The Law and Political Economy of the “Future of Work”

Brishen Rogers

How will new advanced information technologies impact work? This is a major focus of public debate right now, driven by widespread fears that automation will soon leave tens of millions unemployed. But debate so far has tended to neglect the relationship among technological innovation, political economy, and the law of work. This is a major omission, since the automation of particular tasks doesn’t just happen. Rather, it takes place under laws that are subject to democratic oversight and revision – and with different laws, we could encourage a radically different path of technological development, one in which workers have a real voice, and in which they share consistently in technology-driven productivity gains.

Take two upcoming transformations that we’re all familiar with: the automation of some kinds of driving and some kinds of fast-food work. Within a few years, truckers, delivery drivers, and taxi drivers may be able to use an autonomous mode consistently on highways. Later on, they may be able to do so on major suburban and rural streets. But given the wide variation in road quality, humans will likely need to pilot vehicles in residential areas and on city streets for some time to come. And given the wide variation in building structures that delivery robots would need to navigate, humans will almost certainly need to complete deliveries in many instances.

Similarly, in fast food, ordering kiosks are already displacing cashiers, but not in their entirety. Some customers are unable to use the kiosks, including the 70% of McDonalds customers who use the drive-through. Sometimes the kiosks will break down, and sometimes orders won’t be processed appropriately, and thus workers will need to step in. Food preparation may also be automated in part, but given the fine motor control and tacit knowledge required for cooking, it has proven resistant to full automation. Like the transformation in driving, then, this change will likely be gradual and iterative. Technology will augment human capabilities rather than replacing humans wholesale, and workers, companies, and consumers will need to adapt over time.

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Understanding the Political Economy of Academia Through the Tax Bills

Alyssa Battistoni

Paying for corporate tax cuts with revenue raised from grad students and universities sounds like a parody of a Republican tax bill. Unfortunately–like many seeming parodies these days–it was all too real. The tax bill that originally passed the House would have taxed both graduate student tuition waivers and university endowments above a certain level, measured per-student.

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The tax on tuition relief wasn’t in the version of the bill that passed the Senate, and has been dropped from the bill entirely in the reconciliation process—thanks largely to grad students and their unions, who led a wave of protests against the provision. The endowment tax, however, remains intact despite the best lobbying efforts of university administrators.

Understanding the various versions of the bill in relation to both grad students and endowments provides a valuable window into the political economy of contemporary academia. In particular, Congressional Republicans have unintentionally revealed the ways in which the labels of “school” and “student” are only partial descriptors of contemporary universities and the people who study at them.

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Why Civil Disobedience, and Why Now?

Amy Kapczynski – 

On December 5th, I joined hundreds of people from 32 states in Washington D.C to protest the Republican tax bill.  We packed the hallways outside of the offices of seven key members of Congress, and mic-checked one another so that people’s stories about the bill’s devastating consequences could be heard.   A group of us – around 130 in total – refused to leave when the Capitol police arrived, and were arrested.

It was in many ways not an unusual act – the next day, more than 200 people were arrested in D.C. demanding a Clean Dream Act.  I’m heading back to D.C. today for another protest, joining hundreds more in a last ditch effort to head off the tax bill.*

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Many people have thanked me for what I did two weeks ago.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a law professor.  Or perhaps it’s because so many of us are wondering what more we can – or must – do to save our democracy and bring about a more equal society.

Confrontational protest and civil disobedience are an indispensable part of the answer. Here are five thoughts on why I decided to participate in the protest, and what it means to me, and what I hope it might mean to some of you.   Continue reading

Division, Distraction, and Domination: Revisiting The Miner’s Canary

Frank Pasquale – 

A magazine owned by billionaire Michael Bloomberg recently reported on workers’ declining share of national income. “Why don’t workers get the full benefit of rising productivity? No one has good answers,” it stated, to the merriment of left Twitter. A raft of memes reminded Bloomberg Businessweek of the lessons of Piketty, Marx, and political economy generally. Of course capitalism is going to disproportionately reward the owners of the means of production. Surplus value helps r > g, those gains are partially reinvested in the political system, which produces even more inequality—self-reinforcing domination without end, amen.

On the other hand, there are many varieties of capitalism. Some states are much better at democratizing financial security than others. The US and UK are both savagely unequal societies, but at least the latter has a National Health Service. Germany and France do more than either the US or UK to reduce inequality through taxes. Timing matters, too: the US of the mid-1960s had far more hope of durable egalitarianism than the US of the mid 2010s. As David Grewal has argued, “Understanding why r > g has generally held — and why it briefly did not — requires an account of capitalism as a socioeconomic system structured through law.” And we cannot tell that story without, as Angela Harris argues, looking at the role of race in structuring both economic and political opportunity.

Harris’s post focuses on the history of exploitative relations between central and peripheral powers. She argues:

Part of the mission of “law and political economy,” as I see it, is to broaden our investigation of the relationship between “race” and “economics” both spatially and temporally – beyond the bounds of America as a nation-state, and beyond slavery as a starting point. The proposition is that race is foundational to “law,” to “the political,” and to “the economy.”

Both social science graduate schools, and law schools, can use the pursuit of parsimony as an excuse to abstract away from the racial context of so much of what we study. Harris is right to bring race to the center. Many of the works she cites should be in the canon of law and political economy. They help us better explain the past, while illuminating troubling trends of the present. We need to elevate research that does this vital work, exposing the role of racecraft in distracting individuals from their real interests, to pursue some contrived purity or superiority.

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International Investment Arbitration in Critical Focus

David Schneiderman – 

How might we come to better understand the complex, multilevel, and interdependent world in which we live? This is a particular challenge for international and global legal scholars whose methods of analysis typically are confined to empirically observable legal phenomena in the form of international conventions, treaties, custom, and the like. In this post, I propose bringing international legal studies into conversation with a particular branch of international political economy (IPE), one that brings both an interdisciplinary and a critical edge to the global study of law.

The field of IPE in the English-speaking world has been described as being divided between two competing schools. A U.S. version emphasizes the testing of scientific models via empirical methods, focusing on state behavior as its unit of analysis. Modeled on ‘hard science,’ the U.S. version adopts a state-centric view. A more ambitious British version aims to be more qualitative and normative, emphasizing society, power, and history. It is this latter version that merits attention from legal scholars. It is a mode of analysis that is more interpretive than narrowly empirical, asking what values are promoted and who benefits from particular institutional arrangements. Susan Strange, one of the founders of the British school, has defined the study of IPE as concerning: ‘the social, political and economic arrangements affecting the global systems of production, exchange and distribution and the mix of values reflected therein. Those arrangements are not divinely ordained, nor are they the fortuitous outcome of blind chance. Rather they are the result of human decisions taken in the context of man-made institutions and sets of self-set rules and customs.’

This is a mode of analysis that will be familiar to critical scholars working in many disciplines, but an IPE approach has the advantage of thinking about contemporary global problems on multiple scales. Critical IPE is ontologically inclined, in other words, to theorize law as interacting with actors operating at various levels. It looks to the ‘complex whole,’ Robert Cox writes, rather than to the separate parts.’ Cox, in his own work, helpfully distinguishes between ‘problem solving’ theory and critical theory. The first has as its object the smooth operational working of international institutions. Such approaches serve ‘particular national, sectional or class interests.’ Problem solving is about managing the world, not changing it. Critical theory within IPE, by contrast, does not take institutions or relations of power for granted. It attends instead to how they arise and change. This is a style of understanding the world that is both multidisciplinary and normative.  It is, as Benjamin Cohen puts it, about ‘making the world a better place.’

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From Territorial to Functional Sovereignty: The Case of Amazon

Frank Pasquale

Economists tend to characterize the scope of regulation as a simple matter of expanding or contracting state power. But a political economy perspective emphasizes that social relations abhor a power vacuum. When state authority contracts, private parties fill the gap. That power can feel just as oppressive, and have effects just as pervasive, as garden variety administrative agency enforcement of civil law. As Robert Lee Hale stated, “There is government whenever one person or group can tell others what they must do and when those others have to obey or suffer a penalty.”

We are familiar with that power in employer-employee relationships, or when a massive firm extracts concessions from suppliers. But what about when a firm presumes to exercise juridical power, not as a party to a conflict, but the authority deciding it? I worry that such scenarios will become all the more common as massive digital platforms exercise more power over our commercial lives.

A few weeks ago, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (a think tank affiliated with the Social Democratic Party in Germany) invited me to speak at their Conference on Digital Capitalism. As European authorities develop long-term plans to address the rise of powerful platforms, they want to know: What is new, or particularly challenging, in digital capitalism?

My answer focused on the identity and aspirations of major digital firms. They are no longer market participants. Rather, in their fields, they are market makers, able to exert regulatory control over the terms on which others can sell goods and services. Moreover, they aspire to displace more government roles over time, replacing the logic of territorial sovereignty with functional sovereignty. In functional arenas from room-letting to transportation to commerce, persons will be increasingly subject to corporate, rather than democratic, control. Continue reading

Will Trump’s DOJ Crack Down on Massive Vertical Mergers?

Lina Khan –

Over the weekend, CVS announced a proposal to acquire Aetna. The $69 billion merger would be the biggest deal ever in the health insurance industry, consolidating in a single entity the role of insurer, pharmacy, and pharmacy benefit manager. There’s good reason to think the deal—if approved by the Justice Department—would harm the public.

To get a better sense of how DOJ might view the deal, it’s worth reviewing another recent action: its move to block AT&T/DirecTV from acquiring Time Warner. That deal—first announced in October 2016—would join the biggest telecom company in the country with some of the most popular news and entertainment producers, creating a behemoth and driving further consolidation in the media and telecommunications industries. By concentrating control over distribution and content in a single company, the acquisition would create a Pandora’s box of perverse incentives and give the merged entity significant power over both rival companies and consumers. The public would pay more for the same or worse service, independent programmers and producers would find it even tougher to reach market, and the health and diversity of our media ecosystem would further suffer.

Most coverage of DOJ’s action has focused on the possibility that President Trump improperly directed the Antitrust Division to oppose the merger, given his disdain for CNN (owned by Time Warner). To be sure, there is sound reason to be concerned: Trump has repeatedly attacked CNN for unfavorable coverage, even tweeting a video of himself wrestling a CNN figure to the ground. Journalists reported that White House advisors discussed using the merger review process as potential leverage over Time Warner to seek favorable coverage. Given the administration’s disregard for the rule of law and Trump’s penchant for picking winners and losers, it is reasonable to wonder whether the White House interfered in DOJ’s enforcement decision. The prospect is disturbing, and—as my organization, the Open Markets Institute, has recommended—Congress should hold hearings to ensure no improper meddling.

But it’s worth looking beyond Trump’s potential involvement to recognize that—on the merits—DOJ’s decision to oppose the deal is significant. In recent decades the government has shifted to a permissive approach to merger enforcement generally—and especially towards vertical mergers, which join two companies operating at different levels of a sector, like AT&T/DirecTV and Time Warner. Traditionally, the government had viewed vertical tie-ups skeptically, recognizing that a merger between, say, a dominant shoe manufacturer and leading shoe retailer would position the new firm to hike costs for competing retailers and manufacturers, or discriminate against them in other ways. Through the 1970s, the antitrust agencies sued to block vertical mergers on these grounds.

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