Are We Prisoners of Technological Fate?

This is the fourth post in our series discussing The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. Click here to read all posts in the series. 

Daniel Markovits –

 The Meritocracy Trap’s account of the relationships among elite education, skill-biased technical change, and rising economic inequality is, in my mind, one of the book’s most important arguments, even as it is undoubtedly one of the least discussed. I’m therefore delighted and grateful that Gordon chose to focus his attention on these matters.

Gordon rightly emphasizes that The Meritocracy Trap combines two positions that are typically (but not by any necessary facts or logic) opposed—to embrace what Gordon calls a “materialist” theory of income inequality while rejecting what he calls a “determinist” theory of technological development. First, the book argues that, in Gordon’s words “technology has a predominant influence on social and economic structure.” Innovations have biased work in favor of a certain set of narrowly elite skills, and this bias accounts for the bulk of rising high-end economic inequality. And second, the book rejects what Gordon calls “the pervasive myth that technological change is natural, self-directing, or inevitable.” Rather, the innovations behind rising inequality are themselves produced by meritocracy, as the distribution of training influences the path of innovation and superordinate workers stimulate the demand for their own skills. This places policy that “guide[s] the course of technological change,” or as Gordon calls it, “industrial policy,” at the center of efforts to combat rising inequality.

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Are the Rich Rentiers or Superordinate Workers?

This is the third post in our series discussing The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. Click here to read all posts in the series. 

Daniel Markovits –

I am grateful to the LPE Blog for hosting this exchange about The Meritocracy Trap. Today’s post will take up Hart’s and Steinbaum’s post and focus on facts, and tomorrow’s will turn to Gordon’s post and take up values.

Hart and Steinbaum claim that The Meritocracy Trap fails to recognize deep “differences between rich professionals and the ultra-wealthy capitalist class.” They also propose that the book exaggerates meritocratic inequality’s economic rationality, that “[i]t is not the meritocrats’ skills that bring in their high salaries.” In short, Hart and Steinbaum propose that the rich are not superordinate workers paid on account of their enormous productivity but rather are rentiers who exploit their capital to extract rents.

Hart and Steinbaum suggest that The Meritocracy Trap overemphasizes the rising labor incomes of the merely very rich and underemphasizes the exploding capital incomes of the super-rich. But in fact, although the past half-century has seen a shift of income against labor and in favor of capital, this shift is much too small to account for rising top income shares. Instead, rising economic inequality is principally caused by a shift of income within labor’s share, away from middle-class and towards superordinate workers.

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Labor Law and Economic Governance in the EU

This post comes out of the early career workshop ‘Law and Political Economy in Europe’which took place at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, at the University of Oxford, on the 7th of October 2019. For all the posts this series, click here.

Marco Rocca –

PoliticsineuropeAt the Oxford Workshop, I explored the relationship between the EU economic governance and labor law. In particular, I looked into legal tools of austerity politics and analyzed the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in cementing this agenda.

During the economic crisis, leadership at the European Central Bank, and the EU Commission resorted to new tools of economic governance across the EU. Their implementation shows how the law can be instrumentalized to actively reduce the ability of trade unions and labor regulations to bring about the decommodification of the factor of production that is labor. This of course builds upon power imbalances in a given situation, in this case, between ‘creditors’ and ‘debtors’, ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ of the European Union.

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Making Care Work Green

Click here to read all posts in our Care Work series. 

Eileen Boris—

“Domestic workers arrive to smoke, ash,” the headline in the Los Angeles Times read on October 29, 2019. Unaware of mandatory evacuations from a fire sweeping through exclusive enclaves near the Getty Museum, domestic workers had trudged up deserted streets and through particle-filled air not wanting to be late to their jobs; losing even one day’s pay could make it impossible to afford housing, food, or medicine. They discovered that their employers had fled hours earlier without notifying them or advising them to stay away from the evacuation zone.

Such scenes have become more salient in recent years. Similarly, in 2018, amid a massive mudslide that stranded hundreds of people and killed over twenty, home aides in affluent Montecito, CA, sheltered in place to care for the elderly. Domestic workers remained behind to clean and tend to the grounds. Some were directed to guard property while everyone who could escaped. For all the reporting on structures destroyed and neighborhoods uprooted, few have questioned what happens to household workers when their workplaces are in the middle of disaster zones. Most only get paid when they show up. Many lack health insurance. Those who are undocumented may be afraid to enter evacuation centers. Some cannot access or understand emergency alerts, since governments have failed to address linguistic and cultural gaps in their response systems. Those who are live-in employees depend on their jobs for shelter.

While care workers—predominantly immigrants and women of color—play a critical role in the economy by enabling their employers’ own economic participation, their low wages compel them to labor even amid grave danger. Thus, domestic workers themselves have built a movement to improve health and safety protections in their workplaces, and disseminate information to workers. While some narrowly associate the “Green New Deal” with clean manufacturing and environmentally friendly infrastructure, domestic and care workers draw important links between environmental and economic justice. They bring sustainability into the home—both figuratively by maintaining daily life and aiding elders, and materially by doing so healthfully. Their efforts to eliminate toxic household cleaning products and improve fire safety communicate a message at the heart of the Green New Deal: that better working conditions and environmental protection are intertwined. Continue reading

Building Power by Building Connections: Domestic Worker Organizing for Collective Freedom

This is the first post in our series on Care Work. Click here to read all posts in the series. 

Irene Jor—

Domestic workers are essential to our economy and society. They are the nannies that take care of children, the house cleaners that maintain homes, and the care workers that allow aging loved ones to live independently and with dignity. They constitute a workforce that frees up their employers to pursue their careers and improve their quality of life. Domestic employers are doctors, lawyers, professors, business owners, CEOs, media executives, celebrity performers, professional athletes, politicians, and diplomats. Their economic participation shapes mainstream culture and social policy. Thus, we all benefit from the labor of domestic workers, even when we do not directly receive their care.

Nevertheless, because domestic work has been devalued in the formal economy, the sector is fraught with exploitation and abuse. Domestic workers have suffered a long history of exclusion from basic labor standards that is rooted in America’s legacy of slavery. Domestic workers were specifically excluded from federal labor protections like minimum wage and the right to unionize. The contemporary U.S. domestic worker movement, led by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), has sought to extend such labor protections to the sector by winning passage of Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in nine states and two municipalities. More recently it has also been experimenting with policy innovations like a sectoral standards board and portable benefits fund. Still, policy advocacy alone will not fully ensure justice for domestic workers.

I began organizing alongside domestic workers as a college student in 2011. I went on to work full-time for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) from 2013 to 2019. As the New York director of the NDWA, I organized to enforce the state’s Bill of Rights, the first of its kind. I came to understand that forming, maintaining, and nurturing relationships is as essential to grassroots domestic workers’ organizing as it is to domestic work itself. By doing so, we were able to approach the enforcement of domestic workers’ rights creatively and to foster domestic workers’ leadership in shifting the broader political landscape. Continue reading

A Law and Political Economy Agenda for Labor and the Constitution

This post is part of our series on the political economy of labor & the constitution. You can find all of our posts on this topic here.

Kate Andrias

Arizona Teachers Go On Strike And March To State Capitol

(via Jacobin)

At the end of September, labor law scholars gathered at a conference focused on “Labor and the Constitution: Past, Present, and Future.”  There, a group of us considered the problem of “Political Economy and the Constitution”—and the extent to which the Law and Political Economy (LPE) analytical frame can be useful in building a more democratic and egalitarian future for workers.

As readers of this blog know, LPE represents an emerging approach in legal scholarship—or at least a return to an old approach that had long been dormant.  Yet, in contrast to other areas of the legal academy, attention to questions of economic power never disappeared from view in labor law.  Maybe more than in any other field, people who study the history of the workplace and workers’ position in society have long recognized the importance of power. They have been acutely aware of connections between the political and the economic, between markets and law. Continue reading

Zarda, Just Work, and the Limits of Antidiscrimination Law

Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the question of whether Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. LPE Blog is hosting contributions from scholars that detail the history of sex discrimination protections and address how law should redress gender hierarchies and disparities in economic power. Find all the posts in the series here.

Deborah Dinner –

The stakes in Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, pending before the Supreme Court, are unquestionably high. The question in the case is whether the prohibition on discrimination “because of … sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would enhance the employment security of the more than an estimated eleven million adults in the United States who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. It would also bolster the ability of unions and worker organizations to strengthen the power of workers by preventing employers from using gender and sexuality to divide the workforce in ways that inhibit collective organization.

As progressives push for antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals, they would do well to look for ways to connect this fight to workers’ collective struggles regarding work hours, conditions, and pay. The history of Title VII and sex-based employment laws offers lessons about the crucial importance of pursuing antidiscrimination law together with protective labor regulations. In an article titled Beyond “Best Practices”: Employment Discrimination Law in the Neoliberal Era and in a forthcoming book, I show how sex discrimination law and retrenchment in labor regulation intertwined in the late twentieth century. This history reminds us that antidiscrimination law does not itself guarantee substantive justice in the employment relationship; reveals the ways in which employers may use antidiscrimination as a deregulatory tool; and offers a vision for economic justice that synthesizes individual freedom with collective protections for workers.

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AB5: Regulating the Gig Economy is Good for Workers and Democracy

Veena Dubal –

Poverty is not a suspect classification under our Constitution, but it is an affront to life and dignity and to democracy more broadly.  With the evisceration of the U.S. welfare state and the judiciary’s deference to political outcomes in the area of “economics and social welfare,” employment is the primary legal and political means to address economic inequality. In turn, employment is—for better or for worse—key to our democracy.  It provides access to the tools for basic sustenance in modern America: the minimum wage, health insurance, safety net protections, and even the right to organize and collectively bargain. Our capacity to participate in life and partake in politics, depends, in no small part, on our employee status. In the words of political theorist Judith Shklar, We are citizens if we ‘earn.’”  To this observation, I might add that we are citizens if we earn enough.

AB5—a bill which was just signed into law in California—is the first state law in the country to push back against an alarming trend of the last half decade: the use of app-based technology to proliferate work outside the regulatory framework of “employment.”  The potential for labor platforms relying on non-employee labor to exacerbate poverty looms large in debates about the future of work and of workers.  While the number of app-based workers remains comparatively small, the potential for this sector to grow and for industries to reproduce this model across the service economy looms large.

AB5 is the first significant step in pulling these workers back under the “employee” umbrella. It codifies the presumption of employee status under state law and puts forth an exacting, conjunctive test that hiring entities must meet if they wish to engage workers as non-employees.  Because labor platforms have posed risks to employment regimes and the security of workers the world over, the bill has been internationally lauded and states across the U.S. seek to replicate it.

How did California manage to pass this law, and what implications might AB5 hold for the relationship between work, poverty, and democracy more broadly?

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The Law and Political Economy of Sex Work: Symposium

The Law and Political Economy of Sex Work: Symposium

This post is part of our symposium on the political economy of sex work. Read the rest of the symposium here.

Lorelei Lee –

I am approaching my 20th year of living in the world as a sex worker. This year, presidential candidates are being asked whether they believe sex work should be decriminalized. Decrim NY and the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition have introduced decriminalization bills in New York State and Washington, D.C. California passed SB 233, joining a handful of other states in prohibiting the use of condoms as evidence in prostitution arrests, and expanding a San Francisco policy that prevents police from arresting sex workers who choose to report client violence. The public conversation is shifting. That shift is the result of hundreds of years of resistance and movement building by people who trade and have traded sex. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith explain in their new book, Revolting Prostitutes, “sex workers have shaped and contributed to social movements across the world.” Despite state, local, and new federal laws promoting profiling, surveillance, and exclusion of people in the sex trades from fundraising and communication platforms and from otherwise-public spaces, sex workers have continued to speak, to build coalitions, to insist on being heard.

People interested in law and political economy have a particular reason to listen to people in the sex trades. The conversations that sex workers are having are about markets, work, and coercion under neoliberalism. They are critiques of a legal system that implements policing to keep the “sacred” out of markets while enabling corporations to profit on the caging of human beings. In this symposium, Gilda Merlot will explain how the U.S. failure to “end demand” for migrant labor through the Immigration Reform and Control Act illuminates the unlikelihood of “ending demand” for sexual labor through criminalization. Aziza Ahmed and Jason Jackson will bring a political economy lens to sex work, critiquing the moral claims that justify criminalization. Finally, suprihmbé will unpack the false binary between the “agency/empowerment” of sex work and the “oppression/coercion” of trafficking.

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The Uber/Lyft “Workers’ Association” Debate: A Response to Dubal

N.B.: Benjamin Sachs penned this response to Part I of Veena Dubal’s post on comparing solidarity unionism with company unions earlier this week. In the spirit of debate, we’re cross-posting from On Labor. 

Benjamin Sachs –

Veena Dubal writes an important piece that raises concerns about Uber and Lyft’s suggestion that drivers in California form a “workers’ association.” Dubal worries that such an association would amount to a company union that would “necessarily impede” the development of fully independent, exclusive-representative unions at the gig firms. Given the essential role that independent unions play in our economy and our politics, Dubal is highly critical of the workers’ association idea.

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