Clogged Traffic at the Gateway

March 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

All politicians lie, said I.F. Stone. But they don’t all lie as blatantly as Chris Christie did yesterday in repeating his vow not to legalize marijuana in New Jersey.

Every bit of objective data we have tells us that it’s a gateway drug to other drugs.
Maybe the governor was trying to show what a good Republican he is when it comes to the findings of science, because that statement simply is not true. The evidence on marijuana as a gateway drug is at best mixed, as the governor or any journalist interested in fact checking his speech could have discovered by looking up “gateway” on Wikipedia.

If the governor meant that smoking marijuana in and of itself created a craving for stronger drugs, he’s just plain wrong. Mark Kleiman, a policy analyst who knows a lot about drugs, says bluntly (here)

The strong gateway model, which is that somehow marijuana causes fundamental changes in the brain and therefore people inevitably go on from marijuana to cocaine or heroin, is false, as shown by the fact that most people who smoke marijuana don’t. That’s easy. But of course nobody really believes the strong version.

Nobody? Prof. Kleiman, meet Gov. Christie

Or maybe Christie meant a softer version – that the kid who starts smoking weed gets used to doing illegal things, and he makes connections with the kinds of people who use stronger drugs. He gets drawn into their world. It’s not the weed itself that leads to cocaine or heroin, it’s the social world.

That social gateway version, though, offers support for legalization.  Legalization takes weed out of the drug underworld. If you want some weed, you no longer have to consort with criminals and serious druggies.

There are several other reasons to doubt the gateway idea. Much of the evidence comes from studies of individuals. But now, thanks to medical legalization, we also have state-level data, and the results are the same. Legalizing medical marijuana did not lead to an increase in the use of harder drugs, especially among kids. Just the opposite.

(The graph is from Vox.)

First, note the small percents. Perhaps 1.6% of adults used cocaine in the pre-medical-pot years. That percent fell slightly post-legalization. Of course, those older people had long since passed through the gateway, so we wouldn’t expect legalization to make much difference for them. But for younger people, cocaine use was cut in half. Instead of an open gateway with traffic flowing rapidly from marijuana through to the world of hard drugs, it was more like, oh, I don’t know, maybe a bridge with several of its lanes closed clogging traffic.

Higher Ed as Cheerios

March 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How embarrassing. The University of North Georgia used this stock photo for the cover of their course catalogue. 

Two White men in suit, white shirt, and tie crossing the finish line triumphantly well ahead of a White woman (dressed more casually). Staggering in last place is a Black man (no suit jacket).

What were they thinking, the people who chose this photo. More accurately, what were they seeing, or still more accurately, what were they not seeing? One of the privileges of being in the dominant group is that you don’t have to worry about how members of your group are portrayed. You don’t even have to notice it. You don’t even have to notice that people like you are in fact dominant. You’re the default setting.

Those in the minority do not have this luxury of cluelessness. When one of “theirs” is portrayed, they notice.

But what strikes me most about the choice of this photo is not that the catalogue-makers did not notice categories of race and gender. It’s the basic assumption about what a university is and what education is. Presumably, once you get past that clueless cover, you find descriptions of courses, all stamped out from the same template – the questions a course will raise, the ideas and topics it will probe.  For example.

SOCI 3510 - Sociology of Religion
This course examines religious theory and comparative religions, investigates contemporary American religions, and explores personal religiosities with sociological insight and imagination. Course readings and fieldwork underscore religion’s role as a pivotal institution that influences and shapes societal discourse

(I have resisted the temptation to use SOCI 2100 Constructions of Difference, (“focusing on race, class, gender and sexuality”), a course the catalogue makers surely had not taken.)

Even the courses in business rest on similar assumptions.

BUSA 2108 - Business Communication
A management-oriented course emphasizing theories and channels on communication, semantic problems, and other barriers to effective communication with emphasis on both oral and written communications.

The cover photo promotes a much different view of education. The cover reminds of magazine ads for children’s food. These would typically show an exuberantly cheerful child doing something incredibly active, while off to the side, mom smiled in warm satisfaction, the food she had given her child having endowed him with energy for success. “Go Power,” as Cheerios used to say.

What the University of North Georgia says it is really offering is not learning or ideas. It’s Go Power. Those courses in the catalogue are power-packed Cheerios that will allow you to triumph over other people and to come in first in the corporate Hunger Games.

This utilitarian view of education is so widespread and unquestioned as to go unnoticed, more so than rankings of race and gender. But those of us in the minority – the people who write the course descriptions, the people who in our caps and gowns at the end of the year think about medieval scholars and the students who followed them just to hear what they had to say – we notice.

To Kindle a Fire

March 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3).  Orthodox Jews extend this prohibition to electricity. No flipping that wall switch or pushing the start button. But Jews have figured out ways of getting around this restriction – keeping to the letter of the law without having to endure the least inconvenience.

Last June, I blogged (here) about the shabbos goy – the gentile you pay to come in and light the oven. (“Hey, God only said that I couldn’t start the oven. He didn’t say anything about hiring someone else to do it.”) This last shabbat, an orthodox woman in Brooklyn had another way to to get around the restriction. She turned her hotplate on before sundown Friday and left it on. That way she could use it all day Saturday. (“See, God didn’t say we couldn’t cook on shabbat. He only said that we couldn’t kindle a fire.”)

The hotplate sparked a fire, and seven children in the house died.

The authorities attributed the fire to an unknown malfunction in the electric hot plate, a device often used by observant Jewish families to keep food warm from sundown on Friday, the start of the Sabbath, until its end on Saturday night.   (NYT)

“Observant.”  But what are they observing? In that earlier post, I said that what bothered me about these legalistic interpretations was the tone that often accompanied the hypocrisy – “at worst a smug satisfaction, more typically an amiable chuckle – as though there were virtue in putting one over on God.”

But it’s worse than that. How clever to seize on the narrowest interpretation of God’s words, “you” and “kindle a fire,” (much like the Republicans currently in King v. Burwell seizing on a single word in the healthcare law as justification for destroying Obamacare). And how utterly stupid to elevate that linguistic technicality above the spirit of the words and above ordinary safety and sense.

We’ve been here before. Some years ago a religious leader pointed out (mostly to Jews) this mistake of keeping the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. He frequently put it this way: “You have heard that it is written . . . but I say unto you.”  Eventually he developed a fairly large following.

Freedom and Freeloaders

March 11, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston
A Wall Street Journal op-ed heralded Wisconsin’s “right to work” (RTW) law that Gov. Walker signed earlier this week. The column carried the byline of  Luke Hilgemann and David Fladeboe of Americans for Prosperity, which gets a ton of money from the Koch brothers, so their support of the anti-union measure is no surprise.

One of their arguments is that RTW states see a greater growth in jobs and income. Or put another way, capital will move to where labor costs are low. If a corporation shifts its work to a low-wage country like Mexico or a low-wage state like Arkansas, Mexico or Arkansas will see a growth in jobs. The wealthier and non-RTW country or state will see a decrease. Mexico or Arkansas will also see an increase in wages since the corporation, to attract good workers, may have to offer higher-than-average wages.

There’s a methodological problem here, for Wisconsin is not Mexico nor is it Arkansas. Because of its history, a history which includes unions, Wisconsin's workers are fairly well paid. Will RTW laws mean greater incomes for Wisconsin workers? Hilgemann and Fladeboe don’t say. They compare states - those with and without RTW laws. They do not compare workers  - those represented by unions and those who are on their own.

Currently, states with RTW laws have lower per capita incomes, not a great prima facie case for busting unions, but Hilgemann and Fladeboe say that taking cost of living into account reduces and reverses this difference. But with or without the cost-of-living adjustment, state per-capita income may not be such a great measure of workers’ wages.*

The better comparison would be between workers’ wages before and after the passage of anti-union laws. Wisconsin’s RTW law is only a few days old, and it will mostly affect workers in the private sector. Public sector employees have already lost their unions. A 2010 law known as Act 10 prohibited public sector unions from collective bargaining for their members. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages , the 2010-2013 increase in the average weekly wages for local government employees (which, I think, includes most of Wisconsin’s teachers) was about 2.6%.  I compared this with the figures for neighboring state Minnesota, whose public employees still had the right to be represented by unions, and with the national average.  Those increases were higher – 3.8% and 4.7% respectively. 

For state employees, US and Wisconsin salaries increased by about 7.2%, Minnesota by 5.4%, though Minnesota salaries started from a higher point, remain higher, and show a larger increase in the most recent year in the BLS database. As the chart shows, the dollar gap between Wisconsin and Minnesota has widened since Wisconsin Republicans disenfranchised public sector unions.  

Hilgemann and Fladeboe find their own evidence on the economic benefits of of RTW laws very convincing. Your mileage may vary. But it’s not really the money that makes RTW laws so glorious, they say. It’s Freedom. “these economic benefits . . .  pale in comparison with the individual freedom that right-to-work laws provide.”
Their evidence that workers want to be free of unions comes mostly from Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s government employees similarly left unions when given the opportunity in 2011. Nearly 70% of the state’s 70,000-member state employees union have since chosen to leave. The powerful American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association saw their ranks decline by more than 50% and 30%, respectively.

This is just a tad disingenuous. If the state passes a law that says your union cannot represent you, would you continue to pay dues? That’s what happened in Wisconsin. The decline in membership (and Hilgemann and Fladeboe’s numbers are probably inflated) surely is much less a matter of workers seeking freedom from unions than their sensible decision not to join an organization that by law can bring no benefits. If a law were passed forbidding corporations to pay dividends and forbidding shareholders to sell at a higher price than they bought, many people would exercise their freedom to get out of the stock market.

Union dues are often compared to taxes. Everyone pays dues, everyone gets the benefits. Under RTW laws, you still get the benefits, but you don’t have to pay. Basically, you’re a freeloader. If there’s a union where you work, and you don’t pay dues, not only to you get the wages and other benefits that union members get, but the union is legally obligated to represent you if you have a grievance.  The freedom so beloved of RTW advocates does not include the freedom of the union to represent only its members and to ignore freeloaders.

It’s like making taxes optional.  If that happened, many Americans would no doubt seize the freedom not to pay. Those who continued to pay their taxes would feel like schmucks and would sooner or later (probably sooner) defect, with the result that government would be unable to provide the things that governments in advanced societies provide. No doubt, economic conservatives would herald this change. What is government after all but coerced collectivism? But people who send their kids to public schools, who prefer to drive on roads with few potholes, who enroll in Medicare, who pay lower tuition at state universities rather than private ones, etc., might be less enthusiastic about this increase in their freedom.


* For their statistics the authors round up numbers from right-wing sources like  ALEC, Arthur Laffer, and Stephen Moore. It’s possible that less partisan sources (e.g., BLS) have other statistics to measure differences between states and between workers.