Posts Tagged 'Matt Yglesias'

Occupational licensing and ex-cons

By JSC5

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.

Douthat: right policy, wrong politics

[by JSC5]

Ross Douthat’s column today presents a smart critique of the richboy subsidies and corporate welfare enshrined in current law, from the mortgage-interest tax deduction to agricultural subsidies and lack of means testing in Medicare and Social Security. It’s a broad, if not very definitive, endorsement of a more egalitarian state that doesn’t shovel quite so much money towards non-needy recipients each year. There’s a lot of good policy that could come out of Douthat’s vision, and it is heartwarming to have a voice of sanity on the right these days — even if he is (sadly) out of the mainstream of his own party and completely without influence over actual Republican decision-makers. So instead of offering the kind of backhanded compliment you just read in the previous sentence, I should probably be doing my bit to politely encourage engagement on the general principles Douthat lays down.

But I just can’t keep myself from pointing out a very weird moment in Douthat’s column:

“The trick is to channel those [pitchfork] impulses in a constructive direction. The left-wing instinct, when faced with high-rolling irresponsibility, is usually to call for tax increases on the rich. … [But] the class warfare we need is a conservative class warfare, which would force the million-dollar defaulters to pay their own way from here on out.”

So Douthat wants us to believe that leftwingers wake up every morning looking for a tax they can raise, while the conservatives are the adults in the room making sure the government doesn’t subsidize the rich? Pardon me while I scoff. Douthat’s error here is common, if not innocuous. All of us have the tendency to let tribalism infect rational political debate. But it’s still improper to identify a good set of policies and then assume that because (a) you like those policies, and (b) you usually see yourself on Team Red, then (c) those must be conservative policies. It seems to me that means-testing parts of the safety net, rolling back subsidies of McMansions and suburban sprawl, and cutting Big Agra’s welfare checks are all … not conservative policies. They’re broadly ‘liberal’ policies, with everyone from leftwingers like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias to libertarians like Tyler Cowen* signing up for the same general principles. To my knowledge, no such broad swatch of leading conservative intellectuals (besides Douthat) are ready to heartily endorse these reforms.

Now, to be fair, you’d be hard pressed to find actual politicians of either political flavor ready to sign on to these reforms. But at least they are operable ideas within the liberal realm of thought!

That said, I now retract my backhanded compliments to Douthat, replace them with forehanded compliments, and politely encourage more people from all political walks of life to seriously engage with the issues Douthat raises in his otherwise excellent column today.

—-

* My apologies for not providing links here. I’m just extrapolating from past posts I’ve read of each of their work. If anyone finds information to the contrary, please let me know and I’ll update.

Lessons for the General and the PFC

[by JSC5]

By now, everyone knows that Gen. McCrystal said some insubordinate things about his superiors to the press and is now getting summoned to Washington for a ritual spanking. Certainly much can be said about this story. I agree with Yglesias that Ackerman had the best critique of McCrystal’s actual words:

“The amazing thing about it is there’s no complaints from McChrystal or his staff about the administration on any substantive ground … just immature and arrogant snipes.”

Take-home lesson #1: If you’re going to badmouth your boss and potentially ruin your career, at least make sure your comments are about something.

What I want to point out, however, is not McChrystal’s stunning lack of judgment, but rather the equally-stunning prevalence of bomb-’em-all-to-hell thinking in and out of the armed forces.

A quote from the end of the original NYT story:

Pfc. Jared Pautsch is quoted as telling the general the Americans should just drop a “bomb on the place,” and asking, “What are we doing here?”

On the one hand, you have to feel sorry for Pfc. Pautsch. We all say stupid things sometimes, and I for one don’t want those things preserved for all time on the front page of the New York Times. An off-the-cuff, ill-considered remark shouldn’t go down in history as Pfc. Pautsch’s final word on the subject. But it most likely will. That’s a shame, and a story for another post.

Regardless of Pfc. Pautsch’s actual thoughts on the wisdom of bombing Afghanistan into the stone age, however, this sort of mindset is certainly not rare inside the armed services or in our society at large. It’s one thing for some patriotic, if ignorant, high schoolers to talk like that right after 9-11 — something I’m very familiar with.  Bit it’s quite another thing for our professional soldiers to still have that kind of attitude after a decade in which it should now be painfully obvious that we’re not facing the kind of threat you can solve just by nuking a country off the face of a map. Honestly, what kind of training are they dishing out?

At the end of the day, this may be one of the most damning statements in the entire NYT piece. Sure, McChrystal erred with his lame schoolyard insults (and they really are lame. I’d expect a higher caliber of insult from such a highly educated man). But if the boots on the ground still don’t understand the mission, after all this time, doesn’t that raise serious concerns about our ability to carry out the assigned task?

Take-home lesson #2: It’s really hard to keep soldiers from being soldiers, so be careful how you use them.

Fame and awkwardness

Besides being intensely jealous of JSC7’s brush with blogging fame in China, I also have one observation to add: the single biggest obstacle to spending time with interesting / important people isn’t the target’s busy schedule or sense of self importance. It’s your own awkwardness, your fear of your own awkwardness, and the target’s fear of your awkwardness and their own awkward reaction to it. The bottom line: we’d all be spending more time hanging out with the people we want to hang out with if we could give better signals as to our ability to hold a normal, interesting conversation.

This is also a major skill that great schools don’t teach.

JSC’s brush with blogging fame

Our faithful readers will be happy to know that when there’s not a smorgasbord of vague topics engaging our talents of producing excessive word counts, we at JSC sometimes spend our time hobnobbing with the international blogging elite. On Monday night, along with a co-worker and Beijing’s uncontested cupcake queen, I met for drinks with Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and Brad Plumer, who are on a journalist trip through China. Aside from some great anecdotes that stem from the words “journalist” and “China” popping up in the same sentence, it was fun to hear their views on the country and argue a few of our own (my co-worker and I represent two-thirds of the shadowy “ex-pats who run a small company trying to spread Western educational techniques” mentioned in Ezra’s post).

Now that you’re sufficiently disarmed and dazzled by my lifestyle, there’s a cool lesson from this. I arranged the meeting by sending a message to Ezra through the Washington Post website, telling him that there were some entrepreneurs in Beijing who would love to meet up and chat about China. Now, in a well-functioning world, there would be someone more important than me to get in touch with him. Whatever your opinion about blogging, these guys represent an important slice of public debate in the United States. If you’re a China scholar, or some kind of official willing to meet off record, or even an American Chamber of Commerce official, don’t you try to pull these guys off to the side for a few hours? Anyone? Bueller?

This is an example of an important school of philosophy, which goes by the name of “people in important positions are not on top of their own business”-ism (another fun example was a story a friend told me about how last week during Hillary’s visit to China, she was doing a speech and some totally unrelated guy got up on stage while she was standing for a photograph, ran up, shook her hand, said some words, and walked off, without anything happening. Secret Service? Bueller?). Anyway, if you live in a country that someone important is visiting, try to shoot them an e-mail. There’s a good chance they’re holed up in a fancy hotel looking for an excuse to get out.

ambition, jealousy, and the Supreme Court

What better way to revive the blog after settling back in to life in the US than with a post on ugly human character traits and our country’s highest court.

But first, an aside: I think it’s awesome that our Solicitor General is properly referred to as “General So-and-so”, and let me to all you overpaid private sector types who shudder at the thought of taking a pay cut to go work in government … being called ‘General Insert-Your-Last-Name-Here has got to make up for at least a few hundred thousand in compensation, right? Not that you’d always have to stand on formality; I’m sure you could have your underlings just call you Commander Fancypants. Also, you could start wearing ascots.

And now back to our regularly-scheduled blog post. General Kagan has been nominated to replace outgoing Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. You can read complete, detailed coverage of Kagan’s career at SCOTUSblog. Commandant Kagan’s career has been illustrious, to say the least: Princeton undergrad, Harvard Law, Harvard Law Review, Supreme Court clerk, private practice, tenured professor at Chicago, service as a government lawyer in several positions in the Clinton White House and briefly in the Senate, law professor at Harvard, Dean of Harvard Law School, and now Solicitor Fancypants under Obama.

But to read the popular and elite commentary on the issue, you’d think that Kagan’s very success is a problem for her nomination. Uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan has been all over this, decrying Kagan’s ‘careerism’ (a dirty word, apparently) in what has become a typical view among pundits and Average Joe’s alike: “Her life, so far as one can tell, is her career.” That’s an odd criticism, coming from a man who admits he spends upwards of 12 hours a day, every day, blogging for a living. It’s also an incoherent position on the merits. Such criticism of Kagan boils down to a misunderstanding of the role of ambition in life and a failure to engage in basic self reflection.

First, let’s examine Sullivan’s particular gripe about Kagan’s ‘careerism’ and her supposed risk aversion. “Name one risk she has taken with her career,” he challenges his reader, and then says of himself, “I can’t.” He’s really talking about Kagan’s remarkable track record of not taking public, forceful positions on issues like abortion, terror policy, gay marriage, and so on during her illustrious career thus far.  That level of caginess is remarkable, and we’ll get to that in a second. But for now, let me answer Sullivan’s question from a different perspective.

What risks has she taken? How about giving up the promise of an extremely lucrative career as a lawyer in private practice? Someone of Kagan’s intellect, education, and work ethic can count on making partner and holding down million-plus salaries in relatively short order. Instead, Kagan left her firm and became an academic. “Big deal,” you might say, “don’t academics have comfy, risk-free jobs?” Sure they do. But then Kagan took a 2-year sabbatical from her cushy gig at Chicago to go lawyer for the government. And when Chicago gave her an ultimatum — come back and teach or be gone forever — she gave up tenure for the extremely risky life of a politically-appointed government lawyer. No public sector union or bureaucratic protection for her. She served at the pleasure of the president. Fall out of favor and you lose your job. Work at a pace comically similar to a character from The West Wing. That seems like a really big risk to me. It’s a risk that most people in this world aren’t willing to take. The vast majority of people in her position would (and do) opt for the paycheck of private practice, or the security of academia. Kagan decided to get involved, instead. And years later, when Obama asked her to leave her job as Dean of Harvard Law School so she could spend her days kissing Senators’ asses for confirmation, listening to people whisper nastily about her sexual orientation on TV, newspapers, and blogs, and have her briefs and oral arguments attacked from left and right by people unfamiliar with the unique role of the Solicitor General — she said yes. If Andrew thinks her career represents some sort of risk-free romp through the corridors of power, then he hasn’t thought very rigorously about what it really means to make those decisions.

Sullivan’s main problem with her careerism, however,  is with the coyness and caginess that goes along with it. He’s outraged that she hasn’t, in his opinion, come out and definitively told the public whether or not she is gay. He’s outraged that she hasn’t written 40 opinionated blog posts about the issues of the day for the past decade, as he himself has. Underneath this criticism is a concern that Kagan has had the part of her personality that generates and articulates opinions attenuated. Somehow, she seems less human than Andrew might prefer of a nominee to the highest court in the land.

While it’s fair to call Kagan extraordinarily coy, it borders on insanity to blame her as the nominee. If Kagan is coy, that’s because she has correctly read and understood the rules of the game for people who want to be on the Supreme Court. Ever since Bork, everyone knows that you get confirmed by never taking controversial public stances on things people actually care about. Them’s the rules. You can blame the rules, as Matt Yglesias thoughtfully does, but you really can’t blame Kagan herself for seeing and following them better than her contemporaries. That’s just called being good at what you do.

As Jonathan Bernstein astutely points out, this whole controversy boils down to a misunderstanding of the role of ambition in life:

1.  Regardless of the way we choose Justices or any other top position, we’re going to get candidates who are highly ambitious; there’s just no way to avoid that.

2.  Therefore, it is foolish to count it against any candidate that she appears to be ambitious, or that she does the sorts of things that people who want to reach the Court (or other high office) organize their lives to do.

3.  It is possible, however, to think of reforms that would change the ways that ambition is expressed.  If you want more explicit statements of political positions, make that a requirement.  Just don’t mistake any of that for purging ambition from the system, or for opening the gates to less ambitious people.

I think Jonathan is onto something here, and so I’d like to take a moment to defend ambition and ‘careerism’ from the ignorance displayed by arguments along the lines of Andrew Sullivan’s. Sullivan mocks Kagan for the sin of, as the NYT reported, wearing a judge’s robes in her high school senior yearbook photo and for daring to express from such an early age her ambition to serve on the Court. In my mind, that pretty much makes Sullivan a jerk. Certainly most of us didn’t have such specific high aspirations for our lives when we graduated from high school. But I think Sullivan isn’t being honest with himself or with us if he means to say that he never had high hopes and dreams for his life. I remember very clearly wanting to shoot for the stars when I was in high school. I still do. I’m pretty sure Andrew had some hopes and dreams, too. Mine weren’t and aren’t nearly as specific as Kagan’s — but that’s not to say that my way of being is better than hers. In a lot of ways, having a more clear idea of what I want to do would really help me organize my life around achieving those goals.

Unless Sullivan is some sort of inhuman brute who never had a childhood dream, then his critique seems to be more about Kagan’s success at translating her childhood dream into a career than it is about her dreaming capacity as such.

Sullivan’s complaints, and the many others who share them, reveal more about the speaker than they do about Kagan. It’s plain old Daft Punk jealousy that someone else was harder, better, faster, or stronger than us — smarter than us, harder working than us, and ultimately more successful than us. Or, Sullivan’s complaints are that Kagan had different goals than he did. He wanted to pontificate from his La-Z-Boy. She wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice. Maybe Sullivan wants to say that wanting to be a Justice is beyond the pale. That’s a problem, because I’m pretty sure it’s an awesome job, and I doubt I’d turn it down if I had the chance. And I doubt Andrew would, either. The next step is to organize one’s life around attaining that goal. That’s something Kagan was willing to do, so good for her. It’s not something Andrew has done, nor I (given that you’re reading this public blog post). But it’ll be a cold day in hell before people in general give up their dreams to please our own sense of propriety about just how high they’re are allowed to rise and just how hard they’re allowed to work and just how much they’re allowed to give up in return for achieving their goals.


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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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