Category: Legal Theory

Beware of Geese Bearing Gold

goldenegg.jpgThe NYT Mag. had a tricky dilemma yesterday: how to devote an issue to rising inequality without spooking the advertisers who hock multi-million-dollar vacation condos with space for “mega-yachts.” An old bromide came to the rescue: don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Echoing Arthur Okun, Roger Lowenstein warns us of a tragic choice: “how can you promote equality without killing off the genie of American prosperity?” He reminds us that the most egalitarian time in American history was that quagmire of stagflation, the seventies:

Remember that while the decade may have been a high-water mark for American egalitarianism, the country was also in its worst economic funk since the Great Depression. Unemployment and inflation were raging, growth was tepid and the stock market was depressed. An economist named Alan Greenspan termed it “the Great Malaise.”

Lowenstein argues that the “cures” for the seventies (deregulation, free trade, and financial speculation) all accelerate inequality. And if we try to look a bit more like a European social democracy, watch out: “the price for being Belgian is steep: [its] median disposable income — what people have left to spend after they pay taxes and collect welfare-type payments — is only 72 percent as high as ours.” But don’t worry–we can educate ourselves out of the gap, since “college grads make more than 40 percent more than high-school grads[, and] those with postgraduate degrees earn twice as much.”

The NYT editorial page, under a bit less pressure to sell ultraluxe adspace, has a more sober view:

New college graduates . . . have been told repeatedly that a college degree is an open sesame to the global economy. But that’s not necessarily so, according to new research by two economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Frank Levy and Peter Temin. . . . [A] college degree does not ensure a bigger share of the economic pie for many graduates. . . . [Rather,] an outsized share of productivity growth, which expands the nation’s total income, is going to Americans at the top of the income scale. In 2005, the latest year with available data, the top 1 percent of Americans — whose average annual income was $1.1 million — took in 21.8 percent of the nation’s income, their largest share since 1929.

That’s income, not wealth–and the latter measure is far more skewed. Moreover, asset inequality has grown since the housing boom put a chasm between families who bought last century and those who have to face the market now.

I’ve got a few more bones to pick with Lowenstein beneath the fold. . . .

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No Obituaries for Rorty: Where’s the Mainstream Media?

All across the blogosphere, bloggers are writing about the passing of Richard Rorty, a major American philosopher and public intellectual. He died on Friday, yet I still have been unable to find a story or an obituary by any major mainstream media entity. The lack of one made me think that perhaps the story of Rorty’s passing was in error, yet I’ve found nothing in the blogs and commentary to indicate that the story is false. Thus, I’m quite perplexed at the slowness of the mainstream media to report this story. We know within seconds that Paris Hilton has gone back to jail and we have up-to-the-nanosecond updates. Millions of words have been uttered about it. Yet hardly a word about Rorty. This is a very sad commentary about the mainstream media today.

UPDATE: Finally, three days after his death, the MSM mentions it. As pointed out in the comments, the Washington Post and New York Times have good obituaries.


My Lunch with Richard Rorty

Like Dan, I am saddened to learn that Richard Rorty has passed away. Dan is right to praise Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, a genuinely important book in English-speaking philosophy. But as an eager undergraduate, I was more fond of Rorty’s essays in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity and Consequences of Pragmatism. I think I was drawn to the elegance with which Rorty could modulate from the formidable abstractions of “core” Anglo-American analytical philosophy to a humanistic discussion of topics like literature and politics. (It is not hard to see this now as foreshadowing my eventual career as a law prof rather than a philosopher.)

I met him once. In 1994, my senior year of college, I flew to Charlottesville, where Rorty then taught, to interview him for a college philosophy journal I worked on. Beautiful place in the fall. We met in his office and talked, then had lunch at a local spot. He was retiring but pleasant, with a personality that led him to seemingly turn inwards, formulate his response to his interlocutor, and then come up again to deliver it. (I do this too.) He fielded my good questions as well as my not-so-good ones with courtesy.

(To save funds, I had crashed the night before on a mattress in a UVA frat house, after attending their Halloween party. It was a good trip.)

You can actually read this interview. I was surprised to see it published by Routledge several years ago as part of a collection of our journal’s interviews with leading philosophers. (I also did the W.V. Quine interview, with the help of a friend who is now a corporate lawyer in Tokyo. I like the Rorty one better.)

I didn’t agree with Rorty about everything then, and disagree with him about more now. I think his more belletristic essays will also prove his most lasting. It was actually Rorty’s criticism that first introduced me to the novels of Nabokov. His autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (available online, though I am not quite certain about its public status) is a fine memoir. And Rorty’s prose is a model for any American academic who wants to develop an accessible and perspicuous style. But I remain grateful for the stimulation of all of his writings, and for his kindness to a callow undergraduate.

UPDATE: My interview with Richard Rorty can be found here.


Richard Rorty, R.I.P.

rorty-richard.gifFrom Crooked Timber, I have learned that the philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) has passed away. An early announcement of his passing is here. Rorty helped revive pragmatism and spark a renewed interest in the work of John Dewey and other pragmatists of the first part of the twentieth century. He developed a brand of neo-pragmatism that fused some of the ideas of the classical pragmatists with a postmodern skepticism. I personally find myself more in agreement with the classical pragmatists, though I owe a great dept to Rorty’s attempt to reinvigorate pragmatism. I also celebrate his attempt to bring literature and narrative into his philosophy, his clear and engaging writing style, and his desire to be relevant, addressing many key questions in law and politics. Moreover, Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) remains one of my favorite works of philosophy. He will be missed.

The Appeal of Anti-Heroes

sopranosreading.jpgAs The Sopranos draws to a close, I’ve been impressed by its loyal following. I watched it for the year or so I had a TiVo, and it had a certain appeal. But when you look at devotionals like Sopranos Sue’s Sightings, it’s clear that this Sunday’s finale is on a lot of people’s minds. It’s but one of many shows with heroes who consistently break the rules–from the impatient House to the hip robbers in Ocean’s 11 to 13 to recent “stop snitching” campaigns. What accounts for all these anti-heroes? Are they part of a larger cultural trend toward suspecting all institutions?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that, but I am a bit concerned about the allure of outlawry in pop (and cyber) culture. Consider this passage from an Andrew Koppelmann article on the concept of moral harm:

Any work of literature promotes certain desires and projects in the reader. Wayne Booth observes that narratives, when we are paying attention to them, tend to reshape us. As we read “a large part of our thought-stream is taken over, at least for the duration of the telling, by the story we are taking in.” Any text will imply an

author, possibly different from the real historical author, whose presence can be felt by the reader. As I read, my

thinking becomes that of the implied author: “I begin to see as he or she sees, to feel as she feels, to love what

he loves, or to mock what she mocks.”

I believe an essay in Reading the Sopranos suggests that Tony is more a reflection of his time than an outlier in an age of rampant “amoral familism.” But I ultimately find myself resisting Booth’s suggestion here. Are we really in danger of becoming bad people by reading about (or watching) bad people? Is literature that powerful? And if so, should we worry about reading so many legal cases involving sharp dealing, trickery, and crime?

Expensive Tastes and Bitrates

PrincessPea.jpg“Expensive tastes” pose a problem for egalitarians. If we want to make everyone equally happy, we’ll have to devote far more resources to the “pea-phobic princesses” than to hardier folks inured to suffering. On the other hand, if someone isn’t responsible for their expensive tastes, how different are they from the “eggshell skull” plaintiff so protected by tort law?

Perhaps the key moral issue here is to avoid cultivating expensive tastes. That might lead us to applaud China’s new discouragement of luxury goods:

Xinhua, the government’s official mouthpiece, warned that big spenders risked becoming “intoxicated with comfort” and sinking “into depravity”. Last week the mayor of Beijing, Wang Qishan, went a stage further by calling for controls on outdoor advertisements that promote . . . “ultra-distinguished” products, on the grounds that they “encourage luxury and self-indulgence, which are not conducive to harmony.”

It’s “glorious to get rich,” but not to flaunt it. Just think of how many Americans thought of folksy Sam Walton as being “just like them.”

On the other hand, the expensive tastes of the overrefined can subsidize the rest of us. Though a declining model in the airline industry, it might reemerge in music. Consider this news on Apple’s new DRM-free files:

The Apple iTunes store, the largest seller of music downloads, began selling tracks from EMI Music yesterday without any restrictions on copying, for a slightly higher price than usual, $1.29 instead of 99 cents. To sweeten the deal, those tracks have better sound, with a bitrate of 256 kilobits per second (kbps), up from the standard 128 kbps. Apple has gone so far as to say that this results “in audio quality indistinguishable from the original recording.”

Hooray for the “golden ears,” whose supersensitivity to quality music may end up buoying an industry driven to distraction by declining sales.

But before we get too comfortable with that model, consider this cautionary tale quoted by James Boyle:

It is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof over the third-class carriages or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches ….What the company is trying to do i s to prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from travelling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich . . . . And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class passengers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.

Having just endured another terrible Amtrak travel experience, that seems as true today as it did in 1962.

Illustration credit: Edmund Dulac.

“The Largest NGO in the World is in DC”

So claims Paul Hawken, referring to the current administration’s laissez-faire approach to environmental regulation. His new book suggests that thousands of smaller groups are going to have to take the government’s place, offering small-scale solutions for sustainability. Hawken’s remedy reminds me of the “new governance” theory that’s been hot in admin circles for the past two decades. NG emphasizes flexible and fluid relationships between public and private bodies to develop pragmatic policy responses to intractable problems.

I find a lot to admire in this work, but a recent interview with corporate environmental evangelist Ray Anderson highlights some limits to the approach:

Mr. Anderson is . . . proud to say that as a member of an advisory council at Georgia Tech, he persuaded the institution to modify its mission statement to proclaim the goal of “working for a sustainable society.” But there is a lot that even business cannot accomplish on its own, he said. For example, he said, the tax code is “perverse,” in that it puts heavy taxes on good things, like income and capital, and leaves a lot of bad things, like energy use, relatively unscathed. And economists typically underestimate the true cost of doing business because they exclude “externalities,” like environmental damage from pollution.

Anderson’s story of building a sustainable carpet manufacturer was a major highlight of the film The Corporation, and he makes a lot of sense here. As Carol Rose pointed out in The Several Futures of Property, some authoritative institution has to set some initial allocation of “rights to pollute,” etc. And someone has to come up with an agreed way of measuring externalities, a notoriously difficult process. If, as Ed Glaeser proposes, “American and European carbon taxes [should] provide funding that could be used to reward poorer countries for cutting emissions,” some government has to impose the tax.

Of course, the NG theorists realize these things. I just bring them up to chasten any optimism about “small-scale” solutions making the crucial contribution to solving environmental dilemmas. It’s no wonder why the “average building in the U.S. uses roughly a third more energy than its German counterpart;” our “federal government has yet to establish universal efficiency standards for buildings.”

Law Podcasts

If law reviews and blogs just aren’t enough for you (or if your eyes readily tire), try some law podcasts! Here are a few I’ve enjoyed recently:

–Margot Adler, Justice Talking. I’ve been impressed by the experts she gets and her tough follow-up questions during interviews. The show on presidential primaries has some fascinating legal angles on the process–did you know that the national parties are planning to severely penalize any candidate who campaigns in certain states before certain deadlines (by cutting those states’ delegations)?

–David Levine, Hearsay Culture. This one focuses on law & technology. Too busy to read Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia? Listen here! Richard Epstein is also an engaging guest. Sadly, you have to listen live to hear Levine’s ingenious music selections, such as “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” for Epstein.

To find these, type something like “hearsay culture” or “margot adler” in the search box in the iTunes store.

Any other podcast suggestions from readers?

Redistribution as/and Recognition

WaterBurning.jpgIn a methodologically interesting essay, Harvey Mansfield makes a silly substantive argument:

You can tell who is in charge of a society by noticing who is allowed to get angry and for what cause, rather than by trying to gauge how much each group gets. Blacks and women wanted benefits only as a sign of equality, not to give themselves greater purchasing power.

I’m much more partial to my colleague Shavar Jeffries’ point that “black people need radical substantive change in their quality of life;” symbolic politics means little in the face of inequalities that greatly reduce individuals’ chances at health care, education, and safe and affordable housing.

This is perhaps why Nancy Fraser worries that “insofar as the politics of recognition displaces the politics of redistribution, it may actually promote economic inequality; insofar as it reifies group identities, it risks sanctioning violations of human rights and freezing the very antagonisms it purports to mediate.” But unlike Walter Benn Michaels and Mansfield, Fraser believes “struggles for recognition can [legitimately] aid the redistribution of power and wealth.” Her books, including Unruly Practices, give some fascinating examples of how that can happen. If you’re tired of reading, check out Deepa Mehta’s film Water.

So why did I think the Mansfield essay methodologically interesting?

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Milking The Secret

It looks like pressure from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (via the Federal Trade Commission) has gotten the Dairy Industry to stop touting milk as a diet food. They need to provide more substantiation of the link between “dairy consumption and weight loss.”

So what about The Secret? For those unfamiliar with this self-help phenomenon, here’s a nice summary from Emily Yoffe:

There are now 5.3 million copies of the book in print in the United States. . . .[i]t is a No. 1 best seller in Australia, England, and Ireland, and it is scheduled to be translated into 30 languages. . . There’s no secret to The Secret. The book and movie simply state that your thoughts control the universe. Through this “law of attraction” you “manifest” your desires. “It is exactly like placing an order from a catalogue. . . . You must know that what you want is yours the moment you ask.” “See yourself living in abundance and you will attract it. It works every time, with every person.”

Even Oprah is buying it . . . despite the fact the book contains such extraordinarily irresponsible claims as “You cannot ‘catch’ anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought.”

Could the FTC do anything to stop the marketing of The Secret? At first this case reminded me of the not-so-clairvoyant Miss Cleo, but it turns out her transgressions were mainly of rules regarding 1-900 numbers. A quick perusal of Rebecca Tushnet’s fantastic blog led me to this post about a big fine against makers of the Q-Ray bracelet for “infomercials . . . falsely representing that (1) the bracelet provides immediate, significant or complete pain relief and (2) scientific tests prove the pain-relief claims.”

Perhaps The Secret lacks the “immediacy” prong of that accusation. But it does rely pretty heavily on both scientific and religious rhetoric. Consider this little tidbit from Yoffe, describing its author:

She asserts that “the discoveries of quantum physics … are in total harmony with the teachings of The Secret.” To prove this, she explains, “I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them.”

And I want to devise a perpetual motion machine! I’ll just envision it working and it’ll come true, right?

A few more thoughts beneath the fold….

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