Category: Sociology of Law

Gamifying Control of the Scored Self

Social sorting is big business. Bosses and bankers crave “predictive analytics:” ways of deciding who will be the best worker, borrower, or customer. Our economy is less likely to reward someone who “builds a better mousetrap” than it is to fund a startup which will identify those most likely to buy a mousetrap. The critical resource here is data, the fossil fuel of the digital economy. Privacy advocates are digital environmentalists, worried that rapid exploitation of data either violates moral principles or sets in motion destructive processes we only vaguely understand now.*

Start-up fever fuels these concerns as new services debut and others grow in importance. For example, a leader at Lenddo, “the first credit scoring service that uses your online social network to assess credit,” has called for “thousands of engineers [to work] to assess creditworthiness.” We all know how well the “quants” have run Wall Street—but maybe this time will be different. His company aims to mine data derived from digital monitoring of relationships. ITWorld headlined the development: “How Facebook Can Hurt Your Credit Rating”–“It’s time to ditch those deadbeat friends.” It also brought up the disturbing prospect of redlined portions of the “social graph.”

There’s a lot of value in such “news you can use” reporting. However, I think it misses some problematic aspects of a pervasively evaluated and scored digital world. Big data’s fans will always counter that, for every person hurt by surveillance, there’s someone else who is helped by it. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, whether the game of reputation-building is truly zero-sum, and the far more important question of whether these judgments are fair. The data-meisters’ analytics deserve scrutiny on other grounds.
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The Moral Authority of Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street protests continue to grow, and to gain support from public intellectuals. Joe Stiglitz, Anne Marie Slaughter, and Paul Krugman are the latest luminaries to praise the cause. The movement has also provoked derision. Let’s consider the latest Norquist/Limbaugh memes as the protest nears the one-month mark:

1) “They’re just spoiled hippies who can’t get a job.” A quick glance at the “We are the 99%” tumblr could easily dispel this notion. The economic suffering in this country is deep and broad. As one news story put it, “one in three Americans would be unable to make their mortgage or rent payment beyond one month if they lost their job.” Even if the most down-and-out people are too poor or busy to get to Wall Street (or the hundreds of other actions now taking place), many of them think of the OWS crowd as speaking for them.

There is so much needless suffering going on now, and so much wealth accumulating at the very top. It is hard to understand how critics dismiss the protesters so cavalierly. I used to find the Biblical passage about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart one of the more mysterious parts of the Book of Exodus; now I feel like I’m witnessing it firsthand.
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Q&A with Lior Strahilevitz about Information and Exclusion

Lior Strahilevitz, Deputy Dean and Sidley Austin Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School recently published a brilliant new book, Information and Exclusion (Yale University Press 2011).  Like all of Lior’s work, the book is creative, thought-provoking, and compelling.  There are books that make strong and convincing arguments, and these are good, but then there are the rare books that not only do this, but make you think in a different way.  That’s what Lior achieves in his book, and that’s quite an achievement.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lior about the book. 

Daniel J. Solove (DJS): What drew you to the topic of exclusion?

Lior Jacob Strahilevitz (LJS):  It was an observation I had as a college sophomore.  I lived in the student housing cooperatives at Berkeley.  Some of my friends who lived in the cooperatives told me they felt morally superior to people in the fraternities and sororities because the Greek system had an elaborate, exclusionary rush and pledge process.  The cooperatives, by contrast, were open to any student.  But as I visited friends who lived in the various cooperative houses, the individual houses often seemed no more heterogeneous than the fraternities and sororities.  That made me curious.  It was obvious that the pledging and rushing process – formal exclusion – created homogeneity in the Greek system.  But what was it that was creating all this apparent homogeneity in a cooperative system that was open to everyone?  That question was one I kept wondering about as a law student, lawyer, and professor.

That’s why page 1 of the book begins with a discussion of exclusion in the Greek system.  I start with really accounts of the rush process by sociologists who studied the proxies that fraternity members used to evaluate pledges in the 1950s (attire, diction, grooming, firm handshakes, etc.)  The book then brings us to the modern era, when fraternity members peruse Facebook profiles that provide far more granular information about the characteristics of each pledge.  Proxies still matter, but the proxies are different, and those differences alter the ways in which rushing students behave and fraternities exclude.

DJS: What is the central idea in your book?

LJS: The core idea is that asymmetric information largely determines which mechanisms are used to exclude people from particular groups, collective resources, and services.  When the person who controls a resource knows a lot about the people who wish to use it, she will make decisions about who gets to access it.  Where she lacks that information, she’ll develop a strategy that forces particular groups to exclude themselves from the resource, based on some criteria.  There’s a historical ebb and flow between these two sorts of strategies for exclusion, but we seem to be in a critical transition period right now thanks to the decline of practical obscurity in the information age.

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Two Crises, One Response

The US faced two great crises during the first decade of the 21st century: the attacks of September, 2001, and the meltdown of its financial system in September, 2008. In the case of 9/11, the country reluctantly concluded that it had made a category mistake about the threat posed by terrorism. The US had relied on cooperation among the Federal Aviation Administration, local law enforcement, and airlines to prevent hijacking. Assuming that, at most, a hijacked or bombed airplane would kill the passengers aboard the plane, government officials believed that national, local, and private authorities had adequate incentives to invest in an optimal level of deterrence. Until the attack occurred, no high official had deeply considered and acted on the possibility that an airplane itself could be weaponized, leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians.

After the attack, a new Department of Homeland Security took the lead in protecting the American people from internal threats, while existing intelligence agencies refocused their operations to better monitor internal threats to domestic order. The government massively upgraded its surveillance capabilities in the search for terrorists. DHS collaborated with local law enforcement officials and private critical infrastructure providers. Federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, gather information in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials in what Congress has deemed the “Information Sharing Environment” (ISE), held together by information “fusion centers” and other hubs. My co-blogger Danielle Citron and I wrote about some of the consequences in an article that recently appeared in the Hastings Law Journal:

In a speech at the Washington National Cathedral three days after 9/11, then-President George W. Bush proclaimed that America’s “responsibility to history is already clear[:] . . . [to] rid the world of evil.” For the next seven years, the Bush administration tried many innovations to keep that promise, ranging from preemptive war in Iraq to . . . changes in law enforcement and domestic intelligence . . . Fusion centers are a lasting legacy of the Administration’s aspiration to “eradicate evil,” a great leap forward in both technical capacity and institutional coordination. Their goal is to eliminate both the cancer of terror and lesser diseases of the body politic.

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Hot Summer Flashes, Black Urban Mobs

Like Professor Zick, I am grateful for the invitation to share my view of the world with Concurring Opinions. I’d like to pick up where his post on strange expressive acts left off and, along the way, perhaps answer his question.

Flash mobs have been eliciting wide-eyed excitement for the better part of the past decade now. They were playful and glaringly pointless in their earliest manifestations. Mobbers back then were content with the playful performance art of the thing. Early proponents, at the same time, breathlessly lauded the flash mob “movement.”

MGK leads a movement (Youtube)

Today, the flash mob has matured into something much more complex than these early proponents prophesied. For one, they involve unsupported and disaffected young people of color in cities on the one hand and, on the other, anxious and unprepared law enforcement officials. A fateful mix.

In North London in early August, mobile online social networking and messaging probably helped outrage over the police shooting of a young black man morph into misanthropic madness.  Race-inflected flash mob mischief hit the U.S. this summer, too. Most major metropolitan newspapers and cable news channels this summer have run stories about young black people across the country using their idle time and fleet thumbs to organize shoplifting, beatings, and general indiscipline. This is not the first time the U.S. has seen the flash mob or something like it. (Remember the 2000 recount in Florida?) But the demographic and commercial politics of these events in particular ought to raise eyebrows.
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Two (more) cheers for rhetorical coolness

Dave’s awesome post from a few days ago, along with the ensuing discussion, got me thinking a bit more about the virtues of  humility in reasoning (the Kahan paper he cites calls this “aporia,” but for all I know that could really be Greek for “platypus” so I’ll just stick with good old English).  I’m a fan of the approach to discourse that Dave describes in the post, which I will refer to herein as rhetorical coolness (to contrast it with overheated rhetoric, and because it think it actually is cool, in the sense that Fonzie is cool).

By “rhetorical coolness,” I refer to a style of reasoning that entails respectful consideration of opposing arguments, evinces due humility about the inevitable limitations of one’s capacities to reason, and avoids the kind of hysterical tone that characterizes much public dialogue these days, especially cable news and the blogosphere.

It doesn’t seem to me particularly surprising that people should give carefully articulated reasons for their positions rather than engage in all-caps, red-faced, Nancy-Grace style ranting.  But then again, if you take a look at the viewership of cable news or the readership of blogs, it often seems like the hysterical style is what really moves people, so I may be in the minority on this.

Hence my encouragement at reading Dave’s citation to literature suggesting that while people may feel gratified by (and hence seek out) inflammatory information outlets that tend to confirm their preexisting positions, what tends to persuade people to change their minds is balanced, non-hysterical reasoning that evinces rhetorical humility as I’ve described it above.

I haven’t done the kind of empirical research that Dave Hoffman or Dan Kahan have on cultural cognition, but I still wanted to advance a pair of non-quantitative (but still empirical) reasons in praise of the cool style.  I articulate these reasons below the fold.  Fair warning:  in the ensuing discussion, no one will be compared to Hitler.

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No More Fire, the Water Next Time

Paul Campos thinks I am cemented to the wall of Yale Law School by the blood of a thousand students, murdered by rapacious professors.

Among its many other vices, does legal education teach you to argue less persuasively and in a way that unsettles civil society?  That accusation is implicit in Dan Kahan’s new magisterial HLR Forward, Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law.  In Some Problems, Kahan considers the Supreme Court’s perceived legitimacy deficit when it resolves high-stakes cases.  Rejecting the common criticism that focuses on the ideal of neutrality, Kahan argues than the Court’s failure is one of communication.  The issues that the Court considers are hard, the they often turn on disputed policy judgments. But the Justices  resort to language which is untempered by doubt, and which advances empirical support that is said to be conclusive. Like scientists, judges’ empirical messages are read by elites, and thus understood through polarizing filters.  As a result, Justices on the other sides of these fights quickly seek to undermine these purported empirical foundations – – as Justice Scalia argued last term in Plata:

“[It] is impossible for judges to make “factual findings” without inserting their own policy judgments, when the factual findings are policy judgments. What occurred here is no more judicial factfinding in the ordinary sense than would be the factual findings that deficit spending will not lower the unemployment rate, or that the continued occupation of Iraq will decrease the risk of terrorism.”

Kahan resists Scalia’s cynicism — and says that in fact Scalia is making the problem worse.  Overconfident display encourages people to take polarized views of law, to distrust the good faith of the Court and of legal institutions, and to experience the malady of cognitive illiberalism.  Kahan concludes that Courts ought to show doubt & humility — aporia — when deciding cases, so as to signal to the other justices & the public that the losing side has been heard.  Such a commitment to humble rhetoric would strengthen the idea of neutrality, which currently is attacked by all comers.  Moreover, there is evidence that these sorts of on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand arguments do work.  As Dan Simon and co-authors have found, people are basically likely to consider as legitimate arguments whose outcomes they find congenial.  But when they dislike outcomes, people are better persuaded by arguments that are explicitly two-sided: that is, the form of very muscular rhetoric typical in SCOTUS decisions is likely to be seen, by those who disagree with the Court’s outcomes, are particularly unpersuasive, illegitimate, and biased.

I love this paper — it’s an outgrowth of the cultural cognition project, and it lays the groundwork for some really neat experiments. So the point of the post is partly to encourage you to go read it.  But I wanted to try as well to connect this line of research to the recent “debate” about Law Schools.

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Jack Balkin’s Constitutional Redemption: A Much-Needed Dose of Optimism

I want to thank Danielle Citron for inviting me to participate in this symposium. And I want to thank Jack Balkin for giving me the great honor of commenting on his wonderful book. In Constitutional Redemption, Balkin offers an important, insightful, and useful corrective to the pessimism that pervades a significant amount of legal scholarship on the left. His constitutional optimism suggests the potential and possibilities of constitutional mobilization.

Balkin’s book offers incredible amounts of rich material. He provides a descriptive account of constitutional change, a normative vision of democratic culture, and an interpretative theory aimed at fulfilling the Constitution’s promises. In showing how social movements believe in and agitate for constitutional redemption, Balkin redeems the Constitution for legal scholarship, reminding us that the Constitution serves both as a potent symbol of social change and as a vehicle for continued reform. In this commentary, I first want to focus on why I think Balkin’s descriptive account is accurate by pointing to two essential moves I see him making. I then want to show Balkin’s theory in action in the marriage equality context as a way to translate his analysis into a useful lesson for liberals and progressives.

To my mind, two key moves allow Balkin to see what many others miss and thereby to bridge the often vast divide between constitutional theory and on-the-ground social movement activity. First, Balkin decenters adjudication, and in a sense detaches constitutional claims-making from constitutional decision-making. Of course, Balkin discusses at great length the decisions of the Supreme Court on various significant issues – from race to abortion to labor – and these decisions are crucial to an account of social change. But he analyzes adjudication through the lens of political and movement mobilization, showing the evolution of constitutional principles through the symbiotic relationship among courts, culture, and social movements. (Balkin, p. 63)

By deemphasizing adjudication, Balkin suggests that the most significant effects of constitutional claims emerge from the claims-making process itself. The claim is not merely instrumental – to convince a judge to grant some right or benefit to the plaintiff. Rather, the claim may be transformative and may articulate a vision that holds power regardless of judicial validation. In fact, when the judge validates the plaintiff’s claim, it is often because that claim has already affected the culture more generally.

Balkin’s second key move, which follows from the first, is his contextualization of courts within a broader political and cultural world. (Balkin, pp. 97-98) For Balkin, constitutional claims-making is political and moral claims-making. (Balkin, p. 118) Through this lens, courts cannot (and generally do not) go it alone. Instead, courts participate in an ongoing dialogue with other social change agents, including social movements and political actors.

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Diving, soccer, and cultural differences about the morality of rulebreaking

The FIFA Women’s World Cup ended last weekend (disappointingly, for the US team, at least) and I was faced with the same experience that is familiar to Americans who like soccer whenever the sport blips across our national radar screen.  Friends and family alike who talked about the WWC with me invariably steered the conversation as soon as possible not in the direction of the last-gasp heroics of the teams involved, or the individual brilliance of many of the players, but instead to a moral outrage that apparently overshadowed any merit the WWC might otherwise have had for them:  diving.

Diving, or simulation, is the practice of inventing or exaggerating physical contact in order to draw a foul on the opposing team, or relatedly of inventing or exaggerating an injury in order to waste time and let the game clock wind down (e.g., Brazil in extra-time versus the US in the WWC quarterfinal before Wambach’s famous game-tying goal).  This practice is not exclusive to soccer (one sees variants of it, increasingly, in NBA basketball), but it is certainly most prevalent in soccer, especially among certain national soccer cultures.

What interests me about this reaction to diving is how pronounced it is among some sports fans, and how subdued it is in others.  Some soccer cultures regard simulation as the sporting equivalent of murder (morally reprehensible regardless of whether you’re caught doing it), while others regard it as the sporting equivalent of jaywalking (illegal, and not a good idea, but something you might do every so often if you think you can get away with it and it gains you some advantage).  I examine this puzzle in more detail, and pose some conjectures about resolving it, after the break.

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The Agents of Social Change

If We Were a Game of Thrones Noble House, Our Words Would Be: Judgement is Coming.

Matt Yglesias chides progressives for thinking that judges are their natural allies. Not only has “the judicial branch has been a very conservative elite-dominated institution” throughout most of American history, but “fancy lawyers [who make up the bench] are just as much the social peers of business executives as ordinary politicians are, but fancy lawyers aren’t accountable to voters the way ordinary politicians are.”

This is in the main right, but wrong in its diagnosis of partisanship.  Lawyers are generally conservative – in their habits, their attitudes towards social order and the virtues of wealth-creation, in their risk-preferences.  (This is why, for example, teaching entrepreneurial law is hard, and why venturers hate their lawyers.)  And it’s fair to say that most lawyers who become judges aren’t known to be wild iconoclasts or fire-breathers, though there are exceptions to every rule.  But there are literally thousands of judges in this country, not merely the nine platonic guardians who sit above us.  Many of those judges are elected – does Yglesias really think that democratic accountability will result in measurably better outcomes for progressives?

I think that the problem Yglesias identifies doesn’t lie with lawyer’s eliteness, or their partisanship. It’s with legal training’s orientation toward the appropriate role of lawyering and judges.  Law school inculcates lawyers in a tradition where it’s seen to be bad to reach outside of one’s role.  We learn this by talking about Justices as good (or bad) examples of the rule.  Justice Harlan 2: Good.  Justice Douglas: Bad.  the first Justice Marshall: Excellent, but for the fraternizing with the Executive.  Justice Taney: Boooooo.  The Current Chief Justice:  a master at maximal minimalism.  As Craig Green has argued, this socratically-taught, historically-contingent, role-differentiation is at the core of the judicial activism debate.  Thus, to the extent that the Justices in Dukes saw systemic change of the scale demanded by the Walmart plaintiffs as an extraordinary and invasive remedy, they would have balked.  It’s not because they are elite. Nor are they are pro-business, whatever that means.  (And what kind of ignoramus would self-identify as anti-business?). It’s because Dukes imagined an active & socially intrusive role for judges (and juries) that the current legal norms can’t swallow as legitimate.