Category: Legal Theory


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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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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