Governor Floyd B. Olson on Law School Debt

Governor Floyd B. Olson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, DC.

Governor Floyd B. Olson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, DC.

While reading Floyd Bjornsterne Olson: Minnesota’s Greatest Liberal Governor (1937), a collection of speeches and remembrances published after Olson’s death, I came across the following. As I prepare for the LSAT, I’ve received thousands of tips on what to do before, during, and immediately after law school, but none of it has been as useful as the following. Young lawyers: Take note.

After working a series of odd jobs around the country, in 1913, at the age of 20, Olson returned to Minneapolis and attended night-classes at the Northwestern College of Law (now the William Mitchell College of Law). Two years later he graduated and passed the bar exam. But after doing so, he was sued by his law school over unpaid tuition fees. The trial was recounted by Joseph Poirier, a college friend and later Minneapolis Municipal Judge (1937-1942):

… I recall that one of the first lawsuits Floyd tried was one in which he was a defendant. He was sued by [the] law school for an alleged unpaid balance on his tuition fee. He defended his own case, and I well recall his defense, in which he was Exhibit One as well as defendant. His argument was: “I know nothing about law, have learned nothing; and while I have been admitted to practice, you can readily see that I am no lawyer. My ignorance of the law, and the way I try this case are clear proofs that I have received nothing by reason of my alleged instruction at this school.” And, strange to say, the jury found for him. (32)

I was unable to find the annual tuition cost at Northwesten Law, but I do know it cost $160 (plus a $10 fee) to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School at that time, which would be ~$4,000 in today’s dollars. A century later, according to the American Bar Association, the average debt for private law school graduates is $125,000 — so maybe Floyd’s on to something here.

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Gillian Bennett & Physician-Assisted Suicide

Joshua Preston:

Did you know that you don’t have a constitutional right to die and physician-assisted suicide is legal in only five states? Here’s my latest article for Columbia’s Voices in Bioethics. In it I discuss the death of Gillian Bennett and euthanasia laws in both Canada and the United States.

Originally posted on :

by Joshua Preston 

“I want out before the day when I can no longer assess my situation,” wrote Gillian Bennett, a Vancouver woman, in an open letter to be published after her death. “[I] will be physically alive but there will be no one inside.” Addressing the dementia she had been living with for three years: “[M]uch faster now, I am turning into a vegetable … Dementia gives no quarter and admits no bargaining.” So, dragging a mattress to her favorite spot, on August 18, 2014, Bennett, age 83, self-administered a lethal dose of barbiturates and passed with her husband holding her hand.

In Canada, physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is illegal, leaving individuals with degenerative illnesses to make these decisions on their one without the resources available to most hospitals. As Bennett observed, if she wished to resist becoming a vegetable, this was her only option –…

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On women “mother-naked before long mirrors”: Dorothy Parker’s list of literary cliches to avoid

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Recently I bought a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker (Penguin Books, 1973) and am now reveling in her genius and wit. For those unfamiliar with Parker (1893-1967), she was a writer and columnist whose book reviews frequently appeared in The New Yorker (1927-1933) and Esquire (1957-1962). In the few reviews I’ve written, I often feel compelled to be generous (but not misleading) and hope someday to have the space and audience to engage in Parker-level snark. Someday.

Although the major literary figures of the period strut through her reviews, it was not uncommon for the book to appear almost as a relevant afterthought to some rant on the state of literature. One example of this comes from a February 1959 review of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair (and if you’re wondering: she liked both). In it she announces the three literary cliches writers ought to avoid. It’s worth quoting in full:

I should like to issue a short, stiff statement, to be notarized if considered necessary, that I am through and done with novels containing scenes in which young ladies stand mother-naked before long mirrors, and evaluate, always favorably, their unveiled surfaces. Further, I will have no more of books in which various characters tell their dreams; tell, with prodigious extension of memory and ruthless courtesy to details, dreams which, unlike yours and mine, have to do with the plot of the piece. And finally and forever, I am come to the parting of the ways from works where Nature lore invades the telling of the tale. When the author gives me scene of wild young passion, then I can no longer slog through the immediate follow-up of a tender description of the bending of wheat in the breeze, nor yet of a report on the intricate delicacies of fern fronds, nor again of the fact that the wild jonquils are thicker than ever this year. Yes, and I will have no more of accounts of the behavior of the undersides of leaves at the approach of a shower. I realize that all this will cut down my reading drastically, nevertheless — There!

I laughed when I came across this because not only do I see these often, but they’re something I — gasp — occasionally engage in. In particular, I’ll freely admit I’m guilty of placing women in front of mirrors and droning on and on about smooth skin and lovely curves and precious navals.* But then again, unlike others, I don’t pretend I’m either elegant or profound.

What I find most distressing about “mirror scenes” is the accompanying pontification on the female form in all of its trials and triumphs. This is when you can tell the writer’s a man. Oh, she’s beautiful (check!) and she’s self-conscious and fragile because of a scar on her thigh (check!) but she’s also a tough, type-A personality because of the way she describes how she got those sweet muscles (check!).** This female psychologizing is an easy “out” instead of placing one’s character into situations where these qualities are revealed through actions. It’s uncreative, and by aspiring for sentimentality it reduces a character to bullet points.

So stop it.

*For the record: I did it last week. The character was a middle-aged, female hedgehog unhappy with her marriage. Is that at least a little better?
**Could you ever imagine a scene like this involving a man? “Studying myself in my full-body mirror, my attention went straight to my smooth, toned legs. I never forget leg day. Because that’s the kind of person I am, reader.”
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Other Charity Challenges That Didn’t Catch On

Ice bucket

This is an ice bucket.

By now, I’m sure your Facebook feed has been overrun with videos of friends and people-you forgot-were-friends participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. According to their own estimates, as of September 11, 2014, the ALS Association’s raised over $112 million dollars, which is more than four times their annual budget. That’s pretty awesome and it’s going to do a lot of good.

Much like a straight-to-DVD film with a title practically indistinguishable from a summer blockbuster, though, (I’m looking at you Transmorphers), the ALSA’s success has not escaped imitation. It’s unlikely you’ll see President Bush or Lady Gaga participating in any of the following, but they’re worth suggesting. Here are the other charity challenges that didn’t quite catch on.

Special thanks to those who looked this over and to Amanda G. who comforted me when both McSweeney’s and College Humor rejected this article.

The Sierra Club “Save Our Pollinators” challenge. Nominees have to poke a hive and donate $5 for every bee sting. Donate double if you wimp out and use an EpiPen.

The Red Cross “Give Until You Drop” Challenge. Nominees have to donate 5 pints of blood and see how many steps they can take before toppling over.

The Oregon History Society’s “Oregon Trail” challenge. One third of nominees have to die from dysentery. No one is allowed to live past age 45.

The Planned Parenthood “Safe Sex” challenge. Please, no videos.

The Wal-Mart Local Giving “Big Family” challenge. Nominees have to report all suspicious union activity to their supervisor. Also, you have to wear a silly vest. All employees are nominated.

The Green Peace “Save the Whales” challenge. Nominees have to secretly board a Japanese whaling vessel and destroy it from the inside. Nominees are discouraged from violating international law.

The American Disability Association’s “Crawl a Mile in Their Shoes” challenge. Nominees have to crawl one mile and nobody is allowed to be offended because it’s for a good cause so there.

The Goodwill “$20 in Your Pocket” challenge. Middle-class twenty-somethings have to put that $20 in the donation jar … and then leave. No, that jacket doesn’t look good on you. Don’t sing. Just walk away, man.

The Federal Government’s “Civic Engagement” challenge. Nominees have to show up on Election Day to vote. Please! The United States is globally ranked 59th in voter turnout! We shouldn’t have to challenge you to do this!

The Humility Foundation’s “Impossible” challenge. Nominees have to donate an appropriate amount of money to a charity of their choice and not brag about it on social media. They also have to share their accomplishing this challenge without violating its central precept. Your move.

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What Did I Get Out of It? – Joshua P. Preston

Joshua Preston:

Four years ago I was invited to attend the National Rural Youth Assembly in Santa Fe, NM. There I joined 50 other young activists to discuss rural issues and policy, but being nineteen, I spent most the time quiet, nervous. Looking back, though, it was an experience that later framed my work in the DFL Party and elsewhere. In this brief article, I discuss how so.

Following the election, I spent the next two years attending as many DFL meetings as I could, spending all of my money on gas. Quickly, I developed the reputation of being “That Guy from Morris,” and, at the 2012 State Convention, was elected to serve on the DFL State Executive Committee. As both the only rural youth and its youngest member overall, I served one two-year term doing what I could to make the party more welcoming to young people.

While serving, I also immersed myself in the state’s rural political and literary history. Everyone wants to see their home, their experiences, represented in the culture, so I read everything I could. I read about the Nonpartisan League and the Farmer-Labor Party. Through Sinclair Lewis, Robert Bly, Paul Gruchow, and others, I saw through their eyes the prairies I walked, the same roads I drove, the people I knew. Together these gave me a broad sense of what rural organizing could amount to and formed the basis of my own rural identity. The development of this identity is the difference between being from just another small town and a hometown. Without it, there is no sense of place. …

Originally posted on National Rural Youth Assembly:


What Did I Get Out of It?

When I attended the National Rural Youth Assembly, I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota Morris. Being nineteen, I had no experience in politics and no grasp of public policy. So, traveling to Santa Fe, I worried whether I’d have anything to contribute – and, as I discovered, I didn’t. Nervously, shuffling from one workshop to another, I filled my notebook with everything I heard. Two days later, when I was on the plane back to Minnesota, I wondered what the experience meant. What did I get out of it? At the time, I wasn’t sure, but in one’s formative years, mere exposure is its own takeaway.

Looking back four years later, I take it for granted that I have an immense pride being from southwestern Minnesota. Far from being an epithet, I embrace the label “rural,” and am proud knowing…

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Midwestern Gothic: Summer 2014 issue

Recently, I subscribed to Midwestern Gothic, a quarterly print literary journal out of Ann Arbor, MI. Before subscribing, I’d stumble occasionally over their work and and was always impressed by what I saw. In a region of the country that many dismiss as “flyover territory,” MG is evidence that even if there are planes in the sky, there are feet on the ground and stories in our heads. This is where the next generation of Midwestern writers are publishing.

Summer 2014

I was excited then when, last month, the Summer 2014 issue arrived in the mail. Of the 37 stories and poems, several stood out that I recommend. These are worth the price of admission alone, and I suggest you check them out.

My hands-down favorite was “Last Request,” by Ashley Swanson. The story’s about two sisters, Grace and Eve, sorting out the property of their recently-deceased father. Their mother died in childbirth (with Eve), which forced Grace to take on the role of caretaker. When she wasn’t caring for her sister, she was caring for her father. With Grace’s life on hold, Eve — now a twenty-something — went to New York City, and even for her own sacrifices, it’s not Grace who’s “Daddy’s Little Angel.” These feelings of rejection culminate in the story’s climax when, opening a box of their mother’s items for the first time — they find a letter.

Swanson’s prose is phenomenal, the characters believable, and I was moved by Grace’s anger, disdain, disgust. Any story that can evoke such feelings is the sign of an author who’s on to something. Check it out.  

Other stories worth reading:

  • “A Day of New Things,” by Jessie Ann Foley: A teenage girl has to move on with her life following the arrest of her father for police corruption. As a minor celebrity in the city, all eyes are on her while hers are on the boy who broke her heart. Overall, an excellent example of telling a story in the Age of Twitter.
  • “Radar Gun,” by Chuck Rybak: A college student named J.J. returns to the County Fair he hasn’t visited for years. Playing a game that tracks the speed of a baseball pitch, he discovers that he’s not moving. He and the carny investigate whether the radar gun is broken, but through flashbacks we find it’s not — and why.
  • “Title Fight,” by Samuel Sayler: An aging professional wrestler is scheduled to lose his title against a young-up-and-comer “who sells more T-shirts than me.” This is the end of him — he’s being written off — and as he struggles with this, he muses on how the sport’s changed since his early days. (I have a soft spot for professional wrestling).
  • “Watch Out for Lions,” by Rebecca McKanna: A seventh grade girl gets her first period and is mocked by a former boyfriend. She proceeds to beat the shit out of the boy. It’s better than the summary I’m providing here.

You can buy the Summer 2014 issue here.

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How not to report the news: Food stamp fraud edition

After my father died, growing up, my family depended on entitlement programs like WIC, free school lunch, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Hardly the mystical “Welfare Queens” conservatives imagine, we were just a low-income, single-parent household. You know, like a lot of families who rely upon these programs. By not worrying about where my next meal would come from, programs like SNAP allowed us to live our lives with dignity, and without them, my childhood would’ve been lesser because of it. End of story.

So, every time I hear conservatives compare food stamps to feeding wild animals, I find it personally insulting. Besides being literally dehumanizing — Which Animal Would Jesus Compare Poor People To (WAWJCPPT)? — it’s stupid. The only time that label will ever apply to me is when you say it to my face.

My face moments later.

My face moments later.

I say this because SNAP is back in the news again, and I’m appalled (though not surprised) by how it’s being framed. Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on SNAP titled, “Enhanced Detection Tools and Reporting Could Improve Efforts to Combat Recipient Fraud” (8/21/14). In it, the GAO reports that since the Great Recession, state agencies responsible for detecting fraud have seen zero to modest growth in their budgets. When enrollments increase from 31.8 million in 2008 to 47 million in 2014 with no money to track fraud, the problem is obvious. Of course, every program is going to have some percentage that abuses it, but that’s not the problem here — that’s the assumption. The real issue is that states have shirked their responsibility to verify the information they’re given from households. It’s an administrative problem.

Yet, here’s how several online news outlets reported on it. These sites got it right:

Now here’s another framing — see if you can spot the difference:

Never mind what the report actually says. Food stamp fraud is rampant. This isn’t journalism, it’s leading with what your audience wants to hear:

Americans receiving food stamps were caught selling and bartering their benefits online for art, housing and cash, according to a new federal report that investigates fraud in the nation’s largest nutrition support program (Fox News).

If you go through and read them, the framing is obvious: those Welfare Queens are at it again. Instead of using their benefits to feed their family, they’re using it to buy drugs, alcohol, and art — typical! Dag nabit!

But far from being “rampant,” here’s what the GAO report actually said, if anyone bothered to actually read it:

[Food and Nutrition Services] estimated an improper payment or error rate of the program at 3.4 percent, which represented an estimated $2.6 billion in wrongful payments, in fiscal year 2013. The percentage represents benefits distributed in error due to administrative as well as recipient errors, not all of which can be attributed to fraud. However, due to the large dollar amount involved in improper payments, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has placed SNAP on its list of high-error programs. Furthermore, after studying the cause of these errors, USDA officials stated that over 90 percent were due to verification errors. These types of errors occur when an agency fails to or is unable to verify recipient information … even though verifying information exists in third-party databases … (p.5; emphasis mine).

3.4 percent? That hardly sounds rampant. Now, in fairness, though, the above text applies only to fraudTrafficking is something else entirely, and on this subject the report offers only three heavily-qualified sentences.

GAO’s analysis found potential trafficking in 73 percent of households reviewed by focusing on SNAP households requesting cards in at least four monthly benefit periods. Benefits are allotted monthly, and a recipient selling their benefits and then requesting a new card would generally have one opportunity per month to do so. As a result, additional card requests in the same benefit period may not indicate increased risk of trafficking (p.0; emphasis mine).

It’s hard to draw any conclusions from this because it’s guaranteed that some percentage of these are false flags — cards get lost, stolen, thrown away, etc. Unfortunately, we’ll never know, though, because these agencies don’t have the funds to investigate. Everything else is just a side note. Here’s the report’s conclusion:

Although investigations can ultimately deter fraud and save agency resources, states we reviewed have faced the challenge of limited staff to manage a growing program and raised questions about whether federal incentive structures could be designed to better support their work.

That’s hardly the denunciation of the SNAP program conservatives wish it was.


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