Friday, August 30, 2013

Go East, Young Man

My nine-year midwestern sojourn is coming to an end, as I move from Minnesota back to the DC area today. "Today" is a slight misstatement, since we're driving -- we'll go Minnesota to Chicago tonight, Chicago to Pittsburgh tomorrow, and a short hop from Pittsburgh to Washington Sunday morning.

Anyway, I'll be mostly out of contact during this time, but when I emerge, I'll be an east coaster once more.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"I am happy about this participation in words of Torah"

I read about this speech when it occurred, but I never was able to find an English translation until now. The speaker is Ruth Calderon, MK from the Yesh Atid party and a secular Talmudic scholar. For her inaugural speech before the Knesset, she decided to deliver a lesson on Talmud. That Calderon, a secular woman, would deliver such a speech was bold enough (and it even included a brief interplay with the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction). But the speech itself, it turns out, was also a thing of beauty. I highly encourage you to click through and read it for yourself.

UPDATE: Now includes real link!

Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

The township of Southampton, New York, recently denied a request by the local Jewish community to put up an Eruv. For those of you who don't know, an Eruv is an enclosure, generally made through wire or string, which permits Orthodox Jews to do certain activities on Shabbat that would otherwise be forbidden to them (the fiction is that within the Eruv one has one cohesive "space", so carrying objects is characterized as carrying them within the Eruv, rather than between, say, two houses). I generally support accommodations such as these -- they cost little, and signal respect and accommodation toward minority communities. At the same time, American law is generally does not require such accommodations -- it is generally a legislative prerogative as to whether to grant or withhold the accommodation, and don't need to give much of a reason why. While the federal government and some states (I don't know if New York is one) have heightened protections for religious minorities, the baseline is basically that so long as the motive itself isn't unconstitutional (such as hostility towards a particular faith) and isn't wholly arbitrary or capricious, a decision to deny even a relatively minor accommodation such as this would stand.

So basically, Southampton is playing the game on easy. Just give a reason that isn't utterly ludicrous and doesn't openly flout the Constitution. You can do it right?
The zoning board had ruled that the eruv — PVC poles on 15 of Southampton Township’s telephone poles — would “alter the essential character of the neighborhood.”

In addition, the board took theological issue with the concept of the eruv itself, calling it a “loophole” that is “motivated by the personal desire … to be freed from the proscriptions of Jewish law,” the New York Post reported.
The "change the character of the neighborhood" argument ... I dunno. It might fly, given the deference that "arbitrary and capricious" implies. But the second argument about an eruv being a theological "loophole" is a huge mistake by the city that may doom their defense strategy.

It's not that their theology is wrong per se -- I've often joked that Orthodox Jews devote half their creative energies to coming up with ever-more restrictive religious proscriptions, and the other half to inventing increasingly creative ways to circumvent them. The problem, rather, is that they were doing theology at all. And that is a huge First Amendment no-no. Perhaps the clearest and most obvious Establishment Clause violation is the state taking it upon themselves to decide what tenets are valid aspects of a religious faith and which ones are "loopholes."

Without that statement, I'd guess Southampton would have had a fighting chance in court. With it -- good luck.

People I Don't Listen To

I don't have strong feelings regarding what we should be doing regarding Syria. People who I trust are similarly ambivalent, which makes me feel more secure in my own uncertainty. But there are several classes of person who I definitely don't trust:

* People who are similarly unsure regarding what we should be doing in Syria, but are quite certain that Obama should be impeached over whatever we do (or don't do).

* People who support bombing Syria because their entire foreign policy could be summed up in a Michael Bay movie.

* People who aren't sure what's going on in Syria, but are absolutely sure that the Jews are behind it.

Fortunately, this significantly narrows down the class of persons whose opinions I need to consider.

History's Top Shot

Poor Chris Cerino. In addition to having a name that's its own elementary school nickname ("Chris Cerino ... the Chris-inator ... Chris-man...."), he was runner-up on Top Shot again. It was a little hard to watch, given that you could see he really wanted it a lot more than the younger, more laid-back Phil. But so it goes. Congratulations to Phil and all the competitors on a great season. Anyway, now that Top Shot may well have fired its own "last shot," I endorse this Slate post whole-heartedly, especially the part where it serves as an introduction a non-gun-owning liberal like me to healthy gun culture. It really is a great show and a ton of fun to watch. My full recommendation.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Qualified Candidate

Eugene Volokh points to an interesting LA Times piece about a Black student struggling at UC-Berkeley, saying it is a good illustration of Rick Sander's "mismatch" hypothesis (Volokh also links to Heather MacDonald's discussion of the piece, but I don't view MacDonald as a serious writer so I'll confine my discussion to Volokh). Volokh notes, correctly, that the plural of anecdote is not data, and that this story is merely an illustration of an alleged phenomena whose veracity is dependent on the legitimacy of Sander's arguments. And as a story, it is an interesting one -- but Volokh's read of it seems rather motivated to me, if I do say so.

The two main characters in the LA Times story are Kashawn Campbell and his best friend at Berkeley, Spencer Simpson. Campbell's struggles at Berkeley -- despite herculean efforts, he can't pass his Freshman writing course, and narrowly avoids flunking out entirely -- frame the piece and are said to exemplify the "mismatch" problem created by racial affirmative action programs. The mismatch hypothesis, stated broadly, is that allegedly non-meritocratic admissions programs end up hurting their supposed beneficiaries by placing them at institutions where they're destined to fail. In Campbell's case, for example, Volokh argues that he's clearly a bright, talented kid who would do great at Cal State but instead is almost failing out of Berkeley (I've discussed the mismatch hypothesis more generally here and here).

On closer examination, though, the analogy falters quite a bit. To begin, as the LA Times notes, Berkeley cannot actually use race-based affirmative action due to California's Proposition 209, which bans the practice. Instead, Berkeley has a program that seeks to admit students from "every California high school." This does have the effect of increasing racial diversity, due to substantial continued segregation in high schools. But it is not in itself a racial affirmative action program, and no student is advantaged on basis of race. Rather, it advantages students from impoverished, traditionally underperforming schools -- but this sort of "affirmative action", favoring students who are from bad neighborhoods and overcame rough backgrounds -- is often touted as the preferred and legitimate alternative to racial affirmative action (I don't know if Volokh approves of such alternatives to race-based affirmative action, and it's notable that Sander's mismatch arguments would seemingly apply just as strongly to such a program or other more explicitly "class-based" affirmative action initiatives, but I've never heard it used against such programs. Volokh does make reference to "white students who graduated from high school without the academic preparation needed to succeed at Berkeley" implying that they wouldn't benefit from this sort of program -- to the extent their lack of preparation was because they excelled at an underperforming school, as did Campbell, it's unclear why they wouldn't also be a valid candidate).

Moreover, even putting race aside, Campbell appears to be a conventionally attractive admissions candidate. Straight-A student, second in his high school class, impoverished background, overcame considerable adversity, (probably, given what his high school teachers said about him) superlative letters of recommendation. Volokh assumes that his SAT scores weren't that good -- only because they weren't mentioned -- but even stipulating that, unless we're going "SAT score or bust" (which nobody actually advocates) he still looks pretty good. That he's struggling is obviously unfortunate, but it seems less a product of affirmative action and more a problem of the normal indicators not telling the whole story. Indeed, from what we know it seems that Campbell's admissions profile is little different from that of Simpson, who is also Black and also grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, but is reportedly breezing through Berkeley. What distinguishes the two (other than Volokh's hypothesis about SAT scores) is that Simpson's family, despite being from a rough neighborhood, had considerably more cultural capital than did Campbell's -- something that's important, but doesn't show up on the average college application.

There are also hints in the story that more is going on here than Campbell being "unqualified." It is very evident that he's suffering from cultural shock. He feels pressure to emulate a particular style of writing he doesn't have a good grasp on, which exacerbates his general struggles with long essays. He has a very thin support structure. He's using his scholarship money to support his mother. And he reports that he doesn't feel welcome as a Black student on campus:
"Sometimes we feel like we're not wanted on campus," Kashawn said, surrounded at a dinner table by several of his dorm mates, all of them nodding in agreement. "It's usually subtle things, glances or not being invited to study groups. Little, constant aggressions."
I highlight the part I highlight because of they way Volokh responds to this claim:
I wish all the best for Campbell, who, as I said, sounds studious and excited about learning. But would you be more likely to invite to your study group (1) someone who is in danger of failing out because he’s academically unprepared for the classes he’s taking (and who might be signaling this lack of preparation based on his comments, in-class or outside), or (2) someone who you think is roughly at your level of skills or higher? I don’t think it’s exactly “aggression,” “little” or otherwise, for people to choose option 1.
This would be uncharitable even if were just Campbell making the claim. But it isn't -- it is a sentiment apparently widely shared amongst Black students at Berkeley, which makes it difficult to attribute to not wanting to study with a particular struggling student.

As for the remaining culture shock problems, they are undoubtedly issues that retard the progress of students from nontraditional backgrounds. But they're not an issue of qualifications, and unless the solution here is "elite universities should only admit students from elite prep schools and suburban public high schools", it's a problem that top universities are going to have to address.

Finally, let's turn to Volokh's suggestion that Campbell would be a better "fit" at Cal State because that school "is more likely to spend more time remedying the gaps in Campbell’s education." But if Campbell isn't the average UC-Berkeley student, he isn't the prototypical Cal State student either. Cal State-Los Angeles admits over two-thirds of its applicants, who have an average GPA of 3.14 and an average SAT (math plus critical reading) of 880. Campbell had a GPA of 4.06 in high school and graduated second in his class. With all due respect to CSLA, the remedial education programs at that school are designed to turn bad students into passable ones. Campbell is not a bad student -- by all accounts he is bright, intellectually curious, and exceptionally hard-working. The "gaps" in his education are not the same as those typically remedied by CSLA. And CSLA certainly can't provide the job opportunities, alumni networking, or intellectual stimulation that Berkeley can. The "mismatch" problem, it seems to me, is that there aren't schools "matched" to someone fitting Campbell's profile -- someone who I bet could in terms of natural talent keep up with his Berkeley peers were it not for the deficits he incurred from his background and from being such a clear cultural outlier at his university. The solution to shunt all people like Campbell into the Cal State system is not a solution at all.

I've often remarked that we don't think in mismatch terms in any context except affirmative action. Nobody ever warns the wealthy suburban kid straining to get into his "reach" school that he may be setting himself up for failure. In general, we believe that more rigorous schools are better and that its a benefit rather than a curse to be academically challenged. Campbell, of course, could no doubt transfer to Cal State if he thought it would be a better fit for him. Clearly, though, he sees value in his experience at Berkeley. And what's more, I've seen people at Carleton who were similarly situated to Campbell -- bright, talented individuals from low-performing schools who came in for a huge shock when they got to Northfield. These people had something in common -- they tended to get hammered their freshman year. And then often they had something else in common: the same talent, and fortitude, and will and skill that got them to Carleton caused them to claw back. They might not have graduated summa, but they learned and grew and became strong, successful students. Campbell, who managed to scratch out an A- when he took a course he felt comfortable in, strikes me as the sort of person who can follow a similar trajectory.

What we have in Keshawn Campbell, it seems to me, is an exceptionally bright, talented, hard-working individual who due to his background has obstacles in his path that other otherwise similarly situated students don't have. To the extent that Berkeley is supposed to identify outstanding young people and serve as a signal and pipeline to their entry into leadership roles in our society, he's exactly the right sort of candidate for admission. That it requires more intensive work on Berkeley's part to assist him doesn't strike me as a failing of the system on Berkeley's part (though perhaps of the educational system that got him there), but rather a necessary corollary to their meritocratic ambition of identify future leaders from all walks of life, proverbial "diamonds in the rough" included.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Book It for Later

As a Carleton graduate, I of course harbor a soft spot for fellow alum Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ). That said, I never got the recent spate of liberal antipathy towards Cory Booker, whose alleged sins seem to be little different from other young ambitious politicians.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Nor Do They Have Any White Children"

Wait, what?:
"A Portuguese Water Dog can range in cost wildly. On average, one will pay between $1,400 and $2,000. President Barack Obama has this breed of animal," according to an answer on

With the addition of Sunny, the Obamas now have two black Portuguese water dogs.

The Obamas do not have any white dogs.
Not a parody. Just the Daily Caller.