Golden opportunity for online universities: campus rape stories


The media are carrying a lot of stories about rape on campus lately. The latest is a retraction by Rolling Stone of a story about University of Virginia. The stories fall into various broad categories:

  • a high percentage of women who live on campus are being raped
  • universities falsify statistics and/or cover up rape reports
  • kangaroo courts set up by university administrators, at the behest of their federal overlords, are overly skeptical regarding rape allegations brought by women, resulting in men being wrongly acquitted
  • kangaroo courts set up by universities are insufficiently skeptical, resulting in men being wrongly convicted

If we combine the above concerns with the multi-decade trends of tuition costs outpacing inflation and parents wanting to supervise their child’s every moment (“helicopter parents”), it seems as though there is no better time to be marketing online education.

Western Governors University, for example, charges about $6000 per year, barely enough to pay for library coffee bar lattes at the universities that are featured in the news. Why wouldn’t they buy ad space next to stories about on-campus rape? The headline could be “Wouldn’t you rather keep your 20-year-old darlings safe at home? (and save $250k)”

Income inequality leads to lower marriage rates?


Today’s New York Times carries a story that shows a correlation between income equality and marriage rates. From this correlation, the author, an academic sociologist, infers causation.

For me the article raises a few questions. First, are the data presented correct? This almanac shows a steady marriage rate, per 1000 population, from 1900 to 1970, a period over which the article shows a huge increase in the rate at which American men in particular careers were actually married. The author uses “U.S. born men ages 20 to 49″ for the chart. Just using this age range has the potential for distortion if the age of first marriage changes (example: if all men wait until age 50 to get married, the charted rate of marriage would go to 0). This almanac page shows that the age for men of first marriage did indeed reach a low point in the 1960s.

The second question would be why having an income lower than a successful physician or a Wall Street banker would lead to remaining single. A “poverty line” standard of living today is similar to a “middle class” standard of living in the 1950s. So two people who are officially “poor” can afford the same square footage of house and other items that were formerly considered requisites for being married. And if we still believe that “two can live as cheaply as one” (possibly even “three can live as cheaply as one” using UCLA Professor of Economics Bill Comanor’s analysis), wouldn’t people of modest means be more inclined to marry (or at least cohabit) than people of higher incomes?

A third question would be “What about international data?” shows that countries that are cited as examples of equality among citizens, such as Denmark and Sweden, have lower rates of marriage than the U.S. and higher percentages of children born to unmarried women.

There have been a lot of legal changes in the U.S. since the 1960s peak of marriage in the article’s chart. We have introduced no-fault divorce. We have introduced child support guidelines that make out-of-wedlock children equally profitable compared to children of a marriage. If you believe that one reason Americans get married is to realize an economic benefit by being able to spend the income of a partner, the law has substantially changed the incentives faced by Americans. It is no longer necessary to get married or stay married in order to spend someone else’s income (a one-night encounter in a bar in will suffice in every state, though the revenue is likely to be highest in California, Massachusetts, or Wisconsin). Could it be these legal and social changes that are driving any fall in rates at which Americans are getting or staying married?

Should we have unarmed police?


Apropos of the recent protests regarding Americans killed by police… Now that the crime rate has fallen so much in the U.S., why continue to arm the typical police officer? It is true that we are a nation of gun nuts, but it is still a minority of Americans engaged in criminal activity who carry guns, right? Why should every police officer bring a gun onto the scene? That would seem to invite a huge escalation of the violence, either with the officer afraid that the suspect is going to grab the gun or that the suspect might choose to shoot him or her before the gun can be pulled out, etc. The British seem to manage with the first line of law enforcement being unarmed with deadly force. Is it crazy to think that it could work here? (The Economist did a comparison of shootings by police in Britain versus the U.S. in an August 15, 2014 story.)

Related: My October 2014 posting about armed police approaching a stalled-out car.

Best way to publish a narrated slide show?



I have about 200 images from Burning Man that I’d like to present with audio narration. I want the slides to be shown at maximum quality (i.e., I’m not sure if an MPEG video from YouTube is the best idea). I want to record the audio and the timing/sequence myself. Right now the slides are already a Google Plus album (friends who are programmers at Google: Why isn’t this a standard feature? “Add narration to an album”? Microsoft PowerPoint lets you do it, so it can’t be impossible to code.).

What’s the most practical way to do this? If worst comes to worst I guess I wouldn’t mind publishing it as a 1080p video on but even then I have to author it somehow. I do have Adobe Premiere but I feel that there should be an easier way to author. I think that if I make every photo a PowerPoint slide I can have PPT export a WMV file.

Thanks in advance for any help.

Oberlin College Ghetto Dorms


I toured Oberlin College today with a friend and his son, a high school senior looking for a place to study science. For someone who has spent most of his time on the campuses of research universities, I was struck by how the students talked about their professors as accessible, dedicated to their learning, and “the best thing about Oberlin.” At MIT and Harvard, for example, professors are generally rather remote figures from the perspective of an undergraduate. With some help from Mindy the Crippler we met with a wide range of students and all spoke positively about their experience at Oberlin.

I was also struck when the student guide told us about a dormitory with an African heritage theme and specializing in serving “soul food” (link). She also mentioned a “Third World House” where “people of color” and “of low socioeconomic status” could live (link). It seemed odd that a college administration could set up places like this. Suppose that the school put out a Web page saying that “70 percent of our students are white and from wealthy families. Despite their stacks of cashmere sweaters, they wouldn’t feel comfortable living with anyone who was poor or black. So we’d appreciate it if students with darker skin or without a closet full of designer outfits would please move into Third World House or Soul Food Dorm.” If it wouldn’t be okay to do that, why is it okay to have the houses at all? Does having the best and most inclusive intentions make it okay to do something that might otherwise appear racist and classist?

[Separately, we learned about a house for women and transgender students (link) and talked to a young woman who'd applied to live there. She explained that it was open to anyone who had female chromosomes and identified as "female" and also anyone who was transgender. The only students to whom the living group was closed were males who identified as "male."]


Family Law Reform Conference Report


Here are some notes about the things that struck me when attending the Divorce Corp. Family Law Reform conference, November 15-16 in Washington, D.C.

Joe Sorge opened the conference by framing some of the issues (slides). In his view, setting up a litigated winner/loser system is harmful to children because (1) it takes a long time, (2) tends to inflame tensions between parents, and (3) drains parental financial resources. Additional harm is done by having a single human being, the trial court judge, make all of the decisions regarding a child’s future (as a practical matter, because these are decisions of “fact,” a divorce court judge’s decisions are not reviewable by an appeals court). Why is the end of a short-term American marriage a mad litigated grab for kids, cash, and long-term financial support for apparently healthy working-age adults? Sorge, whose own former partner collected assets worth about $14 million from him in her first lawsuit against him, had to keep defending additional actions (seeking more money) for a 12-year period. He noted that Federal Law, via Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, provides financial incentives for states to establish a “dominant” parent and entering child support awards to be paid by the secondary parent to that primary parent. Necessarily there were explicit disincentives therefore for states to award shared parenting. Sorge thought that the divorce industry was an anachronism that persisted due to its use of some of its $50 billion in annual revenue for lobbying. He pointed out that in the 1970s only 30 percent of mothers worked while today approximately 70 percent of mothers do. “Women age 25-34 make 88 percent of what men earn,” Sorge pointed out. There is thus a system built on the assumption that women cannot or will not work embedded in a society where women, at least those who are not alimony and child support recipients, do generally work.

Sorge pointed to Sweden as a model. Divorce is generally an administrative procedure, akin to working with the IRS on taxes in the U.S. Only about 1-2 percent of divorcing couples end up embroiled in the legal system there. You can’t get rich having a child with a high-income co-parent. Child support is fixed, according to Sorge, at roughly 1/2 the cost of feeding and clothing a child. Each parent is responsible for half of this amount (currently about $4000 per year total, which means $2000 per parent per year). Although litigation is much cheaper in Sweden than in the U.S., it is discouraged by the country’s practice of making each parent pay his or her own fees, unlike in many U.S. states (such as Sorge’s California) where a $200,000/year plaintiff can get a $300,000/year defendant ordered, as a matter of routine, to pay the fees on both sides of the lawsuit (thus removing any incentive for the plaintiff to settle).

The first formal presentation was by Malin Bergstrom, a Swedish epidemiologist who used data from a national survey of 172,000 children aged 12-15 (slides). Due to the lack of financial incentive to seek sole parenting in Sweden, approximately 40 percent of Swedish children of separated parents live in a 50/50 arrangement. This plus the fact that she used a comprehensive national survey means that Professor Bergstrom worked from better data than any previous researcher on the every-other-weekend versus shared parenting question. Her results? An intact family is best for kids, but a 50/50 arrangement is pretty close in terms of the child’s mental and physical health. Children who lived primarily with their mother did substantially worse and children who lived primarily with their father were even more disadvantaged. Bergstrom noted that when a mother has pulled back to every-other-weekend (or less) in Sweden it is usually due to mental health or substance abuse problems.

The U.S. is unusual internationally due to the following factors: (1) there is no official custody presumption (i.e., children are up for grabs), (2) obtaining custody of children can be more profitable than going to college and working, and (3) litigation is the default process for a divorce or a custody and child support determination. No society in the history of humanity has ever devoted as high a proportion of its resources to custody litigation and wealth transfers via child support. I talked with Bergstrom a couple of times privately during the conference. She said that she hadn’t known anything about the U.S. system before coming to speak and was amazed that a society would set things up the way that we had. In response to the clinical psychologists who said that they wanted to be involved (paid) in every custody lawsuit to determine which parent had a narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, she said “Don’t you need to have a system for normal loving parents as well?”

One area that has been mystifying is why American parents fight so hard over custody and parenting time schedules that affect child support revenue. The fight plainly makes financial sense when $200,000 per year in tax-free cash is at stake (e.g., when suing a radiologist or dermatologist), but why when the numbers are closer to the USDA-estimated costs of child-rearing? And if kids are really as expensive as state child support guidelines suggest, why don’t married parents put most or all of their children up for adoption? For our forthcoming book on divorce, custody, and child support laws in the 51 jurisdictions nationwide we interviewed policy makers in a variety of states. An Illinois family law drafter (and also a working divorce litigator, as seems to be the typical arrangement nationwide (i.e., the litigators write the laws)) was presented with a hypothetical scenario of two physicians, each of whom earned $200,000 per year after taxes, with two children together. Assuming a 60/40 parenting time split, the loser would pay the winner $56,000 per year in tax-free cash. Assuming young children, therefore, the wealth difference for these two equal earners would be approximately $2 million by the time the kids aged out. The policy maker responded that the parents would not be motivated by this $2 million to seek to become the 60-percent parent as opposed to the 40-percent parent. “Child support does not compensate the parents for having children,” she said, taking the position that $56,000 was not nearly enough to pay the expenses of two children.

William Comanor, a professor of economics at UCLA, shed some light on the issue (slides). Economists have identified two main flaws in the typical state’s child support guideline numbers. The first is that the non-custodial parent, e.g., the one who takes care of a child 40 percent of the time in the above example, is considered to have zero expenses for housing, food, clothing, transportation, etc. The system as designed, therefore, gives the primary parent’s household a much higher share of the combined parental income than the secondary parent’s household even when the children spend a substantial percentage of their time with the secondary parent. Comanor did not address this issue, which has been previously covered by economists (see this 2013 report to the Massachusetts commission).

Comanor’s talk, and a forthcoming journal article, related to how people figure the actual cost of children in intact families, which is the starting point for many child support calculations (“Put yourself in the child’s diaper,” one California attorney said, saying that the relevant question for the judge is “How much would have been spent on the child if these two people, instead of just meeting for one night in a bar, had gotten married and stayed together until the child turned 18?”).  Big components are food, housing, and transportation. How much does a married couple with one child spend on transportation for the child? The conventional approach has been to take what they spend on transportation and divide by three. Comanor used the same U.S. Census Bureau data regarding consumer expenditures that the USDA uses and found that the actual number is pretty close to $0: married couples with and without children (except low-income families with three or more children) spend about the same on transportation. Similarly for housing. Some approaches take the cost of a house or apartment and divide by the number of people occupying it. Other conventional approaches have been to estimate the housing cost of a child by looking at the marginal cost of a two-bedroom apartment compared to a one-bedroom apartment. Professor Comanor looked at what American couples, with and without children, actually do spend. It turns out that on average a married couple with no children will spend the same as a married couple with one child. Maybe a guest bedroom or den turns into a nursery but the actual dollars spent doesn’t change until the second child comes along. Similarly, spending on food is about the same before and after the first child arrives. Comanor finds that the basic cost of a child in an American household with less than $56,000 per year in pre-tax income is about $4300 per year, i.e., not very different from the Sweden child support number and about the same as what some Western states use as the starting point for child support (adding in an extra amount for luxuries if the parents’ income is larger than $15,000 per year or so). Comanor’s number is somewhat lower than foster care reimbursements in most states ($6000 to $8000 per year per child). That’s about 10 percent of the top of the Massachusetts child support guidelines (suing a $250,000/year earner yields $40,000 per year in tax-free child support), which means that a Massachusetts plaintiff could expect a 90-percent profit on child support revenue, assuming that the child’s clothes are purchased at Target.

[A smaller issue with child support guidelines is that spending by single-parent households may be overstated. Since child support is not "income" a single parent with a $50,000-per-year job who collects $50,000 per year in tax-free child support may fall into the "$50,000 per year" income category, though he or she would have a spending power closer to that of a person with $135,000 per year in taxable income. There would still be a lack of comparability if the example single parent were considered to have a "pre-tax income" of $100,000 per year because a married couple with $100,000 in income would pay taxes on all of it. Comanor wasn't sure which conventional approaches, if any, were adjusted for these factors. His own analysis shows higher spending on children in "single households" than "married households" with the same "income".]

Using OECD data on the amount of hands-on time put into child care by working parents (about one hour per day, averaging weekends and weekdays) and Comanor’s analysis of the Census data, obtaining custody of a child and collecting child support should be worth about $150 per hour at the top of the Massachusetts guidelines, for example (assumes two-thirds/one-third parenting time split and a $250,000-per-year income for the loser parent). The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that a “private nonfarm” worker in American earns an average wage of less than $25 per hour. Given that child support is tax-free and wages are taxable, a thoughtful custody and child support plaintiff should be able to earn at least 8X per hour compared to a W-2 employee.

Attorneys whom we interviewed both before and at the conference told us that allegations of child abuse are common whenever profitable custody of children is being sought. Dr. Joyanna Silberg (web site), in a panel discussion, noted that children are not being protected from actual abuse: “Family court looks at children as property for one side or the other.” What does this experienced therapist say about the custody evaluation or guardian ad litem process engaged in by psychologists nationwide? “It’s a game of chance whether a custody evaluator gets it right,” she said. Silberg noted that the divorce industry misleads with precise-sounding terms that are meaningless to psychology professionals. “High conflict is not a helpful label,” she pointed out. “You need to look at motives. A mugging is not a ‘high conflict wallet dispute.’”

[A Texas lawyer explained his theory for why the heavily funded child abuse prevention agencies weren't more effective: "Child Protective Services gets a report on every father in high-income custody and child support cases. They love to go out and investigate upper-middle-class white men in safe neighborhoods and will spend a whole day with a father who is the target of a custody action. CPS social workers don't like to go into housing projects where they might get their asses kicked."]

The “extreme family law” position taken by a handful of attendees, including some attorneys, is that there is a constitutional right for a fit parent to associate with a child and vice versa. Therefore if a family court judge orders that a child spend the vast majority of his or her time with one parent, the loser parent need only walk into federal court and say “I want my parental role back, which means at least 50/50 parenting time.” Similarly for decision-making with regard to the child, the parent who loses a divorce and custody lawsuit shouldn’t be stripped of what is traditionally called “legal custody” and be forced to watch the winner parent and possibly a judge make all decisions going forward. I challenged this by asking “Given that there are rich New Yorkers who have been turned into every-other-weekend aunts or uncles and they can afford the best lawyers in the world, if it were as easy as going to federal court to get their kids back, at least half time, wouldn’t they have done it?” Law professors in attendance said that it was important to distinguish between the state trying to take away a child from a parent (Supreme Court has said that there are limits) versus a co-parent trying to take a child away, with help from a family court (there are essentially no limits). To some extent the Alaska Supreme Court seems to agree with the constitutional argument, ordering that trial judges stop picking a primary parent absent some sort of abuse or unfitness. But the litigators and law professors weren’t losing sleep over the federal courts putting some limits on state courts and statutes. One law professor said “Parents are voluntarily relinquishing rights and asking a judge to make a decision” to which another professor responded “well, at least one of them is.”

[One area that is less clear is the case where a judge picks time with a commercial care provider over time with a fit parent. Increasingly custody and child support plaintiffs have full-time jobs. Thus they are seeking "custody" or "parenting time," and the child support revenue that accompanies each hour, during periods when they're at a W-2 job. This leads to court orders for the child to be in a commercial day care, mostly paid for by the defendant parent, even when a defendant is available to take care of the child personally. James Dwyer, a professor at William and Mary law school in Virginia, said that this is an example of an area where there might be a successful constitutional argument.]

Stephen Erikson, one of the nation’s most experienced divorce mediators, explained what is happening in that corner of the family law world.  He noted that “the court system creates a conflict over money and no incentive to end the conflict.” It is an adversarial system that quickly gets vicious because “courts teach fighting” and it doesn’t work well for divorce because “family problems are more complex [than the typical contract disputes for which courts were designed].” Couples who mediate are, according to Erikson, opting out of the child support system about 75 percent of the time. “They will fund a joint account in proportion to their IRS 1040 incomes,” said Erikson, “and pay the child’s direct expenses from that account.” Neither parent then looks to the other for payment of rent, food, and other household basics. (Note that opting out of the child support system in Erikson’s Minnesota means giving up a maximum of $22,500 per year (for one child) due to the state’s cap; opting out in neighboring Wisconsin could mean giving up millions of dollars, since child support is unlimited by design and formula.)

Attorneys agreed that everything depended on the family court judge and that results would vary hugely, even within the same state, with different judges. They also agreed that judges could be influenced by personal connections and campaign financing (in states where judges were elected). “A good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows the judge,” said one speaker.

The conference featured people with diverse beliefs regarding fairness, justice, and the best way to resolve family law cases. After two days there were still a lot of differences of opinion, as might be expected given that attendees came from states and countries with radically different systems. The main point on which all speakers were able to agree was that child support should not be profitable “because it puts children in the middle.”

New York’s new train station


The Tax Foundation says that New York collects a higher percentage of residents’ income than any other state. How does the money get spent? The New York Times has an article on a new $4 billion train station for lower Manhattan. If it does not slip further it will have taken 11 years to complete (when it opens in 2015).

What can $4 billion buy in terms of passenger train infrastructure? Wikipedia says that was roughly the cost of the Zhengxi PDL high-speed rail line in China (built starting in 2005 when the exchange rate was different). For a return on their $billions, the Chinese waited five years rather than 11. Instead of 1 train station they got 10 train stations plus a 284-mile-long railroad connecting them. Trains travel along the line at roughly 220 mph. As part of this package, the Chinese also got the longest bridge in the world at the time and an assortment of tunnels, some more than five miles long.

Thanksgiving Gratitude


Five years ago I posted a list of things for which I was grateful.

I’m still grateful for all of the stuff that I was grateful for in 2009. What since then, though?

Here’s my list (mostly small items because the big ones are on the earlier list)…

  • the two wonderful women in our house
  • our healthy baby, born 2013
  • that my former aviation students have enjoyed five more years of safe flying
  • that my friends who fly have similarly kept themselves and their passengers safe
  • a former co-worker who relocated to Boston and has become the best possible friend
  • old friends who proved their durability during some trying times
  • Mindy the Crippler, PC
  • finding a new way to teach database programming that is fun for both students and teachers (see the January 2015 course announcement)
  • the continued expansion of the Internet*
  • practical tablet computers, notably the Apple iPad, which delight both children and adults
  • smart phones big enough to serve as tablet computers
  • Dropbox and Google Drive, which mean that I can almost always find everything that I need
  • the new (2010) Art of the Americas wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which keeps a favorite five-year-old of mine entertained
  • Uber
  • Sonos
  • that we got to visit Antarctica (my report)
  • Sony A6000 mirrorless camera system (and its predecessor, the NEX-6)

*Internet success story: Contractor and plumber installed a new washer/dryer in the house. I am pretty sure that they didn’t read the instructions before test running it.  When I opened up the washer after it had walked itself 1.5 feet across the floor due to being unbalanced I found the (ruined) manual inside, along with the hoses and some other little bits. I then went to the Samsung web site and found the manual, which said “remove the transit bolts before running or the machine will become unbalanced.”

What about readers? What are you all grateful for, beyond the basic friends, family, health, food, and shelter stuff?

Why you shouldn’t let old people write ad copy…


… a photo from a pre-Thanksgiving trip to Target:

2014-11-26 12.16.03

Black versus White perceptions of our justice system


Having run out of books on CD I was reduced to listening to NPR new this morning. The top story regarded the grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri for shooting Michael Brown (Wikipedia) and how black versus white Americans perceive this result.

I remember watching the O.J. Simpson verdict on television at Hearst Corporation back in 1995. One member of our group was black. He laughed when the “not guilty” decision was announced and seemed cheered at the idea that Simpson had apparently beaten the system. The whites were astonished that the evidence had not persuaded the jury of Simpson’s guilt.

In interviewing people for our book on divorce, custody, and child support laws in the 51 jurisdictions nationwide we’ve also found a black/white divide. Jill Carter, a legislator in Maryland, told us how her (mostly black) constituents in Baltimore experience the system:

What if one doesn’t want to wait three or four months [for a temporary order awarding the house, kids, and cashflow to a divorce plaintiff]? As in other states, Maryland operates a parallel domestic violence prevention system that will grant de facto divorces instantly. Delegate Carter explains “There is an organization called the House of Ruth. They represent the woman for free and get her an automatic ex parte order barring the man from the house, the kids, and her place of work. He can come back five days later to challenge the order.” Then the House of Ruth lawyer and his lawyer argue about whether it was a legitimate order to have granted? “No,” says Carter. “A lot of my constituents can’t afford lawyers and this is a civil proceeding, not a criminal one. So he is not entitled to a public defender. Thus she is represented by an attorney and he is not.” Then what? “The Court asks ‘Would you like to sign this consent form?’ and the man is usually intimidated by the situation and doesn’t want to appear argumentative in front of the judge. He’s smart enough to know that if he were to display any anger at having been accused of abuse that would only make things worse. So he agrees to stay away from the home, the kids, her job for a year. Meanwhile the House of Ruth is also working on a divorce lawsuit for her. When that comes to trial in about a year they can say ‘He hasn’t been around the kids for a year. He’s been out of the children’s lives.’ A factor that the judge is supposed to consider is what a child is accustomed to. So the court reduces the father to a support payor. If he has visitation it will be limited and supervised.” What about the idea that judges are wise and fair and that they have enough discretion to do what is best for a child? “These fathers are not getting due process,” responded Carter. “The rules of evidence are often ignored. I have seen judges in district court let the House of Ruth lawyers testify.”

Unlike in some other states, a Maryland plaintiff cannot wait until a child is 17 years 11 months old and file for 18 years of retroactive child support. Generally child support liability starts when a lawsuit is filed. As in other states, a plaintiff can use a state agency to have a taxpayer-funded attorney get a child support order for her but the defendant cannot get a taxpayer-funded attorney either to defend the child support lawsuit or to ask for parenting time. “A woman can pop up and find the father after seven years,” says Delegate Carter. “The father never knew about the child and says ‘That’s great news. When do I get to see the child?’ DHR responds ‘We don’t need you for that.’ In the eyes of the state fathers have no value except to pay.”

The Maryland Child Support Enforcement Administration publishes a web page regarding their paternity litigation services:
Paternity Establishment is Important!
Your child deserves all of the advantages in life that two parents can give. There are some special reasons to establish paternity.
Benefits For Your Child: Your child may be eligible for some benefits because you have established paternity. These benefits may include Social Security, veteran’s benefits, health insurance, life insurance and inheritance. Establishing paternity ensures you can provide for your child even when the unexpected occurs.
Family Medical History: Knowing the family’s full history of diseases, illnesses and birth defects will help your doctor if your child becomes sick. It’s important to know the father’s medical history for this reason.
Child Support: Your child needs and deserves both emotional and financial support from both parents. You may think that you can get by on your own and live without any help from your child’s father. But you may change your mind some day. A court can’t order child support without legal proof of paternity. It’s easier to get that proof today than to wait.

Confirming Delegate Carter’s perspective, “your child can spend time with Dad” is not one of the benefits described by the state agency.

The lower income men represented by Delegate Carter seemed to fare the worst. “A lot of men fall into arrearages and have to live in the shadows,” she told us. “They can’t drive, can’t work without their entire paycheck being garnished, and are sometimes imprisoned. Even if a man is well-intentioned, unless he wins the lottery he can’t get out of it.”

In most states where we interviewed legislators they described a system in which high-end divorce litigators representing white litigants in cases where at least one party had money (and the other one wanted it!) were the drafters of the rules (statutes) under which divorce lawsuits would be conducted. The resulting laws tended to maximize the amount of judicial discretion and therefore the scope for attorney argument to try to persuade judges. The drafted-by-working-litigator laws also tend to maximize the amount of cash that could be obtained via alimony or child support (5-1000X what could be obtained from a similar income defendant in Scandinavia, for example), a result that falls particularly hard on low-income men.

Attorneys told us that black men are reluctant to hire them for a legal defense to a divorce, custody, or child support lawsuit. “They don’t believe that they’re going to get Justice with a capital J,” said one lawyer, “unlike white guys who will spend $500,000 or more before learning the same lesson. A black defendant’s first impulse is to run away before the family court can get hold of him. Black guys are more street-smart than white guys. They don’t believe what they were taught by a social studies teacher back in high school.”

Circling back to the Ferguson issue, I do think that it is important to remember that poor black Americans live under a system of laws that were developed by rich (mostly white) Americans and the politicians and attorneys who represent those rich people. So it isn’t surprising that there will be conflict over whether those laws are fair. As long as we retain our current system of drafting legislation I don’t see a way around this. Perhaps one improvement would be to prevent lobbying by lawyers and also to prevent practicing attorneys serving as legislators from drafting legislation that would affect their personal practice (in Maryland, for example, the head of the committee drafting family law is herself a high-end divorce litigator representing rich white people in Montgomery County). Judges and states agencies whose funding grows in response to new laws and procedures would be similarly prevented from lobbying. Then at least there aren’t people who benefit financially from sweeping up poor black citizens into the judicial system deciding the terms under which poor black citizens are swept up.

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