Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hebrew Letters in Berkeley

I have a t-shirt which says "Carleton College" in (transliterated) Hebrew letters. I put it on today, for no particular reason other than it rising to the top of the t-shirt drawer, before heading off to the post office for an errand.

While there, the post office clerk asked what my shirt said. I responded "Carleton College". "Oh, that's cool. Is it in Arabic?" "No, Hebrew." "Oh, that's cool." Both "that's cools" were said with enthusiasm and a warm smile.

And the tension in my gut dissipated, and I relaxed.

I got nervous when asked about my shirt. I got nervous because I knew the answer would reveal myself as Jewish -- and Jewish-identified. These I think are different, for the casual anti-Semite -- the difference between "being gay in private" and "throwing it in my face." I feel like people who have negative feelings about Jews have particularly negative feelings about Jews who consciously identify as Jewish, such that they wear a "Jewish shirt" out in public.

Now, I should say that I did not feel nervous because I predicted any sort of imminent physical threat -- "going postal" jokes notwithstanding, I didn't expect anything truly bad to happen at the post office. But I got nervous, because I didn't know what it would mean to "out" myself as Jewish. Not everyone, after all, thinks that "that's cool." Some people, and more people than there used to be, think it isn't cool it all.

This is quite saddening, less because I feel any serious risk of being violently attacked, and more because I used to be very excited when the topic of my Jewish identity became salient. At Carleton, where there weren't a lot of Jews, I generally thought of my Jewishness as an "interesting fact about myself," something I was happy to talk about and explain to other curious souls. This isn't to say there was never any awkward moments -- ask me about the time my Freshman-year floormates got me Schindler's List for my birthday -- but I felt happy at the opportunity to share about my Jewishness.

The recent set of journalistic projects wherein people walk through European streets (Malmo, Sweden; Paris, France) while identifiably Jewish make salient the reality of this worry. That is not to say it happens everywhere, or every time, and there will always be those who cry "fraud" (Rania Khalek would no doubt rather focus on "Jewish privilege"). But the point is that it is always there, in the back of my mind. I cannot just "be Jewish" in the world, I have to make continual conscious decisions about when and how I present my Jewishness in the world and when and how I hide it. That's a feeling that I didn't have, or didn't have to the same extent, even a few years ago. And it is a sad feeling.

Law Review Tales

It's law review submission season! Every one is angsting (obviously yours truly included), and PrawfsBlawg has a lovely thread in which all of us can vent our fears and frustrations. But I thought it would be more light-hearted to detail some standard experiences I think all law professors have had I've had and thereby extrapolate to all of my colleagues. Such as ....

(1) Submitting an article, then within 15 minutes frantically clicking refresh on your email despite the fact that any news that comes in the first 15 minutes could not possibly be good.

(2) Getting that first rejection three hours after the initial submission ("after careful review ....").

(3) Submitting two articles at around the same time (we'll call them "A" and "B"). A is clearly a better article than B. B gets three offers immediately and ends up placing in a solid journal. A languishes and isn't touched by anyone.

(4) Obsessing over comparisons between US News law school rankings versus Washington & Lee law review rankings (hint: if you're at the point where it's not obvious on face which journal you should pick, it doesn't matter).

(5) Obsessing over comparisons between flagship journals and speciality journals (hint: this comparison is impossible, but it's as impossible for tenure and/or hiring committees as it is for you).

(6) Getting your article rejected after you've already withdrawn it from a given journal ("you can't reject me, I reject you!").

(7) Getting your article accepted after you've already withdrawn it from a given journal (far more tragic than #6).

(8) Submitting an article, having it rejected, resubmitting next cycle with the single change of deleting "originalism" from the title, having it accepted by a top journal (technically this didn't happen to me. It happened by me, and my articles editor team, when I was a law review editor).

(9) Once the piece is accepted, being asked for a citation for "the law of supply and demand." Don't forget a parenthetical!

(10) It all turning out okay in the end.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Energy Lobbying, Environmental Costs, and Zero-Sum Competition

Exelon Corporation, one of the largest energy companies in the United States, has come out in favor of the EPA's Clean Power Plan and has even asked for a carbon pricing schema. This stands out, as one does not typically expect to see large energy companies endorsing aggressive carbon regulation. And I should hasten to add that what follows is not a specific speculation on Exelon's motives. Exelon might have any number of reasons for the position it's taking, not the least of which could be a fear that absent their intervention the EPA plan could end up being more environmentally protective (and thus more economically burdensome). Nonetheless, in general it does seem a little odd: why would an electricity company support EPA rules that almost certainly would place greater costs on its line of business.

The answer might lie in the difference between competitive and monopoly electricity markets. In the former there are multiple firms competing for customers and market share. In the latter, there is a single firm with a guaranteed franchise and customer base. These two models have been struggling for primacy in the electricity sector for the past several decades -- as it stands, we have competition in the generation and wholesale sectors, whereas most (but not all) states have maintained a retail electricity monopoly. At first glance, though, this different market structure is unrelated to support of greater environmental regulations. For either it increases costs, and we can stipulate (though this may or may not be true) that it equally increases costs for firms operating in a competitive versus a monopoly context. It is therefore unlikely that any firm will unilaterally adopt superior environmental restrictions (with some allowance for trying to gain public goodwill or carve out a unique market share). And so it seems unlikely that any firm would lobby to put in place a regulatory regime which increases these costs.

But look a little closer. For the monopoly firm, a policy proposal which increases its costs is an unmitigated bad. The cost increase may be minor, in which case it will be moderately opposed, or significant, in which case it will be significantly opposed, but there is never a corresponding benefit to the cost increase. But in a competitive world, things are different because there is also the opportunity to take over one's competitor's turf. Here, cost increases can be a good thing if one is in a position to better ride them out than one's adversaries. Imagine Company A has already significantly invested in renewable energy infrastructure such that new carbon mandates are likely to only cause a small price increase. Company B, by contrast, is less prepared to handle these new mandates and would be forced to increase prices quite a bit. Company A may well lobby for the regulatory shift because it would give it the opportunity to gobble up market share currently held by B.

This matters because it suggests that, in a competitive context, there is sometimes a business incentive for firms to lobby on behalf of cost-increasing environmental regulation where it feels it can better absorb the costs compared to other companies in the field. To the extent that environmental regulation often in practice needs business buy-in to be effective, this is an avenue worth exploring.

I said that this was not a speculation on the Exelon situation, particularly, and it isn't. That said, I did notice that the speaker who delivered this missive to FERC was described as "Exelon’s senior vice president of federal regulatory affairs and wholesale market policy." If Exelon's wholesale division (remember that wholesale electricity is a competitive sector) thinks that it is better positioned than its rivals to meet EPA carbon requirements, then that would explain why it would come out in support of this initiative even though in absolute figures it probably will raise its cost of doing business.