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May 20, 2014

Trial by Combat wasn't a terrible idea

Men fought with shields and short clubs until one or the other gave up, or time ran out. It was a complicated way to deal with real estate disputes and also to cut away land belonging to feudal lords. Game of Thrones season 4, episode 7: The real-life advantages of trial by combat.
According to Peter Leeson, a professor of law and economics at George Mason University, the English used trial by battle as their main tool for deciding property disputes from the time of the Norman conquest until 1179, at which point it began fading from use. One party could challenge another’s claim to a plot of land or fishing rights, and if the allegations seemed plausible, the authorities would order a duel in which both sides could be represented by a champion of their choosing. Despite some poorly enforced rules governing whom the plaintiff could and could not pick as their battlefield representative, in most cases both sides simply commissioned a brawler for hire. Come trial day, the champions would theoretically fight until one was killed or conceded the match by shouting “craven.” (The current property owner’s champion could also win by prolonging the fight all the way until nightfall). The winning side came away with the land, ostensibly under the theory that God was on their side. “Trials by battle were literal fights for property rights,” Leeson wrote in a 2011 paper. Of course, this all sounds rather barbaric and superstitious. But Leeson argues that trial by battle was a surprisingly “sensible and effective” system for assigning land rights given the regulatory constraints of the time. Norman England’s elaborate system of feudal property laws made it exceptionally difficult to buy and sell real estate. Trial by combat served as a clever workaround—a loophole that let the local government effectively auction off land to whichever bidder could make the best use of it. Or at least award it to whoever was willing to shell out for the best muscle. Like trial lawyers today, some medieval champions charged more for their services than others, presumably because they had a solid track record of bludgeoning their opponents into submission. They also had no compunctions about working for the highest bidder. And so in a trial by combat, paying for champions took the place of paying for land. In theory, Leeson writes, the most industrious farmers should have won these spending wars, since they stood to make the most money off any given parcel of dirt. The system would have lent itself to abuse by the very rich, but these contests appear to have been prohibited between individuals with vastly different status and wealth. One important piece of evidence that the trials by combat were essentially economic exercises was that they rarely ended in blows. According to Leeson, historical records suggest that between two-thirds and 80 percent of cases settled. As the jurist and historian Sir Frederick Pollock once wrote, it is “abundantly clear that trial by battle in civil cases did from an early time tend to become little more than a picturesque setting for an ultimate compromise.”

May 16, 2014

Was Abramson fired because she did her job and embarrassed a New York Times hire?

Either Abramson was fired because she found out she was being payed 20% less than men who had performed her job, or because she sent a reporter to investigate a child porn scandal that involved a New York Times Company president. Neither look good for the NYT. The Abramson Firing - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money
And then there’s the investigation into Thompson’s history at BBC. “After Thompson had been hired for the job but before he’d started, Abramson sent Matthew Purdy, a hard-charging investigative reporter, to London to examine Thompson’s role in the Jimmy Savile scandal at the BBC,” writes Sherman. “Abramson’s relationship with the two executives never recovered. ‘Mark Thompson was fucking pissed,’ a source explained. ‘He was really angry with the Purdy stuff.’ So was Sulzberger. ‘He was livid, in a very passive-aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.’” They may have been pissed, but they were wrong. This was a major story about a powerful executive and a sexual abuse coverup, and Abramson was proving her editorial independence by covering it. ‘[T]rust in the BBC has plummeted because of a scandal set off in part by the network’s decision to halt a reporting project on decades-old accusations of child sexual abuse against Jimmy Savile, the network’s longtime host of children’s and pop music shows,” wrote Matthew Purdy in a resulting piece. “Controversy over the canceled investigation was already brewing [the previous March]. It fully erupted in early October, just after he left and began preparing for his new job as president and chief executive of The New York Times Company.” The suggestion Abramson should have ignored this story because it embarrassed a powerful Times hire says something troubling about the paper’s priorities. . . . So, to summarize, the man who was the director-general of the BBC when a story about a serial rapist of children who operated in part on BBC premises was being suppressed still has his position. The woman who courageously and correctly investigated this story has lost hers, for no reason that seems remotely convincing. This…does not seem right. It certainly wasn’t about profitability, and while this is a matter of judgment, as a longtime dead tree subscriber I’d say that the quality is substantially improved from the Raines era.