Home Others Michael Heller knows what 'mine' is!

Michael Heller knows what 'mine' is!

In his new book Mine! How the hidden rules of property control our lives Professor Heller examines the laws and norms that regulate everything from disputes with neighbors to climate protection.

Mine! is a primal scream that ricochets through sandboxes and playgrounds around the globe. It's one of the first words children learn, says Michael Heller, Lawrence A. Wien Professor of Real Estate Law and co-author of Mine! How the hidden rules of property control our lives (Double day, March 2021).

Heller and his co-author James Salzman, professor of environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, set about writing Freakonomik for property, to show readers how property affects every aspect of their lives every day. We swim in property rules that are ubiquitous and invisible at the same time, says Heller, an outstanding scholar of private law theory. Ownership is about who gets what and why. The central idea of ​​the book is that what people consider 'mine' is not something solid or natural. It's always a choice and always to be won.

Governments, corporations, and ordinary people are constantly striving to change the rules of ownership. Every change creates winners and losers, and this has always been the case. At its core, human society exists to deal with competing claims to scarce resources - be it food, water, gold or sexual partners - so that we don't kill ourselves too often, says Heller.

Yours, mine or ours?

Heller says that, remarkably, there are only six simple sayings that everyone uses to claim possession over anything in the world: First come first serve. Possession is nine tenths of the law. You reap what you sow. My home is my castle. Our bodies, ourselves. The meek will inherit the earth.

in the Mine! , the writers tell dozens of vivid stories, each with varying degrees of entertaining, annoying, or counterintuitive - and sometimes all three - to show how owners use those stories as the foundation of smart property design to get us to do the what you want.

An engaging story (that many people can probably identify with) examines what happens when a passenger tries to tilt his seat back and the person behind does not give up his knees. The airlines know that crushed passengers will claim competing ownership histories: the lounge chair says the lounge button controls the space appropriate to her seat while the passenger behind it claims have the place when taking off. This is an example of airlines using an ownership design tool that we call 'intentional ambiguity'. Ambiguity allows airlines to sell the bed wedge on every seat on every flight twice, forcing passengers to resolve the conflict, says Heller. What is even better for the airlines is that the economic bottleneck creates a market for high-priced seats in the front area.

In an interview two weeks before the publication of Mine !, Heller provided answers to some of the delicate puzzles discussed in the book.

  • Why does HBO tolerate and even encourage subscribers to illegally divulge their logins and passwords? Heller: 'Tolerated theft,' a powerful property design tool that HBO uses to create 'video addicts,' as the company's former president puts it.
  • If your neighbor's drone is hovering over your roof, is it trespassing? How much of the sky above your land and the resources below are connected to your home and thus belong to you? Heller: Contrary to the saying, your home is Not really your castle, and possession of the 'drone' is up for grabs.
  • Do you really have the e-book on your Kindle when you hit “Buy Now” on Amazon? Heller: Studies have shown that people think that owning them online is the same as owning a physical copy. It is not. Amazon can and has deleted books directly from customers' devices. There is a growing gap between what we do feeling we own and what we indeed have. Online ownership is one tenth of the law. And that means that we pay Amazon an undeserved premium for every download.

The very same ownership histories that kids claim in the playground and adults use when fighting over airplane seats also determine the outcome of our toughest problems, including privacy, climate change, and racial and prosperous inequality. When you send a saliva swab to 23andMe or Ancestry.com to find out inherited traits or build a family tree, you're giving them control over your genetic information, says Heller. Your data is the raw material for your business. They aggregate and sell it to pharmaceutical and insurance companies. 23andMe relies on the job History - you reap what you sow - to claim your data: it's yours because you did the job of putting it together into useful databases. But we can push back with that Ownership History - the data comes from our body.

Ownership of new resources, such as wind and solar energy potential, is often given to existing landowners. This is the bond principle at work - 'It's mine because it's tied to something that's mine' - and it automatically and quietly makes the rich richer, says Heller. Attachment can act like a 'wealth magnet,' as my Columbia Law colleague Thomas Merrill wrote. On the other hand, says Heller, intelligently designed binding rules offer the best hopes for countering climate change, for example by giving rainforest dwellers in the Amazon a reason to leave trees standing. According to Heller, bonding is the most important property story you've never heard of.

Bonding is the most important ownership story you've never heard of.

Heller argues that our day to day property conflicts are storytelling battles, and they mostly take place outside of the law and the courts. At a million to one, people just start these disputes on their own, he says. Courtesy and good manners, customs and norms are the real life of property. Law is mostly irrelevant. And the award goes to those who know how the hidden rules of ownership really work.

Property as a social good

Heller's interest in how property rights affect people's lives goes back to his student days at Harvard, when he worked on projects to design hydration systems for rural cities in Latin America. As a student at Stanford Law School, he similarly worked on housing finance for poor communities in Bangladesh. After receiving his doctorate, he spent four years at the World Bank, where he was part of a team that supported Eastern European countries after the fall of communism. We would try to help new governments figure out what they can do to create property rights to land and housing that are fair and also effective for a market economy, he says.

Michael A. Heller Lawrence A. Wien Professor of Real Estate Law

His work at the World Bank resulted in an invitation from Yale Law School Professor Robert Ellickson to teach a course on the creation of capitalism. Heller then taught at the University of Michigan Law School before moving to Columbia Law School in 2002. From the start, my teaching and scholarship focused on property and land and how to use the law to give the most marginalized people more access to the things we all need, he says.

Heller hopes so Mine! will empower readers to be more effective in advocating change as parents, consumers, and most importantly, citizens, he says. Once they see how property rights work, they can't override them.

Hear Michael Heller talk about it Mine!

About this story

Fields of study
Legal history
Michael A. Heller
Faculty Scholarship and Ideas
March 01, 2021


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