Symposium: The Color of Money & Racial Capitalism

Mehrsa Baradaran –

9780674970953When I started research on the project that became The Color of Money, I wanted to write a book about racial disparities in access to credit. When I started digging into the history, I started to realize that there was a much bigger story here, one that undermined one of the most basic neoliberal myths about the free market. This history of black banks and the economy of segregation reveals how inextricably financial markets are tied to racial exploitation, and how the dominant economy can continue to extract from racially subordinated groups through “color-blind” market mechanisms.

I hope that the upcoming symposium on The Color of Money will help connect the historical work to contemporary law, building on LPE’s commitment to understanding and reversing the many structures of racial capitalism.

In particular, I try to debunk three market myths in the book:

  1. That money, markets, and trade exist outside the realm of political power
  2. That inequality is a natural byproduct of market forces rather than being created by the state
  3. And that people left outside of the structures of power can overcome their exclusion through local institutions or self-help

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The Erosion of Public Control Over Public Utilities

Sandeep Vaheesan –

Cable Electricity Electrical Energy DistributionSince the 1970s, Congress and federal agencies have replaced regulator-established rates with market-derived pricing in many sectors of the U.S. economy. Electricity and natural gas are two such industries. Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have abolished regulated rates and instituted market-based pricing in a part of the electricity and gas supply chains. (At a simplified level, both industries have three segments: production, transmission, and distribution. Policymakers generally still treat the transmission and distribution functions as monopolistic.)

These legislative and regulatory decisions are premised on the belief that markets are superior to direct public control of rates and other terms of service. While this process is often described as “deregulation,” the term is a misnomer. This industrial restructuring is a transfer of discretionary authority from public bodies to private actors. Instead of structuring competitive markets in this new environment, the federal courts have defended private market power and helped scale back all public control of sellers and traders of electricity and gas. A case before the First Circuit (in which my Open Markets Institute colleagues and I filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs) illustrates this theme.

In Breiding v. Eversource Energy, New England residents have accused two large utilities of violating antitrust and consumer protection laws by creating an artificial shortage of gas and engineering a chain of events that dramatically drove up the cost of electricity. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint and expanded a judicial doctrine intended to protect the integrity of regulator-set rates to also insulate market-based prices from private lawsuits. This decision, which is consistent with rulings by other courts, grants gas producers, power generators, and traders the freedom to engage in exclusionary and other unfair practices. In electricity and gas, the net effect of legislative, regulatory, and judicial choices over the past 40 years has been a dramatic erosion of public control over public utilities.

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Central Banking and Finance—The Franchise View

Robert Hockett & Saule Omarova—

It is common to claim that finance is about ‘credit-intermediation,’ a matter of channeling funds from virtuous savers to needful end-users. The picture behind this assertion is that of a gargantuan broker—the financial system as ‘go-between.’ But modern financial systems are much more about credit-generation than intermediation. We need a new metaphor.

In our view, a modern financial system is best modeled as a public-private franchise arrangement. The franchisor is the sovereign public, acting through its central bank or monetary authority. The franchised good is the monetized full faith and credit of the sovereign—its ‘money.’ And the franchisees are those private sector institutions that are licensed by the public to dispense, in the form of spendable credit, the franchised good.

Like any good franchisor, a public acting through its central bank works to maintain the ‘quality’ of the good that its franchisees distribute. In the contemporary ‘developed’ world, the quality in question has been understood primarily in terms of over-issuance.

The central bank’s task has been understood, that is to say, in modulatory terms, the primary objective being to prevent consumer and, in some enlightened jurisdictions, asset price inflations and hyperinflations. Allocative decisions, for their part, are thought best left to the market, on the putative ground that the public’s ‘picking winners and losers’ is apt to be ‘politically arbitrary’ rather than ‘financially sound.’

Two conceptual errors, one of them partly corrected since 2008, seem to have hampered the ‘quality control’ efficacy of many central banks and monetary authorities in the pre-2008 period.

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Against the Economic Pie: How Economic “Maximizing” Skews Legal Analysis

Martha T. McCluskey –

Should law maximize or divide the “economic pie”? Law students learn that smart thinking begins by asking this question. But this question skews legal analysis against a political economy perspective. It implicitly presumes a hierarchy where an abstract idea of economic gain normally stands above and beyond political and moral concerns, bigger in size and first in order.

Economic-Pie.jpgA recent New York Times commentary by pundit Thomas L. Friedman exemplifies the ideological work of this binary. Friedman contrasts the “redivide-the-pie” political left with various “grow-the-pie” political visions grounded in what he presents as the more realistic understanding that private economic power, not egalitarian democracy, is the foundation of good jobs and general prosperity. Similarly, legal academics often use terms like “economic efficiency” or “economic welfare” to define the optimal legal order as a matter of maximizing economic gain aside from fairness or the well-being of particular persons. For example, students learn to use efficiency to rationalize tort law limits on corporate liability for consumers’ injuries from risky products, or to justify contract law rules upholding agreements that produce harsh or exploitative results.

This first of two posts on this framing question challenges the implicit spatial metaphor embedded in the distinction between maximizing and dividing the economic pie. By definition, the whole is always greater than any particular part. We skip over many hard and important questions when we imagine the societal “whole” as a maximum “pie,” that can then be sliced and distributed for particular interests. The efficiency-distribution binary distorts legal analysis in three ways. First, the image of “maximizing” emphasizes quantity, rather than quality; second, it presumes economic gains normally and objectively expand rather than tightens the boundaries of prosperity and well-being; and third, it represents gain as a sum of separable parts, rather than as an interdependent system.

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The New Black Codes: Racialized Wealth Extraction, Economic Justice, and Excessive Fines Schemes in Timbs v. Indiana

Emma Coleman Jordan and Angela P. Harris –

timbs.jpegWhen Tyson Timbs’ father died, he left his son an insurance policy. Timbs used $42,000 of that money to buy a Land Rover SUV, and he was driving that car when he was arrested for selling heroin to an undercover police officer in Indiana. Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft, and the judge sentenced him to one year of home detention, five years of probation (including a court-supervised addiction treatment program), and $1,203 in fees in costs.

The State of Indiana, however, was not done with Timbs. It hired a private lawyer to bring a civil forfeiture action against Timbs’ Land Rover, on the theory that the vehicle had been used to commit the crime of transporting heroin. The court held that the Land Rover was indeed used in the commission of an offense, but denied the requested forfeiture, observing that its purchase price was more than four times the maximum he might have been fined for his actual conviction. Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the judge determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, and for that reason it would be unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed that decision, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed on a different ground, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause applied to federal but not state governments.

When the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Timbs v. Indiana, anticipation ran high across the political spectrum, and revealed some strange bedfellows. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Cato Institute appeared on the same amicus brief. Justices Gorsuch and Sotomayor energetically agreed with one another during oral argument. However, when the Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision on February 20, 2019, the opinion offered less than interested parties might have hoped for. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court, affirmed that the Excessive Fines Clause does apply to the states, as “incorporated” into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and held that in rem forfeitures fall within the Clause’s protections. The Court, however, did not offer a standard for deciding when a fine is excessive. From our perspective, moreover, Timbs v. Indiana represents a missed opportunity to discuss racialized wealth extraction in its past and present forms, and to situate the Excessive Fines Clause within the constitutional debate about economic rights that arise from predation by the government itself.

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The Procedure Fetish

Nicholas Bagley

That’s the title of a new article of mine, slated for publication in the Michigan Law Review. It’s more polemical than most of my work, and it aims to disrupt some of the tidy stories that organize modern administrative law. Although I hope it finds an audience across the political spectrum, its primary target is my friends on the left, many of whom I fear are playing into the hands of those who want to strangle the administrative state.

The article opens with a puzzle. Knowing full well that onerous procedural rules will hamstring federal agencies, Republican policymakers have pushed “regulatory reform” bills like the Regulatory Accountability Act, the REINS Act, and the Separation of Powers Restoration Act. By tilting the scales against agency action, Republicans hope to end job-killing regulations and invigorate the free market. It’s a libertarian’s dream.

Democrats get it. They understand that the tangle of new procedural rules, if adopted, would bind the administrative state as effectively as Lilliputian ropes bound Gulliver. And they’ve generally (though not universally) opposed what they view as brazen anti-statist measures, which would frustrate their efforts to forestall environmental degradation, protect consumers, and empower workers.

So here’s the puzzle. If adding new administrative procedures will so obviously advance a libertarian agenda, might not relaxing existing administrative constraints advance liberal ones? What if Gulliver is already bound?

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Movement Visions for a Renewed Left Legalism

Amna Akbar, Sameer Ashar, and Jocelyn Simonson –

In this moment of crisis for the rule of law, a number of thinkers on the left have prescribed new strategies for progressives to shift reigning ideas about constitutionalism and the law. Jedediah Purdy, for example, has argued that part of the answer is to “reclaim the Constitution” by articulating visions of how constitutional rules can promote true democracy. In Purdy’s view, strengthening voting rights and the rights of non-citizens, promoting economic citizenship, and reforming the criminal legal system should be central to a left vision of the Constitution. He argues these substantive ideas pose a challenge to the status quo distribution of power, resources, and life chances. Eyeing a different branch of government, Samuel Moyn has urged progressives to resist the “juristocracy” and to shift our vision for change away from the courts and towards legislators at all levels. Moyn bases his analysis on the idea that in the short term, legislatures will be more likely than Trump-appointed judges to enact laws that reduce inequality.

Purdy and Moyn generate important insights for left lawyers and social justice activists. But neither identifies where we should look for the substance of left legalist vision, or the process by which we should derive one. How is it that we, as progressives, should generate and evaluate the desired ends of constitutional doctrine or legislative change? Addressing this question is essential for a renewed left legalism of the sort this blog and its community hope to provoke.

As we suggested in our prior piece, we believe a left political agenda must be grounded in solidarities with social movement and left organizations, largely outside of formal legal and elite academic spaces. (Willie Forbath, too, recently gestured on this blog at the relationship between social movements, labor, and left legalism.) The prevailing underlying presumption of much legal discourse is that the formulation and interpretation of legal doctrine requires specialized expertise. Past waves of left legalist critique, such as Critical Legal Studies, reflected this traditionally elitist approach to law by remaining confined within elite institutions and purveyed by law professors, sometimes in impenetrable language. Like Purdy and Moyn, we care deeply about democratic engagement, but we believe that the institutional choice between courts and legislatures misses the bigger picture: that a new left legalism should be derived from social movements fighting for justice on the ground.

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Movement Visions for a Renewed Left Politics

Amna Akbar, Sameer Ashar, and Jocelyn Simonson – 

sunriseWhen members of the Sunrise Movement confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein ten days ago, they demonstrated the renewed vitality of an old force in democratic politics: organized young people bringing bold new visions to complex social problems. In the video, we see the power of movement participants to transform how we think and dream. In times of peril and possibility, radical visions—where the scale of the vision matches the scale of the problems we face—can capture our imagination and change what we think is possible.  In this way, social movements galvanize a different kind of force in politics, one of hope and collective action rather than cynicism and alienation.  

Left social movements are both a fount of creative law-making and a means by which to hold politicians to account. From the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Panther Party’s and Young Lord Party’s Ten and Thirteen Point Programs, activists have a long history of altering our sense of what is possible, as Aziz Rana recently laid out on this blog. When we pay attention to collective forms of struggle, as Kate Andrias argues, we see how power-shifting and law-making happen from the ground up.

As Bob Hockett recently explained, the Green New Deal is the product of the Sunrise Movement’s recognition that economic injustice and environmental disaster are existential threats to our well-being. By linking issues that are typically seen in policy-making spaces as distinct, the Green New Deal reckons with the clash between human needs and capitalism’s rapacious hunger for land, labor, and resources. Rather than shrink in the face of an immense set of challenges, the Green New Deal rises. It places the transformation of our social, economic, and political order into the realm of possibility.

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Contextualizing Contract Law: An LPE 101 Reading List

Luke Herrine—

Contract is, of course, part of the core legal infrastructure that makes markets possible. But it is more than that. As an ideal type, it is at the core of all individualist social, moral, and political theories that seek to account for human sociality while avoiding social structure. Contract represents the ideal of being able to choose how to calibrate others’ demands with one’s own life plan. It presents the possibility of a social obligation that is not imposed upon one from the outside—by family or tradition or etiquette or the state. The rational choice theories that form the basis for neoliberal economic thought do not just understand chosen obligation as an ideal or a possibility: it is how they model all social institutions, even highly complex ones. No wonder “social contract” has been such an enduring model of the legitimate exercise of state power in the liberal tradition.

Theories based on the contractual ideal have proven especially useful for justifications of capitalist ordering. When the law has taken such theories too seriously, it has found it easy to endorse and even mandate all sorts of market-mediated exploitation as necessary to a free society. Lochner and its ilk were supposed to protect freedom of contract, after all.

The contractual ideal and the promissory morality that comes with it is part of our culture, and not just our legal culture. Even those of us who have been on the business end of exploitative contracts—for debt, for labor, for rent, for whatever else–have a hard time shaking the notion that we are obligated to do what we said we would (even if we didn’t know what we “said we would” via the fine print): that we chose, and therefore have responsibility for, the rules imposed upon us.

Thinking about—and teaching—contract from an LPE perspective requires denaturalizing with this tendency of thought and the forms of moral, political, and legal justification that have grown out of it. And doing that requires dealing with contracts not as the shadows of an ideal Form but as institutions shaped by socio-legal context. It requires dealing with the law of contract not as a self-contained and coherent body of judge-made doctrine but as an overlapping set of rules that deal with different contractual forms in different contexts. And it requires highlighting how the decontextualized contractual ideal can serve ideological functions when used as a map for this complex terrain.

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Labor Relationships & and the Legal Vision of 1L Contracts

Sanjukta Paul—

Contracts is more than an area of law; it is a key piece of the vision we lawyers bring to many other areas of law. The 1L Contracts course supplies a foundation-stone of the “pre-analytic vision” with which lawyers will eventually think about many other things, including labor relationships. Labor regulation as such is addressed only in the optional upper-level curriculum, and it is relatively marginalized even there. As a result, many lawyers, notably in the commercial and business sphere, will bring to their dealings with labor issues the contracts “vision.” That vision ultimately tends to erase the law’s deep involvement in constituting labor relationships. It thus tends to furnish apparent justification for the exercise of power by the already-powerful, in pursuit of private ends rather than the public interest, on the stage created and sustained by law.

The specific pre-analytic vision transmitted by the conventional Contracts curriculum is of atomistic individuals contracting at arms’ length. In this vision, any pre-contracting power differentials, including those power differentials that are created or sustained by law, are rendered invisible. In our historical imagination this vision is symbolized by ‘the Lochner Era,’ which was characterized by the frequent judicial invocation of contract principles to either invalidate or undermine democratic attempts to structure labor relations and markets more generally.

But apart from ignoring, for example, “the background distribution of property rights,” this vision also sits uneasily with the present-time legal constitution of labor relationships. Moreover, perhaps because of its foundation in the pre-analytic vision of contracts, commercial law is generally selective about when it chooses to treat labor contracts as “special” on the one hand, or as instances of a more general type on the other. Continue reading