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Suing the EPA over the Gulf Dead Zone

[ 5 ] August 21, 2015 |


Good on the Gulf Restoration Network for suing the Environmental Protection Agency for not doing its job to regulate the fertilizers and other chemicals that have created the huge biological dead zone where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone knows this is a major problem but the power of agribusiness provides a lot of incentive for the government to not crack down. This is much like how greens had to sue the U.S. Forest Service for not protecting northern spotted owl habitat under the Endangered Species Act because the agency was operating as a tool of the timber industry. If the government isn’t actually going to protect the environment, lawsuits have proven a good way for environmentalists to make change. It’s not quite as clear of a case here as it was with the spotted owl, but it’s probably the only way to actually get the government to take the problem seriously.

It’s not an easy problem for sure. But while I really respect Obama’s executive orders on coal and climate change as a good start, it would be nice if he took these agricultural issues a bit more seriously than he has through his entire administration.

Children and Immigration in the 19th Century

[ 32 ] August 21, 2015 |


Above: the ancestors of today’s anti-immigrant Republicans.

As this nation is going through one of its occasional freakouts about immigrants, it’s worth looking at how the nation has dealt with immigrants in the past. Specifically, how did the nation start dealing with American born children of people it wanted to deport? Hidetaka Hirota:

Upon the inspection, the Collector of Customs at the port of New York found that Nellie was “in destitute circumstances.” He then decided to detain Nellie and her children at an immigrant hospital on Ward’s Island on the East River as paupers who would be sent back to Scotland under the federal Immigration Act of 1882.

Nellie Wilkie could have been a simple addition to the list of excluded foreigners, but her American-born child made her case complicated. While denying Nellie and her children admission for the moment, the customs officer was not entirely certain if he could prohibit a native-born American citizen from landing in the United States and send the child to a foreign country. Nellie was an alien pauper who could lawfully be returned to Scotland, but could a citizen of the United States be banished with the immigrant mother? Realizing that the matter belonged to higher authority, the customs officer requested instructions from the Department of the Treasury, which was then charged with supervising issues of immigration to the United States.

In response, the Treasury Department reached a remarkable decision for Nellie Wilkie. In the first place, a native-born citizen could not be sent out of the country. If Nellie had to go back, her exclusion could be done only by “separating it [the citizen child] from its guardian by nature.” But it was not “the intention of Congress to sever the sacred ties existing between parent and child, or forcibly banish and expatriate a native-born child for the reason that its parent is a pauper.” Accordingly, the Treasury Department instructed the customs collector to admit Nellie and her children.

The case of Nellie Wilkie was not a one-time exception. A year later, the Treasury Department opposed the possible deportation of two Irish immigrant women on the grounds that they had native-born children who were “American citizens, under the natural guardianship of their mothers.” Considerations of the deportability of immigrant mothers, the department decided, “cannot affect the rights of their children since born on American soil and under the jurisdiction and protection of the United States.”

This and so many other cases also make me want to shake all the people today of Irish and Italian and Polish descent who are so worried about non-white immigrants and supporting Donald Trump. What about when your great-grandmother was the anchor baby?

The Wages of Trump

[ 201 ] August 21, 2015 |


Donald Trump is so ridiculous and so destroying Republican chances to win in 2016, I’m almost convinced he’s some sort of Democratic plant produced by the most brilliant political strategists ever, people even Richard Nixon would bow to in their superiority for screwing over the other side. So it’s almost funny, right?

No, because the wages of Trump are real and they are felt in the bodies of those Trump inspires people to hate.

Police in Boston say that one of two brothers who allegedly beat a homeless Hispanic man cited Trump’s message on immigration as a motivation for their attack. “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported,” Scott Leader, 38, told officers, according to a police report cited by The Boston Globe.

Leader and his brother, Steve, were arrested and charged with multiple assault charges after police said they urinated on and then assaulted a 58-year-old homeless man they found sleeping outside a T-station as they walked home from a Red Sox game. They allegedly beat him with a metal pole, breaking his nose and causing other injuries. According to the Globe, Scott Leader told police it was OK to assault the man because he was Hispanic and homeless. Both men, who have extensive criminal records, pleaded not guilty and said the homeless man started the confrontation.

We can expect to see more of this anti-immigrant violence from random people. But since terrorism is never caused by conservative whites, it’s not a systemic issue in the media.

Let Them Eat States’ Rights!

[ 19 ] August 21, 2015 |

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Scott Walker has an EXCITING NEW HEALTH CARE PLAN featuring such diverse elements as effectively destroying state regulations, removing most federal regulations, and withdrawing much of the subsidies that would otherwise go to the non-wealthy. The question among Republicans is whether his plan is acceptable or outright communism:

Walker’s politics are not about small government. After all, he thinks that abortion should be illegal even when necessary to save a woman’s life, and he just approved a $250 million gift of taxpayer money to hedge fund billionaires to build a basketball stadium. Rather, his politics are about assisting the rich and powerful at the expense of the poorer and less powerful.

His health care plan is no exception. Like the ACA, Walker’s plan would offer tax credits to allow people to purchase insurance. But Walker’s tax credits would be distributed on the basis of age, not income. The result, as Jeffrey Young and Jon Cohn demonstrate, would be a disaster for the non-affluent, as insurance would become unaffordable for many people at any age. And in addition, Walker also advocates savage cuts to Medicaid. The callousness Walker showed in refusing the ACA’s Medicaid expansion in Wisconsin is reflected in his health care plans.

So Walker’s plan would be an utter disaster if implemented. But it’s not just about Walker. Amazingly, some conservative candidates and pundits attacked Walker’s plan from the right. A spokesman for also-ran candidate Bobby Jindal accused Walker of collaborating with Bernie Sanders to create a plan that would make health care far less accessible to the non-rich.

Essentially, Republicans look at the state of health care circa 2009 — in which more than 16 percent of Americans were uninsured, and in which insurance companies could abuse consumers in a number of ways — and argue that even fewer Americans should have insurance and the quality of the insurance should be much worse. This is one of the many reasons that the contemporary Republican Party is simply unfit to govern at the national level.

At this point, rather than go to the trouble of writing up a whole series of planks, the 2016 Republican economic platform should just consist of a restaurant receipt from a dinner for 6 lobbyists at the Capital Grille with “get a six figure job, parasite” written in the “tip” section.

When Diversity Disappears

[ 23 ] August 21, 2015 |

I noticed something recently–conspicuous diversity becomes inconspicuous quickly. Here’s what I mean:

  • When I watch MSNBC I’ll note (approvingly) that a panel is is comprised only of people of color.
  • When I watch “At Midnight” I’ll often note (approvingly) that a panel is comprised of only women.
  • When I watch science shows on Discovery or History Channel, I’ve noticed that the producers have obviously tried to scout out women scientists and scientists of color. (I think that’s awesome and has only improved these shows.)

But the thing is, I noticed these things for about 60 seconds. Then the mental note was gone and I found I was just watching a panel of people discuss the news, or talk about the solar system, or crack jokes.

When Janet Mock appeared “The Daily Show,” at first I recall thinking “Wow, a trans woman.” But two minutes into the interview, she ceased to be a trans woman and simply became a person. This is not to say I want to disappear that fact that she is trans. I just want to note that when women, people of color and LBGT people are given the same visibility and  voice that straight white men enjoy they cease to be symbols of diversity-they simply become people, the norm.

This phenomenon destroys the idea that straight white men are the default. And this is a gateway phenomenon. Because when women, POC and our LGBT brothers and sisters are allowed a place on the stage, it will only be a matter of time before they afforded the same authority and gravitas we tend to grant only the current default. It means that women, POC and LGBT people will be accepted as funny, as smart, as experts.

This is why people fight so ferociously against what they perceive as forced diversity. Because when diversity becomes the norm, it ceases to be notable. And when that happens it will mean a staggering loss of privilege for straight, white men.

Random Fluffy Questions for You + Artists in the Mist

[ 55 ] August 21, 2015 |

I have a couple of good posts I’m going to write when I’m done doing the drudgery of keeping my home and exercising to mitigate my love affair with food. In the meantime, I have three fun Friday morning questions for you:

1.) What are you favorite songs to work out to? What gets you pumped.? Seriously, tell me. I need to throw together a good playlist.

2.) What are you favorite vegetarian dishes? Here’s the catch: It must be beanless. (Hubby won’t eat beans. I know, I know…)

3.) Do we have any artists in our midst? I know I’ve asked this before, but I plan on asking roughly every six months, just because people come and go and take up new hobbies along the way.


If you haven’t please check out Chris Bertram’s lovely photography at Crooked Timber. I’ve been admiring it from afar for months now.

Here is my latest.



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.

Clowns to Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

[ 39 ] August 21, 2015 |


The current leadership contest for the Labour Party is demonstrating two of its purported weaknesses: narcissism and disorganisation. A lot of this was unavoidable. The bulk of the current party as is came of political age post-1994, so the entrenched power structure, down to local councillors, have a certain set of ideological, strategic, and tactical expectations, and a common accepted narrative. Anybody who teaches Thomas Kuhn would immediately recognise the relevance of this quote:

Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend most all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments. As a puzzle-solving activity, normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none.

In search of a Kuhnian paradigm shift is the unexpected surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn. This, too, comes with a common narrative of sorts (if less unified or tidy): one of distrust for the “normal” politicians, established party structures, and a messianic, near cultish belief in their saviour, quite similar to Erik’s take on the support of Bernie Sanders: “Good take on the problem with Bernie Sanders: the cult of personality his fans are erecting around him that make any criticism an attack on their hero.

The results of this clash are distasteful and unhelpful. A large segment of the status quo patronise Corbyn and his support as childish, amateur, and lacking in a basic understanding of electoral politics, perhaps best illustrated by Paul Blanchard’s shrill article:

The people who are joining right now are not living in the real world – or in many cases they’re just too young to understand how the real world will inevitably impact their future. They are desperate to indulge their fantasies of a utopian socialist state; and many really do believe that it’s actually possible to create it in the 21st Century. Jeremy Corbyn resonates with people who don’t want to govern. They just want to protest . . . So where do Labour people like me go from here? If Corbyn becomes the leader then I’ll have to think about resigning my membership.

Likewise, many insurgents respond by branding any who disagrees a Tory and nurture a deep, distrust of any extant party structures, including the local party. They proudly display their ballots as ranking only one candidate, because not one of the other three can possibly conform to their precise ideological purity. Under the alternative vote electoral system, we are allowed to rank order our candidates on the ballot below (which is not mine), and it seems short sighted to me to not utilise the electoral system to its fullest:


Ultimately, this clash is understandable, combining ideology with the possibility of a Kunhian paradigm shift. However, some of the damage being caused was clearly avoidable. Last Friday, I discussed how Labour has created a problem in the way it has defined the eligible electorate for the 2015 leadership contest. One must be a full member for a year before being allowed a vote in candidate selection for parliament or council in one’s own Constituency Labour Party. Yet, in the first truly democratic election of party leader, all one needs to do is spend three quid as a registered “supporter” of the party before the deadline of 12 August, with voting to commence three days later. My main concern in the post last week concerned how a poorly conceived system could create the appearance of illegitimacy in the outcome, especially if the winner is Jeremy Corbyn perceived to be riding a surge of support on the backs of Three Quid Tories. However, Labour’s attempt to filter or, face it, purge these rolls has created a public relations problem, and is viewed by many Corbyn supports as an explicit attempt to limit their electoral effectiveness. Indeed, it might even have created a legal problem.

Ultimately, the Labour Party is right to prevent those who openly campaigned against it in the previous election, or stood as candidates against Labour, from voting in the leadership contest. However, there is a profound lack of clarity and transparency in the process, and it’s being conducted on an ad-hoc basis on a shoestring which allows for considerable error, and error that will be publicised. Creating a truly democratic election for party leader has some merit, yes, but this should have been limited to full party members, not just anybody with £3. In choosing the latter, the party should have a) chatted with some political scientists about the ideological shape of the electorate in primary elections, and b) created clear, transparent rules for who can, and who can not, vote. It apparently didn’t effectively do the former, and clearly not the latter, so finds itself stunned that Corbyn is leading in most polls, and that a minor public relations disaster is in the making.

Regardless who wins the election, I’ll happily remain a member of the Labour Party (yes, even if Liz Kendall wins), for all its faults, and put in the same amount of work campaigning for Labour at the upcoming local elections in May as I have done the previous two years.

After all, I am pretty sure that they’re still going to let me vote in this thing.

Winnowing in 2016

[ 66 ] August 21, 2015 |


Interesting point by Bernstein:

The first test for the announced candidates has arrived. Perry’s campaign, we learned Monday night, is broke and has stopped paying staffers. As of now, however, the team is pledging to carry on, in part because Perry’s super-PAC still has plenty of money. Politico also suggests that Rand Paul and Rick Santorum are hanging on partly because of super-PACs.

If the normal winnowing doesn’t happen in this cycle, that’s a big deal. It could undercut the party’s influence over who gets the nomination. Typically, only candidates with significant support and little strong opposition among party actors have a realistic chance of winning. Party influence depends on stable, predictable rules and practices, and if this has changed — if, for example, most of the 17 Republican candidates remain in the race well into the caucuses and primaries — then almost anything could happen.

I also agree that we should be careful before assuming that super-PACS will substantially alter the winnowing process in primaries. (In Perry’s case specifically, I’d be very surprised if he was still around for Iowa.) But at a minimum, the larger amounts of money sloshing around have to effect how the invisible primary plays out.

And, of course, Trump — independently financed, and with no real roots within the Republican Party — is sui generis. He can stay in and probably attract at least some support for as long as he wants. I still don’t think there’s any chance he can win the nomination, but his presence will still affect the process.

Wolves in California!

[ 129 ] August 20, 2015 |


Cue the right wing freakout in California that the wolves are going to eat our children.*

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has photographic evidence of five gray wolf pups and two adults in Northern California.

After trail cameras recorded a lone canid in May and July, CDFW deployed additional cameras, one of which took multiple photos showing five pups, which appear to be a few months old and others showing individual adults. Because of the proximity to the original camera locations, it is likely the adult previously photographed in May and July is associated with the group of pups.

“This news is exciting for California,” said Charlton H. Bonham, CDFW Director. “We knew wolves would eventually return home to the state and it appears now is the time.”

Big wildlife news. A wolf a few years ago was the first to cross into western Oregon and then into northern California since they were extirpated. That wolf has now been joined by a female and a pack has established itself in southwestern Oregon. Now California joins the ranks of states that again has wolves.

*I was at a conference on wolves at New Mexico State University in around 2005 and a woman from a ranching family actually claimed this would happen and we’d be sorry for supporting wolves. And yes that image is real.

Ban Private Drones

[ 185 ] August 20, 2015 |


Will it take a plane crash that kills 200 people to lead to a crackdown against privately owned drones? Or are drones the new gun, with their use “personal freedom” no matter what the cost?

At 8:51 a.m., a white drone startled the pilot of a JetBlue flight, appearing off its left wing moments before it landed at Los Angeles International Airport. Five hours later, a quadcopter whizzed underneath an Allegiant Air flight as it approached the same runway. Elsewhere in California, pilots of light aircraft reported narrowly dodging drones in San Jose and La Verne.

In Washington, a Cessna pilot reported a drone cruising at 1,500 feet in highly restricted airspace over the nation’s capital, forcing the U.S. military to scramble fighter jets as a precaution. In Louisville, a silver-and-white drone almost collided with a training aircraft. In Chicago, United Airlines Flight 970 reported seeing a drone pass by at an altitude of 3,500 feet.

All told, 12 episodes were recorded Sunday of small drones interfering with airplanes or coming too close to airports, including other incidents in New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Florida and North Carolina, according to previously undisclosed reports filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Before last year, close encounters with rogue drones were unheard of. But as a result of a sales boom, small, largely unregulated remote-control aircraft are clogging U.S. airspace, snarling air traffic and giving the FAA fits.

That was Sunday. It’s only a matter of time, and not a very long amount of time, before these private drones lead to a real tragedy. They are too big of a public safety hazard for people to own as toys, hazards that will only become more extreme as the technology improves. And while you could say that they should just be banned from areas around airports, remember that aircraft flies a lot of places and these drones could take a down a fire fighting plane or a news helicopter easily.

And in case anyone wants to hear a scary story, when I flew back to Austin after defending my dissertation, my plane struck a flock of geese. It was just like the Hudson except no river to land in. We made an emergency landing in Albuquerque. A couple of birds killed an engine and put a hole in the wing. It doesn’t take much at those speeds to kill people.

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.

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