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From Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), populist calls to “fix” our antitrust laws and the underlying Consumer Welfare Standard have found a foothold on Capitol Hill. At the same time, there are calls to “fix” the Supreme Court by packing it with new justices. The court’s unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston demonstrates that neither needs repair. To the contrary, clearly anti-competitive conduct—like the NCAA’s compensation rules—is proscribed under the Consumer Welfare Standard, and every justice from Samuel Alito to Sonia Sotomayor can agree on that.

In 1984, the court in NCAA v. Board of Regents suggested that “courts should take care when assessing the NCAA’s restraints on student-athlete compensation.” After all, joint ventures like sports leagues are entitled to rule-of-reason treatment. But while times change, the Consumer Welfare Standard is sufficiently flexible to meet those changes.

Where a competitive restraint exists primarily to ensure that “enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes,” the court rightly calls it out for what it is. As Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurrence:

Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.  And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.  The NCAA is not above the law.

Disturbing these “ordinary principles”—whether through legislation, administrative rulemaking, or the common law—is simply unnecessary. For example, the Open Markets Institute filed an amicus brief arguing that the rule of reason should be “bounded” and willfully blind to the pro-competitive benefits some joint ventures can create (an argument that has been used, unsuccessfully, to attack ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has proposed shifting the burden of proof so that merging parties are guilty until proven innocent. Sen. Warren would go further, deeming Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods anti-competitive simply because the company is “big,” and ignoring the merger’s myriad pro-competitive benefits. Sen. Hawley has gone further still: calling on Amazon to be investigated criminally for the crime of being innovative and successful.

Several of the current proposals, including those from Sens. Klobuchar and Hawley (and those recently introduced in the House that essentially single out firms for disfavored treatment), would replace the Consumer Welfare Standard that has underpinned antitrust law for decades with a policy that effectively punishes firms for being politically unpopular.

These examples demonstrate we should be wary when those in power assert that things are so irreparably broken that they need a complete overhaul. The “solutions” peddled usually increase politicians’ power by enabling them to pick winners and losers through top-down approaches that stifle the bottom-up innovations that make consumers’ lives better.

Are antitrust law and the Supreme Court perfect? Hardly. But in a 9-0 decision, the court proved this week that there’s nothing broken about either.

In its June 21 opinion in NCAA v. Alston, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and thereby upheld a district court injunction finding unlawful certain National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules limiting the education-related benefits schools may make available to student athletes. The decision will come as no surprise to antitrust lawyers who heard the oral argument; the NCAA was portrayed as a monopsony cartel whose rules undermined competition by restricting compensation paid to athletes.

Alas, however, Alston demonstrates that seemingly “good facts” (including an apparently Scrooge-like defendant) can make very bad law. While superficially appearing to be a relatively straightforward application of Sherman Act rule of reason principles, the decision fails to come to grips with the relationship of the restraints before it to the successful provision of the NCAA’s joint venture product – amateur intercollegiate sports. What’s worse, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion further muddies the court’s murky jurisprudential waters by signaling his view that the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules are anticompetitive and could be struck down in an appropriate case (“it is not clear how the NCAA can defend its remaining compensation rules”). Prospective plaintiffs may be expected to take the hint.

The Court’s Flawed Analysis

I previously commented on this then-pending case a few months ago:

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing.

Unfortunately, my concerns about a Supreme Court affirmance of the 9th Circuit were realized. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court in Alston manifests a blinkered approach to the NCAA “monopsony” joint venture. To be sure, it cites and briefly discusses key Supreme Court joint venture holdings, including 2006’s Texaco v. Dagher. Nonetheless, it gives short shrift to the efficiency-based considerations that counsel presumptive deference to joint venture design rules that are key to the nature of a joint venture’s product.  

As a legal matter, the court felt obliged to defer to key district court findings not contested by the NCAA—including that the NCAA enjoys “monopsony power” in the student athlete labor market, and that the NCAA’s restrictions in fact decrease student athlete compensation “below the competitive level.”

However, even conceding these points, the court could have, but did not, take note of and assess the role of the restrictions under review in helping engender the enormous consumer benefits the NCAA confers upon consumers of its collegiate sports product. There is good reason to view those restrictions as an effort by the NCAA to address a negative externality that could diminish the attractiveness of the NCAA’s product for ultimate consumers, a result that would in turn reduce inter-brand competition.

As the amicus brief by antitrust economists (“Antitrust Economists Brief”) pointed out:

[T]he NCAA’s consistent and growing popularity reflects a product—”amateur sports” played by students and identified with the academic tradition—that continues to generate enormous consumer interest. Moreover, it appears without dispute that the NCAA, while in control of the design of its own athletic products, has preserved their integrity as amateur sports, notwithstanding the commercial success of some of them, particularly Division I basketball and Football Subdivision football. . . . Over many years, the NCAA has continually adjusted its eligibility and participation rules to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests—which certainly can involve “pay to play”—in ways that would conflict with the procompetitive aims of the collaboration. In this sense, the NCAA’s amateurism rules are a classic example of addressing negative externalities and free riding that often are inherent or arise in the collaboration context.

The use of contractual restrictions (vertical restraints) to counteract free riding and other negative externalities generated in manufacturer-distributor interactions are well-recognized by antitrust courts. Although the restraints at issue in NCAA (and many other joint venture situations) are horizontal in nature, not vertical, they may be just as important as other nonstandard contracts in aligning the incentives of member institutions to best satisfy ultimate consumers. Satisfying consumers, in turn, enhances inter-brand competition between the NCAA’s product and other rival forms of entertainment, including professional sports offerings.

Alan Meese made a similar point in a recent paper (discussing a possible analytical framework for the court’s then-imminent Alston analysis):

[U]nchecked bidding for the services of student athletes could result in a market failure and suboptimal product quality, proof that the restraint reduces student athlete compensation below what an unbridled market would produce should not itself establish a prima facie case. Such evidence would instead be equally consistent with a conclusion that the restraint eliminates this market failure and restores compensation to optimal levels.

The court’s failure to address the externality justification was compounded by its handling of the rule of reason. First, in rejecting a truncated rule of reason with an initial presumption that the NCAA’s restraints involving student compensation are procompetitive, the court accepted that the NCAA’s monopsony power showed that its restraints “can (and in fact do) harm competition.” This assertion ignored the efficiency justification discussed above. As the Antitrust Economists’ Brief emphasized: 

[A]cting more like regulators, the lower courts treated the NCAA’s basic product design as inherently anticompetitive [so did the Supreme Court], pushing forward with a full rule of reason that sent the parties into a morass of inquiries that were not (and were never intended to be) structured to scrutinize basic product design decisions and their hypothetical alternatives. Because that inquiry was unrestrained and untethered to any input or output restraint, the application of the rule of reason in this case necessarily devolved into a quasi-regulatory inquiry, which antitrust law eschews.

Having decided that a “full” rule of reason analysis is appropriate, the Supreme Court, in effect, imposed a “least restrictive means” test on the restrictions under review, while purporting not to do so. (“We agree with the NCAA’s premise that antitrust law does not require businesses to use anything like the least restrictive means of achieving legitimate business purposes.”) The court concluded that “it was only after finding the NCAA’s restraints ‘patently and inexplicably stricter than is necessary’ to achieve the procompetitive benefits the league had demonstrated that the district court proceeded to declare a violation of the Sherman Act.” Effectively, however, this statement deferred to the lower court’s second-guessing of the means employed by the NCAA to preserve consumer demand, which the lower court did without any empirical basis.

The Supreme Court also approved the district court’s rejection of the NCAA’s view of what amateurism requires. It stressed the district court’s findings that “the NCAA’s rules and restrictions on compensation have shifted markedly over time” (seemingly a reasonable reaction to changes in market conditions) and that the NCAA developed the restrictions at issue without any reference to “considerations of consumer demand” (a de facto regulatory mandate directed at the NCAA). The Supreme Court inexplicably dubbed these lower court actions “a straightforward application of the rule of reason.” These actions seem more like blind deference to rather arbitrary judicial second-guessing of the expert party with the greatest interest in satisfying consumer demand.

The Supreme Court ended its misbegotten commentary on “less restrictive alternatives” by first claiming that it agreed that “antitrust courts must give wide berth to business judgments before finding liability.” The court asserted that the district court honored this and other principles of judicial humility because it enjoined restraints on education-related benefits “only after finding that relaxing these restrictions would not blur the distinction between college and professional sports and thus impair demand – and only finding that this course represented a significantly (not marginally) less restrictive means of achieving the same procompetitive benefits as the NCAA’s current rules.” This lower court finding once again was not based on an empirical analysis of procompetitive benefits under different sets of rules. It was little more than the personal opinion of a judge, who lacked the NCAA’s knowledge of relevant markets and expertise. That the Supreme Court accepted it as an exercise in restrained judicial analysis is well nigh inexplicable.

The Antitrust Economists’ Brief, unlike the Supreme Court, enunciated the correct approach to judicial rewriting of core NCAA joint venture rules:

The institutions that are members of the NCAA want to offer a particular type of athletic product—an amateur athletic product that they believe is consonant with their primary academic missions. By doing so, as th[e] [Supreme] Court has [previously] recognized [in its 1984 NCAA v. Board of Regents decision], they create a differentiated offering that widens consumer choice and enhances opportunities for student-athletes. NCAA, 468 U.S. at 102. These same institutions have drawn lines that they believe balance their desire to foster intercollegiate athletic competition with their overarching academic missions. Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit have now said that they may not do so, unless they draw those lines differently. Yet neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit determined that the lines drawn reduce the output of intercollegiate athletics or ascertained whether their judicially-created lines would expand that output. That is not the function of antitrust courts, but of legislatures.                                                                                                   

Other Harms the Court Failed to Consider                    

Finally, the court failed to consider other harms that stem from a presumptive suspicion of NCAA restrictions on athletic compensation in general. The elimination of compensation rules should favor large well-funded athletic programs over others, potentially undermining “competitive balance” among schools. (Think of an NCAA March Madness tournament where “Cinderella stories” are eliminated, as virtually all the talented players have been snapped up by big name schools.) It could also, through the reallocation of income to “big name big sports” athletes who command a bidding premium, potentially reduce funding support for “minor college sports” that provide opportunities to a wide variety of student-athletes. This would disadvantage those athletes, undermine the future of “minor” sports, and quite possibly contribute to consumer disillusionment and unhappiness (think of the millions of parents of “minor sports” athletes).

What’s more, the existing rules allow many promising but non-superstar athletes to develop their skills over time, enhancing their ability to eventually compete at the professional level. (This may even be the case for some superstars, who may obtain greater long-term financial rewards by refining their talents and showcasing their skills for a year or two in college.) In addition, the current rules climate allows many student athletes who do not turn professional to develop personal connections that serve them well in their professional and personal lives, including connections derived from the “brand” of their university. (Think of wealthy and well-connected alumni who are ardent fans of their colleges’ athletic programs.) In a world without NCAA amateurism rules, the value of these experiences and connections could wither, to the detriment of athletes and consumers alike. (Consistent with my conclusion, economists Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee have argued against the proposition that “college athletes are materially ‘underpaid’ and are ‘exploited’”.)   

This “parade of horribles” might appear unlikely in the short term. Nevertheless, in the course of time, the inability of the NCAA to control the attributes of its product, due to a changed legal climate, make it all too real. This is especially the case in light of Justice Kavanaugh’s strong warning that other NCAA compensation restrictions are likely indefensible. (As he bluntly put it, venerable college sports “traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated. . . . The NCAA is not above the law.”)

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s misguided Alston decision fails to weigh the powerful efficiency justifications for the NCAA’s amateurism rules. This holding virtually invites other lower courts to ignore efficiencies and to second guess decisions that go to the heart of the NCAA’s joint venture product offering. The end result is likely to reduce consumer welfare and, quite possibly, the welfare of many student athletes as well. One would hope that Congress, if it chooses to address NCAA rules, will keep these dangers well in mind. A statutory change not directed solely at the NCAA, creating a rebuttable presumption of legality for restraints that go to the heart of a lawful joint venture, may merit serious consideration.   

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge next month to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 decision in NCAA v. Alston. Alston affirmed a district court decision that enjoined the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from enforcing rules that restrict the education-related benefits its member institutions may offer students who play Football Bowl Subdivision football and Division I basketball.

This will be the first Supreme Court review of NCAA practices since NCAA v. Board of Regents in 1984, which applied the antitrust rule of reason in striking down the NCAA’s “artificial limit” on the quantity of televised college football games, but also recognized that “this case involves an industry in which horizontal restraints on competition are essential if the product [intercollegiate athletic contests] is to be available at all.” Significantly, in commenting on the nature of appropriate, competition-enhancing NCAA restrictions, the court in Board of Regents stated that:

[I]n order to preserve the character and quality of the [NCAA] ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the ‘product’ cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice – not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes – and hence can be viewed as procompetitive. [footnote citation omitted]

One’s view of the Alston case may be shaped by one’s priors regarding the true nature of the NCAA. Is the NCAA a benevolent Dr. Jekyll, which seeks to promote amateurism and fairness in college sports to the benefit of student athletes and the general public?  Or is its benevolent façade a charade?  Although perhaps a force for good in its early years, has the NCAA transformed itself into an evil Mr. Hyde, using restrictive rules to maintain welfare-inimical monopoly power as a seller cartel of athletic events and a monopsony employer cartel that suppresses athletes’ wages? I will return to this question—and its bearing on the appropriate resolution of this legal dispute—after addressing key contentions by both sides in Alston.

Summarizing the Arguments in NCAA v Alston

The Alston class-action case followed in the wake of the 9th Circuit’s decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2015). O’Bannon affirmed in large part a district court’s ruling that the NCAA illegally restrained trade, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by preventing football and men’s basketball players from receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. It also affirmed the district court’s injunction insofar as it required the NCAA to implement the less restrictive alternative of permitting athletic scholarships for the full cost of attendance. (I commented approvingly on the 9th Circuit’s decision in a previous TOTM post.) 

Subsequent antitrust actions by student-athletes were consolidated in the district court. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for the student-athletes, concluding in part that NCAA limits on education-related benefits were unreasonable restraints of trade. It enjoined those limits but declined to hold that other NCAA limits on compensation unrelated to education likewise violated Section 1.

In May 2020, a 9th Circuit panel held that the district court properly applied the three-step Sherman Act Section 1 rule of reason analysis in determining that the enjoined rules were unlawful restraints of trade.

First, the panel concluded that the student-athletes carried their burden at step one by showing that the restraints produced significant anticompetitive effects within the relevant market for student-athletes’ labor.

At step two, the NCAA was required to come forward with evidence of the restraints’ procompetitive effects. The panel endorsed the district court’s conclusion that only some of the challenged NCAA rules served the procompetitive purpose of preserving amateurism and thus improving consumer choice by maintaining a distinction between college and professional sports. Those rules were limits on above-cost-of-attendance payments unrelated to education, the cost-of-attendance cap on athletic scholarships, and certain restrictions on cash academic or graduation awards and incentives. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the remaining rules—restricting non-cash education-related benefits—did nothing to foster or preserve consumer demand. The panel held that the record amply supported the findings of the district court, which relied on demand analysis, survey evidence, and NCAA testimony.

The panel also affirmed the district court’s conclusion that, at step three, the student-athletes showed that any legitimate objectives could be achieved in a substantially less restrictive manner. The district court identified a less restrictive alternative of prohibiting the NCAA from capping certain education-related benefits and limiting academic or graduation awards or incentives below the maximum amount that an individual athlete may receive in athletic participation awards, while permitting individual conferences to set limits on education-related benefits. The panel held that the district court did not clearly err in determining that this alternative would be virtually as effective in serving the procompetitive purposes of the NCAA’s current rules and could be implemented without significantly increased cost.

Finally, the panel held that the district court’s injunction was not impermissibly vague and did not usurp the NCAA’s role as the superintendent of college sports. The panel also declined to broaden the injunction to include all NCAA compensation limits, including those on payments untethered to education. The panel concluded that the district court struck the right balance in crafting a remedy that both prevented anticompetitive harm to student-athletes while serving the procompetitive purpose of preserving the popularity of college sports.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted the NCAA’s petition for certiorari Dec. 16, 2020. The NCAA contends that under Board of Regents, the NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation are reasonably related to preserving amateurism in college sports, are procompetitive, and should have been upheld after a short deferential review, rather than the full three-step rule of reason. According to the NCAA’s petition for certiorari, even under the detailed rule of reason, the 9th Circuit’s decision was defective. Specifically:

The Ninth Circuit … relieved plaintiffs of their burden to prove that the challenged rules unreasonably restrain trade, instead placing a “heavy burden” on the NCAA … to prove that each category of its rules is procompetitive and that an alternative compensation regime created by the district court could not preserve the procompetitive distinction between college and professional sports. That alternative regime—under which the NCAA must permit student-athletes to receive unlimited “education-related benefits,” including post-eligibility internships that pay unlimited amounts in cash and can be used for recruiting or retention—will vitiate the distinction between college and professional sports. And via the permanent injunction the Ninth Circuit upheld, the alternative regime will also effectively make a single judge in California the superintendent of a significant component of college sports. The Ninth Circuit’s approval of this judicial micromanagement of the NCAA denies the NCAA the latitude this Court has said it needs, and endorses unduly stringent scrutiny of agreements that define the central features of sports leagues’ and other joint ventures’ products. The decision thus twists the rule of reason into a tool to punish (and thereby deter) procompetitive activity.

Two amicus briefs support the NCAA’s position. One, filed on behalf of “antitrust law and business school professors,” stresses that the 9th Circuit’s decision misapplied the third step of the rule of reason by requiring defendants to show that their conduct was the least restrictive means available (instead of requiring plaintiff to prove the existence of an equally effective but less restrictive rule). More broadly:

[This approach] permits antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary and use it to regulate and modify routine business conduct, so long as that conduct is not the least restrictive conduct imaginable by a plaintiff’s attorney or district judge. In turn, the risk that procompetitive ventures may be deemed unlawful and subject to treble damages liability simply because they could have operated in a marginally less restrictive manner is likely to chill beneficial business conduct.

A second brief, filed on behalf of “antitrust economists,” emphasizes that the NCAA has adapted the rules governing design of its product (college amateur sports) over time to meet consumer demand and to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests (such as “pay to  play”) in ways that would conflict with the overall procompetitive aims of the collaboration. While acknowledging that antitrust courts are free to scrutinize collaborations’ rules that go beyond the design of the product itself (such as the NCAA’s broadcast restrictions), the brief cites key Supreme Court decisions (NCAA v. Board of Regents and Texaco Inc. v. Dagher), for the proposition that courts should stay out of restrictions on the core activity of the joint venture itself. It then summarizes the policy justification for such judicial non-interference:

Permitting judges and juries to apply the Sherman Act to such decisions [regarding core joint venture activity] will inevitably create uncertainty that undermines innovation and investment incentives across any number of industries and collaborative ventures. In these circumstances, antitrust courts would be making public policy regarding the desirability of a product with particular features, as opposed to ferreting out agreements or unilateral conduct that restricts output, raises prices, or reduces innovation to the detriment of consumers.

In their brief opposing certiorari, counsel for Alston take the position that, in reality, the NCAA is seeking a special antitrust exemption for its competitively restrictive conduct—an issue that should be determined by Congress, not courts. Their brief notes that the concept of “amateurism” has changed over the years and that some increases in athletes’ compensation have been allowed over time. Thus, in the context of big-time college football and basketball:

[A]mateurism is little more than a pretext. It is certainly not a Sherman Act concept, much less a get-out-of-jail-free card that insulates any particular set of NCAA restraints from scrutiny.

Who Has the Better Case?

The NCAA’s position is a strong one. Association rules touching on compensation for college athletes are part of the core nature of the NCAA’s “amateur sports” product, as the Supreme Court stated (albeit in dictum) in Board of Regents. Furthermore, subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence (see 2010’s American Needle Inc. v. NFL) has eschewed second-guessing of joint-venture product design decisions—which, in the case of the NCAA, involve formulating the restrictions (such as whether and how to compensate athletes) that are deemed key to defining amateurism.

The Alston amicus curiae briefs ably set forth the strong policy considerations that support this approach, centered on preserving incentives for the development of efficient welfare-generating joint ventures. Requiring joint venturers to provide “least restrictive means” justifications for design decisions discourages innovative activity and generates costly uncertainty for joint-venture planners, to the detriment of producers and consumers (who benefit from joint-venture innovations) alike. Claims by defendant Alston that the NCAA is in effect seeking to obtain a judicial antitrust exemption miss the mark; rather, the NCAA merely appears to be arguing that antitrust should be limited to evaluating restrictions that fall outside the scope of the association’s core mission. Significantly, as discussed in the NCAA’s brief petitioning for certiorari, other federal courts of appeals decisions in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th Circuits have treated NCAA bylaws going to the definition of amateurism in college sports as presumptively procompetitive and not subject to close scrutiny. Thus, based on the arguments set forth by litigants, a Supreme Court victory for the NCAA in Alston would appear sound as a matter of law and economics.

There may, however, be a catch. Some popular commentary has portrayed the NCAA as a malign organization that benefits affluent universities (and their well-compensated coaches) while allowing member colleges to exploit athletes by denying them fair pay—in effect, an institutional Mr. Hyde.

What’s more, consistent with the Mr. Hyde story, a number of major free-market economists (including, among others, Nobel laureate Gary Becker) have portrayed the NCAA as an anticompetitive monopsony employer cartel that has suppressed the labor market demand for student athletes, thereby limiting their wages, fringe benefits, and employment opportunities. (In a similar vein, the NCAA is seen as a monopolist seller cartel in the market for athletic events.) Consistent with this perspective, promoting the public good of amateurism (the Dr. Jekyll story) is merely a pretextual façade (a cover story, if you will) for welfare-inimical naked cartel conduct. If one buys this alternative story, all core product restrictions adopted by the NCAA should be fair game for close antitrust scrutiny—and thus, the 9th Circuit’s decision in Alston merits affirmation as a matter of antitrust policy.

There is, however, a persuasive response to the cartel story, set forth in Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee’s essay “The NCAA:  A Case Study of the Misuse of the Monopsony and Monopoly Models” (Chapter 8 of their 2008 book “In Defense of Monopoly:  How Market Power Fosters Creative Production”). McKenzie and Lee examine the evidence bearing on economists’ monopsony cartel assertions (and, in particular, the evidence presented in a 1992 study by Arthur Fleischer, Brian Goff, and Richard Tollison) and find it wanting:

Our analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that the conventional economic wisdom regarding the intent and consequences of NCAA restrictions is hardly as solid, on conceptual grounds, as the NCAA critics assert, often without citing relevant court cases. We have argued that the conventional wisdom is wrong in suggesting that, as a general proposition,

• college athletes are materially “underpaid” and are “exploited”;

• cheating on NCAA rules is prima facie evidence of a cartel intending to restrict employment and suppress athletes’ wages;

• NCAA rules violate conventional antitrust doctrine;          

• barriers to entry ensure the continuance of the NCAA’s monopsony powers over athletes.

No such entry barriers (other than normal organizational costs, which need to be covered to meet any known efficiency test for new entrants) exist. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA indicates that the NCAA would be unable to prevent through the courts the emergence of competing athletic associations. The actual existence of other athletic associations indicates that entry would be not only possible but also practical if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed.

Conventional economic analysis of NCAA rules that we have challenged also is misleading in suggesting that collegiate sports would necessarily be improved if the NCAA were denied the authority to regulate the payment of athletes. Given the absence of legal barriers to entry into the athletic association market, it appears that if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed (or as grossly suppressed as the critics claim), alternative sports associations would form or expand, and the NCAA would be unable to maintain its presumed monopsony market position. The incentive for colleges and universities to break with the NCAA would be overwhelming.

From our interpretation of NCAA rules, it does not follow necessarily that athletes should not receive any more compensation than they do currently. Clearly, market conditions change, and NCAA rules often must be adjusted to accommodate those changes. In the absence of entry barriers, we can expect the NCAA to adjust, as it has adjusted, in a competitive manner its rules of play, recruitment, and retention of athletes. Our central point is that contrary to the proponents of the monopsony thesis, the collegiate athletic market is subject to the self-correcting mechanism of market pressures. We have reason to believe that the proposed extension of the antitrust enforcement to the NCAA rules or proposed changes in sports law explicitly or implicitly recommended by the proponents of the cartel thesis would be not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.

Although a closer examination of the McKenzie and Lee’s critique of the economists’ cartel story is beyond the scope of this comment, I find it compelling.

Conclusion

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and strongly reaffirm the NCAA’s authority to design and reformulate its core athletic amateurism product as it sees fit.

In a June 12, 2014 TOTM post, I discussed the private antitrust challenge to NCAA rules that barred NCAA member universities from compensating athletes for use of their images and names in television broadcasts and video games.

On August 8 a federal district judge held that the NCAA had violated the antitrust laws and enjoined the NCAA from enforcing those rules, effective 2016.  The judge’s 99-page opinion, which discusses NCAA price-fixing agreements, is worth a read.  It confronts and debunks the NCAA’s efficiency justifications for their cartel-like restrictions on athletic scholarships.  If the decision withstands appeal, it will allow  NCAA member schools to offer prospective football and basketball recruits trust funds that could be accessed after graduation (subject to certain limitations), granting those athletes a share of the billions of dollars in revenues they generate for NCAA member universities.

A large number of NCAA rules undoubtedly generate substantial efficiencies that benefit NCAA  member institutions, college sports fans, and college athletes.  But the beneficial nature of those rules does not justify separate monopsony price fixing arrangements that disadvantage athletic recruits – arrangements that cannot legitimately be tied to the NCAA’s welfare-enhancing interest in promoting intercollegiate athletics.  Stay tuned.

I’ve been in a blue funk since last Tuesday, when my home institution, the University of Missouri Law School, fell into the third tier in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of law schools. Since the rankings began, Missouri has pretty consistently ranked in the 50s and 60s. Last year, we fell to 93. This year, to 107. That’s pretty demoralizing.

It’s completely ridiculous, of course. On the metrics that really matter (academic reputation, student quality, bar passage, etc.), we do pretty well — near the top of tier 2 (schools 50-100). With respect to scholarly productivity, our faculty ranks sixth among law schools outside the top fifty. We do less well with employment, but that’s largely because (1) we don’t manipulate the numbers, as many schools do, and (2) many of our graduates go into prosecution and public defense, where hiring decisions are not made until after the bar examination. Where we really get beat up is on expenditures per “full-time equivalent” student. Last year, we ranked 173 out of 190 on that measure. In my view, that means we’re efficient — we get a heck of a lot out of our financial resources. According to U.S. News, though, the fact that we spend less money educating our students means that the quality of our educational offering must be sub-par. Non sequitur, anyone?

Despite the stupidity of the U.S. News rankings, they matter. We will have a harder time attracting top students next year. In the past, we’ve been able to attract sharp students that were accepted at, say, Iowa, Illinois, or Washington University because our tuition (especially in-state tuition) is much, much lower. Given all this talk of higher education bubbles and the widespread questioning of whether law school is really worth the steep price, this should be an ideal time for Missouri to exploit its low tuition. Unfortunately, that’s tougher to do when you’ve fallen into the U.S. News third tier and prospective students, who don’t yet realize the insanity of the rankings metrics, wrongly perceive that you’re selling a shoddy product. We may also have a harder time attracting high-quality faculty, though this fall’s outstanding class of entrants (two John Roberts clerks, a Jose Cabranes clerk, and an outstanding Virginia J.D./Ph.D) will surely help on that front. We Missouri professors may even have a harder time placing our scholarship, given that the third-year law students who select articles for publication tend to evaluate scholarship, in part, on the basis of the author’s “prestige” as measured by the ranking of her home institution.

So what should we do? If I were dean, I believe I would simply opt out of U.S. News. I’m serious. We know the rankings are a joke, and they’re actually hurting us. I would simply refuse to fill out the magazine’s survey form and then take out explanatory ads, on the day the 2012 rankings were released, in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Reed College has taken this sort of principled stand in the U.S. News college rankings and has gotten loads of favorable media attention.  I believe its stance has actually boosted its excellent reputation.

Of course, if a school fails to fill out the U.S. News form, the magazine will simply incorporate a somewhat punitive “estimate” of the uncooperative school’s data, so its ranking may be artificially depressed. But at this point, what do we at Missouri have to lose?  We’re already down to 107!  Anyone who does the slightest bit of investigation will see that Missouri Law — one of the oldest law schools west of the Mississippi River, the flagship public law school in a fairly populous state with two significant legal markets, the home of a productive faculty that also cares deeply about teaching — is not what participants on the Princeton Review’s old message board used to call a “Third Tier Toilet.” If we opt out of the rankings (a decision U.S. News will have to note), readers will surmise that our low ranking results from our decision not to play with U.S. News. Right now, they think there’s something wrong with Missouri, not with the screwy rankings system. Our opt-out would at least draw attention to the stupidity of the ranking metrics.

Of course, this move would entail significant risk. As it did with Reed College, U.S. News would likely adopt punitive estimates of the data we refused to provide, causing us to fall further in the rankings. Readers might not notice the disclaimer that we refused to return our survey and that our ranking is therefore based on estimated data. The media (mainstream and other) might not draw as much attention to our bold stand as I expect they would. While I think it would take a perfect storm for an opt-out strategy to tarnish our reputation even further, such storms do occasionally occur.

We could reduce the riskiness of our strategy if we could persuade some other law schools — perhaps other low-tuition, efficient schools that find themselves similarly disadvantaged by the rankings’ inapposite focus on expenditures per student — to withhold data from U.S. News. This would require U.S. News to include more “based on estimated data” asterisks, which would reveal the punitive nature of the magazine’s estimates and undermine confidence in the flawed ranking system.

But would this sort of concerted strategy run afoul of the antitrust laws? Initially, I thought it might. After all, what I’m contemplating is essentially an agreement among competitors to withhold information from a publication that tends to enhance competition among those very rivals. Moreover, the cooperating rivals would be withholding this information precisely because they think the competition stimulated by the publication is, to use the old fashioned term, “ruinous.”  It smells pretty fishy.

The more I think about it, though, the less troubling I find this strategy. The fact is, the methodology underlying the U.S. News rankings is so unsound that the rankings themselves are misleading.  And the misrepresentations they convey actually hurt a number of schools like Missouri.  I believe we who are unfairly disadvantaged by the U.S. News methodology could, without impunity, bind together in an attempt to undermine the flawed rankings.  Indeed, it is in our individual competitive interests to do so.

So how would a court evaluate a boycott of U.S. News by a group of law schools that perceive themselves to be disadvantaged by the magazine’s ranking methodology (say, less expensive, more efficient law schools with low per-student expenditures)?

First, the court would likely determine that the agreement not to participate in the ranking survey is ancillary, not naked.  As Herb Hovenkamp has explained, “[a] serviceable definition of a naked restraint is one whose profitability depends on the exercise of market power” (i.e., on a constriction of output aimed at artificially raising prices so as to enhance profits).  The agreement I’m contemplating makes perfect business sense apart from any exercise of market power. Each law school that would participate in the agreement is personally injured by the screwy rankings scheme, and each has an independent incentive — regardless of what other schools do — to refrain from participation. The participating law schools, it is true, would prefer to have others join them, but that is not because they are seeking to exercise market power; rather, they realize that the message their non-participation will convey (i.e., that U.S. News’s rankings methodology is nonsense) will be stronger if more schools join the boycott.

Since the restraint I contemplate is ancillary, not naked, it would be evaluated under the rule of reason. Indeed, any court that sought to utilize a less probing analysis (per se or quick look) would have to confront the Supreme Court’s California Dental decision, which held that a pretty doggone naked restraint among competing dentists was entitled to a full rule of reason analysis because it could enhance competition by reducing fraudulent advertising.

Under the rule of reason, the arrangement I’m contemplating would likely pass muster. Because widespread misinformation among consumers reduces the competitiveness of a market, an effort to reduce such misinformation, even a concerted effort, is pro-, not anti-, competitive.  Because the “agreement” aspect of my contemplated restraint increases the degree to which the arrangement undermines the misleading, competition-impairing U.S. News rankings, it enhances the restraint’s procompetitive effect. 

So what do others think?  Am I underestimating the antitrust risk of this strategy?  The business risk?  My TOTM colleagues from Illinois and George Mason, both of which do quite well under the U.S. News formula, probably have little personal interest in these musings.  But I suspect others do.  What do you think?

In Law & Economics in Japan,  Harvard’s Mark Ramseyer tries to explain why Japanese scholars have mostly not embraced law and economics to the extent of their peers elsewhere. He tries on some explanations — “the location of legal education in the undergraduate curriculum, and the long-term Marxist domination of economics faculties” — but is ultimately unsatisfied with these explanations.  Here’s why:

The reason for the explanatory difficulty lies in the absence of a profits constraint at the modern university. For-profit firms adopt efficient technologies or die. By contrast, university departments with preposterous theories can survive for decades (witness literature departments in the U.S.). Universities do compete, whether in the U.S. or Japan. But they do not compete with anything approaching the intensity of ordinary economic markets. Spared that intensity, they need not converge on superior scholarly technology. In some departments in some universities in some countries, scholars will adopt the better technology. Elsewhere, they will thrive for decades without it.

In other words, how can we really explain what does and doesn’t work in academia when schools and scholars everywhere lack the profit motive to compete? 

As with many things, Henry Manne noted this long ago.  As I summarized his views (published in Henry Manne: Intellectual Entrepreneur, in Pioneers Of Law And Economics (Lloyd R. Cohen and Joshua D. Wright, eds.,. Elgar Publishing, 2009):

Manne (1993) pointed out that universities are run as non-profit institutions under a board of trustees, a system in which nobody has a property right in the institution’s success. Power therefore has devolved to university faculties. This is complicated in the case of law schools by the lawyer cartel’s significant control over legal education. In other words, unlike the corporations that Manne studied, universities and law schools are not basically market institutions. Thus, even if the market demanded specialization and product differentiation, it is not clear that the governing bodies of universities would respond to this demand. Instead, schools could be expected to continue to make things comfortable for their tenured faculties. There is no market for control to deal with recalcitrant university administrators.

Manne’s article is Comment On Peter Byrne’s “Academic Freedom And Political Neutrality,” 43 J. Legal Educ. 340 (1993).

Manne notes that the lawyer cartel (aka licensing and accreditation laws) is at least partly responsible for the lack of competition in legal education. I emphasize that in a forthcoming and soon-to-be posted paper.  Elimination of the accreditation constraint could take care of both problems by enabling for-profit law schools.

David Leonhart points out the new Dale & Krueger study on the value of an elite undergraduate education.  His punchline:

A decade ago, two economists — Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger — published a research paper arguing that elite colleges did not seem to give most graduates an earnings boost. As you might expect, the paper received a ton of attention. Ms. Dale and Mr. Krueger have just finished a new version of the study — with vastly more and better data, covering people into their 40s and 50s, as well as looking at a set of more recent college graduates — and the new version comes to the same conclusion.

Indeed, check out the Dale & Krueger abstract:

When we adjust for unobserved student ability by controlling for the average SAT score of the colleges that students applied to, our estimates of the return to college selectivity fall substantially and are generally indistinguishable from zero. There were notable exceptions for certain subgroups, [namley] for black and Hispanic students and for students who come from less-educated families.

So — college prestige doesn’t matter much.    Right?  Not so fast my friend…

The devil is in the details.  Or in this case, the regression tables.  And the real story is that college prestige matters quite a bit for men, but not women.  Robin Hanson is on the case (the study itself is in italics):

To find the truth, you have to study Table 4 carefully, and note footnote 13:

For both men and women, the coefficient was zero (and sometimes even negative) [in] the self-revelation model.13

[footnote:] 13 This lower return to college selectivity for women is consistent with other literature. Results from Hoekstra (2009), Black and Smith (2004) and Long (2008) all suggest that the effect of college selectivity on earnings is lower for women than for men.

Table 4 shows that attending a college with higher SAT scores clearly lowered the wages of women 17-26 years after starting college (in 1976) — a school with a 100-point higher average SAT score reduced earnings by about 6-7%!  The two estimates there are significant at ~0.01% level! (The other three, for other periods after starting college, are significant at the 5% level.)

One obvious explanation is that women at more elite colleges married richer classmate men, and so felt less need to earn money themselves. Why don’t the study’s authors want us to hear about that?

See also here and here.

I find it interesting that many on the left, so intent on maintaining their anti-market narratives, distort reality so badly that black is white and up is down–and “government” is “corporations.”

I’ve highlighted this before when discussing the misdirected criticisms (and solutions) of self-described privacy advocates who point the finger at Google when really they should be concerned about the government.

Now comes Brian Leiter referring us to an article on “Corporate Attacks on Law School Clinics.” That’s the title of his post which contains nothing more than a heated admonition to read a linked article, so the title says it all:  Corporations are attacking law school clinics (and this is a huge problem that should concern everyone).  And I have no doubt many corporations are upset with many law school clinics.  But what’s so fascinating is how, when you click through to the article, you discover that the actual attacks on law school clinics are, in every single example adduced in the story, actually emanating from governments.  It’s pretty amazing.  Here are the relevant snippets from each example in the article, but I recommend reading the whole thing:

In spring 2010, a law-clinic lawsuit against a $4 billion poultry company triggered a legislative effort to withhold state funds from the University of Maryland unless its law school provided the legislature with sensitive information about clinic clients and case activities.

The attack plan included the introduction of legislation that would forfeit all state funding if a university offered certain types of law-clinic courses.

The first occurred in 1968 at the University of Mississippi, where the appointments of two untenured professors were terminated following complaints that their new clinical program participated in a desegregation lawsuit.

In efforts to terminate the program, clinic opponents sponsored a bill in the legislature to withdraw state funding for the entire law school.

In 1993, then-governor Edwin Edwards was so upset at statements the clinic’s director made that the governor threatened to deny financial assistance to state residents attending the university and to prohibit Tulane medical students from working in any state hospital unless the director was fired.

A few years later, the clinic’s success in representing a low-income, minority community opposed to a proposed chemical plant led then-governor Mike Foster and business interests to threaten to revoke Tulane’s tax-exempt status and deny it access to state education trust-fund money, to organize an economic boycott of Tulane, and to refuse to hire its graduates.

When the university still refused to terminate the course, clinic opponents successfully persuaded the Louisiana Supreme Court to impose restrictions on whom law school clinics can assist and what kinds of representation students can provide.

When state legislators expressed disapproval of a law school clinic’s representation of citizens concerned about a proposed highway, university officials began charging the clinic for the university’s overhead costs, prevented it from approaching funders unless it agreed to avoid certain cases that might upset legislators, and pressed it to separate from the school and move off campus.

The clinical program at Rutgers University is defending itself against a lawsuit brought by a developer, who was defeated in a clinic case and is now seeking to use the state’s public records law to gain access to internal clinic case files that would otherwise be beyond the reach of a party to a lawsuit

A dispute in Michigan this past winter demonstrates that attacks also can occur when students get in the way of powerful government interests. The district attorney in Detroit, upset with the efforts of a University of Michigan innocence clinic to exonerate a man it alleged was wrongfully imprisoned for ten years, sought to force the students to testify at trial against their client, an unprecedented effort to interfere in the students’ attorneyclient relationship.

Perdue persuaded legislators to attach a rider to the university’s appropriations that conditioned $750,000 in funding on submission of a report detailing clinic cases, clients, expenditures, and funding, much of which is confidential information.

An even harsher attack occurred in Louisiana this past spring, where the Louisiana Chemical Association (LCA) pushed for legislation, subject to narrow exceptions, that would forfeit all state funds going to any university, public or private, whose clinics brought or defended a lawsuit against a government agency, represented anyone seeking monetary damages, or raised state constitutional claims. The bill also would have made clinic courses at the state’s four law schools subject to oversight by legislative commerce committees.

This isn’t cherry-picking.  Unless I made a mistake, this is every single example of “attacks on law school clinics” in the article.  And every single one involves government actions or the threat of government actions.  Wow.  How on earth could anyone read this article and feel comfortable calling this a problem of corporations?  Don’t get me wrong–I understand that there are often corporate interests behind these actions, spurring them on.  But to call this a “corporate” problem rather than a “government” problem–with the implicit call for government to do something about the problem–is to fail so utterly to understand the problems of government power that it boggles the mind.

Like Brian Leiter, I find this list troubling.  I am appalled at how much inappropriate  government interference this represents.  But it is simply delusional to call this a problem of corporations.  You want to fix the problem?  Rein in the ability of governments to interfere to thoroughly with private life that special interests don’t have access to such a powerful and, often, invincible bludgeon.

All the rage around the law blogs this week is the question of whether law schools should be engaging in grade inflation.  The issue arises from time to time.  The NYT kicked off the discussion most recently with its story on the (gasp) retroactively applied bump given to Loyola LA law students.  You can’t miss the discussion on the law blogs (here, here, here and here).  The question of whether grade inflation helps or hurts students on the job market depends on how employers adjust to different curves between schools in their hiring practices as well as how they adjust to changes in the curve at a particular school.  One plausible hypothesis is that both differences between curves and changes within a law school don’t impact hiring decisions because legal employers adjust to the changes by relying on alternative measures like class rank or updating their priors on what a particular GPA means from a particular school in terms of the quality of the candidate.  Call this the irrelevance hypothesis.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the irrelevance hypothesis doesn’t hold.   Let the anecdote stacking begin!  The NYT story itself  notes that “in the last two years, at least 10 law schools have deliberately changed their grading systems to make them more lenient … to rescue their students from the tough economic climate.”   This view appears to agree with the intuition of many a law blogger.  Over at the Conglomerate, Christine Hurt suggests that small and out-of-town firms may not know about the variance in grade distributions across schools and individual schools have the incentive to inflate.  Howard Wasserman notes that:

The problem is an (anecdotal) strong resistance in the legal market to do so. Part of the push to change here came because our dean’s conversations with people in the hiring market convinced him that GPA was the be-all-end-all and class rank did not matter. As a relatively new, lower-tiered school, firms are interested only in our very top students. But many firms seemed to say that a 3.3 GPA was not high enough for them to look at, even if that person was # 3 in the class.

There is a battle of intuitions and priors about the legal market going on here without much evidence.  One underlying assumption about legal employers, or some set of legal employers, is that firms are either not paying attention or are irrationally committed to metrics like GPA when more informative measures like class rank are available.  And of course, the fact that 10-12 schools have engaged in this experiment presumably with some educated guess as to the reaction of employers certainly contains valuable information.  As an interesting side note, the Loyola LA Dean announcement discussing the change goes the other direction, noting that the fact that employers pay “very close attention” to these numbers is a reason for the change!  Of course, even if the irrelevance hypothesis passes muster, it does not strictly follow that moving the mean GPA upward is a bad thing for reasons unrelated to job outcomes.

But lets get back to the basics: invariably, the cost/benefit analysis for grade inflation comes down to whether these changes are having an impact on the job market.  Are employers adjusting?  Is there a difference in the reaction time of out of town and local firms?  Does the adjustment have a short-term effect while employers figure it out and then things return to normal?  Do schools that inflate multiple times pay a reputational penalty on the job market as employers get frustrated with the gamesmanship?  Does a student who finishes with the same class rank but higher GPA than a student at a similarly ranked law school better off in some meaningful way?  Do students at the top of the class suffer from these experiments in inflation as it makes it more difficult for them to stand out from their peers on GPA terms?

The NYT story reports that at least 10 schools have made these changes over the last decade.  One source reports the number is closer to 12.  These changes seem like excellent opportunities for empirical testing of some of the underlying assumptions floating around out there both about consumers and producers in the legal education market.  The anecdotes have some limited usefulness here and all, but the same anecdotes have been around for quite some time, and perhaps there an opportunity to move beyond anecdote and toward empirical analysis here?  Interest in the reform of legal education and outcomes seems to be on the rise in academic circles, though this is not an area I’m too familiar with.

Do we have data that can help us answer these questions?  What’s the evidence?

Tom Smith offers an entertaining and insightful perspective on the economics of higher education:

Without passing moral judgment in any way, I will just observe it is astonishing that higher education in this country has managed to get established a system where consumers have to disclose in detail how much money they have before they are told what they must pay.  I mean Ralph’s has to establish a Price Club and airlines First Class and Coach and so on, but Yale and the University of the Ozarks just have you tell them in detail every last thing about your finances and precisely how desirable your offspring is. Amazing.  And then they squeeze really, really hard.  The producer surplus they are extracting must be simply massive.  Of course, I am paid out of this surplus, so I can’t complain too much.  But it has got to be just hugely inefficient.  And, just to make it perfect, it all gets justified as redistribution to help that most worthy of souls, the very smart but very poor kid from Hellovanotion, Nevada, who works 40 hours a week delousing donkeys and caring for his quadriplegic mother, while still getting 1600 SATs, a 4.6 and captaining his/her wind ensemble to international glory.  And is President of Key Club.  And yet, how much of the surplus extracted actually goes to put the poor, deserving kid through Duke?  I tend to think, probably not that much, percentage-wise.  Maybe about as much as my income taxes go to support the hard working but poor single mom who just needs a little help so she can get that community college degree and never be on welfare again.  So big emotional but relatively small statistical impact. Just expressin’ a natural curiosity here.  Anyway, check out the book.

Oh, he’s talking about this book.

I’m delighted to report that the Liberty Fund has produced a three-volume collection of my dad’s oeuvre.  Fred McChesney edits, Jon Macey writes a new biography and Henry Butler, Steve Bainbridge and Jon Macey write introductions.  The collection can be ordered here.

Here’s the description:

As the founder of the Center for Law and Economics at George Mason University and dean emeritus of the George Mason School of Law, Henry G. Manne is one of the founding scholars of law and economics as a discipline. This three-volume collection includes articles, reviews, and books from more than four decades, featuring Wall Street in Transition, which redefined the commonly held view of the corporate firm.

Volume 1, The Economics of Corporations and Corporate Law, includes Manne’s seminal writings on corporate law and his landmark blend of economics and law that is today accepted as a standard discipline, showing how Manne developed a comprehensive theory of the modern corporation that has provided a framework for legal, economic, and financial analysis of the corporate firm.

Volume 2, Insider Trading, uses Manne’s ground-breaking Insider Trading and the Stock Market as a framework for many of Manne’s innovative contributions to the field, as well as a fresh context for understanding the complex world of corporate law and securities regulation.

Volume 3, Liberty and Freedom in the Economic Ordering of Society, includes selections exploring Manne’s thoughts on corporate social responsibility, on the regulation of capital markets and securities offerings, especially as examined in Wall Street in Transition, on the role of the modern university, and on the relationship among law, regulation, and the free market.

Manne’s most auspicious work in corporate law began with the two pieces from the Columbia Law Review that appear in volume 1, says general editor Fred S. McChesney. Editor Henry Butler adds: “Henry Manne was an innovator challenging the very foundations of the current learning.” “The ‘Higher Criticism’ of the Modern Corporation” was Manne’s first attempt at refuting the all too common notion that corporations were merely devices that allowed managers to plunder shareholders. Manne saw that such a view of corporations was inconsistent with the basic economic assumption that individuals either understand or soon will understand the costs and benefits of their own situations and that they respond according to rational self-interest.

My dad tells me the sample copies have arrived at his house, and I expect my review copy any day now.  But I can already tell you that the content is excellent.  Now-under-cited-but-essential-nonetheless corporate law classics like Some Theoretical Aspects of Share Voting and Our Two Corporation Systems: Law and Economics (two of his best, IMHO) should get some new life.  Among his non-corporations works, the classic and fun Parable of the Parking Lots (showing a humorous side of Henry that unfortunately rarely comes through in the innumerable joke emails he passes along to those of us lucky enough to be on “the list”) and the truly-excellent The Political Economy of Modern Universities (an updating of which forms a large part of a long-unfinished manuscript by my dad and me) are standouts.  And the content in the third volume from Wall Street in Transition has particular relevance today, and we would all do well to re-learn the lessons of those important contributions.

The full table of contents is below the fold.  Get it while it’s hot! Continue Reading…

Over at Crooked Timber, Tyler Cowen comments on Steve Teles’ book on conservative legal movements.  I never get tired of plugging Steve’s book (as he knows), so I’ll do it again here:  It’s a great book, a riveting read, and instructive, to boot.  Buy a copy today!

Tyler comments (among a series of comments in an ongoing Crooked Timber symposium 0n the book) on the section of the book on law and economics.  It’s about a third of the book (and of course it’s the most interesting third!), but over at Crooked Timber, as near as I can tell, they have no one who actually, you know, does law and economics to comment on the book, and only Tyler who comes close. 

Tyler is a great blogger, a great economist, and a great eater, among other things.  On this, however, Tyler doesn’t do a very good job. 

Here’s the key part (for me) of his post:

I view the relatively conservative nature of the law and economics movement as a historical accident which is already more or less obsolete. For better or worse, the wave of the future is scholars such as Cass Sunstein, not Henry Manne. The simple lesson is simply that in the long run “mainstream” usually wins out, even if the efforts of Henry Manne shifted or accelerated what later became mainstream trends.

One topic which interests me is how the “conservative” law and economics movement, as it is found in legal academia, differs from “market-oriented” economics, as it is found in the economics profession. The “right wing” economist and legal scholar will agree on many issues but you also will find fundamental variations in their temperament and political stances.

Market-oriented economists tend to be libertarian and it is rare that they have much respect for the U.S. Constitution beyond the pragmatic level. The common view is that while a constitution may be better than the alternatives, it is political incentives which really matter. James M. Buchanan’s program for a “constitutional economics” never quite took off and insofar as it did it has led to the analytic deconstruction of constitutions rather than their glorification. It isn’t hard to find libertarian economists who take “reductionist” views of constitutions and trumpet them loudly.

The conservative wing of the law and economics movement, in contrast, often canonizes constitutions. Many law and economics scholars build their reputations from studying, interpreting, or defending the U.S. Constitution. You don’t get to higher political or judicial office by treating a constitution in purely economic terms.

What I don’t understand is who these “conservative” law and economics scholars are.  OK, I know a couple.  But if the relevant distinction for Tyler is between “conservative” and “market-oriented,” I’d hold the law and economics stalwarts up to Tyler’s favored economists any day.  In what fashion are the following people”conservative” and not “market-oriented”?  Henry Manne, Paul Mahoney, Dick Posner (in the old days), Frank Easterbrook, Dan Fischel, Josh Wright, Ed Kitch, Bill Landes, Henry Butler, Richard Epstein, George Priest, Alan Schwartz, Roberta Romano, etc., etc. 

Moreover, among these–just the first few who popped into my head–I’d say only one is known for any really significant constitutional analysis–and it’s hardly reverence, at that.  To be sure, these folks are trained in the law, and take institutions seriously.  The Constitution is a pretty important part of the institutional landscape in the US.  Taking it seriously is a part of taking the law seriously.  Fetishizing it–that’s different.  But I know very few law and economics scholars who fetishize the Constitution.  Liberal legal scholars–even some liberal economists? Absolutely.  Law and economics scholars?  Not so much.  So–who are the law and economics scholars who built “their reputations from . . .defending the U.S. Constitution?” 

Finally, Tyler claims that the students at GMU Law are just like law students everywhere–with no greater an appreciation for the Coase Theorem or moral hazard than law students anywhere else.  If that is true–and it may well be true; certainly GMU Law seems to be losing its clear focus on law and economics–it is a change from the days when my dad was dean.  The goal (and as far as I know it was achieved) was that the students at GMU would have a very different experience and training than law students elsewhere, with the possible exception of Chicago.  If Tyler’s students don’t reflect this, I’d say things have changed.  Or else it’s self-selection–a concept that any self-respecting George Mason Law student would well understand.