College and Loans

September 26, 2010

This girl took on $85k worth of debt to get an English degree from Brandeis, and didn’t seem to spend much time thinking about how she would set up her post-college life to pay the money back. Her reasons for getting the degree—to become a writer in case her acting career couldn’t get off the ground—don’t seem to conform to the realities in either job market.

I don’t think that this girl’s problems are unique; I’ve noticed that many “intellectual” liberal arts college grads find themselves in similar positions. They major in something that they’re passionate about (often taking out significant loans) and find themselves at the end of four years with limited job prospects. The following all seem to be common traits:

1. Taking a narrow view of their strengths and abilities, and thinking of themselves as intellectuals. This automatically biases them against seeking out more remunerative work in the first place.

2. A desire to work in a very specific field arts/humanities, even though jobs are hard to come by, even for PhDs.

3. An unwillingness to “market” themselves for jobs that are complementary to their strengths.

4. Mistakenly thinking that their professors and administrators will prepare them to get good jobs, even though it’s really not their job to do so, and the career office is useful only for those that really work to take advantage of the resources available.

5. Mistakenly thinking that the problem will “sort itself out,” and that they will eventually get a job easily.

I remember thinking, as a very young kid, that people who went to Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Yale, or Stanford (the only schools I was really aware of) were “set for life.” It’s remarkable how un-true that is, and how little college alone really seems to matter in terms of long term earnings potential.

The kids who get good non-profit/private sector jobs or get into good grad schools are fine, but this girl isn’t one of them, and she’s not alone.

I don’t know exactly how to solve this problem. Kids go are constantly told throughout high school that college is the most important thing to prepare for, and that a more prestigious school is always better than a less prestigious one. What’s missing is any corresponding discussion of how to pay for it, or the likely career prospects from different majors and schools.

The easy availability of student loans is, I think, a big problem. No one in their right mind would loan tens of thousands of dollars to an 18-year-old kid with no income. It’s so common with student loans because the loan companies have been able to successfully lobby for making the debt so tough to get rid of. If the borrowers can’t discharge it in bankruptcy, Sallie Mae is going to get paid no matter what. It’s basically a risk-free return, far above the “real” risk free rate on government debt. I would like to see the loan money dry up and have colleges start to compete on price, but I don’t see that happening in the near future. As long as loans are so easily available, the schools will have an incentive to capture as much of it as possible. I’m not sure what a good intermediate-term solution is, but I suspect we’ll be stuck with what we have for a while.


What is this? Random DC street art.

August 15, 2010

I’ve been seeing these drawings stuck all over the Dupont / Logan Circle neighborhoods. They’re obliviously by the same artist(s). I wonder if it’s some sort of marketing thing? I would really like to know who’s putting them up, why, and if there’s some larger meaning. I’ve seen duplicates of some of the drawings posted below, but these are all the unique types that I’ve seen:

London Calling

June 27, 2010

I flew out of Dulles at 11:30pm DC time and landed in London at around 10am London time. As usual I couldn’t sleep a wink on the plane.

I spent my first day battling jetlag, walking around, and getting some great Indian food from what I think was a chain restaurant. I slept terribly—the bed was small and the room was hot, indifferent to my changing the thermostat. After waking up at 5am and reading for an hour I decided it wasn’t worth it to attempt to go back to bed.

First impression: London is a deceptively large city. My map made it all look quite walkable, but only because it didn’t bother to label each and every side street, of which there are many. Most of the streets are little more than alleyways, and I doubt one would even be able to print a thoroughly labeled but easily foldable tourist map that included them all. As a result, I often found myself walking down street X expecting to see street Y after the next intersection, as it appeared on the map. Instead, there would be 2-3 smaller streets on the way: a Lexham Gardens, a Cambridge Mews, a Brick Road, and so on. This made even simple excursions feel much longer than they looked to be on paper.

I spent the next day walking from my hotel near the Earl’s Court tube station along Cromwell road to Harrod’s, Picadilly Circus, and the high-end shops along Bond Street. There was a wonderful street near the Charring Cross station with nothing but used book and print stores—I could easily have spent two days there. I rounded out the day by getting dinner at a Korean place in Soho and walking all the way back to the hotel along Cromwell road. I probably should have saved my legs and taken the tube, especially since my exhaustion didn’t even make sleep any easier. I was, however, able to eventually get back to sleep after waking up at 4am this time.

On the next day I made my way over to the British Museum. It’s a massive place, filled with the spoils of the former British Empire. I also finally got some legit fish and chips, which took a surprisingly long time to acquire since the pub that my uncle recommended to me turned out to be out of business. That night my attempt to get an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep was again foiled when I woke up at 2am due to a malfunctioning fire alarm, forcing me to hang out in the lobby with the other irritated guests.

I had time before my flight on the last day to tour the Cabinet War rooms, the basement nerve center where Churchill and his aides spent most of the war. I never would have known about this had it not been for a friend’s recommendation, and it’s certainly one of the highlights of the trip. I also used my remaining few hours to do the touristy things that I should have done on the first day—seeing Trafalgar Square, St. James Park, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the art museum. Just as the weather was getting warmer and I started to get my bearings around the city, it was time to leave and fly off to Amsterdam.

My flight came into the Netherlands late. I amused myself by looking through the aisles and trying to figure out which passengers would surely get in a cab to the nearest coffee shop upon landing (my money was on the dreadlocked white guy wearing an MF Doom t-shirt). Too tired to figure out how to navigate the trams, I took a cab to my hotel (which was much nicer than the place in London) located near the art museums.

I enjoyed Amsterdam, it really is just as quaint as it looks. The public transportation was uniformly efficient and, as an added convenience, everyone spoke excellent English; from the waiter at the Indonesian restaurant to the guy that operated the tram. I suppose that they have a much greater incentive to learn English than most other people have to learn Dutch. The Dutch language, I found, sounds quite like gibberish English. Hearing people speak it, I felt like I should be able to know what they’re talking about. I was also able to get an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep for the first time in 4 nights, which was a welcomed change.

Drugs aside, nightlife in Amsterdam is fantastic. Bars are open until 4am 7 nights a week, though the nightlife seemed mostly contained within the city center/red light district. The red light district wasn’t nearly as seedy as I expected it to be. Sure, there are coffees hops and prostitutes, but both just become part of the local flavor after 20 minutes.

My experience with pot was, to but it mildly, terribly underwhelming.

I got some Indonesian food, which reminded me of very light Indian food crossed with Thai. My meal consisted of many small plates (a drumstick, some spicy veggies, a hard boiled egg and a type of curry) served with white rice. I don’t think it has the variety of Thai or Indian, but I would need to try it some more to say for sure. I also saw the Heineken Brewery and walked past the Anne Frank home, which had a shockingly long line given that she wasn’t even home *rimshot*.

*cough*. Anyway.

I’m normally not a big fan of the “tall, blonde, all-American” type look but I did come to appreciate all of the leggy blonde dames in Amsterdam. Also, everyone dresses much better than in the states. Not necessarily dressier, but fewer t-shirts and jeans, and more casual sport coats. I think we can do worse than to emulate that aspect.

I think that there are higher levels of social trust and cohesion in the Netherlands. On the trams, for example, it would be incredibly easy to use them every day without buying a ticket, as the operator doesn’t check that each passenger scans his card. I didn’t pay for my first trip, and was surprised to see that the driver didn’t seem to care. I saw something similar in the train station, which had a bank of turnstiles that one could simply walk around instead of going through. I really can’t see people abiding by this in the states to the extent that they do in the Netherlands.

I also made it to Brussels for the day to visit an old friend that I interned with a few years ago. A few observations:

1.) The Grand Place (below) is covered in gold. It seemed like Belgium’s way of saying “Sure we’re small, but damn it if we ain’t rich.”

2.) I had white beer, a waffle, mussels with fries, and chocolate. All were unremarkable except for the mussels, which were fatter and juicier than what I was used to. The beer was great, but not very different from the other Belgian whites I’ve had.

3.) The capital of Europe does a much better job of hiding its poor people than the capital of the US. The Brussels train station was in a neighborhood that my friend described as “dodgy” and which seemed to be mostly populated by recent Middle Eastern immigrants. It certainly didn’t feel as dodgy as some comparable DC neighborhoods, and I don’t recall seeing any homeless people and beggars near the EU parliament building, as one sees regularly near the Capitol and the White House.

After Belgium I had a bit more time in Amsterdam before flying back to Dulles via London. A fantastic trip all in all, I only wish I was able to sleep better in London.

Vietnam: The last day

February 15, 2010

Our trip back from Siem Reap was uneventful. After landing in Ho Chi Minh City made some last minute purchases including another communist propaganda poster, some more DVDs, as well as the longest haircut I’ve ever had in my life. For what couldn’t have been more than $5 including tip I had a great cut along with a scalp/head massage, all in a wonderfully air conditioned building.

I really got a kick out of all the (mis) translations of the propaganda posters. My favorite was this one, encouraging villagers to grow more salt in order to bring glory to their Uncle Ho:

“We Must Increase the Production of Salt to Satisfy the People’s Needs. Mobilize the Workers and Collective Farmers to Use Sun and the Salt Fields Effectively and to Produce in an Organized Fashion with Principle and for High Production.”

Now if that doesn’t motivate you to bring glory to the fatherland, I don’t know what will. Below is one of my favorite images. Fertile young women clutching babies and rifles seemed to be a recurring theme in most of the posters, including one of the ones that I bought:

The next day I made my way to the Cu Chi tunnels, on the outskirts of the city. This was my first excursion without Noah, as he had already been there several times before. I was somewhat nervous taking the trip alone, but it wasn’t a big deal at all; I merely boarded a bus with a bunch of other tourists and took the 1-hour trip myself.

Door to one of the tunnels.

Villagers started to build the tunnels in the 1950’s and continued well into the 60’s and 70’s as a way to connect towns, store supplies, and survive heavy US bombing. They were really an engineering marvel—they went upwards of 10 meters underground, had several levels, and numerous trap doors. People would live there for months or years at a time, usually only emerging at night to tend to crops. Some of them even stretched as far as away as the Cambodian border, some 100 km away.

Door to one of the tunnels.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel when I got to Cu Chi, since it was a place where so many Americans and Vietnamese died—they had an American tank that succumbed to a landmine, killing all five inside, as well as a crater from a B-52 bomb. I didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable being there, however, and I don’t think that many Vietnamese did either.


Models of Viet Cong soldiers.

I got to shoot an AK-47!

Another door to the tunnel. I think that I'm a bit bigger than the typical Viet Cong soldier.

Yet another rice paddie.

After getting back to the city proper, I killed time in a local park waiting for Noah where I saw this fantastic sign:

Social evils.

While there a few Vietnamese kids asked if they could practice their English on me. One girl did most of the talking while the others were silent. She asked me where I was from, what I did for a living, whether I liked Vietnam, and so forth. They were all 18-19 years old despite the fact that they appeared to my Western eyes to be closer to 15, and were likewise surprised when I told them that I was a mere 23. I gave them a copy of my (now useless) business card and said that they were welcome to follow up, but I never heard from them. It was nice to feel like a celebrity, if only for a few minutes.

Later that evening I went with Noah to a Rosh Hashanah celebration at the Continental Hotel organized by Chabad. Who knew that Chabad even had an outpost in Vietnam, or that there were enough Jewish tourists and ex-pats to make such a celebration viable? I never would have guessed. Apparently the lack of kosher food forced the main rabbi to purchase and butcher a goat himself a few years ago when the organization was started.

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

After getting dinner with a group of Noah’s English teach friends—an international group which included people from Vietnam, Japan, Malayasia, Germany, and a half French/Vietnamese fellow, I made my way to the airport to catch a 12:30 am flight to Seoul. The trip back was pretty easy, and I managed to get some sleep at the transit hotel in Korea during my 9 hour layover.

Dinner, the last day.

Caravelle Hotel and Saigon Sheraton.

Overall, it was a fantastic trip. It certainly made me appreciate the opportunities that I have being born in a western country, and I would definitely like to go back at some point to see more of the region.

Last meal in Asia at Incheon Airport, near Seoul. Six pork/vegetable dumplings, pickled veggies, and soup for only $USD6.50.


January 23, 2010

After a few days in Ho Chi Minh City Noah and I flew to Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia, home of Angkor Wat and many other temples from the height of the Khemer period.

Although Cambodia is poorer and less developed than Vietnam, it felt more modern and western in some respects: most people knew at least a few words of English in order to interact with the tourists, and I spotted both a Dairy Queen franchise in the airport as well as a Mexican restaurant in the market area. The latter never made any sense to me.

About to land in Siem Reap.

Downtown Siem Reap.

After landing we met a cab driver, Thi, who agreed to take us to our hotel and offered to drive us to the nearby temples for the following two days. We agreed, and he charged a quite modest fee of only $25 or so per day. Most of the sedans that we saw were Toyota Camrys and Corollas from the early/mid 90’s, and it felt a bit strange to be driving over Cambodia’s dirt roads in the same cars that I grew up riding in.

Shortly after arriving at our hotel we set out to explore the nearby old market area, where we saw numerous people selling books, postcards, and some lovely traditional Cambodian kroma scarves that I bought for my family. I think that the Cambodians were actually much more aggressive than the Vietnamese were in trying to sell us souvenirs—likely due in equal parts to the competition between different sellers and the country’s poverty.

Shrimp flavored chips are all the rage.

The old market area.

Dried fish. It smelled terrible.

After the market we went to the Angkor museum, which was surprisingly modern and large. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many buddhas in my life.

Noah recalled reading a passage from some long forgotten French colonist who said, “in Kampuchea, it is impossible not to bathe at least twice a day.” That adage is just as true now as it was before the days of air conditioning. Although it was the rainy season, we saw very little rain; it was sunny, humid, and in the upper 80’s most days with only a few clouds. Not dissimilar to DC in the summertime. Consequently, I found myself showering every morning and then again before dinner after a trek to the temples. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated air conditioning and clean sheets as much as I did during my time in Cambodia. As much as I appreciated Noah’s and Stefan’s hospitality, their couch in the un-air conditioned back room of the dress shop was not the most comfortable accommodation I’ve ever had.

A tuk-tuk, the favored means of transportation.

View from our tuk-tuk.

Angkor museum.

The next day we woke up early to meet our guide, Sam, who in conjunction with our driver showed us around the different temples. Sam was an impressive fellow: he was pursuing a BA in a local college while working as a tour guide, and also worked to teach English to young people.

After a day of temples Noah and I went back to the market area. It began raining, but we found a theatre that was showing documentaries on both Pol Pot and landmines, as Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. After all, what vacation is complete without films on destructive ordinance and communist genocide? No vacation that I would want to go on, that’s for sure. Despite having a strong interest in Vietnam when I was in middle school it didn’t carry over as I got older, so I was glad to fill in some gaps of my knowledge.

The food was very similar to Thai.

The view from the top of our hotel.

Angkor Wat

During our last full day, we went to yet more temples—by this time I was really getting templed out. But “when in Kampuchea…”, I suppose. There were more really young kids trying to aggressively sell us souvenirs. Noah, hardened after living in Southeast Asia for over a year, managed to resist all their attempts until one enterprising young boy, no more than 7 or 8, came up to us and asked us where we were from. After telling him that we were from the states he proceeded to tell us our capital city, who our president is, the president’s daughters names, and so forth. Once he got to Obama’s dog’s name Noah’s chill finally thawed, and he handed over a dollar for some more postcards that we didn’t actually need.

Khemers and Chinese betting on a cockfight.

Cambodian is a pretty cool script.

Face to face with...someone. Most likely Buddha.

Pretty standard breakfast.

We were solicited for prostitution once more the next evening when walking through the market, this time by a fellow asking us if we want “boom boom lady.” I wonder if they know how ridiculous this sounds in English? Apparently “boom boom” means sex while “yum yum” means oral sex. They really do have a word for everything over there.

Some temple.

Some sort of meat and egg stuffed, dragonfruit colored bun we bought from someone on the side of the road.

Entrance to the landmine museum.

Pretty sure this temple was used in one of the tomb raider movies.

Buddhist shrine. These were all over the temples.

Kids fishing.

"Father King" Sianhouk and one of his wives. Truly an interesting chacarcter. Installed by the French in the early 50's and was eventually exiled at various points to Thailand and China. Helped the Khemer Rouge gain power before they kicked him out. I think he lives in North Korea now.

Cambodian Coke!

Cambodian BBQ. We had snake, beef, chicken, crocodile, squid, and probably a few other critters.

Mini bananas, and Dragonfruit.

They can really pack 'em in.

Goodbye, Cambodia!

Vietnam – Day 3

December 6, 2009

During my second full day in Vietnam I spent more time exploring Ho Chi Minh City. Despite the fact that it’s a massive, sprawling place, you can see nearly all of the things that are worth seeing in just a couple of days—it’s not New York.

The main tourist district is centered on the Continental Hotel along with two other upscale hotels that also appear to be the tallest buildings in the city, the Sheraton and Caravelle. It features a surprisingly Western style mall, numerous restaurants, and upscale Gucci and Cartier boutiques catering to the Vietnamese nouveau riche and wealthy traveler/ex-pat sets. Nearby is another, slightly rougher tourist area dominated by bars and other forms of nightlife—it’s also where I was solicited for both marijuana and prostitution.

More pho.

Near the hotels Noah and I stumbled on a store that specializes in old propaganda posters. Although the proprietor claimed that they were originals, I suspect that they were all just high quality fakes based on original posters. The posters all centered on three basic themes: paying homage to glorious uncle Ho, encouraging the peasants to grow more soybeans/fish/rice for a prosperous fatherland, or take up arms to defend against the American aggressor. The artwork itself was great: healthy young women with babies strapped to their backs and rifles in their hands, farmers toiling in the rice paddies, and Richard Nixon’s face superimposed on bombs falling onto a village.

As good as the artwork was, I liked the poorly translated captions the best. This one, from a poster imploring people to produce more salt, was my personal favorite:

We Must Increase the Production of Salt to Satisfy the People’s Needs. Mobilize the Workers and Collective Farmers to

Use Sun and the Salt Fields Effectively and to Produce in an Organized Fashion with Principle and for High Production.

Despite my distinctly non-communist political leanings, I loved them all and bought two full sized “original” posters and three other much smaller ones. I recall reading somewhere that Grover Norquist has a bust of Lenin in his home, and I once met someone that worked at a Libertarian leaning organization in DC who had several original pieces of Russian propaganda in his office, so perhaps it’s not unusual for libertarian types to fetishize communist propaganda. Libertarians lack good propaganda, after all.

From a Buddhist pagoda.

This doesn't look safe to me.

I soon realized that one hour in Saigon was the equivalent of at least three hours elsewhere. By 1 pm it felt like 4 pm, and I was ready to go to sleep by dinnertime. I think this had to do with some combination of the craziness on the streets, constant heat, and being bombarded with people trying to sell you things. The basic pattern for the rest of my trip was to spend a few hours outside before seeking refuge in a café with a cold drink for at least an hour.

More of the pagoda.

We got dinner one night at Xu, one of the best restaurants in the city. The most expensive entre was still only $25, and most were much less.

Vietnam – Day 2

November 22, 2009

As a Westerner making his maiden trip to a non-Western country, the first thing I noticed when walking around Ho Chi Minh City was the palpable sense of danger that lurked at every intersection. Everyone in the city owns a motorbike, and at any given moment of the day or night I think that at least 50% of the population is riding theirs through the street. The street is too crowded, you say? No problem; just ride on the sidewalk. There’s a break in traffic in the opposite lane? Just move over and switch lanes—don’t worry if you’re going in the “wrong” direction. If there were traffic rules, I saw no one enforcing them.

View from our cab, starting the day.

This was near the main tourist area.

All this excitement made crossing intersections rather hairy, and I spent the first few days practically hugging Noah as I made my way across the city. Soon, however, I realized that it was no different than a game of frogger, with the one rule change being that you can only move forward. Just keep moving, stop only if necessary, and the motorbikes will swerve around you. The busses and cars were more intimidating, as they seemed to stop or slow down for no one.

The second thing to strike me was the remarkably cheap prices, especially for pho, which I consumed in great quantities over the course of the week. A bowl of beef noodle soup was never any more than 30-40,000 dong, or under $2. I greatly weakened my vegetarianism/pescetarianism during this whole trip, despite the ample supply of meatless options. Pho, I found, simply tastes much better with beef than anything else. Chicken pho seemed like a poor take on chicken noodle soup, seafood pho didn’t mesh well with the herbs, and vegetarian pho was missing a certain punch that the beef variety had.

Glorious Pho. Breakfast of champions.

The main post office. One is never far from the watchful eye of uncle Ho.

After eating, our first stop of the day was the war remnants museum, formerly named the more incendiary (and arguably more accurate) “Museum of American War Crimes.” This was very informative for an American whose knowledge of the war came mostly through the lens of other Americans. The exhibits exhibited various atrocities committed by American soldiers, including some graphic photos of children born with birth defects (supposedly from Agent Orange) and a particularly striking photo of a group of GI’s posing with dead North Vietnamese that they had proudly decapitated. I was a bit amused by the propagandistic descriptions of the photos. They were all “brave patriots” this and “colonialist Americans” that. Of course the entire museum was a piece of propaganda itself, as I saw no mention of atrocities that surely had to have been committed by North Vietnamese on the South. I guess it’s impossible to have any sort of government-sponsored interpretation of political events without it feeling like propaganda in some way.

Here I am in front of a Chinese tank.

Description of a re-creation of a South Vietnamese prison camp.

We then made our way over to the Ho Chi Minh City museum, which was much less impressive but still worth a visit if you’re in the area.

From the HCMC museum.

Reunification Palace.

By the end of the day I was completely exhausted. I guess 27 hours of travel followed by 6 hours of restless sleep on a strange couch will do that. I remember putting my head down on a table and falling asleep cold in a café while we visited with some of Noah’s English teacher friends. Not even the iced coffee could save me.

Not sure what this says.

uncle Ho, in front of a goverment building.



Rule of Law

November 14, 2009

I really enjoyed this recent article from The Onion:

Although it’s clearly intended to mock populist conservatism, I think that the main idea can be readily applied to almost anybody who has strong opinions on what the constitution means, regardless of their political affiliation.

It reminded me of John Hasnas’s article, “The Myth of the Rule of Law,” where he argues that there is no objective rule of law, as much as people would like to think otherwise. Lawmaking is an inherently political process, subject to both numerous public choice problems (special interests, concentrated benefits and dispersed harms) as well as people’s biases and interpretations of ideas such as justice and equality. Here’s the article:

In his novel 1984, George Orwell created a nightmare vision of the future in which an all-powerful Party exerts totalitarian control over society by forcing the citizens to master the technique of “doublethink,” which requires them “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel[] out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.” (3) Orwell’s doublethink is usually regarded as a wonderful literary device, but, of course, one with no referent in reality since it is obviously impossible to believe both halves of a contradiction. In my opinion, this assessment is quite mistaken. Not only is it possible for people to believe both halves of a contradiction, it is something they do every day with no apparent difficulty.

Consider, for example, people’s beliefs about the legal system. They are obviously aware that the law is inherently political. The common complaint that members of Congress are corrupt, or are legislating for their own political benefit or for that of special interest groups demonstrates that citizens understand that the laws under which they live are a product of political forces rather than the embodiment of the ideal of justice. Further, as evidenced by the political battles fought over the recent nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the public obviously believes that the ideology of the people who serve as judges influences the way the law is interpreted.

This, however, in no way prevents people from simultaneously regarding the law as a body of definite, politically neutral rules amenable to an impartial application which all citizens have a moral obligation to obey. Thus, they seem both surprised and dismayed to learn that the Clean Air Act might have been written, not to produce the cleanest air possible, but to favor the economic interests of the miners of dirty-burning West Virginia coal (West Virginia coincidentally being the home of Robert Byrd, who was then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee) over those of the miners of cleaner-burning western coal. (4) And, when the Supreme Court hands down a controversial ruling on a subject such as abortion, civil rights, or capital punishment, then, like Louis in Casablanca, the public is shocked, shocked to find that the Court may have let political considerations influence its decision. The frequent condemnation of the judiciary for “undemocratic judicial activism” or “unprincipled social engineering” is merely a reflection of the public’s belief that the law consists of a set of definite and consistent “neutral principles” (5) which the judge is obligated to apply in an objective manner, free from the influence of his or her personal political and moral beliefs.

I believe that, much as Orwell suggested, it is the public’s ability to engage in this type of doublethink, to be aware that the law is inherently political in character and yet believe it to be an objective embodiment of justice, that accounts for the amazing degree to which the federal government is able to exert its control over a supposedly free people. I would argue that this ability to maintain the belief that the law is a body of consistent, politically neutral rules that can be objectively applied by judges in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, goes a long way toward explaining citizens’ acquiescence in the steady erosion of their fundamental freedoms. To show that this is, in fact, the case, I would like to direct your attention to the fiction which resides at the heart of this incongruity and allows the public to engage in the requisite doublethink without cognitive discomfort: the myth of the rule of law.

I refer to the myth of the rule of law because, to the extent this phrase suggests a society in which all are governed by neutral rules that are objectively applied by judges, there is no such thing. As a myth, however, the concept of the rule of law is both powerful and dangerous. Its power derives from its great emotive appeal. The rule of law suggests an absence of arbitrariness, an absence of the worst abuses of tyranny. The image presented by the slogan “America is a government of laws and not people” is one of fair and impartial rule rather than subjugation to human whim. This is an image that can command both the allegiance and affection of the citizenry. After all, who wouldn’t be in favor of the rule of law if the only alternative were arbitrary rule? But this image is also the source of the myth’s danger. For if citizens really believe that they are being governed by fair and impartial rules and that the only alternative is subjection to personal rule, they will be much more likely to support the state as it progressively curtails their freedom.

In this Article, I will argue that this is a false dichotomy. Specifically, I intend to establish three points: 1) there is no such thing as a government of law and not people, 2) the belief that there is serves to maintain public support for society’s power structure, and 3) the establishment of a truly free society requires the abandonment of the myth of the rule of law.


Vietnam — in transit

October 25, 2009

I kept notes of my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last September, and have been meaning to convert them into blog posts. My newfound employment status has made it a bit easier to do that. This is the first entry in what will be a 4 or 5 part series.

My flight left Dulles at 9:15 AM, meaning that I had to be at the airport — as the airline suggested — by 7:15. I left my apartment via cab at around 6:30 and managed to get to Dulles before 7, thanks to the dearth of traffic on the Dulles access road. The flights to Ho Chi Minh city added up to some ~27 hours of travel time: ~5 hours to LA, ~13 hours to Seoul/Incheon, and then ~5 hours to Ho Chi Minh city, with 2-3 hour layovers at each airport. I had never been in transit for anywhere near that long before, so I wasn’t really sure how to handle such along trip. Thankfully, the entire thing proved quite painless.

Goodbye, Arlington! Wilson Blvd. from the cab.

Goodbye, Arlington! Wilson Blvd. from the cab.

Asiana flew both legs of the trip from Seoul to HCMC, and it was certainly the nicest airline I’ve flown on. Two things stuck out at me: the cute and completely homogeneous stewardesses, and the food. Perhaps I’m just not used to getting fed on airlines (most of my flights are short domestic hops along the east coast), though I was impressed by the offerings of kimchee, quiche, bip bim bop (yes, it’s a Korean airline), fish, and various side offerings on each of the flights. The stewardesses were all amazingly identical. They were all around 5’5″, Korean, no older than their early 30’s or so, and had their hair tied in an identical bun to match their identical tan uniforms. I was quite impressed. Perhaps America should adapt Korea’s looser hiring/discrimination laws for the sake of weary travelers the world over.

Approaching LAX.

Approaching LAX.

The airport in Seoul, by the way, was really amazing. The floors literally sparkled, the food courts were of restaurant quality, and I couldn’t walk 10 feet without seeing another Hermes/Cartier/Chanel outlet. It felt more like an ultra modern, upscale shopping mall/food court than an airport. Plus, the lounge had free wifi, and there was even a hotel right in the terminal.

The whole airport looks like this.

The whole airport looks like this.

Even in Korea.

Even in Korea.

I was a bit worried about my arrival in Ho Chi Minh City. Noah said that he would meet me right at the entrance of the airport, and I did have his phone number in case I had to get in touch with him, though my need to develop constant contingency plans for these sorts of situations made me slightly concerned. Luckily I met Klinger with nary a problem, where he greeted me with a bag of souvenirs: a collection of post cards depicting the glorious works of Ho Chi Minh, a pork sandwich, a copy of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” and a business card holder that looks like a pair of outstretched hands. At first glance this looks creepy to any Westerner, but it’s quite common throughout Asia.

Noah had recently returned from China and was staying with his former roommate, a gay east-German dressmaker named Stefan. Also staying in the house was Stefan’s Vietnamese friend and the three young women in his employ. None of these girls spoke a word of English and all of them slept on the floor in one of the rooms on the second floor. Noah did not have a key to the store, though thankfully at least on of the native girls was there all the time to let us in/out when necessary. I slept on the couch in the back room while Noah slept somewhere upstairs, and managed to fall asleep after some time tossing and turning in the un-air conditioned apartment. It felt no different than crashing on a friend’s couch in any other city, except instead of New York or Boston I was halfway around the world.

My sleeping quarters. Most of the luggage and things belong to Noah.

My sleeping quarters. Most of the luggage and things belong to Noah.


August 31, 2009

For reasons that I’ll elaborate on later I’m very skeptical of the new healthcare legislation that is being proposed. I do not think that it’s a panacea though I’m not convinced that it’s the disaster that many people, mostly on the right, are predicting. Cries of socialism are more than a bit silly when you consider that a massive (and growing) chunk of healthcare expenditures are backed by the government in the form of medicare and medicaid, and that the healthcare industry is already among the most heabily regulated in existence.

I do think that one issue that is generally ignored by both sides concerns the rationing of health care. The debate would be much more open and honest if only people would admit that healthcare always has been and always will be rationed in one way or another:

Limiting health care’s availability by the criterion of personal wealth rightly offends our sense of the dignity of the individual. Are the lives of the poor not of the same intrinsic value of those of the wealthy? To be fair, it is rare in the United States that poverty alone prevents the uninsured poor from receiving lifesaving intervention in a healthcare crisis. A poor man having a heart attack is not turned away from the emergency room, nor is the poor woman in labor sent away to have her baby at home. (I am not arguing that such enormities never occur, but the fact that such occurrences remain scandalous and newsworthy is a testament to their rarity.) Yet it is equally undeniable that the poor get a lesser share of the preventive care that can maintain health or of the quotidian care for the less dramatic challenges to their health.

There are two major alternatives to the allocating of health care on the basis of personal wealth. Both involve a large number of individuals agreeing (or having imposed on them) that the amount of health care they receive will not be in strict accord to how much they have paid for it. The cost will be distributed over the healthy as well as the sick, even though the benefit will inure only to those who are ill or who need health care to prevent illness. People accept the certainty of a bearable cost to avoid the risk of an unbearable one. But to the extent that these collective programs sever the connection between paying for health care and receiving it, they generate increased demand for health care. The individual feels that he has already paid for health care. When he is sick, or thinks that he is sick, he feels fully entitled to care with no consideration of cost. After all, he has already paid for it, hasn’t he? Given the limited amount of health care that may be bought with the aggregate funds of the group, this untrammeled demand for it must always result in rationing. This is true whether the collective effort is a private insurance plan or a government program. Rationing is inevitable in all collective health care financing schemes.

Rationing must occur, but it need not be admitted. Denying the truth of rationing is more common in government-run health care schemes than private ones, because the government is reluctant to have the people know this ugly fact. Government-run programs, therefore, are more likely to disguise the rationing. This plausibly deniable form of limiting health care is called implicit healthcare rationing, and it assumes many forms. Rationing by termination occurs when patients are discharged from the hospital earlier than is medically optimal. Rationing by dilution occurs when second-best rather than first-best treatment is provided. Rationing by rejection or redirection involves healthcare providers turning away patients whose care will be inadequately reimbursed. This is commonly seen now in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, because those programs reimburse providers at a rate substantially lower than private insurance plans. Perhaps more common than those forms of rationing is rationing by delay, as exemplified by the outrageous amount of time patients in Canada must wait for hip replacement surgery or colonoscopy. The unifying theme in all these forms of implicit rationing is that, without admitting it, they force some patients to forego medical care that they want and are ostensibly entitled to receive.