Gimme It!

Gimme It!

Law professors Michael Heller and James Salzman offer layered insights into troublesome trends in today’s property laws and customs, most of which favor the wealthy and powerful.

Columbia Law School professor Michael Heller and professor of environmental law at the UCLA School of Law and UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management James Salzman describe how people and corporations fight for control of increasingly limited resources and search for novel sources of profit. The authors argue that veiled rules of ownership control much of your everyday life and further discuss how the emergence of a sharing economy – in which ownership moves from the domain of the many to the few – could alter communities of the future.

Invisible Ownership

The authors open with a profound argument: The primary function of human society is to help people navigate competing claims to limited resources. But rules of ownership prove ambiguous and complex. The person or corporation society deems “an owner” turns out to be the one with the superior story.

Owners of valuable resources operate a powerful remote control. They are always trying to design the particular rule that will influence others to do their will – with the most profit and least hassle.Michael Heller and James Salzman

People who own valuable resources steer people to behavior that benefits them. Ownership drives people to internalize ideas about what they ought to do, then change their behavior without consciously understanding why they do so.

Skip the Line

To observe Supreme Court proceedings, for example, Americans line up for hours, and those at the front of the line claim their preferred seats before those at the back claim theirs. Now start-ups, such as Skip the Line, allow people to pay someone to stand in line for them; thus the wealthy secure the best seats. 

Quietly, across the economy, owners are shifting the background rules from first to last, from time to money, and from equality to privilege, all to advance their own interests, not necessarily yours.Michael Heller and James Salzman

Companies such as Disney profit by selling wealthy visitors line-skipping privileges. Ownership rules today, Heller and Salzman note, reveal a societal shift toward prioritizing wealth over the investment of time. 

Dominant Ownership Stories

Residents of Boston understand that if you shovel snow out of a parking space and put a chair in it, you claim that spot for the day. In recent years, however, Boston’s wealthier South End residents called local authorities to remove furniture from parking spaces.

Possession is a deep-rooted and powerful basis for ownership. It’s not going away anytime soon.Michael Heller and James Salzman

People claim a seat at the movie theater with a draped jacket. But, others may not respect your symbolic assertion of “Mine!” because socially accepted rules surrounding possession are in flux. Outcomes demonstrate which group’s ownership stories society finds most compelling.

Productive Labor

Ownership is a “social engineering choice” reflecting a dominant group’s ideas of who ought to control limited resources, the authors say. The courts grant the title of “owner” to those individuals or entities instrumental in achieving a desired set of goals.

Reaping where others have sown is a much more integral part of everyday life than people realize.Michael Heller and James Salzman

When it comes to ownership claims regarding the products of intellectual labor, courts must incentivize innovation and ensure the public can benefit from it. Patents and copyrights function for a limited time so products can become public domain. Yet, application of these laws proves malleable: Wealthy corporate owners often demand and receive legal copyright extensions. Prioritizing copyright can harm the public interest – people lose free access to an intellectual product; and creators – who can’t propagate their works freely. Moving forward, Heller and Salzman predict, corporations will profit from ownership claims on genetic data and the personal information you share on sites such as Google. 

Limited Resources

Heller and Salzman believe that communities must renegotiate traditional property norms and reach compromises regarding the sharing limited resources, such as sunlight.

Old-fashioned intuitions of ownership don’t work well for drones. Unlike airplanes, drones roam unpredictably.Michael Heller and James Salzman

For example, in a community reliant on solar power, someone wanting to plant large trees would block his or her neighbor’s access to sunlight; here no clear ownership guideline applies. Complex property law debates regarding privacy and the sharing of resources will shape ownership rules of the future.

Generational Wealth

Property law ensured that England’s wealthy families could pass on property and assets to their children – enabling the elite to perpetuate their socioeconomic status for generations. By the 1900s, the United States and England began taxing inheritable wealth. But the United States recently created an estate tax exemption of $23.4 million that reflects society’s increasingly favorable attitude toward the hereditary passing down of wealth and privilege. 

Ownership within families spans a vast terrain, full of opaque rules that quietly build mountains of wealth high above plains of poverty.Michael Heller and James Salzman

In states such as South Dakota, lawyers, bankers and accountants manage “dynasty trusts,” to enable families to bypass inheritance taxes.

“Heir Property”

Nearly one million Black American families were farm owners in 1920. Black families today, Heller and Salzman observe, own less than 19,000 farms; Black families lose their farms three times as often as white families lose theirs. 

Reasonably suspicious of white lawyers, poor Black farming families didn’t create wills. Their farms became “heir property.” When landowners died, their children inherited the farm. Every heir must then unanimously agree on, for example, who will pay for a new roof. Consensus amongst siblings proves rare; American property law encourages heirs to sell these properties. Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to lack legal wills, leaving their generational wealth unprotected.

From Ownership to Access

The authors cite this societal shift: A few large corporations concentrate the ownership of titles and most people pay for access to resources.

In this grand shift from owning something – to holding just a twig in someone else’s bundle, we risk losing the profound value that comes from our intimate connections to simple material possessions.

How individuals connect with and share objects has, historically, shaped identities and communities. If ownership design encourages renting an apartment on Airbnb, for example, people will increasingly become transient consumers, rather than mortgage payers who become homeowners and establish neighborhoods.

Equitable Ownership

Heller and Salzman vest in economic equity. Without overtly making the connection, each aspect of the new, less equitable ownership paradigm they describe either springs from or nourishes great economic inequity. The authors don’t offer calls to action; they describe the world as it is and inform those who don’t recognize current, dominant patterns of ownership realities. They offer a philosophical treatise, teaching tool and guide to new legal thinking to inform laypeople and attorneys.

Michael Heller also wrote The Gridlock Economy and Creative Tension. James Salzman also wrote Drinking Water.

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