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Manic Pixie Dream Girl Movie Matchup

For inexplicable reasons in the last couple months I saw three movies accused of featuring manic pixie dream girls (MPDGs), the most beloved and reviled of 21st-century stock characters. For those unfamiliar with the term, film critic Nathan Rabin defined it as a woman who, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Rabin “retracted” the term in 2014 because, as one might expect, any trope leveled at female characters is rapidly deployed indiscriminately against all of them. But retractions be damned! For I write in good faith.

I thought it might be fun to stack the three MPDG characters together and see how they matched up. To be clear, though, these movies aren’t regarded as paragons of the trope, so this post is more of an exploration than indictment.

In chronological order we have:

  • Danielle – The Girl Next Door (2004)
  • Summer – 500 Days of Summer (2009)
  • Ramona Flowers – Scott Pilgrim Versus the World (2010)

Seasoned readers will undoubtedly predict that I would be partial to Scott Pilgrim for its ’80s fan service, but I’m on the level here: Bias is bad. Here are three brief, spoilerific plot synopses.

The Girl Next Door: High school overachiever Matthew (Hm.) is caught peeping on the slightly older, attractive Danielle, who is house sitting next door. She goads him into spending time with her—after tricking him into running naked in the street—and encourages him to skip school, trespass in other people’s swimming pools, and go to a party that disallows uncool kids like him. Matthew kisses Danielle, proving he is capable of impulsiveness.

Then for some reason the movie keeps going for, like, another 90 minutes, and we learn that Danielle is actually an adult film model who needs saving and whom Matthew saves. Matthew also gets into a load of trouble from which he claws his way out. (The movie is actually a soft remake of Risky Business (1983).)

500 Days of Summer: In a non-linear narrative, preppy architect-cum-greeting-card-writer Tom, a romantic idealist, meets Summer, the woman he believes is The One. He charms her at an office karaoke night, and after agreeing to be friends, she makes out with him in the office copy room, things progressing from there. Tom is happy, but months later Summer breaks up with him and changes jobs. Tom is miserable, but he serendipitously encounters Summer again on the way to a co-worker’s wedding. Summer declines to tell Tom about her new boyfriend and spends the wedding with him. She invites him to a party she’s throwing where, fantasizing about winning her back, Tom finds out she’s engaged. Embittered, Tom quits his job to try to be an architect again, but he runs into Summer one last time, and she tells him he was actually right to be a romantic idealist.

Scott Pilgrim Versus the World: Scott Pilgrim is an unemployed hipster bassist, who believes he’s blameless in all his past relationships’ failures. He falls for Ramona Flowers, whose seven evil exes ambush Scott one by one Street Fighter-style to prevent her from being with him. In defeating them, he learns that he’s actually been a jerk to everyone around him all along, particularly to his previous girlfriend, Knives Chau, whom he cheated on with Ramona and who spends most of the film trying to win him back. Scott finally wins over Ramona, even though it feels unearned and the movie never really establishes why she likes him.

So, let’s compare these MPDGs.

  • Are these characters really MPDGs, or are they false positives?

It’s a fair question because arguments are made that Summer and Ramona don’t fit the term; Danielle’s fate is pretty much sealed. To aid in answering, let’s establish who an MPDG is and what she does. As a person, the MPDG is a vaguely defined character. Where she comes from doesn’t matter; she frequently has no social or family life of her own (though this may be a common trope in romances); she doesn’t have many goals for herself. In the movie she must be the sine qua non of the male protagonist’s transformation from brooder into man with a destiny.

Danielle fits the term so well that she disappears for much of the last two thirds of The Girl Next Door after it’s revealed that she’s made adult films. She practically becomes a MacGuffin, and we spend more time with the film’s antagonist, Kelly, Danielle’s ruthless producer. Given audience perceptions of adult models, we don’t expect Danielle to have much more of a backstory, but she certainly doesn’t have her own ambitions. She is, however, definitely necessary for Matthew’s transformation.

Summer is introduced with a backstory, but it plays no real role in the movie. She moves to Los Angeles out of boredom. We’re told (and I’m not sure why) that she’s popular and radiant, but we don’t see her friends until the end of the movie, and it’s clear Tom never meets them when he is involved with Summer. Does she transform Tom? Actually, I don’t think so. In the penultimate scene he professes his cynicism and looks at her like she’s an unstable airhead for marrying a man she’s only known for several months. Yet in the final scene, Tom nevertheless musters the courage to ask out the architect with whom he’s competing for a job, Autumn. It may be that Summer lifts Tom out of his cynicism, in which case 500 Days defies the MPDG framework by depicting Tom as the soulful brooder in the middle of the narrative and not its beginning. Or the final encounter between the two central characters may just be coincidental.

Ramona moves from New York City to Toronto to escape the heartbreak from the last of her evil exes. Before then, she’s also a mystery. She has no friends, standing uncomfortably alone at the party where Scott first meets her, and she too has no goals. We only learn about her through flashback expositions about her exes. How does she affect Scott? She doesn’t really teach him to enjoy life but offers him a moral lesson on himself instead. If we broadened the definition of MPDG to include men who aren’t “broodingly soulful” then Ramona fits the definition better as a necessary agent of Scott’s growth.

  • How do the female characters’ MPDGishness disserve these movies as romances?

Danielle – Girl Next Door is so bad that it’s actually better when the movie focuses on just Danielle’s and Matthew’s MPDG romance. Danielle’s most cringeworthy moment is when she tells Matthew, “This is what I am,” referring to her adult modeling. Damsel, meet distress.

Summer – I didn’t really catch why Summer falls out of love (if that’s what you’d call it) with Tom. Their relationship just fizzles out on her end, and she moves on. Although the movie wants us to see Tom as unreasonably naïve, I found myself sympathizing with him more than Summer, who escalates a relationship with Tom knowing that he wants something more from her than she’s willing to offer. (Tom isn’t blameless because he lies by saying he’s happy to just be friends with her.) She then deceives him by not disclosing her relationship with her new boyfriend, whom she marries after knowing for only a few months. If anything, I’m surprised Tom’s final encounter with Summer doesn’t reinforce his cynicism about romance. Summer becomes the caricature of naiveté that Tom is at the beginning of 500 Days.

Ramona – Scott Pilgrim‘s biggest failure is not including a montage scene showing Scott and Ramona falling for each other, something the other two movies did well. We don’t get why she likes him. Worse, as the plot progresses, we get the sense that Ramona treats men like disposable toys. Complicating the film even more, Ramona has the most power over the plot and does the least to change it. She doesn’t try to discourage her final evil ex, who’s their boss, from calling the others off from attacking Scott, nor does she break up with Scott just to save him. She adopts more of a passive-aggressive let’s-you-and-them-fight attitude. I’m left finding Knives Chau the most sympathetic character in the movie.

  • Despite their MPDGishness, what endearing qualities can we find in these romances?

Girl Next Door – The May-July age difference between the protagonists is what makes the first act of the plot believable. It gives Matthew a reason to feel intimidated by Danielle and willing to go along with whatever she asks.

500 Days – I think this one had the most believable romance with the least amount of cringiness. Too often romances don’t explain why two characters would be attracted to each other, especially the female participant. Tom dresses well, he shares interests with Summer, and subtly he’s fun to her too. I also appreciated that 500 Days kept the awkward, embarrassing male dialogue to a minimum. In fact, it gave some to Summer, e.g., “In college they called me Ms. Anal.” The line itself is juvenile, but few romances are willing to place their female protagonists in such an awkward light.

Scott Pilgrim – In a way Scott Pilgrim does a better job of achieving what 500 Days set out to do: Smack down the male protagonist for idealizing the woman he’s fallen for. We learn through the incessant attacks by each of her exes that Ramona really isn’t so stable herself. That Scott goes off with her at the end anyway is just bad writing.

I could write more, especially about how the female characters are established by their romantic (or pornantic) pasts rather than their other facets, but I’m going to stop here. As I said at the top, these films are not necessarily great examples of manic pixie dream girl movies, but they were all very different stories. Girl Next Door is a coming-of-age story, 500 Days is a romance, and Scott Pilgrim is an action flick. This genre breadth made this post interesting to think through.

However, none of these women compete with the best MPDG, Tyler Durden from Fight Club.

And you thought I only wrote about Star Wars movies. Ha.

Record 17 Law Schools Didn’t Report Graduate Debt to U.S. News (’17)

Each year U.S. News & World Report lists law schools by the average indebtedness of their graduates. Importantly, the figures exclude accrued interest, which can be quite considerable. However, these numbers are probably the best estimate of the cost of attendance at a particular law school presented in a comparable form. The ABA does not publicize graduate debt in the 509 information reports, making U.S. News an unfortunately necessary source.

Here’s the debt table. A recurring problem in U.S. News’ debt data is law schools that misreport their graduating students’ annual debt as opposed to their cumulative debt, which is what the magazine asks for. Thus, I include last year’s numbers for illustration and encourage ridicule of law schools that cannot follow basic directions, but I welcome corrections.

# SCHOOL 2015 DEBT 2016 DEBT PCT. CHANGE
1. Thomas Jefferson $182,411 $198,962 9.1%
2. Arizona Summit [Phoenix] $190,842 $190,842 0.0%
3. San Francisco $167,671 $180,799 7.8%
4. New York University $167,646 $170,955 2.0%
5. American $164,194 $169,107 3.0%
6. Georgetown $166,027 $162,739 -2.0%
7. Harvard $153,172 $162,672 6.2%
8. Golden Gate $161,809 $158,857 -1.8%
9. Columbia $159,769 $158,348 -0.9%
10. Pepperdine $154,475 $157,527 2.0%
11. George Washington $145,240 $156,167 7.5%
12. New York Law School $157,568 $154,629 -1.9%
13. John Marshall (Chicago) $158,888 $153,520 -3.4%
14. Nova Southeastern $147,879 $151,505 2.5%
15. Santa Clara $149,940 $150,627 0.5%
16. Catholic $133,917 $149,158 11.4%
17. Cornell $158,128 $148,955 -5.8%
18. Seattle $139,745 $148,896 6.5%
19. Pennsylvania $156,725 $148,879 -5.0%
20. Marquette $142,601 $148,253 4.0%
21. California-Hastings $137,157 $146,150 6.6%
22. Loyola (CA) $146,494 $145,915 -0.4%
23. Pacific, McGeorge $144,431 $144,797 0.3%
24. Fordham $116,326 $144,168 23.9%
25. California Western $147,302 $143,592 -2.5%
26. Charleston $137,345 $143,105 4.2%
27. California-Berkeley $145,260 $143,049 -1.5%
28. Virginia $155,177 $142,906 -7.9%
29. Chapman $144,409 $141,533 -2.0%
30. Widener (Commonwealth) $129,016 $141,141 9.4%
31. Vermont $52,682 $138,991 163.8%
32. Denver $150,055 $138,513 -7.7%
33. Florida Coastal $158,878 $138,204 -13.0%
34. Loyola (IL) $88,588 $137,342 55.0%
35. Miami $149,580 $137,101 -8.3%
36. Northwestern $154,923 $136,532 -11.9%
37. Elon $153,347 $135,740 -11.5%
38. Chicago $134,148 $134,853 0.5%
39. Mercer $135,300 $134,317 -0.7%
40. Lewis and Clark $139,624 $132,419 -5.2%
41. Duke $137,829 $132,002 -4.2%
42. Hofstra $142,261 $131,957 -7.2%
43. Stanford $137,625 $131,745 -4.3%
44. Southern Methodist $126,172 $131,711 4.4%
45. Detroit Mercy $152,000 $131,421 -13.5%
46. Stetson $128,703 $131,200 1.9%
47. Seton Hall $125,300 $131,182 4.7%
48. Valparaiso $136,765 $128,221 -6.2%
49. Emory $120,804 $127,541 5.6%
50. Tulane $139,508 $127,113 -8.9%
51. Belmont $40,677 $126,272 210.4%
52. Drake $112,893 $125,438 11.1%
53. Michigan $146,309 $125,199 -14.4%
54. Western New England $121,367 $125,143 3.1%
55. Willamette $148,429 $124,350 -16.2%
56. South Texas-Houston $38,717 $123,715 219.5%
57. Oklahoma City $102,024 $123,256 20.8%
58. Notre Dame $123,924 $123,210 -0.6%
59. Texas A&M [Wesleyan] $115,405 $122,562 6.2%
60. DePaul $126,446 $122,290 -3.3%
61. Southern California $140,745 $122,192 -13.2%
62. Mississippi College $119,000 $121,000 1.7%
63. California-Los Angeles $118,291 $120,980 2.3%
64. Atlanta’s John Marshall $147,694 $120,744 -18.2%
65. Widener (Delaware) $135,151 $119,648 -11.5%
66. Suffolk $135,272 $118,725 -12.2%
67. Creighton $130,145 $118,552 -8.9%
68. Brooklyn $117,581 $118,519 0.8%
69. Vanderbilt $127,434 $117,992 -7.4%
70. Loyola (LA) $39,138 $117,746 200.8%
71. Maryland $113,927 $116,837 2.6%
72. St. Mary’s $118,583 $116,635 -1.6%
73. Capital $35,079 $116,612 232.4%
74. Roger Williams $126,334 $115,869 -8.3%
75. Dayton $108,724 $114,363 5.2%
76. Cardozo, Yeshiva $118,764 $114,085 -3.9%
77. Boston College $108,873 $112,868 3.7%
78. Samford $127,611 $112,662 -11.7%
79. California-Irvine $100,408 $112,429 12.0%
80. St. Louis $117,335 $112,142 -4.4%
81. Baltimore $108,328 $111,861 3.3%
82. Yale $121,815 $111,494 -8.5%
83. Regent $124,221 $111,268 -10.4%
84. St. John’s $117,572 $110,373 -6.1%
85. Albany $107,185 $110,225 2.8%
86. Boston University $104,755 $110,082 5.1%
87. Pace $124,317 $108,380 -12.8%
88. Washington $120,554 $107,975 -10.4%
89. Chicago-Kent, IIT $107,688 $107,540 -0.1%
90. Massachusetts — Dartmouth $98,730 $107,227 8.6%
91. George Mason $118,056 $106,642 -9.7%
92. Florida International $93,838 $106,596 13.6%
93. North Carolina $95,365 $106,514 11.7%
94. Gonzaga $109,692 $104,892 -4.4%
95. Colorado $100,499 $104,338 3.8%
96. California-Davis $103,811 $104,034 0.2%
97. Duquesne $108,414 $103,633 -4.4%
98. William and Mary $90,028 $103,318 14.8%
99. San Diego $127,693 $102,296 -19.9%
100. Syracuse $117,127 $101,983 -12.9%
101. Quinnipiac $101,371 $101,581 0.2%
102. Richmond $104,624 $101,296 -3.2%
103. Texas $103,417 $100,312 -3.0%
104. South Carolina $89,388 $99,862 11.7%
105. Washington and Lee $105,426 $98,512 -6.6%
106. Minnesota $106,436 $97,910 -8.0%
107. Missouri (Kansas City) $93,678 $97,419 4.0%
108. Pittsburgh $103,990 $97,239 -6.5%
109. Indiana (Indianapolis) $105,065 $96,941 -7.7%
110. Southern Illinois $87,634 $96,722 10.4%
111. Faulkner $18,434 $96,582 423.9%
112. Campbell $131,894 $96,215 -27.1%
113. New Hampshire $95,650 $95,312 -0.4%
114. SUNY Buffalo $90,546 $95,149 5.1%
115. Michigan State $91,014 $94,540 3.9%
116. Ohio Northern $104,284 $94,119 -9.7%
117. Indiana (Bloomington) $99,895 $93,978 -5.9%
118. Penn State (Penn State Law) $117,692 $93,406 -20.6%
119. Washington University $93,768 $93,141 -0.7%
120. Houston $97,246 $92,899 -4.5%
121. Northeastern $111,410 $92,051 -17.4%
122. Drexel $96,402 $91,744 -4.8%
123. Baylor $144,732 $91,679 -36.7%
124. Ohio State $88,301 $90,638 2.6%
125. Maine $89,513 $90,636 1.3%
126. Concordia N/A $90,607 N/A
127. Western State $119,382 $90,302 -24.4%
128. Southern University $89,552 $90,211 0.7%
129. Mitchell|Hamline $100,603 $89,469 -11.1%
130. Idaho $86,022 $89,018 3.5%
131. Florida $82,480 $88,409 7.2%
132. Northern Illinois $86,899 $88,081 1.4%
133. Villanova $99,736 $87,786 -12.0%
134. Arizona State $97,780 $87,612 -10.4%
135. Illinois $99,782 $87,559 -12.2%
136. Louisville $99,581 $86,110 -13.5%
137. Louisiana State $83,919 $85,703 2.1%
138. Arizona $84,601 $85,519 1.1%
139. Cleveland State $29,051 $84,764 191.8%
140. Case Western Reserve $102,370 $84,436 -17.5%
141. Nevada $97,361 $84,386 -13.3%
142. Hawaii $82,510 $84,295 2.2%
143. Oklahoma $83,433 $84,057 0.7%
144. Lincoln Memorial $89,779 $83,526 -7.0%
145. Kentucky $59,163 $82,905 40.1%
146. Wyoming $90,231 $82,749 -8.3%
147. West Virginia $82,683 $82,542 -0.2%
148. Texas Tech $80,087 $82,355 2.8%
149. Georgia $82,199 $82,191 0.0%
150. Penn State (Dickinson Law) $109,828 $81,718 -25.6%
151. Toledo $85,649 $81,626 -4.7%
152. Oregon $17,834 $81,211 355.4%
153. Utah $91,982 $79,813 -13.2%
154. Memphis $76,997 $79,363 3.1%
155. New Mexico $75,277 $79,199 5.2%
156. Washburn $81,528 $78,287 -4.0%
157. Wayne State $81,738 $77,993 -4.6%
158. St. Thomas (MN) $100,805 $77,875 -22.7%
159. Wake Forest $105,090 $77,712 -26.1%
160. Liberty $73,857 $77,077 4.4%
161. City University $78,523 $76,302 -2.8%
162. Florida State $88,732 $75,899 -14.5%
163. Connecticut $72,042 $75,383 4.6%
164. Alabama $75,577 $75,373 -0.3%
165. Tulsa $76,988 $73,987 -3.9%
166. Temple $86,937 $73,589 -15.4%
167. Iowa $74,128 $73,230 -1.2%
168. Kansas $88,809 $72,617 -18.2%
169. Arkansas (Little Rock) $65,931 $71,969 9.2%
170. Montana $75,470 $71,604 -5.1%
171. Akron $82,854 $70,670 -14.7%
172. Arkansas (Fayetteville) $67,758 $68,924 1.7%
173. Wisconsin $77,555 $68,050 -12.3%
174. Cincinnati $75,512 $67,028 -11.2%
175. Missouri (Columbia) $80,138 $66,944 -16.5%
176. North Dakota $66,917 $65,993 -1.4%
177. Tennessee $80,445 $65,107 -19.1%
178. Mississippi $67,539 $64,644 -4.3%
179. North Carolina Central $60,479 $63,300 4.7%
180. Florida A&M $20,500 $61,500 200.0%
181. South Dakota $56,609 $58,177 2.8%
182. Nebraska $62,888 $57,992 -7.8%
183. Georgia State $64,384 $56,710 -11.9%
184. Brigham Young $58,133 $53,237 -8.4%
185. Rutgers $56,173 $38,376 -31.7%
186. Whittier $179,056 N/A N/A
187. Charlotte $167,002 N/A N/A
188. Ave Maria $152,476 N/A N/A
189. Barry $151,479 N/A N/A
190. District of Columbia $105,330 N/A N/A
191. Northern Kentucky $74,190 N/A N/A
192. Howard $50,920 N/A N/A
10TH PERCENTILE $66,917 $73,230 -14.5%
25TH PERCENTILE $86,022 $84,764 -8.9%
MEDIAN $106,436 $106,514 -1.6%
75TH PERCENTILE $136,765 $131,200 3.9%
90TH PERCENTILE $153,347 $148,879 11.7%
MEAN $108,957 $108,333 9.1%

(U.S. News’ debt rankings can be found here.)

And per this post’s title, here’s the List of Shame: Law schools that chose not to submit their graduates’ debt information to U.S. News, along with their last-reported figures and the year in which they reported them. Thanks to the gainful employment rule, I was able to track down median graduate debt at three for-profits. As I am merciful, I exclude the three Puerto Rico law schools from this count. This year, I extend that mercy to Whittier, which in 2017-18 chose to cease accepting law students.

  • Arizona Summit [Phoenix] – $190,842 [2016, median, for-profit]
  • Touro – $154,855 (2013)
  • Ave Maria – $152,476 (2015)
  • Barry – $151,479 (2015)
  • Southwestern – $147,976 (2011)
  • Thomas (FL) – $140,808 (2013)
  • Florida Coastal – $138,204 [2016, median, for-profit]
  • New England – $132,246 (2012)
  • WMU Cooley – $122,395 (2011)
  • Atlanta’s John Marshall – $120,744 [2016, median, for-profit]
  • Appalachian – $114,740 (2011)
  • La Verne – $112,628 (2011)
  • District of Columbia – $105,330 (2015)
  • Texas Southern – $99,992 (2011)
  • Northern Kentucky – $74,190 (2015)
  • Howard – $50,920 (2015)
  • North Texas-Dallas – NEVER

These 16 law schools account for 2,605 graduates out of 34,478, or 8 percent of the total.

Compared to the graduating class from two years earlier, weighted-average private law-school graduate debt fell from $134,186 to $130,536 (-3%). For public law schools, debt fell from $94,602 to $91,218 (-4%). The weights are the percent of graduates who took out debt per U.S. News multiplied by the number of graduates according to the 509 information reports. The reason I compare ’17 to ’15 is that last year, U.S. News allowed law schools to report absurdly high percents of graduates with debt.

The unweighted averages, which alas are what’s commonly reported, fell as well over the two-year period. At private law schools, it went down from $128,694 to $123,785 (-4%). That’s $88,051 from $92,144 (-4%) at public law schools. Thus, these declines can be attributed to graduates borrowing less and not the percentages of graduates borrowing at each school. This is good news. However, there might also be an unseen composition effect of fewer people matriculating to high-debt schools. (By unseen, I mean, I’m not going to check.)

So the good news is that the class of ’17 looks more like the classes of ’12 or ’13 than more recent classes. The bad news is just how much law grads’ debt positions deteriorated after the Great Recession.

Finally, the observations:

  • A bunch of law schools bounced back from misreporting their graduate data last year, accounting for some big swings: Faulkner (423.9%), Oregon (355.4%), Capital (232.4%), South Texas-Houston (219.5%), Belmont (210.4%), Loyola (LA) (200.8%), Florida A&M (200.0%), Cleveland State (191.8%), Vermont (163.8%).
  • Other swings: Loyola (IL) (55.0%), Kentucky (40.1%), Fordham (23.9%), Oklahoma City (20.8%).
  • And finally the big raspberries: Baylor (-36.7%), Rutgers (-31.7%), Campbell (-27.1%), Wake Forest (-26.1%), Penn State (Dickinson Law) (-25.6%), Western State (-24.4%), St. Thomas (MN) (-22.7%), and Penn State (Penn State Law) (-20.6%).

Conclusion: It’s discouraging more law schools chose not to report their debt outcomes than before, but at least they didn’t grossly misreport them like last year. And yes, U.S. News should know better than to publish absurd numbers without actually looking at them. Finally, kudos to Concordia for jumping on the wagon with its first year reporting.

Entries on this topic from prior years:

Last Gen-X American Movie Review: Han Solo Writes the Google Memo

Watching The Last Jedi in the theater a few weeks back, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen The Empire Strikes Back, which Last Jedi resembles, in a very long time. I last recall watching it at a friend’s house in the summer of 2000, but we talked about women through the whole thing and may have even switched it off before the end. That means it may’ve been twenty years since I last paid attention to it, which would’ve been the special edition in the theater. So we’re looking at about half a lifetime.

Which is odd because Empire is widely regarded as the best of the Star Wars movies. Really, how could I have seen every single prequel and sequel since and not revisit Empire? Yes, it’s a heavier film and not self-contained, but I’d rather not die knowing that I’d seen Jar-Jar more recently in the last two decades than, say, the carbon-freezing chamber. So, I put that particular affair in order.

So does Empire live up to its reputation after a jaded adult viewing?

Rather than answer with a 5,000-word essay, here are bulleted observations.

  • Empire begins with the following loose ends from Star Wars: (1) Darth Vader is alive and evil, (2) the Empire is still around, (3) Luke hasn’t been trained as a Jedi, (4) Leia is a single female character in a movie full of boys, and (5) we don’t know that Han has paid his debts to Jabba the Hutt, but it’s implied that he was able to.
  • The opening crawl says Luke is the leader of the rebellion. He’s not; the crawl lies.
  • Luke finishes scanning for lifeforms from his tauntaun and then is attacked by a lifeform.
  • For the theologians out there: Are Force ghosts one with the Force, or are they partly themselves and partly the Force? In other words, are Force ghosts homoousios or homoiousios to the Force? If they’re the same as the Force, then the Force on its own starts the plot in Empire, which is pretty cool.
  • Han has formally joined the rebellion, which is out of character. It would be more believable if he were just making cargo runs for it.
  • Han wants to pay off his debts, which is a fine motivation for his character, but it doesn’t make much sense. If the rebels can’t deter bounty hunters from capturing or killing Han, then they can’t be very threatening to the Empire.
  • What’s Leia’s job? She isn’t in charge of the rebellion because Han gives his notice to General Rieekan, not her. (Or is Han really that misogynistic?)
  • Leia’s only role in Empire is to be Han’s love interest. She only affects the plot at the end when her unearned Force powers give her a vision of Luke dangling from a Cloud City antenna. Aside from that, if she weren’t in the movie, most of Empire would have turned out the way it did (except Lando may not’ve bothered sticking his neck out for just Chewbacca and C-3PO). I don’t think movies need to pass the Bechdel test to have good female characters, but Leia is a central character and plays less of a role in Empire than any other Star Wars film.
  • Moreover, the overall Star Wars narrative is about the rebellion defeating the Empire, and the rebellion is Leia’s setting, so under-developing her is a big mistake.
  • Very little of Han’s and Leia’s arguing is romantic witty banter. At one point Han manipulatively ropes Luke in to his attacks on Leia, “I must’ve hit her close to the mark to get her all riled up, huh, kid?” High five, bro! She should’ve sent him to the front lines to face the AT-AT walkers. #MeToo
  • If Leia had been developed as the alliance’s leader, then Empire could’ve gone with the more plausible odd-couple romance. “What’s this piece of junk doing in my hanger, Solo?” she yells. Works much better and stays true to Star Wars‘ tendency towards sexually tilted dialogue.
  • Leia is my favorite character in Empire. She’s more Han-like than Biff Tannen Han. She gets some of the best character beats and sarcastic lines in the movie. “Would it help if I got out and pushed?” she asks Han when he can’t start the Millennium Falcon‘s engine. When its hyperdrive stalls, Han panics, but Leia just rolls her eyes—which is all she can do—asking, “Still no lightspeed?” When Vader puts Han into carbon freeze, she never turns away. My favorite beat happens before Han is frozen. The camera looks at Vader but then it cuts for a second to Leia, who glares at him with a look on her face saying, “I will fuck you up for this.”
  • What is Leia princess of? Alderaan’s new asteroid belt? She saw it blown up in front of her face and it never comes up again. Maybe she feels guilty? What a wasted opportunity to explore the character.
  • It’s too bad Leia forgets that planetary bases are easy targets for the Empire/First Order. Would’ve forced Disney to get creative with Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Even in Return of the Jedi the rebels operate from a mobile fleet. Dumbasses.
  • Giving the three protagonists privileges to do as they please and abandon the rebellion at their convenience works when you’re a kid but doesn’t make much logical sense, hence Empire‘s backgrounding of Leia.
  • Otherwise, Empire‘s beginning is solid. Lots of attention to detail as to how the rebel base works and the rebels’ contingency for evacuating it.
  • Han teaches us that nothing proves you’re an alpha ape by bullying a protocol droid.
  • C-3PO, for his part, is also inconsistent, suffering disrespect when he’s helpful and trivializing the other characters’ suffering when he’s not.
  • Han makes several decisions to advance the plot, of the rabbit-out-of-a-hat variety. They work for his character, but somewhat stunt the B plot.
  • Luke makes three decisions: (1) “borrowing” the Alliance’s X-wing to go to Dagobah, (2) abandoning his training to rescue his friends (Empire‘s fulcrum), and (3) choosing to fight Vader when he could try to escape.
  • Luke’s vision of his friends’ suffering on Cloud City is remarkable because it means the Force plays an active role in the narrative. We can rightly ask what the Force’s agenda is. (It also helpfully gives Luke the coordinates to Bespin.)
  • Vader’s seclusion pod is my favorite representation of Empire‘s theme of pockets of safety in a hostile universe. Unfortunately, this theme doesn’t really reflect the characters’ inner challenges.
  • Vader’s executions are fun, especially Admiral Ozzel’s, but in no way do they correspond to the victims’ merits:
    • Vader kills Admiral Ozzel for his exculpatory incompetence: Ozzel disobeys Vader by bringing the fleet in too close to the rebel base, even though the rebels are already alerted by the probe droid. More rebels would’ve escaped if Ozzel had followed orders.
    • Captain Needa is killed for his inculpatory competence: He wasn’t responsible for “losing” the Millennium Falcon.
    • Vader spares Admiral Piet for his inculpatory incompetence: Piet was supposed to disable the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive and didn’t do a sufficient job.
  • How much time elapses in Empire? It feels like no more than a few days, which can explain why Luke gets steamrolled by Vader. However, there could be a big time gap between the Millennium Falcon heading to Bespin and Luke having his vision of its fate, but it’s not specified and impliedly contradicted when Lando says, “They [the Empire] arrived here just before you did.”
  • When Han lands the Millennium Falcon to the back of the star destroyer, I yelped, “Wait, that actually works??”
  • I love the (original) matte-painting backgrounds for Cloud City. They are way retro.
  • Timing error: Luke leaves Dagobah after the Millennium Falcon arrives at Bespin. It looks like it takes minutes for him to get there. On top of that, the narrative cuts to him approaching Cloud City twice. It messes up the pacing.
  • Why is Lando developed—and better than Leia? He could’ve just turned the protagonists over to the Vader right after they landed on Cloud City. He doesn’t help his case by rubbing his “deal” with the Empire in the protagonists’ faces right before handing them to Vader. He could’ve been shot by a stormtrooper and it wouldn’t’ve made a difference.
  • Boba Fett is only named in the credits, and just whom does he work for? If the Empire hired him, why does he get to take Han to Jabba the Hutt for a second reward? Why would the Empire bother handing Han over? Why does he shoot at Luke when Luke arrives? Not his monkeys. Whatever.
  • Cloud City’s dizzying interior is so cool. The agoraphobia really amplifies the tension.
  • Darth Vader’s plan for capturing Luke is not fully formed at the beginning of Empire but becomes more coherent over time. It might be lazy, and it’s common for adventure stories written from the protagonists’ perspectives to idiot-plot (or super-mastermind-plot) the villains. I think Vader’s incoherent plan in Empire works because it’s ambiguous, but it’s close.
  • I could write an essay on the consequences of making the Emperor a Jedi.
  • Vader has nothing to tempt Luke with to turn him to the dark side, which is a pretty glaring problem in Empire‘s A plot. If I were Vader, I’d scheme to put Luke in a situation where he has to tap the dark side to escape or die. Instead, it’s “Join me or die,” so Luke chooses to die. The end.
  • Why does Vader offer to rule the galaxy with Luke after he tries to freeze him and mutilates him? He’s not persuasive. It’s almost like Empire is looking for an excuse for Vader to not kill Luke.
  • Luke survives his plunge into the chasm, which is a neat death-rebirth trope, but it beggars belief.
  • Why does the Millennium Falcon fly toward the super star destroyer before R2D2 fixes its hyperdrive? The visual effect is awesome, but it sure looks like the movie doesn’t think we’ll buy Force telepathy at a distance but won’t object to Lando’s stupid piloting.
  • Amazing that Vader doesn’t give up on capturing Luke by the time the Millennium Falcon rescues him. Way more trouble than he’s worth.
  • Once they’re safe, why does anyone still trust Lando, let alone allow him to take over for Han?
  • Finally, it’s so sad that Leia ends the movie grinning over the phone with Chewbacca and not holstering blasters.
  • Empire is the only non-prequel to date in which the characters don’t infiltrate an Imperial base or impersonate Imperial soldiers.
  • I don’t think stormtroopers have any lines in Empire.

So, the verdict:

The Empire Strikes Back starts strong; its first act on Hoth is a tight, coherent tactical battle between Vader and Reeikan. But after Luke has his Force vision on Dagobah, the movie’s plot holes, timing errors, character problems, and multiple deus ex machina mechanics multiply to drag it down considerably. To be sure, Empire‘s third act is superbly executed and is visually stunning compared to Star Wars, and the Millennium Falcon‘s escape is probably my favorite scene in any Star Wars movie, notwithstanding the bizarre flaws noted above.

However, I’m not one to take fan consensus as truth. Empire badly needs a reason to tempt Luke to the dark side, and its failure to develop Leia is just malpractice. Maybe an intelligent reviewer can make the contrary case and explain to me what my plain, non-allegorical approach misses, but the emotional impact of Empire‘s plot reveals aren’t sufficient to carry it. For these reasons I now believe the original Star Wars is the better movie of the two.

Can AccessLex Institute Add Decimals to 100%?

I apologize for being last to the potluck for AccessLex Institute’s study, “Examining Value, Measuring Engagement,” which surveys law-school graduates to investigate their long-term outcomes. Please enjoy my store-bought pasta salad that I’ll abandon with my hosts.

I always take seriously any sincere exploration of the long-term value of law degrees. (Okay, the same goes for insincere ones, just for different reasons.) But how seriously one should take “Examining Value” depends on what one thinks of opinion surveys. For answering value-of-a-law-degree questions I see them as an inferior form of data. Valid, but not the best approach. Opinion data are essentially aggregates of respondents’ moods, making them subjective, contradictory, and volatile.

For example, “Examining Value” sometimes divides its respondents between pre-recession and post-recession graduates, and as expected, post-recession graduates report longer job searches and dimmer opinions on the value of their law degrees. Graduates with more law-school debt tend to believe they would not go to law school if they were Groundhog Daying their lives.

Law-school graduates do stray from my expectations in a few places. One is their willingness to recommend law degrees to people like them, e.g. 53 percent of post-recession graduates. Given how much people without law degrees discourage others from going to law school, the finding is surprising up to the point that one considers the enormous power of selection bias and choice-supportive bias. I’m also surprised that so few J.D.s believe their law degrees were not worth the cost (only 4 percent (of all law grads)), an empirical question that can be tested against graduates’ actual circumstances. However—and this is an important shortcoming of “Examining Value”—the study frequently declines to post percentages of its survey results by graduation year, dropping only side comments like, “Students who graduated during or after the Great Recession are less likely than earlier graduates to strongly agree that their degree was worth the cost, even when controlling for student debt.”

Thanks for the detailed insight, AccessLex Institute.

But the shortcomings only start there. One question AccessLex Institute didn’t bother asking was, “How much money do you make?” For all the study’s focus on student-loan debt, you’d think that it would take graduates’ incomes into account as well. Then, of course, there’s its uninterest in defining what a “good job” is. Sure it took 26 percent of post-recession grads more than a year to find one, but we still don’t know what they are or if they have anything to do with the skills and knowledge they obtained in law school that they couldn’t’ve gotten from reading a book.

Finally, the title to this post promised you some strange arithmetic, and here it is. Figure 14 asks the relevant respondents to choose one of a number of reasons they no longer practice law:

Rounding errors and omitting a few percentage points of unknown responses are okay, but one-quarter of non-practicing grads didn’t list a reason. That’s pretty significant, and it would be interesting to see how that corresponds with their debts and incomes, which, again, AccessLex Institute didn’t ask for. These non-practitioners in Figure 14 account for 37 percent of J.D. participants, an alarmingly high proportion that calls the survey’s primary findings into question. How can respondents say their law degrees have value if so many of them aren’t using them at work?

The best answer, further down, is “analytical skills,” but naturally the survey didn’t ask any respondents, much less experts, if they could obtain those by alternative means.

“Examining Value” can be found via the ABA Journal‘s article on it.

If the purpose of AccessLex Institute’s study was to find the current perceived value of a law degree, it’s done a mediocre job. Perceptions don’t say a lot that we don’t know, and even so they’re often contradictory and prey to cognitive biases. It’s only when researchers try to dig into the causes of those contradictions that these types of studies provide genuine insights.

It’s 2018. Where’s My ‘Hyperinflationary Great Depression’?

[The following post first appeared on this site on January 1, 2012. What it said then still applies today, mutatis mutandis. Thanks for reading the blog and have a prosperous 2018!]

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.

How to Falsify the Bennett Hypothesis

The Bennett hypothesis asserts that colleges and universities absorb increases in federal student aid and pass them back onto students as higher tuition charges. Put differently, the hypothesis states that the quantity of higher education is inelastic (insensitive) to its price, so higher-education institutions collect subsidies to students as rents instead of expanding enrollments. Importantly, the hypothesis does not in itself explain why colleges and universities absorb federal student aid (contrary to what its namesake might have believed); it merely offers the mechanism. I regularly cite the hypothesis as a guide to understanding the relationship between the federal-student-loan program and law school costs and debt.

As stated, the Bennett hypothesis is easy to falsify: Find examples where increases in federal student aid did not correspond to higher tuition charges, or show that those subsequent higher charges were due not to the government’s intervention but other factors. Time sequence, correlation, and non-spuriousness. There is a contentious literature on this topic.

Via TaxProf, I see that a research paper, “An Empirical Examination of the Bennett Hypothesis in Law School Prices” (“Empirical Examination”), attempts to test the Bennett hypothesis on private law-school tuition costs. The paper’s author, Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University (not the law school), argues that he finds no empirical evidence of the Bennett hypothesis’ effects. I believe “Empirical Examination” arrives at unsound conclusions because it mischaracterizes the Bennett hypothesis, and it insufficiently addresses the dynamic history of legal-education financing since 2005.

(I note that “Empirical Examination” is published via AccessLex, which is related to Access Group, the erstwhile private student-lending organization that financed many law students’ legal educations before the advent of Grad PLUS loans.)

Mischaracterizing the Bennett Hypothesis

“Empirical Examination” poses two research questions that mischaracterize the Bennett hypothesis:

(1) Did tuition/fees or living expenses for law school students increase at a faster rate following the creation of the Grad PLUS program in 2006 and the expansion of income-driven repayment in 2007?

(2) Did the student debt burden of law school graduates increase at a faster rate following the creation of the Grad PLUS program in 2006 and the expansion of income-driven repayment in 2007?

These questions appear to assume that the Bennett hypothesis is disproven by discovering a lower rate of increase in law-school costs and student borrowing, as though law-school cost growth can go on indefinitely. This is unscientific. “Empirical Examination” cites no formulation of the Bennett hypothesis discussing growth rates in costs and borrowing, I know of none, and I don’t think any would be correct.

Rather, the way to test the hypothesis empirically is to take away Grad PLUS loans from students at some law schools and not others. If costs and borrowing stay the same at the Grad PLUS-less law schools, then that tends to discredit the hypothesis. In fact, “Empirical Examination” cites a study that conducted a similar test of for-profit colleges and found “some support” for the Bennett hypothesis. For law schools, the closest test case is Charlotte Law School, which lost its access to federal loans earlier this year. There is no Charlotte Law School anymore, and while this may or may not be related to federal loans, it is congruent with the Bennett Hypothesis.

The History of Law-School Lending Is Consistent With the Bennett Hypothesis

“Empirical Examination” understands correctly that around 2004, law students could borrow money from the federal government and private lenders. However, thanks to a rapid series of changes, law students could borrow all of their cost of attendance plus living expenses from the government without any private lenders (whose loans became mostly nondischargeable).

A theoretical examination of Grad PLUS loans with regard to the Bennett hypothesis would compare these changes to a hypothetical baseline without them. For example, one could try to find similar situations today in which a lender would offer an unsecured consumer loan of around $100,000 at 7 percent interest for three years. I lack the finance background to perform such an estimate, but intuition suggests the answer is not good for skeptics of the Bennett hypothesis.

To illustrate, in 2005, Seton Hall University School of Law charged $32,620 for full tuition to full-time students, and law students could borrow only up to $18,500 in federal loans, leaving them to generate the extra $14,120 (43 percent of the cost). Last year, Seton Hall charged $52,022 to full-time students. Under the pre-Grad PLUS loan system, law students would need to cover $33,522 (64 percent of the cost). I doubt private lenders would be so willing to cover more than $100,000 in unsecured loans after three years of legal education, especially given law students’ repayment prospects.

Other Weaknesses in ‘Empirical Evidence’

There are other problems with how “Empirical Examination” explores the Bennett hypothesis and legal education. For one, its focus on the increase in the rate of charging and lending ignores the fact that demand in legal education has plummeted. Last year, Seton Hall received only 1,387 full-time applications, about half as many as in 2007 (2,638). The Bennett hypothesis addresses the supply-side of education, assuming demand is constant, but when demand falls on its own, then you have law schools teetering financially. As a result, assuming demand for legal education had been constant for the last decade, it’s possible that the rate of increase in cost and debt would have continued at their pre-Grad PLUS loan pace nonetheless.

“Empirical Evidence” also discusses how many law schools funnel their revenue to parent universities. This phenomenon, certainly greatly diminished today, is also consistent with the Bennett hypothesis. If law schools were not absorbing tuition as rents, then these transfers would be unsustainable—again, assuming demand is constant. Similar arguments can be made for zero-sum tuition discounting and the dysfunctions in the law-student transfer market.

*****

To conclude, “Empirical Examination” does not challenge the Bennett hypothesis as it applies to law schools. It mischaracterizes the hypothesis as predicting an increased growth rate in costs and borrowing, which implicitly assumes that growth in those measures is natural when they should reach a limit at some point. “Empirical Examination” does not address facts in the history of legal-education finance tending to show the Bennett hypothesis is correct.

Class of 2016 NALP Data

Happy post-Labor Day. Now back to work, Peasants!

Or, read on.

A few weeks ago, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) published the national summary report for its Employment Report and Salary Survey (ERSS) (pdf). As with the last two years, I comb the data for more information that the NALP may not have commented on. Much of the NALP report focuses on year-over-year changes to percentages of employed graduates that aren’t very illuminating, especially when the resulting percentages of employed graduates are barely budging. Here’s what they look like.

I’m aware that we now have three consecutive years of data showing graduate employment outcomes ten months after graduation rather than nine, but I really don’t think that makes much of a difference.

It appears that the percentage of graduates not working fell a whopping 0.8 percent. Whoa.

Here’s also the number of graduates employed by status.

We’re seeing a pretty steep fall in total graduates, but the number and proportion of them not working is still higher than the peak employment year of 2007. A lot of this is elevated bar failure rates, but even so the JD-advantage category is still elevated. The NALP says 40 percent of grads in these jobs are seeking other work, which tells me these positions aren’t worth much. In fact, much of their growth (not shown) is visible in business-and-industry positions, further suggesting the definition of JD-advantage is overbroad. They also strongly correlate negatively with bar-passage-required jobs and positively with grads not working.

Here’s the contribution to the percent change in law grads by employment status since 2007 and going back to 2001. We can see that despite falling total grads, a greater proportion of them are either not working or in JD-advantage positions (which are probably not legal jobs themselves).

Meanwhile, with bar-passage-required jobs contributing -15.7 percent to the -14.6 percent change in law-grad outcomes, here’s how private-practice positions have fared (-9.2 percent to all 2007 grads).

The class of 2016 is the first one to be wholly below the 2007 line, meaning that even tiny firms aren’t hiring grads like they did in the peak year. Supply of law grads does not create demand for legal services, strongly indicating that grads in past years who found these jobs only worked in them transiently until they left the legal labor market.

The NALP’s selected findings (pdf) discuss “tightness” in the job market now or at least compared to the pre-recession market. The large fall in bar-passage-required jobs and private-practice jobs argues otherwise. A tighter market would see more grads working in bigger firms and smaller firms raising wages, something the NALP’s own data don’t depict.

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Prior reporting on this topic: