The Real World

My very first law professor, Bob Ellickson, once said to my Torts class: “You know how law professors do empirical research? They sit in a room and think very hard.”

That was in 1984. A lot has changed since then, partly because of pioneering work by Ellickson himself.1 Since 2012, more than 500 law review articles have included the word “empirical” in their titles, and probably hundreds more – including every item in the most recent issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies – report or analyze empirical data without titular advertisement. Many of these papers feature linear regressions or other complex statistical analyses aiming to tease out relationships between variables. Yet there remains much value in research that simply but rigorously informs us of what actually happens in the real world. Understanding environmental law, like understanding the environment, begins with observing. This Jot acknowledges the contributions of two recent articles that help us see. Continue reading "The Real World"

Democracy Unchained

K. Sabeel Rahman, Private Power, Public Values: Regulating Social Infrastructure in a Changing Economy, 39 Cardozo L. Rev. 5 (forthcoming, 2017), available at SSRN.

In the mid-2000s, digital activists spearheaded the net neutrality movement to ensure fair treatment of the customers of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as well as to protect the companies trying to reach them. Net neutrality rules limit or ban preferential treatment; for example, they might prevent an ISP like Comcast from offering exclusive access to Facebook and its partner sites on a “Free Basics” plan. Such rules have a sad and tortuous history in the US: rebuffed under Bush, long delayed and finally adopted by Obama’s FCC, and now in mortal peril thanks to Donald Trump’s elevation of Ajit Pai to be chairman of the Commission. But net neutrality as a popular principle has had more success, animating mass protests and even comedy shows. It has also given long-suffering cable customers a way of politicizing their personal struggles with haughty monopolies.

But net neutrality activists missed two key opportunities. They often failed to explain how far the neutrality principle should extend, as digital behemoths like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon wielded extraordinary power over key nodes of the net. Some commentators derided calls for “search neutrality” or “app store neutrality;” others saw such measures as logical next steps for a digital New Deal. Moreover, they did not adequately address key economic arguments. Neoliberal commentators insisted that the US would only see rapid advances in speed and quality of service if ISPs could recoup investment by better monetizing traffic. Progressives argued that “something is better than nothing;” a program like “Free Basics” probably benefits the disadvantaged more than no access at all.

In his Private Power, Public Values: Regulating Social Infrastructure in a Changing Economy, K. Sabeel Rahman offers a theoretical framework to address these concerns. He offers a “definition of infrastructural goods and services” and a “toolkit of public utility-inspired regulatory strategies” that is a way to “diagnose and respond to new forms of private power in a changing economy,” including powerful internet platforms. He also gives a clear sense of why the public interest in regulating large internet firms should trump investors’ arguments for untrammeled rights to profits—and demands “public options” for those unable to afford access to privately controlled infrastructure. Continue reading "Democracy Unchained"

The Discreet Charm of Conveyancing on the Blockchain

Jeanne L. Schroeder, Bitcoin and the Uniform Commercial Code, 24 U. Miami Bus. L. Rev. 1 (2016).

When Adam Levitin and I taught The Law of Money seminar a year ago, not one student chose to write about bitcoin. We congratulated ourselves on drawing young people hip enough to ignore the hype emanating from googly-eyed technophiles and smug pundits, and beefed up the readings on silver in 18th century China. The rude awakening came last spring, when bitcoin gobbled up half the class and forced me to wrestle with the problem of legal writing about financial innovation. Jeanne Schroeder’s lovely Bitcoin and the Uniform Commercial Code saved the day. The article reads at first like an old-fashioned doctrinal piece of the sort that have become rare. That would be valuable enough, but the bigger payoff for me was seeing a patient sifting of bitcoin through the UCC illuminate the work of legal institutions at the intersection of finance and technology.

Most students said that they wanted to write about fintech-y stuff because it was new and hot and law firms were all over it. However, defining “it” became a problem, especially for bitcoin. At a high level of generality, bitcoin is a protocol designed to extract, represent, and circulate value using a decentralized system for recording transfers (blockchain).1 Putting transfer verification in the hands of the public at large makes the blockchain hard to manipulate, and makes transfers faster and cheaper. Continue reading "The Discreet Charm of Conveyancing on the Blockchain"

What Abbasi Should Have Said

It is a common rhetorical trope among far too many federal judges (including Supreme Court Justices) that legal scholarship is of diminishing utility to them and their work, at least in part because scholars have turned their gaze to topics too far removed from those relevant to the deliberations of contemporary jurists. Most famously, Chief Justice Roberts (who does and should know better) echoed this lament at the 2011 Fourth Circuit conference: “Pick up a copy of any law review that you see and the first article is likely to be . . . the influence of Immanuel Kant on evidentiary approaches in 18th-century Bulgaria, or something, which I’m sure was of great interest to the academic that wrote it, but isn’t of much help to the bar.” The Chief Justice’s ill-informed quip may have gotten the most attention, but he is hardly alone.

There is a lot to say about this general claim. In the specific case of the Chief Justice, much of it has already been said by Orin Kerr.

But the juxtaposition of Jim Pfander’s erudite and magisterial new monograph, Constitutional Torts and the War on Terror, and the Supreme Court’s June 19 decision in Ziglar v. Abbasi, suggests a different (and more alarming) possibility: The problem is not that law professors are failing to produce scholarship of utility to contemporary judges; the problem is that the scholarship that is out there just is not getting read. How else to explain both the result and the reasoning in Abbasi—a decision deeply hostile to judge-made damages remedies for constitutional violations by federal officers, and one that is shamelessly indifferent and stunningly oblivious to the rich history and tradition of such remedies that has been well- and long-documented in the academic literature, most powerfully in Pfander’s book. Continue reading "What Abbasi Should Have Said"

Saving Harlem from Drugs: A Hobson’s Choice

Dr. Michael Javen Fortner’s book, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, has ignited critical conversations in the academy and in public discourse. Among other things, the book describes a sort of “politics of respectability” within the black community and its impact on drug enforcement policy. The politics of respectability is a term coined twenty-five years ago by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in Righteous Discontent to describe the social pressures by elite memb ers of the black community to ensure that other blacks were behaving respectably rather than affirming assumptions and stereotypes that the white community might have of blacks. Fortner’s book compels us to question the implications when, as is often the case in the African-American community, unelected social or religious leaders are assumed to represent the larger group. This is an important question for policy makers in the era of Black Lives Matter, a movement with a new model of diffused or unconventional leadership. Who should speak for whom? Black Silent Majority is a historical account of the role that a sub-group of African-American played in one of the most important socio-legal phenomena of the last half-century: the mass incarceration. In particular, Fortner explores how a privileged “silent majority” of black New Yorkers (preachers, politicians, businesspeople, the so-called “talented tenth,” and others) paved the way for the institution of draconian drug sentences.

To understand the ramifications of his argument, we must remember the cultural vibrancy of New York between 1920 and 1950. Harlem became a mecca of artistic, cultural and intellectual engagement during this period. This was the time of Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, and Josephine Baker. This renaissance was seeded by the great migration—the explosion of more than 6 million people to the North from the South in Harlem. Harlem – in this place and in this time – was as close to a capital of Black America as there could be. Continue reading "Saving Harlem from Drugs: A Hobson’s Choice"

Tracing the Roots of the Criminalization of Poverty

That Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America is a must-read for those interested in the origins of the U.S. carceral state has been made clear in a stream of well-deserved and laudatory reviews.1 Echoing and reinforcing Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Build Prison America, Hinton persuasively demonstrates that today’s racially-targeted carceral state did not originate in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. Instead its roots are both older and disturbingly bipartisan.

The architectural foundations of today’s carceral policies were laid during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson, in the moments when the federal dedication to Community Action, maximum feasible participation and the War on Poverty gave way to the pathologization of black youth. Hinton moves steadily forward from that moment, persuasively indicting along the way not only Kennedy and Johnson but Carter as well. As she reveals, “in full historical context, the policies of the Regan administration marked merely the fulfillment of federal crime control priorities that stemmed initially from one of the most idealistic enterprises in American history .” (P. 4.) But the book is not only relevant for those interested in carceral policies. For scholars of poverty law and social welfare history, and in particular for those who seek to understand the historical origins of what Kaaryn Gustafson termed the criminalization of poverty, Hinton’s book is equally important.2 Continue reading "Tracing the Roots of the Criminalization of Poverty"

More Failed Nudges: Evidence of Ineffective “Behaviorally Informed” Disclosures

Enrique Seira, Alan Elizondo & Eduardo Laguna-Müggenburg, Are Information Disclosures Effective? Evidence From the Credit Card Market, 9 Am. Econ. J.: Econ. Pol’y 277 (2017).

As Truth-in-Lending laws are celebrating half a century of failure, and as consumers—especially those with low income—continue to make disastrous credit decisions, lawmakers are looking to reboot the disclosure paradigm. Energized by insights from behavioral economics, Twenty-First Century regulators are rapidly discarding the old idea of “comprehensive” disclosure, developing instead psychologically-smart, graphically-appealing, and timely-relevant compact disclosure templates. But now, a new study by Seira et al. has put to the test an array of these smart disclosures. And the results are devastating.

Smart disclosures seem to make perfect sense. If consumers need information to make good decisions, it should be delivered to them in a user-friendly manner. Smart disclosures should provide salient “total cost of credit” scores. They should “nudge” debtors to avoid massive debt, for example by showing them the real cost of making only minimum monthly payments. They should harness “peer effects” by warning people when their debt is above average for similar consumers. And they should arrive via eye-popping easy-to-understand media. Continue reading "More Failed Nudges: Evidence of Ineffective “Behaviorally Informed” Disclosures"

Individual Rights and Collective Governance

Ozan O. Varol, Structural Rights, 105 Geo. L. J. 1001 (2017).

Ozan O. Varol’s article Structural Rights usefully mixes two aspects of constitutional law that teachers and authors, at least for pedagogical purposes, separate when organizing coverage of their subject. My casebook, for example, covers “structural” features of the United States Constitution, such as separation of powers and federalism, then proceeds to “rights” chapters dealing with, for example, due process and equal protection. Students typically find structural features more difficult and non-intuitive, while they are very comfortable with rights protections for individuals.

Of course, separation of powers and federalism are fairly commonly viewed as liberty-enhancing. The Framers initially thought a Bill of Rights unnecessary: governmental structural restrictions and competing government power centers, they thought, would prevent government oppression. Today, perhaps in part due to the “rights revolution” of the Warren Court, my generation typically views the Bill of Rights and section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment as bulwarks of individual freedom, central and indispensable to our constitutional order. But the point of the Constitution as a whole was to enhance governance by “We the People.” The rights provisions, as Varol’s article elucidates powerfully, empower rather than merely protect “the People.” They frame and drive our governance structure. Continue reading "Individual Rights and Collective Governance"

Faulty Knowledge About Law

Arden Rowell, Law, Belief, and Aspiration (2017), available at SSRN.

Theories about law frequently assume that people know what the law is. Theoretical accounts of the rule of law by Lon Fuller, Joseph Raz, and Friedrich Hayek, for example, emphasize that law must be prospective, clear, public, and stable, because it must be capable of guiding behavior.1 The assumption that people know what law is shows up in H.L.A. Hart’s assertion that a necessary condition for law is that valid “rules of behavior” promulgated by the legal system “must be generally obeyed.”2 This assumption is also manifested in theoretical claims that criminal laws deter crime and tort liability creates incentives for behavior. These and other discussions about the supposed consequences of law often take for granted that people have a correct understanding of what law requires.

Professor Arden Rowell’s recent article, “Law, Belief, and Aspiration,” casts doubt on this assumption. This empirical study, though not itself a work in jurisprudence, has significant theoretical implications and should be read by jurisprudents. Continue reading "Faulty Knowledge About Law"

Bringing Back the State into Regulatory Scholarship

Robert C. Hockett & Saule T. Omarova, The Finance Franchise, 102 Cornell L. Rev. (forthcoming, 2017), available at SSRN.

In The Finance Franchise, Bob Hockett and Saule Omarova take on the dual myths underpinning contemporary financial regulation: that capital is both inherently scarce and privately provided. They painstakingly document (and illustrate in simple graphics for those of us whose banking savvy is confined to remembering their ATM PIN number) the state’s role in the provision of financial products and services ranging from plain-vanilla loans to digital currencies. They reveal how, at base, all of these products and services depend on the full faith and credit of national governments to assume ultimate liability for privately-issued debt and to monetize privately-issued debt by allowing the putative private debt-holder to spend the debt proceeds as if they were currency.

In short, Hockett and Omarova demonstrate that because the state serves these two functions, “modern finance is not primarily scarce, privately provided and intermediated but is, in its most consequential respects, indefinitely extensible, publicly supplied, and publicly disseminated. At its core, the modern financial system is effectively a public-private partnership that is most accurately, if unavoidably metaphorically, interpreted as a franchise arrangement.” (P. 4.) Continue reading "Bringing Back the State into Regulatory Scholarship"