On Puerto Rican Pride

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It’s that time of year again. Today, thousands and thousands of Boricuas line up alongside Manhattan’s 5th Avenue for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, a bombastic celebration of the tiny island and its culture.  A seemingly endless stream of floats trickles down the avenue, with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony in tow.  The sounds of salsa, merengue and reggaeton fill the air; people dance in the streets.  Puerto Rican flags wave wildly as far as the eye can see and adorn nearly every article of clothing.

[Image Credit: Adam Pantozzi via Flickr]

Puerto Rican pride is unparalleled.  Observing other parades or even nationalist marches, I have rarely seen such fierce pride demonstrated.  And for Puerto Ricans it really doesn’t end with the parade. After today, the flags don’t disappear, but merely redistribute themselves throughout the city, to be hung on walls, clipped onto bicycle handlebars, draped onto car hoods, stood on desks, or occasionally worn as capes.

I have long wondered about what drives the ferocity of this pride.  For example, Why do I, a Puerto Rican born and raised on the mainland, and countless others possess such glowing nationalism for an island many of us have never lived in?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Puerto Rico is not a nation, but a Commonwealth territory of the United States, a special relationship that is almost entirely unique in the world.  Puerto Ricans receive federal benefits, such as welfare, but have no elected representatives in the U.S. Congress, and thus pay no federal income tax.  Procedural government is almost entirely autonomous on the island – the Governor has all the institutional authority of a president – yet the U.S. government retains military jurisdiction and can enlist Puerto Ricans to fight American wars, as was done in both World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and countless other conflicts.

Any person from any developing nation that has visited Puerto Rico will comment on what they see as the undeniable benefits the island has received as a result of its special relationship with the United States.  They will marvel at the relatively higher standard of living and invariably make a remark along these lines:  “Puerto Rico reminds me so much of my home country…except the roads are better.”

Of course, Puerto Ricans themselves don’t see it this way.  Ask us about the Ponce Massacre of 1937, when 20 people were killed and hundreds wounded when police opened fire on Puerto Rican nationalist demonstrators.  Ask us about the mass sterilization campaign,whereby the U.S. initiated a program that sterilized 1/3 of all Puerto Rican females by 1965.    Ask us about the 60-year U.S. Naval occupation of the island of Vieques, where explosives testing occasionally took lives and where toxic materials left behind were argued to be causing serious health problems.  Today, ask any Puerto Rican about their island and they will lament the brain drain that has resulted as educated Puerto Ricans freely moved to the mainland, leaving behind an island prone to economic stagnation and crime.  Today, there are more Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States than on the island.

Which makes the whole Puerto Rican pride question all the more interesting.  Formally, the Puerto Rican flag is never flown independently of the American flag.  The Teodoro Moscoso Bridge in San Juan is almost a celebration of the special relationship, with hundreds of American and Puerto Rican flags flanking its edges.  It is this constant juxtaposition, this understanding of Puerto Rico only within the shadow of its American benefactor/exploiter, that fuels the burning pride that blazes up and down 5th Avenue each year, and throughout wholly acculturated Puerto Rican households across the U.S., and on the island daily.

I recently came up with a parallel involving the relationship between Manhattan and its outer boroughs.  Borough residents are all proud New Yorkers, but the undeniable attention lavished upon the borough of Manhattan leads to a sense of discomfort.  The borough communities and cultures are wholly different, and to lump them in with Carrie Bradshaw and Gossip Girl would rightly send shivers down any borough resident’s spine.  As a result, borough pride is through the roof, no matter how much time is spent in Manhattan.  To represent your borough is to celebrate your distinction from the Manhattan ideology, to show that you have your own style, your own food, your own music, your own culture.  Yet borough residents love as much as anyone to bask in the collective glory of New York, while strategically disowning some of the more criticized aspects of Manhattan life.

Puerto Ricans have settled into a nice 2-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn where they can both preserve their culture and embrace that of the United States.  They can go to the MoMa or stay at the Brooklyn Museum.  They can unce-unce in the meat-packing district or hit up a dancehall party in Flatbush.  They can shop chic in SoHo or thrift it up at Beacon’s Closet.  And lest anyone get confused, they’ll never hesitate to let you know where they come from.

Which is all to say that I believe the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010, which paves the way for Puerto Ricans to decide between statehood, independence and the status quo, will end as similar initiatives have in the past, with a resolution to continue as a commonwealth.

Boricuas have carved out a space where we can embrace the best of the United States while preserving our culture,  waving a Puerto Rican flag  and lamenting el tirano.  It may seem funny, but I think we’ll continue to do it proudly.

Posted on June 13th 2010 in ideas, news

The End of Billboards

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Augmented reality, the process of overlaying digital information atop real life vision, seems inevitable to me given the recent direction and pace of technology – the proliferation of smartphones, location-based services, 3D TVs, etc.

Actually, it’s already here. Layar (fig. 1) is a crazy augmented reality browser, available on Android and iPhone, that uses a phone’s camera and superimposes dynamic, sortable content in real time.  Another example comes from the Museum of London, which launched a free iPhone app (fig. 2) that blankets its historical art and photography library atop your view.

[fig. 1: Layar, via Mobile Crunch]

[fig. 2: Museum of London app, via LikeCool]

I recently started to think about how this would play out for driving. I don’t think it’s that far off before GPS augmentation becomes a feature in cars, with special touchscreen windshields capable of displaying semi-transparent turn-by-turn directions on top of the road as you drive.

It’s not hard to imagine what comes next: superimposed ads, like a McDonald’s logo that grows progressively larger as you approach the store. One might even be able to tap out an order a mile in advance to speed up the drive-thru process.

It may sound scary, but I tend to be one to look for the upside of these things. In this case, I feel this could at long last mark the death of the billboard. With ads streaming directly into cars, there would presumably no longer be a need to have those clunky eyesores blocking the view across cities and along interstates. We could at last tear those suckers down.

But at the end of the day we’ll just be trading a physical eyesore for a virtual one. My jury is still deliberating over whether or not that is any better.  What do you think? Is it worth it to rid skylines of physical billboards, or will it make no difference once the ads are permanently beamed into our line of sight?

Artist Keiichi Matsuda provides an awesome, but dreary picture of what this future might look like, taken to its logical extreme:

[Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo]

Cool or scary?

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Posted on June 2nd 2010 in ideas, news, OrgWatch

Artful Impact: The Let’s Colour Project brightens up communities

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I’ve always felt the Spanish nailed it with the bright colors in their architecture.  It adds such vibrancy to a neighborhood.  Well, the Let’s Colour Project must agree, since they are on a mission to launch a color movement across the globe.  From their website:

Grey is out. Gloom is gone. It’s time to live our lives in colour.

The Let’s Colour Project is a worldwide initiative to transform grey spaces with vibrant colour. A mission to spread colour all over the world.

We are working together with local communities across the globe, rolling up our sleeves to paint streets, houses, schools and squares.

Check out some beautiful community transformation in time lapse:

On the film:

This 2 minute global film was shot by multi-award winning director Adam Berg over four weeks in Brazil, France, London and India. Every location is real and they remain transformed by a palette consisting of 120 different colours. The people in the film are not actors, they are real people who rolled up their sleeves to transform their community with colour.

[Props: Nerdcore]

Posted on June 1st 2010 in Artful Impact

Are you a better judge than a college student?

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Given Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s lack of a paper trail, political analysts have been digging deep into her past for any indication of what her views might be.  The search has inevitably led to her college and graduate school writings.

Two historians reviewed her undergraduate thesis and concluded she displayed “remarkable intellectual maturity” and “wrote quite evenhandedly” and “without evident bias.”  In addition, the Wall Street Journal dug up her masters thesis and noted that she criticized the Warren court and “wrote that Supreme Court justices should rest their rulings squarely on a firm legal foundation, such as statutes and court precedents.”

Call me crazy, but it seems pretty ridiculous to judge someone’s views on the basis of something they wrote 30 years ago at the age of 21.  One would hope that as people gain more experience, are exposed to more people and viewpoints, and generally grow wiser, their views on things would evolve.  I, for one, am mortified at the thought of having my nascent intellectual thoughts torn apart by today’s punditry.

So I’ll do it myself.  Soon I will embark on a new series of posts I am entitling “Benevolution.”  I plan to revisit nearly all of the papers I wrote in college and post them along side some self-reflection on how my views have evolved on the subjects.  I’ll be able to reassess the state and the development sector in the context of my current business education. I’ll be able to revisit my thoughts on global government in the aftermath of Bush and the global financial crisis.  I’ll be able to review my past thoughts on the city now that I have actually lived in one for six years.

Bottom line: it will help me to reflect on how I have evolved into the Benevolent Baron.

This is mainly for me, but it’s also an excuse to do something with my old papers.  It has always bothered me that students put all that research and effort into writing papers that are only seen by one professor (or perhaps just one teaching assistant).  It seems that someone with an interest in these topics might find it useful to see someone else’s research, or at least take a peak at a relevant works cited list.  I consider this a service to to some future Google-crazed college student that may want to write a paper about poverty concentration, pan-Africanism, South Africa’s informal settlements, or the effects of narcotics trafficking on the state.

What you’ll get is the papers in their original form, complete with misguided thoughts, typos and all.  This was college, so please be lenient judges of my writing and naivety.

If you care to share your own evolution, shoot me an email.

Posted on May 28th 2010 in Benevolution, news

Maps That Changed the World

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Since I love maps, I suggest you check out this Maps That Changed the World piece from the Daily Mail.

Google Earth is rightly among them, but most are historical maps that represent breakthrough events for mankind.  Here is a preview of my favorites (click to view larger image):

You gotta love propaganda.  ”Be On Guard” was early pro-Bolshevik propaganda that highlighted the European threat and helped to define the Soviet identity.

The Henricus Martellus World Map (circa 1490) was allegedly used by Columbus and one of the earliest to depict a round earth on a flat surface.  Note the absence of the Americas.

America finally shows up in the Waldseemuller Map (circa 1509), though it’s looking pretty scrawny.  It is here officially named after the navigator Amerigo Vespucci.

This 1889 descriptive map of London’s poverty may have been the precursor to geographic information systems.  Black is the poorest, gold is the wealthiest.

The London Tube Map of 1933 was the first to place stops at regular intervals for easy reading, thus saying “screw it” to the idea of maintaining scale.  This ultimately explains why Manhattan keeps getting fatter in the ever-evolving NYC subway map.

Be sure to check out the rest of the maps here.  Which is your favorite?

[All image credits to the British Library via The Daily Mail]

[Props: Freakonomics]

Posted on May 28th 2010 in Artful Impact

Benevolent Takeovers, ctd.

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[For context, click here and here]

Earlier this year, I pondered the idea of non-profit mergers and acquisitions, and spoke of a small consulting project I was doing for a local non-profit, whereby I was tasked to explore the potential for such benevolent takeovers.

I analyzed organizations along criteria that included net asset balances, revenues, and efficiency ratios.  Out of the 60 similar service providers analyzed, I found seven that exhibited the minimum criteria for a takeover target.  Firstly, they were organizations with small asset balances, which meant that they were not only affordable but also in danger of going under; a few years of operating losses could wipe them out.  Second, these organizations were less efficient than my client organization, meaning they spent proportionally more on administrative expenses.  Presumably, if my client took over an organization’s revenue and operations, they would be able to do so at a lower cost and pocket the difference.  This is what is often referred to by business folk as synergies.

With the list narrowed down to seven, next came the tough political stuff: founders, funders and boards.  In the corporate world, mergers and acquisitions are often beneficial to the target company, since owners and management usually receive big payouts and a chance for the company to expand.  But in the non-profit world, unique barriers exist.

Exhibit A: Fame and Founderitis

Non-profit leaders are far more possessive about their organizations than corporate leaders.  Each wants to be the leader of the small grassroots organization, and will scoff at the notion of bringing outsiders in to lead or absorbing themselves into another larger bureaucracy.  Founders are often worse.  Among our list of organizations, we immediately scratched one because the family that founded the organization still had representation on the board.  It was not worth entertaining the idea of asking someone to take their name off of the building, even if we could promise better service and a path out of fiscal disaster.

Exhibit B: There’s always another funder

A struggling organization will look fiercely for new funders and can continue to tread water so long as it has the energy to keep chasing the dollars.  Fortunately, there are a lot of options for these organizations: fee for services, foundations, government grants, fundraising events, individual donations.  Only when all of these have been exhausted will the opportunity arise to discuss a takeover.

In the case of the organization’s under discussion, most were heavily government funded and shared many sources with my client.  As such, there is room for discussions with the city funders, who may be able to recognize one organization’s weaknesses vis-a-vis another one’s strengths.  The CEO of my client has already been in discussion with various city officials who are looking to reapportion their grants.  This could ultimately prove to be the key to loosening the grip over these struggling organizations.

Exhibit C: the politics

At the same time, organization’s that are heavily government funded might exhibit signs of patronage.  Their continued funding and support may come directly from strong relationships with important government officials and not much else.  One of the organizations that was in the worst shape was unfortunately dead-on-arrival because the board was full of community leaders and others with ties to government.  We felt there was little chance of getting them off of the government grant-roll.

Finding the one

The only thing that can overcome these hurdles is desperation, the reality that an organization will not survive much longer without some outside help.  For that, we had to narrow down the list to organizations that had lost money in recent years and didn’t have much of an asset cushion to survive similar losses.

Ultimately, only one organization fit the bill of an ideal takeover target.  It has low asset balances, had struggled in recent years, shares many funders with my client, and most importantly, the CEO was about to retire, creating a unique opportunity to enter into discussions.

Starting with 60 organizations and ending with one doesn’t particularly seem like a good rate of return, but I still stand behind the idea of non-profit mergers and acquisitions.  And there are other options, too.  While some of the organizations were too entrenched or too indebted to be considered takeover targets, we did flag two as potential management agreement targets.  Under such a scenario, our more efficient client could manage the operations of a piece of another organization’s business, thus doing it cheaper and potentially helping them to get out of their fiscal woes.

The point is that there are gains to at least sharing capacity across the non-profit sector and we need to find ways to allocate it best.  Many peoples’ lives depend on it.

Posted on May 28th 2010 in ideas

Public Pianos come to NYC!

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Music, good or bad, will soon flow freely through New York City.  Since 2008, artist Luke Jerram has been around the world dropping pianos off in public spaces for anyone to hop on the ebony and the ivory.  And this summer the pianos are coming to NYC! (they’ll also be in London and Bath)

Public Piano

[Image Source: Luke Jerram via The Village Voice]

The initiative, dubbed Play Me, I’m Yours, will place 60 pianos throughout the five boroughs with the help of Sing for Hope, a collaborative of musicians that volunteer for humanitarian causes.  They will be out from June 21st – July 5th, so click here for complete maps of where each piano will be located and get out there and jam.

I wonder how they will deal with the weather.  And I would imagine theft would also be a concern.  But seeing as how they are not my pianos, I could care less.

There is going to be one piano right in my backyard at Gantry Plaza State Park.  I might have to go out there and show off my Hot Cross Buns.  Hopefully others with more talent will also be out in tow.

Posted on May 28th 2010 in Artful Impact

FinReg for dummies: the ratings agencies

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[Image source: Tom Toles at Washington Post]

Well, seeing as how the Senate has passed the financial regulation bill, I’ll have to have to continue the FinReg for Dummies series in the context of the bill as it exists.  It won’t change too much, but I guess it means I have to get to it.  Next stop: the ratings agencies.

Ratings agencies are private companies that are credentialed by the federal government to rate the risk of financial investments, such as stocks, bonds and derivatives.  The three major ones are Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch.

There are two primary reasons ratings agencies exist.  First, they allow investors who don’t have time to investigate the risk of an investment to have a standardized rating to work off of.  Second, they allow for the establishment of minimum standards to be applied to certain activities.  For example, banks are allowed to take on more debt if they hold a proportionate amount of AAA-rated securities.  Another important example is that more conservative investors, such as pension funds, are legally prohibited from investing in assets that haven’t received a minimum acceptable rating.

There is an argument to be made that the existence of ratings agencies is fundamentally problematic.  If banks and investors do not have to do their own due diligence, then they cannot never truly understand risk of their investments.  And this is exactly what happened.  Banks took any investment that was shrink-wrapped and stamped with a AAA rating, and were thus able to do it with borrowed capital.  It was many of these AAA rated securities, which are supposed to be as safe as U.S. treasury notes, that went sour and caused some banks to collapse.

Thus the role that the ratings agencies played in the financial crisis cannot be understated.  Since investors could not assess the risk of every single mortgage issued, they were packaged together into securities whose overall risk was supposed to be analyzed by the ratings agencies.  So how did we get to a point where investments that were obviously risky – i.e. mortgages given to people who couldn’t afford them – were getting blessed with the highest ratings?

The answer is two-fold.  The first answer is related to the statements you hear about how mortgages were sliced-and-diced into a million pieces.  Here’s how it works: a group of mortgages gets packaged together into a single investment, with the stream of interest payments paying out to the investors.  Within the investment, the mortgages are broken into three risk groups, called tranches.  The least risky investments received AAA ratings, which helped to conceal some of the risk found in the lower tranches.

But the ratings agencies should have seen which assets were being dominated by riskier mortgages, which brings us to the second reason they failed.  The ratings agencies were set up in a fundamental conflict of interest.  They were paid by banks issuing the investments, and the banks were free to shop around for different ratings from different agencies.  Ezra clarifies the absurdity of this:

Imagine a school with three teachers. But this isn’t a public school. It’s a private school testing out an innovative new funding system: The kids write the tests, fill them out and then pay the teachers to grade them. If they don’t like the grade they get, they don’t have to go back to that teacher.

You can imagine how this plays out.  If a bank doesn’t like the rating it gets from one agency, it just moves on to the next until it finds the one that gives it an acceptable rating.  The agencies thus had a profit-driven incentive to rate investments higher.  This reality was confirmed by internal documents at Standard & Poor’s that discussed revising their ratings in response to the threat of losing business.  Crisis seeds planted.

Thanks in large part to Al Franken, the financial regulation bill attempts to fix this.  Instead of letting banks shop around for ratings, the SEC will now randomly appoint approved ratings agencies to rating assignments.  They will still be paid by the bank, but there is no longer an incentive to inflate ratings to get business.  Instead, as Edmund Andrews explains, they now have an incentive to compete on the accuracy of their ratings.

What a concept.

Posted on May 21st 2010 in news

Cracks in the wall

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Somewhat quietly, the Democrats came out with their immigration plan at the end of April.  I have to say, it disappoints.  Similar to the Bush approach in 2005, the bill emphasizes enforcement, then reform, a wholly misguided effort that will not resolve the issue and will result in billions in wasted taxpayer funds.  Some supporting thoughts are rounded up.

The American Prospect sums up the bias towards enforcement:

Their proposal is 26 pages long, and 17 of those pages detail ways of improving enforcement [...] The last three pages include the Holy Grail of immigration-reform advocates: a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants.

[...] the framework specifies that the enforcement provisions must take place before the legalization process begins. Broadly, the enforcement plan calls for hiring thousands of new border patrol agents, building more Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, and installing “high-tech ground sensors throughout the southern border.”

The first problem is the emphasis on the border.  Since approximately 45% of undocumented immigrants did not enter the United States illegally, but merely overstayed their visas, the proposal at best deals with half of the issue.

Overall, Lexington says border security is futile; it’s simply a supply and demand issue:

[...] it is impossible to secure a 2,000 mile land border against economic migrants. So long as there are jobs to come to, they will find a way. The only way to relieve pressure on the border is to allow a realistic number of migrants into America, ie one that bears some resemblance to the demand for their labour. When demand falls, (as in the current recession) fewer come, and many go home.

In the medium term, trying to secure the border before you address immigration reform is like trying to stop dust flying into your vacuum cleaner without turning off the suction.

While we’re talking analogies, at Cato, Daniel Griswold likened it to prohibition:

Requiring successful enforcement of the current immigration laws before they can be changed is a non sequitur. It’s like saying, in 1932, that we can’t repeal the nationwide prohibition on alcohol consumption until we’ve drastically reduced the number of moonshine stills and bootleggers. But Prohibition itself created the conditions for the rise of those underground enterprises, and the repeal of Prohibition was necessary before the government could “get control” of its unintended consequences.

Illegal immigration is the Prohibition debate of our day. By essentially barring the legal entry of low-skilled immigrant workers, our own government has created the conditions for an underground labor market, complete with smuggling and day-labor operations. As long as the government maintains this prohibition, illegal immigration will be widespread, and the cost of reducing it, in tax dollars and compromised civil liberties, will be enormous.

On “compromised civil liberties,” Andrew Sullivan puts it quite nicely, speaking of the Arizona bill:

This bill will thereby punish “suspicious”-looking legal immigrants as well, because they will all feel under surveillance. A society where one minority feels under surveillance is not a truly free society. This is beneath America.

Funny how immigration was the top concern for 2% of Americans before the Arizona bill and all of a sudden it’s top for 10%.  I am now pretty sure that if America’s best friends jumped off a bridge, 8% of us would jump after them.

We’ll need someone to replace that labor.  Hmm, where will we look?

Posted on May 19th 2010 in news

Google Laws

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There is a common debate that resurfaces whenever it is time to appoint the next Supreme Court justice.  To some, humanism matters, because it is the real effects on humans that should be taken into account when interpreting the law.  On the other hand, strict constructionists tend to believe the job of a judge is to apply the text of the law only as it is written, without regard to any external conditions.  They leave no room for the empathy of Sonia Sotomayor.

I have recently been led to wonder, if it is indeed the written text of the law that governs, why then would we even need judges?  Couldn’t Google do all the legwork at this point?  I can see it now: a case comes to the docket, prosecution and defense attorneys feed their arguments into the search bar – include a couple keywords like abortion, immigration, and habeus corpus – and wait 0.32 seconds for Google to scan through centuries of laws and legal opinions…presto!  Instant ruling based solely on the written text.

It may sound ridiculous, but such capability might not be that far-fetched.  Google Scholar has already gone through the arduous process of posting full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts.  And a team of computer scientists and journalism professors at Northwestern University recently developed a new software that allows computers to sift through data and automatically write news stories, without the need for any human authors.

Google co-Founder Sergey Brin once said in response to privacy concerns, “All we are doing is showing ads.  It’s automated.  No one is looking,” referring to the algorithms used in generating ads.  This is all fine and dandy on the internet, where we would all rather not have any visible connection between search results and our personal search activities.  But laws are immutably connected to the activities of real people, and for that reason we’d never allow an algorithm to write our laws and risk that some cold computer might write opinions that might land innocent people in jail or fail to protect the liberty of civilians.  We rightly insist that justices be watching.

I think this idea is partly behind some of the apprehension surrounding Elena Kagan’s nomination.  The New York Times profile of Kagan paints her as a cold, calculating machine, much like an algorithm.  Each step in her career is framed as though guided by detailed instructions on how to reach the Supreme Court.  Read this.  Join the student paper. Study law.  If not here, then there.  Exclude terms like, “my opinion is…”

This is what so far has put people on edge.  The thought of someone as rationally calculating as a mathematical equation  is quite concerning to anyone who might believe in empathy, or who thinks someone’s actual opinions might matter when writing opinions.  With the stakes so high, we shiver at the thought of someone being led blindly by instruction, like the enslaved ant unwittingly building the anthill.

But perhaps the law is the right place for ants.  After all, we are a common law nation, whereby our laws are not single statutes, but really the mass accumulation of individual opinions piled up like dirt and twigs.  No single opinion is designed to uphold the entire structure, nor does any single ant fully comprehend the shape of the hill being built or believe they have any out-sized role in ensuring its stability.  They just carry the dirt in their mouths and drop it where they understand it must lay.  The shape of the law becomes clear.  Slowly.

I can support such caution on the court, as long it it is what Ezra describes as “a personality type” and not a life-long political move to hide the public from any of her real views.  Because the ant who only wants to be queen – particularly the one without any experience writing judicial opinions – might just lay a shoddy foundation for the hill.

*I am far from a legal scholar, so your more informed comments are encouraged.  Any reasoned opinion works too.  No spam.

Posted on May 17th 2010 in news
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