Author: Neil Buchanan


Lawyers and Economists: Division of Labor

Early last month, in my first guest post on Concurring Opinions, I posted some comments about the differences between the ways economists and lawyers think about problems. Today, in my last guest post, I return to the subject of lawyers and economists.

While any observation about the mindsets of lawyers and economists (or anyone else, for that matter) surely oversimplifies, I noted in my earlier post that — based on my experiences both as an economics professor and as a law professor — each profession seems to instill certain tendencies in its practitioners. While lawyers seem to take an all-or-nothing approach to problems (leading them too often to reject useful partial solutions because “that won’t solve the problem”), economists come to believe their models just a bit too much. On the latter point, Alan Greenspan’s recent testimony before Congress to the effect that he has been in “shocked disbelief” at the failure of his long-held model of how the economy works (unregulated markets will lead to good results) has shown the potentially enormous negative consequences of the economist’s default mindset.

Beyond the tendencies that are drilled into members of the two professions (or which, perhaps, lead to self-selection into the two professions), a more interesting question is what lawyers and economists actually do. More precisely, when we have a public policy problem, how do the skill sets of lawyers and economists determine their respective usefulness in dealing with the problem? Again, I make no claim that

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What Do We Owe Future Generations?

This afternoon and all day tomorrow, GW Law will be hosting a symposium: “What Does Our Legal System Owe Future Generations? New Analyses of Intergenerational Justice for a New Century.” There will be an opening panel on the philosophy of justice between generations, followed by four panels discussing the implications for intergenerational justice of the following areas of policy: government spending and taxation, environmental law, reproductive rights, and consitutional law. The principal presenters for the five panels are, respectively, Bob Hockett (Cornell) and Ori Herstein (private practice), Neil Buchanan (GW) and Dan Shaviro (NYU), Jamison Colburn (Penn State) and Matt Adler (Penn), Sherry Colb (Cornell), and Mike Dorf (Cornell).

I have been working with the GW Law Review students to organize this symposium, which is based on my forthcoming article: “What Do We Owe Future Generations?” Over the last several years, I have been trying to work through the implications of the oft-heard claims that current generations are short-changing future generations. (Listen to almost any politician speak for more than five minutes and you’ll hear something about our irresponsibility toward the future). Usually, this is couched in terms of anti-deficit rhetoric, and it is often misleadingly tied to efforts to change the Social Security program. As my scholarly interests are solidly in the area of fiscal policy, I decided to see whether there is actually a strong argument that — as a matter of government spending and taxing policy in the long run — current generations are cheating future generations. What I found was surprising. Even given the long-term trends in spending and taxing, future generations’ per capita GDP will be higher than ours even under the most pessimistic scenarios. The issue is distributional (both within and across generations), therefore, because the averages look unexpectedly promising.

When I taught a seminar on the subject of intergenerational justice a few years ago at NYU Law, I found that my students were only mildly interested in the fiscal policy aspects of intergenerational obligations. No surprise there, I guess, as macroeconomics is not everyone’s idea of a fascinating topic. We thus expanded our inquiry and confirmed that, even if we are not cheating future generations in terms of pure economic income, there are enormous issues in the areas of education, the environment, reproductive rights, the rule of law, and many other areas of policy in which current generations are obviously harming the interests of future generations. This symposium is designed to stimulate discussion about those matters. I also am in the planning stages of turning this into a book.

I am very excited to hear what the other scholars at the symposium will say over the next two days. I will report back next week on some of what I hear.


Lawyers’ Salaries: Mommy Penalties, Daddy Bonuses, and Pure Gender Effects

Even among highly educated professionals, there is a persistent difference in the salaries of men and women. Untangling the reasons for that difference is quite difficult, and it involves as a threshold matter trying to figure out whether there are factors other than gender that explain why women earn less than men. Some studies have suggested that the difference in salaries is not in the first instance about the gender of the worker but about the worker’s status as a parent or non-parent. Some empirical research, for example, has found that men with children earn more than everyone else in their fields but that there are no detectable differences among women with children, women without children, and men without children.

I recently finished a draft of a paper (available here) in which I looked at the results of two surveys of graduates of the University of Michigan Law School from the classes of 1970 through 1996. These surveys were developed by Richard Lempert, David Chambers, and Terry Adams, who used the data from the first survey to study the effects of race on lawyers’ careers in their fascinating article: “Michigan’s Minority Graduates in Practice: The River Runs Through Law School,” 25 L. & Soc. Inquiry 395 (2000). Professor Lempert and his co-authors administered a follow-up survey that gathered information about gender and parental status; and they allowed me to use their data for the empirical analysis summarized in my draft paper.

Most of my paper is focused on technical matters of survey techniques and econometric analysis. For those who find such matters tedious or worse, the most direct discussion of the statistical results is in the introduction and conclusion and on pp. 30-32. My tentative results confirm the “daddy bonus” that others’ have found in other studies, with the range of estimates suggesting a 15-20% salary advantage for fathers. Unlike previous studies, however, I also find a strong suggestion that women …

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Debate as Debate, the Final Cut: What Now, My Friends?

The final 2008 presidential debate was held last night at Hofstra University. As I have done with the two previous presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, I watched last nights’ debate from the standpoint of a former debater and debate coach/advisor. Setting aside questions of who positioned himself best in the eyes of pundits or undecided voters, I once again watched the debate as if it were simply a debate and assessed the winner and loser on the basis of who argued and responded more effectively. Whereas in the previous two debates it was clear that Sen. Obama was allowing himself to be dragged down by his opponent’s deficiencies as a debater, in this debate he pulled away cleanly and easily won the night. This is true even though Sen. McCain managed to improve somewhat on his earlier weak performances.

Last night’s debate was, to my pleasant surprise, the best debate of the four that have been held this Fall. There was some actual arguing between the candidates, or “clash,” where each candidate responded to his opponent in a way that was on point and required his opponent to respond further. Unlike the previous two presidential debates, it was also not boring. True, Sen. McCain’s strategy amounted to what debaters often refer to as “dump trucking” — throwing out every attack possible and hoping that something works — but at least there was a bit of actual clash of ideas.

Despite being soundly defeated by Sen. Obama, there were some good things to be said for Sen. McCain. He had a

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Debate as Debate, part 2 (or 3): What is the Point of the Exercise?

After the first presidential debate late last month, I posted some comments about the event from my perspective as a former academic debater and coach/advisor. Similarly, I later posted some reactions to the vice presidential debate. The short version of my take on those debates is that Obama clearly won his debate, but paradoxically not by as much as he would have if his opponent were not such an insistently inept debater; and Biden won his debate by successfully transcending his opponent’s inability to offer a coherent argument.

In making these assessments, I deliberately set aside the criteria on which the pundits usually proclaim winners and losers in such debates: who had the best zinger or the most memorable line, who performed better than or worse than they were expected to perform (by whom?), and so on. My purpose was to answer a question that I have often heard people ask in this and other election years: Viewed solely as a debate, who won?

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Citizens and Taxpayers

Under the provocative title “How Many Americans Should Have Skin in the Income Tax?” the TaxProf blog recently described a study by the Tax Foundation regarding the number of people who pay no federal income tax. While about one-third of income tax filers reported no federal income tax liability in 2006 (up from 20% in 1981), this number is estimated to rise to 43% under John McCain’s proposed tax policies and 44% under Barack Obama’s. TaxProf concluded: “The Tax Foundation rightly notes: ‘It is time for a serious public discussion of whether it is desirable to have so many Americans disconnected from the cost of government and what the consequences are of using the tax system as a vehicle for social policy.'” It is, indeed, a good idea to have a serious discussion about why this question seriously misses the point.

This view of low-income taxpayers is reminiscent of the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s infamous “lucky duckies” argument from several years ago. The basic idea is that

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Biden’s Impressive Evening

Last Thursday evening, I watched the vice presidential debate between Sen. Biden and Gov. Palin. Because of an earlier commitment, I had to leave town the next morning, and I have been in virtual seclusion ever since. I have not seen any commentary or spin from the various camps, nor do I know whether there is an emerging consensus of whether one side or the other exceeded or fell short of whatever artificial expectations they had managed to create in advance of the debate. I have seen enough headlines to know that Gov. Palin is still on the Republican ticket (which in itself is rather remarkable at this point). Other than that, however,

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Debate as Debate: When Your Opponent Won’t (or Can’t) Argue

The first presidential debate seems like it happened a million years ago, with all of the drama about the financial crisis that has transpired since Friday. Still, with the vice presidential debate scheduled for tonight, and two more presidential debates yet to come (pending more dramatic announcements), it seems like a good moment to reflect on the first debate and perhaps its most trenchant lesson for those who watch tonight’s debate.

Sadly, Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in this past Sunday’s New York Times seemed correct when she impatiently described “what debates are about. It’s not a lecture hall; it’s a joust. It’s not how cerebral you are. It’s how visceral you are. You need memorable, sharp, forceful and witty lines.” Yet despite an initial consensus among pundits that Obama and McCain had essentially debated to a tie on style (or whatever it is that one uses to judge a joust), at least some polls showed that Obama won the debate in the minds of more voters. (A TIME poll of independent voters, for example, has Obama winning the debate, 41-27, among likely voters.)

I readily admit that I have an old-fashioned view about debates. Like many academics,

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Bleeding Out the Excess Humors: Government Spending and the Financial Crisis

In the first presidential debate last Friday, the moderator’s first question was addressed to John McCain: “[A]re there fundamental differences between your approach and Senator Obama’s approach to what you would do as president to lead this country out of the financial crisis?” McCain’s reply began as follows: “Well, the first thing we have to do is get spending under control in Washington. It’s completely out of control.” He soon added: “I’m going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk.”

Different viewers surely had different moments during the debate when their jaws dropped. Sen. McCain’s assertion that Pakistan was “a failed state” caused at least one knowledgeable commentator to drop a stitch. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.) For me, though, it was that first answer about cutting government spending that left me staring in wonder. McCain’s comments indicated a complete disconnect from even the most basic understanding of macroeconomics and a mindless commitment to an orthodoxy that would make matters much worse. Perhaps worse still,

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This Post May Already Be Moot

I had planned to write today about the next steps in dealing with the financial crisis, following the agreement in Washington on the major contours of a bailout plan. Last night, however, the plan fell apart, with House Republicans walking away from the negotiations. The nature of any actions at the Federal level — as I write at 8:30am EDT on Friday — are thus very much in doubt. With the situation in flux, I will take the opportunity here to offer a few thoughts on the crisis and a number of ways that it might yet be handled, either picking up where we left off or starting from scratch.

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