Democracy and Economics

I’ve been reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” lately because, naturally, I wanted to find out how to become Michelle Obama. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that it’s not a how-to book but an autobiography.

Still, it hasn’t been a complete waste of time because it got me thinking about an important topic: lawyer wages. There’s a part in the book where Michelle — wait, can I call her that? Should it be First Lady Obama? Will the Secret Service be upset if I’m too familiar?

Hang on. I’ve got to calm down …

OK, there’s a part of the book where Michelle — she seems like my friend since I’m reading the book. She’s nice, right?

Anyway, there’s a part of the book that’s about the choice of making a lot of money at a major law firm and being able to pay off student loans and/or live comfortably or doing some good for the community in public interest work. This reminded of my days many, many, many years ago as a news reporter covering Public Utilities Commission hearings in Utah.

The typical scene (and the reason I was there) consisted of some earnest, low-paid (or non-paid) consumer activists protesting a rate increase being opposed by guys in suits with reams of paper and smooth-sounding arguments that made it sound like paying more for electricity was the only way to save the planet.

It was no contest. The suits always won.

It wasn’t because they had the better arguments. It wasn’t because the country needed utility companies to make more money. It was because the big companies could afford to hire the smartest, best-educated lawyers out there (or at least the ones that didn’t care that much about what they were paid to argue for).

So there’s a pretty obvious solution that could revolutionize society: Pay public interest lawyers lots and lots of money. Imagine if all those Ivy League grads and rainmakers switched sides.

Now you’re wondering how this could happen. Actually, a simple application of basic economics and some not-unprecedented government regulation should do the trick.

I’m talking about price controls and incentives. Most major regulations — health, safety, labor — are limited to businesses of a certain size or valuation and there’s no reason why legal fee price controls can’t be applied to large companies.

Say, for example, you limited the total legal fees and costs that can be spent on a single matter to, say, $10,000 for companies with 50 or more employees or book values of more than $10 million. The other half of the equation is a requirement that judges must be required to award lawyers who win cases or settlements against big companies and benefit the public be paid at a rate of at least $800 per hour.

Now picture all the big-money lawyers jumping ship and switching sides.

There are other benefits to this system. Corporations and their attorneys will settle as quickly as possible — preferably before any complaint is filed.

And companies will be incentivized to sue each other. After all, if they do some public good, they’ll be rewarded. We’ll have a whole new and efficient litigation-based society.

Would Congress approve this sort of thing? Of course it would if some obliging philanthropist — a Bill Gate or a Tom Steyer — offered legislators enough money.

Yes, there would be counteroffers from the Mercers and the Kochs and all sorts of others, but we could all pitch in Bernie Sanders-style. It will be the ultimate integration of democracy and capitalism — just like what’s going on now anyway. Why not take things to their logical conclusion?

And when the campaigning is over we’ll all be free to become our best Michelle Obama.

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