Author: Dave Hoffman

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Empirical Studies Workshop

Intrigued by the goings on at CELS VII?  Join the revolution.  Andrew Martin asked me to post the following:

Title: Conducting Empirical Legal Scholarship Workshop, May 22-24, 2013

On Wednesday, May 22, 2013 through Friday, May 24, 2013, Lee Epstein and Andrew Martin will be teaching their annual Conducting Empirical Legal Scholarship workshop.  This workshop will be held in Los Angeles, and is co-sponsored by USC Gould School of Law and Washington University Law. There is more information available about the workshop here:

http://law.usc.edu/EmpiricalWorkshop

The Conducting Empirical Legal Scholarship workshop is for law school and social science faculty interested in learning about empirical research.  The instructors provide the formal training necessary to design, conduct, and assess empirical studies, and to use statistical software (Stata) to analyze and manage data. Participants need no background or knowledge of statistics to enroll in the workshop.  Topics to be covered include research design, sampling, measurement, descriptive statistics, inferential statistics, and linear regression.

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CELS VII: Low Variance, High Significance

[CELS VII, held November 9-10, 2012 at Stanford, was a smashing success due in no small part to the work of chief organizer Dan Ho, as well as Dawn Chutkow (of SELS and Cornell) and Stanford's organizing committee.  For previous installments in the CELS recap series, see CELS III, IV, V, and VI. For those few readers of this post who are data-skeptics and don’t want to read a play-by-play, resistance is obviously futile and you might as well give up. I hear that TV execs were at CELS scouting for a statistic geek reality show, so think of this as a taste of what’s coming.]

Survey Research isn't just for the 1%!

Unlike last year, I got to the conference early and even went to a methods panel. Skipping the intimidating “Spatial Statistics and the GIS” and the ominous “Bureau of Justice Statistics” panels, I sat in on “Internet Surveys” with Douglas Rivers, of Stanford/Hoover and YouGuv. To give you a sense of the stakes, half of the people in the room regularly use mTurk to run cheap e-surveys. The other half regularly write nasty comments in JELS reviewer forms about using mTurk.  (Oddly, I’m in both categories, which would’ve created a funny weighting problem if I were asked my views.) The panel was devoted to the proposition “Internet surveys are much, much more accurate than you thought, and if you don’t believe me, check out some algebraic proof.  And the election.”  Two contrasting data points. First, as Rivers pointed out, all survey subjects are volunteers, and thus it’s a bit tough to distinguish internet convenience samples from some oddball scooped up by Gallup’s 9% survey response rate.  Second, and less comfortingly, 10-15% of the adult population has a reading disability that makes self-administration of a survey prompt online more than a bit dicey.  I say: as long as the disability isn’t biasing with respect to contract psychology or cultural cognition, let’s survey on the cheap!

Lunch next. Good note for presenters: avoid small pieces of spinach/swiss chard if you are about to present. No one will tell you that you’ve spinach on a front tooth.  Not even people who are otherwise willing to inform you that your slides are too brightly colored. Speaking of which, the next panel I attended was Civil Justice I. Christy and I presented Clusters are AmazingWe tag-teamed, with me taking 9 minutes to present 5 slides and her taking 9 minutes to present the remaining 16 or so.  That was just as well: no one really wanted to know how our work might apply more broadly anyway. We got through it just fine, although I still can’t figure out an intuitive way to describe spectral clustering. What about “magic black box” isn’t working for you?

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A Grouchy Post About the Election

I’m on record as basically hating blogging by law professors about politics, never more so than when the election is near. Obviously, given the state of commentary on the more popular law professor blogs of late, too few agree with me about how unenlightening most political blogging by professors is.   Well, it takes all kinds!  And there’s always Orin Kerr, writing about actual cases, to read.

But here’s something we can all agree on, I would hope. Law professors have no business telling students who to vote for.  I wonder what percentage of the academy already has, or will, violate this simple rule in the next two days?  My bet: over 25%, and the age distribution would be illuminating. Some additional percentage have probably told their students that as lawyers-in-training they have an extra obligation to participate in the “civic duty” of voting. This, in my mind, is nearly as bad, since it is usually motivated by some implicit sense that the targets of the message are going to vote the way you want them to.

Whew. Glad I got that off my chest!

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At CELS 2012

I’m really looking forward to next week’s 7th Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies, to be held at Stanford.  Here’s the preliminary program.  As usual, I’ll blog the conference after the fact.  If there are particular papers you want to make sure I get to and highlight, drop me a line.  As a taste, here’s a line from an abstract that made me very curious about the presentation to follow: “Our overall estimates suggest that pornography caused between 10 and 25 percent of all divorces in the United States in the sixties and seventies.”  Caused?!  That must be some kicker of an instrumental variable.

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Is Contract Law Really Pragmatic?

I’ll begin by joining the others who’ve written in already to praise Larry’s excellent Contracts in the Real World.  It is highly accessible, entertaining, and offers a ream of examples to make concrete some abstract and hard doctrinal problems. Larry has the gift of making complex problems seem simple – much more valuable and rare than the common academic approach of transforming hard questions into other hard questions! This would be an ideal present to a pre-law student, or even to an anxious 1L who wants a book that will connect the cases they are reading, like Lucy, Baby M, or Peevyhouse, to problems that their peers are chatting about on Facebook.

Larry’s typical approach is to introduce a salient modern contract dispute, and then show how the problem it raises was anticipated or resolved in a famous contract case or cases.  Larry often states that contract “law” steers a path between extremes, finding a pragmatic solution. This approach has the virtue of illustrating the immediate utility of precedent for guiding the resolution of current disputes, and comforts those who might believe that courts are always political actors in (caricatured) Bush v. Gore or Roberts/Health Care Cases sense. It has the vice of de-emphasizing state-by-state differences in how contract law works, as well as the dynamic effects of judicial decisions on future contracts. But I think that for its intended audience, these vices can be easily swallowed.

I wanted to offer one question to provoke discussion: is it actually true that politics is as removed from contract law as Larry’s narrative appears to suggest, and how would we know?  The contracts law professor listserve is full of laments about judges turn away from Traynor & his perceived progressive contract doctrines – and I certainly know of colleagues who teach that there are “liberal” and “conservative” versions of the parol evidence rule, for instance. But what does this actually mean, and how does it connect with the scholarship on judicial politics generally?  As it turns out, this question has been understudied, probably because political scientists have yet to find a way carefully operationalize what a “liberal” or a “conservative” outcome in a contracts case would be, and thus to usefully regress case outcomes against a judge’s political priors.  Many authors (Sunstein et al. 2004; Christy Boyd and I, 2010) have found ideological effects outside of the typical con law regime (particularly in “business law” areas).  But I’m  aware of a few empirical papers analyzing the political valence of how contract doctrine comes to be. (Snyder et al. n.d.)  Some have suggested that contract law is a particularly hard area to study because selection effects loom so large. I would also note that most contract law “work” occurs at the state court level, where ideological measures are either explicit or very obscure.

If we found good measures, my own hypothesis would be that a particular judge’s worldview matters a great deal to how he or she resolves contract disputes – with priors about how much a person should be responsible for their own choices, and their perspective on market discipline, shaping how they understand the facts and thus apply the law.   Contract cases are powerfully controlled by judges – probably more so than in other areas of private law. Contract doctrine would reflect these individual choices, and we’d thus be left not withone  “pragmatic” contract law, but rather many competing strands. I’d thus close by urging readers of Larry’s book to think a bit about the cases not picked out and illuminated in the narrative – where the judges are less wise and more human.

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The Increased Cost of Distance Education

For uninteresting reasons, I just read Indiana University’s Strategic Plan for Online Education.  Here’s a fact I didn’t know, and haven’t seen well-advertised in the blog discussion on the cost transformative effects of distance learning:

IU (and the remainder of higher education) needs to educate policy makers and the public that online education generally is more, not less, expensive than on‐campus education at both undergraduate and graduate levels. The biggest reason for this is that a universal experience is that equivalent quality online education requires greater individual student attention than on‐campus education at all levels. Units deal with this either by decreasing class sizes, increasing the credit given to faculty teaching online in calculating their teaching load, or providing additional instructional assistants; all of these increase cost per student.

Additional factors that increase the cost of online instruction are the technological infrastructure needed to support it, the need to support student access 24/7, and the greater costs to develop and maintain course materials. The main factor that generally is cited for a decreased cost of online instruction relative to on‐campus is that it doesn’t require classroom space. This is valid; a careful computation by Associate Vice President Steve Keucher calculates this savings at $8.68 per credit hour, or roughly $26 per three credit course. While significant, this savings is not enough to offset the additional costs of online education, such as class sizes that often are 20‐35% smaller.

As pointed out by IU Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Neil Theobald, an important factor in pricing online education is pricing by peers in this market. As shown by the pricing summary for other universities in Appendix B, this pricing offers some guidance but is highly variable.

This seems to pose a challenge to those who would say that distance learning will drive costs out of higher education, no?

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The Price of Bankruptcy

Credit Slips highlights a very cool new paper, Bankruptcy Spillovers: Distance, Public Disclosure, and Opaque Information.  In the paper, Barry Scholnick examines bankruptcy filings in Canada at a micro level.  Looking at the postal code of every filer – which code is a much more precise geographic identifier than our zip codes – Scholnick concludes:

“The punch line of my study is that there is indeed a significant impact from the past bankruptcies of neighbors (as defined by the very small Canadian Post Codes) to the probability that an individual in the neighborhood will file . . . I propose, and provide evidence for, the hypothesis that if a defaulter lives in a neighborhood with a large number of previous bankruptcies among the neighbors, then that individual will choose to default via bankruptcy rather than charge-off. This is because more neighborhood bankruptcies will lower stigma or provide more information about the process of bankruptcy.

On the other hand, I show that defaulters who live in low bankruptcy neighborhoods choose to default via charge-off rather than bankruptcy. This is consistent with the argument that low bankruptcy neighborhoods have higher levels of bankruptcy stigma, thus individual defaulters choose to default via charge-off in order to maintain more privacy about their default.”

This paper not only fits within a literature on bankruptcy, but also is a nice match to work by my co-author Tess Wilkinson-Ryan on how mortgage foreclosure and other forms of breach are socially mediated events.  Abiding by onerous contracts is unpleasant, but we do it so long as it is socially validated. When it stops being socially normal to stick with terrible deals, we exit them.

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The Unenforceability of Contracts to Abort

TMZ has a scoop.  (Yes, I read TMZ.  Every day.)  Tagg Romney (son of Mitt) and his wife Jen entered into a surrogacy contract which contained a clause purporting to require the surrogate to abort on demand given a particular set of contingencies:

We’ve learned Tagg and his wife Jen, along with the surrogate and her husband, signed a Gestational Carrier Agreement dated July 28, 2011.  Paragraph 13 of the agreement reads as follows:

“If in the opinion of the treating physician or her independent obstetrician there is potential physical harm to the surrogate, the decision to abort or not abort is to be made by the surrogate . . . In the event the child is determined to be physiologically, genetically or chromosomally abnormal, the decision to abort or not to abort is to be made by the intended parents.  In such a case the surrogate agrees to abort, or not to abort, in accordance with the intended parents’ decision . . . Any decision to abort because of potential harm to the child, or to reduce the number of fetuses, is to be made by the intended parents.”

It is a common error to think that contract terms are specifically enforceable as written.  I believe that there is literally not one judge in the country who would require a surrogate to abort on demand against her wishes notwithstanding this clause.  In part, this results from the law’s traditional reluctance to enforce specific performance of personal services contracts.  Here, that’s coupled with the constitutional interests in bodily integrity that the Baby M court discussed.  Thus, while TMZ translates the agreement as “Tagg and his wife, Jen, had the right to abort the fetuses if they felt they would not be healthy,” the better line would be “Tagg and his wife, Jen, have an exit right which they can exercise if the surrogate fails to abort.”

That is, failure to abort on demand would be a material breach by the surrogate, relieving the Romneys from their duty to pay.  Whether it would additionally then lead the Romneys to be able to sue – for costs incurred, probably – is unclear to me, as I think some judges would find an abort-on-demand clause against public policy.

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The Penn State Disaster Pool

So this is interesting:

“The mediator who managed the Sept. 11 victims-compensation fund and settlements with those affected by the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill has been hired by Pennsylvania State University in the hope of settling the civil claims of Jerry Sandusky’s victims.

The university announced Thursday that it had hired Kenneth R. Feinberg to facilitate negotiations for the four current lawsuits and more expected to be filed by those sexually abused by the former assistant football coach.”

One way to read this is that PSU is going to make available a large pool of money to a diverse victim class, and has hired Feinberg for his expertise dividing complex pies in ways that leave most folks relatively satisfied.  But there’s another reading that seems at least plausible.  Associating with Feinberg transmutes the human errors which enabled Sandusky’s crimes into a “disaster”, implying less particularized responsibility.  Plaintiffs refusing to partake in the common pool can potentially be framed as selfish, grasping, etc.  That so even though almost by definition, these disaster pools allocate less money to every plaintiff than their individual claims are “worth”.

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When is a Horse a Vehicle?

In Kentucky. Lowering the Bar explains:

WKYT reported on Monday that a 55-year-old Jessamine County man had been cited for riding while intoxicated. The man said he was trail-riding with some friends and had stopped to have something to eat “when the deputy arrived and told me to get off my horse.” He explained that he is severely diabetic and hadn’t eaten, and that is why he staggered after dismounting, not because he was intoxicated . . .

The report says the man was charged with a violation of Section 189.520, “Operating a vehicle not a motor vehicle while under influence of intoxicants or substance which may impair driving ability prohibited.”  . . .  The statutory language is better than the title: “No person under the influence of intoxicating beverages or any substance which may impair one’s driving ability shall operate a vehicle that is not a motor vehicle anywhere in this state.”

[A]ren’t there often statutes that define certain legal terms? Yes, and there’s one here. And sadly for Rooster Cogburn, it defines “vehicle” as including “All agencies for the transportation of persons or property over or upon the public highways of the Commonwealth.…” So while I still like my “animal is not a vehicle” argument, Kentucky has precluded it.”

Seems like a good example to use in a class on statutory interpretation.  Isn’t the obvious question what an “agency” is for the purposes of Kentucky law?