Saturday, August 29, 2009

Choosing A Last-Minute Destination

Sherman Oaks, California

If you live in North America, the cheapest international getaways are usually Mexico or Central America. That’s particularly true if you live in Southern California where $150 roundtrip air fares into northern and central Mexico are not unheard of.

My first notion that you could actually vacation in Mexico came from an episode of Moonlighting. David and Maddie were each returning to the office after time off; perhaps it was the first episode of a season. Maddie had been in New York City, David in Mexico. They engaged in repartee which, at the time, I thought was witty and sophisticated but which would probably seem forced and brittle if I heard it again. My teenage travel tastes were aligned with Maddie’s. Gotham was the Glittering City. Who wants to go to Mexico?

I do. I’ve been to Mexico every year or two since I moved West, and it’s one of the most unfairly maligned places. Mexico’s problems are serious, but, like America’s dangers, they’re concentrated in specific areas you can easily avoid. The thought that gang violence in Chihuahua State would scare tourists away from Cancun – almost 2,000 miles and several pre-Columbian civilizations away – is pathetic. Americans should learn how to read a map and stop being such nervous Nellies.

After a few hours of internet plinking, the cheapest international flights I could find for the weekend were trips to Los Cabos ($353 on Alaska Airlines), Mexico City ($370 on United), Guanajuato/San Miguel de Allende (the hipster destination was $417 on Continental) and Oaxaha ($422 on Mexicana). Some tempting non-Mexican destinations were Panama City ($414 on Mexicana), São Paulo ($685 on AeroMexico), Stockholm ($552 on U.S. Airways) and Tegucigulpa ($595 on TACA).

As I surveyed all the options, I was mindful of the fact that this was a self-consciously low-budget trip. But I immediately fell back on a spendthrift habit: Buying a bunch of guide books to help make the decision. I logged the first expense of the trip, $64.59, in purchasing guidebooks to Guanajuato/San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca and Panama.

Then it was a process of elimination. It might be cheap to fly to Stockholm but it is never cheap to be there. Cabo is a party scene for the people I hated in college. The colonial heartland of Mexico deserved a longer, slower trip, as did the indigenous areas in the south.

The destinations fell away until there was only one town left. Mexico would have to wait.

I’m going to Panama City.


Books: $64.59
Airfare: $414

TRIP TOTAL: $478.59

COST PER DAY: $478.59

Pictured: This is a difficult post to illustrate.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Blog Experiment: Publicly Accounting For Every Cent Of A Trip

Sherman Oaks, California

For years, I’ve been advocating inexpensive vacations to the Third World.

I’ve decided to finally take my own advice.

You don’t need to spend a lot on travel, I’ve blogged. Three principles will shave hundreds to thousands of dollars off the tab: Travel to offbeat locations, at times when the hordes are elsewhere, and avoid making reservations in Western brand hotels.

All of which are easier said than done. If you can only snag one week of vacation, you’re not flying all the way to southern Africa. If your significant other is set on visiting Paris in the summer, you’ll pay through the nose. It’s understandable that, after an 18-hour haul to Asia, you want to spend the first two nights in a comfortable Hyatt bed, which becomes three nights, which becomes . . . .

I’ve done it, too. I’ve stayed at a Sheraton when I should have been booked into a hostel, and I’ve eaten a $5 cheeseburger at a tourist tavern when 50¢ of empanadas from a street vendor would have hit the spot.

Lately, I’ve become stir crazy from staying in Los Angeles too long, so I knew it was time to travel again. Ishmael said it best at the beginning of Moby-Dick:

It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

But, this time, I will scrupulously follow my own rules. Cheap ticket. Cheap destination. Cheap lodgings.

Everything’s relative, of course. Cheap to me is selecting a $20 to $40 room with a private bath in a locally owned pension, rather than a $130 room at the Radisson. I’m too old and cranky to pay $5 a night to sleep on a bunk in a dorm with eleven copulating college kids.

So, looking at my schedule and realizing that I have to be back in Los Angeles by September 9th for work obligations, I decided to find the cheapest international flight I could to a relatively low-cost destination.

And I’m going to blog every cent I spend.

The discipline of publicly recording all expenditures will, hopefully, keep me focused on inexpensive alternatives. On the tourist trail, the overpriced choices are the easy choices. The Marriotts and Hard Rocks and Continentals of the world have the budgets to make sure you know they’re there. Rooting out the quirky and inexpensive and – yes, I’ll say it – authentic experiences takes some work. And I do my best work when I’ve made a promise to others that I don’t want to break.

Over the next two weeks, I will write about my trip and post every expenditure, putting my money where my blog is. Ideally, this exercise will hone my traveling skills, decrease my spending and open my mind to new experiences. Traveling on the cheap may become an exercise in the purest, most virtuous principle.

Besides, I’m short on cash from renovating my house and don’t have a choice.


Pictured: The Hard Rock Hotel Bali in Indonesia, where I will not be staying on this trip, not even close.

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California: No Longer The Prettiest Girl

Sherman Oaks, California

"California in decline" has been a theme since a young Joan Didion first set pen to paper, but today's L.A. Times provides succinct evidence of why California is starting to see net population loss.

The state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Government revenues are in freefall. Housing is -- well, you've heard about the condition of California's housing markets.

In response to these challenges, does the Legislature slash spending? Do the solons in Sacramento tell their union buddies that it's a lean year and everybody will have to do more with less?

Of course not. The answer is to raise taxes across the board:

For only the second time in 30 years, the tax board is lowering the point where each tax bracket begins, bumping many people into a higher category. At the same time, officials are cutting back some deductions. Everyone will pay more, even people whose bracket or income doesn't change . . . .

In addition to the income tax rate rising 0.25%, the dependent credit was slashed by more than two-thirds. The vehicle license fee nearly doubled to 1.15% of a car's value. The state sales tax climbed 1%.

This summer, lawmakers and [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger decided to withhold 10% more from workers' paychecks starting Nov. 1 -- an accounting scheme to collect taxes faster. Under another bookkeeping maneuver, individuals and businesses that make estimated tax payments will pony up more of that money sooner starting in the first half of next year.

And some local taxes are on the way up. In Los Angeles County, a half-cent-higher sales tax approved by voters took effect in July to fund transportation projects.

The state's leaders need to understand that, as pleasant as California can be, it's not a unique good. They have sunshine and low humidity in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. People can live near the beach in Texas or in old Mexico. Virginia, Wisconsin and Michigan have excellent public universities. Computer work can be done anywhere on the globe, and jurisdictions compete vigorously to host film and television productions.

The attitude of California's politicians is starting to remind me of V.S. Naipaul's description of the kleptocratic mindframe (from A Bend in the River):

They didn't see, these young men, that there was anything to build in their country. As far as they were concerned, it was all there already. They had only to take. They believed that, by being what they were, they had earned the right to take; and the higher the officer, the greater the crookedness -- if that word had any meaning.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Nothing Is Where You Think It Is"

Sherman Oaks, California

I read somewhere that most people's favorite bit from The West Wing was President Bartlet pardoning the turkey.

My favorite is C.J. and Josh's meeting with the Organization of Cartographers For Social Equality. (The Peters Projection, by the way, is as flawed as the Mercator. There's no way to accurately represent a chubby three-dimensional sphere on a flat piece of paper.)


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review of Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Black Orchid. Written by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Dave McKean. (Vertigo Books 1989).

The early works of successful authors always seem like first drafts.

It’s impossible to read Sketches By Boz without looking for traces of Great Expectations. Somewhere in Titus Andronicus is the DNA of King Lear and The Tempest.

And -- there’s no way around it – Black Orchid is a dry run of Sandman.

Sandman was one of the most heralded comic books of the ‘90s, and justly so. The protagonist Morpheus was the Lord of Dreams, protecting his kingdom from the plots of his enemies, some of whom were gods, some of whom were demons and some of whom were members of Morpheus' family. Gaiman’s hyper-literate scripting combined references to classical fiction, history, D.C. comic books and the mythologies of cultures ranging from the ancient Greeks to modern British Jews to Australian aborigines.

For all its majesty, Sandman was not perfect. Many issues suffered from too much narration, some of the characters were annoyingly talkative, and the stories, over time, became overly impressed with their learnedness and import. But it was flawed in the way The Godfather Part II was flawed; you looked past the tangled plot and the clunky patches because the rest of it was so good.

Black Orchid doesn’t have that advantage. Gaiman’s shortcomings are on display, but not his talents.

The story is about a species of hybrid orchid women (pictured) who, yes, fight crime – this is a superhero book. In this case, the bad guys work for the crime syndicate of business kingpin Lex Luthor. (The choice of word is not accidental; Luthor as portrayed in Black Orchid is indistinguishable from Marvel Comics’ Kingpin of Crime.)

One of the orchid women is killed after infiltrating Luthor’s company. Meanwhile, a former Luthor henchman has completed a prison sentence for the boss, is expecting his old job back and may have a violent tie to at least one of the orchid women.

It takes too long to figure out what’s going on. Gaiman repeatedly teases the reader with a snippet of explanation, then cuts to another storyline. Characters from the D.C. universe seem shoehorned into the middle of the tale as a way to promote the sale of other titles. When one character finally provides the back story, the explanation is delivered in a tediously verbose speech that would be more at home in a Victorian memoir.

But all of that pales in comparison to a third act which shifts to Brazil, all the better to engage in dishwater moralizing about the fate of the Amazon rain forest. Low-life gangsters quote stats about defoliation, and we’re supposed to nod sadly but knowingly when one frame reveals that they plan to kill the orchid women with Agent Orange.

Did I mention the many quotes from popular songs, none of which add anything? Or that, at a critical moment, you can’t tell two of the characters apart? Or that the orchid women are supposed to be drawn with faint whirlwinds of air above their heads – since orchids apparently take their nutrients from the atmosphere – but that they look like ridiculous tornado heads instead? Or that artist Dave McKean is trying with every brushstroke to paint like Bill Sienkiewicz?

What sophomoric tripe. What a pointless collection of clichés and cultural touchstones. What a poorly executed pile of nothing.

Black Orchid could have been a superhero story; it could have been an environmental allegory (like Alan Moore's Swamp Thing); it could have been a literate mystery or a crime thriller. Instead, it tries to be all of these genres at once, and it fails at each of them.

Gaiman did a better job on Sandman.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Review of Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong (Soho Press 2000).

Some books need more description.

My high school self can’t believe I’m saying this. Like most teenage boys, I hated description in novels. I would skip paragraphs in Dickens and pages in Dumas and what felt like chapters in Hugo if the author decided to dwell on the physical details of a boot blacking plant or the façade of Notre Dame. Besides, nothing in the descriptions was ever on the test.

But now, perhaps more mature, I’ve come to prefer descriptions, especially for historical fiction. The novelist has license to create a lost world, so I’m disappointed if she doesn’t describe it in detail. Fiction can create ambiance, and it should use the power.

Which is why I’m lukewarm toward Death of a Red Heroine. The novel is set in Shanghai in 1990 – at the time that China was uncomfortably converting from a command economy to the free market – but it’s weaker on detail than I would have preferred.

The naked body of a beautiful woman is discovered, wrapped in a black plastic bag, floating in the Baili Canal on the outskirts of Shanghai. The inquiry falls to the Special Case Squad, which investigates crimes with potential political implications for the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Our hero, the recently promoted leader of the squad, is Chief Inspector Chen Cao.

Chen had no interest in becoming a cop. Ideally, he would have been a poet and translator, but that wasn’t practical. He had the opportunity to work in the Foreign Ministry, but the Party learned that one of his uncles had been executed 40 years earlier for counter-revolutionary activities, closing the door to such a sensitive position. The Party ultimately assigned him a job in the Shanghai Police Bureau, and Chen makes the best of it, writing and translating poetry on the side.

The case quickly takes on complex political dimensions. The dead woman is identified as Guan Hongying, a well-known “national model worker.” She was employed in the cosmetics section of the Shanghai First Department Store and became a celebrity due to her devotion to the Party.

Her loyalty didn’t bring her much, Chen learns in the course of his legwork. Guan was unmarried at 31, because it was difficult to find a politically acceptable mate. She lived by herself in a single room in a worker’s dormitory. Her strictly correct behavior alienated her neighbors and co-workers. She appeared to have little social or family life; her days were filled with Party meetings and reports and conferences.

Guan had invested her youth in a dying system. Meanwhile, Chen’s friend, “Overseas Chinese” Lu is operating a private sector Russian restaurant, enjoying hard currency, imported vodka and the attentions of statuesque blond hostesses. Two Chinas existed simultaneously and not harmoniously.

The novel is a police procedural, not a mystery. There’s no way for you to correctly guess the killer from clues scattered in the first few chapters. The bulk of the plot consists of Chen and his small team engaging in shoe leather police work while dodging the increasing interference of Party leaders, some of whom want the investigation to stop and are in a position to punish Chen if he proceeds.

The novelist, St. Louis-based Qiu Xiaolong, provides a fair glimpse into a faded Shanghai. Government markets are beginning to compete (poorly) with private marts. Work unit employees jealously guard their perk of buying goods at the “state price.” A couple on vacation in the Yellow Mountains can only share a hotel room by producing a marriage certificate. Retirees, who lived through the danger and deprivation of the Cultural Revolution, exist on pensions that barely allow for a weekly trip to the tea parlor.

The details are there, but there weren’t enough for me. I never got the sense that I was actually in Shanghai one year after Tiananmen Square. The novel didn't evoke, it mentioned. The setting didn't envelop me. The book recounted a tale with occasional period trappings, not with atmospherics. It reminded me of a play in which the set designer's choice of a few period props didn't make me forget that I was sitting in a theatre in 21st century London.

I have no real criticism of what’s on the page, but I found myself constantly wishing for more.

Pictured: A Spanish version of the book. "Sexy Beijing" featured an interview with author Qiu Xiaolong.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Reports: Communists Creating Hong Kong Shadow Government

Sherman Oaks, California

Hong Kong is and is not a part of China.

The conundrum leads to friction, as the central Chinese government asserts control over the great city, whose residents resent the intrusion.

But, according to two articles published in the recent issue of Hong Kong Journal, the momentum is unmistakeable: Beijing is taking over.

Hong Kong is a "Special Administrative Region" of the People's Republic of China. Hong Kong has its own laws, courts and government, all separate from those of the mainland.

Only twelve PRC laws apply in Hong Kong, and most of those pertain to diplomatic relations, maritime rules, and symbols such as the national flag and anthem. The mayor of Hong Kong is effectively chosen by Beijing, but the city council is not. The role of the central government is one of influence and persuasion rather than direct control. Hong Kong is run by and for Hongkongers.

That's the theory, at any rate.

Two writers argue that the reality is different -- or, rather, has evolved. Frank Ching and Jie Cheng appear to be at different places on the political spectrum; Ching's writing seems to favor more democracy in Hong Kong, while Cheng seems to support Beijing. Both paint a similar portrait.

In 1997, the British ceded Hong Kong to China, but the city's constitution, the Basic Law, preserved for 50 years its autonomy as a separate and equal component of the People's Republic. For the first six years after the handover, Beijing maintained a laissez faire attitude toward the city, Cheng writes.

Everything changed on July 1, 2003, the two authors concur. More than half a million Hongkongers marched in the streets (pictured), demonstrating against the city government's attempt to impose strict national security rules. (Imagine, if you can, Americans marching in such numbers -- in any numbers -- against our security state.)

The demonstrators won. The proposed rules were scuttled. Beijing took note, and the cadres decided that the fiesty territory needed a firmer hand.

That hand belonged to Zeng Qinghong, the Vice President of the People's Republic who, unlike most vice presidents, possessed actual power. Zeng's solution was to ease out the weak mayor of Hong Kong and to create a shadow government through a seemingly unlikely institution, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

"What's the CPPCC?" you ask. Many Chinese citizens couldn't tell you in any more detail than "the other group that meets at the same time as the National People's Conference."

The CPPCC's nominal role is to allow people and groups who are not necessarily members of the Communist Party to have a say in public policy. In reality, the CPPCC acts as a House of Lords, a place to "promote" useless or over-the-hill officials. But the CPPCC possessed a procedural advantage; its Hong Kong members were appointed by Beijing, making it easy for Zeng (and his successor as Vice President, Xi Jinping, who retains the Hong Kong portfolio) to people their project.

The shadow government has been acknowledged at least twice. The Communist newspaper Wen Wei Po reported earlier this year that officials of the Hong Kong government had agreed to grant CPPCC members more authority over the city. In addition, a cadre named Cao Erbao published a paper in Study Times which discussed a city government composed of "two teams," one of Hongkongers and one of Mainlanders. The Communist Party distanced itself from the two articles, but the cat was out of the bag.

According to Ching, increased oversight could have the opposite effect of what the Party intends. "Ever since 2003 it has wanted to ensure a higher degree of control over the former colony -- all the while maintaining there was no interference in Hong Kong's domestic affairs. That is not the way it was supposed to be," Ching writes.

"And the more that Hong Kong people think there is no real autonomy, the louder will be the calls for genuine democracy, leading to a higher level of distrust between Beijing and Hong Kong," he continues. "That is certainly not good either for Hong Kong or for the central government."

It would be bad for the PRC -- which would be revealed on the world stage as a country which does not keep its promises.

It would be worse for Hong Kong -- a fledgling democracy with a long-established rule of law that was handed over in 1997 to an authoritarian gerontocracy.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Nick Bonner Interview

Sherman Oaks, California

WorldHum has posted an interview with my buddy Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours (pictured), the world's foremost authority on North Korean tourism by Westerners.

Visit North Korea.

You'll be glad you did.

When Airline Commercials Were About More Than Price

From 1980:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

No, You Can't Just Show Up In China And Be Handed A Lucrative Job

Sherman Oaks, California

I've been emailing with friends in China and trolling the expat boards, and the consensus is clear: Monday's New York Times article about how easy it is for U.S. postgrads to land a job and a luxe lifestyle in China is a crock.

Some observations (mine and others'):

-- The article is entirely anecdotal. There's no stats to back it up.

-- The reporter does not mention visas. As frequent China travellers know, visas are political footballs, and, at various times for various reasons (usually unannounced), the Foreign Ministry stops issuing or renewing visas or alters the requirements.

-- The reporter also fails to mention the word hukou, which is a residence document. To Chinese citizens, the hukou system can be a burden which segregates rural and urban dwellers. (The state-run China Daily, of all unlikely sources, profiles the system here.) Although most foreigners don't notice (because of the way the paperwork is handled), visitors to the People's Republic fall within the hukou system. (Prof. Fei-Ling Wang wrote a book on the topic, and foreigners are mentioned starting at Page 71).

-- So, no, you can't just hop on a plane, hit the streets of Shanghai with a resume, and land a vice president's job.

-- The article refers to two people who allegedly became "proficient" in Mandarin in two years. That's hard to believe.

-- The Times is playing to the arrogance of its younger readers. Recent graduates of top colleges think they have a lot to offer, and the article indulges in the fantasy by saying, "There's this cool place where they'll pay you a lot just for being you."

-- I didn't want to hear it when I was 22, but the reality is that 22-year-olds don't know a damn thing. They don't have meaningful work experience, they don't have useful contacts, they don't have transferable skills. Michael Barone wrote a whole book on why the United States produces such useless 18-year-olds and such productive 30-year-olds, and one reason is that seasoning in the workplace makes a world of difference.

-- Others on the article: China Law Blog (excellent comments). China Hearsay. Waiguoren. The Beijinger. Beijing Boyce (ignores the story; was probably focusing on beer and pizza review).

Pictured: New grads will learn the difference between reading about China's smog and experiencing it. Doesn't seem as much fun now, does it, Breck? Please go back to Widener Library and find another city to ruin. Thank you.

Note: A special Knife Tricks welcome to James Fallows readers.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chief Justice Roberts Kills At The Comedy Festival

Sherman Oaks, California

He's actually giving a presentation about the least significant U.S. Supreme Court justice in history. But he's funny. For a judge.

An excerpt:

Exactly What The Beijing Expat Scene Needs

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Massachusetts Parable

Sherman Oaks, California

(Editor's Note: One rule of life is to never publish thoughts which arrive in the pre-dawn hours, before the sober rods of morning. Knife Tricks will now break that rule.)

A mystery lingers over the Commonwealth. The young Prince, Deval Patrick, sits firm in the Corner Office. The opposition can squeek with its mousy minorities, but Deval gets his way. His sales tax hike. His liquor excise. One day -- can't a man dream -- he will be the hero who repeals Prop. 2 1/2 and allows the full value of the Commonwealth to be used to serve itself, with well-paid-connected drivers and well-paid-connected-nurses and -- oohhh, the loyalty he could buy upon seizing the treasure trapped in the long-held houses of those who don't pay their fair share. It will be a glorious day.

But, in the shaded back seats of his Cadillac, when the snappers have gone, and the phone was turned off, and the kids with the maps and gizmos slept, Youg Prince Deval would grow morose. Because, while life was play, and so was every day for Prince Deval, he was, still, only, merely, just a prince.

One far fairer had become king. One who promised Deval, his friend, his comrade, that, in the fullness of time, Prince Deval would be asked to join the royal court upon the Potomac. And this Deval wanted, more than anything, more than honey or milk or the sap from a maple tree, Deval wanted to sit in Washington at the hand of the King.

But Deval had a task to attend. A great lion was truly in winter, would not live out the season. The laws of the realm gave Deval, and no one else, the power to choose a new lion.

Deval understood. He would remain a prince -- cut off from the Word and the Light in the great white mansion to the south -- until the lion had died and Deval chose a successor. Which meant that The King would make the selection; Deval would announce it as his own; credit for wisdom would flow to the King (who would not deny his role); ridicule for a poor choice would fall only upon Deval.

It was a risk. But everybody whispered about why the King had left his boon companion in a small, mean province of the empire. "If this succession goes smoothly," Deval thought, "The guarded gates at the King's House will open in favor for me. That would be true happiness."

To Be Continued.

Update: Morning remembers that, upon a U.S. Senate vacancy, Massachusetts must call a special election. Same diff. The King wants only one frontrunner in that contest, which will be heavy with symbolism.


Monday, August 10, 2009

"I Am The Mob": The Curious Return of an Obscure Britpop Expression

Sherman Oaks, California

"I am the mob" is the new rallying cry of people who oppose President Obama's push for health care legislation.

The expression appears to originate from insinuations from Democratic partisans that citizens protesting Obamacare are an unruly mob. In reply, a meme started to form last week in which ordinary citizens proclaimed, "I am the mob!" (Instapundit mentions it here, with video.)

It's an interesting turn of phrase -- one which Britpop obsessives will recognize.

In 1998, the Welsh band Catatonia released a single titled "I am the Mob." The song had nothing to do with a public option for health insurance; it was an ode to gangster films. The melody was catchy, but don't look too hard at the lyrics, one of which was "I put horses' heads/in people's beds/'cause I am the mob." Luca Brasi is namechecked in the final chorus.

Eleven years later, the expression is back. Here's the original video:

Read My Friend's Blog: Measuring Caveman Skulls

Sherman Oaks, California

Lawyer-turned-scientist David Katz, who contributed to Knife Tricks last year about his archaeological dig in Spain, is currently roadtripping across the United States on a research project. His blog, Bone Trip, is here.

He is visiting several museums on a route (pictured) which will allow him to determine why certain human ancestors have stronger jaws than we do today. Or, as I like to say, he's measuring caveman skulls.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Growing Disjunction Between Legal Education and The Legal Profession

The Growing Disjunction Between Legal Education and the Legal Profession, by Harry T. Edwards (91 Michigan Law Review 34 (1992)).

The Growing Disjunction Between Legal Education and the Legal Profession: A Postscript, by Harry T. Edwards (91 Michigan Law Review 2191 (1993)).

In 1992, a federal judge wrote an article which castigated law professors for preferring theory over practical scholarship.

Seventeen years later, nothing has changed.

Harry T. Edwards (pictured), a Carter appointee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, caused a minor brouhaha when his article, “The Growing Disjunction Between Legal Education and the Legal Profession,” was published in the Michigan Law Review. The following year, the journal published a symposium on Judge Edwards’ critique, with the judge contributing a follow-up “Postscript.”

Superficially, Judge Edwards’ argument was well trod: Many law professors write highly theoretical scholarship which is of no use to anybody.

But Judge Edwards made a more profound point, primarily in the Postscript: The disconnect between scholars and the rest of the legal world was growing because many professors disdained and marginalized anything (or anyone) associated with the actual practice of law.

“A good number of law professors are altogether uninterested in producing scholarship useful to practicing lawyers, judges, administrators, and legislators,” Judge Edwards wrote.

Practical scholarship, in his mind, is both doctrinal (mindful of pre-existing laws which limit people’s options) and prescriptive (designed to aid lawyers, guide judges and advise legislators). The best examples of practical scholarship are the great treatises -- William Prosser on Torts, Laurence Tribe on American Constitutional Law – which organize and interpret the law and are often the first place that judges and lawyers look when seeking to answer a question.

The impractical scholarship in vogue among the professoriate features neither of these attributes. Many professors write disinquisitions on what the law should be, but they ignore the fact that their proposals are illegal under the current regime. Judge Edwards calls the law and economics scholars to task on this point; a new rule may be more efficient, but there’s not much a judge can do in the face of a validly promulgated but inefficient regulation.

The solution is simple. “The law schools must hire more ‘practical’ scholars,” Judge Edwards suggested. But the culture of the law school won’t have it.

“The problem is not simply the number of ‘practical’ scholars, but their waning prestige within the academy,” he wrote. Professors who focus on workable solutions to real-world problems are considered second-rate. No one at a top school makes their name anymore by writing a treatise.

“The academic lawyer who makes it his business to be learned in the law and expert in parsing cases and statutes is made . . . to seem a paltry fellow,” Judge Richard Posner is quoted by Judge Edwards as writing.

“Those professors who chose to write about topics which might be of concern to a more general population risked censure from their colleagues or accusations that the topics were not ‘scholarly,’” said one of Judge Edwards’ former clerks. (Much of Judge Edwards’ articles are culled from a survey of his clerks and from communications he received from colleagues.)

The impractical scholars replicate themselves – and protect their turf – by refusing to hire practical people. “A faculty candidate who is not heavily into theory has little chance of being hired,” one professor wrote to Judge Edwards. “'Practical scholars’ are dismissed as being, to use their favored expression, ‘uninteresting.’”

In turn, the resistance to useful scholarship dissuades lawyers with a practical bent from seeking academic employment. “And those students who are not interested in interdisciplinary work, but are merely extraordinarily talented lawyers, shy away from a career in the academy because they know that the kind of work that they would be interested in doing is not valued,” one dean wrote.

Seventeen years is less than one generation by the long-tenured standards of university departments, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the situation has not improved.

If anything, it seems to be worse. Interdisciplinary movements – in which professors import into law the standards or findings of other disciplines – are still going strong; the current rage is the impact of evolutionary psychology on the law.

The most practical law school courses – research and writing, and the clinics (in which students work on actual cases) – are not taught by tenure-track personnel, but are shunted off to junior instructors working under one- or two-year contracts. Worse, a stint as a writing or clinical instructor is seen as a black mark which can hinder an academic's chances of advancement. The readership of most law review articles can be counted on one hand, but they remain the principal criterion for academic hiring and promotion.

Judge Edwards still serves on the appellate bench. His rulings are looked to for guidance and clarity. He co-wrote a book about federal standards of review, a topic which is both conceptually interesting and of immense practical importance. Lawyers and litigants across the country listen to what he has to say.

But not law professors. Many are content to sit in their offices, collecting a paycheck for the rest of their lives while engaging in a discourse only a dozen others follow. And, no, they won’t hire people who disagree with them.

Judge Edwards’ disjunction grows wider each year.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Breaking: Reporter Writes About Conjectures Based On Innuendo

Sherman Oaks, California

Reporter Steve Henn of American Public Media's Marketplace radio program today submitted one of the worst pieces of newswriting I've heard this year.

Henn's report is entitled "Are Lobbyists Behind Recent Protests?," and the focus is on whether pharma companies or other large health care interests are financing or coordinating various nationwide protests against President Obama's health care legislation.

That's a good question, but Henn never answers it. He has no evidence that the protests are anything other than a grass roots rally by citizens who oppose the president's plans.

Instead, Henn's sources state that the country's campaign finance laws are so weak that a corporate lobby could concoct a phony movement without having to disclose the fact. Again, Henn has no evidence that this is happening, only conjecture that it could. And, by an amazing coincidence, the conjecture fits congruently with this week's push by the Democratic National Committee to paint opponents of the president's proposals as extreme and inauthentic.

Henn didn't have the story, so why did the producers of Marketplace allow his half-baked report to air? My conjecture is that it's what public radio's left-leaning audience wanted to hear, which could be true.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Letter From Obama: How To Make The United States Cave

Executive Mansion, Washington

Dear Publicity-Hungry Tyrants of the World:

We here in the West Wing of the White House are thrilled with the ransom we have negotiated with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il for the return of two kidnapped American journalists. The General, as the man who never served in the military is known within his country, gets to dominate today's news cycle, letting the world see him looking healthy (if not exactly robust) and forcing an ex-president to come a'calling.

Consequently, to help the blood-soaked monsters of the world understand exactly how to manipulate us, we are issuing the following guidelines:

1. Kidnap Our Citizens. But, for Pete's sake, don't be obvious about it. If you pull one of ours off the street and request money, the American people might get mad and demand military action, which would be overplaying your hand. Instead, charge our citizen with a crime and conduct a show trial. The commercial nature of the enterprise will be lost amid chatter about the Vienna Convention and international border disputes.

2. Only Kidnap One Or Two. Americans have a hard time focusing on a large number of people. That's why the interest in American Idol becomes stronger as the number of contestants decreases. Kidnap one or two people so that it's easy for producers and editors to run the pawn's photos again and again.

Which leads to the most important guideline of all . . . .

3. Only Kidnap Attractive Young Women. Ugly jarheads can waste away in hell holes for years, and only the military will notice. Purloining a bald oil executive is a one-day story. But kidnap a hot babe, and it's weeks of coverage.

Iran had to take a mulligan on this one. In 2007, Iran detained an American professor named Haleh Esfandiari on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime. Problem: The eminent Ms. Esfandiari isn't a beauty queen, so CNN was not inclined to run 24/7 video of her.

Iran realized its mistake, released the frumpy professor and kidnapped an actual beauty queen. Roxana Saberi (pictured) was a former Miss North Dakota, the cable channels had their cheesecake, and the mullahs had their leverage.

So, while we welcome home Laura Ling and Euna Lee, we should take a moment to reflect upon how easy it is make the United States roll over through the tactic of targetted imprisonment of our citizens. Our hottest citizens.


President Obama

Monday, August 03, 2009

There Are No Stupid Democrats (Well, Maybe One)

Sherman Oaks, California

There are no stupid Democrats.

By which I mean, there are no Democrats or liberals whom the media consistently portray as stupid.

The list of “stupid” Republicans is a quick jot: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle and W. were all caricatured as thick and incurious. Sarah Palin was a recent, juicy target of condescension over her perceived lack of smarts, as was failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. Representative Michele Bachmann is also being hazed.

In some cases, the portrait may be correct.

But I can’t think of more than one instance in the last 30 years – I’ll get to it at the end of this post -- where the public persona of a high-profile Democrat or liberal included regular insinuations of stupidity.

There have certainly been contenders. John “Four Ds” Kerry. Al Gore, on his more jabbermouth days. Joe Biden, every day. America also has a minor tradition of black Democratic congresswomen who make palpably insane comments: Sheila Jackson Lee. Cynthia McKinney. Maxine Waters.

And then there are the mayors. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa flunked the bar exam four times (and never passed). Chicago mayor Richard Daley rarely, to swipe an old Mike Royko line about the mayor’s father, exits the same sentence he entered. The current mayor of Boston is nicknamed “Mumbles,” and his predecessor came firmly from the jock-to-politico school of government. None of them is depicted as stupid. Their mangled syntax is “colorful.” Their ho-hum degrees are “authentic.”

Perceived intelligence appears to be “sticky,” as the economists say. Once a Democrat has a reputation for brain power, no amount of fumbling will erase it. Robert Rubin is and will always be “smart,” although the former Treasury Secretary helped take Citigroup down to 97¢ a share. Larry Summers flamed out as president of Harvard University. Barack Obama can recommend painkillers for a heart condition, which is faulty medical advice, but no one dares question his intelligence.

The trope – Republicans or conservatives with Ivy League credentials can be stupid, but Democrats or liberals can’t be regardless of pedigree – isn’t a judgment call on intelligence. It’s an ideological attack.

The mandarin class – by which I mean highly educated white-collar professionals and media workers – leans to the left and showers favor upon the like-minded. If you generally vote their way (for higher taxes, for a comprehensive “safety net,” for increased government interventions into the economy), you get a pass. If you don’t, not even degrees from Yale College and Harvard Business School will shield you from ridicule.

The one counter-example: Former congressman Joe Kennedy was considered a dimwit, and the perception sometimes bled through to his portrayal in the media. But that’s the exception that proves the rule, and Kennedy’s sour coverage was primarily a product of his personal misbehavior mixing with the ongoing storylines of his family.

So my question stands. Other than Joe Kennedy, which Democrats or liberals of the past 30 years were regularly portrayed in the media as stupid?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Breathless In Trafalgar Square

Sherman Oaks, California

My friend The Texan left a voicemail saying that what Knife Tricks really needs is more videos of waiflike Northern European ingenues singing pop-rock ballads.