Let’s Talk About How Truly Bizarre Our Supreme Court Is

Legal scholar Jamal Greene shares a “radical proposal” to reform the US Supreme Court and how the US recognizes human rights, on The Ezra Klein Show.

Actually, Greene shares several.

First, he says, the US has the wrong idea about human rights. We recognize only a few, consider each one of them absolute, and only recognize a human right when it is enforceable by government.

This results in a situation where drug companies enjoy an absolute right to perform data mining on private healthcare information, and then use that data to market to doctors. But people don’t have the right to food and shelter, Greene says.

Instead of the US system, Greene recommends how other nations recognize human rights—that there are many rights, and many are in opposition to each other. Germany recognizes fetal right-to-life but also recognizes women’s healthcare autonomy. This, says Greene, results in abortion laws that right-to-life and pro-choice groups had to compromise to achieve, and which are therefore more stable and less incendiary. Some matters should be decided politically, and not by courts.

He also recommends expanding the size of the Supreme Court, putting 10-year term limits on judges, and having only a subset of the judges rule on each case, in order to reduce power for each individual judge. These reforms would make the stakes for each individual judicial appointment less high.

Good recommendations,but right now the priority seems to be stopping the US from turning into a dictatorship or tearing itself apart in civil war. Supreme Court reform can come later.


“Getting race wrong early has led courts to get everything else wrong since,” writes Jamal Greene. But he probably doesn’t mean what you think he means.

Greene is a professor at Columbia Law School, and his book “How Rights Went Wrong” is filled with examples of just how bizarre American Supreme Court outcomes have become. An information processing company claims the right to sell its patients’ data to drug companies — it wins. A group of San Antonio parents whose children attend a school with no air-conditioning, uncertified teachers and a falling apart school building sue for the right to an equal education — they lose. A man from Long Island claims the right to use his homemade nunchucks to teach the “Shafan Ha Lavan” karate style, which he made up, to his children — he wins.

Greene’s argument is that in America, for specific reasons rooted in our ugly past, the way we think about rights has gone terribly awry. We don’t do constitutional law the way other countries do it. Rather, we recognize too few rights, and we protect them too strongly. That’s created a race to get everything ruled as a right, because once it’s a right, it’s unassailable. And that’s made the stakes of our constitutional conflicts too high. “If only one side can win, it might as well be mine,” Greene writes. “Conflict over rights can encourage us to take aim at our political opponents instead of speaking to them. And we shoot to kill.”

Why do we work so damn much

Hunter-gatherers worked 15-hour weeks. Why don’t we?

The Ezra Klein Show:

“James Suzman is an anthropologist who has spent the last 30 years living with and studying the Ju’hoansi people of southern Africa, one of the world’s enduring hunter-gatherer societies. And that project has given him a unique lens on our modern obsession with work.

“As Suzman documents in his new book, ‘Work: A Deep History From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots,’ hunter-gatherer societies like the Ju’hoansi spent only about 15 hours a week meeting their material needs despite being deeply impoverished by modern standards. But as we’ve gotten richer and invented more technology, we’ve developed a machine for generating new needs, new desires, new forms of status competition.

“So this is a conversation about the past, present and future of humanity’s relationship to work and to want. We discuss what economists get wrong about scarcity, the lessons hunter-gatherer societies can teach us about desire, how the advent of farming radically altered people’s conceptions of work and time, whether there’s such a thing as human nature, the dangers of social and economic inequality, the role of advertising in shaping human desires, whether we should have a wealth tax and universal basic income, and much more.

“Historically speaking, we live in an age of extraordinary abundance. We have long since passed the income thresholds when past economists believed our needs would be more than met and we’d be working 15-hour weeks, puzzling over how to spend our free time. And yet, few of us feel able to exult in leisure, and even many of today’s rich toil as if the truest reward for work is more work. Our culture of work would be profoundly puzzling to those who came before us.”

The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that technology and productivity would advance so far over the next century that his grandchildren would be able to work 15-hour weeks to fulfill all their material needs and wants.

Keynes was half-right. We have far surpassed Keynes’s bold technology predictions. And yet we work longer hours than ever before.


Klein and Suzman say we work so hard because the economy isn’t just a machine for filling needs — it is, equally importantly, a machine for creating desire.

People in Keynes’s time didn’t spend money on iPhones or streaming media subscriptions or health insurance.

To find people working 15-hour weeks, you have to look backwards — tens of thousands of years backward — to hunter-gatherer societies.

The hunter-gatherer secret is that they’re not enhancing productivity. They’re regulating demand. They share wildly and freely. If you have something, somebody else can ask you for some and you are required to give it to them. Accumulating too much was considered bad form. Bad for the community.

Hunter-gatherer societies proved extraordinarily resilient, carrying the human race on foot from a small spot of Africa to every continent, from the hot deserts to the Arctic.

Of course there are almost no hunter-gatherer societies left today, and so you might argue that our civilization is far superior to that model. And yet hunter-gatherer cultures dominated for 300,000 years, while all of civilization has only lasted a bit more than 10,000 years — a very small fraction of that time. And it’s unclear how much longer civilization will last.

Can we achieve the best of both models?