Correspondents Afield.

December 27, 2010

Correspondents afield, per winter holidays. Back soon. Please return often.

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Lawyers, Inc.

November 2, 2010

Slate recently ran a bit about disillusioned law students: specifically, those who left stalled (or eviscerated) careers mid-recession and escaped to law school, counting on “a three-year fast track to a remunerative, respectable career.”

LSAT takers increased by almost twenty percent over the last few years, and law school applicants followed suit. As a result, there are more lawyers being churned out than there are jobs for them. While the number of law degrees awarded has steadily risen, the number of people working in the “legal services industry” has shrunk.

Newly-minted attorneys are upset; they feel taken advantage of. They think, says Slate, they were lead to believe their law degrees would be instantly worthwhile investments, quickly paying off in cars and club memberships. Some of the recently disillusioned are speaking out loudly against the establishment and the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, and others have – imagine! – taken to litigation.

One, Kenneth Desornes, has asked a bankruptcy judge to hold his law school accountable for his debt because it “knew or should have known that [he] would be in no position to repay those loans.”

Knew or should have known? What of Mr. Desornes? Does he bear no responsibility for sailing his own financial ship? We can safely assume that, having applied to law school, he first earned an undergraduate degree. Was this college graduate who planned to practice law not sophisticated enough to realize the danger of borrowing over one hundred thousand dollars with no guaranteed return? Given his dearth of foresight, ignorance of consequence, and obliviousness to reality, maybe it’s best Mr. Desornes is no longer interested in practicing law.

Adults attend law school. Every law student is a college graduate, and each wants to earn a law degree. These are sophisticated (in theory) people who want to make their living in a comparatively intellectual, high-end market. And yet they feel taken advantage of because basic mathematics have failed them? Or rather, because they’ve failed basic mathematics? Because they didn’t realize that huge loans + no guaranteed return = not a sure thing? Because they tried to grab hold of that “three-year fast track” and it’s not going to be as easy as they imagined?

I’m a law student because I want to be a lawyer, because there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather do. If a law degree cost one million dollars, I’d borrow one million dollars and spend the rest of my life happily paying it off doing something I love.

If you don’t feel the same, re-consider your LSAT registration. It’s not too late. Withdraw your application. Ask for your tuition back. There are too many law students grabbing after that mythical “three-year fast track,” and as a result that track is being over-crowded out of existence more every year.

Slate points the finger halfway at the American Bar Association, for allowing so many law schools to exist. Law schools make money because they have very little start-up cost; certainly much less than a medical or engineering school. So many schools mean many with very lax admission standards, and more lax admission standards mean more lawyers produced yearly. This means both more incompetent lawyers, which is bad for the public, and more applicants per job, which is bad for the serious students.

Certainly the ABA has played a role. Stricter standards for accrediting law schools would mean fewer law schools, higher admissions standards and, as a result, fewer and more qualified graduates. The reputation of the profession would increase and the employment situation might begin to right itself. A law degree would stop being a tawdry commodity and begin to look again like a lofty, noble thing.

But does any of that excuse a sophisticated college graduate, who imagines he’s fit to practice law, from the consequences of his own, freely entered-into actions? No.

What we all call “legal thinking” boils down to very basic cause-and-effect: if A happens, then B must happen also, and C must be the result. If I drive too fast I’ve breached a duty, and thus I’m liable for the collision. If you take out loans to finance a dream and you’ll be happy living that dream, regardless of whether you live it in poverty or wealth… take out those loans. If you take out loans because you’re betting on quick money and you don’t consider the risks and their proportionality to the odds of reward… well, practicing law probably isn’t for you, anyway.


Borrower Beware

June 2, 2010

The New York Times’ Ron Lieber made interesting, if implausible, points about student loans in an article yesterday. His primary thrust was to advocate for paternalistic accountability and oversight on the part of lenders, schools, guidance counselors… every interested party, that is, but the borrowers themselves.

Mr. Lieber drew heavily on statistical data: percentages of graduates struggling to pay back student loans, unemployment numbers, average increases in college tuition, and the rest of the usual suspects. The landscape was a bleak one of hoodwinked lambs pawning their diplomas frames. In Mr. Lieber’s opinion, student lenders and the financial aid offices of universities have acted in concert to advance oversized loans to students who are poor credit risks, convincing them a college degree was worth any price. He thinks collegiate financial aid offices at places like NYU should advise students to consider cheaper schools and lenders should be less willing to make enormous loans so freely.

Both ideas are good ones, but Mr. Lieber’s statistical analyses take no account of folk wisdom: buyer beware. The primary responsibility in the purchase of any item, whether a pencil or a college education, is the buyer’s. Interested parties like lenders and schools are just that… interested parties: they have their own interests and they work in the service of those interests. Buyers ought to know this. It’s the rare fool who thinks the salesman has anything but his own bottom line at heart, and a fool and his money are soon… well.

Colleges are wonderful places and contribute immensely to the cultural and intellectual fabric or our country. But colleges are also businesses, even if non-profit, and the point of business is not to turn away business. This is true of lenders, too. Consumer know this, or ought to, and so the onus is on them to exercise sound judgment in making a purchase.

Should banks counsel students and turn away default risks? Probably. Should schools make sure families know the risks of borrowing? Most likely. Should voluntary borrowers of any sort be primarily accountable for their own borrowing, knowing that lenders are for-profit organizations intent on money-making? Without a doubt.

It’s more important now than ever that consumers inform themselves as to the cost of their consumption, whether of gasoline or education. Is the product worth the price? Mr. Lieber leans heavily on a girl recently out of NYU, nearly $100,000 in debt. She earns barely enough money to meet her monthly expenses.

“She recently received a raise and now makes $22 an hour working for a photographer. It’s the highest salary she’s earned since graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies. After taxes, she takes home about $2,300 a month. Rent runs $750, and the full monthly payments on her student loans would be about $700 if they weren’t being deferred, which would not leave a lot left over.”

The girl has a degree from one of the best schools in the country, which administers some of the best programs in the world. Its price seems justified, given its graduates’ comparative earning potential. Still, students need to take the initiative in charting their own finances; banks and schools cannot, and should not, be active co-pilots. Every customer of every product must decide: is the product worth the price, and can I afford the price?

If the product is an investment, like a college education, is it likely to be a sound one, returning profitable dividends? For instance, is “an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies” a product likely worth its price, or an investment likely to ever return anything at all?


Like Clockwork

April 23, 2010

Lifted shamelessly from Reason.com, where Brendan O’Neil published it: Big Brother run amok across the pond.

In recent years Britain has become the Willy Wonka of social control, churning out increasingly creepy, bizarre, and fantastic methods for policing the populace. But our weaponization of classical music—where Mozart, Beethoven, and other greats have been turned into tools of state repression—marks a new low.

We’re already the kings of CCTV (closed-circuit television). An estimated 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras are in the UK, a remarkable achievement for an island that occupies only 0.2 per cent of the world’s inhabitable landmass.

A few years ago some local authorities introduced the Mosquito, a gadget that emits a noise that sounds like a faint buzz to people over the age of 20 but which is so high-pitched, so piercing, and so unbearable to the delicate ear drums of anyone under 20 that they cannot remain in earshot. It’s designed to drive away unruly youth from public spaces, yet is so brutally indiscriminate that it also drives away good kids, terrifies toddlers, and wakes sleeping babes.

Police in the West of England recently started using super-bright halogen lights to temporarily blind misbehaving youngsters. From helicopters, the cops beam the spotlights at youths drinking or loitering in parks, in the hope that they will become so bamboozled that (when they recover their eyesight) they will stagger home.

And recently police in Liverpool boasted about making Britain’s first-ever arrest by unmanned flying drone. Inspired, it seems, by Britain and America’s robot planes in Afghanistan, the Liverpool cops used a remote-control helicopter fitted with CCTV (of course) to catch a car thief.

Britain might not make steel anymore, or cars, or pop music worth listening to, but, boy, are we world-beaters when it comes to tyranny. And now classical music, which was once taught to young people as a way of elevating their minds and tingling their souls, is being mined for its potential as a deterrent against bad behavior.

In January it was revealed that West Park School, in Derby in the midlands of England, was “subjecting” (its words) badly behaved children to Mozart and others. In “special detentions,” the children are forced to endure two hours of classical music both as a relaxant (the headmaster claims it calms them down) and as a deterrent against future bad behavior (apparently the number of disruptive pupils has fallen by 60 per cent since the detentions were introduced.)

One news report says some of the children who have endured this Mozart authoritarianism now find classical music unbearable. As one critical commentator said, they will probably “go into adulthood associating great music—the most bewitchingly lovely sounds on Earth—with a punitive slap on the chops.” This is what passes for education in Britain today: teaching kids to think “Danger!” whenever they hear Mozart’s Requiem or some other piece of musical genius.

The classical music detentions at West Park School are only the latest experiment in using and abusing some of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements to reprimand youth.

Across the UK, local councils and other public institutions now play recorded classical music through speakers at bus-stops, in parking lots, outside department stores, and elsewhere. No, not because they think the public will appreciate these sweet sounds (they think we are uncultured grunts), but because they hope it will make naughty youngsters flee.

Tyne and Wear in the north of England was one of the first parts of the UK to weaponize classical music. In the early 2000s, the local railway company decided to do something about the “problem” of “youths hanging around” its train stations. The young people were “not getting up to criminal activities,” admitted Tyne and Wear Metro, but they were “swearing, smoking at stations and harassing passengers.” So the railway company unleashed “blasts of Mozart and Vivaldi.”

Apparently it was a roaring success. The youth fled. “They seem to loathe [the music],” said the proud railway guy. “It’s pretty uncool to be seen hanging around somewhere when Mozart is playing.” He said the most successful deterrent music included the Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven, Symphony No. 2 by Rachmaninov, and Piano Concerto No. 2 by Shostakovich. (That last, I kind of understand.)

In Yorkshire in the north of England, the local council has started playing classical music through vandal-proof speakers at “troublesome bus-stops” between 7:30 PM and 11:30 PM. Shops in Worcester, Bristol, and North Wales have also taken to “firing out” bursts of classical music to ward of feckless youngsters.

In Holywood (in County Down in Northern Ireland, not to be confused with Hollywood in California), local businesspeople encouraged the council to pipe classical music as a way of getting rid of youngsters who were spitting in the street and doing graffiti. And apparently classical music defeats street art: The graffiti levels fell.

Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of an elite using high culture as a “punitive slap on the chops” for low youth has come true. In Burgess’s 1962 dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, famously filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, the unruly youngster Alex is subjected to “the Ludovico Technique” by the crazed authorities. Forced to take drugs that induce nausea and to watch graphically violent movies for two weeks, while simultaneously listening to Beethoven, Alex is slowly rewired and re-moulded. But he rebels, especially against the use of classical music as punishment.

Pleading with his therapists to turn the music off, he tells them that “Ludwig van” did nothing wrong, he “only made music.” He tells the doctors it’s a sin to turn him against Beethoven and take away his love of music. But they ignore him. At the end of it all, Alex is no longer able to listen to his favorite music without feeling distressed. A bit like that schoolboy in Derby who now sticks his fingers in his ears when he hears Mozart.

The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness. They’re so desperate to control youth—but from a distance, without actually having to engage with them—that they will film their every move, fire high-pitched noises in their ears, shine lights in their eyes, and bombard them with Mozart. And they have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The dangerous message being sent to young people is clear: 1) you are scum; 2) classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it’s a repellent against mildly anti-social behavior.


Dollars & Sense

April 7, 2010

Online salary database PayScale.com undertook recently to rank American schools by their students’ average income upon graduation, and then again ten years out. Things broke down thus:

  1. Dartmouth College ($58,000 / $129,000)
  2. MIT ($71,000 / $126,000)
  3. Harvard University ($60,000 / $126,000)
  4. Harvey Mudd College ($71,000 / $125,000)
  5. Stanford University ($67,000 / $124,000)
  6. Princeton University ($65,000 / $124,000)
  7. Colgate University ($51,000 / $122,000)
  8. University of Notre Dame ($55,000 / $121,000)
  9. Yale University ($56,000 / $120,000)
  10. University of Pennsylvania ($60,000 / $118,000)

This year wasn’t the first that Dartmouth topped the list; though its graduates start at one of the lower top-ten median salaries, their rise in earnings over the subsequent ten years is largely due to an alumni network legendary for its loyalty.

Al Lee, PayScale’s Director of Quantitative Analysis, doesn’t give much credence to his report, though: “Even more than where you go to school, the degree you get is a bigger influencer of your pay for the vast majority of Americans.” True, Mr. Lee… but then again, the vast majority of Americans didn’t go to any of these schools.

Dartmouth wins again.