Hell is Other Pupils

by Kieran Healy on February 5, 2004

I love America. Across its vast, extraordinarily diverse area, weird or stupid stuff happens all the time. And the media are usually there to make it into a national story:

A second-grade girl from Pittsburgh was suspended this week from her public elementary school for saying the word “hell” to a boy in her class. But 7-year-old Brandy McKenith says she was only warning the boy about the eternal comeuppance he could face for saying: “I swear to God.”

“I said, ‘You’re going to go to hell for swearing to God,'” Brandy was quoted as saying in an article that appeared on the Web site of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on Wednesday. School officials were unavailable for comment. A Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman told the newspaper that the student code prohibits profanity but does not provide a clear definition of what profanity is.

Lovely. Possible followups to this story: (1) Little boy also suspended for taking the Lord’s name in vain. (2) School issues statement saying, “It’s all been cleared up: We’ve explained to Brandy and the little boy that we were wrong to suspend them because, of course, Hell doesn’t exist and neither does God.” (3) President Bush issues statement that his No Child Left Behind Act will remedy “the unimaginative nature of profanity found in our public schools today.” (4) Brandy handed additional suspension for violating her school’s strict no-alcohol policy.

Normally I leave stories like this to the Volokhs, who have a sweet tooth for them. But they are busy at the moment trying to convince their readers that, whatever Paul Craig Roberts thinks, U.S. taxpayers are not less free than slaves. Eugene Volokh has devoted about 10,000 words of his fine legal mind to this question, so far. He even wrote up a helpful table outlining the relevant differences between 19th century U.S. slaves and 21st century U.S. taxpayers. I find myself wondering just what you’d have to say to get Eugene to write “Oh piss off, you ignorant little troll.”

Former Philosophy Students

by Brian on February 5, 2004

The APA (American Philosophical Association) is looking for stories about how valuable philosophical training has been to people other than professional, full-time philosophers.

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What’s better than cool?

by Ted on February 5, 2004

The second-funniest thing I’ll see today, after the Guardian article from Brian’s post below, is TMFTML’s secret memo about the dirty director’s cut of “Hey Ya!”

However, it contains swear words, so please keep it away from Michael Powell.

School of Rock

by Brian on February 5, 2004

And now for something completely different, The Guardian on what six to eight year olds think of classic rock. Here are some sample responses, but the whole thing is very amusing.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

It’s making me think about doing bad things like putting snowballs down my sister’s back.

Anarchy in the U.K.

He sounds like the baddie in Scooby Doo at the end.

Election Markets

by Brian on February 5, 2004

As Daniel noted a while back on CT, the election markets that have opened so far aren’t efficient enough to prevent arbitrage opportunities. This point now seems to have been noticed by more mainstream commentators.

But whatever the reason, there is a significant pricing difference between these two markets [Tradesports and the IEM] — an arbitrage opportunity that you’d expect some savvy trader to take advantage of. Yes, the contracts are constructed a bit differently, but surely there’s a way to go long Bush on Iowa, short him on Tradesports, and make some surefire coin.

The pinko Money magazine attributes the inefficiency to sheer irrationality on the part of the traders in each market. If that’s right then the added evidential value of these markets is roughly the same as star charts.

The Five Standard Excuses

by Kieran Healy on February 5, 2004

If I were less tired, I would write a post exploring the applicability, in our post-WMD world, of The Five Standard Excuses for any Failed Government Project described by Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister. I conjecture that some varietal of each of them will be found in talk about Iraq as prior certainties about Saddam’s monstrous armaments evaporate. The excuses are as follows:

1. There is a perfectly satisfactory explanation for everything but security prevents its disclosure. (The Anthony Blunt excuse.)
2. It has only gone wrong because of heavy cuts in staff and budget which have stretched supervisory resources beyond the limit.
3. It was a worthwhile experiment now abandoned, but not before it provided much valuable data and considerable employment. (The Concorde excuse.)
4. It occurred before certain important facts were known and could not happen again. (The Munich Agreement excuse.)
5. It was an unfortunate lapse by an individual now being dealt with under internal disciplinary procedures. (The Charge of the Light Brigade excuse.)

Some of these excuses have been employed by the U.S. government for some time, notably (1). A version of (2) is also becoming more popular with them. These excuses also do double-duty as rationales that _critics_ impute to the Bush administration. Many, for instance, will favor some version of (4) or (5) in an attempt to resist alternative theories involving vulgar phrases like “blithely imperialist” or “neoconservative maniacs,” simply because of the appalling vista suggested by the latter views. I personally find it worrying that the administration’s choices in domestic and foreign policy are starting to puzzle clever economists. These, after all, are people who by temperament and training will bend over backwards till their spines snap before saying the words, “Yeah, I guess you’d have to say that was pretty irrational.” If those guys give up on you, you’re really doing badly.

Shattered Glass

by Ted on February 5, 2004

The New York Times Magazine had an excellent story this weekend on the fraud that brought the cable company Adelphia to bankruptcy. Most of the blame has to lie with the Rigas family, who managed to borrow three billion dollars, obligated the shareholders in their public company to cover it, and contrived to hide it from investors. They built a company with comically poor corporate governance- over half of the board were family members, and the audit committee may never have met.

Along the way, they had plenty of accomplices among the institutions that were supposed to be independent circuit breakers. Banks had no business lending other people’s money to the Rigases. Deloitte and Touche failed badly in their role as independent auditors. Despite the refusal of Adelphia management to disclose the loans, Deloitte still signed off on their 10-K. Adelphia attorneys did nothing to stop the loans, and most analysts did only a cursory job of inspecting the company’s structure.

In my mind, most of these problems don’t seem to be appropriate targets for public policy. No law can prevent incurious analysts, cowardly auditors, or shortsighted corporate management. (Conflicted auditors are another story, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem here.) I’d imagine that most laws that attempted to address these issues would do more harm than could.

But regarding banks, I’m not so sure. Specifically, I’m not sure about whether it was a good idea to overturn the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law prevented commercial banks from getting in the investment banking business until it was overturned in 1999 by the Financial Modernization Act. One of the concerns for the original lawmakers was that full-service banks would lower their standards for commercial loans in order to win lucrative underwriting contracts. According to the author, that’s exactly what happened in this case.

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