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June 2008 Archives

June 4, 2008


I’m a registered Republican and will probably vote for McCain in November. Even so, yesterday seems to me one of the great days in American history. And it’s a great day in part because it all seems so ordinary: two candidates battled for a major-party nomination, and one of them came out on top, barely. That has happened before (mostly in Republican races—since, for most of its history, the Democratic Party required that its presidential nominees win two-thirds of all delegate votes, not a simple majority). But this time, the candidate who came out on top is a black man, and that hasn’t happened before.

I remember when Doug Wilder was inaugurated Virginia’s governor in January 1990: the first elected black governor in American history, inaugurated in the city that once served as the capital of a nation founded to preserve black slavery. Former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, scion of Richmond’s white establishment, administered the oath of office. When Wilder had taken that oath, Powell leaned into the microphone and said: “It’s a great day for Virginia.” It was. Just as yesterday was a great day for the United States.

June 5, 2008

Living and Surviving--Stuntz

Last week, I got some very good news—but it didn’t feel good at all. This week’s news was medically neutral, as these things are usually judged. But it felt incredibly sweet.

That sounds strange, so let me try to explain. Last week, I learned that the past two months of chemotherapy has been working: the latest round of films showed that two tumors on my lungs have shrunk slightly, and that no new bits of cancer are visible—not on my liver (which is where late-stage colon cancer tends to migrate), and not on my lungs. That doesn’t mean I’m cancer-free save for those two lung tumors. As I understand it, the odds remain high that there are small bits of cancer out there, including at least some on my lungs. But the films suggest that my chemo regimen can either kill those incipient tumors or stop them from growing. Which means my life expectancy just got longer by at least a year, and maybe more.

Like I said, it’s very good news. What’s not to like about a longer life expectancy when faced with a killing disease?

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June 6, 2008

Gifts and Bribes--Skeel

If you ever read the verses on bribes and gifts in the book of Proverbs, as I did for a Sunday school lesson last week, you will quickly run into apparent contradictions. “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live,” instructs one verse (Prov. 15:27). But another that says “A gift in secret averts anger, and a concealed bribe, strong wrath.” (Prov. 21:14). How can good bribes– or gifts, if you prefer– be distinguished from bad ones?

The easiest case is gifts simply to show respect or humility, as when the Magi brought gifts to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11-12). These, the Bible makes clear, are good and often admirable.

But with gifts that expect or hope for something in return, distinguishing the good from the bad seems much harder.

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June 11, 2008

The Great (Debt) Seduction--Skeel

David Brooks argued in his column yesterday that traditional norms of thrift and frugality have been displaced in America by norms that “encourage debt and living for the moment.” Among the causes of this shift, he blames state governments’ promotion of the lottery, pay day lenders, credit card companies, and Congress’s own profligacy with debt. The column is well worth reading, as is the think tank report he discusses, “For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture.”

Two thoughts on these issues:

1) Gambling and Risky Debt. It seems to me that the state lawmakers’ aggressive promotion of lottery play, and the culture that creates, makes it much harder than it should be to criticize borrowers who gambled on subprime mortgages in recent years. The states themselves have been sending a message that rolling the dice is a good thing. (In a notorious New York ad from a few years ago, a mother poked fun at her hardworking daughter, saying there’s no need to study because the mother had bought lottery tickets).

Will the pernicious effect of gambling on financial responsibility be a big campaign issue this summer and fall? Not likely.

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June 16, 2008

McCain's Guantanamo Opportunity--Skeel

As I was reading the Supreme Court’s new Guantanamo Bay decision this weekend, I emailed my colleague Stephanos Bibas, a fine scholar and Supreme Court watcher, to see what he thought. After explaining why he thinks “the dissenters have a reasonably strong case” given among other things the historical limitations on the writ of habeas corpus, he said:

“the majority seems influenced by the long and open-ended nature of this war on terror. I can't help but think that the Executive's bungling of Guantanamo, with the Yoo memo and the refusal to budge an inch in conferring due process protections, has swayed at least Justice Kennedy to distrust unreviewable executive discretion here. It seems to confirm Jack Goldsmith's thesis in The Terror Presidency: by constantly pushing its power to the utmost and refusing to show any respect to good-faith concerns, the Bush II administration has provoked confrontation after confrontation with the Supreme Court and lost, ultimately weakening executive authority.”

If Stephanos is correct– and I personally think he is– the Supreme Court’s ruling that the enemy combatants at Guantanamo are entitled to full habeas corpus rights seems to me both understandable and wrong. It may also be a significant opportunity for John McCain.

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June 19, 2008

A Radical (?) Idea for Each Candidate--Skeel

Suppose that one of the candidates needs to shake things up a bit in the coming weeks, to take a surprising position that could unsettle his base a little but offers promise with other constituencies. What might the candidates propose, consistent with their own values? Here’s one possibility for each.

For Obama, my pick would be school vouchers. Obama is heavily dependent on the teachers unions, as are the Democrats generally, so it’s very hard to imagine him supporting vouchers. But suppose he endorsed a voucher proposal that combined vouchers with increased funding for public schools, perhaps a dollar per student in increased funding for every dollar per student in vouchers. The teachers unions wouldn’t be happy of course, but the increased funding for public education would soften the blow; and a proposal like this might be attractive to Catholic and evangelical voters, and more generally to the lower middle class voters that Obama had trouble attracting in the primaries.

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June 20, 2008

Graduation Speech--Stuntz

Why do we work? And how do we choose our jobs?

Last weekend, I had the surprising pleasure of giving the graduation
speech at my son's high school: a Christian high school in Lexington,
Massachusetts. The two questions above are the speech's subject. The
text is here.

Secular Universities and Evangelical Christians--Stuntz

Are secular university faculties prejudiced against evangelical Christians?

The folks at Volokh [link here] are having an interesting discussion about that question. The conversation was kicked off by a study that, I gather, shows that 53% of university faculty members view evangelicals negatively. Todd Zywicki says that figure suggests a measure of bigotry among those who teach in secular universities.

Having been a part of the secular university world for almost thirty years (counting my student days)—and having belonged to evangelical churches for more than twenty years—I’m quite sure that anti-Christian bigotry exists, and that its targets extend beyond evangelicals. But bigotry is not an on-off category; differences of degree matter. And while I have only my own experience to go on, my impression is that the amount and depth of hostility have declined sharply in the last couple of decades, and especially in the last several years.

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Evangelicals and the University--Skeel

I agree completely with Bill’s comments about (non) bias against evangelicals in the university. My own experience is very similar. Like Bill, I’ve always been up front about my faith, and it has never hurt me in any discernible way at the law schools I’ve been associated with (Penn and Temple on a full-time basis, three others as a visiting professor). To the contrary, I’ve often gotten the impression that my being an evangelical is viewed positively, as a source of diversity.

I have only one caveat to add. Christian scholars (not just an evangelicals but Catholics and main line Protestants as well) seem to have more difficulty persuading top law reviews to publish work that they write from an identifiably Christian perspective, than work that looks more like traditional scholarship. I suspect that there may be a similar dynamic on many tenure committees: scholarship from a Christian perspective doesn’t carry quite as much weight as scholarship that looks more like the other, secular scholarship in the scholar’s field. This doesn’t necessarily reflect any bias: it may be the scholarship is simply unfamiliar or seems hard to evaluate. But when young evangelical scholars ask me for advice about faith and scholarship, I encourage them to write both kinds of scholarship: some scholarship from an explicitly Christian perspective, but also more traditional scholarship that directly engages the best secular scholarship in their field on its own terms.

June 30, 2008

Another Surgery--Stuntz

Four months ago, on February 27, doctors removed a large tumor from my colon, along with a fair chunk of the surrounding abdominal tissue. The tumor had broken out, but they didn’t know how far the cancer had spread. Last Friday, June 27, four months to the day afterward—a different set of doctors took out two smaller tumors, one on each lung. The doctors also took out two even smaller growths that were too small to show up on films. But these other growths turn out to have been benign. So far as anyone now knows, my lungs are cancer-free.

It’s possible the news will turn out to be less positive. Once it breaks free of the organ where it finds its first home, cancer is like the proverbial bad penny: it tends to keep popping up. Eventually, metastasized cancers like mine usually kill their patients. Eventually, but not always—and not always soon.

That’s why cancer patients think differently about time than most other people.

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