would be a back door way to ban insurance coverage of the pill. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Becker (R), hastily tried to put those fears to rest by assuring hearing attendees that he wasn’t out to ban birth control pill coverage and would be happy to amend the bill to clarify that point. No, there’s another contraception he’s eyeballing for the chopping block, one that just happens to be both the single most effective contraceptive method available: the IUD.


Becker claims IUDs should be considered abortion because they prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. No big surprise, but he’s wrong, and not just because preventing implantation is not considered “abortion” by medical science. It’s also because IUDs work by preventing sperm from reaching the egg. Mirena also stifles ovulation. They may have a secondary effect of preventing implantation, but, as with the pill, the evidence shows that non-contraception users “kill” a lot more fertilized eggs by callously menstruating them out.

Becker addressed his lack of knowledge about science thusly: “This is just a personal view. I’m not a medical doctor.”

Expect to hear a lot more of this.

Hack of the Day

[ 34 ] June 5, 2014 |

Roger Pielke Jr.

Marijuana Should Be Regulated And Labelled

[ 148 ] June 5, 2014 |

While I don’t retract my specific criticisms of Maureen Dowd’s column, I should make clear that I strongly agree with Rebecca Schoenkopf that the underlying issue of edible marijuana is a very serious one. There are potentially serious health consequences inherent in THC-infused candy, at it is entirely appropriate that regulators compel people who distribute the products to include warning labels and also be transparent about the amount of marijuana involved. And since most such food production is likely to be informal for now, people need to be educated about the effects. Marijuana should be legalized, but that obviously doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be regulated, and certainly doesn’t mean that pot can never be harmful any more than ended prohibition means that alcohol can’t be harmful.

“Don’t Give Me the Babe in the Woods Routine, MoDo.”

[ 149 ] June 5, 2014 |

Apparently, in addition to being silly, Maureen Dowd’s shock that pot brownies have a delayed reaction was also made up.

Who among us wouldn’t be surprised, unless they had any familiarity with Dowd’s extensive history of inventing things to fit whatever a priori narrative she had decided to advance?

Several commenters beat me to this point, but even had the facts in the column been factual, Dowd is supposed to be an adult. They don’t put warning labels on handles of vodka, but presumably Dowd figured out that you shouldn’t consume one in a single sitting. Or maybe not; that would explain a lot about her work.

Is Billy Beane Overrated? Some Relevant Data

[ 133 ] June 5, 2014 |

Above: He’s not a major league player anymore, but he always plays hustling, heads-up baseball!

The run differential/payrolls of some selected teams so far:

  • Oakland: +121/$83.4M
  • NY Yankees: -29/$203.8M
  • LA Dodgers: +13/$235.2M
  • Philadelphia: -52/$180M  (If you understand how Ruben Amaro still has his job, you’re ahead of me.)
  • Boston: -12/$162.8M (But, yes, yes, defending World Champions)
  • Los Angeles Suburban Warriors of Orange County: +29/$155.7M
  • Kansas City: -19/$92M

I include the Royals because they’re the team that’s been most explicitly run by the precepts of old-school bullshit, and the result has been another decade-long faceplant although they’ve spent as much or more than Oakland.

Although 150 runs per 70 games might be overstating it (and might not), the A’s are in fact a much better team than the Yankees.  But there was that time the As lost 3 out of 5 to the Yankees in the postseason, so Beane is a total fraud.

The Finals

[ 29 ] June 4, 2014 |

I’m tempted to use my unprecedented and almost certainly never-to-be-repeated 12-2 prediction record so far to pick an upset.  As I said after the last round, the Rangers are a touch better rested, and have the more consistent star goaltender.  But I can’t quite bring myself to pick the Rangers.  As Barry Petchesky says, there’s no good way of attacking the Kings; they can grind it out if you want to play it that way, but they can also beat you playing 80s-style pond hockey.  I won’t be shocked if the Rangers win, but I say Kings in 6.

Meanwhile, my co-picker Michael Berube has an excellent account of his life as a Ranger fan.

“We Must Do Something. This Is Something. Ergo…”

[ 78 ] June 4, 2014 |

I’m quite puzzled by Rebecca Schuman’s piece defending the Obama administration’s proposed universal rating system for higher ed.     I certainly agree that the problems the ratings purportedly address are real.   As Paul has argued at substantial length, the current system — under which the students and taxpayers will cover ever-more-astronomical tuition fees with virtually no accountability — is a disaster that combines the worst features of free markets and government monopolies.  The problem, however, is that the administration’s proposals are mostly irrelevant or counterproductive to the problems of accessibility, rent-seeking and cost-shifting that are endemic to the current system.  Giving universities higher ratings based on the earnings of graduates doesn’t provide incentives to lower tuition; it provides strong incentives to avoid students from poor backgrounds and from offering majors that lead to less lucrative careers.  Basing ratings on retention rates doesn’t provide incentives to lower tuition costs or cut administrative bloat; it provides strong incentives not to fail anybody who can pay the tuition and avoid committing a felony during their tenure.   Accountability is necessary, but doing it through formal ratings systems is a very dangerous game.  As the USNews ratings have taught us, it’s enormously difficult to design ratings systems that aren’t easy to game in ways that subvert their intended goals.  The Obama administration’s system seems particularly poorly designed.

I would go into more detail about why the proposed ratings system is a bad one, except that Schuman has done most of the work for me.   For example:

I’ll start with the aspect of the plan that causes the most agita in academia: The emphasis on graduate earnings. Critics of the program are right to point out that a school that churns out hedge fund managers (or, you know, the legacy rich, who were always going to “earn”) does not deserve a better rating than a school with a stellar program in, say, social work, one of the worst-paid but most important jobs in the known universe. But the fix for this is easy: Tie aid not to salaries, but to relative earnings specific to both field and region.

First of all, Schuman’s “easy” fix is inadequate; it addresses the “maximize business majors and kill your social work program” issue, but not the “punish schools that serve relatively more students from disadvantaged backgrounds” problem.    But more to the point, the whole form of argument will be familiar to anyone who has read “liberal hawks” distance themselves from the Iraq War.  (“When I favored the Iraq War, I favored an imaginary war fought by competent people that came out well, not the one offered by the Bush administration.”)    If the administration offers a better universal rating plan, we can consider it.  What’s relevant for the time being is the one actually being offered, which is terrible.

Even more remarkably, Schuman doesn’t actually defend any of the details of the rating system.  Rather, her defense of the proposals rests on the premises that 1)if university presidents (including Ken Starr) don’t like something it has to be good, and 2)even a really bad rating system will force “accountability” for reasons that are as opaque as the causal mechanism that would cause a stable liberal democracy to spontaneously replace a deposed Saddam Hussein.  I assume it doesn’t require elaborate argument to show that these are unserious arguments.    That problems are real doesn’t make any proposed solution effective, and basing one’s policy views based on people you don’t like opposing them is a poor way of proceeding.  (If university presidents oppose cuts to state aid, does that mean we have to support them?) The universal rating system is worth doing only if it’s likely to work, and is Schuman implicitly concedes in its current form it almost certainly won’t.

The bigger issue here is that the better solution to the current crisis in higher ed would be to replace indirect subsidy with direct subsidy — state schools that offer an affordable tuition, a broader system of Pell Grants that offers more aid to the non-affluent, but structured in a way that creates downward pressure on tuition.  But with these solutions off the table, we’re struck with alternatives that are unlikely to accomplish much, a central problem of the current American political condition.

The Non-Silencing of Conservative Speakers

[ 151 ] June 4, 2014 |

Hadley Arkes has yet another argument that a few people deciding not to give commencement speeches represents a major challenge to free speech because something. His argument does, it must be said, lead the pack in its liberal use of scare quotes:

When our sensibilities were fed from different sources, it used to be said that, with spring, “the voice of the turtledove has been heard in the land.” But in these recent weeks the landscape has been filled with the sounds of “disinvitations” to speak and receive degrees at what used to be called our “better” colleges and universities. Colleges of the second rank may now be seeking to lift their standings by seeking out prestigious speakers to “disinvite.” The shock of this year has been that the protests have forced from the podium even figures of impeccable liberal stamp such as Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (at Smith College) or Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of Berkeley (at Haverford).

The first fatal problem with this argument — which I assume the scare quotes are supposed to be eliding — is that none of the named figures were in fact disinvited. But even if we want to pretend that a sternly-worded letter from some students with no decision-making authority represents such a coercive force as to reflect a de facto disinvitation, the argument still runs into the problem that it advances a theory of free speech based on the premise that well-connected people have an inalienable right to 1)say what they want wherever they want 2)to a captive audience 3)while receiving honors and 4)five-or-six figure paydays while the people whose debt peonage is funding these rewards have a solemn obligation to say nothing about it. (Damon Linker asserts that this nutty set of values is mandated by “liberalism;” oddly, no liberal thinkers are cited.) To state these arguments is to refute them, so I won’t dwell more on the point.

Arkes, perhaps understanding that much of his audience has seen commencement speeches and are hence unconvinced that people have an inherent right to 35 large to deliver oral Ambien without any criticism, has another example. You might be curious that the article features a picture of Antonin Scalia…delivering a commencement speech at RPI, a curious choice to decorate an article that conservatives are everywhere excluded from giving commencement speeches. (Just this year, Scalia gave a commencement speech that, it must be a said, is an exception to the general rule that commencement speeches are terrible.) But Scalia was the victim of a silencing even worse than having some undergrads write you a letter:

I heard once the president of an Ivy League college remark that his school couldn’t invite Clarence Thomas to campus without providing a “food taster.” One President of Amherst did invite Justice Antonin Scalia to offer a lecture, but 16 members of the faculty announced that they would not themselves attend his lecture, lest they legitimize his presence on the campus. Scalia did come, and as usual he won the hearts of many and impressed all. But there had been a threat on the part of students to stand with their backs to the speaker to show their disrespect. That spectacle was averted when conservative students invited the dissidents to hold a meeting, days later, where they could debate the propriety of inviting to the campus a sitting member of the Supreme Court.

What you have surely already noticed is that even on Arkes’s account nobody was trying to prevent Scalia from speaking. Some faculty said they wouldn’t attend the speech, which strikes me as its own expression of speech. And some students wanted to make a silent gesture of protest they didn’t even go through with. If this is the scariest anecdote Arkes can come up with, we can safely dispose of his general argument, while noting again that the core value of free speech being advanced here is an argument that America’s elites have a right to speak and you have a right to shut up about them.

But — appropriately enough in the context of an argument in which Scalia is the poster boy — we also have a slippery slope argument that shows the opposite of what it intends to:

If we take these decisions seriously, conservative students need not have to sit in acquiescence at a public university as the institution confers honors on people who seek, say, to defend the “right” to kill unborn children. The students might have a right now to purge from the program this imposition of a political orthodoxy they find deeply objectionable.

Um, your point being? If conservative students and faculty want to write letters objecting to commencement speakers based on their support for reproductive freedom, that’s their right. (Arkes is almost certainly overestimating how persuasive these arguments are likely to be, but that’s a different issue.) Who should be honored by a university is a conversation that everyone should be part of, not decided by trustees and upper-level administrators in the fact of everyone else’s silence. And if we can reach cross-ideological agreement that perhaps commencement ceremonies shouldn’t be another venue where America’s underperforming elites shower each other with honors and other people’s money, all the better.

The Pain Caucus Lacks An Electoral Constituency: An Ongoing Series

[ 34 ] June 4, 2014 |

Citizen Kaus

Matt Miller’s emulation of Mickey Kaus
has ended in humiliating defeat, with Miller finishing behind three serious candidates as well as New Age guru Marianne Williamson. (But I was assured that he was running well internal polls!) Maybe Robert Samuelson can move to California and try in the next cycle. I should also note as a political scientist that jungle primaries without a decent electoral system seem like a terrible idea.

There is, however, another avenue open to Miller: he can run with Erskine Bowles in the next Politico primary. They can enlist an all-star team of Dick Morris, Mark Penn, and Lanny Davis to craft an America-Rocks Let-Senior-Citzens-Eat-Baloney-That-Was-Thrown-Out-After-The-Quick-E-Mart-Adjusted-The-Expiration-Date-3-Times message.

Minimalism I Can Support

[ 35 ] June 3, 2014 |

As many of you know, I’m not much of a fan of the Chief Justice’s “minimalism,” but if it can prevent the reading of various neoconfederate restrictions on the power of the president and Congress to make and execute treaties into the Constitution, I approve.

It’s also good that this time, at least, Roberts and Kennedy declined to open up a new front in the Republican war on the necessary and proper clause. 

The “Only Joking” Defense

[ 92 ] June 3, 2014 |

One would think that Paul’s observations on Zizek’s remarks about teaching would be unassailable.  But among other things personality cults generate defenses of the transparently indefensible, so Bob is Boring in comments:

Dang, that’s a lot of Zizek-hate.

I think he’s delightful. I certainly don’t always agree with him, and not all of his writings are great. I loved Looking Awry. That was the most I ever understood about Lacan.


And I find the statement in the OP to show clear signs of hyperbole. You know: rhetoric, for effect?

Ah, yes, the delightful scamp was Only Joking!  (I speak here only of the comments under dispute; I also don’t know enough to take a position on the quality of his theoretical work.)  And, indeed, one doesn’t need high-level critical skills to spot “hyperbole” in his remarks.  So let us say he kinda was Only Joking and is not literally indifferent to whether his students kill themselves.  How far does that get us? Well:

  • Were his comments funny?  Good God no, they were witless in a self-impressed way.  Among other things, good comedy rarely punches down.
  • Was the point the hyperbole was trying to make (“My shitty inferiors, I will gladly take the money that will leave many of you debt peons, so long as you expect nothing in exchange for it”) a good one?  No, it was a reprehensible one, and one that as Paul says actually says a lot about the role of arbitrarily selected “superstars” in academia.

Obviously, the point of this kind of half-joking hyperbole is to preempt criticism; by taking the remarks seriously you mark yourself as the square, the butt of the joke.  But it’s a chickenshit rhetorical move, and the sentiments the quasi-joke reflect reveal a problem that’s entirely serious.

…as djw reminds me in comments, I forgot about the best part of the comment:

Plus, I love that there’s a public intellectual willing to go on Brazillian talk shows and rant about Marx – we need more crazy bloviators moving the Overton window back to the left.

As a connoisseur of arguments that use the phrase “Overton Window” to assume multiple can openers,  I must agree that he will be a real game-changer on steroids.  I can now move on to awarding commenter Nick today’s internets:

Q: how many Slovenian Lacanians does it take to move the Overton Window in the US?

A: just one — as long as he appears on Brazilian talk shows.


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