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Category: General

Peace in Our Time

[ 0 ] April 2, 2015 |

A framework for an Iran deal was announced. To save time, the conservative reaction will be that Iran is the Hitler-of-the-week and Obama is Chamberlain.

Today In Mass Incarceration

[ 91 ] April 2, 2015 |

I don’t condone the behavior of the Atlanta teachers and administrators who cheated on high-stakes tests, although I also think that the cheating was foreseeable given the incentives (and this can’t be an isolated case.) But this is a classic case of vastly disproportionate punishment:

On their eighth day of deliberations, the jurors convicted 11 of the 12 defendants of racketeering, a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison. Many of the defendants — a mixture of Atlanta public school teachers, testing coordinators and administrators — were also convicted of other charges, such as making false statements, that could add years to their sentences.

Judge Jerry W. Baxter of Fulton County Superior Court ordered most of the educators jailed immediately, and they were led from the courtroom in handcuffs. Judge Baxter, who presided over a trial that began with opening statements more than six months ago, will begin sentencing hearings next week.

Hopefully the sentences won’t reach 20 years, but the fact that they were sent to prison immediately suggests that many years of hard time will be involved. It strikes me that more than token jail time for this offense is absurd, particularly in a country where the de facto punishment for torture and economy-destroying financial fraud is “nothing.”

The Weaponization of Religious Exemptions

[ 197 ] April 2, 2015 |

Some musings inspired by the Indiana backlash and the backlash to the backlash:

Some “meta” preliminaries: obviously, freedom of religion at its core is a non-negotiable requirement for any society wishing to plausibly call itself a liberal democracy. What is the core? The right to join and form religious organizations, worship freely, and speak openly about one’s religion in the larger society, regardless of the degree of overlap between the content of these religious views and the mainstream of official state ideologies. Of course, there’s a lot more to how states support freedom of religion as a matter of practice; from tax-exempt status to cooperative educational and charitable projects to the possibility of exemptions from general religious law. By saying such things are not the ‘core’ of freedom of religion, I don’t mean to suggest they are inappropriate or wrong, or even unnecessary. But unlike the religious freedom’s core, they should be understood as negotiable—that is, they’re the proper subject for democratic deliberation and contestation, and there ought be to no particular expectation there’s a universal proper liberal-democratic answer to these kinds of questions. Which are most appropriate for a particular political society is based, to a significant degree, on local circumstances. Any democratic society that finds itself debating whether to honor the core of religious freedom has badly gone off the rails, but a democratic society debating the non-core scope of religious freedom is just doing what democracies do.

On a less meta level, my own views on religious exemptions are quite fluid. I find myself shifting between being mostly (but never entirely) comfortable with the pre-Smith status quo balancing tests and original RFRA framework, and mostly (but never entirely) resigned to a Smith-like restrictive approach. I teach a seminar on multicultural policy in every Spring, so it’s not like I haven’t thought about it much; I just seem prone to change dramatically the relative weighting of different goals and values.

If there’s a pattern to shifts in my uncertainty, though, it’s probably that I find myself drifting toward a more restrictive approach. In watching the politics of the Indiana law and its backlash, I think I’m getting a better sense of why that’s the case. What’s currently underway is what I’ll call the weaponization of religious exemptions. To explain what I mean by this, here are some classic examples of requests for religious exemptions: permission to use otherwise illegal substances for religious ceremonies, such as the Smith plaintiffs and Peyote, Catholics and sacramental wine during prohibition, Rastafari and marijuana);exemptions from zoning laws for the construction of Sukkahs and rules regarding the religious use of public property for the constructions of eruvs; exemption from mandatory military service, schooling requirements, or vaccinations; exemptions from incest laws (regarding Uncle/Niece marriages for some communities of Moroccan Jews); Native American religious groups seeking privileged access to sacred spaces on federally owned land;exemptions to Sunday closing laws for seventh-day Sabbatarians. I find some of these easy to support and others profoundly problematic, but they collectively share a common feature: they are fundamentally defensive in character. Their primary objective is to protect a practice or tradition or community, and little more. These exemptions are political but not in the sense that their exercise is directed toward the larger community in any concrete, meaningful sense. In these cases, the end sought in pursuing the exemption is, more or less, the exemption itself.

The requested accommodation in City of Boerne is a kind of transitional case. The exemption sought was to modify a church in a Historical District where such modifications were not permitted. While the exemption was clearly sought for the purpose of the exercise of religious activity, it wasn’t really a religious exemption per se—they wanted a bigger, more modern facility for more or less the general kind of reasons a private business or homeowner might have liked an exemption—accommodate more people, better amenities, etc. There was no connection between their status as a religious group and the nature of the particular exemption they were seeking; in essence they were arguing that the RFRA gives them license to avoid a law they found inconvenient. (Hypothetically, if a religious organization sought an exemption to historic zoning on grounds that their religion prohibited worshiping in buildings over a certain age for ceremonies, this case would have more merit.) Turning religious exemptions into a license for religious groups to evade general laws when inconvenient seems entirely deserving of pushback.

But this is only a partially weaponized use of religious exemptions; they’re being used as a weapon to advance the Church’s goals, but not striking against their political enemies. The quintessential case of a weaponized religious exemption is, of course, Hobby Lobby; Obamacare was to be the subject of a blitzkrieg, to be hit with any and every weapon imaginable, and that’s what the RFRA provided. Their efforts to make the claim appear credible could hardly be lazier or more half-assed. One possible check on weaponization, in a better and more decent society, could conceivably be a sense of embarrassment or shame; exposing one’s religious convictions as a cynical political tool to be wielded against one’s political enemies might be hoped to invoke enough embarrassment that it might be avoided, but we were well past that point. A remarkable document of this trend is this post from Patrick Deneen–fully, openly aware of the fundamental absurdity of Hobby Lobby’s case, cheering them on nonetheless. I mean, you’d think they’d at least have found a company owned by Catholics.

In light of that case, the transparent push for a super-RFRA deployable in private torts is not quite as egregious. It’s passing a bill that is by no means guaranteed to get them the results they want (my understanding is that no attempt to defend discriminatory behavior under any RFRA has yet been successful), and has plenty of other potential applications, some of which may be salutary. But the politics of it are undeniable; as in Kansas, Arizona and elsewhere, it’s plainly the case that this is simply the latest effort in the longstanding war on full social equality for gay and lesbian people. (If not having an RFRA at the books on the state level is such a grave threat to religious liberty, why haven’t we been hearing more about this since 1997, seeing as most states have no such law?) That this is a considerably less ambitious project in denying social equality than most previous battles fought in this war merely reflects the ground they’ve lost recently.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have confident or strongly held views about the ideal and proper scope of religious exemptions, although I’ve probably been drifting further from the RFRA framework and closer to Smith. The backlash against the Indiana bill—a bill that, private torts provision aside, isn’t that different from something that once passed the house unanimously and the senate with 97 votes—not to mention even conservative Republicans vetoing similar legislation in Arizona and Arkansas–suggests something very real has changed. The assumption on the right is that it’s liberals who’ve changed; we don’t support religious freedom like we did back in the 90’s. They’re not entirely wrong about that, but it’s an incomplete view about what has changed. Insofar as liberals changed their minds about the proper scope of religious exemptions, they didn’t do so in a vacuum, they changed their mind about it because the context we’re now in—facing an utterly shameless political movement that treats any conceivable political tool as fair game to achieve its political ends—is just simply not the kind of environment that fits well with an expansive approach to religious exemptions. The personal, faith-based nature of religious conviction makes it clearly inappropriate for the state to question the sincerity of the professed belief, even when that insincerity is obvious and barely concealed; which in turn makes exemptions easier to support in an environment where there’s some degree of trust that this process won’t be routinely abused. As noted earlier, which approach to exemptions best serves the interests of justice and freedom depends to a significant degree on the details of the society in question. We may have been something closer to that kind of society suited for expansive religious exemptions in the past, and we may someday be that kind of society at some point in the future, but it’s becoming difficult to deny we’re not such a society now.

Community podcast: SEK and Arturo Garcia on the problems with #SixSeasonAndAMovie

[ 8 ] April 2, 2015 |

community

So my soon-to-be-former Raw Story cohort Arturo Garcia and I decided we had things to say about the sixth season of Community, and what better place to say them then in a podcast?* It contains spoilers for all episodes up to the fourth as well as rampant speculation as to how the season would conclude in an ideal world.

*I say “soon-to-be-former” because I got a new gig as a staff writer/assistant editor at Salon and my thinking is, “life-altering announcements are always best made in footnotes.” I start in mid-April and will have more details about what I’ll be doing there in the next few weeks.

 

There’s A Big Price to Pay

[ 124 ] April 1, 2015 |

I believe there are some LGM writers in Las Vegas right now. I hope they are listening to Tom Landry’s sage wisdom.

gambling

Dollar General Working Conditions

[ 54 ] April 1, 2015 |

Dollar-General

OSHA is cracking down on Dollar General for the terrible working conditions in many of its stores around the nation, fining one Atlanta-area store $83,000 for serious fire risk violations.

Continually exposing their workers to the hazards, blocked exits, locked exits, blocked electrical panels have been found throughout their corporation nationwide. They seem to have not taken the message to all of their workers in protecting them,” said Griffin.

They are all violations that OSHA says are extremely dangerous for their employees and customers, especially when it comes to the emergency exits.

“Electric fire is the worst fire you can have, and somewhere where you shop every day is not good,” said Tay Jones, who is a Dollar General customer.

Really, $83,000 is far too little for this kind of repeated violation, but at least it is starting to get some attention in the media. Walking into a Dollar General is not what I would call a pleasant experience, and it’s an atmosphere where one can almost feel a corporation treating workers badly. Seems to be an endemic problem in its stores.

Game of Thrones podcast: Season 2, Episode 9 — “Blackwater”

[ 4 ] April 1, 2015 |

blackwater

Enjoy!

Norwegian Prisons

[ 161 ] April 1, 2015 |

BASEMENT,_SOLITARY_CONFINEMENT_CELL_-_Fort_Sheridan,_Guardhouse,_Lyster_Road,_Lake_Forest,_Lake_County,_IL_HABS_ILL,49-FTSH,1-7-11.tif

If you are like me, i.e. a good American, you are outraged by those herring choker Norwegians and their prison systems designed to rehabilitate inmates so they can be productive members of society. Real Americans know prison is meant for locking up black people punishing the evil in hellish ways that leave them a mess of a human being who will probably commit new crimes when they get out thanks to their experiences. But it makes me feel better about myself, knowing I support the institutionalized torture of people through solitary confinement, violent guards, substandard living conditions, and gang violence.

Dead Horses in British History

[ 42 ] April 1, 2015 |

Cambridge-Horse-Roman

Exciting news on the dead horse front, as intact 2000 year old horse skeleton found in British archaeological dig.

Ice Cream: The Dessert of Revolution

[ 51 ] April 1, 2015 |

Emma_Goldman_seated

Somehow I came to this point in my life without knowing that Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman once owned an ice cream shop in Worcester, Massachusetts before failing miserably to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in the wake of the Homestead strike. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–the fact that Berkman couldn’t off a bloated Gilded Age capitalist while armed with a gun and a knife is proof that you can’t trust anarchists to do anything right. This wonderful, if fictional, reminiscence by S.N. Berhman of visiting the shop in a 1954 New Yorker article is well worth your time.

Sprawl: Terrible in All Ways

[ 273 ] April 1, 2015 |

800px-Rio_Rancho_Sprawl

Suburban sprawl is a horrible thing for so many reasons. The environmental impact is enormous, eating up green space, farm land, and habitat. It reinforces racial and class exclusion and de facto segregation. It also externalizes its costs in all sorts of ways with severe impacts on the economy and our lives.

So take this number as more of a starting point than a final answer: A new analysis authored by Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute concludes that sprawl costs the U.S. economy more than $1 trillion every year.

More than half of that, Littman calculates as part of a New Climate Economy research project lead by the London School of Economics, is borne by people living in sprawling places who have to drive more, among other things. About $400 billion of it is borne by other people, in the form of air pollution or traffic congestion, or costlier public services — all of it created not necessarily by consumer demand for big homes and lots of driving, but also by policies in America that encourage and subsidize sprawl.

“An awful lot of auto travel and sprawl is the result of market distortions,” Litman says. He’s talking about policies like the home mortgage interest deduction that encourages large, suburban housing, as well as the fact that we don’t charge people for the true costs of using roads. In a more efficient market, he says, “consumers would rationally choose to own fewer automobiles, to drive less, to rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, and they’d choose more compact home and work locations simply because that really optimizes everybody’s benefits.”

But wait, there’s more!

You can parse the math behind his big number. It doesn’t include the costs in lower social mobility for children growing up in the most sprawling metros. It doesn’t take into account the higher housing costs many families would pay if they moved closer to the city, or the price tag if we built the kind of public transit we’d need to support a denser population. Economic modeling is by definition imprecise — all the more so when we’re modeling a matter like land use that influences everything from the air we breathe to our quality of life.

The other thing about sprawl is that once it is built, it’s almost impossible to fix to turn into a sustainable, dense city. Decent public transportation is probably never going to come to Rio Rancho, New Mexico or Round Rock, Texas because the number of people who can access any given bus or train stop is so few. And while walking core downtowns can be built in these places, one would still have to drive to get to them. Of course, part of the appeal for many of moving to the sprawl is so they never have to walk. A friend was involved in an attempt to bring a downtown to Rio Rancho. It was a total disaster. Not surprising for a city that called their urban planning department “Developer Services.”

Haggling over price

[ 32 ] April 1, 2015 |

borat

One of the disappointments of my professional life is that no one has yet tried to bribe me. Around the time The Obesity Myth came out I did dozens of interviews, and to the best of my recollection I was only asked once if I had accepted money from any interested parties in the course of researching and publishing my views. I had to report regretfully that no one had thought it worthwhile to attempt to purchase my good opinion.

Happily, it appears that Michael Simkovic, a young and energetic Seton Hall law professor, has already avoided at least this species of disappointment. Simkovic co-published a study last year, purporting to show that the average present value of a generic “law degree” is just shy of one million dollars, and he and his co-author have just published a draft of another paper, claiming that this impressive figure is hardly affected by business cycle fluctuations, and that therefore “the best time to go to law school is the earliest point possible after which you make the decision that you’d eventually like to go. By waiting, you’re spending more of your limited working life working for lower wages.”

It goes without saying that these conclusions are exactly what the legal academic establishment would like to hear. So great is their enthusiasm for these findings that they are, as the intrepid scamblogger Dybbuk reveals, generously funding their further propagation:

Simkovic is a junior law professor at a second-tier law school, and therefore a finding that a law degree is an extremely risky proposition would be adverse to his employer’s interests, and his own — it doesn’t take an econometrics study to deduce a causal connection between the decline in tuition-paying lemmings and the decline in cushy lawprof jobs. But perhaps even more saliently, Simkovic has received grants totaling $220,000 from the Access Group and Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) to fund his ongoing studies of the great value of a law degree. Simkovic collected $120,000 from the Access Group and $100,000 from the LSAC. . .

The Access Group is a nonprofit membership organization comprised of 196 ABA-approved law schools. It touts itself, on its website, as a “leading provider” of student loans for aspiring professionals. As such, it has served as a national originator, holder and servicer of federally guaranteed and private, credit-based loans, funding more than $18 billion of education loans since 2001. On its IRS Form 990, Access Group lists its “primary activity” as being to “support. . . the organization’s student loan borrowers in facilitating timely repayment.” It also seeks to “promote access to higher education through lending programs offered.” . . .

The Law School Admissions Council is the nonprofit that administers the LSAT and facilitates the law school application process on behalf of its 200+ member law schools. According to its Form 990, LSAC exists to “provide services” to member law schools. These services include staging “national forums” to acquaint students with their “legal education alternatives” and holding training and educational programs for law school admissions professionals. LSAC’s gross receipts in fiscal 2013 totaled about 49 million dollars.

One of the many complaints made about legal academic scholarship is that, unlike most research in the social sciences, nobody is interested in paying for it via grants. It’s nice to see Prof. Simkovic demolishing this myth as well.

Unemployed Northeastern, indefatigable chronicler of the griftier aspects of contemporary higher ed, has some choice words about a particularly grotesque aspect of all this:

Michael Simkovic himself has gone on the warpath multiple times about how funding from the Lumina Foundation, which Sallie Mae cofounded and gave $700 million in funding, drives think tanks like Brookings and New America Foundation to create neoliberal studies that recommend federal lending be curtailed, PSLF be repealed, and PAYE be jettisoned in favor of old IBR. See, for instance:

1. ““It’s hard to make sense of a lot of what Lumina is advocating on student loans unless you think of how it would benefit Sallie Mae,” says Michael Simkovic, an associate professor at Seton Hall.” http://www.buzzfeed.com/mollyhensleyclancy/how-a-private-foundation-with-deep-ties-to-the-student-loan#.oqnVbMa1nn [the linked article relates how Lumina, which was cofounded and solely funded by Sallie Mae, gave New America $3 million and now NA rails against PSLF and federal student lending]

2. “Michael Simkovic, a visiting associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on lending issues, said that if Brookings’s reports on student debt were to dictate policy, they would “boost the profits of the student lenders like Sallie Mae.”” http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/at-fast-growing-brookings-donors-help-set-agenda/2014/10/30/a4ba4e8e-48ef-11e4-891d-713f052086a0_story.html [article relates how Lumina gave Brookings $1.9 million and now Brookings claims there is no student loan crisis]

And here he is, taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from entities with direct stakes in the law school revenue game and writing studies that claim that law school graduates are immune to the laws of supply and demand, wage suppression, bear markets, elitism, etc. As if. To spell it out really clearly for anyone still confused about Access Group, it was a student lender. Back in the dark ages before GradPLUS (2006, I think), a law student could only borrow about $60,000 in federal loans for law school. Access Group competed with Sallie Mae, Nelnet, Citibank, etc. for the ability to extend $80,000 or $100,000 in private student loans to make up the difference. They would bundle those loans into Student Loan Asset-Backed Securities and sell them on Wall Street, of course. Yes, the law schools jointly own a student lending company, albeit a non-profit one (that sits on about $300 million in cash, if I am reading their 990s correctly). As far as I can tell, they haven’t lent money in years, have outsourced their loan administration to third parties, and seem to exist only to provide salaries for their executives.

April Fools!

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