Category: Law and Inequality

The Black Box Society: Interviews

My book, The Black Box Society, is finally out! In addition to the interview Lawrence Joseph conducted in the fall, I’ve been fortunate to complete some radio and magazine interviews on the book. They include:

New Books in Law

Stanford Center for Internet & Society: Hearsay Culture

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: The Spark

Texas Public Radio: The Source

WNYC: Brian Lehrer Show.

Fleishman-Hillard’s True.

I hope to be back to posting soon, on some of the constitutional and politico-economic themes in the book.


Law and the Marriage Gap


In his column this week at Al-Jazeera on inequality and marriage,  David Cay Johnston uses our recent book, Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family, to show why marriage has become a class privilege. He suggests a variety of policies to promote investment in the next generation, policies that start to get at an issue we struggled with in the book (and that we thought would be an easy question): what role did the law play in the emerging class gulf in family formation, with the college graduates who have long been the leading champions of the sex revolution settling down into very traditional marriages while marriage seemed to be disappearing from working class communities that once espoused more conventional values?

Our initial inclination was to say not much. The first section of the book argued that the change in the economy and, particularly the disappearance of well-paying stable blue collar jobs for men, explained most of the shift in family form and, indeed, that the economic changes produced fairly predictable cultural changes that increased gender distrust and produced less reliance on marriage To be sure, we acknowledged Carl Schneider’s work two decades ago arguing that family law plays a “channelling function” in reinforcing shared notions of appropriate behavior. But, we also recognized that the class-based marriage divide is not about different norms; most Americans, regardless of race or class, expect to marry and value what marriage has to offer in similar ways. They differ primarily   in whether they expect to find a suitable partner and a point in their lives where marriage makes sense.

As we dug deeper into the research, however, we ultimately did come to a different conclusion: a conclusion that the law does matter and has something to do with the decision about whether it makes sense to marry a particular partner. Read More


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…


Blue Collar Blues

The working class man is a hot topic this month. The publication of Andrew Cherlin’s new book, Labor’s Love Lost, a series of  New York Times articles, and recent Washington Post articles on the middle class  have called more attention to the social and economic plight of the working class man. For thinking conservative men, such as the New York Time’s Ross Douthat and the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox, much of that inquiry is focused on the issue of gender: is the move toward “an egalitarian vision of gender roles in parenting and breadwinning” part of the reason for the reinvention of marriage for the elite and of its decline for the working class? And is greater tolerance of non-marital sexuality an essential part of this egalitarian vision? An op ed in the Wall Street Journal this week went even farther to declare that the “biggest culprit” in family breakdown “is feminism’s devaluing of males and the conceit that “strong women” can do it all.”

We are particularly interested in the relationship between economic inequality, gender, and family structure not just because we teach family law, but also because we are often attacked for our claims that family structure – and the legal developments that underlie it — are tied to the economy. But we are bemused by the claims that changes in gender roles are a cause rather than a consequence of the increasing instability of working class families. Instead, we are wondering if the focus on gender isn’t really a distraction – a distraction from the remarkable development taking place in discussions of the family. Now that marriage equality no longer occupies the disproportionate share of national attention, there is something close to consensus taking place. That consensus is that family stability for the working class is unlikely to return without better jobs.

Few serious academics dispute that the disappearance of stable, well-paying jobs for blue collar men has a lot to do with the decline in blue collar marriage and the increased rate of divorce. And few serious academic disputes that cultural changes reinforce the effect. The point of our book, Marriage Markets, was to explain how the law institutionalizes a new model of marriage (the subject of our next blog) and (the focus of this blog) how a changing economy does not just produce less marriage in some straight-line fashion that varies with the latest marginal change in unemployment rates, but rather how it changes the way men and women relate to each other producing reinforcing cycles of gender distrust.

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Interview on The Black Box Society

BBSBalkinization just published an interview on my forthcoming book, The Black Box Society. Law profs may be interested in our dialogue on methodology—particularly, what the unique role of the legal scholar is in the midst of increasing academic specialization. I’ve tried to surface several strands of inspiration for the book.

Digital Labor & Rethinking Economics

LaborDayIt’s easy to document the degradation of work conditions in the wake of capital’s ascendance. I’ve done so for years, fully expecting that globalization would push the downward convergence of non-college-educated American workers’ living standards to that of the 73% of the global work force now living in the developing world. But I think we are in the midst of a sea change of resistance. Just listen to Belabored, an extraordinary series of podcasts on labor struggles (with plenty of print/web sources accompanying each broadcast). Or, if you’re in, or can visit, New York City, try to attend the following two conferences:

Rethinking Economics: A student-led movement, this group has an all-star line-up for a conference on Sept. 12-14. I’m particularly happy to see Philip Mirowski in the mix, as his Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown was one of my most enjoyable (and illuminating) reads this summer.

Digital Labor: This November conference will “will bring together designers, labor organizers, theorists, social entrepreneurs, historians, legal scholars, independent researchers, cultural producers and perspectives from workers themselves to discuss emerging forms of mutual aid and solidarity.” I attended the first iteration in 2009, and am on the Advisory Board for this one. It should be a fascinating event, particularly as forms of exploitation common in the “gig economy” influence large corporations.

Photo Credit: Karen Horton.

Konczal on Piketty

There are a number of excellent reviews of Piketty out there; to the 14 Brad Delong collected, I’d add James K. Galbraith and Paul Krugman as well. As a former vox clamantis in deserto, I’m happy to see them. Today Mike Konczal weighs in, with a Foucauldian take:

As Foucault argued, the ability of social science to know something is the ability to anthropologize it, a power to define it. As such, it becomes a problem to be solved, a question needing an answer, something to be put on a grid of intelligibility, and a domain of expertise that exerts power over what it studies. With Piketty’s Capital, this process is now being extended to the rich and the elite. Understanding how the elite become what they are, and how their wealth perpetuates itself, is now a hot topic of scientific inquiry.

Many have tried to figure out why the rich are freaking out these days. Their wealth was saved from the financial panic, they are having a very excellent recovery, and they are poised to reap even greater gains going forward. Perhaps they are noticing that the dominant narratives about their role in society—-avatars of success, job creators for the common good, innovators for social betterment, problem-solving philanthropists—-are being replaced with a social science narrative where they are a problem to be studied. They are still in control, but right to be worried.

Joanne Barkan’s debunking of philanthrocapitalism is part of that story; I’d also expect to see much more reporting from Lee Fang and Republic Report on the tangled interests behind primary challenges and much think tank advocacy. Some may even suggest that children be taught the names of local billionaires, rather than those of the governor and top legislative officials, to understand how politics works. The Pikettian moment marks the inflection point when extreme wealth can’t simply be written off as some ancillary feature of our political economy, but rather, as one of its motivating forces.


Bottlenecks and copyright

Yes, you read that headline correctly. This post explores how Joseph Fishkin’s new theory of equal opportunity applies to… copyright law. As I hinted earlier, this is seemingly an unlikely connection. It is thus a connection that uniquely demonstrates the generativity of Bottlenecks.

Other posts in this symposium by Wendy Greene and Jessica Roberts have explored how Bottlenecks applies in the context of workplace anti-discrimination rules. Brishen Rogers extends the workplace focus by exploring how labor unions fit into the theory. And my own earlier post connects Bottlenecks to legal education reform.

Copyright scholarship, however, is not where we expect to encounter a new theory of equal opportunity. Yet that is where I found myself applying Fishkin’s framework, which finally provided the language and conceptual clarity to express what struck me as so profoundly problematic within my own field.

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Identity Performance as a Bottleneck to Employment Opportunity

In his timely and provocative book, Professor Joey Fishkin makes an important intervention to anti-discrimination law praxis and theory. Poignantly, he observes that in developing anti-discrimination legislation and doctrine, policy makers as well as judges have largely focused on either eliminating or diminishing severe, pervasive, and arbitrary bottlenecks in the opportunity structure as opposed to focusing singularly on the achievement of equal outcomes. He defines bottlenecks as a “narrow place in the opportunity structure through which one must pass in order to successfully pursue a wide range of valued goals.” (Page 13). Professor Fishkin identifies three types of bottlenecks—“qualification,” “developmental,” and “instrumental good”—that policy should address in educational and employment contexts to bring about “equality pluralism”: “[the] opening up a broader range of opportunities for everyone.” (Page 2). As a race and law and employment discrimination law scholar, I am particularly interested in how Fishkin’s “anti-bottleneck” principle applies to arbitrary “qualification bottlenecks” in the employment context. Indeed, my scholarship on grooming codes discrimination illuminates how an obscured yet severe and pervasive “qualification bottleneck”—(non)conformity with racialized and gendered identity performance standards imposed by employers (which are reified within anti-discrimination jurisprudence like Title VII)—constrains or widens one’s range of employment opportunities.In this post, I will draw upon my scholarship on grooming codes discrimination to briefly explicate how one’s ability to navigate and negotiate identity performance demands limits or increases employment opportunities. Read More


Health as a Bottleneck

In his thoughtful and path-breaking book, Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity, Joey Fishkin challenges the common conception of equal opportunity as providing a level playing field.  He explains that merely equalizing opportunity at critical points in a person’s life, such when she applies for a desirable job or college program, is often not enough. By then, social inequities and previous limited opportunities may have already taken their toll on the affected individuals, perhaps leaving them underprepared and ill-equipped to meaningfully compete—let alone succeed—even when given the chance.  Fishkin explains that this line of reasoning puts us in a vicious cycle: To achieve true equal opportunity, interventions must happen earlier.  But when is earlier?  The disadvantaged job applicant could have benefited from a better college education.  Yet the disadvantaged college student could also have benefited from a better high school education.  And the disadvantaged high school student could have benefited from a better primary school education. And the disadvantaged primary school student could have benefited from having parents with higher incomes and more time to devote to parenting, which just takes us back to the disadvantaged job applicant.  Hence, Fishkin identifies a key flaw in the traditional construction of equal opportunity: We are all the products of our opportunities, and those opportunities can never be truly “equal.”  To that end, he endorses “opportunity pluralism,” which he defines as making more opportunities available to more people.  Thus, in a society that limits educational or job opportunities based on a particular standardized test, we can move away from asking whether the test is a fair metric and instead ask why the opportunity structure depends upon its results.

Fishkin christens these opportunity-limiting factors “bottlenecks” and pushes us to understand traditional antidiscrimination protections through that lens.  Thus, well-known protected statuses, such as race and sex, can be understood as bottlenecks because certain opportunities have been construed to require whiteness or maleness.  But legally recognized antidiscrimination categories, such as race and sex, are not the only bottlenecks we have to contend with.  Employers also restrict opportunities based on other factors, such as college education, credit history, criminal convictions, or unemployment.  My own scholarship has dealt extensively with yet another employer bottleneck: health.

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