I'm very grateful to Gordon for inviting me to post on the Conglomorate about the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases--in particular, to summarize some of the arguments I've made about the cases over on Balkinization and SCOTUSblog. Links to my posts about various different aspects of the cases, and to some posts of others, are collected here. As for the issues of particular interest to Conglomorate readers . . . well, I'm afraid I think there's less there than meets the eye as to several of them.1. For example, it is widely believed that the central issue in the cases is whether corporations, or for-profit corporations in particular, can exercise religion, or have religious "consciences." But I don't think the Court needs to, or should, consider that broad question in the abstract. As I explained in one post, even if for-profit corporations can exercise religion in certain contexts, the particular religious claims in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cannot be asserted by the corporations themselves:
The Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases do not require the Court to decide, once and for all, whether and under what circumstances for-profit corporations can ever have religious beliefs or consciences; whether they can exercise religion; or whether they can be “persons” under RFRA.
Those formulations pitch the question at far too broad a level of generality, and one untethered from the facts of these particular cases. The issue in these cases is much narrower than that.
This is not a case about whether a particular corporation can "advance" a religious agenda, take steps to further a religious mission (such as by selling religious books), or promulgate religious doctrine; indeed, it's not a case in which the state is alleged to be preventing a corporation from doing anything at all. Therefore it bears no resemblance to, say, a law restricting for-profit religious bookstores from selling certain books. The particular burden being alleged here is that the HHS Preventive Services Rule allegedly coerces a violation of religious duties--thatis to say, rather than restricting a religious practice, HHS is alleged to be focring someone to act in a manner contrary to religiously inspired limitations. The federal government allegedly is putting someone to a choice between compliance with a civil obligation and adherence to a restrictive religious injunction (roughly speaking: “Thou Shalt Not Cooperate With Evil”).
If there is such a burden on religious exercise here, it is not one that is imposed on the corporations—on Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Mardel, Inc. (in the Hobby Lobby litigation) or on Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. That's not because those corporations don’t have “consciences”—neither do churches—or because they cannot advance religious objectives (perhaps they can), but because they don’t have religious obligations. I’m not aware of any religion that imposes duties or injunctions on for-profit corporations. And, more to the point, the complaints in these cases make countless allegations about religious duties and how the government allegedly is compelling certain parties to violate those duties, but they nowhere allege that any of the three corporations here are subject to any religious obligations.
2. A conclusion that the HHS Rule does not substantially burden any religious exercise of these corporate plaintiffs, however, hardly resolves the cases. As you will see if you begin to peruse the plaintiffs' complaints and briefs, the crux of the alleged burden in these cases is not on the corporations’ alleged exercise of religion, but instead on the purported religious exercise of the individual plaintiffs—five members of the Green family in Hobby Lobby, and five members of the Hahn family in Conestoga Wood.
For starters, the federal legal obligations in these cases run against the corporations themselves, and/or their insurance plans, not against the shareholders. So the shareholders are not directly burdened by federal law. The question, then, is whether shareholders nevertheless can obtain relief for injuries that they allegedly suffer derivatively, by virtue of the state's regulation of the corporation, notwithstanding the black-letter law that corporations and their shareholders are distinct entities for purposes of liability and benefits.
Individuals typically form a corporation so that they will not be personally liable for any claims against the corporation--indeed, that's one of the principal reasons state law creates the corporate form. Does it follow that shareholders cannot complain about injuries they suffer derivatively when other actors, including the government, take action against the corporation? By accepting the “sweet” (limited liability), must shareholders also accept the “bitter,” in the form of abandonment of rights they otherwise might have had to recover for injuries they suffer by virtue of their ownership of the corporate shares? As Judge Matheson put the question in his separate concurrence in Hobby Lobby, should “[t]he structural barriers of corporate law give [one] pause about whether the plaintiffs can have their corporate veil and pierce it too”?
In response to this question, Professor Bainbridge published an article suggesting that the Court should make use of a corporate law doctrine called "insider reverse veil piercing" in order to allow the Greens and the Hahns to assert RFRA claims as shareholders notwithstanding the fact that they are generally immune from liability for any wrongs committed by their corporations--i.e., to allow them to reap the sweet and also avoid the bitter.
Subsequently, a group of 44 corporate and criminal law professors filed an amicus brief arguing that "reverse veil piercing" would be inappropriate here, and that the Court should not allow the plaintiffs to sue as shareholders.
Professor Bainbridge has now responded with a follow-up article critiquing the corporate law professors' brief. He argues again that the Court should use "insider reverse veil piercing," or "RVP-I," "to allow . . . shareholder standing to sue if the [C]ourt is unwilling to allow the corporation to do so."
What (if anything) should the Court make of this corporate law dispute about RVP-I?
a. First of all, it's not clear that these cases are even about injuries to the individuals in their capacities as shareholders. Indeed, it appears that the individual plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby, members of the Green family, are not shareholders of Hobby Lobby and Mardel, the two corporate plaintiffs in that case; they are, instead, trustees of a management trust that owns the companies. The Greens do not allege that they own the companies; and unless I've missed something, their complaint does not allege any way in which their funds would be used to "pay for" contraception. As I explained in a recent post, Hobby Lobby's brief confirms that the case is not fundamentally about coercing the Greens to pay forcontraception, or about the Greens' religious exercise in their capacity as shareholders. The Greens' fundamental complaint, instead, is that federal law coerces them to violate a religious obligation in their capacities as corporate directors, i.e., decision-makers. "[T]he precise religious [religious] exercise at issue here," the brief explains, is that "the Greens cannot in good conscience direct their corporations to provide insurance coverage for the four drugs and devices at issue because doing so would 'facilitat[e] harms against human beings.'”
A decision by the Court limited to shareholder rights, therefore, would not resolve Hobby Lobby.
That leaves the Conestoga Wood case. The individual plaintiffs in that case, members of the Hahn family, also primarily complain about federal law burdening them in their capacity as corporate directors, or decision-makers. In addition, however, paragraph 11 of their complaint alleges that the Hahns are collectively the “principal” owners of the shares of Conestoga Wood. So perhaps the RVP-I question does arise vis-a-vis the Hahns, whose shareholder funds presumably would be used, not to pay for contraception reimbursement directly, but instead to pay for part of the overall premiums to the plan insurance carrier. (Remarkably, the Conestoga Wood complaint does not specify whether CW has a self-insured employee health insurance plan or a plan issued through an independent insurer. But in its Supreme Court brief, it refers to its (unidentified) "issuer" as having "inserted coverage of the contraceptives into its plan over Petitioners’ objection" after the district court denied a preliminary injunction.) So, in some very attenuated sense, the Hahns' shareholder funds are subsidizing the plan's reimbursement for employees' use of contraception . . . and the complaint might be read to suggest that this use of the Hahns' funds would make the Hahns complicit in their employees' use of so-called "abortifacients" in the rare case (if any) in which use of certain contraceptive methods prevented a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall.
b. But even if the "shareholders' complicity" issue is teed up in Conestoga Wood . . . Honestly?
Can it really be the case that the Supreme Court of the United States ought to decide Conestoga Wood based upon the assumption that the corporate law "RVP-I doctrine" would apply in this unprecedented context? This is a state law question, the answer to which depends upon the legal relationship between a corporation and its principal shareholders . . . presumably under Pennsylvania law.
Professor Bainbridge cites as his primary authorities two 30-year-old state-law cases--one from Minnesota, the other from Michigan--both involving questions far-flung from the RFRA context in Conestoga Wood. To be sure, he also cites one Pennsylvania case--Barium Steel Corp. v. Wiley, 108 A.2d 336(1954). But in that case, which was decided 60 years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court split 3-3 on what we (well, what corporations law professors) would today apparently call an "insider reverse veil piercing" theory, in a case that has almost nothing in common with Conestoga Wood. And the three Pennsylvania Justices who would not have recognized the RVP-I in Barium Steel wrote this: "The decisions in this State will be searched in vain for a single instance where a piercing of the corporate veil has been judicially sanctioned in order to confer a benefit upon the ones responsible for the presence of the veil. Certainly, the opinion for this court in the instant case cites no such decision."
That exhausts my knowledge of how Pennsylvania law treats insider reverse veil-piercing. Perhaps Professor Bainbridge is right that Pennsylvania (and other state) courts would or should "reverse-pierce" the veil in this RFRA context, in which a federal statute is implicated. Perhaps he's wrong. But how should the Supreme Court of the United States resolve that question?
Bainbridge argues that courts have historically "pierced the corporate veil" in 13.41% of RVP cases, and that the Court should decide whether Conestoga Wood should be among that number based upon the simple test of whether piercing here would advance a "significant public policy." But he does not cite any other Pennsylvania authority in support of this view, or any case at all involving RVP and RFRA, or RVP and shareholders' religious exercise more broadly, from any jurisdiction.
This absence of precedent ought to be a serious problem for his RVP-I argument, particularly in light of the principal case cited in the corporate professors' brief (and in the government's brief), Domino's Pizza, Inc. v. McDonald, 546 U.S. 470 (2006).
McDonald was the sole shareholder of a Nevada corporation. He alleged that Domino's had broken contracts with that corporation because of racial animus toward him, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The Court held that section 1981 offers relief to a plaintiff when racial discrimination impairs an existing contractual relationship, so long as the plaintiff himself has or would have rights under the existing or proposed contractual relationship. Of course, the contracts themselves, between corporations, did not afford McDonald any rights, because he was merely a shareholder. Citing some of the same Minnesota cases Professor Bainbridge cites, however, McDonald argued that "under state law shareholders are at times permitted to disregard the existence of the intermediate corporate entity where failing to do so would impair full enforcement of important . . . statutes." Resp. Br at 32 n.34.
At oral argument, Justice Kennedy identified this claim as "kind of an inverse corporate veil piercing," and asked: "[A]re there any cases where we pierced the corporate veil in order to help the shareholder?" (The answer, of course, is that the Court has never done so.)
Not surprisingly, the Court unanimously rejected McDonald's inverse veil piercing claim. Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court explained that "it is fundamental corporation and agency law—indeed, it can be said to be the whole purpose of corporation and agency law—that the shareholder and contracting officer of a corporation has no rights and is exposed to no liability under the corporation's contracts."
The Court presumably was able to issue such a categorical interpretation of state law because it had been offered no examples, in any jurisdiction, of reverse veil piercing to vindicate shareholder contract rights. To be sure, Conestoga Wood does not involve shareholders' contract rights, so McDonald does not directly resolve the RVP-I question here. But the Hahns have the burden to show a RFRA burden, and neither they nor Professor Bainbridge have cited any case, from Pennsylvania or elsewhere, in which shareholders have been permitted to use RVP-I to allege harms to their religious exercise, under a state or local RFRA, resulting from a law that has an impact on corporate funds. The Court presumably should, therefore, treat the RVP-I argument here the way in which it treated the equally unsupported and unprecedented argument in Domino's--i.e., summarily reject it.
Domino's appears to be the one and only occasion in which the Supreme Court has specifically considered the relationship between the "RVP" doctrine and a federal statute. You'd think, therefore, that Professor Bainbridge would devote serious attention to the case. His analysis of Domino's is relegated to a footnote, however. And his efforts to distinguish the holding in that case are unpersuasive. For example, he notes that the shareholder in Domino's raised "only" contractual and statutory rights. ButConestoga Wood's claim here (the only claim with any traction, anyway) is based on a federal statute (RFRA), just as McDonald's was. Bainbridge's suggestion that the federal statutory right established by RFRA is more "fundamental" than the federal statutory right against race discrimination established by section 1981--indeed, so much more "fundamental" that it ought to result in an about-face on the Court's RVP-I holding--is so implausible that it doesn't warrant a response.
His principal argument fares no better. He insists that Domino's is a "weak precedential reed" because the Court in that case "made no effort to analyze the issues raised by RVP, but simply dismissed it out of hand," without addressing "any of the points made [by Prof. Bainbridge] in defense of the doctrine." In other words, Bainbridge thinks that the Court should ignore its unanimous holding in Domino's because the Court did not do its homework in that case, even after Justice Kennedy had specifically teed up the question as whether the Court should recognize a claim of "inverse corporate veil piercing." Suffice it to say that that argument is unlikely to have any traction with the Court. Moreover, it misses the point: The Court rejected the RVP-I claim in Domino's because the plaintiff there gave the Court absolutely no basis for concluding that state law would recognize such an exception to the default "fundamental corporation and agency law" principle that a corporate shareholder has no rights and is exposed to no liability under the corporation's contracts. The same thing is true in this case: Neither the Hahns nor Professor Bainbridge has offered the Court any authority at all in support of the proposition that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court -- or other state courts, for that matter -- would recognize an RVP-I claim in a case involving RFRA.
Moreover, even if the Court were somehow able to answer the RVP-I question as a matter of Pennsylvania law (after certifying it to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, perhaps?), that state-law-based judgment would not govern similar cases arising in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia, and therefore would hardly be a satisfactory resolution of the question on which the Court granted certiorari in Conestoga Wood. (And it wouldn't have any impact on a non-shareholder case such as Hobby Lobby.)
* * * *
In the absence of any indication that Pennsylvania law would allow RVP-I in this novel context, the more appropriate approach for the Court would be to follow its example in Domino's, and simply move on from a shareholder-injury inquiry to address the principal question raised both in Conestoga Wood and in Hobby Lobby--namely, whether federal law coerces the individual plaintiffs (the Hahns and the Greens) to violate religious injunctions in their capacities as decision-makers, or directors, of the three corporations in question in these two cases. In an earlier post, I discuss why I think the plaintiffs have failed to adequately plead facts to support such a claim.
4. Finally, and most importantly, in posts at both SCOTUSblog and Balkinization, I've tried to explain that, wholly apart from the questions regarding corporations and shareholders, a broad ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood could mark a sea-change in the way the Court has traditionally resolved claims for religious exemptions in the commercial sector, with potentially dramatic ramifications for an array of laws involving taxes, wages and hours, antidiscrimination norms, etc. This is so because, when it comes to regulation of commercial activities, the Supreme Court—and virtually every other court and legislature, for that matter—has consistently construed the Free Exercise Clause and religious accommodation statutes not to require religious exemptions from generally applicable regulations. The Supreme Court, in particular, has rejected such claims in at least nine cases, from 1944 through 1990--and has almost always done so without a dissenting vote.
This long line of consistent denials of exemptions to actors in the commercial sphere reflects the view of Justice Jackson in the first such case (Prince v. Massachusetts), in which he wrote in his concurrence that “money-raising activities on a public scale are, I think, Caesar's affairs, and may be regulated by the state so long as it does not discriminate against one because he is doing them for a religious purpose and the regulation is not arbitrary and capricious, in violation of other provisions of the Constitution.”
A unanimous Court put the point this way in U.S. v. Lee, in 1982: “When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity,” at least where “[g]ranting an exemption . . . to an employer operates to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.”
Whether or not this was a stand-alone “holding” in Lee, there is no doubt that the statement did—and continues to—fairly reflect the Court’s unbroken line of decisions over many decades. (The singular exception to the rule is Hosanna-Tabor, which, unlike Hobby Lobby, involved the right of nonprofit, specifically religious organizations to determine the “ministers” who speak on their behalf.)
And the Lee statement further points to the principal reason for this uniform treatment of religious exemption claims in the commercial sphere—namely, that in such cases it is virtually always the case that conferral of an exemption would require third parties (customers, employees, competitors) to bear significant burdens in the service of another’s religion, something the Court has understandably been loath to sanction. As I wrote on SCOTUSblog,
Contrary to the views of some, I think it overstates matters to say that such a significant third-party burden invariably renders a permissive religious accommodation unconstitutional. The Court’s jurisprudence in the area of permissive accommodations is not so unequivocal. But this much is clear: Such a significant third-party burden at a minimum raises profound constitutional concerns. For that reason, as Chip Lupu and Bob Tuttle explain, the Court has regularly construed permissive accommodation statutes – using the avoidance canon either expressly or implicitly – to recognize a compelling government interest in avoiding the imposition of significant third-party harms.
The Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby is likely to have a profound effect upon how other courts treat state and federal RFRA claims in the commercial sector going forward. If the Court were to hold that RFRA requires an exemption in these cases—and were to hold, in particular, in the case brought by a very large for-profit employer, that the law substantially burdens plaintiffs’ religious exercise and that the government lacks a compelling interest in denying religious exemptions—that would be a groundbreaking departure from the judiciary’s (and Congress’s) historical practice, one that could pave the way for claims for “myriad exceptions flowing from a wide variety of religious beliefs” (Lee) by commercial enterprises with respect to many other statutes, including nondiscrimination requirements, zoning regulations, taxes, and so on.
Before returning to the legal boundaries of monetary policy, I wanted to briefly highlight some interesting contract and regulatory issues lurking just beneath the surface of an unusual Kansas state court order declaring a sperm donor to be the legal father of a child, against the wishes of all persons involved.
In 2009, a Topeka man answered a Craigslist ad soliciting sperm donations. The ad was placed by a lesbian couple, Jennifer Schreiner and Angela Bauer. The man supplied a donation. Schreiner became pregnant and delivered a baby. Schreiner began receiving Kansas welfare benefits for the child. Seeking child support payments, the state sued the sperm donor to establish paternity. The state argued that the donor—who lacks any relationship with the child or the couple (now estranged) beyond supplying the donation—was the child’s legal father, and therefore must pay child support.
This is where the case gets interesting as a matter of private ordering and trade regulation.
Prior to the donation, all persons involved—the donor and both members of the couple—signed a non-paternity agreement in which the donor waived his parental rights and was released from his parental obligations.
Both mothers opposed the state’s campaign to declare the donor the child's legal father.
Nevertheless, the court granted the state’s paternity petition, which means it can now seek to compel the donor to provide child support. The paternity finding also appears to give the donor a good shot at asserting parental rights (though he seems unlikely to try).
Justifying its decision to ignore the wishes of both parents and the donor, the court intoned:
A parent may not terminate parental rights by contract, however, even when the parties have consented.
Well, maybe this case is a morality tale about those who would seek a father for their child on Craigslist. A warning from a heartland state to those who would selfishly try to contract around their sacred parental obligations. A sign that courts place the welfare of the child above all else. Right?
Haha, of course not!
Kansas law makes it easy to conclusively terminate the parental rights and obligations of sperm donors by contract. Care to guess what you need to do, besides sign a contract?
Pay a doctor.
The court explained:
Through K.S.A. 23-2208(f) [PDF], the Kansas legislature has afforded a woman a statutory vehicle for obtaining semen for [artificial insemination] in a manner that protects her and her child from a later claim of paternity by the donor. Similarly, the legislature has provided a man with a statutory vehicle for donating semen to a woman in a manner that precludes later liability for child support. The limitation on the application of these statutory vehicles, however, is that the semen must be “provided to a licensed physician." [FN1] (emphasis added)
The parties failed to do this.
So, the upshot is that you are free to find a father for your child on Craigslist—and you can even count on the State of Kansas to keep him out of your child’s life in the future—so long as you hire a doctor to do the procedure. Similarly, you can spend your free time fathering children on Craigslist without losing sleep over child support suits—as long as you kick some of the action upstairs to an M.D.
It’s not just Kansas; California, Illinois, and as many as 10 other states [FN2] follow the same law, the Uniform Parentage Act of 1973.
I’m not a family law expert, but it seems to me that a complete list of legitimate and unique public policy concerns that are implicated when a couple and a third-party sperm donor settle their parental obligations by contract looks something like this:
- Ensuring that the state can identify who can be held legally responsible for supporting the child.
Nevertheless, let’s assume there are also truly compelling public health reasons to involve a physician in artificial insemination. After speaking with a few doctors, I’m skeptical that this is the case, but even if it were here are ten points that I think are worth considering:
- Should a mother who became pregnant by artificial insemination be forced to share parental rights with a stranger who donated sperm simply because she decided not to hire a doctor for the procedure?
- Conversely, should the scope of a sperm donor’s rights and responsibilities as a father turn on the decision whether to enlist a doctor to oversee the procedure?
- Should the adequacy of a child support scheme turn on whether couples using sperm donors choose to hire a doctor?
- There are sound public policy reasons to be concerned about voluntariness in agreements that waive paternity. But if this case is really about ensuring voluntariness, why is enlisting doctors the solution? Establishing consent during contract formation is not some novel problem. Hiring a doctor is a novel solution, but as an evidentiary device it is not very probative.
- Hiring doctors for artificial insemination is not cheap. A single attempt through a physician’s office costs about $3,000, and sometimes multiple attempts are necessary. Unsurprisingly, the American Fertility Association (a trade group for the fertility industry) applauded the court’s decision.
- This rule looks even more like an attempt to extract rents when you consider that for many people, the price of artificial insemination without physician assistance may be zero.
- If the state interest in the use of doctor-assisted artificial insemination is so compelling, maybe the law should simply require it on penalty of criminal sanction. I have never even heard this idea floated, probably because it would be perceived (rightly) as an excessive intrusion on various important freedoms…
- …yet while they do not provide criminal sanctions, about 13 states are willing to provide unbelievably harsh "family-law sanctions." If a woman declines to hire a doctor, she is placing herself and her child in eternal jeopardy; at any time, the donor or the state can move to declare the donor to be the legal father, which would put the donor in a position to seek full parental rights—even if he is a stranger. (The same is true in reverse re: child support.) It is unsurprising that both mothers opposed the state’s petition.
- Although facially neutral, this rule is almost certainly discriminatory in practice. It means that lesbian couples must either hire a doctor or adopt—there is no other way they can safely preclude the donor from being granted parental rights. And of course this is just one of many unofficial taxes gays and lesbians must pay, especially in states like Kansas that do not allow them to marry. It seems to me that there’s a good argument the law should fail rational basis or equal protection review, but I will leave that brief to the con law scholars.
- Finally, beyond any constitutional infirmity, this law should serve as a reminder that protectionist regulations—which often take the form of onerous occupational licensing restrictions and NIMBY zoning rules—frequently have regressive distributional consequences, because they tend to favor powerful incumbents. And although probably not the case here, such laws can harm the broader economy as well by stifling innovation.
I welcome your comments. And I hope my doctor friends still talk to me.
* * * *
[FN1] It should be noted that under the letter of the statute as well as a 2007 Kansas Supreme Court decision (PDF) on this issue, the court did not have an obvious alternative to finding for the state. The problem, such as there is one, is with the statute.
[FN2] An accurate count is not possible without doing a full 50-state survey. As I have written about previously, the Uniform Law Commission’s Enactment Status Maps are often unreliable or imprecise (see FNs 163 & 188).
The Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox appeared to be undergoing more convulsions Tuesday [February 25], as its website became unavailable and trading there appeared to have stopped, signaling a new stage in troubles that have dented the image of the virtual currency. . . .
Investors have been unable to withdraw funds from Mt. Gox since the beginning of this month. The exchange has said that a flaw in the bitcoin software allowed transaction records to be altered, potentially making possible fraudulent withdrawals. No allegations have been made of wrongdoing by the exchange, but the potential for theft has raised concern that the exchange wouldn't be able to meet its obligations.
The apparent collapse of Mt. Gox is just the latest shock to hit Bitcoin, the price of which is now off more than 50% from its December 2013 peak:
For those better acquainted with the dead-tree/dead-president variety of money, Bitcoin is a virtual currency not backed by any government. Rather than being printed or minted by a central bank, Bitcoins are created by a computer algorithm in a process known as "mining" and are stored online or on your computer. They are bought and sold on various exchanges, including until recently Mt. Gox (whose troubles have been reported for a few weeks now).
There are many reasons, some of them even lawful. Bitcoins can be regarded as a medium of exchange, an investment, a political statement...or a way of avoiding capital controls and other pesky laws like bans on drug trafficking and human smuggling.
But the criminal potential of Bitcoin is probably overstated. The Chinese have gotten wise to its use for avoiding capital controls. Using Bitcoin for criminal or fraudulent activity would be difficult at scale (PDF). The Walter White method is still far and away the best way to ensure your criminal proceeds retain their value and anonymity.
I don't share the utopian fervor for Bitcoin expressed in tech and libertarian circles (see, e.g., this supposedly non-utopian cri de coeur), but it may have some positive potential as a decentralized and lower-cost electronic payments system. We'll see if that ever gets off the ground.
In the meantime, the Mt. Gox collapse is pretty huge news for Bitcoinland. Unlike the NYSE (the failure of which would be hard even to imagine), Mt. Gox does not benefit from any systemic significance and thus is unlikely to receive a lot of official-sector help. The situation has some early adopters running for the Bitcoin exits, like this leading Bitcoin evangelist.
Despite (because of?) my agnosticism on the currency, I'll be writing more about Bitcoin soon. (Mainly, I wanted to stake a claim to being the first to write about Bitcoin on The Conglomerate.) If your Palo Alto cocktail party can't wait, however, this explainer (PDF) from the ever-impressive Chicago Fed should tide you over.
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We have decided to convene a late summer forum of the Conglomerate Masters -- our roster of distinguished corporate and financial law professors -- to discuss the current state of corporate social responsibility. In particular, we wanted to address the controversy over Chick-fil-A's corporate stance against same sex marriage and to use this Economist blog post as a jumping off-point.
The Economist blogger contends that Chick-fil-A's culture is in fact a prime example of a firm embracing corporate social responsibility (or "CSR") - albeit not with the politics that one traditionally associates with that movement. The blogger concludes that the Chick-fil-A example demonstrates that matters of social policy should best be left to democratic institutions. He or she writes:
Matters of moral truth aside, what's the difference between buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken? There is no difference. Which speaks to my proposition that CSR, when married to norms of ethical consumption, will inevitably incite bouts of culture-war strife. CSR with honest moral content, as opposed to anodyne public-relations campaigns about "values", is a recipe for the politicisation of production and sales. But if we also promote politicised consumption, we're asking consumers to punish companies whose ideas about social responsibility clash with our own. Or, to put it another way, CSR that takes moral disagreement and diversity seriously—that really isn't a way of using corporations as instruments for the enactment of progressive social change that voters can't be convinced to support—asks companies with controversial ideas about social responsibility to screw over their owners and creditors and employees for...what?
It is a provocative argument. Although one wonders if the author would have made this same series of arguments in the 1960s: would the author have encouraged civil rights protesters to abandon lunch-counter sit-ins and lobby state legislators instead?
Still, the Chick-fil-A example raises some disquieting questions for CSR, which our Masters may address. These include:
Is corporate law the most effective or legitimate tool for social change? If we are worried about environmental degradation, is the solution to broaden the stakeholders to whom a corporation must answer? Or shouldn't we look instead to environmental law?
Is CSR viewpoint neutral? When covering CSR in a Corporations course, I ask students whether social activists who are lobbying a corporation to change what they see as immoral employment practices, should be able to put their views to a shareholder vote? Then I ask whether the answer would or should change based on whether the activists are looking to end racial or gender discrimination or whether they are lobbying a company to stop offering benefits to partners in same sex couples.
At the same time, the current state of legal affairs raises some disquieting questions for opponents of CSR too. The conclusion in the Economist blog -- leave social policy to democratic institutions and public law -- has a long lineage. It harkens back to Milton Friedman's arguments that corporations and the states do and should exist in separate spheres; if citizens want to change corporate policy, the argument goes, they should act through the political process and push through public regulation.
But, the separate spheres argument looks more and more outdated, as corporations influence and permeate the sphere of government. Do arguments to leave regulating the public dimension of corporate behavior out of corporate law and governance -- and leave it to traditional legislative and regulatory bodies -- appear naive in a post-Citizens United (and post-public choice)world?
Also, do these same questions for proponents and critics of CSR apply in equal measure to the growing field of social entrepreneurship? Can entrepreneurs do well while doing good? Should we expect them too? Is social entrepreneurship a workable, stable, and viewpoint neutral concept? If so, what does it entail? Does/should CSR apply equally to small businesses and startups as to global corporations?
We look forward to hearing from our Masters...
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Like many alums (including Steve Bainbridge), I've been increasingly dismayed at the Board of Visitors summary firing of Theresa Sullivan in only her second year as president of the University of Virginia. I won't get into the merits, although I've recently written on a related topic in the context of for-profit boards, and I am kicking myself for not getting a draft up on SSRN. The Washington Post quotes Jane Batton, of the Batton family that is arguably the biggest donor in the school's history (clocking in at a cool $170 million): "There may be good reason to replace President Sullivan — I don’t know — but it was handled in the worst possible way that has caused damage to the university." That sounds about right.
On the meta-level, what's struck me is how different my experience of this controversy is compared to what it would have been 6 years ago. Back then, I would have been obsessively following the story, checking the Daily Progress, WaPo, the Richmond-Times Dispatch, and using Google searches to get the latest. Maybe I would have been cc'd on an email blast from a concerned alum.
Now, every morning I scroll through my friends' status updates (yes, I'm on Facebook. No, if you're a current student you cannot friend me) and get up to speed on what's happened. More than that, by commenting on others' status updates I've talked with people passionately interested in this topic, many of them strangers, engaging in a real back and forth of ideas and questions. Friends that I'd forgotten or never known had any connection with Virginia shared their thoughts and concerns and conspiracy theories. Facebook (and Larry Sabato's twitter feed) have connected me to events unfolding 500 miles away to a degree that I find hard to believe.
No, my point isn't just that social media can be transformative. Yes, I have heard of the Arab spring. But even in a non-repressive regime, Facebook has its uses. Facebook scorn is somewhat in vogue now. Bumbled IPO, no path to profit, who uses it anyway? Rich Karlaard of Forbes writes: "I have not visited my Facebook page in two months. Almost every professional person I talk to who is over 25 years old has grown bored with Facebook."
I'm not bored. When something's happening in a corner of the world I care about, Facebook delivers. On ordinary days there's certainly time-suckage, but I'm not the kind of worker that can go non-stop. I need breaks between substantive work.
And Facebook beats the heck out of my old standby, Minesweeper.
Thanks to Erik Gerding for the opportunity to share some of my ideas on corporate criminal liability, Dodd-Frank, corporate influences on individual behavior and educating today's law students only three months into my new academic career. I appreciate the thoughtful and encouraging emails I received from many of you. I even received a request for an interview from the Wall Street Journal after a reporter read my two blog posts on Dodd-Frank conflicts minerals governance disclosures. We had a lengthy conversation and although I only had one quote, he did link to the Conglomerate posts and for that I am very grateful.
I plan to make this site required reading for my seminar students, and look forward to continuing to learn from you all.
Best wishes for the holiday season and new year.
Law schools are under attack. Depending upon the source, between 20-50% of corporate counsel won’t pay for junior associate work at big firms. Practicing lawyers, academics, law students and members of the general public have weighed in publicly and vehemently about the perceived failure of America’s law schools to prepare students for the real world.
Admittedly, before I joined academia a few months ago, I held some of the same views about lack of preparedness. Having worked with law students and new graduates as outside and in house counsel, I was often unimpressed with the level of skills of these well-meaning, very bright new graduates. I didn’t expect them to know the details of every law, but I did want them to know how to research effectively, write clearly, and be able to influence the clients and me. The first two requirements aren’t too much to expect, and schools have greatly improved here. But many young attorneys still leave school without the ability to balance different points of view, articulate a position in plain English, and influence others.
To be fair, unlike MBAs, most law students don’t have a lot of work experience, and generally, very little experience in a legal environment before they graduate. Assuming they know the substantive area of the law, they don’t have any context as to what may be relevant to their clients.
How can law schools help?
First, regardless of the area in which a student believes s/he wants to specialize, schools should require them to take business associations, tax, and a basic finance or accounting course. No lawyer can be effective without understanding business, whether s/he wants to focus on mom and pop clients, estate planning, family law, nonprofit, government or corporate law. More important, students have no idea where they will end up after graduation or ten years later. Trying to learn finance when they already have a job wastes the graduate’s and the employer’s time.
Of course, many law schools already require tax and business organizations courses, but how many of those schools also show students an actual proxy statement or simulate a shareholder’s meeting to provide some real world flavor? Do students really understand what it means to be a fiducuiary?
Second and on a related point, in the core courses, students may not need to draft interrogatories in a basic civil procedure course, but they should at least read a complaint and a motion for summary judgment, and perhaps spend some time making the arguments to their brethren in the classroom on a current case on a docket. No one can learn effectively by simply reading appellate cases. Why not have students redraft contract clauses? When I co-taught professional responsibility this semester, students simulated client conversations, examined do-it-yourself legal service websites for violations of state law, and wrote client letters so that the work came alive.
When possible, schools should also re-evaluate their core requirements to see if they can add more clinicals (which are admittedly expensive) or labs for negotiation, client consultation or transactional drafting (like my employer UMKC offers). I’m not convinced that law school needs to last for three years, but I am convinced that more of the time needs to be spent marrying the doctrinal and theoretical work to practical skills into the current curriculum.
Third, schools can look to their communities. In addition to using adjuncts to bring practical experience to the classroom, schools, the public and private sector should develop partnerships where students can intern more frequently and easily for school credit in the area of their choice, including nonprofit work, local government, criminal law, in house work and of course, firm work of all sizes. Current Department of Labor rules unnecessarily complicate internship processes and those rules should change.
This broader range of opportunities will provide students with practical experience, a more realistic idea of the market, and will also help address access to justice issues affecting underserved communities, for example by allowing supervised students to draft by-laws for a 501(c)(3). I’ll leave the discussion of high student loans, misleading career statistics from law schools and the oversupply of lawyers to others who have spoken on these hot topics issues recently.
Fourth, law schools should integrate the cataclysmic changes that the legal profession is undergoing into as many classes as they can. Law professors actually need to learn this as well. How are we preparing students for the commoditization of legal services through the rise of technology, the calls for de-regulation, outsourcing, and the emerging competition from global firms who can integrate legal and other professional services in ways that the US won’t currently allow?
Finally and most important, what are we teaching students about managing and appreciating risk? While this may not be relevant in every class, it can certainly be part of the discussions in many. Perhaps students will learn more from using a combination of reading law school cases and using the business school case method.
If students don’t understand how to recognize, measure, monitor and mitigate risk, how will they advise their clients? If they plan to work in house, as I did, they serve an additional gatekeeper role and increasingly face SEC investigations and jail terms. As more general counsels start hiring people directly from law schools, junior lawyers will face these complexities even earlier in their careers. Even if they counsel external clients, understanding risk appetite is essential in an increasingly complex, litigious and regulated world.
When I teach my course on corporate governance, compliance and social responsibility next spring, my students will look at SEC comment letters, critically scrutinize corporate social responsibility reports, read blogs, draft board minutes, dissect legislation, compare international developments and role play as regulators, legislators, board members, labor organizations, NGOs and executives to understand all perspectives and practice influencing each other. Learning what Sarbanes-Oxley or Dodd-Frank says without understanding what it means in practice is useless.
The good news is that more schools are starting to look at those kinds of issues. The Carnegie Model of legal education “supports courses and curricula that integrate three sets of values or ‘apprenticeships’: knowledge, practice and professionalism.” Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is a growing consortium of law schools which recommends “an integrated, three-part curriculum: (1) the teaching of legal doctrine and analysis, which provides the basis for professional growth; (2) introduction to the several facets of practice included under the rubric of lawyering, leading to acting with responsibility for clients; and (3) exploration and assumption of the identity, values and dispositions consonant with the fundamental purposes of the legal profession.” The University of Miami’s innovative LawWithoutWalls program brings students, academics, entrepreneurs and practitioners from around the world together to examine the fundamental shifts in legal practice and education and develop viable solutions.
The problems facing the legal profession are huge, but not insurmountable. The question is whether more law schools and professors are able to leave their comfort zones, law students are able to think more globally and long term, and the popular press and public are willing to credit those who are already moving in the right direction. I’m no expert, but as a former consumer of these legal services, I’m ready to do my part.
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Massey Energy and Walmart made headlines last week for different reasons. Massey had the worst mining disaster in 40 years, killing 29 employees and entered into a nonprescution agreement with the Department of Justice. The DOJ has stated in the past that these agreements balance the interests of penalizing offending companies, compensating victims and stopping criminal conduct “without the loss of jobs, the loss of pensions, and other significant negative consequences to innocent parties who played no role in the criminal conduct, were unaware of it, or were unable to prevent it.”
Massey’s new owner Alpha Natural Resources, has agreed to pay $210 million dollars in fines to the government, compensation to the families of the deceased miners and for safety improvements (the latter may be tax-deductible). The government’s 972-page report concluded that the root cause was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life threatening safety violations. The company maintained a doctored set of safety records for investigators, intimidated workers who complained of safety issues, warned miners when inspectors were coming (a crime), and had 370 violations. The mine had been shut down 48 times in the previous year and reopened once violations were fixed. 112 miners had had no basic safety training at all. Only one executive has been convicted of destroying documents and obstruction, and investigations on other executives are pending. However, the company itself has escaped prosecution for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Act, conspiracy or obstruction of justice. Perhaps new ownership swayed prosecutors and if Massey had its same owners, things would be different. But is this really justice? The miner’s families receiving the settlement certainly don’t think so.
Walmart announced in its 10-Q that based upon a compliance review and other sources (Dodd-Frank whistleblowers maybe?), it had informed both the SEC and DOJ that it was conducting a worldwide review of its practices to ensure that there were no violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”). Although no facts have come out in the Walmart case and I have no personal knowledge of the circumstances, let’s assume for the sake of this post that Walmart has a robust compliance program, which takes a risk based approach to training its two million employees in what they need to know (the greeter in Tulsa may not need in-depth training on bribery and corruption but the warehouse manager and office workers in Brazil and China do). Let’s also assume that Walmart can hire the best attorneys, investigators and consultants around, and based on their advice, chose to disclose to the government that they were conducting an internal investigation. Let’s further assume that the incidents are not widespread and may involve a few rogue managers around the world, who have chosen to ignore the training and the policies and a strong tone at the top.
As is common today, let’s also assume that depending on what they find, the company will do what every good “corporate citizen” does to avoid indictment --disclose all factual findings and underlying information of its internal investigation, waive the attorney client privilege and work product protection, fire employees, replace management, possibly cut off payment of legal fees for those under investigation, and actively participate in any government investigations of employees, competitors, agents and vendors.
Should this idealized version of Walmart be treated the same as Massey Energy? (For a great compilation of essays on the potential conflicts between the company and its employees, read Prosecutors in the Boardroom: Using Criminal Law to Regulate Corporate Conduct, edited by Anthony and Rachel Barkow). Should they both be charged and face trial or should they get deferred or nonprosecution agreements for cooperation? Do these NPAs and DPAs erode our sense of justice or should there be an additional alternative for companies that have done the right thing -- an affirmative defense?
A discussion of the history of corporate criminal liability would be too detailed for this post, but in its most simplistic form, ever since the 1909 case of New York Central & Hudson River Railroad Co v. United States, companies have endured strict liability for the criminal acts of employees who were acting within the scope of their employment and who were motivated in part by an intent to benefit the corporation. As case law has evolved, companies face this liability even if the employee flouted clear rules and mandates and the company has a state of the art compliance program and corporate culture. In reality, no matter how much money, time or effort a company spends to train and inculcate values into its employees, agents and vendors, there is no guarantee that their employees will neither intentionally nor unintentionally violate the law.
The DOJ has reiterated this 1909 standard in its policy documents. And because so few corporations go to trial and instead enter into DPAs or NPAs, we don’t know whether the compliance programs in place would have led to either the potential 400% increase or 95% decrease in fines and penalties under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines because judges aren’t making those determinations. The DPAs are now providing more information about corporate compliance reporting provisions, but again, even if a company already had all of those practices in place, and a rogue group of employees ignored them, the company faces the criminal liability. The Ethical Resource Center is preparing a report in celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Sentencing Guidelines with recommendations for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, members of Congress, the DOJ and other enforcement agencies. They are excellent and timely, but they do not go far enough.
A Massey Energy should not receive the same treatment as my idealized model corporate citizen Walmart. Instead, I agree with Larry Thompson, formerly of the DOJ and now a general counsel and others who propose an affirmative defense for an effective compliance program- not simply as possible reduction in a fine or a DPA or NPA.
While the ideal standard would require prosecutors to prove that upper management was willfully blind or negligent regarding the conduct, this proposed standard may presume corporate involvement or condonation of wrongful conduct but allow the company to rebut this presumption with a defense.
In the past decade, companies drastically changed their antiharassment programs after the Supreme Court cases of Fargher and Ellerth allowed for an affirmative defense. The UK Bribery Act also allows for an affirmative defense for implementing “adequate procedures” with six principles of bribery prevention. Interestingly, they too are looking at instituting DPAs.
I would limit a proposed affirmative defense to when nonpolicymaking employees have committed misconduct contrary to law, policy or management instructions. If the company adopted or ratified the conduct and/or did not correct it, it could not avail itself of the defense. The company would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: it has implemented a state of the art program approved and overseen by the board or a designated committee; clearly communicated the corporation’s intent to comply with the law and announced employee penalties for prohibited acts; met or exceeded industry standards and norms; is periodically audited and benchmarked by a third party and has made modifications if necessary; has financial incentives for lawful and penalties unlawful behavior; elevated the compliance officer to report directly to the board or a designated committee (a suggestion rejected in the 2010 amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines); has consistently applied anti-retaliation policies for whistleblowers; voluntarily reported wrongdoing to authorities when appropriate; and of course taken into account what the DOJ has required of offending companies and which is now becoming the standard. The court should have to rule on the defense pre-trial.
Instead of serving as vicarious or deputized prosecutors, under this proposed standard, a corporation’s cooperation with prosecutors will be based on factors more within the corporation's control,rather than the catch-22 they currently face where if employees are guilty, there is no defense. And if the employees are guilty, this would not preclude the government from prosecuting them, as they should.
Responsible corporations now spend significant sums on compliance programs and the reward is simply a reduction in a fine for conduct for which it is vicariously liable and which its policies strictly prohibited. A defense will promote earlier detection and remedying of the wrongdoing, reduce government expenditures, provide more assurance to investors and regulators, allow the government to focus on companies that don’t have effective compliance program, and most important provide incentives for companies to invest in more state of the art programs rather than a cosmetic, check the box initiative because the standard would be higher than what is currently Sentencing Guidelines.
Perhaps only a small number of companies may be able to prevail with this defense. Frankly, corporations won’t want to bear the risk of a trial, but they will at least have a better negotiating position with prosecutors. Moreover, companies that try in good faith to do the right thing won’t be lumped into the same categories as those who invest in the least expensive programs that may pass muster or worse, engage in clearly intentional criminal behavior. If companies have the certainty that there is a chance to use a defense, that will invariably lead to stronger programs that can truly detect and prevent criminal behavior.
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Except for Arizona and Hawaii, the United States ended this calendar's observance of Daylight Saving Time at 2 a.m. local time today. In a fascinating book titled A Time for Every Purpose: Law and the Balance of Life, Harvard University Byrne Professor of Administrative Law Todd D. Rakoff argues that social regulation of time can and should create more room for people to balance time at work with time away from work.
In the article Losing Sleep at the Market: The Daylight-Savings Anomaly, three financial economists document that in international financial markets, the average Friday-to-Monday return on daylight-savings weekends is much lower than expected, with a magnitude 200 to 500 percent larger than the average negative return for other weekends of the year. This finding is consistent with psychological research about how changes in sleep patterns have impacts on accidents, anxiety, decision-making, judgment, reaction time, and problem solving. In this article Winter Blues: A SAD Stock Market Cycle, financial economists found that the lack of sunlight during winter months tends to depress stock prices across international markets. More recently, the article This is Your Portfolio on Winter: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Risk Aversion in Financial Decision Making reported that people with SAD (Seasonal Affect Disorder) exhibited financial risk aversion that varied across seasons because of their seasonally changing affect. SAD-sufferers had much stronger preferences for safe choices during winter than non-SAD-sufferers, and SAD-sufferers did not differ from non-SAD-sufferers during summer.
In two articles, The Psychophysiology of Real-Time Financial Risk Processing and Fear and Greed in Financial Markets: An Online Clinical Study, Andrew Lo and co-authors find traders who respond with too little or too much emotion tend to be less profitable than traders with middle of the range types of emotional responses. Another article Endogenous Steroids and Financial Risk Taking on a London Trading Floor documents that traders tend to make more money on days when their testosterone levels are higher than average.
All of the above differing strands of empirical research share in common the finding that emotions play important roles in how people arrive at financial judgments and financial decisions. Of course, even just a moment of introspection is enough for us to realize that we are like other people in making emotional judgments and emotional decisions. In the article Who's Afraid of Law and Emotions?, the Herma Hill Kay Distinguished Professor of Law at Boalt Hall Kathryn Abrams and Southestern law school professor Hila Keren analyze the ambivalent reactions by mainstream legal academics to law and emotions scholarship and conclude that part of the reason for such responses is the persistence of rationalist tendencies within the legal academy.
I have often heard after making a presentation about emotions in financial markets and regulation the view that emotions could matter in non-financial areas of life and law, but emotions in general and happiness in particular are not what business and business law are and should be about. Such a point of view strikes as being wrong and closed-minded. As economist Andrew J. Oswald cogently observes in the opening paragraphs of his article Happiness and Economic Performance:
"Economic performance is not intrinsically interesting. No-one is concerned in a genuine sense about the level of gross national product last year or about next year's exchange rate. People have no innate interest in the money supply, inflation, growth, inequality, unemployment, and the rest. The stolid greyness of the business pages of our newspapers seems to mirror the fact that economic numbers matter only indirectly.
The relevance of economic performance is that it may be a means to an end. That end is not the consumption of beefburgers, nor the accumulation of television sets, nor the vanquishing of some high level of interest rates, but rather the enrichment of mankind's feeling of well-being. Economic things matter only in so far as they make people happier."
I will expand in a later post on decisions to measure happiness by an increasing number of governments of countries, states, and cities as diverse as Bhutan, England, Guandong province in China, Maryland, and Somerville in Massachusetts. For now, check out:
Finally, Glom readers may find this five-day free virtual event of interest: The Enlightened Business Summit which takes place this week November 7-11 and is hosted by Chip Conley, the founder of Joie de Vivre, a two-time TED Speaker, and author of the book Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow and the forthcoming book Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success:
I am happy to recommend a new blog Brazen And Tenured - Law Politics Nature and Culture from two of my colleagues: Pierre Schlag, Byron White Professor of Constitutional Law, and Sarah Krakoff, Wolf-Nichol Fellow. Pierre's research interests include constitutional law, jurisprudence, legal philosophy, and tort law. Pierre wrote an essay, The Faculty Workshop, which examines how the institution of law school faculty workshops expresses, regulates, and reproduces legal academic behavior, governance, hierarchy, norms, and thought. Sarah's research interests include civil procedure; Indian law, and natural resources law. Sarah is working on a book about the different stages of humans' relationship to nature, which extends her book chapter, Parenting the Planet.
As Pierre described their blog, it's quite idiosyncratic as far as blogs are concerned. That having been said, Glom readers are likely to find their blog to be amusing, informative, and thought-provoking. Here are the two most recent examples.
Pierre's post entitled Tips for Legal Commentators: How to Talk to the Press is a delightful compendium of speaking points. It explains why the legal talking heads who come out of the woodwork to appear on television during any high-profile trial or other legal event always seem to say the same things with a high noise to signal ratio. My personal expeirence when speaking to print media financial journalists about securities fraud, materiality, derivatives, and Goldman Sachs is there is a very high probability (equal to one minus epsilon, where epsilon is a very small positive number) that I'll be misquoted to have said exactly the opposite of what I actually said! Pierre's advice for speaking to journalists has the virtue that it has the property of being subject matter and position invariant. In other words, no matter what legal topic and what viewpoint you have, Pierre's suggested sound bites will apply. Because they are universal and timeless, these quotes have the added virtue of making you sound profound and wise. Finally, these sample responses to media questions are brief, intuitive, memorable, and predictable. Once you deploy one, there is likely to be repeat demand for your expertise. On the other hand, if you do not enjoy being a talking head, then do the opposite of what Pierre recommends to ensure that reporters will not seek you out.
Sarah's post entitled The Economy versus the Environment? Not! (Or Why to Be Tigger Instead of Eeyore this Halloween) is a welcome reminder for both economists and environmentalists that being offered a choice between the economy and the environment is a false dichotomy that privileges a myopic time horizon and local opposed to global perspectives. Her post also nicely dovetails the small but growing literature applying empirical happiness research to support sustainable environmental policy. For example, Daniel A. Farber recently posted a working paper entitled Law, Sustainability, and the Pursuit of Happiness, which demonstrates that sustainability for society and the pursuit of individual happiness do not have to be at odds.
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An article in today's Life section of USA Today titled Movies tap into anger at Wall Street describes how 3 movies in current release mirror public angst over economic inequalities and inequities: Tower Heist, In Time, and the already mentioned in 2 Glom blogs, Margin Call.
This autumn's documentary Chasing Madoff recounts Harry Markopolos’ multi-year crusade to expose the multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernie Madoff. Alleged victims of this massive fraud include the celebrity couple of Kyra Sedgwick (star of The Closer on TNT) and Kevin Bacon (of the original Footloose (1984) fame). The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act included a broad set of whistleblower provisions under which the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted specific rules and procedures to incentivize potential whistleblowers by way of cash rewards and protection from retaliation.
There is also a 2009 documentary about the subprime mortgage fiasco, which is now available on DVD, American Casino. 2001 economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stigltiz described it as being "a powerful and shocking look at the subprime lending scandal. If you want to understand how the US financial system failed and how mortgage companies ripped off the poor, see this film."
This May, the HBO Films production of Too Big to Fail, based on the book of the same name with the subtitle of The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System--and Themselves depicted the autumn 2008 U.S. financial crisis and the sequence of (less than intertemporally consistent) policy responses by the Treasury department, the Federal Reserve, and other financial regulators.
Last autumn's Inside Job made a compelling argument in five parts about how the American financial services industry systematically and systemically corrupted the United States government and in so doing brought about changes in banking practices and legal policies that led directly to the Great Recession.
Although the documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer focused primarily on the interaction of ego, hubris, power, scandal, sex, and politics, it also touched upon Wall Street and efforts by Spitzer to reform its excesses.
Of course, no list of movies related to the recent financial crises would be complete without including documentary film-maker Michael Moore's 2009, Capitalism: A Love Story, which criticizes the current American economic system in particular and capitalism in general. At one point, it asks if capitalism is a sin and whether Jesus would be a capitalist, who wanted to maximize profits, deregulate banking, and have the sick pay out of pocket for pre-existing conditions via clips from Jesus of Nazareth. Moore asks if one could patent the sun and questions how the brightest American youth are drawn towards finance and not science. He proceeds to Wall Street asking for non-technical explanations of derivative securities in general and credit default swaps in particular. Both a former vice-president of Lehman Brothers and current Harvard University economics professor Kenneth Rogoff fail to clearly explain either term. Moore thus concludes that our complex economic system and its arcane terminology exist simply to confuse people and that Wall Street effectively has a crazy casino mentality.
Finally, the PBS Nova episode, Mind Over Money, which originally aired on April 26, 2010 asks whether markets can possibly be rational when people clearly are not. In other words, is there a version of the efficient markets hypothesis that can be true in a world populated by at least some boundedly rational actors? In posing this question, the show offers an entertaining, yet quite informative survey of elements of behavioral economics and finance. Its companion website provides additional resource materials concerning the role of emotions in financial decision-making. The debate which it depicts between the University of Chicago school of economics and the behavioral economics approach (including scenes of Dick Thaler playing pool) is a bit overdone and perhaps unintentionally comical, but it raises the question of whether it matters for law and policy how people make their financial judgments and decisions? Of course, the natural follow-ups of if so, then how and if not, then why not, are questions about which business law professors, Glom readers, and policy makers are likely to have perhaps quite strong and certainly divergent opinions.
A television program that has become quite popular is the USA network's original dramatic series White Collar, which is based upon the premise of an F.B.I. agent solving white collar crimes with the assistance of consultant who is a former (and current?) art thief and con man extraordinaire. Episodes have featured a black widow, baby selling, bank robbery, black market kidneys, bond theft, collusion, corporate espionage, derivatives, financial fraud by a Wall Street brokerage firm, identity theft, and political corruption.
It is reminiscent of the 1960's campy, classic, and tongue-in-cheek television series, It Takes A Thief.
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I recently saw the movie, Margin Call, which is currently playing in theaters and is available on demand at Comcast. There are curretly 34 reviews of it by viewers at imdb, where it has a rating of 7.3 out of 10.
I also just finished reading this paper, Fear, Greed, and Financial Crisis: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective, prepared for a forthcoming handbook on systemic risk. This chapter is by finance professor Andrew Lo, who is the director of the MIT laboratory for financal engineering. He also wrote another excellent paper which Glom readers are likely to find of interest, namely Reading About the Financial Crisis: A 21-Book Review, that was prepared for the Journal of Economic Literature.
In the interests of full disclosure, I taught at Temple law school a seminar titled Law, Emotions, and Neuroscience and co-taught at Yale law school with professor Dan Kahan a seminar titled Neuroscience and the Law. The seminars covered some basic materials about affective,cognitive, and social neuroscience before analyzing the potential and limits of applications to business law, conflict resolution, criminal law, ethics, evidence, morality, paternalism, and social policy. Media coverage of neuroscience and law has a tendency to focus almost exclusively on such controversial issues as free will and responsibility in the criminal law context. Glom readers are more likely to focus on neuroeconomics and neurofinance, two nascent fields that ask how human brains engage in JDM (Judgment and Decision Making) in general and over time and under risk in particular.
Also, as cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga recently stated: responsibility, like generosity, love, pettiness, and suspiciousness, is a strongly emergent property, which although being derived from biological mechanisms, has fundamentally distinct properties, just like the case of ice and water. The press and the public also seem to be fascinated with very colorful fMRI brain scans because they like the idea of being as the Wall Street Journal science writer, Sharon Begley, calls them: cognitive papparazi.
My system 1 believes in synchronicity, so this post, as evidenced by its title's homage to Lo's chapter, approaches the movie Margin Call from a cognitive neuroscience perspective informed by Lo's chapter. Lo provides a brief history of what we know about brains. He then explains how fear and the amygdala can exacerbate financial crises. He also demonstrates how the reward of money appears to share the same neural system and the release of the neuortransmitter dopamine into the nucleus accumbens as these rewards do: beauty, cocaine, food, music, love, and sex.
Lo proceeds to discuss a neurophysiological explanation for Kahneman and Tversky's experiment demonstrating people's aversion to sure loss. Lo proposes a neuroscientifically informed view of rationality that differs very much from an economic rational expectations conception, with the key difference being the role that emotion plays in JDM. Lo extends his analysis from individuals to groups by explaining the neurophysiology of mirror neurons, theories of mind, social interactions, and the efficient markets hypothesis. He concludes his neuroscience survey by describing the marvels and limits of the human prefrontal cortex, also known as the "executive brain." Of particular interest to Glom readers is decision fatigue, documented recently among judges rendering favorable parole decisions around 65% of the time at the start of and close to 0% by the end of each of 3 daily sessions that were separated by 2 food breaks (a late morning snack and lunch). This empirical finding that parole rates increased after food breaks is consistent with recent experimental research finding that glucose can reverse decision fatigue and the common adage to not make important decisions when tired.
Lo provides several practical and reasonable suggesions based upon cognitive neurosciences about how policymakers can engage in financial reform to deal with systemic risk. He concludes by advocating that financial economists utilize the great recession to re-conceptualize, rethink, and revamp neoclassical economics by forging a consilience between the neurosciences and financial economic theory. Building a deeper and better understanding of economic phenomena through improved economic models and intellectual frameworks can and should lead to a more appropriate financial regulatory infrastructure.
And now onto a few comments about the movie Margin Call. Without giving away the plot for those who may want to see it without any knowledge of its ending, this movie raises ethical and moral questions about individual versus social optimality, trading on the basis of private information, panic selling, professional codes or norms of behavior, and the costs a company may impose on society and pay to others to survive. There is certainly lots of fear and greed on display in this film. Set over the course of a day and sleepless night in NYC, the movie viscerally illustrates various forms of JDM and how individuals and groups of individuals can persevere under stress and time pressures. It is a movie that can and should provoke discussion about what could have been done differently by individuals, financial firms, and regulators. It is a film that I'm going to put on the list of movies at the start of the chapter about business law in the text, Law and Popular Culture: Text, Notes, and Questions (LexisNexis Matthew Bender, 2007) by David Ray Papke, Melissa Cole Essig, Christine Alice Corcos, Lenora P. Ledwon, Diane H. Mazur, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Philip N. Meyer, Binny Miller, and myself that we are revising for a second edition.
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When it was enacted, I blogged about DC's bag tax law which went into effect in January of 2010 and charges customers five cents for each disposable bag they take at checkout. After well over a year, several studies have emerged assessing the law's impact, with some conflicting results--perhaps reflecting the conflicts inherent in such a law.
On the one hand, at least one study suggests that the law is having a negative impact on DC's economy and jobs in the area. According to the study, the law causes people to purchase fewer items and avoid shopping in DC, leading to a drop in sales and a corresponding drop in jobs. The study also points out that the law has not generated the amount of revenue proponents projected, indicating that the revenue collected under the law will be at least $1 million less than expected. To be sure, this revenue shortfall highlights a potential contradiction of the law--to the extent it successfully encourages reduction in bag use, one should expect a corresponding reduction in any revenues associated with that use.
Advocates of the law appear to insist that the law is a win-win for DC’s economy and environmental efforts. First, such advocates question these negative studies not only because they fail to pinpoint any actual job loss, but also because they do not seem to account for other studies in which most business owners report that the law has either had no impact or a positive impact on their business. Proponents also point out that business owners receive one cent out of the five cents collected under the law. Second, advocates note that the law has led to significant reduction in bag use. Hence, one study found that after the law's enactment, customers used 3.3 billion bags in one month, compared to an estimated 22.5 billion being used prior to the law taking effect. Estimates of the overall reduction in bag use range from 50% to 80%. And this reduction has an impact on bags found in the Anacostia River. Hence, one cleanup agency reported a 50% drop in the number of bags found in the river, suggesting that the law is having its desired environmental impact of helping cleanup efforts at the river.
Since the law's enactment I certainly have found myself using less disposable bags and more reusable bags. There are also many times when I am buying a small number of items where I simply will not use a bag, and this is true both in DC and in places where there is no bag tax law. So the law has changed my behavior and I was interested to know if it was having its desired impact--but perhaps that depends on your perspective about the desired impact the law was aimed at having.
As David notes, one of the fallouts of a negative say on pay vote have been shareholder lawsuits. The lawsuits allege, among other things, that the negative say on pay vote is an indication not only that the board breached its duty of loyalty, but also that the board should not be given the presumption of the business judgment rule for demand futility purposes--and hence that such suits should be allowed to survive a motion to dismiss. This semester I am writing an article on the feasibility of these say on pay lawsuits, and hence I was surprised when earlier last week a U.S. District Court in Ohio allowed shareholders say on pay lawsuit against Cincinnati Bell to survive a motion to dismiss in an order that relied on the negative say on pay vote.
Shareholders brought suit against the directors of Cincinnati Bell after 66% of shareholders voted against the 2010 executive compensation at its May 2011 annual meeting. The order framed the issue in this way, "This civil lawsuit presents the question, among others, whether a shareholder of a public company may sue its directors for breach of the duty of loyalty when the directors grant $4 million dollars in bonuses, on top of $4.5 million dollars in salary and other compensation, to the chief executive officer in the same year the company incurs a $61.3 million dollar decline in net income, a drop in earnings per share from $0.37 to $0.09, a reduction in share price from $3.45 to $2.80, and a negative 18.8% annual shareholder return." To be sure, with such a framing it seemed pretty clear where the court was headed. . .
In its order, the court stated that shareholders' allegations "raise a plausible claim that the multi-million dollar bonuses approved by the directors in a time of the company's declining financial performance violated Cincinnati Bell's pay-for-performance policy and were not in the best interest of Cincinnati Bell's shareholders. In so stating, the court specifically noted shareholders' assertions that the negative say on pay vote provides "direct and probative" evidence that the compensation awards were not in the best interests of the shareholders. This finding is of course precisely what shareholders hoped to achieve with say on pay litigation. Indeed, each of the lawsuits makes a similar claim that the say on pay vote reflects shareholders' independent assessment that the challenged compensation awards were not in their best interests, and as a result, such negative votes should be used to rebut any presumption that directors' action ofapproving executive compensation awards were in the shareholders' best interests. Moreover, the suits often rely on corporate disclosure in their proxy statement and other public documents that expresses a commitment to pay for performance to demonstrate that the challenged award conflicts with the company's own pay policies. The Cincinnati Bell order suggest that relying on corporate disclosure in this way is effective. In that regard, it also may prompt corporations to alter their disclosure to avoid such reliance.
Importantly for purposes of shareholders being able to get their day in court, the order agrees with shareholders' contention that they were excused from making any presuit demand. In the court's view, the fact that directors had approved the compensation award, recommended that shareholders approve the award, and suffered a negative shareholder vote, demonstrated that demand would be futile on such directors. This is interesting. On the one hand, you can imagine directors contending that they only did what federal law now requires them to do. Moreover, Dodd-Frank has a provision specifically stating that the say on pay vote is advisory and should not be construed as overruling directors' decisions, or changing or adding additional fiduciary duties for directors, and many commentators have argued that such a provision indicates that say on pay votes should not be used to somehow alter the law in this area, including the law with respect to demand rules. On the other hand, some commentators have noted that Dodd-Frank does not prevent such votes from being used to support a finding of a fiduciary duty breach. The Cincinnati Bell court cites this latter commentary.
Of course, just because a suit survives a motion to dismiss does not mean that shareholders will win at trial (see e.g., Disney!). Then too, Cincinnati Bell is an Ohio corporation--though the court did cite Delaware law in its demand futility discussion. However, a decision like this certainly prolongs these say on pay lawsuits. Such a decision also suggests that these say on pay votes may impact, and even change, fiduciary duty law regarding compensation.
My colleague Jeffrey Manns has an op-ed in the New York Times called The Revenge of the Rating Agencies in which he argues that the financial crisis "jeopardized [credit rating] agencies' privileged position," and that such agencies are taking advantage of the country's financial problems to "ensure that regulators do not reduce their autonomy and influence." It is an interesting read.