Casey Anthony. Bankrupt. Reward Asymmetry. (Updated)

Doctors often refer to “sequelae“, meaning attending expected consequences of disease or injury.

The bankruptcy of Casey Anthony illustrates a little discussed sequela of protracted and intensive litigation:  financial ruin.  It’s a real risk in many litigated matters since there’s always the likelihood that you could lose.  What the Casey Anthony saga brings home is that financial disaster can also happen if you win.

The story indicates that she still owes her trial lawyer, Jose Baez, a half million dollars.  And with the bankruptcy filing, that’s half a million dollars he’s never going to see.  Not that he was especially likely to see it anyway.

Easy come, easy go.

Is there any lawyer in the country who has rendered a more valuable service to the justice system and the law in the last few years than Jose Baez?  Arguably no.  To stand up, by yourself, in the face of a nationwide mob whipped into murderous frenzy and tell them “no”.  And then to prevail.

If you don’t think that’s a tough job, try it sometime.  It’s one of the hardest things on earth to do.

One of the hallmarks of a truly unjust society is what you might call “reward asymmetry”:  people who do difficult, important and beneficial things are impoverished; others who do easy, meaningless and even destructive things are enriched.  There is something seriously wrong with a country in which Kim Kardashian is a billionaire and Jose Baez can’t even collect half a million dollars for what he did in the Casey Anthony case.  Very seriously wrong.

Of course, I’ve discussed that a lot on the blog here under the financial crisis heading.  No need to recap all that here.

But a personal anecdote might help make tangible and explain how pervasive reward asymmetry is.

I often tell people how significant my time in the US Navy was in terms of its influence on my adult personality formation.  I spent most of my four years of active duty on sea duty.  On destroyers.

Sea duty is classified as “arduous”, and the description is apt, or at least it was at that time.  But the first time I was told that it came with a smirk, from a shore based bureaucrat who had never had sea duty.  Somehow, for many people it is difficult or impossible to appreciate the plight of others.  It’s a failure of imagination, or empathy.  Or something.

In any case, the shore duty v. sea duty asymmetry was something I noticed more as I gained more experience in the fleet.  Keeping a ship operating required a great deal of effort and dedication from its crew.  When in port, every man worked a minimum of about 80 hour weeks; when at sea, it would be fair to say that every man worked pretty much all the time, often going without adequate sleep.

By contrast, duty at a shore command was little different from a regular civilian job, 9-5 Monday through Friday.

Here’s the catch, though.  Shore commands were typically headed by high ranking officers like Admirals; destroyers are typically headed up by Commanders.  One big difference between those kinds of commanding officers is the ability they have to reward their subordinates by handing out Navy Achievement Medals, or Navy Commendation Medals, and so forth.  Admirals can hand out a lot more than Commanders, and pretty much all CO’s hand out as many as they are allowed to.

So where you wind up is that at shore commands that typically have a small staff virtually everyone gets at least a Navy Achievement Medal at some point or other; but only a couple of people on a destroyer ever get a NAM or a commendation medal.  Yet everyone on the destroyer has rendered far more meritorious service under far more demanding conditions than anyone at the shore command.

Nevertheless, in the Navy this asymmetry was not as destructive as similar asymmetries are in the civilian world, in part because the military has – or at least had – a deeply ingrained culture that especially revered shared hardship and sacrifice when it was unheralded, and especially despised undeserved honors.

It’s a guy thing.

In other words, in the civilian context there is no cultural check that ameliorates the deleterious social impact of reward asymmetry.  In addition, the ongoing consequences are generally more severe, because whereas in the military financial ruin is pretty much off the table, in civilian life it is not.

And financial ruin is very much in play for independent lawyers.  You might say it is a daily companion.

It’s extremely important, then, that when a lawyer – like Jose Baez – has done the most important thing a lawyer can do, he is handsomely rewarded.  And probably even more important than that, he must be seen as having been handsomely rewarded, because if he isn’t there is no incentive for other lawyers to do likewise if and when they are called upon.  And if the situation becomes even worse, such that the lawyer is not only not rewarded, but is in fact financially punished to the point of ruin, even as the representatives of the forces over which he has prevailed continue to accumulate wealth and honors, it would be lunacy to ever expect lawyers to do the most important job they have to do if and when such a job falls to them.

And if lawyers don’t do that, our society is in a lot of trouble.  Maybe not right away, but sooner or later.  And the social results are not pretty.

The Casey Anthony case continues to provide insight into the terrible condition of the American justice system, doesn’t it?

Update:  As an aside, Wikipedia’s treatment of the Casey Anthony fiasco is interesting.  For one thing – and remarkably – there is no Wikipedia entry for Casey Anthony herself.  Isn’t that bizarre?  Of course, it’s a “statement” of sorts to frame the whole take on the story as “the death of Caylee Anthony”.  The lengthy article never seems to consider the possibility that Casey Anthony might actually be innocent of having done anything to bring about the death of her daughter.  Or worse, that Casey Anthony might have been the biggest victim in the whole sordid thing outside of her own daughter, as this article suggests.

Scapegoating has deep religious and anthropological significance.  So it isn’t just our justice system the Casey Anthony matter illuminates for us; it is the darkness in our own hearts.


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