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The “Paper Trail” Myth

[ 49 ] July 25, 2010 |

Essentially, among people who don’t think that the Supreme Court’s perspectives should range only from “Rockefeller Republican” to “Newt Gingrich Republican,” there have been two excuses for nominating Elena Kagan in a context that would permit a much more clearly liberal nominee. The first of these — age — I’ll leave for a subsequent post. The second is the idea that since all contemporary nominees are blank slates, Obama is just doing what every other modern president does, because candidates with a paper trail are extremely difficult to get confirmed.

In a comment to his (deservedly) widely-discussed post, Paul makes a point in response that shouldn’t be buried:

What “trend” would that be? The trend that put Alito and Roberts and Sotomayor on the Court? Two of those three had long careers as appellate judges and the third was a well-known movement conservative whose political and legal positions were not in any real doubt.

And one can same thing about Breyer and Ginsburg; they both had well-established public views. It’s also worth noting that the only nomination of the last two decades that came close to failing in the Senate — Thomas — involved the candidate with arguably the thinnest “paper trial” among the group between Kennedy and Kagan. (The other candidate is Souter, which is…not a precedent Kagan defenders are going to want to use in any case.) And in addition to this, the nominee with the very thinnest paper trail in this period — Miers — was actually forced to withdraw, and was replaced by a successful nominee whose down-the-line reactionary bona fides couldn’t have been much more clearly established.

Against all of this, I assume Kagan defenders will invoke Robert Bork, who did have a long paper trail and was indeed defeated. But it’s not clear how Bork is relevant to, say, Diane Wood. First of all, Bork doesn’t prove that you can’t be confirmed if you have a paper trail; he proves that you will have a hard time getting confirmed if your paper trail includes stuff like “the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional” and “free speech is a ‘gratification’ in most cases deserving no special protection against the powers of the majority.” So, yes, if you express views that are well outside of the mainstream of what either party is currently willing to defend publicly, having a paper trail is a problem. But this isn’t going to apply in most cases. And even in this relatively extreme case, Bork’s defeat was highly contingent — on Reagan waiting until the Republicans lost their Senate majority to nominate him, and on many of the crucial votes in the Senate being conservative Southern Democrats who couldn’t vote for someone with Bork’s record on civil rights.

So, anyway, the “paper trail” argument is a lousy justification for nominating Kagan. Even since the failure of the Bork nomination, a majority of candidates have had a substantial paper trail and all of these have been confirmed. And of the three possible exceptions, one was nearly rejected, one was forced to withdraw, and one demonstrates that blank slate candidates carry a very substantial downside risk.

…while it hasn’t really been made by her defenders here, Joe is right to note in comments that there’s a third justification: that she’ll able to use her faculty-management skills to persuade Anthony Kennedy to switch sides in some close cases. If anything, I think this argument is even worse than the other two, but it is out there.


Deep Thought

[ 11 ] July 24, 2010 |

Finding out that liberal pundits were happy when Barack Obama won the 2008 election is a remarkably shocking scandal. Tucker Carlson is truly redefining journalism for our time.

On the Worthlessness of “Authenticity” As A Criterion of Value

[ 48 ] July 24, 2010 |

I think our commenter Bob sums it up well:

If authenticity mattered Billy Ray Cyrus, born into a Pentecostal family in KY, would be a much better musician than Ingram Cecil Connor III, better known as Gram Parsons, who was driven to prep school by a chauffeur, but I’ll be damned if Hickory Wind isn’t an infinitely better song than Achy Breaky Heart.

Game, set, match.

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They will always behave like grade-schoolers

[ 12 ] July 24, 2010 |

Paul Waldman on the subject of painting Energy Department roofs white to save energy:

I’m guessing conservatives will attack this idea, because … well, because conservation is for wimps, or something. You might remember that Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House, and when Ronald Reagan took office, he ordered them taken down. I wonder if President Palin will demand that all the white roofs on DoE buildings be painted black?

The answer is, “Of course she will,” because when Republicans waste energy, they hear the symphony of a million hippies weeping:

UCLA economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn analyzed the impact of an energy-conservation program in California that informed households about how their energy use compared with that of their neighbors. While the program succeeded in encouraging Democrats and environmentalists to lower their consumption, Republicans had the opposite reaction. When told of their relative thrift, they started cranking up the thermostat and leaving the lights on more often.


Privatize by Stealth.

[ 2 ] July 24, 2010 |

After seven years of living in the UK, two institutions that I admire (which never fails to invite derision from some quarters in Britain) are the BBC and the NHS.  The former is funded by one of the most regressive taxes on the planet, one that I happily pay every December.  Last August, at the height of the health care “reform” debate in the United States, I wrote at some length about my personal experiences with the NHS.

Fortunately, with the Tory erm, so-called “coalition” government, privatization is once again all the rage, so neither are likely to emerge from the current Government unscathed.  The BBC is under a muted threat, with Tory plans to reduce the annual license fee.  Their incentive for doing so is unclear: the license fee tax is solely used for the BBC, so their incentive is either demonstrating their tax cutting prowess in a manner that doesn’t affect the current fiscal position, or a spiteful assault on the institution.

The NHS is under a more direct threat.  The best MSM analysis I’ve read about this comes from the NYT, which is perhaps understandable given the distance.  Devolving budgetary authority and responsibility to GPs is risky, bonkers, and is unlikely to generate the savings promised.  What is clear to me is that this is a Tory wet dream: it’s a stealth privatization scheme, one utterly inconsistent with the promises of the coalition Government.  But hey, it worked for the trains.

Considering the weight and direction of these policies, one has to wonder what the hell the Liberal Democrats are doing in this coalition (besides selling out)?  Lib Dem supporters are themselves befuddled, with deserters breaking 2:1 to Labour.  Lib Dem support is down to 16%, and only 41% of the electorate support the coalition government.

It would be easy to quip that it’s little wonder the Tories want to adopt a five-year fixed term Parliament, but in reality it is now in the interests of the Tories for the government to fall.

Fall Comics Courses: “American Manga” and “Coming of Age”

[ 36 ] July 23, 2010 |

I’m teaching two sections of my comics course in Fall 2010, and instead of relying on all the Batman or Alan Moore material, I decided to test-drive chapters from the upcoming book.

The first is called “American Manga,” and in it I’ll be teaching the first book and the film adaptation of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a few episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. You’ll note that I’ve chosen three series that have been adapted into films, but am only teaching one of the films.  The idea is to get them to write about the films I’m not teaching with the tools they acquired from the one I did.  Or they can focus on what the process of Americanization actually entails.  (To that end I thought about including Cowboy Bebop and Serenity because they act like mirror images of each other: the former imagines fleeing a barely inhabitable Earth into a universe that is ostensibly Japanese, but heavily indebted to an explicitly American cultural ethos; the latter imagines fleeing “Earth that was” into a universe that is ostensibly frontier America, but heavily indebted to an explicitly Chinese cultural ethos.  But then I tried lesson-planning that transoceanic cultural exchange and my head exploded.)

The second is called “Coming of Age” at the moment, but could be changed into something along the lines of “Confessional Comics” depending on what other material I include.*  To date I’ve selected Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and while I know there are a million other indie comics that fit the bill, outside of Ghost World I can’t think of any other “Coming of Age” comics that have been adapted into film.  (My general aversion to Clowes is the only reason I’m disinclined to use it.)  As this is certainly a byproduct of a general summer malaise, I wonder what obvious item I’m overlooking.

*If I lose the focus on “Coming of Age” and switch to the more general “Confessional Comics,” I could obviously include Pekar and his film.

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Making Garbage-Ade Out of Garbage

[ 16 ] July 23, 2010 |

With now multiple major oceanic oil spills occupying the world’s attention, a few commentators and NGOs are trying to remind us of the various other ecological disasters that may be getting less press. In perusing Ecocide’s top ten list, I learned about the “Great Pacific Trash Vortex” for the first time. As Time Magazine described last year:

It’s an accumulation of plastic debris swept into the Pacific — whether directly from beaches or flowing out of rivers — and carried by equatorial currents into a swirling pattern to one spot between Hawaii and the mainland U.S. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic toys — even last year’s Crocs — end up in the shifting vortex, which some scientists estimate to be twice the size of Texas.

Greenpeace’s website still says it’s only “the size of Texas.” Other sources I am reading now say there are actually two Pacific “gyres,” not one, and that together they’re currently estimated to be greater than the size of the continental United States. And they are only two of five such gyres globally. Whatever the amount of tonnage we’re actually talking about, it’s a disturbing – and disturbingly little-talked-about trend. And, as the Time article continues:

As plastic use increases, especially in rapidly growing developing nations on the western end of the Pacific, that vortex will continue to grow. “It’s huge,” notes Doug Woodring, an entrepreneur and ocean conservationist in Hong Kong. But “unfortunately the ocean is a big place, and once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.”

Beyond simply not making it worse, I’ve seen few proposals for fixing the problem… until this past month. How about collecting all the garbage and turning it in the world’s first recycled habitat? The idea is being proposed by a Dutch architecture firm and described here.

Hmm… well first I’d like to know more about how they plan to cull all that plastic from the water in the first place. It’s not clear to me how techologically feasible that is, though if the problem is simply political will (the vortex exists in international waters and no one is really responsible for it) then a project like this could make some sense.

The Futurist’s Paul Raven is skeptical for other reasons:

Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything…

“Recycled Island” is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting.

I don’t know. First of all, who says the island will be independent of everyone else and why should an artificial island be any more horrifying than any other small oceanic statelet? Second, who says it will be floating around at will? The gyre stays where it is because of ocean currents.

If the collective action problems associated with the sovereign states system are part of what allows problems like this to arise and persist, perhaps either an internationalized governance structure akin to the Antarctica treaty or a post-sovereign “city-state” paradigm make more sense than doing nothing.

UPDATE: For more, here’s a thoughtful short film about our relationship to plastic – HT to “dsn”.

I was more correct than I thought, as “vastly dumber” seriously underestimates the 10-minutes-more-current state of the discourse.

[ 74 ] July 22, 2010 |

Now I see that Big Journalism is ablaze with this article in which The Daily Caller‘s Jonathan Strong reveals that the cosigners a letter published in The Nation in April of 2008 actually discussed the contents of that letter before they signed it. Moreover, Strong reveals that all of these people worked for publications whose editorial slant is patently liberal or leftist like Mother Jones or The Washington Independent.

This is only a conspiracy if you’re an idiot. Because if you don’t believe that people who work for liberal or leftist publications, or are hired to be the liberal editorial voices for mainstream publications, are liberals who might commingle with those who share their beliefs, online and elsewhere, you are an idiot.*

*I’m not about to throw Donald Douglas a link, but just in case you need proof of my bold thesis: he’s all over this story.

Update: Looks like Henry Farrell beat me to what is, quite rightly, his punch to take.

This sort of stupidity takes talent.

[ 21 ] July 22, 2010 |

Every time I go off the grid for a few days the world I return to seems vastly dumber:

Also, does anyone really believe that Andrew Breitbart would intentionally distort a video clip to make a one-day splash? Risk his growing reputation with a deliberate, easily refutable distortion?

How can someone compose such a stupid rhetorical question? Fine, fine:

Dear Guy Benson,

Everyone who doesn’t believe Barack Obama is a secret Kenyan socialist sent from abroad to further the communist plot hatched by Marxists to control the means of production and fer yer wimmen believes Andrew Breitbart is not only capable of doing that, but that he actually did.

Thank you and have a nice day.

The Purpose of Higher Education

[ 24 ] July 22, 2010 |

Something that I and other colleagues have noted at institutions similar to my current employer is that there seems to be an omnipresent implied, when not explicit, anti-intellectual current defining the place.  While a bit muddled at times, this CIF entry in The Guardian captures this sense.  I chuckled at this line:

This has undoubtedly led to a mass increase in the population of students in the UK, but with it a rise in degrees in such subjects as sports, human resources and marketing – which may have slender academic perspectives but are in essence vocational.

During the most recent reorganisation of my home institution (where we slimmed down from seven faculties to five and dispersed the social sciences as an organized, going concern in any recognizable form) my “department”, a political science department, was placed into the “School of Management” in the Business School, along with, yes, human resources and marketing, among other intellectually and pedagogically compatible departments (e.g. shipping and logistics).

I was completely unaware of the meaning of “former Poly” when I applied for my present position, being neither British by birth nor culture, and naturally assumed that if the word “university” was in the title, the institution did as it says on the tin.  My initial ignorance of the term “former poly” aside, this entry does seem to capture the ambiguity of the position such institutions find themselves in.  At mine, the current pitch is all about vocation and applied knowledge, period.  We have styled ourselves as “The Enterprise University”, emphasis in original, for the past two or three years, after all.

The budget cuts the sector has only just begun to face in the UK (and it will get a lot worse in the next few years) does beg the question, and not to sound glib or flip, but: what’s the point?  What purpose should a university serve in broader society?  The British have a clear idea, again pointed out by the Guardian entry: “which is why we have the total absurdity of the business secretary, not the education secretary, pronouncing on the future of higher education”.

While pondering this, I’ll return to writing a book proposal . . .

Fatherhood III: Learning to Deal with the Little Monsters

[ 24 ] July 21, 2010 |

For the first few months, I was responsible for more general day-to-day child care than my wife.  She was working full time, and since I was teaching only one course per week, I had a reasonable amount of time to spare.  We were also fortunate enough to be able to hire a couple of nannies, one for three nights a week and one for three days.  Both nannies were fantastic, and we do our best to stay in touch.  Nevertheless, I theoretically had responsibility for four nights and four days a week, although in practice we were able to farm out the girls to relatives often enough that I didn’t usually work that much.  This arrangement allowed me to feel as if I were doing my part in contributing to childcare; I was still quite mindful of the difficulty that Davida had endured during the pregnancy.  Of course, I didn’t have to affix the screechy little parasites to my body, or take the breast pump to work.

During the days, my favorite part of the job was taking the girls for a walk.  They normally went right to sleep as soon as the stroller started moving, so we’d explore the parts of downtown/Inner Harbor Baltimore that were within our radius of action.  The walks were nice because they broke up the tedium, but also because people tended to be really friendly to a guy walking around with newborn twins in a stroller.  You tend to see fewer men pushing strollers, and you don’t tend to see a lot of double strollers.  It soon became clear that people were willing to cut me a lot of slack simply because I was a guy with two babies in a stroller.  Of course, anyone with two babies gets some sympathy, but I was a guy with two babies in a stroller.

This exposed the soft bigotry of low expectations problem. If I pop wheelies with the stroller, I get credit for at least being willing to take care of my kids. If I deliver the babies to day care with mushed-carrot-stained clothes, nobody thinks I’m a bad dad; at least I care enough to deliver them. If I do tricep extensions with a baby at 1pm in a sports bar while drinking a beer with my other hand, people just think it’s cool and funny.  While there’s a certain degree of genuine admiration for the guy who contributes to taking care of the kid, there’s also a fair amount of implicit judgment of the women who’s not doing them.  People judge my wife because she’s not the one changing the poopy diaper, while they think that I’m doing someone a favor by cleaning up after my own offspring. It’s a facet of the old “I’m a fuck up, and it was your fault because you trusted me” problem; my parental inadequacies became her responsibility, because of course what sensible mother would leave the father with such latitude?

The night was far less social, and much more challenging.  Managing newborn twins at night is, I suspect, a difficult proposition at the best of times.  Because the girls didn’t always sleep at the same time, it was difficult to sneak naps longer than a few minutes.  Our situation was complicated by the fact that Elisha was small and initially reluctant to gain weight.  We were told to feed her every 2.5 hours, which made it very difficult indeed to schedule any kind of sleep.  Miriam could probably have operated on a slightly longer schedule; she was a bit bigger and generally drank a bit more, but I don’t think that she could have made it to five hours without waking up hungry.  And so we pretty much had to go through the process of feeding every 2.5 hours, for both babies.  With the inevitable diaper change and the difficulty of getting back to sleep, this routine meant that effectively the night time caretaker got zero sleep.

I only got really angry once.  They were about three weeks old, and Elisha had just fallen asleep for the first time in several hours.  Miriam, however, wouldn’t stop screaming.  It was probably 3am, and I’d been awake for quite a while.  I became, quite suddenly, furious with Miriam.  Nothing happened; I managed eventually to get Miriam to quiet down, and at 6am handed her off to Davida with a curt “Take this baby.”  It’s fair to say, though, that it’s impossible for me to view stories of horrific violence against children in quite the same way as I did before that moment.  I don’t mean serial abuse; I think that there’s a big difference between a prolonged campaign of violence and a sudden act brought about by feelings of desperation.  When you’re in one of those moments, anything seems possible.  I should also note that the lack of sleep, the stress, and the general aggravation led me to be angrier in general.  This was the only time I can remember, however, in which the anger was directed at one of the girls rather than (unfairly) at Davida, or the TV, or some blog commenter, or whomever else crossed my path.

And so I had lots of time on my hands.  I watched Dexter, pretty much the entire series.  I also watched a fair number of old movies, and played some Wii. I did some blogging, and found that my capacity to do decent work at 3am without sleep was considerably less that I’d hoped.  Mostly I played Civ IV, which is a pursuit uniquely suited to wasting time while difficult infants try to fall asleep next to you.  It requires enough engagement to keep your head working, but not so much that sleep deprivation prevents you from playing.  Most of all, it uses up time; if you’re lucky, you can sufficiently lose yourself in the pursuit to capture one more city that you don’t mind overmuch the fact that you have to feed the babies in 15 minutes.

Now it’s a lot easier.  They sleep eleven hours a night (certain difficult nights excepted), and nap on a fairly regular schedule.  They’re both still small, but I don’t constantly worry about the number of calories that Elisha is taking in.  They can also entertain themselves to a certain extent.  I don’t know if it’s yet quite right to say that they play with each other, but they do seem more interactive than the “play around each other” construction.  One thing I’ve noticed is that they when they start crawling toward each other, they invariably overlap; each has aimed at where her sister used to be, and hasn’t bothered to course correct along the way.

I was told by several people that you don’t really remember those first few months.  That’s not quite true, as I remember them quite well.  What I have difficulty remembering is the milestones; I don’t quite remember when Elisha started smiling, or when Miriam first slept through the night, or the variety of other moments that herald a transformation in the relationship between a parent and child.  Oddly enough, though, I’m not really bothered that I don’t remember those things.  Maybe because I’m still in the middle of it, I still prefer to think about it in terms of transitions rather than in terms of endpoints.

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Elena Kagan, Barack Obama, and the American Establishment

[ 105 ] July 21, 2010 |

This article addresses what should be a puzzling question: Why did Barack Obama nominate Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court? Not only has Kagan never been a judge, but, far more problematically, she has over the course of a 25-year legal and political career taken almost no public positions on any significant legal or political questions. This latter fact would, at first glance, seem to disqualify her from consideration for a lifetime appointment to one of America’s most powerful political institutions. That it has not tells us a great deal about deep-seated cultural myths regarding the possibility of separating law from politics, and about the elite institutions that have molded Obama, Kagan, and so many other members of America’s contemporary legal, political, and economic establishment. Ultimately, in one sense Kagan remains, on the eve of her confirmation by the Senate, as much of a blank slate as ever. Yet in another we, like Barack Obama, can venture a good guess regarding what sort of Supreme Court justice she will make. That we can do so reflects both the cultural and ideological power wielded by the elite institutions that are producing the contemporary American establishment, and the relatively narrow range of political views those institutions generate among those who go on to become part of that establishment.

The Elena Kagan story, as presented by both the White House and her supporters throughout the legal world, is that of a brilliant academic and administrative career, whose trajectory has been ever-upward, until it has placed her on the doorstep of the Supreme Court a few months after her 50th birthday. This story is actually a serious oversimplification: Kagan has gotten to her present position despite a series of early career reversals, which culminated in the loss of her position on the University of Chicago faculty, and a brief period in which she was almost frantically scrambling for a job. Her rather abrupt transformation from a soon-to-be unemployed former law professor to dean of the Harvard Law School, and her subsequent ambiguous track record in that position, is a tale that reveals academic politics at their most byzantine. The real story, in other words, is more interesting than the narrative being put forth for public consumption. In some ways it makes Kagan a more attractive figure than the almost robotic paragon of flawless professional advancement concocted by the public relations machine. Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to a number of former colleagues of Kagan’s in Chicago, Washington, and Cambridge. On the basis of those conversations, as well as the public record, the following story emerges.*

Read more…