Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
There is much to applaud in the success of innovative online services such as Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb. But their rapid growth also invites new debate about economic regulation. Are Internet-based companies simply easing transactions—say, between a car owner and someone who needs to get home—or does their conduct call for public scrutiny?
In our lead article, Brooklyn Law School Professor Sabeel Rahman makes a case for public scrutiny. That conclusion, he argues, depends on a new understanding of regulation—more precisely, on reviving an older set of ideas that have been lost in recent analysis. Rahman observes that we now focus regulatory debates on market prices and consumer welfare. On that conception, it is hard to see how companies such as Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb raise any concerns. Their goods and services are cheap, after all. But if we return to a broader conception of regulatory purposes, rooted in Progressive Era ideas, we recognize the dangerous pressures excessive corporate power can impose on suppliers, workers, and consumers alike. In short, we should be focused on power, not simply prices—on politics, not simply markets. We find an important point of entry for this more expansive set of concerns in the FCC’s recent ruling on net neutrality. The FCC invoked the idea of a “common carrier” or utility—a private company selling public goods. By extension, Rahman argues, we should think of Internet-based companies as “platforms” with broad power over producers, consumers, and even the public and should regulate them in that light.
Respondents are not all convinced. Some urge a more serious enforcement of existing labor law. Some criticize Rahman for not recognizing the profound economic impact of the Internet; for them, history is the wrong place to look for insight. Others anticipate a flourishing of peer-owned or open-source alternatives to corporate power. As the forum underscores, we are already making, by act or omission, profoundly consequential choices. Thus the importance of the debate.
Two other essays focus similarly on the distribution of rewards brought by change. Reviewing Christopher Beauchamp’s Invented by Law, Graeme Gooday revisits Alexander Graham Bell’s “invention” of the telephone and the role of patent law in creating undeserved returns. And Sarah Hill looks at the beginnings of economic transformation in Cuba, where winners and losers are already emerging.
Finally, Marie Gottschalk reminds us of the limits of economic models in addressing moral issues. New bipartisan efforts to reduce the prison population are bound to fail, she argues, if they continue to serve the demands of cost-benefit analysis rather than human rights.
And don’t miss the winning poems from the 92nd Street Y’s “Discovery” contest on page 68.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.