Friday, August 02, 2002

Blogging worth reading

* A lot has been written about Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court's decisions in the Michigan affirmative action cases, but Stanford Law School professor Marcus Cole has penned a passionate and personal indictment of affirmative action. Among other things, Cole writes:

[T]o insinuate that my life is nothing more than an Affirmative Action storyline is the insult that I endure year in, year out. I have done everything I can do to distinguish myself. I've worked hard (scrubbed toilets as a janitor to put myself through college at Cornell, among other things). Yet nothing I do is enough to satisfy anyone on the left that I am their equal without need of their help, or anyone on the right that I am not where I am because of affirmative action.

While I am convinced of the educational benefits of diversity writ large, I worry about the use of race as a proxy for diversity. Partly because of the effects on Marcus Cole and others like him, and partly because of the effects on political discourse. But all of this has been thoroughly discussed.

One aspect of this debate that I have not seen discussed is this: the entire system of "positive preferences" is maintained to ensure racial diversity at a relatively small number of schools. In a world without such preferences, the University of Wisconsin Law School would still have a diverse student body. If one surveyed the entire pool of prospective law school students, plenty of minority candidates would qualify for admission here under a race-blind process. And I suspect the same could be said for most law schools. The need for preferences at the University of Wisconsin arises because higher-ranked schools -- also using preferences -- are getting minority candidates who otherwise would be part of our pool. Of course, this cascade effect begins at the top: Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Columbia, and Stanford apparently cannot obtain the desired level of racial diversity without preferences. (That is not to say that those schools would be entirely devoid of minority students. Marcus Cole is exceptional, but not unique.)

This is a vexing issue, and I don't mean to suggest that this insight settles the matter. But at least we should acknowledge that the benefits of preferences are confined to a small number of "elite law schools," and that many other schools are probably harmed by the system.

* Guest-blogging for Glenn Reynolds, Eugene Volokh takes on Maureen Dowd's silly column on Justice Thomas. Eugene is right about the racial double standard, a problem that seems destined to track Thomas for the rest of his career. David Bernstein exposes another facet of the double standard. Discussing attempts by commentators to explain Justice Thomas' conservative views, Bernstein writes:

None gave any serious weight to Thomas's own explanation, which is that he read a lot, ranging from Ayn Rand to Thomas Sowell, and concluded that libertarianish conservatism made sense. I thought those articles were insulting to Thomas and to blacks in general, and still do. If whites can read and be influenced by Ayn Rand and Thomas Sowell, why can't blacks? And if Scalia can win grudging praise for the sharpness of this legal writings, why can't Thomas, who, if anything, is a bolder and more original thinker than is Scalia?

Good questions.

* Commenting on Lawrence v. Texas, Larry Lessig writes: "at Market and Castro there is a huge Gay Pride flag that flies every day of the year. Huge — maybe the largest flag I have ever seen.... I am told that the day after Lawrence was decided, the Gay Pride flag came down. An American flag was raised in its place."

* Nate Oman offers an entertaining an provacative take on penalty clauses in contract law in his response to Sasha Volokh's post on "utilitarian paternalism." The issue is cigarette taxes and smoking policy, and Nate wonders whether smokers might enter into a "a contract whereby [they] sell to someone my commitment not to smoke in the future." He uses a liquidated damages clause to set the price of breach by the smoker, and "imagines lawyers buying up a portfolio of these promises." Nate suggests that the problem with this idea is that the liquidated damages provision is a penalty clause, which cannot be enforced. (We'll play along for the moment and assume this is the only problem with the idea.) He then argues that enforcement of a penalty clause is justified in this instance as a means of getting around "the problem of hyperbolic discounting" by smokers. During law school, when I was still enamored with public law, I wrote a paper that was related to this question (actually, the paper was about drug legalization), and the missing piece in this exchange is addiction. It isn't clear from the exchange whether addiction is raised in the issue of Regulation that started all of this, but that is possibly the source of the hyperbolic discounting that lies at the core of the problem. In any event, I doubt that taxes, prohibitions, or contracts hold much sway over the addicted, who tend to find ways around such constraints.

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft

Here is another story that reminds me that my fascination with entrepreneurs is like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (If you have never read this short story, do it now.) The aircar -- also known as a Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft -- is getting some serious attention. Moller International is planning to have its version commercial available within a few years. They even have video of the car in action. Nice!

By the way, did you know that the book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Ian Fleming, the same author who gave us James Bond? And I just learned that one of the screenwriters on the film version was Roald Dahl. Too bad Dick Van Dyke was chosen as the lead.

Sunday, July 28, 2002

Brain Drain

One thing I have noticed in my brief time as a blog afficionado: the best blogs are written by people who have more ideas than time (or energy) will permit them to develop. The excess slops over onto the blog, and that can be highly entertaining, as well as informative. Whether this bussiness blog fits that mold, time will tell. But in an attempt to keep track of such ideas, I am hereby initiating a feature called "Brain Drain." This gives me a place to discharge (some of) those many business ideas that come across my dendrites.

While living in Oregon, I toyed with the idea of becoming a vegetarian. Partly for religious reasons, but partly for my own health. As a thought experiment on the money making potential of this (for me) new orientation, I created a franchise called "Vegan" for an exam. A number of the students thought the idea had some legs, but no one has done it on a broad scale yet. You find the occasional quirky outlets, but the closest thing I have found to a full-blown chain -- and this only by surfing the Web -- is emerging in the UK. A restaurant called V1.

In the meantime, we are stuck with meat, but even here innovation is happening. A few years ago, Ted Turner unveiled a chains of bison-burger restaurants called Ted's Montana Grill, and they seem to be flourishing. Of course, Ted has a lot of time on his hands now, so expect big things from TMG. The Web site notes, "Bison is even leaner than skinless chicken." It also has some stranger "facts" about bison: "Bison are the only mammals that don't get cancer." (So we won't either, if we eat them?) "Bison eat snow." (Now there's a diet that would help me shed a few pounds!)

Now meet the new kid on the block: Yaks. Today's NYT had an article on these attractive animals. "Yak is as lean as venison or bison (about 5 percent fat, compared to about 15 percent for beef), and, to some, tastes juicier, sweeter and more delicate." So, if you are looking to start a new business, here is your opportunity! Of course, you may have some competition. This could be just the thing to pull McDonald's out of its doldrums ... the McYak?