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12:00pm - Speaker Series: Debbie Becher - Sociology, Columbia University

  • When: November 13, 2019, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th floor, Lakeside, Chicago, IL 60611

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Private Property and Private Law as Sources of Progressive Power: Lessons from American Oil Development

The paper can be found here.

Liberal and libertarian theorists have long lauded private property as the basis for growth and equity. Critics of liberal theory, however, have long argued that private property creates vast inequalities in wealth and power. They say that as the legal foundation of commodified exchanges, wealth accumulation, and individual self-interest, private property undermines progressive ideals. Perhaps nowhere are the inequalities in wealth and power as great as found in property dealings for American oil development. And yet, in research in an area with booming fracking development, I found that individuals and their families managed to use private property to exert some limited control over oil. In this presentation, I argue that concerns about public regulation of oil have overshadowed the progressive potential of private property to limit oil-companies’ power. I identify three different kinds of private actions taken to control oil companies in an oil-rich region. All depend on private property. I label these forms of control as community bargaining, supervision, and sabotage to distinguish whether they are generally cooperative or resistant to oil development and whether they happen before or after the signing of written contracts. All three forms of private action, I argue, provide locals with the ability to leverage limited but important concessions from energy companies.

The findings are based on research over 14 months spent in and around North Dakota’s Bakken oil field. I interviewed over a hundred farmers and ranchers, oil-industry property brokers (called landmen), and lawyers involved in property deals. I also observed and conducted archival research about them and their advocacy organizations. The work to be presented is from a chapter of a forthcoming book, A Fractured Nation, under contract with Oxford University Press.

Photo Courtesy of Columbia University in the City of New York; Bio Courtesy of Barnard Collge, Columbia University

Professor Becher researches what it has meant for land to be treated as private property. Her studies of private property sit at the intersection of economic sociology, the sociology of law, and urban and rural sociology.

Her first book, Private Property and Public Power: Eminent Domain in Philadelphia (Oxford University Press, 2014) co-won the 2016 Zelizer Award for Best Book in Economic Sociology from the American Sociological Association and won the 2015 Harrt Socio-Legal Prize for Early Career Academics from the Socio-Legal Studies Association. The book analyzes the legitimacy of government involvement in private property. The exceptional step of taking property exposes a logic operating in many other situations. Debbie argues that a logic of real property -- which attempts to match returns to investments -- guides individual and organizational action in the contemporary urban United States. Until now, it has not been described by legal, political, and economic scholarship. This book reveals how institutions and individuals employ the idea of investment to resolve tensions between public and private interests.

In the first comprehensive study of a city’s eminent-domain acquisitions, Debbie explores which properties the city pursues for private redevelopment and how stakeholders decide that government actions are either a use or abuse of power. A quantitative overview of citywide practice combines originally collected data on eminent domain with City of Philadelphia and U.S. Census data on properties and neighborhoods, showing that eminent domain has been largely uncontroversial though fairly common (approximately 7,000 properties and 400 development projects pursued from 1992 to 2007). Case studies of two controversial development projects probe more deeply into the porous and shifting boundary between desirable and undesirable government action. Readers follow these projects through planning and implementation, with evidence from public records, documents on file in offices of the Mayor and the Redevelopment Authority, and interviews with residents, business owners, community leaders, government representatives, attorneys, and appraisers. Though in moments of conflict those opposing eminent domain employ an idea of property security as possession (“what’s mine is mine and what’s your is yours”), more flexible approaches to property governance are more common.

Property-governing institutions enforce a logic trying to value and reward property investment – including emotional, financial, temporal, and cognitive investment. Written rules, public claims, and individual practices aim to ensure that the social environment provides returns to investments of all kinds in a fairly equitable manner. Dissatisfaction and claims of public wrongs arise not when or because government threatens property titles. They arise instead when property-governing institutions fail to meet the task of enforcing this more complex and evasive logic. The conception of property as investment offers progressive possibilities because it draws attention to the socially produced, changing value of land and buildings and demands a respect for multiple kinds of value.

Debbie is now writing a book A Fractured Nation, under contract with Oxford University Press, based on her investigation of property-rights tranfers necessary for oil extraction in the Northern Plains.  With this project, Debbie is shedding more light on the value of private property in highly uncertain environments and across power differences.  Many places in the United States are witnessing a monumental land rush, as oil and gas companies try to capitalize on fairly new technology, knowledge, regulations, and prices.  Scholarly attention to the issue is booming as well, but most studies focus on environmental, health, and community impacts and activism; few scholars are investigating the property rights that make gas production possible (or prevent it).  Debbie is studying how energy companies and surface- and mineral-rights owners make deals for the property rights to do the drilling, including how the rights are valued financially. 

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