June 25th, 2020

Declining Access, Rising Cost: The Geography of Higher Education Post-2008

Mapping concentration and prices in the US higher education industry

During and after the Great Recession, public funding for higher education was slashed as part of state budget austerity. Staff and programs were cut and tuition rose; in many states, even by 2018, funding had not returned to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, enrollment soared. As students locked out of a slack labor market were told they “lacked the skills necessary for today’s jobs,” the solution to unemployment and wage stagnation was to be found in more degrees at higher prices. The result was the acceleration of what is now a four or five-decade trend in US higher education: the replacement of a public good model with a private consumer model, dependent on tuition financed with federal debt, all justified on the back of supposed earnings increases that fail to materialize.

With skyrocketing prices and ballooning student debt, the private for-profit model has taken hold in even traditional schools, which are seeking to cut teaching costs while retaining students and their hefty tuition payments. Even leaving aside the possible collapse of tuition revenues from nonattendance, forecasts for state budget cuts coming out of the Covid-19 recession are alarming—unless the patterns of the Great Recession are avoided, we can abandon hope of a more equitable, inclusive, or expansive higher education landscape into the 2020s.

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May 28th, 2020

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 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 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

The shape of the Covid-19 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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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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February 6th, 2020

Decision Making in a Dynamic World

Exploring the limits of Expected Utility

I once wrote a post criticizing modern microeconomic models as both overly complex and unrealistic, leading their practitioners into theoretical dead ends without much corresponding increase in explanatory power. I suggested the entire enterprise of Expected Utility (EU) was a dead end based on a mistake and that I’d eventually write about superior ways of modelling individual decision making under uncertainty. It’s been a long time coming, but below I outline why taking time into account leads to better theories of decision making, and why human psychology does a fairly good job of guiding decisions in a dynamic world.

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January 30th, 2020

The Long History of Algorithmic Fairness

Fair algorithms from the seventeenth century to the present

As national and regional governments form expert commissions to regulate “automated decision-making,” a new corporate-sponsored field of research proposes to formalize the elusive ideal of “fairness” as a mathematical property of algorithms and especially of their outputs. Computer scientists, economists, lawyers, lobbyists, and policy reformers wish to hammer out, in advance or in place of regulation, algorithmic redefinitions of “fairness” and such legal categories as “discrimination,” “disparate impact,” and “equal opportunity.”

But general aspirations to fair algorithms have a long history. In these notes, I recount some past attempts to answer questions of fairness through the use of algorithms. My purpose is not to be exhaustive or completist, but instead to suggest some major transformations in those attempts, pointing along the way to scholarship that has informed my account.

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January 23rd, 2020

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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