Category Archives: CONGRESS WATCH

E Pluribus Unum?

The Fight Over Identity Politics
By Stacey Y. Abrams; John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck; Jennifer A. Richeson; and Francis Fukuyama – Recent political upheavals have reinvigorated a long-running debate about the role of identity in American politics—and especially American elections. Electoral politics have long been a lagging indicator of social change. For hundreds of years, the electorate was limited by laws that explicitly deprived women, African Americans, and other groups of the right to vote. (Efforts to deny voting rights and suppress voter turnout continue today, in less overt forms but with the same ill intent.)

When marginalized groups finally gained access to the ballot, it took time for them to organize around opposition to the specific forms of discrimination and mistreatment that continued to plague them—and longer still for political parties and candidates to respond to such activism.

In recent decades, however, rapid demographic and technological changes have accelerated this process, bolstering demands for inclusion and raising expectations in communities that had long been conditioned to accept a slow pace of change. In the past decade, the U.S. electorate has become younger and more ethnically diverse. Meanwhile, social media has changed the political landscape.

The marginalized did not create identity politics: their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.

To seek redress and inclusion, the first step is to identify the barriers to entry: an array of laws and informal rules to proscribe, diminish, and isolate the marginalized.

The specific methods by which the United States has excluded women, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community from property ownership, educational achievement, and political enfranchisement have differed; so, too, have the most successful methods of fighting for inclusion—hence the need for a politics that respects and reflects the complicated nature of these identities and the ways in which they intersect.

The basis for sustainable progress is legal protections grounded in an awareness of how identity has been used to deny opportunity. more>

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Anatomy of an oversight investigation: White House security clearances

By Isabella Gelfand and Jackson Gode – Since regaining the majority in January, House Democrats have been conducting oversight of the Trump administration on issues ranging from family separation at the border to the rollback of environmental regulations. While the policy areas addressed by these investigations are diverse, House committees often apply the same tools to perform oversight. As Congress attempts to exert influence on the White House in hopes of obtaining information, Trump administration officials continue to utilize several tactics of their own to stall the process.

As part of its mandate to conduct oversight of “the operation of Government activities at all levels,” the House Oversight and Reform Committee is frequently engaged in conflicts with the executive branch over information access. One such clash during the 116th Congress has involved the White House security clearance process, which came under fire when media reports indicated that the administration allowed individuals to operate under interim security clearances for extended periods and ignored concerns raised by intelligence officials. Here, we outline the ongoing security clearance investigation and use it to highlight a set of common steps in the oversight process.

When conducting oversight, members of Congress have several tools at their disposal. Most notably, they can request documents, call witnesses to testify, issue subpoenas, and hold individuals in contempt of Congress for noncompliance. Oversight investigations are often initiated by an official request for information, usually in the form of a letter written by a committee chair to an executive branch official. The chair uses this correspondence to ask for documents and/or to invite a witness to give testimony before the committee. more>

Low Wages, Sexual Harassment and Unreliable Tips. This Is Life in America’s Booming Service Industry

By Alana Semuels and Malcolm Burnley – The decade-long economic expansion has been a boon to those at the top of the economic ladder.

But it left millions of workers behind, particularly the 4.4 million workers who rely on tips to earn a living, fully two-thirds of them women. Even as wages have crept up–if slowly–in other sectors of the economy, the minimum wage for waitresses and other tipped workers hasn’t budged since 1991.

Indeed, there is an entirely separate federal minimum wage for those who live on tips. It varies by state from as low as $2.13 (the federal tipped minimum wage) in 17 states including Texas, Nebraska and Virginia, up to $9.35 in Hawaii. In 36 states, the tipped minimum wage is under $5 an hour. Legally, employers are supposed to make up the difference when tips don’t get servers to the minimum wage, but some restaurants don’t track this closely and the law is rarely enforced.

Waitresses are emblematic of the type of job expected to grow most in the American economy in the next decade--low-wage service work with no guaranteed hours or income. more>

America’s Hot New Job Is Being a Rich Person’s Servant

“Wealth work” is one of America’s fastest-growing industries. That’s not entirely a good thing.
By Derek Thompson – In an age of persistently high inequality, work in high-cost metros catering to the whims of the wealthy—grooming them, stretching them, feeding them, driving them—has become one of the fastest-growing industries.

The MIT economist David Autor calls it “wealth work.”

While there are reasons to be optimistic about this trend, there is also something queasy about the emergence of a new underclass of urban servants.

Wealth work falls into two basic categories. First, full-time retail and service jobs at places like nail salons and spas. “You’re talking about people with $30,000 incomes that are often employed in high-wealth metro areas, or resort economies,” Muro said.

Because they often cannot afford to live near their place o-f work, they endure long commutes from lower-cost neighborhoods. These arrangements aren’t merely time-consuming; they can also be exploitative. For example, New York City nail salons are notorious for flouting minimum-wage laws and other labor regulations, and massage parlors across Florida have served as fronts for human trafficking.

A second category is the “Uber for X” economy—that nebulous network of people contracted through online marketplaces for driving, delivery, and other on-demand services.

Optimistically, these jobs offer autonomy for workers and convenience for consumers, many of whom aren’t wealthy. But the business models that keep these firms aloft rely on the strategic avoidance of laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates minimum wage and overtime pay. These laborers often do the work of employees with the legal protections of contractors—which is to say, hardly any. more>

A radical legal ideology nurtured our era of economic inequality

By Sanjukta Paul – Where does economic power come from? Does it exist independently of the law?

It seems obvious, even undeniable, that the answer is no. Law creates, defines and enforces property rights. Law enforces private contracts. It charters corporations and shields investors from liability. Law declares illegal certain contracts of economic cooperation between separate individuals – which it calls ‘price-fixing’ – but declares economically equivalent activity legal when it takes place within a business firm or is controlled by one.

Each one of these is a choice made by the law, on behalf of the public as a whole. Each of them creates or maintains someone’s economic power, and often undermines someone else’s. Each also plays a role in maintaining a particular distribution of economic power across society.

Yet generations of lawyers and judges educated at law schools in the United States have been taught to ignore this essential role of law in creating and sustaining economic power.

Instead, we are taught that the social process of economic competition results in certain outcomes that are ‘efficient’ – and that anything the law does to alter those outcomes is its only intervention.

These peculiar presumptions flow from the enormously powerful and influential ‘law and economics’ movement that dominates thinking in most areas of US law considered to be within the ‘economic’ sphere.

Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, recently called law and economics the most influential thing in legal education since the founding of Harvard Law School.

The Economics Institute for Federal Judges, founded by the legal scholar Henry Manne, has been a hugely influential training program in the law and economics approach. more>

The Surveillance Threat Is Not What Orwell Imagined

By Shoshana Zuboff – George Orwell repeatedly delayed crucial medical care to complete 1984, the book still synonymous with our worst fears of a totalitarian future — published 70 years ago this month.

Since 1984’s publication, we have assumed with Orwell that the dangers of mass surveillance and social control could only originate in the state. We were wrong. This error has left us unprotected from an equally pernicious but profoundly different threat to freedom and democracy.

For 19 years, private companies practicing an unprecedented economic logic that I call surveillance capitalism have hijacked the Internet and its digital technologies. Invented at Google beginning in 2000, this new economics covertly claims private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Some data are used to improve services, but the rest are turned into computational products that predict your behavior.

These predictions are traded in a new futures market, where surveillance capitalists sell certainty to businesses determined to know what we will do next. This logic was first applied to finding which ads online will attract our interest, but similar practices now reside in nearly every sector — insurance, retail, health, education, finance and more — where personal experience is secretly captured and computed for behavioral predictions. By now it is no exaggeration to say that the Internet is owned and operated by private surveillance capital.

In the competition for certainty, surveillance capitalists learned that the most predictive data come not just from monitoring but also from modifying and directing behavior. more>

Technology ethics campaigners offer plan to fight ‘human downgrading’

By Joseph Menn – Technology firms should do more to connect people in positive ways and steer away from trends that have tended to exploit human weaknesses, ethicists told a meeting of Silicon Valley leaders on Tuesday.

Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin are the co-founders of the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology and the ones who prompted Apple and Google to nudge phone users toward reducing their screen time.

Now they want companies and regulators to focus on reversing what they called “human downgrading,” which they see as at the root of a dozen worsening problems, by reconsidering the design and financial incentives of their systems.

Before a hand-picked crowd of about 300 technologists, philanthropists and others concerned with issues such as internet addiction, political polarization, and the spread of misinformation on the web, Harris said Silicon Valley was too focused on making computers surpass human strengths, rather than worrying about how they already exploit human weaknesses.

If that is not reversed, he said, “that could be the end of human agency,” or free will.

The big companies, Harris said, “can change the incentives.” more>

Why the US bears the most responsibility for climate change, in one chart

By Umair Irfan – Humans are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. But climate change is a cumulative problem, a function of the total amount of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the sky. Some of the heat-trapping gases in the air right now date back to the Industrial Revolution. And since that time, some countries have pumped out vastly more carbon dioxide than others.

The wonderful folks at Carbon Brief have put together a great visual of how different countries have contributed to climate change since 1750. The animation shows the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of the top emitters and how they’ve changed over time.

What’s abundantly clear is that the United States of America is the all-time biggest, baddest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.

That’s true, despite recent gains in energy efficiency and cuts in emissions. These relatively small steps now cannot offset more than a century of reckless emissions that have built up in the atmosphere. Much more drastic steps are now needed to slow climate change. And as the top cumulative emitter, the US bears a greater imperative for curbing its carbon dioxide output and a greater moral responsibility for the impacts of global warming.

Yet the United States is now the only country aiming to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. more>

Kavanaugh Ethics Complaints Once Again Dodge Ruling In The 10th Circuit

By Steve Denning – The judicial review of multiple ethics complaints against Justice Kavanaugh continued on its Gilbert-And-Sullivan trajectory with a 6-1 decision by the 10th Circuit last Friday that that court does not have jurisdiction to consider the complaints, even though Chief Justice Roberts explicitly requested the 10th  Circuit to assess them.

Some 83 ethics complaints had been filed against Judge Kavanaugh alleging not only false statements under oath during hearings on his nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2004 and 2006, but also, more flagrantly, misconduct at the nomination hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court itself in 2018, including making inappropriate partisan statements and treating senators with disrespect.

The complaints were not made without legal basis. More than 2,400 law professors concluded that during the Senate confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh has “displayed a lack of judicial temperament that would be disqualifying for any court.” Unlike the allegations of lying about events that happened many years ago, there was no question of fact as to whether Kavanaugh’s conduct at the Senate hearings actually took place: it was visible for the whole country to see on national television.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens also stated that Judge Kavanaugh has demonstrated bias and is “not fit for the Supreme Court.” Former Justice Stevens, in remarks to retirees in Boca Raton, Fla, declared that Kavanaugh’s statements on September 27 revealed prejudices that would make it impossible for him to do the court’s work. “They suggest that he has demonstrated a potential bias involving enough potential litigants before the court that he would not be able to perform his full responsibilities.” more>

Debunking Deregulation: Bank Credit Guidance and Productive Investment

Deregulated banking in rich countries delivers more “investment” in speculative asset markets, not productive businesses.
By Josh Ryan-Collins – Mortgage and other asset-market lending typically does not generate income streams sufficient to finance the growth of debt. Instead, the empirical evidence suggests that after a certain point relative to GDP, increases in mortgage debt typically slows growth and increase financial instability as asset prices rise faster than incomes.

These new empirical findings support a much older body of theory that argues that credit markets, left to their own devices, will not optimize the allocation of resources.

Instead, following Joseph Schumpeter’s, Keynes’ and Hyman Minsky’s arguments, they will tend to shift financial resources away from real-sector investment and innovation and towards asset markets and speculation; away from equitable income growth and towards capital gains that polarizes wealth and income; and away from a robust, stable growth path and towards fragile boom-busts cycles with frequent crises.

This means, we argue, there is a strong case for regulation, including via instruments that guide credit. In fact, from the end of World War II up to the 1980s, most advanced economy central banks and finance ministries routinely used forms of credit guidance as the norm, rather than the exception. These include instruments that effected both the demand for credit for specific sectors (e.g. Loan-to-Value ratios or subsidies) and the supply of credit (e.g. credit ceilings or quotas and interest rate limits).

In Europe, favored sectors typically included exports, farming and manufacturing, while repressed sectors were imports, the service sector, and household mortgages and consumption. Indeed, commercial banks in many advanced economies were effectively restricted from entering the residential mortgage market up until the 1980s. Public institutions — state investment banks and related bodies — were also created to specifically steer credit towards desired sectors. more>