Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This is 21st Century Dickens. The story of a tough, thoughtful kid bouncing from place to place in the wake of societal upheaval. Crazy and memorable supporting characters, that will almost surely get two or three actors an Oscar nomination when the movie comes out. Like Dickens, The Goldfinch is loved by adoring fans and loathed by snobbish critics. Count me among the former.

The Golfinch has been criticized in some publications for imprecise language. Perhaps. But it also has some incredibly moving passages and pretty wonderful folk wisdom. It's not afraid to bend genres- at times a social commentary on a grand scale, in other moments a young adult novel, at its most exciting0 an adventure yarn.

Highly recommended - especially for Dickens fans, art-history lovers, and New Yorkers.

The Known World by Edward Jones

This Edward P. Jones novel is about black slaveowners, which was in actuality a thing that happened. It is one of the essential novel about slaveries; a more subtle (if less wrenching) companion to Beloved. There are some clever narrative turns in the story and several beautifully formed characters. I will say this never hit home with me in the way that the greatest novels do. White characters are central to the narrative and indeed are portrayed quite sympathetically.

A very good novel, but not quite a great one for me at least.

Sisters in Law by Linda Hirshmann

This duel judicial biography of Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a mixed bag for me. The story provides some interesting details about the first two women on the Supreme Court, does an excellent job chronicling RBG's litigation strategy in important women's right cases, and provides some wonderful behind the scenes information about several key cases. My issue with the book is that Hirshmann seems intent on cheerleading rather than neutrally analyzing her subjects. She elides over many of O'Connor's conservative decisions and never grapples with some of the seeming contradictions of Ginsburg's life. For instance, the book notes that she was criticized by Orrin Hatch for promoting affirmative action but never having hired a minority law clerk during her Supreme Court hearings. This seems like an interesting thing to delve into; Hirshmann never does.

Not a bad duel biography, but it would have been better had Hirshmann been more willing to put her subjects under the microscope.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I think its quite human that authors tend to write about characters like themselves and that resemble people they know. It's also quite human that many of our favorite stories we can relate to in a personal way. There is nothing wrong with this phenomenon.

But I think the power of great fiction is that it allows to you to climb in someone else's skin and walk around in it, to paraphrase one of the finest fictional character ever, Atticus Finch. Indeed, reading fiction has been shown to be one of the few surefire ways to increase empathy in humans.

All of this is to say that Olive Kitteridge is about an elderly woman who lives in rural Maine who more or less has the concerns you would expect her to have. Her husband's health. Her son's family. Slights from other women. Not exactly my world at this point in life. But Olive's story is deeply human. She wants to be loved by those she loves, she must put up with annoying people; at times she feels at time she cannot escape her sadness, during other moments she finds surprising contentment from small victories.

A well-executed piece of fiction.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, this collage of stories is some pretty virtuoso shit. Each chapter is about a different individual, but their different stories constantly criss-cross and overlap. Stories take place on a safari in Africa, early 1980s San Francisco, 1990s Naples, an unnamed third world country, and modern day New York.

Sasha is the character who has the biggest role in the narrative, and the book is at its best when it focuses on her. A chapter that uses Power Point slides will move you a shocking amount.

Highly recommended.

Tinkers by Paul Harding

In my string of reading recent Pulitzer Prize winning novels, this was the only one I didn't like. The book is about a man with epilepsy in rural Maine and his son who makes clocks. That might be an unfair description but the book seemed about that mundane to me. Clocking (get it?) in at under 200 pages, at least Tinkers is a quick read. And there are some pretty passages. But I didn't find this book moving, adventurous, or informative. Not recommended.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

I liked this, but it never connected with me in a deep way. The rare Pulitizer Prize winner for Fiction that is a collection of short stories, I think some f Lahiri's pieces work much better than others. Some of the stories are set in India, others in the U.S. In general, I think the U.S. based stories work best probably because that is the world Lahiri knows better. Women unhappy with their romantic lives is the most common narrative but the stories touch on a number of larges themes. The final story- The Third and Final Continent- was certainly my favorite. It's simple and profound, optimistic but honest.

Recommended if you enjoyed the movie The Namesake, have an interest in immigrant experiences or India. 

Radicals in Robes by Cass Sunstein

There are a lot of constitutional law books, certainly the field attracts more popular press books than any other legal field. These normally fall under one of several genres: judicial biography of a judge or justice or general overview of recent cases. Sunstein, who is the most cited law professor in the world, does something different and brilliant in Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right Wing Courts are Wrong for America (2005). He lays out a completely different way of thinking about constitutional law.

He breaks SCOTUS justices into four categories: fundamentals, perfectionists, minimalists, and majoritarians. The book does two things incredibly well: (1) refute and point out the hypocrisies of the fundamentalists (essentially originalists) and (2) offer a thoughtful theoretical backing of the pragmatic jurisprudence that is how the court so often proceeds.

One of the best constitutional law books I've read. Highly recommended for anyone interested in constitutional law.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Why You Should be Reading Noah Feldman

Sometimes silly arguments arise over the foremost public intellectual of our time. While meaningless, these debates can be fun. Paul Krugman's name certainly has popped up many a time for good reason; his prescient economic and political analysis has been bolstered by his Nobel Prize in Economics and his powerful perch on the New York Times' opinion page. Ta-Nehisi Coates nominated Melissa Harris-Perry and then a lot of people nominated him instead. There are strong arguments for many a candidate: Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Kristof, Larry Summers, and Steven Pinker all come to mind.

I would select Noah Feldman as someone of increasing importance. In the run up to the 2016 election, several issues seem to be rising to the forefront of the country's mind. The Supreme Court, with Justice Scalia's empty seat now up for grabs, is going to remain a campaign issue until November. The coming confirmation battle and the release of a number of incredibly important decisions over the next few months will also vault the Court to the top of the headlines. Abortion rights, deferred action for immigrants, affirmative action, public-sector unions, redistricting, and the death penalty are all up in the air.

Fears of terrorism and the rise of ISIS are also increasingly on many Americans' minds. Such concerns have dramatic effect on our policies: immigration, privacy, and religious freedom could all be affected. Most importantly, terror concerns will affect our foreign policy. If, when, where, and how we intervene in the Middle East has been a defining question of the 21st century, and it will continue to be so in the coming years.

Few if any people can claim genuine expertise on both issues- except Noah Feldman. He earned D.Phil while studying the Middle East at Oxford a Rhodes Scholar, and is an acclaimed Con Law scholar . He has clerked for Justice Souter and helped draft the Iraqi Constitution. He has written books on both Islamic politics and the Supreme Court. He is an incredibly prolific columnist at Bloomberg View.

His book Scorpions, which in my mind may be the best book yet written about the Supreme Court, is a warning to both President Obama and the Senate that sometimes you don't know what you are going to get with a nominee. Justice Hugo Black was a member of the KKK before he joined the Senate. In time, he became one of the most passionate advocates for civil rights on the Supreme Court. Justice Felix Frankfurter was a leading liberal intellectual when appointed; he retired with a legacy as a moderately conservative justice. Justice Jackson advocated for expansive presidential powers as Attorney General; on the court, he wrote the most famous opinion of all time limiting executive power. Some of these changes may have been predictable, others certainly were not.

If you want to get deep analysis on the most pressing issues of the day, read Noah Feldman.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Legacy of Justice Scalia

A lot of ink has been spilled about Justice Scalia over the last five days. Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman has written two interesting columns, Cass Sunstein (another Harvard bloomberger) also wrote a thoughtful and nostalgic take on the late justice, and his former law clerk and current Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen contributed a moving op-ed in the New York Times. Irin Carmon wrote about Scalia's famed friendship with the great liberal Justice Ginsburg while Stephen Carter has lamented the lack of civility of Justice Scalia's detractors in the wake of his death. A number of other smart pieces have been written. There is only so much I can add when so many insightful obituaries have been written, but let me just pitch in a few thoughts.

1. Clarence Thomas began trending on Twitter following Scalia's death. A lot of tweets were published along the lines of "How is Thomas going to know which side to take now?"; "Who will Clarence Thomas get his homework from?"; "Who's going to adopt Clarence Thomas?" and so on. I think these tweets, quite frankly, have some disturbing racial undertones. I don't hear anyone on either side of the aisle claiming Justice Kagan is a pawn of Justice Ginsburg, even though they have parted ways fewer times over the last few years than Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia. But then she's a female Jew siding with another female Jew. Justice Thomas, not so much.

Followers of the Court know that Thomas is more conservative and more originalist than Justice Scalia ever was. This may not be a good thing- indeed I think its bad- but the notion that Clarence Thomas can't think for himself is ridiculous. Just last term, he parted with Scalia and joined the liberals on two big cases. In Walker v. Texas, he upheld a state's ability to forbid the issuing of license plates with confederate flags on them. And in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, an important but under discussed case, he determined that the executive branch has significant power over when and how to recognize other foreign nations. Justice Thomas is his own man; he may have lost a colleague and a friend but he won't be lost in the wilderness without Justice Scalia.

2. Others have pointed this out, but I think there is a big difference between the first fifteen years of Justice Scalia on the Court and the last fifteen. Justice Scalia used to be a renegade; he was a social conservative and an originalist, but he would allow his decisions to follow his constitutional interpretation. He determined that flag burning was permissible political speech and often sided with criminal defendants in 4th Amendment cases. Over the last ten years though, Scalia, more than any member of the Court, was a politician in robes.

3. I think law professors have been a little too easy on Justice Scalia. Whereas the public and the political world are completely results driven, law professors tend to care about contributions to constitutional theory and decision consistency. This is a good instinct and law professors see important things that even knowledgeable members of the public can't spot. But I would highly contest the notion that Justice Scalia was a great justice because he pushed an innovative constitutional theory and turned it mainstream. Was he incredibly influential? Certainly. A brilliant writer? Without a doubt. But a great justice? Hardly. On the biggest decisions of his career- Bush v. Gore, NFIB v. Sebelius, D.C. v. Heller, Obergefell v. Hodges- he has consistently come out on the wrong side. A great justice he was not.

4. First and foremost, everyone should remember Justice Scalia was a human being. Indeed, by all accounts he was a charming, funny, and brilliant person. He may have been wrong, but he was not evil. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ranking the Top 10 GOP Candidates: From Least Awful to Most Horrific

It's not a pretty list. 

1. Marco Rubio

The Good: I think its pretty clear he genuinely wants immigration reform; from his support of the Gang of 8 bill to his tears during the Pope's immigration speech. Reforms would drastically improve the lives of people living in the shadows, and would improve the American economy through increased skilled immigration. He also actually has talked about the need to address poverty.

The Bad: He can't manage his own finances. In other news, his budget would add a trillion dollars to the national debt

The Ugly: He is a foreign policy hawk who seems to have learned very little from global events over the past decade. He thinks abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and wants the gay marriage decision to be overturned.

2. John Kasich

The Good: He actually has significant relevant experience; from his Budget Committee Chairmanship in the House to his leadership over the state of Ohio. He has decried some of the hate coming from the frontrunner's mouths.

The Bad: He has shown no interest in improving his state's infrastructure. He thinks Planned Parenthood should be defunded.

The Ugly: He supports a balanced budget amendment. Even conservative think tanks have warned this is a stupid idea.

3. Jeb Bush

The Good: He has stuck to his guns (mostly) on immigration reform, whereas Rubio has largely folded. Despite his last name, he seems like the least likely to embarrass American internationally.

The Bad: He possesses his brother's command of the English language, but lacks W's.......charm.

The Ugly: He has chosen the same foreign policy advisers as his brother.  Because that went well the firs time.

4. Rand Paul:

The Good: He has smart things to say about criminal justice issues, and he understands that war is not always the answer.

The Bad: He grandstands on national security issues to secure campaign donations.

The Ugly: He completely betrays his supposed libertarianism when it comes to immigration. Freedom of movement is...not a freedom.

5. Chris Christie

The Good: Governor Yells at People sometimes yells at the right people. He has actually talked about economic issues with some sense, and seems to be socially moderate by GOP standards.

The Bad:  He had the audacity to tell someone else to lose weight.

The Ugly: Seems to be trying to get to the right of the field on national security issues, which is sort of like trying to win a hot dog eating against Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut.

6. Carly Fiorina

The Good: She isn't Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

The Bad: That Compaq Merger.

The Ugly: The Carly curse.

7. Ben Carson

The Good: I have a rebuttal when my med school friends tell me doctors are smarter than lawyers.

The Bad: I prefer my presidents to know more about foreign policy than Herman Cain and/or my sister's cat.

The Ugly: During his brief surge to the front of the pack, he made Donald Trump briefly seem intelligent and reasonable.

8. Mike Huckabee:

The Good: He seems like a nice guy if you are a straight white Christian.

The Bad: Many Americans would not fall under that category.

The Ugly: The whole Kim Davis saga.

9. Ted Cruz

The Good: He is a genius.

The Bad: He is an evil genius.

The Ugly: I thought long and hard about whether he deserved the No. 10 Spot.

10. Donald Trump.

The Good: System error. System error. System error. System error.

The Bad: He is tanking my resume. U PENN is a good school, I swear.

The Ugly: He is an incendiary bigot, a disgusting sexist, an uncompromising racist, a shameful hypocrite, knows nothing about foreign policy, knows nothing about economic policy, knows nothing about anything, and could potentially be the worst thing to happen to the United States in my lifetime.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Friedrichs and Conservative Hypocrisy on Judicial Activism

On Monday, the Supreme Court is set to hear Friedrichs v. California Teacher Association. The fate of public sector unions possibly hangs in the balance; if the Supreme Court sides with the majority government unions will no longer be able to collect fees from non-members that benefit from the union's collective bargaining. The plaintiffs in this case argue that there First Amendment's rights are being violated because they are forced to financially contribute to the unions;  they claim this results in compelled political speech.

I don't think the plaintiff's case is prima facie absurd. Unions certainly engage in political activities, though they will surely point out that Ms. Friedrichs got a rebate check for activities they partook in which they considered political. The plaintiffs will counter that all union activity is inherently political; in an age when budgets are stretched at the local level across the country, teacher's wages are inherently political. I think this is a stretch, but I can see where the plaintiffs are coming from.

Which brings me to the conservative National Review.

Every day on National Review's Bench Memos page, Ed Whelan writes a blog post titled "this day in liberal judicial activism." He bemoans things like the appointment of liberal judges, the expansion of gay rights, and cases striking down restrictions on birth control. To his credit, Ed Whelan entitles this series "Liberal Judicial Activism." This is good, because his co-authors at the National Review actually love judicial activism, so long as its the conservative kind.

Over the last two weeks, the conservative magazine has posted a number of pieces arguing that Friedrics should win her case. George Will 
vents "never in its 225 years has the First Amendment been under so varied and sustained attacks." Never mind the fact that there were very few free speech cases at all for the first 130 years, the Alien & Sedition ActsWorld War I propaganda committees, or the Espionage Act of 1917. Definitely those were smaller incursions than the campus activists of today. 

Robert Alt has also done a series of posts advocating for the plaintiffs. Notably, in his post arguing that the Court should not follow precedent, he relies heavily onCitizens United. Alt claims "the howls of “politicization” by the Left if the Roberts Court fails to adhere to stare decisis are disingenuous—and, some might say, political—at best.  The Left cares little for adherence to precedent or tradition, unless it is their precedent."

Alt isn't totally wrong here; liberals surely use starre decisis [upholding prior cases] in politically convenient ways. But so do conservatives. Alt is literally accusing the left of misusing starre decisisin an article where he is saying "yes, starre decisis is great, but um not here." It cuts both ways.

But even worse for Alt is the laughable conservative hypocrisy on judicial activism. For decades, it has been common conservative rhetoric to rail against judicial activism, to decry liberal judges who used the equal protection or due process clause to expand rights to minority groups. Certainly liberals have bemoaned conservative judicial activism, but it has never been a rallying cry of the left. There is no "this day in conservative judicial activism" daily segment, even though there easily could be.

Friedrichs is judicial activism at its finest. The plaintiffs have been chosen by a public interest law firm, they did not file suit organically. The lawyers are seeking to use the courts to bring about social change rather than the democratic process. Forget federalism, the plaintiffs here wants to impose the same rule on all the states. Friedrichs would overturn a precedent of nearly four decades, throwingstarre decisis aside. It would use vague language to greatly expand rights in a way that could dramatically transform our country. The case may also be textually debatable. Remember the First Amendment, according to the Constitution, only applies to Congress. Where are all the conservative strict constructions wailing against atextual First Amendment incorporation? Nowhere to be found of course.

Friedrichs is supposed to be everything conservatives hate. But alas, the judicial activism line was always a front. It's time for conservatives to stop playing coy and admit they have always loved (conservative) judicial activism.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Revenant and Inarritu's Genius (No Spoilers I promise)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is making a strong case for being the most impressive director of the 21st century. Certainly he has plenty of competition; Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese continue to amaze, Christopher Nolan continues do his thing while reaping in enormous profits, and there are certainly valid arguments to be made for David Fincher, Richard Linklater, the Coen Brothers, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and others. But AGI may have separated himself with The Revenant.

For a while, Inarritu was known as a one trick pony. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel were all deadly serious and somber films that weaved multiple stories into a breathtaking tapestry. That said, following Babel, some wondered whether Inarritu had any other cards. I would have been perfectly content if he didn't; Amores Perros is nothing short of the best Mexican film I've ever seen, and Babel was an astonishing blend of beautiful shots, moving music, and heartfelt acting that visually explained many of the cultural misunderstandings that still plague us today.

In 2009, Inarritu made Biutiful. It's by far his most underrated movie, one of the few which critics en masse got wrong (its a 58 on metacritic). It's as solemn as Inarritu's original trilogy, but this time the relentless focus of Inarritu's camera is on poor Javier Bardem rather than multiple protagonists. Then came Birdman in 2014, a true departure in tone for the Mexican. I think it's less of a film than Biutiful yet still was one of the best films of last year. Certainly others agreed, as Inarritu won Best Director and Birdman won Best Picture at last year's Oscar's.

Now he's back with The Revenant. It's a stunning film, simultaneously inspiring and depressing. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in his best performance in a long time; DiCaprio is often exciting and moving as an actor, but since 2006 I can't seem to forget that I'm watching DiCaprio instead of the character. That's not the case here. It's an amazing, gritty performance, and I think it will deservedly bring DiCaprio the Oscar he has been waiting for. Tom Hardy also deserves immense credit for his tenacious performance; I don't understand why he always gets snubbed at awards season.

People can disagree over who has been the best director this century, its much harder to argue Emmanuel Lubezki has not been the top cinematographer. He has won the Oscar the past two years Gravity and Birdman and I would be shocked if he does not become the first cinematographer to win the award three years in a row. Lubezki and Inarritu insisted on using only natural light and settings, meaning the actors and crew nearly froze to death. But the rewards were worth the suffering: The Revenant is one of the beautiful, visually stunning films I've ever seen. The action scenes have a verisimilitude I have never experienced and the landscapes are nothing short of gorgeous.

The Revenant is a masterpiece, short and simple. Go see it.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Are Sports Fans Rational?

In an excellent presentation on decision making today, Wharton Professor Joseph Simmons mentioned a study he conducted showing how sports fans participated in motivated reasoning. Specifically, Simmons displayed a graph from his paper co-written by Cade Massey and David Armor , showing that participants in the study were much more likely to pick their favorite team to win. They did this even though they had financial incentive to pick accurately. (If you want to look at the paper, its the 2011 'Hope Over Experience' paper on Simmons' page).

The paper immediately struck me as correct but incomplete. Yes, fans were participating in motivated reasoning, but that wasn't the only thing going on in the data. Their are reasons sports fans would pick their team to win even if they expected them to lose.

Take fantasy football for instance. For my fantasy teams, I almost always end up with a disproportionate number of Ravens (my home team). I have no doubt the same is true for millions of others. It's fun to route for players I like, and even more so when I am lucky enough to be at the stadium to watch the game. Moreover, its awkward when you are partially routing for the other team.

Let's say Ben Roethlisberger (of the Pittsburgh Steelers) was my quarterback this year and I made the championship game of my league (neither are true). This year in Week 16, typically championship week in fantasy football, Roethlisberger was playing the Ravens in Baltimore. I was fortunate enough to go to the game. As it turned out, Big Ben has a horrible game and the Ravens pulled off the surprising sweep of the Steelers. It even made it seem as if the Steelers would miss the playoffs until the Jets got Fitzpatricked. I was jumping, screaming, and celebrating like all the other fans. It was definitely the highlight of the season for the Ravens. But if I had had Roethlisberger on my team, I would not have been nearly as happy.

This same reasoning also applies to betting on games. If I had picked the Steelers to win, I would have felt more neutral about the victory. People don't watch sports to be ambivalent; they watch them to be excited, to scream at the television, to curse the refs, and to high-five their friends. A lot of people bet on sports as much to make the games more exciting as they do to win money. Games with teams you don't care about become a lot more exciting when you have a routing interest.

In other words, for the majority of sports fans, the utility they get from watching games is from supporting a team. Their increase in welfare comes from the experience of cheering for a team, be it out of life long allegiance or a recent $20 bet. As such is the case, I believe most fans betting on their favorite team in the Massey et al paper were behaving rationally. They got more utility out of unequivocally routing for their team (and now they had money on them!) then they got out of their expected financial gains from picking the more likely victor.

I think this logic also explains another interesting finding of Massey et al: that supporters of teams with very very low odds are more rational than teams with about a 50/50 shot at winning. Fans of teams in a close matchup expect to experience the excitement of a game that is likely to be back and forth. Fans of bottom-feeding teams have different expectations though: they expect to be bored by their team getting destroyed. The utility they derive from watching the game is lower than the expected gain from accurately predicting the correct result.

To be clear, I'm not arguing against anything in the paper. The authors say in their conclusion that its an open question about whether these optimistic fans are being rational. I am merely arguing that screaming fans might be pretty smart after all.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

No, Grover You are Not the Rebel Alliance and You Could Not Defeat the U.S. Army

We'd all be speaking English if this guy hadn't intervened.

Grover Norquist, best known as the guy who make Republicans sign a pledge ensuring the world they will never raise taxes, has recently taken to twitter in defense of gun rights. Clearly, he was inspired by the The Force Awakens. By "inspired", I mean encouraged to make really dumb analogies.

Let's list the problems with this analogy.

1. First off, the stormtroopers in this example would presumably be the U.S. military. You know, stormtroopers who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. I think this guy, whatever you else want to say about him, might disagree with Grover's analogy about the competence and accuracy of the fighters in question.

2. Stormtroopers, Finn aside, aren't heroes. Many Americans soldiers are quite heroic.

3. Stormtroopers are led by these guys. American soldiers are led by these ones.

4. American foreign policy certain has its solid share of faults. But it's fair to say we are normally trying to kick evil dudes out of power, instead of preserving their rule.

5. The notion that we need guns as a check on the federal government is ridiculous. Armed civilians are not going to stop our army, which also has things like drones and nuclear weapons. And no our advanced weapons (or as Norquist sees them, "death stars") aren't built with logistical weaknesses allowing themselves to be destroyed the same way over and over again.

Grover could potentially respond that we should give everyone weapons of mass destruction, to make it a fair fight. At which point even the NRA would say hold it there Ol' Grover.

Grover applied this same logic to another set of facts in a subsequent tweet.
 God forbid, not English. Oh wait.

There are some reasonable arguments against gun control. These aren't them.