Category: Economic Analysis of Law

1

This Post Will Be Barely Illuminating

Thanks to a reader of my recent paper on puffery, I recently came across the work of Andrew Ward and Lyle Brenner, Accentuate the negative: The positive effects of negative acknowledgment (forthcoming 2006; presentation link here). It is a neat paper, that examines the extent to which we credit messages that contain obvious warnings of their fallibility, and like messengers who introduce themselves with self-deprecation. Obviously, the study of deflation is less developed that that of optimism – and puffery – but it is an odd finding nonetheless that we seem to want any sales message except the unvarnished truth. I wonder if how the law can best take into account this psychological part of consumption. If we feel less cheated by, say, the purchase of stock which has been exposed as partly susceptible to a downturn through strategic pessimism, should the anti-fraud regimes of the ’33 and ’34 Acts account for this feeling?

More generally, it strikes me on first glance that the negative attribution effect may help to explain otherwise strange corporate events like the success of the self-deflating google IPO. (For Vic F’s branding theory, see this post; Ribstein’s comments here.)

It also helps to explain the odd persistence of the “shameless self-promotion” tag to law article announcement posts, even when the promotion benefits friends. Bill S., at TOTM, recently lamented this phrase, and said that “I don’t feel at all ashamed of doing this nor do I feel it is unseemly. Hence, I propose we drop the custom of including a “shameless self-promotion” reference when engaging in self-promotion.” I think Bill is leaving some money on the table here. Deflation, like puffery, moves flawed products.

2

On the Milberg Indictment

MW.gifI’ve been mulling over the Milberg indictment. Since I waited a weekend to post, I have the advantage of having read lots of other folks’ views. Quick summaries follow:

  • Michael Dorf: Kickback payments slaved the named plaintiffs to MW, bloating agency costs.
  • Steve Bainbridge:Kickbacks encourage “nuisance claims.” We may need criminal sanctions to crank the Hand formula to optimal levels, but only against individual lawyers.
  • Walter Olson:”[MW was] taking no chances on the watchdogs staying pacified: It threw regular chunks of raw liver into their cages.”
  • Larry Ribstein: Who cares? Lawyers are fungible.
  • Ed Morrissey: Bad for Democrats and ambulance chasers.
  • Christine Hurt: It’s high noon, and MW can’t blink.
  • And let’s not forget MW itself: It was just a referral! And the theory is overreaching! And our interests remained aligned!

Wow. Lots of words. So here is what I think.

First, I still don’t particularly understand the economics of outrage here. I’ve seen two arguments about why kickbacks are bad (apart from their being unlawful, which we’ll put aside briefly). First, I’ve heard the argument that they “capture” the lead plaintiff, making that person less able to monitor the lawyer’s work. As Dorf points out, however, plaintiffs in securities class actions are sort of like shareholders stockholders: they have deputized oversight and management to lawyers, in return for fiduciary duties. Some folks seem to have in mind a more active role for lead plaintiffs – something like a controlling stockholder(?) – but given the relatively low bonuses awarded in settlements for lead plaintiffs, why would anyone want to play that role? That is, you can’t have distributed, small-stakes, high-impact, governance by private actions and have plaintiff management at the same time. The capture argument is another way of saying that these types of claims are not in the public interest. But we don’t criminalize inefficient lawyering. Not usually.

The second argument I’ve seen is related to the first – it is Bainbridge’s – and it suggests that kickbacks encourage securities actions that are (on the merits) weaker. Yup, that sounds right. But that isn’t an argument against kickbacks, it is an argument that judges aren’t doing enough to raise hurdles to weak actions at early stages, as the PSLRA was designed to accomplish. To the contrary, I have found that judges are quite hostile to securities claims.

The argument that I haven’t seen on the blogs, but which is larded through the indictment, suggests that MW was, in effect, selling out the rest of the class to benefit the folks at the head of the line. And in a way, this is (for me) the strongest argument against the practice. If MW really did countenance paying referrals-as-kickbacks to named class members out of their portion of the settlement, then we know that dollars were being taken out of the mouths of the rest of the class pretty directly. On the other hand, one might argue that MW had to pay off the named plaintiffs to bring the cases in the first place – that it is a an expense like overhead.

Two additional aspects of the case trouble me. Obviously, indicting the entire firm feels excessive. I don’t agree with Larry R. that reputational effects won’t follow MW’s innocent lawyers. I know lots of counsel at MW – I litigated against them – and I thought they were incredibly hard working, tough, honest, passionate adversaries. One of my worst days as a lawyer came across a deposition table from an experienced Milberg partner: he taught me a great lesson on how to get one’s opponent to hang himself on the record. And I’d be shocked if more than a handful of lawyers at the firm had any knowledge of the activities charged. If the USAO is really indicting out of pique for failure to roll over as most corporations would do in response to a patently unreasonable discovery demand, well, many folks who think of themselves as white knights are going to be tarnished unfairly.

Second, I have some problems with the continued federalization of state practice ethical rules. Although the indictment doesn’t come out and say this, some of the illegality is premised on state fiduciary duty and referral laws. (Some, granted, is based on Rule 23.) Shouldn’t this type of prosecution be the job of Elliot Spitzer and his imitators? Which raises a question: why didn’t Spitzer get here first?

4

Empirical Studies at ALEA

Bill Henderson (at the ELS Blog) has a very useful round-up of empirical papers presented at the recent ALEA conference. Blog-traveller Kate Litvak comes in for special praise:

Kate Litvak [presented] “The Effect of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act on Non-US Companies Listed in the U.S.,” which was an extremely well-done event study that used a natural experiment approach to capture the market reaction to SOX (it was generally negative). In the last couple of years, Kate, who does not have a PhD, has spent a lot of time learning sophisticated econometric techniques. It really showed. Very impressive (and easy to follow) presentation.

To be frank, I’ve been quite skeptical of studies showing a negative relationship between SOX and equity prices, on several grounds: (1) my practice experience managing the creation of event studies that dealt with changing legal regimes suggested that results are rarely as robust as one might hope; (2)) the passage and eventual implementation of SOX were so attenuated that event studies would seem hard to perform; and (3) the debate is quite politicized, with folks already disposed to dislike federalization of corporate law leading the charge on the empirical front as well. But, having read Kate’s paper, I’m inclined to rethink my position. It is well-worth a read.

5

Nominally Empirical Evidence of Unraveling in the Law Review Market

book21a.jpgIn a previous post, I observed that “the time for submitting law review articles is creeping backwards.” I then hypothesized that “we are experiencing what Alvin Roth called the ‘unraveling’ of a sorting market.” This is bad news:

Authors may not be able to get any sense at all of the “market value” of their article (loosely reflected, the myth goes, by multiple offers at a variety of journals). Conversely, journals feeling pressure to move quickly will increasingly resort to proxies for quality like letterhead, prior publication, and the eminences listed in the article’s first footnote (which tell you who an author’s friends and professional contacts are).

At the end of that post, I promised to “explore empirical evidence that this is in fact an unraveling market problem (as opposed to anecdote, to the extent possible).” As it turns out, this was a hard promise to deliver on. There simply isn’t data out there – at least that I’ve been able to find, that collects historical information about the submission processes to law reviews. This is somewhat surprising. Law professors are insular, interested in navel gazing, and well-motivated to do anything other than grading. Moreover, the process of submission is an economically consequential activity. But only recently, in two works-in-progress, has there have been any attempt made to systematically get at this problem. See here, and here.

I thought I’d make a modest contribution to the field by contributing some data from Temple in this recent submission season, and ask our readers to contribute with their experience as well. The sample size is tiny; the respondents self-selecting. This is, therefore, Co-Op’s second “very non-scientific survey” this week. It’s a trend! The data is not meant to suggest any definite conclusions, but rather help researchers with hypothesis formation. But I’ll offer some grand thoughts at the end of this post anyway.

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3

Listen to Some Hot Air On Gas Gouging

I did an interview on public radio that appeared over the weekend on WAMC‘s “The Weekly Rundown.” No, I’m not at Tulane, as Mary Darcy (the host) suggests. But the Co-Op got a shout-out, so I really ought not complain. Welcome, readers from upper New York State! Go ahead and give it a listen (I start about two minutes in. I’m the guy who pronounces “gas” as “gaaz,” as all true Philadelphians do.).

4

Memento Mori, and Constraining of Executive Power

362319_caesar.jpgClifford Ando’s book on Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire is being passed around the family lending library. It, together with a recent conference invitation, has gotten me to thinking some about the different ways that the American legal system works to constrain executive power. This may all be old hat to some, but, hey, this is just a blog entry!

The legal system offers two major methods of constraining executives: incentives and structural checks. Both approaches are formal, and to a large extent, treat subject executives as rational, wealth-maximizing, actors. Incentive-based constraints follow a fairly traditional carrots-and-sticks approach.

Corporate law relies mostly on carrots. Punishments in corporate law are rarely felt by individual Directors and officers due to the BJR and D&O Insurance. SOX is a notable, and contested, exception. By contrast, control of public sector executives (like agency heads, police, and military officers) is largely based on sticks: court marshals; public shaming, etc.

Control of the government’s chief executive is largely left to institutional constraints. President Bush, not so long ago, reminded Americans that a second-term President has a wide latitude to act in ways that might seem unpopular: “We had our accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections.” That is, elections provide limited incentives; impeachment an impractical stick. Congressional control of subpoena power is the real hammer.

The Romans had a somewhat different model. They had exceptionally few state administrators – a few thousand folks in total at the empire’s height. Those administrators were governed and constrained in a variety of ways. The preeminent, according to Ando, seems to have been socialized norms. Thus, famously, Roman generals on their victory parade were accompanied by a slave whispering in their ear: “Memento Mori.” Remember, you are mortal.

Are there interesting ways to pay-off this analogy? Perhaps we might achieve more efficient corporate and federal executive control through socializing norms of humbleness, loyalty, and self-control. Maybe this humbling function could be served by independent directors, in a reinvigorated real devil’s advocate way. Or, if we wanted to really re-engineer the system, perhaps SOX should be amended to rely less on punishment and more, as in the sexual harassment context, on a system of presumptions that encourages training and socialization of pro-social norms. In the federal government arena, perhaps we need to hire someone who will remind Presidents of the limits of their power, and the fact of their morality. Hmm. Actually, maybe those positions are filled already.

4

An Early Law and Economist?

supply_demand.jpgShimeon Ben Gamaliel was a Jewish jurist (of a sort) who lived sometime around the year 50 C.E. Before tonight, the only thing I knew about him was his famous endorsement of capital punishment on deterrence grounds, sometimes quoted in law reviews:

[Jewish scholars asserted that a Court of Law] that kills [i.e., convicts on a capital crime] once a week is called “destructive.” [But a scholar then glossed:] “Once in seventy years.” [Two other even more luminary scholars objected], “If we had been on the [Court], there would never have been a person killed.” [But] R. Shimeon ben Gamaliel [replied], “They would have increased the number of spillers of blood in Israel.”

Sounds like Sunstein and Vermeule, remixed. Tonight, through my father at our interesting Seder, I heard a different story about Ben Gamaliel:

The price of a pair of pigeons [used for ritual purposes] in Jerusalem once reached a golden dinar [which was out of the reach of the poor]. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel then said: By this Temple (an oath), I shall not rest tonight until a pair of pigeons are sold for [a silver] dinar. He went into the court and taught: If a woman underwent five definite births or five definite issues, she brings only one pigeon as a sin-offering and she may then eat of the sacrifices, and no obligation devolves on her to bring the other offerings. That very day the price of a pair of pigeons stood at two quarters [of a silver dinar]

You never know which of these stories are apocrypha. But it is fun to think of this ancient jurist as an early legal economist, before Coase, Posner, Becker and others made it trendy. And best of all, he is apparently the first known jewish juggler. Altogether a fairly interesting guy!

But Certainly Everyone Has $200 to Donate?

Michelle Cottle has a delicious critique of the NYT Thursday Styles Section, aptly titled The Gray Lady Wears Prada. Cottle juxtaposes the “high-minded liberal sensibility” that the Times’s bobo readers aspire to cultivate with the breathless high-end consumerism of Thursday Styles’ Hermès scarves and Jimmy Choo mules. The most revealing quote comes from Times editor Bertram “Trip” Field III, who insists that “we’re [not] trying to serve only those readers who can afford a $10,000 watch.” When Cottle examines the egalitarian timepieces Trip’s claimed to have covered, it turns out the cheapest one is an $890 Prada.

I’m not going to tsk-tsk consumerism here—been there, done that. But I do think Cottle’s insightful piece discloses another aspect of elite journalism—a class bias so pervasive that it’s not even noticed. I think such biases also work their way into scholarship. For example, the bien-pensant consensus on campaign finance reform has long held that we want races funded by a large number of “small donors”—presumably those who donate less than $500. But really, with median family income around $65,000 and average household savings near zero, how many of these small donations are going to come from those at the bottom half of the income scale?

Thankfully, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres’s “Patriot Dollars” proposal addresses this issue by proposing donation vouchers of equal size for all voters. But I’m wondering where else implicit class biases inform a scholarly consensus…any ideas?

3

The Federal Bias In Criminal Law Scholarship

feds_193702.jpg

John Pfaff has an interesting post up at Empirical Legal Studies Blog entitled Federalism and Empirical Legal Research. In it he asks why there appears to a skew towards analysis of federal law among empirical researchers of criminal law. He ultimately boils his questions down to these:

1. Do we focus “too much” on federal outcomes?

2. If we do, does this mean that we are not developing results that explain either the impact of or the forces behind the legal changes that actually play a bigger role in people’s lives?

3. If so, how can we rectify this? In particular, if it’s a problem of data availability, how can we get the numbers we actually need?

In my view, we do focus too much on federal courts. Most cases – and prisoners – are in state systems. And states really are different. The employees are different because state criminal jobs often involve less training and lower salaries than comparable federal positions. State facilities are often in much poorer condition. State sentencing schemes vary widely from state to state, and often look little like federal provisions. And because most state prosecutors and judges stand for election, they operate under a different set of professional pressures. I would expect these differences have substantial effects on case processing and outcome.

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Necessary Investment Incentives?

scrooge mcduck.jpg

Pretty soon the alternative minimum tax is going to hit millions more taxpayers—even people making less than $50,000 annually. This extended reach will primarily harm those who work hard, pay property taxes, and have other deductions for things like dependent care, education, and health care. This AMT bite was never intended by Congress—it’s just reaching down the tax bracket because the figures it’s based on were drawn up decades ago.

You’d think this problem would be at the top of the tax reform agenda. Sadly, no. Rather, the big debate is over whether to extend tax cuts on investment income. As brilliant NYT tax reporter David Cay Johnston observes,

Among taxpayers with incomes greater than $10 million, the amount by which their investment tax bill was reduced averaged about $500,000 in 2003, and total tax savings, which included the two Bush tax cuts on compensation, nearly doubled, to slightly more than $1 million.

So this debate is basically about whether to make such windfalls permanent, or to try to stop our current fiscal irresponsibility and actually do something about our massive national debt.

But perhaps I misunderstand the issue. Is there a good policy reason for tax cuts for the superrich? Would they simply refuse to invest if better tax treatment weren’t given—choosing instead, perhaps, to roll around in vaults of money ala Scrooge McDuck? Would they renounce U.S. citizenship and move to the Isle of Man? I’m just trying to understand this policy on a higher level than positive political theory (which would, of course, predict that those best able to invest in money-intensive politics would get the highest returns). I guess I need to start reading the Tax Prof Blog!