Implications of a Buttigieg-led DOT for American Muslims

By: Adam Beddawi, MPAC Policy Analyst

As the dust settles on the presidential transition from Trump to Biden, attention will shift toward policy opportunities in the new presidential administration. Given the campaign slogan of President-Elect Biden, “Build Back Better,” the Department of Transportation (DOT) will be a significant factor in the new administration’s policy focus. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is slated to be at the helm of the DOT, leading its 55,000 employees and presiding over its $87-billion budget.

Politico identifies the main goals of a Buttigeg-led DOT as:

  • passage of a massive infrastructure stimulus,

The implications of Department of Transportation (DOT) policies on American Muslims are far-reaching. Many American Muslims work in the construction, manufacturing, engineering, tech, and transportation sectors of the American economy — all of which will be impacted by these policy goals. The class dynamics of the American Muslim community complicate any analysis of potential policy opportunities. According to an ISPU study, nearly 40 percent of American Muslims report annual incomes of less than $30,000, while another third of the population report incomes greater than $75,000. In the aforementioned sectors, this class divide runs the gamut between engineers, managers, and supervisors at the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum, with truck drivers, construction workers, and factory workers at the other end.

As such, our assessment of potential engagement opportunities will have to rise above these embodied factors — what does the Islamic tradition have to offer contemporary policy debates on infrastructure stimulus, or resuscitation of the transportation sector, etc — while also remaining sensitive to their material impacts. The former must frame our questions, while the latter should determine our answers.

In the backdrop of this inquiry is a broader political and economic development that will impact every sector of the global economy: the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which promises to upset each industry through the introduction of automated technologies, artificial intelligence, and alternate forms of energy production. As with all industrial revolutions, these shifts bring with them the possibility of wide-scale emancipation from the general labor process. Basically, the increase in productive capacity can, in theory, ameliorate the power disparity between the managerial and manual segments of the American labor force.

Given the recent technological developments in both driverless and electric cars, a Buttigieg-led DOT may be ready to make significant steps toward decarbonization, a goal at which the private sector is particularly excited about throwing large sums of cash. Of course, per the development logic of the 4IR, the consequences of these investments will ultimately land at the feet of those truck drivers and taxi drivers who stand to be replaced by driverless cars, or the drivers on app-based platforms whose labor rights have only weakened over the course of 4IR. There must be a solution which aims at more of a synthesis between these competing interests. For instance, in order to accomplish its stated goal of “improving transportation safety”, the DOT can embrace automation technologies that allow for less time at the wheel for drivers of commercial motor vehicles without actually compromising sectoral employment.

The digital logistics market is also expected to grow nearly 10 percent over the next five years. Its development will significantly impact the trucking and automobile industry. For instance, Volkswagen AG’s decision to expend nearly $1 billion Euros toward R&D as part of its transition from being a hardware supplier to a provider of software and services may portend the future of the automobile industry. Meanwhile, Amazon’s attempt to capitalize on the development of digital freight brokerage websites is allowing it to steal a significant share of the third-party logistic and freight delivery services market.

As many companies are discovering, the American infrastructure must be developed in order to accommodate the wide-scale adoption of digital solutions. This is particularly true for technologies designed for warehouses, which would require wireless connectivity networks to support the sensors and other hardware that would be operating in the facilities. For remote warehouses that were constructed for storage, this would likely require a complete retrofit, meaning additional costs and complexity in sales cycles if the warehouses are not owned by the same prospective customer.

Another impediment to wide-scale digitization is cybersecurity. Ultimately, what is keeping the data safe? On this point, the DOT goals carry implications for the safety and security of American Muslim populations. A few months ago, we detailed a public-private partnership to implement a massive data collection program masquerading as a tool to enforce traffic regulations. The program in question is called Mobility Data Specification, which would require mobility companies to provide city governments with real-time location data on their vehicles, including the starting point, ending point and route of each trip taken. The government capture of private mobility data is already a clear issue, but is it even safe from capture by a foreign adversary?

The untapped potential of the 4IR ultimately hinges on the way that new technologies are implemented. Will they redound to the benefit of those who implement them, those whom they replace, or both? The Buttigieg-led DOT will play a pivotal role in deciding these and other related questions. The American Muslim community stand to be affected one way or another.

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The Muslim Public Affairs Council improves public understanding and policies that impact American Muslims by engaging our government, media and communities.

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