Category: Political Economy

Management Wants Precarity: A California Ideology for Employment Law

LaborShareThe reader of Talent Wants to be Free effectively gets two books for the price of one. As one of the top legal scholars on the intersection of employment and intellectual property law, Prof. Lobel skillfully describes key concepts and disputes in both areas. Lobel has distilled years of rigorous, careful legal analysis into a series of narratives, theories, and key concepts. Lobel brings legal ideas to life, dramatizing the workplace tensions between loyalty and commitment, control and creativity, better than any work I’ve encountered over the past decade. Her enthusiasm for the subject matter animates the work throughout, making the book a joy to read. Most of the other participants in this symposium have already commented on how successful this aspect of the book is, so I won’t belabor their points.

Talent Want to Be Free also functions as a second kind of book: a management guide. The ending of the first chapter sets up this project, proposing to advise corporate leaders on how to “meet the challenge” of keeping the best performers from leaving, and how “to react when, inevitably, some of these most talented people become competitors” (26). This is a work not only destined for law schools, but also for business schools: for captains of industry eager for new strategies to deploy in the great game of luring and keeping “talent.” Reversing Machiavelli’s famous prescription, Lobel advises the Princes of modern business that it is better to be loved than feared. They should celebrate mobile workers, and should not seek to bind their top employees with burdensome noncompete clauses. Drawing on the work of social scientists like AnnaLee Saxenian (68), Lobel argues that an ecology of innovation depends on workers’ ability to freely move to where their talents are best appreciated.

For Lobel, many restrictions on the free flow of human capital are becoming just as much of a threat to economic prosperity as excess copyright, patent, and trademark protection. Both sets of laws waste resources combating the free flow of information. A firm that trains its workers may want to require them to stay for several years, to recoup its investment (28-29). But Lobel exposes the costs of such a strategy: human capital controls “restrict careers and connections that are born between people” (32). They can also hurt the development of a local talent pool that could, in all likelihood, redound to the benefit of the would-be controlling firm. Trapped in their firms by rigid Massachusetts’ custom and law, Route 128’s talent tended to stagnate. California refused to enforce noncompete clauses, encouraging its knowledge workers to find the firms best able to use their skills.

I have little doubt that Lobel’s book will be assigned in B-schools from Stanford to Wharton. She tells a consistently positive, upbeat story about management techniques to fraternize the incompatibles of personal fulfillment, profit maximization, and regional advantage. But for every normative term that animates her analysis (labor mobility, freedom of contract, innovation, creative or constructive destruction) there is a shadow term (precarity, exploitation, disruption, waste) that goes unexplored. I want to surface a few of these terms, and explore the degree to which they limit the scope or force of Lobel’s message. My worry is that managers will be receptive to the book not because they want talent to be free in the sense of “free speech,” but rather, in the sense of “free beer:” interchangeable cog(nitive unit)s desperately pitching themselves on MTurk and TaskRabbit.
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Introducing the Talent Wants To Be Free Symposium

Talent Wants to be FreeThis week Concurring Opinions is hosting a symposium on Professor Orly Lobel’s book, Talent Wants to be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding. In simplest terms, Professor Lobel takes on some thorny problems in innovation policy debates including whether to lock down talent and ideas or to embrace the movement of people and knowledge. Though these tensions seem easy to understand, the natural desire to keep what one has means arguments to tie up whatever seems to be giving one an advantage creates larger debates about optimal control and outcomes. Professor Lobel’s work tangles with these core ideas and more.

Professor Lobel is leading thinker on the intersection of employment law, intellectual property law, regulatory and administrative law, torts, behavioral economics, health policy, consumer law and trade secrets as they relate to innovation. She is the Don Weckstein Professor of Labor and Employment Law at University of San Diego School of Law and holds an SJD and LLM fro Harvard as well as an LLB from Tel Aviv University. She is a member of the American Law Institute and the recipient of research grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the American Bar Association litigation Fund, the Searle-Kauffman Fellowship, the Southern California Innovation Project, and Netspar, University of Tilburg. We are honored to have her join us for the symposium as our great list of guest authors engage with her book.

Our line-up of authors include Matt Bodie, Anupam Chander, Danielle Citron, Catherine Fisk, Vic Fleischer, Brett Frischmann, Shubha Ghosh, Ron Gilson, Peter Lee, and Frank Pasquale. We look forward to everyone’s contributions.

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Global Legal Pluralism

I remember back in 2003, Anupam Chander and I both took part in a cyberlaw retreat on Cape Cod sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  Most of the professors assembled at the retreat were concerned with how to “solve” the problems that local regulation of internet activity might pose.  In contrast, Anupam Chander and I repeatedly made the case that this was not a problem to be solved, but an inevitable expression of cultural diversity.  Further, we argued that there might even be some benefits that could accrue from such legal pluralism, properly managed.

We have been fellow travellers ever since, and I am very pleased to see Anupam’s project finally come to fruition in this lively and agile book.  As befits a broadly synthetic work about the electronic silk road, Anupam stiches together an impressive array of examples that convincingly demonstrate the importance of the global trade in services.  In addition, turning from the descriptive to the normative, he lays out principles that might undergird a governance regime for this cross-border activity that leaves open the possibility for multiple competing normative voices.

Anupam’s approach is one that is consonant with the conception of global legal pluralism I have been pursuing for over a decade, and so I have few objections to his account.  Quite rightly, Anupam steers a useful middle ground on issues of so-called extraterritorial regulation.  He neither says that local regulation should always trump all other possible normative authorities (as sovereigntist territorialists often do), nor does he call for a full universal harmonization scheme.  Instead, he adopts a pithy aphorism: “harmonize where possible and glocalize where necessary.”  The key here is that a decisionmaker in a cross-border dispute should always ask whether it is possible to defer to another legal regime in the interests of a harmonious interlocking transnational legal system.  Even asking such a question can, over time, inculcate habits of mind that cause decision-makers to be restrained about reflexively applying their own law in all circumstances.  At the same time, Anupam recognizes that there will be instances when such deference is impossible and local populations will feel the need to impose local norms on cross-border activity.  In such cases, he asks global services companies to “glocalize”: customize their global services product to conform to the law of various localities.

My guess is that such an approach will be workable in many cases, and so Anupam’s argument is an advance.  It is also usefully pluralist in that it leaves space for multiple communities—local international, and transnational—to assert normative authority.  This is in marked contrast to an approach that seeks to elide normative difference and tries to impose a single authoritative set of norms.  Thus, I fully embrace his project.

I do have two quibbles, however.

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Will We Be Ever Able To Go Off-grid Again? And Other Questions about the Electronic Silk Road

Will we ever be able to go off-grid again? What do we gain and lose if not? These questions came to mind as I was reading Anupam Chander’s Electronic Silk Road. The book is excellent. Indeed, these questions and the rest of this post’s ideas would not have come to mind had he not set out how the Electronic Silk Road operates and might operate. And my questions are perhaps prompted by a good book that addresses much and better still opens the doors to the next questions. Chander makes a strong case for benefits of a modern silk road where trust and trade work together and promote “net-work” which he defines as “information services delivered remotely through electronic communications systems.” This two way world facilitates labor shifted to Asia but also Google and Facebook spanning the globe with their services. His plea for new laws to address this change in trade makes sense. Our world of goods is fading to a world of digital things. Yet I wonder whether this new rule of trade maps to all the wonders we may want.

There may be unintentional irony here. Chapter One epigraph quotes Keynes “What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914!” Does trade stop war or at least make countries less likely to war against each other? Maybe. To get there Chander points out that, “the characteristics that permit net-work trade might be deployed to create a robust infrastructure for such trade: real-time information transfer, low information and other transactions costs, the ability of individuals around the world to collaborate, and electronic identification.” But the same systems that may promote trade can lead to greater surveillance and repression.

In other words, the recent spying amongst countries may be a good thing. I fear greater coordination amongst countries rather than friction. Chander calls this issue “Stalinization—the imposition of the world’s most repressive rules on cyberspace, in aggregated form.” He acknowledges this point at p. 197. Nonetheless this greater connection and improved grid may be inescapable. The idea that local laws must balance global over-reach does not appear to address what happens when the big boys agree. The electronic silk road thus seems to kill the romance of the silk road.

The Silk Road evokes adventure, the ability to test, change identities, and yet somehow trade worked. Failure on the Silk Road or even mistakes or cheating could be hidden by moving from the Road to some other country. In that sense, a modern system of trade on a global scale seems to defeat the room for play that Julie Cohen has described in Configuring the Networked Self. To where would one go to experiment, reinvent, and rehabilitate? Even with greater freedom to communicate things can go awry. A WTO response may be futile if all agree on bad behavior. Public shaming of corporations may mean little when they are forced to comply. To be clear, I agree with much of what Chander offers and have hope that the mitigation he offers will take it root. At bottom it may be a faith that discourse and debate defeats evil in all forms. Part of me thinks this idea is true. Part wonders whether we have come that far from the days leading up to World War I or II. If not, tighter understanding and trade may do less than both Chander and I hope. Then again Chander may be setting us up for the next step in his ideas. I certainly hope so.

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Introducing the Electronic Silk Road Online Symposium

Silk Road coverThis week, a great group will be blogging about Professor Anupam Chander’s book, The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce. Professor Chander is a leading scholar on globalization and digitization. He is Director of the California International Law Center and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at UC Davis. He has been a visiting professor at Yale Law School, the University of Chicago Law School, Stanford Law School, and Cornell Law School. He is also a dear friend. Nonetheless, it is time for us to do what we hope to do well, and if lucky, our friends do for us. That is, it is time to press Professor Chander about his work as it tries to show us how the new Silk Road operates, what it promises, what is yields, and what it threatens. Work and services are now blending, if not blended. Old rules for trade struggle to adapt to new rules for information. Where will we go from here? Join Professor Chander and our panelists including Paul Berman, Miriam Cherry, Graeme Dinwoodie, Nicklas Lundblad, Frank Pasquale, Pierluigi Perri, Adam Thierer, Haochen Sun, Fred Tung, and of course Danielle Citron and me for the fun this week.

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Announcing Symposium on Orly Lobel’s Talent Wants to be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding

Talent Wants to be FreeThink you have enough to read? Think again! I am honored to announce that Concurring Opinions will host a symposium on Orly Lobel’s book, Talent Wants to be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding. The event will run from Monday, November 11 to Friday, November 15. I came to know Professor Lobel’s work as I shared some of my thoughts on intellectual property, property theory, and technologically mediated creation in her seminar, Work, Welfare, and Justice, in 2008. I was thinking about who owns your email? What about work place creation? Who owns what you come up with at work? Does it matter whether you used company technology to create and learn? Professor Lobel was digging into related questions, and it has been a blast seeing her run with them. Now we have the pleasure of her book. The accolades have been coming in from academics in law and other fields as well as the business world. Business Week, Fortune, and Harvard Business Review have run articles by Professor Lobel that draw on the insights from the book.

Professor Lobel argues that as we move deeper into a world driven by human capital and talent is in increasing demand, we have to understand that a lock-down approach to innovation is a losing strategy. Nonetheless:

Many companies embrace a control mentality—relying more on patents, copyright, branding, espionage, and aggressive restrictions of their own talent and secrets than on creative energies that are waiting to be unleashed.

Unlocking talent, setting it free as she puts it, sets up a system where everyone wins. Will our discussants or you agree? I think so, but I am sure there will be new ideas and challenges during the event. Our panelists include Professor Lobel as well as:

Matt Bodie

Anupam Chander

Danielle Citron

Catherine Fisk

Vic Fleischer

Brett Frischmann

Shubha Ghosh

Ron Gilson

Peter Lee

Frank Pasquale

Awards for High-Impact, Federally Funded Research

In a world where attacks on inquiry are all too common, it’s nice to see great research recognized. The Golden Goose Awards are a forum for such encomia, focusing on federally funded research:

The purpose of the Golden Goose Award is to demonstrate the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure or unusual studies that have led to major breakthroughs and have had a significant impact on society. Such breakthroughs may include development of life-saving medicines and treatments; game-changing social and behavioral insights; and major technological advances related to national security, energy, the environment, communications, and public health.

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Upcoming Online Symposium on Professor Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road

Silk Road coverDanielle and I are happy to announce that next week, Concurring Opinions will host an online symposium on Professor Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce. Professor Chander is a professor at U.C. Davis’s King Hall School of Law. Senators, academics, trade representatives, and pundits laud the book for its clarity and the argument Professor Chander makes. He examines how the law can facilitate commerce by reducing trade barriers but argues that consumer interests need not be sacrificed:

On the ancient Silk Road, treasure-laden caravans made their arduous way through deserts and mountain passes, establishing trade between Asia and the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. Today’s electronic Silk Roads ferry information across continents, enabling individuals and corporations anywhere to provide or receive services without obtaining a visa. But the legal infrastructure for such trade is yet rudimentary and uncertain. If an event in cyberspace occurs at once everywhere and nowhere, what law applies? How can consumers be protected when engaging with companies across the world?

But will the book hold up under our panel’s scrutiny? I think so but only after some probing and dialogue.

Our Panelists include Professor Chander as well as:

Paul Berman

Miriam Cherry

Graeme Dinwoodie

Nicklas Lundblad

Frank Pasquale

Pierluigi Perri

Adam Thierer

Haochen Sun

Fred Tung

And of course

Danielle Citron and I will be there too.

Schmayek’s Shutdown

MirowskiCoverIf you asked Ted Cruz or Jim DeMint who was the guiding spirit of their government shutdown, they’d probably mention Friedrich von Hayek. The Nobel Prize winning economist warned the world that “socialism” would put citizens on a “road to serfdom.” For the Tea Party, PPACA is a horror, perhaps even a new form of slavery, a threat to liberty even darker than the feudal past Hayek evoked.

But there is another figure just as important to current neoliberal thought as Hayek. Carl Schmitt provided jurisprudential theories of “the emergency” and “the exception” that highlighted the best opportunities for rapid redistribution of wealth upwards. In Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, Philip Mirowski explains how neoliberal thought, far from advocating a shrinking of the state, in fact sparks a redirection and intensification of its energies. As he puts it, “A primary function of the neoliberal project is to redefine the shape and the function of the state, not to destroy it” (56). Moreover, the “strong state was necessary to neutralize what [Hayek] considered to be the pathologies of democracy” (84). Even a temporary dictatorship can work in a pinch.

The shutdown is a brilliant strategy to meld Hayekian substance and Schmittian procedure. As Aaron Bady has observed,

A shutdown is a state of exception when the government gets to do things it normally can’t do, like close the Environmental Protection Agency, de-fund WIC, close the national parks, send a lot of government employees home [in what is in many ways a lock-out], and all sorts of other stuff. A shutdown is a moment in which a choice gets made about which laws to obey and which laws to ignore, when the government gets to decide that some people are essential and some people aren’t.

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Disrupting “Disruption” Rhetoric

Why is the term “disruption” so popular nowadays? We rarely hear about a new social commitment to guarantee access to housing, health, or education. Instead, elite media features a parade of thinkers keen on “disrupting” old institutions. Freddie DeBoer has one perspective on their popularity:

Talk of social contracts is passé in an America obsessed with technocapitalist visions of a prosperous future. The yen for “disruption,” an empty term for empty minds in empty people, makes traditional obstacles like social contracts suspect or downright pernicious. This has led to an embrace of proceduralism by those true believers who want an app economy to be the engine of capitalism. And such people rule the world.

The “disruption” proposed by thought leaders also appeals to those who think of economics as the king of social science, and methodological individualism as the only ontological orientation to rigorous inquiry:

[I]ndividualistic predilections give a cohesiveness and homogeneity to … new ideas and inventions, actively constructing and shaping the digital environment from which [Silicon Valley thought leaders] claim to draw their inspiration. The insistence on “disrupting” our social and environmental lives; the idea that the solutions inspired by and enabled by the Internet mark a clean break from historical patterns, a never-before-seen opportunity – these mean that the only lessons to learn from history are those of previous technological disruptions. The view of society as an institution-free network of autonomous individuals practicing free exchange makes the social sciences, with the exception of economics, irrelevant. What’s left is engineering, neuroscience, an understanding of incentives (in the narrowly utilitarian sense): just right for those whose intellectual predispositions are to algorithms, design, and data structures.

The economy of internet intellectuals encourages endless reworking of algorithmic, design-, and data-based thinking. As Henry Farrell has observed, “While making your way up the hierarchy [of internet intellectuals], you are encouraged to buff the rough patches from your presentation again and again, sanding it down to a beautifully polished surface, which all too often does no more than reflect your audience’s preconceptions back at them.” The smiling faces at TED talks want to hear tried-and-true methods and 17-minute solutions. Woe to the skeptic who counsels there may not be any.

In the hands of a Cory Doctorow, we can see a disruption ethic of public spirited dissent. Unfortunately, the “disruptions” pursued by Silicon Valley giants (and their well-heeled consultants) often have little to do with challenging the biggest power centers in society. And why would they? As Farrell notes,
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