Jul 10, 2019

Axios Future

Steve LeVine

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 944 words, a <4 minute read.

🚨We launched a new product today — Axios Cities, a once-weekly newsletter penned by Axios’ own Kim Hart.

  • It will feature news and analysis of the technological and demographic trends shaping cities, the economic engines of the world.
  • Check out the first edition here. And sign up here.

What else should we write about this summer? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com, Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The justices and populism

Anti-abortion rights protest, 2016. Drew Angerer/Getty

In an age of profound mistrust, few matters stir greater hope, satisfaction and fury among Americans than the Supreme Court and its often-decisive role as the last word across a vast number of divisive issues.

  • So it's odd then that, as scholars, analysts and observers struggle to understand the sudden populist challenge to the status quo, little attention has been paid to the court as a primary force in the country's often-apoplectic anger.

What's happening: In a remarkable series of cases spanning more than six decades, the court and other federal judicial bodies have fundamentally altered how we speak to each other, how we vote and elect our leaders, and how we stay safe. They also may have helped to deepen political polarization.

  • In the most recent substantial case, the justices last month prohibited legal challenges to partisan gerrymandering. Critics say the decision may lead to a free-for-all in which parties in power will disenfranchise thousands of voters by drawing congressional district lines to favor themselves.
  • "It's not individual cases but this role of the Supreme Court in American life that contributes to polarization. It decides so many questions. It's become a political hotbed," said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA.
  • "The Supreme Court has changed society. It's changed freedom of religion, of speech, abortion, criminal justice, property rights," said Ilya Somin, a leading conservative law professor at George Mason University.

One marker for the court's modern, transformational age is Brown vs. Board of Education, which in 1954 upended racial segregation in schools, and over the subsequent decades roiled American society. The decision came under Chief Justice Earl Warren, who championed an activist court that sought to correct societal flaws that it said otherwise were going untended.

But the last three decades have been a court counter-revolution: Warren and his successor, Chief Justice Warren Burger, rankled conservatives, said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA. As president, Richard Nixon vilified court decisions expanding the rights of prisoners, and Ronald Reagan vowed to appoint only justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion.

  • Over the last decade, the court — with an originalist tilt favoring a strict reading of the constitution — has broadened the right to own guns (2008), opened up the campaign funding spigot from corporations (2010), and invalidated part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (2013).
  • These cases and those before helped to shape the political surroundings in which the topsy-turvy half-century of politics have occurred, culminating in today's popular distrust of institutions, rejection of experts, and outrage at institutions.

While the court has both fed and stoked political anger, constitutional law experts said the sources of polarization are many, and that it is difficult to pick out any one reason for the divided country.

  • "If you ask me, Fox News has had a greater effect on polarization than the Supreme Court," said Winkler, the UCLA professor.
  • Yet, it was an administrative law body — the Federal Communications Commission — that opened the way for hyper-partisan news. In 1987, the FCC overturned the Fairness Doctrine, lifting the requirement for TV news shows to be balanced, says Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina.

What's next: The court is poised to drop some political bombshells in the 2020 election campaign, writes Axios' Sam Baker. At the top of its list may be abortion, guns and immigration — among the most inflammatory issues in the country.

2. A world optimized for men

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Our world is increasingly designed using granular data about us: Apps are informed by our habits, advertising by our preferences, gadgets by the dimensions of our bodies, Kaveh writes.

The big question: Who is all that data about?

  • Experts have found that women are often overlooked in the data used for designing everything from air conditioning to cars.
  • The result: systems and items optimized for men, with potentially disastrous results for women.

What's happening: We've written about facial recognition that misidentifies women more often than men, or policies that could protect men from job loss because of automation, but not women. In the book "Invisible Women," journalist Caroline Criado Perez describes dozens more instances.

Today, Axios' Joann Muller writes about another jarring, potentially fatal example: a study that found women face a much higher risk than men of being seriously injured or killed in a crash.

  • Most vehicle safety tests are conducted using male crash test dummies. But designing safety systems to protect the "average male" leaves everyone else more vulnerable.
  • In the race to develop self-driving cars, some safety advocates worry the danger women face in today's vehicles could be pushed aside to focus on autonomous vehicle safety.

By the numbers: Females were 73% more likely than males to sustain a serious or fatal injury in a collision — even after controlling for the fact that women tend to be smaller and sit closer to the steering wheel.

The good news: The likelihood of sustaining a serious or fatal injury in newer cars was 55% lower compared to older vehicles.

The reasons for the discrepancy aren't entirely clear, because there's a lack of female-specific crash safety data, says Jason Forman, principal scientist at UVA's Center for Applied Biomechanics.

  • The standard crash test dummy is a 50th-percentile male that represents the average U.S. soldier in the 1960s.
  • A female dummy, added in the early 2000s, represents a 5th-percentile woman — under 5 feet tall and 108 pounds — and thus doesn't consider the other 95% of women.
  • It's essentially just a smaller version of a male dummy and doesn't account for what makes women unique: their different muscle strength, fat distribution, bone density — even their monthly hormones.

What to watch: NHTSA says new, more lifelike dummies are in development, but at several million dollars apiece, change comes slowly, notes Forman.

Go deeper: The gender gap in car safety leaves women at risk

3. Mailbox: Truckers and music

Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty

Here are a couple of letters from this week's mailbox. The first responds to our post Monday on the changing culture of trucking:

"I own a firm that moves dozens of loads of hardwood products across the country each week and have siblings who are truck drivers. Your trucking automation story misses the mark in a big way. The story implies that the working environment for drivers has worsened when in fact wages are higher and working conditions have improved due to severe shortages of drivers and the tighter log-book restrictions that were implemented last year. These federal requirements reduce the number of hours that drivers can be required to drive each day and in most fleets are now monitored electronically. The final statement about a 94% turnover rate in long-haul drivers is very misleading. The vast majority of that turnover is voluntary ‘quits’ as the demand and pay rates for short-run drivers are so strong that trucking firms can’t hire enough drivers to staff the long-haul positions."
— Jeff Hardcastle, Chelsea, Michigan

Next, a response to Monday's post on the ballooning cost of live music:

"I was surprised that your analysis of the music industry didn’t acknowledge one of the key drivers of the spike in ticket fees — a changing revenue model. Ever since Napster, Spotify and the other on-demand streaming services took off, the music industry lost its primary revenue stream — album sales — and is clearly trying to recover those losses in ticket sales. Try adding up the cost of an album in 1981 (adjusted for inflation) and combine that with the adjusted cost of a ticket. Those numbers look a lot closer, right? People may be paying more for concerts, but they’re paying about the same to support one artist."
— John Pacini, Richmond, California
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Involuntary driving (Gregory Shill — The Atlantic)

Juicing baseballs (Kendall Baker — Axios)

Tech activism OK, but no unions (Kate Conger, Noam Scheiber — NYT)

A chat with Shoshana Zuboff (Azeem Azhar — Exponential View) (podcast)

Bretton Woods at 75 (Martin Wolf — FT)

5. 1 nomenclature thing: They're not burgers!

Photo: Getty

As we've reported, the rise of plant-based meat and laboratory-invented patties is chipping away at the dominance of the all-American burger, writes Erica.

  • But the fight to defend the burger's turf is well underway.

What's happening: A new Mississippi law went into effect at the beginning of the month that bans plant-based meat manufacturers from labeling their products as "vegan sausage" or "veggie burgers," reports Vox. Only those who sell real meat can use the terms "burger" or "hot dog" — and those who violate the law could get jail time.

What's next: The fake-meaters are firing back. They've filed a lawsuit stating that putting "vegan" or "veggie" on the packages sends a clear message that the patties are not made from slaughtered animals.

If you've ever been so confused by these labels that you accidentally picked up a vegan burger when you were jonesing for beef, we want to hear from you! Reply to this email.

Steve LeVine