Monday, July 29, 2013

Detroit the City vs. 'Detroit' the Auto Industry

Robert Samuelson wrote one of the columns on Detroit that I find a bit frustrating, and leave me wondering if Samuelson has ever been to the city. Samuelson finds it to be a "great irony" that Detroit's bankruptcy "seems to suggest the obsolescence of central cities when just the opposite is true", pointing to the success and revival of "Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco and others".
All have stubborn concentrations of poverty, but many have benefited from gentrification and stronger job markets. High energy costs, a backlash against commuting, lower crime and cities’ vibrancy have renewed their appeal.
But here's the thing: Detroit developed as something of a suburban city, the place where you could live the city life while residing in your own home. Detroit is not situated in an area in which developers are constrained by geography, and must redevelop within its limits. Instead, Detroit is sprawling - 139 square miles - with a low population density, roughly 5,100 people per square mile, as compared to New York City's 27,000 or San Francisco's 17,400. Thanks to poorly considered urban planning decisions in the 1960's, the sort of neighborhoods that have helped lead to redevelopment in other cities, loft conversions and the like, were bulldozed to make way for freeways. Mass transit is poor and, even if it weren't, if you were to develop new residential neighborhoods within Detroit, the jobs for people who could afford to live in them would largely lie outside of the city limits.

Samuelson then asserts that the leading reason for Detroit's failure is that "It became a prisoner of its dependence on the auto industry." Here, Samuelson makes the common mistake of confusing the common shorthand term for the domestic auto industry ("Detroit") with the actual city called Detroit. The problem is that the auto plants that used to employ residents of Detroit were for the most part around the city, and the hollowing out of Detroit was well underway before Michigan started losing those plants to non-union states. Workers were easily able to relocate to towns outside of the city limits while keeping their factory jobs. And as much as Samuelson complains,
In the 1950s and ’60s, most Americans — not just people in Michigan — took the dominance of the Big Three for granted. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler commanded about 90 percent of the vehicle market. Who could challenge them? The result was a plausible and self-serving business model: high wages, generous fringe benefits, job security (with supplementary unemployment benefits to cover workers during temporary layoffs). The compact generally bought labor peace between the companies and the United Auto Workers. Given their market power, automakers could pass most costs on to consumers.

But what made short-term sense spelled long-term suicide — for companies, workers, Detroit and Michigan. High costs, shoddy quality and mediocre management made the companies vulnerable to foreign competition from imports and nonunionized plants, generally in the South. Employment eroded. Worse, the auto industry’s model shaped the state’s labor market and policies. By 1978, average hourly earnings in Michigan were 32 percent higher than the national average. Michigan had an anti-business reputation. This frustrated the state in its efforts to diversify its economic base.
Again, Samuelson confused "Detroit", the domestic automobile industry with "Detroit", the city. Samuelson, who seems to be generally opposed to collective bargaining, drops "nonunionized plants, generally in the South" into the mix without mentioning the policy choices that led to the split between "union" and "non-union" states, as if the City of Detroit were somehow responsible for the Taft-Hartley Act. He neglects to mention that many of the southern states that benefited from the relocation of plants from Michigan subsequently experienced plant closings as factories were moved to the developing world. But perhaps most of all he isn't even capturing the reality of what was happening in Detroit and surrounding communities. Take a look at a household income map for Michigan from the year 2000. If you don't know that Detroit is in southeastern Michigan, well, now you do - now take a look at that map and tell me where Detroit is located. You can see that the area surrounding Detroit remained quite wealthy, while Detroit had average wages similar to the most isolated and rural parts of the state. In 2010 Michigan's per capita income was $25,135. The state with the lowest per capita income was Mississippi, at $19,977. Detroit's per capita income was $15,261. Michigan certainly has struggled in the face of a global economy and a loss of traditional manufacturing jobs, but the areas immediately surrounding Detroit remain the richest in the state while Detroit sits, impoverished, in their midst.

Now a second map. This map shows the ethnicity of the residents of the Detroit metropolitan area, "White people are represented by pink, Black people are represented by blue, Hispanic’s represented by orange and Asians by green." How many seconds did it take you to locate Detroit? Knowing that that the northern boundary of Detroit was Eight Mile Road, how many seconds did it take you to figure out where that road is located on the map? Knowing that there's a separately incorporated city within Detroit, the City of Hamtramck, how many seconds did it take you to figure out where Hamtramck is located?

Don't get me wrong - I don't mean to suggest that there is some sort of racial redlining at work, or that the boundaries of Detroit were drawn to include only poor black neighborhoods. The problem is that as Detroit has lost population it has been unable to provide adequate municipal services, while its property taxes are high due to the low value of its real estate. If you're an employer thinking about opening a business in Detroit, you have to consider that your workers are probably going to want to commute in from a suburb where they have better schools and municipal services, and that they're going to pay a city income tax. Unlike the cities that have existing working class populations, and where living in the city can mean a shorter commute - or a commute on public transportation - working in Detroit can mean a longer commute, with a higher tax bill to boot.

Samuelson pontificates,
By reducing debt and pension payments — though hurting creditors and retirees — bankruptcy might break this cycle. But there’s no quick fix. What Detroit teaches is that those who deny economic change often become its victims.
It's difficult to see how reducing Detroit's debt will "break" its cycle - which is much less a cycle and much more of a decades-long downward trajectory. It's even harder to see how reducing pension benefits for the city's retirees, many of whom still live in the city, will benefit the city. By national standards the pension benefits aren't even particularly generous. Samuelson's theories of economics often seem to be driven by austerity theory and thus tend to be counter-factual, but surely even he can recognize that further reducing Detroit's per capita income and giving its people even less money to support local businesses is more of a stumbling block than a road to recovery. The cuts may well be necessary to balance Detroit's books, but if Detroit does not do far more than that to reinvent itself this is likely its first bankruptcy, not its last.

What I would like to see Detroit accomplish is a serious plan to consolidate its all-but-abandoned areas, and to engage in the wholesale removal of abandoned buildings. To do that effectively will require an infusion of state and federal money - many abandoned buildings are simply too large or require too much environmental clean-up for the city to do itself, particularly when it has no money. But I don't see that the void inside of Detroit will be filled with new people, businesses and jobs unless developers are looking at brownfields ready for redevelopment, as opposed to having to spend a small fortune demolishing an abandoned structure, and it's not realistic that developers will want to erect new structures or homes alongside vacant, derelict shells. The reasons that there is development around Detroit, but little development within Detroit, are not state secrets. Detroit is not going to become what Samuelson describes as an "incubator[] for new ideas and industries" as long as most businesses don't preface the idea of building or expanding in Detroit with the phrase, "anywhere but...."

Samuelson's admonition about "Detroit" holds more true for the state as a whole, which makes sense given that the State of Michigan is more aligned with that conception of Detroit than is the city itself. Contrary to Samuelson's suggestion, though, that Michigan workers get paid too much and have benefits that are too good, the fact is that Michigan is best served by trying to attract the sort of jobs and talent that keep wages high in the counties around Detroit. Samuelson observes, "New York has recovered, led in part by a resurgent (and maligned) financial industry", so let's be honest - being grossly overpaid relative to your contribution to society isn't an impediment to urban renewal, or even something to which Samuelson actually objects. (We can note, also, that Beltway pundits are paid extremely well for what amounts to a marginal contribution to society.) It's a matter of finding jobs and industries that fit with the present economy.

Rich People Need Not Apply

Joan Walsh writes,
Anyone who purports to care about income inequality who encouraged New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s flirtation with a 2012 third party presidential run – as Nader did in 2011 – is a hypocrite. Trusting enlightened multi-billionaires to lead us out of political paralysis and toward economic equality is anti-progressive.
That's right. After all, what sort of rich person would want to run for the White House to advance progressive causes or would enact policies that result in significant movement toward economic equality and an expanding middle class?

If you really want to advance progressive values, you need a candidate who knows what it's like to be poor, who gives up Harvard in favor of a local college because he's needed at home, who went to law school not on a trust fund, but on scholarship. I don't see how you could go wrong, trusting somebody like that to lead us out of political paralysis.

(If you don't understand where I'm going with this post, please follow the links before you comment.)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The "Three Million Available Jobs" Canard

I recently heard a guy, apparently the former star of a reality TV show about 'dirty job', purport that there are three million jobs with good wages waiting to be filled, and that they remain open due to a mismatch between job applicant skills and the needs of the employer. He suggested that the root of the problem was that people are turning up their noses at the skilled trades, and thus aren't even considering jobs that could pay them $40,000 - $120,000 per year. Needless to say, something about that claim carried the odor of an equine byproduct.

As it turns out, the "three million jobs" figure is tossed around with some regularity, and it represents a snapshot of the job market at any given time, and does not capture the even larger number of jobs that become available and that are filled each month. It's a bit like looking at a photo of kids playing musical chairs and observing how many open chairs there are - the snapshot tells us how many jobs are available, but many of those jobs are recent vacancies and most of them will be filled. So as it turns out, about 2.5 million of those jobs aren't at all difficult to fill, and the suggestion is that in manufacturing "there are as many as 500,000 jobs that aren't being filled because employers say they can't find qualified workers". Note, we're still a long way from "jobs that could pay $40,000 - $120,000 per year."

When Sixty Minutes explored this shortage of workers, it found that wages were stagnant and manufacturers were unwilling to train workers - that is, they wanted to hire people who were going to be fully productive from day one. They looked specifically at a company called "Click Bond", that has had difficulty getting workers with sufficient skill to run its machines. An executive helped form a partnership with local community colleges to train workers, and "As part of the training program, [participating] manufacturers are willing to pay students for two-day a week internships." The big money at the end of that training?
At the end of the 16 weeks of training, Click Bond offered Ryan Vre Non and Jamie Pacheco full time jobs at $12 an hour with benefits.
So if you complete the training and internship, and perform at the top of your class, you have the chance to earn $12/hour? Not only is that number far short of the great salary the "dirty jobs' guy was touting, it's difficult to believe that somebody who was capable of completing that program at the top of his class could not have found another program that would have resulted in a better-paying job. And really, if you're advertising a job at $12/hour for somebody who already possesses the skill set to be productive with minimal to no training, you're not offering enough to entice that person away from their current job.
Taking a close look at wage data in manufacturing, the Boston Consulting Group recently found that less than one percent of the manufacturing workforce, in a handful of labor market areas, is affected by a skills gap. In its survey of employers, Manpower finds that, among U.S. employers having difficulty filling jobs, 54% report that the reason positions are difficult to fill is that workers are looking for more pay than is offered and 44% report that applicants lack experience.

But such reasons cast doubt on the idea of a skills mismatch, as it is not unreasonable to expect employers to pay the going rate for the skills they need, or to provide opportunities for workers to gain experience doing the jobs they need done. So the driver of current high rates of unemployment certainly does not seem to be the inadequate skills of the American workforce.
Seriously, if the message is "train yourself at your own expense" (or taxpayer expense), or even "train yourself at your own expense, but with the possibility of a part-time, paid internship", students are not going to clamor for those $12/hour opportunities.
In exchange for these math and computer programming skills, which for most people would most likely require some measure of secondary education, Click Bond is willing to pay newly hired employees $12 per hour. In Nevada, the average hourly wage covered by unemployment in 2011 was $20.13.

Pitts also talked with Klaus Kleinfeld, German-born CEO of Alcoa in Whitehall, Michigan. Alcoa employs 2,200 people working three shifts a day, seven days a week, producing parts to make jet engines 50 percent more fuel efficient.... The Alcoa plant currently has 27 job openings, but Kleinfeld says that Alcoa absolutely has no problem with a skills gap, but it sure would be a lot easier if people would “get an education.”...

While there may very well be 500,000 job openings in manufacturing facilities across the nation, these jobs require a specialized skill set that wasn’t required even a decade ago. Kleinfeld implied it, but Hutter made it perfectly clear – employers are not willing to pay to train employees anymore.
When you start looking for the more highly paid jobs where there is a "skills gap", the word "engineer" seems to come up a lot, but not so much "machine operator". If an experienced worker is worth $12/hour, we're not talking about a job with a meaningful career path.

Moving back to "dirty jobs", I personally have no problem with encouraging students to pursue jobs in the skilled trades. I respect that some people are concerned that when you start doing so in high school, you end up tracking students who are more likely to be poor or minority into trade-oriented 'tracks' rather than academic tracks, but the effort doesn't have to occur in high school. We, as a society, can simply accept that the skilled trades are important, can potentially pay as much or better than many white collar jobs, and that it's acceptable and in some cases optimal to pursue a career in the trades instead of seeking a college degree.

That said, some of the jobs we're talking about aren't just dirty, but are dangerous. A friend who owns a small factory described the toll on his body from his years of running industrial machines. He has severe degeneration of his back and knees - and he's the boss. Talk to some retired pipefitters about their aches and pains. Talk to some auto mechanics about the injuries they or their peers have suffered on the job.

We can't pretend either that everybody is capable of working those jobs, or even that some of the people who aren't applying for those jobs are declining the opportunity because they enjoy being unemployed. Somebody who has become unemployed after a couple of decades of working one job that wore out his body is not necessarily going to be capable of entering another job that carries a similar physical toll - even for $12/hour plus benefits. And for the theoretical job that starts at $40K and could pay $120K with an employer that purports itself to be willing to train, if they can't get enough applicants it's not because there's a shortage of skilled workers - it's because of what the prospective employer and his pitchmen aren't telling you - such as the level of physical danger, travel time and isolation.

Year-Round Schools Are Not a Magic Answer

Recently on Real Time, The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis couldn't resist taking a dig at teachers and unions,
What about the teacher's unions, who wanna... the teacher's unions who insist on this 19th century educational process, I mean, we take summers off because that's when people used to farm and stuff, 'cause they, 'cause the teachers want to go on vacation.
The statement itself is far from a monument to good logic, but more than that, given how short the statement is, it's remarkable for its inaccuracy.
What about the teacher's unions, who wanna... the teacher's unions who insist on this 19th century educational process...
Teacher's unions? As Lewis should know, not every state has teacher's unions, and the states that ban teacher unions have terrible educational records. Although teacher's unions can complicate some experiments, due to such factors as contractually negotiated rules about the treatment of teachers and assignments to schools, many public schools have experimented with different educational models - open schools, Montessori, extra school hours, year-round school, and the like. It's not the teacher's unions that have been attempting to dictate and micromanage the classroom, or impose more and more standardized tests with higher and higher stakes, the sort of approaches that stifle classroom innovation and entrench the "19th century educational process". If administrators come up with innovations that they believe will move their schools out of the "19th century educational process", they are free to propose those ideas to teacher's unions and, to the extent that a collective bargaining agreement interferes with their proposals, negotiate for changes in the contract. Where would Lewis suggest that I look for these reform ideas that are being stifled by teacher's unions? When I try to find proposed innovations in pedagogy from school administrators, the silence is deafening - and I seem to instead find administrators trying to force schools that aren't following the standard model to get back with the program.
...this 19th century educational process, I mean, we take summers off because that's when people used to farm and stuff...
It's somewhat amazing to me that Lewis can both recognize that what is often referenced as the "factory school" model is a "19th century educational process" and then attribute it to farming - As if we used to be a fully industrialized society until the "agricultural revolution" pushed us into agriculture. Lewis might look at major cities within the United States, where even in the 19th century few to no students would have been involved in agriculture, and ask himself, "Why would those nations and cities have adopted an agricultural calendar?" As for agriculture, does Lewis truly believe that the summers were the busy season for 19th century farms? Plant in the spring, harvest in the fall, and... what am I missing? And why do most other nations, including those with little connection with agriculture, offer summer recesses.

As it turns out, the summer recess is a product of industrialization. Once you move significantly past the one room schoolhouse, schools needed to start standardizing grades and admission dates. Urban schools evolved from a year-round schedule (because factory workers didn't want to have to worry about child care) to one that better facilitated the administration of schools and the standardization of educational materials, textbooks and curricula across a district. As should be no surprise, prior to this "19th century educational process", schools in agricultural areas would often have breaks in spring and fall instead of the summer.
...'cause they, 'cause the teachers want to go on vacation.
I can almost imagine young Matt Lewis, teary-eyed at the thought of leaving his school for a couple of months, and absolutely perplexed by the joy of his peers at having the summer off. I nonetheless suspect that he may have noticed that it was not only teachers who were happy to get a couple of months off during the summer. As much as parents can find it difficult to arrange for day camps during the summer break, it's also nice to have a period of time when you can schedule a vacation without having to worry about the kids missing school.

Lewis is implying that the biggest problem with our (non-)farm based school calendar is the summer vacation, and that year-round schooling would be a miracle cure for all that ails public education but for those pesky teacher's unions. (He is apparently not aware that the summer camp industry has lobbied hard, for decades, against year-round schooling.) But look around: Where can I find any people or groups who are actively trying to make schools run year-round? When I look at charter schools, I see some that have expanded the number of classroom hours, but even KIPP schools take a summer recess. When I look at private schools, those who are most beholden to the wishes of parents, I again see them offering a summer recess. When I look at international schools in the southern hemisphere, where the public schools have a summer recess over our winter months, I find that many follow the schedule of the northern nations from which their students hail. As previously mentioned, states that ban teacher's unions have summer vacations. Very few people are actively seeking to change the status quo, so there's virtually nothing for teacher's unions to oppose.

Why don't more schools follow a year-round calendar? From an educational standpoint, the first question is whether that "year-round calendar" will involve more days of classroom instruction or if it will instead mean having more frequent, longer holidays during non-summer months and a shorter recess in the summer. As it turns out, kids backslide over any holiday. While there's going to be more backsliding over a long holiday than over a short holiday, the important consideration is the cumulative effect, as well as how much classroom time it takes to bring students back up to speed after a holiday. Were Lewis to investigate, he would find that experiments with year-round schooling have not improved student performance, with the most likely explanation being that the cumulative effect of longer vacations spread throughout the year roughly equals the impact of the longer summer break. Year-round schools also report higher problems with absenteeism - a problem that echoes some of the concerns that led to the "19th century educational process" in the first place, as absenteeism was higher prior to the standardization of the school year.

If you shift the subject to "more classroom hours", that's really not a discussion of summer vacations - it's a discussion of how many days per year and hours per day a student should spend in school. Programs like KIPP and similar experiments by public schools suggest that, particularly with a vulnerable student population, more hours in school will boost performance. The picture gets more complicated, though, when you start looking at pedagogy, or looking beyond those disadvantaged populations, and you find that there are nations with high performing students who receive no more hours of classroom instruction, and perhaps less classroom instruction, than students in a typical U.S. school.

When you increase the number of hours of classroom instruction, or expand the number of days in the school year, costs go up. And no, contrary to Lewis's suggestion it's not about greedy teachers who insist upon getting a pay increase merely because we want them to work more days and hours (can you imagine such a thing?), but it also means that you must provide support staff, transportation, utilities and supplies, and administration for those extra hours and days of education. If you want to expand school into the summer months you may have to add air conditioning, as well as construct shaded areas in playgrounds while installing additional water fountains. School administrators often schedule building maintenance over the summer, and having students present complicates scheduling as well as creating issues with exposure to construction areas, building materials, paint fumes, and the like.

In short, Lewis is wrong that the primary impediment to year-round schooling is teacher's unions, is wrong that we have summer holidays because of an agricultural calendar, and is wrong in his implication that year-round schooling would remedy the problems with our nation's schools. He's correct that teachers like their summer vacations, but... who doesn't? At the end, is that what we're really talking about - jealousy that teaching is one of the few professions in this nation that enjoys a significant amount of vacation time? If not, assuming that they see their public role as involving more than just teacher-bashing, people like Lewis should learn the facts before they attempt to influence the debate.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

No Grand, New Federal Programs

Eugene Robinson liked the President's speech on the Trayvon Martin shooting, but comments,
Most important, Obama laid out the challenge of “helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.”

This is the crucial, daunting challenge. Millions of at-risk boys and men need education, mentoring, employment. If this won’t come through “some grand, new federal program,” then how? And when?

Putting Friday’s words into action could be Obama’s greatest legacy. I eagerly await his next speech on the unfinished business of race.
The answer is implied by the fact that, decades into asking ourselves "what, how, when"" and experimenting in various fashions to try to end poverty and fully integrate our society, we are still asking, "what, how, when?" Even a "grand, new federal program" isn't an answer unless we know what the program will offer and how it will differ from the programs that came before it.

Our society struggles with the interaction of personal responsibility with issues of physical and mental illness, drug addiction, and apathy. We want people to hold jobs, but don't much care whether that's a realistic prospect for residents of economically depressed areas. We want people to become financially independent, but struggle with admitting that there are many people in our society who, on the best day of their lives, lack the ability to support themselves. We know that when marginal parents raise children, perhaps with one parent absent, or one or both floating in and out of jail or prison, we pay a huge economic price, but for a variety of reasons (including our own sordid history) we not only maintain that procreation is a right, we provide significant subsidies to those families that enable, perhaps encourage, them to have children and to expand their families. If you want to talk about eliminating poverty, you have to tackle some difficult issues head-on, and we as a society do not appear prepared to do that.

Meanwhile, the biggest lesson history has shared with us on the subject of poverty is that the best way to fight poverty and the cultural artifacts of poverty is through economic opportunity. Give people the opportunity to make a decent wage and support a family, and they are likely to do so and to adopt the values of the working class. Take away that opportunity, and you tend to see the same sort of deterioration of family and community, domestically and internationally, without regard to race, color or creed. Yes, you will have to find a way to address the population that is simply incapable of helping itself, but that task is made much easier when you are doing so within the framework of a healthy community.

Race in America and the Beam in Michael Gerson's Eye

Michael Gerson complains that, in his recent speech on the Trayvon Martin shooting, the President didn't offer meaningful solutions to the problems of race and racism in American society. Gerson dismisses the criticism from some of his Republican peers, that the President who "attacked Obama for being 'divisive' and for injecting race into the Trayvon Martin debate", then continues,
The opposite criticism is more serious — that Obama has missed opportunities over the years to talk about race in a compelling and personal way. It is the unavoidable American issue. At one point, a third of all human beings in the South were owned by another human being. For a century beyond slavery, Jim Crow laws enforced a racial caste system. The election of an African American president — born three years before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — is a wonder of national healing and historical compression. Who can argue that we have heard too much from Obama on this topic? For five years, he strategically downplayed the reality of his own miracle.
The "reality of his own miracle"? In another context, Gerson's "miracle" might be that our society has evolved so quickly since the 1960's that the President's race was a marginal factor in his election. In the context of Gerson's column, though, the "miracle" is that the President was twice elected despite the continuing level of racism and racial divisiveness within the United States.

I tried to find out how Gerson responded to the Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and, although I found that Gerson had referred to Chief Justice Roberts as displaying "judicial arrogance", that was over his vote upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), not over his platitudinous statements on race issues such as, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race". It's interesting to me that a tax ruling caused Gerson to sound off like an overheated tea kettle, but Roberts' shrugging off racism as a continuing issue in society didn't seem to inspire him to so much as raise an eyebrow,1 particularly given his explicit rejection of the notion that we're now living in a racially equal society:
Having finally engaged the issue of race, Obama drew the correct policy implication. Social divisions are deepest when it comes to African American boys and young men: often betrayed by schools, abandoned by fathers, treated with suspicion, unable to find jobs, wandering through dysfunctional neighborhoods, locked in prison in vast numbers and denied basic civil rights (such as voting) for the rest of their lives. Obama has a unique standing to address the challenges of minority youth. As a young man, he was prone to trouble and might have easily gotten enmeshed in an unforgiving legal system. The president can effectively argue that first impressions are not always correct and that second chances are sometimes necessary.
Giving credit where credit is due, at times George W. Bush spoke inclusively. He did not focus on traditional race issues, but was clearly interested in leading his party toward the greater involvement of minorities, made sometimes clumsy statements about Islam that were intended to diminish anti-Muslim sentiments, and at least once spoke inclusively of atheists. Gerson may have authored some of those lines. However, by any measure including word and deed, Obama has done far better.

Gerson complains about the President's policy proposals,
But Obama’s speech deserves this criticism: Its policy proposals — training police, reconsidering “stand your ground” laws, more community dialogue and “soul-searching” — were weak. It was as though the administration’s policy apparatus had never really considered the matter before — that it was somehow ambushed by America’s most obvious policy challenge.
Let me interject that the fact that the President proposes certain measures that might prevent a young black male, armed only with skittles, from arousing the suspicions of an armed self-annointed protector of the neighborhood, does not mean that he might not propose additional measures if he were broadly addressing the issue of race across society. Gerson's complaint is actually that the President spoke about the Trayvon Martin case without turning the speech into a broad narrative on race relations. Perhaps the President should give such a speech, but Gerson offers no challenge to the President's explanation of why he chose a different approach:
There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
Frankly, Gerson need only look at the racial demagoguery of his Republican peers to know that the President is correct.

Gerson's suggestions for policy proposals that the President should have included in the speech, I think, betray the fundamental weakness of his position:
The problem of African American boys and young men is a complex mix of lingering racial prejudice, urban economic dislocation, collapsing family structure, failing schools and sick, atomized communities. But is there really nothing practical that can be done? How about providing family supports — mentoring, fatherhood initiatives, teen pregnancy prevention and removing the Earned Income Tax Credit penalty for married couples? How about strong accountability measures to close the educational achievement gap instead of granting waivers that lower standards? How about support for faith-based institutions that reclaim lives from gangs? How about prison reform, so that mandatory minimum sentences are at least reduced? How about expanding substance abuse prevention and treatment, which seem to have fallen off the national agenda?
First, let's be honest, there was nothing particularly "African American" about Trayvon Martin's story, beyond that noted by the likes of Richard Cohen and Geraldo Rivera, which I will unfairly - but not all that unfairly - paraphrase as "He was a black kid in a hoodie, so who wouldn't have wanted to shoot him?" A seventeen year old with divorced parents, acting out at school, smoking pot on occasion, perhaps involved in a petty theft, sent to live with his father because his mother thought he could use a stronger male presence in his life... that's much more an "American story" than an "African American" story. The President's speech addressed the key issues - public perceptions and community attitudes that contribute to the perceptions that caused a guy with a gun to see a kid coming home from a store with a package of Skittles and make a cognitive leap to "F--king punks... These a--holes... They always get away".

Second, had the President followed Gerson's after-the-fact suggestion, Gerson's Republican peers would have merely expanded their list of complaints from "race-baiting" and "divisiveness" to "And now he's trying to get more handouts, more goodies, for his 'base'." Gerson has to know that, and has to know that his peers play a huge role in how, when initiated by a politician - and more so when that politician is Barack Obama - these discussions "end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have."

Third, alas, Gerson's policy proposals range from weak tea to platitudinous. Had the President make such proposals and pretended that they were significant, Gerson would be entirely justified in his complaint. The fact that this, after Gerson's years working with G.W. Bush, years in sinecures with so-called think tanks, and years of writing for the Washington Post, is the best Gerson has highlights how difficult these issues are to actually address in a meaningful manner, let alone solve.
  1. "How about providing family supports — mentoring, fatherhood initiatives, teen pregnancy prevention and removing the Earned Income Tax Credit penalty for married couples?" - There is nothing wrong with advocating for "family supports", but Gerson's ideas are neither novel nor helpful. Is Gerson unaware of existing mentoring programs? Is he unaware that live births to teen mothers3 are on the decline? What does he imainge a "fatherhood initiative" to be, and why does he imagine it will have any impact on poverty? What in the world does "removing the Earned Income Tax Credit penalty for married couples" have to do with questions of race, and how does Gerson imagine that it will have a material impact on poverty?

  2. "How about strong accountability measures to close the educational achievement gap instead of granting waivers that lower standards?" - Gerson was part of an administration led by a President who touted fraudulent educational statistics as something of a miracle, that he could replicate across the nation. That Administration foisted "No Child Left Behind" on the nation, a program built on the supposed principles that led to Houston's fabricated "miracle", and a decade later the program was a complete failure. The obvious, inherent flaws of NCLB led to a situation in which, but for waivers, very good schools would be classified as "failing" due to their "lack of improvement". Contrary to Gerson's suggestion the Obama Administration has been pushing school reforms that it hopes will be superior to NCLB, but it's not clear that a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to reform will do anything but repeat NCLB's biggest mistakes, effectively diminishing the quality of better schools by focusing on standardized test results, enriching vendors of those standardized tests at the expense of overall school funding, and causing more dedicaated teachers to leave the profession. With Gerson's exposure to the debate, and the failures of NCLB, it's astonishing that he believes that a call for "strong accountability measures to close the educational achievement gap" is an actual policy proposal and not an exhausted platitude from his early tenure with the Bush Administration.

  3. "How about support for faith-based institutions that reclaim lives from gangs?" - Say what?

  4. "How about prison reform, so that mandatory minimum sentences are at least reduced?" - While acknowledging the high rates of incarceration and contact with the criminal justice system for our society as a whole, and how much worse the numbers are for minority populations, I would like to see Gerson flesh out this idea: What crimes should have shorter sentences, how much shorter should those sentences be, and how will that have a material impact on race or poverty? For example, I've seen kids who are repeatedly caught selling drugs get ridiculous sentences as habitual offenders, and those sentences seem to me to be an absurd use of tax dollars and counter-productive to integrating those young men back into productive society, but shortening those sentences to something more reasonable isn't going to have any material impact on the economic plight of their communities. The fact that long sentences don't meaningfully deter drug trafficking, particularly street dealing, suggests that the underlying problem is economic.

  5. "How about expanding substance abuse prevention and treatment, which seem to have fallen off the national agenda?" - No objection from me, but why is Gerson of the belief that drug abuse is primarily a problem of race or of the inner cities?

Also what, in any of Gerson's ideas, would have influenced the type of thought process that automatically translates "black teenager in a hoodie" into "danger to the community"?

I am going to assume that Gerson means well, that he's not just concern trolling, but that of itself raises questions. If it's so easy for a President to stand before a microphone and heal racial and ethnic divides, why is it that those divisions seemed to expand under the tenure of his former boss? Surely that was not what Gerson and his fellow speechwriters intended when penning speeches for G.W. - if it's as easy as Gerson suggests to "drive and shape a policy debate" through grand Presidential speeches, why did we at best tread water on these issues, even as Bush called for tolerance, pushed NCLB and faith-based initiatives, and the like?

My suggestion to Gerson is this: As you're a partisan Republican, you should spend less time worrying about what the President is not saying in his speech, and spend more time thinking about what the politicians of your party are or are not saying in theirs. Seriously - as much as I would like to believe that the President has a magical power to give a few speeches and move the country toward a post-racial ideal, I think it would actually be much more powerful and much more constructive if we instead heard those speeches come from the mouths of prominent, right-wing Republicans and their party leaders.4
1. Although there is a possibility that his employer's website has a flawed search engine, an "advanced search" on the Washington Post website starting with Jan. 1, 1987, turned up no articles by Michael Gerson that even mention "affirmative action".

2. November 3, 2004, "I will be your president regardless of your faith... And if they choose not to worship, they're just as patriotic as your neighbor."

3. Given that Gerson apparently believes that teen parenthood has a dramatic, negative impact on the welfare of children and communities, one wonders if he's willing to reconsider his opposition to reproductive freedom - provision of contraception to teenagers, the morning after pill, access to safe, affordable abortion, and the like. Does he continue to hold that allowing access to abortion "seems like addressing poverty by doing away with the poor; like fighting disease by getting rid of those with diseases" - and if so, how does he reconcile that with his own argument that we need to reduce or eliminate pregnancies among poor teenagers?

4. Even better, House Republicans can pass legislation moving those ideas from concept to reality. [And then I woke up.]

"You're Not Doing Any Online Marketing?"

For goodness sake, salespeople, do your homework.

I received a "follow-up" call to an email that probably triggered my spam filter, from a major publishing company that was pitching "web marketing solutions". I indicated that I was not interested, which triggered the response, "So you're not doing any online marketing?"

Technically speaking, I suppose, there's something to that. I haven't been trying to recruit legal business online for quite a few years, and my online marketing materials are thus way out of date. But I do happen to run some legal websites that, although not as well-trafficked as those of the biggest legal publishers (with their large staffs and multi-million dollar advertising budgets) do manage to get their fair share of web traffic. When your primary website, through which you market thousands of lawyers, gets roughly three times the traffic of my primary website, you should know that up front and think about whether "You're not doing any online marketing?" is the right question.

Monday, July 22, 2013

So Much for Airbnb

Reading Thomas Friedman's column about airbnb and our new "sharing economy", I was looking forward to a discounted stay in a Bethesda mansion with access to a giant swimming pool, perhaps even a guided tour of the grounds in a Lexus SUV (hybrid, in case you were wondering) driven by my host. Given the owner's self-described sacrifice, buying up 7.5 acres and building a giant mansion in order to save the rest of us from having that land redeveloped into a subdivision that could house many families, you might think he was also interested in sparing the area from a Holiday Inn.
More than 50 percent of Airbnb hosts depend on it to pay their rent or mortgage today, Chesky added: “Ordinary people can now be micro-entrepreneurs.” Jamie Wong, co-founder of, a platform through which locals anywhere can become custom tour guides of their area, told me: “I moved out of my apartment in central San Francisco, rented a cheaper annex in a friend’s home, and ‘airbnb-ed’ my apartment for $200 a night and earned about $20,000 in a year. It enabled me to bootstrap my start-up. Airbnb was our first round of funding!” And just think how much better all this is for the environment — for people to be renting their spare bedrooms rather than building another Holiday Inn and another and another. ... The sharing economy — watch this space. This is powerful.
Alas, as powerful as the "sharing economy" may be, it seems to be one in which people at the margins do the sharing - people who can't pay their mortgage, or have to save up for a full year to be able to afford even one Rolex marginally bootstrap their business ideas.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

... But That's the Unsustainable Part

Steven Rattner calls for a bailout of Detroit,
Many call for scaling back the city to fit realistic population projections. While logical, the potential for downsizing Detroit is limited because the city’s population didn’t flee from just one neighborhood; the departures were scattered, requiring Detroit to deliver services across a geographic area the size of Philadelphia, with less than half the population. Further cuts will surely come, but in some key areas, like public safety and blight removal, Detroit needs to spend more, not less.
If Detroit does not find a way to scale itself back, to empty out those largely abandoned areas with one or fewer households per block, it's going to have to continue to provide police, fire and utility services to those areas - and the cost of doing so will not only vastly exceed the minimal tax revenue generated from those areas, it will impede efforts to ensure better emergency service response times to other parts of the city, response times that Rattner notes are unacceptable ("Average police response times have reached 58 minutes, compared with a national average of 11 minutes"). If the issue of providing public services to largely abandoned areas is not addressed this time around, I suspect that the City's future includes a second bankruptcy.

The Million Dollar Law Degree

Given the triumphalism of those who tout a dubious study ostensibly showing that the present value of a law degree for an new graduate is $1 million, I think it's fair to remind them of how the rise in law school tuition, the huge rise in the number of law graduates, and the collapse of the legal job market call all of the authors' assumptions into question:
In June, the legal services sector lost more than 3,000 jobs, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Since June 2012, the latest BLS data shows, the industry has seen a net gain of only 1,000 jobs. In the last two months alone, 6,000 positions disappeared....

The increase in the percentage of applicants being admitted to law schools is one reason that the lawyer bubble continues to grow. Another is the stagnant job market. In 2008, the BLS projected that the economy would add a net total of 98,500 new attorney positions for the entire decade ending in 2018. In 2010, the agency revised that estimate downward to project the addition of just 73,600 positions by the end of 2020.

Even allowing for attrition by retirement, death, and other reasons, the BLS now estimates that there will be 235,000 openings for lawyers, judges, and related workers through 2020—23,500 a year. Last year alone, law schools graduated 46,000 new attorneys.

If law schools as a group reduced enrollments by 20 percent from last year’s graduating class, they would still produce almost 37,000 new lawyers annually — 370,000 for a decade that will require only 235,000 — not to mention the current backlog that began accumulating even before the Great Recession began.
If you're a Harvard or Yale law student, odds are your law degree will return well over that $million over the course of your career. The further you get away from the elite schools, or the upper ranks of the law school you attend, the less likely it is that you'll end up earning a good (or even a decent) income, and the more likely it is that you'll end up working a job that neither requires a law degree nor helps you pay off your student loans. Law is also a profession where your first job will often significantly limit your options for the rest of your career, so graduating into a poor employment market can have a career-long impact on your earnings.

If you're thinking about attending law school, you need to keep in mind that when people are talking about the flexibility of a law degree the odds are (a) they don't know what they're talking about or (b) they work for a law school and you're hearing a sales pitch. If you're not committed to practicing law, consider taking some additional time to think about your options or considering how other graduate degrees (or employment options) might better fit your goals and personality. If you are committed to practicing law, and have done some homework to figure out what that actually means (no, TV dramas don't count as homework), you still need to consider in light of your grades, LSAT score, and the law schools willing to accept you whether that's a good investment. For most students at most law schools, in the present market (which, unfortunately, seems to be the likely market for legal employment stretching into the foreseeable future) it's not going to be worth it - most law graduates end up racking up a large amount of debt and then not finding work in the legal field or finding marginal work that sets them up for a career in which they're excluded from the more prestigious and higher-paying jobs. You can't get around the numbers.

Public Criticism of Verdicts

Jeralyn Merritt sometimes goes a bit overboard:
The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the rights of the citizen accused from the awesome powers of the Government. It was not enacted to protect the rights of crime victims.

The presumption of innocence is a bedrock of our criminal justice system that applies to the person charged with a crime, not the victim of a crime.

Self-defense is an affirmative defense that may be raised by a defendant in court in response to a criminal charge.

When partisan politics threatens the Bill of Rights, progressives especially need to get their priorities straight: The Bill of Rights must prevail. Those who disagree do a disservice to the word "progressive." Their backwards thinking is just the opposite.
Merritt has blogged extensively about the Zimmerman prosecution, and she practices criminal defense, so it's reasonable to infer that she's aware of the following:
  1. When a defense is available to a defendant as an affirmative defense, the defendant has the burden of proving facts sufficient to support the defense, normally by a preponderance of the evidence.

  2. In Florida, a claim of "self-defense" is nominally an affirmative defense, but once the defendant presents any evidence of self-defense, even the defendant's own self-serving statement, the state has to disprove affirmative defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

  3. There is no constitutional right (a) to a "stand your ground" rule of self-defense, (b) to have the state disprove your claim of self-defense, or (c) to the ability to raise self-defense at all in most contexts in which the state deems such a defense to be inappropriate.

Merritt asserts,
Trials are conducted in courtrooms, not living rooms. The public has a right to view the proceedings. It does not have a right to inject its opinions into the proceedings or affect the outcome. The jury must base its decision only on the testimony and evidence produced at trial and the law as instructed by the judge. Morality has nothing to do with it.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to a fair trial by a impartial jury. The jury is composed of the six people selected in court after a rigorous process designed to exclude those who cannot be fair. The public is not a member of the jury. It has no vote. Which is a good thing because the vast majority of the public commenting on this and every other high profile trial are all too willing to take an eraser to the Constitution and condemn a person, without having observed the proceedings from start to finish, viewed the exhibits admitted or read the jury instructions.
Merritt has seemingly forgotten that nobody outside of the courtroom owes the defendant a presumption of innocence, and that it is in fact possible for somebody outside of the courtroom to look at a case and conclude that justice was not served.

Taken at face value, who can argue? The public has no right to "inject its opinions into the proceedings or affect the outcome." But the trial is over, criticism of the verdict has absolutely no impact on that verdict.

Merrett seems to have no problem with criticism of a verdict following a conviction. I doubt that Merrett would condemn critics of the wrongful acquittals in the Emmett Till case or other lynching cases . We, outside of the courtroom, do have the right to criticize the conduct of a jury, the procedures followed in a case, and the laws that we believe (rightly or wrongly) led to an unjust verdict.

The right of self-defense is a limited right emerging not from the language of the Constitution itself, but from common law. There is no question that it would be constitutional for the State of Florida to follow the practice of most other states and place the burden of proof for self-defense on the defendant. Were the State of Florida to pass a law that holds that under circumstances in which a person armed with a gun engages in any course of action that culminates with his shooting an unarmed person outside of his his own home, that person cannot claim self-defense or may do so only to mitigate the charge and not to obtain an acquittal, there's a good chance that the law would be held constitutional.

Had Zimmerman been required to prove self-defense in the same manner that is typically required in other states, odds are he would have convicted himself with his own testimony or would have convinced a lot more people of his sincerity. Given Zimmerman's past statements about the case, and the contradictions and holes in those statements, it was anything but a surprise that he chose to stay off of the witness stand. Those holes and inconsistencies don't necessarily establish guilt, but they represent a big part of why a shadow remains over this case.

Whether a person commenting on the verdict has scrupulously reviewed all of the available evidence or is talking through his hat, it's that person's right to look at a verdict and declare, "An injustice was done here, and we need to think about changing the law so that it doesn't happen again - or at least to ensure that it's a lot less likely to happen again." If a sufficient groundswell of opposition to the verdict arises that we have a public policy discussion, that's normally going to be a good thing - even in those situations where people who know the details of the case often find themselves frustrated by how little the general public knows of the actual facts.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Justin Bieber's (Reported) Spitting Problem

Over at my forum, a visitor described having Justin Bieber spit in his face,
This past Friday night, Justin Bieber, came to the club I was DJing at. I was opening for his tour DJ, DJ Tay James, and afterward I was allowed to stay in the VIP area and be on standby to take over for him once he finished his set. Bieber showed up at around 1:00a and stayed until 2:30a. I was called back down to the VIP area at around 2:00a to be ready and waiting for Tay James to get done. He decided to stay on until around 2:30a (closing time for the club) At around 2:15a, I was approached by two of Bieber's bodyguards and was accused of taking pictures of Justin Bieber, apparently there were no pictures allowed of him, I'm assuming because he's not the legal age to be inside of a club. In any case, they took my phone from me and went through my phone, there were obviously no pics of bieber, but i did have some photos I took when I was on the stage and I was DJing, much much earlier in the night, at around 11:30p - 12:15a. So they pulled me back into the kitchen area, which wasn't much farther away from where Bieber's VIP area was located. Bieber got wind of the situation and as he was making his way out of the club, he came up to me and said to my face "Your mother's a bitch, your father's a bitch, and you're a bitch." and then spit directly into my face. Not near my face, not on the ground, right in my eyes nose and mouth, and then he walked out. It happened so fast I had zero time to react.
There were several witnesses to the incident, but the man asking the question was concerned that if he reported it the witnesses might not back him up and his employers would not like the resulting negative publicity.
Two of the club owners were in the back area in the kitchen. They were right there and saw it happen. I'm not sure if there were any other witnesses or if there was surveillance footage of the incident...The problem I have is the altercation and the publicity this might negatively bring to that place. I'm afraid any witnesses wouldn't come forward or testify. And that I'm screwed if I even bring this up to them, even though they did see it happen.
Then the story broke, through the actions of one of the witnesses:
oh boy. this just got interesting... apparently a prominent radio station in Columbus is saying that they have a witness who saw this happen... and now they want to interview me...
TMZ has picked up the story. A radio show host saw a report of the incident posted to Facebook by a witness, and investigated.
Bieber's official rep refused to comment -- but a source in JB's camp tells TMZ, "Everything's been going really well on the tour and it's just really sad that someone would copycat others' baseless claims just to try and get attention for themselves."
What do you make of the disconnect between the Bieber camp's denial and the manner in which the incident actually came to the attention of the media?

I can feel sorry for Bieber and the choices of the adults in his life that led his emotional maturity seemingly being frozen in time the moment he became a celebrity, but he's a grown-up now. Whether or not you believe this occurred, can you deny that it's well past time Bieber started acting his age? He's nineteen, so it's not like that should be a particularly high bar for him to reach.

Why Nerds Drop Out of School

Courtesy of David Brooks:
Surely, part of the situation is that many men simply do not want to put themselves in positions they find humiliating. A high school student doesn’t want to persist in a school where he feels looked down on.
Don't take it from me, take it from Brooks:
In every high school there are students who are culturally and intellectually superior but socially aggrieved. These high school culturati have wit and sophisticated musical tastes but find that all prestige goes to jocks, cheerleaders and preps who possess the emotional depth of a cocker spaniel. The nerds continue to believe that the self-reflective life is the only life worth living (despite all evidence to the contrary) while the cool, good-looking, vapid people look down upon them with easy disdain on those rare occasions they are compelled to acknowledge their existence.
Oh, I recognize that Brooks is arguing something else, the sort of thing Orwell argued in The Road to Wigan Pier,
The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a 'job' should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly. The idea of a great big boy of eighteen, who ought to be bringing a pound a week home to his parents, going to school in a ridiculous uniform and even being caned for not doing his lessons! Just fancy a working-class boy of eighteen allowing himself to be caned!
If anything, Orwell's essay highlights how little schools have changed, and how a willingness to participate in the academic side of high school has a lot less to do with young men "want[ing] to put themselves in positions they find humiliating" and a lot more to do with cultural expectation. It is actually true that a good number of kids who are academically inclined have memories of how much they hated high school, and a good number of kids who barely cracked a book have glorious memories of their social lives and athletic achievements. You can sense some of that resentment in Brooks' caricature of the popular kids and how they perceived kids like... him. But you have to grow up - sometimes "you gotta do what you gotta do."

Richard Cohen May Not Be a Racist....

But he faces a bigger problem, in that he's not very smart.
What O.J. Simpson did was wrong. It was not, by verdict of his peers, a crime.
Of course he wrote "Zimmerman", but the logic behind the assertion is the same, as it would be if he said "Casey Anthony" or "Michael Jackson". Cohen is not alone in confusing a verdict of "not guilty" both with a declaration of innocence and with an expression about what conduct constitutes a crime. He's been around more than long enough to know better.
I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.
My father wears a hoodie. As he recovers from his knee replacement surgery, I hope he doesn't bump into Zimmerman lest "the uniform" make poor Georgie afraid that he's going to get clobbered with a cane. The part that Cohen omits from his statement, "wearing a uniform we all recognize", is that the uniform isn't "wearing a hoodie" - it's "wearing a hoodie while black". And while I'll do my best to take Cohen at his word, for most people who are making similar statements about Trayvon Martin I'm not sure how important the hoodie is to the uniform.

A few years ago one organization or another ran a public service ad in which a black youth and his friends go to a store, and the storekeeper is intimidated by their appearance. The commercial concludes with one of the youths approaching the storekeeper, who is anticipating that it might be a robbery, slaps his money on the counter, thanks the storekeeper and leaves. It was meant to remind the Cohens, Zimmermans, and even those made less nervous about young black men in "uniform" that they should not assume the worst based upon wardrobe and skin color. And that's fair enough. The fashion choices of youths can be confusing to us older folk. If you want to dress in a manner reminiscent of a street thug, people are going to make assumptions about you and your boisterous friends. And sometimes it's fun to have people make assumptions.

But Martin? We know exactly what his "uniform" looked like the day he died - if you want to see it, you can click through to the image from this page. Frankly, as I look at that picture I have a very hard time continuing to take Cohen at his word. (Watch out, dad - your hoodie is scarier than Trayvon's.) To me it looks like the sort of thing you might pull on if the weather was a bit chilly, a bit drizzly and you wanted to be warm. But between the hoodie and the white skinny jeans, Cohen sees a scary "uniform". Cohen attempts to restore my faith in him:
Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males? This does not mean that raw racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of invidious stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime.
Wait... I thought this was about a uniform... about hoodies. So... perhaps what Cohen means is that he gets scared when he sees young black men, and thus believes everybody else should either follow his lead and invest heavily in Depends undergarments, or follow Zimmerman's lead and buy a gun.
In New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78 percent of all shooting suspects — almost all of them young men. We know them from the nightly news.
In New York City there are about 8.2 million people. By Cohen's measure, that's a bit over two million African Americans, so let's say 1 million African American males of various ages. There were 414 homicides in New York City in 2012. As of December 28, 2012 there had been 1,353 shootings that year. Cohen says that 78% of the suspects were African American, so that means roughly 1,055 shootings. So, assuming that nobody was a suspect in more than one shooting, roughly a 0.1% chance that an African American male in New York city was a suspect in a shooting. Or... whatever "young black males" means... maybe that bumps it up to 0.3%? That's Cohen's statistical case for his apparent fear that he's going to get shot by every young black man he passes in the street?

Oh, but it gets better,
Those statistics represent the justification for New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, which amounts to racial profiling writ large. After all, if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk.
Cohen seems to believe that all shootings in New York City are random. That is, young black men are carrying guns around and, for no good reason, might 'pop a cap' into a random New York Times columnist. A better columnist might have looked at the statistical result of stop and frisk.... a roughly zero percent impact on the number of shootings in the city. Needless to say, shooting incidents are not evenly distributed throughout the city - "they are closely associated with larger geographic crime patterns". In 2011, 43% of criminal shooting incidents occurred in Brooklyn, and just shy of 29% in Bronx. My guess is that if Cohen manages to avoid getting involved in drug deals, or walking through high crime neighborhoods alone at night while flashing the type of watch that has historically been among his obsessions (even then, with there being a high probability that he would still have his watch at the end of his jaunt, and virtually no chance that he would be shot), he's pretty safe.
Still, common sense and common decency, not to mention the law, insist on other variables such as suspicious behavior. Even still, race is a factor, without a doubt. It would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good.
I'm curious about something. How would Cohen propose that the police could tell, simply by looking at somebody, that the person is from Denmark? What about these folks? Wait - I get it - they're not wearing hoodies, right?

Cohen presents the... factually challenged claim,
Crime where it intersects with race is given the silent treatment. Everything else is discussed — and if it isn’t, there’s a Dr. Phil or an Oprah saying that it should be. Crime, though, is different. It is, like sex in the Victorian era (or the 1950s), an unmentionable but unmistakable part of life. We all know about it and take appropriate precaution but keep our mouths shut.
There are only 130,000,000 hits on Google for "role of race in crime", and a mere 2.4 million hits on Google News - clearly this is something nobody talks about.

Cohen rambles,
If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated. If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop. But if they ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work.
So kids shouldn't be suspected of being criminals merely because they're black - but in the name of "common sense and common decency" we should "insist on other variables such as suspicious behavior". Thus, Cohen is able to conclude,
There’s no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman profiled Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason.
Understandably suspected of what? If it defies "common sense and common decency" to have suspected Trayvon Martin of criminal activity merely because he was young and black, what is it that Cohen believes constitutes the "other variables such as suspicious behavior" that Zimmerman saw to immediately make him think of Martin as a "f---ing punk" and an "asshole" of the type who "always gets away"?

Oh, that's right. The hoodie.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Apple, Amazon, eBooks, and Antitrust

I am not a close follower of antitrust law. I studied the law as it then existed more than twenty years ago, at which time the state of the law and its enforcement was in significant flux. Prior antitrust litigation had cast a shadow over the enforcement mechanisms, with the break-up of International Shoe being widely seen as a cautionary tale for how too strong a remedy for antitrust violations (e.g., the break-up of a company) can undermine an industry - a caution that didn't save AT&T from being broken up, but likely did play a role in the decision to preserve Microsoft as a single entity. Since that time, I've watched from the distant sidelines as the courts have relaxed restrictions on what a company may do without running afoul of antitrust law, including in relation to minimum advertised price (MAP) and minimum retail price (MRP) policies.

What strikes me about the argument of the attorney generals and Justice Department, in essence that they pursued Apple in order to protect consumers from higher prices, is that the courts have demonstrated less concern about consumer prices than consumer advocates. Polices such as MAP and MRP can help protect a manufacturer and its retailers (particularly brick and mortar retailers facing online competition) from downward price pressure, but with the inevitable result that prices will go up for consumers.

An early reaction from Jonathan Gans, I think, reasonably summarizes the outcome. I admit, I have not read the 120 page opinion, and I would welcome comment from anybody who has. I'm not sure that I agree with him that "Apple didn't need to do this", at least in the sense of having a viable bookstore. Amazon's approach was, in the eyes of the attorneys general, a boon to consumers, with Amazon selling many titles below cost in order to expand and entrench its market share. The entire controversy with Apple was kicked off by the fact that Apple was not interested in following that path - yet unless they followed Amazon's model, or inspired publishers to convince Amazon to change its pricing model, Apple's eBook store would not have been viable.

Once upon a time, Apple might have been able to accuse Amazon of anti-competitive product dumping, but that theory has been all-but-abandoned, and Amazon was careful enough not to issue subsidies across-the-board such that there was little chance of it's being revived. So we ended up in an odd situation where any potential competitor to Amazon would have to provide subsidies to buyers, likely resulting in its inability to turn a profit on an eBook store, doing something akin to what Apple did, or staying out of the market. Also, through its agency model, Apple cleared the way for additional eBook stores to come online - because they could enter the market without having to worry that they would not be able to turn a profit due to Amazon's subsidized prices. The attorneys general seem to believe that consumers would have been better served by having Apple stay out of the market than by having it enter on terms under which it could turn a profit and which did not in fact give it a competitive advantage. Even accepting the court's conclusion that they proved an antitrust violation I don't think they made that case.

Like any appellant, Apple is going to have a difficult time appealing based upon the argument that the judge misunderstood the facts. The judge's rulings were extensive and, in simple terms, on appeal any ambiguity is construed in favor of the nonmoving party. I expect them to try, and I expect that they are going to identify some findings by the court that arguably contradict the lower court record. But I expect their focus on appeal to be a bit different - that they will be less focused on what the law is, and more focused on what the law should be. That is, just like the deep-pocketed manufacturers who decided to litigate issues of MAP and MRP with what amounted to a law reform argument, Apple is well situated to present... let's call it the "Mr. Bumble defense"1... to present antitrust law. You don't have to sympathize with Mr. Bumble, or believe he is undeserving of his fate, to see that there's some substance to his reaction.

In short, Apple is likely to take its appeal to the highest court that is willing to hear the case and, while happy to win on the facts, can be expected to also argue that to the extent that the law as applied should be distinguished from the facts of their case, and to the extent that it cannot that it should be reversed.
1. In Oliver Twist, after being told that the law presumed his wife to be acting under his direction Mr. Bumble, the workhouse manager, sputters, "If the law supposes that... the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Detroit Isn't Greece

Remember that movie from a few years ago, where a kid grew increasingly neurotic and agitated about government debt until a psychologist teased out his secret, "I see Greek people... they're everywhere... and they don't even know they're Greek!" Well, neither do I, but had they made that movie the child might have grow up to be Charles Lane.

I have three basic problems with people who are inclined to point to units of government and declare, "That's like Greece". First, those making the comparison often seem to have little understanding of the situation in Greece. Second, their comparisons are usually spurious. Third, the gist of their argument usually has nothing to do with Greece or the circumstances that led up to its economic crisis, and usually have a lot more to do with a desire to cut social spending or to attribute some form of blameworthiness to the ordinary people who have profited the least and suffered the most from the mistakes and misconduct of their governments. I'm not seeing Lane as an exception.1

Greece's economic crisis did not emerge in a vacuum. If any nation in the Euro zone was not aware that Greece was playing games with its finances first to qualify for entry into the Euro and subsequently to nominally meet the limits on the size of its deficits, the ignorance would have to have been willful. Greece's governance was impaired by ineptitude, corruption, and a willingness to turn a blind eye to tax fraud. But the average Greek person was part of a culture that was more entrepreneurial than most - just oriented toward small, family-run businesses as opposed to the version we're used to - and on the whole they were paying a higher share of their income in taxes than a typical U.S. citizen. It's all too easy to shrug off the hardship they are experiencing, first from the economic collapse and second from austerity measures, while ignoring the fact that those who profited the most from the lead-up to the crisis are also typically those most insulated from its consequences.

A comparison between Greece and Detroit perhaps holds true in relation to the perceptions that lead to a mentality of austerity - a notion that the people are at best undeserving and at worst need to suffer. Never mind that most of them are trying to get through their lives under difficult circumstances. The City of Detroit has lost close to two thirds of its population since its peak. It's easy to look at Coleman Young, who chose to transform himself into a cartoon, and forget that he became mayor following a period of crisis and actually did good work during his first term. It's astonishing, how bad things became over his subsequent terms, or the culture of incompetence and entitlement that took over the City's government during his era.

It's easy to forget that when provided with the opportunity to do so, the people of Detroit made the very responsible choice of electing Dennis Archer as mayor - but (one might infer, when confronted with the entrenched corruption and incompetence left beyond by Young as well as the lack of resources and political capital necessary to effect a significant reform of the city and its government) he left office after one term and was succeeded by the young, charismatic,2 and (alas) corrupt Kwame Kilpatrick. It's also easy to forget that Kilpatrick was succeeded by Dave Bing, who is much more in the model of Archer, but by some combination of timing, personality and opportunity, more willing to take on the entrenched interests that have impaired the city. As they say, at least in relation to trying to forestall the appointment of an emergency manager and possibly to keep the city out of bankruptcy, too little, too late.

It has been painfully obvious for decades that Detroit needed serious outside intervention. That did not occur for three reasons: first, few people were willing to pay the political price associated with the necessary reforms. Mayor Bing was able to propose consolidating neighborhoods and essentially shutting down the sparsely populated ares of the city because things had degenerated well past the point of sustainability - but the need for those measures were obvious more than twenty years ago. Second, change isn't cheap - and nobody wants to pay for it. For example, there are huge, slowly decaying buildings and structures in Detroit that remain in place, eyesores that stand in the way of brownfield redevelopment, because they're too expensive to remove and nobody in their right mind wants to develop land that sits next to a decaying hulk or contaminated land. The state is unwilling to divert that type of money into Detroit, and it's not even on the federal radar screen. Third, it's very easy to blame the people of Detroit for their own plight, even though things get far more complex when you start looking at individuals. Our nation's approach to its anachronistic large cities3 and the problems of the inner city is largely one of disinterest and neglect - and that's not likely to change as long as the nation, as a whole, perceives the residents of those areas as undeserving of help.

Still, Detroit has its bright spots. If Lane ever actually makes it to the city, he may want to check out Greektown.
1. For example, Lane waxes poetic about the union-busting powers granted to Detroit's emergency manager then complains, "German chancellor Angela Merkel could only wish for such quasi-dictatorial power over her Greek clients", seemingly unaware that Germany has been a driving force behind the failed austerity measures that have been imposed upon Greece to the extreme detriment of ordinary people; he argues "Greece’s state-owned money pits include a railroad and ports. The political class in Detroit saw fit to own water works and parking garages", as if it's unusual for a municipality to own a water utility or parking structure and as if the comparison between that type of service and owning seaports and railroads has any validity, and in ignorance of the fact that Detroit's water utility produces high quality water and sells its services to other area communities; he suggests that Detroit's pension obligations are somehow analogous to the cause of Greece's economic crisis, never mind that pensions had nothing to do with Greece's crisis and the relative size of Detroit's pension obligations to its tax revenue is far more a creature of its collapsed tax base than of the fact that city employees receive pensions.

2. I did not personally find Kilpatrick to be appealing - I would label his style and swagger as appalling - but I can't deny that many others thought he was charming and liked his bravado.

3. Many cities that were once important, even crucial, hubs for trade are now largely irrelevant. Many of the industries that were once consolidated in major cities have shifted to other states, and even to other nations, with little to take their place. Detroit has lost 60% of its population, leaving behind a tax base insufficient to support its infrastructure, but without enough jobs or opportunities for the people who remain behind. As huge numbers of capable workers have left the city, a disproportionate number of those left behind have marginal jobs skills, physical or mental illness, drug addiction, or some combination thereof - with a predictable effect on the community, its schools, and its attractiveness to employers.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Speaking of Geithner, About Those ObamaCare Regulations....

Stephen Brill asks, why is it that Geithner's getting a free pass on the postponement of the employer mandate under the PPACA?
The explanation for the postponement was that the rules, instructions, and reporting forms necessary to implement the requirement could not be written in time. The Treasury Department has responsibility for that paperwork and has had three years and three months to get it done. Geithner was in charge of Treasury for all but five of those 39 months....

Can’t someone tell us why Geithner and his team couldn’t get their homework done in 39 months? Is 39 months too fast to be “thoughtful and careful?” What happened? Why wasn’t the White House staff monitoring them from the day the bill passed to make sure the work was getting done? What about the Office of Management and Budget, which was run during most of those 39 months by Peter Orszag and Jacob Lew (who now runs Treasury) and which is supposed to supervise regulation-writing at federal agencies?
Brill echoes some of Joe Klein's anti-administration rhetoric, but it is a fair question to ask: why couldn't Geithner get the job done, and why wasn't he held accountable for his failure?

In fairness to Geithner, the answer may be political - it may be that the regulations are in place, and the forms aren't all that complicated, but that the Administration was responding to political concerns and pressures and used complexity as an excuse. But as Brill points out, nobody seems to be investigating the issue.

Ka-Ching! Tim Geithner Cashes In

Not that it's unusual for former government officials to cash in on their years of service, but it seems to me that it's worth noting when a guy who personifies "regulatory capture" cashes in:
Tim Geithner, the former US Treasury secretary, has been elevated to the highest rank of public speakers, alongside former world leaders Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, after receiving about $400,000 for three speaking engagements.

A speech at a Deutsche Bank conference last month netted him about $200,000, according to people familiar with the situation, underscoring the lucrative fees that former public officials can receive.
I'm not clear on why people would be particularly interested in Geithner's "take on topics including Federal Reserve policy and the state of the world three months after leaving the Obama administration", but then I have always been skeptical that this type of payment is actually for the speech as opposed to reminding other "public servants" of the riches that await them if they keep the industries they regulate happy.

The State Will Make it a Crime for Ministers to Practice Their Religion

Except, predictably, it's the anti-gay marriage folks who are behind the criminalization.

The Perils of Being Overqualified

Paul Campos notes that employers are perhaps more diligent than ever in weeding out overqualified candidates:
I see this all the time in the legal world: people find that getting a JD actually hurts their job prospects, not just because they can’t get jobs as lawyers (48% of the national class of 2012 didn’t have real legal jobs nine months after graduation), but because, despite self-serving claims of legal academic administrators and faculty that a law degree is “versatile,” most non-legal employers consider a law degree either a negative or a flat disqualification for a job candidate. (Perhaps the most stark example of this is provided by paralegals who quit good jobs to go to law school, then discover that employers won’t hire people with JDs to do paralegal work).
The first time I heard about a candidate being rejected as overqualified was back in 1979, in the film Kramer vs. Kramer. I was young enough at the time to be puzzled by the idea, although I came to appreciate why employers would hesitate before hiring an employee they thought might jump ship as soon as something better came along.

But the J.D. problem isn't just one of overqualification - most employers outside of the field of law (or the music industry) don't see the J.D. as a qualification. So you're both overqualified, in that you have a graduate degree that in the view of many should result in your easily earning a six figure income, but underqualified, in that your degree is seen as having absolutely nothing to do with a position outside of the field of law. When you're trying to explain and argue how your degree relates to the job for which you're applying, the odds of getting the job will typically hover between "slim" and "none".

Monday, July 08, 2013

Sure, Let's Break the Tie Between Health Insurance and Employment

Ross Douthat complains that the PPACA does not break the bond between employment and health insurance,
The policy consensus... is that the status quo is actually the problem, and that it deserves to be threatened, undermined and replaced as expeditiously as possible. Wonks of the left and right disagree on what that replacement should look like. But they’re united in regarding employer-provided coverage as an unsustainable relic: a burden on businesses, a source of perverse incentives for the health care market and an obstacle to more efficient, affordable and universal coverage.
Douthat then provides an inaccurate history of McCain's proposal to replace employer tax incentives with an individual tax credit. Douthat pretends that there was something brave in McCain's proposal, and that it played a role in his loss of the 2008 election, but presents no evidence in support of either suggestion. The problems with McCain's proposal did not lie in its severing the tie between insurance and employment, but in his reliance upon dogma - the notion among factions of the Republican Party that the biggest problem we have with health insurance is that people have too much of it - and the fact that he would have thrown working Americans into the individual health insurance market, with some sort of government-run insurance program to pick up the unprofitable applicants, those with pre-existing medical conditions. The problem wasn't that McCain wanted to shift out of the employer-provided insurance model, it was that he wanted to radically redefine the entire health insurance market to the significant detriment of individual workers.

Douthat argues that having insurance exchanges and subsidies constitutes a "center-left alternative to the existing system", never mind that right-wing advocacy groups like the Heritage Foundation had a long history of pushing for exchanges, and that nobody has proposed that a system of exchanges can function without subsidies. Douthat has a point, that much of the rest of the program is designed to perpetuate the status quo, and he's also correct that demagoguery from both political parties makes it difficult to disturb that status quo, but he's implicitly arguing that the exchanges are a superior alternative to employer-provided health insurance. So why no criticism of the Republican factions that are working overtime to impede the implementation of the exchanges, in the hope of crippling individual access to health insurance through the exchanges?

Douthat fails to discuss the Republican Party's lockstep opposition to the PPACA, and how that factored into the eventual legislation. What would be better than an "individual mandate", and a continuation of traditional subsidies to employers that offer health insurance? A tax. Leaving aside for the moment John Roberts' ultimate conclusion that the individual mandate is a tax, why couldn't we fund the PPACA through a tax, again? Many aspects of the bill could have been improved had the Republican Party, or even a handful of Republican Senators, decided that it was better to pass a good reform bill than to try to take down the President. That strategy seemed to be working in 2010, so they doubled down. How many times have House Republicans brought absurd "repeal" votes to the floor, demonstrating their fondness for grandstanding and demagoguery? How many times have they offered to sit down with the Democrats to iron out the bugs in the PPACA and make it a better, more functional bill? Would that be roughly 37:0?

How's this for an idea? Phase out the present subsidies to businesses in favor of subsidies to individuals, but with the subsidy credited toward the cost of any employer-sponsored health coverage, while replacing the individual mandate with a modest payroll tax that is also credited to health insurance purchases, whether through an employer or through the exchanges? If your employer doesn't provide insurance you can take the entire subsidy with you when you purchase through an exchange. If you choose not to obtain health insurance, you don't get anything back - or the government could enroll you in a bare bones catastrophic insurance plan so that should you require medical care following an unexpected accident or illness your care providers can get paid.

Perhaps Douthat should also ponder this: if the tie between health insurance and employment is the huge evil he perceives, it can be wiped away in a heartbeat by implementing a single payer system, or through a system of exchanges in which the consumer picks an approved, privately administered health insurance plan while the government pays the premium.