Saturday, July 27, 2002
A thick envelope means you got in, a thin one means you didn't
In all the ruckus concerning someone at the Princeton admissions office accessing a dozen or so admission notices off of Yale's computer server, what's been lost is: what in the world could the Princeton admissions officer have gained by learning a few of Yale's admitting decisions?
One hypothetical proposed by a reporter at the Yale Daily News is that the information could have been used to help tailor better recruiting packages to attract these students. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Princeton had all they needed to know already; everything that the applicants listed as interests on their Yale application, one can assume, they also listed on the Princeton application. Some people have (somewhat jokingly) proposed that Princeton did it to help better recruit basketball players, and, while they have a point, if my school lost a playoff game to Yale in the past year, I'd want to fix the team, too, but I doubt this is the case.
I just don't see why anyone would do this, other than to check the security on the site (as has been claimed) or just because he was curious. Neither, of course, excuse what he did, but it does not seem to be all that sinister.
I have two more questions, though.
First, if the two schools would not have been Yale and Princeton, but had been the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, would the press be covering it so much? The same incident, the same everything. I doubt it, even though it's the same story.
Second, in addition to admissiongate, the Yale Daily News is fronting a story that Yale's unions may go on strike on the first day of classes. This appears to be a much bigger story, but addmissiongate is what's causing the buzz.
[David: Boy, this has been an embarrassing few months for me. First we get Cornel West foisted off on us again, and now this scandal. Plus, Paul Krugman keeps shaming the school with his New York Times columns.]
Politics as Usual?
One is forced to wonder about the Right's current obsession with Robert Rubin. One example is Andrew Sullivan; in his childish one-way battle with The New York Times, Sullivan asks why the Times isn't interested in investigating "Rubin's allegedly glorious record as Treasury secretary," and the calls for 'investigating' Rubin are coming from many quarters, loudly and often.
Of course, these voices going after Rubin were silent when Rubin was actually Secretary of the Treasury. They seemed to have no problem with what he was doing, while he was doing it.
Is it too much to ask for the people invested with the power to affect the economy (the presidential administration) and their supporters to, in this time of economic and financial crisis, actually do something to help the country out? Instead, as evidenced by the growing attacks on Rubin, it seems that they they haven't left the 1990s and still don't have any other method of politics other than afixing blame.
You're in charge now, so go do something. The country will love you if you do. We didn't love Franklin Roosevelt because he spent all of his time dragging down the Hoover administration; we loved him because he took the bulls by the horns.
Sometimes it seems (like when listening to an Ari Fletcher press conference) that the administration has nothing under its sleave other than blaming the Clinton administration. You know, even if Fletcher is right, who cares? You're in charge now. Lead us. With our stock porfolios, our retirement accounts, our savings losing ten, twenty, thirty, fourty, fifty, sixty percent of their values, it's not too much to ask that you don't constantly search the past for scapegoats but look to the future with answers. Even if they're the wrong answers, give the consumers something to be confident about. Make us confident in you.
Friday, July 26, 2002
Do we really want to know what the government does?
Missing in President Bush's current debate with Capitol Hill over the bill to establish an office of Domestic Security is any sort of discussion of a sentence in section 724 of the House bill. It's 724.a.1.A: "(A) shall be exempt from disclosure under section 552 of title 5, United States Code (commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information Act)"
I'm confident that people from both sides of the aisle can agree with the statement that the inclusion of this sentence is, for lack of a better word, wrong. I mean, why would we want a 170,000 person law-enforcement agency with investigative powers to have to, at some point -- at any point --, release what they've done? Who they've investigated? Why they investigated them? What they found? Who they followed? Who they wiretapped? Basically, any other question you can think of.
One would think that the mainstream media would be all over this. The Freedom of Information Act is one of its hallowed treasures and being a watchdog over the government is one of its rason d'etres. Just go to a panel discussion at Columbia University or Columbia, Missouri... the leading lights of the American media talk about these two things all the time (and they beat their chests while they congratulate themselves). However, we're not getting a peep over permanently exempting 170,000 employees from any sort of independent oversight. Maybe they really do only write about what Ari Fletcher and Congressional press secretaries tell them to write about.
You can count on itJason Rylander is fat. So am I. Unfortunately, I can't claim that it's because of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's new definition of "obesity," which ignores any distinction between muscle and flab. Mine really is all flab.
Still, it raises an important issue. The media is saturated with stories replete with numbers. Obesity is up X%. Teenage pregnancies are down Y%. Test scores are unchanged. Four out of five dentists recommend Trident sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. Occasionally, we think about the implications of those statistics; more frequently, we let the pundits do it for us. But what we -- and the pundits -- virtually never do is ask what the numbers mean. What definitions were chosen? What methodology was used to gather the data?
Sometimes, the topic is trivial, as in this New York Times story which discusses the disputed methods of measuring movie box office data.
[W]eekend box-office figures released on Sunday and printed in many newspapers on Monday, including The New York Times, are based on actual box-office figures for Friday and Saturday plus each studio's guess about how its films will perform on Sunday. It is this wiggle room that has led many over the years to be overly optimistic about Sunday grosses in order to make their films No. 1 or to achieve some other goal.But in other situations, the issue can be more serious. The supposedly rising obesity rate is leading to calls for public policy changes from all the usual suspects. (Coincidentally, all these policy changes will result in higher taxes and fewer freedoms for everyone.)
Economic policy, or at least punditry, is based on the Consumer Confidence Index. And yet, as the New Republic pointed out last year, the CCI is seriously flawed.
Although it's routinely described as a survey of 5,000 households, only about 3,500 generally return the form. The form essentially asks for a positive, negative, or neutral response to five questions about current and future business conditions.So you've got a survey. And yet, the number is treated as if it provides deep understanding about the state of the economy.
And how about the all-important Consumer Price Index, which measures the crucial inflation rate? Well, some of its flaws have been recognized and corrected in recent years, but there are still significant problems with both the construction of the statistic and the collection of the data.
In theory, the calculation of the index is simple. It is based on a marketbasket of 211 goods and services — medicine, education, entertainment and so on — bought by the average family. The prices are tracked over time.These aren't esoteric concerns. They have real implications for all of us. The budget projections which drive taxing and spending in Washington rely upon statistics like these. Whether our taxes are cut (or hiked), whether interest rates will be reduced, whether social security will be reformed so that it can stay solvent longer -- these are all dependent on this sort of data. And that data is questionable.
And yet journalists generally treats this sort of data as holy writ. There's no acknowledgement that maybe everyone in the country didn't suddenly get fat. instead, the media jumps right to the question of "What should be done to solve this crisis?"
It's PatIn the future, on this page, you'll be reading occasional posts appovingly citing Brad Delong, Paul Krugman, Liz Phair, Gary Wills, Lisa Lowe, Ronnie Spector, Nadia Mustafa, C. Wright Mills, and Alejandro Portes.
No, David hasn't had a brain transplant. I'm Partha Mazumdar and I'm occasionally going to be collaborating with him on this blog (the page is still his, I'm just going to be helping out). I'm officially trained in American Studies and I "do" Asian American immigration specializing in Asian American entrepreneurship and representations of Asian Americans in popular culture. Entrepreneurship (and, specifically, Indian owned hotels) is my first love -- and nothing can ever approach a first love -- but popular culture studies has become a mistress I spend probably too much time with. I teach within the Department of Asian American Studies of the Unversity of Pennsylvania.
You'll all read soon, but my politics can best be described as Clintonian. I feel no shame (in fact, I feel great pride) in saying that the former president is my guide, my leader, and my admiration for him borders on reverence. Without any irony and not thinking that it's cheezy, I still believe in a place called Hope.
So, as you can see, my politics differ some from David's, but, this difference will be fun; as Mark Twain said in the Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar, "It were not best that we would all think alike; it is the difference of opinion that makes horse races."
Does Comedy Central have the Answer?
At first glance, Comedy Central's new show, Crank Yankers is just another in the painfully long list of recent mindless television programming whose only redeeming quality is that your remote control works and the channel can be turned changed. However, as Kathy M. Newman, a professor of English at Carnegie-Mellon University and astute cultural critic, points out the show "serve[s] as a reminder that the desire to help people and do a good job is still alive and well in America." This desire exists, "at least when it comes to the little people."
One lesson from 9/11 may be being elucidated by shows like "Crank Yankers" -- while President Bush can't stop using the power of his office to help out his old Texas friends, while Joe Lieberman is fighting to the end to retain non-reported stock options, while Dick Cheney will do anything for the energy lobby -- the strength, kindness, and even gentleness of this country comes not from Bush, Lieberman, Cheney, or any celebrity CEO. What makes America America comes from fire fighters and police officers, gay rugby players,, the African American student body president of the University of Kansas and hundreds of millions of the other the little people.
As the Congress and the President are debating everything from the further opening of northern Alaska to oil exploration to how to deal (and not to deal) with the plunging stock market, they should remember (and I fear they don't, and the media which covers them don't either) that their actions really do affect our lives. Retirement funds are disappearing; people who have worked hard their entire lives are going to have to work longer and harder; vacations won't be taken; weddings which were going to be large and festive will now be small and solemn. These changes do matter, and it doesn't seem like anyone in Washington actually cares.
Crank Yankers shows that we are all here working hard, doing a good job, and doing everything which makes America something to be so proud of (and we are proud). I just hope someone inside the beltway watches it. We can do it all ourselves, but we shouldn't have to.
Wednesday, July 24, 2002
You have the right to remain silentThe blogosphere is abuzz with the story of an American University student, Ben Wetmore, being persecuted by school officials because he was a "gadfly" (generally, a euphemism for "jerk"). He had been critical of the university's administration, and then when they found an excuse to punish him -- for videotaping a speech by Tipper Gore -- they jumped on the opportunity.
A ridiculous abuse of authority by the school, of course. But what caught my eye was this quote, from the university's director of Judicial Affairs and Mediation Services:
Kurita said she could not discuss the specifics of Wetmore's case due to confidentiality requirements.Rules on privacy were ostensibly intended to protect the weak. Schools and government agencies shouldn't release "customer" records without their consent. Children shouldn't have their names splashed across the front page when they're involved in a legal matter.
But in a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, these laws are used every day, not to protect citizens, but rather to shield bureaucrats from accountability. Child Welfare does nothing to prevent an abused child from being killed. Child Welfare's excuse? None; they "can't discuss it" because of confidentiality rules. Accountability? None; we don't find out who was responsible and what actions they took. A school railroads a student? The student complains. The school's explanation? None. They "can't discuss it."
Does it sound as if Wetmore wants the details of his case to be private? He approached the media. He told the story publicly. Once he does that, the school shouldn't be able to hide behind "confidentiality." These laws are supposed to keep personal data private, not to keep government actions secret. If they're being used to avoid accountability, they need to be rewritten.
Hey, it's purely medicinalSan Francisco has officially proposed a ballot initiative that, if passed, could allow the city to grow its own marijuana. The proposal is an attempt to get around the federal government's strategy of subverting California's medical marijuana law by shutting marijuana clubs.
It's creative, anyway. And if Republicans really respected federalism, this would work. But it seems unlikely:
Federal authorities were not amused. "Unless Congress changes the law and makes marijuana a legal substance, then we have to do our job and enforce the law," said a spokesman for the regional office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.That's literally true, but it's what's known colloquially as horse manure. Every government agency has limited resources, and exercises discretion. The only reason they'd use those limited resources on such harmless endeavors as medical marijuana clubs is to send a message.
California, and San Francisco specifically, may come up with plenty of wacky ideas, but on this one they're dead on.
Why gridlock is a good thingThe Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are competing with each other to see how much of our money they can hand over to the elderly. Fortunately, so far, the two parties haven't been able to agree on an approach, and so nothing may get passed at all.
The Democratic proposal cost more than the Republican plan — $594 billion from 2005 to 2012, compared with $370 billion. But even the Republican plan would have been the biggest expansion of Medicare since the program was created in 1965, after the landslide election of Lyndon B. Johnson.Predictably, Republicans propose to funnel the money through insurance companies, while Democrats want to hand over the money directly to the elderly, with Ted Kennedy going on record as opposing any sort of means testing.
Democrats said they were exploring a possible compromise under which the government and private insurers would share the responsibility and the financial risks of providing drug benefits to the elderly. Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, is promoting such a deal.Gee, I wonder if the elderly should have any role in providing drug benefits to the elderly?
One of my maxims is that "Sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking." When we speak circuitously or use euphemisms, we start to forget what reality is. As such, one of my top ten pet peeves is when people talk about what "the government" will provide. The government doesn't have money; all the government has is the ability to take money from other people. There is no compromise under which the government and private insurers will do anything. The proposal is for taxpayers to provide drug benefits to the elderly. I wonder if such programs would have nearly so much support if they were phrased this way.
The Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, said he was not optimistic about the chances for a hybrid blending the Democratic and Republican approaches.Well, that's certainly a "conservative" position. There's an old, mostly worn-out joke:
Man: would you sleep with me for a million dollars?
Man: Well, would you sleep with me for ten dollars?
Woman: What kind of woman do you think I am?
Man: We've already established that; we're just haggling over the price.
We've established what kind of politician Trent Lott is. We're just haggling now. Admittedly, this price tag is no worse than that of the obscene agriculture subsidy law Bush signed weeks ago. But does anybody think it will stay this "cheap"? The elderly population isn't going to shrink. Drugs aren't going to magically get cheaper. The list of ailments treatable with drugs is going to keep growing. If the line isn't drawn now -- and I'm not optimistic -- this will turn into yet another rapidly-growing entitlement line-item, a la Social Security and Medicare, untouchable in the federal budget.
Tuesday, July 23, 2002
"I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple."Andrew Sullivan links to the website of the San Francisco Rent Board Commission. The site contains a chart showing the makeup of the board. Take a look at the last column of the chart: each board member is identified -- the only information provided about the member -- by race. And if race isn't enough, the chart helpfully identifies the board's gay member.
It seems to me that James Watt was fired for just this sort of behavior. Worse, he was permanently branded as "insensitive."
Why is the government telling us the race of board members? How is this appropriate in any way? The College Board, which administers the SAT and other standardized tests, will no longer even tell colleges that disabled people are disabled, on the theory that ability is no longer relevant to college admissions. And yet San Francisco's government is telling us the ethnic backgrounds, and sexual habits, of board members? Are they trying to say that a person's Hispanic heritage is relevant to the issue of whether a rent increase is "excessive?"
Is this the best advertisement possible for Ward Connerly's Racial Privacy Initiative?
Some things never changeI leave, come back, and The New York Times is still on its rabid anti-gun crusade. (Oops. I said "crusade." Maybe someone will get offended.) Sometimes I think Andrew Sullivan is a little paranoid when he discusses theextreme bias of the new New York Times regime. Then I read stories like this one, and the paper's agenda becomes too blindingly obvious to ignore: The Times doesn't like guns. The Times doesn't like John Ashcroft. John Ashcroft said that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to own a gun. The Times simply can't resist. They're going to milk that for all it's worth, regardless of whether there's any news to report.
The current "story" is that some criminal defendants ("scores," according to the Times, though the story manages to mention only one, and he in the twenty-third paragraph of the story) are citing Ashcroft's position as a defense to gun charges. Not a single person has succeeded by using this argument, but the Times gives space to their favorite group to rant hyperbolically:
"The Justice Department has created a very dangerous situation that is endangering public safety and forcing Justice Department prosecutors to litigate with one hand tied behind their backs," said Mathew S. Nosanchuk, litigation director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group in Washington. "Criminals are using the department's own Second Amendment language to challenge the gun laws."Wow. If you got all your news from the Times, you'd think that John Ashcroft was personally travelling the country, breaking murderers out of prison.
And so the Times frames the debate as being between those who criticize John Ashcroft for saying that people have the right to bear arms, and those who criticize John Ashcroft for not following through after saying that people have the right to bear arms. Surely there was someone out there who would defend Ashcroft, or who would at least explain his department's "narrow and cryptic" views. But if so, the Times couldn't find him. Or didn't look. And thus, one-sidedly reported a non-story as if it were big news.