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5 Ways the Rebel Alliance Can Win Back Working Class Whites

Or…

Last Gen X American Theater Review: Star Wars: Rogue One

And oh, my, spoilers!

I don’t mean to review only Star Wars movies, but here we are. The question Rogue One raises is: Is it better than Return of the Jedi? As I write this I can’t answer, but to be clear, Rogue One is certainly better than its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens. At the risk of digressing, that film belonged more to the J.J. Abrams nostalgia subgenre, and its relevant comparators are 8mm or the Star Trek movies. I wasn’t a fan of those, nor the subgenre at all, really, but Force Awakens is Abrams’ best contribution to it thus far. Aside from its execution, it also may have done what was necessary to resuscitate Star Wars after the odious yet painfully quotable prequels.

Yet when I saw it, I thought The Force Awakens calcified the franchise. Star Wars would never amount to more than anxious Jedi, lightsaber fights, Death Star-ers, and sidestepping the ethical question of whether the galaxy would be better off if it summarily executed the entire Skywalker hero/war-criminal family. Take that, midichlorians!!

Rogue One, though, resists the decline. It’s the first contribution since Phantom Menace to feature a novel plot—and yes, all the prequels had plots, just the same one: Palpatine manipulates people to get what he wants. He just wasn’t the central character, which is one of many reasons those movies were so awful. None of this is to say that Rogue One‘s plot is remarkably different from the original’s: “A group of galactic outcasts combines to steal the Death Star’s plans and martyrs itself while doing so” isn’t far from the same crew rescuing the princess and blowing up the Death Star. Unfortunately, I struggle to give Rogue One a final assessment, so I’ll trudge through the bits I liked, didn’t like, or noticed.

Genre

In its third act, Rogue One becomes a heist movie. Unlike a good heist movie, however, it neglects the genre’s most memorable trope: the walkthrough montage. Just after the scene where the main characters case the target, your Ocean’s Elevenses of the world invariably contain a scene where the crack team of specialists learn the exact sequence of breaking into the target and stealing the MacGuffin. Usually the montage uses a model mixed with shots of the actual location.

The walkthrough montage performs a few narrative tasks. One, it sets up the audience’s expectations of how the heist will go with the tacit promise that the story will throw a wrench into the protagonists’ plans, forcing them to adapt. The heist characters’ (or at least their leaders’) stand-out qualities are not their thievery but their resilience or their ability to see n moves ahead of the antagonists. Without the walkthrough montage, the story can capriciously throw any obstacle it wants at the characters, and their success doesn’t feel earned. This is exactly what happens in Rogue One when Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, and K-2SO enter the Imperial data storage center on Scarif. In typical Star Wars droid fashion K-2SO gives the odds of their success, but without a reference point, it doesn’t mean anything to the audience.

The absence of a walkthrough montage also, I suspect, relates to criticisms of the Star Wars universe’s data formats. Superficially, I’m less persuaded that it’s a problem: Star Wars straddles the digital revolution, so it’s saddled with a legacy of computer anachronisms. Asking for consistency in formats is like asking why the characters in Seinfeld don’t avoid all their follies with cell phones. I’m more impressed that Rogue One manages to be a Star Wars prequel without looking outdated in the ways the original subtly does. Thus, we’re left with a sequence where the characters make it to a weird-looking data tower without facing much resistance until later. It’s only after their claw crane busts that they must adapt—and that’s also when they start switching data formats.

Characters

Two, the walkthrough montage also summarizes the characters’ special skills, and while I liked the characters in Rogue One quite a bit, they weren’t all suited to breaking into secure Imperial installations. The movie could have done more to explain their motivations for participating in what appeared to be a suicide mission—since that was the point of the movie—similar to The Magnificent Seven. Instead, the final act of the movie devolves to action fare: Each character must perform some trivial mechanical task to complete the mission. One of them is even the Back to the Future cable-caught-on-a-stick gimmick. As with most Star Wars movies, multiple subplots converged at the ending, but they weren’t too interesting on their own until the characters died. It worked, but once I noticed the action gimmicks were happening, I felt a little bored.

Indeed, The Magnificent Seven comparison is apt because my favorite character was Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, who was essentially Zatoichi in a Star Wars movie. On top of that, he did what I thought Disney was too timid to do: Broaden the Force beyond monotone Jedis and lightsaber fights. Îmwe devoutly believes in the Force, but he fights with … something other than a lightsaber. He doesn’t telekinetically chuck people around, and in his bespoke action sequence he must walk to a switch and pull it by hand. Wow! Îmwe lives in a Star Wars universe where doubting the Force is possible—a point I hammered in my review of the original. It’s not hard to believe in the Force when it makes you obviously superhuman.

Beyond Îmwe, I appreciated the cast’s diversity. Rogue One made it seem so normal that I didn’t really ponder it until after it ended. I was like, “Cassian has an accent. Eh. That’s Star Wars for you. At least he’s not another Imperial officer from Britain.” I also note that the other movie to address non-whiteness this winter was Hidden Figures, two films from very different genres. (I liked that one too, but I have nothing to say about it that others can’t better.)

Martyrdom, Not Marveldom

It’s said that Disney sees Star Wars as a money-maker like the Marvel-verse. The Marvel-verse, though, is pretty conventional, even if another 2016 movie, Dr. Strange, was tons of fun. The plots are driven by earth-hungry monsters and a bunch of ancient, supernatural MacGuffins. I don’t see it breaking its mold ever. Rogue One, by contrast, does. The Star Wars universe is sufficiently established to give us heroic characters and then kill them dead. These are the martyrs of the rebellion, we recite their names after Luke Skywalker gets his medal a short time later.

My hope is that Disney explores the Star Wars universe with more narrative experiments like Rogue One. I’m not asking for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Jedi, but Rogue One took risks that show there’s more to explore in Star Wars than lightsaber fights.

Other Good Stuff

Rogue One also delivers a few nuggets that don’t fit in the above. One is the Death Star. I liked how the movie subtly explained that its world-destroying weapon is essentially a bunch of lightsabers strung together. The Empire scientifically explores the faith of the Jedi, only to weaponize it. It’s a good parallel to the Oppenheimer-nuclear-bomb commentary the movie makes. I delighted to see Tarkin again, CGIed as he was, and voiced with appropriate rolling r’s. But boy do I wish they hired Wayne Pygram like in the prequels. What a waste. Tarkin’s line about not using the Death Star to make a manifesto is an excellent contrast to later blowing up Alderaan as “an effective demonstration.” Speaking of Alderaan, Jimmy Smits was similarly a welcome sight, even if it normalizes the prequels. “I must go to Alderaan (to get blown up).” (Hey, it’s not like he saw it coming.)

Other Not-So-Good Stuff

How big is the Star Wars galaxy? It’s like Jeddah, Eadu, Scarif, Yavin IV, Alderaan, and Tatooine, are all only several hours from one another. It’s a J.J. Abrams-ish flaw in a non-Abrams movie. A little down time for the characters helps extend the scope of the universe and make it more realistic. Secondly, the admiral in charge of the rebels was another Mon Calamari. Was this supposed to be a riff on Return of the Jedi, or are we really too stupid to follow a Star Wars space battle if it’s not exposited by an Admiral Akbar lookalike?

So Why Not Return of the Jedi?

As I wrote upfront, I’m weighing Rogue One against Return of the Jedi, which has until now kept its place as the third best Star Wars movie. Here’s a brief synopsis of why that movie deserves a bumping. One, Jedi‘s second Death Star is a cop out. Totally uninspired. Two, “A certain point of view?” shamelessly retcons the first movie’s insistence that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father to rationalize the reveal in Empire Strikes Back that I don’t find that interesting. Three, the case against the Ewoks has long been established. It’s also the beginning of the end of George Lucas as a serious storyteller and not a panderer to children. Want to know why the prequels suck? Look into Wicket’s eyes and tell me you don’t see Jar Jar Binks’ zygote.

The scenes with Luke, Vader, and the emperor shoulder Jedi‘s ending. (The space battle and Endor scenes don’t do much.) Its lesson is that all crimes against humanity (or sentient beings or whatever) can be forgiven if you really, really, love daddy and he’s an evil Jedi. I do like how the lightsaber fight contrasts with the one at the end of Empire Strikes Back. There, Vader was in control, testing Luke. In Jedi, Luke was in control (mostly), baffling Vader by refusing to fight. Although there isn’t much that could be done to fix those scenes, at least the movie could have ended with a political victory over the Empire than another military one. There isn’t a point where the masses of the core planets rise up on their own and dismantle the Empire.

Rogue One is rough around the edges, and it frustrates me because I grew up with Return of the Jedi and if it is to be supplanted, I want it to be an easy call. Rogue One has a scattered start, and the middle scene on Eadu doesn’t make much sense other than to deepen the characters. It picks up in the last act on Scarif and ends better than it begins. I’m not sure the Death Star-Manhattan Project relationship works well because Galen Erso isn’t a major character and is killed at the halfway point anyway. It’s either an overexpanded theme or an underexpanded plotline. Finally, while I’ve praised Rogue One for taking risks, I don’t enjoy martyrdom parables. The ending was a bit intense for me.

So … Rogue One wins. It gives me hope about the Star Wars franchise. I recognize that we still have this new Rey-Darth Emo plot arc that doesn’t inspire me much, and Rogue One‘s risks might be misunderstood and squandered by future Star Wars filmmakers, but at least we know they can make Star Wars films that are on par with the originals.

Let’s hope they do so.

CBO: $1.3 Trillion in New Federal Student Loans by 2027

Each year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides its baseline projections for the federal student-loan program. This year it published them early with its annual “Budget and Economic Outlook.” The projections include the total amount of new federal student loans that the office believes will be disbursed, future interest rates, and subsidy costs, i.e. whether the government will make or lose money on the loans. This year, the CBO projects that the government will lend an additional $1.3 trillion to students between FY2017 and FY2027. The figure is up slightly since the 2016-2026 period, discussed here.

Subsidy Rates

The CBO uses an accrual-accounting methodology to determine the present value of federal loans. This essentially means discounting the estimated cash flows of student loans against government securities. If student loans make more money than buying government debt would, then the loans are valuable. Accrual accounting does not include the market risk that a private lender would consider when offering a student loan, which is why many people advocate fair-value accounting. It’s a surprisingly contentious issue, which I elaborate on in the student debt data page, because under most fair-value accounting estimates the government loses money on student loans.

Under accrual accounting, the CBO projects negative subsidy rates for federal student loans; that is, it sees the government profiting from its lending. All student loans issued in FY2017 will earn an estimated 13.3 percent return, about the same as last year. Of interest to law-school watchers: Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans issued in FY2017 will make 18.6 percent and 20.8 percent returns, respectively. Oddly, Parent PLUS loans appear to be the most profitable for the government.

table-2As with last year the CBO included fair-value estimates of federal student loans. By this measure, the government loses about 10 percent of its investment on student loans every year until FY2027. Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans lose about 4.5 percent in 2017, but the percentage increases over the decade. Parent PLUS loans remain profitable.

Note also that the CBO believes the net number of loans will rise during the decade. It’s already evident that federal student-loan borrowing is declining.

table-6Under accrual accounting the student loans will net the government $112.6 billion; under fair-value accounting the government will lose $133.8 billion. This isn’t a lot of money for the government, actually, but it could obviously be redirected to better uses.

Interest Rates

A crucial variable affecting subsidy rates is the CBO’s projection of future interest rates. Last year, the office believed interest rates for FY2016 would be about half a percent higher than they turned out to be. This year, the CBO estimates that interest rates will plateau at 3.5 percent starting in 2022.

projection-of-10-year-treasury-bond-interest-rates

Last year, I argued that the interest-rate estimates were more plausible than two years earlier. That was, however, before the election, and now the rate on 10-year government bonds is much higher than before. As a result, student debtors will probably pay higher rates starting in the next academic year, and the accrual method will produce higher future profits for the government that are probably illusory.

Blogger Discredited: Law Students Not Aging (on Average)

The blogger being … yours truly. A few years ago, I asserted on The American Lawyer that high-end LSAT scores were falling not because smart people were avoiding law school but because younger people were. I was trying to push back against the notion that young people are law-school lemmings. I think I was ultimately right about the LSAT scores but for other reasons, as I’ll discuss later.

In the meantime, here’s how we know I was wrong. The LSAC tracks law-school applicants by their ages. It last analyzed the data in 2010, and I thought it would only take two or three years until the next update. Well, the LSAC dragged its heels and kept a long-outdated pdf on its data Web page. I’m not sure why; the new numbers don’t show anything damning. Anyway, I noticed that the LSAC finally updated its applicant age data, so here you go:

percent-applicants-by-age-bracket

2010 is blank because the LSAC didn’t bother releasing that information, which is what happens when you’re slow and disorganized.

Using 2009 as the base year (because that’s the last applicant peak we have), we find a very modest shift in applicant age brackets. Among applicants in 2015, about 2.1 percent fewer were under the age of thirty while 2.1 percent more were over thirty. The biggest contributors are 25-29-year-olds and the over 40 bracket, respectively. Although half the cumulative decline in applicants since 2009 can be attributed to the 22-24 bracket, they take up about half the applicant pool. Other brackets also declined proportionally.

Other findings: Acceptance rates have risen in all brackets, which isn’t surprising, and for the most part the number of accepted applicants who didn’t matriculate fell. Starting in 2014, more women applied to law school than men. (LSAC applicant age data don’t always correspond perfectly to its other datasets, so this finding might not be precise.)

So why the decline in high-end LSATs? As the alt-fact-mongering Law School Truth Center taught me a couple years ago, the LSAT is an equated test, so declines in test takers proportionately reduce scores. As a result, fewer people will get high (and low) LSAT scores. The end.

2015: Full-Time Law Students Paying Full Tuition Fell ~5 Percentage Points (Again)

As with 2014, the proportion of full-time law students paying full freight fell substantially at the average law school not in Puerto Rico. In 2015, the last year for which data are available, the average was 28.1 percent, down from 32.9 percent. In 2011, the average was 20 points higher.

percent-full-time-law-students-paying-full-tuition

A decade ago, more than half of law students paid full tuition; now, not even one in three does.

At the average private law school, nearly as many students who received half-to-full tuition grants paid nothing at all. Those numbers might have converged this year, but the crunch in students has decelerated, so they may have leveled off. Nevertheless, law schools must be losing a lot of money.

no-full-time-private-law-school-students-per-school-by-grant-received

Indeed, in 2015, revenue from full-time students paying full tuition is now half its peak in 2011. At freestanding private law schools, including the for-profits, it’s fallen to one third. In 2001 the median private law school made $9.0 million on these students. In 2015, it took in $4.3 million.

aggregate-revenue-from-full-time-private-law-school-students-paying-full-tuition

So how substantially are law schools discounting? Here’s what tuition discounted by the median grant looks like at private law schools by the mean of their full tuition quintiles. It’s a mouthful, but the idea here is to set full tuition as the independent variable and let the discounted tuition float.

full-time-private-law-school-tuition-and-median-discounted-tuition-by-tuition-quintile-mean

We find that law schools charging in the fourth quintile of full tuition (~$49,000) discount so much that they’re cheaper than the median discounted tuition of the third full-tuition quintile (~$45,000). Meanwhile, the gap between private law schools in the fifth quintile (~$56,500) and the rest is widening. What’s also obvious is how much more law schools are willing to charge students paying full freight.

Information on this topic from previous years:

Full-Time Law-School Application Inequality Up in 2016

In 2016 full-time law-school applicants showed more interest in fewer law schools, according to my modified Lorenz curve. The overall Gini coefficient is up as well.

A Lorenz curve measures the cumulative distribution of a quantity in order from the smallest recipient to the largest. Usually researchers use the distribution of income among households. I’ve modified the Lorenz curve according to the U.S. News and World Report rankings for the previous year because the rankings are an independent measurement of law-school eliteness as seen by LSAT takers and applicants roughly at the time that they apply. Here is what we see.

full-time-law-school-applications-adjusted-lorenz-curve

Compared to previous years, we can see that the curve has barely nudged to the right, indicating increased inequality among full-time law-school applications. This is predictable because we already know that more the 70 percent of the rise in applications can be attributed to U.S. News‘ static top 14 law schools.

A Lorenz curve can also be used to calculate a Gini coefficient, which is the area under the Lorenz curve divided by the total area of the right triangle representing a totally equal distribution of the quantity among the recipients. In 2015, the full-time applications Gini coefficient was .431, but this year it rose to .441, up 1 point. (These figures are irrespective of the U.S. News rankings.) I’ve written on calculating Gini coefficients recently here.

Last year I was surprised that application inequality was flat because I was convinced that everyone believed there was a shortage of applicants at elite law schools. This year, applicants trended back in that direction. Maybe it will accelerate into the future.

Information on this topic from previous years:

It’s 2017. Where’s My ‘Hyperinflationary Great Depression’?

[The following post first appeared on the LSTB on January 1, 2012. What it said then still applies today, mutatis mutandis. Thanks for reading the blog and have a prosperous 2017!]

Behold, the curse of a long memory. Last January [2011], Google Alerts sent me an e-mail informing me that the National Inflation Association (“Preparing Americans for Hyperinflation”) issued a press release predicting that the higher ed bubble was “set to burst beginning in mid-2011. This bursting bubble will have effects that are even more far-reaching than the bursting of the Real Estate bubble in 2006.” The NIA press release then digressed into legal education (I’m guessing they’d just read David Segal’s first NYT piece a few days earlier), how evil lawyers are, how they produce nothing for society, and how 60 percent of the Senate and 37 percent of the House are lawyers who rig the economy to make jobs for lawyers. It editorializes:

“While everybody went to school to become a lawyer [really?], nobody went to school to become a farmer because Americans didn’t see any money in farming. With prices of nearly all agricultural commodities soaring through the roof in 2010 and with NIA expecting this trend to continue throughout 2011, the few new farmers out there are going to become rich while lawyers are standing at street corners with cups begging for money.”

The NIA would’ve been more helpful if it explained how lawyers could be a drain on society yet remain vulnerable to market forces. Also, one would think unemployed lawyers would try to find non-lawyer jobs instead of begging, but I think it’s important to note that agricultural prices weren’t “soaring through the roof” in 2010. They were growing, yes, but although the NIA was right that they continued to do so in 2011, (a) it’s stalled recently, and (b) they’re no worse than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Oh well. The NIA sternly concluded:

“We must work hard to educate America to the truth if our country is going to have the wherewithal to survive the upcoming bursting college bubble and Hyperinflationary Great Depression.”

Whoa.

I can’t say I’m quite as disappointed as the NIA undoubtedly is that we’re not seeing much inflation these days, and in mid-2011 I didn’t see many colleges cutting their tuition, laying off faculty, closing programs, or trying to retrench themselves. I also remain unconvinced that $1 trillion in student debt can be worse than $8 trillion in mortgage debt. True, student debt is not dischargeable (unlike mortgage deficiencies) absent a showing of an undue hardship, and it’s hampering the recovery and ruining lives, but it’s not worse in quantity than the housing bubble. As for the NIA’s paranoid ranting about lawyers, all economic evidence I’ve seen indicates that legal services have all but stagnated for much of the last two decades. Apparently, those 60 percent of lawyer-senators aren’t very good at creating work for themselves. I suppose the NIA should express appreciation.

Anyway, if anything, inflation would be a boon to underwater homeowners and student debtors because it erodes the real value of their debts, which grew significantly in the 2000s. Here’s household debt to GDP:

Importantly, I’m no macroeconomist but I’ve never heard of a “hyperinflationary depression.” The terms contradict each other. Depressions occur when people take on excessive debt and begin paying it down simultaneously instead of spending money on other things. This is deflationary because new credit isn’t being created, even by the government. By contrast, hyperinflation has only occurred in unusual circumstances, like when a government owes debts to foreigners in a different currency. Weimar Germany, for example, owed gold-dominated war reparations to the Allied powers, and to purchase the gold, it printed money, causing hyperinflation. Zimbabwe isn’t a good comparison either because it’s a small, HIV-ridden landlocked state with an undiversified, oligopolistic agrarian economy while the U.S. is a wealthy, continent-spanning super-state.

As for inflation fears generally, maybe it’s the fact that I have no memory of high inflation, but why isn’t there a “National Personal Income Association” (NPIA) that regularly celebrates increases in Americans’ per capita personal income?

“Per capita personal income has quadrupled since 1980! Prices didn’t even triple! Hooray! We’re rich! Fiat currency forever and ever! ‘You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!'”

I’m sure the NPIA wouldn’t’ve been too thrilled with 2008-09, but personal income is increasing again. The problem has just been that over the decades those gains haven’t been distributed equally. This isn’t a problem of inflation but one of wages and taxation.

Intuition tells me the NIA won’t spend early 2012 carefully discussing why the higher ed bubble didn’t burst in mid-2011 as it predicted, nor will it take the time to explain why Americans—many of whom are net debtors—should be concerned about inflation. Instead it will prophecy even more hyperinflation later. But here’s hoping the National Inflation Association won’t provide me entertainment come January 1, 2013. Such is the curse of a long memory.

2016: Full-Time Private Law School Tuition Up 2.7 Percent

Full-time tuition costs at private law schools rose an average 2.7 percent before adjusting for inflation. The rate is about 1 percent higher than the last two years’ increases, but it’s still below the typical 5 percent rate before the Great Recession. I focus on private law-school tuition because public law schools receive varying degrees of state subsidies, so they do not reflect the already distorted legal market’s prices.

Here’s what the dispersion of full-time private and full-time public (residential) tuition looks like going back to 1996:

full-time-law-school-tuition-dispersion-excl-p-r-constant

I don’t have much to say about this that I haven’t before, but it appears that the 25th percentile public law school will soon charge more than the Stafford loan limit, which has been set at $20,500 for several years now. The limit is important because it indicates when students will need to rely on other funds to pay for their legal educations, including Grad PLUS loans, which can also go to students’ living expenses. Since 1996, Stafford loans have lost about a third of their value to inflation.

Notably costs are still widening, so after chopping up the law schools into quintiles, here’s the increases for the mean of each quintile.

full-time-private-law-school-tuition-increases-by-tuition-quintile-mean-current

The chart depicts at least three straight years of top-heavy tuition increases: The more expensive law schools are becoming more expensive—4 percent more among the top 20 percent of law schools. Two years ago, Columbia Law School became the first to charge more than $60,000, and it now costs more than $65,000. This year six other law schools joined the 60k club: NYU, Cornell, Penn, Chicago, Harvard, and USC. These seven schools raised their full-time costs by 3.8 percent on average, but theirs weren’t the largest increases. The following nine law schools raised their full-time tuition by more than 5 percent: Loyola (Calif.) (+5.4%), Michigan State (+5.5%), WMU Cooley (+6.1%), Faulkner (+6.6%), Lincoln Memorial (+6.8%), Tulsa (+7.0%), Charlotte (+7.1%), Willamette (+9.6%), and Howard (+10.9%).

It would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the handful of private law schools that cut their full-time charges: Campbell (-0.4%), Capital (-5.2%), Dayton (-6.4%), and Indiana Tech (-31.1%). Fourteen private law schools held their costs flat: New York Law School, Chicago-Kent, Brooklyn, Suffolk, Loyola (La.), Western State, Ave Maria, Western New England, Detroit, Valparaiso, Barry, Oklahoma City, Mississippi College, and Elon.

Yes, I notice that two failing law schools, Indiana Tech and Charlotte, both dealt with their incipient problems by slashing and hiking costs, respectively. For Indiana Tech, it didn’t translate into more matriculants.

Finally, 19 public law schools cut or held their residential tuition with the two most notable ones being Texas A&M (-15.4%) and UC Hastings (-9.1%). Akron, Cincinnati, and Toledo also didn’t raise their tuition, so along with Capital and Dayton that makes five of nine Ohio law schools that stand out in tuition control.

Full-time tuition costs don’t necessarily indicate what students are actually charged, but they do show how much rent law schools can extract from the government’s loan programs. For many law schools that ability is fading.

Information on this topic from prior years: