The Group Rooting for an Elon Musk-Twitter Trial: Charles Dickens Fans | Kanebridge News
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The Group Rooting for an Elon Musk-Twitter Trial: Charles Dickens Fans

The litigation has been playing out in a type of court that Dickens made a villain in ‘Bleak House’; ‘I wasn’t aware of there being one in America, I must say’

Mon, Oct 10, 2022 9:16amGrey Clock 4 min

What in the Dickens is happening in Twitter, Inc. v. Musk, et al.?

If the parties in one of the country’s most closely watched legal dramas fail to reach an agreement, a trial will follow in November—a prospect that is particularly fascinating to a very remote group: fans of Charles Dickens.

The fight over Elon Musk’s disputed deal to buy Twitter has been playing out in Delaware’s Court of Chancery, a judicial arm that every Dickens fanatic knows as the villain in the British author’s 1,036-page saga “Bleak House.” In the 1852 novel, an inheritance fight is so prolonged in a slow, expensive and corrupt chancery court that the only ones who win are the lawyers.

“Keep out of Chancery,” Dickens writes. “It’s being ground to bits in a slow mill; it’s being roasted at a slow fire; it’s being stung to death by single bees; it’s being drowned by drops; it’s going mad by grains.”

After months of negotiations and litigation between the world’s richest man and the social-media company he sought to buy in April, Mr. Musk said in a Thursday court filing that he was working to finance a deal and asked to delay the trial scheduled to start on Oct. 17. Though Twitter opposed his motion, citing the defendants’ “refusal to accept their contractual obligations,” the judge granted a stay of the trial, allowing both parties until Oct. 28 to complete a deal.

Mr. Musk may indeed keep out of chancery, if his recent move to reinstate his $44 billion offer to purchase Twitter succeeds. Today, chancery courts are largely used to settle disputes over contracts, trusts, estates and other noncriminal matters.

The latest twist in the Twitter-Musk case feels to some Dickens enthusiasts like one of the author’s classic cliffhangers.

“This is absolutely typical of a Dickensian plot,” said Mark Charles Dickens, great-great grandson of Charles Dickens, family genealogist and former board chair at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. “Everyone hopes that this is edging closer to resolution, but that can often be a false dawn.”

Some admirers of the Victorian novelist are quietly rooting against an out-of-court settlement. They are yearning for the nostalgic literary charms of an actual chancery-court saga. It barely matters to them that Delaware’s modern chamber, which has already acted swiftly in the Twitter-Musk case, has little in common with the “Bleak House” chancery court beyond the name.

The legal fight is a boon for the bookish on social media. “This is the Court of Chancery: Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!” Carleton College President Alison Byerly tweeted after reading about the case, citing lines from that novel’s first chapter.

“It struck me as funny that this avatar of modern technology was being linked with this very old-fashioned notion of the British legal system,” Ms. Byerly said later. “Elon Musk very much positions himself as being about the leading edge of the future, and to see this reaching back into the past, it was so completely incongruous.”

Delaware’s Court of Chancery declined to comment. Twitter and Mr. Musk didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Most chancery courts disappeared in England and the U.S. by the late 19th-century, their duties merging into the broader legal system. But a handful of U.S. states never got around to dissolving these courts. As a flood of businesses began incorporating in Delaware in the early 1900s, the state needed a judicial system to resolve corporate disputes and chose its chancery court to handle the workload. Hence, the Twitter-Musk litigation, playing out against the backdrop of the chancery court in 2022.

“I wasn’t aware of there being one in America, I must say,” Mr. Dickens, the great-great grandson, said of the Delaware chancery. “It would be disappointing if it is settled out of court and we are denied witnessing a little history being made.”

While Delaware’s court of chancery still handles issues such as guardianships, it is best known for what legal experts call speed and acumen in rulings relating to business equity. In the 1950s, one of the court’s pro-integration rulings became part of the larger Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools.

For a literary audience, Twitter v. Musk sounds too Dickensian to resist.

“There is a person whose name is a scent fighting a company whose name reminds one of birds—Dickens would just love that,” said Stephen Gillers, law professor emeritus at New York University.

Dominic Gerrard has read “Bleak House” twice, watched the 15-part BBC miniseries and listened to the 43-hour audiobook. The host of the podcast “Charles Dickens: A Brain on Fire” couldn’t help making a Dickens connection to the trial.

“The term ‘chancery’ makes me think of lives being ruined and wasted,” he said. “It’s pure delusion and an addiction.” Mr. Gerrard sees the author’s dim view of the chancery court in the bird names chosen by Miss Flite in “Bleak House.” “The little crazy old lady,” in the book’s words, gives many of her caged birds dreary names such as “Waste,” “Madness” and “Ruin.”

As a young man, Dickens worked briefly as a law clerk and then as a chancery-court reporter. He dealt with the chancery court in real life as well, when he filed a copyright suit involving an imitation of his newly released “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens won the case, but lost money after court costs.

In his books, Dickens reliably lampoons the lawyers. Mr. Vholes in “Bleak House” conjures an image of an actual vole, a small rodent. In “The Pickwick Papers,” the unethical lawyer Mr. Fogg is described as “an elderly, pimply-faced, vegetable-diet sort of man.” Sampson Brass in “The Old Curiosity Shop” is “an attorney of no very good repute” with a “cringing manner, but a very harsh voice.”

The legal system itself is under fire. Mr. Bumble puts it bluntly in “Oliver Twist.” “The law,” he says, “is an ass.”


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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


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