Dynamist Blog

West Texas State Rocks

Reader Michael McDowell demonstrates that you don't need a prestigious college degree to read carefully and think logically:

I am one of the folks who sometimes get defensive when prestige of colleges comes up. As the son of non-college educated parents of moderate means, any college was college and that was progress; therefore I am a proud graduate of West Texas State.

The difference between me and many of those commenting on this touchy subject is that I can't pretend that West Texas State is the "Harvard of the Panhandle." Failure to realize that going to any school other than the elites puts you at a day one disadvantage seems to me to be an indication that maybe a person lacks the reasoning ability that would have allowed them to get in an elite school. Fortunately after day one comes day two, and on day two I have the option to work that silver-spooned, soft-bellied SOB into the dirt. (kidding, but just sorta)

We live in a "what have you done for me lately" world, and that is a tremendous equalizer. All that I read in your remarks is "what has Miers done for me lately?" If Miers had a distinguished body of work that seemed related to the task of Supreme Court Justice and was still being criticized about choice in law school, I would be personally angry as I often personalize that type of slight, but I don't see that. What I see is someone that was nominated to the Supreme Court because of who they know. Sure going to Harvard law probably gets you invited to some nice cocktail parties, but apparently being a part of the Texas good ole' boy and gal system gets you nominated to the Supreme Court. For consistency's sake, shouldn't the same people who get angry because of non-merit advantages that an Ivy League grad might enjoy also get angry when that non-merit advantage comes from another source?

Quite so.

Today's DMN looks at Miers's corporate litigation career and finds little of Supreme Court substance: "Over her career as a corporate litigator, she became recognized as among the best in her field. Ms. Miers' reputation was largely built on her work ethic and personality while engaging in relatively routine legal matters — disputes over bank notes, fraud allegations against insurers, class-action lawsuits."

Old Grads' Network

A reader writes to correct my claim that Texas is run by UT, SMU, and A&M grads. He makes an interesting point, and one scarily relevant to the Miers nomination.

I think your perspective is heavily Dallas-centric. As a native Texan who had the audacity to go out of state for college and law school both, I was struck by the incredible difference between Dallas law firms and Houston law firms when I was interviewing for summer clerkships. Although it is generalizing somewhat, Houston is considerably more meritocratic than Dallas.

I interviewed with every major Texas firm in Dallas and/or Houston (including the firms that combined to form Harriet Miers's). As a native of San Antonio, I had absolutely no connection to either city, and I came from the lower middle class anyway * no country clubs or society balls in my background. In Houston, interviewers were consistently impressed by my academic credentials. In Dallas, I faced constant questions about my connections to the city, who I knew (no one), who my daddy knew (no one), etc. Over the course of my ten callback interviews in Dallas, I got the strong sense that those firms would have preferred an SMU/SMU resume (as long as it also had Highland Park H.S. and Highland Park C.C. on it) to my "top-20 university/top 5% at top-10 law school" credentials.

Harriet Miers has spent her life in Dallas, and done extremely well in its connections-oriented legal culture--so well that one of her Dallas friends has now nominated her to the Supreme Court. That gives me the creeps. If she had a record as a constitutional thinker, I might feel differently. But then, if she had a record as a constitutional thinker, she wouldn't have fit in in Dallas.

Wages in New Orleans

On Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabbarok posts an interesting exchange with a New Orleans employer concerned about rising wages. Jobs are returning, but low-wage workers are gone: "One thing is sure - the areas of the city that housed the majority of lower wage workers are obliterated. We have massive vacancies in these types of jobs as do other employers. "

Making Distinctions

Judging from all the email telling me that the best students at SMU are just as smart as students in the Ivy League, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what I've written about SMU, Harriet Miers, and Ivy League schools.

I agree that the best students at SMU are as smart as good students at Ivy League or equivalent schools (students like me, in other words, not supergenius physics majors or folks named Volokh). But that's not the point. Making distinctions is important in the law, so let's try to make a few. This is not an argument about I.Q. The argument about schools is an argument about the value added by those schools, mostly environment and curriculum. The argument about Miers, who graduated from law school 35 years ago, is an argument about intellectual interests, intellectual temperament, and specific legal expertise--and is mostly a guessing game at this point.

If you care about what two equally smart people learn in college, at least two factors make an important difference: who your fellow students are and what the curriculum demands. Will you be around lots of people as smart as or smarter than you and just as hard working? Will they be intellectually curious or just trying to get their tickets punched? While the Ivy League is no Cal Tech, the answer is a lot more likely to be yes at Princeton than at SMU. As for what the syllabi expect, there's no comparison.

Harriet Miers's academic record, as I've written, suggests that she is very smart and was a hard working, serious student. There are lots of other equally smart, equally hard working graduates of hundreds of different law schools. That doesn't make them Supreme Court material. If Miers had a record as a constitutional lawyer, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Trade, Technology, and Avocados

In response to my post below, John Lanius writes:

In addition to dropping trade barriers, a new technology may be responsible for increasing demand for avocados - I know it has for my family. The process (see http://www.fresherunderpressure.com/) uses pressure rather than heat to pasteurize foods. This makes things like orange juice (and - relevant to this discussion - avocados) taste fresh and unprocessed for weeks.

AvoClassic (http://www.avoclassic.com/) uses the technology to make their tasty and extremely inexpensive pre-made guacamole. For many years I was a die-hard about making guacamole using only fresh, ripe avocados, garlic, limes, and salt (with an occasional minced chili pepper). But at a price per pouch of fresh-tasting guacamole that is about equal to the price of a single [frequently unripe] Haas avocado, AvoClassic guacamole is responsible for multiplying my family's consumption of avocados over the last two years by 5-10 times the previous rate.

The technology predates the drop of trade barriers, but it seems to have hitched a ride on the booming avocado market. Some nice synergy there.

Did Bitterness Drive the Miers Appointment?

Reader Leslie Watkins writes:

I wanted to compliment you on and thank you for your comments on the nomination of Harriet Miers for U.S. Supreme Court. Very even-handed and informative. As someone who lived in Dallas during Miers's college years (though I was a good bit younger), I can attest to your acute observations about Big D civic and social life in the 1960s. Miers strikes me, too, as competent and detail oriented. And I bet your observations on how she'll likely approach the job of being an associate justice are dead on. This, of course, is what makes her likely confirmation so deflating.

Through all the years of the Bush presidency, I've tended to err on the side of seeing a good portion of the criticism being flayed against him as personal lashing out by people disappointed by modern life. I'm not in love with the idea of the presidency or my sense of any previous president, save for a couple I'm way too young to know (not Kennedy, not Nixon, not even Reagan, though I see him far more favorably than I did at the time). And I don't have overblown expectations of folks on either side of the aisle, so I'm rarely deeply disappointed, as most people are most of the time (on both the left and right).

Also, I happen to support the cause in Iraq. And, I was pleased that he broached the idea of allowing people to invest a small percentage of their Social Security payments on their own. (It's simply immoral, in my view, to call it our retirement money when have no right to invest any of it on our own.) And tax cuts were a good idea at the time. But his follow through has been lackluster and patently unsuccessful. Not to mention that his proposal to have churches dispense social services--wrongheaded in practically every way--only made the culture wars worse. But now, this absent-minded appointment of Harriet Miers. Well . . . I think he and his coterie have finally fallen prey to bitterness. (God knows it would have been hard not to succumb. I think the hysteria around Bush has been worse even than that around Clinton.) For what other reason except to get back at your milieu would you nominate someone to the nation's highest, most important court who wouldn't be on the short list of anyone else in government or business or higher education? Even folks on your side of the political spectrum? It's a deal-breaking, childish act on his part. (Ack! I'm sounding like Maureen Dowd!)

Giving nominees an oral grilling on the law and the separation of powers seems so obvious, so necessary. Perhaps it's not done because, as you suggested, so many of those asking the questions would reveal how little they know.

The anti-snobbery defense of Miers is an understandable but wrong-headed one--doubly so when it comes from graduates of large, research-oriented public universities that attract great students with low tuitions. My father, a math and physics major at Davidson (a far more academically oriented school then and now than SMU), always had that same southern chip on his shoulder about the Ivy League. Then I went to Princeton, and he discovered that they really do teach you more there. Most important, of course, is that nobody would care where Miers had gone to school if she had a track record, whether as a scholar, a policy maker, or a litigator, on constitutional law.

Let's just hope that Bush doesn't try to apply his populist instincts to the Fed chairmanship. (I'm rooting for Ben Bernanke.)

UPDATE: Greetings, Drezernites. For fuller context on what I think about Miers's education, please read down the main blog page. There's a lot there, beginning with this post.

The Math Major Cont'd

In response to readers' emails, here's a PDF file of the SMU math department's curriculum when Harriet Miers was an undergraduate.

UPDATE: Reading the fine print, reader Mike Beversluis says I underestimated Advanced Calculus. "I'm sorry to be pedantic, but since Courses 37-39 include integral and differential calculus, they are equivalent to Princeton's freshman Calculus. Advanced Calculus is the proof class, and probably fell between Princeton's current MAT215 and MAT315 listings." I was an English major--you expect me to read?

Dynamism and Disasters

My latest NYT column looks at rebuilding after disasters. Here's an excerpt:

Rebuilding lives and communities does not, however, mean returning the economy to exactly where it was before. Rather, a disaster tends to accelerate economic changes that are already under way. That is because some physical assets, whether outdated manufacturing plants or homes in declining areas, are worth keeping only because they were paid for long ago and cost next to nothing to use. They would cost more to replace than they are worth.

"Any modern economy is normally in constant flux," Professor Horwich wrote. "As such, the destruction of physical assets is a form of accelerated depreciation that hastens the adoption of new technologies and varieties of investment." In Kobe, the plastic shoe industry never came back after the earthquake, and air freight expanded at the expense of the port.

The more flexibility businesses and individuals have, the more adaptable they can be and the faster recovery can take place. That is one reason money helps more than in-kind gifts. Donors, Professor Horwich said, "can only guess what recipients want most" and often provide gifts of clothes or food in forms that are hard to use.

The same principle applies to the rebuilding commitments now being made in Washington. The final cost of Katrina relief is widely expected to top $100 billion, and the Louisiana Congressional delegation has submitted its own $250 billion wish list.

Those are very big numbers. With $100 billion, the government could give every man, woman and child from New Orleans a check for $200,000. Expanding these payments to the entire metropolitan area would allow a generous $75,000 per resident.

Yet nobody expects the displaced residents of New Orleans to see anything close to those potentially life-changing amounts. Federal spending is aimed not at "rebuilding lives" but at "rebuilding communities," primarily by spending a lot of money on construction projects and on government services.

But, the Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser argues, such an approach is backward. "If there is disaster insurance, then it is, presumably, the people of New Orleans who are insured, not the place itself," he writes in an article for The Economists' Voice, an online journal (www.bepress.com/ev). The article is called "Should the Government Rebuild New Orleans, or Just Give Residents Checks?" He favors the latter.

Read the whole thing. It's free!

Why Go to SMU Law School?

Reader James Ingram explains:

Another reason a lawyer planning to practice in Dallas might stay at SMU for law school is that the personal and professional contacts acquired there would be infinitely more valuable than those acquired at say, Harvard or Stanford. In most of the South, and much of the Midwest for that matter, the business, professional and political elites are alumni of the flagship state university (say Ole Miss or UNC Chapel Hill) or a handful of elite regional private colleges and universities (SMU, Vanderbilt, William & Mary). Ivy League backgrounds are not an asset in this part of the world.

A good example of this is Hillary Clinton. Much of the Whitewater saga revolved around her attempts, as a young partner in a Southern law firm, to develop legal business. Despite the fact that she is bright, a world champion networker and has stellar credentials she ended up falling back on her husband's political cronies like Jim McDougal. Her Wellesley/Yale axis of contacts, so valuable in New York or Washington, proved useless in Arkansas. (How many Wellesley grads have ever been to Arkansas, for Heaven's sake?)

This is quite right. Texas is certainly run by UT, SMU, and A&M grads, with the occasional Bush thrown in for diversity.

Banal, But Not Stupid

Over on Volokh Conspiracy Jim Lindgren wonders whether Harriet Miers really writes as badly as excerpts in Time suggest. The answer is no.

At the SMU library I got an original of her 1992 Texas Lawyer article. The worst writing quoted in Time-- "freedom of liberties," for instance--in fact reflects Nexis typos. (Miers wrote "freedom of religion," in that case.) The prose is indeed clunky, however, and the article is banal in that well-known corporate way, where you make an argument--her main point is that the courts need more money--without any sharp points.

To see for yourself, download my .pdf scan of the piece, minus the headline, which wouldn't fit on the microfiche reader's copy space.

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