Phenomenal World

May 28th, 2020

Phenomenal World

Digital Scab, Digital Snitch

On automation and worker surveillance

Before Covid-19 hit, we'd become used to reports about Amazon's robotics innovations and the impending large-scale automation of warehouse jobs. But recent strikes and protests by Amazon's very human workers have exposed how far we are from robotic warehouses. In fact, as part of its effort to keep its warehouses fully staffed during the crisis, Amazon recently announced that it is ending its recently-instituted sick leave and base pay expansions, replacing both with increased overtime pay. While higher pay encourages more workers to apply for jobs, overtime incentivizes existing workers to work longer hours. Amazon’s strategy for increasing output in the pandemic seems to be getting its human employees to work harder.

In late-February, I took what must have been one of the last public tours of an Amazon warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. Prepared to witness vast and impression automation, I was met instead by a traffic jam of workers exiting the facility. Inside, there were of course robots—shelving units known as "pods," whizzing stuff from one end of the warehouse to the other—performing tasks previously done by people with forklifts. (According to Amazon, these robots have raised productivity of the remaining workers by orders of magnitude.) But there were other innovative technologies on view, at the workstations of human “stowers,” who distribute incoming products to the pods, “pickers,” who take items off the pods to fulfil orders, and “packers,” who put the orders in boxes and tape them shut. Over their shoulders, there were clocks counting down how much time each worker had to complete each task. The technology tracks which workers fall behind, and ‘learns’ how hard it can push them. In place of a human foreman, Amazon's timers dictate the pace of work and mete out automated discipline.

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May 22nd, 2020

Municipal Bonds, Race, and the American City

An interview with Destin Jenkins

The rapid and expansive action taken by the Fed over the past two months in response to the coronavirus crisis has muddied the distinction between monetary and fiscal policy. In particular, its Municipal Liquidity Facility provides a path for financing emergency spending by local governments. In some optimistic accounts, MLF-backed investment has the capacity to dramatically reduce the geographical, income, and racial inequalities which have increased in recent decades. But in order to do this, the MLF must explicitly prioritize investment in these communities.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, UChicago Professor Destin Jenkins argued the historical case. In the aftermath of WWII, a municipal bond market that valued white, middle-class consumption diverted investment outside of cities and into the suburbs. Federal housing officials, mortgage bankers and real estate agents profited off of the construction of debt-financed highways, shopping malls, schools, and parks for this upwardly mobile demographic. Cities took on billions in debt, but their black, brown, and immigrant populations saw few of the benefits. Jenkins argues that the history of municipal debt is intimately tied to the history of racial disparity in American cities, and that interventions in the politics of bond markets could enable municipalities "to avoid the punitive credit ratings that devalue certain regions or populations over others."

We spoke to Jenkins last fall about his research, which focusses on the history of racial capitalism and its consequences for democracy and inequality in the United States. His forthcoming book, The Bonds of Inequality, examines the role of municipal finance in growing American cities and widening the racial wealth gap. Jenkins is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago. You can follow him here

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May 14th, 2020

The Postindustrial Welfare State

An Interview with Gøsta Esping-Andersen

The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism is among the most influential works in the study of welfare states. Rather than conceiving of welfare and industrial policy on a single state-market axis, Three Worlds develops a typology to situate welfare states within broad and complex historical trajectories. In Esping-Andersen's framework, modern capitalist states with systems of social provision developed along three general paths. Social democratic regimes like those found in Scandinavia emerged through a political coalition between industrial and agricultural workers, and are characterized by universal benefit schemes. By contrast, conservative regimes in Germany and France were born of coalitions between the left and the Church, and are characterized by fairly generous welfare provisions whose distribution is dependent on traditional family structures. Finally, liberal regimes like Britain and Ireland are ones in which the labor movement was unable to form meaningful political coalitions. The mark of these states are their limited, means-tested benefits only available to the very poor.

Three Worlds is emblematic of the "power resource theory" tradition, developed by Esping-Andersen and colleagues like Walter Korpi. Unlike their counterparts in the Varieties of Capitalism school, who tend to view social safety nets as the product of high value-added economies in which employers aim to foster skill development among workers, power resource theorists hold that welfare systems are primarily explainable as the product of labor’s ability to organize against profit maximizing firms. Central to this view of welfare state development is the concept of decommodification, a qualitative and quantitative measure of the degree to which basic human needs are protected from market fluctuations. Just as central is the Polanyian notion of double movement—the dialectical process through which workers organize against the market to decommodify their labor.

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May 1st, 2020

The Class Politics of the Dollar System

Managing an international public good

The global dollar system has few national winners. The typical frame for understanding the US dollar is that of “exorbitant privilege.” But the role of the dollar in structuring the international financial system and defining the relationship between a hegemonic US and the rest of the world is ambiguous—as is the question of who exactly benefits from the current arrangement. Dollar primacy feeds a growing American trade deficit that shifts the country’s economy toward the accumulation of rents rather than the growth of productivity. This has contributed to a falling labor and capital share of income, and to the ballooning cost of services such as education, medical care, and rental housing. With sicknesses like these, can we say for certain that the reserve currency confers substantial benefits to the country that provides liquidity and benchmark assets denominated in that currency?

For the rest of the world, the ills are clear enough. In developing countries, the need to insure their economies against currency crises and debt deflation has meant the accumulation of dollars at the expense of necessary domestic investment. These policies are usually accompanied by a suppression of consumption and incomes to establish a permanent trade surplus vis-à-vis the dollar system. And in many countries, the dollar system allows corrupt elites to safely transport their ill-gotten earnings to global banking centers located in jurisdictions with opaque ownership laws.

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April 24th, 2020

The Weight of Movements

An interview with Frances Fox Piven

Few theorists of social movements have shaped the events that they analyze. Frances Fox Piven, Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York and one of these few, has studied and agitated within American social movements since the 1960s.

In 1966, Piven and Richard Cloward published "The Weight of the Poor" in the Nation magazine. The essay elaborates what has since been dubbed the "Cloward-Piven Strategy": the mass enrollment of the poor onto welfare rolls. If all who were entitled to government benefits claimed them, they argued, the system would buckle, exposing the magnitude of American poverty and the inadequacy of its safety net. The ensuing political crisis would provide an opening in which to enact broad and lasting anti-poverty policy. Cloward and Piven published the article in the midst of an intense period of grassroots activity among welfare recipients. That same year, anti-poverty groups around the country formed a broad coalition that became the National Welfare Rights Organization, of which Piven was a founding member. The rank-and-file membership of the NWRO grew dramatically through the late-60s, reaching over 20,000 dues paying members and 540 grassroots groups by the end of the decade, and gaining influence over national welfare politics.

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April 17th, 2020

Inside Out

Shaping the base of a renewable economy

The transition to a post-carbon energy economy will require extraction. As the sun set on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and with it the prominence of the Green New Deal in the contest for the presidency, the Trump administration issued an executive order encouraging private US exploitation of mineral resources in space. Whatever the shape of the coming transition away from fossil fuels, the need to understand the social and distributional costs of a changing energy infrastructure has never been greater. In a new report, I survey the state of mining, near-future ploys for extra-terrestrial extraction, and the persistent externalities of extraction.

Recent years have seen growing attention to the material requirements of information technologies, and especially to the social and environmental harms of sourcing rare earths and cobalt. Researchers highlight, for example, the dependence of electric vehicles and wind power infrastructure on rare earths, or batteries on lithium. But these discussions have tended to omit emphasis on necessity of extraction, relying instead on a more familiar idiom of consumer and corporate responsibility. Both the Trump administration's vision of celestial expansion and some visions of a post-carbon future depend, stated or not, upon a continuing regime of mineral extraction and outsourced harm.

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April 3rd, 2020

Crisis and Recovery

The underlying problems in the US economy

Today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report hardly registers the cataclysm in the US job market. The sharp 0.9 percent uptick in unemployment—itself newsworthy—only grasps the very beginnings of the shutdown of the American economy. Since the BLS surveys were conducted in the week of March 12, 10 million people have filed for jobless benefits. Only when the April numbers are released at the beginning of next month will we begin to get a fuller statistical picture of the magnitude of the Covid-19 crash. Unemployment rates are expected to rise to 20 percent or more. Given the 10-year-long, bull run of the stock market, one might imagine that the US economy was in good shape before that crash began, and that the labor market will therefore bounce back from the novel coronavirus’s punch once the public health crisis ends. However, the opposite is true: the fundamentals of the US economy were already incredibly weak. They have been for some time. After a decade of slow economic expansion, the US labor market was barely beginning to recover from the last crisis in 2008. If the past is any guide to the future, it will likely take even longer to recover from this one. We are only starting to get a sense of the true extent of this disaster from the perspective of American workers.

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March 25th, 2020

The First Services Recession

It is hard to see how the United States can avoid a recession. Unemployment insurance claims have already surged, and this week's numbers look to be in the millions. All indications point to one of the fastest plunges of GDP in US history. Facing this, we may want to turn to previous American recessions to think about our immediate future. But the dynamics of this recession will be different in at least one major way from the recessions of recent memory: services. In most recessions, services are basically acyclical—they just don't move up and down with the booms and busts of the economy. The exception here is the Great Depression (see Figure 1 below), but there the decline in investment is much more severe, as is the upward swing in the recovery. Services, it seems, just don't fall that much—even in the Depression.

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March 6th, 2020

Phenomenal Works: Nathan Lane

History, empirics, and industrial policy

Nathan Lane is an economist working on political economy, development, and economic history. Assistant Professor at Monash University, he is the co-founder of sodalabs.io, an interdisciplinary research hub for data-driven work in the social sciences.

Lane's research has focused on comparative development, in particular on state-led development patterns, including work on industrial policy in South Korea, the way historical states shape development and political action, and an indispensable look at the challenges of studying industrial policy and how new empirical strategies can overcome them.

Nathan blogs here, and tweets here. Below, his recommendations for Phenomenal Works.

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February 27th, 2020

The Economics of Race

On the neoclassical and stratification theories of race

Black America has had less wealth, less income, less education, and poorer health than white America for as long as records have been kept. To account for this disparity, economists have advanced three explanations: genetic, cultural, and structural. While the first of these had mostly fallen out of favor among social scientists by the mid-20th century (until a worrying revival in recent decades), the latter two have been adopted by somewhat distinct research communities that frequently collide. According to the cultural theory, racial disparities are the result of social capital deficits. This is the view that has been most widely adopted by the mainstream of the economics profession, and I refer to it as the neoclassical economics of race. By contrast, the structural theory argues that racial disparities in socioeconomic outcomes are created and maintained over time by American institutions, which privilege White Americans at the expense of Black Americans. This view is known as stratification economics, and, as I argue here, it offers a more accurate and empirically sound explanation for racial disparities in America than its counterpart. The neoclassical and stratification approaches disagree over the causes of and remedies for racial disparities in socioeconomic outcomes and differ substantially in their understanding of income, education, wealth, and health.

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