Sunday, April 26, 2015

What's wrong with praising the Jewish people's "contributions" to society?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy of TNR sharply observes:

This past Friday, The Atlantic posted part of Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Conservative Party leader and current Prime Minister David Cameron. . . . Cameron tells Goldberg, “The Jewish community in Britain makes an incredibly important contribution to our country.” Later he reiterates the “contribution” idea: “So I think in Britain we’re taking the right approach, tackling anti-Semitism, emphasizing the contributions of the Jewish community, and all the rest of it.” In a March speech to a British Jewish organization, Cameron again praised his country’s “Jewish community” for its “contribution,” modified in this case with the word “enormous.” . . .

But talk of “contributions”—apart from just being patronizing—has a way of reinforcing difference, and, in turn, encouraging xenophobia.

Jonathan Chait expanded on a related point in 2013 in New York magazine, in response to some over-the-top contribution-talk from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that, Chait argued, delivered “a speech that is likely to be quoted by anti-Semites for years and decades to come.” The flip side of praise is stereotype: Jews are great, until their greatness means that they are controlling the entire world.

More restrained contribution-rhetoric is “standard spiel for praising any ethnic group,” Chait continued. This is true, but it shouldn’t be: Contribution-talk is always a rebuttal to the notion that some segment of society hasn’t pulled its weight, not a way to change the terms of the discussion. Cameron’s choice to respond to British anti-Semitism with contribution rhetoric ends up implying the Jews’ placement in Britain is contingent on sufficient (unspecified) contributions. Does he mean bagels? What they pay in taxes? If Jews were to earn less, or to introduce fewer charming cultural products, would anti-Semitism then be more acceptable?

Rather than speaking of Jews’ or any other minority group’s “contributions,” politicians should be clear that there is a path toward full belonging. They should promote acceptance of “communities” but also of individuals. Politicians shouldn’t ask that the communally minded chuck out all identity other than national ones, and they should be welcoming of the proudly hyphenated. But they should also remember that not everyone whose name or appearance marks him or her as a minority wants in on organized communal or religious life. Yet everyone who reads as a minority is, by definition, a target of racists and xenophobes. A true rhetoric of inclusiveness would acknowledge existing societal bigotries without reinforcing them.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Remembering Nirvana

From a review of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck in The New Republic:

The strange thing about memory is the way in which certain moments can be lost to you for years, even decades, until something or someone reminds you of them, and you feel their sudden presence with a stupid, piercing longing. Stupid because those moments seem too minor, not to mention too long gone, to think back on with any sort of earnest yearning; piercing because despite this, the thirst for them is, as they say, real: Indeed, it feels nearly sexual in the palpable pangs it arouses.

It’s not cool to fall prey to nostalgia—what the writer Svetlana Boym has cited as the “hypochondria of the heart.” It marks you as backward-looking rather than forward-thinking—conservative, sappy, old. Knowing all of this full well, however, doesn’t help much when viewing Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the affecting new documentary about Nirvana’s frontman, directed by Brett Morgen. I couldn’t keep my foot from moving to the music. I couldn’t keep myself from mouthing the words. I couldn’t keep the sobs from rising in my throat.

All of this is embarrassing to admit, but since embarrassment is the central affective mode I remember from being a teenager, it might be appropriate. After all, I was 15 in 1991, when Nirvana released their major-label debut, Nevermind, its combination of sonic ferocity and wistful sweetness blowing my mind and cracking my heart. In his music and lyrics, Cobain traced a utopian arc—suggesting that a world of authentic, unencumbered energy and feeling could be possible—while simultaneously signaling that such a world could only be sensed briefly, not fully accessed. Something—disappointment, oppression, corporatism, self-hatred—was always in the way. In this, Nirvana felt nostalgic even on first listen. Remember when we glimpsed that moment, how good it was, but how fleeting?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

ISIL's creepy blueprints

Spiegel reports:

[W]hen the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. . . . For the first time, the Haji Bakr documents now make it possible to reach conclusions on how the IS leadership is organized and what role former officials in the government of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein play in it. . . .

What Bakr put on paper, page by page, with carefully outlined boxes for individual responsibilities, was nothing less than a blueprint for a takeover. It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an "Islamic Intelligence State" -- a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany's notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.

This blueprint was implemented with astonishing accuracy in the ensuing months. The plan would always begin with the same detail: The group recruited followers under the pretense of opening a Dawah office, an Islamic missionary center. Of those who came to listen to lectures and attend courses on Islamic life, one or two men were selected and instructed to spy on their village and obtain a wide range of information. To that end, Haji Bakr compiled lists such as the following:

• List the powerful families.

• Name the powerful individuals in these families.

• Find out their sources of income.

• Name names and the sizes of (rebel) brigades in the village.

• Find out the names of their leaders, who controls the brigades and their political orientation.

• Find out their illegal activities (according to Sharia law), which could be used to blackmail them if necessary.

The spies were told to note such details as whether someone was a criminal or a homosexual, or was involved in a secret affair, so as to have ammunition for blackmailing later. "We will appoint the smartest ones as Sharia sheiks," Bakr had noted. "We will train them for a while and then dispatch them." As a postscript, he had added that several "brothers" would be selected in each town to marry the daughters of the most influential families, in order to "ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge."

The spies were to find out as much as possible about the target towns: Who lived there, who was in charge, which families were religious, which Islamic school of religious jurisprudence they belonged to, how many mosques there were, who the imam was, how many wives and children he had and how old they were. Other details included what the imam's sermons were like, whether he was more open to the Sufi, or mystical variant of Islam, whether he sided with the opposition or the regime, and what his position was on jihad. Bakr also wanted answers to questions like: Does the imam earn a salary? If so, who pays it? Who appoints him? Finally: How many people in the village are champions of democracy?

The agents were supposed to function as seismic signal waves, sent out to track down the tiniest cracks, as well as age-old faults within the deep layers of society -- in short, any information that could be used to divide and subjugate the local population. The informants included former intelligence spies, but also regime opponents who had quarreled with one of the rebel groups. Some were also young men and adolescents who needed money or found the work exciting. Most of the men on Bakr's list of informants, such as those from Tal Rifaat, were in their early twenties, but some were as young as 16 or 17.

The plans also include areas like finance, schools, daycare, the media and transportation. But there is a constantly recurring, core theme, which is meticulously addressed in organizational charts and lists of responsibilities and reporting requirements: surveillance, espionage, murder and kidnapping. . . .

It seemed as if George Orwell had been the model for this spawn of paranoid surveillance. But it was much simpler than that. Bakr was merely modifying what he had learned in the past: Saddam Hussein's omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren't being spied on.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Was Ayn Rand a hypocrite for collecting Social Security?

John Fugelsang seems to think so:

But wait a minute . . . there's nothing inconsistent about being a libertarian and collecting Social Security. If you believe the government is wrongfully taking your money (in the form of taxes), naturally you should want to take as much of it back as possible (in the form of benefits). You could still complain that this was inefficient because you would've spent the money better if you had kept it all along; some of your money was siphoned off by government workers; etc.

By analogy, if a thief stole your wallet and spent half of the cash that was in it, then offered you the wallet back, you'd take it back, simply to recover most of what you had lost. That wouldn't be an admission that what the thief did was good.

If anything, the hypocritical libertarian would be one who declines to receive Social Security checks, since this would be essentially donating money to the federal government.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What are we doing when we teach fiction to kids?

I want to make an observation I’ve never heard anyone make before. I’d be interested to know if anyone has expressed the same thing. If not, I’d be shocked, since this is something that’s right under our noses. Here it is:

When we teach children fiction — reading it, writing it, understanding it, loving it — as important as those teachings are, I think they also have a negative side effect. By teaching fiction so often and beginning at such an early age, we condition children to expect the “just right” results to flow inexorably from the writing of those who are good and bright.

Before kids learn about economics or law, politics or psychology, they learn that we’re supposed to treasure writing not primarily based on how well it corresponds to reality, but primarily based on whether it makes us feel good. And I intend the double meaning of “good” as in both “contented” and “moral.”

This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy. Now, when I put it like that, you might think that’s obviously false, and you might question how many people really believe this. But that's the assumption being made whenever anyone argues in favor of a law by referring to the righteous aspirations underlying it, without contemplating whether the process initiated by the text of the law could lead to results that are at odds with those aspirations. And people do that all the time.

This is not a lament that not enough people understand the concept of unintended consequences. In fact, I think most liberals and conservatives and libertarians understand the concept pretty well. The problem is that even with this fundamental understanding, they have an easy time selectively ignoring unintended consequences to suit their politics. For instance, I think many on the right too readily overlook the unintended consequences of going to war and criminalizing drugs. And I think many on the left overlook the unintended consequences of welfare, the minimum wage, affirmative action, and gun laws. My point here isn’t to say that anyone’s position on any particular issue is right or wrong. For instance, some would retort that conservatives overlook the unintended consequences of making the minimum wage too low. And others would say the anti-war folks overlook the negatives of so-called peace and the unintended consequences of refraining from going to war when it’s justified. Fair enough — but those are just more examples to support the broader point that there’s a lot of blindness to unintended consequences all along the political spectrum.

The approach I'd like to see more of, the pragmatic approach — scrutinizing policies with an eye for unintended consequences — is easily eclipsed by a belief in the power of brilliantly benevolent writing. From an early age, we awaken in children a shimmering, numinous sensibility that transcends empiricism and rationality.

By the way, you might notice that I haven’t proposed anything to be done about all this.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How to stop the skyrocketing cost of law school

David Lat has a good idea:

Only 57 percent of 2013 law school graduates obtained full-time legal jobs nine months after graduation. Yet the federal government subsidizes the production of even more lawyers by lending the cost of attendance to basically anyone who decides to enroll in law school, without regard for the quality of the school or the job prospects of its graduates. A student going to Harvard Law School, where 86.9 percent of 2013 grads had full-time legal jobs, has the same access to federal funds as a student going to Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where just 22.9 percent of 2013 grads work as lawyers.

This policy is hurting students. Federally subsidized loans have enabled law school tuition to spiral out of control. As noted by Professor Paul Campos, “[i]n real, inflation-adjusted terms, tuition at private American law schools has doubled over the past 20 years, tripled over the past 30, and quadrupled over the past 40,” and resident tuition at public law schools has climbed even faster. So long as the federal loans keep coming, tuition is unlikely to stop rising. In the words of Professor Brian Tamanaha, author of “Failing Law Schools,” “Federal loans are an irresistible (and life-sustaining) drug for revenue addicted law schools . . . law schools have been ramping up tuition and enrollment without restraint thanks to an obliging federal loan program.”

If the government were to stop lending for law school or even just impose per-student or per-school caps on loan amounts (perhaps combined with making it easier to discharge student loans in bankruptcy), law schools would have to dramatically lower tuition, in order to attract students.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Amanda Knox

Judy Bachrach, who's been covering the Amanda Knox case since 2007, writes in Vanity Fair (via):

Outside the U.S., my criticism of the way the case was handled fell on deaf ears. In the U.K., where she was the subject of daily vilification, any defense of Knox was chalked up to jingoism. In Italy, where she was even more detested, there was even greater certainty about her guilt. After Knox’s incarceration, one of the young men in my class—an Italian—rose to protest.

How could I declare her innocent? “She slept with more than one man!!”

“E allora?” I said. So what?

He looked exasperated.

“In Italy it is not O.K. for a girl to sleep with more than one man. A man can sleep with more than one girl, but the reverse just isn’t acceptable!”

So that’s when I knew. Amanda Knox was going to be convicted of murder. And that conviction would be based on her social life. And in 2009 that’s exactly what happened.

Now that the results of that botched investigation have been definitively voided, the question is: How much? How much does Italy owe two young people imprisoned for a murder in which there was no credible motive, no credible evidence, and no credible witnesses?

The money question is not far-fetched. The families of both Knox and Sollecito have indicated they will seek damages. And why shouldn’t they collect after all they’ve been through? To cover her defense the Knox family mortgaged their house and drained retirement funds. Every year Italy pays around 12 million euros to those who have been imprisoned and then later exonerated, as CNN reported....

“Amanda . . . is a restless person who does not disdain multiple frequentations,” the first group of Italian judges decided in their report—by which they meant that she slept around. As bad, the judges added, Knox “indulged in ostentatious displays of affection with Raffaele, even going as far as the paradoxical purchase of an item of intimate apparel, apparently for use in having ‘wild sex.’”

As many observers concluded early on, the more likely culprit was Rudy Guede, a Perugia local originally from the Ivory Coast, already known to police as the prime suspect in at least three burglaries (in one of which he allegedly brandished a knife) and reportedly fond of cocaine and binge drinking. It was his DNA that was inside Kercher’s body, on her bra straps and her purse, his bloody fingerprint on a cushion in her room, his bloody handprint on the wall. Knox’s DNA, on the other hand, was nowhere in the dead girl’s room, where her body was found. Guede was convicted of the murder in a separate, fast-track trial in October 2008.

Why charge two students with no history of violence? Absent any credible evidence everyone—judges, jurors, media—turned to a one-word answer: sex. Sex made Amanda do just about everything.

This obsession with the American girl’s sex life followed her into prison. Early on, prison authorities falsely informed her that she was H.I.V.-positive, at which point she plunged into despair. Back in her cell, Knox wrote up a list of her previous lovers—which in short order, was leaked to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and quoted extensively by an Italian author who came up with what would become a habitual media conclusion, one she confided to The Sunday Times: “It’s as if [she] were always hunting men.”

Thus Knox became every Italian mamma’s worst nightmare: the classic blonde, American manipulator of men. Luciferina with an angel’s face, an Italian newspaper called her. Luciferina was dutifully echoed in the courtroom: the girl was obviously involved in some kind of satanic rite. Outside Italy, there were any number of fantasy riffs on this theme. Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox, was the original title of a book published by the Daily Beast in 2010. Foxy Knoxy, the Daily Mail called her, in an endless stream of headlines . . .

"It's not the money . . ."

"Corporate America strikes a liberal note on wages," reports Politico:

With McDonald’s following Wal-Mart, Target, TJ Maxx and Marshall’s in raising wage minimums, big companies are buckling under pressure to address the problem of wage stagnation and workplace issues. And they’re embracing the favorite language — if not the full-fledged policies — of the political left in doing so.

“I really want to assert McDonald’s as a modern and progressive burger company,” McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook told “CBS This Morning” on Thursday. “And to do that, you’ve really got to make meaningful changes for the business, whether through the food [or] through the employment proposition.” . . .

Other CEOs have been quick to name-drop stars of the left in announcing new workplace measures. In January, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini told all of his executives to read Thomas Piketty, the famed progressive economist, and then went and established a $16 an hour wage floor for all of the company’s employees. “It’s not just about paying people, it’s about the whole social compact,” Bertolini told The Wall Street Journal.
A rule of thumb I learned from the fascinating book Never Trust a Calm Dog: When people say, "It's not about the money, it's about the principle" . . . it's about the money.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Rick Perry makes the conservative case for reining in the excesses of the drug war

Perry, who was Governor of Texas from 2005 until earlier this year, writes:

I am a firm believer that the states are laboratories of innovation—that, given the flexibility, they will implement policies that work most efficiently to address the needs of their citizens. And the criminal-justice debate is no different.

I know this first-hand. You see, Texas was one of many states that spent billions locking up kids for minor offenses. In jail, these individuals learned how to become hardened criminals. Out of jail, they often repeated their crimes.

The result was a significant fiscal burden on taxpayers and a segment of society shut out from hope and opportunity. And while arrests for violent and property offenses steadily declined throughout the 1990s, drug-related arrests increased by more than 60 percent. We knew we needed to do something, and do it quickly. That’s why, when John Creuzot, a Democratic judge from Dallas, shared an idea that would change the way we handled cases of first-time, non-violent drug offenders, I listened.

As the founder of one of the first drug courts in Texas, Creuzot argued that, for many low-risk, non-violent offenders, incarceration is not the best solution, and can increase the odds that an individual will commit additional crimes after release. Just as importantly, he emphasized that by treating addiction as a disease, rather than simply punishing the crimes it compels, we could give new hope to people trying to get their lives back.

His evidence was compelling. Recidivism in his program was 68 percent lower than other state courts, and every dollar he spent saved $9 in future costs. So in 2007, with broad support from Republicans and Democrats, Texas changed course.

We expanded our commitment to drug courts that allow offenders to stay out of jail if they agreed to comprehensive supervision, drug testing, and treatment. We invested more in treatment and rehabilitation programs for drug addiction and mental illness, and shifted our focus to diversionary programs like community supervision. We reformed our approach to parole, imposing graduated sanctions for minor violations instead of immediate re-incarceration.

We also implemented common-sense policies, such as allowing individuals to earn their way off probation through exemplary conduct and by achieving benchmarks, such as obtaining a degree. We passed legislation allowing nonviolent offenders to earn up to 20 percent of their terms by completing treatment and vocational programs proven to reduce recidivism.

The results have been extraordinary. Texas’s crime rate has dropped to its lowest point since 1968 and, during my tenure, Texas’ crime rate shrank by almost 24 percent. In fact, for the first time in state history, Texas is closing prisons without replacing them—three units since 2011. On top of that, this more efficient approach has saved Texas taxpayers $2 billion.

But perhaps the most significant result is the countless individuals and families who are better off today because these Texans were given a chance to minimize the damage they had done to their lives. And for some people, a chance is all they really need.