Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hebrew Letters in Berkeley

I have a t-shirt which says "Carleton College" in (transliterated) Hebrew letters. I put it on today, for no particular reason other than it rising to the top of the t-shirt drawer, before heading off to the post office for an errand.

While there, the post office clerk asked what my shirt said. I responded "Carleton College". "Oh, that's cool. Is it in Arabic?" "No, Hebrew." "Oh, that's cool." Both "that's cools" were said with enthusiasm and a warm smile.

And the tension in my gut dissipated, and I relaxed.

I got nervous when asked about my shirt. I got nervous because I knew the answer would reveal myself as Jewish -- and Jewish-identified. These I think are different, for the casual anti-Semite -- the difference between "being gay in private" and "throwing it in my face." I feel like people who have negative feelings about Jews have particularly negative feelings about Jews who consciously identify as Jewish, such that they wear a "Jewish shirt" out in public.

Now, I should say that I did not feel nervous because I predicted any sort of imminent physical threat -- "going postal" jokes notwithstanding, I didn't expect anything truly bad to happen at the post office. But I got nervous, because I didn't know what it would mean to "out" myself as Jewish. Not everyone, after all, thinks that "that's cool." Some people, and more people than there used to be, think it isn't cool it all.

This is quite saddening, less because I feel any serious risk of being violently attacked, and more because I used to be very excited when the topic of my Jewish identity became salient. At Carleton, where there weren't a lot of Jews, I generally thought of my Jewishness as an "interesting fact about myself," something I was happy to talk about and explain to other curious souls. This isn't to say there was never any awkward moments -- ask me about the time my Freshman-year floormates got me Schindler's List for my birthday -- but I felt happy at the opportunity to share about my Jewishness.

The recent set of journalistic projects wherein people walk through European streets (Malmo, Sweden; Paris, France) while identifiably Jewish make salient the reality of this worry. That is not to say it happens everywhere, or every time, and there will always be those who cry "fraud" (Rania Khalek would no doubt rather focus on "Jewish privilege"). But the point is that it is always there, in the back of my mind. I cannot just "be Jewish" in the world, I have to make continual conscious decisions about when and how I present my Jewishness in the world and when and how I hide it. That's a feeling that I didn't have, or didn't have to the same extent, even a few years ago. And it is a sad feeling.

Law Review Tales

It's law review submission season! Every one is angsting (obviously yours truly included), and PrawfsBlawg has a lovely thread in which all of us can vent our fears and frustrations. But I thought it would be more light-hearted to detail some standard experiences I think all law professors have had I've had and thereby extrapolate to all of my colleagues. Such as ....

(1) Submitting an article, then within 15 minutes frantically clicking refresh on your email despite the fact that any news that comes in the first 15 minutes could not possibly be good.

(2) Getting that first rejection three hours after the initial submission ("after careful review ....").

(3) Submitting two articles at around the same time (we'll call them "A" and "B"). A is clearly a better article than B. B gets three offers immediately and ends up placing in a solid journal. A languishes and isn't touched by anyone.

(4) Obsessing over comparisons between US News law school rankings versus Washington & Lee law review rankings (hint: if you're at the point where it's not obvious on face which journal you should pick, it doesn't matter).

(5) Obsessing over comparisons between flagship journals and speciality journals (hint: this comparison is impossible, but it's as impossible for tenure and/or hiring committees as it is for you).

(6) Getting your article rejected after you've already withdrawn it from a given journal ("you can't reject me, I reject you!").

(7) Getting your article accepted after you've already withdrawn it from a given journal (far more tragic than #6).

(8) Submitting an article, having it rejected, resubmitting next cycle with the single change of deleting "originalism" from the title, having it accepted by a top journal (technically this didn't happen to me. It happened by me, and my articles editor team, when I was a law review editor).

(9) Once the piece is accepted, being asked for a citation for "the law of supply and demand." Don't forget a parenthetical!

(10) It all turning out okay in the end.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Energy Lobbying, Environmental Costs, and Zero-Sum Competition

Exelon Corporation, one of the largest energy companies in the United States, has come out in favor of the EPA's Clean Power Plan and has even asked for a carbon pricing schema. This stands out, as one does not typically expect to see large energy companies endorsing aggressive carbon regulation. And I should hasten to add that what follows is not a specific speculation on Exelon's motives. Exelon might have any number of reasons for the position it's taking, not the least of which could be a fear that absent their intervention the EPA plan could end up being more environmentally protective (and thus more economically burdensome). Nonetheless, in general it does seem a little odd: why would an electricity company support EPA rules that almost certainly would place greater costs on its line of business.

The answer might lie in the difference between competitive and monopoly electricity markets. In the former there are multiple firms competing for customers and market share. In the latter, there is a single firm with a guaranteed franchise and customer base. These two models have been struggling for primacy in the electricity sector for the past several decades -- as it stands, we have competition in the generation and wholesale sectors, whereas most (but not all) states have maintained a retail electricity monopoly. At first glance, though, this different market structure is unrelated to support of greater environmental regulations. For either it increases costs, and we can stipulate (though this may or may not be true) that it equally increases costs for firms operating in a competitive versus a monopoly context. It is therefore unlikely that any firm will unilaterally adopt superior environmental restrictions (with some allowance for trying to gain public goodwill or carve out a unique market share). And so it seems unlikely that any firm would lobby to put in place a regulatory regime which increases these costs.

But look a little closer. For the monopoly firm, a policy proposal which increases its costs is an unmitigated bad. The cost increase may be minor, in which case it will be moderately opposed, or significant, in which case it will be significantly opposed, but there is never a corresponding benefit to the cost increase. But in a competitive world, things are different because there is also the opportunity to take over one's competitors turf. Here, cost increases can be a good thing if one is in a position to better ride them out than one's adversaries. Imagine Company A has already significantly invested in renewable energy infrastructure such that new carbon mandates are likely to only cause a small price increase. Company B, by contrast, is less prepared to handle these new mandates and would be forced to increase prices quite a bit. Company A may well lobby for the regulatory shift because it would give it the opportunity to gobble up market share currently held by B.

This matters because it suggests that, in a competitive context, there is sometimes a business incentive for firms to lobby on behalf of cost-increasing environmental regulation where it feels it can better absorb the costs compared to other companies in the field. To the extent that environmental regulation often in practice needs business buy-in to be effective, this is an avenue worth exploring.

I said that this was not a speculation on the Exelon situation, particularly, and it isn't. That said, I did notice that the speaker who delivered this missive to FERC was described as "Exelon’s senior vice president of federal regulatory affairs and wholesale market policy." If Exelon's wholesale division (remember that wholesale electricity is a competitive sector) thinks that it is better positioned than its rivals to meet EPA carbon requirements, then that would explain why it would come out in support of this initiative even though in absolute figures it probably will raise its cost of doing business.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Motivated Reasoning: Social Mobility Edition

I've become more and more interested in the research on motivated cognition -- the processes by which we interpret evidence in a biased manner and reason directionally to our preferred ends. This literature is equal parts fascinating and depressing: fascinating as a window into our modes of thinking, depressing in that it has grim implications for both how much we should trust our learned intuitions and for the ability for evidence and facts to move our mental needles towards more accurate appraisals.

Today, I read an interesting study by John R. Chambers, Lawton K. Swan, and Martin Heesacker entitled Perceptions of U.S. Social Mobility Are Divided (and Distorted) Along Ideological Lines (forthcoming in Psychological Science). The study, as the name suggests, explores how people perceive facts relating to social mobility in the United States. They asked two main questions: First, they asked participants to provide their views on social mobility directly, by asking them to predict how many people who grew up in the bottom, middle, and top third of income brackets end up (as young adults) in the bottom/middle/top brackets (high social mobility would suggest that people move brackets regularly -- a society in which one's origins played no role in economic outcomes would see an even 33/33/33 split; low social mobility would suggest that people generally stay in the income bracket of their parents). Second, they asked people to appraise whether social mobility opportunities had increased or declined over time (they could say it increased a lot, a little, hadn't changed, decreased a little, or decreased a lot).

The results?

Everybody underestimated social mobility (that is, they thought our society was less socially mobile than it was). And likewise, people thought that we had experienced a decline in social mobility opportunities over the past few decades (in reality, social mobility rates have remained flat). But on both points, liberals were further from the mark than conservatives. The authors suggest that this is because liberals are generally pessimistic about the state of economic and social opportunity in America, and so they are motivated to belief that social mobility is worse than it is. Conservatives, by contrast, are more optimistic about America's meritocratic and egalitarian nature, and so (though they underestimated our social mobility too) ended up closer to the right figures.

I bring this up not because it means that social mobility is not a problem. After all, social mobility could simultaneously be more common than we thought and still too low, and indeed there are other western countries which dramatically out-perform America on this front. Rather, I mention these findings because, as the authors note, sometimes motivated cognition is perceived to be a conservative problem ("that's why they don't believe in global warming! They're just cognitively biased!"), and in reality it is a problem shared by all (I assume most of my readers are liberals and thus could use the reminder; conservatives preparing to gloat should know there are plenty of cases where the right is the party led astray). After all, if I'm being honest I can say I was surprised to find that most people underestimated social mobility (which is, of course, exactly what the study would predict would be my response). It's hard for me -- now knowing the data -- to say with confidence how I would have answered the study questions in my naive state, but I suspect at the very least I would have marked that social mobility was slightly worse off than it had been in decades past, and that would have been wrong. And the most likely explanation for its wrongness is that I have certain ideological priors that predispose me to having certain beliefs about the fairness of the American system.

Now, if one wanted to fight the data, there are ways to go about it. Perhaps while social mobility generally has remained unchanged (and is better than we thought), it might be the case that for particular subgroups (over-represented amongst liberals?), social mobility has decreased. There is some evidence pointing in that direction, and this could cause certain people to misperceive social mobility for the polity writ large based on the particular experience of their own group. Another possibility is that the abolishment of Jim Crow, and the resulting opportunities gains for racial minorities, had an upward-social mobility effect that canceled out other factors which generally reduced such mobility -- but that the former is perceived as a one-time "low-hanging fruit" situation while the latter are viewed as more permanent. But, these arguments are, as I said, fighting the data -- it seems likely that the general conclusion (that, for motivated ideological reasons, liberals underestimate the amount of social mobility in America) is accurate. And as a liberal, it's always worth remembering my own fallibility.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Verbal and Conceptual Blockbusting

Today's quote of the day* comes from Columbia Law Professor Patricia Williams:
I feel as if I am on a linguistic treadmill that has gradually but unmistakably increased its speed, so that no word I use to positively describe myself or my scholarly projects last for more than five seconds. . . . The moment I find some symbol of my presence in the rarefied halls of elite institutions, it gets stolen, co-opted, filled with negative meaning. As integration became synonymous with assimilation into whiteness, affiramtive action became synonymous with pushing out more qualified whites, and of course multiculturalism somehow became synonymous with solipsistically monocultural privilege.

While constant rejuvenation is not just good but inevitable in some general sense, the rapid obsolescence of words even as they drop from our mouths is an increasingly isolating phenomenon. In fact, it feels like a form of verbal blockbusting. I move into a large meaningful space, with great connotations on a high floor with lots of windows, and suddenly all the neighbors move out. My intellectual aerie becomes a known hangout for dealers in heresy and other soporific drugs, frequented by suspect profiles (if not actual suspects) and located on the edge of that known geological disaster area, the Slippery Slope
Patricia J. Williams, The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice 27-28 (Harvard UP 1997).

This relates to something I've been thinking about for awhile, concerning the drift in meaning of certain terms or concepts related to marginalized groups and discrimination. The obvious example is the shift from Colored to Negro to Black to African-American as the polite or respectful term of reference. Each one was offered as an alternative to the stigmatized other, only to become loaded with negative valence itself and eventually be shunted aside for the next one in line. I've always thought that this maneuver illuminated a fundamental mistake in our thinking: the problem wasn't with the words, it was with the attitudes. If people have negative attitudes towards people of color, then any term that is predominantly associated with said people will progressively take on baggage. I suspect one sees a similar phenomenon with respect to concepts or strategies -- as they become associated with political action by a group we don't like, they will become coded as inappropriate, small-minded, short-sighted, radical, or otherwise illegitimate (this could explain the Washington/Du Bois double-bind I've talked about).

In any event, WIlliams' description of this as "verbal blockbusting" was particularly evocative, so I wanted to share (and preserve it).

* Quotes not necessarily provided daily.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Caring Equally

Yesterday, I was preparing to write a Facebook status that would have said something like the following: "What I want is for everyone who posts about Copenhagen to also post about Chapel Hill, and everyone who posts about Chapel Hill to also post about Copenhagen." It was meant to be responsive to a trend I had perceived on Facebook, which is that people who were talking about one tended to have nothing to say about the other. Now to be clear, I don't mean that people who were on the ramparts about Chapel Hill were pooh-poohing the idea that there was an emergent anti-Semitism problem, or vice versa. For the most part, that wasn't it at all -- and I'm sure that if asked directly they would say pretty much exactly what one would want to hear. It's the silence that was the issue -- and it was an issue both sides picked up on. One person on Twitter noted what he perceived as the muted reaction to the Copenhagen attack and wondered if we've all just decided "this is a thing that happens now." Another person on Facebook complained that there was little attention outside particular social media circles to a series of anti-Islam attacks that had recently occurred in the West. And I related to that -- when I saw people who would post lots and lots about attacks on Muslims, but scarcely a word about attacks on Jews, it made me feel like I wasn't a part of their campaign -- that defending Jews wasn't something that motivated them, or worse, that they viewed it as a "hard case". I have to imagine the same thoughts go through the minds of persons in the Muslim community when they read friends who talk a ton about Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish deli massacre but have little to say about when Muslims are killed for their faith in our own backyard.

I never actually wrote the post. And even as I thought it I began to second-guess myself. Would I meet my own prescription? Technically no, but not for the reasons one might think -- I had put something up about Chapel Hill but not (that I recall) Copenhagen. Still, I think few people would accuse me of being too inattentive to global anti-Semitism. And in general, while I write and blog about a range of topics, it is obvious that I devote disproportionate attention to anti-Semitism compared to other issues.

Why do I do that? Is that because I think anti-Semitism is objectively "more important" than other like -isms. I don't think so, though if someone was to argue that I have a subconscious bias in that direction due to the fact that anti-Semitism threatens me personally I would not have much room to argue. Is it because anti-Semitism is the only anti-racism campaign I care to campaign on? I don't think so; and hopefully my academic work is enough to disabuse that. If I was to give an answer, it's that anti-Semitism is an area where I think I have something particular and useful to say. I have skin the in game, yes, but also expertise -- I feel (rightly or wrongly) like I can make a unique and helpful contribution here. Other issues I feel more confident that others can and will say whatever I would have.

It is a cliche, but an accurate one, to say that nobody can devote care and attention (much less equal care and attention) to everything. We all have to make choices. We all know that on the production end, and yet when on the (non-)receiving end we still feel that pang of exclusion -- that we're not important enough to rouse others to action. So what do we do?

I don't have a good answer. Certainly, I think we should all be curious consumers about what our fellows are saying. If a group in my society feels marginalized or scared or hurt or wounded, I want to know that because making our community -- our entire community -- a safe, welcoming and inclusive space is part of my campaign, and the only way I can know that there is a problem is listening to people talk about it. But listening, though well and good, is still a silent activity. As for speaking up, well, I'll try to remember that we don't always have to have cutting-edge commentary or novel insights to offer. When someone is shot in North Carolina or beheaded in Syria or stabbed in France, it is perfectly okay to simply acknowledge the horror of it. That's worth something too. It's not a bad thing that I have a comparative advantage in talking about anti-Semitism, and I don't apologize for leveraging that. But I will do my best to at least make clear to others that, yes, I have their back as well. Because I know how it feels when I don't feel that way about myself, and it isn't a good feeling.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Outward Bound

Last week, a former colleague of mine from Illinois emailed me about a German decision where torching a synagogue was not anti-Semitic, just "criticism of Israel" (not the first time I've heard that argument). And earlier this week, a law school classmate sent me an Austrian prosecutor's conclusion that putting up a picture of Hitler captioned with "I could have annihilated all the Jews in the world, but I left some of them alive so you will know why I was killing them..." was likewise just a means of exposure displeasure with Israel. Seriously, this argument has to be bounded somewhere, yes?

Oh, and half of all racist attacks in France are directed at Jews, who constitute one percent of the population. Makes me glad to have the #JewishPrivilege of living in the United States, where we're only the second most common (per capita) victim of hate crimes.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Inferring from Non-Participation

Imagine that a small democratic body (a town, a county, a college campus, whatever) is holding two referendums. The first concerns whether the institution should build a new road. Out of 10,000 eligible voters, only 10% vote -- they break down 60% in favor, 40% opposed. The referendum passes.

The second referendum asks that the body officially boycott Coke products (a hobby-horse I remember from my own undergraduate days). Again, it turns out that only 1,000 of the 10,000 voters show up at the polls, and of those voting the referendum passes by a 60/40 margin.

In either case, the lack of participation could be thought to have a negative impact of the democratic legitimacy of the referendum -- it might constrain our ability to say "this is what the people want." However, my instincts tell me there is a significant difference between the two cases above.

In the road referendum, I don't have any intuitive thoughts on the views of the non-participants -- which is to say, I have no reason to think that their distribution of views on the road differ from the voting population. That might change if the road was particularly beneficial to a specific subset of the population who was motivated to get to the polls (and it puts aside any issues about differential access to the polls by various social groups, which is no small thing), but otherwise there doesn't seem to be anything in particular that I can infer about the non-participants. And that (to me at least) dissipates a good portion of the democratic legitimacy threat.

In the boycott Coke referendum, by contrast, my intuition strongly suspects that most of the non-voters would (if pressed) vote against. It seems to me (and maybe I'm just wrong here) that if you're the sort of person who supports something like boycotting Coke, then you're the sort of person who will be sufficiently motivated to go to the polls and vote for it. Likewise, of the group who thinks this issue isn't such a big deal (not enough of a motive to go to the polls), it's hard to imagine many of them lean in favor of boycotting Coke. If I'm right, in this case we can infer opposition (albeit not passionately felt opposition) from non-participation. And in that case, the vote tally doesn't necessarily stand in for the "what the people want."

What do we make of this? I'm not sure. It is not even intuitively obvious that it is a bad thing that a passionate minority beat out a largely indifferent majority. Maybe turnout gives us a proxy for preference-intensity that is valuable. If John cares strongly about building a new bridge and Jane doesn't really care but is mildly against it, and that disjuncture causes more John-types than Jane-types to head to the polls, is it bad if the bridge gets built notwithstanding there being more Janes than Johns amongst eligible voters? On the other hand, that is really the positive way of framing special interest capture. You can tell similar stories about why all sorts of small and well-organized groups beat out diffuse majorities, and in many cases the results will feel like democratic failings rather than success stories.

I don't have any big sweeping thoughts about this. I am curious about what circumstances or conditions cause us to believe that non-voters likely would fall on a particular side of a controversy versus those where their views can be assumed to roughly mirror those of the voting population.