Weekend reading: The unchecked growth of U.S. workplace surveillance edition

This is a post we publish each Friday with links to articles that touch on economic inequality and growth. The first section is a round-up of what Equitable Growth published this week and the second is relevant and interesting articles we’re highlighting from elsewhere. We won’t be the first to share these articles, but we hope by taking a look back at the whole week, we can put them in context.

Equitable Growth round-up

Workplace surveillance is not new, but the types of monitoring that employers utilize to track workers’ movements, behavior, and productivity has expanded, largely unchecked, due to declining worker power and lack of legal protections or regulations on these behaviors. The coronavirus pandemic also contributes to this growth in invasive and exploitative surveillance practices, as up to 50 percent of workers have shifted to remote work in 2020 and employers have implemented new, cheap, and easy forms of monitoring as a result. Kathryn Zickuhr explains how worker surveillance shifts the balance of power in favor of employers, driving inequality and harming employees via increased discriminatory practices, stress, and de-skilling or misclassification of work. Workplace surveillance also hampers worker organizing, she continues, further weakening worker power. Zickuhr details the various forms of workplace surveillance that are commonplace across the U.S. labor force, examines how COVID-19 exacerbates these issues (and likely will continue to do so even after the pandemic has abated), and concludes with policy recommendations for addressing the future of workplace surveillance.

Last week, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Dean Phillips (D-MN) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) in the Senate introduced the CBO FAIR Scoring Act. This proposed law would direct the Congressional Budget Office to prepare distribution analyses for all legislation, estimating the impact of laws by race and income groups. Corey Husak details why the CBO Fair Scoring Act would dramatically improve the way policymakers evaluate how their proposals could impact various groups of beneficiaries. Husak then walks through the specific instances in which distribution analysis would be helpful for legislators and explains the academic history of distribution analysis.

In a recent installment of Equitable Growth in Conversation, Director of Markets and Competition Policy Michael Kades speaks with Michelle Meagher, a senior policy fellow at the University College London Centre for Law, Economics and Society and co-founder of the Balanced Economy Project, which is building a global anti-monopoly movement. They discuss what’s missing from antitrust policy, the problem with worshipping competition, the broader impact of failing competition on the environment, and more. Meagher also discusses her most recent book, Competition Is Killing Us, which covers corporate power and accountability and the myths embedded in free market capitalism and shareholder primacy. Her book is also the subject of a recent Equitable Growth post by Raksha Kopparam, who discusses Meagher’s suggested six myths surrounding free markets and competition, and their impact on humanity and the planet.

The American Sociological Association held its annual conference from August 6 to 10, virtually gathering scholars to discuss research and findings around the theme of “Emancipatory Sociology: Rising to the Du Boisian Challenge.” Aixa Alemán-Díaz details Equitable Growth’s expanded participation this year, including a session on grant-writing she organized in collaboration with Academic Programs Director Korin Davis. Alemán-Díaz also highlights some of the ASA sessions that featured our academic network members and grantees.

Links from around the web

In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Josh Bivens and Stuart A. Thompson provide 179 reasons that fears and panic about inflation are probably overblown. They use graphics to detail recent price increases in commodities, from gasoline and cars to airfare and hotels. They also look at commodities in which prices are falling or stable, including computer software, medical equipment, and cosmetics. In analyzing these trends, they explain the possible outcomes of the recent uptick in daily costs and compare the current state of the U.S. economy with that of the 1970s, when there were widespread fears of inflation and stagflation. They conclude that, for now, inflation should not be of major concern and recommend the Federal Reserve keep an eye on it but not yet act rashly to counter the trends.

If anyone was looking for proof that poverty is a policy choice, the unprecedented government investment in social infrastructure over the past 18 months is a good indication. Vox’s Dylan Matthews examines the drop in poverty since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. He shows how increased spending on programs from Unemployment Insurance to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, along with the eviction moratorium and stimulus checks, all worked to reduce the number of Americans living below the poverty line. Matthews provides an explanation of how we currently measure poverty—a complex and not-uncontroversial topic—and details recent research on the impact of coronavirus relief programs, as well as the counterfactual of what poverty in the United States would be if the aid packages had not been passed. He then explains the implications of these findings—namely, that policymakers have the tools to reduce poverty and usually simply choose not to use them.

Many employers have taken advantage of the circumstances surrounding the pandemic and ensuing recession to adopt new technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence. This trend, paired with rebounding government investment in infrastructure, could pave the way for a big productivity boom in the U.S. economy, writes The Washington Post’s Heather Long. According to data released by the U.S. Labor Department, worker productivity already rose 4.3 percent in the first quarter of 2021, and while it slowed to 2.3 percent in the second quarter, that’s still double the 1.2 percent average during the decade after the Great Recession of 2007–2009, Long explains. This leads some economists to hope for a coming productivity boom that could rival that of the late 1990s, when worker productivity averaged 3.1 percent thanks to a rise in computing capabilities. While it’s too soon to know for sure, Long concludes, many are optimistic, even for just a small boost in productivity.

Friday figure

Median household wealth by race/ethnicity of respondent, 1989–2019

Figure is from Equitable Growth’s “Congress needs distribution analyses to make informed, equitable policy choices, and the CBO FAIR Scoring Act would deliver it” by Corey Husak.

August 20, 2021

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