Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Someone mentioned that since Barack Obama became President, there are no longer any elected Black senators or governors (Gov. Paterson in New York was installed in response to Gov. Spitzer’s resignation; Sen. Roland Burris was appointed to fill Obama’s seat). Why, though, are Blacks so unsuccessful at seeking statewide office? In the House, Blacks comprise a fraction almost proportional to their general population proportions (9.5% in the House; 13% generally).

Latinos (Govs. Sandoval and Martinez; various Senators) and Asian-Americans (Govs. Haley and Jindal; Sens. Inouye and Akaka) have had more success in recent years, despite similar problems — gerrymandering, for example.

So, why does this happen? A few hypotheses:

  1. Gerrymandering pushes Black House members too far to the left: Most Black Representatives come from districts that are majority-black, and these districts also tend to be urban heavily Democratic districts that push the left spectrum of the party line, thus making them even less palatable to the median voter.
    • BUT: How do you explain the success of white rural conservatives, who often come from districts as far on the right side of the spectrum as urban districts? Why aren’t they punished for their conservatism? (Consider, say, Sam Brownback.) Why wouldn’t a Black candidate be successful in a similarly liberal state (New York, say)?
  2. Majority-Black districts tend to be in big states: The barriers to entry in state-wide races in big states are bigger — more fund-raising required, more statewide organization, and more pull within the state party apparatus. Again, the odds seem long for a Representative with a comfortable margin of victory every year having the organization within the state party to guarantee the nomination.
    • BUT: How do you explain the success of Latinos, who presumably suffer from similar circumstances? Mel Martinez and Marco Rubio have been successful in Florida, while Ken Salazar represented Colorado and Bob Menendez represents New Jersey, all of which are in the top half of states by popualtion.
  3. Latent racism against Black politicians: Possible, or at least some variation thereof. For example, people may consider Black politicians more radical than their counterparts, despite similar policy platforms. (Compare reactions to Herman Cain with reactions to Rick Santorum, say.) Additionally, Black politicians may face increased scrutiny from rural and suburban whites, who would be essential in any statewide race. Latent racism would probably be most detrimental in statewide Southern races (see the Alabama gubernatorial Democratic primary in 2010). Media representations of Black candidates can reinforce this latent racism.
    • BUT: The Bradley Effect has largely vanished, and Barack Obama’s presidential election victory suggests that racism is not an insurmountable barrier, especially in liberal states that one imagines Black Democratic candidates could win (New Jersey or Massachusetts, say).
  4. Bad demographic luck: Of the top ten states in proportion of African-Americans, seven are in the old Confederacy, and Tennessee is close. Because of party affiliation barriers, ideological fissures, and latent racism, Blacks cannot get traction in these states.
    • BUT: Shouldn’t they at least do OK in states like Maryland, Delaware, Florida, New York, and Illinois, that aren’t quite as Old South? And why aren’t there more successful Black Republicans from the Old South states? There are Latino Republicans despite the national immigration policy. Does history of southern white racism run that deep?

There might be other reasons, too, such as broader party affiliation (Blacks tend to be heavily Democratic, even moreso than other demographic subsets).

I think some combination of the above probably does it, but it’s hard to say the exact chemistry of it. Consider the prime counterexample — Barack Obama — who was elected in a statewide, then nationwide race. He never represented a House district, so he could never be pulled heavily left by the local party. He never had a record to trail him as he ran for Senate (#1). He ran in a big state, but he lucked out when his opponents either disappeared (Jim Ryan) or became jokes (Alan Keyes) (#2). The state apparatus was glad to have Obama rather than scandal-plagued Ryan. Latent racism is less of a problem in Illinois, one of the more currently reliable liberal states (# 3 and 4). Additionally, latent racism may have simply diminished over the years (as compared to, say, the response of the country to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign).

Anyone have any better ideas?

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The most popular TED talks tend to be uncontroversial and, to use TED’s own terminology, “jaw-dropping.” People want to stare in wonderment or be blown away by the advances we have made in the sciences or hear about a new discovery.

People don’t like to hear about race, poverty, and justice, so Bryan Stevenson’s TEDTalk is a bit outside of TED’s usual purview of Technology, Entertainment, and Design.

But to me, this fits perfectly into the question of design. When we design something, we must think about its purpose; design is more than attractive chairs. Institutional design determines how we administer justice in our society. What are the values we uphold? What does the design of our systems tell us about the answer to that question?

Stevenson’s talk doesn’t quite answer those questions, but it digs at the heart of what we believe to be a justice system and the shrugging apathy we afford it.

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Why can’t everyone have beautiful things?

Unlike other areas of popular arts — film, music, etc. — where the barriers to entry have gotten lower and the price point has allowed for mass enjoyment, high art remains an area locked away in the homes of the rich and tucked into the sterility of the museum.

I can’t get a Rembrandt or a Rauschenberg to hang in my house, or if I did, it would cost a prohibitive sum. Sure, I could get a poster, but it wouldn’t have the depth or interest of the real thing, or even of a decent copy.

Thomas Kinkade was a philanderer, a hypocrite, and a sanctimonious jackass, but certainly if adultery, hypocrisy, and sanctimoniousness disqualify you for being a great artist, we wouldn’t have many to go around. His art, admittedly, was not the finest of anything — mostly the kind of cozy village scene or sun-dappled coastline that all middle Americans wished their communities looked like: equal parts Dickens, Grovers’ Corner, Hudson Valley School, and pastels (good Lord). It’s a particularly retrograde blend of lens flare and over-luminosity that feels to me like watching a JJ Abrams movie … with glaucoma and a pastel palette.

Yet, the art snobs who look at Kinkade with disdain ignore that Kinkade dedicated himself to a market that they had largely ignored — what the 99 percent actually want. Now, to be fair, Kinkade’s pricing system of tiered “limited editions” definitely created the same kinds of pricing and financing schemes that the housing bubble did, where “investors” believed (and still believe) that their paintings’ value will inevitably rise. But like predatory lenders and developers, he was addressing a demand unaddressed by the broader market — Americans wanted beautiful things that they could show off to people who entered their houses, and they wanted to look at beautiful things on a daily basis.

The art world refused to provide that, focusing on the Venetian Bienniale and “big art,” on skyrocketing prices for Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons and their titillating ilk. Much of the great art since the Renaissance was founded on a clientele of the small businessman and the petit bourgeois, from the local merchants who commissioned Dutch masters to paint their portraits to the tiny collectors dotted across Provence who picked up Cezannes and Van Goghs. Today, the art world has returned to the Renaissance-era patron, the super-client rather than the myriad horde.

Matt Yglesias has a schtick about lower-quality goods in higher-quantity, which raise overall utility and satisfaction. I don’t know if I always buy that argument, but in Kinkade’s case, he was producing an inferior good that was able to reach many more people, the store-brand art that you could enjoy in your home on a regular basis.

Kinkade was no saint, but he highlighted a problem with the way that visual arts in particular conceive of their purpose and their audience. Rembrandt and Warhol had no problem churning out work from a factory to give more product to a yearning populace. Instead, the art world of today is largely frozen in private collections and snooty museums, only occasionally glimpsed by the rest of us. Kinkade gave us art in the shopping mall, art through the mail, art a click away. Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Liechtenstein thought they were making mass art, but it was Kinkade who truly brought it to the masses. For that, he deserves our recognition, even if not our gratitude.

P.S. If you haven’t read the Susan Orlean piece on Kinkade, it’s worth the (long) read.

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Part of the business-inspired charter school model that I find strange is the attempt to equate schools with businesses generally. Certainly there are similarities between organizations, and paths to success may be similar, but they are organizations aimed at fundamentally different goals with very different social roles. So when I see an article like “Why School Principals Need More Authority,” well, I’m not so sure.

In the article, Finn notes that unlike CEOs, principals don’t have much control over schools. But in the business world, where CEOs do have a fair amount of control, small businesses fail all the time! OK, so maybe not a fair comparison. Surely, there would still be power from the district to mandate certain curriculum, standards, etc. But if that’s the case, in what sense is the principal really more like a “CEO”? Principal autonomy sounds like it frees principals of crippling mandates and regulations, but it also releases them from a variety of obligations that we might want to keep. Really, a principal more resembles a branch manager of a franchise or maybe a franchisee, where the company/district sets out some set of standards, and the individual managers/principals attempt to meet those standards within constraints set by both market and central office.

Yet, even here, it’s worth wondering whether simply increasing autonomy does anything to boost performance. Historically, budget control has zinged back and forth between schools, district offices, and increasingly, federal grant money. Yet, there are always movements to pull it back the other way. When people worried about the quality of schools within a district, they clamored for district offices to take more control of the pursestrings. When people worried about the bureaucracy of the central office, they clamored for schools to have more control. Schools are torn in two directions — in one, reformers try to create autonomous schools (as with Joel Klein in New York or John White in New Orleans); in the other, reformers try to create reforms from the top-down by attaching them to district, state, or federal funding.

Giving principals more autonomy vs less autonomy doesn’t solve a lot of fundamental problems. If you think that by tweaking their budgets a bit and wriggling out of regulations, principals can turn their schools into successes, then by all means, go for it. But I doubt the managerial capacity of most principals, the sufficiency of resources to actually meet loftier goals, and the efficacy of “creativity” to overcome big budget gaps. For a corporate analogy (which seems to be all the rage), with or without restrictions, branch manager success depends on a lot more than mere autonomy. And failure of a branch for a corporation has a lot fewer negative third-party effects than, say, the failure of a school for multiple years.

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With modern materials, motors, etc., humans have apparently achieved flight like birds, flappy wings and all.

I wonder often about path-dependency and determination, particularly when it comes to inventions and innovations. For example, if there had been more advanced fabrics and miniaturized motors in the early 1900s, would we have seen flappy flight before fixed wing flight? Or did we need fixed-wing flight to get miniaturized motors? It would seem impossible to imagine a world with flight, but without fixed-wing flight. Yet, is it really so implausible? Certainly experimenters at the time liked the idea. With different materials, who knows what they could have done?

When the term “thinking outside the box” is bandied about, I always wonder who among the human race will actually go out and do the crazy thing that everyone thinks is stupid. Apparently this guy. Also these dudes. Flying looks fantastic:

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I know, Rick Perry at this point only deserves to be ignored. He has no chance of winning in South Carolina, etc.

But this quote from Perry about the Marines who allegedly urinated on Taliban corpses struck me:

When you’re 18 or 19, you do dumb things. These kids made a mistake, there’s not any doubt about it,” the Republican presidential hopeful said. He went on to note that other famous military figures acted the same way in a war environment: “[Winston] Churchill did the same thing.”

Although the Marines should be “appropriately punished” Perry criticized “the idea that this administration would go after these young people for a criminal act.”

You know what’s funny? I almost agree with Perry. Kids do dumb things and make terrible mistakes; punishments for them should be different than those for adults.

I wonder what Rick Perry would say about the case of Napoleon Beazley. When he was 17, Beazley committed a brutal murder of a 63-year-old John Luttig during a carjacking. As a result, the state of Texas in turn murdered Beazley by lethal injection for a crime he committed when he was a “kid.” (He was also convicted by an all-white jury; he was black.) Kids make mistakes and Napoleon Beazley made a terrible one. His environment was rife with violence, and he committed a horrific act of violence. His environment and his age do not excuse his act, certainly, but does his act of murder deserve a murder in kind? Surely, there must be some leniency offered to “kids.”

Except, of course, I already know what Rick Perry says about this case. 18 state legislators, as well as the original trial judge, wrote to Perry to ask him to commute Beazley’s sentence. His response?

“To delay his punishment is to delay justice.”

No leniency. No “just kids.” No “dumb mistake.”

Now, one could argue that murder is different than corpse desecration, but I doubt Perry’s response would be any different for alleged murders of civilians committed by American troops at war. When they are committing a murder that Perry likes, they are “just kids.” When they are committing a murder that he doesn’t, they deserve “ultimate justice.”

Were it not for a Supreme Court decision banning executions for crimes committed while a juvenile, I’m sure Perry would gleefully pull the switch himself.

Rick Perry, good Christian, enjoys murdering his own citizens in the name of justice. He is proud of it, whether they were kids or not.

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Watching football, I saw a number of diamond commercials and I wondered why we value sparkly things.

Shiny things have a value, usually because they tend to be ductile, durable metals, but also because we like seeing images of ourselves. That seems to be at least a plausible explanation, however speculative it might be.

But sparkly items don’t have that value, and their uses are much more limited.


  1. Human eyes naturally detect movement, and specifically rapid changes of light and dark. Yet, one would expect this to trigger a “fight-or-flight” response rather than attraction. After all, if a human saw rapidly changing light and dark, that was probably a sign to run in the opposite direction.
  2. Humans who were attracted to sparkly things were more likely to be attracted to sparkly moving water, which may have fewer contaminants and be less likely to kill you.
  3. Humans who were attracted to sparkly things were more likely to find shiny rocks and minerals, which were useful for, say, starting fires or making stone tools. (This is pretty questionable, since many of the early stone tools weren’t shiny at all.)
  4. It’s all cultural: humans value sparkly objects for purely social/cultural reasons.

Like I said, this is all highly speculative, and there’s no probative value in this exercise whatsoever. It just seems strange how much we really like sparkly objects, without considering why we do.

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