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The Problem is Also the Maximums

[ 16 ] October 9, 2014 |

Andrea Jones has an excellent piece on The War On (Some People Who Use Some) Drugs and mass incarceration. I do have one quibble: the framing suggesting defining the problem with draconian drug laws as “mandatory minimums.” Now, to be clear, the mandatory minimums for drug offenses should be reduced, and as the Supreme Court observed in the context of the death penalty they don’t even really reduce arbitrariness so much as transfer it from judges to the less accountable prosecutor’s office. Nevertheless, reducing mandatory minimums is far from sufficient. Maintaining the judicial discretion to impose lengthy maximum sentences for drug possession will lie around like a loaded weapon, leaving far too many people in prison. The problem with mandatory minimums isn’t the restriction on judicial discretion per se; it’s that people end up in prison who shouldn’t be there. This problem needs to be attacked from both ends.

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Toxic Tokenism

[ 154 ] October 9, 2014 |

If you accuse a woman who’s also a misogynist that she enjoys the attention and validation she gets from male misogynists, you’re bound to be accused of misogyny yourself. It’s a cute trick, but here’s why it doesn’t work: so long as there are oppressed groups there are going to be members of those groups who work to appeal to the dominant group. (These dominant groups always seem to made up primarily of straight, white men–it’s weird how that works.) Anyhow, toxic tokenism is certainly not something that only conservative women engage in. People of color and LBGT folks also dabble. Why? It’s the allure of being extraordinary! Let me illustrate…

Snowflake the Very Special Head of Cauliflower: Hey, cauliflower-hating humans, I know you hate cauliflower. I totally get it. We’re all white and cauliflowery gross. I know. I hate us too.

Anti-Cauliflowerites: Yeah, totally. Most of you are pretty gross and stupid and taste like poop.

Snowflake the Very Special Head of Cauliflower: Oh, I absolutely agree. But I’m not like those other heads of cauliflower–I’m special, I’m different. See, I know you’re right about us being gross. And I’m not always going on about how you should slather us in oil and roast us in the oven until we’re golden and sweet-nutty-tasting…maybe toss us with a little parmesan cheese…Hold on. I got distracted. Anyway, yes, we suck.

Anti-Cauliflowerites: You know what? You’re pretty cool. You’re one of the good ones. I wish all the cauliflower could be like you.

Snowflake the Very Special Head of Cauliflower: *long, sad sigh* Me too. [Inner monologue: NOT REALLY! NOT REALLY! NOT REALLY!]

The spirit of Snowflake the Very Special Head of Cauliflower can be seen inhabiting the bodies of lots of toxic tokens:

Sarah Palin: “You’re not like those other women–you’re not an ugly feminist and you’re procreating like a champ! We give you an 8 on the Duggar Scale!”

Ben Carson: “You’re not like those other Blacks. I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard a rap song in your life. Also, we know nothing about you but want you to be president.”

Log Cabin Republicans: “Sure, we hate you, but last time we checked your ripply muscled arms–toned from your last mutual masturbation party–are just as good at pulling the voting lever as they are for all the hot, disgusting, titillating…hold on. We got distracted. Anyway, we’re totally down with your voting for us. But no traditional marriage for you!”

To which all the misogynist women and self-loathing people of color and gays say “Make me your token!” Because the allure of being special, of being different, of being extraordinary is JUST. THAT. STRONG for some very weak people.

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Thursday Links

[ 48 ] October 9, 2014 |

For your Thursday morning coffee drinking pleasure:

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Fracking for the Cure

[ 17 ] October 8, 2014 |

Nothing like pinkwashing an energy process like fracking that dumps untold tons of toxins into the environment through pink drill bits. Nice.

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Unions Shouldn’t Fund Their Enemies

[ 30 ] October 8, 2014 |

Talked about this last week, but Arkansas electing Tom Cotton is going to be horrible. So I don’t blame liberals and unions going all in for Mark Pryor, bleh as he is.

On the other hand, I do think unions should have some baseline standards before they give a politician money. For instance, should teachers’ unions give money to Pryor when he turns around and gets in bed with the union-busting charter school movement? I would argue no, but they are giving money to Pryor anyway. It’s one thing to give money to someone who is your not greatest supporter in Congress. It’s another to give it to someone who openly opposes what you stand for. I have trouble believing that’s in their members’ interest. After all, it is not unions’ job to be the only progressive organization to have to ignore their own self-interest for the broader progressive movement. It’s not as if NOW is expected to work for anti-abortion Democrats or Sierra Club is supposed to get out the vote for politicians in the pocket of the oil industry. But unions routinely go to the mat for politicians who don’t pay them back. Tom Cotton is bad but on the issue of teachers unions, Pryor is not much better and certainly not good.

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Don’t Call It Hazing. Call It Sexual Assault.

[ 139 ] October 8, 2014 |

Where a “boys will be boys” mentality leads you:

It came without warning.

It would start with a howling noise from a senior football player at Sayreville War Memorial High School, and then the locker room lights were abruptly shut off.

In the darkness, a freshman football player would be pinned to the locker-room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.

This disturbing hazing within the storied Sayreville football program, as told to NJ Advance Media on Wednesday by the parent of a player in the program, happened almost every day in the locker room this fall, he said.

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Educational credentialing and household income: 1973-2013

[ 37 ] October 8, 2014 |

It’s well known that having more educational credentials correlates strongly with higher income. This correlation has led lots of people to make the common sense assumption that increasing the educational credentials of the population as a whole will in turn produce higher incomes. Common sense assumes, as it so often does in a naive pre-theoretical way, that correlation equals causation.

At a more sophisticated theoretical level, the assumption at work here is that enhanced credentials signal enhanced human capital. In other words, more education (or in any case more educational credentials — a distinction which is usually ignored) creates or enhances abilities in its recipients they would not otherwise have, and these abilities allow them to perform work they would not otherwise be able to do.

If we then further assume that this work would not be performed, or at least not be performed as profitably, in the absence of the enhanced abilities signaled by the credentials, then enhanced human capital increases income by ameliorating structural un-and-underemployment.

That’s why almost all of Tom Friedman’s conversations with garrulous cab drivers invariably end with him concluding that everybody needs to get an advanced degree in bio-mechanical statistics, because in a globalized flat world we can no longer afford for the average person to be average.

There is, however, a very different account of why more educational credentials correlate with higher income. In this alternate world, that correlation exists not, or at least not primarily, because the credentials signal that human capital has been enhanced, but rather because those credentials signal that the possessors of the credentials have certain valuable preexisting abilities, and/or enjoy higher class status, than those without them. To the extent this alternative account is correct, educational credentials are positional goods, which have a realizable pecuniary value precisely to the extent that they are scarce (I’m not going to address the non-pecuniary value of education here, other than to note again that the value, pecuniary or otherwise, of actual education is quite a different thing from the value of educational credentials.)

One way of testing these dueling theories is to look at what happens to incomes across time, when the percentage of a population that holds various credentials changes significantly. Of course any such comparison is going to be incomplete in all sorts of important ways. Still, it would seem that, all other things being equal, increasing educational credentials in a population should correlate strongly with increasing incomes in that population, if the human capital theory is valid.

Consider then the following (all dollar figures are expressed in constant 2013 dollars):

US GDP in 1973: $5,889,810,000,000

US GDP in 2013: $16,768,100,000,000

GDP per capita 1973: $27,790

GDP per capita 2013: $52,986

As I’ve noted before, it has been one of the curious features of cultural and political rhetoric in America for more than a generation now that even many highly educated (or in any event credentialed) people assume that the economy as a whole is stagnant, not growing, weak in comparison to the post-World War II boom times, etc. In fact, in terms of just annual economic output, (a figure which doesn’t include accumulated wealth) the country is 11 trillion dollars richer than it was 40 years ago: real GDP has nearly tripled, and even after taking into account population growth, it has almost doubled.

During this same time, the educational credentials of the population have improved almost as dramatically as the nation’s measurable economic output. Per the enhanced human capital theory, we’re getting richer because we’re getting smarter, and all that’s necessary to extend this virtuous — or at least profitable — circle more or less indefinitely is for various forms of education to become increasingly universal, until we finally inhabit a Friedmanesque Lake Wobegon, in which all the cab drivers can quote Wittgenstein, while writing ever-more elaborate computer programs in their off hours.

A look at the latest census data on household income appears to tell a very different story. Consider the following cohorts:

(a) Households headed in 1973 by people 45-54 years of age.

(b) Households headed in 1973 by people 25-34 years of age.

(c) Households headed in 2013 by people 45-54 years of age.

(d) Households headed in 2013 by people 25-34 years of age.

What sorts of educational credentials did these different cohorts possess? Here, we’ll look at the two most crucial credentials for the purpose of a population-wide analysis: high school and college degrees.

Approximate percentage of 45-54 year old adults who possessed a high school diploma or more in 1973: 50

Approximate percentage of 45-54 year old adults who possessed a bachelor’s degree or more in 1973: 8

Approximate percentage of 25-34 year old adults who possessed a high school diploma or more in 1973: 70

Approximate percentage of 25-34 year old adults who possessed a bachelor’s degree or more in 1973: 19

Approximate percentage of 45-54 year old adults who possessed a high school diploma or more in 2013: 81

Approximate percentage of 45-54 year old adults who possessed a bachelor’s degree or more in 2013: 23

Approximate percentage of 25-34 year old adults who possessed a high school diploma or more in 2013: 83

Approximate percentage of 25-34 year old adults who possessed a bachelor’s degree or more in 2013: 30

Note that most discussions of improving educational attainment focus on increasing the percentage of college graduates. Yet if more education increases income by enhancing human capital, then increasing the percentage of high school graduates should have an even stronger effect. This is because any improvement in abilities due to more education ought to be subject to diminishing marginal returns. For example, someone who goes from running 10 miles per week to running 20 will see far more improvement in aerobic capacity per extra mile run than someone who moves from running 20 to running 30. If we assume the validity of the enhanced human capital theory of education, it would be very peculiar if someone who received 13 years of formal education rather than nine did not get a greater benefit in terms of the resultant enhancement of human capital from each extra year of education, in comparison to someone who received 17 rather than 13.

With these things in mind, let’s now look at the median household income (see Table H-10) for people in these demographic cohorts.

Median household income, 45-54 year olds, 1973: $65,988

Median household income, 25-34 year olds, 1973: $55,458

Median household income, 45-54 year olds, 2013: $67,141

Median household income, 25-34 year olds, 2013: $52,702

Despite the 60% increase in the prevalence of high school diplomas, and the near tripling in the prevalence of college degrees, that took place among middle-aged people between 1973 and 2013, median household income for this demographic group is practically identical to what it was 40 years ago. Meanwhile, despite their impressive gains in educational credentialing relative to their demographic peers of four decades ago, the comparable figures for 25-34 year olds show an actual decline in median household income between 1973 and 2013.

Consider how extraordinary these figures are, given both the almost incomprehensible increase in the nation’s total wealth over the past four decades — $11 trillion dollars more per year in economic output! — and the fact that, in the US population as a whole, college degrees are today as common as high school degrees were in the 1940s.

Note too that, when considering median household income across time, the labor force participation rate is higher today than it was in the early 1970s (approximately 45% of women worked outside the home in 1973, as compared to nearly 60% today), which suggests that the same — or, in the case of 25-34 year olds, lower — median household income today relative to forty years ago is actually requiring more hours of paid labor to produce.

It would be something of an understatement to say these statistics call into question the enhanced human capital theory of educational attainment. Instead, they are precisely what we would expect to find if educational credentialing is a positional good: one whose value must invariably deteriorate as it becomes less scarce. (Currently, somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of 25-34 year old college graduates are earning less than the median high school graduate of the same age).

Meanwhile, consider what has happened to the cost of undergraduate education over this time frame (2013$):

Average Private Four-Year Non-profit College Tuition 1973: $10,783

Average Private Four-Year Non-profit College Tuition 2013: $30,094

Average Public Four-Year College Tuition 1973: $2,710

Average Public Four-Year College Tuition 2013: $8,893

(Interestingly room and board charges have also risen quite a bit, although not as drastically, from $6,200 in 1973 to $11,800 in 2013 at private colleges, and slightly less at public schools).

All this in turn suggests that more than a generation’s worth of rhetoric regarding how we must inculcate the rest of society with upper-middle class mores in regard to the value of obtaining educational credentials has ultimately harmed efforts to combat increasing social and economic stratification.

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Casting Couch

[ 43 ] October 8, 2014 |

One of my favorite games to play with my mom (as an adult) was Casting Couch. Much less exciting than it sounds, it was basically just my mom and I recasting classic movies with modern casts.

Well, it appears Paul Feig is looking to make several of my dreams come true at the same time, as he is rebooting “Ghostbusters”…with a female cast. I am giddy.

So, what do you say? Wanna play Casting Couch? Who should be in the new “Ghostbusters?”

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Thanks. Also, Music

[ 16 ] October 8, 2014 |

It’s a bit difficult to come back to active blogging after the fundraising campaign for my stolen computers and–far, far worse–the lost documents for my book. At least I had submitted the thing already so even if I have significant revisions, it’s not like I have to start the whole project over. But still, it’s basically the worst thing ever. It’s also the 5th certifiable catastrophe to happen to me since I moved to Rhode Island, which is just bizarre. Luckily none of those things have resulted in injury.

I confess that I wasn’t very comfortable with being the center of a fundraising campaign. I am after all pretty Protestant about my relations with the rest of the world and while I totally support fundraising for others, for myself, it’s hard. So I do very much appreciate the donations. Basically, it will allow me to buy a new computer–a machine that will never be in the same place as my office computer so that the same calamity can never happen again–and some adaptators, the purchase of cloud space, etc. I know some people who don’t use Paypal were interested in an address and you can send it to my work address here. I think that’s enough about all of that except to say that your generosity in helping me out of a horrible situation is greatly appreciated and won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Anything additional would be used to get me back to the West for those sources. And you are all too nice to me. OK, enough of beating this dead horse.

Anyway, now that my life is starting to reorder itself a bit, I should be able to get back to blogging more or less at my regular pace (although I do have a conference most of next week). To start that process and connect it to my perils, I found this piece about too much music interesting because I’ve been feeling that myself lately. I didn’t know it would be possible to have too much music and I guess it isn’t. But because I had so much music (and so much lost although not all of it because I never got rid of my old CDs + stuff on the itunes cloud + some favorites I had burned onto a CD to play in my car) I realized I was struggling to connect to most of it. There was the occasional thing that broke through–Wussy, Frank Ocean, Mary Halvorson, Mates of State, realizing after many years of not hearing them how amazing L7 was–but mostly I’d listen to something a few times and then it would fade into the background. This isn’t so good. Over the past week, with my far more limited available music, I’ve actually been enjoying it more because it’s all stuff I love.

That doesn’t mean I’m not actively seeking to reconstruct my collection. But I think this is a good time to really edit the heck out of it. My policy in the past was to basically keep everything I ever acquired unless I really hated it. But do I really need the Frank Zappa live tracks I picked up 20 years ago in college? No, most of them aren’t very good. I’ll keep a few that I still like. Or all the mediocrities I took flyers on over the years? Probably not. Or even the discs upon discs of Appalachian music from the 20s with all the poor recording quality that implies, even though I actually like that stuff. On the other hand, I might take the opportunity to really invest in more jazz albums from the 40s-mid 60s. I’ve been into avant-garde jazz since I started listening to the genre, often to the expense of the earlier periods.

And in any case, actually listening to the 100 or so albums I most love over and over again, is actually a really good thing to do.

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Against Devolution

[ 94 ] October 8, 2014 |
Some 2004 nostalgia for you today.

Some 2004 nostalgia for you today.

One of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote was a response to (not entirely serious) calls from the left that the blue states should secede and join Canada after the 2004 election when George W. Bush was (narrowly) re-elected. You may or may not remember the then-ubiquitous maps of the “United States of Health Care and Education” vs. “Jesusland,” but at the time they represented a real fear that the blue states were permanently in the minority, out of touch with “real America,” and just as “un-American” as right-wing culture warriors have always claimed. The idea was that, by removing the Blue States from a permanently Republican America, we’d now be able to pass universal health care and all the other liberal reforms supposedly impossible in the nation as a whole. Then 2006 and 2008 happened, and this theme dropped out of American political discourse for the most part.

It’s come up again in the wake of the Scottish referendum, where I was puzzled by more than a few in the left in both the U.S and the U.K being in favor of devolution, not only for Scotland, but also for the North of England and other English regions (notably Jon Cruddas, head of Labour’s policy review, is incredibly bullish on devolution to cities and regions). At the same time, the New Scientist recently came out with an article cheerfully proclaiming the death of the nation-state and an escalation of devolution to local “neo-feudalism” complemented with some form of international “networks.” Supposedly this is good for the left, because nationalism = racism.

In this post, I intend to make the case that devolution is a terrible idea for the left.

Read more…

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Is the Supreme Court Refusing to Grant Cert in The Same-Sex Marriage Cases Like Dred Scott? (SPOILER: No.)

[ 81 ] October 8, 2014 |

Matthew Franck offers many reasons for his comparison.  You will be surprised to learn that they are all terrible. Let’s start:

Like Dred Scott, judicial decisions in favor of same-sex marriage needlessly divide the country on an important moral issue about which people differ, and could otherwise debate their differences in the democratic process, on the pretext that there is a genuine constitutional issue in the cases.

Same-sex marriage will an issue that “will divide the country,” at least in the short term, whether the Court intervenes or not. (A Supreme Court ruling that bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional would also be divisive.) Also note that this proves too much, as one could say the same thing about Brown v. Board. Judicial review is a part of the American democratic process, and the same-sex marriage cases present a genuine constitutional issue.

Like Dred Scott, such decisions rest on transparently fallacious legal reasoning with no connection to the Constitution’s words, historic meaning, or underlying principles.

This is absurd, but we’ll return to this in a second.

Like Dred Scott, these decisions rely, in part, on the conflation of the due process clause with a constitutionally ungrounded and so far unexplained power of the judiciary to decide what is “arbitrary” or “reasonable” or “just” in legislation, known by the laughable oxymoron “substantive due process.”

On a minor point, while substantive due process might sound like an oxymoron, it is in fact deeply embedded within American constitutionalism. (Note that McLean, dissenting in Dred Scott, accepted the premise that people had a 5th Amendment right to take their property into the territories; he dissented from the holding that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because “a slave is not property beyond the operation of the local law which makes him such.”) This doesn’t make it inherently correct, but the idea that the concept of “due process of law” guaranteed more than fair procedures was not an opportunistic invention of the slave power (although the application of the principle by the slave power was certainly opportunistic.)

But this argument is misleading in a much more important sense. It’s true that, because of the Windsor holding, the circuit court rulings that state bans on same-sex marriage generally did cite the due process clause. But Windsor was a due process case because of reverse incorporation — that is, the well-settled holding that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment binds the federal government through the due process clause of the 5th Amendment just was the due process clause makes most of the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. It is much more accurate, although inconvenient for Franck’s silly Dred Scott analogy, to describe these cases as equal protection cases, not substantive due process cases.

At this point, the absurdity of Franck’s assertion that the circuit court holdings have “no connection to the Constitution’s words” becomes readily apparent. If a state classification that excludes a group of persons who have historically been subject to invidious discrimination has “no connection” to the explicit constitutional requirement that states shall not deny anyone the “equal protection of the laws,” it’s not clear what content the equal protection clause is supposed to have.

Like Dred Scott, decisions for same-sex marriage rely on a false anthropology that drives a political decision made by judges. In Dred Scott it was the false idea that some human beings can own other human beings, and that a democratic people cannot say otherwise. In the same-sex marriage rulings it is the false idea that men can marry men, and women can marry women, and that democratic peoples cannot say otherwise.

This is obviously offensive for the reasons explained in the original Millhiser post. In addition, Franck’s assertion that same-sex marriage is a “false idea” will be useful to those who need an example of what “begging the question” means.

Skipping some pure gibberish about how the decisions will impair the ability of people to do something called “living the truth” about same-sex marriage (that apparently goes beyond merely being free to choose not to marry a same-sex partner and to state your views that same-sex marriages are morally objectionable), we get this:

Like Dred Scott, same-sex marriage rulings, for all the reasons above, amount to a comprehensive threat to republican government, raising the question Lincoln asked in his First Inaugural Address, whether the American people are entitled to govern themselves, or must surrender to government by an “eminent tribunal” of judicial despots.

Republican government, as it exists in the United States, permits legislative enactments to be reviewed by the judiciary. One can fairly argue about whether this is a good thing, but it is not obviously inconsistent with democratic government. And, of course, Franck does not believe this either; after all, he “agree[d] with the dissenters” in NFIB v. Sebelius, making him by his own lights an enemy of democracy and the contemporary equivalent of Roger Taney.

If Franck wants a recent decision that actually uses Dred Scott‘s constitutional reasoning (as opposed to being like Dred Scott because every exercise of judicial review one doesn’t like is like Dred Scott), I have one for him

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[ 76 ] October 8, 2014 |

For all the abuse Yost got for the wildcard game, what Matt Williams did tonight was indeed far worse. In fairness, nobody could have predicted that a managerial protege of Kirk Gibson would turn out to be shaky.

And now we have a Giants/Cardinals NLCS, which for neutral observers must be by far the most dreary matchup. Well, you can take the Expos out of Montreal but…

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