The Second Republican Revival

K. Sabeel Rahman and Ganesh Sitaraman 

As questions of economic inequality have taken center stage in American politics, there has been a growing interest among public law scholars in questions of power, institutional design, inequality, and political economy. Scholars like Zephyr Teachout, Larry Lessig, Yasmin Dawood, and others have used concepts like domination and corruption to diagnose problems of oligarchy, inequality, and the failures of our campaign finance system. Professors Joey Fishkin and Willy Forbath, for example,

Constitutional-Convention

have explored the concepts of domination and power throughout American constitutional history as a way to conceptualize disparities of both economic and political power and the role of law in redressing those disparities. Meanwhile, scholars like Kate Andrias and Daryl Levinson have taken a functional approach to power, showing how partisanship and wealth subvert the Madisonian constitutional structure. Both of us have engaged in these debates as well, excavating the concept of domination in debates over economic inequality and regulation and arguing that economic power undermines prominent theories of how the Constitution works. We have both also argued (here and here) that economic and political democracy is essential in order to maintain our constitutional system. While encompassing a range of projects, subfields, and approaches, we view this emerging literature as, in part, constituting a second Republican Revival. Continue reading

How Shareholder Primacy Hurts Jobs and Wages

Lenore Palladino— 

The debate around stagnant wages and job creation seems well-settled: scholars point to globalization, or skill-biased technical change, or the decline of union density.  Others point to the ‘rise of the robots’, claiming that automation and technology are driving us towards a jobless future. But few consider that the dominance of shareholder primacy within America’s public corporations has contributed just as much to economic inequality as these more commonly-cited factors.

I define shareholder primacy as the shift within public companies from investing corporate profits within the firm or its workers to instead sending corporate profits back to shareholders, and, in some cases, holding increasing amounts of financial assets. Companies today care more about their financial metrics than they do about producing goods and services more efficiently over time. That’s why corporations are on track to spend $1.2 trillion this year simply rewarding shareholders by purchasing back their own stock and paying dividends.

For a current example of the dominance of shareholder primacy, take the response to the big tax reform legislation of 2017, which lowered the corporate tax rate to twenty-one percent. According to Trump and the GOP, the legislation was meant to incentive companies to create jobs. What have companies done so far? $171 billion dollars have been spent on share buybacks, whereas only $6 billion has gone to workers’ bonuses and small wage bumps. When the point of corporate activity is to return money to shareholders, investing in productive workers who can grow the business over time is beside the point.

Much of the public still thinks that America’s largest businesses function as they did in the post-World War II era: they earn profits, use those profits in part to enrich their top CEOs, and also invest in their workforce, innovation, and in better prices for us all. But somewhere along the way, in the Reagan administration, government regulations and reforms in corporate governance broke this productive cycle. Some companies focused on shareholder payouts, while others focused on profiting more and more off of financial activity. This shift was led by our industrial mainstays: the paradigmatic American firm, General Electric, earned 43% of its profits in its banking arm, GE Capital, as recently as 2014.

Firms made these choices in direct response to rising pressure from capital markets to move money out of the firm and into the pockets of shareholders, and in order to keep share prices steadily rising—choices sweetened by the fact that CEOs were increasingly paid in company stock.

When investing in a stable and productive workforce is not essential, worker bargaining power declines. Before the 1970s, American corporations paid out 50% of profits to shareholders, while retaining the rest for investment. Now, shareholder payouts are over 100% of reported profits, because firms borrow in order to lift payouts even higher.

Thus the changing nature of work—the rise of the fissured workplace and the gig economy—is driven not just by a generic drive for profit or the attributes of the “knowledge economy,” but a structural shift within corporations from a productive to financialized use of corporate cash. The relentless search for short-term profits expresses itself through squeezing employees’ pay, transforming employees into independent contractors to avoid paying benefits or pensions, and outsourcing work to contracting firms that compete to pay lower and lower wages. If firms don’t count on their employees to come up with the next big productivity improvement or exciting product idea, there’s no reason to invest in employee efficiency or longevity with the firm.

Demands on firms intensified with the rise of ‘activist investors,’ formerly known as corporate raiders. As institutional investors became large shareholders of major corporations, they pressured firms to push up share prices by maximizing short-term profits. Since such institutional investors could move their investments around easily, firms grew more responsive to capital markets than to their customers. For public companies, key regulatory and legislative changes allowed for a greater focus on stock prices. In 1982, Congress passed the safe-harbor provision for buybacks, which formerly would have been considered market manipulation. Further, the shift to allow CEO ‘performance pay’ to be deducted from corporate tax incentivized corporations to pay CEOs in stock. On the private firm side, the rise of private equity and the increase in leveraged buyouts has led to extractive financial strategies in which private firms cut jobs and reduce wages in order to extract maximum wealth for the holders of equity.

Though the literature is still nascent, several scholars have examined the direct negative impact of corporate financialization on income inequality. One study found that financialization, net of other factors, could account for more than half of the decline in labor’s share of income in the nonfinancial sector of the economy, and is comparable to the effect of de-unionization, globalization, and technological shifts.  Others look directly at the impact of financialization on declining corporate investment, finding that the financial profit rate is correlated with a significant decline in investment, especially for large firms. Less investment can mean less to spend on improving the skills and productivity of one’s workforce.

Corporate financialization is not the only driver of labor market challenges. It has become impossible, though, to think about how to solve problems in the labor market without taking on the primacy of shareholders. It is not simply that firms want to spend less money on workers—it’s that they actually need them less, and so the incentive to invest in a high-quality workforce is much reduced. In order to have a stable and productive workforce, and for workers to have the bargaining power they need to take home a fair wage, the incentives that drive shareholder primacy must be reformed.

A modified version of this post will be published as part of the article, Eleven Things They Don’t Tell You About Law & Economics:  An Informal Introduction to Political Economy and Law, forthcoming in Volume XXXVII of Law and Inequality:  A Journal of Theory and Practice (Law & Ineq.) of the University of Minnesota.

Lenore Palladino is Senior Economist and Policy Counsel with the Roosevelt Institute, a Lecturer in Economics at Smith College, and Of Counsel with the Law Firm of Jason Wiener, p.c.

Libertarian Doublespeak: Obscuring Distributional Struggles Under the Banner of “Economic Liberty”

Jamee K. Moudud

The expression “economic liberty” is a form of conceptual doublespeak. The word doublespeak refers to a kind of “language used to deceive usually through concealment or misrepresentation of truth.” This strategy of redefining reality with the clever use of language is central to the way in which power is exercised in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. But it also applies to the Public Choice Economics literature. It requires obeisance to the rule of law and “economic liberty,” while ensuring that the majority of the population cannot reduce the wealth of the richest few. This effect evokes a1984-like dynamic, well described in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. MacLean describes how Public Choice’s libertarian ideology aims to restrain society’s ability to regulate the controllers of capital under the guise of “economic liberty.” And of course, a crucial goal is to contain the power of labor. The ideological justification as MacLean put it is that “[I]n a true, undistorted market society, wages should only rise with increases in productivity.”

One could rephrase MacLean’s conclusion a little by saying that in the neoclassical paradigm, wages will rise with productivity under “free markets.” This conclusion follows from marginal productivity theory (MPT). In MPT, production and distribution occur in a context devoid of politics, in which output arises from a technological relationship called the production functionvia the inputs of the capital stock and labor. Given perfectly competitive markets (meaning those populated by small firms without any ability to set prices of their products or influence wages), each firm chooses that level of employment in which the additional cost of hiring one more worker equals the revenue that the output produced by that worker generates. This ensures the condition that real wages equal the marginal product (additional product) produced by each worker, in line with the Lockean view that each person should live by the fruits of their labor. The supplies and demands for the aggregate labor and capital stocks, respectively, determine wages and profits, i.e. the economy’s endowment structure determines the distribution of the output that arises from the production function.

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Colorblindness and Liberal Racial Paternalism in Bailey v. Alabama

Noah Zatz – 

Anyone familiar with Bailey v. Alabama understands that it was a case about racial domination in the Jim Crow South. Lonzo Bailey was a Black agricultural laborer who quit his job with a white farmer. For that, a white legal system convicted him of a crime. The prosecution was characteristic of an effort throughout the post-Civil War South to reestablish the brutal exploitation of Black labor in the aftermath of chattel slavery’s formal abolition. The Supreme Court Justices who sided with Bailey surely knew this, too.  And yet they went out of their way to deny it.

This willful, absurd denial makes Bailey an excellent vehicle for critical engagement with colorblindness rhetoric, including the limits of formally race-neutral legal doctrine as a means to address racial inequality. In particular, we can see in Bailey a particular and pernicious dynamic by which, constrained by colorblindness, liberal efforts to remedy racial injustice turn to a form of racial paternalism (terminology I adapt from a forthcoming essay by historian Nathan Connolly). Rather than treating state intervention as correcting the exploitation of systemic racial imbalances of power, racial paternalism treats legal protection as an exceptional intervention on behalf of the incompetent, often relying on the same racial stereotypes that underwrite the exploitative practice at issue.

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Gender Inequality and the Infrastructure of Social Reproduction

Julie Suk – 

Our jurisprudence of sex equality imagines a world without prescribed gender roles in the family and the public economic and political spheres. Almost fifty years ago, the Supreme Court repudiated the “separate spheres” tradition, which confined women to role of unpaid caregiver in the family and home, while reserving breadwinning and public power to men. Yet, neither constitutional equal protection nor statutory employment discrimination law acknowledges that the separate spheres tradition formed the infrastructure of social reproduction in our political economy. Mothers at home raised the next generation of citizens-workers without pay or rights. It was an unjust infrastructure, premised on women’s subordination, but it served an enduring social need.

Today, no alternative infrastructure of social reproduction has emerged to replace the unpaid contributions of full-time mothers and homemakers. School days did not expand to match the schedule of mothers working full-time, and the definition of full-time work did not shrink to enable its participants to devote much time to the duties of child-rearing. In the absence of a robust state system of social support, working families attempt a range of uncoordinated, expensive market-based improvisations towards gender-equal relations in the home and in the public sphere. The result is an eroded and unjust infrastructure of social reproduction whose burdens fall especially hard on women; the remaining gender pay gap is largely a motherhood gap. Furthermore, poor women, often migrants, are doubly burdened when they are employed to meet the care needs of more privileged households, while caring for their own families at home. Employment anti-discrimination law was intended to counteract sexist stereotypes, but a fuller sex equality requires a new infrastructure of social reproduction.

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Against the Cult of Competition

Sandeep Vaheesan –

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Competition is one of the talismanic words in law and economics and American life. It is often hailed as an unqualified good and touted as a solution to what ails society. The value of competition is endorsed across the ideological spectrum: Conservatives decry the lack of competition in schools and taxi cab services, while progressives highlight the dearth of competition among multinational corporations and call for a revival of antitrust law. Notwithstanding this trans-ideological commitment, we should not privilege competition at the expense of alternative means of structuring a democratic and egalitarian political economy. Three examples illustrate how competition is deficient as a general social organizing principle and should be promoted selectively, not categorically.

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Beyond Access to Justice: Challenging the Neoliberal Roots of Hyper-Gentrification

John Whitlow – 

New York City recently became the first jurisdiction in the United States to guarantee a right to counsel for poor people at risk of eviction. This was an important step in the fight for equal access to the courts, and a significant victory for tenant advocates who had waged a decades-long campaign to ensure fairness for people on the verge of losing their homes. I cut my teeth as a New York City tenant attorney in the early 2000s, when the right to counsel felt closer to a pipedream than a reality, and I can say unequivocally (and uncontroversially) that providing tenants with a lawyer when they enter the maw of housing court is a good thing. At the least, it will keep landlord attorneys and judges on their toes and reduce the stress and trauma tenants feel when navigating a byzantine system on their own. At the most, it will allow people to mount robust defenses and save their apartments, in the process preserving some of New York’s evaporating supply of affordable housing. But I can also say that it is not nearly enough to derail the hyper-gentrification that has been a through line of recent economic development policy and has its roots in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

In the context of an over-heated housing market, the right to counsel should be viewed as a limited intervention that operates when eviction is imminent, i.e. after the structural sources of displacement have done their work. Failure to recognize the limits of the right to counsel – and of access to justice paradigms more generally – naturalizes those structural sources and legitimates as normal the widening inequalities produced by our current political-economic and social order. Challenging inequality and displacement in a deep and lasting way requires moving beyond access to justice and critically engaging the core tenets of market-driven urbanization.

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Economic Human Rights, Not Tough Policy Tradeoffs

Martha McCluskey —

According to conventional law and economics wisdom, problems of economic inequality are best solved with targeted redistributive spending, not universal human economic rights. A political economy perspective suggests the opposite: that legal rights are crucial for economic justice.

Orthodox law and economics tellsus: all rights have a cost.  Law allocates economic gain, but cannot generate it, in this view.  From this premise, any new economic rights aimed at supporting those who are disadvantaged must come at the expense of some other economic gain.  For example, a universal right to affordable health care would simply mask an inevitable tradeoff in public and private spending:  fewer resources for education or jobs.  In addition, in this logic, an economic entitlement to receive basic human support will replace market discipline with incentives for waste, reducing economic resources overall.

What orthodox law and economics doesn’t tell us:  all costs have a right.  That is, any costs associated with new economic rights arise not from essential economics, but instead from contingent legal and political arrangements. Particular legal and political regimes produce, organize and limit access to human needs like education or health care. Law itself shapes the economic forces that appear to be disrupted when law re-allocates rights to advance general human needs.

On the question of health care, for example, a complex system of legal rights and institutions already protects economic gain for some at the expense of health and economic security for others.  Legal systems distributing risks and rewards in health care include patent rights, insurance regulation, corporate governance rules, antitrust law, criminal law, and tax policy. Moreover, these legal rights are not firmly settled or self-evident, but instead are continually questioned and modified, especially in response to lobbying, litigation, and advocacy by industry interests.  New rights to egalitarian economic support can similarly re-arrange economic gain and loss as a legitimate and beneficial function of democracy.

Further, we should not presume human economic rights amount to zero sum transfers or costly economic distortions.  That conventional law and economics thinking rests on the myth of an essential market order that transcends law and politics, thereby closing off analysis of how re-structuring the market could generate far better economic conditions.  But a more complete law and political economy view recognizes that entitlements do not come at the expense of naturally productive market activity; instead, entitlements generate and govern market production. New legal rights can give people new power to resist existing market constraints, and that transformative power can lead the economy to new levels of prosperity and stability. Continue reading

The Real Barriers to Access to Justice: A Labor Market Perspective

Frank Pasquale – 

There is a vast literature on access to justice in the United States. In what Sameer Asher has diagnosed as a broadly neoliberal discourse, the legal profession itself stars as the key barrier to access to justice: It is slow to adopt technology, restricts entry with excessive licensure requirements, and bogs down in technicalities. Let’s assume, for now, that these are fair charges.* Are they really the reason why so many consumers feel unable to fight giant corporations, or why employees feel trampled by the fissured workplace?

I’d like us to keep in mind a few other factors. The evisceration of class actions, the rise of arbitration, boilerplate contracts—all these make the judicial system an increasingly vestigial organ in consumer disputes. You cannot read a book like Lewis Maltby’s Can They Do That? without recognizing that the powerlessness of most workers is not the result of a paucity of lawyers (especially in an country with more per capita than almost any other), or greedy firms overcharging for services. It is, instead, the result of a web of rules woven by lobbyists and elite attorneys over decades with the intent of making the firm, in effect, a private government. Corporations have skillfully funded candidates in state judicial elections (or politicians who appoint judges) who promote their vision of a stripped-down, nightwatchman state. Make lawyers as cheap and skilled as you want—they can’t help victims access justice if the laws themselves are systematically slanted against them. The same goes for #legaltech: I expect every innovation to, say, create apps to help the evicted to be overwhelmed by a tsunami of money backing services like ClickNotices.

On the criminal side, the underfunding of public defenders (and other advocates for those targeted by the carceral state) is shameful. From a supply-side perspective, the answer here may be to cheapen training and thereby double the number of public defenders, so that states could perhaps hire two at $24,000 a year instead of one at $48,000. I do not believe that’s a great solution. As long as there are $1.5 trillion tax cuts flying around (mainly to top income brackets), and 1412 households in the US making over $59 million annually, I’d put forward a vision for more spending on these vital services, at a good wage, with a strong Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The latter should not even be considered a subsidy, given the vast profits the government has made on student loans generally, and the market’s systemic undervaluation of public service work. I realize that policy is going in the opposite direction now—but let’s also realize how much that development is driven by private lenders’ lobbyists, who want to make the federal student loan program a quicksand of confusing paperwork and high interest rates in order to make their own products comparatively more attractive.

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