Beyond Hashtag Bitterness: Campaign Season vs. A Politics of Public Projects

i. Politics as public projects; elections as terrain-setting

Politics, to me, is the word we use to describe the interplay of our public projects. These projects range from the specific (“We want to regulate this product”) to the conceptual (“We want to achieve equal justice under law”); from the bounded (“We want policies that protect our family”) to the grand (“We want an international climate plan”); from the self-interested (“We want this tax break for our income bracket”) to the civic-minded (“We want to ameliorate this social ill”); from the state-centered (“We want to end this war”) to the culture-centered (“We want to change this practice”) to the market-centered (“We want to modernize this industry”). These projects advance through struggle: against inertia, against friction in the institutions that can help realize them, and against each other.  We identify with some of these projects and their respective struggles, while disdaining and fighting other ones. We treat most as practical steps to address complicated challenges, but experience a special few as simple religious crusades. These public projects — and the struggles for them, the fights between them, and the processes that grant them power — are the meat and potatoes of politics.

We care about elections because we care about our public projects. I like to think of elections as contests to determine the legislative terrain on which our various public projects will interact in the coming years. Seen this way, voting in elections is like picking the arena where the real match will eventually take place: though the possible arenas may vary widely — with each possible arena advantaging some projects and disadvantaging others — they are not the matches themselves. The matches themselves are between the actual public projects that we continually struggle for every year regardless of which terrain was selected in the last election year.  No matter how lopsided an elected arena’s terrain is — no matter how much this year’s batch of elected officials will advantage certain public projects over others — Election Day is not the closing bell but the opening one; and the true players are not the various candidates, but us.

ii. The bitterness of abstract fights

But in the heat of campaign season, our passion for the public projects we care about and our passion for the campaigns we feel will advantage them in the coming years blend together. In fact, Presidential campaigns want them to blend together: the most successful campaigns become so abstract as to make millions of us see their candidate as the one who will, in the coming years, best advantage all of our varied public projects.

This is why election seasons become bitter: we all get defensive about our preferred candidates because attacks on them are perceived as attacks on our beloved projects.  And, adding more fog to the forest, we all perceive candidates differently and cannot know which projects our neighbors are reading into their candidates or our own.

Put another way, behind any given “#FeelTheBern” or “#ImWithHer” typed into a Facebook post is a bundle of public projects that a specific neighbor cares about; yet, all we can see is the abstract hashtag. Therefore, all we often do to understand what our neighbors are expressing is apply our own, personal bundle of meanings for that abstraction. Again, this is what campaigns want us to do: they want to temporarily boil our varied desires into one broth; they prefer pliable and profitable hashtag-based politics to stubborn and concrete project-based politics.

Like most of us throughout the past year, I have experienced this bitterness of abstract fights. I have bristled at attacks on Bernie Sanders, because when I see #FeelTheBern, I see single payer health care, freeing Congress from monied interests and the great, catch-all project of the Left: opening up power to more people in more ways. I cringe when I see #ImWithHer because, to me, it means meritocracy over democracy, professional class interests over the interests of the poor and working classes, and centralized management over decentralized participation.

But to other people, #ImWithHer doesn’t mean that; it means the projects of applying modern expertise to complex public problems, the hand-to-hand defense and inch-by-inch advancement of progressive policy in a compromised age, and — as touted by the campaign this week — the historic advancement of professional women. That’s why, I suspect, some people take personal offense at skepticism towards Hillary: to them, it’s skepticism towards the projects they hold near and dear.

This abstract shadow boxing — multiplied by millions of conversations, amplified by the internet, stoked by the campaigns themselves and drawn out over a year — results in the state of hashtag bitterness that we Democrats currently find ourselves in.

iii. Up from bitterness

Some may think that I am queuing up an argument that the path out of this bitterness is to stop caring about elections: if we all experience each campaign differently — and if these different experiences divide us and distract us from advancing the projects we care about — then why don’t we just stop fighting for one candidate over another?

But that, of course, should not be the answer, because election results still matter to our projects. The difference in legislative terrain between a future where Democrats win in November and one where Republicans win in November is significant enough to make it worth our while to expend some time and effort over the coming months to come together and build a coalition to elect a slate of candidates — in my previous metaphor, to select a legislative arena — that we believe will be more beneficial to our projects over the coming years.

But in the long run, the only path up from hashtag bitterness — up from the abstract acrimony that makes so many people find politics unpleasant — is to remember that before we were #WithHer or before we were #FeelingTheBern — even before we were #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or chanting #YesWeCan — we were citizens who cared about a certain set of public projects.

When we start treating politics not just as the choosing of leaders — not just as the deciding of whose #side we are on — but also as the advancing of public projects, the whole experience of political engagement becomes much more heartening. We begin to take the long view, liberating ourselves from the biennial boom and bust of electoral victory, defeat, and post-Inaugural disappointment. We begin to see the citizenry — rather than the politicians — as the agents of political change, quieting the endless national psychodrama of constantly examining the souls of and relationships between our leaders. We begin to find hope outside of Washington when Washington fails us, because public projects, unlike electoral campaigns, can be advanced at various levels and on multiple fronts.

And, most importantly, to begin to practice a politics centered on public projects rather than public figures is to begin to practice a politics conducive to national solidarity, because, contrary to popular belief, it is in concrete projects, not abstract ideals, where we can find the most common ground. In this age of the culture war, achieving consensus on what America is or on who the heroes and villains of history are or on which values to prioritize over others is a much more quixotic project than achieving consensus on, say, steps to improve our prison system, promote clean energy or increase neighbor-to-neighbor interaction. This is the mistake of President Obama’s theory that transcendent rhetoric could end the culture war: it is not our shared ideals that will bridge our partisan divides; it is our shared projects that will.

iv. Fighting electoral abstraction with neighborhood reality

And yet, campaign season continues to pull us, en masse, away from this productive and hopeful mode of project-based politics. This would be fine if it were an infrequent and temporary pause — a bounded burst of passionate coalition-building and chest-thumping for the sake of having your majority win a preferential legislative terrain for the upcoming years — but campaign season, in recent years, has ceased being bounded and temporary.  Rather, campaigns now begin years before each election and the cults of personality generated for campaigns extend years into governing terms. Cable news networks and clickbait websites carry on the abstract warfare 24/7, 365 days a year. Dissent from the party line — protests that were at one time only discouraged in the weeks directly preceding Election Day — now are met with calls for team unity even during non-election years.  

As the campaign season mindset engulfs all of politics, we start to neglect the public projects that drew us into politics in the first place.  Having been hooked on the dramatic and easily-quantifiable politics of elections, we become bored by the day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out work of pushing concrete proposals forward. Our hashtags cease being symbols representing deeper projects and instead become hollow shells. Our politics becomes stuck in abstraction, only coming down to the real world to gather anecdotes that validate our side in the symbolic fights. The bitterness smothers our hope and, with it, our motivation to continue participating in politics.

That’s why it’s so important that we, even in these months leading up to Election Day, consciously re-commit to the long-term public projects that transcend our electoral campaigns. The best way to do this — to re-cultivate our passion for concrete public projects — is to move down the abstraction ladder and renew our love for the real-world people and places we hope to serve. I have been arguing that before we are electoral campaign supporters, we must first be activists.  But before we are activists, we must first be neighbors. Before we can change communities, we must first be members of them. This is what we mean by citizenship — serving a community — and patriotism — loving a place. The more we become citizens of real communities and patriots of real places, the more fire we will have in our belly to fuel the long and hard work of advancing important public projects.

dorothy-dayThe great American Catholic, Dorothy Day — one of our history’s shining examples of deep citizenship and patriotism — never voted herself, but she cared enough about the vote to get beat up for it. In 1917, she picketed the White House over the treatment of imprisoned suffragettes and was subsequently arrested herself. She was sentenced to 30 days in Occoquan prison, where she was reported to have been slammed into an iron bench multiple times by guards. After Day went on a hunger strike with her fellow suffragettes, President Woodrow Wilson ordered their release two weeks early and shortly thereafter announced his support for Women’s Suffrage.

However, Day never saw the vote as the center of politics. Rather, she worked tirelessly every day to care for real people and real places, while, at the same time, translating her neighborhood experiences outwards into larger projects. She took a vow of poverty and opened up Houses of Hospitality across the country to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and serve as community centers. She started the Catholic Worker newspaper to report on what she saw and learned: evictions, unemployment, strikes, pickets, lynchings, child labor and poor factory conditions. She weathered scorn when she took a pacifist stance against World War II, arguing that war was incompatible with Christ’s teachings and prefiguring the Catholic Church’s broader support for non-violence decades later. She held weekly meetings where speakers would come, present points of view and lead discussions. She started farms to hire the unemployed and provide food for her Houses of Hospitality. She was a woman of many public projects.

To Dorothy Day, the most important house in American politics was not the White House, but the house in any neighborhood across the country where the doors were open: where the hungry were fed, the homeless were sheltered, and the isolated were organized. She believed the vote exemplified the idea that man “wants a part to play, a voice to speak in his community,” but also that our votes were insufficient to fully realize our parts and our voices. She likely preferred some leaders to other ones — and was not opposed to forming coalitions with others or having audiences with the powerful to achieve certain ends — but she steadfastly saw us neighbors and citizens — not far off politicians — as the agents in advancing what to her was the overarching project of political life: building “a society in which it is easier for people to be good.” She advanced that project in a practice of long-view politics that was anchored in a lived reality too visceral to allow one to get caught up in abstract fights.

She called on us to join her in that project and that view of politics.

I’m with her.

Community-building in the wake of divisive incidents

My latest essay in the Harvard Law Record is in response to a recent campus incident that has become all too common on campuses across the country: boiled over tension between racial justice advocates and their critics citing free speech concerns. I try to parse through the debate in an attempt to find steps forward for building a moral community on campus:

The first editorial published in the Harvard Law Record this year was entitled “We Owe Each Other a Moral Community.”  This project — of doing the hard work of turning spaces into places, strangers into neighbors, and a professional training ground into a moral community — has seen better weeks than this one.  It is strange to see warring groups of our neighbors communicate via the symbolic tit-for-tat of postering, ripping, and re-postering.  It is disturbing to see one of our neighbors videotaping another one so as to provide clickbait for his political tribe’s media outlets. The events of the last two days may have created new heroes and villains, may have scored a few points for a few folks within their respective filter bubbles, and may have made most of us — and the distant readers reading about us — angry.  But what these events did not do was build understanding.  This is a shame, because if we are to build a moral community together, we must work to understand each other.

Any attempt to understand this controversy must begin with taking seriously the enduring civic plague at the center of it: racial disparity in America.  The problem has been articulated multiple times by Reclaim Harvard Law, but it is always worth restating. Four in ten black children in our country live in poverty. The 2011 median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, while the median black household had $7,133.  Among Fortune 500 CEOs,only five are black, while 75 corporations in the S&P 500 have not a single black director. The NFL, NBA, and MLB have 92 teams, of which only one is principally owned by a black man.  While only 1.4% of the top 1% of households by income are black, 40% of incarcerated Americans and 35% of death row inmates are black. This racial disparity is a national emergency to which our generation must urgently respond.

However, if we dismiss the vocal critics of Reclaim Harvard Law as (at best) priggish or (at middle) provocateurs or (at worst) racist, we miss the chance to understand an issue of importance to a small group of culturally conservative Harvard students. There is a dominant cultural and economic ideology at Harvard: corporate liberalism.  Most Harvard Law students are secular liberals on cultural issues and corporate-minded technocrats on economic issues. Put another way, they are skeptical of moral language and groups (with the exception of rhetoric around individual rights and tolerance), but faithful to the powerful, centralized institutions — be they powerful law firms, corporations, universities, media outlets or government entities — that most of them populate after graduation.  Meanwhile, half of American believe the opposite: almost half of American women are pro-life; about half of Americans say grace before meals; Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life is the best selling hardcover book in American history; and trust in national institutions is at an all-time low. The silence around this disparity is a source of consternation among our campus’ few cultural conservatives.

Read the full essay — The Moral Community in the Wake of Postergate — here at the Harvard Law Record.

Against Mansion Politics

At a $500-a-head fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina yesterday, Ashley Williams, a Black Lives Matter activist, confronted Hillary Clinton about her support for the 1994 Crime Bill as well as for her comments at the time parroting the racist media hype that some youth were “superpredators” who needed to be brought to “heel.” Clinton — who in a public speech in Harlem in the past weeks said that “White Americans need to do a better job at listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face every day… practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experiences” — did not answer the protestor’s questions, acquiesced the crowd’s boos, allowed someone to escort the protestor out of the mansion, and then said, “Now let’s get back to the issues.” See the video here:

There is a lot that is going to be said about this clip, which should be widely seen. It’s best for others to comment about what this clip says about the Black Lives Matter movement or Hillary Clinton’s campaign. However, I will say this: this incident is a perfect example of the campaign finance system’s distortion of politics.

Take a look at this photo of the crowd:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 6.43.28 AM

Now remember: ~50% — half! — of Democratic voters in South Carolina are black. In Charleston, ~28% of residents are black and since ~50% of Charleston is Republican (and if racial party demographics are similar across the state), one can assume about ~50% — half! — of Democratic voters in Charleston are black. And yet, at this precious hour of a candidate’s time in the rare week-long window when the candidate cares about this state, there are barely any black faces in the crowd.

The average black Charlestonian makes $22,000 less per year than the average white Charlestonian ($37k to $15k). The annualized living wage in Charleston (not counting childcare) is ~$24,000, which goes to show how much more more disposable income the average white Charlestonian has than the average black Charlestonian. So, its understandable why this crowd looks the way it does: when you charge $500 to have an intimate meeting with a candidate, you are saying “for this event, I only want to speak to folks with disposable income” and consequently selecting for a tremendously whiter crowd than your electorate.

When that happens, it changes the dynamics of your events. If this was a crowd resembling Clinton’s electorate — and half the faces in the mansion were black — the crowd might not have booed as hard and Clinton might not have been as dismissive. Perhaps someone would have even stood up for Ashley Williams for raising the same point that Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates have raised. But, the nearly all-white crowd likely never experienced their children being called ‘superpredators’ or had their neighborhoods ravaged by mass incarceration. So, they were unable to — as Clinton, in her Harlem speech weeks ago, challenged us to be able to — “practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experiences.”

Even if this protestor had not been present, it still would have been a distortive event. The wealthiest Charleston Democrats would have asked Clinton questions and expressed their concerns, distorting her view of what the popular sentiment is to the view of what the wealthiest’s sentiment is. The needs and hopes of the vast majority of her electorate would have been unheard for the hour, because they could not have afforded to speak them. Eventually, no matter how detached a candidate is from such events, one cannot steep in wealthy rooms for so long without being affected by their narrow discourse.

This is not Hillary Clinton’s fault. She probably didn’t want to go to a mansion last night and speak to the whims of the wealthiest Democrats in Charleston. Judging by the popular understanding of her, she probably wanted to curl up and read some public policy journal instead. But, because our system requires you to run two campaigns — one for everybody and one for the wealthiest 0.23% who give $200+ to campaigns each year — she had to go to this mansion. And that means that half of the time she is held accountable to everybody and the other half of the time she’s held accountable to a donor class that skews sharply rich, white and male.

There should only be one campaign: for votes, not for dollars. If there was only one campaign, Clinton would have seen Williams as a representative of a larger public sentiment rather than as a rogue individual. If there was only one campaign, going to a North Charleston community center last night would have been as useful to Clinton as going to this mansion. If there was only one campaign, Clinton would never find herself in a South Carolina room with hardly any black faces.

In her Harlem speech, entitled Breaking Down Barriers, Clinton decried “places where people of color and the poor have been left out and left behind” and unveiled a $125 billion plan to help impoverished black Americans. This is likely a great plan, but political outputs are not enough. Without changing political inputs, the poor and marginalized are forced to rely on enlightened insiders to always come to the rescue. The place where people of color and the poor have been most left out and left behind is in our democracy. The walls of the mansion fundraiser are the first barriers we should break down.

Promoting encounters with legal realities in legal educations

The Harvard Law Record published an essay I wrote calling on how: (i) law students cannot adequately learn to “think like a lawyer” if the 1L curriculum provides no experiences with the reality of the legal system; and (ii) how a visiting professor’s student prison trip program blazes a trail for an alternative, experiential curriculum:

It is often said that the purpose of Harvard Law School’s 1L curriculum is to prepare each student to “think like a lawyer.”  It would be much more accurate to say that the present curriculum aims to prepare each student to think like an attorney. The distinction is rarely articulated to students: an attorney is a legal representative to a specific client, while a lawyeris a member and caretaker of the legal profession, tasked with serving the justice system and advancing its public interest mission. Solely understanding important cases involving the major areas of law (Contracts, Torts, etc.) may be sufficient to “think like an attorney,” but if Harvard Law is interested in also helping each student to “think like a lawyer,” we must expand our 1L curriculum beyond solely case studies to include direct experience with the realities of the justice system.

Similarly, in the present arrangement, Harvard Law cannot ensure that its degree-holders have ever visited a prison, met an asylum-seeker, or saw what a public defender’s office looks like relative to that of a white collar defense firm. Voluntary elements of the Harvard Law experience are often sorted by what we were already predisposed to be interested in, resulting in the most important learning experiences — the future prison reformer hearing from a victims advocacy group, the future prosecutor learning from a formerly incarcerated person, the future corporate interest lawyer experiencing a union meeting or a visit with victims of corporate malfeasance, and the future government regulator meeting a startup entrepreneur — never happening. If we believe those experiences are necessary to “think like a lawyer” in 21st century America and if a Harvard Law degree is supposed to signify that its holders have been through the experiences necessary to “think like a lawyer,” then the curriculum of Harvard Law should incorporate those experiences. In short, we should put our mandatory 1L curriculum where our mouth is.

Read the full essay — Follow Professor King’s Lead: Without Experience with Legal Realities, 1Ls Left Unprepared to “Think Like A Lawyer” — here at The Harvard Law Record.

Aeon essay on promoting civic-minded legal careers

My Harvard Law Record essay on promoting civic-minded legal vocations has been adapted for Aeon:

In early 1969, Ralph Nader placed an ad in the Harvard Crimsoncalling on law students to apply to work with him to investigate various federal agencies. The group of young lawyers would become known as ‘Nader’s Raiders’: an iconic posse aiming to shake up Washington in the name of ‘the public interest’ (an old phrase they would come to repopularise). The next summer, thousands of students from prominent law schools, including a third of Harvard Law School’s student body, applied for 200 positions. They wanted to be, as Nader explained to Life magazine, a ‘new generation of lawyers’ who would be a civic-minded counterforce to a system where ‘all the lawyers are on the corporation’s side’.

Four decades later, the millennial generation of lawyers, by the numbers, looks less like the new generation of public-interest lawyers that Nader was rallying and more like the generation of corporate lawyers he was aiming to counterbalance. At the top five ranked law schools in the United States, only 9 per cent of the class of 2014 pursued public-interest work after graduation. Only 15 per cent of Yale Law School’s class of 2016 spent their 2L summer working for justice-centred organisations. For every Harvard Law School graduate of 2014 who pursued work designed – as the school’s mission statement impels – ‘to contribute to the advancement of justice’, five graduates joined corporate-interest firms. In fact, the 1960s’ public-interest fervour has faded so much that more students from the top five ranked law schools went to work for Nader himself in 1970 than took up postgraduate employment with any public-interest organisation in 2014.

Read the whole essay — The first thing we do is nudge the lawyershere at Aeon.

Exposing Harvard Law complicity in D.C.’s revolving door culture

The Harvard Law Record published a piece I wrote exposing the complicity of Harvard Law School’s Office of Career Services in the regulatory revolving door culture among D.C. lawyers:

The OCS-endorsed recommendation reads like a corrupted version of President Kennedy’s inaugural address. Instead of calling young people to work for the federal government by challenging them to “ask what you can do for your country,” the Office of Career Services at the law school of Kennedy’s university is directing students to statements that call students to work two-to-three years for the federal government by challenging them to ask what you can do to gain knowledge and skills for deep pocketed future clients. “The federal government,” Point 12 reads, “is a great place to gain practical experience and training.” Indeed, the school whose mission is “to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and well-being of society” frames government work no longer as service to our national community, but rather as experience to be strategically monetized.

America does not need young law students working for our national government with the mindset that they will bring the intel they learn there back to serve powerful interests.  If our nation’s oldest law school is going to recommend people to go into government work, it should only be in the context of entering such work as a public servant with our national community’s interest in mind while one works there.

Read the full exposé — End OCS’ Complicity in D.C.’s Revolving Door Corruption here at The Harvard Law Record.

“A Mission in Winter” letter in The Harvard Law Record

The Harvard Law Record just published my letter to my classmates regarding launching civic-minded vocations.  The letter is copied below:

Dear Harvard Law School Class of 2018,

Harvard Law School’s stated mission is “to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and well being of society.” Every January, when the sun sets early and corporate interest law firms flock to campus to wine and dine us, that mission can fade to the background.  It is important that we do not let the hustle and bustle of Big Law receptions crowd out the reason we are here: to launch not prestigious careers, but rather transformative vocations that serve to advance justice and societal well-being.

There exist great civic challenges of our time. One in four American children grow up in poverty. Our nation’s Congress has been corrupted by money. A warming globe threatens humanity’s most vulnerable.  One in three of our black male neighbors will be locked in prison at some point in their life. These challenges need all hands on deck. These challenges need the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.

We came to law school to develop a skill with a proven track record of tackling great challenges such as these. In winter, though, as we are shuffled from corporate interest reception to corporate interest reception, doubting questions cloud our memory:

If most students are going into corporate interest law, it must be crazy to pursue a different path, right?

If legal work designed to serve those without money is — as one professor recently told our class — “the Lord’s work” and I am no martyr, am I not fit to pursue it?

If serving the interests of a wealthy and powerful few can provide stability to my life, but serving the interests of the public will require periods of uncertainty, would it be best for me to play it safe?

As these doubts grow bigger with each passing winter night, it becomes easy to ignore the civic challenges calling us and forget the reasons we came here in the first place. Left to its own devices, the creeping belief that there is no alternative but using our skills to serve wealthy interests will take hold of us. Our ambitions to build transformative vocations will be suppressed and delayed. Our dreams of living Big Lives will be shrunk to the consolations of Big Law: “…there will be some pro bono work, I guess…” “…wealthy folks need lawyers, too, you know…” and“…maybe later…”

We must remember, though, when we find a quiet moment during these snowy, winter nights and contemplate what we want to labor for during our brief and precious time here on this Earth, that there is always an alternative. It is an alternative that we are blessed to have had so many Harvard Law alumni take up: to trade the prestigious certainty of corporate advocacy for the transformative citizenship of contributing to the advancement of justice and well being of society. To name just few:

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1992, Jennifer Gordon founded the Workplace Project, a non-profit worker center, which organizes immigrant workers and fights for stronger state labor protection laws.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1970, Mark Green spent the Seventies publishing various books on reigning in corporate power, culminating in his founding of the New Democracy Project, a public policy institute.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 2010, Gina Clayton founded the Essie Justice Group to support and empower women with incarcerated loved ones to help end mass incarceration.

Gordon, Green, and Clayton — as well as hundreds of their fellow citizens over the years who pursued a civic-minded vocation right out of Harvard Law School — faced the same winter of doubt that we face today. But they listened to that voice that drew them to law school in the first place: we have a mission to serve, we have great challenges to tackle, we have skills to deploy in service of our human community and we cannot let fear of uncertainty distract us.

Unfortunately, for every 2014 Harvard Law graduate who pursued work in organizations designed “to contribute to the advancement of justice and well being of society,” four graduates joined firms designed to serve wealthy clients’ interests. We, the Class of 2018, can take a different path. We can have a higher estimation of our own civic significance. We can survive this winter with our vocations intact.

Sincerely,
Pete Davis

Read the full letter — A Mission in Winter — here at The Harvard Law Record.

Letter to Dean Minow re: Harvard Law’s failure to mainstream civic-minded careers

The Harvard Law Record just published my open letter to Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow regarding Harvard Law School’s failure to mainstream civic-minded career building and what Professor Cass Sunstein’s theories of choice architecture can teach us about how to turn the tide:

Harvard Law School’s stated mission is ‘to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well being of society.’ Implicit in this mission is the policy objective of increasing the number of Harvard Law School students who choose to pursue civic-minded careers serving the public interest. We, as a community, are seriously failing to meet this objective. For every Class of 2014 graduate who immediately pursued public interest work in organizations designed to contribute to “the advancement of justice and the well being of society,” five graduates pursued monied interest work with a corporation or law firm. Sunstein’s ideas about choice architecture and default options can help explain this failure.

As one would predict after reading Sunstein’s work, the setting of corporate interest careerism as the default option for Harvard Law students allows subtle deference, loss aversion and inertia biases to nudge us into corporate-minded careers: we subconsciously interpret corporate interest employment as the institutionally endorsed option; we feel that opting out of corporate interest work is a loss of a loan repayment option (high starting salaries) that we have been endowed; and the extra effort needed to opt into the special, public interest path dissuades us from doing so.

Read the full letter — Change HLS’ Default Option to Civic-Minded Career Building here at The Harvard Law Record.

A Cooperative Uber?

Over at The Progressive Alternative, an initiative I co-founded to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, I just published a piece on how the Party should respond to the growth of the digital gig economy by supporting cooperative alternatives to corporate gig networks:

One under-explored answer to this challenge is the promotion of cooperative technology that replicates the consumer benefits of sharing networks like Uber, but rather than placing control of the networks in the hands of corporate managers, places control in the hands of each network’s workers. The decentralized structure of the digital gig economy is especially amenable to such a project. As The Nation’s Mike Konczal points out about Uber, for example, “almost all of the actual capital is already owned by the workers, in the form of cars that they pay for and maintain themselves.” Therefore, once the initial digital network has been built and popularized, the bulk of what corporate managers at companies like Uber contribute is advertising, lobbying for regulatory changes, and maintenance of their apps, which, as Konczal points out, are tasks that get “cheaper and easier by the day.” This is not a radical analysis. Digital gig startups pitch investors on the exact premise that they will be able to develop and popularize a decentralized network and then, with most moving parts and capital assets externalized to network participants, profit off of the increasingly simpler maintenance of the monopoly network.

Cooperative alternatives to these corporate networks could come in a range of forms. On one end of the spectrum are those that replicate the major elements of network technology but change the structure of the organization that maintains and promotes the technology. For example, one could replicate the Uber app–including its centrally managed pricing system, prescribed hiring process, and customer review system–but have the corporate management of the app’s network be replaced by cooperative management elected by its drivers and structured in a way to incorporate more network member input. Network management organized cooperatively would likely lead to a variety of benefits for members, including insurance, forums for dispute resolution, minimum workplace standards, pensions and health plans.

On the other end of the spectrum are empowering changes to the technology itself. For example, Airbnb is not cooperatively managed, but it lets users set their own prices, rules, and check-out times. Such are the signs of actual open markets–like eBay, Etsy, and Craigslist–as opposed to “networks” that centrally control the prices, rules, and network entry and exit processes (essentially, hiring and firing) of a decentralized workforce. By creating markets for gigs online that are more open, members are empowered to be entrepreneurial, using the technology for their own interests, rather than having the technology (and the corporate managers that profit from it) use the workers for its own interests.

Read the full essay — Open Economy Watch: Cooperative Alternatives to Corporate Digital Gig Networkshere at The Progressive Alternative.

Hearts, Laws and Our 1L Orientation

I just published my first essay — a reflection on my law school orientation and how change happens in politics — in the Harvard Law Record:

Throughout my 1L orientation, my mind kept returning to this overlooked moment in the 2016 Presidential campaign– a moment that teaches us much more about American politics than the entire telethon of Trump-focused punditry ever has nor ever will. In a backroom after a Hillary Clinton campaign event, Julius Jones, a Black Lives Matter activist, is face-to-face with the frontrunner herself, challenging her to explain how she would change “hearts and minds” to address racism in America. Clinton, in a rare candid moment, responds passionately: “I don’t believe you change hearts; I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

What a great political tension! To address the great public problems of our time, should we be changing Hearts or changing Laws?  

Of course, Jones and Clinton are both right. Heart and Laws — and consequently, Heart-changers and Law-changers — are not opponents, but rather interlocutors in democracy’s great conversation.

Read the full essay — “Hearts, Laws and Our 1L Orientation” — here.