Category: Economic Analysis of Law

The Phantom Industrial Policy of the Beltway’s Favorite Health Cost Cutters

A few weeks ago, I spoke on artificial intelligence in health care at the AI Now Conference. I focused on the distinction between substitutive automation (which replaces human labor with software or robots) and complementary automation (which deploys technology to assist, accelerate, or improve humans’ work). I developed three cases where complementary automation ought to be preferred: where it produces better outcomes; in sensitive areas like targeting persons for mental health interventions; and to improve data gathering. Law and policy (ranging from licensure rules to reimbursement regs) could help assure that the health care sector pursued complementary automation where appropriate, rather than chasing the well-hyped narrative of robot doctors and nurses.

The pushback was predictable. Even if complementary automation is better now, shouldn’t our policy reward firms that try to eliminate ever more labor costs? Doesn’t *everyone* agree that the US spends too much on health care–and isn’t technology the best way of reducing that spending? Let me try to address each of these views, boiling down some perspectives from a longer, academic article.

A Policy at War with Itself

There is a troubling tension at the heart of US labor policy on health care and automation. Numerous high-level officials express grave concerns about the “rise of the robots,” since software is taking over more jobs once done by humans. They also tend to lament growth in health care jobs as a problem. In an economy where automation is pervasive, one would think they would be thankful for new positions at hospitals, nursing homes, and EHR vendors. But they remain conflicted, anxious about maintaining some arbitrary cap on health spending.

Politico reporter Dan Diamond encapsulated this conflict in his recent article, “Obamacare: The Secret Jobs Program”–and he leaves no uncertainty about which side he thinks is right:
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Scholarship and Mid-Career Self-Assessments: A Brief Reflection on Simkovic’s What Can We Learn from Credit Markets?

Chris J. Walker has written a very helpful series of posts for young professors on “how to become a voice in one’s field.” The last addressed one of the hardest issues: “Am I Asking the Right Questions?” Academic freedom at a professional school comes with serious responsibilities: to choose field(s), to apply methodology well, and to try to establish the importance of one’s findings among one’s peers and (increasingly) among educated publics, as an engaged academic. Both Walker and Michael Rich offer wise perspectives on the dilemmas that inevitably come up during thoughtful reflection on these responsibilities, focusing on a process of discernment.

I also think that we can learn a great deal from the content of successful scholars’ inquiry. Usually, researchers only undertake this type of self-reflection when applying for jobs and preparing research agendas (a mostly private process), or at the end of a career (when a long list of accomplishments may seem too daunting to be relatable to younger peers). But winners of the ALI Young Scholars Medal appear to get invited to give a public talk on their work at an earlier stage of inquiry. Mike Simkovic (whose work I’ve previously praised here) gave such an address in May.

The talk is focused on the questions that led Simkovic to research credit markets. His work helped explain some puzzling aspects of personal finance–for example, why harsh restrictions on bankruptcy imposed in the mid-2000s did not lead to a cheapening of credit. His findings are revealing: consolidation in the credit card industry, as well as confusing contractual terms, helped dominant firms keep the resulting profits, rather than compete them away. As of 2016, even The Economist has caught up to this challenge to laissez-faire orthodoxy–but at the time it was made, complacent assumptions about market efficiency were dominant.

From that inquiry, Simkovic describes a chain of puzzles that led him to challenge widely held preconceptions in corporate, education finance, and tax law. It’s an engaging documentation of a particularly fruitful and insightful trajectory in inquiry.

I recently proposed a paper to the MLA’s annual conference entitled “Beyond the False Certainties of Impact Factors, Altmetrics, and Download Counts: Qualitative & Narrative Accounts of Scholarship.” It arose out of my dissatisfaction with the metricization of accomplishment. As citation counts proliferate, accumulating the ersatz currency of reputational quantifications threatens to overwhelm the real purpose of research–just as financialization has all too often undermined the productive functions of the economy.

Traditional modes of assessment (including tenure letters and festschrift tributes) are an alternative form of evaluation. And an essay like Simkovic’s is an example of a type of self-evaluation that should become more popular among scholars at certain career milestones (like tenure, appointment to full professor or senior lecturer, and, say, every 5 or 10 years thenceforward.) We need better, more narrative, mid-career assessments of the depth and breadth of scholarly contributions. Such qualitative modes of evaluation can complement the quantification-driven metrics now ascendant in the academy.

(R)evolution in Law & Economics

book-calabresiIt is a real pleasure to read Guido Calabresi’s The Future of Law and Economics almost 20 years after taking his torts class. Calabresi always struck me as a warm and inspiring presence at Yale. He’s attained eminence as a scholar, teacher, and public servant. There is much to learn from and celebrate in his work. I’ll start with his latest book’s major contributions, and then go on to raise some questions about just what future(s) might be in store for law & economics.

Bentham’s Shadow

Jeremy Bentham casts a long shadow over the legal academy. As Fred Schauer helpfully recounts, Bentham was extraordinarily suspicious of the complexity of law, and wanted it “to be understood by ordinary people without the intervention of lawyers and the interpretation of judges.” Bentham’s utilitarian legacy also stalks the profession of law. Following the lead of cost-benefit analysts, administrators may decide that legal regularity should shrink in importance as a value in comparison with quantified estimates of, say, consumer welfare. As another former Yale dean observed, the reduction of difficult conflicts to purely economic (or philosophical) questions threatens to undermine the autonomy of law as a field.

Calabresi advances this discussion with his crystalline distinction between “Economic Analysis of Law” and “Law & Economics.” I will quote at length here, since this distinction is central to the book:

What I call the Economic Analysis of Law uses economic theory to analyze the legal world. . . . In its most aggressive and reformist mode, having looked at the world from the standpoint of economic theory, if it finds that the legal world does not fit, it proclaims that world to be “irrational.” And this, of course, is exactly what Bentham did when he tested laws and behavior on the basis of utilitarianism and, in his most aggressive moments, dismissed what did not fit as nonsense. . . .

What I call Law and Economics instead begins with an agnostic acceptance of the world as it is, as the lawyer describes it to be. It then looks to whether economic theory can explain that world, that reality. And if it cannot, rather than automatically dismissing that world as irrational, it asks two questions.

The first is, are the legal scholars who are describing the legal reality looking at the world as it really is? Or is there something in their way of seeing the world that has led them to mischaracterize that reality? . . . . If . . . even a more comprehensive view of legal reality discloses rules and practices that economic theory cannot explain, Law and Economics asks a second question. Can economic theory be amplified, can it be made broader or more subtle . . . so that it can explain why the real world of law is at it is?

For Calabresi, behavioral economics is a great example of the kind of “bilateral relationship between economic theory and the world as it is” that he calls Law and Economics, because it has expanded economic theory to account for humans’ predictable irrationalities, and for some higher principles of altruism and fair play.

Calabresi’s chapter on non-profit institutions is a particularly strong vindication of the “Law and Economics” (as opposed to “Economic Analysis of Law”) perspective.  For market enthusiasts, the lack of profit motive at universities and hospitals is the key to understanding all that ails them. But from a more cosmopolitan perspective, one could just as easily conclude that the excess marketization of US systems of health and education (relative to, say, a European benchmark) is the better explanation.

Nevertheless, we can still expect plenty of government and corporate agitation to promote the profit motive in these sectors, however bad its results may be. Ugo Mattei (in a 2006 essay on Calabresi’s work) helps explain why:

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Beatles in the Ether or Streaming

By now many may know that The Beatles catalog (or most of it) is available for streaming on the major services. I happen to love The Beatles and easily recommend Cirque du Soleil’s Love in Las Vegas. But the streaming option presents some questions to which I have not seen answers. First, did the services offer anything extra or special to get the rights (I can’t recall the state of streaming license law as far as flat rate or baseline rate to stream if the rights are granted)? Second, will the rights holders (I can’t recall where those have ended up) track the money from streaming versus selling the tracks and albums? If they do what will they find? Work on P2P music sharing and its effect on music and a study on the effect of free options for film may shed light on the future for Beatles revenues. The film study offered:

Together our results suggest that creative artists can use product differentiation and market segmentation strategies to compete with freely available copies of their content. Specifically, the post-broadcast increase in DVD sales suggests that giving away content in one channel can stimulate sales in a paid channel if the free content is sufficiently differentiated from its paid counterpart. Likewise, our finding that the presence of pirated content does not cannibalize sales for the movies in our sample suggests that if free and paid products appeal to separate customer segments, the presence of free products need not harm paid sales.

If music works in a way similar to film, The Beatles rights holders may expand their pie, not reduce it.

Either way I am happy to enjoy the streaming options while they last.

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Politics of Process-Tricky Stuff

The walls between commercial and political products, processes, and speech continue to collapse. Douglas Kysar’s Preferences for Processes: The Process/Product Distinction and the Regulation of Consumer Choice, calls out that “[g]lobalization . . . has enhanced the flow of information, not merely goods, and information regarding processes increasingly is finding its way down-stream” such that “consumer preferences may be heavily influenced by information regarding the manner in which goods are produced.” (118 Harv. L. Rev. 525, 529, 641 (2004)). A recent decision by the EU highlights the tension.

According to the Economist, the EU has rules that will mean that goods made in West Bank will no longer be labeled as “Produce of Israel” but “Produce of the West Bank (Israeli settlement)”. As I have argued in Speech, Citizenry, and the Market “What we buy, what we use, how we make, and how we use have moved beyond pure, personal cost evaluations. Today the idea that purchasing choices are ‘purely private concerns’ is less clear and often inaccurate.” I think this point holds for both sides of this decision. The EU claims that the rule is “to ensure consumers are not misinformed;” not discriminate against Israel. Israel disagrees. According to the Economist at least one wine maker in the West Bank said “This will probably only make [his wines] more popular.” And “He is already planning a line of Christmas gift-boxes with additional settlement products, which he believes will be a hit in evangelical communities in America.” Is the rule increasing information or it is enabling discrimination? The answer is both views seem correct. Insofar as there is better information about where a product is made, people may choose to buy or not to buy based on politics. Thus the EU is providing more information (though may be not clearing up “misinformation”), and yes, some may not stock or buy goods made in the West Bank and in that sense discriminate.

In short, the EU rule creates the possibility for feedback from the market and that feedback can mean a range of things. As Kysar predicted, consumers “may well come to view such preferences as their most appropriate mechanism for influencing the policies and conditions of a globalized world.” If the rule influences the market, as I put the point about corporate speech, “Consumers are voting for policy through the market.” That said, if as the Economist indicated “Israel’s Economics Ministry reckons that it could cause no more than $50m-worth of damage to Israeli producers a year, out of some $300m exported from the settlements (and some $18.9 billion that Israel exports to Europe,” then it seems the gesture is trying to send a signal beyond just letting the market signal processes it cares about. As I said, the walls between commercial and political continue to collapse; maybe they were never that separate.

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Upcoming Symposium on Law & Econ

I’m pleased to announce that CoOp will be hosting an online symposium during the first week of February on Guido Calabrese’s new book entitled The Future of Law Economics:  Essays in Reform and Recollection.  Participants will include: Ian Ayres, Lee Fennell, Carol Rose, Arden Rowell, Ken Abraham, and Dan Cole. Should be fun.

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Centralizers: Uber vs the Others (Lyft, Didi Kuaidi, Ola, and GrabTaxi)

Uber is looking to raise more than $2 billion; Lyft, Didi Kuaidi, Ola, and GrabTaxi have formed a global alliance to counter Uber. Where or where is the disruptive scrappy tech savior? Answer: It existed briefly and the next phase is with us. In The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption I argued that [T]his era of disruption and decentralization will likely pass and new winners, who will look much like firms of old, will emerge, if they have not already.” I was building on the ideas Gerard Magliocca and I explored in our work on 3D printing. Although some technologies have helped decentralize production and distribution, to think that centralized players would all go away or new ones not emerge is a mistake. I was focused on safety, stability, liability and insights from Douglass North.

As I said in the paper:

Douglass North captures a paradox that goes with transaction costs. Greater specialization, division of labor, and a large market increase transaction costs, because the shift to impersonal transactions demands higher costs to: 1) measure the valuable dimensions of a good or service; 2) protect individual property rights; 3) enforce agreements; and 4) integrate the dispersed knowledge of society.26 Standardized weights and measures, effective laws and enforcement, and institutions and organizations that integrate knowledge emerge, but the “dramatic increase in the overall costs of transacting” is “more than offset by dramatic decreases in production costs.” Digitization forces us to revisit these issues.

Uber’s success and the response of the other players raises another point. Although I think that society will favor centralized players in the long run, because that allows for some regulation; the process of centralization may also occur for simpler reasons. When one big player starts to break away from the pack, the rest may co-operate or consolidate to keep pace. There may be one winer or a handful. Either way, as Seattle now allows Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize and calls for more regulation continue, the former disruptors will be seen as the new centralized power and treated as such. The reasons offered for that treatment are what draw my interest and where legal theory has and will see some action.

Four Futures of Legal Automation

BarbicanThere are many gloom-and-doom narratives about the legal profession. One of the most persistent is “automation apocalypse.” In this scenario, computers will study past filings, determine what patterns of words work best, and then—poof!—software will eat the lawyer’s world.

Conditioned to be preoccupied by worst-case scenarios, many attorneys have panicked about robo-practitioners on the horizon. Meanwhile, experts differ on the real likelihood of pervasive legal automation. Some put the risk to lawyers at under 4%; others claim legal practice is fundamentally routinizable. I’ve recently co-authored an essay that helps explain why such radical uncertainty prevails.

While futurists affect the certainties of physicists, visions of society always reflect contestable political aspirations. Those predicting doom for future lawyers usually harbor ideological commitments that are not that friendly to lawyers of the present. Displacing the threat to lawyers to machines (rather than, say, the decisionmakers who can give machines’ doings the legal effect of what was once done by qualified persons) is a way of not merely rationalizing, but also speeding up, the hoped-for demise of an adversary. Just like the debate over killer robots can draw attention away from the persons who design and deploy them, so too can current controversy over robo-lawyering distract from the more important political and social trends that make automated dispute resolution so tempting to managers and bureaucrats.

It is easy to justify a decline in attorneys’ income or status by saying that software could easily do their work. It’s harder to explain why the many non-automatable aspects of current legal practice should be eliminated or uncompensated. That’s one reason why stale buzzwords like “disruption” crowd out serious reflection on the drivers of automation. A venture capitalist pushing robotic caregivers doesn’t want to kill investors’ buzz by reflecting on the economic forces promoting algorithmic selfhood. Similarly, #legaltech gurus know that a humane vision of legal automation, premised on software that increases quality and opportunities for professional judgment, isn’t an easy sell to investors keen on speed, scale, and speculation. Better instead to present lawyers as glorified elevator operators, replaceable with a sufficiently sophisticated user interface.

Our essay does not predict lawyers’ rise or fall. That may disappoint some readers. But our main point is to make the public conversation about the future of law a more open and honest one. Technology has shaped, and will continue to influence, legal practice. Yet its effect can be checked or channeled by law itself. Since different types of legal work are more or less susceptible to automation, and society can be more or less regulatory, we explore four potential future climates for the development of legal automation. We call them, in shorthand, Vestigial Legal Profession, Society of Control, Status Quo, and Second Great Compression. An abstract appears below.

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Guido on Law and Economics

Guido Calabresi has a new book coming out in January on Law and Economics.  While I’m not an unbiased source (as his former clerk), I have read a draft and think this will make a big splash.  Closer to the release date, it is my hope that CoOp will hold a Symposium on this book and see if we can host Guido’s first-ever blog post.

Taking Human Capital Theory Seriously: Simkovic on “The Knowledge Tax”

Graduate professional education in the US is facing a financing squeeze. Some argue that those learning to become doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers, and the like should get no help from the federal government, because they tend to earn higher incomes than average. Others question that premise, arguing that past results of grad degrees are no guarantee of future performance. They believe that an impending wave of defaults on federal student loans will raise the cost of federal credit programs.

Nevertheless, each side argues for policy with convergent outcomes. The “grad students will be rich” camp argues for curtailing federal loans, since they believe professionals can handle the higher interest rates on the private market. The “grad students will be poor” camp wants to raise the rates on federal student loans, to build up the already hefty surpluses the government is now making, to prepare for the putative future defaults. In the eyes of both, graduate students are the undeserving recipients of government largesse.

I’m not convinced by either: the “too rich” camp fails to value professional services properly, and the “too poor” camp is relying on controversial accounting techniques. But until I read Mike Simkovic’s recent paper “The Knowledge Tax,” I’d never thought of an even more fundamental distortion at work here: tax policy. Simkovic lays out the problem with characteristic clarity, considering a hypothetical college graduate deciding on (1) attending medical school and practicing medicine; or (2) purchasing a small vacant building and converting it into rental apartments:
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