Tuesday, November 29, 2005

'Tis the season to be pro-retailers.

Black Friday has come and gone, followed by Cyber Monday, and economic cheerleaders all over the nation can collectively exhale. Maybe you thought holiday sales were especially good this year, or you're bummed because they missed the mark. Either way, the anxiety and discomfort of not knowing how people would spend those crucial shopping hours -- racking up generous bills or keeping their wallets shut tight -- is over. Until next year, that is.

When the talking heads start rooting for retailers, I don't complain. It's not often that liberal journalists take the side of store management and wish the nation's greedy, capitalist middlemen well. If this once-a-year holiday spirit can get the New York Times and Wal-Mart kissing 'neath the mistletoe, there's no limit to its powers.

And yet, I can't help feeling that somebody has gotten left out in the cold. Who's pulling for the rest-stop owners, the hoteliers, the rent-a-car services? When we're shopping, we sure aren't traveling -- nor are we watching television. Pity the poor broadcasters! One can only hope that the stress of gift-buying, along with the bustling and elbowing near cash registers, will bring more than a few paying customers to hospital waiting rooms this winter. America's doctors and nurses deserve a piece of the Yuletide action, too.

Of course, a truly astute economist will take this argument to the next level. He'll say it doesn't matter how households choose to spend their money, period. Now that's pro-choice.

Cross-posted with Liberty Belles.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Monticello Folly

During Thanksgiving, I visited the plantation Thomas Jefferson designed for himself in Charlottesville, Virginia. The 33-room house at Monticello boasts a skylight, interestingly shaped rooms (Jefferson liked octagons with lots of windows) and a bed nestled in the wall between two rooms.

The third U.S. president remained active well into old age, studying climate changes, horticulture, and farming; reading in six languages; riding horseback every day; and practicing his violin. He took more than a passing interest in politics, too.

Monticello is a testament to both Jefferson's intellectual hyperactivity and his misunderstanding of economics. He strove for self-sufficiency on his plantation with almost blind zeal. He started a textile factory manned by his own slaves, who made clothing for themselves and for the Jefferson family. His slaves also made barrels and carriages, and they raised hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables. Monticello produced thousands of nails each day until the on-site nailery could no longer compete with cheaper imported nails.

Maybe if Jefferson had specialized in areas where he had comparative advantage, he wouldn't have died more than $100,000 in debt. In his will, he could have afforded to free more than a measly five slaves.

Moreover, the university he designed is ugly. Give me Jacobean gothic any day.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Dilbert creator starts a blog

Cartoonist Scott Adams, reacting to news that a would-be suicide bomber was captured in Jordan after her explosive belt failed to detonate:
I’m just wondering, how many women heard that story on the news and thought “Crap. Why did it have to be the woman who couldn’t blow herself up?"

Fair enough. But sometimes, evidently, it pays to be mechanically inept.


MEETING TONIGHT (Monday, 11/21)
Hamilton 408


Sunday, November 20, 2005

Thanks for clearing that up.

Move over, online applications -- Harvard Law School's admissions office has its own blog. (Linked from Volokh.)

Now you can listen to podcasts on topics like "the personal statement" and read the "rants" and "observations" of Toby W. Stock, Assistant Dean of Admissions. I examined the site thoroughly before concluding that it is not, in fact, a joke.

Perhaps the informal medium will allow for more unguarded moments like this one, in which Asst. Dean Toby describes the ideal applicant:
Think "director of the all-campus blood drive" or "founder of a literacy project that has taught 65 inner-city adults how to read" or "organizer of a summer program building a school in sub-Saharan Africa." Usually this kind of work takes a commitment over time. You don't just turn around one day and lead a trek to Africa. But it's never too late to try....

What I'm hearing is that Harvard likes bleeding-heart applicants. I don't see how these activities add to an aspiring J.D.'s suitability for law school in any meaningful way. Having founded a soup kitchen or something similar shows that either a) you are a nice person or b) you are application-savvy and know what looks good on a C.V. Even if we give you the benefit of the doubt, so what? There are lots of nice people in the world.

Had these admissions criteria been in place 30-50 years ago, would John Roberts have gotten a thick envelope in the mail? How about Antonin Scalia? Is being plain ol' Very Smart enough any more?

Crossposted with another blog that you'd do well to check out.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Childhood innocence is so 2004.

Now this is the kind of thing that brings out the outraged, morality-conscious conservative in me: a NY Times article titled "Sex Ed for the Stroller Set."

These progressive times call for proactive parenting, according to the received yuppie wisdom. In the eyes of some zealous moms and dads, this means teaching the kids about s-e-x before they're old enough to spell it.
According to this approach, toddlers should learn words like "vulva" at the same time they learn "ears" and "toes," benign-sounding myths about storks and seeds constitute harmful misinformation, and any child who can ask about how he or she was created is old enough for a truthful answer.

Oh, come on. You don't explain how gravity works, why the radio emits sounds, or why light rays refract through a glass lens -- not when the questioner wears velcro shoes and carries a Bambi lunchbox. Surely there's no moral imperative to launch into an twenty-minute discourse on topics that would raise a blush in the average 20-year-old.
The general cultural environment has become so vulgar, the early-approach advocates say, that sex education has become a race: parents must reach children before other forces - from misinformed playground confidantes to pubescent-looking models posed in their skivvies - do. "We need to get there first," said Deborah M. Roffman, a sex educator and the author of "But How'd I Get in There in the First Place? Talking to Your Young Child About Sex."

It all depends on where "there" is. If it's talking about foreplay when the young pupil in question associates "play" with a jungle gym, I'd say not to go there. It's simply not worth the trip. It's unnecessary. It's an attempt to avert an imagined crisis that probably won't happen anyway. Unless your child is watching late-night pay-per-view television when you're not around, you don't need to worry about pop culture getting there first.

I can respond to Ms. Roffman with some degree of authority, to allay her fears. She was my Sex Ed teacher. It was about 10 years ago, at a teensy religious school in Baltimore, and I could swear that none of us kids had ever heard any of those strange-sounding words before. If she hadn't come along to "get there first," nobody else would have gotten there for at least another five years.
"It's a fun time at dinner now," [a mother who conducts sex-ed sessions with her kids at home] said, gesturing at her two small boys. "We have The Talk every single night."

Well, okay. As long as the lady's enjoying herself. I just hope she lets the kids get away to run around, play soccer and arrange toy trucks on the living room floor -- all that primitive pre-Sex-Ed-enlightenment stuff -- every now and then.

Crossposted with my other libertarian blog. <--- shameless plug here

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

If this is Tuesday, the university must be an imperialist, anti-Semitic torturer of caged monkeys and graduate students.

Slate.com writer Bryan Curtis reminisces about his heady college days on the editorial board of The Daily Texan and has some fun at the expense of today's scribbling undergrad gumshoes:
Whether at the Texan or the more august halls of the Harvard Crimson, working at the college newspaper tends to instill in its writers a particular set of values. More than being liberal or conservative, they reflect a touchingly undergraduate concern for the human condition. Up with unionized cafeteria workers! Down with date rape! We must have more 24-hour study spaces, more parking spaces, more "safe" spaces. Fraternities and secret societies ought to be frog-marched off campus—unless, of course, they ask us to join. Can we talk about race for a minute—I mean, really sit down and talk about it? And the daily outrages! Beloved local businesses bulldozed by university expansion! Binge drinking! Lazy professors! Impractical majors! And—a favorite of finals week—are we all getting enough sleep?!

Sound familiar? Here, it's as if he's holding a copy of the Spec as he reports on college prez - college paper tensions:
The newspaper is the scourge of the college president, his most relentless observer and his most vocal critic. On a respectable college newspaper, writing about the administration with anything other than lightly concealed disgust is tantamount to treason.

Curtis's conclusion? That it's a shame every college paper has its own website with hundreds of columns archived for all time. In ten years, these editorialists are going to wish they'd stuck to covering the sports beat.
Or maybe not. If memory serves, the Spec had one marvelous editorial worth preserving.

Monday, November 14, 2005


Meeting tonight (Monday, 11/14)
408 Hamilton

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Jack of all trades

...or master of one? That's the big question stirring a controversy over NYC's specialized high school exam. Eighth graders take the test for entrance to prestigious public high schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech. An article in the NY Times suggests that the test, which measures math and verbal skills in separate sections, is unfair.
Last year, for instance, a student with a 99 percentile score in math and 49 percentile in verbal would have been admitted to Stuyvesant High School - the most coveted specialized school - but a student with a 97 in math and 92 in verbal would not.

As a result, test-prep tutors who understand how the test is scored advise their students to spend as much time as possible not where they are weakest, but on their stronger subject. Students are allotted two and a half hours for the exam and can divide the time as they wish.

In other words, the test is biased in favor of students who excel in (at least) one area and against those who perform *pretty well* in both areas. This seems like a perfectly legitimate means of culling promising students. Who has more potential, the foreign-born whiz kid -- who gets a perfect score on the math section but underperforms on the English questions -- or the student who gets a mere 90 in each subject? Should the brilliant English student be denied entrance to a top high school because he's lousy at math?

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Curious Case of the Cell-Phone Bandit

Who is she? And why does she hold up banks while apparently chatting on her cell phone?
If she's not conversing with a co-conspirator, investigators have theorized, she could just be using the phone as a prop. "Is she talking to someone," Troxell said, "or using it to make herself look less noticeable or nonchalant as she approaches the teller?" Some might argue that people who stay on a cell phone throughout a bank transaction tend to draw attention to themselves.

My theory: she's showing off, trying to look cool. For most people, the stressful act of committing a crime in public would require their full attention. This woman is all like, I can do this and check in with my former roommate at the same time.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

"The Real-Life Van Wilder"

It's Johnny Lechner's twenty-third semester of college.
National Lampoon is promising to pay his tuition, and the makers of Monster Energy Drink deliver 30 cases a week, along with advertising posters and condoms, to the house where Mr. Lechner lives and parties, in exchange for his endorsement of Monster as "the official energy drink" of his 12th college year.

He has signed with the William Morris Agency, which is marketing a reality television series based on his life at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. And in recent days he has referred to interviews with The New York Times on his personal Web site, anticipating new publicity from this article.

...When Mr. Lechner enrolled in college in 1994, the Internet was practically a baby and his current girlfriend was starting fourth grade. He has since drifted through four majors - education, communications, theater, women's studies - and watched hundreds of friends graduate, get jobs and marry.

Living Large

Living Large: We've Been Misled about the Real Threat Posed by the 'Obesity Crisis'

by Radley Balko

Radley Balko is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

Judging from today's headlines, you'd think most of America is pudgy, couch-ridden, and on the verge of some catastrophic illness. Our poor eating habits and slothful lifestyle have served as grist for many an in-depth report, multi-part series, and conference like the Time-ABC News "Obesity Summit" held last summer. For years, the government and media have told us we're in the midst of an "obesity crisis," and that our excess weight unnecessarily kills some 400,000 of us every year.

Here's the good news you don't often hear: Last year, life expectancy in America reached an all-time high. Death rates among all age groups have been in decline for decades. That's true across all races and both sexes. In fact, the life expectancy gap between black and white is narrowing, even though African-Americans are fattening at a greater clip than white Americans. The two diseases most linked to obesity -- heart disease and cancer -- are in rapid decline. Deaths from each have been steadily dropping since the early 1990s. In fact, deaths from nine of the ten types of cancer most associated with obesity are down over the last 15 years, not up. Deaths from heart disease have declined in every state in the nation. Deaths from stroke are down, too. The biggest increases in mortality are coming from diseases that inevitably set in at old age, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

In short, we are healthier than we've ever been. Granted, much of this good news is attributable to advances in medical technology. But so what? If the fattening of America is really the health threat it's made out to be -- Surgeon General Richard Carmona recently said it's a bigger threat than terrorism -- after thirty years of putting on weight, we should at least be seeing the front end of this coming calamity. It simply isn't happening.

What's worse, we've been misled about the real threat posed by obesity. Recently, after a wave of criticism from skeptics, the National Institutes of Health commissioned a review of that 400,000 deaths-by-obesity figure. Their findings: The number of deaths attributable to obesity each year is closer to 100,000. What's more, the new study found some modest protective effects to carrying a few extra pounds (an apt description of the average American, who is 8 to 10 pounds heavier than he was a generation ago). Subtract the number of lives saved by mild overweight, and the number of net deaths due to excess weight is closer to about 26,000 -- or 15 times lower than what the government has been telling us.

What's troubling is that the original figure was cited ad nauseum by politicians, public health activists, and the media in an effort to get government into the business of regulating what we eat. Even accepting the premise that such regulation is a necessary intrusion into our private habits (and I don't), this new data raises a troubling thought: If there are health benefits to being slightly overweight, and if the average American is slightly overweight, these efforts aimed at getting us to drop excess pounds may actually be doing more harm than good.

The University of Colorado's Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth, makes a compelling case that it is our obsession with weight and incessant yo-yo dieting that's responsible for higher mortality rates in some obese people, not the weight itself. Black women, for example, don't have the same increases in mortality at higher weights than white women do. Campos believes this is because black women have healthier attitudes about weight -- they don't diet as frequently, and eating disorders are rare. If Campos is right, government efforts aimed at getting us to diet aren't merely intrusive, they could well be deadly.

There's probably some truth to the argument that extreme obesity can be a drain on taxpayers (via Medicare and Medicaid costs), not to mention to non-obese payers on the same health care plan. But such arguments are an invitation to government policing of just about any "bad habit" one might imagine. Any risky behavior could cost taxpayers money. The solution isn't to regulate fat, it's to return some semblance of personal responsibility to the health care system. We should be free to indulge our personal vices, but we shouldn't expect others to subsidize them.

We should also keep some perspective. Obesity is an affliction of prosperity. Not only has our remarkable economy managed to feed all of its citizens, our chief worry right now seems to be that our poor and middle class have too much to eat. That's a remarkable achievement. And in the proper historical context, it's not such a bad problem to have.

This article appeared in Worth, December 2005.

[via The Agitator, Radley Balko's blog]

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Saturday, November 05, 2005

Dumb and Entirely Defensible

James Taranto examines a tricky concept in today's Wall Street Journal, defending Alito's record on a piece of abortion legislation. Pennsylvania's law requiring spousal notification was, let's face it, a silly thing. You could argue, "The husband has a right to know. He would have been the father." Okay, but he doesn't have a say about whether or not the child will ever draw breath, so the law effectively does not treat it like it's his child--er, his fetus.

But that's not the issue here. Of concern is whether or not the law interferes with the right to an abortion. What about women who cheated on their husbands and wanted to conceal the product of an extramarital relationship? What about women whose husbands raped them? Taranto reminds us that the law carefully exempted women in these scenarios.
The law did not provide for spousal consent, only notification. The wife's say-so, in the form of a signed statement delivered to the physician performing the abortion, was sufficient to establish that the husband knew. And a woman seeking an abortion had the alternative of affirming that her husband was not the father of her unborn child, that he could not be located, that the pregnancy was the result of marital rape, or that she feared physical abuse if she informed him. In any of these cases, no notification was required.

Arguably this was an unwise law because it was superfluous in most cases and ineffective in the rest. One must assume the vast majority of married couples make the decision to have or abort a child together; and the mere requirement of signing a statement was not a serious impediment to any woman who, for whatever reason, decided on her own to abort.

But deciding if a law is wise or unwise is the job of legislators, not judges. The Supreme Court is obliged to let even a foolish law stand unless the Constitution prohibits a state from enacting it.

Brilliant. It's possible to think, as I do, that the extra bit of pre-abortion paperwork is has no effect other than to waste time and graphite. Women who wanted to conceal abortions from their husbands could do so, lawfully, by claiming any of the exemptions listed above. No undue burden imposed on abortion-seekers here. One could scoff at the law while respecting the right of an elected legislature to impose it.

Nor is spousal notification an infringement on the right to privacy, Taranto argues. The landmark case establishing that right had to do with the privacy of a marital unit, not a right to privacy reserved by one spouse or the other.
Roe was the offspring of Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that established a "right to privacy"--and specifically, a right of married couples to obtain contraceptives. This right had no basis in the text of the Constitution, but it was grounded, as Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the majority, in "the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship."

By 1992, when the high court decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the right to marital privacy had somehow morphed into a woman's right to abort her husband's child without telling him. The court's privacy jurisprudence has become simply a matter of five justices' policy preferences, unmoored from any limiting principle. You don't have to be a pro-life absolutist to object to this exercise in pro-wife extremism.

Okay, that last line was just characteristic Taranto coloring. But you get the point.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Wikipedia is my favorite website

If it's not on Wikipedia, it's probably not that important; after all, Wikipedia seems to have everything:

When Samuel Alito graduated from Princeton University in 1972 at age 22, his yearbook said he would "eventually warm a seat on the Supreme Court."


Alito was born on April Fools Day and nominated to the Supreme Court on Halloween. Bush has called for him to be confirmed by Christmas.

Requiem for Rehnquist?

At Columbia Law School TONIGHT at 6 pm in 103 Jerome Greene Hall: Walter Dellinger speaking about the Rehnquist--O'Connor court.

Dellinger is a law professor at Duke and head of the appellate division of O'Melveny and Myers. He was formerly the Assistant Attorney General and Acting Solicitor General of the United States.