Emerging scholars Greene and Zhang join governing faculty
Two versatile interdisciplinary scholars will join the governing faculty in July.
Sara Sternberg Greene, whose interests span bankruptcy, commercial law, contracts, tax, poverty, and health law, uses qualitative empirical research to examine the impact of financial laws on low- and moderate-income families.
Taisu Zhang is a scholar of comparative and economic legal history, property law, and Chinese law whose ambitious research agenda includes empirical and theoretical study of property rights in preindustrial China and Western Europe as well as the operation of the contemporary Chinese judiciary.
“We are very fortunate that both of these talented young scholars chose to come to Duke Law,” said Dean David F. Levi. “Sara Greene will add a new perspective and set of skills to a terrific group of business, tax, and empirical scholars and teachers at the law school. Taisu Zhang is well recognized in the United States and in China as one of the foremost scholars of China of his generation. They represent exciting additions to our faculty.”
Sara Sternberg Greene: Focusing on issues that matter to working-class families
In her scholarship, Greene is broadly concerned with the relationship between law and inequality. One recent article, “The Broken Safety Net: A Study of Earned Income Tax Credit Recipients and a Proposal for Repair,” 88 NYU Law Review 515 (2013), is based on a novel study of 194 individuals with whom she and other researchers on her team conducted in-depth interviews regarding the EITC, which as an anti-poverty program enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. While she found an overwhelming appreciation for the tax credit among her study subjects, she found its distribution as a lump-sum annual payment during tax refund season left them vulnerable to mid-year “financial shocks,” be they unexpected car repairs or dental work.
“People who receive the EITC are working and they are earners,” she said. “They avoid programs, like welfare, that carry stigma, so they use credit cards, which are stigma-free. But interest and fees build up quickly on the cards, and by the time these people receive their tax credit they have to use the money to cover credit card interest and fees rather than putting it towards their mobility goals.” Study participants routinely spoke of their desire to save money during their interviews, she added.
Greene’s suggestion for repair involves a simple change to the distribution scheme. “I propose that the IRS put 20 percent of the individual’s Earned Income Tax Credit into an interest-bearing account I call a ‘savings and emergency fund’ — SAEF — account that is reserved for emergencies. The rest would be distributed as a lump sum. Whenever the recipient experiences these small shocks, they can use that money instead of resorting to credit cards.”
Her proposal includes incentives to encourage saving, absent a pressing need for the money. Greene hopes that her proposal can eventually be tested in a pilot program operated through the IRS.
“Sara Greene’s in-depth interview-based research on how the earned income tax credit affects the lives of its recipients is path-breaking,” said Lawrence Zelenak, the Pamela B. Gann Professor of Law, and a noted expert on tax law and policy. “Her work is exciting both for its use of sophisticated qualitative empirical research methods and for its focus on legal issues of particular importance to working-class families.”
Among several bankruptcy-related projects Greene has ongoing, one utilizes data from the comprehensive 2007 Consumer Bankruptcy Project to predict consumer success in emerging from Chapter 13 bankruptcy with a view to identifying ways to improve the system. Her article, co-authored with Laura Tach, on the debtmanagement strategies of low-income families was recently published in the journal Social Problems.
Greene received her BA, magna cum laude, in 2002 from Yale University and her
JD in 2005 from Yale Law School, where she received the Stephen J. Massey Prize for excellence in advocacy and served as notes editor for the Yale Law Review and articles editor for the Yale Law and Policy Review. After clerking for Judge Richard Cudahy on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Greene focused on housing law matters at the law firm Klein Hornig, in Boston. She received a PhD in social policy and sociology from Harvard University in May.
A former AmeriCorps volunteer, Greene has long had an interest in issues facing economically challenged communities. Working in Yale’s Housing and Community Development Clinic caused her to question policy and statutory design and led her to the methodologies she uses in her current research. Her work during graduate school as a research assistant to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, then a Harvard law professor, deepened Greene’s interest in bankruptcy.
Duke Law promises to be a good fit for Greene’s multi-disciplinary interests, she said. “One of the things that drew me to Duke is that there were so many people doing interesting and different things across disciplines. I wanted to be at a law school, in particular, because in my writing and research, that’s my end goal: What should these programs and laws look like? What should the statutes say?”
Taisu Zhang: A multi-faceted, cross-cultural research agenda
A core focus of Zhang’s research concerns the way cultural norms of kinship and interpersonal hierarchy shaped property in pre-industrial China and England and how those property institutions affected broader trends in global economic history. In particular, he explores the interaction between cultural norms, legal and customary institutions, and economic outcomes.
“In the societies that I study, the law itself was often a less important player than custom in regulating actual economic activity,” said Zhang, who has been a visiting assistant professor at Duke Law since 2012.
In “Social Hierarchies and the Formation of Customary Property Law in Pre-Industrial China and England,” 62 American Journal of Comparative Law 501 (2014), Zhang challenges the common assumption of comparative lawyers and economists that traditional Chinese laws and customs were unduly oppressive toward the poor.
He compares practices surrounding land-pawning and redemption by small landholders in need of quick cash through conditional “dian” sales in Qing and Republican China and mortgages in early-modern England. Each society had robust markets for land and agricultural goods, but, he writes, Chinese customs were comparatively more egalitarian, with property institutions often giving significantly greater economic protection to poor debtors than did comparable institutions in early modern England.
English debtors who mortgaged land would generally lose property rights if they failed to redeem their loan within one year, causing land ownership to become highly concentrated, over time, in the hands of a wealthy elite. Chinese customary law, in contrast, allowed debtors unlimited redemption rights.
Why were small landholders in China able to negotiate more desirable property institutions than their English peers? Zhang credits the operation of hierarchical “Confucian” kinship networks that granted social status based on age, while England’s meritocratic system conferred high status only on the wealthy.
“The starting point of those negotiations in China was different from the starting point in England,” said Zhang. “The age-based social hierarchies operating in most rural communities in China facilitated a distribution of sociopolitical power that was much more egalitarian than did the wealth-based social hierarchy operating in England.”
Zhang’s body of work on the contemporary Chinese judiciary looks both at the institutional structure and motivation of judges in the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and at the motivations of petitioners with grievances against government officials. He plans to conduct an empirical review of SPC rulings issued from 2003 to 2013 designed to illuminate how cultural or ideological factors might affect judicial behavior. “This would be, to the extent of my knowledge, the first empirical study of SPC decision-making,” he said.
“Taisu brings both enormous talent and an enormous range of talent to Duke Law,” said Barak Richman, the Edgar P. and Elizabeth C. Bartlett Professor of Law and Professor of Business Administration. “He’s a legal historian, a property theorist, an institutional economist, and a China expert — and he’s a top-flight scholar in each of those areas.”
Raised primarily in Beijing, Zhang majored in history and mathematics at Yale University, where he received his BA magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He received his JD from Yale Law School, where he served as articles editor of the Yale Law Journal. He will soon receive his PhD in history from Yale. His dissertation, “Kinship, Property, and Agricultural Capitalism in Pre-Industrial China and England,” which he is developing into a book manuscript, has been recognized with a Kathryn T. Preyer Award by the American Society for Legal History and a Yale East Asia Prize Fellowship, among others.
Zhang has taught at Yale, Brown University, and the Peking University Law School, and has been a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University School of Law. He has worked in the Institute of Applied Legal Studies of the Supreme People’s Court of China, at the Federal Defenders of New York in Manhattan, and with Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York and Hong Kong.
Zhang said he’s found an intellectual home at Duke. “I loved my first year here. I deeply respect my colleagues — they are brilliant scholars and wonderful people. And what really struck me about Duke was how easy it is to cross departmental and disciplinary boundaries. So I always felt pretty happy about being able to stay here if I got the chance.”