Executive Action as Power Building: A Response to Professor Doerfler

Luke Herrine–

Ryan Doerfler has an article over at Jacobin reacting in part to my argument that current law enables the Secretary of Education to cancel as much student debt as she wants by using her enforcement discretion. Professor Doerfler is not so much arguing against my proposal (for which he has some flattering words) as he is using it as an example of a baleful tendency among progressive elites. The tendency is to use legal ingenuity to find ways that a progressive president can “bring about much, if not all, of the change that we need” even if Congress does not cooperate. Professor Doerfler rightly warns that lawyerly craftiness can only get us so far, especially as the judiciary tilts towards becoming little more than an operational arm of those opposed to exactly that change. He also rightly points out that focusing on the ability of a progressive president (ideally a brilliant lawyer) with a team of progressive experts to work around the limits of the current system diverts attention from the task of building the working-class-led coalition necessary to change the system. It replaces power building with deference to experts’ power.

It was somewhat surreal to see my argument used as an example of this tendency, since it is one that I also oppose. I can understand why my argument, taken in isolation, could be seen as an example of such anti-political politics. All the more so when it is not in isolation, but rather written up at the American Prospect alongside other arguments for creative uses of executive action under the rubric of a “Day One Agenda”. But, I must insist, focusing on the ability of a President to cancel student debt (or to do other progressive things) without further congressional action does not require giving up on building the power, whether to put together legislative majorities or to create a true workers’ party or any number of other things. More than that: in an environment in which left power-building institutions are still atrophied, teasing out creative uses of executive power is essential to the latter task. A President dedicated to building power can use the Secretary of Education’s authority to cancel student debt as one tool to do so.

(For what it’s worth: others at Jacobin seem to agree, given their own version of a Day One Agenda, which includes exactly this proposal.)

Moreover, the concreteness of the demand for debt cancellation is useful as an organizing tool. In fact, organizing that uses the demand of student debt cancellation as part of the strategy to build working class power is already ongoing. It is because of this organizing that the idea of a jubilee is on the agenda in the first place. And it is out of this organizing that the idea for using the Secretary of Education’s enforcement discretion to wipe out all (or most) public student loan debt without congressional action took root.

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Piercing the Monetary Veil

Piercing the Monetary Veil

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Luke Herrine —

This blog has already hosted several examples of re-thinkings of the nature of money and its relationship to law and power, most recently in a symposium on LPE Contributor Mehrsa Baradaran’s book on money and Black capitalism. This may seem like a niche project that those without an interest in finance can afford to ignore or leave to others. But that would be to ignore a fundamental principle: cash rules everything around us. Especially in capitalist societies, power is channeled through money and vice versa.

And justifications of power rely on mystification about money. If anything can be called the core of the neoliberal project it is the proposition that cash should rule us. Hayek’s foundational argument, after all, is that allocation via the price mechanism is the essence self governance. Making all resources and activities interchangeable with money enables each person to pursue her own version of the good life in a way that interferes with others’ only as much as they consent to while simultaneously directing resources towards their most valuable use (see here for instance). Payment of money is how we each individually express how much we value different resources and how much of others’ interference we are willing to bear. Price is the aggregation of those individual valuations. Money thus serves as the common currency that enables us to commensurate our processes of valuation without deliberating and without forcing anything on anybody else.

But that’s not how money works. Treating money as a neutral arbiter of values that the legal system can simply take for granted is a classic example of “transcendental nonsense“. As with any form of such nonsense, explaining why requires a careful analysis of how law structures money, tracing who has the power to shape that law, and exploring the dialectic relationship between the law, money, and the markets they coordinate. A small but growing group of scholars has been undertaking this task. Many of these scholars have begun to converge in a new international network called the Law and Money Initiative. An overlapping group will also be launching a new site at just-money.org.

Over the next two weeks, we will host a symposium on how close attention to the role of money in law and political economy changes one’s analysis of a whole range of areas of society, with a particular focus on how the legal infrastructure of money shapes areas of non-financial law. The idea is to open up conversations about how power shapes law to conversations about how money and law shape each other, and vice versa.

Join us!

Luke Herrine is a PhD Student at Yale Law School.

Debtor Organizing Against Neoliberalism

NB: This post is part of an ongoing series on LPE & Social Movements. For the framing pieces, see here and here

Luke Herrine – 

social-movementsNeoliberalism is in crisis. For the first time in decades, alternatives of both terrifying and exhilarating varieties are on the table. The more democratic and humane alternative will only prevail if well organized social movements directly challenge the ruling class’s material base of power.

What will those movements look like? If history is any guide, they will have to be collectives of people whose everyday suffering can be transformed into relatively short-term campaigns for material betterment, medium-term campaigns for legal reform, and the longer-term work of building solidarity necessary to put truly transformative change on the table. The green shoots in the labor movement, the formations in and around the Movement for Black Lives, and increasingly energetic climate activism, among others, provide some reason for hope. Less discussed has been the possibility of debtor organizing, the subject of an inspiring new report from the Institute on Inequality and Democracy authored by Hannah Appel, Sa Whitley, and Caitlin Klein. The report should be read carefully by LPE sympathizers with an interest in creative practice: potential for legal strategies abound.

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On Reuniting Legal Realism with Moral Pragmatism

This post is part of a symposium on Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Read the complete symposium here.

Luke Herrine 

anderson book cover

In 1987 Robert Gordon recounted finding among those “in the center or left of American liberalism…this paralysis, founded in their sense that legal and social realities are frozen, that we have reached the end of history and that the possibility of fundamental change is now forever closed to us.” Gordon’s experience is not unique, of course. The critical project of “unfreezing legal reality” to make it more pliable for egalitarian restructuring has had to confront not only the legal system’s own defense mechanisms but a set of discourses that make it hard to think outside the current system.

As many members of this blog have noted, neoclassical economics has been the most powerful such discourse, but moral philosophy—even that produced by egalitarians—has been similarly unforgiving. Most debates in Anglo-American moral and political philosophy have taken place in the realm of the ideal. Political morality amounts to articulating the constitution reasonable persons would agree to ideal conditions. Legal reasoning requires “rational reconstruction” of existing institutions to understand their moral structure. Egalitarianism is about figuring out how to set up idealized (read: using neoclassical assumptions) insurance markets to correct for inequalities of luck while maintaining room for agency. The idealizations of the debates tend to vacillate between being so unlike our actual world as to be difficult to make sense of or so like our actual world as to “freeze” it by moralizing existing institutions. They may help clear up some of our ideas, but they do not give us much to work with in the project of dismantling oppressive institutions and building democratic ones in their place.

Many critical legal theorists sought alternatives in deconstructive theories, which more often than not were so totalizing that they left little sense that one anybody (except perhaps judges) could do anything productive to reshape society.

Elizabeth Anderson has been the foremost advocate of a pragmatic alternative that treats moral theory like realists treat law: as a going concern. Following a venerable American tradition starting with Peirce, James, and Dewey, she understands moral debate as happening in media res, between socially and historically situated actors attempting to make sense of their attitudes about the world in the process of acting on it. Concepts like “freedom”, “equality”, and “exploitation” evolve out of historically embedded attempts to express attitudes about certain institutional arrangement; they necessarily evolve as arrangements change and as we reflect on what we really ought to care about regarding them. Moral philosophy is merely an extension of everyday reflective and discursive practices, and, if it strays too far from those practices, it results in concepts and arguments that have little or confused relevance to the real world. The process of deciding on ends is not separated from the evaluation of available means in any given context, and both are tied to our evolving understandings of how the world works. It is a process of ongoing recalibration.

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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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Student Debt Cancellation: It’s Actually Good

Luke Herrine-

Whenever talk of student debt cancellation, or even of a “student debt crisis,” gets too loud, there is a bevy of pundits ready to tut-tut. Don’t you so-called progressives know that most student debt is held by young professionals? That the young professionals with the biggest debt loads are unlikely to default on their debt because they have leveraged their education into high-paying jobs (or at least have well-off family who can pitch in)? And so don’t you see that cancelling student debt would mostly just be a subsidy to already comfortable people? And you call yourself progressive? Shame! Go think about what you’ve done. Let the professionals take care of the policymaking.

Now that the Levy Institute has published a report on the likely macroeconomic effects of student debt cancellation and some left politicians have taken up the idea, David Leonhardt at the New York Times saw fit to rehearse the arguments he and others have made multiple times before (apparently not having read the arguments against his position in that selfsame report). Here’s why he’s wrong again.

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Neoliberalism and Higher Education Finance: Breaking out of the Ideology

Luke Herrine —

My earlier post on for-profit colleges discussed a special instance the limits that a neoliberal lens places on a progressive vision for higher education. In this post I discuss the more general phenomenon and an alternative approach to thinking about higher education. In doing so, I draw from a nascent project that Frank Pasquale and I have been working on.

In DC policy circles one rarely hears the value of higher education discussed in any terms aside from preparing students for future employment. Whether college is “worth it” is understood as an investment proposition, and colleges are understood as offering an investment good packaged with short-term consumption benefits (parties and the like).

This is the influence of a neoliberal frame. As several of the authors of this blog have explained, neoliberalism refers to an overlapping set of techniques for justifying social ordering via markets. Common among many of these techniques is the assumption that all social ordering is actually market ordering. Once one understands the underlying market dynamics, one understands that the proper approach is to work with them rather than against them.

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Neoliberalism and Higher Education Finance: The For-Profit Case Study

Luke Herrine —

Betsy Devos’s Department of Education spent the summer finalizing its plans to defang Obama-era regulations strengthening consumer protection regulations of for-profit colleges. Undoing these regulations will keep federal funds flowing to companies that line investors’ pockets by imposing a lifetime of indebtedness onto working-class individuals under false pretenses. The ongoing challenges to their delay and repeal (one of which just won in district court!) are thus crucial.Image result for college

But that does not mean that we should celebrate the regulations themselves as victories for progressivism. They are a prime example of the limits that neoliberalism has imposed upon the progressive imagination. From a law and political economy perspective, it is clear that for-profit colleges have become a wealth extraction strategy in which financiers create a revenue stream by using the societal promise of class mobility as a lure to lead structurally disadvantaged individuals into unpayable debt. Shifting from a neoliberal to an LPE lens makes it clear that eliminating for-profit colleges is the first step to a truly progressive vision for the role of higher education in society.

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