Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Popehat’s Ken White, on punching nazis:

We have social and legal norms, including “don’t punch people because their speech is evil, and don’t punish them legally.” Applying those norms is not a judgment that the speech in question is valuable, or decent, or morally acceptable. We apply the norms out of a recognition of human frailty — because the humanity that will be deciding whom to punch and whom to prosecute is the same humanity that produced the Nazis in the first place, and has a well-established record of making really terrible decisions.

You — the bien-pensant reader, confident that sensible punchers and prosecutors can sort out Nazis from the not-Nazis — will likely not be doing the punching or prosecuting. The punching and prosecuting will be done by a rogue’s gallery of vicious idiots, including people who think that Black Lives Matter should be indicted under RICO and that it’s funny to send women death threats if they write a column you don’t like.

Compare Twitter in 2017, in which a nazi celebrating the president’s inauguration is sucker punched on camera (and we all spend a lot of time seriously considering the political necessity of punching nazis) with Twitter in 2015, when we joked about killing baby Hitler. We were so young and innocent then.

On the topic of what White says, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a great application of the Kantian categorical imperative to our current political environment: ​

So act according to the maxim where you can will your actions to become a universal law.

It’s sort of a beefed up version of the golden rule. This is handy, because most of the discussion in my liberal social media bubble seemed to take the golden rule to mean something like:

Do unto nazis as you would have other do unto nazis.

This is a much more convenient philosophy, because we all support the punching of nazis as a general rule. But as White points out, the categorical imperative makes it impossible to rationally want to impose a law allowing everyone to punch everyone with whom they violently disagree. Because the nazis disagree with you and I. And some people find Black Lives Matter activists as repulsive as you and I find the nazis. You can’t rationally hope that someone punches you for disagreeing with them, because nobody wants to get punched.

Here’s hoping this is the last ‘conversation from 1930s Germany’ we have in 2017.

Published on under I'll Buy War Bonds Instead

The Economist, on President Trump’s speech:

As is usual with an inaugural address, there were rather few specific policy proposals. There was no explicit mention of a wall with Mexico, of tariffs on foreign-made goods, or of talks with Russia on fighting the Islamic State extremist group—all staples of the Trump platform to date. But there was nothing for those hoping to see a more pragmatic, moderate President Trump take office, or to hear him admit that the world is complex and less pliable than he pretended on the campaign trail. All populists are at heart conspiracy theorists, who pretend that easy solutions exist to society’s woes and have only not been tried to date because elites are wicked and deaf to the sturdy common-sense of decent, ordinary folk.

We certainly live in interesting times.

Published on under Orange is the New Black

David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times about America’s Great Working-Class Colleges.

At City College, in Manhattan, 76 percent of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution. These students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.

Lower-income students who attend elite colleges fare even better on average than low-income students elsewhere — almost as well, in fact, as affluent students who attend elite colleges. But there aren’t very many students from modest backgrounds on elite campuses, noted John Friedman of Brown, one of the study’s authors. On several dozen of campuses, remarkably, fewer students hail from the entire bottom half of the income distribution than from the top 1 percent.

(Emphasis mine.) This seems like a problem. I’m not the first to note this, but it’s absurd to credit elite schools with turning high school valedictorians into high-earning professionals. Kids who already do well on tests get into colleges that want them to do well on tests, where they later do well on tests and proceed to careers where they succeed. It would seem to me that a college could better prove its worth by showing how much improvement its students make.

For example, take William Deresiewicz’s incendiary 2014 piece in The New Republic Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League. Once you get past the fairly unimaginative ‘kids today are weak and spoiled and soft and in my day, we walked uphill to school in the snow’ schtick, he hits more or less the same line of reporting as Leonhardt’s “more students from the top 1% than the bottom 50%” bit. Deresiewicz points out this kind of income inequality has drastically increased over the last couple decades:

The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.

And Leonhardt again, on elite colleges admitting more affluent kids than working-class ones:

Because the elite colleges aren’t fulfilling that responsibility, working-class colleges have become vastly larger engines of social mobility. The new data shows, for example, that the City University of New York system propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined.

Six times! Now, you might know that CUNY is actually a university system of twenty-four colleges, and it’s larger than all but two state university systems: New York’s and California’s. CUNY has 274,000 students, while the twelve “Ivy Plus” schools have a combined 118,000 students. So on a per-student basis, that “almost six times as many” number is really more like “about two and a half times as many.” This is nothing to sneeze at, but I’m doing my part to combat innumeracy in 2017.

Well, okay. We all agree that income inequality is bad, and that America’s great working-class colleges do way more to fight income inequality than our Ivy-est schools, so problem solved, right? I’ll just read to the end of that Leonhardt piece to make sure the story has a happy ending, and-

State funding for higher education has plummeted. It’s down 19 percent per student, adjusted for inflation, since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The financial crisis pinched state budgets, and facing a pinch, some states decided education wasn’t a top priority.

Oh, come on. ​

Published on under I Attended SUNY and All I Got Was This Blog

Friend of the blog Matt Stempeck has a post in The Civicist about Uber’s latest foray into civic activism. Uber has emailed its users in New York City, asking them to register their displeasure with a new rule proposed by the local Taxi & Limousine Commission; the rule would require Uber to share more of its data with the city, like traditional taxi companies already do. The subject line of Uber’s email is “The government wants to know where you’re headed …on every ride.”

Stempeck’s piece is titled Uber Only Wants to Share Data On Their Terms, and if you think the ubiquitous black (market) car service is the good guy here, reconsider. He writes:

[Uber’s] email itself is an unfair and misleading interpretation of the city’s proposal. It’s true that the city’s aggregated taxi data was successfully made public through a Freedom of Information Law request by Chris Whong, and that people were able to de-anonymize certain trips based on then-unforeseen additional data sources like paparazzi photos. But Uber’s campaign misconstrues how government data is collected and used, and implies a level of real-time government tracking of individuals without a shred of evidence that this can or does occur. The level of surveillance suggested by the email would be difficult given that the geographic information that will be collected will be aggregated.

Uber’s own employees, on the other hand, have repeatedly bragged of exactly the type of real-time, fine resolution tracking about which this email warns. An Uber executive boasted of tracking a journalist who was critical of the company with a real-time “God mode” of their system.

Got that? Other taxi companies have to provide this data to the city already, but Uber doesn’t want to. Put that aside for a minute, and bear with me on this privacy bit.

Published on under Driverless Blog Posts

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest piece in The Atlantic is My President Was Black, and it’s stunning. While hundreds of writers have recounted or will retell the story of the Obama years, Coates is one of the smartest and most talented writers alive, and it’s hard to imagine who can put the last decade in context better than him.

As a political junkie, not many of the Obama details were new to me; as a white guy, however, it was extremely educational. Here, Coates explains why Obama’s literary voice is unique among African-American writers.

Historically, in black autobiography, to be remanded into the black race has meant exposure to a myriad of traumas, often commencing in childhood. Frederick Douglass is separated from his grandmother. The enslaved Harriet Ann Jacobs must constantly cope with the threat of rape before she escapes. After telling his teacher he wants to be a lawyer, Malcolm X is told that the job isn’t for “niggers.” Black culture often serves as the balm for such traumas, or even the means to resist them. Douglass finds the courage to face the “slave-breaker” Edward Covey after being given an allegedly enchanted root by “a genuine African” possessing powers from “the eastern nations.” Malcolm X’s dancing connects him to his “long-suppressed African instincts.”

If black racial identity speaks to all the things done to people of recent African ancestry, black cultural identity was created in response to them. The division is not neat; the two are linked, and it is incredibly hard to be a full participant in the world of cultural identity without experiencing the trauma of racial identity.

Obama is somewhat different. He writes of bloodying the nose of a white kid who called him a “coon,” and of chafing at racist remarks from a tennis coach, and of feeling offended after a white woman in his apartment building told the manager that he was following her. But the kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him. Moreover, the kind of spatial restriction that most black people feel at an early age—having rocks thrown at you for being on the wrong side of the tracks, for instance—was largely absent from his life. In its place, Obama was gifted with a well-stamped passport and admittance to elite private schools—all of which spoke of other identities, other lives and other worlds where the color line was neither determinative nor especially relevant. Obama could have grown into a raceless cosmopolitan. Surely he would have lived in a world of problems, but problems not embodied by him.

Given this background, Coates explains that Obama nonetheless voluntarily embraced “blackness,” capturing a feeling of authenticity among the African-American communities. The process by which Obama signaled this is obviously foreign to me, but was extremely educational and interesting. Likewise, the fact that he could signal “blackness” to one community while maintaining his unprecedented appeal to white voters is fascinating.

Coates’s essay is wonderful start to finish; he even gets an interview with President Obama after Trump is elected president. I can’t recommend it enough.

Published on under Orange is the New Black

In the immediate aftermath of the (remarkably close) presidential election, you can ask twenty different people what made the difference and you’ll probably get twenty-one different answers. “Facebook failed to prevent the spread of hoaxes at best and propaganda at worst” is a popular answer, and whether or not it determined the outcome of the election, the story behind it has been fascinating to watch. Let’s start in 2012.

Alex Kantrowitz, writing for Buzzfeed News, notes that a photo shared on election night 2012 by the Obama campaign was shared over 500,000 times on Twitter, and less than 100,000 times on Facebook. Twitter has a fraction of the number of users that Facebook does, so this disparity is even worse in the proportional “shares per user” metric that I’m sure Facebook uses to measure this stuff.

Here’s where we pick up Kantrowitz’s story of How The 2016 Election Blew Up In Facebook’s Face:

Published on under Getting it All Out There