Category Archives: Teaching

Guinea Pigs, Colonoscopy Artists, and Prostitution: A Typical Taboo Trades Valentine’s Day

What could be more fitting for a Valentine’s Day Taboo Trades class than some readings on commodification of the body?  For today’s class I chose:

(1) Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, Taking Money For Bodily Services, pp. 276-298

(2) Carl Elliott, Guinea-Pigging, The New Yorker

(3) Cari Romm, The Life of A Professional Guinea Pig, The Atlantic (2015)

The concept of guinea pigging is one that I’ve written about here before, in Medical Research Subjects: Guinea Pigs, Laborers, Or Altruists?  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (as discussed by Romm), the first use of the word “guinea pig” as “human subject of an experiment” was in 1913, when George Bernard Shaw decried “the … folly which sees in the child nothing more than the vivisector sees in a guinea pig: something to experiment on with a view to rearranging the world.”

As used here, guinea pigs are healthy, professional medical research subjects who make money primarily through Phase 1 clinical trials (the trials meant to assess the safety and possible side effects of medications, rather than their efficacy). As noted by Romm, “The members of this group call themselves guinea pigs, or lab rats. They also call themselves professionals.”  This notion, of course, flies in the face of the preferred ethicists’ understanding of human subjects research, which likes to conceive of subjects as motivated by altruism.  As noted by Elliott:

Of course, ethicists generally prefer that subjects take part in studies for altruistic reasons. Yet, if sponsors relied solely on altruism, studies on healthy subjects would probably come to a halt. The result is an uneasy compromise: guinea pigs are paid to test drugs, but everyone pretends that guinea-pigging is not really a job.

Kieran Healy and I make a similar point about egg donors in our forthcoming paper, Repugnance Management and Transactions in the Body (forthcoming, American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 2017, 107(5)). As we say there:

The fact that egg donor compensation occurs within a gift-based cultural account poses other problems as well. Payments of up to $10,000 are hard enough to square with a gift narrative, but participants managed it. Egg donation is physically risky, after all, and there was a general consensus that egg donors deserved something for their efforts. Besides, all market participants recognized that without some compensation there would be very few egg donors. But once incentives enter the picture they threaten to undermine gift framing entirely. Would fertility centers and patients compete for the most desirable egg donors? How do you square extremely large payments that vary with the donor’s beauty, intelligence, or race with the notion that payments to egg donors are mere thank-you gestures or a token in recognition of physical discomfort? (emphasis added)

So, how does Nussbaum’s chapter on prostitution fit into all this?  In some years, I opt to assign Nussbaum’s chapter together with readings on sex work, but in some ways I find it a better fit with the human guinea pigs readings because Nussbaum makes her points about prostitution by analogizing to the commodification of the body more generally. Many readers, for example, will be familiar with Nussbaum’s famous example of the “colonoscopy artist,” who “gets paid for having her colon examined with the latest instruments, in order to test out their range and capability.”

When considered in this light, the job of guinea pig and that of prostitute (like all cases of bodily commodification) share some similarities – and some differences as well. In the end, Nussbaum is skeptical of commodification critiques, concluding that:

We need to scrutinize all our social views about money making and alleged commodification with extra care, for they are likely to embed class prejudices that are unjust to working people.


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Gift Cards For Blood!

In a fun coincidence, this Red Cross drive, offering a $5 Amazon gift card in exchange for presenting as a blood donor came across my Facebook feed this morning.  I say it is a coincidence, because my Taboo Trades seminar was reading about precisely this issue today, in “Rewarding Altruism? A Natural Field Experiment” by Nicola Lacetera, Mario Macis, and Robert Slonim. The authors conduct a natural field experiment involving nearly 100,000 individuals on the effects of offering economic incentives for blood donations. Because cash compensation is not permitted, subjects received either a $5, $10, or $15 gift card. As is the case with the Red Cross drive featured here, anyone presenting to donate would receive the gift cards regardless of whether they donated. (Presumably, to undermine any incentive to lie about health histories in order to receive the compensation, as suggested long ago by Titmuss — who we read last week).

Lacetera, Macis, and Slomin find that providing material rewards led to a large and significant increase in the propensity to donate, and in a very standard way: the effect was increasing in the amount of the incentives. They also found that rewards led to some spatial (i.e. some subjects who would have donated at a particular center switched to a center offering a gift card) and short-term inter-temporal displacement (i.e. some subjects who would have donated later moved up the timing of their donations in order to take advantage of the reward offer). But the gift cards increased the likelihood of donation, even after accounting for these displacement effects.

Interestingly, the current drive is offering a $5 incentive, but the optimal incentive in the study, if I recall correctly, was $10 (although $15 generated more donations, it also cost more and resulted in more displacement effects).  That’s my recollection anyway.

So, give blood! And, for the moment anyway, earn money! (Oops, not money, a mere thank you gift, of course).

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Our Day Of Market Design

Al Roth with Taboo Trades seminar, March 23, 2016

Al Roth with Taboo Trades seminar, March 23, 2016

As I mentioned in my last post, 2012 Nobel Prize winner Al Roth visited Duke Law School this week as a guest of the Law & Markets project. We basically worked Al to death while he was here – he gave three talks in a single day: a casual morning discussion over coffee with my Taboo Trades students and select faculty; a lunchtime public lecture about his book, Who Get’s What And Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design; and an afternoon faculty workshop on Global Kidney Exchange (sometimes called Reverse Transplant Tourism). And that’s not counting the breakfasts, lunch, and dinner he had with faculty who wanted to hear even more about market design. I was exhausted from just watching him in action.

Those who know Al won’t be surprised by that, I suspect. As I’ve discussed before in prior posts (here and here), Al is deservedly well-known for his generosity in sharing his time and expertise with students, colleagues, and even know-nothings like me.

UnknownWhether by design or happy accident (I’m not sure which, though he is a market designer, hmm . . . ) there was little overlap in the content of the three talks, though each one built on the other and someone who attended all three (as many of us did) could gain new insight into market design at each stage. The morning session focused primarily on labor markets, especially the judicial clerkship market and market for summer associates and how that compared to the market for new medical residents. As Al discusses in the book, the market for judicial clerks, unlike the market for medical residents, is one in which attempts to prevent market unraveling have been largely unsuccessful. We talked a bit about why that might be and it was interesting to have that discussion among someone who has studied that market (Al), current market participants (the students), prior participants (law professors) and those who have negotiated some of the earlier (failed) agreements – law school administrators.

The lunch talk focused on the concept of market design more generally, but with an emphasis on school choice, kidney exchange, and high frequency trading as examples. The afternoon session was devoted to Al’s current work on repugnant transactions and Global Kidney Exchange, an issue we have both worked on with Mike Rees.

It was a really special day all around, but I was especially happy to get a chance to share Al in person with my Taboo Trades students. They have already spent more time thinking about repugnant transactions than most people ever will, and it was great for them to have a chance to meet “The Pied Piper of Repugnance,” as I referred to Al some years ago, in person. We memorialized his visit with us in the photo above.

Prior posts about Al Roth:

Tomorrow Is Al Roth Day!

Congratulations to Al Roth!

Al Roth: The Pied Piper of Repugnance?

Al Roth, Market Designer, in August Forbes

Scalping The Dalai Lama

Prior posts about Global Kidney Exchange/Reverse Transplant Tourism: collected here

Prior posts about the Taboo Trades seminar: collected here

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Another HKU Summer, and Students As Colleagues

IMG_0716 IMG_0717 IMG_0679 IMG_0684 IMG_1800 IMG_1797As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was in China this summer on a variety of work-related activities, including attending a conference in Shanghai, visiting alumni in China and Taiwan, and teaching at the Duke-HKU Asia-America Institute in Transnational Law in Hong Kong. This was my second summer at the Institute, and I always have a great time there.

Hong Kong is such a wonderful city and HKU is, to my mind, a gorgeous urban campus, with harbor and peak views, koi ponds and other cool landscaping, easy access to the peak, and a fabulous new building with the latest classroom technology. This year, though, was especially fun because I was able to co-teach a mini-course on financial derivatives with one of my former financial derivatives students, Shinichi Yoshiya, now at Davis Polk’s Tokyo office. Shin was already an experienced lawyer, and particularly experienced with derivatives regulation, when he was a student at Duke, having worked at both Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Securities before coming to Duke for his LL.M. I did a post about a paper he did on central clearing when he was a student, here.

It was great to be back in one of my favorite cities and even better to be there teaching with one of my favorite (former) students!

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Taboo Trades Reading Lists

One of the things that I talked about with Christian and Joe the other day was my course on Taboo Trades and Forbidden markets that I’ve blogged about on a number of occasions. Some folks have reached out to ask for a reading list or other information about the course, so I finally got around to putting up reading lists and other resources on my webpage.

Head on over if you’re interested in what I cover. You’ll see that I have a core of readings that I assign each year, then rotate among other readings and topics depending on my current interests. I’ve also linked to a few blog posts that address particular readings, speakers, or issues that I cover.

If you teach a similar course please leave a comment letting me know more about your course and coverage. And if anyone is interested in a “taboo trades” syllabus repository and is willing to share let me know that as well – I’ve been thinking about putting one together as a shared resource.

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