➔ Phenomenal World

November 28th, 2019

➔ Phenomenal World

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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October 1st, 2018

About Phenomenal World

Phenomenal World is a new publication that distributes research, analysis, and commentary on applied social science. We chose this name for our blog because we hope to publish work that addresses the social world in all its apparent complexity.

Our contributors are economists, philosophers, social scientists, data scientists, and policy researchers. You’ll find posts on metaresearch; basic income, welfare and the commonwealth; digital ethics; education; economic history; social policy; and evolving institutions. We also host the archival of our weekly newsletter, a roundup of recommended reading from across the social sciences. Posts are wide-ranging in subject matter, length, and style.

Phenomenal World is managed by staff of the Jain Family Institute, an applied research organization that works to bring just research and policy from theoretical conception to actual implementation in society. We welcome submissions. Please see our About page for more information on submitting, and for the sign-up form for our newsletter.

Thank you for reading.

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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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October 31st, 2019

Phenomenal Works: Leah Stokes

Editor's Note: This is the first 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.

Leah Stokes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Santa Barbara. Her research spans representation and public opinion, voting behavior, and environmental and energy politics. Her forthcoming book is titled Short Circuiting Policy and examines the role of interest groups in weakening environmental protection policy across the United States. Her academic work has been published widely in top journals, her journalism and opinion writing has been published widely including in the New York Times and The Washington Post, and she is frequently cited in news media of all kinds. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Stokes's work is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the politics of energy policy—and think through possible ways forward in the climate crisis. Below, her selection of must-read research.

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December 9th, 2019

Red Wave

DEPENDENCE EFFECT

Financialization in American higher ed

Like many systems of social provision—from housing to pensions—American education has become increasingly financialized. In a recent paper, Charlie Eaton, Jacob Habinek, Adam Goldstein, Cyrus Dioun, Daniela García Santibáñez Godoy, and Robert Osley-Thomas consider the scope and consequences of financialization in the market for higher education.

From the paper:

"Increasing dependence on financial markets may bias resources towards revenue-generating commercial projects and increased student loan origination. We document the growing role of finance across the heterogeneous subsectors of US higher education: traditional public and non-profit educational providers have come to rely more heavily on financially mediated flows of investment revenue and debt-funded capital. Meanwhile, equity capital fueled the growth of an explicitly financialized sub-sector of for-profit providers. Finally, educational consumers have been saddled with growing interest payments as debt balances grew. Interestingly, the state has been one of the main participants in the transformation we describe.

How does financialization affect educational outcomes and educational stratification? We show that students’ average student loan borrowing increased fastest and to the highest levels at for-profits. Yet for-profits and the poorest public institutions disproportionately enroll minorities and students from lower social class backgrounds. Together, these facts suggest that the financialization of higher education may play a significant direct role in exacerbating educational and economic stratification. We can also expect significant effects among public and non-profit institutions. Borrowed capital has disproportionately funded investments in non-instructional commercial activities, including amenities. In this way, bond markets promote organizational behaviors that may be at odds with the goals of cost-efficient social provision in areas like higher education."

Link to the full article.

  • Another Eaton paper, co-authored with Sabrina Howell and Constantine Yannelis, uses "novel data on 88 private equity deals involving 994 schools" to study the impact of private equity buyouts on higher education: "After buyouts, we observe lower education inputs, graduation rates, loan repayment rates, and earnings among graduates." Link. See also this detailed report on financialization and higher education from the Roosevelt Institute. Link.
  • "When public higher education cannot keep pace with growing public demand for access and programs, governments often allow for-profits to rush in and help fill the gap. The future tertiary market will not be the result of a well thought out policy at the national or state levels, but a quasi-free market result that will foster lower quality providers and fail to meet national goals for increasing the educational attainment level of Americans." A 2012 article by John Douglass analyzes the rise of for-profits in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Link.
  • "One generation of Americans owed $86 billion in student loan debt at last count. Its members are all 60 years old or more." At the WSJ, AnnaMaria Andriotis writes on the emergence of senior held student debt. Link.
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July 15th, 2019

The River

APPROPRIATION FRICTION

Swedish wage earner funds and their limitations

Beyond growing calls for welfare expansion and a more progressive tax system, recent policy debates have begun to consider alternative models of firm ownership. Last year, the UK Labour party published a report outlining a path towards a more diverse set of ownership arrangements, including worker cooperatives and municipally owned service providers. The party also articulated an intention to transition ownership of up to 10% of shares to workers in large firms. More recently, the Bernie Sanders campaign announced a proposal for the formation of inclusive ownership funds, whereby large corporations contribute a portion of their stocks to an employee controlled fund. This comes in addition to Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, which calls for increased workers representation on company boards.

These recent proposals are distinctly reminiscent of programs put forward throughout the twentieth century, the most famous of which is Sweden’s 1976 Meidner Plan. In his 1992 book, Princeton politics professor JONAS PONTUSSON analyzes the origins of the plan, and the barriers to its successful implementation. He compares the movement for wage earner funds with that of co-determination, suggesting that the failure of the former has to do with the politics of legislation:

"In unfavorable political circumstances, it made sense for organized business to avoid major political confrontation and instead use post-legislative bargaining to define co-determination. By contrast, the Meidner Plan and subsequent wage-earner funds proposals left very little room for post-legislative bargaining. In other words, the co-determination offensive was a legislative success for the same reason that the implementation of new legislation became a disappointment for labor.

Organized business spent about as much on its advertising and media campaign against wage earner funds in 1982 as the five parliamentary parties spent on the election campaign that same year. But couldn’t the labor movement have devoted more resources to acquiring the expertise needed to influence industrial policy? The final lesson seems to be that when industrial policy, and investment policy more generally, fails to address wage earner’s immediate concerns, they are bound to become less supportive of further efforts to democratize investment decisions."

Link to the book chapter, and link to an article in which Pontusson assesses the diluted version of the plan which was implemented in 1983.

  • "The concept of a society which is built on moral values remains, in my view, too promising to be extinguished by inhuman market forces." The disintegration of the Swedish model, in Rudolf Meidner’s words: Link. See also this interview with Meidner from 1998. Link.
  • In the largest study of its kind, Joseph Blasi, Douglas Kruse and Dan Weltmann explore the impact of employee stock ownership plans (ESOP) on firm performance, concluding that "Privately held ESOP companies were only half as likely as non-ESOP firms to go bankrupt or close, had significantly higher post-adoption annual employment and sales growth, and demonstrated higher sales per employee." Link.
  • In 1987, political theorist Jon Elster argued that the plan’s failure was the result of a fundamental problem in its conception of justice, which would leave much of the real decision making capabilities in the hands of the union bureaucracy. Link.
  • A report on Public-Common Partnerships, an "alternative institutional design that moves us beyond the overly simplistic binary of market/state." Link.
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July 8th, 2019

Model of a Cabin

SELECTED MOBILITY

Examining the college premium

Higher education is widely understood to be a major driver of intergenerational mobility in the United States. Despite the clear (and growing) inequalities between and within colleges, it remains the case that higher education reduces the impact that parental class position has on a graduate's life outcomes.

In an intriguing paper, associate professor of economics at Harvard XIANG ZHOU scrutinizes the implied causal relationship between college completion and intergenerational mobility. Specifically, Zhou uses a novel weighting method "to directly examine whether and to what extent a college degree moderates the influence of parental income" outside of selection effects, seeking to distinguish between the "equalization" and "selection" hypotheses of higher ed's impact on intergenerational mobility.

From the paper:

"Three decades have passed since Hout’s (1988) discovery that intergenerational mobility is higher among college graduates than among people with lower levels of education. In light of this finding, many researchers have portrayed a college degree as 'the great equalizer' that levels the playing field, and hypothesized that an expansion in postsecondary education could promote mobility because more people would benefit from the high mobility experienced by college graduates. Yet this line of reasoning rests on the implicit assumption that the 'college premium' in intergenerational mobility reflects a genuine 'meritocratic' effect of postsecondary education, an assumption that has rarely, if ever, been rigorously tested.

In fact, to the extent that college graduates from low and moderate-income families are more selected on such individual attributes as ability and motivation than those from high-income families, the high mobility observed among bachelor’s degree holders may simply reflect varying degrees of selectivity of college graduates from different family backgrounds."

In sum, Zhou finds that the "selection" hypothesis carries more weight than the "equalization" hypothesis. One implication of this finding is that "simply expanding the pool of college graduates is unlikely to boost intergenerational income mobility in the US." Link to the paper.

  • A 2011 paper by Michael Bastedo and Ozan Jaquette looks at the stratification dynamics affecting low-income students within higher ed. Link. A paper from the same year by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski surveys the state of inequality in postsecondary education. Link.
  • An op-ed by E. Tammy Kim in the Times argues for higher-education as a public good. Link.
  • Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan's 2018 paper examines the student debt crisis in the broader context of labor market trends: "Reliance on the college earnings premium [as a measure of success] is that it focuses primarily on the individual benefit of educational attainment, implying that college is worthwhile as long as individuals are making more than they would have otherwise. But in the context of public investment in higher education, we need to know not only how individuals are faring but also how investments in higher education are affecting our workforce and the economy as a whole." Link.
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November 25th, 2019

Political Sun

UPWARD ACCOMODATION

The history of public housing provision

In recent decades, policy approaches to housing provision have focused on increasing the incomes of subsidy recipients and, due to declining federal investment, promoting tenant mobility both between subsidized housing units and out of the public housing system altogether. But the discourse on housing seems to be shifting. Rather than promoting ever increasing incomes, recent proposals aim instead to control housing costs—both through increasing public housing stock and pegging rent to inflation.

In a 2012 paper, Lawrence J. Vale and Yonah Freemark offer a history of public housing in the United States. Their narrative considers how changing approaches to housing provision reveal changes in the government's definition of “deserving” welfare recipients.

From the paper:

"Public housing is too often conceptualized as a single failed program that tragically concentrated deeply impoverished single-parent minority households in ill-designed and publicly mismanaged slums. Such a viewpoint does little justice to the evolution and contingencies that motivated the growth and directions of the multiphased and multifaceted history of federally supported public housing and public-private housing. Taking a longer view, the concentrated poverty welfare phase of public housing may actually be seen as an aberration, a relatively brief interlude between about 1960 and 1990. This phase, we argue, was out of step with the larger pattern of policy preferences for housing the poor, both before and since.

Seen this way, American public housing consists of a 25-year series of efforts to accommodate the upwardly mobile working class between 1935 and 1960, a 30-year consolidation of the poorest into welfare housing between 1960 and the mid 1980s, coupled by efforts to introduce direct private-sector involvement in public housing and other programs; and a series of programs and policies since the mid 1980s to return more of public housing to a less-poor constituency, while furthering growth in other kinds of both deep and shallow subsidy programs through mixed-finance projects and tax-code intervention. After 75 years of experimentation, much of the rest of public housing operations has become completely privatized. In many cities, housing authorities are regularly turning over their conventional housing stock to private managers and often own nothing more than the land beneath their redevelopment endeavors. In this context, even the basic definitional reason for calling some housing 'public housing' now comes into question."

Link to the article.

  • From November of last year, Jack Y. Favilukis, Pierre Mabille, and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh find that "Housing affordability policies create large net welfare gains." Link. See also J. W. Mason's recent public testimony on rent control, which offers an overview of empirical findings and concludes that "there is no evidence that rent regulations reduce the overall supply of housing." Link.
  • A report by Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper at 3P compares housing policy in US metropolitan areas with those of Vienna, Helsinki, and Stockholm. Link. At the Urban Institute, Emily Peiffer discusses the history of housing policy in New York City. Link.
  • "Housing Affordability in the U.S.: Trends by Geography, Tenure, and Household Income." By Andrew Dumont at the Federal Reserve. Link.
  • Data for Progress maps the diversity of America's public housing communities, accounting for rates of unemployment, poverty, and population density. Link. Another map looks at flood risk, police stops, and segregation in NYCHA buildings. Link.
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July 1st, 2019

Quandary

HOW RESEARCH AFFECTS POLICY

Results from Brazil

How can evidence inform the decisions of policymakers? What value do policymakers ascribe to academic research? In January, we highlighted Yale's Evidence in Practice project, which emphasizes the divergence between policymakers' needs and researchers' goals. Other work describes the complexity of getting evidence into policy. A new study by JONAS HJORT, DIANA MOREIRA, GAUTAM RAO, and JUAN FRANCISCO SANTINI surprises because of the simplicity of its results—policymakers in Brazilian cities and towns are willing to pay for evidence, and willing to implement (a low-cost, letter-mailing) evidence-based policy. The lack of uptake may stem more from a lack of information than a lack of interest: "Our findings make clear that it is not the case, for example, that counterfactual policies' effectiveness is widely known 'on the ground,' nor that political leaders are uninterested in, unconvinced by, or unable to act on new research information."

From the abstract:

"In one experiment, we find that mayors and other municipal officials are willing to pay to learn the results of impact evaluations, and update their beliefs when informed of the findings. They value larger-sample studies more, while not distinguishing on average between studies conducted in rich and poor countries. In a second experiment, we find that informing mayors about research on a simple and effective policy (reminder letters for taxpayers) increases the probability that their municipality implements the policy by 10 percentage points. In sum, we provide direct evidence that providing research information to political leaders can lead to policy change. Information frictions may thus help explain failures to adopt effective policies."

Link to the paper.

  • New work from Larry Orr et al addresses the question of how to take evidence from one place (or several places) and make it useful to another. "[We provide] the first empirical evidence of the ability to use multisite evaluations to predict impacts in individual localities—i.e., the ability of 'evidence‐based policy' to improve local policy." Link.
  • Cited within the Hjort et al paper is research from Eva Vivalt and Aidan Coville on how policymakers update their prior beliefs when presented with new evidence. "We find evidence of 'variance neglect,' a bias similar to extension neglect in which confidence intervals are ignored. We also find evidence of asymmetric updating on good news relative to one’s prior beliefs. Together, these results mean that policymakers might be biased towards those interventions with a greater dispersion of results." Link.
  • From David Evans at CGDev: "'The fact that giving people information does not, by itself, change how they act is one of the most firmly established in social science.' So stated a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. That’s not true. Here are ten examples where simply providing information changed behavior." Link. ht The Weekly faiV.
  • For another iteration of the question of translating evidence into policy, see our February letter on randomized controlled trials. Link.
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June 24th, 2019

Push Pull

PROGRESS UNCOUPLE

Debating growth and the Green New Deal

In past newsletters, we have highlighted research and policy proposals relating to the Green New Deal and the literature surrounding "degrowth"—the idea that the growth imperative is at odds with human flourishing. In a recent exchange, economist Robert Pollin debates sociologists Juliet Schor and Andrew Jorgenson on the relative merits of "decoupling" and "degrowth." The former asserts that "economies can continue to grow while advancing a viable climate-stabilization project, as long as the growth process is decoupled from fossil-fuel consumption." The latter holds that public discussions over combating climate change must turn "from growthcentricity to needs- and people-centered policies."

The authors share a commitment to increased public investment, and both sides emphasize the distributional consequences of decarbonization. Their debate turns on, and illuminates larger conversations regarding the discursive frameworks and metrics we use to understand economic life. Schor and Jorgenson see reducing GDP in the global north as one element of a program to radically restructure the principles of society; Pollin understands these efforts to muddy the mandate for immediate climate action.

From Pollin:

"Let’s assume that global GDP contracts by 10 percent over the next two decades, following a degrowth scenario. That would entail a reduction of global GDP four times larger than what we experienced over the 2007–2009 financial crisis and Great Recession. In terms of CO2 emissions, the net effect of this 10 percent GDP contraction, considered on its own, would be to push emissions down by precisely 10 percent—that is, from 32 billion tons to 29 billion. So, the global economy would still not come close to bringing emissions down to 20 billion tons by 2040.

The overwhelming factor pushing emissions down will not be a contraction of overall GDP but massive growth in energy efficiency and clean renewable energy investments (which, for accounting purposes, will contribute toward increasing GDP) along with similarly dramatic cuts in fossil-fuel production and consumption (which will register as reducing GDP). In my view, addressing these matters in terms of their specifics is much more constructive than presenting broad generalities about the nature of economic growth, positive or negative."

Link to Pollin's initial paper, link to Schor and Jorgenson.

  • Pollin elaborates on this point in his follow-up statement with a case study of Japan: "Despite the fact that Japan has been close to a no-growth economy for twenty years, its CO2 emissions remain among the highest in the world, at 9.5 tons per capita." Link. Another recent article reviews and recaps the decoupling vs. degrowth exchanges. Link.
  • Schor and Jorgenson’s follow-up challenges Pollin's conviction that decoupling is either possible or efficient: "After decades of promises from advocates of green growth that absolute decoupling will happen, the record is dismal. The simple point about growth is therefore that it makes the nearly impossibly high mountain that we need to climb even steeper. Why rule out an important source of emissions reductions before we’ve even started?" Link.
  • Another iteration of the debate in a compilation of INET papers: Schröder et al argue that "if past performance is relevant for future outcomes, our results should put to bed the possibility of 'green growth.'" Michael Grubb takes a different tack: "Before declaring that history has set limits on what is possible, we need to be extremely careful. The future has already started, though its beginnings may be modest." Link.
  • From Autonomy, a proposal for a shortened work week—a key element of several green degrowth arguments. Link.
  • Mark Paul, Anders Fremstad, and JW Mason offer a brand new paper on US decarbonization. "In an economy facing persistent demand constraints and weak labor markets, public spending on decarbonization will raise wages and living standards." Link.
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