Broom of the System

The Lottery

November 23, 2010

As The Crimson reported on Friday, Harvard College is conducting a review of its abandonment of early admissions. While the admissions department is to be commended for thoughtfully evaluating its own policies, I wish it would conduct a more comprehensive review of Harvard’s admissions process. Indeed, I wish it would consider abandoning the admissions process altogether in favor of a randomized lottery.

The best way to do this would be in conjunction with other universities. Chad Adelman of the think tank Education Sector has proposed adopting the system used to match medical residents to hospitals. High school seniors would apply to a single admissions body and list their school preferences in order. Schools would set a minimum SAT score and high school GPA so that they do not admit students who truly cannot handle the work, but, otherwise, schools are randomly matched with students who list them as a preference.

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SNAP, Crackle, Starve

October 12, 2010

If you go to a Wal-Mart on the last night of the month, you’ll notice an odd scene. After 11 p.m., customers start to pour in, but they all check out after the clock strikes midnight. A similar phenomenon occurs at Kroger’s supermarkets and other 24-hour stores. The reason, as The Wall Street Journal’s Miguel Bustillo reported last week, is that electronic benefit accounts for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, colloquially known as “food stamps”) refresh at midnight on the first of every month. Since the recession hit, this has led to increased midnight business, so much so that Wal-Mart has had to increase staffing at those hours to keep up and make an effort to keep shelves stocked for the period.

The people conducting the midnight runs are not just poor, but poor enough that even waiting until morning would leave them without needed food. "If you really think about it,” Bill S. Simon, President and CEO of Wal-Mart U.S., explained to Bustillo, “The only reason someone gets out there in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they have been waiting for it.” These are workers for whom even living paycheck-to-paycheck isn’t enough to keep food coming in regularly. And with food stamp rolls increasing from 26 million in 2007 to 41 million this year (and still growing), these midnight rushes are only going to become more popular in the foreseeable future.

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Always Wanting More

September 28, 2010

While mostly frustrating and depressing, the ongoing debate over how to handle the expiring Bush tax cuts has been educational in at least one way. I honestly did not realize how many people think someone earning $250,000 a year does not qualify as “rich.” The cutoff is important, as the Obama administration is proposing letting tax cuts on those above that income expire, but some in Congress are insisting that people who make more than about 98 percent of Americans aren’t wealthy. Jim A. Himes ’88, a congressman from Connecticut and, relevantly, a former Goldman Sachs vice president, said that $250,000 a year doesn’t make one “really rich.” Senate Minority Leader A. Mitch McConnell introduced a plan to extend all the Bush cuts—and increase the national debt by $4 trillion–by claiming Obama’s plan would target “the people who’ve been hit hardest by this recession” (a claim he later was forced to retract, excuse me, “clarify”).

Suffice it to say, if you’re making over $250,000 a year, you have not been hit harder than the millions of workers who’ve run out of unemployment benefits or the tens of thousands of families who have been forced into homeless shelters over the past two years. And if you’re making that much and still inclined to deny your place among the rich, stop. Just stop. Just 2.1 percent of households earn over $250,000 a year. They earned almost five times the income–$52,029–of the median household in 2008. As writer Daniel Gross says, “You’re rich. Get over it.”

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Call Me Phone Snatcher

May 05, 2010

Even in a media environment as frenetic as the one in which we currently reside, the speed with which technology news site Gizmodo somehow became a martyr is remarkable. On the morning of April 19, Jason Chen, Gizmodo’s editor, announced that the site had “found” a prototype of the next edition of the Apple iPhone and proceeded to post pictures, videos, and detailed technical specifications of the device. The site followed up that evening with an account of how Gizmodo “found” the device. In short, an Apple employee—whom Gizmodo outed, even posting a couple of his Facebook photos—brought it to a bar, where he left it by accident. Another bar patron proceeded to steal the device and sold it to Gizmodo for $5,000. The same day, Apple demanded the device returned, and Gizmodo agreed. That Friday, April 23, police obtained a search warrant for Chen’s residence and seized several computers, hard drives, and other electronics.

Given that Chen likely used at least some of these devices to arrange payment for the iPhone, they are certainly relevant to any investigation into both the initial theft and Chen’s purchase of the stolen goods—a crime punishable by a year’s jail time in California. But rather than accept that people who commit felonies tend to get search warrants exercised against them, activists and media outlets reacted to the search by leaping to Chen’s and Gizmodo’s defense. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a generally admirable civil libertarian group focused on protecting rights online, declared the search warrant illegal, agreeing with Gizmodo’s belief that California’s shield laws intended to protect journalists meant that police could not seize computers containing Chen’s notes and data. A representative of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called the search “an incredibly clear violation of state and federal law.” Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” even got in on the act, mocking the police for giving Chen the “meth lab in the basement treatment” and implicitly referring to Apple’s lawyers as “Appholes.” On both a legal and moral level, the reaction is bizarre.

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Party Down

April 21, 2010

No concept gets quite as much abuse in American politics as partisanship. Those in power love to blame it for stopping legislation from advancing. When Senator Jim Bunning shut down the Senate to prevent a bill extending unemployment benefits from going forward, the White House blasted the action as “blatant, partisan obstructionism.” The opposition in turn attacks as “partisan” the legislation it obstructs.  In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announcing their opposition to financial reform, members of the Senate Republican Caucus declared: “We are united in our opposition to the partisan legislation reported by the Senate Banking Committee.”

The use of “partisan” as an epithet is rooted in two impulses. The first is the common perception that the electorate finds partisanship unsavory; the second is that it prevents Congress from getting things done. As President Obama put it to a House Republican retreat in January, “I don’t think [the American people] want more gridlock. I don’t think they want more partisanship,” with the connection between the two left unexamined.

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