➔ Phenomenal World

October 1st, 2018

➔ Phenomenal World

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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August 19th, 2019

Tennis Court

DETERMINED MOVEMENT

Energy production and political institutions

The role of labor (with some notable exceptions) has been relatively marginal in debates over how to decarbonize the economy. But given the growing number of clean energy jobs (and some recent labor news), it is reasonable to predict that any large-scale shifts in the nature of energy production will be accompanied by large-scale shifts in the nature of energy work and the labor relations that define it.

In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Columbia University professor TIMOTHY MITCHELL explores the political history of energy production. The wide-ranging study spans history from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, and charts the relationship between carbon-based energy production and various forms of governance. Among the arguments at the core of the book is Mitchell's identification of the emergence of democratic labor institutions within the structure and position of coal mines during industrialization—a position that was weakened in the transition to oil.

From the book:

"Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry. The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness, and the autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home, or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.

Changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labor kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily enable large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power."

Link to the book preview, link to a 2009 article that preceded its publication.

  • For more on labor dynamics in industrial Britain, see Robert Steinfeld's 2010 book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, and Suresh Naidu and Noah Yuchtman's 2012 paper on coercive contract enforcement in coal and other industries. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • A 2012 review of Mitchell's book by Matt Stoller: "Globally, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. You can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil." Link.
  • A book on the role of Mexico's oil fields in labor disputes during the Mexican revolution, by Myrna I. Santiago. Link.
  • A Next System report by Johanna Bozuwa imagines a network of democratically-run energy projects as the core of a "just transition." 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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August 12th, 2019

The Geometry of a Wave

NONSTANDARD SHARE

Young workers and the "gig economy"

The emergence of companies like Uber and Taskrabbit has prompted commentators across legal, economic, and policy research spheres to pronounce the beginning of a new era of work, marked by the prevalence of technologically mediated casual work arrangements.

A new report published by AARON MEDLIN and HYE JIN RHO at the Center for Economic and Policy Research casts doubt on these bold claims. Using data from the BLS 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement, it analyzes the preponderance of nonstandard work arrangements for workers between the ages of 21 and 25.

From the report:

"A majority of young workers, ages 21–25, with and without a college degree, are in standard work arrangements. Between 2005 and 2017, the share of young workers in standard work arrangements with a college degree increased from 94.1 to 95.4 percent. Contrary to common expectations, young workers are more likely to hold such jobs compared to the workforce as a whole. Furthermore, data from BLS show that only 1.0 percent of young workers engaged in electronically mediated (gig) work in May 2017.

The much-hyped growth of the gig economy cannot be found in the 2017 survey of nonstandard work arrangements. Even young workers overwhelmingly opted for employment in traditional jobs. Most pressing are the problems of low wages, lack of benefits, and less than full-time hours for all workers without a college degree, but especially young workers without a college degree. These are the labor market policy issues that should be on the table."

Link to the report.

  • In an earlier report co-authored by CEPR and EPI, Eileen Appelbaum, Arne Kalleberg, and Hye Jin Rho analyze the degree of nonstandard employment for older workers, aged 55-65 and 65+: "Older workers are more likely to be independent contractors than any other age group in both 2005 and 2017. However, the share of all older workers who are independent contractors declined from 10.8% of those ages 55–64 and 18.3% of those ages 65+ in 2005, to 9.3% and 16.2%, respectively, in 2017." Link.
  • "In any conference on the future of work, Uber and the gig economy deserve at most a workshop, not a plenary." Lawrence Mishel's 2018 analysis found that Uber wages averaged $11.77 an hour, and that total hours worked in the gig economy "represent a very small share of total hours worked in the overall economy." Link.
  • While part time, temporary, and casual labor may be declining, work induced precarity remains a prominent feature of the contemporary global landscape. For a substantive overview of the nature and development of precarious work, see Guy Standing's 2011 book, The Precariat. 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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August 5th, 2019

Where is the Artist?

COMPETING VALUES

The state of a new pedagogical field

Technology companies are coming under increased scrutiny for the ethical consequences of their work, and some have formed advisory boards or hired ethicists on staff. (Google's AI ethics board quickly disintegrated.) Another approach is to train computer scientists in ethics before they enter the labor market. But how should that training—which must combine practice and theory across disciplines—be structured, who should teach the courses, and what should they teach?

This month’s cover story of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery describes the Embedded EthiCS program at Harvard. (David Gray Grant, a JFI fellow since 2018, and Lily Hu, a new JFI fellow, are co-authors, along with Barbara J. Grosz, Kate Vredenburgh, Jeff Behrends, Alison Simmons, and Jim Waldo.) The article explains the advantages of their approach, wherein philosophy PhD students and postdocs teach modules in computer science classes:

"In contrast to stand-alone computer ethics or computer-and-society courses, Embedded EthiCS employs a distributed pedagogy that makes ethical reasoning an integral component of courses throughout the standard computer science curriculum. It modifies existing courses rather than requiring wholly new courses. Students learn ways to identify ethical implications of technology and to reason clearly about them while they are learning ways to develop and implement algorithms, design interactive systems, and code. Embedded EthiCS thus addresses shortcomings of stand-alone courses. Furthermore, it compensates for the reluctance of STEM faculty to teach ethics on their own by embedding philosophy graduate students and postdoctoral fellows into the teaching of computer science courses."

A future research direction is to examine "the approach's impact over the course of years, for instance, as students complete their degrees and even later in their careers."

Link to the full article.

  • Shannon Vallor and Arvind Narayanan have a free ethics module anyone can use in a CS course. View it here. A Stephanie Wykstra piece in the Nation on the state of DE pedagogy notes that the module has been used at 100+ universities. Link.
  • In February 2018, we wrote about Casey Fiesler’s spreadsheet of tech ethics curricula, which has gotten even more comprehensive, including sample codes of ethics and other resources. Jay Hodges’s comment is still relevant for many of the curricula: "Virtually every discipline that deals with the social world – including, among others, sociology, social work, history, women’s studies, Africana studies, Latino/a studies, urban studies, political science, economics, epidemiology, public policy, and law – addresses questions of fairness and justice in some way. Yet the knowledge accumulated by these fields gets very little attention in these syllabi." Link to that 2018 letter.
  • At MIT, JFI fellow Abby Everett Jacques teaches "Ethics of Technology." An NPR piece gives a sense of the students' experiences. 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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July 29th, 2019

Soliloquy

DISPARATE GENESES

Inherited institutions and the early American welfare state

Many recent policy proposals are variations on European programs implemented throughout the twentieth century. Despite their marked diversity, European welfare states share a foundation of social protections largely responsible for their lower rates of inequality. Theories on the development of this safety net, whether employee- or employer-driven, hold little explanatory power in the American context; they can't tell us why the US failed to expand the early pension system of the Civil War, or why protections for female workers and mothers preceded the sort of male oriented, class based policies which were common in Europe.

In her 1992 classic book, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol offers a compelling account of the development of modern social provisions in the United States. Conceptually, her narrative balances path dependency with historical contingency, stressing the "fit" between politicized group formations and the design of government institutions.

A brief summary of her conclusions, from the introduction:

"In certain European countries, state bureaucratization preceded the emergence of parliamentary parties, or the democratization of the male electorate. When political parties emerged in such circumstances, they had to make programmatic appeals to collectively organized constituents, including organized workers. Circumstances were sharply different in the 19th century United States, where no pre-modern centralized bureaucracy held sway, and where full democratization of the electorate for white males was virtually completed nationwide by the 1840s.

Because they were already voting, American workers did not need to mobilize along class lines to overcome exclusion from suffrage. But patterns of exclusion from electoral politics shaped the possibilities of women's political consciousness. National and local groups claiming to speak for the collective interests of women were able to mount ideologically inspired efforts on behalf of maternalist welfare policies, outside of parties or regular electoral politics."

Link to the publisher page.

  • In their more recent, widely cited paper, Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote trace the weakness of America's welfare system to race, concluding: "Racial animosity in the US made redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters." Link.
  • More on Civil War pensions: A focused analysis from Skocpol in 1993, and a detailed legislative history submitted as a PhD dissertation by John William Oliver in 1917. Link and link.
  • "By the turn of the 20th century, more than 350,000 women were gainfully employed in New York City, making it the largest urban concentration of female workers in the country. The Women's Trade Union League of New York served as an important training ground for working women and upper-class social reformers alike." Nancy Schrom Dye on the WTULNY and the cross-class alliances it forged. Link.
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July 22nd, 2019

...Höhere Wesen befehlen

PHENOMENAL WORLD

Blog highlights

At the Phenomenal World, we have been publishing pieces covering a wide-range of topics, many of which are common ground in this newsletter. Below, in no particular order, is a round-up of some recent work in case you missed it.

Be on the lookout for upcoming posts over the next months—including work on counterfactual fairness by Lily Hu; an interview with scholar Destin Jenkins on race and municipal finance; an examination of the philosophy of Neyman-Pearson testing by Cosmo Grant; and a piece on UBI in the 1970s by Nikita Shepard—and subscribe to the Phenomenal World newsletter to get new posts directly in your inbox.

As always, thank you for reading.

  • Max Kasy discusses the standard of social science experimentation—randomized controlled trials—and proposes, in a new working paper with his colleague Anja Sautmann, a new method for designing experiments that lead to the optimal policy choice. Link.
  • Amanda Page-Hoongrajok reviews James Crotty's new book, Keynes Against Capitalism. Page-Hoongrajok discusses Keynes's thought, Crotty's interventions, and the relevance of these discussions for the current macroeconomic environment. Link.
  • Owen Davis surveys the monopsony literature, dispelling some persistent misunderstandings and clarifying its significance for the state of current economics research. Link.
  • Maya Adereth interviews the legendary and influential political scientist Adam Przeworski. In an expansive conversation, Przeworski discusses his intellectual trajectory, his experience and observations around Allende's government in Chile, the neoliberal turn, and the future of popular politics. Link.
  • Greg Keenan examines the history of copyright formalities in the United States and Europe, arguing that the frequently derided US copyright regime is, in fact, well suited for the digital age. Link.
  • Hana Beach interviews basic income scholar Almaz Zelleke on the neglected history of feminist welfare rights activists's campaigns for unconditional cash transfers, the complex relationship between advocacy and policy, and the current drive towards UBI. Link.
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