Site Meter

Category: Political Economy

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.

Read More

1

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.

Read More

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,
Read More

1

I reviewed Mark Weiner’s Rule of the Clan from a libertarian perspective.

Libertarians are impressed by order that emerges in an unplanned, decentralized way.  No one knows how to make a pencil, and yet through the decentralized process of market trading, pencils are made readily available.  If making a pencil does not require a central planner, then why do we need a strong central government?

The Hobbesian answer is that without a strong central government, we would have the “war of all against all.”    The libertarian response echoes Karl Kraus.  Kraus famously said something to the effect that “psychoanalysis is the disease which it purports to cure.” Libertarians point out that the state, which purports to be the cure for the war of all against all, is the leading cause of violent death and incarceration.

Weiner’s book contains a message for libertarians that is decidedly mixed.  He argues, on the one hand, that there is a decentralized order that is an alternative to a strong central government.  On the other hand, this order is not at all libertarian.

The decentralized order that Weiner describes is the rule of the clan.  It is a cultural system in which individuals lack what we think of as liberty.  Instead, the individual is subordinate to the extended family.

Libertarians have been known to use medieval Iceland as an example proving that a strong central government is not needed to maintain order.  Weiner describes medieval Iceland as an example of the clan-based system of order, but from his depiction it is clearly not a model of a libertarian society.

Weiner uses legal historian Henry Maine’s distinction between a Society of Status and a Society of Contract.  Rule of the clan embodies a society of status.  Libertarians want to see a society of contract.

Libertarians see the “contract theory” of existing states as a fiction.  I never signed an agreement giving authority to the people and institutions of my federal, state, and local government.  Instead, those people and institutions have decided unilaterally what authority they can exercise over me.

Is it possible to extend the society of contract, giving less asymmetric power to the people and institutions that constitute the government?   Libertarians believes that the answer is “yes.”  However, Weiner claims that wherever the people and institutions of government lack strong asymmetric power, what we observe is the rule of the clan.  Libertarians are faced with the burden of showing that while he may be correct in describing the decentralized orders that we have observed, there may yet emerge a more decentralized order that does not degenerate into the rule of the clan.

Race, Justice, and the Political Economy of Vigilantism

A few thoughts in the wake of Zimmerman verdict (and related matters):

1) The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson stated last night, “I still don’t understand what Trayvon Martin was supposed to do” once he knew he was menaced.  Gary Younge similarly asked, “What version of events is there for that night in which Martin gets away with his life?”

Cord Jefferson, in a way, provides a practical response to that question:

To stay alive and out of jail, brown and black kids learn to cope. They learn to say, “Sorry, sir,” for having sandwiches in the wrong parking lot. They learn, as LeVar Burton has, to remove their hats and sunglasses and put their hands up when police pull them over. They learn to tolerate the indignity of strange, drunken men approaching them and calling them and their loved ones a bunch of [n______]. They learn that even if you’re willing to punch a harasser and face the consequences, there’s always a chance a police officer will come to arrest you, put you face down on the ground, and then shoot you execution style. Maybe the cop who shoots you will only get two years in jail, because it was all a big misunderstanding. You see, he meant to be shooting you in the back with his taser.

Yahdon Israel writes about similar coping mechanisms in Manhattan, and the fallback tactic of avoidance.  He notes that, “Although Columbia [University] is in Harlem, power wills that there is no Harlem in Columbia. Rather than walk through, the people of Harlem are more comfortable with walking around Columbia to get to the other side because they know where they don’t belong.”

Read More

Two Views of Charities

The Tampa Bay Tribune has put out a list of “America’s Worst Charities,” based on payments to solicitors. Dan Pallotta offers some reservations regarding that approach:

[T]he overhead question has a number of flaws. A few of the easy ones to talk about and describe are, first, it operates on a mistaken theory of waste. So, a [soup kitchen] tells you $.90 of your donation goes to the cause and you think: Well, that’s great, now I know that they don’t waste any money. But you don’t know that at all. How do you know they are not wasting the $.90 that’s being spent on the cause? That’s where all the money goes; that’s where the largest opportunity for waste is. Related to that, it tells you nothing about the quality of services. So, that soup kitchen can tell you $.90 of every donation goes to the cause and you’ll never learn that the soup is rancid. . . .

Next, the percentage of your donation that goes to the cause depends entirely on how the charity defines the cause. So, the more broadly they define the cause, the higher the percentage they can tell you is going to the cause. It actually operates on a false theory of transparency as well, because unless you know the underlying accounting and definitions of the cause, there is no transparency in that simple articulation of an overhead percentage. Worse, this demand the charities keep overhead below prevents them from spending money on the overhead things they have to spend on in order to grow. And that’s how we institutionalize the miniaturization of these organizations.

Pallotta offers many provocative thoughts on how success is measured in the nonprofit sector.

The Locust and the Bee

LocustBeeFables have been in the politico-economic air of late. The FT’s Martin Wolf considered the locust part of a master metaphor for the future of the global economy. He concluded that “the financial crisis was the product of an unstable interaction between ants (excess savers), grasshoppers (excess borrowers) and locusts (the financial sector that intermediated between the two).”

Now Geoff Mulgan has entered the fray with the excellent book The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future. As Mulgan observes,

If you want to make money, you can choose between two fundamentally different strategies. One is to create genuinely new value by bringing resources together in ways that serve people’s wants and needs. The other is to seize value through predation, taking resources, money, or time from others, whether they like it or not.

Read More

America’s Left: Find it on Twitter

Many thanks to Danielle for mentioning Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick’s article “What’s Left? Have progressives abandoned every cause save gay marriage?” They argue:

[S]omehow, somewhere along the line, to be progressive … stopped meaning a commitment to help the poor. The central problems that defined the left from the early history of the Progressive movement through the Great Society are as urgent today as they ever were: Economic fairness; a war on poverty, meaningful education reform, voting rights, workers’ rights, racial justice, women’s rights, equal access to child care and health care. But while none of these social ills has been remedied in modern America (and many are now worse) all that talk about “welfare queens” seems to have scared folks off. Face it: There is not, and never has been, anything sexy about the minimum wage.

You certainly won’t find very egalitarian views expressed at a $10,000-a-plate Democratic Party fundraiser, or among the millionaire anchors of cable networks. But I think Friedman/Lithwick are looking for lefties in all the wrong places. Sure, the mainstream media isn’t going to take the concerns of workers seriously. It’s going to feature a lot of fauxgressives instead. But take a look at Sarah Jaffe and Josh Eidelson’s excellent podcast, Belabored. Both also do serious reporting on recent strikes and other labor actions led by people who, increasingly, have little left to lose. If you’re looking for direct legal interventions, check out the Center for Progressive Reform. They’ve been defending labor and environmental regulation for years.

As for welfare and poverty coverage: both Mother Jones and Alternet are outstanding. Sam Pizzigati of Too Much has doggedly exposed inequality. He’s also chronicled past actions (and present movements) to remedy grotesque disparities. There are many members of Congress who supported the “People’s Budget,” which tries to preserve health care and education funding.

Speaking of education: the dialogue about university life on twitter puts to shame any stuffy salon you’ll find on the New York Times’s “Room for Debate” page. Check out @reclaimuc, @zunguzungu, @tressiemcphd, @jhrees, @gerrycanavan, among many others. I think the single best magazine piece on the crisis in higher education today was written by two prolific tweeters, Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal. These are very exciting thinkers, thinking far more holistically and humanely than nearly anyone you’ll see featured in mainstream media.

Finally, in terms of progressive views of technology, Twitter is a godsend. As I completed an article on the role of algorithms in finance the past semester, I found inspiration in items shared by @dgolumbia, @evgenymorozov, @marginalutility, & @interfluidity. There are also communities I follow on health care and IP. Sick of hearing about financialization as a cure for pharma’s innovation fatigue? Follow @DrRimmer, or go whole hog for @JacobinMag’s feature on socializing pharma.

I don’t want to just give a list of names, but I will say this: no one should lament reformers “missing in action”. Virtual communities dedicated to protecting the interests of the disadvantaged exist, and can find each other now more easily than ever. A progressive press would do better to cover the existing left than to lament the failings of liberals.

20

Citizens United, Graffiti, and the Web

We need more outlets to challenge the way things run. Challenging corporations is difficult, necessary, and proper. Someone in San Diego tried to do that. He is losing his case. It turns out that if you scribble anti-bank messages, you could face 13 years in jail. The medium: washable children’s chalk, not spray paint, on the sidewalk in front of banks. The bank: Bank of America. Now, you might think the First Amendment would be an issue here; it’s not. According the news report, “a judge had opted to prevent the defendant’s attorney from ‘mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial,’ and the defendant must now stand trial on 13 counts of vandalism.” The defendant was saying other banks were better banks. Bank of America did not like it, claimed it cost $6,000 to clean up the chalk, and apparently used its influence to have the city gang unit investigate and hand the case to the attorney’s office. Given that this defendant may not be allowed to engage in this speech, because of anti-graffiti and, my bet, property laws, all that may be left is the Web. I think offline mediums matter and should be protected. The Web is an alternative, not a substitute. But even on the Web a protester will have problems.

As I argue in Speech, Citizenry, and the Market: A Corporate Public Figure Doctrine, corporate power to speak has gone up. Corporate power to limit speech has not. A corporate public figure doctrine would allow someone to use a corporation’s logo and name to challenge to corporation on public issues. A corporation’s word mark is its given name; its logo, its face. Just as we would not limit the ability to question and identify human public figures for speech, we should not do so for corporate public figures. A foundational commitment of free speech law, perhaps the foundational commitment, is that public figures don’t and can’t own their reputations. Yet, through trademark and commercial speech doctrines corporations have powerful control over their reputations. If corporations are people for free speech purposes, as a constitutional matter, their control over their reputations can be no greater than the control other public figures have. Corporations cannot have it both ways. Corporations want and receive many of the legal rights natural persons receive. They should be subject to the same limits as other powerful, public figures.

HT: Fred von Lohmann for noting the story on Facebook.

PS. I am not saying corporations should be challenged, because they are corporations. That is silly. In that sense, I would challenge those who challenge, but that’s me.