Thursday, May 26, 2016
Book Review: Drafting and Analyzing Contracts: A Guide to the Practical Application of the Principles of Contracts Law
Carolina Academic Press has just released the fourth edition of the above title by Professor Scott J. Burnham. I got a chance to review it and, although I have not used it in a classroom setting yet, share my impressions with you here.
The book is well organized into twenty clearly defined chapters. Each chapter boils the relevant contract law into nicely terse “blackletter” law segments with no cases (a plus!) or irrelevant matter. This may serve the dual function of reminding students taking a contract drafting class about the applicable law for purposes of such a class, but also to refresh their memories again before taking the bar.
The exercises alter between reading/understanding-style problems and actual drafting problems. For example, some problems will ask the students pointed questions about contract clauses (“Is nonperformance excused?,” “What does the company have to pay [an injured worker],?” “Which of the following clauses are enforceable?” Many more, though, ask for more student involvement and deeper analysis while drafting. For example, several exercises give students a range of objectives to be accomplished and ask the students to draft the appropriate language, others ask students to identify ambiguities and improving them, some deliberately provide overly complicated “legalese” clauses, asking students to modernize them without compromising the legal objectives, and yet others ask students to rely on certain passages in the book in order to draft certain clauses, taking into consideration certain concerns.
The book also asks students to address various ethical concerns, which is a plus.
The only activity that I saw that I personally do not care for is one asking the students to “research the law in your jurisdiction” to be draft a certain problem. For me, that is too open-ended. I would fear questions about substantive law provisions with which I am not personally familiar and the potential surprise when students find out that we do not know “everything” about the law. However, that was just one of many great, diverse exercises.
In short: this book contains much good substantive information and features a wealth of different types of exercises. I highly recommend that you examine this book for your potential classroom or other use.
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
I have been looking forward to the resumption of my posts on ContractsProf blog, but sometimes events overtake us. It is with the greatest regret that I report that our colleague Louis F. Del Duca, Professor Emeritus at Penn State Law, died suddenly on 30 November 2015. An announcement from his law school is available here.
Lou was one of my co-authors on Global Issues in Contract Law (“GICL”), and a beloved friend and colleague for all of us. He was the longest-serving faculty member in the history of Penn State – Dickinson Law, and an internationally recognized scholar in commercial and comparative law. His influence in the “internationalization” of American legal education was profound. His inspiration on the development of West Academic’s Global Issues series was palpable.
At the time of his passing, Lou, I and our coauthors were finishing up the preparation of the GICL second edition. We all feel fortunate to have had this one last interaction with Lou, and I look on GICL second as a small remembrance of our friend and colleague. Godspeed Lou!
Monday, October 5, 2015
Friday, September 25, 2015
Yonathan Arbel has a post over on the New Private Law blog about the publication of the 2d edition of Charles Fried's classic Contract as Promise.
The post also includes a video of a panel discussion on the publication, which is embedded below.
Monday, July 13, 2015
We have some news from the world of hockey, that is, the sport of the 2015 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks (logo pictured). While elite teams (like the Blackhawks) struggle to keep their rosters under the salary camp (Goodbye Patrick Sharp; Goodbye Brandon Saad -- thanks for the memories and the Cups!), as reported on ESPN.com, the L.A. Kings used an alleged "material" breach of contract to terminate center Mike Richards rather than buying him out to evade the cap. The alleged material breach was at first mysterious, but it has now bee reported, e.g., here on Forbes.com, that Richards was detained at the Canadian border in illegal possession of OxyContin. But the Forbes report also indicates that Richards' mere arrest is not grounds for termination, and even if he is convicted, the NHL's drug policy does not call for termination. It calls for substance abuse treatment. Go Blackhawks!
The Bangor Daily News reports that author Tess Gerritsen has dropped her $10 million law suit against Warner Bros. for breach of contract in connection with the film "Gravity." As we reported previously, a District Court in California dismissed her complaint but allowed her twenty days to amend and refile. The complaint is based on a $1 million contract Gerritsen signed in 1999 to sell the book’s feature film rights to a company that was eventually purchased by Warner Bros. Gerritsen has admitted that the film "is not based on" her book, but she asserts that the book clearly inspired the film.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
‘Money Awards in Contract Law’ by David Winterton
Hart is pleased to offer you 20% discount on the book
To order online with your 20% discount please click on the link below the title and then click on the ‘pay now’ button on the right hand side of the screen. Once through to the ordering screen type ref: CV7 in the voucher code field and click ‘apply’
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Money Awards in Contract Law
The quantification of money awards for breach of contract is a topic of both significant theoretical interest and immense practical importance. Recent debates have ranged from the availability of gain-based awards to the theoretical basis for principles of remoteness and mitigation. While these and other important issues, such as the recovery of compensation for non-pecuniary loss, are touched upon, the book's principal objective is to challenge the orthodox understanding of the expectation principle, as famously laid down by Parke B in Robinson v Harman. According to this understanding, the usual objective of money awards for breach of contract is to compensate for 'loss' suffered by reference to the position the innocent party would have occupied had the contract been performed. After challenging this orthodoxy, Dr Winterton proposes a new account of the money awards provided in response to breach of contract which draws an important distinction between substitutionary and compensatory awards. The book aims to provide a coherent picture of contractual rights and remedies and will be of interest to judges, practitioners and academics alike.
David Winterton is a Lecturer in Law at the University of New South Wales.
June 2015 9781849464574 244pp Pbk RSP: £50
20% Discount Price: £40
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Tuesday, March 31, 2015
My friend Ken Ford is enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame, courtesy of the Department of Energy (D0E), which is displeased with his memoir, Building the H-Bomb: A Personal History. According to this report in the New York Times, DoE officials told Dr. Ford to make cuts to his book that would have eliminated 10% of the text. DoE personnel flagged 60 separate passages in the book for editing.
This demand (and the DoE made clear that it was making demands not requests) came as a surprise to Dr. Ford, who had submitted the book for DoE review expecting the process to be a mere formality. In Dr. Ford's view, the book contains no secrets, as the information that he included in his book relating to the history of the hydrogen bomb either had been previously disclosed or was released to him through FOIA requests. The DoE sees things differently, but the agency is unlikely to respond to the publication of Dr. Ford's book, in large part because any action it takes would only draw attention to the information whose disclosure it regards as improper.
The Times articles covers the story well and provides some examples of material that the DoE regards as classified but Dr. Ford regards as public. We would like to focus on a couple of contractual issues. First, the Times references Ken's alleged contractual obligation arising from a non-disclosure agreement he signed in the 50s. Dr. Ford does not recall what that agreement said, but he provided this blog with a copy of a similar agreement dated from September 2014. The DoE asked Dr. Ford to sign this new non-disclosure agreement in connection with its review of his manuscript. That document provides the government with multiple remedies should Dr. Ford reveal any classified information, including:
- termination of security clearances and government employment;
- recovery of royalties and other benefits that might result from any sort of disclosure of classified information; and
- criminal prosecution under Titles 18 and 50 of the U.S. Code and the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.
Given this non-disclosure agreement, one would expect that Dr. Ford's publisher would be reluctant to publish the book, fearing that it too might become a target of government scrutiny. In order to protect his publisher against liability, Dr. Ford agreed to amend his publication agreement to expand the usual indemnification clause. The additional language in the contract provides that Dr. Ford will indemnify his publisher "against any suit, demand, claim or recovery, finally sustained, by reason of . . . any material whose dissemination is judged by the United States Government to have violated the Author's obligations regarding the handling of sensitive information."
Steven Aftergood provides further information on the Federation of American Science Secrecy blog here.
Dr. Ford provides an overview of the story that his book tells, as well as links to about a score of documents, eight of which are annotated with Dr. Ford's comments, on George Washington University's National Security Archives.
Friday, October 10, 2014
This is the fourth in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Part I, The Proverbial “Egg,” can be found here.
Part II, Breaking Out of the Shell, can be found here.
Part III, What Is This Emerging New Life? can be found here.
Part IV: Discarding the Last Remnants of the Old Shell
When reading More Than You Wanted to Know together with the reactions in the virtual symposium, I have been struck by two facts. First, we clearly know much more about how mandatory disclosure regimes work than ever before. Details aside, a consensus is emerging that these regimes do not always help consumers make better decisions. Second, despite this increase in knowledge and emerging consensus over the problem, there is even more uncertainty and even less consensus over how consumer protection should be reformed in light of these facts.
i. Diagnosing the Problem
How can more clarity about the empirical facts lead to less clarity about what the law should be? I believe that part of the reason is simple: many of the current debates over these issues are still insufficiently attentive to the rigorous types of argumentation needed to address the purely normative aspects of these questions. To be more specific, the third premise of the classical law and economics movement (see Part I) has not yet been replaced by rigorously developed lines of argumentation from the appropriate cognate fields—as has happened with the first two premises.
In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that rigorous argumentation on these topics is lacking. I mean to highlight a sociological fact about the current legal academy. I believe that the right lines of argument have not yet been sufficiently absorbed by contract law scholars who work in and around the law and economics paradigm. Because of the predominance and recent expansions of this paradigm within the study of contract law, this third premise is increasingly assumed or tacitly accepted by many other contract law scholars. This includes many scholars who do work predominantly in law and psychology or engage in straightforward empirical legal research.
In More Than You Wanted to Know, Ben-Shahar and Schneider are, for example, apparently willing to accept that the primary purpose of consumer protection law is to help consumers make better decisions. This is why they recommend better advice instead of more disclosure. But interestingly enough, almost all of the people who have responded critically in this symposium appear to accept—either explicitly or tacitly—either the same normative proposition or the alternative view that consumer protection laws should be set up to promote social welfare more generally. (The most notable exception is Aditi Bagchi’s response—though Steven Burton’s plea that the authors spend more time thinking about obligation may represent a similar thought.)
Hence, there is a normative assumption running through many of the current debates. The assumption is that consumer protection laws should be shaped to promote either better subjective choice or human welfare more generally. But is this normative premise true? And before we even get to that question: how might we determine whether it is true?
After the jump, I will pursue these questions. I will suggest that we cannot get clearer about the appropriate shape of consumer protection law, however, until we ask the right normative questions. And I will suggest that we are not yet doing that in major areas of contract law studies.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
This is the third in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Part I, The Proverbial “Egg,” can be found here.
Part II, Breaking Out of the Shell, can be found here.
Part III: What IsThis Emerging New Life?
In Part II, I described how More Than You Wanted to Know seeks to answer psychological and empirical questions relevant to consumer protection law based not on ungrounded psychological premises or the kind of abstract theoretical reasoning that is typically associated with the classical law and economics paradigm but rather on actual psychological and empirical research. I suggested that these methodological moves explain the power of the book to take us much closer to the truth about use and sufficiency of mandatory disclosure regimes to cure a host of problems in consumer contracting.
As someone interested in methodology and the sociology of knowledge production in the legal academy, I find developments like these incredibly interesting. I am fascinated by the fact that they are often viewed as developments internal to the law and economics movement—even though they essentially dispense with some of its early guiding premises and draw on methodologies from other cognate fields.
The movement to replace classical economic assumptions about human decision-making with psychological facts is, for example, sometimes called “behavioral economics”. But what is really happening is that classical economic assumptions about human psychology are being replaced with direct psychological research into the relevant facts. Similarly, the move to replace economic modeling with rigorous empirical research is sometimes called “econometrics”. But what is really happening—at least within the legal academy—is that fewer law and economics scholars are making predictions about legal rules based merely on theoretical modeling and more are engaging in genuine empirical research. When they do this, they typically use statistical and other methods developed in the social sciences more generally—and not methods specific to the field of economics.
In my view, one of the greatest virtues of some parts of the law and economics movement is that it has been willing to revise many of its early premises and adopt methodologies from other fields when necessary to make its scholarship better track the truth. This willingness is also one of its greatest sources of continuing strength. Because of this willingness, the field has essentially been able to absorb a broad range of criticisms, while continuing to broaden in influence and produce scholarship that better tracks the truth. More Than What You Wanted to Know is a wonderful example of this development—at least when it come to curing distortions caused by the first two premises of the classical law and economics paradigm. (For a description of these 3 premises, see here.)
Still, as far as I know, there is not yet any name for the move to replace ungrounded economic assumptions about how to assess normative arguments (i.e., premise 3 from Part I) with rigorous thought developed by experts in the appropriate cognate fields. These are the fields of moral, legal and political philosophy, along with the field of meta-ethics. Corresponding to this fact, there is not yet as robust an acknowledgment of the need for this move within many influential contract law circles.
When I say I believe significant new life may be emerging in the study of contract law, I am nevertheless referring to the possibility that all three of the classical law and economics premises be replaced with rigorous lines of evidence and argumentation drawn from the correct cognate fields. I am referring to a highly interdisciplinary research program that draws on (1) our best contemporary psychological findings into decision-making and how humans operate with legal rules when asking psychological questions relevant to contract law, (2) rigorous empirical research into the consequences of different legal rules when adopted by groups with real human psychologies, and (3) philosophically well-grounded argumentation and debate over the normative propositions that are most relevant to contract law.
I am describing a hope, not an expectation—because it is we, as a field, who will decide whether this new life fully emerges.
For a range of historically contingent reasons, the classical law and economics movement may just end up serving as the early vehicle (or the proverbial “egg”) for this transition within the legal academy. I believe that would be an incredibly good thing for the study of contract law because it would essentially allow the legal academy to adapt a ready-made set of social and academic networks that are already studying this subject matter intensively and in highly influential manners. But this would also require a much greater appreciation by scholars who work within this paradigm of the need for more rigorous philosophical input on normative questions.
The result would, moreover, not just be an expanded sub-field of law and economics. It would be better described as a fully informed search for the truth. The proverbial “egg” will have given birth to something much, much better.
But we are not yet there yet. There is still too large a disconnect between moral and political philosophers and economists within the legal academy. Hence, a great deal of highly influential work on contract law still risks producing distortion. In Part IV, I will show how this problem still affects many discussions of consumer protection law. I will also make a plea that we work together to breath the right new life into contract law studies going forward.
This is the second in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Part I, The Proverbial “Egg,” can be found here.
Part II: Breaking Out of the Shell
As we all know, the law and economics movement has proven a formidable force within the legal academy, especially in relation to subjects like contract law. As recently as 2012, even Charles Fried, the author of Contract as Promise, was forced to acknowledge that “the economic analysis of law may today be the dominant intellectual approach to legal institutions generally and contract law in particular.”
Because of Omri Ben-Shahar’s training and intellectual ties, many will view More Than What You Wanted to Know as a work that is partly internal to the law and economics movement. This affiliation should help the book because it will allow the book to speak credibly to a wide range of influential contract law scholars who currently share this affiliation. The book ultimately challenges one of the early dogmas of the classical law and economics paradigm, as described in my prior post, but—because of the book’s intellectual affiliations—the book can pose this challenge in an especially effective manner.
It should nevertheless be noted that the central insights in the book arise not from anything specific to the field of law and economics but rather from rejection of the field’s first two classical premises. With respect to human psychology (see premise 1 in Part I), Ben-Shahar and Schneider do not simply assume that consumers make more rational decisions whenever more facts are disclosed to them. Instead, they canvass a wealth of psychological evidence to the contrary. This evidence shows that consumers are especially likely to make poorer decisions as their choices become more complex and unfamiliar and when those terms are dictated by sophisticated contracting parties.
When determining the likely consequences of legal rules (see premise 2 in Part I), the authors similarly avoid abstract economic modeling and turn instead to direct empirical data. They draw this empirical data from a broad range of sources, and the facts suggest that mandatory disclosure regimes have increasingly begun to harm consumers in many contexts.
One reason for this is dynamic. Over time, mandatory disclosure regimes tend to lend increasing complexity and unfamiliarity to even the most banal of transactions. In one particularly poignant example, the authors describe the $.99 purchase of an iTunes song—which was accompanied by 32 feet of complex and often incomprehensible boilerplate (when printed out in a tiny font, as illustrated on the left). One of the underappreciated consequences of mandatory disclosure regimes is that they have increasingly begun to flummox consumers in even the simplest of transactions.
In highlighting facts like these, More Than You Wanted to Know takes us much closer to the truth about mandatory disclosure regimes than classical law and economics methodologies can. Speaking from a purely methodological perspective, it is able to do this because it is willing to abandon the first two premises of the classical paradigm and replace them with something better. It seeks to answer psychological and empirical questions relevant to consumer protection law based not on ungrounded premises but rather on actual psychological and empirical research.
This is an example of the emerging new life that I see in contract law studies. It is a better life because it is more likely to track the truth.
In my next post, I will nevertheless reflect more deeply on this new life. I will ask whether we have gone far enough as a field to make it really come to life. Have we—in other words—gone far enough yet to ensure that our collective research best tracks the truth?
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
This is the first in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
When an egg hatches, new life emerges. But it often takes its first steps into the world with some remnants of its newly discarded shell.
I believe that significant new life may be emerging in the study of contract law, but that too much of an old shell remains. Rather than hide the ball, let me just say that the proverbial “egg” is the classical law and economics movement. And More Than What You Wanted to Know takes us part—though only part—of the way toward that emerging new life.
Jeremy Telman has been kind enough to let me post a late addendum to this symposium so that I can explain these perceptions. I want to use this review to prompt more scholars in the field—including Ben-Shahar and Schneider—to acknowledge what we need to do as a field to get further toward the right destination in the study of contract law.
As other contributors have noted, More Than You Wanted to Know is a full-throated attack on mandatory disclosure regimes. These regimes have been widely used and accepted in many contexts for some time now. It is therefore interesting to note that almost all of the commentators here have voiced some agreement with the basic thrust of the book—even while arguing that its thesis is overly general. We are witnessing the tail end of a shift from what once seemed to be common knowledge (i.e., about the usefulness and sufficiency of mandatory disclosure to cure a host problems in consumer contracting contexts) to a very different shared understanding.
But how has this shift occurred? As someone interested in the sociology of the legal academy and how different interdisciplinary methods can combine to produce (or distort) knowledge, I want to delve further into this question. I also want to ask whether we have gone far enough, in our collective studies of contract law, in the right direction. (I should probably apologize in advance to Carl Schneider that I will focus more on contract than informed medical consent in these posts, given the nature of this blog.)
The Proverbial “Egg”
If the “egg” is the classical law and economics movement, then that is where we should start.
Interdisciplinary studies of law can obviously produce enormous insight. When methods from cognate fields are applied to the law without sufficient reflection on the validity or applicability of their guiding premises, they can, however, also produce significant distortion. In this particular case, I believe that faulty premises associated with the classical law and economics movement are part of the cause of overblown intuitions concerning the use and value of mandatory disclosure regimes.
To analyze the source of this distortion more concretely, I ask you to consider an approach to studying contract law that might seem fanciful at first. This approach combines three basic elements:
- Human Psychology. The approach starts with certain assumptions about how human psychology and decision-makings works. These assumptions are intuitively plausible to some but are not rooted in any rigorous psychological research.
- Predictions about Legal Rules. The approach then generates predictions about the consequences of legal rules by modeling interactions among hypothetical people with the psychologies presumed in premise 1 under different hypothetical legal rules. The approach thus relies on theoretical modeling instead of rigorous empirical research to make empirical predictions.
- Normative Questions. The approach is skeptical of any kind of value that is not reducible to the value of some state of affairs. Proponents of this approach are thus impatient with normative arguments that do not fit easily into the consequentialist (and/or welfarist or cost-benefit) frameworks that they best understand. People who adopt this approach are not, however, typically trained in moral or political philosophy—which are the fields that deal most directly and rigorously with normative questions. Nor are they trained in the field of “meta-ethics”—which is the study of the status or objectivity of normative judgments. People who adopt this approach are thus largely unversed in the considerations that might legitimately ground (or respond) to their skepticism. This prevents them from knowing whether their grounds for skepticism are valid. It also prevents them from knowing whether their skepticism can be limited to concepts they reject (like “rights” and “fairness”), or whether it equally affects the values they accept (like “welfare” and a person’s “good”).
On its face, an approach like this would appear to be a recipe for disaster. It studies contract law and makes numerous recommendations for legal reform, but it employs a methodology that is unmoored in the specific classes of evidence and types of argumentation that are most relevant to its professed subject matter.
But as anyone reading this blog will know, this description is far from fanciful. To make it describe something real, one need only clarify that the psychology referenced in premise 1 is homo economicus—or the classical, “rational actor” model. Then these three premises provide a pretty good description of the heart of the classical law and economics approach to studying contract law.
These three premises can also seem to lend support to the value and sufficiency of mandatory disclosure regimes to cure a host of problems with consumer contracting. Mandatory disclosure regimes purport to produce the precise information needed for rational consumers to make better choices for themselves. If people are rational actors (see premise 1), then economic modeling (as described in premise 2) can thus be used to show that these regimes should simultaneously produce overall gains for consumers who contract, overall gains in social welfare and a more efficient allocation of resources. These regimes should also work relatively automatically, or “as by an invisible hand”, in the following sense: they should produce these results without the need for any centralized state planner to know in advance which exchanges are better for specific parties. There is, moreover, nothing else to value (as per premise 3). Hence, there is nothing else that legitimately speaks to the appropriate contours of consumer protection law.
There is no doubt about it: mandatory disclosure regimes work incredibly well in (classical economic) theory. The question is whether they work in reality. In the posts that follow, I will explore that question. I will suggest that More Than You Wanted to Know takes us further toward the truth—but cannot, as it stands, take us all the way there.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Introducing our Guest Blogger, Robin Kar's Coda to Our Virtual Symposium on More That You Wanted to Know
Professor Robin Kar is a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Illinois College of Law. He is a faculty affiliate of the Illinois Law and Philosophy Program, the Beckman Institute for Science and Technology (in the Cognitive Psychology Research Group), the Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and he Social Sciences, and the Illinois Network for Neurocultures. He is Director of the Illinois Center for Interdisciplinary and Comparative Jurisprudence, and a Project Leader for the Illinois Program on Cultures of Law in Global Contexts. He has a PhD in philosophy, with a special focus on moral psychology, moral, legal and social philosophy, meta-ethics, rational choice and game theory, and the foundations of economics and the social sciences. Some of his work on moral psychology, the psychology of obligation, and the nature of law and legal obligation can be found in pieces like The Deep Structure of Law and Morality, The Psychological Foundations of Human Rights, Hart’s Response to Exclusive Legal Positivism, and The Two Faces of Morality.
Readers of the blog are also likely already familiar with Professor Kar’s recent SSRN Top Ten hits on contract law and theory, Contract as Empowerment: A New Theory of Contract and Contract as Empowerment Part II: Harmonizing the Case Law, along with his piece The Challenge of Boilerplate. Kar teaches contract law and wide array of jurisprudence and legal theory courses, including seminars like morals, markets and the law.
Professor Kar’s posts serve as a sort of coda to our our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Professor Kar will present his argument in four parts:
Part I: The Proverbial “Egg” suggests that three ungrounded premises of the classical law and economics movement have often caused many people to think that mandatory disclosure regimes have an unwarranted degree of support.
Part II: Breaking Out of the Shell describes More Than You Wanted to Know as emerging from the classical law and economics paradigm but as able to challenge one of its central dogmas because it is willing to depart from two of the three core assumptions associated with that classical tradition. The book seeks to answer psychological and empirical questions based on real psychological and empirical research rather than ungrounded psychological premises and abstract theoretical modeling. This explains why the book is better able to track the truth about mandatory disclosure regimes.
Part III: What Is This Emerging New Life? outlines a better and even more broadly interdisciplinary paradigm that Professor Kar sees as potentially emerging from these developments. This research program would draw not only on psychological and empirical research to answer any psychological and empirical questions relevant to contract and consumer protection law but also on a broader range of philosophical methods of argumentation to answer any normative questions relevant to these topics. Part III argues that further development toward this interdisciplinary collaboration is needed for contract law studies to better track the truth.
Part IV: Discarding the Last Remnants of the Old Shell suggests that we still have a way to go in freeing ourselves from the limitations of the classical law and economics paradigm. It describes how this problem still causes many scholars to ask the wrong normative questions when asking how best to reform consumer protection law—as illustrated both by More Than You Wanted to Know and many of the responses to it in this symposium. This has led to an increase in knowledge about the psychological and empirical facts, but even more uncertainty and less consensus over how best to reform consumer protection law in light of them. This problem can only be fully addressed by attending better to the right normative questions.
So what are the right normative questions, you ask? Stay tuned to find out!
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Below are links to the posts in our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Introducing the Virtual Symposium on "More That You Wanted to Know" (The authors' introduction)
More Than You Needed to Know Symposium: The First Six (Introducing the first six contributors)
More Than You Needed to Know Symposium: The Next Five (Introducing the second group of five contributors)
Thanks to all who participated!
Monday, September 29, 2014
The NYT had an article about e-cigarette label warnings today that was eerily appropriate given our symposium on Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider's book, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. The reporter must have been following our blog symposium and seems to have come up with an example that supports the arguments made by Ben-Shahar and Schneider. The article explains how big tobacco companies have been putting warning labels on their e-cigarette packages that are more extensive than those on their tobacco cigarettes. There are several possible explanations for why they are doing this, ranging from the least cynical (they want to be good corporate citizens) to the more cynical (they are trying to set up their smaller e-cigarette competitors for later regulation, possibly reduce demand for e-cigs to boost sales of tobacco cigs, and protect themselves from liability).
I tend to be in the more cynical camp. Big tobacco companies are both attempting to protect themselves from liability by setting forth as many potential dangers of their product as they can, and they are positioning e-cigarettes as "just as" dangerous, if not more, than plain old tobacco cigarettes. The article notes something that readers of the book and blog already know - the disclosures have little effect on consumer purchasing decisions because nobody reads them. The strategy of big tobacco supports the arguments made by Ben Shahar and Schneider that disclosure hurts rather than helps consumers except there's one crucial difference - the companies are putting these extensive disclosures on the labels themselves. They are not mandated. By voluntarily disclosing the harms of e-cigs, big tobacco companies both protect themselves from liability and avert regulation. Doing away with mandated disclosure wouldn't prevent this kind of strategic selective disclosure --selective and strategic in the sense that these companies are only forthcoming with certain products and with certain types of disclosure. It's revealing that one of the companies claiming that e-cigarettes warrant more extensive disclosure than their tobacco counterparts is RJ Reynolds, which succesfully sued the FDA to prevent mandated graphic warnings on cigarette packages.
So - the battle about disclosure continues to rage....
After reading our book and the blogs about it, you are surely in danger of hearing more than you want to know and even more surely apprehensive about a response in which we battle and bicker point by point. Our critics have described our thesis accurately: More Than You Wanted To Know does argue that mandated disclosure is the most common and least successful form of regulation today, that it cannot be fixed, and that it does more harm than good. But our critics puzzle us in some basic ways we will briefly explore.
Our objection to mandated disclosure is not an objection to information. People need information, seek it, and commonly use it wisely, especially when they want and even enjoy it. Advertising would not thrive were people indifferent to information, nor would libraries, newspapers, universities, or Google. But mandated disclosure is not just about information; it is a regulatory technique that directs quite particular kinds of information at quite particular times in quite particular ways. It aspires to give people information they did not seek and do not like to use. Information they often find irrelevant to their decision. Information that is often repellently complex and baffling. Information that thus requires training to use well. All this while people are contending with counterparties who are well informed and have interests of their own.
Our critics in this symposium and elsewhere widely acknowledge the strength of our core arguments that mandated disclosure’s record is poor and its challenges great. In area after area, mandated disclosure’s history is the same: high hopes that people will be liberated from ignorance, made at last truly autonomous, and led to improved decisions. In area after area, able and thoughtful people have labored decade after decade to realize these hopes. After all these years, those hopes are still thwarted. One might have expected, then, that all this thought and effort and ability would be turned to seeking better regulatory methods and persuading law-makers to use them. Instead, two responses are common: One is to argue that disclosure will work if only we can at last learn to do it better; the other is to shift the goals of disclosure from helping people make choices to more general benefits more indirectly achieved.
For example, immense creativity has been harnessed to solve the problem of conveying complex information to people ill-situated to interpret it. We devote a chapter in the book to arguing that simplification—the deus ex machina of contemporary disclosurism—has not only disappointed its advocates’ eager hopes, it has barely budged the meter. True, there are always more techniques to try, like Ryan Calo’s “visceral” disclosures, Bar-Gill’s “use pattern” disclosure, or Porat-Strahilevitz’ “personalized” disclosures. These might succeed where others failed, but let’s make sure we understand how formidable their task is and how discouraging the history of such efforts has been.
Take Lauren Willis’ example of the CARD Act’s simplified disclosure, a payment “nudge” invented in the era of “smart” disclosure to prompt debtors to pay balances faster. Willis—one the most sophisticated critics of disclosures in consumer law—calls this regime successful even while recognizing that its benefits are not “dramatic.” How undramatic can benefits be before we stop advocating simplified disclosure? A recent study based on government data finds few cardholders responded to this nudge, that those who did saved only $24 on average, and that the total effect of this disclosure reform was $71 million annualized savings. In a $750 billion market, this benefit is so undramatic that we doubt it’s worth its design costs. (Luckily, the CARD Act did more than simplify disclosure. It also limited fees and saved consumers—especially lower income people—many billions of dollars.)
Can disclosure serve other goals than improving people’s decisions? Can it “improve accountability”? Can firms be deterred from bad conduct even if disclosures go unread? If disclosure helps the government improve enforcement actions, then the answer is yes. But now we are talking about a different regulatory animal, where information is reported to the government and used as a baseline for command and control, like enforcing emission standards or collecting taxes. When, instead, disclosure is targeted at the public, does it improve accountability? Hospital report cards have almost no detectable effect on the quality of medical care, but hospitals worried for their reputation seem to be sending high-risk patients (especially minorities) away. How is that for accountability? What evidence is there that campaign-finance disclosure reduces money’s corruption of politics? Or that Miranda stops police coercion? Instead of sanitizing public life, disclosure is often a fig leaf to make disreputable behavior acceptable. The rich buy influence—and file their disclosures. Police, as Stuntz shows, use abusive tactics—and recite Miranda warnings. Lenders lure gullible borrowers into disastrous debt—and making everything kosher with their neat stack of disclosures.
While our critics are rich in new refinements on disclosure and in new purposes for disclosure to serve, they are not rich in responses to one of our central concerns: that mandated disclosure is incompatible with basic features of human nature, with the way that people live their lives and make their decisions. Unless human nature changes or people live differently, refinements in mandated disclosure can do little and new purposes for mandated disclosure will be increasingly peripheral.
So what do we propose instead? We propose a moratorium on mandated disclosure because we want real problems to be addressed with real solutions. Are credit card fees obnoxious? Regulate them. Are medical charges unconscionable? Face up to the perplexities of medical costs. Do firms cheat customers? Punish them. Do conflicts of interest distort incentives? Decide whether the distortion is great enough to justify prohibiting the conflict. All these solutions are politically hard, and some of them may be politically unattainable. But is that a good reason to encourage law-makers to persist in solutions that, while politically feasible, don’t work?
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Ben-Shahar & Schneider Symposium Part XI B: David Vladeck, Living in a Post-Disclosure World, Part B
This is the eleventh in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
David C. Vladeck is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches federal courts, civil procedure, administrative law, and a seminar on First Amendment litigation. Professor Vladeck recently returned to the law school after serving for nearly four years as the Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
This is the second of a two-part post. The first can be found here.
My commentary on More Than You Needed to Know picks up where Ben-Shahar and Schneider’s critique of mandatory disclosure leaves off; that is, how to reform the process to move to less bad disclosure regimes.
I have three modest points: In yesterday’s post, I argued that there are disclosure regimes that work. We should explore them to see why. In today’s post, I will argue that there are tools that can be used to address some of the flaws that Omri and Carl rightly identify and criticize. They must be employed. Finally, my tenure at the FTC taught me that mandatory disclosures are often an effective way to ensure accountability. That virtue is worth exploiting.
2. Fix disclosures. As Omri and Carl point out, disclosures often fail because they are designed to fail. True, but that state of affairs is not inevitable. Legislatures and regulatory agencies can mandate that disclosures do just that: Convey important information to consumers concisely, in plain English, and at the right moment, and nothing more.
Let’s do a thought experiment with privacy policies, which are rightly the poster child for disclosures that go unread. Let’s assume that companies were forced to abide by the following simple rules:
(2) Tell consumers what they need to know and nothing else. Next, imagine that the policies stated clearly and concisely the uses to which one’s personal data would be put. No other statement would be permitted, especially the long prefatory comments about how much the company really “cares” about your privacy. And no prevarication would be permitted. If the data will be given or sold to a third party, that fact – along with the identity of the third parties (and affiliates) and the uses the third party would put the data – would have to be disclosed. If the company wants to reserve the right to sell the data as it sees fit, the company would have to disclose in bold letters: “We reserve the right to sell your personal data to whomever we want!”
(3) Make the legal disclaimers and boilerplate a separate “disclosure”. Most privacy policies are incomprehensible because they are written by lawyers expert in what Senator Elizabeth Warren calls the art of “wordbarf” (her term, not mine) and focus mainly on disclaiming legal liability, not on “disclosing” the key information.
(5) Make sure that there is a robust default. Disclosure regimes are too often stand-alone efforts to regulate, employed as a sop to beat back efforts to impose more stringent regulation. Default rules are often needed so that if the disclosure fails, the presumption should be that the default rule remains in place.
I could go on. But you see my point. Today most disclosures are carefully engineered by lawyers and experts on human behavior not to be read, or to be discounted because of other claims more prominently displayed. If you want to see how sophisticated these obfuscation efforts can be, take a look at FTC v. Commerce Planet, Inc., 878 F. Supp. 2d 1048, 1068-72 (C.D. Cal. 2012), a fraud case involving the adequacy of buried disclosures that were contradicted by other far more prominent claims.
If we are going to reclaim disclosures, those techniques will have to be reined in by more than enforcement cases by the FTC and state agencies. More important, we must focus on making disclosures comprehensible and addressing the “indifference” problem that Omni and Carl describe. Professor Oren Bar-Gill’s book, Seduction by Contract, argues that more effective disclosures could be designed to enhance consumer welfare. And the FTC’s work on disclosures holds some promise. Look at, for example, the FTC’s work on Dot.Com disclosures available here.
3. Disclosures to ensure accountability. There is a long history of mandatory disclosures in the United States. For instance, even before there was an FDA, Congress mandated that food labels identify the name of the food, the food’s ingredients, the net weight of the food, and the name and address of the manufacturer. The requirement was intended to aid consumers in making purchasing decisions. But more than that, the requirement was intended to give law enforcement agencies a hook to bring enforcement cases in the event that the food was misbranded. When Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938, it carried forward these requirements, and they remain in force today.
The same of course is true with the Federal Trade Commission Act’s longstanding prohibition on deceptive acts and practices. Without disclosure regimes, many mandated by law, the FTC’s enforcement authority would be a shell of what it is today, as would be the case for State Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices statutes.
My point here isn’t to claim that disclosure regimes should ordinarily be imposed to serve only as accountability mechanisms. How to inject greater accountability into the marketplace is an issue that extends far beyond the scope of Omri and Carl’s wonderful book. Instead, it is to make the more modest claim that even if, as Omri and Carl demonstrate, disclosure regimes generally fail to inform, they often serve the collateral purpose of enabling law enforcement agencies, and at times private parties, to hold sellers accountable for their claims.
* * *
Let me end where I began. The Failure of Mandated Disclosure is a must-read book for anyone who cares about consumer protection, contract law, and an informed marketplace. To me, the book throws down the gauntlet to anyone who is willing to defend the status quo. I doubt that anyone will pick that gauntlet up. But if we agree that the status quo is indefensible, we need to figure how either to live in a post-disclosure world or how to improve disclosures to the point that some of Omri and Carl’s criticisms no longer stick. That is our challenge. I for one am not ready to surrender to a post-disclosure marketplace, especially when we have not yet really focused on designing and enforcing effective disclosure mandates.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Ben-Shahar & Schneider Symposium Part XI A: David Vladeck, Living in a Post-Disclosure World, Part A
This is the eleventh in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
David C. Vladeck is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches federal courts, civil procedure, administrative law, and a seminar on First Amendment litigation. Professor Vladeck recently returned to the law school after serving for nearly four years as the Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
This is the first of a two-part post.
Living in a Post-Disclosure World?: The Challenge of The Failure of Mandated Disclosure
The title of Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider’s new book, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure, is perfectly apt; the book did tell me far more about the failings in mandated disclosures than I wanted to know. But to be fair, I was warned. The “disclosure” in the title put me on notice that I would learn “more than I wanted to know,” and the authors kept their promise, proving, perhaps in tension with their title, that disclosures sometimes work.
This is a book worth reading. The authors ably stake out and defend their thesis. They carefully, cogently, and at times, ardently make the argument that mandated disclosure regimes are destined to fail. Too many disclosures lead to overload. Too many disclosures are incomprehensible - written in leaden language, laden with disclaimers, and comprehensible only by people with multiple doctorate degrees. But what really dooms disclosures is indifference – a curse for which there is no cure. While improvements around the margins may be possible, the authors contend that engaging in the quixotic effort to fix unfixable mandated disclosure regimes is a fool’s errand. Instead, we should move to better and more effective regulatory regimes in those instances where they are really needed.
Make no mistake; Omri and Carl are not corporatists who want to leverage corporate power over consumers. Their intentions are pure and good. They care deeply about promoting consumer welfare. But, in their view, our current disclosure regime does the opposite: It is a ruse that promises consumer protection but delivers nothing more than an illusion. There is, of course, a great deal of truth in the authors’ critique of mandatory disclosure regimes. Few, if anyone, will defend the status quo. I certainly will not. I share most, if not all, of the criticisms that the authors rightly train on mandatory disclosure regimes. And I wholeheartedly endorse their view that disclosure and more disclosure, as a politically expedient compromise, often prevents needed regulation.
But I do not accept the pessimism that runs through the book. Reading it, I was reminded of the quip about democracy – which “ is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In some respects, disclosure mandates are the worst form of consumer protection tools. But for some things, disclosures serve important interests. Disclosures cannot simply be abandoned; we need to preserve them where appropriate, we certainly need to figure out how to do them better, and we need to stop using disclosure regimes as a substitute for needed regulation. For this reason, I’ll pick up where the book leaves off; that is, how to reform the process to move to less bad disclosure regimes.
I have three modest points: In today’s post I will argue that there are disclosure regimes that work. We should explore them to see why. In my second post, I will argue that there are tools that can be used to address some of the flaws that Omri and Carl rightly identify and criticize. They must be employed. Finally, my tenure at the FTC taught me that mandatory disclosures are often an effective way to ensure accountability. That virtue is worth exploiting.
1. Success stories: There is no question some mandatory disclosure schemes work. A number of health warnings have succeeded. For instance, no one would seriously challenge the success of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 in substantially reducing life-threatening allergic reactions to foods. Nor would one take issue with the success of poison-prevention programs that rely on Skull and Crossbones warnings. Perhaps the most dramatic success story is the virtual elimination of Reye’s syndrome in children in the United States as a result of mandatory labeling of aspirin-containing products. Reye’s syndrome is a rare and potentially fatal condition affecting children and adolescents. The syndrome attacks the brain and liver, and about half of those afflicted die, with many more suffering severe and irreversible brain damage. By the late 1970s, strong evidence emerged that there was an association between Reye’s syndrome, and children and teenagers taking aspirin-containing products to treat flu like symptoms and chicken pox. I was a lawyer at Public Citizen Litigation Group when we brought suit to compel the FDA in 1986 to amend the labeling of all aspirin-containing products to warn parents of the association. The litigation took a few years, but ultimately succeeded in forcing the FDA to put this warning on aspirin-containing products: “Children and teenagers who have or are recovering from chicken pox or flu-like symptoms should not use this product. When using this product, if changes in behavior with nausea and vomiting occur, consult a doctor because these symptoms could be an early sign of Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious illness.” The statistics are striking. “In 1977, 454 cases of Reye’s syndrome were reported in the United States. Of the 373 cases with follow-up, 42% of these patients died, and 11% survived with residual neurologic damage. Incidence was increased with viral epidemics, especially influenza B and varicella. Reye’s syndrome cases in the U.S. numbered 555 in 1980, but they have fallen drastically. From 1994 until 1997, identified cases in the U.S. were fewer than two per year.” Lisa Degnan, Reye’s Syndrome: A Rare But Serious Pediatric Condition, U.S. Pharmacist.
To be sure, there are a number of factors that one could argue make these examples aberrational: they involve matters of life and death; they generally involve young children or other vulnerable populations; and with the food allergen legislation and the Reye’s syndrome warning, the risks were conveyed not just by warnings, but by broader publicity and public education. And the industry has become more sensitive to these risks. For instance, most children’s pain relievers no longer contain aspirin (although some do), and some manufacturers have reformulated their products to reduce the use of food dyes, nuts, and other known allergens. All fair points. But the publicity surrounding Reye’s syndrome has disappeared over the past thirty years, as has the buzz surrounding children’s allergies. Yet Reye’s syndrome has been virtually eliminated, and the risk of allergic reactions triggered by food allergens has been driven down.
Why did these disclosure schemes work? I think that there are a number of reasons. First, people are not indifferent to immediate life-threatening health issues, especially for their children. Second, these disclosures were just that - disclosures written in short, highly directive language, geared to people with no more than an elementary school education. Third, the disclosures were not drowned in a sea of disclaimers, which is often the fatal flaw. Fourth, the disclosures were properly labeled – the disclosure did in fact convey important health information. Fifth, the disclosures were provided just in time – just when the consumer is making a purchase, and not in a pile of paper in the box to be viewed at some point after the purchasing decision. And sixth, the disclosures were part of a broader education campaign and were backed up by a strong regulatory scheme.
Tune in tomorrow for Part B.
This is the tenth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Jeff Sovern is a Professor of Law at St. John’s University in New York City where he teaches Consumer Protection, among other subjects.
Ben-Shahar’s and Schneider’s book convincingly demonstrates that disclosures are rarely effective consumer protections. But there is one type of consumer disclosure where, in my view, at least, the jury is still out, though I think Ben-Shahar and Schneider feel differently. I refer to the single-letter restaurant grade disclosures that some states and municipalities require be posted on restaurant doors. I want to discuss those disclosures in this post, in the hope that they can also be extended to other situations.
Localities have long inspected restaurants for health code violations. In the pre-internet era, the resulting reports were often available for public inspection in government offices, but no doubt few consumers troubled to travel to those offices to read them. When the internet became available, some municipalities posted the reports on the web, and some consumers surely consulted them, but it seems likely that few bothered. As a result, there is no reason to think the inspections had much impact on consumer decisions about which restaurants to patronize. At some point, Los Angeles, later joined by New York City, San Diego, South Carolina, and various other governments, began distilling the grades down to a single letter grade—often an A,B, or a C--and requiring restaurants to display them at their entrances. Theoretically, enabling consumers to see a readily-understandable disclosure at the time they made a decision to enter the restaurant would make it possible for consumers to use the disclosure.
As Ben-Shahr and Schneider note at page 155, initial reports about restaurant grades were quite positive. Hospitalizations for food-borne illnesses in Los Angeles fell by 20% while the later adoption in New York was said to cut salmonella cases by 14%.Apparently, restaurateurs, not wanting to have a bad grade on their front door, improved hygiene. The resulting improvements benefited not only those who heeded the grades—by telling them which restaurants were less clean—but seemingly even those who ignored the grades, because restaurants became cleaner. It seemed like the perfect disclosure, in that it appeared all restaurant patrons were helped by it.
But a later study was less promising. Daniel Ho’s article, Fudging the Nudge: Information Disclosure and Restaurant Grading, 122 Yale L. J. 574 (2012), found, in Ben-Shahar’s and Schneider’s words that “grades have no discernable health benefits, distort the allocation of inspection resources, and mislead diners.” While Ben-Shahar and Schneider don’t say explicitly that single letter grading is a failure, the book left me, at least, with the impression that that was the authors’ view, which of course is in keeping with the rest of the disclosures the book describes. While Ben-Shahar & Schneider quite rightly point out genuine problems with single-letter grading, I believe that it is premature to conclude that it can’t work in some contexts. It would be unfortunate if governments abandoned a form of disclosure that might work merely because many other forms do not.
Ho’s claim that restaurant grades do not affect health is based on his findings that the grades did not have an impact on calls to 311 and Google searches. The assumption is that people suffering stomach issues from eating at unclean restaurants would use Google for relevant searches and that therefore if the grades resulted in fewer stomach ailments, we would see fewer such searches; because the searches didn’t decline, neither did the incidence of illnesses caused by eating at restaurants. Similarly, if people suffered gastrointestinal problems they attributed to eating at unclean restaurants, they could be expected to call 311 and report the restaurant; the absence of a drop in calls about restaurant therefore implies that there was not a drop in stomach problems.
That makes sense, up to a point. But all it gets us to, when the earlier studies are taken into account, is that the evidence for the effectiveness of single-letter disclosure grades is inconsistent. The bigger problem, however, is that while the studies may provide the best evidence we have available at present to evaluate single-letter disclosures, they are flawed as measures of such disclosures. Changes in public health during the relevant periods may be attributable to many things, of which the restaurant grades are only one. Obviously, people who become ill through eating foods prepared at home would not be affected by restaurant grades. But even if we ignore that, another problem is that consumers may find the disclosures useful even if the disclosures do not improve public health.
I teach in New York City, one of the localities using health department grades. For some years, when I take up the topic of disclosure in my consumer law course, I have asked students whether they take the health grade disclosures into account in choosing among restaurants. Usually a minority of students report that they do not. It is fair, I think, to say that those students do not benefit from the grades, unless the grades positively alter restaurateur conduct, which, as noted above, they may. But most students have claimed that they do take the grades into account. And their concern did not seem motivated solely by health concerns, though that was a factor. Another factor was disgust. Some students seem interested in avoiding unclean restaurants wholly apart from health concerns because they are repulsed by eating insect parts, etc.
The students I have polled are too small a sample to shed much light on consumer behavior generally, and as law students who have chosen to take a consumer law class, are hardly a random sample of the population. In addition, perhaps my students exaggerated the extent to which they paid attention to the grades. But I don’t think so. During one of the semesters, the cafeteria in our school received a poor grade, and students reported that they stopped eating there. I doubt they would have invented that claim. And because our building is some distance from the other eateries, the decision to avoid the cafeteria imposed some inconvenience, suggesting that the students in question valued cleanliness and the grades which signaled the lack thereof more than the convenience of eating in the cafeteria.
In short, even if the grades did not affect public health, about which there is some doubt, consumers could still find them valuable by enabling avoidance of behavior—such as eating food shared by rodents—that they see as repulsive. This does not answer the question of whether the grades are worth incurring the costs they impose, but it does indicate that the grades have utility.
To be sure, some existing restaurant grade systems have been flawed in implementation. Professor Ho observed, and Professors Ben-Shahar and Schneider echoed, that in San Diego, grade inflation has resulted in 99.9% of the restaurants receiving an A. In New York, they report, restaurant inspectors grading practices seem not to be consistent. But that does not mean that similar grading systems cannot be implemented well. Perhaps they can’t be, but we don’t have enough data to determine that.
It is easy to imagine other single-letter grading systems that might benefit consumers. For example, now that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a public database for the receipt of complaints about credit card issuers, a system could assign a grade to credit card companies based on the percentage of their customers who had filed a complaint that was not satisfactorily resolved. The grade could be made available to consumers before they applied for a credit card. Would you like to know the grade a company had received before you applied for its credit card? And would such a system increase company incentives to respond to consumer complaints, or even try to forestall them, just as consumers feel pressure to pay even disputed debts to avoid soiling their credit reports?
More than most, law professors should be aware of the possibility that grades boiled down to a single symbol might be effective. Law schools have long bemoaned the impact of the US News rankings on applicants’ decisions where to go. The US News rankings are flawed, but they have an impact. To the extent that it is possible to create grades that are not flawed, they remain a tool in the consumer protection arsenal. Of course, the fact that grades work in one context doesn’t mean they will work in all contexts. Consumers might heed restaurant grades—if they do--because they wish to avoid illness or being disgusted and applicants to law schools might pay attention to the rankings because they perceive decisions as to where to study to be of great importance. Perhaps grades in contexts with less at stake would elicit less attention. And some matters surely cannot be reduced to a single grade, such as determinations about which mortgage offers the best terms. In that scenario, disclosure, whether in a single grade or at greater length, seems unlikely to be successful.
The fact is, we don’t know whether single letter grades work or not. A better test of their effectiveness would be to watch how consumers behave when selecting between two choices which received different grades. The data that we have is an imperfect proxy for that study, and it is far too soon to know whether they work. Ben-Shahar and Schneider are correct in much of what they say about disclosure’s limits. But it would be unfortunate to give up on single-letter grades given the evidence which suggests that they may help consumers.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
This is the ninth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Daniel Schwarcz is an Associate Professor of Law and the Solly Robins Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School and he comes to us fresh form his star turn on NPR's Planet Money.
Note: This response draws from my article, Transparently Opaque: Understanding the Lack of Transparency in Insurance Consumer Protection, 61 UCLA Law Review 394 (2014)
More Than You Wanted to Know is clearly an important, persuasive, and meticulously researched book. Its core claim is that mandatory disclosure is an oft-used regulatory technique that has repeatedly failed to help individuals make better decisions in complex and unfamiliar settings. More controversially, Ben-Shahar and Schneider argue that this failing of mandatory disclosure is largely insurmountable, because most people (i) have little reason to read disclosed information in the first place, (ii) cannot understand such information even when they want to, and (iii) are unable to translate such information into better decision-making. Although I ultimately believe that Ben-Shahar and Schneider are overly pessimistic about the capacity of modernized disclosures (such as the mortgage disclosure composed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) to improve decision-making, their skepticism on this front is both reasonable and persuasively defended.
Nonetheless, More Than You Wanted to Know suffers from an important limitation, in my view. Until its final few pages, the book almost entirely ignores the possibility that mandatory disclosures may help to achieve regulatory objectives in ways that do not depend on their ability to directly help individuals make better decisions. In fact, most of the book seems to have been written on the assumption that mandatory disclosure can only work if disclosees generally read, understand, and use disclosures. (Ben-Shahar and Schneider explicitly say as much on page 34). But disclosures that make relevant information more readily available to the public – either by requiring the production of new information or by making existing information more easily and cheaply accessible – may deter over-reaching by firms, improve the accuracy of prices, or indirectly facilitate more informed decision-making even if they do not directly improve decision-making among most potential recipients of disclosure.
First, mandatory disclosure can discourage firms from embracing potentially objectionable strategies in the first place, because doing so raises the risk of substantial reputational or regulatory consequences. For instance, Ben-Shahar and Schneider criticize hygiene-grade requirements for restaurants on the basis that they do not empower consumers to choose less risky eating establishments. But this claim is not necessarily inconsistent with evidence suggesting that such grades reduce food-borne illness by inducing food establishments to take more care (though the evidence here is indeed mixed). This is hardly the only instance where Ben-Shahar and Schneider criticize disclosure strategies that can have important benefits by enhancing accountability and deterring misconduct, rather than by helping individuals make better decisions. A non-exclusive list of additional examples includes mandatory disclosure of (i) campus crime, (ii) graduation and placement statistics, and (iii) hospital report cards. Further examples of mandatory disclosures that can deter overreaching or misconduct, but which Ben-Shahar and Schneider do not extensively discuss, include mandatory disclosure in the contexts of (i) environmental regulation, (ii) campaign finance law, and (iii) mortgage discrimination.
Second, mandatory disclosure that increases the public accessibility of relevant information can improve the accuracy of prices. This, of course, is the primary rationale for mandatory disclosure in securities markets. Thus, when Ben-Shahar and Schneider criticize mandatory disclosure in securities regulation because most investors don’t read prospectuses, they miss their mark. As above, mandatory disclosure in securities regulation is important even though most investors do not read or understand prospectuses because information contained therein impacts the price of securities due to trading by market arbitragers. Although the link between mandatory disclosure and price accuracy is best illustrated in the context of securities regulation, other examples abound. For instance, mandates requiring home-sellers to disclose relevant information in response to standardized forms may help ensure that the price of a property more accurately reflects its market value.
Third, mandatory disclosure can improve individual decision-making indirectly, by empowering consultants, information intermediaries, and computer programs to provide tailored advice to individuals. Thus, the true promise of “smart disclosure” is not that computer programs will provide relevant disclosures to specific consumers (which is how Ben-Shahar and Schneider describe it), but that they will provide precisely the type of personalized advice that Ben-Shahar and Schneider acknowledge to be so useful. Mandatory disclosure can play an especially vital role in facilitating smart disclosure by making standardized, computer-readable data publicly available to potential developers of these tools. This can dramatically decrease costs for those who might develop smart disclosure tools – such as entrepreneurs and public interest groups – and thus enhance competition and market entry in this domain.
In contrast to their meticulous and empirically-grounded (though perhaps unduly pessimistic) criticisms of disclosures’ capacity to directly improve individual decision-making, Ben-Shahar and Schneider’s responses to the above points are unconvincing and under-developed (as reflected by the fact that they only emerge in the book’s final ten pages). Their primary retort is that mandatory disclosure is not needed to make information more broadly available to the public, because those who would make use of such information can acquire it without the need for government mandates. But this largely misses the point, which is that mandatory disclosure can make relevant information more easily and cheaply available to market intermediaries, academics, journalists, lawmakers, public interest groups, and developers of “smart disclosure” tools. This, in turn, can enhance the capacity of these actors to police against market misconduct, improve market efficiency, and/or provide more informed personalized advice. To be sure, the magnitude of these effects is an empirical question that is context-dependent. But there are good reasons to believe that Ben-Shahar and Schneider’s pessimism in this domain is excessive. In any event, in contrast to most of the book’s claims, this pessimism is surely not empirically grounded, as illustrated by the absence of any supporting citations for the arguments they develop on this front in the book’s final chapter.
Ben-Shahar and Schneider also suggest at several points that there is a tension between using mandatory disclosure to enhance the public availability of information and using it to directly improve individuals’ decision-making. Not so. Mandatory disclosures that are principally aimed at enhancing accountability, empowering market intermediaries, or improving market efficiency can and should be distinct from mandatory disclosures that are meant to repackage and summarize information so as to improve decision-making. This point is illustrated by the coexistence of full and summary securities prospectuses, or by the coexistence of summary disclosures of credit card terms and a public database containing the complete contracts of all credit card providers.
Ultimately, the capacity of mandatory disclosures to increase accountability, improve market efficiency, or indirectly enhance the accuracy of personalized advice is substantially dependent on context. So too, in my view, is the capacity of mandatory disclosure to improve decision-making. For instance, my reading of the evidence on nutritional labels is that they can indeed substantially improve consumer decision-making, even if this occurs less often or consistently than would be ideal. For these reasons, I believe that Ben-Shahar and Schneider go too far in condemning mandatory disclosure as a regulatory tool in virtually all settings. Nonetheless, the evidence they canvass and the arguments they develop provide valuable insight both as to the limits of mandatory disclosure and to the difficulties involved in designing and implementing them effectively.
Ben-Shahar & Schneider Symposium, Part VIII: Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, Even More Thank You Wanted To Know
This is the eighth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Biographies for the second week's contributors can be found here. The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.
Florencia Marotta-Wurgler is a professor of law at New York University School of Law.
This review of Professors Ben-Shahar and Schneider More Than You Wanted to Know, is based on my earlier review, titled “Even More Thank You Wanted To Know About the Failures of Mandated Disclosure, which is forthcoming in the Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies.
The book offers an important and compelling critique of the many forms of disclosure regulation and explain why the problems cannot be fixed. According to the authors, successful disclosure regulation depends on the simultaneous success of too many factors. Disclosers must reveal the right type of information, in the right format, and at the right time; and, of course, individuals must read, understand, and use this information in a way that enables them to make the right decision. The authors claim that this just doesn’t happen. Somewhere along the line, the process breaks down. For example, evidence shows that individuals don’t read fine print and, even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t be able to read it because disclosures are usually long, complex, and hard to understand.
Instead of reading disclosures and making choices, the authors argue, what consumers really want is advice—in the form of ratings, rankings, scores, and the like. They observe that current opinion services, such as TripAdvisor and the reviews in Amazon.com, don’t need disclosure regulation because they function properly on their own. (The authors note that consultants do this, too, but that they are unreliable.) They conclude by urging regulators to quit insisting on the failed recipe of mandatory disclosure and resist the urge to replace it with something else. This will leave much-needed room for alternative mechanisms to emerge that can more effectively address specific problems associated with imperfect information.
While I certainly agree with the main premise that disclosure regulation in its current form is of almost no value (see here and here), I must push back on the claim that information intermediaries function properly on their own to supply the right type of information that consumers want. [In the full review, I also offer new evidence in support of the authors’ claim that disclosures tend to get worse over time using an analysis of a sample of consumer standard form contracts that reveals changes in contract and disclosure practices from 2003 until 2010. While sellers broadly increased the disclosure of their contracts over these years, offsetting this improvement is a significant increase in the length of contracts, an increase in bias against consumers, and no improvement in readability. Indeed, contracts that became more accessible have a particular tendency to grow longer and more one-sided.]
On Ratings, Rankings, and Information Intermediaries.
After enumerating all the problems with disclosure regulation. Ben-Shahar and Schneider posit that information intermediaries are able to supply the type of information that consumers want and need (“ratings, rankings, scores, grades, labels, and reviews”) without the need for mandatory disclosure. While this last point might be debatable—especially when it comes to “use pattern” disclosures—relying on advice, ratings and rankings to inform individuals about fine print suffers from a number of the same maladies the authors identify with mandatory disclosure. In particular, they assume that people will care enough to actively seek them out, understand them and use them wisely; that they will convey the right type of information, and that they will be produced well and not suffer from some of the problems and conflicts that trouble disclosure regulation.
Evidence suggests, like in disclosure regimes, that these conditions are rarely met. Take “user generated” rankings and reviews, such as Amazon.com (products), Expedia (hotels), and Yelp (merchants), which the authors use examples of well-functioning information intermediaries. An encouraging fact is that positive ratings affect sales, suggesting that consumers rely on them in making decisions about which goods or services to buy. This is a clear improvement over mandatory disclosure and enough to pursue further consideration. The problem, though, is that user-generated reviews can by systematically biased, noisy, and thus not very reliable. For example, there is evidence that reviews tend to become increasingly negative as ratings environments mature. Two experiments also show that reviewers tend to adjust their evaluations based on reviews previously written by others. There is the problem of shill reviews. These behaviors introduce noise and bias and offer no panacea or an obvious improvement in consumer decision-making—the end objective here—over mandatory disclosure. Moreover, many reviews and rankings are used for one-dimensional decisions, such as whether to eat a particular restaurant or read a particular book, and might not convey much information about the quality or terms of the fine print.
On the other hand, expert-generated reports, like those in Consumer Reports, can get around some of the problems of user-generated reviews. Experts test and experience the good or service and pertinent standard form contract terms, and may also report some contract features (such as warranties) for big-ticket items. Specialized intermediaries, such as PrivacyChoice, The Fine Print Project, and FairContracts.org offer summarized reviews of the content of disclosures. Indeed, there are sites and blogs that seek to simplify fine print disclosures to consumers, including the terms in online privacy policies. Individuals who seek the opinion of experts might fare better in becoming informed about the nature of the goods and services they consider, including the fine print. Of course, these general evaluations would not help individuals in selecting products and services whose desirability depends on individual use patterns.
Unfortunately, even when (good) opinions data on fine print exist, there are still weak links in the chain of circumstances required for accurate consumer decision-making articulated by Ben-Shahar and Schneider. In particular, just as individuals fail to read fine print when it is disclosed, they do not seek out such specialized information intermediaries. In a study on consumer shopping for software online, for instance, only 0.1% of consumers accessed a software product review while shopping for software (which is essentially the same rate at which shoppers read disclosed end-user license agreements). Also, in a sample of over 48,000 shopping visits, not a single shopper visited any of the specialized sites that discuss contract terms, including EULAs and other fine print. The fact that millions of people access Amazon.com and TripAdvisor daily is not a defense here; this discussion concerns the likelihood that consumers will seek out advice on fine print, not the overall product itself.
This is not surprising. As the authors suggest in their book, this behavior might be perfectly rational. It might also be perfectly rational for reviewers to ignore the fine print. After all, it seems unlikely than an arbitration clause, or a restriction on reverse engineering, will affect an individual’s purchase decision. Whether and what to do about the terms that are ignored but which might affect substantive rights of individuals later is an important question that needs to be addressed, especially given the current challenges to class action litigation. What seems clear is that, just as disclosure, opinion ratings, while superior in some respects, might not offer a fully satisfying solution to this problem. Or at least not yet.
Overall, the book offers a comprehensive and compelling indictment against mandatory disclosure, the most popular regulatory technique in consumer protection. It is a terrific read and a much-needed contribution to existing debates on consumer protection. While there is no perfect solution to the problems of fine print, Ben-Shahar and Schneider offer new and thought-provoking ideas to move the debate forward.