Category: Culture


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…


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.


Pew’s “Web IQ” Test Is Flawed

Pew Research does good work, but of late the surveys and claims give a “factoid” feeling. The latest report “What Internet Users Know about Technology and the Web” asks some rather silly questions. Why knowing the character limit on Twitter (140), which university was the first on Facebook (Harvard), or the year that the iPhone came out (2007) is indicative of useful knowledge is unclear. To me these points of trivia may matter as one tries to write about technology history and maybe policy. But the idea of Web IQ is murky. Heck, many of the questions are about the Internet, not the Web. Identifying the faces of tech leaders such as Gates or Sandberg is a curious feat but is this quiz in fact a game of tech Jeopardy!? (Yes, few knew Ms. Sandberg, but that is a different issue than Web IQ for me). The questions about tech policy seem to reveal more about problem areas. Guess what, net neutrality and privacy fared poorly. Knowing how wikis work might enable folks to think about the authority of content. Despite the irony of the quiz name, knowing the difference between the Web and the Internet also helps sort issues about many evolving technologies. Yet the overall thrust of the report reminds me of political, navel gazing junkies who, like Trekkers, thrill to their did you know who did what on some exact, obscure date knowledge and then act as if those who don’t know the answer somehow are stupid or “don’t get it.”

Raw knowledge and history are great and fun, but unless you can tie them together they are quite dead. Maybe if Pew had just called it a general tech knowledge test, it would have made more sense, but then maybe no one would read the report. Ah there it is. Pew’s IQ may be rather high after all.


She Blinded Me With Science – Redux

Scientists/musicians at Cambridge have made a cover of Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me With Science (video below). As Cambridge News explains, the “video features a number of young women scientists including a material scientist, laser physicists and an epidemiologist. All proceeds from the song will go to ScienceGrrl, an organisation dedicated to celebrating and supporting women in science.” Seems like a cool project. The video could be a start to featuring more women in science (By my count there are five women in the video, which may be a function of how many can be highlighted in a short format). I hope so. My reason is simple. Some of my favorite people at Google were super-smart, fun to work with, visionary, and taught me huge amounts about science and professionalism and oh yeah, they happened to be women. That they are not known for their excellence beyond a small group and that women think science and math options are not open for them saddens and baffles me. Maybe the fact that my mom is a doctor colors my world. Or maybe it is the fact that I studied with female peers in grade and high school on math and science (including Calc I and II) and they were as good as any male I studied with. Or maybe it’s because so many women in law school and academia impressed and continue to impress me by pushing me to think and speak better as well as teaching me about law, science, technology, and so much more. To me the idea that women are somehow less able to work in certain fields is just nutty, or better said, insane. So in the Thanksgiving spirit, I am thankful that some science folks with some musical skills have offered their update to Mr. Dolby.

Side note: Dolby is one of my favorite musicians . His Golden Age of Wireless has some great tracks (check One of Our Submarines if you want a haunting ode to technology and lost empire). That said, The Flat Earth is brilliant. I think of it as an album that I can listen to start to finish and enjoy each song. The title track is great. I prefer the studio version to this one, but you can get a feel for the song and the lyrics perhaps the best part:
“please remember…
the Earth can be any shape you want it
any shape at all
dark and cold or bright and warm
long or thin or small
but it’s home and all I ever had
and maybe why for me the Earth is flat”

In other words, we can make the world we want.

Plus the idea of the Flat Earth Society amuses me.


Oh Barbie, Not Again! Mattel’s View of Women and Science

Apparently, Barbie again thinks that women are limited when it comes to science. Mattel seems to be trying to get on board with with STEM and women. They commissioned a book Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer. Unfortunately, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, the book has Barbie as only able to design and not code, and she seems not to have a sense of computer security. The online outrage has prompted a recall of the book. The writer claims that Mattel required Barbie to be “more polite.” Mattel has claimed the book, which came out in 2010, does not reflect current Barbie views. Nonetheless, The Herald points out that The book came out last year and there is evidence that the book was commissioned in 2011. Furthermore, the real point is that Mattel should be able to do better here. As the Herald points out that other offerings such as Rosie Revere Engineer and the Hello Ruby project manage to show females doing well with technology and gaining skills such as coding. So will Mattel and Barbie ever catch up to more modern ideas? After all, critical views of Barbie and Mattel’s views on women in math and science have been going on since at least the late 1990s.

Maybe the Internets and buying power will force a shift. As I argue in Speech, Citizenry, and the Market: A Corporate Public Figure Doctrine, people should take on Mattel and Barbie with online protests, boycotts, reworking of the brand image (which apparently happened with a remix app that lets “people [] make their own wry comments by rewriting the book”), and more. That might signal competitors that a market exists while also telling Mattel that they are losing the next generation of consumers. Plus The Herald notes that Barbie sales are down. That may present and opportunity for this sort of action to have force. As STEM grows in attention, and moms start to buy more toys that foster new views of femininity, maybe other toy and doll makers will take off and challenge Barbie. Given Mattel’s power, it may alter course and swamp those new entrants, or it may buy them. A more likely outcome is that a few new offerings emerge, but Barbie stays the course. Still, if some criticism spurs even niche options, today’s world of Internet sales and bespoke toys can support that niche until it maybe becomes more.


Process Matters: How, Corporate Reputation, and the Trademark Game

The New York Times reported about the fight over trademark rights around the word “How” and there was the usual chatter about how (yes very punny we law professors are) such a thing could be. But for me the more interesting point was that the issue of how something is made continues to rise as a market question. The dispute is between Chobani, which is pitching us ““A cup of yogurt won’t change the world, but how we make it might,” and that “How Matters,” and Dov Seidman whose company “is in the business of helping companies create more ethical cultures” and whose book is “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything.” As I argue in Speech, Citizenry, and the Market: A Corporate Public Figure Doctrine:

Corporations no longer exist in a purely commercial world. Corporate policies intersect with and shape a host of political issues, from fair trade to gay rights to organic farming to children’s development to gender bias to labor and more. Thus Google urges countries to embrace gay rights; Mattel launches a girl power campaign; activists question Nike’s labor practices, McDonald’s food processing, and Shell Oil’s business practices; and bloggers police the Body Shop’s claims about its manufacturing practices. The social, political, and commercial have converged, and corporate reputations rest on social and political matters as much as, if not more than, commercial matters.

The How of Seidman and Chobani is not limited to those companies. McDonald’s is now trying to engage with its customers about, yes, how, they make their food. I suppose using social media and the former Myth Buster Grant Imahara to reach young ‘uns is wise (then again if the goal is to reach Millenials as reported, they might see this tactic as a ploy). Regardless of success or failure, McDonald’s is another sign that Douglas Kysar’s Preferences for Processes: The Process/Product Distinction and the Regulation of Consumer Choice insight that process matters to the marketplace have force. As he put it “Because process preferences provide an outlet for the expression of public values through a market medium that is being endorsed simultaneously as a primary locus of choice, opportunity, and responsibility, individuals may well come to view such preferences as their most appropriate mechanism for influencing the policies and conditions of a globalized world.”

To date, activism over how has not seemed to gain major traction, if one looks to things such as labor and clothing or environmental issues in energy. Price still matters. Giving up our easier way of life (yes first world ACH! such a condescending term, high quality problem) to improve lives all over the world and for future generations is easier said than done. Try to buy clothing and food that is truly perfect (whatever that metric is, let’s assume fair labor and environmentally sound). Some sort of quasi-subsistence/commune hybrid life would be required and is not viable across society. Yet, as people speak up, and companies engage, make claims about their roles in addressing social matters, and adjust offerings (e.g. offering fruit in kids’ meals or refusing to sell cigarettes in a pharmacy), it may be that long term, incremental changes will emerge. When folks indicate preferences, options to buy something a little bit healthier or fairer could come on to the market. We might buy fewer things but buy better things. And another signal is sent so that the cycle might persist.


The Role Law and Literature Should Play in a Law School

Some may ask what role should liberal arts style courses play in law school where we are increasingly focused on bar exams and practice ready skills.   It may take me a while to unravel that answer with the gusto and the framing it deserves.  I think anyone that regularly teaches Law and Literature has been asked some variant of this question.  The course doesn’t have the safe luxury of “well its on the bar exam,” or even the more sardonic return of “well, but of course it underlies much of legal thought and practice.”  See, e.g., Law and Econ, Law and Social Theory, and Legal History.

Let me make a bold proclamation.  The law and literature course, perhaps more than any other, asks students to wrestle with their subjective views of the law.  It’s interesting, in a course that deals with Constitutional Law, for example, there is the finality of how the court approached the problem (whether we agree with the outcome or not).   In Law and Literature on the other hand, the course encompasses the views of the professor, the authors, and their fellow students as they encounter these views.  Sometimes worlds are created in which those concrete legal frameworks are disembodied (See, e.g., Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).  Sometimes, the fictional worlds embrace the world as we know it, and offer stunning critique to its foundation (See, e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). That’s not to say that other courses, (take a UCC course), is not rife with highly charged emotional queries (notwithstanding my critique, my explanation for whether the disposition of collateral equates to proceeds is a highly charged event!).  It is saying that in a time where the ABA is prompting law schools to create standards that push the law school experience towards so-called objective standards of evaluation (see revision of section 302 in the ABA standards), the role of encountering, critiquing, explaining, and understanding different subjective understandings of the law is critical.   We should not be afraid to encounter nor express our subjective views in the context of critical dialogue.

My view is that Law and Literature is a course that offers students not only the opportunity to understand themselves better but to learn to dialogue about the subjective views of law.  A few years ago, Yale Law School offered a course titled “The Book of Job and Suffering.” Unfortunately, at many law schools such a class would never be taught for fear that the subject strayed too far from what law schools are suppose to do — at least not under that title.  However such a course is precisely the kind of law and literature course we should be teaching. Isolating the critical component that suffering may play in the narrative for law students, I imagine, was a powerful experience for those students and the professor.  Powerful because they all have suffered something, I’m sure, though undoubtedly it was uneven.  Students learn to dialogue about themselves and the text in a group where each other’s respective experiences help frame and isolate the way the text moved within the group.   At one and the same time, students in a law and literature class learn about themselves, as members of a group, a class and as an individual.   This is the idea of Law and Literature that James Boyd White framed so well — the engagement of the reader with the text forcing the reader to accept or not accept the writer’s framed world. [Perhaps Boyd’s best framing of this encounter is his book This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert, in which Boyd wrestles with the text as reader primarily].

This role of teaching students about themselves is critical if not necessary to shaping who they are as counselors and advocates for their clients.  Of course they are things we should care about as shaping lawyers. But should we have to isolate them into an ABA objective or standard.   In a way, it cheapens the process to do so.

I fear that courses like Law and Literature, in which students engage in thoughtful discourse, may find themselves replaced with others that fail to live up to the promise of helping students understand themselves in a legal environment and instead only focus on the particulars of interacting in the legal environment.   There is nothing wrong with a movement in legal education that attempts to focus institutional resources to critically examine whether the law school is best preparing students for the modern legal environment.  But, that doesn’t mean that our students [or our faculty] are better off without having the dialogues and communities that law and literature help promote and shape in the law school environment.


The Future, Heaven, and Limbo Have Been and Will Always Be Apple Stores

If you saw Sleeper, Heaven Can Wait, or the last of the Harry Potter films, you might notice that they all have scenes that look quite like an Apple Store. White, seemingly floating desks, some robots, a sense of what it is all about. The likely reason is the design gurus of the 1970s like the stark white, sharp lines look. Steve Jobs was a student of that era and it informed Apple, The Sequel from iPods to the stores (the first Apple movie was design tools, the second was “we design, you buy”). As for Harry Potter, why fight the future and the masters? Tap into that vibe and viewers will be happy to know that even limbo, afterlife (whatever that was) is much as it has always been. White, simple, soothing, yet confusing too.

I wonder whether the Chinese group that copied the Apple Store perfectly could argue that the trade dress was generic?


There She Is, Your Homemade AR-15

I cannot give a talk about 3D printing without addressing the question of homemade guns. As Gerard and I pointed out in Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things, this is America and making guns at home is legal. The issues many faced was whether the gun would work well, fail, or possibly misfire and harm the user. These issues are important as we look at the shifts in manufacturing. Many of us may prefer authorized, branded files and materials for home made goods or prefer to order from a third party that certifies the goods. That said, some gun folks and hobbyists are different. They want to make things at home, because they can. And now, Defense Distributed has made the “Ghost Gunner” “a small CNC milling machine that costs a mere $1200 and is capable of spitting out an aluminum lower receiver for an AR-15 rifle.” That lower is the part the the Federal government regulates.

Accoridng to Extreme Tech, Defense Distributed’s founder Cody Wilson, thinks that “Allowing everyone to create an assault rifle with a few clicks is his way of showing that technology can always evade regulation and render the state obsolete. If a few people are shot by ghost guns, that’s just the price we have to pay for freedom, according to Wilson.” This position is what most folks want to debate. But Gerard and I think something else is revealed here. As ExtremeTech puts it, “This is an entirely new era in the manufacturing of real world objects, in both plastic and metal. It used to be that you needed training as a gunsmith to make your own firearm, but that’s no longer the case.” That point is what motivated me to write about 3D printing and look deeper at digitization and disruption.

The first, short, follow-up on these ideas is in an essay called The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption that appeared in Hastings Law Journal this past summer.


Sports, Player Protection, and of course, Money

The attention to the way football head injuries affect players at all levels of the game is good. Whether the game as it is loved today can persist, I leave to others. But as the NFL has asserted that it wants to protect its players, the question of injury and health beyond head injuries struck me as a good one. I love football. I grew up with hard-nosed, crazy players (Raiders fan even during the abysmal last twenty plus years of dubious management). But with the evidence that these Sunday circuses put players at so much risk, I hope that the league and fans can find ways to mitigate the long-term harms of the sport. As Arian Foster recently pointed out, Thursday night games are not geared to protect players. Quite the opposite. They generate large revenue and are not going away. Yet it seems that a solution is at hand.

Use the bye-week teams to play on Thursday nights. With some juggling, the teams could be set up so that if a team is on a bye week, they play on Thursday, and then they again would have nine days rest. That should make for fewer injuries overall and a better post-season. Others may have written about this option (and a good friend had made this argument in the past but not to me). There may be fewer Thursday night games. But smart folks at the NFL should be able to figure out how to maximize the games, while still making money for the league and the players. Some may ask whether all long-term injuries can be mitigated. I doubt that. Still, if lawsuits persist, football, soccer (more contact and head injuries than one might think), and many contact sports may have to shift their rules or find that they can’t attract the best athletes. Hmm a world of basketball, extreme sports, and curling. Maybe I could get into that.