Phenomenal World

January 23rd, 2020

Phenomenal World

What Would a UBI Fund?

Lessons from the 1970s experiments in guaranteed income

One of the questions at the heart of contemporary debates over the merits of UBI is ‘what would it fund?’ In other words, what type of activities would it encourage? There are of course the widely debunked quibbles about guaranteed income encouraging anti-social behaviors, but there’s also a feminist critique of basic income proposals.

The feminist case against a UBI centers around the fear that, in contrast to more robust funding for social programs such as subsidized child care or parental leave, UBI would disproportionately encourage women to leave the labor force to provide care work in the home— reinscribing the gendered division of labor against which women have long struggled. In this view, UBI is undesirable—expected to fund the isolation of women in the domestic sphere, and preventing them from wielding influence over the real machinations of society.

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January 17th, 2020

UBI & the City

A new working paper models the effects of a basic income in New York City

Skeptics of guaranteed income tend to worry about the policy’s inflationary effects; absent rent regulation, for instance, one might expect housing costs to rise in proportion to the increase in disposable income generated by the policy. A new JFI-supported working paper presents the first attempt to model a UBI’s general equilibrium effects at the city level. In “Universal Basic Income and the City,” Khalil Esmkhani, Jack Favilukis and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh explore the effects of a guaranteed income policy implemented at the city-level in New York City. They find that, when financed through a progressive income tax, a UBI increases general welfare and, perhaps most surprisingly, does not lead to housing market inflation. Their research sheds new light on the possible inflationary effects of basic income policies. It also suggests that the method used to finance a UBI has significant implications for the policy’s outcomes and characteristics. Though the results are tentative and the authors plan to expand their analysis to examine different scenarios and to perform sensitivity checks, their efforts already represent a major advance in the study cash transfer policy. In what follows, I present an overview of the macroeconomic literature on basic income before turning back to the model, its findings, and the plan for future work.

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January 16th, 2020

Macro Modeling in the Age of Inequality

On incorporating distributional concerns into macroeconomic models

Recent years have seen the revival of academic conversation around rising wealth inequality and its distributional consequences. But while applied, microeconomics-oriented fields like public and labor economics have long engaged with questions around inequality, macroeconomics has historically paid less attention to these questions, particularly as they relate to business cycles. Instead, it has focused more on the relationships between aggregate macroeconomic outcomes—such as unemployment, income, and consumption—and how they fluctuate during booms and recessions. As a result, research on rising income and wealth inequality in the United States tends to overlook the macroeconomic consequences of these developments, as well as the long-term macroeconomic trends which have contributed to their rise.

In order to assess what rising inequality means for our society, and what policies we should enact to mitigate its effects, we must understand its relationship to the economy as a whole. What macroeconomic forces have contributed to rising inequality, and how might elevated levels of inequality be shaping our economy? We need macroeconomic research to fully understand how income and wealth inequality have evolved in the United States. Particularly, we need a range of macroeconomic models, each of which can capture meaningful differences in household income or wealth but emphasizes different, potentially relevant features of the economy.

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January 9th, 2020

Phenomenal Works: Alice Evans

Four books and papers on the 'despondency trap'

Alice Evans is a Lecturer in the Social Science of International Development at King's College London, and a Faculty Associate at Harvard's Kennedy School. She is writing a book on “The Great Gender Divergence”, which explores why European countries rapidly drew closer to gender parity over the twentieth century. This builds on a decade’s research on how societies come to support gender equality, and why rates of progress vary across the world. Evans has also studied how to improve workers’ rights in global supply chains: demonstrating synergies between export incentives and domestic labor movements; as well as corporate accountability. She runs a podcast, Rocking Our Priors, which is an excellent source of engaging and rigorous interviews with social scientists, and she tweets here. Below, her selections for Phenomenal Works.

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December 20th, 2019

Renegotiating Education

Caitlin Zaloom's ethnography of the American higher ed crisis

Indebted is anthropologist and NYU Professor Caitlin Zaloom’s deep dive into the middle-class American family’s struggle to solve the college cost puzzle. Its animating question: How can middle-class families maintain their status and provide their children with as much opportunity as possible? And do so while facing stagnant wages, structural racism, rising inequality, limited savings, weakening safety nets, labyrinthine financial aid paperwork, and surging costs for housing, healthcare, and education? Through interviews with students and families, Zaloom reveals the brokenness of what she terms the “student finance complex”—the web of private, direct, or Federal loans mixed with grants and scholarships—and connects these particular struggles to the broader failures of mainstream economic theory. The book urges readers to rethink the current system of higher education finance, and look to feminist economics and social reproduction theory for a better way to think about education and the economy.

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December 18th, 2019

Unequal and Uneven: The Geography of Higher Education Access

Mapping market concentration in the higher education industry

In much of the existing higher education literature, “college access” is understood in terms of pre-college educational attainment, social and informational networks, and financial capacity, both for tuition and living expenses. The US ranks highly on initial college access by comparison with other countries, but this access—along with all major metrics of college success, including completion rates, default rates, and debt-to-income ratios—exhibits drastic inequality along familiar lines of race, gender, class, and geography.

Along with other pernicious myths, the media stereotype of the college student often figures undergraduates traveling far from home to live in a dorm on a leafy campus. The reality is far from the case: over 50% of students enrolled in four-year public college do so close to their home. This means that the geography of higher ed institutions strongly determines the options available to a given student. While much higher education policy discourse justly attempts to improve students’ access to information on school costs, financial aid information, completion rates, or post-graduation employment statistics to inform their school choices, political attention to geographic access remains overlooked.

Previous research on the geography of higher ed has simply reported the number of institutions in a given area. But the raw number of schools is ambiguous, as it fails to account for enrollment. We wanted to complicate the picture: given the uneven distribution of higher ed institutions and institution types—public and private non-profits, as well as for-profits of all kinds—around the country, we wanted to examine what role market concentration might play in a higher education industry increasingly characterized by a wide divide between elite institutions and the landscape of what Tressie McMillan Cottom has termed "Lower Ed." Starting from the perspective that many students are not going to travel long distances to be in residence full time at a leafy campus, how many options are they realistically looking at? And what’s the relationship between concentration, disparities on the basis of race, class, and geography, institutions’ resulting market power, and college cost, debt loads, and post-graduate earnings?

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November 28th, 2019

Phenomenal Works: Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

On unions, advocacy, and influence

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is a political scientist who studies the mechanisms of influence. Focusing on the strategies of organized interests, including both business and labor, Hertel-Fernandez's helps illuminate crucial and poorly understood levers of American political economy. His 2019 book State Capture details the growing predominance of conservative lobbying groups at the state level across the country. His first book, Politics at Work, revealed the ways that employers actively shape the voting behaviors of their workers, shedding new light on the instruments of corporate power in American society. And his forthcoming book, Millionaires and Billionaires United, co-authored with Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, documents the growth of wealthy donor networks across the political spectrum.

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November 22nd, 2019

Development and Displacement

The effects of big development initiatives

Infrastructure lies at the heart of development. From transportation and telecommunication networks to electrical grids and water pipelines, large-scale infrastructure projects play a pivotal role in the global development landscape. (In 2015, infrastructure spending totaled $9.5 trillion or 14% of global GDP). Infrastructure development also holds political significance.

Both historically and in the present, state investment in resource generation in the Global South has been a cornerstone of national movements for economic independence. But while infrastructure development projects generate jobs and drive long-term growth, the economic gains are often unevenly distributed. The burden of development weighs heavily on individuals and communities who are forced to leave their homes to make way for these large-scale projects.

In the development literature, this phenomenon is referred to as development-induced displacement and resettlement (DIDR)—individuals and communities being forced to leave their place of residence and abandon their land due to development initiatives. Some accounts estimate that 200 million people were displaced by development projects over the last two decades of the 20th century, and the current scale of DIDR is estimated to be around 15 million people per year. People displaced by development projects fall into the broader category of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)—a United Nations designation for "persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, and habitual violations of human rights, as well as natural or man-made disasters involving one or more of these elements, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border." In the case of DIDR, resettlement—if any occurs—is often inadequate, leaving migrants impoverished and disempowered. Unlike refugees that cross international borders and are under the protection of international law, internally-displaced persons remain within the jurisdiction of their own government—vulnerable to the same lack of protection that caused their displacement. Urban, transportation, and water supply projects account for the majority of displacements—between 1986 and 1993, 80 to 90 million people were involuntarily displaced by these three types of infrastructure development projects alone.

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November 14th, 2019

Phenomenal Works: Beth Popp Berman

On knowledge, institutions, and social policy

Editor's Note: This is the second post in a new series, Phenomenal Works, in which we invite our favorite researchers to share notable readings with us. We'll be publishing new editions every two weeks, around our regular output of interviews and analysis. Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with every post.

Beth Popp Berman is sociologist whose research focuses on the history of knowledge, organizations and public policy making. Her first book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine, examines the transformation of American academia from partially noncommercial institution to innovation-oriented entrepreneurial university. Popp Berman's forthcoming book, Thinking Like an Economist: How Economics Became the Language of U.S. Public Policy, charts how a style of economic reasoning pioneered among a small group of DoD technocrats became institutionalized at the core of the policy process—and its fundamental consequences for political decision-making.

Popp Berman's selections reflect the import of her own work, illuminating how and why certain forms of knowledge came to be produced, and how they are put to use in the construction of policy and institutions.

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November 7th, 2019

Collective Ownership in the Green New Deal

What rural electrification can teach us about a just transition

This year, we once again shattered the record for atmospheric carbon concentration, and witnessed a series of devastating setbacks in US climate policy—from attempts to waive state protections against pipelines to wholesale attacks on climate science. Against this discouraging backdrop, one idea has inspired hope: the “Green New Deal,” a bold vision for addressing both the climate crisis and the crushing inequalities of our economy by transitioning onto renewable energy and generating up to 10 million well paid jobs in the process. It’s an exciting notion, and it’s gaining traction—top Democratic presidential candidates have all revealed plans for climate action that engage directly with the Green New Deal. According to the Yale Project on Climate Communications, as of May 2019, the Green New Deal had the support of 96% of liberal democrats, 88% of moderate democrats, 64% of moderate republicans, and 32% of conservative republicans. In order to succeed, however, a Green New Deal must prioritize projects that are owned and controlled by frontline communities.

Whose power lines? Our power lines!

Efforts to electrify the rural South during the New Deal present a useful case study for understanding the impact of ownership models on policy success. Up until the mid-1930s, 9 out of 10 Southern households had no access to electricity, and local economies remained largely agricultural. Southern communities were characterized by low literacy rates and a weak relationship to the cash nexus, distancing them from the federal government both culturally and materially. They were also economically destitute—a series of droughts throughout the 20s led to the proliferation of foreclosures and tenant farming. With the initial purpose of promoting employment in the area, the Roosevelt administration launched the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 sought to extend electrical distribution, first by establishing low-interest loans to fund private utility companies. The utility companies turned them down: private shareholders had little reason to invest in sparsely populated and impoverished counties, whose residents could not be assured to pay for services; private investors lacked the incentive to fund electrification for the communities who needed it most.

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