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    Sunday

    Posted by Sean at 11:31, September 25th, 2011

    At my parents’ place for the weekend. Kitty the Younger says, “How is it possible that there are more humans in the house than usual?” I’ve tried to explain that I have no sympathy, having spent the last week navigating through makeshift checkpoints to get to my own apartment building while the neighborhood was overrun with UN types and their hangers-on. “But they didn’t look in at you while you were trying to sleep.” Okay. Point taken.


    Dumdums in Paradise

    Posted by Sean at 08:38, September 21st, 2011

    Instapundit links to David Brooks’s latest repellent column, in which he uses the old trick of repeating the same self-abasing apology over and over and over in the hopes that his audience will say, “Well, gee, don’t beat yourself up over it; it wasn’t that big a deal”:

    Being a sap, I still believe that the president’s soul would like to do something about the country’s structural problems.* I keep thinking he’s a few weeks away from proposing serious tax reform and entitlement reform. But each time he gets close, he rips the football away. He whispered about seriously reforming Medicare but then opted for changes that are worthy but small. He talks about fundamental tax reform, but I keep forgetting that he has promised never to raise taxes on people in the bottom 98 percent of the income scale.

    ***

    The president believes the press corps imposes a false equivalency on American politics. We assign equal blame to both parties for the dysfunctional politics when in reality the Republicans are more rigid and extreme. There’s a lot of truth to that, but at least Republicans respect Americans enough to tell us what they really think. The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths. To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.

    The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals. I guess I understand the choice, but I still believe in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. I may be the last one. I’m a sap.

    Why, yes, you are! And a ninny. Not that that’s anything new. Years ago, someone (I think Diana Mertz Hsieh, though I can’t seem to find it in her archives) made the point that a lot of people who congratulate themselves on how “moderate” they are are trying to prioritize several conflicting things at once. Packaging themselves as friendly and accommodating means they don’t have to make hard decisions about priorities or look for the flaws in their own logic. It means they can think they sound saintly, rather than moronic, when they bleat things like “I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country.” Which stale ideological debates? Those in which each of the two major parties is at pains to show that the other has a worse record of pork-barreling and pandering to beneficiaries of major entitlements? Okay. I’m happy to call that one a draw.

    But then we still have the debates over how much earnings the government should commandeer and spend, whether the government should try to pick winners and losers in industry, and how best to exercise our role as a superpower. We may get sick of discussing those things, but they’re only “stale” if you wish the opposing side would just shut up and accommodate you already.

    Also, hovering in there is the unsavory implication that those who let themselves be duped by Obama are still superior because they were motivated by caring too much. Brooks ends, after all, with yet another “I’m a sap,” not “I’ve learned my lesson and won’t let sentiment get in the way of my principles again.” This is the sort of thing I’m seeing a lot of here in New York: acknowledging that one was a sucker for Obama’s rhetoric but concluding that, really, it’s better to be hopeful, optimistic, willing to take chances, willing to believe…than to be a crabby, cynical libertarian like some other people in the room.

    Sorry—no sale. I feel a great deal of sympathy for those who agonized over their vote in 2008, recognized that they were making a necessary compromise, and decided that Obama’s excesses would probably be reined in by the rest of the Washington machine. I feel no sympathy whatever for people who were more concerned with affirming their own ability to dream than with looking reality in the face. (And yes, I know that Brooks may not be a naturalized citizen and may not have been able to vote; his cheerleading was offense enough.)

    * And you thought repellent was too strong a word, didn’t you?


    Today

    Posted by Sean at 18:02, September 11th, 2011

    Just about everyone I know here in the City wants to “move forward,” which is a slightly euphemistic way of saying “not spend time thinking about 9-11 and what it meant.” I was living abroad at the time and don’t know what it was like to be here, seeing the ash cloud and the absence where the towers used to be without the mediation of the camera. Not reliving a personal trauma you can do nothing to alter is a sensible way of dealing with it, and we Americans have moving forward in our blood. Our ancestors were the ones who didn’t just sit still and accept the trouble they’d been born into; they moved and left it behind.

    That’s a good way to be, right up to the point at which you’re conveniently ditching the lessons of the past in addition to its grudges. I’m not happy with everything we did in response to 9-11, but I think we were right in the main. The spy capers and cops-and-robbers action many people were suggesting toward the end of 2001 sound nice, but they require more coordination to pull off than our super-bureaucracies have shown themselves capable of. (Naturally, we had to add one [Homeland Security] and inflate the power of another [the TSA] so that it’s now body-searching American air passengers with an avidity normally associated with the more disreputable South African diamond mines, but my libertarian ire at those developments is a topic for another day.) I’ve supported the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions since when they were announced, and I still think they were the best serious plan anyone had proposed. I don’t like the idea of America as the world police, but I do like the idea of showing terrorist groups and the regimes that support them that they had better not try that again. I’ll be overjoyed if the result is an efflorescence of democracy in the Middle East, but the most we can make a priority is leaving behind functional societies that know the US is not to be trifled with.

    9-11 and what came after have seen the best in many Americans: acts of bravery both by ordinary citizens thrust into extraordinary circumstances and by our trained defenders who put themselves in harms way to keep the rest of us safe. There’s nothing morbid or solipsistic about failing to “move on” with such alacrity that we don’t take time to honor them, or to reflect on the eternal truth that barbarism is always looking for ways to bring down civilization. Our way works, and we’re right to hit back, hard, when it’s attacked.

    Added: Sarah has a post up in which she says the following:

    We can stop looking like the patsies of the world. We can stop being so easy to hate. That starts one on one, and person on person. You do not let foreign friends, in fact or online, talk about the US as being responsible for their plight. You just don’t. You man up; you woman up; you adult-it up. You educate yourself and you come back with facts. You tell them the truth and shame the devil.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people will accuse you of “politicizing” a discussion on a social occasion if you respond to some casual America-sucks/the-West-is-oppressive-and-awful remark of theirs with an actual, like, dissenting response. It can be immensely satisfying, if still wearisome, to maintain an amiable tone of voice while asking exactly what is political about saying, “I think President Bush has done an admirable job of staying restrained under trying circumstances, considering what most global military powers through history would have done immediately after an unannounced attack on their people,” and not about saying, “Cowboy! Quagmire! Root causes! Disproportionate force!”

    It’s especially odd to hear this stuff in Japan, the very model of a country that took its competitive impulses into the sphere of the market after our grandparents bombed them into recognizing that it was pointless to keep them in that of the military. The Japanese archipelago has few mineral resources, and its arable land would fit into my parents’ backyard in Pennsylvania, but Japan focused on the resources (dogged human effort and learning) it had and figured out how to make them into prosperity and an orderly society. What exactly is America doing to prevent other countries from doing the same? Colonialism had a lot of bad effects, and our history classes in the US rightly point them out. But the burden of proof is on post-colonial-studies types to explain why countries that are now independent are supposed to be full of people who can only chafe resentfully at oppression.


    I begin to wonder

    Posted by Sean at 13:14, July 12th, 2011

    Andrew Sullivan has probably done more than anyone else in contemporary America to lend credence to the old so-con charge that even gay men who seem sober and worldly on the surface are emotional wrecks underneath. Ever since President Bush didn’t snap to on same-sex marriage, Sullivan’s made a habit of inflating his every petulant little emotional reaction into a matter of earth-shaking significance, as exemplified by his utterly bizarre public obsession with whether Sarah Palin is actually Trig’s mother. At this point, Sullivan’s blog is where you go to see just how classless, graceless, and common a DC status-seeker can actually be.

    It is, therefore, pretty comical to see Jonathan Rauch, ensconced for the time being as a guest poster at the Daily Dish, contrast Sullivan’s online oeuvre favorably with the ephemera emitted by most other bloggers (via the admirably restrained Megan McArdle):

    I submit that the whining of traditional journalists (you know, the kind of people who punched their tickets on newspaper police beats where they learned quaint notions of fairness and accuracy and keeping one’s opinions out of it and all that) is nothing compared to the self-congratulatory smugness of internet culture, which tells us at least five times before breakfast that it is the Great New Thing.

    It isn’t. For people who want to read and think, which is still a lot of people, the worldwide web is an incorrigibly hostile environment. Thank goodness, it is already in the process of being displaced by the far more reader-friendly world of apps, which is hospitable to quality writing and focused reading, as opposed to knee-jerk opinionating and attention-deficit-disordered skimming. The blogging format, I believe, was an outgrowth of a particular technological moment, specifically the gap between the decline of paper and the rise of HTML5. Its heyday is over.

    There are a few great bloggers out there. Andrew Sullivan is one of them. But they’re depressingly rare.

    Interesting. Sullivan can’t even get the title of the classic Dead or Alive song right—that’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” sweetie—so I assume it’s not finicking accuracy from which his Great Blogger-ness is presumed to spring. (It’s probably not his lack of self-congratulatory smugness, either, given that Sullivan seems to think that God came to him in a gay bar—yes way!—and designated him Prophet of the Benign Hidden World therein.)

    Also interesting is the locution “reader-friendly,” because what surrounds it indicates that Rauch is thinking like a writer rather than like a reader. Most of us general readers understand that books, journals, popular magazines, and blogs provide different depths of coverage for any given topic, and we weight what we read accordingly. It really isn’t all that hard to distinguish between a monograph with fifty pages of endnotes and a quickie blog item with two links. Or even a longer blog item with a boatload of links. I suspect that’s the reason that bloggers who want to present long, worked-out arguments tend to write actual books for the purpose.

    McArdle’s commenters focus mostly on how wrong Rauch is to equate blog posts with reporting, or to say that something that won’t be read decades from now hasn’t served a useful purpose, or to hold up conventional journalists as models of accuracy and impartiality. All good points, but I think there’s another to be made.

    Here’s the thing: a lot of journalists seem to assume that a grounding in j-school ethics curricula and vaguely defined “critical-thinking” skills can make up for not actually being deeply informed about what the hell they’re writing about. It drives us readers bananas. Over my eleven years in Tokyo, I participated in more conversations than I can count with other foreigners about what idiocies our home-country media routinely peddled about East Asia. Ditto the test-prep field, in which I worked for a decade. Keen observation skills, which most professional journalists undoubtedly have, just aren’t always a substitute for living in a region or working in an industry as a long-term, fully invested participant. In such situations, the blogosphere has been a very good corrective. Readers can go to blogs to see articles scrutinized and pulled apart (“focused reading,” we might call it) by actual specialists in the topic in question, and the result is an increase in both real knowledge and healthy skepticism. Most of us started bookmarking blogs precisely because we wanted to “read and think” beyond what we were already getting from standard-issue news and academic outlets.

    I’m using the term standard-issue mindedly. I swear I would be retired to Antibes by now if I had just one red cent for every article by a Real Journalist that started like this:

    Molly sits at the teak table, its top polished to a mirror shine, in her family’s kitchen. Each week Jeff comes to their gated community in a leafy, exclusive Long Island town to tutor her in SAT math. Mom and Dad met as undergrads at Tufts, but their dream for Molly is a significant step up: she’s aiming for Yale, and they’re betting $350 an hour that Jeff can get her there. Jeff himself went to Williams, and he’s one of a growing number of graduates of hyper-competitive colleges who have discovered that they can make as much money as their former classmates in corporate America by entering the burgeoning college-coaching sector blah blah blah.

    And compared to Japan, the test-prep industry gets off easy. Give me the vitality of incorrigible hostility any day of the week over that insufferable, ostentatiously contemplative, I-am-alive-to-the-Zen-like-vibrations-of-all-things-Yamato tone that no Western reporter can apparently avoid when writing about Japan. And the paradoxes—every damned thing reported about Japan has to come down to some kind of paradox. Journalists reporting on Japan will apparently accept anything done by four people in Tokyo as a trend. They make the staff of the NYT Style Section look cautious.

    This is starting to sound like the usual screed against the big, bad MSM, but that’s not where I’m going, exactly. Most reporters work hard and generate good prose, and it’s only fair to acknowledge that the grunt work they do is the basis for a great deal of blog commentary. Fine. But plenty of reporters, commentators, and editors give every indication of not knowing what they don’t know. Maybe it’s not their fault, but it means that what they produce often doesn’t stand alone as useful information about the topic at hand. Good blogs supplement it, which Rauch might know if he spent less time reading his man Andrew Sullivan.


    Watching the clothes

    Posted by Sean at 08:35, July 7th, 2011

    Instapundit observes that the LAT‘s Michael Hiltzik is “really upset” that BMW is laying off the unionized teamsters it employs directly at one of its California warehouses and going to let a contracting company handle staffing from here one. Michael Hiltzik grew up here in New York and went to Colgate, but it’s possible that he’s from a working-class rather than comfy-bourgeois family background. He sure as hell doesn’t sound like it, though. His column displays the ignorance of someone who never spends time with people who work with their hands except cabbies, waitresses, and interview subjects:

    As of Aug. 31, the plant [will] be outsourced to an unidentified third-party logistics company and all but three of its 71 employees laid off.

    The union contract will be terminated. Some of the employees might be offered jobs with the new operator, but there are no guarantees. And no one expects the new bosses will match the existing $25 hourly scale or the health benefits provided now.

    Every working American should be dismayed by — and afraid of — what BMW is doing.

    These employees exemplified the best qualities of the American worker. They devoted their working lives to BMW, at a time when it was building and solidifying its U.S. beachhead. Their wages, with benefits, paid for a reasonable middle-class lifestyle if they managed it carefully. Throw in the job security they were encouraged to expect, and they had the confidence to make sacrifices and investments that contributed to the economy for the long term, like college education for the kids, an addition on the house, a new baby. Then one day they were handed a mass pink slip, effective in a matter of weeks.

    My father worked for Bethlehem Steel when I was growing up, and he spent much time in my teenage years laid off. There are few more effective ways to get at me emotionally than to tell me about some laboring man who’s suddenly out of a job and feeling unwanted by the labor market. My father was called back to the Steel my senior year of high school and is still working for its most recent owner, so things worked out for my parents, but there were some real nail-biter years in there.

    My parents would probably have loved to own a detached house, with the possibility of putting an addition on or a pool in. But my brother and I grew up in a tiny two-bedroom rowhouse that we rented. My father made a little extra money by being the landlady’s de facto super, doing odd jobs as needed. My mother worked part-time in the cafeterias in our school district once my brother started first grade. And while my financial aid package from Penn was generous enough to allow me to go, my parents sat down with me my senior year of high school and said, “Look, kid, you may be working your way through college depending on how things go.”

    So I’m kind of lost when Hiltzik patronizingly bleats about the “reasonable middle-class lifestyle” (reasonable to whom, kemosabe?) that these people all assumed they could expect in perpetuity and have now lost. The economy has sucked for three years. Didn’t anyone stop to think about what might happen if BMW’s fortunes turned sour, or, as is happening, it decided to reorganize in order to stay financially healthy? Hiltzik talks in passive voice about “the job security they were encouraged to expect,” but you kind of have to wonder whether BMW was leading them on or the teamsters’ union just gave them to understand that it would always find a way to strong-arm the company into striking a deal to their advantage.

    Kim du Toit wrote into Instapundit with some harsher words for Hiltzik’s profilees:

    By Hiltzik’s own admission, the plain fact of the matter is that these BMW union workers were getting middle-class salaries for doing piecework. Amid all the “woe is us” stories, one attitude shines through: the unionized workforce expected a sinecure for their “loyalty” and are now devastated by finding out what we non-union workers have always known: employment is not guaranteed, and if you continue to ask for more money than the job is worth, you will eventually lose your job.

    I don’t know that sinecure is the word I’d choose, but I wouldn’t say it’s not apposite. The people Hiltzik describes probably did work hard. But having grown up with a USW father, I heard plenty of stories of coworkers who wanted to punch in, do exactly what they were told, punch out and forget about work. (I also heard plenty of stories about coworkers who were just plain lazy but were protected by the union, but for now let’s just assume that Hiltzik’s fantasy obtains and everyone involved here pulls his or her weight.) There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it means that decisions about the future of the company will be made while you’re not paying attention by people who care.

    And I can understand where Kim’s pissy tone comes from, given Hiltzik’s insufferable pious-lefty tone:

    The Ontario union, Teamsters Local 495, got Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Reps. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) to write painfully polite letters to Jim O’Donnell, chairman of BMW North America, asking him to reconsider. When I say that’s the least they could do, I’m talking literally — it’s the very least. How about hauling him before a televised hearing and having him balance out a $3.6-billion taxpayer loan with the firing of 70 American workers? The company surely wouldn’t characterize its federal loan as charity, but neither is maintaining its parts distribution workers on a living wage.

    It’s fashionable to observe today that the loyalty the BMW workers gave their employer was naive; complain to manufacturing CEOs about their remorseless hollowing out of middle-class livelihoods to maintain payouts to shareholders, and the answer you get is that this is merely the way of our hyper-competitive modern world. Nothing personal; it’s the tyranny of the marketplace.

    Yeah, I have no doubt that top management at BMW would call it “the tyranny of the marketplace”—not to acknowledge reality, but to disguise it in order to avoid bad PR. As Hiltzik himself implicitly acknowledges in the previous paragraphs, BMW and the Fed are part of the same big-government/big-business club of glad-handing and special deals for insiders, which circumvents the market forces that would crush a company like BMW if it couldn’t solve its own financial problems without an infusion of DC cash.

    And while we’re on the subject of diction: I’m not sure loyalty in this case means what Hiltzik wants it to mean. Some of the workers at the Ontario plant probably genuinely love what they do and love doing it for BMW. But dollars to doughnuts, others are just too complacent to think about changing jobs, especially if the employment market sucks and they know they’re being paid at the top end of the wage range for what they’re doing. That’s certainly rational on their part, but that doesn’t mean it’s rational not to plan for what might happen if the gravy train ever stops. When contracts expire, sometimes they’re not renewed. To paraphrase Kim, just because you’re good at what you do, that doesn’t mean the union isn’t getting you more money to do it than keeping you on is worth in the current economy. Note that I’m not just talking about what the workers themselves are paid. Hiltzik weirdly writes as if that were the only cost associated with them, but of course it’s not. Negotiations with the union and compliance with the vagaries of the NLRB (mentioned by Instapundit) and assorted regulations have to be factored in.

    My point isn’t that Hiltzik has his angels and devils reversed. Maybe BMW really is being venal toward workers who poured themselves into building the company from their own small part of it. But you can’t simply start the narrative in the present and leave it to be assumed that keeping things as they used to be is a viable alternative. Someone with actual experience of working-class life, I can’t help thinking, would have asked a lot more about the past than comes out in Hiltzik’s soft-focus flashbacks.


    お祝い

    Posted by Sean at 08:18, July 6th, 2011

    Congratulations to my friend Sarah Hoyt, whose Darkship Thieves has won the 2011 Prometheus Best Novel Award. Very good news!


    The higher learning

    Posted by Sean at 08:28, June 17th, 2011

    Hi. I’ve been busy moving into a new apartment, taking a short vacation, and finishing a project at work with a very aptly styled “aggressive” deadline, so I’ve been happily unable to devote much time to thinking about unattractive leftist politicians in various states of deshabille, which seem to make up most of the news lately.

    Of course, people can be idiots with a mindless sense of entitlement with their clothes on, too. This character is all pissy that Megan McArdle’s been using his posts about defaulting on his student loan debt as a springboard for arguing that, well, defaulting on student loan debt is unethical (via Instapundit). If you want to get a sense why a growing number of people think Ivy League humanities degrees are a ripoff, just take a gander at some of his logic:

    You know who the first person was to sit me down and really talk to me about the seriousness of my debt exposure and the years of hard work I was going to have to put in to even begin to pay them off? A partner from my law firm, during the dinner my firm was having to convince me and others to accept their summer associate offers. That’s right, the first time an adult even attempted to explain to me what I had done to my future happened 18 months after I’d done it and as part of his attempt to sell me on being an indentured servant to my debt at his firm instead of somebody else’s.

    The second serious conversation I had about my debt load was during my exit interview for law school a week before I graduated.

    I’ve had to jump through more hoops to purchase a cell phone! I can’t smoke a cigarette in the park without the government stepping in to “save” me from my own choices. But I went from a happy college graduate to a person who will be in debt for the rest of his life on the advice and counsel of a form and two conversations over a three-year period.

    Excuse me if I feel like my creditors maybe took advantage of me and my admitted stupidity, just a little bit. Excuse me if, when I list the things that are important to me in my life, paying these particular people back isn’t exactly on my top ten list of things that determine my moral citizenship. The moral difference between the student loan industry and racketeering is what, exactly?

    Megan and I don’t know each other, but we were in basically the same major, at the same college, at the same time. I assume we had the same sorts of conversations with our friends junior and senior years. Everyone knew that the kids who went to medical or law school were basically mortgaging their twenties and early thirties in exchange for very high earning potential, which they would only really get to enjoy in middle age, after soldiering through years of punishing, soul-destroying work for demanding superiors…and paying off their debt. (Everyone also knew—this was twenty years ago—that tenure-track jobs in the humanities were getting scarce, which makes you wonder about all these people in the last decade who assumed they’d sail from their PhDs into secure, comfy professorships, but that’s a topic for another day.) The big loans were reasonable because of the big payoff later, as long as you didn’t mind locking yourself into one career. This was the sort of thing people talked about all the time.

    Of course, pre-med requires a lot of specific hard-science courses, so people didn’t really drift into it because they couldn’t think of anything better to do. Not so law school. Everyone who went to a hoity-toity college knows plenty of classmates who had shapeless arty/wordy careers for a few years and then decided getting a JD was the only way to convert their English major into a pile of money and prestige, whether or not they had any serious interest in jurisprudence. That the life of an attorney isn’t all like that moment in The Accused when Kelly McGillis suddenly finds that her hours of poring over reference books have yielded a way to get justice for Jodie Foster is presumably more real to them after they’re ensconced as junior associates than it was when they were in law school, but most of them realize that the grunt work is part of the bargain. Erin O’Connor had a good post the other day about, in part, aimless humanities majors that addressed this issue more generally.

    In the last few years, quite a few people really have been had by their grad schools. They went through mediocre programs with inflated placement rates and found themselves unemployable at the end. But that doesn’t describe Elie Mystal, the gentleman under discussion here. He went to Harvard College, then chose Harvard Law School (having also been accepted at Yale), then landed a job in a big-guns firm. Then he decided he didn’t like it and shouldn’t have to stay in it just because of some silly debt he’d taken at 22 when he wasn’t really thinking too hard about it. Seriously:

    I don’t expect McArdle to understand this, but you people who have actually been in one of these Biglaw jobs will understand what I’m talking: by the end, there was no amount of money my law firm could have paid me to stay. America could have been taken over by a fascist government and I could have been ordered to work at the firm, and I would have Von Trapp-ed my family over the Catskills into Canada. I know so many of you know what I’m talking about: when you are done with the particular job of being a Biglaw associate, you are D-O-N-E.

    Okay, but then you still have the D-E-B-T you signed on for. It’s perfectly understandable that Mystal decided he’d rather be a blogger and commentator than a lawyer, but plenty of people stay in jobs they hate because they have debts they voluntarily incurred and they, uh, feel obligated to pay them off.

    Perhaps it really is true that Mystal’s loan officers glossed over the amount of debt he was getting himself into, in the hopes he wouldn’t think about it too hard before getting himself on the hook. On the other hand, if he signed the damned contract and said he’d read it, what were they supposed to do—sit him down and confirm that he knew 100,000 is a Very Large Number? Your lender can assess whether you’re likely to be able to repay your loan. Your lender can’t assess whether you’re drifting into a career you might burn out on in half a decade. Anyway, given that Mystal appears to have been one of those humanities majors who were using law school to avoid dealing with the reality of the job market, it’s hard to imagine that any warnings about the reality of owing USD105 would have had much effect. And where were his parents, his advisor, his career counselor, his pastor, or his shrink in all this? When I was deciding what to do after graduation, I sought out people who I knew would make me think about the things that could go wrong, including, yes, “What if you figure out you don’t like your job five years down the line?” Mystal apparently didn’t, and now he not only wants to fob off responsibility for his own bad choices on other people but also wants to cast himself as bravely taking charge of his life. What a shyster.

    He does have a point that Megan McArdle’s analogy (between student-loan corporations and department stores) isn’t very good when you extend it, but I didn’t get the sense she was trying to extend it. Her point was to demonstrate that “Oh, well, the recipient is a big, nasty corporation” doesn’t relieve you of the moral obligation of paying the money you owe (as opposed to being able to feel morally and ethically good about yourself if you default, because everyone always knew that was an option you had). And really, even with dry goods, you can’t just use them for a while and then return them if you decide you’re tired of them. Mystal’s not alleging fraud. HLS gave him a degree that performed as promised and got him a job in a tony law firm. Now, unless I’m seriously misunderstanding, he’s just decided the work doesn’t suit him. That’s too bad, but someone with a sofa he’d bought from Macy’s five years ago would be equally unable to return it for store credit just because he decided it was the wrong shade of blue. Mystal wants his case to be instructive to others, but he himself is taking all the wrong lessons from it.

    Added on 20 June: Thanks to Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass for the link. She adds this to a post that generally agrees with what I wrote here:

    Caveat: I do think schools should educate students much better than they do about what student loans mean. They should explain how interest works, what their payment obligations will be when they graduate, what that means for what kind of major they can afford to pursue, what kind of job they will have to get, and what kinds of challenges they may have down the road when it comes to buying homes, raising families, etc. It’s well known that many undergrads today are bordering on innumeracy. A great many are financially illiterate. As I have argued before, colleges and universities have an obligation not only to ensure that they address those deficits through required coursework, but also to avoid exploiting those deficits by arranging loans they know most of their students can neither understand nor pay back.

    I don’t disagree with any of that. Indeed, one of the most ugsome things about Mystal’s line is that he’s clearly trying to slush himself together in readers’ minds with poor, unsophisticated kids who assume any loan you take out for private college or grad school will help you attain an earning potential that makes them easy to pay back. From what I’ve been reading over the last few years since returning to the States, a lot of those people are victims of outright fraud.

    Mystal is a victim of his own combination of Harvard-level book smarts and self-awareness-level woolly-mindedness. Maybe it really is true that an Aunt Louise or a Grandpa Dave could have made him change his mind by taking him aside and saying, “Look, kiddo, we’d be very proud to have a Harvard Law graduate in the family, but do you really want to commit to paying off loans until you’re 42? Why not work for a year or two…do something that lets you volunteer politically or try your hand at writing for pay before you decide to take this particular plunge?” Given his clear instinct for rationalizing whatever he’s taken it into his head to do, I’m not sure even that would have worked, though.

    Anyway, I don’t know what Harvard was like in the early ’00s, but I remember pretty clearly what Penn was like in the early ’90s. The financial aid forms were long and annoying, but you didn’t have to know much beyond the compound-interest formula to figure out what they meant in real terms. The exit interview and presentation were supposed to be pretty much a formality; if you didn’t already know what you’d gotten into, it meant that you hadn’t read what you were signing or asked one of the advisors in the financial aid office to explain what it meant the whole time you’d been in school. Not anyone else’s fault, I don’t think.


    Sugar-crystal lightning/Mystic evening thunder

    Posted by Sean at 23:14, April 26th, 2011

    Phoebe Snow apparently never really came out of the coma she fell into after having a brain hemorrhage last year, and today she died.

    This NYT obituary gives a reasonable, if potted, survey of her career, but as it acknowledges, that wasn’t what was most important in her life. Snow’s daughter Valerie suffered severe brain trauma during birth, and from then on, her priority was finding a way to finance her home care:

    “At the end of ’77, I toured for five weeks while this young couple looked after Valerie. When I came home, she was literally starving herself, and I was virtually insane. I would say that I had a breakdown. I took her down South for treatments, and the doctor at a clinic there said to me, ‘Have you ever thought about a little voluntary rest commitment for yourself?’ I said, ‘I’ve been away from my kid for over a month, and I’m not gonna do it again.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do when you tour again?’ He said he knew a woman who would take Valerie while I was on tour, and I agreed to talk to her.

    “That night, from my hotel room, I called the woman. She was a sweet, gentle lady. She told me she looked after five other kids, and so when she came to the clinic to meet me, I was gung ho. She asked when I was going on tour again. I said probably not for another six months. She said, ‘Well, then, we’ll take care of the adoption papers now.’

    “I looked at her and said, ‘You adopt them?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ she said, ‘I don’t just babysit. I’m the adopted mother of these children.’

    “I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ And for one hot minute I looked at her — you know how someone just oozes kindness and beauty? — and I thought, ‘Well, maybe…maybe it’ll be best.’ And then I looked at my little girl who was lying there so messed up and I just said, ‘No, thanks.’ I never thought about it after that.”

    Phoebe Snow is my parents’ age, and Valerie, who died in 2007, was a few years younger than I am. Snow kept her home for the rest of her life. I’ve adored her music for decades, and I’ve often thought of that story: Snow, who coolly commemorated an adulterous relationship in her biggest hit (“Poetry Man”), proved capable of a different kind of complete devotion when she’d grown up a bit. You don’t hear a lot of stories like that about celebs who came of age in the early ’70s. (And let me just say that I’m not standing in judgment of parents who decide their children really need to be in a facility; every case is different. My point is that Snow clearly had a sense of what she herself must do, and she did it.)

    I kept meaning to see Snow live, but I never did, though I return to her albums again and again. After her career as a recording artist stalled, she was never really in the public conscience except as a singer of ad jingles. But listen to her records, after all these years of being clobbered into submission by Whitney and Mariah and Christina, and you remember what it’s like to listen to a gorgeous, limber voice with an impossible range that serves the song rather than shoving its impressiveness in your face all the time. And unlike the bitter/smug Joni Mitchell of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Snow critiqued post-war American suburbia from the inside, as one of its products, and with real empathy underneath the resentment. Only a few of her albums are great overall, but almost all of them have great songs: “Two-Fisted Love,” “Something Real,” “I Don’t Want the Night to End,” “All Over,” and lots that’s not on YouTube: “My Faith Is Blind,” “Key to the Street,” and scads of wonderful covers (such as “Love Makes a Woman,” which is on YouTube). A remarkable legacy from a remarkable woman.


    Permanent campaign

    Posted by Sean at 23:05, April 3rd, 2011

    You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s that time again? Doesn’t it feel as if we’d just gone through this a few months ago? Make it stop, mother!

    President Barack Obama plans to send supporters a text or e-mail message announcing his intention to run for re-election, multiple Democratic sources tell CNN.

    The president is making his campaign official slightly earlier than is typical for an incumbent so he can get a jump on fund-raising in a season that’s likely to shatter all records. Obama’s team has been asking campaign bundlers to raise $350,000 each, no easy task since campaign finance laws limit gifts to $2,500 per donor. Two sources tell CNN the campaign team hopes that in total their bundlers will raise $500 million, leaving the campaign to raise another $500 million and amass a record-breaking $1 billion war chest.

    Just when I thought I’d gotten my Scotch consumption back to levels my doctor was happy with, the campaign’s starting again. Have another Antibes vacation on me, Laphroaig distillers!

    On the bright side, I’m assuming “presidential campaign bundler” counts as a type of job created (or saved) this year, so if there are that many of them that busy, we’ll have some rosier employment figures tout de suite!

    Naturally, the Obama administration can’t just say, “It’s going to be a vicious campaign, so we figured we’d get an early start on 2012.” Nope. Guess whose fault the accelerated spin cycle is?

    Oh, come on—more specific than that!

    One top Democrat says, “The Republicans are out there day in and day out beating up on the president — they’re basically running without filing. So to say we’re going first isn’t totally fair.” This person adds, “No one wants to start running now. The president is engaged in the country, this is about getting (campaign) staff up and running.”

    Additionally, top Democrats say two former White House staffers are likely to set up a third-party outside spending group. Former Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, former aide to then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have been approached by Democratic donors who are concerned about countering the influence of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers in the upcoming 2012 election.

    “Running without filing”? By opposing the other party’s president’s policies and principles (assuming they can even figure out what they are—I sure as hell can’t)? I always sorta thought that was just part of the rough-and-tumble debate we’re supposed to have in a free society. It’s not as if the GOP were relying on Tim Pawlenty or Mike Huckabee, after all, to register their displeasure; plenty of sitting congresspersons with no known presidential ambitions are also saying the president is doing a bad job.

    And is it my imagination, or is this bee in the leftist bonnet about the Koch brothers something that started buzzing really, really suddenly just several weeks ago? I mean, Gawd, now they’re commensurate in evil with Karl Rove. Pretty impressive. I’d have thought that would take a lot longer to work up to—but then, they’re libertarians, so you can’t put anything past ‘em.

    In any case, the CNN piece says the announcement could come “as early as Monday morning,” so we have at least a few precious hours of tranquility left before the show starts. Where’s that bottle?


    Hi

    Posted by Sean at 11:39, March 29th, 2011

    Jeez, I leave America for a week, and what happens? You let preening, self-displaying types follow me to Brazil where I thought I’d have some relief from thinking about them. You let the current administration decide—I still cannot for the life of me figure out what reasoning is being used here—that America should be the world’s police force after all. Sort of. On special occasions like this one.

    You let Elizabeth Taylor die.

    I was refreshed on my return from Lima yesterday; after reading the news, I feel old—or at least cynical—again. Happily, the trip was wonderful. The big, boffo sights were as awesome as promised, but there were plenty of quieter moments that were memorable, too. Take this guy, whom we saw in a tree near Iguassu Falls:

    I hope the ladies he was targeting were impressed with his fluffy butt feathers and the good genes they presumably indicate.