Rush to judgement: social media is eroding America’s social stability

“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day. “No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.” 

                Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

In today’s venomous social media environment, hair-trigger public reactions based on fragmentary, often inaccurate, information are the new norm and are hastening the disintegration of civil society. 

On Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, at about 4:30 PM, a Lancaster, PA police officer shot and killed a Black man. Twitter exploded in collective fury:

Valnjeffewsist@ValerieNygaard: Another murder by police today in Lancaster PA. 27 year old autistic man shot four times in the chest in front of mom.

RT @lancnick: Police shot and killed a reportedly autistic man in Southwest Lancaster City today and left his body on the ground for hours.

king of da souf@jlinmadison13: Lancaster police shot a 14 year old autistic boy 4 times!!!

All stirred up, protesters were off to the races, pouring into downtown Lancaster calling for “justice.” They hurled bottles and rocks at police officers, threw traffic barricades, planters and trash cans, piled up street signs, pieces of plywood and trash bags and set them on fire and damaged a county vehicle parked in front of a police station. When the protesters ignored police orders to disperse, tear gas was deployed.

Lancaster, PA protesters, Sept. 13, 2020

The Twitter outrage continued the next day.

Sarah Meets@MeetsSarah: #LANCASTER How much of taxpayer dollars fund the police?…WHY, WHY are people getting not just shot but fucking MOWED DOWN LIKE THE CARTEL DOES by 7-10-20 bullets?? WTF is this?

As is so often the case, the reality of the shooting was quite different. It turned out that a Lancaster police officer had gone to the home of a woman who had called 911 to say her brother, 27-year-old Ricardo Munoz, was being aggressive with her mother and trying to break into her house. When the officer arrived at the scene, the man ran out of the house holding a knife and chased the police officer. The officer fired several shots, killing the man. 

All of this was captured in video footage released by the Lancaster police department. But the damage had been done.

People everywhere are becoming alarmed, or pretending to be alarmed, by real and imagined crises pushed on social media with increasing frequency, often by malicious actors. And since social media algorithms drive repetitious messages that conform to our biases, people are more likely to believe things to which they’ve been exposed repeatedly.

In a Fast Company articleHow Your Brain Keeps You Believing Crap That Isn’t TrueBob Nease wrote “…what counts as common knowledge is a mix of things that are true and other things that are false, all of which are believed because they’re widely held, frequently repeated, and routinely recalled.”  Nease calls this “fluency as a surrogate for truth.”

All this is leading to informational cascade effects as the messages of alarmists spread far and wide, magnified by celebrities, journalists and commentators, corrupting the entire chain of communications.

“The public and the media may then become less willing to publicly challenge ascendant beliefs due to a social mechanism called a reputational cascade, Matthew Blackwell wrote in Quillette“Reputational cascades behave like informational cascades, but the underlying motivation is different—people publicly embrace the beliefs of others out of social necessity rather than genuine belief.”  

In an age of alternate realities, “the devastating irony of the present moment is that for all of our near-limitless access to knowledge, the truth is not merely inaccessible, but perpetually transformed into an up-for-grabs commodity,” writes Jason Clemence, assistant professor of humanities at Regis College. And as the information load increases, it gets harder to distinguish high-quality from low-quality information, too often resulting in the propagation of misleading information and outright falsehoods.

The shooting of Michael Brown is a classic case of how social media is exploited to launder false or misleading information into public discourse and increase public discord. 

Demonstrators protest outside the Ferguson, Missouri, police department during the National March on Ferguson, August 30, 2014. (Photo credit – Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

After the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a St Louis suburb, the story quickly spread on social media that he died while attempting to surrender and that he had his hands raised as he pleaded with Wilson not to shoot him. “Hands up, don’t shoot” became the immediate rallying cry of protesters and the mantra of a movement.

The day after Brown’s death, protests, riots, looting and arson erupted in the vicinity of the shooting and across Ferguson.

But there are two glaring problems with this story. Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and two state investigations, as well as one by President Obama’s Justice Department, concluded that Wilson was justified in shooting Brown.

Still, major media continue to this day to refer to Michael Brown’s death as “murder” and to describe him as “an unarmed black teenager.” Challenging the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative in Brown’s case still risks harsh criticism or censure.

On social media, hearsay and rumor dominate and “facts” are only relevant if they reinforce an ideological predisposition. Not only that, but everybody involved in the ongoing debate is expected to choose a side without hesitation, with no further research and no further deliberation.

That is leading to an erosion of social stability that threatens the cohesion of the United States. Instead of being bound together by a shared reality, we are moving toward a society in which individual citizens care only about their own interests and those of others who are like-minded, where there is no common morality and the concept of individual sacrifice for the common good is dismissed as out-of-date.

That will put our democracy at risk.

And another one bites the dust: Washington Square shrinking again.

The shrivilling of the Washington Square mall is continuing with a “Going out of Business” sale at Pier 1’s store. 

With malls across the country facing challenges even before the pandemic, the disease and associated economic upheaval has made things worse.

Pier 1 Imports, which was founded in 1962, filed for chapter 11 protection in early 2020 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Va. and had hopes of a sale to an interested buyer, but none emerged.

On May 18, 2020, the company said it would permanently close all its 540 retail stores, including one at Washington Square, and then reopen them after the COVID-19 shutdowns. At that point they would proceed to liquidate all their merchandise in “Going out of business” sales. Pier 1 aims to have all its stores permanently shuttered by October.

Pier 1 traces to a single store in 1962 that sold beanbag chairs and love beads to hippies in San Mateo, California. It expanded to offer just about anything for the home, from lounge chairs to curtains, and it later adopted the logo: “From Hippie to Hip.” At its height, Pier 1 had more than 1,200 stores.

But in recent years, its business slowed as it struggled to compete with online retailers Wayfair and Amazon, which sold products sofas at a lower price and delivered them quickly.  Big-box chains like Target and Walmart also strengthened their home goods offerings.

The original Washington Square mall encompassed 1,093,500 leasable square feet and was the largest enclosed shopping center in Oregon. It has a long history of change and renewal.

A 160,000 sq. ft. Meier & Frank store was the first to open for business on August 16, 1973. A 211,900 sq. ft. Sears store came next in October of that year, followed by a 120,000 sq. ft. Lipman’s in November. In May 1974, Nordstrom made its debut with a 108,000 sq. ft. store, followed by an 89,300 sq. ft. Liberty House store in August 1974 and a 210,000 sq. ft. J.C. Penney store in August 1975.

Turnover among the larger stores began within a few years, but the mall weathered changes well and its current owner, Macerich, a real estate investment trust, has been rewarded strong average sales per square foot. But much greater challenges have now emerged, particularly with the mall’s anchor stores, but with some smaller retailers as well.

What store will close next? There are lots of candidates. Just wait and watch.



College rankings are out: which is better, UO or OSU?

The Wall Street Journal published its much-awaited 2021 Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education (WSJ/THE) College Rankings today.

So which is superior, the University of Oregon or Oregon State University?

The UO finished 225th and OSU finished 318th among nearly 800 U.S. colleges and universities examined in the WSJ/THE rankings. 

So now what do you know? Not much.

The fact is that if you depend on national college ranking programs in picking a school, it’s a crapshoot. That’s because each ranking system uses its own unique methodology in evaluating schools and assigns different percentages to ranking elements, leading to wildly different conclusions. 

The U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges 2021 methodology, for example, places UO at #103 and OSU at #153 among national universities in the United States. National universities are schools that offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs, and are committed to producing groundbreaking research. Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide and Rankings places UO at #118 and OSU at #159 among national universities. 

Key indicators in the WSJ/THE rankings are based on 15 factors across four main categories: Forty percent of each school’s overall score comes from student outcomes, including graduates’ salaries and debt; 30% comes from academic resources, including how much the college spends on teaching; 20% from student engagement, including whether students feel prepared to use their education in the real world, and 10% from the learning environment, including the diversity of the student body and academic staff.

Some ranking systems focus on the quality of incoming students at a university, examining standardized-test scores and how students ranked in their high-school class. Some also give significant weight to outside opinion, conducting surveys of university administrators to find out if they think competing colleges are doing a good job. The WSJ/THE College Rankings take a different approach, emphasizing the return on investment students see after they graduate. Schools that fare the best on this list have graduates who generally are satisfied with their educational experience and land relatively high-paying jobs that can help them pay down student loans.

That leads to the top-rated schools in the WSJ/THE College Rankings being those with a lot of money. “Metrics used around academic resources, graduate student debt, the diversity of the faculty and the salary of graduates certainly favor institutions with large endowments,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Looking at one common rating category, Social Mobility, illustrates the wide variability in each ranking system and shows how ratings can be influenced. 

In the U.S. News & World Report rankings, social mobility counts for 5% of the final figure. The indicator measures only how well schools graduated students who received federal Pell Grants. Students receiving these grants typically come from households whose family incomes are less than $50,000 annually, though most Pell Grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000. 

The social mobility ranking is computed by aggregating the two ranking factors assessing graduation rates of Pell-awarded students:

  • Pell Grant graduation rates incorporate six-year graduation rates of Pell Grant students, adjusted to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions. This is computed as a two-year rolling average.
  • Pell Grant graduation rate performance compares each school’s six-year graduation rate among Pell recipients with its six-year graduation rate among non-Pell recipients by dividing the former into the latter, then adjusting to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions. The higher a school’s Pell graduation rate relative to its non-Pell graduation rate up to the rates being equal, the better it scores. This, too, is computed as a two-year rolling average. 

Compare this with the complexity of how the Washington Monthly deals with social mobility in its rating system.

The social mobility portion of the national rankings by Washington Monthly considers a college’s graduation rate over eight years for all students, a predicted graduation based on the percentage of Pell recipients and first-generation students, the percentage of students receiving student loans, the admit rate, the racial/ethnic and gender makeup of the student body, the number of students (overall and full-time), and whether a college is primarily residential. 

The actual eight-year graduation rate accounts for 8.33 percent of the social mobility score, and the difference between the predicted versus the actual graduation rate counts for another 8.33 percent. The raw number of Pell recipients earning bachelor’s degrees counts for 5.56 percent of the social mobility score. This is designed to reward colleges that successfully serve large numbers of students from lower-income families. 

To gauge a college’s commitment to educating a diverse group of students, Washington Monthly measured the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants and the percentage of first-generation students at each school. It also measured affordability for first-time, full-time, in-state students with family incomes below $75,000 per year, student loan repayments, median earnings of graduates and dropouts, 

Washington Monthly also determines a community service score that takes into account the size of each college’s Air Force, Army, and Navy ROTC programs as well as the number of alumni currently serving in the Peace Corps. 

Finally, Washington Monthly measures voting engagement using data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) at Tufts University and the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. Colleges can earn up to six points for fulfilling each of six criteria. They could receive up to two points for publishing with ALL IN their data from NSLVE’s report on student voting behavior in 2016 or 2018 (one point for each year). 

They could receive up to two points for creating an action plan to improve democratic engagement through the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge in 2018 or 2020 (one point for each year). A college could earn one point for having a student voter registration rate above 85 percent and making their registration rate available through ALL IN. Colleges could also earn one point for being currently enrolled in NSLVE.

Good grief!

There may be nuggets of valuable information about colleges and universities within the ranking programs. But in slicing and dicing academia into sellable tiers, the ranking sites are principally the marketing branch of the higher education conglomerate, a way to assemble and peddle the publishers themselves and the schools they cover.

So don’t decide between the UO and OSU on the basis of their rankings on any of the programs out there. Be open minded. Be flexible. Be excited.

As Steve Jobs said, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinion drown your own inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” 

“Lawyers of Distinction”: just another scam

Portland attorney Andy Green, a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, is a “Lawyer of Distinction”.  So are attorneys Justin Johnson of Hillsboro, Usman Mughal of Lake Oswego, Jason Short of Salem and Bryan Donahue of Bend. They are among 48 Oregon attorneys who have been designated “Lawyers of Distinction.”

Usman Mughal was even featured in a large display ad in the Sept. 6, 2020 edition of the New York Times that congratulated a number of Lawyers of Distinction as “2020 Power Lawyers” being “recognized for their competency in jurisprudence and reputation amongst their peers.”

New York Times ad, Sept. 6, 2020

Impressed? Don’t be. 

About all that’s required to be named a “Lawyer of Distinction” is to apply yourself or be nominated, fill out some online forms and pay a fee. It’s like diploma mills, companies or organizations that claim to be a higher education institution but only provide illegitimate academic degrees and diplomas for a fee.

“There’s a sucker born every minute,” is a phrase often attributed to P. T. Barnum, an American showman. It’s apparently true with respect to the attorneys who buy “Lawyers of Distinction” memberships as well as members of the public who are misled by them.

The Lawyers of Distinction website makes the application and review process sound complex. 

According to the website, it includes a review and vetting process by a Selection Committee. That involves an analysis of a candidate’s work, experience and abilities based upon 12 independent criteria using a platform spelled out under U.S. Provisional Patent #62/743,254. Once a final score is generated, an applicant is subjected a final background check and Ethics Review. Applicants who achieve a minimum passing score and have no disqualifying ethical violations within a 10-year period prior to completion of the application are then eligible for acceptance to Lawyers of Distinction.

Sounds tough and thorough.

Don’t believe it.

 Essentially, it’s just pay-for-play. It’s selling badges.  It’s paying for meaningless accolades. Apply, pay the annual membership fee and you’re in.

The annual cost, automatically renewed every year unless cancelled: Charter membership – $475; Featured membership – $575; Distinguished Membership – $775. The company says its most popular membership is Distinguished, its most expensive. That provides:

  • A link to the attorney’s website from the Lawyers of Distinction website
  • A profile page with the attorney’s picture and a link to the lawyer’s website
  • A national press release announcing the honor
  • A members-only Facebook private group
  • Discounts at national vendors including Hertz, Avis and Hilton
  • Brochures with inserts for a business card to display
  • Access to free online CLE courses
  • Use of the Lawyers of Distinction logo and trademarked materials
  • A customized 14”- 11” plaque
  • An 11” tall customized crystal statue attorneys can display to highlight their expertise. 

Conrad Saam, owner and founder of Mockingbird Marketing in Seattle, tested the membership vetting process at Lawyers of Distinction by applying for membership as his child’s pet chicken, Zippy. “Surely their ‘rigorous review process’ would disqualify a 3 1/2 month old Golden Wyandotte,” he theorized.  

Saam started by getting an email address for Zippy through Yahoo. Then he used an alias to nominate Zippy DeShickeen. He quickly received notification that Zippy had been nominated, but he chose not to send in the membership fee.  

“Surely they wanted to know more information about Zippy,” Saam wrote. “What about the background checks?  Independent Research? and Zippys scholarly writings?  Verdicts… Settlements…. Bar Certifications?  Surely that would follow in the next phase of the process; at a minimum, LOD would want to know what state Zippy was licensed in? a bar number? or a release to perform the background check?  Some of her awards?  Some bio information? But alas, the application required nothing more than a name, address and a domain.

Some lawyers at the Davis Law Group in Seattle decided to play the game, too. In 2019, they nominated Lucy, the office’s 5-pound teacup poodle, and paid the membership fee. Lucy didn’t go to law school, but she passed her state ‘bark exam, the law firm said, and had been recognized by the legal community as a ‘top dog’.

Lucy, a Lawyer of Distinction

Lucy was accepted by Lawyers of Distinction as one of the top 10% of attorneys in the country. Lawyers of Distinction even tweeted a welcome message to her. Lucy was thrilled.  See Lucy’s acceptance speech.

According to the Florida Division of Corporations, “Lawyers of Distinction Inc.” is a private for-profit company with a principal address of 4700 Millenia Boulevard, Suite 175, Orlando, FL 32839.

Robert (Robbie) Brian Baker at the same address is listed as the President in the company’s 2020 Annual Report. But don’t go there expecting to be ushered into an office with a clean, modern aesthetic that communicates success. The address is identified online as only a virtual office.

Robert B. Baker, President, Lawyers of Distinction Inc.

Baker, a member of the Florida Bar, is also the founder and owner of Baker Legal Team in Boca Raton, Florida. A 1989 graduate of Boston University School of Law, he focuses on representing plaintiffs in cases relating to personal injury, wrongful death, auto accidents, medical malpractice and product liability. 

Lawyers of Distinction’s website says it has “over 5000 vetted lawyers.” If 5000 lawyers signed up for the Distinguished category at $775 a year, Baker’s company will rake in $3,875,000 in 2020. Quite a haul.

Lawyers of Distinction tries to quell doubts about its legitimacy by including on its website a section headed, “Is Lawyers of Distinction A Scam? With Over 5000 Members, See What Lawyers Have To Say.” But all the section contains are a few member comments and ratings, such as, “Wonderful professional organization. Very nice looking materials. Bob Goldberg – February 12, 2020.”

It’s likely that few attorneys have been duped by Lawyers of Distinction, lured into believing they’ve been selected for a rare honor based on their legal work. They must figure that impressing potential clients is worth the chronic mendacity and deception.

And they’re probably encouraged by Lawyers of Distinction advertisements that appear even in the respected ABAJournal, the flagship publication of the American Bar Association that claims to be “read by half of the nation’s 1 million lawyers every month”.

Lawyers of Distinction ad in the ABAJournal

If it’s advertised in the ABAJournal it must be legit and an acceptable marketing tool, right?

But the widespread use of Lawyers of Distinction by American attorneys really just represents the decay of honest professional representation. If the ABA, and state bar associations such as the Oregon State Bar, really cared about lawyers’ clients they would be cracking down on such misleading marketing ploys, not promoting them.

And if an attorney ballyhoos their selection as a Lawyer of Distinction, beware. They are living in a world of unearned praise.

Portland Mayor Wheeler’s message to landlords: Tough Luck

“Next to bombing, rent control is the most effective technique so far known for destroying cities.”   Assar Lindbeck, former Professor of Economics, Stockholm University


Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has apparently decided that rental property owners are second-class citizens. 

At a Tuesday, Sept. 8 news conference, Wheeler announced a proposal to require landlords to pay tenants relocation money if they raise a tenant’s rent by any amount. That’s right — any amount. The proposal is expected to be considered by the Portland City Council on September 16. If approved, it would go into effect immediately and stay in effect at least until the end of 2020.

Under current rules, Portland landlords are required to pay $2,900 – $4,500 to assist tenants with moving expenses if their rent is raised by 10% or more over a 12-month period. 

There’s also a state law in place that limits rent increases on properties that are more than 15 years old to no more than 7 percent per year, plus the annual change in the consumer price index. Under Wheeler’s proposal, the state’s limit would be moot.

“Right now, with thousands of renters not able to pay their current rent, it’s likely that any rent increase would force renters to have to relocate,” Wheeler said. “While we’re in the middle of this pandemic, we need to do our part to protect renters from the tidal wave of evictions that we know is coming.”

As for protecting landlords, many of whom are small property owners, Wheeler seems to be making the assumption that all landlords have such deep pockets they can easily cover any escalation in their costs during a moratorium on rent increases. 

He appeared to understand the problem when he said on Tuesday he opposed proposals to cancel rent during the pandemic, saying that would just burden property owners, but his new proposal would clearly burden property owners as well. 

Landlords probably won’t garner much sympathy from the progressives who see  landlords as exploitative villains and are likely to enthusiastically back Wheeler’s proposal.  So it has a good chance of passing, continuing Portland’s slide down the slippery slope of rent control.

If it passes, it will be one more disincentive for investors to put their money in rental housing. As the National Apartment Association points out, that would further limit the availability of affordable rentals, increase the cost of all housing by forcing a growing Portland population to compete for fewer housing units, and reduce the quality of rental housing. In other words, it will harm the very community it purports to help by limiting accessibility and affordability.

Earlier this year, I wrote that Oregon real estate interests would rue the day state rent control became law because the pleas of tenant groups for even tougher rules would accelerate and progressive politicians would respond.

Point made.