Joe Biden has become President of the United States at a time when the country faces acute crises on many fronts. The most pressing—in both health and economic terms—is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but the country must also confront the environmental and energy implications of climate change; deep racism across American institutions; ongoing weakness in the labor market and, in many sectors, the dangers of anticompetitive coordination among its biggest players; and the imposition of voting restrictions that, along with the unfettered flow of money into election campaigns, threaten the fabric of democracy.
At the same time, the country remains deeply divided; at the federal level, Biden and his Democratic Party must work with a very small majority in the House of Representatives and an even split in the Senate, which in the event of a tie resolves to the Democrats favor with the deciding vote case by Vice President Kamala Harris.
With this background in mind, Cambridge editors Cecelia Cancellaro (CC), Sara Doskow (SD), and Matt Gallaway (MG) asked a group of our authors to comment on the issues they would like to see President Biden address in his first term.
Deepa Das Acevdo: My wish-list for the Biden Administration has at least three priorities: a $15 minimum wage, a commitment to not enacting a worker classification “safe harbor” for gig companies, and temporary (if not permanent) recognition that many gig workers are providing services that are essential during a pandemic and deserve to be treated accordingly. These priorities reflect the kind of nuanced balancing that Beyond the Algorithm: Qualitative Insights for Gig Work Regulation shows is possible when policy proposals incorporate insights from qualitative research. On the one hand, one-size-fits-all solutions are not necessarily desirable or feasible: my contributors and I show that not all gig workers want to be “Employees,” and not all gig workers benefit from greater transparency in work processes. On the other hand, anyone who’s done fine-grained qualitative research among gig workers acquires an appreciation for the difficult conditions and human suffering that often characterizes gig work, and knows that something more must be done. As for a prognosis, despite the grim news from the Senate parliamentarian on February 25th, I like to think that a $15 minimum wage is infinitely more plausible than it was even a year ago, and although the Biden administration is showing signs of hesitation, it seems committed to the goal overall. The worker classification “safe harbor” is trickier. The safe harbor would allow gig companies to classify their workers as Independent Contractors in return for giving workers certain concessions, and this would mostly operate to workers’ disadvantage. A commitment against enacting a “safe harbor” is an unusual way to do things—it’s essentially asking the Biden administration to promise to not do something—but it’s not totally implausible. The pandemic-era recognition of gig workers as essential workers is probably the least likely to happen. Even though many of us may feel gig workers deserve job security and hazard pay among other things, protections are hard to retract so policymakers tend to avoid giving them for limited periods.
William A. Darity Jr.: The Biden administration can demonstrate a true commitment to a just America if it supports and advances a comprehensive plan for reparations for Black American descendants of U.S. slavery and an Economic Bill of Rights for the Twenty-First Century. The former would eliminate racial wealth differences in the U.S.A. and meet a national obligation that has been unfulfilled for 156 years. The latter will include a federal job guarantee, a system of national health insurance, postal banking, “baby bonds,” and a guarantee of decent housing for all Americans. (Darity is editor of the series Cambridge Studies in Stratification Economics andco-author of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century from UNC Press.)
Michelle Lyon Drumbl: The economic shocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Congress, once again, to turn to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for the delivery of social benefits. In my book, Tax Credits for the Working Poor: A Call for Reform, which predated the pandemic, I examined the pros and cons of tasking the IRS with such a role and highlighted proposals that might improve the way in which the IRS administers such benefits. The IRS’s experience with administering these pandemic-era Economic Impact Payment checks has led many to revisit how we envision government support to households in need, with renewed conversations and new legislative proposals emerging. Whether one favors decoupling the child tax credit from a work requirement or protecting individuals from having their IRS-administered social benefits offset toward outstanding debts, this is a ripe moment to reconceptualize how we deliver aid to struggling families in the United States.
Jacob S. Hacker, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Paul Pierson, and Kathleen Thelen: “A central challenge for the Biden administration will be tackling the profound racial and ethnic inequalities that distinctively mark the American political economy. In our forthcoming volume, The American Political Economy: Politics, Markets, and Power, we argue that these inequalities reflect not only profound power imbalances between organized business and organized labor, but the interaction of America’s uniquely decentralized framework of governance with deeply embedded policies that systemically disadvantage minorities in U.S. labor and housing markets. These racialized structural features of the American political economy have left non-white workers unusually vulnerable to economic shocks—and, over the last year, to the COVID-19 virus, which has caused the life expectancy of Black Americans to plummet by a shocking 2.7 years. These inequalities can be addressed, but only if the Biden administration crafts its economic and political reform initiatives with special attention to the entrenched and compounding disadvantages minority communities face in the American political economy.” (Hacker, Hertel-Fernandez, Pierson, and Thelen are co-editors of The American Political Economy: Politics, Markets, and Power, forthcoming September 2021.)
Hillary Hoffmann: The Biden Administration has a tremendous opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe further toward justice, to borrow from Martin Luther King, Jr. In the area of indigenous peoples, this Administration could urge Congress to take up the matter of criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country and recognize that tribes have inherent authority to prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed on tribal lands. The Violence Against Women Act amendments were one step in the right direction, but they don’t recognize a blanket tribal right to prosecute criminal activity by non-Indians unless it falls into the narrow categories of the Act (intimate partner violence, primarily). Legislation on this matter would aid in addressing the problem of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which has become its own pandemic in Indian Country. Along those same (jurisdictional) lines, the Administration could urge Congress to repeal the Montana v. United States opinion and clarify the federal government’s recognition of inherent tribal authority to regulate pollution and otherwise ensure adequate environmental quality and environmental justice in Indian Country. Greater respect for inherent tribal jurisdiction and regulatory authority in general would go a long way to improve the quality of life on tribal lands everywhere. (Hillary Hoffmann is co-author of A Third Way: Decolonizing the Law of Indigenous Cultural Protection.)
Jamila Michener: A key priority for the Biden administration should be to advance policies that reduce racial and gender inequities. In the face of a pandemic that has imperiled the health of tens of millions of Americans and placed even more in positions of financial precarity, the Biden administration should be especially attentive to the arenas of health and housing. There is no time like the present to expand access to programs like Medicaid. Moreover, providing significant relief to renters facing eviction is imperative. Both policy domains (housing and health) have marked implications for racial and gender equity. By attending to vital health and housing needs, the Biden administration can secure the well-being of the American people while also strengthening the United States’ floundering democracy. (Jamila Michener is the author of Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics; her article “Policy Feedback in a Racialized Polity” sets an agenda for studying policy feedback in the context of racialized politics.)
Jessica R. Pliley: I would like to see the Biden administration return to the Obama-era emphasis on labor trafficking, in addition to human trafficking for commercial sex. Labor trafficking is more prevalent than sex trafficking and often features sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. A shift to emphasizing labor trafficking would allow the administration to support worker-driven social responsibility programs that empower workers to identify exploitation on the ground both domestically and globally. I also want the Biden administration to understand the abolitionist potential of the moment. Modern anti-trafficking policy emerged from the efforts of Department of Justice lawyers in the Civil Rights Division in the 1990s to embrace the anti-slavery promise of the Thirteenth Amendment. These lawyers undoubtedly shared an abolitionist (anti-slavery) passion. Yet, as the Black Lives Matter marches of the summer of 2020 revealed, alternative abolitionist (anti-Prison Industrial Complex) dreams are animating activists and district attorneys. Often, trafficking policy—with its emphasis on arrests, prosecution, and incarceration— pits one abolitionist vision against another. Yet, understanding the long history of racialized and nativist rendering of trafficking policy as a form of migration control and a justification of policing, BIPOC bodies and mobilities could lead policy makers in the Department of Justice and State Department to more creative solutions that bring restitution and justice to survivors rather than the carceral solutions currently deployed. (Jessica R. Pliley, is co-editor, with Genevieve LeBaron and David W. Blight of Fighting Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, forthcoming, May 2021)
Josephine Ross: For a sure-fire way to tackle unconstitutional policing, President Biden should jump-start the Department of Justice pattern-and-practice investigations whenever and wherever there has been an outcry from residents for the killing of another unarmed black man, or when police pepper-spray a nine-year old in the face. The DOJ’s pattern-and-practice investigations give us essential data on how often police stop and search without cause, use excessive force, retaliate for free speech, discriminate based on race, and use sexually invasive search techniques. Communities can use the patterns and practice data to advocate for the types of fixes I call for in my book, A Feminist Critique of Police Stops. For example, communities can insist on consent decrees that eliminate harassing stops and frisks, reduce abusive practices such as frisking suspects when there are other ways to keep officers safe during a conversation with a civilian, and demand data on stops and race. None of this requires removing the filibuster because the Senate has no control over these investigations. It’s the opposite approach to Donald Trump telling police “please don’t be too nice” to suspects.
Jeffrey Sanders: In my book, Razing Kids: Youth, Environment, and the Postwar American West, I argue that historically, to a great extent, Americans have come to understand the stakes of environmental inequalities—along with the great potential to see themselves as part of a shared ecology—through their concerns about the health and well-being of children and youth. The incoming Biden administration’s environmental agenda appears to acknowledge some of these historic and ongoing realities, offering great promise in incorporating environmental justice and an acknowledgment of structural racism as features of the plan’s approach. Especially admirable is its focus on communities that face a high risk of exposure to the ravages of climate change and toxic pollution. (https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/) One of the new administration’s suggestions is to bring back a version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the popular New Deal era program that sent youth into the woods to learn and perform conservation-related skills. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society brought back a similar program to train mainly high school dropouts and adjudicated youth in the mid-1960s as part of the Job Corps program. Biden’s recently announced, “Civilian Climate Corps” Initiative suggests a similar program for the present. But it is essential that this latest iteration avoid the racism, sexism, and classicism that plagued such programs in the past, while making sure to provide meaningful training and work in both rural and urban locations. We have a rare opportunity to tap into the power that young people already offer as activists and as leaders in this moment, roles they should continue to have in defining the goals of programs that could serve them close to home or, if they choose, on rural public lands.
–Curated by CC SD MG and Senior Marketing Executive Paris West
Cambridge Now is a series of blog posts exploring connections between scholarly research and ongoing calls for social justice.