Technology, Political Economy, and the Role(s) of Law

Julie E. Cohen –

Legal scholars who work on information policy tend to focus on questions about how existing doctrinal and regulatory frameworks should apply to information-era business models and online behavior, perhaps undergoing some changes in coverage or emphasis along the way. They have asked, in other words, how law should respond to the changes occurring all around it. For the most part, they have not asked the broader, reflexive questions about how core legal institutions are already evolving in response to the ongoing transformation in our political economy—questions about how disputes over scalesanddata.jpginformation are reshaping the enterprise of law at the institutional level. That is a mistake. Information-economy actors do not simply act in markets; they also mobilize legal tools and institutions to advance their various goals. Through that process, legal institutions gradually become reoptimized for the new roles they are called upon to play.

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Inequality and Political Economy in Constitutional Doctrine

Kate Andrias –

Recently on this blog, Sabeel Rahman and Ganesh Sitaraman detailed the growing interest among public law scholars in questions of power, inequality, and political economy.  One feature of the emerging scholarship, they correctly note, is that it directs its attention not primarily to courts, but to legislators and social movements; it focuses not primarily on questions of judicial review but on problems of institutional design and constitutional structure.

There is good reason for the non-juridical focus, as I and others have previously argued.  Courts have rarely been leaders of progressive change, especially in the absence of well-organized social movements.  On economic issues in particular, courts have tended to be regressive.  Against this background and given the Court’s current makeup, relying on litigation as the primary method for opposing economic inequality would be a fool’s errand. Moreover, for public law scholars committed to building a more democratic and egalitarian political economy, there are normative reasons to focus beyond courts.  Courts, after all, are not fundamentally democratic or egalitarian institutions.  There is an irony in relying on elite, nondemocratic institutions to achieve a more egalitarian distribution of power and resources.

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Law and the Political Economy of Technology

Amy Kapczynski –

In April, Jack Balkin, Yochai Benkler and I convened a workshop on the law and political economy of technology at Yale Law School. Participants drafted thought papers, which we spent the better part of two days discussing.  In the coming weeks, many participants will post revised papers or reflections in a series of posts that will be featured on these pages and cross-posted at Balkinization. scalesanddata.jpg

In convening the conference, we aimed to bring a political economy lens to a domain of extraordinary importance to our lives today.  Robots, gig-economy platforms, surveillance capitalism, and global networks all have helped shape rising inequality and the increasing precarity of work.  Bots and social media generate new challenges for democratic societies purportedly based on fair elections and a reasoned public sphere.  New surveillance technologies are being embraced by the criminal justice system, the military, and intelligence communities, with little attention to the racialized implications of these new extensions of the carceral state.

In analyzing problems such as these, we began from a shared understanding that technology doesn’t operate outside of a social or legal context.  Technology has a political economy, deeply shaped by law.  Politics orders technology through many different decisions made in code and in law.  These include decisions about the scope and ownership of intellectual property, about the permissible degree of concentration in industries, and about who will be allowed to access the outputs and inputs of technology. Law, together with social norms, shapes the diffusion and adoption of technology—for example, through labor and employment regulations, tax and transfer policies, and securities laws. How does law interact with technology to increase control by some and decrease the freedom of others? How does it in so doing exacerbate inequality?  And how might law make social practices mediated by technology more democratic and egalitarian? Over the course of this series, we will investigate how politics and law interact with technology to influence political and economic organization, mobilization and political communication, and patterns of inequality and economic insecurity.

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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

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 –

business-competition-1024x681

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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Antitrust and the Informal Sector in South Africa

Dennis Davis, William E. Forbath, Lucie E. White & Julia Dehm –

This is the second post in a two-part series about law and political economy in the South African context. The series reports on a collaboration among leading ‘heterodox’ economists, left-wing sociologists, high level government policymakers, and legal scholars, advocates and activists aimed at “thinking large” about reconstructing the nation’s political economy.

The way out of South Africa’s present crisis lies not only in institutional reform, the topic of the first part of this two-part series, but also in structural and redistributive economic reforms.

Participants in our conversation offered a number of potentially transformative economic proposals, ranging across taxation and public investment, land reform, industrial policy, and sustainable agriculture. Of the various pathways of development we discussed, two seemed especially striking to the participants from the U.S.

Robust Antitrust and Competition Law

The first such  pathway – encouraging small and medium sized firms via competition law – was striking in the way it tracked conversations on the U.S. left today about weaning antitrust from “consumer welfare,” and renewing its original aims by taking on today’s monopolies and oligopolies, with the goals of securing space for competitive, medium-sized firms, and of safeguarding the polity itself, as well as the market, against the oligarchic power of big capital.

Several participants underscored that South African competition law is now primarily focused on redressing abusive or coercive behavior. The focus on behavior, they pointed out, fails to address the ways in which the structure of certain markets and the domination of big, oligopolistic firms can operate to stifle equitable growth, shaping markets, politics and society at large in deeply problematic ways.

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Visions of Radical Reform in South Africa: Toward a New Constitutional Economy

Dennis Davis, William E. Forbath, Lucie E. White & Julia Dehm –

This is the first post in a two-part series about law and political economy in the South African context. The second post can be found here. The series reports on a collaboration among leading ‘heterodox’ economists, left-wing sociologists, high level government policymakers, and legal scholars, advocates and activists aimed at “thinking large” about reconstructing the nation’s political economy.

Law and Political Economy is about rekindling radical political economy for the twenty-first century, understanding law’s part in today’s political-economic order and imagining how law may figure in its transformation. While most of the posts on this blog have focused on the domestic U.S. context, law and political economy is a global project. Nowhere is this project more urgent than in South Africa.

It goes without saying that great economic inequality is a longstanding legacy of apartheid.  But Jacob Zuma’s tenure as President has been branded a period of “state capture”; key democratic institutions were hollowed out and repurposed for private enrichment.  So, the present crisis is marked by deepening class antagonism, an ever-growing distrust toward government and political elites, and mounting rage and despair among the poor black majority.  Many distrust the possibilities of democratic politics to make good on the egalitarian promises of the nation’s twenty-one year old Constitution, and the most thoughtful observers of and participants in the nation’s public life doubt that its democratic institutions can endure without radical reform.  Yet, as Cyril Ramaphosa begins his tenure as President, there are some glimmers of hope.

Last May, the four of us invited a group of South Africa’s leading “heterodox” economists, left-wing sociologists and high-level government policymakers, together with prominent social and economic rights advocates, legal scholars and community activists to begin a collaboration in “thinking large” about reconstructing the nation’s political economy.

In this first part of a two-part series, we will briefly sketch the thinking that prompted this effort, and a few initial ideas for institutional reform that have begun to emerge from it. In the second part of this series, we will outline some of visions of redistribution that emerged from our conversation. A longer account of our conversation can be found in a White Paper we prepared for the Open Society Foundation.

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Guns and Privatized Sovereignty

nraAmy Kapczynski and Jedediah Purdy –

Like many of you, we’ve been moved by the voices of the student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. With fierce focus and astonishing political savvy, they’ve unleashed an urgent new national debate about gun control.

America today has the highest per capita gun ownership in the world, and evidence suggests that this is substantially why we also lead the world (with Yemen) in mass shootings. How did this come to be? Defenders of the status quo argue that at the core of gun rights claims are timeless constitutional principles and the virtues of hunting. Their touchstone is the Second Amendment, and its purported individual right to bear arms. In truth, the contours of today’s gun rights took shape in the recent past, in an era of racialized attacks on public institutions and the state, and of politically motivated cultivation of fear.

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There is no necessary trade-off between good work and more work

Frank Pasquale – 

Mainstream economists tend to frame employment policy as a series of tragic trade-offs. If policymakers raise the minimum wage, they are told, employment will inevitably fall, perhaps precipitously. Requirements for vacations, too, might crash the job market. (Never mind that dozens of other prosperous countries mandate paid vacation time.) Technocrats of the center left complain about employer-sponsored insurance as a dreadful distortion of the labor market. Sick pay, family medical leave, maternity and paternity leave—all have been blasted by one economist or another as a drag on economic growth and employment levels. “You are only hurting the people you are trying to help,” labor activists are told, again and again.

Such models are intuitively plausible, thanks to what James Y. Kwak has called “economism:” simplistic perspectives resulting from mechanical applications of supply and demand models to complex social phenomena. In general, the more costly something is, the less consumers will demand it. That reasoning leads, in turn, to more sweeping claims about the need to deregulate labor markets. If there is one policy issue most likely to consolidate bipartisan consensus among economically minded technocrats, it is a suspicion of barriers to entry in the workforce, including occupational licensure and “credentialization.” They lament the former as a paradigmatic example of state power hijacked by private interests to enrich themselves. Credentialization is framed as a market failure: The unjustified preference of bosses for workers educated in ways not directly related to the tasks they will be performing at work.Supply and Demand diagram. Demand has negative slope. Supply has positive slope. further explained below

The bottom line of this economism is grim. To the extent the state requires certain qualifications of workers, or workers themselves demand time off or other entitlements, there will be fewer jobs. Economist Tyler Cowen asks whether “whether workers might not enjoy ‘too much’ tolerance and freedom in the workplace.” While cash wages are taxed, “perks” are not, so employers will be tempted to oversupply perks at the expense of wages (or, even more troublingly to neoclassical diehards, at the expense of shareholders).

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