Category: Political Economy

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:
Read More

The Second Machine Age & the System of Professions

Why do we have professions? Many economists give a public choice story: guilds of doctors, social workers, etc., monopolize a field by bribing legislators to keep everyone else out of the guild.* Some scholars of legal ethics buy into that story for our field, too.

But there is another, older explanation, based on the need for independent judgment and professional autonomy. Who knows whether a doctor employed by a drug company could resist the firm’s requirement that she prescribe its products off-label as often as possible. With independent doctors, there is at least some chance of pushback. Similarly, I’d be much more confident in the conclusions of a letter written by attorneys assessing the legality of a client’s course of action if that client generated, say, 1%, rather than 100%, of their business.

Andrew Abbott’s book The System of Professions makes those, and many other, critical points about the development of professions. Genuine expertise and independent judgment depend on certain economic arrangements. For Abbott, the professions exist, in part, to shield certain groups from the full force of economic demands that can be made by those with the most money or power. As inequality in the developed world skyrockets, and the superrich at the very top of the economy accumulate vastly more wealth than the vast majority of even the best-paid professionals, such protections become even more urgent.

I was reminded of Abbott’s views while reading Lilly Irani’s excellent review of Erik Brynjolffson & Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, and Simon Head’s Mindless. Irani, a former Googler, digs into the real conditions of work at leading firms of the digital economy. She observes that much of what we might consider “making” (pursuant to some professional standards) is a form of “managing:”
Read More

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.

1

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…

European Parliament Resolution on Google

The European Parliament voted 384 – 174 today in favor of a “resolution on Supporting Consumer Rights in the Digital Single Market.” The text of the resolution:

Stresses that all internet traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independently of its sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application;

Notes that the online search market is of particular importance in ensuring competitive conditions within the Digital Single Market, given the potential development of search engines into gatekeepers and their possibility of commercialising secondary exploitation of obtained information; therefore calls on the Commission to enforce EU competition rules decisively, based on input from all relevant stakeholders and taking into account the entire structure of the Digital Single Market in order to ensure remedies that truly benefit consumers, internet users and online businesses; furthermore calls on the Commission to consider proposals with the aim of unbundling search engines from other commercial services as one potential long-term solution to achieve the previously mentioned aims;

Stresses that when using search engines, the search process and results should be unbiased in order to keep internet search non-discriminatory, to ensure more competition and choice for users and consumers and to maintain the diversity of sources of information; therefore notes that indexation, evaluation, presentation and ranking by search engines must be unbiased and transparent, while for interlinked services, search engines must guarantee full transparency when showing search results; calls on Commission to prevent any abuse in the marketing of interlinked services by operators of search engines;

Some in the US tech press has played this up as an incipient effort to “break up” Google, with predictable derision at “technopanic.” (Few tend to reflect on whether the 173 former firms listed here really need to be part of one big company.) But the resolution’s linking of net and search neutrality suggests other regulatory approaches (prefigured in my 2008 paper Internet Nondiscrimination Principles: Commercial Ethics for Carriers and Search Engines). I’ve developed these ideas over the years, and I hope my recently released book‘s chapters on search and digital regulation will be of some use to policymakers. Without some regulatory oversight and supervision, our black box society will only get more opaque.

From Piketty to Law and Political Economy

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century continues to spur debate among economists. It has many lessons for attorneys, as well. But does law have something to offer in return? I make that case in my review of Capital, focusing on Piketty’s call for a renewal of the social science of political economy. My review underscores the complexity of the relationship between law and social science. Legal academics import ideas from other fields, but also return the favor by informing those fields. Ideally, the process is dialectic, with lawyers and social scientists in dialogue.

At the conference Critiquing Cost-Benefit Analysis of Financial Regulation, I saw that process first hand in May. We at the Association of Professors of Political Economy and the Law (APPEAL) are planning further events and projects to continue that dialogue.

I also saw a renewed synergy between law and social sciences at the Rethinking Economics conference last month. Economists inquired about bankruptcy law to better understand the roots of the financial crisis, and identified the limits that pension law places on certain types of investment strategies.

Some of the organizers of the conference recently took the argument in a new direction, focusing on the interaction between Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and campaign finance reform. “Leveling up” modes of campaign finance reform have often stalled because taxpayers balk at funding political campaigns. Given that private campaign funders’ return on investment has been estimated at 22,000%, that seems an unwise concession to crony capitalism. So how do we get movement on the issue?
Read More

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.

Social Science in an Era of Corporate Big Data

IsaacWorkingIn my last post, I explored the characteristics of Facebook’s model (i.e., exemplary) users. Today, I want to discuss the model users in the company–i.e., the data scientists who try to build stylized versions of reality (models) based on certain data points and theories. The Facebook emotion experiment is part of a much larger reshaping of social science. To what extent will academics study data driven firms like Facebook, and to what extent will they try to join forces with its own researchers to study others?

Present incentives are clear: collaborate with (rather than develop a critical theory of) big data firms.  As Zeynep Tufekci puts it, “the most valuable datasets have become corporate and proprietary [and] top journals love publishing from them.”  “Big data” has an aura of scientific validity simply because of the velocity, volume, and variety of the phenomena it encompasses. Psychologists certainly must have learned *something* from looking at over 600,000 accounts’ activity, right?

The problem, though is that the corporate “science” of manipulation is a far cry from academic science’s ethics of openness and reproducibility.* That’s already led to some embarrassments in the crossover from corporate to academic modeling (such as Google’s flu trends failures). Researchers within Facebook worried about multiple experiments being performed at once on individual users, which might compromise the results of any one study. Standardized review could have prevented that. But, true to the Silicon Valley ethic of “move fast and break things,” speed was paramount: “There’s no review process. Anyone…could run a test…trying to alter peoples’ behavior,” said one former Facebook data scientist.

Grant Getters and Committee Men

Why are journals so interested in this form of research? Why are academics jumping on board? Fortunately, social science has matured to the point that we now have a robust, insightful literature about the nature of social science itself. I know, this probably sounds awfully meta–exactly the type of navel-gazing Senator Coburn would excommunicate from the church of science. But it actually provides a much-needed historical perspective on how power and money shape knowledge. Consider, for instance, the opening of Joel Isaac’s article Tangled Loops, on Cold War social science:

During the first two decades of the Cold War, a new kind of academic figure became prominent in American public life: the credentialed social scientist or expert in the sciences of administration who was also, to use the parlance of the time, a “man of affairs.” Some were academic high-fliers conscripted into government roles in which their intellectual and organizational talents could be exploited. McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara are the archetypes of such persons. An overlapping group of scholars became policymakers and political advisers on issues ranging from social welfare provision to nation-building in emerging postcolonial states.

Postwar leaders of the social and administrative sciences such as Talcott Parsons and Herbert Simon were skilled scientific brokers of just this sort: good “committee men,” grant-getters, proponents of interdisciplinary inquiry, and institution-builders. This hard-nosed, suit-wearing, business-like persona was connected to new, technologically refined forms of social science. . . . Antediluvian “social science” was eschewed in favour of mathematical, behavioural, and systems-based approaches to “human relations” such as operations research, behavioral science, game theory, systems theory, and cognitive science.

One of Isaac’s major contributions in that piece is to interpret the social science coming out of the academy (and entities like RAND) as a cultural practice: “Insofar as theories involve certain forms of practice, they are caught up in worldly, quotidian matters: performances, comportments, training regimes, and so on.” Government leveraged funding to mobilize research to specific ends. To maintain university patronage systems and research centers, leaders had to be on good terms with the grantors. The common goal of strengthening the US economy (and defeating the communist threat) cemented an ideological alliance.

Government still exerts influence in American social and behavioral sciences. But private industry controls critical data sets for the most glamorous, data-driven research. In the Cold War era, “grant getting” may have been the key to economic security, and to securing one’s voice in the university. Today, “exit” options are more important than voice, and what better place to exit to than an internet platform? Thus academic/corporate “flexians” shuttle between the two worlds. Their research cannot be too venal, lest the academy disdain it. But neither can it indulge in, say, critical theory (what would nonprofit social networks look like), just as Cold War social scientists were ill-advised to, say, develop Myrdal’s or Leontief’s theories. There was a lot more money available for the Friedmanite direction economics would, eventually, take.

Intensifying academic precarity also makes the blandishments of corporate data science an “offer one can’t refuse.” Tenured jobs are growing scarcer. As MOOCmongers aspire to deskill and commoditize the academy, industry’s benefits and flexibility grow ever more alluring. Academic IRBs can impose a heavy bureaucratic burden; the corporate world is far more flexible. (Consider all the defenses of the Facebook authored last week which emphasized how little review corporate research has to go through: satisfy the boss, and you’re basically done, no matter how troubling your aims or methods may be in a purely academic context.)

Creating Kinds

So why does all this matter, other than to the quantitatively gifted individuals at the cutting edge of data science? It matters because, in Isaac’s words:

Theories and classifications in the human sciences do not “discover” an independently existing reality; they help, in part, to create it. Much of this comes down to the publicity of knowledge. Insofar as scientific descriptions of people are made available to the public, they may “change how we can think of ourselves, [and] change our sense of self-worth, even how we remember our own past.

It is very hard to develop categories and kinds for internet firms, because they are so secretive about most of their operations. (And make no mistake about the current PR kerfuffle for Facebook: it will lead the company to become ever more secretive about its data science, just as Target started camouflaging its pregnancy-related ads and not talking to reporters after people appeared creeped out by the uncanny accuracy of its natal predictions.) But the data collection of the firms is creating whole new kinds of people—for marketers, for the NSA, and for anyone with the money or connections to access the information.

More likely than not, encoded in Facebook’s database is some new, milder DSM, with categories like the slightly stingy (who need to be induced to buy more); the profligate, who need frugality prompts; the creepy, who need to be hidden in newsfeeds lest they bum out the cool. Our new “Science Mart” creates these new human kinds, but also alters them, as “new sorting and theorizing induces changes in self-conception and in behavior of the people classified.” Perhaps in the future, upon being classified as “slightly depressed” by Facebook, users will see more happy posts. Perhaps the hypomanic will be brought down a bit. Or, perhaps if their state is better for business, it will be cultivated and promoted.

You may think that last possibility unfair, or a mischaracterization of the power of Facebook. But shouldn’t children have been excluded from its emotion experiment? Shouldn’t those whom it suspects may be clinically depressed? Shouldn’t some independent reviewer have asked about those possibilities? Journalists try to reassure us that Facebook is better now than it was 2 years ago. But the power imbalances in social science remain as funding cuts threaten researchers’ autonomy. Until research in general is properly valued, we can expect more psychologists, anthropologists, and data scientists to attune themselves to corporate research agendas, rather than questioning why data about users is so much more available than data about company practices.

Image Note: I’ve inserted a picture of Isaac’s book, which I highly recommend to readers interested in the history of social science.

*I suggested this was a problem in 2010.

Facebook’s Hidden Persuaders

hidden-persuadersMajor internet platforms are constantly trying new things out on users, to better change their interfaces. Perhaps they’re interested in changing their users, too. Consider this account of Facebook’s manipulation of its newsfeed:

If you were feeling glum in January 2012, it might not have been you. Facebook ran an experiment on 689,003 users to see if it could manipulate their emotions. One experimental group had stories with positive words like “love” and “nice” filtered out of their News Feeds; another experimental group had stories with negative words like “hurt” and “nasty” filtered out. And indeed, people who saw fewer positive posts created fewer of their own. Facebook made them sad for a psych experiment.

James Grimmelmann suggests some potential legal and ethical pitfalls. Julie Cohen has dissected the larger political economy of modulation. For now, I’d just like to present a subtle shift in Silicon Valley rhetoric:

c. 2008: “How dare you suggest we’d manipulate our users! What a paranoid view.”
c. 2014: “Of course we manipulate users! That’s how we optimize time-on-machine.”

There are many cards in the denialists’ deck. An earlier Facebook-inspired study warns of “greater spikes in global emotion that could generate increased volatility in everything from political systems to financial markets.” Perhaps social networks will take on the dampening of inconvenient emotions as a public service. For a few glimpses of the road ahead, take a look at Bernard Harcourt (on Zunzuneo), Jonathan Zittrain, Robert Epstein, and N. Katherine Hayles.

A More Nuanced View of Legal Automation

A Guardian writer has updated Farhad Manjoo’s classic report, “Will a Robot Steal Your Job?” Of course, lawyers are in the crosshairs. As Julius Stone noted in The Legal System and Lawyers’ Reasoning, scholars have addressed the automation of legal processes since at least the 1960s. Al Gore now says that a “new algorithm . . . makes it possible for one first year lawyer to do the same amount of legal research that used to require 500.”* But when one actually reads the studies trumpeted by the prophets of disruption, a more nuanced perspective emerges.

Let’s start with the experts cited first in the article:

Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne have predicted computerisation could make nearly half of jobs redundant within 10 to 20 years. Office work and service roles, they wrote, were particularly at risk. But almost nothing is impervious to automation.

The idea of “computing” a legal obligation may seem strange at the outset, but we already enjoy—-or endure-—it daily. For example, a DVD may only be licensed for play in the US and Europe, and then be “coded” so it can only play in those regions and not others. Were a human playing the DVD for you, he might demand a copy of the DVD’s terms of use and receipt, to see if it was authorized for playing in a given area. Computers need such a term translated into a language they can “understand.” More precisely, the legal terms embedded in the DVD must lead to predictable reactions from the hardware that encounters them. From Lessig to Virilio, the lesson is clear: “architectural regimes become computational, and vice versa.”

So certainly, to the extent lawyers are presently doing rather simple tasks, computation can replace them. But Frey & Osborne also identify barriers to successful automation:

1. Perception and manipulation tasks. Robots are still unable to match the depth and breadth of human perception.
2. Creative intelligence tasks. The psychological processes underlying human creativity are difficult to specify.
3. Social intelligence tasks. Human social intelligence is important in a wide range of work tasks, such as those involving negotiation, persuasion and care. (26)

Frey & Osborne only explicitly discuss legal research and document review (for example, identification and isolation among mass document collections) as easily automatable. They concede that “the computerisation of legal research will complement the work of lawyers” (17). They acknowledge that “for the work of lawyers to be fully automated, engineering bottlenecks to creative and social intelligence will need to be overcome.” In the end, they actually categorize “legal” careers as having a “low risk” of “computerization” (37).

The View from AI & Labor Economics

Those familiar with the smarter voices on this topic, like our guest blogger Harry Surden, would not be surprised. There is a world of difference between computation as substitution for attorneys, and computation as complement. The latter increases lawyers’ private income and (if properly deployed) contribution to society. That’s one reason I helped devise the course Health Data and Advocacy at Seton Hall (co-taught with a statistician and data visualization expert), and why I continue to teach (and research) the law of electronic health records in my seminar Health Information, Privacy, and Innovation, now that I’m at Maryland. As Surden observes, “many of the tasks performed by attorneys do appear to require the type of higher order intellectual skills that are beyond the capability of current techniques.” But they can be complemented by an awareness of rapid advances in software, apps, and data analysis.
Read More