Squashed

A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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On sending kids to elite colleges

I read William Dersiewicz article on how elite schools are supposedly turning kids into zombies. It was basically a prolonged exposition on the old canard that elite schools are only full of these driven, borderline sociopaths with shriveled souls who have never truly learned to love. I wouldn’t even mention the article—except I’m worried people actually believe this.

It’s not that elite colleges don’t include borderline sociopaths with shriveled souls who have never learned to love. It’s just that you can find those folks anywhere. I’ve been traveling in mixed circles lately. I was recently at my ten-year reunion at one of the elite colleges named in Dersiewicz article. I spend a lot of time with assorted academics. I also spend a lot of time with people who are facing imminent homelessness. All these groups have truly amazing and inspiring people in them. All of them also have some pretty wretched people in them.

I can’t speak for Deresiewicz experience at Yale. He laments that “Very few [students] were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development.” Maybe Yale is full of uninteresting zombies.1 Or maybe it’s unique to his classes. Perhaps most likely, the general population doesn’t contain a lot of people who are passionate about the ideas Deresiewicz thinks people should be passionate about. Perhaps little of the general population sees college as part of a larger process of intellectual discovery and development.2 I can say that most of the people I know who are the most nerdily passionate about ideas I met at an elite college.

But suggesting that an elite college doesn’t have enough people who are passionate about ideas is a bit like suggesting that a Seattle doesn’t have enough coffee shops. Maybe it doesn’t. But you’re not going to find a better selection elsewhere.

Then there’s this:

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.

You know that’s true of everybody everywhere? The elite schools hardly have a monopoly on toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression.

I guess, in summation, Deresiewicz thinks people should build a concept of self by caring about ideas but also promote diversity and improve the world by eliminating bad things and improving good things and generally implementing a laundry list of the sorts of policy goals opposed only by the World Congress of Strawmen. The way to do that is to avoid the elite colleges and to go to a state school3 instead because … I guess because that’s the sort of controversial proposal that’s going to get William Deresiewicz a lot of attention. Who even publishes this drivel?


  1. Yo, Zombiecuddle: I know I’m talking about your alma mater. But … you’re sort of tautologically disqualified from protesting Deresiewicz thesis “the nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.” 

  2. And perhaps those that do disproportionately end up at liberal arts schools. 

  3. Important note: I’m not for a moment hating on state schools or any other schools. I just think that Deresiewicz’s claim, go to a public university because True Economic Diversity is insipid. It’s not remotely clear that a dorm full of first years at an elite school where everybody lives on campus in the same dorms—whether they’re on a full, need-based scholarship or a quintouple legacy is going to involve less interraction between people from different backgrounds than you’d have on a campus where a lot of the highest income kids end up in Greek housing and the lowest income kids commute. 

Rights and Redistribution

Matt Bruenig,1Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and I guess Matt Bruenig’s wife2 have had on one of those internet fights where serious adults discuss serious topics pertaining to law and theology … but intersperse some fantastically juvenile name calling. So basically it’s about my speed. In the spirit of internet fights, I’m going to jump in midstream without familiarizing myself with the beginning of the conversation.3

PEG’s position, if I may excerpt, is essentially this:

[T]he problem that has been my problem from the start, is that to pose the question this way is to skip a teeny tinsy step, which is the step I call attention to and the step that always, but always gets skipped by the Burenigs, which is that we should choose the best arrangement “what belongs to who” consistent with respect for the rights of actual existing humans. In many places, people have decided to rearrange “what belongs to who” based on grand designs for human flourishing while paying no attention to the small matter of the rights of the actual people owning the things, and as a result lots of suffering happened (no, Sweden doesn’t count). This is the problem from the start, and has always been the problem. If you do not have a step in there that says “…btw, people have human rights, lol" you are, by definition, inviting totalitarianism.

Matt Bruenig’s position includes this:

I have taken it upon myself to deeply interrogate nature and her majestic edicts, and I have found that every person has an inherent, natural human right to the distributive share that they are owed under Rawlsian egalitarianism. Nature, nay the universe, commands it.

I don’t know if this is representative of Bruenig’s position. I just judged that first sentence so hard I twisted my spleen. Then I read the next sentence and decided that reading the rest could be fatal.

But I have a serious question for PEG. I don’t see any inherent conflict between the following propositions:

  1. Our concept of property is a social construct.
  2. People have a some kind of moral right to their property—or at least some portion thereof.

In the same vein we could acknowledge that adolescence is a socially designed and potentially changeable concept without abandoning our convictions that adults should not try to date adolescents. But I’m wondering if you (or anybody—particularly the libertarians out there) would like to navigate the following (admittedly stacked) hypothetical:

Hezekiah Bonad was a saint of a capitalist in virtually every way. He ran a profitable toothpaste factory that employed the majority of a small town making toothbrushes. And he did it in a way where he paid his employees well. Then he died with no children and no will. By law, everything he owns (which is most of the town) goes to his second-cousin and closest relative, Jamie Grumpus.

Mr. Grumpus already has a fortune, inherited from a different cousin. He gives the instruction to liquidate everything in the estate and buy a sports team or two. Needless to say, liquidating the factory would functionally wipe out the town and result in an immense amount of human suffering. Does Mr. Grumpus have a natural right to do this? And if an enterprising attorney from the town identified a law that would stop this and save the town, would that law be an unjust law?

Is a right to this particular style of personal property still sacrosanct, even in the most extreme outer-limit? At some point there’s going to be a limiting principle on the savage capitalism, right?

(On the topic of limiting principles, PEG pushed Bruenig to set a limiting principle on his redistributionist tendencies. I’ll offer a rough proposal. 1) Person A’s right to security in food, shelter, health, and her person trump Benjamin’s right to capital assets he does not require for such basic needs. 2) We suck at massively disruptive change, so let’s not do anything stupid. If the primary concern is avoiding totalitarianism, I think either of those should do it.)


  1. If you want to subscribe to the Matt Bruenig digest, you may do so here. I don’t know who Matt Bruenig is. But maybe you do. Or maybe you really like weekly digests. 

  2. Sorry for the impersonal reference, Matt Bruenig’s wife. You probably have another name by which you’d prefer to be called, but I know who Matt Bruenig is so I can’t really track it down. I mean, I could if I managed to get through the prior discussions, but see fn. 3, infra. 

  3. Sorry, PEG. I tried. Your initial piece on Patheos had one of those autoplaying video ads with no obvious mute button. On the topic of things that are ruining the Internet, I find anything by the Axe company inherently and irredeemably offensive and sexist and I haven’t been able to get those ads off my Tumblr dashboard. What I’m saying is that I’m contemplating wirecutters and a newspaper subscription. 

kohenari asked: The school's abandoned. It's not a working school. It's not clear why you're so sure there's no way to secure those weapons such that the best or only possible option is to give them to people who might very well fire them at civilians.

I’m clearly not 100% certain that there wasn’t *some other way* to secure the weapons. Maybe there was a hobbyist munitions disposal expert on staff. But … there probably wasn’t.

Israel has a pretty clearly telegraphed pattern of bombing buildings it believes weapons are being stored in. There is certainly not an exception for abandoned schools. Getting the things out of the school is a priority. I just don’t anticipate that UNRWA has munitions expert on staff. Arranging for the Palestinian Authority to haul them off is probably the least bad option.

Is there a chance that the Palestinian Authority will turn them over to somebody else who would attempt launch them at civilians? Maybe. Let’s assume there is. And is there a chance that these 20 missiles will actually be launched? Maybe—though quantity of missiles doesn’t seem to be the limiting factor.) Is there a chance that one of those 20 missiles will defy the odds and actually hurt somebody? It’s slim. But there’s a chance.

The alternative seems to involve inviting an airstrike from Israel on the school. Those kill people.

Edit: Ari comments, ” It’s not the Palestinian Authority. The rockets were turned over to people in Gaza who they think are under the direction of the unity government. Are they? Who knows. But you’re making it seem that this school is filled with people, mostly children.” I don’t really have a source for any of this except Ari and the press release, so I’m trying to make a few inferences.

I assume “Who knows?” is intended as a rhetorical question—but it strikes me that UNRWA probably does know.

I’m not trying to make it look like the school is being used as a school at the moment. This post began with Ari’s statement, “The school’s abandonned,” which seems pretty unambiguous that there aren’t a ton of children running about it. However, the school is clearly not so abandoned that nobody is ever in it. Somebody found the rockets during a routine inspection. And any effort to secure said rockets beyond a padlock would require somebody to be there securing them. I would not be eager to volunteer for that particular job. I don’t know if I’d be more worried about the people who stowed the rockets or the airstrikes.

According to longstanding UN practice in UN humanitarian operations worldwide, incidents involving unexploded ordnance that could endanger beneficiaries and staff are referred to the local authorities.

That’s UNRWA’s director of advocacy and strategic communications, Christopher Gunness, explaining why UNRWA gave rockets it found in one of its abandoned schools back to “local authorities” in Gaza.

It’s not entirely clear to whom the rockets were given, but there’s the suggestion that it was Palestinians who are apparently under the authority of the unity government in Ramallah rather than Hamas militants.

Either way, I don’t see how this can be seen as anything but an astonishingly foolish thing for a UN agency to do.

(via kohenari)

I’m not quite sure what the alternative is. You’re running a school. Presumably you run it like a school rather than a prison—so maybe something gets smuggled in. Somebody stows something extremely dangerous in the basement. your options seem to be fourfold.

  1. Ignore it and hope for the best. (What could go wrong?)
  2. Try to have some amateurs dispose of some missiles. (What could go wrong?)
  3. Call the occupying authority.
  4. Call the nominal local authority.

Option four isn’t a particularly great option. Options one through three are terrible. (I think that Option 5: Contact another U.N. agency that actually has the technical capability of disposing of unexploded ordinance and hope they can teleport there is not a fake option.)

I won’t say that Israel single-handedly created the situation where the local authorities are plausibly connected with the people storing missiles in a school. But as between UNRWA and Israel, UNRWA isn’t an occupying power destabilizing civil authorities to the point that “just call the police” is somehow a punchline.

(via kohenari)

Accuracy

I just got an email from Lessig’s Rootstriker group quoting an article from The Nation titled, Citigroup Just Bought a $7 Billion Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card. The email and the article demand criminal prosecution instead of these massive “paltry” civil settlements.

Except the settlement at issue doesn’t preclude criminal prosecution. So the headline is dead wrong. It would be more accurate to say, “Citigroup settled a suit for $7 billion and didn’t even get a Get Out of Jail Free card.”

Also … $7 billion is a lot of money by any standard. For comparison, it cost about $3.9 billion to build One World Trade Center. To put that in context, here is JPMorgan recently settled a similar suit for $13 billion, which was the biggest settlement by any single defendant in U.S. history. I’m unable to find a verdict after trial (that was actually collected) that comes anywhere close.

I’m all for criminal prosecutions if the charge will stick—but $7 billion isn’t paltry by any standard.

Watching the respective atrocities and attempted atrocities of Israel and Hamas really drives home how relative and irrelevant discussions of the moral high ground can be. Because it’s really about who has plummeted into the deepest moral depths and whether anybody should care.

(But side note: why are we sending billions in foreign aid to Israel at this point?)

For those who don’t know, this dog’s name is Beckett. He’s inhumanly fast and wicked smart.

Well … wicked smart for a dog. By human terms that’s not terribly smart. Basically he’ll fall for the oldest trick in the book multiple times before catching on. 

The pose he’s in, with the toy bone, is basically a game of steal the bacon. If I get it first, I throw it and we play fetch. If he gets it first, we play tug. Tug is a stupid game.

Obviously, he’s faster than I am. But if I wave my left hand around, he stops paying attention to the right. “Look a squirrel!” also works. The only problem is that he’ll eventually catch on.  And then I’ll have taught one of God’s innocent creatures about lying.

For those who don’t know, this dog’s name is Beckett. He’s inhumanly fast and wicked smart.

Well … wicked smart for a dog. By human terms that’s not terribly smart. Basically he’ll fall for the oldest trick in the book multiple times before catching on.

The pose he’s in, with the toy bone, is basically a game of steal the bacon. If I get it first, I throw it and we play fetch. If he gets it first, we play tug. Tug is a stupid game.

Obviously, he’s faster than I am. But if I wave my left hand around, he stops paying attention to the right. “Look a squirrel!” also works. The only problem is that he’ll eventually catch on. And then I’ll have taught one of God’s innocent creatures about lying.

"I sue banks."

"What do you do?" is one of those questions that calls for different levels of detail depending on the context. If I’m feeling particularly glib, I sometimes answer, "I sue banks."

People rarely ask the obvious follow-ups. Why do you sue banks? What did the banks do to deserve so much suing?

Instead they say things like, “That’s God’s work. Keep it up.”

This is a pretty dramatic shift from a few years back. Previously people wanted details. Are you suing banks because you’re a money-grubbing lawyer or some kind of quixotic bleeding heart who doesn’t understand the financial system?1 That’s all changed.

Some of it was the recession. Some of it was Occupy. Whatever the cause, it’s a pretty widespread assumption that the banks are so thoroughly up to things they should not be up to that the specifics of why they’re being sued isn’t particularly relevant. “I sue banks” is a bit like saying, “I punch Nazis.”


  1. The answer I’m looking for is quixotic bleeding heart with a head for numbers.