Category: Legal Theory

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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Limits of Performance Enhancement

antlers.jpgImagine it’s 2020, you’ve begun working at a firm, and you’re having trouble keeping up. All the other employees are working 75 hours a week, take no vacations, and seem both alert and happy all the time. You ask some confidantes there “how do you do it?” All mention some variety of cognitive enhancement: one takes modafinil to concentrate, another uses chemicals that were originally designed for fighter pilots. Do you take the pills to keep up?

That was one of a few hypos posed yesterday during a presentation I made to the Yale Information Society Project. Though I thought the problematic nature of that situation pretty intuitive, I got pushed to specify exactly what was wrong. So here are some ideas, from different perspectives:

1) Safety: What if the drug shortens lifespan? Surely that’s a problem that would make this scenario pretty analogous to steroids in sports. I hope no one seriously thinks that we want to allow athletes to risk terrible consequences in the future to compete better today. I also think that even a small increase in risk to health ought to render the “super worker” pills problematic. . . . though I admit it’s hard to specify how much. Shortening life expectancy by a month? a year? 10 years? I’ll admit that the choice between those options is an inevitably ideological one.

But let’s assume for now these pills are as safe as caffeine. What’s the harm then? Four takes below the fold…

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Ten Smiles Per Hour: Tax on the Dour?

happyface.jpgTaking a break from weighty topics like world hunger, Peter Singer reflects on an Australian City’s decision to encourage cheer among residents:

[T]he city of Port Phillip . . . has been using volunteers to find out how often people smile at those who pass them in the street. It then put up signs that look like speed limits, but tell pedestrians that they are in, for example, a “10 Smiles Per Hour Zone.” . . . . Mayor Janet Bolitho says that [smiling] . . . . encourages people to feel more connected with each other and safer, so it reduces fear of crime – an important element in the quality of life of many neighborhoods.

Singer backs the effort, based on some “happiness research” mentioned in my last post: “promoting friendship is often easy, cheap, and can have big payoffs in making people happier. So why shouldn’t that be a focus of public policy?”

I was reminded of Quentin Crisp’s classic comparison of England and America: the former combines a generous welfare state with icy social mores, while the latter has sunny individuals and comparatively stingy social provision. But we shouldn’t discount the role of happy cultures in creating happy people; as Barbara Ehrenreich has noted, perhaps the rise in rates of depression “can be connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnival and other traditional festivities.”

Some theorists of discrimination might argue that government intervention to change a sticky norm of unfriendliness amounts to a tax on the dour. Why are they being forced to affect sentiments they don’t authentically feel? But I think the problem has less to do with “faking it” than with the systematic substitution of, say, well-founded dread with carefree bonhomie. Consider U.S. teens’ expectations of future earning power:

American teens believe … that when they get older they will be earning an average annual salary of $145,500. Interestingly, boys expect to earn an average $173,000 a year and girls $114,200 … The fact is, only about 14 percent of U.S. households have incomes between $100,000 and $200,000, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income in the United States is actually $46,326.

Perhaps the boys’ keen understanding of current fiscal policy has led them to anticipate a hyperinflation.

Admittedly, the optimal level of cheer (or optimism) in a society is impossible to assess in the abstract. But I think Port Philip’s strategy may ultimately backfire. It threatens to set in motion a Gresham’s law of public gladness, whereby bad smiles drive out (or at least devalue) the good. Perhaps a certain seigniorage of cheer will increase gross happiness in the short run. But in the end, it may well set us on the road to a situation like that described in Vaclav Havel’s essay on the grocer in Power of the Powerless. Grinning done as public duty may be indistinguishable from a grimace.

Photo Credit: Flickr/TobyLeah.


The Death of Fact-finding and the Birth of Truth

magnififying.jpgToday’s Supreme Court decision in Scott v. Harris is likely to have profound long-term jurisprudential consequences. At stake: whether trial courts, or appellate courts, are to have the last say on what the record means. Or, more grandly, does litigation make findings of fact, or truth?

The story itself is pretty simple. Victor Harris was speeding on a Georgia highway. Timothy Scott, a state deputy, attempted to pull him over, along with other officers. Six minutes later, after a high-speed chase captured on a camcorder on Scott’s car, Scott spun Harris’ car off the road, leading to an accident. Harris is now a quadriplegic. He sued Scott for using excessive force in his arrest. On summary judgment, the District Court denied Scott’s qualified immunity defense; the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, noted that the “first step is . . . to determine the relevant facts.” Normally, of course, courts take the non-moving party’s version of the facts as given. [Or, to be more precise, the district court resolves factual disputes in favor of the non-moving party.] But here, the videotape “quite clearly contradicts the version of the story told by respondent and adopted by the Court of Appeals.” Notwithstanding a disagreement with Justice Stevens on what whether that statement was accurate (“We are happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself.” Slip Op. at 5), the Court proceeded to reject the nonmoving party’s version of the facts. To do so, it relied on the ordinary rule that the dispute of facts must be “genuine”: the Respondent’s version of the facts is “so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him.” (Slip Op. at 8).

Let’s get a bias out of the way. At the Court’s suggestion, I watched the video. I lean toward Justice Stevens’ view: “This is hardly the stuff of Hollywood. To the contrary, the video does not reveal any incidents that could even be remotely characterized as ‘close calls.'” Such a dispute over a common story immediately highlights the most serious problem with the Court’s opinion: we all see what we want to see; behavioral biases like attribution and availability lead to individualized view of events. Where the majority sees explosions, Justice Stevens sees “headlights of vehicles zooming by in the opposite lane.” (Dissent at 2, n.1 – and check out the rest of the sentence for a casual swipe against the younger members of the court.) It brings to mind the Kahan/Slovic/Braman/Gastil/Cohen work on the perceptions of risk: each Justice saw the risk of speeding through his or her own cultural prism.

But even if I agreed with the majority on what the videotape shows, the Court’s opinion is disruptive to fundamental principles of American Law. Justice Stevens suggests that the majority is acting like a jury, reaching a “verdict that differs from the views of the judges on both the District court and the Court of Appeals who are surely more familiar with the hazards of driving on Georgia roads than we are.” (Dissent at 1). There are several problems with such appellate fact finding based on videotape that the Court ignores.

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Mankiw’s Fractured Fairy Tales

mr_peabody_and_sherman.jpgCome tax time, econoblogger Greg Mankiw is peddling parables about distributive justice designed to reconcile us to inequality. You see, if we tax high earners too much, they may just all flee to….well….another bar. Redistributive policies are ridiculed as gliding us down a slippery slope toward Harrison Bergeron-style taxation of height.

How to respond? Well, if there were thousands of people around who were, say, hundreds of times taller than the average person, and whose ability to consume resources were accordingly disparate, perhaps we’d try to find some way of rectifying the situation. As for “bar stool tax policy;” well, if the top guy also happened to be drinking 40% of the beer, er, income, perhaps we’d like to see him paying accordingly.

I suppose that Mankiw might say that the height paper is only an attack on “utilitarian social planner[s who] would like to transfer resources from high-ability individuals to low-ability individuals.” Only such a planner is attributed the desire to “levy a sizeable tax on height [such that a] tall person making $75,000 should pay about $4,500 more in taxes than a short person making the same income.” And perhaps he has dented “the theory of optimal taxation [according to which] any exogenous variable correlated with productivity should be a useful indicator for the government to use in determining the optimal tax liability.” But what relevance does this battle of ideal theories have for our world? Is any political party advancing the “theory of optimal taxation” Mankiw is trying to discredit?

It is easy enough to score debating points about the “impossibility” of perfect distributive justice, just as one can always dredge up Arrow’s impossibility theorem to discredit democratic procedures. But in a nation where an ever-growing number of people lack basic health insurance, and a world where tens of millions live on a dollar a day and a substantial proportion of the affluent do nothing to relieve their plight, it’s really difficult to see how reductiones ad absurda contribute to the practical decisions we have to make about distributing resources. Parlor games don’t lead to good policy.

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Postrel (and Fergie) on Egalitarian Glamour

glamor.jpgI’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Virginia Postrel’s work–so perceptive an aesthetic theorist, yet so complacent about commercial culture! But those studying IP have to come to terms with it, if only because she wrestles with a topic central to our endeavor: what is the value of those cultural products protected by copyright and trademark law? In The Substance of Style, Postrel argued that we routinely and vastly underestimate the contribution of design and beauty to our well-being. From an upcoming book proposal on Glamour, it looks like she’s about to expand and refine that argument.

Focusing on a variety of glam entities, Postrel distills three common components which “are not aesthetic elements but imaginative qualities: grace, mystery, and transcendence.” She reverentially recites a litany of products and personages that ooze glamor: Oprah, art deco, and Pre-Raphaelites all get props. To her credit, she recognizes glamour can be used for evil as well as good–she notes how Leni Riefenstahl glamorized a horrific Nazi program. But that’s just a bump on the road for a treatment that clearly wants to elevate our appreciation of glamour:

[D]espite its dangers, we would be foolish simply to reject glamour. It is too powerful to be denied, and its power can inspire good as well as evil. Although glamour has been a tool for tyrants, it has also provided an imaginative refuge for the ostracized and oppressed. . . . True sophistication lies not in rejecting or eschewing glamour—a largely futile approach—but in understanding how it works.

Note the slipperiness of the terms of evaluation here; where once “good, evil, and danger” were our guideposts, by the end of the paragraph “sophistication” becomes the summum bonum. Her discussion also reminds me of the Nussbaum-Kahan exchange in Bandes’s The Passions of Law, where Nussbaum argues for purging public life of emotions like disgust, while Kahan argues for a progressive appropriation of the concept. I think Kahan got the better of that exchange, but I’m a bit skeptical of glamor…even in the wake of books like Dream, Stephen Duncombe’s argument for tapping into “America’s collective unconscious through spectacle.”

There’s always a democratic edge to Postrel’s work, a gnawing need to establish that a new age of design, aesthetics, and glamour is a tool of self-realization for the masses. She admits that “Glamour can erode our appreciation of quotidian pleasures, and our sympathy with human limitations, exacerbating our dissatisfaction with life as it actually exists. And glamour can exclude outsiders as surely as it can dignify them.” But she always finds some way of de-emphasizing these trends, noting, for instance, that “The 1930s made glamour a truly mass phenomenon, one no longer dependent on geography or class.” (Yep, the KMart blue light special offers up glam items just as frequently as Agnes B.) For Postrel, the answer is not to beat or ignore the glamorous, but to join them: “glamour can . . . provide an essential imaginative leap toward personal achievement or social and economic progress.”

Though I should probably wait for the whole book before I pass judgment, I have to say now that I’m not buying the masstige angle. Glamour is inevitably exclusionary, the classic example of a positional good: by her own terms, the glamorous have to transcend somebody, and that’s usually the rest of us. Rather serendipitously, hip-hop diva Fergie provides a great example of this process in her video “Glamorous.”

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Your money or your life

A flurry of scholarship on Lochner v. New York surrounded its 100-year anniversary in 2005. It’s clear why Lochner gets so much attention. But as a matter of constitutional doctrine, I wonder if we pay insufficient attention to the stealth anti-Lochner, Jacobson v. Massachusetts. The two U.S. Supreme Court opinions were announced just a few months apart, Jacobson in February 1905 and Lochner in April. Both involved claims of individual liberty pitted against public health laws—a mandatory vaccination law in Jacobson, a limitation on work hours (as well as regulations of working conditions) in Lochner. But the outcomes could hardly be more different. Jacobson embraced a broad police power to use coercion to ensure public health; Lochner infamously struck down restrictions on bakers’ working hours as a violation of economic liberty. (Justice Peckham dissented in Jacobson and wrote the Lochner majority opinion; Justice Harlan dissented in Lochner and wrote the Jacobson majority opinion.) Lochner didn’t last, of course, but for a while it seemed that the state could use coercion to protect your life (or health) only if it didn’t mess with your money along the way.

I’ve been thinking about Jacobson and Lochner as I work on an article about the state’s interest in the preservation of life. Jacobson (and maybe, to some degree, the renunciation of Lochner) reflects a widespread assumption that the state has such an interest and may use coercion against citizens’ bodies to further that interest. So we see Jacobson cited in abortion cases to support the state’s interest in the preservation of fetal life, in refusal of medical care or “right to die” cases, and to support indefinite civil commitment (Kansas v. Hendricks) or indefinite detention (Justice Thomas’s dissent in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld) in the name of public safety. In fact, Jacobson has been cited by the Supreme Court more often than Lochner, and the Jacobson references are almost universally favorable while the Lochner references are usually not. A pedagogical question: Should Jacobson get more attention in constitutional law casebooks? And a political / philosophical question: Is it so obvious that the state has an interest in preserving individual lives—especially those of individuals who do not themselves wish to continue living?

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If the Law is a[n] ass, what is the state?


The famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan depicts the head and torso of a long-haired, mustachioed man. Upon close scrutiny, it becomes evident that the man’s torso and arms are composed of tiny individual persons, crowded closely together and each looking toward the head of the composite Leviathan. The image suits Hobbes’s argument well. Hobbes argues that a sovereign should be understood as an artificial person, created by a social contract to represent each individual member of a political community. Of course, Hobbes also argues that the best sovereign is also a natural person: a single human individual who rules as an absolute monarch. But whether political sovereignty rests in a single monarch, in democratic institutions, or in some other form of government, Hobbes urges us to think of the state as a person. The metaphor is simple, accessible, intuitively appealing—and it may be inescapable. Long past the age of absolute monarchs, we still speak of states as entities that intend, and act, and are vulnerable in ways similar to the ways in which individual persons intend, and act, and are vulnerable. This conception of the state shapes American law in significant ways. For example, many questions of constitutional law turn on whether the state acted or what the state intended, and many scholars have noted incoherence in the jurisprudence of state action and state intention.

Maybe we just don’t have convincing ways of thinking and talking about states other than the language of personhood. I’m looking for alternatives, so please let me know if you have suggestions.

In a work in progress called Political Anthropomorphism, I try to escape the metaphor of the state as a person—or at least stand far enough from it to evaluate it critically. I’ll present this paper tomorrow at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities, held this year at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, DC. I haven’t attended ASLCH before, but the program certainly looks enticing. Those interested in legal metaphors—the law is an ass or others—may want to attend Metaphors of Power / The Power of Metaphor, where I’ll discuss Political Anthropomorphism and my esteemed co-panelists will discuss the use of metaphors in the legal discourses of marriage, tort liability, and Native American rights to sacred sites or remains. Should be fun.