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Category: Economic Analysis of Law

A More Nuanced View of Legal Automation

A Guardian writer has updated Farhad Manjoo’s classic report, “Will a Robot Steal Your Job?” Of course, lawyers are in the crosshairs. As Julius Stone noted in The Legal System and Lawyers’ Reasoning, scholars have addressed the automation of legal processes since at least the 1960s. Al Gore now says that a “new algorithm . . . makes it possible for one first year lawyer to do the same amount of legal research that used to require 500.”* But when one actually reads the studies trumpeted by the prophets of disruption, a more nuanced perspective emerges.

Let’s start with the experts cited first in the article:

Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne have predicted computerisation could make nearly half of jobs redundant within 10 to 20 years. Office work and service roles, they wrote, were particularly at risk. But almost nothing is impervious to automation.

The idea of “computing” a legal obligation may seem strange at the outset, but we already enjoy—-or endure-—it daily. For example, a DVD may only be licensed for play in the US and Europe, and then be “coded” so it can only play in those regions and not others. Were a human playing the DVD for you, he might demand a copy of the DVD’s terms of use and receipt, to see if it was authorized for playing in a given area. Computers need such a term translated into a language they can “understand.” More precisely, the legal terms embedded in the DVD must lead to predictable reactions from the hardware that encounters them. From Lessig to Virilio, the lesson is clear: “architectural regimes become computational, and vice versa.”

So certainly, to the extent lawyers are presently doing rather simple tasks, computation can replace them. But Frey & Osborne also identify barriers to successful automation:

1. Perception and manipulation tasks. Robots are still unable to match the depth and breadth of human perception.
2. Creative intelligence tasks. The psychological processes underlying human creativity are difficult to specify.
3. Social intelligence tasks. Human social intelligence is important in a wide range of work tasks, such as those involving negotiation, persuasion and care. (26)

Frey & Osborne only explicitly discuss legal research and document review (for example, identification and isolation among mass document collections) as easily automatable. They concede that “the computerisation of legal research will complement the work of lawyers” (17). They acknowledge that “for the work of lawyers to be fully automated, engineering bottlenecks to creative and social intelligence will need to be overcome.” In the end, they actually categorize “legal” careers as having a “low risk” of “computerization” (37).

The View from AI & Labor Economics

Those familiar with the smarter voices on this topic, like our guest blogger Harry Surden, would not be surprised. There is a world of difference between computation as substitution for attorneys, and computation as complement. The latter increases lawyers’ private income and (if properly deployed) contribution to society. That’s one reason I helped devise the course Health Data and Advocacy at Seton Hall (co-taught with a statistician and data visualization expert), and why I continue to teach (and research) the law of electronic health records in my seminar Health Information, Privacy, and Innovation, now that I’m at Maryland. As Surden observes, “many of the tasks performed by attorneys do appear to require the type of higher order intellectual skills that are beyond the capability of current techniques.” But they can be complemented by an awareness of rapid advances in software, apps, and data analysis.
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Disruption: A Tarnished Brand

I’ve been hearing for years that law needs to be “disrupted.” “Legal rebels” and “reinventors” of law may want to take a look at Jill Lepore’s devastating account of Clay Christensen’s development of that buzzword. Lepore surfaces the ideology behind it, and suggests some shoddy research:

Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable. His single citation for his investigation of the “disruptive transition from mechanical to electronic motor controls,” in which he identifies the Allen-Bradley Company as triumphing over four rivals, is a book called “The Bradley Legacy,” an account published by a foundation established by the company’s founders. This is akin to calling an actor the greatest talent in a generation after interviewing his publicist.

Critiques of Christensen’s forays into health and education are common, but Lepore takes the battle to his home territory of manufacturing, debunking “success stories” trumpeted by Christensen. She also exposes the continuing health of firms the Christensenites deemed doomed. For Lepore, disruption is less a scientific theory of management than a thin ideological veneer for pushing short-sighted, immature, and venal business models onto startups:

They are told that they should be reckless and ruthless. Their investors . . . tell them that the world is a terrifying place, moving at a devastating pace. “Today I run a venture capital firm and back the next generation of innovators who are, as I was throughout my earlier career, dead-focused on eating your lunch,” [one] writes. His job appears to be to convince a generation of people who want to do good and do well to learn, instead, remorselessness. Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. . . . Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.

In other words, disruption is a slick rebranding of the B-School Machiavellianism that brought us “systemic deregulation and financialization.” If you’re wondering why many top business scholars went from “higher aims to hired hands,” Lepore’s essay is a great place to start.
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The Logic of Extraction

Despite happy talk from corporate chieftains (and their friends in government), deep flaws in the American economy are becoming harder to ignore. Two recent articles have been particularly insightful.

First, despite America’s self-image as a crucible of cutthroat competition, our top businesses specialize in eliminating rivals. As Lina Khan and Sandeep Vaheesan observe,

Since the early 1980s, executives and financiers have consolidated control over dozens of industries across the U.S. economy. . . . [This strategy] has even become a basic formula for successful investing. Goldman Sachs in February published a research memo advising investors to seek out “oligopolistic market structure[s]” in which “a smaller set of relevant peers faces lower competitive intensity, greater stickiness and pricing power with customers due to reduced choice, scale cost benefits including stronger leverage over suppliers, and higher barriers to new entrants all at once.” Goldman went on to highlight a few markets, including beer, where dramatic consolidation over the past decade has enabled dominant companies to use their market power to extract more from suppliers and consumers — and thereby enrich investors.

Of course, Goldman had its own angle on the beer—a commodities shuffle to make money off the 90 billion aluminum cans consumed in the US each year.

Khan & Vaheesan are right to focus on finance as the key driver in the transformation. Gautam Mukanda has explored how leaders in the sector have enforced a short-term, extractionist mindset on US industry:

Pressure to reduce assets made Sara Lee, for example, shift from manufacturing clothing and food to brand management. Sara Lee’s CEO explained, “Wall Street can wipe you out. They are the rule-setters…and they have decided to give premiums to companies that harbor the most profits for the least assets.” In the pursuit of higher stock returns, many electronics companies have, like Boeing and Sara Lee, outsourced their manufacturing, even though tightly integrating R&D and manufacturing is crucial to innovation.

Clayton Christensen argues that management’s adoption of Wall Street’s preferred metrics has hindered innovation. Scholars and executives alike have criticized Wall Street not only for promoting short-term thinking but for sacrificing the interests of employees and customers to benefit shareholders and for encouraging dishonesty from executives who feel they’re being asked to meet impossible demands.

Considered in this light, it’s no wonder Wall Street & its enablers are trying so hard to hide the terms of its deals with states. We’ll need to look elsewhere for economic leadership.

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Thoughts on Driesen’s The Economic Dynamics of Law

David Driesen’s book, The Economic Dynamics of Law, offers a powerful new approach to law and policy analysis.  Like many others, Professor Driesen critiques neoclassical law and economics and the application of conventional cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to various areas of law and policy.  Unlike most others, however, Professor Driesen develops an alternative.

Professor Driesen emphasizes a host of broad framing points, the implications of which are not fully understood, generally and especially within conventional law and economics.  I take the following points to be, for the most part, uncontroversial (even if their implications are not fully understood).  Most people will agree that we live in an incredibly complex, dynamic world consisting of many interdependent, complex evolving systems; that law shapes these systems and critically how these systems change or evolve over time; that path dependencies make some changes irreversible and others incredibly costly to unwind; that law is necessarily normative as are the path setting consequences of law; that law operates as a framework that shapes but does not fully determine what people do.

The implications of these framing points demand serious attention, however, because they are too easily misunderstood or simply assumed away to make analysis tractable.  For example, the implications of the fact that preferences are endogenous and that law and the systems structured by law shape preferences are not fully accounted for in law and economics.  It is admittedly difficult to take such complications into account, and so the more tractable move is to assume preferences are exogenous and that law’s objective is efficient satisfaction of existing preferences.  Professor Driesen explains the errors in such a move.  Tractability is a poor excuse for failing to engage with reality and the normative stakes of law’s dynamics.  The fact that law shapes preferences and beliefs means that we cannot avoid confronting questions about how law shapes who we are and who we can even contemplate being.

Professor Driesen thus places analytical emphasis on law’s role in setting paths or choosing directions for society rather than determining outcomes or optimizing resource allocations.  He advances two broad normative commitments — avoiding systemic risk and providing opportunities for economic development.  He defines each and develops means for analyzing them that goes beyond conventional CBA.  As others have commented on the relationship of his approach and CBA, I’ll leave that aside.  With regard to systemic risk, I had two questions for Professor Driesen:  First, how would he deal with intergenerational issues?  He touches on CBA’s use of discount rates in the climate change context and how “CBA’s results depend on the policy views of the economist conducting the analysis,” but I didn’t fully understand what alternative he offered.  Second, what about systemic benefits?  Simply put, I wondered whether there is a symmetrical point to be made about systemic benefits.  I discuss related issues in my book, Infrastructure:  The Social Value of Shared Resources (Co-Op symposium), and connect the commitment to the idea of a social option, but it also ties into North’s adaptive efficiency argument, which Professor Driesen discusses.  Systemic benefits may be a broader way to think about his second normative commitment concerning opportunities for economic development, but it is hard to say because that commitment gets much less attention in the book.  Perhaps opportunities for economic development should be extended to include human development and Driesen’s approach could incorporate some of the ideas and lessons from Sen’s Capabilities Approach.  Certainly, many of the framing points noted above are also central to the CA project.

I was a little disappointed that the second normative commitment received less attention.  Much of the law is focused on opportunities for (human and) economic development.  Many of the applied chapters (e.g., contract, property, IP) seem to focus on it, but those chapters seemed mostly descriptive and backwards looking, with Professor Driesen saying something like, “Hey, wait a minute!  What’s really happening in these areas is dynamic change over time, with bounded rationality, …, it’s not classic law and econ!”  I would like to see more analysis of how Professor Driesen’s approach could better reconcile these areas of law with the second normative commitment he identified.

On IP, let me just say that I agree with Professor Driesen – IP scholars certainly think a lot about dynamic change.  He is right that we need to pay much more attention to path setting and how IP laws, for better or worse, shape the paths available and the paths taken.  This was a theme I explored in Intellectual Infrastructure, chapter 12 of my book.  In fact, many IP scholars are now working on this subject.

Let me end with a brief cautionary note on Professor Driesen’s appeal to macroeconomics.  I agree with him that legal scholars who employ economics tend to rely heavily on microeconomics and ignore macroeconomics.  He is also correct, in my view, when he suggest that overreliance on microeconomics, or at least certain aspects of it, has often sustained unrealistic assumptions, ideological commitments (sometimes hidden beneath the veneer of objectivity), and bad results.  I would only caution Professor Driesen that the same might be said of macroeconomics.

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Economic Dynamics and Economic Justice: Making Law Catastrophic, Middling, or Better?

Contrary to Livermore,’s post,  in my view Driesen’s book is particularly powerful as a window into the  profound absurdity and destructiveness of the neoclassical economic framework, rather than as a middle-ground tweaking some of its techniques.  Driesen’s economic dynamics lens makes a more important contribution than many contemporary legal variations on neoclassical economic themes by shifting some major assumptions, though this book does not explore that altered terrain as far as it might.

At first glance, Driesen’s foregrounding of the “dynamic” question of change over time may, as Livermore suggests, seem to be consistent with the basic premise of neoclassical law and economics:   that incentives matter, and that law should focus ex ante, looking forward at those effects.   A closer look through Driesen’s economic dynamics lens reveals how law and economics tends to instead take a covert ex post view that enshrines some snapshots of the status quo as a neutral baseline.  The focus on “efficiency” – on maximizing an abstract pie of “welfare”  given existing constraints –  constructs the consequences of law as essentially fixed by other people’s private choices, beyond the power and politics of the policy analyst and government, without consideration of how past and present and future rights or wrongs constrain or enable those choices.  In this neoclassical view, the job of law is narrowed to the technical task of measuring some imagined sum of these individual preferences shaped through rational microeconomic bargains that represent a middling stasis of existing values and resources, reached through tough tradeoffs that nonetheless promise to constantly bring us toward that glimmering goal of maximizing overall societal gain (“welfare”) from scarce resources.

Driesen reverses that frame by focusing on complex change over time as the main thing we can know with certainty.  In the economic dynamic vision, “law creates a temporally extended commitment to a better future.” (Driesen p. 52). Read More

Book Symposium: Driesen’s The Economic Dynamics of Law

Next week, we will be hosting a symposium on David Driesen’s book The Economic Dynamics of Law (Cambridge University Press, 2013). The symposium will be held from Mar. 31 to Apr. 3, 2014. As the press’s webpage explains,

This book offers a dynamic theory of law and economics focused on change over time, aimed at avoiding significant systemic risks (like financial crises and climate disruption), and implemented through a systematic analysis of law’s economic incentives and how people actually respond to them. This theory offers a new vision of law as fundamentally a macro-level enterprise establishing normative commitments and a framework for numerous private transactions, rather than as an analogue to a market transaction. It explains how neoclassical law and economics sparked decades of deregulation culminating in the 2008 financial collapse. It then shows how economic dynamic theory helps scholars and policymakers make wise choices about how to avoid future catastrophes while keeping open a robust set of economic opportunities, with individual chapters addressing the law and economics of financial regulation, contract, property, intellectual property, antitrust, national security, and climate disruption.

Our terrific line-up of commenters will include:

Sanja Bogojevic
Brett Frischmann
James Hackney
Michael Livermore
Martha McCluskey
Uma Outka
Arden Rowell
Jennifer Taub

Thanks to them, and to David, for being part of the symposium—we all look forward to the event. Given the topic of the 2014 Phillips Lecture, it’s clear that “avoiding future catastrophes while keeping open a robust set of economic opportunities” is a critical issue for our times.

Law and Economics: The Flow of Ideas is a Two-Way Street

Raul Carrillo and Rohan Grey have recently argued that “law students need macroeconomics…and macroeconomics needs us”—and I couldn’t agree more. They have launched several initiatives at Columbia to build on the excellent finance curriculum offered there:

As Professor Robert Jackson opined in The Modern Money Network’s recent seminar, “The way we talk about money systems in law school has been blocked in a way, because we’re not really honest with each other about the fact that our money system is a legal choice… We may have covered, in legal academia, microeconomics in reasonable depth, but we need to do much more work in macroeconomics.”

When we “do economics” in law school, we customarily confine it to the scale of individual entities, say, firm transactions in Contracts and Corporations. Broader discussion of political economy rarely creeps into the curriculum…. Whether you eventually practice or make policy, negotiate deals or craft legislation, every student can benefit from further integration of political economy into the curricula. This is why The Modern Money Network, a newly recognized student organization, exists. It is a transdisciplinary hub for learning about the interactions between money, finance, law, and the broader economy.

Carrillo has also observed that the Fed used to have far more input from attorneys, but has since become an intellectual monoculture of economists. That, too, has to change. We can only hope to reform the finance sector by addressing power dynamics among boards, CEOs, traders, and investors—the types of dynamics lawyers are expert at creating and manipulating. Moreover, attorneys need to understand the overall effect of finance on the broader economy, and not simply think of ourselves as mere hired guns for the highest bidders. I’ll be closely following the work of Carrillo and Grey, and suggesting some fruitful directions for political economy and law.

They are also looking to expand their approach to other law schools—so try to contact them (@ramencents for Carrillo, @rohangrey for Grey) if you’re interested. It’s great to see the legacy of Robert Lee Hale endure at Columbia!

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UCLA Law Review Vol. 61, Issue 1

Volume 61, Issue 1 (December 2013)
Articles

Against Endowment Theory: Experimental Economics and Legal Scholarship Gregory Klass & Kathryn Zeiler 2
Why Broccoli? Limiting Principles and Popular Constitutionalism in the Health Care Case Mark D. Rosen & Christopher W. Schmidt 66

 

Comments

“Let’s Have a Look, Shall We?” A Model for Evaluating Suspicionless Border Searches of Portable Electronic Devices Sid Nadkarni 148
An Article III Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand: A Critical Race Perspective on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Standing Jurisprudence Raj Shah 198

 

 

 

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The Dualities of Freedom and Innovation

What a rollercoaster week of incredibly thoughtful reviews of Talent Wants to Be Free! I am deeply grateful to all the participants of the symposium.  In The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity, Anupam Chander, continuing Frank Pasquale’s and Matt Bodie’s questions about worker freedom and market power, asks whether Talent Wants to Be Free overly celebrates individualism, perhaps at the expense of a shared commitment to collective production, innovation, and equality. Deven Desai in What Sort of Innovation? asks about the kinds of investments and knowledge that are likely to be encouraged through private markets versus. And in Free Labor, Free Organizations,Competition and a Sports Analogy Shubha Ghosh reminds us that to create true freedom in markets we need to look closely at competition policy and antitrust law. These question about freedom/controls; individualism/collectivity; private/public are coming from left and right. And rightly so. These are fundamental tensions in the greater project of human progress and Talent Wants to Be Free strives to shows how certain dualities are pervasive and unresolvable. As Brett suggested, that’s where we need to be in the real world. From an innovation perspective, I describe in the book how “each of us holds competing ideas about the essence of innovation and conflicting views about the drive behind artistic and inventive work. The classic (no doubt romantic) image of invention is that of exogenous shocks, radical breakthroughs, and sweeping discoveries that revolutionize all that was before. The lone inventor is understood to be driven by a thirst for knowledge and a unique capacity to find what no one has seen before. But the solitude in the romantic image of the lone inventor or artist also leads to an image of the insignificance of place, environment, and ties…”.  Chapter 6 ends with the following visual:

 

Dualities of Innovation:

Individual / Collaborative

Radical/Incremental

Accidental /Deliberate

Global /Local

Passion / Profit

Art/Science

Exclusive/Shared

Inscribed/Tacit

 

And yet, the book takes on the contrarian title Talent Wants to Be Free! We are at a moment in history in which the pendulum has shifted too far. We have too much, not too little, controls over information, mobility and knowledge. We uncover this imbalance through the combination of a broad range of methodologies: historical, empirical, experimental, comparitive, theoretical, and normative. These are exciting times for innovation research and as I hope to convince the readers of Talent, insights from all disciplines are contributing to these debates.

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Individuals & Teams, Carrots & Sticks

I promised Victor Fleisher to return to his reflections on team production. Vic raised the issue of team production and the challenge of monitoring individual performance. In Talent Wants to Be Free I discuss some of these challenges in the connection to my argument that much of what firms try to achieve through restrictive covenants could be achieved through positive incentives:

“Stock options, bonuses, and profit-sharing programs induce loyalty and identification with the company without the negative effects of over-surveillance or over-restriction. Performance-based rewards increase employees’ stake in the company and increase their commitment to the success of the firm. These rewards (and the employee’s personal investment in the firm that is generated by them) can also motivate workers to monitor their co-workers. We now have evidence that companies that use such bonus structures and pay employees stock options outperform comparable companies .”

 But I also warn:

 “[W]hile stock options and bonuses reward hard work, these pay structures also present challenges. Measuring employee performance in innovative settings is a difficult task. One of the risks is that compensation schemes may inadvertently emphasize observable over unobservable outputs. Another risk is that when collaborative efforts are crucial, differential pay based on individual contribution will be counterproductive and impede teamwork, as workers will want to shine individually. Individual compensation incentives might lead employees to hoard information, divert their efforts from the team, and reduce team output. In other words, performance-based pay in some settings risks creating perverse incentives, driving individuals to spend too much time on solo inventions and not enough time collaborating. Even more worrisome is the fear that employees competing for bonus awards will have incentives to actively sabotage one another’s efforts.

A related potential pitfall of providing bonuses for performance and innovative activities is the creation of jealousy and a perception of unfairness among employees. Employees, as all of us do in most aspects of our lives, tend to overestimate their own abilities and efforts. When a select few employees are rewarded unevenly in a large workplace setting, employers risk demoralizing others. Such unintended consequences will vary in corporate and industry cultures across time and place, but they may explain why many companies decide to operate under wage compression structures with relatively narrow variance between their employees’ paychecks. For all of these concerns, the highly innovative software company Atlassian recently replaced individual performance bonuses with higher salaries, an organizational bonus, and stock options, believing that too much of a focus on immediate individual rewards depleted team effort.

Still, despite these risks, for many businesses the carrots of performance-based pay and profit sharing schemes have effectively replaced the sticks of controls. But there is a catch! Cleverly, sticks can be disguised as carrots. The infamous “golden handcuffs”- stock options and deferred compensation with punitive early exit trigger – can operate as de facto restrictive contracts….”

 All this is in line with what Vic is saying about the advantages of organizational forms that encourage longer term attachment. But the fundamental point is that stickiness (or what Vic refers to as soft control) is already quite strong through the firm form itself, along with status quo biases, risk aversion, and search lags. The stickiness has benefits but it also has heavy costs when it is compounded and infused with legal threats.