Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No penalty for Yoo and Bybee? Sigh.

John Yoo and Jay Bybee are the authors of the so-called "torture memos" that gave legal cover to the Bush administration's torture programs in 2002-2006. As I posted last summer, the memos are a travesty.

The torture memos basically define torture out of existence, redefining it as the infliction of severe pain "equivalent to organ failure or death." Yoo and Bybee believe that anything short of sadism is okay, so long as it is in the service of national security.
In keeping with the Bush administration's pooh-poohing of all international law, the memos show no appreciation of the meaning of torture as developed in the rest of the world.

So other than being crappy lawyers who got it wrong, why should Yoo and Bybee be punished?

The problem is that Yoo and Bybee undermined the legal professions. Their job, and their oath, was to provide honest legal advice to the federal government, and to protect and defend the constitution. Intellectual honesty is required in such a job. Yet these memos are intellectually dishonest. They are exercises in result-oriented, sophistic reasoning designed to justify each and every "harsh interrogation technique" already used or proposed by the administration. Tellingly, the memos contain no real line-drawing. If the Bush-administration had proposed different or harsher "techniques," Yoo and Bybee would have found a way to approve them too.

There is a joke about a math professor who spends 45 minutes proving a theorem on the blackboard. When he is done with his proof, a student raises is hand and asks if the hadn't professor mistakenly flipped the inequality in the theorem – meaning he had the whole theorem backward. "Oh," says the professor, "that's even easier to prove." It's not a joke when fundamental human rights are at stake.

Yoo and Bybee make no attempt to obtain or review evidence outside that which the administration provided. The memos are legal fig-leaves for a position they already believed, that there should be no limits on executive power (if a Republican…) in time of war. They fundamentally misconstrued their job as being advocates for the Bush administration rather than for the constitution and the rule of law.

I am very disappointed they are not being disbarred (the appropriate remedy here). More cowardice from the Obama administration. Disbarring them would be for the ages; appeasing the right sends the wrong signal. They are now respectively a Law professor at Berkeley and a Judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals. Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Role of Public Education

Hi Everyone,

I thought I would blog about some thoughts about public education. I should come clean and say that I am the product of a private college. I did get my doctorate at a public university though.

Private colleges are often excellent but they are expensive. It costs a lot of money to pay for the small class sizes and highly trained and accomplished professors to teach them. Such small, private colleges are typically only open to students who are exceptional enough to win scholarships or come from families that are relatively wealthy (or some combination of the two). A completely privatized tertiary education system will serve mainly the upper classes in society. If we want education to enable at least the possibility of class mobility from one generation to another, there must be a public component to it. And this public component must be of a quality that is at least credible. It cannot be that private colleges turn out highly trained and educated graduates while the publics become little more than diploma mills. Many public universities provide a high quality education. The problem is that providing high quality education costs money and states are increasingly unwilling to provide that money. The result is either tuition must go up or quality will go down. If tuition goes up, the publics become more and more like the privates, serving mainly the upper classes. If quality goes down, the value of the public degree relative to the private degree goes down and its ability to provide for some social mobility decreases.

There is another important role for both public and private education. In the American economy, most workers change employers several times in the course of their careers. They may change companies, industries, perhaps they will even go back to school and change their skill set. This fluid labor market is the hallmark of the American economy. There are many advantages to it. One of the consequences though is that companies have little if any incentive to provide training to their employees. Why should GM, GE or Microsoft spend a lot of money and time training all of their employees when they know that each of these employees is likely to leave the company in the future? In this context, the constant supply of trained potential employees is a public good that no one company will see it as worth while to provide for themselves. The systems especially needs people with a broad and flexible skill set that can adapt quickly to the particular needs of a variety different potential employers with different needs.

Now, as the economy in the United States shifts more and more to services and high tech sectors, employers need more and more workers with broader skill sets. Privates alone cannot meet that demand.

A note about vocational training: There is also a serious need for vocational training (plumbing skills, electronics, etc). There is also a public/private divide among vo-tech schools. In some states, Indiana for example, private vo-tech schools have taken over from underfunded community colleges. You see them advertising on TV. These are often respectable places (the ones in Indiana have a quite good reputation). But people tend to want their services at exactly the moment they are losing a job or changing to another industry. Coming up with the money to pay for a year or two of "up skilling" can be most challenging at precisely the moment when it is most needed.

Public education needs to be robust at precisely the times when the economy is doing poorly. But the general public/political reaction to an economic down turn is to place disproportionate shares of the budget cutting burden on education. This is an unfortunate development. In the medium and long term it will serve to continue exactly the class divisions that generate so much resentment of "elitism" etc. I fear a continuing spiral in which decreasing public support for education leads to increasing tuition which then breeds more resentment which leads to another round of decreased public support. The end result will be an overwhelmingly private education system that serves mainly to lock class distinctions in place rather than enable people to move from class to class across generations.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Beware of Greeks Bearing Credit

While the economy in United States has been slowly crawling out of recession, things are getting nastier in parts of Europe. The Euro-zone is facing its biggest crisis since its founding as currency for accounts in 1999. The problem is based in the debt and deficit problems for several of the EU member states that use the Euro as their currency. Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland (and Italy but they always seem allowed to get away with this stuff) are all facing the prospect of far outstripping the maximum debt and deficit levels. Greece is particularly bad off at the moment.

Reuters has a timeline of how Greece got to this point here. Essentially what happened was that in 2009, the social-democratic PASOK party won an election and upon taking office found that the right wing government they defeated had been cooking the books. PASOK had to revise upward their expected debt and deficit levels (they about doubled). At that point, the shitstorm began. Greek debt will exceed 120% of Greek GDP this year. This is about double the maximum permitted in the Eurozone. Greece is also about to be forced to refinance about 50 Billion Euros in debt (a chunk of debt about 14% of Greece's total GDP - see the Greek entry in the CIA world factbook here). Their credit rating has already been downgraded.

The debate now is centered on whether and how the EU as a whole should help Greece get through the crisis. So far there is an "agreement in principle" to help Greece refinance their debt but there is no enthusiasm for a full fledged bail out. The Greek government is blaming the EU for not doing enough. Greek public opinion is not being kind to the EU (even though the problem was caused by decades of Greek governments' over spending and outright fraud by the previous government). The Greek government is being forced to enact dramatic auterity programs, slashing spending and hiking taxes.

OK, so that's the problem now. The future problem is just starting to take shape and has to do with how the EU responds to this. In effect the EU is a federal system with the member states acting the role of states/provinces. What Greece wants is for the EU to implement a full fledged bail out - effectively taking over responsibility for Greek debts. This would be a no-brainer good thing for Greek politicians. The problem is that we know what happens when a federal government rescues constituent state governments like that. This is exactly what happens in Argentina. In that country, the individual provinces' debts are effectively backed by the Federal government. So if one or more of the provinces gets into a situation where they can't pay their debts, the Argentine feds are required to pay. The result is that the provincial governments have little incentive to restrain their spending (and a lot of incentive to spend like drunken sailors on favored programs for constituents). This moral hazard problem in turn leads to Argentina having a nasty chronic/recurring problem with debt and deficit crises.

The danger for the EU is that if they engage in a full fledged bailout, they risk establishing a precendent that risks transforming the EU into an Argentina-like moral hazard basket case. On the other hand, if they don't do anything, they risk the legitimacy of EU membership and institutions among Greeks and other countries in similar situations. They also risk the consquences of a Euro government defaulting on billions of Euros of debt denominated in their currency.

This is interesting in light of the fact just a year or two ago, many were predicting that the dollar would be replaced as the world's primary currency of accounts by a basket of currencies including the Euro. Now we see the Euro zone countries struggling to keep their act together. Their difused financial and budgetary decision making structures are proving problematic.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Ignorance instead of Education

Everyone should read this article and get scared, really scared, of the damage that fundamentalist Christians are trying to do to this country, and of the unholy alliance between fundamentalists and the GOP. This explains how the Texas state curriculum is largely set by a man who proudly proclaims he is a "Christian fundamentalist," that America is a Christian nation (not just in a demographic or cultural sense), and believes that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago. Yes, that's right: the Republicans have put in charge of teaching kids a person who doesn't "believe" in biology or geology. This is why honest, decent people have got to get over the daily headlines and stop voting Republican for any reason. These people are just way too dangerous.

It's about time that decent people begin standing up to these fundamentalist Christians and telling them - and their Republican allies - that there is no religious privilege to choose to "believe" or "not believe" in reality. Believing in one's own special reality is called mental illness. It is a form of insanity, simply put, to decide you are not going to "believe" in biology, or geology, or to choose not to "believe" that the sky is blue, or choose to "believe" that (as Mormons do) the Indians are descended from the Israelites. Sanity requires accepting reality. Once something is proven to be demonstrably true or false, there is no privilege to "believe" otherwise. As the late Senator Moynihan used to say, you are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. Fundamentalist Christians don't get this. People who will construct and believe in their own private reality are too dangerous to allow in the public square. They need to be cast out.

Literally frothing at the mouth here. Serious froth.


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Enforce

I just saw a report on Daily Kos (see link to the right) that says that an open gay Arabic translator (and West Point grad) who challenged DADT in court has been recalled to active service. The presumption is that this is an indication of the new Department of Defense policy on enforcing DADT (they aren't anymore).

I think this is great. When the the sky fails to fall over this, another chunk of public opinion will come around to the idea of full and equal rights for all citizens regardless of sexual preference.

I know we've got some contributors and friends of the blog who know a thing or two about this issue and about the Defense department in particular. I'd like to hear their take on this and other developments.


Monday, February 08, 2010

Tommy Tea

Have you heard what Tom Tancredo said at the Tea Party convention this weekend?

"People who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House," he said.

We all know Tancredo is racist. But man, this is clearly a call to bring back Jim Crow laws, and it's not even that thinly veiled. Pitiful! The man needs help.

Also, as Jimmy Kimmel points out, a literacy test might not be such a good idea for the tea partiers ...


Sunday, February 07, 2010

Unemployment, Class, Education and Generational Changes

Bonddad at posted this fantastic analysis of unemployment trends. He points to a few interesting and related points. First, points out that about three fourths of all the jobs lost during this recession have been in manufacturing and construction. Second, he points out that the manufacturing sector did not replace many of the jobs it lost in the last recession and should not be expected to replace them after this one. Finally, he points out that the unemployment rate among people with less than a high school diploma is at about 15%! For people with a high school diploma but no college it is at about 10%. For people with "some college" (community college grads), it is at 8.5%. For people with college degrees (or higher), 4.9%.

The first number is for January 2009 and the second is for January 2010:
Less the high school diploma: 12.4%/15.2%
High School Graduates, no college: 8.1%/10.1%
Some college or associate degree: 6.4%/8.5%
Bachelor's degree or higher: 3.9%/4.9%

The differences between demographic groups are extremely stark and clearly the biggest improvement is between those with college degrees and those without. Bonddad says, "Either the economy needs to start creating jobs for those with less than a college education (a highly unlikely development as will be explained below) or the workforce needs to increase the number of people with higher education." I think it's clear that a two year degree from junior college is analogous to the old high school diploma and a college degree is a minimum condition for entry to the "middle class."

So how does "the economy" go about doing that? In the short and medium term, the way to do this is to maintain or increase support for public education - especially colleges and community colleges. Unfortunately, most state are prevented from deficit spending by balanced budget laws passed in the 1990s. This combines with populist anger at "elites" to make public education an easy target for mandated budget cuts as tax revenues decrease.

In the long run, we as a country need to drive home the idea that the days when unskilled work could provide a "middle class" life style are dead and gone. Whining about it won't bring those days back. When Baby Boomers were growing up, there was a fluke development in our economic history when a person with no education (not even a high school diploma) could get a job in construction or manufacturing and expect to be able to support a family comfortably complete with nice car, house and vacations at the lake or seashore. That started to end in the 70s but with every recession since then, the development gets more entrenched.

I'm no expert on working class attitudes towards education but I have done some reading in the area have listened to working class relatives talk about it. My impression is that many parents who do not have college educations send their kids mixed signals. On the one hand they say "stay in school." On the other they frequently complain about "egg heads" at work or "college boys" who really don't know anything and say that what really matters is "real world" learning as opposed to "book learning." Kids get the message that teachers are not to be respected and college educations are not really neccessary, but more of a pointless hoop that "elitists" make you jump through for no good reason. Politically, this same attitude manifests itself in populist attacks on public universities.

The problem is that if universities are attacked politically and defunded, the same demographic that fuels the resentment behind these policies will be hurt the most. The statistics mentioned above make clear that the way out of the 9-15% unemployment group to the 5% unemployment group is to get a college education. If the only way to get that is in private colleges, which cost at least twice as much as publics to attend (and tend to be harder to get into), it will be exceedingly difficult for people to improve their families' prospects from one generation to the next.

Oh well. It's easier to blame "elitists" and people with dark skin, a different language or sexual preference for our problems.


Friday, February 05, 2010

RNC Chair Says a Million Bucks is Chump Change

Seriously, Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "Trust me, after taxes, a million dollars is not a lot of money."

I looked it up on the interwebs and apparently the marginal rate on a million bucks is 35%. I'm probably doing this wrong (having never had to pay taxes on a million bucks) and there are contributers and spouses of contributers who know a thing or two about tax law so feel free to correct me. Anyway, let's suppose that after taxes you walk away with $650,000. That's about 10 times the GROSS (pre-tax) income of the median family of four in this country.

The Democrats need to make this quotation the most recognized public statement of the year. They need to use for everything from jobs creation and stimulus to health care to deficit reduction. Every time the Republicans (any Republican) says Democrats are out of touch or going against the national interest, they need to say, "The leader of your party is a shameless elitist who thinks millionaires are poor!"


Demon Sheep

So, Carly Fiornina - the woman who famously claimed that being a corporate CEO was harder than being President of the USA - has displayed her political genius a second time with the "demon sheep" ad demonizing her primary opponsent, Professional Worm Tom Campbell. As you can guess, I actually agree with her that Tom Campbell would be the worse candidate for governor. He was behind the Governator's lurch right in 2005 that resulted in eight failed ballot initiatives. He then supported Arnold's new and contradictory positions on taxes. The best line in the Demon Sheep ad is to remark on "whatever office [Tom] is running for this week." He's become a professional candidate, tolerated because he can play the Moderate Law Professor from Silicon Valley, which gives the GOP a veneer of at least one non-Jesus-freak candidate.

But holy crap, have you seen the "Demon Sheep" ad? It's not just schlocky, it's one of the most symbolically stupid things i've seen in years.

First, it starts by discussing "purity" and showing lots of white sheep. Now, that's a bad start to any political campaign in diverse California. Then you discover that the white sheep are the paragons of political leadership and virtue. Sheep, you know, the normal symbol for leadership. Tom Campbell is depicted as a wolf with glowy-red eyes. But you are meant to see that the glowy-red eyes are fake and that the costume is worn by a guy crawling. It's campy, in other words. Camp always plays well with conservatives. And Campbell is portrayed as waffly. Hence the wolf: the symbol of weakness. Got that wrong too. I mean, how many people are watching the ad thinking, "I don't get it - do I want to vote for a wolf or a sheep?"

Apparently Fiorina liked the ad. You are going to lose. And that is sad, because she really is the better candidate for California.


Monday, February 01, 2010


Everyone's seen this, right? Well, in case you haven't:

It's quite long. Get some popcorn and a beer. It's worth it.