The Laboratorium
January 2004

Twice Is a Coincidence


I was quoted in the New York Times today, though not by name.

This is actually the second time this academic year. Back in September they ran a photo with the back of my head in it.

Perhaps I have a career ahead as an anoymous highly-placed source.

Katha Pollitt Continues to Amuse


Katha Pollitt seems to have found a niche writing in the New Yorker about her ex-lover and her own ignorance. Neither article involved is available online, which strikes me as a wise move.

Last time around, in "Learning to Drive" (July 22, 2002), she talked about learning -- what else -- to drive, quite late in life by the standards of such things. She made a special, almost comical, point, of her own continuing ineptness at driving. Along the way, she mentioned, almost offhand, that she knows no Asians. Since she has a daughter at Stuyvesant and lives on the Upper West Side (easily determined via stuff you can get on the Web), this claim struck me as a bit unlikely.

This time around (January 19, 2004), she writes about using the Internet to stalk her ex, mentioning at various points her lack of knowledge when it comes to various technical matters. She's a familiar sort: the academic who would willingly give over her life to email, but, deep down, fears it. Thus, in the article, she confesses her password (that she speaks of "her password" in the singular without specifying what it is a password to, I think, tells you all you need to know).

Oddly enough, though, in the process of describing her extensive Googling (she calls it "Webstalking," another tip-off) of her ex, she manages to avoid giving his name. This, despite loading down the article with so many specific details about him that reconstructing his name from the article is trivial. It took me about three minutes, and it would have taken less had I noticed that the first highly specific reference I tried was actually something she found by typing in a misspelling of his name.

In any case, though Paul Mattick doesn't come off too well, neither does Pollitt herself. I don't know why she keeps on doing this: she's a good writer and a sharp thinker, but someone needs to save her from her urge to write about her ignorance and ineptness as a form of relationship therapy.

The Slayer Rule


I took my Trusts and Estates exam today.

No, I'd rather not talk about it.

Instead, let me tell you about a question that started nagging at me while I was studying for the exam last night.

The Uniform Probate Code (not available online per se, unfortunately -- this is actually a reference to Montana's version, which is close but not identical) includes a section known as the "slayer rule." The actual rule is fairly simple:

(2) An individual who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits . . . with respect to the decedent's estate . . .

Thus, if you name me in your will, and I murder you, I don't inherit from you. In answer to what I'm sure is your first question (it was mine): no, even if you put a clause in your will saying "Even if James murders me, I still want him to inherit," I don't inherit from you. This is a serious rule of public policy against murder. So the exercise is, how far will that rule of policy go . . .

First off, the statute only mentions benefits from the estate of the person I kill. But it's easy to cook up a scenario in which by killing you, I inherit from a third person. For example, I kill you knowing that your great-uncle has made a will which says "to my great-nephew, but if he dies before me, than to James." Before your uncle can learn of my perfidy, he too dies. I don't think there's a court that follows the UPC that wouldn't exclude me from taking -- even though the inheritance doesn't come through your estate. The relevant UPC text is a little further down:

(6) A wrongful acquisition of property or interest by a killer not covered by this section must be treated in accordance with the principle that a killer cannot profit from the killer's wrong.

I'm still a killer, so the court won't let me profit by my wrong. But we can push this one further. What if, for example, I don't actually commit murder, but "merely" do something else obviously evil? Perhaps you are a dog, and the money is meant to care for you after your owner's death. By killing you, I terminate the "animal trust" and take the proceeds. Cruelty to animals is reprehensible, but not felonious.

Or, what if I commit feticide to prevent the birth of the child whose birth would trigger some will condition preventing me from inheritance? Or, as I put it to Steven, "Suppose I kick you in the nuts so you can't have kids. Am I barred?" (To be clear: these examples are straining at the definition of "killing" in (6) above. The point is that we can move, by stages, from acts everyone recognizes as killings, to acts most people don't regard as killings).

And so it goes. I do something calculating and evil, as a result of which, I get money through the system of inheritance. The question is: will that system step in to stop me from getting the money?

My intuition is yes, under all my hypoes, I will be barred. Not because there's a specific law involved, but because there's a deeper principle at work here, a powerful principle against unjust enrichment. People who do wrong shouldn't profit from their wrongdoing, and courts take that principle very seriously--so seriously in fact, that the lack of a law precisely on point won't stop them from upholding it as far as they can. Indeed, I think we'd be scandalized if they did otherwise.

The real law will never get in the books.