Thursday, 29 August 2013

Would changing law school to two years reduce tuition fees?

Barack Obama's recent comments on reducing law school length to two years have prompted discussion about the trade off between reducing costs for students and the quality of legal education.

However, there's a fairly major point being overlooked, that reducing the course to two years is unlikely to reduce the upfront cost of legal education to students.

Let's assume that Obama is right and law school can be shrunk to two years without reducing quality. Given the huge variation in legal training in different countries, this seems reasonably plausible. We'll make a second assumption that law firms will recognize this fact at least over the medium term.

If this is the case, then the opportunity cost of taking a three year law course is a year of earnings and the interest accrued on loans over the extra year. By this logic, the two year course actually has higher expected value than the three year course and so students should be willing to pay more for a two year course than for a three year one. Because there is no regulation of tuition costs, law schools will quickly adjust prices to fit the demand for the shorter programs.

The key point is that a yearly tuition fee is best understood as a payment plan towards the whole cost of a degree, than a price for each year.

One point that is worth considering is whether fees might be reduced because of lower costs to the law schools of holding the courses. This is possible, but probably only if the market as a whole shifts in that direction so that all law schools are competing on the basis of two year costs. In a mixed market it probably makes sense for two year courses to maintain prices: 1) because they can and 2) to avoid signalling a lower quality product.

So if upfront costs are unlikely to go down, is the plan a bad idea? Not at all. The reason prices won't go down is because two year courses offer a better deal for the student. A chance to be a lawyer a year earlier and an extra year of earnings over a career.

This last point is also important for society. A student who enters the jobs market a year earlier provides an extra year of lawyer. And this difference isn't an extra year of a junior lawyer but an extra year of being an experienced lawyer at the end of the career. The lawyer becomes a lawyer "with 30 years of legal experience" a year earlier and a lawyer "with 40 years of legal experience" a year earlier.

So reducing law school length sounds like a good option, just don't expect it to reduce fees.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Could the pope make everyone in the world a European citizen?

The Vatican occupies an interesting place in international law with certain functions of its government assumed by Italy but with independence in other respects. While reading around this, I noticed an oddity that might allow a pope to grant Italian citizenship (and hence European citizenship) on as many people as he wishes.

This stems from the Lateran treaty that setup the legal relationship between Italy and the Vatican. Certain employees of the Vatican are made citizens of Vatican state for the period of their employment. However, this citizenship is removed once their term ends. The Lateran treaty refers specifically to this group as follows:

"Ceasing to be subject to the sovereignty of the Holy See, the people mentioned in the preceding paragraph may, if in terms of Italian law, regardless of the circumstances of fact set forth above, are not considered to be equipped with other citizenship, will be regarded in Italy as citizens certainly Italian." (Google translated)

Essentially, former citizens of the Vatican who no longer have any other citizenship are automatically granted Italian citizenship instead of being made stateless. This opens up the tantalizing possibility of the pope hiring large numbers of temporary staff for 2 days. Then, once they have renounced their previous citizenship- firing them- making them automatic Italian citizens. This logic suggests that the Pope can essentially create as many Italian (and therefore European) citizens as he wishes.

However, what would happen next is more murky. Since Italy hasn't signed the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which generally disallows the removal of citizenship  when it would leave an individual stateless, they might just pass a law revoking post-Vatican citizenships. I'm not a legal expert so I'm unsure whether this counts as breaking the Lateran Treaty. EU law might also have some sway but it generally defers to Member States on their right to determine rules around citizenship.

Given the new pope's greater focus on poverty, perhaps opening up Europe's borders will appeal as a poverty reduction measure.

1) I certainly don't think Francis will do this and the effects of it would likely be very uncertain.
2) This is basically a "real life" version of the ploy from Elysium to get everyone in the world healthcare.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Automatically creating citations for your R packages within knitr

Health warning: the following post is about solving a fairly small problem when using R, latex and knitr. If you don't already use two out of three of these you might want to skip over this post!

Workflow issues are some of the most irritating issues in academia. On one extreme you can use stata and Microsoft word to analyse and write your documents. However, there are a whole host of formatting and replicability issues that go along with this setup. At the other extreme you can use an ever increasing cocktail of software to finely hone every aspect of creating a paper with the consequent problems of updates, conflicts and looking for missing parentheses in five different scripts.