Category: Law and Inequality

The River of Purchasing Power Dries Up at Detroit

RiveraIf only Detroit were a big bank, Treasury officials would be working round the clock this weekend to save it. Alas, this city is no Citi. It lacks a “winning business model” (like lobbying and bonuses for key federal officials). So municipal bankruptcy is on the horizon.

Detroit was chronically mismanaged, and the victim of unforgiving political geography. But the decline of jobs there is also a bellwether for the rest of the country. As Juan Cole observes,

This rise of [robotized manufacturing] violates the deal that the capitalists made with American consumers after the great Depression, which is that they would provide people with well-paying jobs and the workers in turn would buy the commodities the factories produced, in a cycle of consumerism. If the goods can be produced without many workers, and if the workers then end up suffering long-term unemployment (as Detroit does), then who will buy the consumer goods? Capitalism can survive one Detroit, but what if we are heading toward having quite a few of them?

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“The Cruel Radiance of What Is” James Agee’s Introduction to Cotton Tenants

Imagine an introduction that cuts to the core of what you believe and demands you act without demanding that at all. And, imagine an insight that moves beyond race and class to how we set up society and how we treat each other. Just part of the introduction to James Agee’s Cotton Tenants does that. Fortune magazine cared about poverty in the South. It was 1936. Perhaps any magazine on economic issues had to cover poverty. Fortune sent James Agee and Walker Evans to Alabama to cover cotton farmers. That work led to a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But the original story, which was about 30,000 words, was never published, until now. Summers of The Baffler published a short version in the magazine, and now the book is out. In an interview in The Atlantic, Summers shows how bold Agee was. In Summer’s words, “This statement puts the reader at some pretty fucking serious risk. He’s writing a magazine article, but in order to proceed with him you must first agree with what he’s just said.” What he said applied then and now. Here’s the passage:

And since every possibility human life holds, or may be deprived of, of value, of wholeness, of richness, of joy, of dignity, depends all but entirely upon circumstances, the circumstances are proportionately worthy of the serious attention of anyone who dares to think of himself as a civilized human being. A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance. And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.

I have not digested all that is here. That may take years, and I have as yet to read the full work. For now, I focus on this point. All our chances at success and joy are based on circumstances. Are all men created equal? I know some cringe at one, maybe two words, already. But circumstances can change. Disadvantages entrenched in society can change. Men may mean more today but has far to go. How did that change happen? Was it a fear of being less than human? A feeder on others? Agee may have been crying out against systems designed to maintain disadvantage. And he indicts those who know they benefit from such a system but wish it to continue. Yet Agee did not give up his place in the world. He was a writer, film critic, screenplay author, and more. As Summers offered, “There’s no specific argument for reform either–he’s not taking a position about what might or should be done to remedy this catastrophic rural poverty. There is no clear concept made of the difference between the is and the ought. There’s just a whole lot of is (the “cruel radiance of what is,” as he wrote in LUNPFM.)” Cruel radiance of what is. That is the key for me.

Seeing the world as it is; Conrad, Hemingway, Stendahl, almost any writer who writes about writing has said that is their goal. This passage from Conrad hit me in high school and never left: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” Agee’s introduction makes me want to dive in and see what he saw. My bet is that our problems are not so different. My fear is that not much has changed. My hope is that there is a way out. Seeing what Agee and Walker saw is perhaps a start.

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Can We Lean Anything from Brazil about Remediating the Lingering Consequences of Racial Discrimination?

This post marks the end of my guest appearance on Concurring Opinions, and as usual, I’ve enjoyed my run.

I sometimes show the 2007 documentary Brazil in Black and White in my Law in Film seminar to give my students some exposure to how other racialized countries handle the difficult business of mediating the lingering consequences of slavery and de jure race discrimination. I also have them read Tanya K. Hernandez, 2005 article To Be Brown in Brazil: Education & Segregation Latin American Style. Her recent book, Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law and the New Civil Rights Response (Cambridge Univ. Press, Oct. 2012), contains an even more nuanced discussion.

Like the United States, affirmative action in Brazil is a controversial issue. I remember having a deja vu like experience when I visited the country in 2007 and heard some of the discussions. Opponents’ arguments sounded very much like the arguments I had heard in the U.S. years earlier. But there are important differences between the two countries. Notions of race are far more complex and confusing in Brazil as the documentary and a recent article in The Economist explain. Further, unlike the United States public universities in Brazil are more prestigious than private schools. In addition, “Brazil’s racial preferences differ from America’s in that they are narrowly aimed at preventing a tiny elite from scooping a grossly disproportionate share of taxpayer-funded university places. Privately-educated (ie, well-off) blacks do not get a leg-up in university admissions.”

The notion of racial quotas never went over well in the United States, and most observers believe that our current weak form of affirmative action, most apparent in university admissions, is on its last leg. As we anxiously waited this term to see what the Supremes will do with the latest case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Court agreed last month to hear another higher education affirmative action case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The issue in that case is “whether Michigan voters in 2006 had the legal right to bar the state’s public colleges and universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions.” Briefs in the case can be found on SCOTUSblog. Whatever the outcome in Fisher, it seems clear that the ongoing controversy over affirmative action in higher education will not be resolved this term. Read More

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Fortune’s Bones: Is There Dignity after Death?

In 1995 Gunther von Hagens presented his Body Worlds exhibit, described as a collection of real human bodies that have been “plastinated” to prevent their decay and make them more malleable. Some of these plastinated bodies were cut open to reveal their inner organs and then positioned in lifelike poses. The exhibit toured the world and was wildly popular.

Body Worlds also generated some criticism. Canadian social scientist, Lawrence Burns, argued that “some aspects of the exhibit violated human dignity.” (7(4): 12-23 Amer. J. Bioethics 2007)  Although touted as an educational experience Burns and others worried that the bodies were being used as “resources to make money from the voyeurism of the general public.” A key concern was that the bodies were denied burial and that this was a dignitary affront. Burns conceded, however, that the concept of human dignity as applied to deceased individuals is unclear.

I started to think about whether there is dignity after death and, if so, what are its parameters, when I read a news article from the New Haven Register, about the skeleton of an enslaved man that was being studied by the anthropology faculty and students at Quinnipiac University prior to burial.

The enslaved man who died in the 1798 (slavery was not abolished in Connecticut until 1848), was named Fortune. At the time of his death Fortune was the human chattel of a Waterbury Connecticut physician who upon Fortune’s death boiled his body to remove the flesh keeping his skeleton to study human anatomy. Fortune’s body remained unburied and was on display as late as 1970 at the Mattatuck Museum where until recently it was still housed. Read More

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More Thoughts on the Dangerous Fragility of Men

First, I want to thank my hosts here at Concurring Opinions for asking me to stay on for another month. One of the things this extended invitation allows me to do is to respond at some length to issues raised in the comments on my last post, “The Dangerous Fragility of Men.” In that post, I highlighted a troubling phenomenon: men with privilege and power characterizing their insecurities and lack of self-control as vulnerability, and using that alleged vulnerability as an excuse or justification for murder, rape, and discrimination (and I would add, though I didn’t discuss it in the post, harassment and intimidation). To demonstrate this phenomenon, I offered a sample of quotations from recent, high-profile cases including Oscar Pistorius‘ shooting of his girlfriend and the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas. The post suggested that our society should make a greater effort both to marginalize this cowardice and become more attentive to actual vulnerability. In this post, I’d like to elaborate on these ideas and address some of the objections raised in the responses to my post.

I first want to spend a bit more time on the question of perceived v. actual vulnerability. I noted in my original post that one of the perplexing aspects of this form of male vulnerability is that it seems to increase, rather than decrease, with power or privilege. Frequently, the men using weakness as an excuse or justification (or others offering such explanations on their behalf) for harm are people who are objectively less vulnerable than most. They include famous athletes, soldiers, and wealthy businessmen. I think it is worth spelling this out more explicitly: there is a tendency on the part of privileged individuals to overstate their vulnerability. This tendency towards exaggerated sensitivity is important because it stunts what might otherwise be a meaningful process of self-examination. Feeling vulnerable is not the same thing as being vulnerable, and even actual vulnerability might need to yield before (or at least take into consideration) the greater vulnerability of other people.

We are all vulnerable in certain ways. Figuring out the what and why of our vulnerabilities is an important part of psychological awareness and well-being. What is of most interest to me here, however, is determining the conditions under which it is permissible for us to impose our vulnerabilities on other people, especially when that imposition takes the form of violence or discrimination. In determining those conditions, I would suggest we should ask ourselves at least three questions. One, we should question whether our vulnerability is objectively reasonable. Vulnerability that results from personal insecurity or prejudice is not vulnerability that we may rightfully impose on others. It is our own responsibility to correct vulnerabilities of our own creation. Second, we should question the magnitude of our vulnerability, especially when put in perspective with the vulnerabilities of others. Third, even if our vulnerability is both reasonable and of serious magnitude, we should question whether we are imposing it on appropriate parties in a just and proportional way. Read More

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Expanding Bob Jones University v. United States

In Bob Jones University v. United States, the IRS revoked the tax exempt status of two religiously affiliated schools because they discriminated on the basis of race. One school (Goldsboro Christian Schools) refused admittance to black students, the other (Bob Jones University) barred interracial dating and marriage. Both schools claimed that the discrimination was religiously mandated, and that the loss of their tax exempt status violated the Free Exercise Clause. The schools lost. The Supreme Court characterized tax exemptions as a taxpayer subsidy for charitable organizations that, at the very least, do not contravene fundamental public policy like our commitment to racial equality, and held that racist schools did not satisfy that requirement: “[I]t cannot be said that educational institutions that, for whatever reasons, practice racial discrimination, are institutions exercising beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life or should be encouraged by having all taxpayers share in their support by way of special tax status.” In addition, the Court held that eliminating race discrimination in education was a narrowly tailored and compelling state interest. The bottom line is that a university may discriminate based on race, but it should not expect to be considered a beneficial organization entitled to tax subsidies.

Assuming Bob Jones was correctly decided, should its holding be limited to discrimination in education, or discrimination on the basis of race? I think not. In fact, the IRS denies tax exempt status to any nonprofit organization, religious or not, that invidiously discriminates on the basis of race. If you are a church that excludes blacks, or won’t let blacks become ministers, you may have the constitutional right to exist, but you won’t get any government money to help you prosper. Should the same policy apply to organizations, religious or not, that invidiously discriminate on the basis of sex?

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On Information Justice

Like the other commenters on From Goods to a Good Life, I also enjoyed the book and applaud Professor Sunder’s initiative in engaging more explicitly in the values conversation than has been conventionally done in IP scholarship. I also agree with most of what the other commenters have said.  I want to offer plaudits, a few challenges, and some suggestions about future directions for this conversation.

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Is IP for People or Corporations?

Another day brings another cornucopia of exciting and important comments on my book, From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice. I thank Professors Molly Van Houweling, Jessica Silbey, Michael Madison, and Mark McKenna, and earlier Concurring Opinions commentators —Professors Deven Desai, Lea Shaver, Laura DeNardis, Zahr Said, and Brett Frischmann—for reading my book so carefully, and engaging it so helpfully. I focus here on Professor Van Houweling’s framing of an important issue arising in the discussion.

Professor Van Houweling has provoked stimulating discussion with her astute observation of two competing visions of intellectual property within the emergent “capabilities approach” school of intellectual property we identified earlier this week. Professor Van Houweling contrasts Professor Julie Cohen’s alternative justification of copyright as a tool for promoting corporate welfare (sustaining creative industries), with my attention to intellectual property laws as tools for promoting livelihood and human welfare (sustaining human beings in their quest for a good life).

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For whom does IP work?

One of the major questions Professor Sunder’s book asks is whether IP works for the people who make it. This is a question that US law does not grapple directly with, but assumes and then glosses over. It is an important question. As Molly Van Houweling mentions, drawing on Julie Cohen’s fantastic article on IP as corporate property, IP certainly works for some companies some of the time. Insofar as companies are intermediaries (distributors of IP protected goods) and the licensees of the creators of those goods (either through work for hire or assignment), firms can and do make some of their money from IP revenues, which IP is generated by individuals working alone or in groups.

The story of Solomon Linda is an example of what can go wrong from the initial creation to the widespread distribution of creative expression that has commercial value. Firms will say that without intellectual property, they cannot harness or nourish the creativity to reproduce, commercialize and distribute it, that the conditions of their productive and distributive business require exclusive rights in the intangible goods. (I think this in part right, but it is largely overstated in light of the the many other ways in which companies make money, such as first to market, complementary products, contracting for services, reputation. And the extent to which the company depends on IP is industry specific.) Individuals will say that the best environment for their creative work is a situation in which autonomy and collaboration are optimized. Individuals want time and space to do their work, and they need some funding to pursue it, but that funding may come from a day or night job that does or does not directly relate to their creative or innovative activity. Ideally, the way the individuals earn a living derives from the creative or innovative work they do, and if that is the case, they still seek autonomy and collaboration, which are often at odds with corporate structure and IP exclusivity. Sunder’s book points out many of these conflicts between individual welfare and corporate welfare. My puzzle, these days, is why there must be such inconsistency. How (when and why) does the corporate interest so greatly diverge from the individual’s interest and what, if anything, can be done about it to maximize IP’s functionality in our global system of creative and innovative production? Sunder’s book goes a long way to putting these issues front and center.

Fractal Inequality and Politics

According to the Fed, the the net worth of the typical American household was $77,300 in 2010. The new vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, had a net worth of $3,207,000 in 2010—about 40 times that of the median household. The man who picked Ryan has about 80 times more wealth than him, with a net worth of $250,000,000. And one of the Romney/Ryan ticket’s greatest supporters, David Koch, has about $25,000,000,000, about 100 times Romney’s fortune. David’s brother and Sheldon Adelson are about that wealthy, too, and very politically active.

If this example sounds terribly partisan to you, just substitute in your favorite left wing billionaire and Obama/Biden, or consider the fabulous lives of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair after they retired from office. Romney/Ryan is more interesting here because of the fractal inequality on display.

Numbers like these take a little time to sink in (and perhaps they never do, given our cognitive limitations). They need to be explored and illuminated. What does it mean that, say, David Koch could double each half of the GOP ticket’s net worth by giving Romney one-hundredth of his fortune, or giving Ryan one five-thousandth of his fortune? Consider how readily you might give 1/5,000th of what you own to a charity, or use it to pay for a magazine subscription, or a dinner out. The median household might not think twice about using its $15 (about .0002 * $77,000) to buy a pizza.

What does it mean for politics when leading figures of either party can leave office and expect lucrative sinecures from tycoons or corporations? Who really is in charge?