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Law school tuition, or, how to dig yourself a financial hole

Anyone who’s read Above the Law recently knows that the job market for lawyers right out of law school is bad.  Very bad.  Unless you attend one of the elite law schools, your earning prospects at graduation are nothing like the Biglaw six-figures that so many applicants dream about when they apply.

Which makes one wonder why so many students are still willing to shell out such ridiculous tuition payments for non-elite law schools.  Hell, I wonder why so many people still pay so much for elite law schools.

Brian Tamanaha calls bullshit on those defenders of today’s law school tuitions who say, “hey, we never hid employment prospects from our students, and besides, it’s still cool to be a lawyer”:

When annual tuition was $10,000 to $15,000, these rationalizations had enough truth, or at least plausibility, to hold up. When annual tuition reaches $30,000 to $40,0000, however, it begins to sound hollow. Students at many law schools are putting out a huge amount of money for meager opportunities.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Kenneth Anderson essentially agrees.

Folks, if you’re thinking about going to law school, pay attention.  If you want to get rich, there are much better ways to do that.

Choices can be a real bitch

Andrew Sullivan links to a weepy video about female Scientologists who say they were pressured by the church to have abortions.  One of them tearfully recounts how she “didn’t have a choice” about whether to have an abortion, because “I would have been separated from my husband, I would have been on manual labor, I would have had serious punishments levied…”

Which is to say, she did have a choice.  She just didn’t like the consequences.

I’m no fan of Scientology; I think they’re a creepy, cultish group.  But let’s not confuse a difficult choice with not having a choice.  This woman had a choice.  She could have left the Sea Org.  She could have left Scientology.  If that had meant that her husband would have chosen to leave her rather than leave Scientology, that would have been his choice.  She could have, as she puts it, chosen to “be on manual labor” which seems to have meant doing dishes or digging ditches.  Awww.  Poor baby.  Choices are sometimes a real bitch.

We tend to fetishize “choice” so much that we’ve forgotten what it is.  This woman is confusing choice with getting everything she wants.  The two are not the same.

Obama’s Oil Spill Speech is a Dud

Obama speaking about the oil spill

Obama speaking about the oil spill

Update: James Fallows says the speech failed the Eisenhower, Carter, and Obama tests.

Before President Obama gave his oil spill speech, Marc Ambinder wondered “. . . in his 20 minute address to the nation, will President Obama go big? Or will he go small?”

Sadly, Obama chose to go small.  After acknowledging the root cause of the spill — “we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water” — the president offered up a litany of vagueries that would have embarrassed Thomas Friedman.  This was the moment when he could have done the most to move us beyond merely talking about clean energy and ending our dependence on fossil fuels, but he let the moment slip.  He could have called for a carbon tax.  He could have announced specific targets for wind power generation, or called for an affordable electric car getting 50 mpg by 2015, or something.  Instead, he waved his hands, told us to “seize the moment” and to “act as one nation,” but said essentially nothing.  I’m disappointed.

  • Obama chose to analogize the clean-up efforts to a military operation.  This weakened the speech, both because we’re so inundated with war analogies and combat vocabulary already that hearing about another “battle plan” makes the oil spill sound like Afghanistan.  Great; more expensive and unending futility!
  • No President should think that he can meet with the chairman of BP and “inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.”  This is something that Franco or Mussolini or Hugo Chavez might have said.  The last time I checked, we are still supposedly a nation of laws, and these laws supposedly govern what BP is required to do in order to compensate victims of recklessness.  I am not aware of any law, specifically, that says that the President shall determine whether BP was reckless, and if so, how much BP shall pay in compensation.  If Obama wants to hold BP accountable, he should stop his blustering and call for either a) the enforcement of the law, or b) the passage of new laws that conform to the Constitution, or c) both.  Just because the masses are mad at BP doesn’t mean the president can simply dictate how much BP or anyone else must pay to mollify the SUV-driving horde that is the American public, and that shares in the responsibility for this spill.
  • Technology will never make offshore drilling “absolutely safe.”  Despite Obama’s reassurance that before he would approve any new offshore drilling, “the proper technology would be in place and the necessary precautions would be taken” there will still be a risk of leaks and spills.  To pretend otherwise is to fantasize; such longings should be relegated to articles in Wired or Fast Company, not indulged in presidential speeches.

Not every part of the speech was a dud.  For a few moments at least, Obama talked straight with his audience and told them the truth:

So one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling.  But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk.  After all, oil is a finite resource.  We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves.  And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean — because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered.  For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.  And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.  Time and again, the path forward has been blocked — not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight.  Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America.  Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil.  And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.

We cannot consign our children to this future.

Here is where Obama could have offered us some political courage.  But instead he gave us tired generalities that took no courage whatsoever to repeat:

“[T]he time to embrace a clean energy future is now.”  What does this mean?

“Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”  Meaning what, exactly?

“Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us.”  I’m sure we do.  Please tell me what I can do!

And here, we get to the worst part of the speech.  One of the reasons why we’re still addicted to oil, why we c0nsume 20 percent of the world’s oil despite only having 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, why we’re bogged down in Afganistan so many years after military action in that country stopped making any sense, why our elected representatives are in thrall to lobbyists at the expense of their constituents, why we have the highest percentage of prisoners of any country in the world and yet do not enjoy the lowest crime rates, why our middle class is crumbling in a way that feels inexorable, and why our infrastructure that had once been the envy of the world is being surpassed by others and falling into disrepair without our seeming able to do anything to stop it, is because we stubbornly refuse to face reality.  We are acting like cowards.

We continue to recite mindlessly the pabulum that ” we are the greatest country in the world” and “America is the land of the free and the brave.”  All this cannot remain true if we fail to recognize our flaws.  Think of any great individual that you know, or any great institution that you’re a part of, and remember that part of what makes them great is relentless self-criticism.  They are their own harshest critics.  At the very least, they know themselves and do not hide from reality when it might be unpleasant.

But the United States is hiding from reality, and Obama is doing nothing to change this.  Listen to this drivel:

The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face.  This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again.  What sees us through -– what has always seen us through –- is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it.

Tonight, we pray for that courage.  We pray for the people of the Gulf.  And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.  Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

I only wish that Obama had himself done more to summon our courage than tell us to pray for it.  He could have tried to exemplify political courage himself by exhorting us to face up to the unpleasant fact that blind faith in the market and in technology and in our national character will not solve the problem of oil spilling into the Gulf, and the need for us to transition away from fossil fuels.  But he showed no courage tonight.  He laid an egg, and his speech was a dud.

Saving agrarianism from petty local tyrants and yahoos

Eating local, buying local, thinking local all are now in-usually among people who are in no sense “locals.”

Jeremy Beer

Beer’s fantastic essay against meritocracy raises again the thorniest problem we face, a problem that on my optimistic days I think we’ll solve, and on my pessimistic days think will send us to our doom.  I think Beer has it right, but I sympathize with those who are tempted to shout, while reading his essay, “Facism!  Tyranny!”

The problem I’m talking about is: how can we limit our oil-guzzling, community-disparaging, environment-destroying behavior (our industrial behavior) — which requires acknowledging that we are each profoundly more limited than we have been willing to admit — without falling prey to the small-scale authoritarians who so often justify themselves by appealing to these natural limits?

You know who I’m talking about — religious zealots who say we should be denied the freedom to choose because God has already made all the important decisions for us.  Racists who appeal to “natural” human differences to justify their own preferred socioeconomic hierarchies, with themselves always on top.  Small-town traditionalists who won’t hesitate to enforce their traditional views on the rest of us because of some presumed inevitability of their preferred traditions.  Think of most gay-marriage opponents and you’ll have no trouble identifying the kinds of folks I’m talking about.


We need to preserve the love of freedom bequeathed by classical liberalism, while avoiding the overweening hubris with which we liberals are cursed.  We need to appreciate the benefits of agrarianism without accepting the petty tyrants who sometimes make agrarian arguments.  We need to be able to read Beer’s essay without being reminded of Charles Murray* and James Dobson.  There is a profound difference between the correction of liberal hubris and illiberal authoritarianism.  In other words, human limitation isn’t the same thing as being limited by humans.

Beer again: “We arrived to that point of the talk where you are beginning to ask, “Well, what would you have us do?” and the speaker provides responses that are laughably inadequate to the mammoth problem he has described. I will follow in that tradition.”

I think Beer’s solutions are better than wholly inadequate (and I mean that as a ringing endorsement).  These boil down to: ending subsidies for bad behavior, and encouraging good behavior.  Which are, by the way, perfectly acceptable to and frequently offered by classical liberals concerned to protect our freedom from authoritarians.  My optimistic self thinks that a rooted, agrarian life is intrinsically appealing to many people.  It just has to be accurately described.  And it can’t be burdened by subsidizing the opposite, which is what we do now.  My pessimistic self thinks that the chances of agrarianism being described accurately are virtually nil, because too many of the people who try to describe it are illiberal petty authoritarian traditionalists.  Beer doesn’t sound like one of these, however, so I wish him the best of luck.

I hope you’ll read Beer’s essay, and the comments as well.**

*Beer identifies Charles Murray as a meritocrat, which may be true, but the the salient point about Charles Murray is his racism.  While he occasionally defends his racism with the language of meritocracy, most of Murray’s argument rests on a naturalism that can be confused with the naturalism of agrarians like Wendell Berry.

**One of the reasons why the Front Porch Republic is one of the best blogs is that the comments are shockingly free of stupid and illiterate ranting, when compared with most other sites.

Barry Eisler speaks…

… about bank bailouts and gunshot wounds to the face.  How can I not link to this?

Describing a bank [Goldman Sachs] that had to be saved via a taxpayer bailout from a greed- and stupidity-induced accidental death as “top-notch” at risk management and “super-smart” is a lot like describing as a “firearms safety paragon” a guy who drunkenly shot himself in the face and was saved only because a trauma surgeon with limitless quantities of spare hemoglobin happened to be standing right there when it happened.

There’s a lot more good stuff over there, so git.

Justice Souter speaks…

… at Harvard on May 27th, about constitutional interpretation and the role of judges.

Linda Greenhouse gives us the highlights, and here’s the whole text.

In his speech, Souter attacks what he calls the “fair reading model” of constitutional interpretation, which seems to mean something similar to Scalia’s originalism or to Roberts’ analogy of an umpire calling balls and strikes. A sample:

The fair reading model fails to account for what the Constitution actually says, and it fails just as badly to understand what judges have no choice but to do.  The Constitution is a pantheon of values, and a lot of hard cases are hard because the Constitution gives no simple rule of decision for the cases in which one of the values is truly at odds with another.  Not even its most uncompromising and unconditional language can resolve every potential tension of one provision with another, tension the Constitution’s Framers left to be resolved another day; and another day after that, for our cases can give no answers that fit all conflicts, and no resolutions immune to rethinking when the significance of old facts may have changed in the changing world.  These are reasons enough to show how egregiously it misses the point to think of judges in constitutional cases as just sitting there reading constitutional phrases fairly and looking at reported facts objectively to produce their judgments.  Judges have to choose between the good things that the Constitution approves, and when they do, they have to choose, not on the basis of measurement, but of meaning.

Sounds pretty persuasive to me.  But this means we have to admit that the justices, in many cases, are unbound by the text; they are choosing “between the good things that the Constitution approves.”  Well then, so be it.   Supreme Court Justices, in underdetermined cases, are a sort of political animal, and I think it’s silly to pretend that they aren’t.

We certainly don’t pretend during the confirmation process, so why should we start once a justice is confirmed?

Disclosure as a regulatory tool: how we make decisions

Inspired by this article about the ineffectiveness of disclosure as a regulatory tool, some questions:

When you sign up for an online service like iTunes or Facebook, do you read the terms and conditions before you click the “I agree to these terms and conditions” button?  When you rent a car, and the clerk asks you to put your “initials here, here, and here, and sign at the bottom,” do you read the form before you initial and sign your name?

I don’t.  I have a law degree, but reading the contract would be a waste of time because I wouldn’t fully understand all of the fine print.  Instead, I sign the contract because a) I can’t rent the car otherwise, and b) I trust that if I act reasonably and don’t damage the car, the car-rental company won’t try to screw me over.  I trust that they won’t because they want my repeat business, and/or because there are laws that prevent them from doing so.

Another question: if you’ve gone to the ER because you’re feeling sick, or you thought you were having a heart attack, did you read the forms that they asked you to sign purporting to provide your “informed consent” to examination and treatment?

I wouldn’t.  I’m a doctor, and I wouldn’t have time to read those forms when I was feeling well, let alone when I was feeling sick or worried that I might be suffering from a heart attack.  Instead, I would sign because a) I would think it was the only way for me to get the treatment I need, and b) because I trust that the hospital staff will act in my best medical interests because medical professionals act this way, and c) because I trust that there are laws and regulations preventing the medical staff from behaving otherwise.

Most of us, I think, sign long contracts all the time, without reading them.  There is evidence for this.

Last month 7,500 online shoppers agreed to provide the British retailer Gamestation with more than just cash. They signed over their rights to eternal life. Gamestation added an “immortal soul clause” to its terms and conditions as part of an April Fool’s Day experiment. (Notice of the transfer would be announced in 6-foot-high letters of fire.) Customers who read the clause and chose to opt out received a £5 discount on their next videogame purchase. Only 12% did, proving Gamestation’s point that most people agree to terms and conditions without reading them.

Carl Schneider

Carl Schneider

Professors Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider emphasize an unsurprising and almost self-evident fact: disclosure frequently doesn’t work as we’re told it does.  If we say, as most lawmakers do, that mandatory disclosure is meant to help people make better choices, then the evidence that it doesn’t should make us wary of relying on disclosure to solve problems like predatory lending, violation of arrested people’s constitutional rights, and the mistreatment of sick people by doctors and hospitals.

The contrary view of disclosure is one that’s been incredibly popular, of course.  Telling people about their options and about their rights has been a ubiquitous solution to various social problems over the past few decades.  This has coincided with the ubiquity and popularity of the belief that lightly-regulated free markets maximize individual freedom and, consequentially, their individual well-being and happiness.  In fact, both of these ideas stem from the same belief that we are all autonomous and rational self-interested welfare maximizers who thrive best when government “gets out of the way.”  This is the conventional wisdom of our age, and I surely do not have to remind anyone of it.  But sometimes it helps.

It helps, because many lawmakers are eager to turn to the same regulatory tool — mandated disclosure — as a way of preventing the next financial crisis (and of preventing the establishment of new regulations).  Stopping short of simply breaking up the big banks or taxing speculative trading, the financial reform bill will probably require more disclosures and transparency.  In many cases, such as derivatives trading, this would probably be a good thing.  But, at least when it comes to disclosures made to average consumers, we should be skeptical that this transparency alone will prevent rapacious behavior by big banks in the future.  We shouldn’t think that it will prevent future bubbles like the real-estate bubble, which are driven in part by consumer behavior.

Omri Ben-Shahar

Omri Ben-Shahar

Sure, disclosure is almost never a bad thing.  It is cheap, compared with many other regulatory tools.  But it frequently doesn’t work.  The theory that underlies it — that we’re all autonomous self-interested utility maximizers — is a woefully inadequate description of human beings.  This underlying theory is recognized as inadequate by virtually every honest and non-senile economist, but as popular conventional wisdom it has been much more difficult to cut down to size.  Continuing faith in this incomplete model of humanity is the reason why we remain vulnerable to market bubbles, why we still have to sign long forms when we’re sick in the hospital, and why real reform of the financial sector seems so slow in coming.

I’m in favor of an independent consumer financial protection agency because I believe Ben-Shahar and Schneider when they say that disclosure frequently doesn’t work.

In law school, I took a class from Carl Schneider that considered how patients make medical decisions.  We considered a lot of evidence that they do not simply decide based on the disclosure of information.  As a physician, I know that patients don’t demand to be told all the options and then inform me what it is that they’ve decided to do.  Instead, they expect me to listen to their description of what’s bothering them, and then make a recommendation about how to make them feel better.  The vast majority of the time, they decide to do what I recommend.  They’re still making a choice, but it’s a choice that relies overwhelmingly on the advice of an expert (me) advising them to do one thing and not to do something else.  Their choice, really, is to trust the doctor, and not to get a monospot test or to check a serum potassium level.

I make decisions the same way in areas in which I’m not an expert.  When my car breaks down, I take it to a mechanic and ask for his recommendation about how to fix my car.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I’ll decide to follow the mechanic’s recommendation.  I’m still an “autonomous” decision-maker, but I’m not making my decisions based on extensive disclosures of data and facts.  I’m deciding to defer to someone else whom I believe has more expertise about the subject of my decision than I do.

I’m not a financial expert either.  When I’m about to make a big financial decision, I seek out experts and generally defer to their recommendations.  The problem is, because I’m not a financial expert, I can’t always know what decisions are “big” financial decisions.  A consumer financial protection agency could warn me about unrecognized financial traps that I wouldn’t see otherwise.  Or it could simply outlaw them.  Either approach is much more likely to protect me from nefarious purveyors of dubious financial products than a long and detailed prospectus alone.

People must have the freedom to make their own decisions about much of what they do in life.  That’s not the same as saying that people can only exercise freedom of choice when they’re given long lists of raw data about the pros and cons of each decision they’re asked to make.  Nor is this the same as saying that people’s autonomy is infringed when other people and institutions are prevented by law from offering certain “options” to others.  If, for example, we outlaw a rental-car form contract with a buried clause stating that I have to pay $1000 per day if I park in a McDonald’s parking lot, and otherwise I have the car for $49.95 per day, my autonomy is not infringed.  My autonomy certainly isn’t adequately protected by requiring the disclosure of such a term in Paragraph 14 of a form contract with 48 paragraphs.

The Floyd Landis accusations

Floyd Landis

Floyd Landis

After years of proclaiming his innocence, 2006 Tour de France champion* Floyd Landis now admits that he doped.

He’s accusing Lance Armstrong of doping, too, and “not just Armstrong, but the flower of American cycling in the last decade, as well as two team managers, various other teammates and even the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale]….”  This includes, if you’re keeping track, riders like George Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie, and Levi Leipheimer.

My reactions to this take several forms.

First, I hope Landis is OK.  There is some suggestion that he isn’t right in the head, and since his 2006 Tour victory was stripped, it seems he’s suffered through a lot of crap.  I read in various places that his father-in-law committed suicide, his marriage fell apart, and he’s become more withdrawn.  As fans we know little about his actual emotional state, but if he’s emotionally unstable, I hope this admission is part of his getting healthy again, and not part of an accelerating emotional breakdown.

Speaking of which — there’s going to be a lot of folks who are going to want to convince us that Floyd Landis is crazy.  See, et. al., Armstrong, Hincapie, Zabriskie, Leipheimer, and support staff like Johan Bruyneel.  Stay tuned for more allegations from these individuals that “Landis is a complete whack job; of course I never doped.”  And please take any further accusations like this from any interested party with a grain of salt.

Hopefully, with all these allegations flying around that are at least plausible (look at all the successful cyclists that have been caught dead-to-rights, and these guys that Landis names were beating those cheaters regularly), we will attempt again to have a discussion about what should and should not be permitted in the pursuit of athletic excellence.  Maybe we should just let everyone dope, use steroids, inject nanobots, or whatever, so long as we can’t effectively identify who’s doing what.  It seems like every successful cyclist in the past fifteen years either cheated or is suspected of cheating, so for the sake of results we can believe in: don’t make rules you can’t enforce.

Finally, do I think Armstrong used drugs?  I refuse to speculate.  Sure, he’s never been caught, but when you win the Tour de France seven times against people who are all on epo, it is plausible that you’re on epo too.  Armstrong’s innocent until proven guilty, but I’m not one of those guys who’s gonna hitch my emotional wagon to Armstrong’s purity, either.

* His title was stripped after he was caught cheating.

Dangerous things

Professor Bainbridge reads a WSJ editorial about Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and rhetorically asks, “Why not just torture the SOB?“  States Bainbridge, “I’m more than a little appalled about how readily some on the right are to toss out the window centuries of Anglo-American jurisprudence to win temporary advantage.”

We must remember, contra the WSJ editorial board, that terrorists aren’t the only dangerous things in this world.  If the only danger that we ever faced came from terrorists, then it would make sense that our government should be able to capture, interrogate, torture, and kill suspected terrorists without any restraint whatsoever.  After all, the government couldn’t be, itself, dangerous.  They wouldn’t ever suspect someone of terrorism who wasn’t in fact a terrorist.

But that’s not how the world is.  Government police power is dangerous, too.  If we let our fear of terrorists blind us to the danger of a government that captures, interrogates, tortures, and kills suspected terrorists without restraint, then we will have more to fear from the government than from the terrorists.

One would think the WSJ editorial board would recognize this.

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

nkjemisin_htkI must now praise The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the debut novel from N. K. Jemisin.  Before I do anything else.

It was recommended to me by someone who shares many of my tastes in fantasy literature, so I was expecting it to be good, but I have to say that it was better than that.  It has what so many stories marketed as genre fantasy don’t have, and that’s originality.

This story is about enslaved gods and imperial politics and family history and creation mythologies and (briefly) hideous prisons with gelatinous ex-human prisoners, and it isn’t like anything else I’ve read.  The closest analogy that comes to my mind is Neil Gaiman (for the god angle), but this is far from a Gaiman knockoff.  Like almost all of the fantasy that I like best, this one builds an entire world from scratch and shows it to us piece by piece, when the story requires it.  There’s a sense, at the end, that there’s so much about this world that we haven’t been shown yet.  But we want to know more because it’s an interesting place.

Fortunately, there are two more books planned for this trilogy (How do you tell if it’s a fantasy novel?  It’s part of a trilogy!), so we’ll learn more about this world soon.  You can sign me up for the next two books right now.

John Scalzi featured Jemisin in his Big Idea series, and I recommend reading that post to get a feel for what the book is all about.