Category: Culture

Berlusconi-fication: Cutting Out the Middle Man

2630085549_eebd0ce895_oRecently Rick Perlstein described American elections as a “plutocrat’s right to choose.” Such concerns have also been raised by conservative media. A political economy premised on the trading of money for power, and power for money, gives rise to an oligarchic constitutional order. Political science responds with “investor theories” of politics, where the key players are not the voters, but the donors. Politicians become vessels for their agendas.

As Jeffrey Winters observes, many types of oligarchies can develop. Americans might be interested in learning more about what might be deemed a “direct” oligarchy, where one-time donors forego buying the favor of leaders, and simply run for office themselves. Some very wealthy candidates of the right and left have fit this bill, and done passably as leaders. But the independence afforded by great wealth can also lead to flamboyantly erratic behavior, particularly among men long unaccustomed to accounting for their actions to others. Consider, for instance, the billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, a long-time Italian leader:

Perhaps the most famous example of Berlusconian rule-bending—and the one with the most popular results—was his takeover of Italian TV. Television was introduced to Italy, in 1954, through a single channel, RAI, administered by the ruling Christian Democratic Party; the highlight of its programming was the Pope’s Sunday-morning Mass, which is still on the air. For decades, the government controlled television: in the seventies, political parties were allotted news coverage in exact proportion to their votes in parliament. Then, in 1976, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that private broadcasting could be allowed on a local level. Berlusconi, who had made a fortune building suburban housing developments, began buying up local stations and broadcasting the same content on all of them. In order to comply with the letter of the court’s ruling, he staggered the broadcasts by a few seconds on each network.

Technically, these were local broadcasts; effectively, as Berlusconi made clear to advertisers, he had a national market, which he glutted with American programs like “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” and “Falcon Crest”—stories of sex and money…Berlusconi…believed that appetites existed to be stoked and sated, and he imported both American entertainment and the advertising environment that supported it. “I’m in favor of everything American before even knowing what it is,” he once told the Times.

Despite a long record of self-dealing, scandal, and outrageous statements, Berlusconi spent 9 years as Prime Minister. He had great appeal as a rascally anti-hero, exulting in a mix of la dolce vita and la vida loca. Thank goodness America, a mature democracy, could never fall for such a dubious mix of wealth and celebrity.

Photo Credit: CluPix.

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When Love’s Promises Are Fulfilled By the U.S. Supreme Court

Today, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme recognized the fundamental nature of love’s promises. In Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, the Court held,  “the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”  Referring to marriage as a “keystone” of the U.S.’s “social order,” Justice Kennedy declared same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Importantly, the case makes clear that forcing gay couples to go across state lines to marry only to deny them the franchise after returning home undermines fundamental principles of liberty.

It’s no surprise that Professor Martha Ertman’s powerful book: Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families on which she copiously and beautifully toiled while rearing her son debuts the summer that equality in marriage becomes a fundamental right for gay men and women. Nor should anyone be surprised if the book, along with the decision itself, becomes a central text at universities and beyond. In what David Corn calls a “love letter to marriage,” from the pen of Justice Kennedy, the Court reasoned:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.“

With that, the Supreme Court overruled the prior judgement of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and set in gear the reversal of centuries’ worth of stigma, shame and inequality, which may not erase overnight, but overtime will ease. Professor Ertman might also suggest that by the decision, the Court resituates contracts too. That is to say, if viewed from the lens of contracts, which serves as the core, theoretical foundation of Love’s Promises, this decision recognizes a fundamental right in contract for gay men and women. Further, the case expands the “contract” franchise to include gay women and men.

Some scholars approach gay marriage primarily from the constitutional liberties encapsulated in the 14th Amendment, upholding equal protection for U.S. citizens regardless of their status, others approach the issue as a matter of privacy. For Professor Ertman, contracts offer an additional lens and much to deliberate about on matters of marriage, parenting, and familial intimacy. Professor Ertman’s writings on contract (The Business of Intimacy,  What’s Wrong With a Parenthood Market?, and Reconstructing Marriage to name a few) precede the book, and presaged its birth.

Here for example, in a passage from Chapter Eight, she explains that “[i]t takes two more trips to the lawyer’s office to hammer out terms that satisfy Karen, Victor, the attorney, and me, from lawyerly technicalities to the emotional terms we call “mush.” From what started out as an addendum to Victor’s and my coparenting agreement has blossomed into a bouquet of wills and powers of attorney, alongside the amended parenting agreement.” She tells readers, “On the way downstairs, clutching documents still warm from the copying machine, Karen squeezes my hand, as if she too feels that signing all those dotted lines brought a family into being every bit as much as vows of forever that we plan to recite…” As she explains, “if you scratch the surface of marriage—straight or gay—you’ll find contracts there, too.”

Professor Ertman urges us to remember time and again that what builds relationships and sustains them are the formal and informal contracting that take place daily in marriage; they establish the foundation for marriage and what comes after. She works diligently in the book to demonstrate love too undergirds contracts. That is to say, she wants readers to reimagine contracts—not as the products of cold, calculated bargaining or business arrangements—though one must acknowledge contracts can be that too—even in marriage.  Often marriage is the product of love, intimacy, and warm innocence.  At other times, it is the product of business arrangements.  It was that too in the U.S. chattel system: contracts that gave legal sufficiency to the buying, selling, bartering, and even destroying of slaves, including children (among them the Black biological offspring of slave owners). In light of that history yet to be fully explored and appreciated in law, it is a formidable task to resituate or reintroduce contract in the space of families and intimacy. However, Professor Ertman rises to that challenge.

Like it or not, contracts pervade marriage and suffuse premarital agreements. Sometimes contracting in this regard attempts to resituate power and status expost marriage, providing the economically weaker spouse economic stability after the breakup. Martha highlights cases from that of Catherine Simeone who received a “raw deal,” to those of celebrities, including Michael Douglas and Beyonce. Who knew that Beyonce would receive $5 million for “each of their children,” if she and Shawn Carter (otherwise known as Jay-Z) divorced? Professor Ertman might argue that despite the businesslike nature of contracts, these legal arrangements and agreements make most matters clearer for everybody. Professor Ertman explains that contracts and even verbal agreements provide information, they can provide context, and they offer choice.

In Ertman’s life, it was a contract that bestowed her wife, Karen, parenthood of their child—not something biological, legislative, or derived from courts. And she offers multiple reasons for readers to consider the salience of contracts in intimacy, including voluntariness, reciprocal promises, and equal status. She offers an additional reason: love’s promises.

Corporate Experimentation

Those interested in the Facebook emotional manipulation study should take a look at Michelle N. Meyer’s op-ed (with Christopher Chabris) today:

We aren’t saying that every innovation requires A/B testing. Nor are we advocating nonconsensual experiments involving significant risk. But as long as we permit those in power to make unilateral choices that affect us, we shouldn’t thwart low-risk efforts, like those of Facebook and OkCupid, to rigorously determine the effects of those choices. Instead, we should…applaud them.

Meyer offers more perspectives on the issue in her interview with Nicolas Terry and me on The Week in Health Law podcast.

For an alternative view, check out my take on “Facebook’s Model Users:”

[T]he corporate “science” of manipulation is a far cry from academic science’s ethics of openness and reproducibility. That’s already led to some embarrassments in the crossover from corporate to academic modeling (such as Google’s flu trends failures). Researchers within Facebook worried about multiple experiments being performed at once on individual users, which might compromise the results of any one study. Standardized review could have prevented that. But, true to the Silicon Valley ethic of “move fast and break things,” speed was paramount: “There’s no review process. Anyone…could run a test…trying to alter peoples’ behavior,” said one former Facebook data scientist.

I just hope that, as A/B testing becomes more ubiquitous, we are well aware of the power imbalances it both reflects and reinforces. Given already well-documented resistance to an “experiment” on Montana politics, it’s clear that the power of big data firms to manipulate even the very political order that ostensibly regulates them, may well be on the horizon.

Is the Happiness Industry Creating Algorithmic Selves?

In a recent podcast called “Thinking Allowed,” host Laurie Taylor covered two fascinating books: The Wellness Syndrome, and The Happiness Industry. One author discussed a hedge fund that’s now managing what it calls “biorisk” by correlating traders’ eating, drinking, and sleeping habits, and their earnings for the firm. Will Davies, author of The Happiness Industry, discussed less intrusive, but more pervasive, efforts to assure that workers are fitter, happier, and therefore more productive. As he argues in the book,

[M]ood-tracking technologies, sentiment analysis algorithms and stress-busting meditation techniques are put to work in the service of certain political and economic interests. They are not simply gifted to us for our own Aristotelian flourishing. Positive psychology, which repeats the mantra that happiness is a personal ‘choice’, is as a result largely unable to provide the exit from consumerism and egocentricity that its gurus sense many people are seeking.

But this is only one element in the critique to be developed here. One of the ways in which happiness science operates ideologically is to present itself as radically new, ushering in a fresh start, through which the pains, politics and contradictions of the past can be overcome. In the early twenty-first century, the vehicle for this promise is the brain. ‘In the past, we had no clue about what made people happy – but now we know’, is how the offer is made. A hard science of subjective affect is available to us, which we would be crazy not to put to work via management, medicine, self-help, marketing and behaviour change policies.

The happiness industry thrives in a culture premised on an algorithmic model of the self. People (or “econs“) are seen a bundle of inputs (data collection), algorithmic processes (data analysis), and outputs (data use). Since the demands of affect can only be extirpated in robots, the challenge for the happiness industry is to optimize some quantum of satisfaction for its human subjects, compatible with their maximum productivity. Objectively, the algorithmic self is no more (nor less) than the goods and services it uses and creates; subjectively, it strives to convert inputs of resources into outputs of joy, contentment–name your positive affect. As “human resources,” it is simply raw material to be deployed to its most profitable use.

Audit culture, quantification (e.g., the quantified self), commensuration, and cost-benefit analysis all reflect and reinforce algorithmic selfhood. Both the Templeton Foundation and the Social Brain Centre in Britain are developing some intriguingly countercultural alternatives to big data-driven behaviorism. As he highlights the need for such alternatives, Davies deserves great credit for exposing the political economy behind corporate appropriations of positive psychology.

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ROUNDUP: Law and Humanities 05.20.15

LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE IN LEGAL EDUCATION

The Spring 2015 issue of the New Mexico Law Review is devoted to the TV show Breaking Bad. Here’s a link to the issue’s intriguing contents, which includes such articles as Max Minzer’s Breaking Bad in the Classroom, Elizabeth N. Jones’ The Good and (Breaking) Bad of Deceptive Police Practices, and Jennifer W. Reynolds’ Breaking BATNAS: Negotiation Lessons From Walter White. The Wall Street Journal took note here; law and pop culture seems to have gone decidedly media mainstream.

 

LAW AND LITERATURE IN THE COURTROOM

On May 11, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg presided over the competency trial of Don Quixote at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. Assisting her were her colleague Justice Stephen Breyer and Chief Judge Merrick Garland and Judge Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  Tony Mauro of the Blog of Legal Times provides coverage here.

The Quixote case is the latest in a series of law and humanities-inspired moot courts, beginning in 1994, that the Bard Association of the Shakespeare Theatre Company has hosted.  More here.

 

 

 

 

Read More

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Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger Annotated by Experts in Wall Street Journal

WB1996Warren Buffett’s latest letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders is annotated in The Wall Street Journal by 30 professors, authors, and investors.  Editors Erik Holm and Anupreeta Das assigned us each two sentences in the letter, and/or Charlie Munger’s addendum, to amplify.  Here are my two, followed by the list of contributors. Mine address the role Warren’s son Howard will play in succession and what Munger believes concerning what made Berkshire succeed.

Regarding Buffett’s reference to his son Howard (p. 36):   Buffett tries again to defend the choice of Howard to succeed him as board chairman. Many remain skeptical. But critics should appreciate the plan’s savviness. It deftly carves a niche for the son of a legend, as Howard will: (1) not be asked to perform any task his father has performed (like investing or capital allocation) and (2) be asked to perform only one task, which Warren has never performed (monitoring the CEO for adherence to Berkshire culture and dismissing any who fail). This shrewdly avoids the trap many children of legendary parents face of never being able to measure up.

Notably, besides Munger, Howard is the only individual Buffett identifies by name among Berkshire personnel in his anniversary message and, besides Buffett, Munger only names Abel and Jain. In fact, while Munger and Buffett mutually credit the other for minting the Berkshire model, they never credit any other Berkshire personnel for its success. The omission contrasts with Buffett’s letters, which rightly herald specific executives who power Berkshire and animate its culture. The difference is that these messages, while in form historical, are really about the future, and all three people identified by name are referenced in discussions of succession.

Where Munger asserts (p. 39) that “The management system and policies of Berkshire . . . were fixed early”:   Munger’s statements about how Berkshire’s “system and policies” were “fixed early” is vague. In one sense, it sounds as if they were part of a master plan at the outset back in the 1960s.  But Buffett has often stressed that Berkshire never had a strategic plan nor any business plan. And through the 1980s, most of Berkshire’s “business” consisted of investments in securities for its insurance companies, not wholly owned operating subsidiaries. So it doesn’t seem likely that, in the 1970s or even as late as the 1980s, Buffett’s goal was to create “a diffuse conglomerate.”

On the other hand, Munger subsequently clarifies (p. 40) that Buffett “stumbled into some benefits [of these policies] through practice evolution” over his career. And Buffett sculpted much of Berkshire’s culture late in the company’s life as part of a process that is still ongoing and extends well beyond these policies. Therefore these passages should not obscure the fact that the “Berkshire system” looks sharper from today’s vantage point than from Buffett’s desk “early” on. That’s important to recognize lest observers commit errors associated with hindsight bias like believing that observed outcomes were predictable, a weakness of human psychology which Munger often lectures against.

Cunningham is the author of Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values and editor and publisher, since 1997, of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. For more commentary on this topic, see today’s New York Times Dealbook column, here. Read More

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Milton Hebald, RIP

The great sculptor, Milton Hebald, passed away at age 97.  May he rest in peace.  The NYT has a fine obituary here.  Accompanying this post are photos of three of his numerous sculptures gracing the grounds at Morefar, the Brewster, NY estate of the late Cornelius Vander Starr, founder of what Hank Greenberg turned into the American International Group.

Boy flying kite at Morefar (pp. 33-34)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boy Flying Kite

Statue at Morefar (pp. 33-34)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handstand

2011-09-10 10.22.03

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tennis Anyone?

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CIV!!! Or How Simulations May Help Government and Personal Choices

Could Civilization and the SIMs be part of a better informed future? I loved Civilization and played way too many hours of it in college. Turns out that the Colombian government has developed “computer games which are designed to teach pre-teenagers to make sensible choices about everything from nutrition to gang membership.” I wonder whether running a simulation of choices and outcomes over and over would shape behaviors or teach other gaming instincts. For example, most people might find that if they follow certain paths they end up in safe, but relatively happy middle class life and retirement. Heck, the game, Life, was a truly random version of what growing up is (then again maybe everything is so stochastic that Life is correct to rely on the spin of a wheel to see whether one is a doctor or teacher or has kids). Still, a game that reinforced the experience of putting money away now, not having it to play with, but having savings in retirement, i.e., the tradeoffs were more palpable, might sensitize people to choices. I never played SIMs, only Sim City, but if SIMs lets you smoke, take drugs, drink too much, have unsafe sex, etc. and gain near term rewards but then find that the long-term payoffs were poor, that would be interesting. Of course, some outcomes might be you’re a superstar who dies early or worse ends up on a horrid reality show. And, many may say “I was a wild child, had a blast, and ended up on T.V.? Cool!”

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The 100 Year Bloom?: Wealth Inequality in the U.S.

The debates around Piketty’s analysis of wealth gaps will persist, but a recent paper by Emmanuel Saez (U.C. Berkeley) and Gabriel Zucman (London School of Economics) indicates that wealth disparity in the U.S. has hit the levels of about 100 years ago. As the Economist Espresso edition reports, the study finds that “In the late 1920s the bottom 90% held just 16% of America’s wealth; the top 0.1% had a quarter.” From the Depression until “well after” World War II, the middle class share went up. Since the go-go 1980s that tide reversed and now “The top 0.1% (160,000 families worth $73m on average) hold 22% of America’s wealth, just shy of the 1929 peak—and almost the same share as the bottom 90% of the population.” (The Economist link has a nice chart from the paper. The chart captures the trend well. I was unable to get the image from the paper, however.).

I have to wonder whether the intersection of wealth disparity, race and police tensions, health security, job prospects, lack of food, and perhaps other factors explain what seem to be larger examples of unrest and revolutionary impulses from all ranges of political interests all around the world. And, the general sense of rejecting all institutions (a millennial impulse if lack of joining a party is a signal) can still lead to the short term alliance of enough people to cause revolution (their cause is change and rage and unleashed energy against the unjust), the aftermath of which is rarely bloodless. Once the common enemy goes, the energies of the one truth turn on each other. The show Survivor is much more real: eliminate those who are strong and helped you win, for they may threaten your vision. In other words, I sense much anger out there (and it may be founded) on many fronts. I see lex talionis (eye for an eye), but that is not justice. The law is supposed to mediate our impulse to revenge, and yet the law lies behind the changing tides of wealth. The unarticulated sense of injustice and disenfranchisement can eat the system from the inside. And even those gaining the biggest benefit right now will not see that the bottom is falling out from under them.

Not all 100 year blooms are pretty or benign. Reorganizing a country or the world so that baseline well-being goes up and is shared by most, if not all, seems like a blip in historical terms (I am trying to think of an extended era, more than 100 years, when wealth disparity was not high). But it may be that if we don’t start to fix these problems, the desire for those blips will become real and travel with high costs: depressions, starvations, revolutions, and wars.

It may not take much to prevent the fall. Who knows? Maybe the Jam’s That’s Entertainment captures an odd, sad, equilibrium that barely satisfies.

Waking up at 6 A.M. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

If that is gone, well…

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Will The Nobel Committee Follow Oscar and Restrict Selling Medals?

Apparently Watson, of DNA discovery fame, is selling his Nobel Medal. Christie’s estimates the price at $2.2 million. I will go into the reasons for the sale below. But first, I wonder whether the Nobel Committee will put in a restriction on selling the medals. The Oscar folks, (aka the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) placed a restriction on awards granted after 1950: the recipient or heirs had to offer it the the Academy for $1 before selling to anyone else. Unrestricted Oscars have been sold for $510,000 (1993, Vivien Leigh’s Oscar for “Gone with the Wind”) and $1,540,000 (1999 David O. Selznick’s Oscar for “Gone with the Wind”) among other prices. Whether the Nobel folks see the award as their key asset (as AMPAS does) or they have other objections to its sale will determine what they do.

For those wondering why sell the medal, Watson made some comments about race in 2007. According to Irish Central, in an interview with the Financial Times, Watson said he was “‘inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa’ because ‘all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.'” That statement resulted in boards and other groups choosing not to work with him. In short, he needs the money.

Given that Watson has said he will give some of the money to science charities, I wonder whether he might set up fund in honor of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who took the picture that allowed the structure of DNA to be seen and died four years before the Nobel for DNA’s discovery was made. (The Nobel prize is awarded only when one is alive). Nonetheless, her credit has been lost. Then again if Ms. Franklin were alive, she might not be happy to have a fund created in her name by someone who has Watson’s current reputation, let alone the DNA discovery problem.

Correction: Earlier version mistakenly listed Crick as the Nobel medal seller.