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Occupational licensing and ex-cons


Matt Yglesias has had a great series of posts up about how little sense it makes for state governments to require certification before someone can provide simple services like haircuts. The silliness of occupational licensing is one of my pet issues, and I’m stunned by how many intelligent people spend time justifying the status quo instead of applying the free market principles they otherwise claim to support.

For an indication of just how ridiculous some of this licensing gets, check out this list of occupations in North Carolina requiring government licensing. Along with Yglesias’s hobbyhorse, barbers, North Carolina also requires government charters for athletic agents, chick and egg dealers [presumably referring to chickens], geologists and soil scientists [but no other scientists], interpreters, landscape contractors, manicurists, refrigeration contractors, seed dealers, and scores of other workers.

Those of us who question the extent of occupational licensing in America usually argue that it is just a tool that helps currently-licensed providers limit competition and thus artificially raise prices and profits — all while hiding under the guise of consumer protection. To be sure, licensing is a good idea for certain classes of services in which market forces and lawsuits don’t provide sufficient deterrent to and remedies for harm. But how does “landscape contractor” fall into that category? Anyone who believes that landscape contractors clearly need a government license to operate, while gardeners are good to go without public imprimatur, is probably letting their preexisting beliefs and status quo bias guide their ‘principles’.

But back to Matt Yglesias. His final post in the series praises Barack Obama for making some positive moves towards liberalizing Illinois’ licensure regime.

And Yglesias is partly right. Barack Obama, as a state senator in Illinois, was the primary sponsor behind a bill that eased occupational licensing restrictions for convicted felons. The felon, after living crime-free for a period of time and documenting certain pro-social behaviors, could apply for a ‘Certificate of Relief from Disabilities’ (CRD) that would remove certain legal disabilities all felons face when released into the world. No longer would a single felony conviction bar someone from getting a license to cut hair; the licensing board would have to come up with some other excuse, instead.

Yglesias is skeptical about the broader impact of the CRDs:

“The problem here is that when you set up these boards, they have incentives to think up any kind of halfway plausible reason to bar people from entering the field.”

Remove the felony bar, the logic goes, and the boards will just come up with other flimsy excuses.

He’s almost certainly right about most licensing boards and most occupations. But in the particular case of Illinois, the problem isn’t that the licensing boards don’t approve ex-cons despite their Certificates. It’s that few ex-cons end up applying for licensing in the first place. As this report (PDF) indicates, only 47 applications for CRDs were made within the first 2 years of the program’s implementation. Of that extremely low number, 81% of applications for CRDs were approved. But none of those recipients ended up applying for occupational licenses within the observation period. That said, a very few ex-cons without CRDs did apply for occuptional licenses, and 67% of those applicants were eventually approved during the same period.

The bottle-neck in Illinois, then, isn’t necessarily the board rejecting felons, but qualified felons not knowing about or not applying for CRDs or occupational licenses in the first place.

I guess the take-home lesson here is that occupational licensing boards really can be nothing more than thinly disguised guilds covering their own economic interests. But occupational licensing reform isn’t exactly the key to rehabilitating felons. Connecting felons with existing benefits and procedures is the easy low-hanging fruit there. That doesn’t mean that making it easier for ex-cons to become barbers isn’t worth doing … it’s just not the kind of major reform that should get our blood pumping. It turns out that the actual benefit of CRDs may just be the perception among private employers that the state says these guys (and they are mostly guys) are safe(r).*

* No, I didn’t closely follow Barack Obama’s occupational licensing and recidivism reform policies in the Illinois state legislature. I came by this knowledge honestly, as part of a much larger research project this summer.


gay marriage! controversy! slow down!

[by JSC5]

I’m a little late in getting to this, but a federal judge has ruled that California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited gay marriage in that state, is unconstitutional. I like to think of same-sex marriage is one of those “duh!” issues, like beer deregulation or early childhood education. We recognize, however, that despite how simple an issue it is for some, same-sex marriage has caused a great deal of controversy for other people. Orin Kerr had a post up recently over at Volokh Conspiracy that took this fact of controversy and conflated it with actual importance. He starts by quoting Judge Walker’s ruling, and then responds to it:

[Judge Walker’s opinion]: “Because the evidence shows same-sex marriage has and will have no adverse effects on society or the institution of marriage, California has no interest in waiting and no practical need to wait to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Proposition 8 is thus not rationally related to proponents’ purported interests in proceeding with caution when implementing social change.”

[Orin Kerr’s commentary]: Whatever your views of same-sex marriage — or Judge Walker’s decision as a whole — I think this particular part of the analysis is pretty weak. First, the idea that same-sex marriage is not a significant social change strikes me as plainly incorrect. This is one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time: Whether you think it’s the greatest advance for civil rights in America or the end of the world, it seems pretty clear that it’s a big deal.

Now, gay marriage is certainly politically salient in that it stirs up emotions and seems to divide people into two camps. That said, I don’t think it’s nearly as polarizing as he makes it out to be. Who exactly is Kerr hanging out with to make him think that mainstream opinion runs from “the greatest advance for civil rights in America” to “the end of the world”? I know a lot of pro-gay marriage people, and I don’t think a single one thinks that gay marriage clearly outranks the civil rights movement for African-Americans or the women’s rights movement. Furthermore, I know many (though fewer) anti-gay marriage people,  none of whom think it will seriously end the world. In fact, mainstream opinion on this subject seems to stretch from “good idea/duh” to “I’m concerned about it/ewww”.

Either way, I’m not sure that the actual level of controversy even matters. It seems that Orin Kerr is confusing (1) political salience with (2) actual breadth or depth of change. What exactly is the evidence Professor Kerr would offer up in defense of his contention that same-sex marriage is “one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time”? The simple fact that Americans fall into two broadly equal pro and con camps isn’t enough. Lots of issues – both important and superficial – are politically salient in a similar way,  so the mere fact of salience can’t help us to distinguish actual importance.

Just how important and sweeping of a change would gay marriage be? Judge Walker;’s answer (quoting a bevy of experts who testified at trial) is that it’s pretty important for the gay couples who would get married, and not at all important for everyone else. In response, Orin Kerr says that the mere fact of political controversy proves Judge Walker wrong.

It’s an effective strategy for troglodytes trying to make sure that gay people don’t have the same rights as everyone else. They don’t even need to marshal any real evidence or reasons as to why the proposed reform would be bad or that implementing it right now would be dangerous; all they need to do is disagree, and the disagreement becomes the evidence.That is, until smart professors like Orin Kerr, along with the rest of us, some day stop believing the hype.

The internet and privacy: stop taking the easy way out

[by JSC5]

[Update: Thanks to Jonathan Bernstein for linking to this on his site and giving us our biggest readership day since we started. For all of you new-comers, if you like what you see, please feel free to look around the rest of the site and sign up for our RSS feed.]

Jonathan Bernstein may be (is!) a brilliant analyst of the structure of American politics in the modern era, but I really hope people don’t start taking his words of wisdom on other major life issues seriously:

Kids: never, ever, ever, write something anywhere that you don’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.  Forget the WaPo; the universe is going to make you suffer, and it’s just brutal.

Let’s imagine I’m an impressionable kid and I take Jonathan’s advice seriously. What effect does it have on me? I’ll give just two of many examples:

  1. I’m going to have a hell of a time maintaining long distance relationships of any kind (friendship, family, romantic). The phone only really works if you pre-plan a meeting time that works for both of your schedules, a challenge that becomes especially thorny if you’re calling across time zones. Written communication opens up the possibility of regular, spontaneous contact — the kind of contact that social relations thrive on — by letting the sender write when she has the opportunity and the receiver read it when he’s got a free minute. But would I really want the New York Times to run with the hyperlinked headline: “So-and-So Calls Shake Weight Ad ‘Funny as Shit’ ‘” ? Like an inmate or an astronaut, I guess I better restrict my long distance relationships to a once-a-week phone call from now on.
  2. I will never go on the record with an opinion stronger than “I guess it could be defensible to conclude X, but proponents of !X make some good points, too.” This one’s a no-brainer. It’s really hard to know what the big issues of the day will be 10, 20, or 50 years from now when people might be digging through my written record for a quote to exploit. No one’s ever been impeached for saying they love America, apple pie, and grandma — or for omitting their opinion entirely. If I want to have a successful career, clearly I’m going to have to turn into either a blithering idiot of a stereotypical politician on the one hand, or Elena Kagan on the other.

Whether we’re talking about private missives or public pronouncements, Jonathan Bernstein’s advice to keep yourself out of the written record is just terrible. When so much of who we are is mediated by writing, it’s detrimental to humanity to tell young people that the tyranny and whim of public standards of acceptability should determine who they are and what they write.* And unfortunately, Bernstein’s advice seems to be pretty common. The popular reaction to the Weigel affair, which Bernstein is writing about, seems to be: hey, he shouldn’t have written those emails with the expectation of privacy, and he should have known what was coming to him if they got out. That’s the typical advice to young people regarding internet privacy, and privacy in general.

Maybe it’s good strategic advice for an individual — but, given the developmental and experiential importance of putting yourself in your writing, maybe it’s not. Either way, it is a terrible standard to be advocating to the public. We desperately need to move away from a society that invests zero effort in understanding what someone is really trying to say and instead focuses on the ‘controversy’ surrounding the statement itself. We desperately need to move away from a society that doesn’t give a damn about context, presumptions of privacy, or the complicated inner world of all human beings.

I think most people realize we need to end this culture of public tyranny. And yet very few people seem to be willing to argue against it when it matters. Telling someone you’ll keep your trap shut if ya know what’s good for ya may help him avoid getting whacked by the mob, but it won’t do much to end the reign of terror of La Cosa Nostra. And that is, after all, what we need to do.

*This may seem at odds with my previous post on Elena Kagan, in which I defended her for making sacrifices and structuring her life to maximize her odds of ascending to the Supreme Court. I’d separate these two posts by noting that Kagan is an individual who should be free to choose the life she wants, which apparently involved neutering her public, written opinions in order to have success in her profession. That’s a legitimate choice for an individual to make, and far be it from me to start criticizing her work-life balance. People are allowed to prefer work. Jonathan Bernstein’s advice, however, applies more broadly to just about everyone, and affirms the principle that we all ought to judge others and expect to be judged by whatever the prevailing standards of middle-of-the-road, vanilla opinions are these days. As a standard that would apply to everyone, I find this very disagreeable and worthy of ridicule.

English, do you speak it?

That title was just so I can throw this classic out here. Best use of 6.5 minutes ever.

Back to the topic at hand. If you travel a fair amount, you notice a wide range of English ability around the world. Some countries are a breeze to get around in with just English, while in others you’re stuck pointing a lot and learning the tricks of the mime trade. I’m amazed that there isn’t some more universal standard to measure this, and that every guidebook ever written sticks to saying something to the tune of “English is growing in popularity among young people” to summarize the state of English in every country, but I digress.  What I’m most interested in is what causes this variation.

Continue reading ‘English, do you speak it?’

Happy birthday…

… to JSC! Hard to believe, but it’s been a whole year since JSC5 and I started this little corner of intellectual self-aggrandizement . 87 posts later, it hasn’t quite let to the syndicated column writing offers and world fame that we both very reasonably expected, but it’s been very enjoyable nonetheless.

I’m still a little on the fence about the value of blogging, but here’s one very huge benefit that I can safely take away after all this time: when you have a vague idea in your head, the process of trying to write it into a reasonable argument forces you to acknowledge and deal with a lot of inconsistencies that don’t really show themselves while the idea is floating in the ether of your head.

It’s also been nice to have more than one person writing, because at moments when you think the blog is knocking on death’s door, there’s a few people with an incentive to keep it alive. Will it live for another year? Will it achieve fame? Like, years later, when JSC5 is going through Senate confirmation hearings and someone digs it up and uses it to sink his promising political career? Will the long form non-investigative essay go the way of the Dodo? So many questions.

Perhaps most importantly, thanks for following along! As a sign of our never ending gratitude to our pious readers, here are some funnies:

Japan musings

I came back about a week ago from a weeklong trip to Japan. We covered a fair amount of ground in the week, seeing a few big cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto), some smaller towns (Nara, Obuse), some villages (Tsumago, Magome) and a lot of nature in between (the Kumano Road being probably the most impressive stretch). There’s a quote that floats around expat circles about how after a month you can write a book about a place and after a year you can’t say anything, or something like that, so any observations I had are probably the result of an overzealous instinct for generalization, but what the hell. Here are my thoughts, in order of decreasing frivolity.

You remember Lost in Translation, how Bill Murray is a foreign big shot actor doing a silly whiskey commercial? Probably based on a true story. Here’s Leo DiCaprio trying to charm the Japanese into buying tires, and then there’s my favorite, Tommy Lee Jones, the “BOSS”, showing off the tough guy look that pretty much had to have been intelligently designed for the sake of selling small vending machine cans of café au lait. It could be worse though, they could be advertising the milk cartons filled with sake that you can occasionally find in city vending machines (check the bottom right hand corner of this picture). Continue reading ‘Japan musings’

The advantages of an elite education

I really enjoyed reading William Deresiewicz’s recent essay, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education [h/t to Kris]. I encourage you all to read his piece and think about it. First, let me outline where he and I agree on two points: 1) that elite education discourages risk taking, and 2) that it threatens to distort our perception of the worth of other human beings. Then I’ll mention the many points on which we differ.

First, Deresiewicz is right to worry that an elite education pushes its recipient away from risk-taking and towards comfort and security. As he argues:

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich […] but it takes away the chance not to be. […] How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.


Students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them.

I think that neatly captures the thinking of many graduating seniors I knew, at least at Harvard. It’s actually rather difficult to ignore the constant social pressure to go into banking or consulting and earn a steady, good salary. It’s tough to think more broadly about your real goals, and take some risks, when everyone around you is doing the opposite. This absolutely is a disadvantage of an elite education. Point to Deresiewicz.

Secondly, Deresiewicz says that “an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth” as ” ‘Better at X’ becomes simply ‘better’ ” in some larger, metaphysical sense. This is definitely something I’ve tried to be conscious about and guard against, but I can see it creeping up every now and then in my own thinking and in that of my former classmates. But I would like to point out that petty parochialism is a universal human trait. A New Yorker’s snobbery is insufferable; so, too, is a Texan’s. I think everyone tends to value most highly those traits they themselves possess, and to give those traits privileged status in judging the overall human worth of others. It’s a nasty way of treating other human beings, and we should all work to limit these inborn tendencies. Certainly elite universities could do more counteract elite snobbery. But so, too, could most other institutions in this world. Still, point Deresiewicz.

But as much as I agree with Deresiewicz’s critique thus far, I have to disagree with him on a number of other issues.

First, Deresiewicz complains about the permissive, entitled culture at elite universities:

Students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.

This anecdote is intended to instill a feeling of resentment towards those nasty Ivy League people who don’t have to deal with such supposed real world things like hard deadlines. One “disadvantage of an elite education”, therefore, is that elite students grow up in an entitled atmosphere. But shouldn’t we be viewing this the other way around? Not having second chances, when they’re reasonable, sucks! Getting a ‘D’ instead of an ‘A’, just because you’re an hour late turning in the term paper, sucks! It’s not like that extra hour riding the bus gave Ms. Works For Tips To Pay For School an actual advantage over other students. Hers should not be the normal human experience!

The same goes for other advantages of elite universities that Deresiewicz holds out as problems: the plentiful grants for research, travel, writing, and the arts; the “platoon of advisors and tutors”. Isn’t the real lesson here that elite institutions are a little more humane, that the elite lifestyle Deresiewicz mocks may actually be a better lifestyle, and that instead of fostering resentment of it, we should instead work to make non-elite schools and non-elite lifestyles more humane as well? Just because gramps walked 30 miles to school every day (barefoot, in the snow, and uphill both ways) doesn’t mean he’s right to criticize lazy, bus-spoiled kids these days.

Second, Deresiewicz complains that an elite education “makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you.” He illustrates with an anecdote about he had trouble talking to a plumber that came to his house. But isn’t difficulty communicating with others a common human trait? How well do Christians talk to and understand Muslims? How well do liberal, feminist women tend to talk with women in burqas? Or vice verse? When was the last time you saw a riveting conversation between a west coast granola dude with dreds and a suburban soccer mom? Let me be the first to agree that the average social IQ among Harvard undergraduates is far, far lower than the US population average. There ain’t no awkward like Harvard party awkward, cuz the Harvard party awkward don’t stop. True, these people have trouble relating to other people just like themselves, much less Joe the Plumber. But is that a result of their elite education? Are elite students really that different from the mechanic who doesn’t know how to talk to the local community college professor? Probably not. Failure to communicate is a failure common to all sorts of different identities. And it operates in both directions.

Perhaps Deresiewicz’s least compelling argument is that an elite education is “profoundly anti-intellectual.” He says of elite students:

The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. […] Elite education is little more than a] glorified form of vocational training.

This couldn’t be farther from my own experience. Nor does it jive with the popular sentiment of academia as an Ivory Tower. The people I knew in college generally had no idea what careers they wanted to pursue. They could more easily be criticized of aimless, academic wandering than of over-specialization or parochial, vocational interests. These were students more in the  mold of the Renaissance Man than the pre-professional. It was extremely painful watching my fellow classmates go through the agony of specialization and making choices that closed off any opportunity whatsoever. Sure, there were the few who showed up the first day freshman year and, not having actually read anything about the place earlier, got mad that ‘business’ was not a possible major. But those were the outliers (it’s a big, diverse school). Most people I knew loved abstract ideas … probably to a fault. The whole thing about pressure to go into banking and consulting after graduation? That happens suddenly in the last year, partially as a direct result of the liberal-artsiness of our liberal arts education.

Finally, I have to take some exception with Deresiewicz for intimating that the diversity at elite universities is somehow false diversity that shouldn’t be recognized as such. Deresiewicz quips, “Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals.” That’s funny, and there is something to that. It was the greatest culture shock of my life showing up freshman year and watching a large group of my classmates gossiping about having come from this or that prestigious private prep school.

But it was shocking precisely because I had no experience with that world! And as it turns out, neither did many, many of my fellow classmates. When Facebook (back when it was called TheFacebook) first started taking off, one of the biggest ‘groups’ on campus was the classic “I went to a public school, bitch.” I’m not saying that Harvard was a hotbed of Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories. But I think that too few people realize that Harvard (and, to my knowledge, several other elite universities) has absolutely top-notch financial aid. Does your family, like the median American family, make less than $60,000 a year? Congratulations! You get to go for free. Make less than something like $150,00 a year? Then you won’t be asked to pay more than 10% of your income. Of course, there are still plenty of barriers out there for economically disadvantaged kids, but financial aid at elite universities like Harvard makes it easier to go there than to go to many state schools, and far, far easier than expensive liberal arts colleges with small endowments.

Might this, like many of these other points I’ve argued, not be yet another advantage of an elite education? I don’t want to issue a blanket defense of elite universities. There’s plenty wrong with them. But let’s not lose sight of what’s right with them.

A final aside that will interest only self-involved people who received elite educations, and bore most others: What’s with idolizing the ‘Ivy League’? I refer everyone to Wikipedia, which says right there in the first sentence: “The Ivy League is an athletic conference.” That’s right, an athletic conference. That’s it. Stanford’s not a member, yet no one would say with a straight face that (for whatever reasons, good or bad) Stanford isn’t an overall better-thought-of and more-prestigious university than Dartmouth or Brown (both of which are in the League). The point is, our actual perceptions of academic quality don’t align very well with the Ivy, non-Ivy distinction. So why do writers keep using ‘Ivy League’ as if it has actual meaning? Probably because it’s a good wedge word that reliably pushes people’s buttons and instills certain feelings in the reader. That’s not a good reason, but it’s the only reason I can think of.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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