June 28, 2006
Commons and Anticommons
I have been meaning to put a short post on this page about the marvelous conference that my colleague Lee Fennell and I held in Chicago in early June -- "The Future of the Commons and the Anticommons." It was a very small conference, but the discussions were terrific. Lee has put together a webpage, available here, of the conference readings, pictures, and audio-feeds of the six sessions. She has also arranged to have some very distinguished scholars who were not at the conference comment on some of the discussions. (See the "follow-up commentary" link.)
June 26, 2006
Spam, Third-Parties, "Penalize Me"
Of the 150 or so e-mails that I receive every day, my guess is that about 10 percent of them are spam -- for example, offers to take my fair share of $30 million that has been won in an African lottery and must, must be moved to a safe and secure bank account in the United States. Like you, I have tried some sophisticated ways of getting rid of spam, such as filters and rules. None of these is entirely satisfactory. The University of Illinois's spam filter gets a few egregious messages, but it lets most things through. The College of Law spam filter is overly zealous, tending to classify as a "Junk Suspect" any message without a subject heading but letting through any message, however slimy, with a subject heading. In the last couple of weeks the COL filter has proposed deleting messages from some of my oldest and dearest friends. When replying to them, I have to be careful to delete the "Junk Suspect" that the filter inserts in the subject heading. So, because neither of these filters is particularly effective, I have to watch what I delete carefully and must read the first couple of lines of most e-mails, even those that appear to be spam. There ought to be a better way.
Perhaps there is. Over the weekend I was in London. Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist, had an interesting column in The Financial Times Magazine ("Let's Get Personal," June 24.25, 20006) in which he proposes a market solution to the problem of spam. The gist of it is to enlist the help of third parties to screen our mail for us. He suggests that we "compile a dossier about ourselves and our families, including birthdays and anniversaries, favorite authors and music, need for loans or mortgages, and what big purchases are under consideration. We would own that information and could give it or even sell it to companies who wanted our business." In fact, he proposes that "information agents" would be willing to pay us for that information. In turn,they would then sell information from our dossiers to others -- specifically only to those businesses in which we might plausibly have an interest. The hope is that if we hadn't expressed an interest in helping African lottery winners to hide their winnings in the U.S., we would never hear from those fraudsters again.
To a very limited degree, something like Harford's scheme already exists. For instance, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, with both of whom I do a lot of business, send me unsolicited e-mails announcing new books by authors whose books I have bought in the past or that say something to the effect that "We notice that those who have purchased music by Waxen Wayne have also purchased music by Eban Flo." (There is a website called AuthorTracker that will automatically send you an announcement of new works by some of your favorite authors, so long as they are published by a certain publishing house.)
Actually, I like those messages. Several times these notes have lead me to good new authors or musicians, new books by trusted authors, or new musicians. But these are different from what Harford proposes. These are sellers who are plausibly using information you have already shared with them. Presumably one can opt out of this system, telling Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com that you do not want any further such notices.
I'm a little skeptical of the practicality of Harford's proposal to enlist third parties to serve as two-sided agents for us and for retailers (and others). It's not so much that this wouldn't be better than the current situation. We might get better tailoring of the junk e-mail that we receive under Harford's proposal. But I'm not sure that it would deter the purveyors of drugs, lottery schemes, and fraudsters.
I've always liked Ayres' and Nalebuff's proposal (available in a short radio-show format here) that all incoming e-mail have a "Penalize me" button. If it was unwanted e-mail, the recipient could hit the button; so doing would assess a five-cent penalty on the sender. (There would have to be a method, which Ayres and Nalebuff explain, for enforcing the fines.) Presumably this system would cause senders to think twice about mass mailings. Rather, they would be well-advised to tailor their mailing to receptive (and unlikely to penalize) audiences. So, the end result might be the same as Harford's, but I suspect that the Ayres-Nalebuff would be more practicable.
This "Penalize me" scheme needn't apply just to spammers. It could apply to ever sender. I have had some messages from colleagues for which I'd speedily have hit a "Penalize me" button. To avoid overinclusiveness, one could presumably set up and update a list of senders for whom one would be willing never to hit a "Penalize me" button. We can already do that for those who send graphical content -- a "Safe senders list." I'd love to be in the faculty meeting at which we debate whether all of our colleagues should presumptively be on that list of senders not to penalize.
June 24, 2006
IP -- James Joyce
Last week's New Yorker magazine (the June 19, 2006, issue) contained a fascinating article by D.T. Max entitled "The Injustice Collector: Is James Joyce's Grandson Suppressing Scholarship?" (You can find the article here.) The article raises some interesting issues that might be worth classroom or faculty lounge discussion. James Joyce's grandson, Stephen James Joyce, is in his mid-70s and lives on an island off the Atlantic Coast of France. He is an assiduous enforcer of the intellectual property (and other) rights of the James Joyce estate. He has made it almost impossible for Joyce scholars (for whom, as a group, he has very little regard) to look at the papers and letters that he controls or to quote from James Joyce's private letters or, in some cases, published works. Stephen has brought actions against scholars who have, he believes, used materials without permission or defamed his grandfather or grandmother or aunt. He sometimes appears at scholarly conferences on Joyce's work, creating some confusion and unease. Some Joyce scholars believe that Stephen's protection has inappropriately interfered with their ability to pursue their studies of Joyce and his work. And they are now fighting back. One of the scholars has enlisted Professor Larry Lessig of Stanford to help her fight Stephen's restrictions.
The dispute nicely frames the tension between the privacy interests that the Joyce family has in their materials and the public or scholarly desire to exam those materials for any light that they may throw on Joyce's work. Where should the line be drawn between those interests?
June 20, 2006
I'm late to the party for Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness (2006), but let me join in the celebration. It is a marvelous book. Gilbert, Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, writes gracefully and very, very wittily. There are many laugh-out-loud paragraphs. It's not at all easy to write about complicated scholarly matters for a general audience, but Gilbert has done so beautifully.
The central subject, which should be of interest to all those who follow law and economics, is the human mind's difficulties in accurately figuring out what will make us happy in the future. We have problems in what is called "affective forecasting," and Gilbert's tour of the literature explains not only why we have this problem but what we might do about it. The highest possible recommendation.
June 19, 2006
Abortion and crime
Steve Levitt has a wonderful post at the Freakonomics Blog on the relationship between abortion and crime. A reader had pointed out to him that the Alan Guttmacher Institute of Planned Parenthood reported that the abortion rate among whites fell from 19 per 1,000 women in 1991 to 11 per 1,000 women in 1999 and asked if that decline in abortion might mean an increase in live births and, therefore, more 18-year-old males in the decade beginning in 2010 and, therefore, more crime.
It's a fair question. I urge everyone interested to read Levitt's remarkably thoughtful post here. He elaborates on the central contention in the Donohue and Levitt article, saying that the key relationship between abortion and crime comes not so much through the simple relationship between the number of abortions and later crime but between the number of unwanted children and later crime. It's a marvelous response.
June 15, 2006
Empirical Methods in Law
I amback in the country now from Berlin, where I visited Humboldt University briefly. It seems that Tom U. read my mind. I had written to the CEO of this school system just the other day, proposing creation of an online course in applied methods in the law (with a collegue, who like me also holds graduate degree in mathemetics) for law professors. I see that Northwestern and some other places have a 2 day workshop for aspiring law professors. I had thought that this might be too short and had thought about doing a 3-4 month long class online that would teach basic econometric methods (including data mining) for law professors and others. We do not know pricing yet and if there will be much interest. But, essentially, I wanted to cover the material from A to Z for class participants nd not leave them with only an overview. An overview would be fine to read and have some comprehension of empirical work, but I thought we should go further and teach all the tools needed to do write empirical papers and works onself, from start to finish. Any thoughts?
June 13, 2006
Empirical Legal Studies Blog
I've just returned from a wonderful conference in Barcelona, where John Armour of the University of Cambridge told me about the Empirical Legal Studies Blog, which is available here. I don't think that there's much question that empirical legal studies is the most important development in the legal academy in the last five years. So, I'm thrilled to see this blog, which I recommend very, very highly.
This Fall my colleagues Jennifer Robbennolt, Bob Lawless, and I are teaching, for the first time, a course on empirical methods in law. We'll post our materials in the next month or so.
June 3, 2006
The near future
I've just figured out how to publish some of the extraordinarily good comments that you have been sending in and hope that readers will be sure to look at those.
I'm currently at a conference in Chicago organized by Lee Fennell and me entitled "The Future of the Commons and the Anticommons." Some of the most distinguished scholars of those topics are here, and we have had some spectacular discussions. I'll post briefly on some of those discussions in the next day or so. And within the next week or so, we'll be posting a podcast of the entire conference on the Illinois Program in Law and Economics website. I'll post a link to that podcast, to the reading materials for the conference, and to some commentary on the conference discussions that we intend to solicit.
European Law and Economics
I've just returned to Chicago from Switzerland. There I taught a short introduction to law and economics to the Faculty of Law at the University of St. Gallen. That University has just started a master's program in law and economics, largely due to the efforts of Professor Peter Nobel, who is not only a distinguished academic but also one of the most successful attorneys in Switzerland and Europe. Peter and the Faculty invited me to give them a brief course -- about 10 hours in three days -- on the field of law and economics.
The class was marvelous. When can you get 10 or so extremely busy, very bright, eager, but skeptical people to listen to what you have to say and to take it seriously? Not very often. In addition to being grateful to the Faculty of Law at St. Gallen for their attention to my talks, I was struck by a couple of things. First, the questions that they asked me about law and economics are exactly the questions that traditional U.S. law professors used to ask me in the early and mid-1980s, when law and economics was new in this country. For example, in the early 1980s my colleagues at the University of Illinois College of Law would ask me such questions as this: "Why are you economists in favor of labor market discrimination?" It is, incidentally, a real character-building exercise to answer such a question. In St. Gallen the law faculty asked me this rough equivalent: "Why does law and economics believe that a person or a corporation has an affirmative duty to disobey an inefficient law?" Put that question somewhat different ("Would you advise a client to disobey an inefficient law?"), and you've got a really interesting discussion topic. I tried to reply to this good question by saying that I cannot imagine that there is anything good to be said on behalf of a lawyer advising his or her client to break the law. If the law is inefficient, then one should take that matter up with lawmakers. Moreover, I told them that one should recognize, as a positive matter, that people are more likely to violate an inefficient than an efficient law. We had a vigorous discussion about that proposition.
A second impression I had of the extraordinarily bright law professors whom I taught in St. Gallen was that they were uncomfortable with the ex ante analysis that characterizes law-and-economic analysis -- if the following were the law, how would people react? And, normatively speaking, is that the reaction that we would like them to have?
There are, I believe, two reasons for their unease. First, they are not comfortable speculating on how people might behave. They have no particular expertise at that and feel that no one else has any dependable expertise at that either. They have an attitude of "Your guess is as good as mine" attitude toward these behavioral predictions. Second, and more importantly, they are extremely skeptical of the rational-actor theory that formed the central explanatory model of much early law and economics. Naturally, their skepticism about that theory made them skeptical about behavioral predictions premised on that theory.
When I gave them a brief introduction to behavioral economics and psychology and in so doing stressed the importance of the systematic deviations from the predictions of rational actor theory that form the core of behavioral psychology, they began to take the entire enterprise of law and economics more seriously.
They were a great class and wonderful hosts. Thanks so much to Peter Nobel for his warm hospitality.