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    Word is out

    Posted by Sean at 11:51, July 22nd, 2010

    OMFG, this Journolist thing is hilarious. Yes, it’s monstrous—we’ll get to that—but let’s start with the entertaining bits. Line of the week goes to one Sarah Spitz, who wrote this (via Instapundit):

    I made poorly considered remarks about Rush Limbaugh to what I believed was a private email discussion group from my personal email account. As a publicist, I realize more than anyone that is no excuse for irresponsible behavior. I apologize to anyone I may have offended and I regret these comments greatly; they do not reflect the values by which I conduct my life.

    “As a publicist”?!

    I wasn’t under the impression that publicists were in the business of enforcing responsibility. I was, rather, under the impression that they were in the business of cynical image manipulation and the attendant ass coverage when necessary. It’s clear from the rest of Spitz’s statement that she’s not the slightest bit sorry for wishing Rush Limbaugh a painful death—a real apology would have forsworn the actual content of her remarks—but she might at least not have insulted our intelligence by trying to put it over on us that being a publicist gives her an especially acute sense of responsibility. Then, too, her own intelligence is rather questionable: what kind of communications-savvy person believes a 400-person email list is reliably private?

    T party

    Posted by Sean at 08:25, July 14th, 2010

    No, nothing to do with crystal meth. Just an eye-roll-worthy typo on the CNN homepage:

    What’s the point in livin’ if you don’t want to dance?

    Posted by Sean at 22:04, July 13th, 2010

    When I started college in 1991, I was a conservative Sabbatarian Christian—very conservative, very Sabbatarian, very Christian. Once during the first few get-to-know-you weeks of freshman year, I mentioned (at a point in the discussion at which it was a most natural thing to do) that I was a creationist. One of the people in the room literally made a face at me. I’m not talking about that slight raising of the eyebrows and tightening of the smile you get when you’re not quite sure he said what you think he did; I’m talking about the full-on, unapologetic Mr. Yuk. From then on, he acted as if I weren’t in the room.

    Later that same semester, I went to the head lecturer in the first-year Japanese program and explained that I needed to miss a week of classes for a religious festival. She chuckled at me—I did not imagine this—and said that while my section lecturer could decide to let me make up the quizzes I’d miss, she had no idea what made me think some holy festival in my idiosyncratic little sect was more important than a week of classes. (Yeah, I’m paraphrasing, but not by much. I remember this conversation very well.)

    In both cases, I was pretty offended. In the former, I wouldn’t have minded being argued with; in the latter, I wouldn’t have minded being crisply told that absences were to be kept to an absolute minimum, with strict criteria for which absences were acceptable. But this was college. For everyone who was dismissive of ideas he couldn’t sympathize with, there were ten people who wanted to argue over them until three in the morning. If you stuck with classes and people that promoted the unfettered life of the mind, you welcomed good-faith opposition, because it helped you sharpen your thinking, and you didn’t mind bad-faith opposition, because if you just shrugged it off, there was sure to be a real no-holds-barred debate waiting in the next class or at the next table.

    Bear in mind, I’m talking about 1991-95 here.

    In the comparative literature program.

    We thought PC had already reached lunatic and obsessive proportions then, mind you. Little did we know. Perhaps you’ve managed not to see the latest outrage, from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign:

    The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.

    The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.

    Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.

    “Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

    An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.

    “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”

    In an e-mail to other school staff, Ann Mester, an associate dean at the College of Liberal Arts
    and Sciences, said Howell’s e-mail justified his firing.

    “The e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us,” Mester wrote.

    Look, I entered college a devout Christian and left a flaming homosexual and atheist (or homosexual and flaming atheist, depending on when you catch me), so I have no problem with ensuring that religious principles are considered fair game for debate on campus. But that’s nothing at all like what we’re talking about here. I mean…sorry, bitch, but if your A game consists of (1) an anonymous, (2) second-hand accusation that (3) doesn’t even attempt to take on the clearly stated substance of Howell’s argument, you don’t deserve Lawrence v. Texas. Men and women risked their reputations and livelihoods forty years ago so you could live an openly gay life, and this is how you repay them?

    Of course, gay rights aren’t the major point here. To get back to that, here’s Erin O’Connor, who linked to that article and added her own comments:

    When I was teaching at Penn, I learned the hard way how very powerful students are. They hold professors’ careers in their hands–and can destroy them very, very easily, simply by accusing them of offensive classroom conduct. Most students don’t realize this–and if they did, would never dream of abusing their power. But some students see that power very clearly–and they work it.

    Where do students get the idea that they had the right not to be offended? University policy. It’s all there–on the books at DePaul and Brandeis and many other schools, in policies on hate speech and verbal harassment and so on. They encourage students to grossly misunderstand the purpose of higher education–which should involve being exposed to a wide range of views, learning how to choose among them, and learning to navigate the marketplace of ideas like an actual adult (as opposed to a spoiled child). When students avail themselves of these policies, administrators must take their complaints seriously, and follow through. Careers are ruined along the way, absolutely asinine judgments are made, and the educational enterprise is reduced to a joke by the very people whose job it is to uphold it. And it all happens over and over again, every year, on campus after campus, like sick clockwork, while nobody learns.

    Eric, not without warrant, is somewhat testier:

    Standards of inclusivity? What the hell does that mean? [I doubt we really want to know.—SRK] It’s not as if he threw gay students out of his class; what he did was merely to state his opinion, and explain why he thinks what he thinks, leaving students free to disagree without penalty of any kind. How does that exclude anyone? Are students considered so delicate that the slightest mention of something with which they feel uncomfortable is now to be considered a form of “exclusion”? Hmmm… Perhaps I can return to school and complain that I am being “excluded” every time a professor says something I disagree with.

    Right. We have a professor who put his ideas out there for students to disagree with without punishment, and we have a student who caviled about him in a fashion that got him ejected from campus, but it’s the professor who’s not being inclusive.

    Added on 14 July: Erin O’Connor has posted more—apparently, Illinois is reconsidering its decision. O’Connor ends this way:

    I think it’s interesting to see the elaboration of a moral system that is established and powerful and has enormous institutional weight behind it — precisely because it bears so little relation to my own baseline moral set points. It’s always empowering, enlightening, and stimulating to understand how people different from oneself think. There’s nothing intimidating or hateful about it.

    One might have expected college students to know that.

    Get outta my way

    Posted by Sean at 13:59, July 12th, 2010

    Years ago, Joanne Jacobs wrote for Reason about the controversy over a charter elementary school in San Francisco. In one particularly memorable paragraph, she tersely described the conflict between entrenched public schools and upstart private companies:

    Typically, these schools are underfunded, thin on management, and dependent on donated legal services. However, about 10 percent are run by school management companies that are — in theory, if not in fact — for-profit businesses. They are run by professional managers, staffed by lawyers, and much harder to bully. Their pitch is simple: If we succeed in running good schools, we’ll attract students and make a profit. If we fail, take back the school and try something else. That’s not the way things are usually done in the public school system. Traditionally, nothing succeeds like failure. Failure is rewarded with more money for more programs, more specialists, and, of course, more failure. Success, on the other hand, is a risky business. It destroys excuses. It raises expectations. It’s even worse when a profit-seeking business succeeds with high-risk students. If customer-serving, bottom-line-adding businesses can run schools, that opens the door to a host of market evils: Independently run charter schools staffed by non-unionized teachers. Voucher-empowered parents shopping for their schools of choice. Teachers deprived of political power and turned from selfless public servants to soulless corporate employees.

    I’ve thought of that paragraph often over the last decade, and I was reminded of it again while reading this much-admired post a few days ago (via Instapundit):

    The business of government, outside of the military and law enforcement, does not involve accomplishing missions or solving problems. Government agencies don’t view “success” as resolving the issues they were created to address, and shutting their doors after declaring victory. In fact, as you can see from the example of NASA, they would regard a tight focus on their original missions as regrettable stagnancy. Bureaucracies grow through failure. They present failure as a rationale for increased budgets, which they must spend with gusto, in order to submit an even bigger budget the following year.

    This system only works if politicians and bureaucrats are not held accountable for their failures. Naturally, they develop the ability to avoid accountability as a survival skill. Nowhere is this more evident than with the Department of Education, which touts the miserable performance of its unionized teachers as clear evidence that it needs more money. If you question any of this, or point to administrators with pensions costing tens of millions, you are said to oppose education.

    As Eric writes, it’s easy to turn Americans’ general goodwill against us:

    By definition, growing strong through failure is the strongest possible form of strength. While it might seem impossible to combat, its one major weakness is that it relies on camouflage. The failures of bureaucracies are never blamed on or admitted to be in any way the result of the bureaucracies themselves, but are seen as new challenges facing us all. The reason people accept that at face value is because most citizens are people of good faith, who genuinely want to believe that the government is working for us all.

    Few things drive me up the wall more than the reflexive assumption that moving an activity from the private sector to the public sector magically ensures that it will thenceforth be tended to by saintly, selfless, civic-minded souls who hold their output to the highest possible quality standards. That the pile of disconfirmatory evidence for that proposition would dwarf Mt. McKinley somehow doesn’t seem to faze people. America is no longer a young, agrarian backwater, in which government service diverted energy away from, say, managing the family lands more profitably. America is now the world’s largest economy and power player, in which government service is a lucrative career path of its own, often (to judge from what they say in front of microphones) for people who wouldn’t know innovation or efficiency if it jumped up and bit ’em in the ass. It’s utterly maddening, for those of us who are accountable to our customers and spend our working days looking for ways to get more done with less input, to be sermonized at by these characters.

    And, as Eric points out, just voting out the current crew only does so much, because unelected officials are a big part of the problem. (It’s way worse in Japan, the electorate of which just took away the DPJ’s majority in the upper house of the Diet, BTW, but it’s quite bad enough here.) They and their elected enablers do a lot of talking about how the Government is the People, all while working sedulously to insulate themselves from the competition and feedback that obtain in the working lives of the People outside the Government. Nice work if you can get it.

    Can’t beat the feeling

    Posted by Sean at 02:22, July 9th, 2010

    It’s kind of hard to make me unhappy lately, because this weekend there was a




    Seriously, is she the first disco diva ever to think of calling an album “Aphrodite”?…because that’s just genius in its obviousness…although, to keep the conceit going, I guess Track 10 should have been called “Eros Boy,” not “Cupid Boy.” Anyway, whatever things are called, who can get upset when there’s a new Kylie album to listen to?

    Okay, I guess this from Ezra Klein did rankle me just a little (via Megan McArdle):

    I can’t decide whether the right introduction to this post is “I’m moving to Japan” or “I’m not moving to Japan.”

    The chairman of Toyota makes $1.5 million. The CEO of Toyota makes less than $1.1 million. So does everyone at Panasonic. More here. It’s a reminder that CEOs aren’t just paid what the market will bear, they’re paid what the culture will accept.

    Let me help you out with that, dear man: You’re just in your mid-20s and have bypassed a lot of your more accomplished elders to land a high-profile, influential position at an established company. Trust me—you of all people in America would not want to move to Japan.

    Yes, fine—Klein thinks he’s just talking about CEOs. But the thing is, as many of McArdle’s commenters point out, Japanese senior-management compensation is part of its overall system. It’s not particularly illuminating to talk about what “the culture” is going to “accept” without weighing the actual strictures that the culture imposes.

    Japan prizes Organization Men. The educational system is designed to push as many people as possible into becoming capable, adaptable ladder-climbers in whatever occupations they sort themselves into. That means, as Japan’s scores on standardized tests in math indicate, that it does a good job of pulling lower achievers up; but it also tamps down the aspirations of the unusually gifted, especially if their gifts are of a quirky nature. (In my experience, when Japanese people talk about what they “dream” of doing, they’re almost always referring to pure fantasies they have no intention of even trying to realize.) You get ahead in Japan by doggedly doing exactly what is asked of you, lavishly deferring to your superiors, and ensuring that you don’t stand out among your peers too much. Plugging away and being detail-oriented are rewarded with a slow, steady rise up the hierarchy. But it’s nearly impossible to skip strata, even if you have the native aptitude and rack up the accomplishments to do so. When Shuji Nakamura invented diodes that paved the way for blue lasers and was rewarded with a hail of top technology prizes, he ended up having to sue Nichia for his bonus. From the point of view of the company, he was a grunt researcher; he was supposed to give credit to the company, go back to the lab, and keep plugging away. (He took a job as a professor at UC Santa Barbara instead.)

    IP is an evolving field, and generalizing from it to the private sector at large is often unwise. Nevertheless, Nakamura’s case is representative of the “culture” Klein refers to. It’s not just that top managers don’t get to make tankerloads of money they may not deserve; it’s that even people who do accomplish great things do without the recognition they do deserve, and people factor that into their goals for themselves. The geezers are expected to occupy all the positions of authority and power, and because they worked their way up to them so methodically, they tend to be ill-inclined to take nervy chances on new ideas or younger talent (or even on ideas that have worked and are considered venerable elsewhere but have never been tried in Japan). Japan is by no means the nation of automatons it’s frequently made out to be by reductive Western commentary, but Japanese society really is geared toward keeping everyone in line in ways many of its foreign cheerleaders wouldn’t sit still for, in their own lives, for ten minutes together. “The market” and “the culture” aren’t so easily differentiated as Klein’s verbal formulation makes them out to be.


    Posted by Sean at 08:22, July 1st, 2010

    Just when I think it’s safe to put down my Pimm’s and ginger and return to the blog, I click a link to something that forces me to put both hands around the glass and chug.

    You’d think that, at this point, the Edwards family would just want to retreat from the public eye and…I don’t know, spend a few months at the manse playing backgammon. There’s nothing any of them can say without piling further cheapness on cheapness.

    And yet here they are again. This is from People:

    Elizabeth Edwards – and, for the first time, daughter Cate – are opening up about John Edwards’s infidelity and the breakup of the marriage.

    Daughter Cate? That’s a relief. Clearly, the problem was that not enough of the principals were airing their feelings in public about John Edwards’s philandering. But then, for Elizabeth’s part, it’s understandable that she feels the need to take back the spotlight by force, because that Rielle Hunter is charismatically bonkers enough to steal it and hold it for a good, long time. This is my favorite exchange from her interview with GQ a few months ago:

    [GQ: ]Why do you think he loves you?
    [Hunter: ]Um… How do I answer that? [long pause] I mean, I could give so many answers. I could give a spiritual answer, that I reflect back to him large parts of himself that were unconscious. Like, he’s a huge, huge humanitarian. He is very kindhearted and sweet. He’s very honest and truthful. And all of that was hidden.

    Yes, Rielle, dear: when you live a life of mendacity, opportunism, calculation, and cynical power-chasing, it does tend to obscure your native honesty and purity of heart. That’s a point no one will gainsay. I do wonder, though…when you groove to someone because he or she seems to reflect you back, are we calling that “spiritual” now? We used to call it “narcissistic,” but I was out of the country for eleven years and have missed a lot of cultural developments.

    I also liked this part:

    What do you think will happen to Andrew Young?
    I think like I do with everything: the truth eventually reveals itself. And we’re all here to grow and evolve. And I think Andrew will grow and evolve, even if it’s behind bars.

    It’s all part of, like, the process, isn’t it? Poor Elizabeth will never be able to top that interview, even with the wronged-woman right (as it were) on her side.

    And women associated with the zipper problems of famous Democrats are already upping the ante. Janis says she’s ready to add “crazed sex poodle” to her lexicon, having encountered it in this statement by the masseuse who’s accusing Al Gore of sexual harassment. Jesting aside, she comes off as pretty credible. I was especially struck by this part:

    It seemed to me that the way he came across to me was like a scary, without a conscience, spoiled out of control fraternity boy at a kegger type of person with a perverse sense of entitlement, a rich kid who is used to getting what he wants and whatever, including from hookers, from women fawning over him, and that he was used to money or power bailing him out of trouble. […] He simply would not take no for an answer on anything and I verbally told him no way more than once. My body language said no as well. I even said to him at one point, Al, no means no. To which he just laughed and groped me some more.

    Remember, this man once had Naomi Wolf on the payroll. Didn’t she ever look up from her earth-toned fabric swatches and remind Al about the whole “‘no’ means ‘no'” thing? That rich-college-boy-on-the-rampage image is fascinating, too. I wonder whether the same people who, a few years ago, used the same framework to condemn (furiously) the Duke lacrosse team—before most of the facts were known—will be working themselves into a similar lather of high moral dudgeon over Gore now.

    Why, yes, I have still been nipping at the Pimm’s and ginger. Why do you ask?

    A Doll’s House

    Posted by Sean at 22:50, June 14th, 2010

    You might have thought that the current economic climate would reorient people toward practicality: a job that satisfies you is still a goal worth pursuing, but the highest priority is earning your way in life and remembering that there’s dignity in all honest labor, even if the work you’re doing at the moment would have not have been your first choice.

    But no. The Saturday Night Fever-era blather that you’re perfectly justified in throwing a fit if your work turns out not to be a Fulfilling Personal Journey and an opportunity for the Real You to blossom is apparently more current than ever, and often in the damnedest contexts.

    Those, like Ann Althouse, who have posted about this column by Sally Quinn—executed with a ’70s-throwback accuracy so flawless as to inspire awe—have understandably focused on the points it raises about marriage. Here’s another part that brought me up short, though:

    Al and Tipper were a team, in it together and in it to win, all the way to the White House.

    Her role as wife of the Congressman, the Senator, the Vice President and the presidential candidate was all-consuming. Then, just as she was about to become First Lady, a role that would give her the clout to make a difference, the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George W. Bush. Al won the election but lost the presidency [I still thank the elements for that, like, weekly, BTW—SRK], a devastating turn of events that sent him into a deep depression.

    Imagine what that must have been like for Tipper. Her entire life had been tied to his career. Suddenly, it was all gone. “Poor Al,” everyone thought. “Is Al OK? How’s Al taking it?” What about Tipper? Not only did she lose her career, but she lost her husband, too, at least emotionally.

    After he came out of his depression, Al’s new career as Nobel Prize-winning environmental activist kept him traveling the globe. His new interests were not hers. Tipper had been the good wife for 40 years. Now it is time for her.

    Indeed? Quinn really wants to argue, in an economy in which millions of people have seen the livelihoods cut out from under them, that we should be feeling sorry for Tipper and Al Gore because not scoring the presidency got them down?

    I mean, just how depressing can it be to be Al Gore? You wander into the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, flunk more than half your classes, and later wander in and out of Vandy Law School without taking a degree, and it’s all sort of okay, because you can just go into the family business. And once there, you rise and rise and rise until it seems inevitable that you and the wife will be in an official position to lord it over your 350 million fellow Americans for at least four years. When it doesn’t happen, I have no doubt it sucks.

    I have no position on whether the Gores should be getting divorced. Maybe Al’s been beating Tipper for years. Maybe Tipper’s been slowly poisoning Al for the inheritance. Maybe Tipper had an affair with the stable boy. Maybe Al had an affair with the stable boy. I can think of few topics about which I’m less curious than the workings of the Gore household, and I am willing to trust their judgment about their own lives.

    What I find odd is that Sally Quinn apparently thinks that “Well, you know, he didn’t get his first-choice job, so of course their shared life went into a tailspin, and now it’s time for each of them to have his own space and learn and grow separately!” requires no elaboration. Did Tipper and Al never turn to each other, while sitting in one of the fifty rooms in their house or while lolling in the back of their car as the driver shuttled them about, and say, “Suppose we don’t actually win the presidency…what’s our Plan B?”

    Politicians are probably the top performers in America when it comes to eliding the fulfillment of personal career ambition with high-minded civic service, but public-school teachers run a close second. A hilarious/appalling story in the NYT yesterday described school administrators who’ve been cheating on assessment tests to avoid running afoul of No Child Left Behind requirements (via Joanne Jacobs). If you’re impervious to nuance, you might think that’s fraud, plain and simple, but you’d be wrong:

    No national data is collected on educator cheating. Experts who consult with school systems estimated that 1 percent to 3 percent of teachers — thousands annually — cross the line between accepted ways of boosting scores, like using old tests to prep students, and actual cheating.

    “Educators feel that their schools’ reputation, their livelihoods, their psychic meaning in life is at stake,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit group critical of standardized testing. “That ends up pushing more and more of them over the line.”

    Their, uh, “psychic meaning in life”? The phrasing makes my gorge rise a bit, but all right. Maybe it’s not that much different from considering teaching a near-spiritual calling.

    It’s just that Schaeffer is talking about cooking the books to cover your failure to raise your students’ test scores by actually helping them learn something. And to me, that sounds a lot less like “desperately clinging to your psychic meaning in life” than like “defending your income stream and future employability at the expense of owning up to your real performance,” the high-mindedness of which escapes me. I realize that teachers and school administrators are not entirely to blame for their students’ lack of progress; I just dispute that it’s the teachers and school administrators we should be feeling sorry for when their instinct for self-preservation turns them into crooks.

    OTOH, things are a little different when the students are supposed to be grown-ups. The NYT also ran a much-discussed article last month about the crushing debt some college students are incurring. The columnist took a human-interest-feature tack, profiling a woman who was graduated by NYU in 2005:

    Ms. Munna does not want to walk away from her loans in the same way many mortgage holders are. It would be difficult in any event because federal bankruptcy law makes it nearly impossible to discharge student loan debts. But unless she manages to improve her income quickly, she doesn’t have a lot of good options for digging out.

    It is utterly depressing that there are so many people like her facing decades of payments, limited capacity to buy a home and a debt burden that can repel potential life partners. For starters, it’s a shared failure of parenting and loan underwriting.

    But perhaps the biggest share lies with colleges and universities because they have the most knowledge of the financial aid process. And I would argue that they had an obligation to counsel students like Ms. Munna, who got in too far over their heads.

    The balance on Cortney Munna’s loans is about $97,000, including all of her federal loans and her private debt from Sallie Mae and Citibank. What are her options for digging out?

    Her mother can’t help without selling her bed and breakfast, and then she’d have no home. She could take her daughter in, but there aren’t good ways for her to earn a living in Alexandria Bay, in upstate New York.

    Well, yes, colleges do have the most knowledge of the financial aid process, but students and their parents have the most knowledge of their personal finances and plans for the future. Taking out USD100K in debt is risky for anyone, but it might have been an understandable gamble for a student whose plans included a high-demand, lucrative profession. Or who had a rich, doting Aunt Betsy with a bad ticker.

    That’s not the sense you get from her profile, though. If you click through that link to Munna’s mother’s bed and breakfast, you land on this page:

    Fast forward through twenty-five years in San Francisco and Indianapolis, to the 1990s and another loss – that of my beloved husband John. Widowed, with two miraculous daughters and a career as a school teacher, I found myself at another fork in the road. Where did my compass lead me? Back to Alexandria Bay and the recuperative spirit of the Thousand Islands.

    At the age of fifty, I chose to deny my chronological age and become a doctor and I was accepted at a prestigious Upstate New York medical school. Then, while studying for an exam I was hit with yet another loss. My dear friend died suddenly, and the exam prevented me from attending the funeral. Enough of that.

    I knew there was another way I could care for people. I could feed them! And the best place to do that was a Bed and Breakfast. Thus began the transformation of The Captain Visger House, a process I would describe as magical, painstaking, life-changing…and a few other choice words not suitable for print.

    It’s a sweet story, but it makes you wonder whether the elder Munna’s example gave her daughters the impression that you just kind of follow your bliss and expect things to work out. I’m not making light of the pain that the loss of husband and father must have visited on the family; nor am I arguing that giving up a career in medicine to do something less prestigious but closer to your heart is bad. The problem is that “closer to your heart” and “earning enough money to repay a hundred grand” don’t usually intersect, which is why responsible people figure out which one they’re going to compromise on before they’re in deep doo-doo, as Munna Mére phrases it.

    I’m perplexed by the contention that expensive universities are to blame for not telling needy students the cheap state school down the pike might be a better option. Why is it the fiduciary duty of the Viking salesman to suggest that you might be happier with a Kenmore? When I was a student in the early ’90s, those of us on financial aid were required to sit through at least one session explaining how our grants and loans worked—accurately, IIRC—and to meet with our financial aid officer yearly to ensure we were up to speed on what we’d gotten ourselves into. I have no doubt that they could have been more ruthlessly honest about the potential downsides of debt, but my father and I made it our business to crunch the numbers.

    I also made it my business to go early and often to the career planning office, where there was all kinds of stuff about, you know, what sort of work you could expect to get with what sort of degree. My counselor—terrific woman who became a personal friend—warned against failing to consider opportunities in not-so-cool cities that could bear real fruit later on down the career path. She also recommended that those of us in humanities majors take at least a few accounting or math-y classes beyond our distribution requirements, and she warned me very frankly that my comp lit major was unlikely to be marketable in a direct way unless I stuck with the Japanese up to expert level.

    None of this seemed dream-deflating; I was perfectly aware that I was from a family of straitened means, which meant that I was lucky even to be at a private college. Plenty of kids I went to high school with had high-income parents who informed them that they were going to Penn State, which (the parents pointed out accurately) was the best imaginable value for a Commonwealth resident.

    In response to the deluge of comments, many of which make points similar to mine, Munna responds here. To her credit, she does repeat that she’s not looking for a way to weasel out of her loans; but I still get the sense that she considers it an external problem that she’s had difficulty finding employment. One of the more egregious ninnies among her supporters (though this character gives him or her a run for the money) writes this:

    [W]hat this young woman has learned is what a university offers: the tools to understand the world and society. She will do well, even though it’ll be tough paying off those loans. Sure, we need mechanics and sheetrock installers, but we also need those who can Think Big, who can See the Big Picture, and who can make educated and intuitive jumps in logic that will lead to a better country, a better way of living, and better lives for mechanics, sheetrock installers as well as academics.

    One might ask why, if those jumps in logic are so “intuitive,” one needs to spend USD50K a year learning to make them. One might also ask just what Munna has really learned that could enhance the lives of mechanics and sheetrock installers. And if she focused so narrowly on her studies that she was unaware that she was on an express train to insolvency, how much can we really say she learned about seeing “the Big Picture”? Plenty of people find ways to take courses that interest them in college while still being realistic enough to get a degree in something they can make a livelihood out of. Hovering in too much of this discussion is the idea that Munna somehow deserves a job that rewards her for really caring about what she studied. But unless you work for the federal government, you’re going to have to look for a job that produces something of value people are willing to pay for. I’m not sure she’s well served by commenters who encourage her to bide her time until the world comes around to appreciating her. I prefer Erin O’Connor’s take, which is characteristically sensible (though not directly specifically at the NYT story about Munna):

    My line on this is the minimalist one: Don’t take on any debt, ever, that you don’t have to take on. If you can’t afford a private school, then do not enroll in one. There are still affordable publics in this country, and you can even still get a good education at them.

    This is not to say that we don’t need lots and lots of reform, within the student loan industry and within colleges and universities themselves. Student loans have been too easy to get, and they are too hard for too many to pay off. And if you read this blog, you’ve heard me time and time again about the way bureaucratic bloat, excessive executive pay, unnecessary country-clubbish perks, academically lame boutique programs and majors, and so on have pushed costs up way beyond what’s viable–even as they have failed to do anything meaningful for improving actual education. You’ve also heard me over and over again about how we need to rethink the idea that a college degree is the only path to economic success. That’s just dumbing it all down while wasting the considerable talents of people who are not “book smart” but are very smart, talented, and able in other ways.

    But people are getting smarter–and the recession is forcing them to become just a bit more financially literate than they were before. Fewer folks are going to make decisions that they know will harm them financially–and colleges and universities are, I hope, going to have to recalibrate when they struggle to enroll, when diversity falters as a result, and when they are forced to confront their ethical lapses in recruiting students who cannot pay for the product they are selling (we need to be brutally economic in our vocabulary in this instance).

    She’s right: there are many institutional problems, and colleges deserve much of the hot water they’re now in. But the inadvisability of taking on tons of debt without being sure you can shoulder it is not some new phenomenon no one was aware of until the recession hit. Nor is the inadvisability of having no backup plan if your ideal career path doesn’t pan out.


    Posted by Sean at 17:46, April 18th, 2010

    Instapundit reports that Bill Clinton thinks…well, it’s not entirely clear what he thinks. Basically, it’s like, “If you’re angry at runaway government power, you’re probably not a would-be terrorist…really, I’d never insinuate any such thing…it’s just that real terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh were also angry at runaway government power…and therefore unless you embrace Big Government in all its benevolent, nurturing modalities, well, there’s no getting around it: you’re kind of enabling the next McVeigh, don’t you think? So don’t get on the Internet unless you’re going to sing hymns to Washington.”

    You may recall that this is not the first time he’s used that maneuver. (Eric says of the Clintons, “To be kind about it, their gaffes [at least I think they’re gaffes] keep coming!” That’s a much more comforting angle on things than that we’re seeing their authentic, unfiltered worldview.) One of Virginia Postrel’s most memorable columns from when she was editor of Reason was this one from 1995:

    This is what the president of the United States said in a widely praised speech at Michigan State’s graduation: “I would like to say something to the paramilitary groups and to others who believe the greatest threat to America comes not from terrorists from within our country or beyond our borders, but from our own government….I am well aware that most of you have never violated the law of the land. I welcome the comments that some of you have made recently condemning the bombing in Oklahoma City….But I also know there have been lawbreakers among those who espouse your philosophy.” (Emphasis added.)

    “There have been lawbreakers among those who espouse your philosophy.” Clinton may start with the “to be sures”—acknowledging that his nameless opponents are law-abiding and condemn the bombing—but he ends with guilt by association. Anyone who “believe[s] the greatest threat to America” comes from the government might as well be a terrorist. After all, they’re on the same philosophical team.

    Just who is purveying hate and division now? Just who is using wild words? Just who is paranoid, spinning out conspiracy theories built on blurring distinctions and imagining “links”?

    He then cleverly moves the argument from whether government power is something to be feared–obviously not, since the problem is a few rotten workers–to whether violence against public employees is justified. Here, he lumps together “people who are doing their duty” (the Nuremberg defense), people who are “minding their own business,” and “children who are innocent in every way.”

    It’s not clear who advocates killing any of these people under current conditions. But at least in theory they are distinguishable. One can imagine circumstances under which self-defense might be justified against the first group; it’s hard to conjure up rationales for attacking either of the other two. But Clinton’s rhetorical mode is to blur distinctions.

    And to smear by innuendo. By never specifying whom he is attacking—Who exactly claims the right to kill “children who are innocent in every way”? Who claims the right to kill “the people who perished in Oklahoma City”?—Clinton manages to call all of his political opponents murderers and then say he didn’t.

    He accomplished the same thing with his vague attack on “loud and angry voices.” Was he talking about all conservative and libertarian talk radio hosts? G. Gordon Liddy? Or just conspiracy theorists like “Mark from Michigan”? He was in fact smearing them all, but preserving his deniability.

    Edifying, huh? Virginia’s conclusion remains the right one:

    Such tactics must not work. Loud voices are not the same as violent deeds. Criticism is not the same as murder. Exposing government violence is not the same as blowing up buildings. It is grossly irresponsible to blur these distinctions. And those who rely on such smear tactics are in no position to lecture the rest of us about toning down rhetoric.

    In fact, wide-open debate is the best chance for restraining violent impulses. Contrary to the Los Angeles Times editorialists, hearings on Waco would be a very good idea, especially now. Information is the enemy both of out-of-control government and of paranoia. Vigorous, open dissent is a powerful check on government excesses—and an important, peaceful outlet for citizen grievances.

    Of course, that argument only has heft if you believe government excesses should be checked.

    Some Japan stuff

    Posted by Sean at 11:54, April 18th, 2010

    If the plane-grounding Icelandic ash cloud hasn’t been sufficient reminder of how vulnerable we are to nature’s vagaries (and how fortunate that we have such an extensive technological arsenal to protect ourselves), check out this story about Japan’s vegetable shortages:

    The government is calling on farmers to speed up vegetable deliveries after cold weather and lack of sunlight led to a poor spring crop and spiking vegetable prices.

    “The vegetables prices may remain high for the foreseeable future. We’d like to ask farmers to bring forward their shipments in a bid to stabilize retail prices,” Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu told a news conference following a regular Cabinet meeting Friday morning.

    Also on Friday, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry asked the National Federation of Agricultural Co-operative Associations to bring forward vegetable shipments. Consumer organizations as well as the ministry have also asked farmers to ship malformed vegetables that are usually discarded.

    However, noting the measure will have only limited effects, government sources say they fear vegetable prices are unlikely to decline until May or later, and farmers pointed out that complying with demands for early shipment is difficult.

    “We harvested lettuce and other vegetables earlier than usual in response to an increase in demand from the restaurant industry during the spring vacation period. Even if we are asked to bring forward shipments, it’s difficult to comply,” said an official of the Ibaraki Prefecture chapter of the agricultural federation.

    Shredded lettuce and cabbage come with nearly everything in Japan: you walk into a little restaurant, and the waitress plunks down a small bowl of shredded cabbage and carrots with ginger dressing as your o-tooshi-mono. That there would be a shortage of them is really unsettling. Of course, Japan isn’t facing a famine—you’ll notice that one proposal for making up the difference is just not rejecting too many misshapen cabbages, which is a problem the DPRK would have loved to have around a decade ago. Still, the story is a good reminder of how intricate our supply and distribution systems are. (Of course, you could also take the opportunity to bring up Japan’s insane agricultural-subsidy system, but I’m feeling generous today.)


    It’s a few days old, but the Asahi English site had a good rundown of what’s led up to the current confusion—impasse doesn’t seem to be quite the best word—over the relocation of the Futenma facility in Okinawa:

    U.S. officials certainly have no intention of jeopardizing the decades-long alliance with Japan, but there is growing concern and frustration at the lack of a meeting of minds on such important matters of mutual concern.

    Hatoyama broached the issue of the relocation of the U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture during a short meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the U.S. capital on Monday. Neither Japan nor the United States explained how Obama responded.

    What did come across, however, is that the meeting did not change the U.S. government’s position, which is that the best solution to the Futenma issue lies with a 2006 agreement reached by the two nations to relocate the base to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

    Behind this extremely defensive and careful approach of the U.S. government is its resolve not to make the same mistake of 2005, when Washington compromised and accepted current Henoko option.

    During those negotiations, U.S. officials for a long time advocated a plan to construct a replacement facility on a landfill off the south coast of Henoko, Nago city. This plan was commonly known as “Nago Light.” However, during the final stage of the talks, U.S. officials abandoned it and accepted instead the Japanese proposal to build the new facility on the coastline of Camp Schwab at Henoko point.

    Richard Lawless, who negotiated the agreement for the United States as deputy undersecretary of defense, recalled his decision to go along with his Japanese counterparts.

    “They guaranteed that they can implement the proposal,” Lawless said. “I made sure about this point with several people in charge (in the Japanese government) a number of times.”

    Four years after the agreement was reached, the Japanese government has done an about-turn and told Washington the Henoko option cannot be implemented. Japan’s turnaround frustrated not only Lawless, but also current U.S. administration officials. They also share a deep sense of mistrust over Hatoyama’s frequent flip-flops on this issue.

    It’s very difficult to assign blame in this scenario. It’s not possible to indulge the NIMBY-ism of every municipality, but it’s understandable that many towns don’t want the side-effects of a military installation. I’m very much a supporter of the military, but it’s a plain and simple fact that putting a lot of hopped-up kids in their early twenties far from home—in an environment of literal martial discipline in which their violent impulses are deliberately brought to the surface so they can be channeled to useful purposes—nearly guarantees an increase in crime and a tense relationship with the locals, whatever job-creating benefits may come along with the installation. Washington wants the existing agreement to be implemented; Tokyo seems to see the new administrations in both countries as an opportunity to restart negotiations practically from square one. Neither seems likely to have all its expectations met.


    Sugarpie, I have just found the must-have camp accessory of the year:

    Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s first permanent president, has published his first anthology of haiku poems.

    Van Rompuy, a former prime minister of Belgium, said here Thursday that he hopes to compose haiku when he is in Tokyo for the annual EU-Japan Summit, which convenes April 28.

    The book, titled “Haiku,” contains 45 haiku he wrote in Dutch and which have been translated into English, French, German and Latin.

    Can you just…?

    A new commission–
    the joy of its formation
    like freshest spring rains


    Indifference from
    sassy Yank colonials–
    our cries sad, owl-like!


    Dry cicada shell–
    an easy relationship
    would be so empty

    Okay, in all seriousness, van Rompuy could be very good; but haiku is one of those genres that bring out the “I could do that!” dilettantism in people, and the results are nearly always irredeemably precious, in my experience. For some reason, the combination of shortness (not a major time investment!), nature themes (I love Nature—I’m a good person!”), and Japaneseness (aesthete capital of the world!) makes haiku hard to resist, but it also makes them difficult to execute well. Maybe Catherine Ashton will be flogging her first manga this summer?

    Added later: Thanks to Instapundit for the link. I have a half-dozen regular commenters who routinely agree with me, for which I am very grateful; but if you have a dissenting comment to make, I’ll be glad to read it, since I don’t get much dissent around here. (That’s not an aspersion, regular readers.) If you’re wondering where my interest in Japan comes from, I studied Japanese literature in college and grad school, and I lived in Tokyo from the ages of 24 to 36. I am unapologetically American down to the bone, but I love Japan also, and I’m very interested in seeing our alliance not screwed up.

    There is a light that never goes out

    Posted by Sean at 18:32, April 8th, 2010

    Joanne Jacobs applies her usual deadpan to Duke’s new policy on campus sex, which she describes thus:

    A person seen as “powerful”—such as a varsity athlete—may “create an unintentional atmosphere of coercion,” the policy states. For the “powerful,” it’s not just that “no” means no and silence means no. “Yes” means no too.

    In addition, sex with someone who’s been drinking—not like that ever happens—is considered a form of rape because the policy considers any level of intoxication makes a student unable to consent to sex.

    The document itself is as coruscatingly stupid as you’d expect. It never ceases to amaze me how brain-dead college administrators are about student drunkenness:

    The use of alcohol or other drugs can have unintended consequences. Alcohol or other drugs can lower inhibitions and create an atmosphere of confusion over whether consent is freely and effectively given. The perspective of a reasonable person will be the basis for determining whether one should have known about the impact of the use of alcohol or drugs on another’s ability to give consent. Being intoxicated or high is never an excuse for sexual misconduct.

    Note the way the lowering of inhibitions is assumed to be an unintended consequence of drinking. After all, no college student would ever drink purposefully to get over feeling like a slut for wanting sex, feeling like a pervert for wanting homosexual sex, or feeling like a loser for wanting sex with someone who acts like a jerk once the clothes are back on. You might argue that students with such inhibitions should heed them rather than using alcohol to surmount them, but it’s hard to argue that they’re doing something they haven’t been in a position to consent to.

    There are, naturally, helpful scenarios of sexual misconduct given, with a careful distribution of sexual orientations to show that everyone is at least hypothetically a potential sexual assailant. The actual events don’t ring particularly false, but the prissy, desiccated way we’re supposed to interpret them does. Naturally, I’m going to homo home in on the gay guys:

    Andrew and Felix have been flirting with each other all night at a party. Around 12:30 a.m., Felix excuses himself to find a bathroom. Andrew notices Felix slurring his speech. Andrew wonders if Felix went to the bathroom to vomit. When Felix returns, the two begin flirting more heavily and move to a couch. As the conversation continues, the two become more relaxed and more physically affectionate. Andrew soon suggests they go back to his room, and Felix agrees. As they walk down the stairs, Andrew notices that Felix looks unstable and offers his arm for support and balance. When they get back to his room, Andrew leads Felix to the bed and they begin to become intimate. Felix becomes increasingly passive and appears disoriented. Andrew soon begins to have sexual intercourse with him. The next morning, Felix thinks they had sex but cannot piece together the events leading up to it. This is a violation of the Sexual Misconduct Policy. Felix was clearly under the influence of alcohol and thus unable to freely consent to engage in sexual activity with Andrew. Although Andrew may not have known how much alcohol Felix had consumed, he saw indicators from which a reasonable person would conclude that Felix was intoxicated, and therefore unable to give consent. Andrew in no way obtained consent from Felix.

    Okay, fine. But that omits a lot of the story that would explain how they ended up having sex. For example:

    Andrew and Felix have been flirting with each other all night at a party. Felix has pretty much accepted that he’s gay, but whenever he’s attracted to a guy and thinks about doing something about it, the things his parents used to say around the dinner table about homosexuals start echoing in his head, and he gets rattled and feels like he’s stirring things up that he may not be able to handle. The attention from Andrew is making him feel terrific—attractive and interesting—but Felix isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do next. Andrew can hold his liquor pretty well, and Felix doesn’t want to look like a lightweight, so he’s trying to keep up even though he knows he’s already had enough.

    Andrew is going berserk. He almost never hits it off with a guy this quickly. And Felix has no idea how cute he is—the slightly sheepish manner, the shrug, the offhand smile. When he leans forward, there’s this place where the back of his neck comes out of his T-shirt collar that Andrew wants to bury his face in. Felix seems to be getting really drunk, but Andrew, though he keeps good motor control, knows that he himself is probably no longer thinking as clearly as he feels he is. Around 12:30 a.m., Felix excuses himself to find a bathroom. Andrew notices Felix slurring his speech. Andrew wonders if Felix went to the bathroom to vomit.

    When Felix returns, the two begin flirting more heavily and move to a couch. As the conversation continues, the two become more relaxed and more physically affectionate. Felix doesn’t taste like vomit when Andrew kisses him, so maybe he’s okay after all? Felix feels and smells a little sweat-damp beneath his T-shirt, and Andrew is beside himself.

    Felix would never have been able to initiate that kiss, but he likes it. He’s dimly aware that his senses of touch and taste aren’t working right, but he really wants Andrew to like him and be attracted to him. He’s afraid that he’s going to look like a dork if he tells Andrew he needs to go home now but would like to see him again when he’s more sober, so he keeps responding as enthusiastically as he can while Andrew makes out with him.

    Andrew soon suggests they go back to his room, and Felix agrees. As they walk down the stairs, Andrew notices that Felix looks unstable and offers his arm for support and balance. Andrew stumbles a few times along the way, and Felix giggles, a little relieved that Andrew’s also more drunk than he’d thought. When they get back to his room, Andrew leads Felix to the bed and they begin to become intimate. Felix is fighting hard to stay awake and perform well so that Andrew isn’t disappointed. Andrew actually asks once whether he’s okay, and Felix makes a huge effort to enunciate a clear “Yeah, I’m fine.” Felix becomes increasingly passive and appears disoriented. Andrew soon begins to have sexual intercourse with him. He’s keyed up, and Felix is responsive enough to keep his arms around him and to get off. The next morning, Felix thinks they had sex but cannot piece together the events leading up to it. He feels like hell: not only is he a failure at being straight, but he apparently can’t even be a faggot without screwing it up. Andrew probably thinks he’s a loser.

    Andrew doesn’t, in fact, think Felix is a loser; he wonders whether Felix wasn’t as attracted to him as he thought, since he had to get so drunk before he would make out with him. Felix miscalculated, trying to distance himself from his desire for Andrew while indulging it at the same time. Andrew might have just taken Felix to home if they’d left the party earlier, but by the time they got up to go, he was too keyed up and horny to think of it. Although Andrew may not have known how much alcohol Felix had consumed, he saw indicators from which a reasonable person would conclude that Felix was intoxicated, and therefore unable to give consent. Andrew in no way obtained consent from Felix. But Felix kept drinking past his own limitations; Andrew never put a funnel into his mouth and poured vodka down it. And his own faculties of reason weren’t all operating, either.

    How is it helpful, at this point, for some Student Life lackwit to wade in and tell Felix he’s a victim and Andrew he’s a perpetrator of sexual misconduct? And in general, how is it helpful to assume that in most drunken couplings it’s the bigger, hornier, more sober party who was the one doing all the “manipulating”? No one who’s ever watched men and women flirt could possibly buy that for a moment. I don’t think it does anyone (except ambitious Student Life lackeys) any good to plant the idea in undergrads’ heads that every bad sexual experience is “misconduct,” in which mustache-twirling offenders can be clearly separated from ravaged victims. Or that there’s some mystical “coercive” power inherent in high status in the social hierarchy. This is supposed to be preparing kids to handle grown-up life?