Category: Political Economy


Introducing the Electronic Silk Road Online Symposium

Silk Road coverThis week, a great group will be blogging about Professor Anupam Chander’s book, The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce. Professor Chander is a leading scholar on globalization and digitization. He is Director of the California International Law Center and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at UC Davis. He has been a visiting professor at Yale Law School, the University of Chicago Law School, Stanford Law School, and Cornell Law School. He is also a dear friend. Nonetheless, it is time for us to do what we hope to do well, and if lucky, our friends do for us. That is, it is time to press Professor Chander about his work as it tries to show us how the new Silk Road operates, what it promises, what is yields, and what it threatens. Work and services are now blending, if not blended. Old rules for trade struggle to adapt to new rules for information. Where will we go from here? Join Professor Chander and our panelists including Paul Berman, Miriam Cherry, Graeme Dinwoodie, Nicklas Lundblad, Frank Pasquale, Pierluigi Perri, Adam Thierer, Haochen Sun, Fred Tung, and of course Danielle Citron and me for the fun this week.


Announcing Symposium on Orly Lobel’s Talent Wants to be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding

Talent Wants to be FreeThink you have enough to read? Think again! I am honored to announce that Concurring Opinions will host a symposium on Orly Lobel’s book, Talent Wants to be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding. The event will run from Monday, November 11 to Friday, November 15. I came to know Professor Lobel’s work as I shared some of my thoughts on intellectual property, property theory, and technologically mediated creation in her seminar, Work, Welfare, and Justice, in 2008. I was thinking about who owns your email? What about work place creation? Who owns what you come up with at work? Does it matter whether you used company technology to create and learn? Professor Lobel was digging into related questions, and it has been a blast seeing her run with them. Now we have the pleasure of her book. The accolades have been coming in from academics in law and other fields as well as the business world. Business Week, Fortune, and Harvard Business Review have run articles by Professor Lobel that draw on the insights from the book.

Professor Lobel argues that as we move deeper into a world driven by human capital and talent is in increasing demand, we have to understand that a lock-down approach to innovation is a losing strategy. Nonetheless:

Many companies embrace a control mentality—relying more on patents, copyright, branding, espionage, and aggressive restrictions of their own talent and secrets than on creative energies that are waiting to be unleashed.

Unlocking talent, setting it free as she puts it, sets up a system where everyone wins. Will our discussants or you agree? I think so, but I am sure there will be new ideas and challenges during the event. Our panelists include Professor Lobel as well as:

Matt Bodie

Anupam Chander

Danielle Citron

Catherine Fisk

Vic Fleischer

Brett Frischmann

Shubha Ghosh

Ron Gilson

Peter Lee

Frank Pasquale

Awards for High-Impact, Federally Funded Research

In a world where attacks on inquiry are all too common, it’s nice to see great research recognized. The Golden Goose Awards are a forum for such encomia, focusing on federally funded research:

The purpose of the Golden Goose Award is to demonstrate the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure or unusual studies that have led to major breakthroughs and have had a significant impact on society. Such breakthroughs may include development of life-saving medicines and treatments; game-changing social and behavioral insights; and major technological advances related to national security, energy, the environment, communications, and public health.

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Upcoming Online Symposium on Professor Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road

Silk Road coverDanielle and I are happy to announce that next week, Concurring Opinions will host an online symposium on Professor Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce. Professor Chander is a professor at U.C. Davis’s King Hall School of Law. Senators, academics, trade representatives, and pundits laud the book for its clarity and the argument Professor Chander makes. He examines how the law can facilitate commerce by reducing trade barriers but argues that consumer interests need not be sacrificed:

On the ancient Silk Road, treasure-laden caravans made their arduous way through deserts and mountain passes, establishing trade between Asia and the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. Today’s electronic Silk Roads ferry information across continents, enabling individuals and corporations anywhere to provide or receive services without obtaining a visa. But the legal infrastructure for such trade is yet rudimentary and uncertain. If an event in cyberspace occurs at once everywhere and nowhere, what law applies? How can consumers be protected when engaging with companies across the world?

But will the book hold up under our panel’s scrutiny? I think so but only after some probing and dialogue.

Our Panelists include Professor Chander as well as:

Paul Berman

Miriam Cherry

Graeme Dinwoodie

Nicklas Lundblad

Frank Pasquale

Pierluigi Perri

Adam Thierer

Haochen Sun

Fred Tung

And of course

Danielle Citron and I will be there too.

Schmayek’s Shutdown

MirowskiCoverIf you asked Ted Cruz or Jim DeMint who was the guiding spirit of their government shutdown, they’d probably mention Friedrich von Hayek. The Nobel Prize winning economist warned the world that “socialism” would put citizens on a “road to serfdom.” For the Tea Party, PPACA is a horror, perhaps even a new form of slavery, a threat to liberty even darker than the feudal past Hayek evoked.

But there is another figure just as important to current neoliberal thought as Hayek. Carl Schmitt provided jurisprudential theories of “the emergency” and “the exception” that highlighted the best opportunities for rapid redistribution of wealth upwards. In Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, Philip Mirowski explains how neoliberal thought, far from advocating a shrinking of the state, in fact sparks a redirection and intensification of its energies. As he puts it, “A primary function of the neoliberal project is to redefine the shape and the function of the state, not to destroy it” (56). Moreover, the “strong state was necessary to neutralize what [Hayek] considered to be the pathologies of democracy” (84). Even a temporary dictatorship can work in a pinch.

The shutdown is a brilliant strategy to meld Hayekian substance and Schmittian procedure. As Aaron Bady has observed,

A shutdown is a state of exception when the government gets to do things it normally can’t do, like close the Environmental Protection Agency, de-fund WIC, close the national parks, send a lot of government employees home [in what is in many ways a lock-out], and all sorts of other stuff. A shutdown is a moment in which a choice gets made about which laws to obey and which laws to ignore, when the government gets to decide that some people are essential and some people aren’t.

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Disrupting “Disruption” Rhetoric

Why is the term “disruption” so popular nowadays? We rarely hear about a new social commitment to guarantee access to housing, health, or education. Instead, elite media features a parade of thinkers keen on “disrupting” old institutions. Freddie DeBoer has one perspective on their popularity:

Talk of social contracts is passé in an America obsessed with technocapitalist visions of a prosperous future. The yen for “disruption,” an empty term for empty minds in empty people, makes traditional obstacles like social contracts suspect or downright pernicious. This has led to an embrace of proceduralism by those true believers who want an app economy to be the engine of capitalism. And such people rule the world.

The “disruption” proposed by thought leaders also appeals to those who think of economics as the king of social science, and methodological individualism as the only ontological orientation to rigorous inquiry:

[I]ndividualistic predilections give a cohesiveness and homogeneity to … new ideas and inventions, actively constructing and shaping the digital environment from which [Silicon Valley thought leaders] claim to draw their inspiration. The insistence on “disrupting” our social and environmental lives; the idea that the solutions inspired by and enabled by the Internet mark a clean break from historical patterns, a never-before-seen opportunity – these mean that the only lessons to learn from history are those of previous technological disruptions. The view of society as an institution-free network of autonomous individuals practicing free exchange makes the social sciences, with the exception of economics, irrelevant. What’s left is engineering, neuroscience, an understanding of incentives (in the narrowly utilitarian sense): just right for those whose intellectual predispositions are to algorithms, design, and data structures.

The economy of internet intellectuals encourages endless reworking of algorithmic, design-, and data-based thinking. As Henry Farrell has observed, “While making your way up the hierarchy [of internet intellectuals], you are encouraged to buff the rough patches from your presentation again and again, sanding it down to a beautifully polished surface, which all too often does no more than reflect your audience’s preconceptions back at them.” The smiling faces at TED talks want to hear tried-and-true methods and 17-minute solutions. Woe to the skeptic who counsels there may not be any.

In the hands of a Cory Doctorow, we can see a disruption ethic of public spirited dissent. Unfortunately, the “disruptions” pursued by Silicon Valley giants (and their well-heeled consultants) often have little to do with challenging the biggest power centers in society. And why would they? As Farrell notes,
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I reviewed Mark Weiner’s Rule of the Clan from a libertarian perspective.

Libertarians are impressed by order that emerges in an unplanned, decentralized way.  No one knows how to make a pencil, and yet through the decentralized process of market trading, pencils are made readily available.  If making a pencil does not require a central planner, then why do we need a strong central government?

The Hobbesian answer is that without a strong central government, we would have the “war of all against all.”    The libertarian response echoes Karl Kraus.  Kraus famously said something to the effect that “psychoanalysis is the disease which it purports to cure.” Libertarians point out that the state, which purports to be the cure for the war of all against all, is the leading cause of violent death and incarceration.

Weiner’s book contains a message for libertarians that is decidedly mixed.  He argues, on the one hand, that there is a decentralized order that is an alternative to a strong central government.  On the other hand, this order is not at all libertarian.

The decentralized order that Weiner describes is the rule of the clan.  It is a cultural system in which individuals lack what we think of as liberty.  Instead, the individual is subordinate to the extended family.

Libertarians have been known to use medieval Iceland as an example proving that a strong central government is not needed to maintain order.  Weiner describes medieval Iceland as an example of the clan-based system of order, but from his depiction it is clearly not a model of a libertarian society.

Weiner uses legal historian Henry Maine’s distinction between a Society of Status and a Society of Contract.  Rule of the clan embodies a society of status.  Libertarians want to see a society of contract.

Libertarians see the “contract theory” of existing states as a fiction.  I never signed an agreement giving authority to the people and institutions of my federal, state, and local government.  Instead, those people and institutions have decided unilaterally what authority they can exercise over me.

Is it possible to extend the society of contract, giving less asymmetric power to the people and institutions that constitute the government?   Libertarians believes that the answer is “yes.”  However, Weiner claims that wherever the people and institutions of government lack strong asymmetric power, what we observe is the rule of the clan.  Libertarians are faced with the burden of showing that while he may be correct in describing the decentralized orders that we have observed, there may yet emerge a more decentralized order that does not degenerate into the rule of the clan.

Race, Justice, and the Political Economy of Vigilantism

A few thoughts in the wake of Zimmerman verdict (and related matters):

1) The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson stated last night, “I still don’t understand what Trayvon Martin was supposed to do” once he knew he was menaced.  Gary Younge similarly asked, “What version of events is there for that night in which Martin gets away with his life?”

Cord Jefferson, in a way, provides a practical response to that question:

To stay alive and out of jail, brown and black kids learn to cope. They learn to say, “Sorry, sir,” for having sandwiches in the wrong parking lot. They learn, as LeVar Burton has, to remove their hats and sunglasses and put their hands up when police pull them over. They learn to tolerate the indignity of strange, drunken men approaching them and calling them and their loved ones a bunch of [n______]. They learn that even if you’re willing to punch a harasser and face the consequences, there’s always a chance a police officer will come to arrest you, put you face down on the ground, and then shoot you execution style. Maybe the cop who shoots you will only get two years in jail, because it was all a big misunderstanding. You see, he meant to be shooting you in the back with his taser.

Yahdon Israel writes about similar coping mechanisms in Manhattan, and the fallback tactic of avoidance.  He notes that, “Although Columbia [University] is in Harlem, power wills that there is no Harlem in Columbia. Rather than walk through, the people of Harlem are more comfortable with walking around Columbia to get to the other side because they know where they don’t belong.”

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Two Views of Charities

The Tampa Bay Tribune has put out a list of “America’s Worst Charities,” based on payments to solicitors. Dan Pallotta offers some reservations regarding that approach:

[T]he overhead question has a number of flaws. A few of the easy ones to talk about and describe are, first, it operates on a mistaken theory of waste. So, a [soup kitchen] tells you $.90 of your donation goes to the cause and you think: Well, that’s great, now I know that they don’t waste any money. But you don’t know that at all. How do you know they are not wasting the $.90 that’s being spent on the cause? That’s where all the money goes; that’s where the largest opportunity for waste is. Related to that, it tells you nothing about the quality of services. So, that soup kitchen can tell you $.90 of every donation goes to the cause and you’ll never learn that the soup is rancid. . . .

Next, the percentage of your donation that goes to the cause depends entirely on how the charity defines the cause. So, the more broadly they define the cause, the higher the percentage they can tell you is going to the cause. It actually operates on a false theory of transparency as well, because unless you know the underlying accounting and definitions of the cause, there is no transparency in that simple articulation of an overhead percentage. Worse, this demand the charities keep overhead below prevents them from spending money on the overhead things they have to spend on in order to grow. And that’s how we institutionalize the miniaturization of these organizations.

Pallotta offers many provocative thoughts on how success is measured in the nonprofit sector.

The Locust and the Bee

LocustBeeFables have been in the politico-economic air of late. The FT’s Martin Wolf considered the locust part of a master metaphor for the future of the global economy. He concluded that “the financial crisis was the product of an unstable interaction between ants (excess savers), grasshoppers (excess borrowers) and locusts (the financial sector that intermediated between the two).”

Now Geoff Mulgan has entered the fray with the excellent book The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future. As Mulgan observes,

If you want to make money, you can choose between two fundamentally different strategies. One is to create genuinely new value by bringing resources together in ways that serve people’s wants and needs. The other is to seize value through predation, taking resources, money, or time from others, whether they like it or not.

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