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Category: Current Events

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Benjamin Moore and Berkshire: Centuries of Repute

Sometimes the up-to-the-minute nature of contemporary life obscures ancient principles. A case in point is the news surrounding last week’s and last year’s firings by Berkshire Hathaway of the CEOs of its subsidiary, Benjamin Moore & Co. But the values that Benjamin Moore has embraced for more than a century and those Berkshire has embraced for nearly half a century speak louder than the gossipy whispers associated with these two sad episodes (hat drop to New York Post).

In 1883 Brooklyn, twenty-seven-year-old Benjamin Moore, along with his forty-three-year-old brother Robert, created the paint company that remains in business today. He articulated several business principles to guide his company:

  1. A fair deal for everyone.
  2. The giving of value received without any graft or chicanery.
  3. Recognition of the value of truth in the representation of our products and an effort at all times to keep the standard of our goods up to the highest mark.
  4. The practice of strict economy without the spirit of parsimony, and the exercise of intelligent industry in the spirit of integrity.

Moore’s motto was “quality, start to finish.” It charged a premium price for it, even when that sacrificed market share. To reinforce its investment in quality, the Moore brothers began the practice of selling paint through independent distributors. Other paint makers might sell in hardware stores, or as private-label products of customer retailers, or in their own retail stores. Benjamin Moore & Co. always strictly adhered to the model of distributing exclusively through certified dealers. Those distributors, in turn, have invested considerable effort in building their businesses to keep their end of the bargain. Read More

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UCLA Law Review Vol. 61, Discourse

Volume 61, Discourse Discourse

Fighting Unfair Credit Reports: A Proposal to Give Consumers More Power to Enforce the Fair Credit Reporting Act Jeffrey Bils 226
A Legal “Red Line”? Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons in Civil Conflict Jillian Blake & Aqsa Mahmud 244
Alleyne v. United States, Age as an Element, and the Retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama Beth Colgan TBD
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Good Riddance Spitzer

The virulent narcissist Eliot Spitzer should now slink quietly back into political obscurity.  Having been decisively defeated in yesterday’s Democratic primary race for comptroller of New York City, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that New Yorkers had the sense to repel the preening scion.

The hypocrite, who made his name by falsely accusing others of wrongdoing that turned out to be the kind of misbehavior he had engaged in, threatened to use the same bullying tactics running New York City’s finances. This would have meant flexing muscles to attack corporate America indiscriminately in the interest of Spitzer’s self-promotion.

The sideshows he promised involved waging battles against corporations in which NYC invests to effect corporate governance makeovers on terms Spitzer would approve. Such distractions would not only have ruined reputations of corporate managers, but would have impaired corporate productivity, cost American economic output and diminished employment prospects and retirement funds of people across the country.

A majority of NYC Democratic voters saw through Spitzer’s arrogant duplicity. He is the man, after all, who proclaimed to the utmost integrity yet humiliated his wife by elaborate infidelity, scarred his three daughters for life by screwing (literally) girls their age for years and furtively broke federal banking laws repeatedly while publicly punishing others for similar transgressions.

One hopes that Spitzer, myopic and thick-headed, will finally take the hint that people do not think liars and cheats like him should be in public office.  Good riddance.

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Service with a (Surgically-Induced) Smile: Gender Norms at Work

I am so delighted to be guest blogging for Concurring Opinions this month and to be part of this exciting community.  This month, I will be blogging on various intersections of law, social norms, gender, sexuality, family, and work.  I have been researching some of these issues for my book project on Gender and Social Norms in Same-Sex and Different-Sex Marriage (contracted with NYU Press).  Although today’s topic is not part of this book research, it takes up many of the concerns that animate my work.

 

Recently, a plastic surgery procedure that has gained popularity among South Koreans has gained some major media attention in the U.S.  The procedure, technically called Valentine anguloplasty and sometimes colloquially called a “smile lipt,” is supposed to lift the outer corners of the lips into a smile, even when the putative smiler is not actually smiling.  According to a South Korean plastic surgery center promoting its smile procedure, people of Korean descent like myself have shorter mouths and lower mouth corners than “Westerners,” which means that I and others similarly situated supposedly have a greater tendency to look like we’re frowning.  “Perma-smile” to the rescue.

 

Considering the United States’ status as a world leader in the consumption of plastic surgery, one would think that Valentine anguloplasty would hold some appeal, even to the blessedly long-mouthed.  But based on the American media reaction, what’s been dubbed “joker lips surgery” is not likely to catch on any time soon.

 

Smile surgery has actually been around for decades and isn’t just a recent invention of South Korean plastic surgeons.  The response to this latest supposed craze, though, is what interests me more than the procedure itself.  No, not many of us want to look like this.  But while the origins of this photo are murky, the hypocrisy of the reaction to South Korean women wanting to look smiley is clear.

 

What strikes me is how narrow the chasm is between the perma-smile of Valentine anguloplasty and the social norms that compel those of us not in South Korea, particularly women, to smile – a lot.  Psychologists Marianne LaFrance, Elizabeth Paluck, and Marvin Hecht found that women smile more than men, particularly when women and men think that they are being observed.  This effect corresponds with numerous studies with which LaFrance, Paluck, and Hecht engage concerning social expectations for women to smile and penalties imposed on men for smiling too much. Others have written cleverly about the common form of street harassment consisting of ordering women to smile.

 

Women pay the price of not smiling (or of the much-memed “bitchy resting face”) on the street and in the workplace every day.  People like nice women.  And the smile is a proxy, although often a sloppy one, for that niceness.

 

For a woman to smile all the time, especially in the workplace, is — to borrow from Devon Carbado, Mitu Gulati, and Gowri Ramachandran – to perform “gender comfort,” easing the way for women’s presence.  What’s already a treacherous climb for women up to leadership positions in firms and corporations is made even more difficult by the added load of having to be smiley and perky all the while.  Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has identified the strains posed by such “emotional labor,” particularly for flight attendants expected to smile continuously to project concern, friendliness, and other emotions not necessarily felt all the time but considered necessary for the job.

 

We see the legal imperative and effect of the smiliness social norm historically and contemporaneously.  I recently watched the excellent PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America (2013), which reminded me of the 1950s expectation for those women living the post-war American Dream to be cheerful, smiley, and content.  Sixty years later, the norm persists.  Social expectations for women’s comportment often influence their willingness to negotiate, to ask for more, to complain.

 

In the context of the workplace, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, setting the statute of limitations for a pay discrimination case from each new paycheck affected by the discriminatory action, is an important step in remedying discrimination of which a plaintiff may be unaware.  But it also importantly accounts for the social dimension of that unawareness.  When one is socialized to be nice, it is difficult to suspect wrongdoing, even if it occurs over years.

 

Despite advances like this, social science accounts of workplace dynamics, particularly in the context of negotiation continue to give pause.  While women suffer opportunity- and pay-wise from failures to negotiate, they also suffer when they do negotiate.  Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock, and Lei Lai demonstrate in their research that women are judged more harshly than men for initiating negotiations for higher compensation, with perceptions of “niceness” and “demandingness” explaining resistance to female negotiators.  In recognition of the threat posed by women seeking higher pay, one approach is Sheryl Sandberg’s in Lean In, advising women negotiating pay to smile frequently.

 

This is all terribly depressing when I think of legal and social change.  We teach young women to be assertive, but they will likely be judged for being “agentic women.”  When we think about women in the workplace, perhaps then it makes sense that some would try to create through facial alteration what many “Westerners” are able to achieve more easily without going under the knife and paying $2000 – a permanent smile and all that comes with it.  :)

 

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The Dignity of the Minimum Wage?

[A brief note of apology: it's been a terrible blogging summer for me, though great on other fronts.  I promise I'll do better in the coming academic year. In particular, I'd like to get back to my dark fantasy/law blogging series. If you've nominations for interviewees, email me.]

WorkDetroitThis is one I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

One of the major lessons of the cultural cognition project is that empirical arguments are a terrible way to resolve value conflicts. On issues as diverse as the relationship between gun ownership and homicide rates, the child-welfare effects of gay parenting, global warming, and consent in rape cases, participants in empirically-infused politics behave as if they are spectators at sporting events. New information is polarized through identity-protective lenses; we highlight those facts that are congenial to our way of life and discounts those that are not; we are subject to naive realism.  It’s sort of dispiriting, really.  Data can inflame our culture wars.

One example of this phenomenon is the empirical debate over minimum wage laws. As is well known, there is an evergreen debate in economics journals about the policy consequences which flow from a wage floor.  Many (most) economists argue that the minimum wage retards growth and ironically hurts the very low-wage workers it is supposed to hurt. Others argue that the minimum wage has the opposite effect. What’s interesting about this debate -to me, anyway- is that it seems to bear such an orthogonal relationship to how the politics of the minimum wage play out, and the kinds of arguments that persuade partisans on one side or another. Or to put it differently, academic liberals in favor of the minimum wage have relied on regression analyses, but I don’t think they’ve persuaded many folks who weren’t otherwise disposed to agree with them. Academic critics of the minimum wage too have failed to move the needle on public opinion, which (generally) is supportive of a much higher level of minimum wage than is currently the law.

How to explain this puzzle?  My colleague Brishen Rogers has a terrific draft article out on ssrn, Justice at Work: Minimum Wage Laws and Social Equality. The paper urges a new kind of defense of minimum wages, which elides the empirical debate about minimum wages’ effect on labor markets altogether. From the abstract:

“Accepting for the sake of argument that minimum wage laws cause inefficiency and unemployment, this article nevertheless defends them. It draws upon philosophical arguments that a just state will not simply redistribute resources, but will also enable citizens to relate to one another as equals. Minimum wage laws advance this ideal of “social equality” in two ways: they symbolize the society’s commitment to low-wage workers, and they help reduce work-based class and status distinctions. Comparable tax-and-transfer programs are less effective on both fronts. Indeed, the fact that minimum wage laws increase unemployment can be a good thing, as the jobs lost will not always be worth saving. The article thus stands to enrich current increasingly urgent debates over whether to increase the minimum wage. It also recasts some longstanding questions of minimum wage doctrine, including exclusions from coverage and ambiguities regarding which parties are liable for violations.”

I’m a huge fan of Brishen’s work, having been provoked and a bit convinced by his earlier work (here) on a productive way forward for the union movement. What seems valuable in this latest paper is that the minimum wage laws are explicitly defended with reference to a widely shared set of values (dignity, equality). Foregrounding such values I think would increase support for the minimum wage among members of the populace.  The lack of such dignitary discussions in the academic debate to date has level the minimum wage’s liberal defenders without a satisfying and coherent ground on which to stand. Worth thinking about in the waning hours of Labor’s day.

 

 

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Why “Accommodating Traditions” is Sometimes Wrong: The Case of Gender Segregation in Ultra-Orthodox Communities

Gender segregation on buses is becoming increasingly conspicuous in the Hassidic community in New York. Should society tolerate seating arrangements which mandate women to sit at the back of the bus? Is it analogous to racial segregation? Or are there valid considerations that make gender segregation legitimate? The ultra-Orthodox cite multiculturalism, and demand tolerance of their traditions. But what is tradition, and how old should a practice be in order to be recognized as a tradition?

All these questions have been asked in Israeli, where gender segregation in public transportation to and from ultra-Orthodox communities began in the late 1990’s. In a recently published article I argue that gender segregation is a self-defeating practice. Its motivation is to erase female sexuality from the public sphere, but by being so preoccupied with women’s “modesty” it in fact puts their sexuality at the center of attention. The paradoxical obsession with female sexuality is also, in a way, a form of sexual harassment. Gender segregation on buses is not part of Jewish tradition; not even the ultra-Orthodox tradition. It is a very new product of a rising Jewish religious fundamentalism, which I believe is a reaction to women’s demand for equal rights and their exposure to the outer world (thanks to technology). in Israel segregation on buses is sometimes enforced by passengers violently.

The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox communities, both in New York and in Israel, have been very astute in their enlistment of multicultural discourse and political correctness to promote their misogynist agenda. The majority should not be confused by this. There are plenty of strong voices from within the ultra-Orthodox community who object to this trend. In Israel, for example, a group of ultra-Orthodox women and men petitioned the Supreme Court against segregation on public transportation. These people are part of the ultra-Orthodox community as well, and have as strong a claim to their traditions as any of the Rabbis who have decided all of the sudden to send women to the back of the bus.

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Putin Gays on the Agenda

When I hear about American supporters the new Russian homophobic legislation (or, for that matter, about President Putin and his aides who initiated such crazy legislation, which prohibits, among other things, even expressing tolerance towards LGBTs), I can’t help but recall a New York Time article from last year titled Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay, which claimed that there is “empirical evidence of a connection between homophobia and suppressed same-sex desire.”

NSA Penalty Proposed

Readers suggested potential penalties for improper gathering or misuse of surveillance data last month.  As revelations continue, Congressmen have recently proposed some new ideas:

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) proposed legislation . . .  that would cut National Security Agency (NSA) funding if it violates new surveillance rules aimed at preventing broad data collection on millions of people.

Fitzpatrick has also offered language to restrict the term “relevant” when it comes to data collection.  On the one hand, it seems odd for Congress to micromanage a spy agency.  On the other hand, no one has adequately explained how present safeguards keep the integrated Information Sharing Environment from engaging in the harms catalogued here and here. So we’re likely to see many blunt efforts to cut off its ability to collect and analyze data, even if data misuse is really the core problem.

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Should Berkshire Hathaway Stay Public or Go Private?

aaa NYSEPonder this: should Berkshire Hathaway remain a public company or consider going private instead?

Venture entrepreneurs and seasoned executives alike often weigh the pros and cons of a U.S. company being privately held or publicly listed. That goes for start-ups trying to decide to make an initial public offering as it does for listed companies trying to decide whether to go private.  

Everyone considers the transaction costs of such a switch high because IPOs and going private transactions are complicated, requiring paying accountants, appraisers, lawyers and other professionals. They are also time-consuming.

So setting aside transaction costs, let’s highlight the usual pros and cons, to do an IPO or stay public:

Pros:

● access to capital

● liquidity for shareholders

● a currency (stock) to pay managers or make acquisitions

● cache from the sign of business maturity or stature

Cons:

● the public arena invites the threat of hostile takeovers via proxy battles or tender offers

● rigid governance requirements, especially board size, independence and oversight

● Wall Street analyst attention that drives focus on short-term results, not long-term prosperity

● required disclosure, posing direct administrative costs and potential indirect costs as to competitive matters

● exposure to securities lawsuits by disgruntled stockholders

Although disclosure may be a “con” to a company, from a social perspective, watchdogs value the transparency, especially as to matters of stewardship and corporate social responsibility of larger institutions.

Assuming such a list is roughly complete, how should you evaluate the situation for Berkshire Hathaway? Stipulate that it had good reasons for public company status in its early days, the 1970s and 1980s, even the 1990s. Is it still worth it today? Read More

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The Decline of Homophobia and the Rise of Heterophilia in the Aftermath of United States v. Windsor (Part II)

In my article Discriminating Speech: On the Heterophilia of Freedom of Speech Doctrine Heterophilia I introduced the concept of law’s inherent heterophilia. One can see it as a new generation of homophobia, more politically correct perhaps, in which the goal of eradication has been substituted by the goal of assimilation.  The need to cover, which almost every LGBT individual has experienced and which has been so shrewdly identified by Kenji Yoshino in his book “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,” is a typical product of social and legal heterophilia that seeks to encourage such assimilation.  Because of its benign nature, legal heterophilia, as opposed to legal homophobia, is much harder to detect, and therefore it is much harder to fight.

How can we distinguish law’s homophobia from law’s heterophilia?  To be sure, it is not easy to draw the line between homophobia and heterophilia, and many heterophile actions can be interpreted as unconsciously homophobic.  However, generally speaking, laws that privilege predominantly heterosexual institutions, such as marriage, are heterophile in nature, while laws that restrict LGBT individuals, discriminate against them, or punish them as such, would be labeled as homophobic.  Thus, laws privileging married couples and awarding them forms of protection that unmarried couples cannot receive are heterophilic as long as LGBT individuals cannot get married, and probably as long as they do not extend those privileges to all couples, married and unmarried, gay or straight. The Mayo Clinic’s policy demanding same-sex couples to marry or else the employees’ spouses will lose their health benefits, instead of extending the benefits to all partner regardless their marital status and their sexual orientation is a product of socio-legal heterophilia.

Indeed, the very demand to marry, which is a consequence of the Windsor case, is heterophilic even when it does not involve the carrot of benefits or the stick of their denial. As a recent New York Times article demonstrates, such social requirement is becoming more and more conspicuous in the wake of the Windsor ruling. And what is fascinating, is that heterosexuals are the ones who nudge same-sex partners to marry most.

While not using the term “heterophilia” or its derivatives, Janet Halley has exposed some of the most heterophilic strands of the institution of marriage in her 2010 article Behind the Law of Marriage (I): From Status/Contract to the Marriage System.  Marriage law, however, is not only heterophilic; it also has homophobic qualities, as many scholars have rightly observed. It remains to be seen if society and the courts will be able to release themselves of all forms of prejudice and discrimination concerning marriage and marital status. Getting rid of the homophobic Section 3 of DOMA was only the first step in this direction.

Part I of this post.