↳ Analysis

July 27th, 2020

↳ Analysis

Essential Infrastructures

The case for sovereign investment in telecommunications infrastructure

As social distancing became norm and law in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, people turned to video teleconferencing to meet with friends and family, attend religious services, and go on dates. Zoom work accounts became a conduit for maintaining nonwork social ties and, as people came to depend on this enterprise tool, Zoom's stock valuation soared. The pandemic has widened the sphere of life dependent on such market technologies, heightening existing questions around the political, legal, and economic governance of these companies. How should the fabric of social life, especially as it is rewoven by the pandemic, relate to the private ownership of telecommunications?

Two legal regimes regulate the ownership of and access to telecommunications technology: the market disciplining forces of antitrust law (along with allied concepts like public utilities regulation), and the national security protections of critical infrastructure regulation. Certain applications of the former, concerned primarily with market power, identify privately-owned infrastructures that are “essential,” and regulate firms to ensure that access to that infrastructure is made available to competitors and consumers on reasonable terms. The latter, on the other hand, identifies infrastructures that are “critical,” and regulates them to serve the US’s national and economic security interests.

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July 22nd, 2020

Laws of the Land

Property rights and extraction in the mineral frontier

“The Mining Law of 1872,” reported California Democrat Alan Lowenthal in May 2019, "is one of the most obsolete laws still on the books.” At a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Lowenthal was rehearsing a longstanding critique of antiquation against hard rock mineral legislation—a law to privatize federal mineral lands that has remained in place since the nineteenth century.

For decades, this statute has come under scrutiny, with Congressional hearings on its merits held under every President since George H. W. Bush. Two objections are raised consistently. The first is that, in contrast to developers in other extractive industries, hard rock mining corporations may purchase Western mineral lands from the federal government for the minuscule price of \$5.00 per acre, and are charged no royalties on the resources they extract. This nearly 150-year-old arrangement remains a major gift to multinational corporations: in 1994, the US Interior Department sold about 1,949 acres in Nevada to the Barrick Resources Corporation. The land contained 30 million ounces of gold, which was valued at \$380 per ounce. Sold for just under \$10,000, the land was worth billions. A small royalty commensurate to those of other extractive enterprises would by now have generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the public.

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July 16th, 2020

The Dollar and Empire

How the US dollar shapes geopolitical power

What does the US dollar’s continued dominance in the global monetary and financial systems mean for geo-economic and geo-political power? In a recent article, Yakov Feygin and Dominik Leusder question whether the United States actually enjoys an “exorbitant privilege” from the global use of the USD as the default currency for foreign exchange reserves, trade invoicing, and cross-border lending. Like Michael Pettis, they argue that the USD’s primacy actually imposes an exorbitant burden through its differential costs on the US population.

Global use of the dollar largely benefits the top 1 percent by wealth in the United States, while imposing job losses and weak wage growth on much of the rest of the country. This flows from the structural requirements involved in having a given currency work as international money. As Randall Germain and I have argued in various venues, a country issuing a globally dominant currency necessarily runs a current account deficit. Prolonged current account deficits erode the domestic manufacturing base. And as current account deficits are funded by issuing various kinds of liabilities to the outside world, they necessarily involve a build-up of debt and other claims on US firms and households.

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July 10th, 2020

The Crisis and the Free Market

On crisis, partisanship, and public policy

Will the current crisis transform America’s politics and economic institutions? With unemployment higher than at any point since the Great Depression, rising food insecurity, and an increasingly muscular role for government—are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the four-decade-long era of the free market ushered in by Ronald Reagan? It’s a question worth considering, whether you’re a Democrat who blames the rising inequality of the last four decades on the policies of smaller government, or a Republican who thinks those policies saved America.

It wouldn’t be the first time a crisis has altered the trajectory of the country. The Republican Party of today is defined by its commitment to tax cuts, deregulation, and cuts in social spending. But prior to the Reagan administration, the Republicans were actually the party seen as most likely to increase taxes, because their main commitment throughout the post-war period had been to avoid deficits. The party was, in Newt Gingrich’s famous dismissal, the tax collector for the welfare state.

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July 3rd, 2020

Pandemic and Poverty

What the pandemic teaches us about poverty measurements

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, more than 40 million people have applied for unemployment benefits. In April, unemployment spiked to nearly 20 percent, almost double the rate observed at the peak of the Great Recession. To blunt the financial blow, Congress passed the CARES Act, a package that included, among many other things, around $500 billion in income transfers for the U.S. population.

With my colleagues at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy, I have worked to understand how the CARES Act might affect annual poverty rates in the U.S. Our findings took us by surprise: despite the rapid rise in unemployment, we find that the CARES Act’s two major income transfers—the Recovery Rebates (one-time stimulus payment) and expanded unemployment benefits—have potential to return projected poverty rates to pre-crisis levels if access to the benefits is adequate. Jason DeParle of The New York Times neatly brings life to the findings here, while our full report can be found at the Center’s website. The report also details the many important shortcomings of the CARES Act, such as its exclusion of undocumented immigrants, the difficulties that families are facing in accessing the benefits, and the upcoming expiration of the top-up to unemployment benefits.

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June 25th, 2020

Declining Access, Rising Cost: The Geography of Higher Education Post-2008

Mapping concentration and prices in the US higher education industry

During and after the Great Recession, public funding for higher education was slashed as part of state budget austerity. Staff and programs were cut and tuition rose; in many states, even by 2018, funding had not returned to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, enrollment soared. As students locked out of a slack labor market were told they “lacked the skills necessary for today’s jobs,” the solution to unemployment and wage stagnation was to be found in more degrees at higher prices. The result was the acceleration of what is now a four or five-decade trend in US higher education: the replacement of a public good model with a private consumer model, dependent on tuition financed with federal debt, all justified on the back of supposed earnings increases that fail to materialize.

With skyrocketing prices and ballooning student debt, the private for-profit model has taken hold in even traditional schools, which are seeking to cut teaching costs while retaining students and their hefty tuition payments. Even leaving aside the possible collapse of tuition revenues from nonattendance, forecasts for state budget cuts coming out of the Covid-19 recession are alarming—unless the patterns of the Great Recession are avoided, we can abandon hope of a more equitable, inclusive, or expansive higher education landscape into the 2020s.

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May 28th, 2020

Digital Scab, Digital Snitch

On automation and worker surveillance

Before Covid-19 hit, we'd become used to reports about Amazon's robotics innovations and the impending large-scale automation of warehouse jobs. But recent strikes and protests by Amazon's very human workers have exposed how far we are from robotic warehouses. In fact, as part of its effort to keep its warehouses fully staffed during the crisis, Amazon recently announced that it is ending its recently-instituted sick leave and base pay expansions, replacing both with increased overtime pay. While higher pay encourages more workers to apply for jobs, overtime incentivizes existing workers to work longer hours. Amazon’s strategy for increasing output in the pandemic seems to be getting its human employees to work harder.

In late-February, I took what must have been one of the last public tours of an Amazon warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. Prepared to witness vast and impression automation, I was met instead by a traffic jam of workers exiting the facility. Inside, there were of course robots—shelving units known as "pods," whizzing stuff from one end of the warehouse to the other—performing tasks previously done by people with forklifts. (According to Amazon, these robots have raised productivity of the remaining workers by orders of magnitude.) But there were other innovative technologies on view, at the workstations of human “stowers,” who distribute incoming products to the pods, “pickers,” who take items off the pods to fulfil orders, and “packers,” who put the orders in boxes and tape them shut. Over their shoulders, there were clocks counting down how much time each worker had to complete each task. The technology tracks which workers fall behind, and ‘learns’ how hard it can push them. In place of a human foreman, Amazon's timers dictate the pace of work and mete out automated discipline.

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May 1st, 2020

The Class Politics of the Dollar System

Managing an international public good

The global dollar system has few national winners. The typical frame for understanding the US dollar is that of “exorbitant privilege.” But the role of the dollar in structuring the international financial system and defining the relationship between a hegemonic US and the rest of the world is ambiguous—as is the question of who exactly benefits from the current arrangement. Dollar primacy feeds a growing American trade deficit that shifts the country’s economy toward the accumulation of rents rather than the growth of productivity. This has contributed to a falling labor and capital share of income, and to the ballooning cost of services such as education, medical care, and rental housing. With sicknesses like these, can we say for certain that the reserve currency confers substantial benefits to the country that provides liquidity and benchmark assets denominated in that currency?

For the rest of the world, the ills are clear enough. In developing countries, the need to insure their economies against currency crises and debt deflation has meant the accumulation of dollars at the expense of necessary domestic investment. These policies are usually accompanied by a suppression of consumption and incomes to establish a permanent trade surplus vis-à-vis the dollar system. And in many countries, the dollar system allows corrupt elites to safely transport their ill-gotten earnings to global banking centers located in jurisdictions with opaque ownership laws.

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April 17th, 2020

Inside Out

Shaping the base of a renewable economy

The transition to a post-carbon energy economy will require extraction. As the sun set on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and with it the prominence of the Green New Deal in the contest for the presidency, the Trump administration issued an executive order encouraging private US exploitation of mineral resources in space. Whatever the shape of the coming transition away from fossil fuels, the need to understand the social and distributional costs of a changing energy infrastructure has never been greater. In a new report, I survey the state of mining, near-future ploys for extra-terrestrial extraction, and the persistent externalities of extraction.

Recent years have seen growing attention to the material requirements of information technologies, and especially to the social and environmental harms of sourcing rare earths and cobalt. Researchers highlight, for example, the dependence of electric vehicles and wind power infrastructure on rare earths, or batteries on lithium. But these discussions have tended to omit emphasis on necessity of extraction, relying instead on a more familiar idiom of consumer and corporate responsibility. Both the Trump administration's vision of celestial expansion and some visions of a post-carbon future depend, stated or not, upon a continuing regime of mineral extraction and outsourced harm.

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April 3rd, 2020

Crisis and Recovery

The underlying problems in the US economy

Today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report hardly registers the cataclysm in the US job market. The sharp 0.9 percent uptick in unemployment—itself newsworthy—only grasps the very beginnings of the shutdown of the American economy. Since the BLS surveys were conducted in the week of March 12, 10 million people have filed for jobless benefits. Only when the April numbers are released at the beginning of next month will we begin to get a fuller statistical picture of the magnitude of the Covid-19 crash. Unemployment rates are expected to rise to 20 percent or more. Given the 10-year-long, bull run of the stock market, one might imagine that the US economy was in good shape before that crash began, and that the labor market will therefore bounce back from the novel coronavirus’s punch once the public health crisis ends. However, the opposite is true: the fundamentals of the US economy were already incredibly weak. They have been for some time. After a decade of slow economic expansion, the US labor market was barely beginning to recover from the last crisis in 2008. If the past is any guide to the future, it will likely take even longer to recover from this one. We are only starting to get a sense of the true extent of this disaster from the perspective of American workers.

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