➔ 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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April 20th, 2019

Gesture Dance


Wage boards, climate targets, and employment security

Just as universal basic income has its corollaries in more moderate policies like Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) reform, a federal jobs guarantee (estimated by some measures to total nearly $543 billion in the first year) has organizational corollaries in collective bargaining institutions. Among them, wage boards have received renewed attention both by researchers and politicians in the United States. Distinct from trade unions, wage boards serve to centralize bargaining at the firm level through proportionate representation by employers, employees, and policymakers. Within the German context, they have been found to increase productivity and reduce social inequality. Unlike other policies aimed at mitigating income and wealth disparities, wage boards are virtually costless to implement.

Existing literature on codetermination has focused on its economic impacts. In a recent article, ROBERT SCHOLZ and SIGURT VITOLS broaden the inquiry to the sphere of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Using an original measure for the strength of codetermination institutions, they test whether wage boards influence the likelihood of firms to adopt socially conscious practices:

"Codetermination strength is strongly and positively related to all three of the substantive types of CSR we examine, the adoption of targets for emissions reduction, the publication of a CSR report and commitment to employment security. This suggests that worker representatives are selective with regard to the policies they support: they appear less likely to support symbolic than substantive forms of CSR.

We also shed light on the debate in comparative CSR literature regarding the adoption of CSR policies in coordinated market economies like Germany. All five policies examined are of the ‘explicit’ variety, adopted voluntarily by companies. They are often supposed to be most prevalent in liberal market economies like the USA and the UK where the need for business legitimacy is greatest… Our results suggest that worker representatives are also an important factor in explaining the spread of some types of explicit CSR policies to coordinated market economies."

Link to the paper.

  • The development of codetermination in Germany and Sweden has been the subject of numerous academic debates. Peter Swenson’s widely cited account concludes that codetermination was the product of a persistent “cross-class alliance.” By contrast, Walter Korpi’s “power-resource” interpretation argues that these institutions reflect a “distributive conflict and partisan politics based in social class.” Link to an article which lays out the first analysis, and link to one which presents the second.
  • A more recent paper by legal scholar Ewan McGaughey argues that codetermination in Germany was the result not of legal compulsion, but of the strength and unity of the German labor movement.[Link](http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/61593/1/The codetermination bargains the history of german corporate and labour law.pdf).
  • Support for wage boards is growing among the American public, according to David Madland.Link to his analysis of the most recent public poll, his policy proposal, and coverage of the proposal on Vice.
  • To understand the degradation of collective bargaining models across European economies, see Lucio Baccaro and Chris Howell’s most recent book, Trajectories of Neoliberal Transformation. See especially chapters 6 and 8, which discuss the pressures faced by bargaining institutions in Germany and Sweden. Link.
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April 13th, 2019



Reexamining claims about automation and labor displacement

Current UBI discussions emerged out of concerns over the role of human beings in a machine-dominated labor market. In 2013, a paper by Oxford University professors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne claimed that 47% of US jobs were at risk of long term automation. The statistic circulated widely, prompting fears of widespread unemployment. The debate over these predictions is complex: those who deny any threat from automation often point to near-full employment, and risk overlooking the proliferation of low-paying and precarious jobs; while those who forecast mass unemployment risk assuming that technological development necessarily leads to labor displacement.

In a 2018 paper, legal scholar BRISHEN ROGERS argues that fears of a robot takeover misapprehend the real dynamics in the labor market:

"In a period of technological upswing, with companies rapidly installing robotics and other automation devices, we would also see significant increases in labor productivity. In fact, productivity growth has recently been the slowest as at any time since World War II. What’s more, productivity change in the manufacturing sector—where automation is easiest—has been especially tepid lately, at 0.7 percent over the last decade. On a related note, levels of 'occupational churn,' or the net creation of jobs in growing occupations and loss of jobs in declining occupations, are also at historic lows.

Even more striking, if firms expected artificial intelligence to be a major source of productivity in the near future, they would surely be investing in information technology and intellectual property. But they aren’t. Computers and software constituted 13.5 percent of the value of companies’ investments from 2000-2007, as the internet was coming into wide use. Over the last decade, that rate declined to 4.8 percent. These differences strongly suggest that there is nothing inevitable about precarious work or economic inequality. Hotel work, food services, janitorial work, and retail work have become precarious over the past twenty years because companies in those sectors forcibly de-unionized and/or 'fissured' away their workers to subcontractors or franchisors, thereby denying them effective access to many legal rights."

Link to the paper.

  • An MIT Technology Review from 2018 surveyed the predictions of every paper published on job losses due to automation. The results: "There is really only one meaningful conclusion: we have no idea how many jobs will actually be lost to the march of technological progress." Link.
  • "...even those occupations which are contracting due to technological change will continue to provide plenty of job openings over the next two decades. The challenge lies in improving the quality of these jobs going forward." Paul Osterman anticipates Rogers' arguments in a column from 2017. Link.
  • Another recent paper by Brishen Rogers (to which we previously linked) continues the thread: "Based on a detailed review of the capacities of existing technologies, automation is not a major threat to workers today, and it will not likely be a major threat anytime soon." Link.
  • Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo published two papers on automation and employment: the first uses industry level data to observe changes in the task content of production. The second argues that automation has been primarily concerned with reducing the need for labor, with insufficient attention being paid to socially productive investment. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • Frank Levy on the relationship between automation-induced job losses and the rebirth of populist politics. Link.
  • From EconFIP, a research brief on automation, AI, and the labor share. Link.
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April 6th, 2019

Exploding Bowl


Social reproduction and basic income proposals

The most visible discourse on universal basic income focuses squarely on the labor market. Unconditional cash transfers are understood above all as a potential policy solution to wage stagnation, rising inequality, and labor displacement. This framework, which responds to rising income inequality in general, can be construed as a response to the decline of the family wage.

In a 2017 paper published as part of a forum on UBI in Global Social Policy journal, PATRICIA SCHULZ discusses uncompensated care work and enumerates the ways a basic income could signal a departure from forms of social protection tied to the gendered wage and its analogs in safety net programs:

"In industrialized countries, work organization, labor legislation, and social security systems developed progressively based on the model of the male breadwinner. Therefore, as most social security systems are based on contributions linked to remunerated work, the inferior income of women, their restriction to part-time jobs, as well as the interruptions in their careers due to care responsibilities will directly impact the level of social protection they can expect in case of old age, disability, illness, and so on, as well as expose them to dependency on a partner and/or the welfare state. It remains a huge political challenge to overcome the resistance against delinking social protection and remunerated work, even when the latter tends to become more and more uncertain.

A UBI would be the continuation of previous efforts to ensure that every person has a right to basic economic security, everywhere on the planet, women as well as men."

Link to the report.

  • The 1960s-70s saw a major surge of advocacy and policy thought surrounding access to existing safety net programs, much of which was driven by the National Welfare Rights Organization. Linkto NWRO chairperson Johnnie Tillmon's 1972 manifesto on welfare and women's work, which includes a call for a "guaranteed adequate income," and link to historian Felicia Kornbluh's 2007 book on the movement. Economist Toru Yamamori's research sheds light on feminist movements in the UK and Italy that posed basic income as a solution to discriminatory practices of welfare agencies. Link. (Link also to Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward's 1966 article on the gaps in American safety net programs and the possibility of a guaranteed income.)
  • There is much ongoing debate within feminist literature about how a UBI might impact the gender division of labor. Some theorists, including Ingrid Robeyns, caution that compensating unpaid care work risks diminishing the political will of women to advocate for more fundamental changes to their social position. Link. Others maintain that a UBI will incentivize men to play a larger role in social reproduction, thereby leveling power dynamics within heterosexual households.Link, link.
  • For a more thorough argument in favor of basic income, the late feminist economist Aisla McKay has written extensively on the potential impacts of the policy for gender equity and a reconfiguration of citizenship. Link to an article on basic income and social citizenship, and link to her 2005 book The Future of Social Security Policy: Women, Work, and a Citizen’s Basic Income.
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March 30th, 2019

Place Distant Place


Recruitment strategies and representation at public research universities

Public research universities have long been understood as engines of meritocratic social mobility. Relative to other higher ed institutions, public universities remain those with the highest mobility rates. But research over the past decade has shown that these institutions are failing to represent the diversity of their state populations, and adoptingfinancial aid models that cater to the wealthy.

A new report co-authored by CRYSTAL HAN, OZAN JAQUETTE, and KARINA SALAZAR looks at one mechanism behind this trend. Analyzing off-campus recruitment events, it finds that public research universities prioritize recruiting out-of-state students from wealthy, white, urban communities over all others:

"In contrast to rhetoric from university leaders, our findings suggest strong socioeconomic and racial biases in the enrollment priorities of many public research universities. A small number of universities exhibit recruiting patterns broadly consistent with the historical mission of social mobility for meritorious state residents. However, most universities concentrated recruiting visits in wealthy, out-of-state communities while also privileging affluent schools in in-state visits. Although most universities did not exhibit racial bias in in state visits, out-of-state visits consistently exhibited racial bias. Since most universities made many more out-of-state visits than in-state visits, overall recruiting visit patterns for most universities contribute to a student composition where low-income students of color feel increasingly isolated amongst growing cohorts of affluent, predominantly White, out-of-state students. These recruiting patterns and enrollment priorities are a function of a broken system of state higher education finance, which incentivizes universities to prioritize rich out-of-state students with lack-luster academic achievement."

Link to the report.

  • The report includes contextual background on the "enrollment management" industry, which advises universities on strategic admissions and recruitment strategies to improve their financial and ranking standings: "While scholarship and policy debate about college access focuses on the final stages of the enrollment funnel—when applicants are admitted and financial aid 'leveraging' is used to convert admits to enrollees—the EM industry expends substantial resources on earlier stages of the funnel." Link to Don Hossler and John Bean's 1990 book on the subject.
  • Elizabeth Popp Berman discusses the results in a brief thread: "This is a function of the funding model we've created, in which public university behavior is driven by a toxic mixture of 1) the status economy and 2) state funding cuts… The good news is that there is variation in this behavior: not all schools are doing it to the same degree. There's less in states with strong state support. And there's a difference among schools with similar state support/demographics." Link.
  • A 2006 report from Kati Haycock and Danette Gerald charts the trends in decreasing access for low income students. Link. Further work co-authored by Haycock in 2010 details the trend of public research universities offering financial aid to out of state students. Link.
  • In our newsletter last year, a spotlight on previous work by Ozan Jaquette and Bradley Curs finds that shrinking state funding leads public universities to increase their out-of-state enrollment. Linkto that paper, link to the archived letter, which includes several other relevant papers.
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March 23rd, 2019



On the history of protectionist development and trade policy

There is renewed debate around the merits of protectionism and free trade, spurred by political rhetoric from the left and right in the US, and in Europe and Latin America. Active disagreements over the consequences of free trade date back to policies promoted in the 50s and 60s, a period during which many newly-decolonized countries undertook an import-substitution-industrialization (ISI) model of development. Popularized by Argentine economist Raul Prebisch, ISI was a development strategy which advocated a prolonged period of state investment in manufacturing and infrastructure prior to trading in the global market. Subject to extensive criticism, it was thought to have been discredited in favor of the Washington Consenus throughout the late-70s and early 2000s.

Beginning most notably with Hajoon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder, however, a growing number of economists have come to question the viability of the Washington Consensus as a development model, both historically and in the present. In a 2017 article, AREGBESHOLA R. ADEWALE lends further evidence to these critiques. Using the World Bank’s Development Indicators, he develops a model which tests the relationship between ISI policies and industrialization in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). His model finds a strong and consistent correlation between economic growth and ISI policy:

"The analyses confirm the short and long run relationships between growth and ISI’s measurable indicators, in a chronological manner that supports import substitution in the short run and exports promotion in the long run… A conclusion can thus be drawn, both from literature and econometric estimations, that the ISI macroeconomic policy defies the self-defeating prophecy levied against it by the institutions of the Washington Consensus."

Link to the paper.

  • Dani Rodrik’s 2011 book, The Globalization Paradox, offers a detailed overview of the distributional consequences of free trade both domestically and globally. Chapter 8 of the book presents a compelling vindication of ISI policies: "Even where ISI underperformed, it often bequeathed industrial capacities that would later prove very helpful." Link to the book, and link to an earlier blog post in which Rodrik takes Mexico as a case study for the potential benefits of ISI.
  • "This special issue is an attempt to advance a production-centred agenda focusing on the real dynamics of productive organisations and ecosystems, with the emphasis on their transformation and innovative renewal in mature economies." Hajoon Chang introduces an issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics. Link.
  • John Waterbury’s The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat provides a rigorous evaluation of the transition from state- to market-led development in Egypt from the 50s and into the 80s. Link.
  • "I find that regions in the French Empire which became better protected from trade with the British for exogenous reasons during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) increased capacity in mechanized cotton spinning to a larger extent than regions which remained more exposed to trade.” Réka Juhász tests the economic impacts of protectionism through a natural experiment. Link.
  • An excellent new paper by Nathaniel Lane surveys new empirical research examining industrial policy. Link.
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March 16th, 2019

The Somnambulist


Studying the impact of certificate programs in the higher ed landscape

Research surrounding student debt and the labor market value of postsecondary degrees focuses primarily on students obtaining a 4-year degree, secondarily on students receiving a 2-year degree, and only rarely considers students in certificate programs—non-degree awards that are cheaper and shorter than traditional degree programs. The scarcity of discourse on certificate programs is remarkable; given the rising costs of education and declining college premiums, certificate programs have assumed an increasingly large role in the postsecondary landscape. Moreover, the mission of community colleges has gradually shifted away from academic preparation and towards vocational education and job training programs.

There is very little in the way of a literature examining the role that certificate award programs play in the postsecondary landscape. In a rare example, a 2016 paper by DI XU and MADELINE JOY TRIMBLE estimates "the relationship between earning a certificate and student earnings and employment status after exiting college." The authors use detailed student-level information from North Carolina and Virginia to understand the impact of certificates on individual employment and wage earnings:

"The paper indicates that certificates have positive impacts on earnings in both states overall, and in cases where there is no impact on earnings, certificates may nonetheless lead to increased probability of employment or to other benefits. In some cases, certificates appear to promote entry into a student’s desired industry of employment, even if the industry switch is not associated with an increase in earning on average. The paper finds substantial variation in the returns across fields of study and, more importantly, across specific programs within a particular field. These results suggest that important evidence is lost when information about the benefits of certificate programs are simply averaged together. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the programs earnings relative to the institutional context and the local labor market."

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March 9th, 2019

Incomplete Squares


Expanding the frame for formalizing fairness

In the digital ethics literature, there's a consistent back-and-forth between attempts at designing algorithmic tools that promote fair outcomes in decision-making processes, and critiques that enumerate the limits of such attempts. A December paper by ANDREW SELBST, dana boyd, SORELLE FRIEDLER, SURESH VENKATASUBRAMANIAN, and JANET VERTESI—delivered at FAT* 2019—contributes to the latter genre. The authors build on insights from Science and Technology Studies and offer a list of five "traps"—Framing, Portability, Formalism, Ripple Effect, and Solutionism—that fair-ML work is susceptible to as it aims for context-aware systems design. From the paper:

"We contend that by abstracting away the social context in which these systems will be deployed, fair-ML researchers miss the broader context, including information necessary to create fairer outcomes, or even to understand fairness as a concept. Ultimately, this is because while performance metrics are properties of systems in total, technical systems are subsystems. Fairness and justice are properties of social and legal systems like employment and criminal justice, not properties of the technical tools within. To treat fairness and justice as terms that have meaningful application to technology separate from a social context is therefore to make a category error, or as we posit here, an abstraction error."

In their critique of what is left out in the formalization process, the authors argue that, by "moving decisions made by humans and human institutions within the abstraction boundary, fairness of the system can again be analyzed as an end-to-end property of the sociotechnical frame." Link to the paper.

  • A brand new paper by HODA HEIDARI, VEDANT NANDA, and KRISHNA GUMMADI attempts to produce fairness metrics that look beyond "allocative equality," and directly grapples with the above mentioned "ripple effect trap." The authors "propose an effort-based measure of fairness and present a data-driven framework for characterizing the long-term impact of algorithmic policies on reshaping the underlying population." Link.
  • In the footnotes to the paper by Selbst et al, a 1997 chapter by early AI researcher turned sociologist Phil Agre. In the chapter: institutional and intellectual history of early AI; sociological study of the AI field at the time; Agre’s departure from the field; discussions of developing "critical technical practice." Link.
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March 2nd, 2019

Weak Local Lineament


Charting the significance of credit and debt throughout society

Household debt has proliferated in the past decade. In the final quarter of 2018, it reached $13.54 trillion—an $869 billion increase since the previous peak in 2008 and a 21.4% increase since the post-crisis trough. While it is now widely recognized that the financialization of household consumption set the groundwork for the Recession (see for example this chapter by Manuel Aalbers), credit markets seem immune to structural reform.

On the one hand, access to credit enables purchases and investments crucial to long term financial mobility; on the other, it incorporates those who lack resources into a cycle of obligations to lenders. In her most recent publication in the Annual Review of Sociology, RACHEL E. DWYER questions how debt has shaped the American social landscape. She develops a two dimensional model of formal debt relationships which categorizes contracts according to the source of credit (state vs. market) and the nature of the obligation (prospective vs. retrospective). The model integrates the logic of debt and credit relationships with an analysis of distributional politics:

"The top row of prospective credit offers are more likely made to affluent or middle-class and disproportionately white populations, and the bottom row of retrospective financial obligations are more likely to fall on lower-income or poor and disproportionately racial/ethnic minority populations. The experience of debt and financial fragility is thus different across these social groups defined by class, race/ethnicity, and other social status, though also tied together by similar logics of financialization and individualized accountability for life conditions."

Dwyer's research shows how credit and debt relations vary geographically and temporally, encouraging a comparative analysis of debt relationships in countries with different political economies. Link to the article.

  • On the unique role that credit markets play in the American economy, see Monica Prasad on the credit-welfare state tradeoff, and Colin Crouch on privatized-mortgage Keynesianism. Link to the first; link to the second.
  • For a pre-crisis examination of credit and inequality, see Patrick Bolton and Howard Rosenthal's Credit Markets for the Poor. Link.
  • Vicki Been, Ingrid Ellen, and Josiah Madar explore the relationship between urban segregation and subprime mortgage lending. Link.

    New Researchers: VISIBILITY PREMIUM

Political effects of celebrity exposure

In a novel paper, HEYU XIONG—a Phd candidate at NORTHWESTERN and newly appointed professor at CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY—studied the political consequences of television celebrity. He used the career of Ronald Reagan as a case study and exploited quasi-experimental variation in television reception to estimate the effects of celebrity media exposure on political outcomes, finding that
support for Reagan based on non-political factors extended nearly two decades after his television career—an effect more pronounced in areas in which Reagan was not a known political entity. The findings suggest that elections hinge considerably more on non-political media exposure and personal characteristics than previously assumed.

From the abstract:

"My results contribute to our knowledge of the vote decision process. Understanding what candidate information is pertinent and how that information is processed is key to understanding the selection of elected officials and, subsequently, the policies those elected officials enact. The economic theory of electoral competition is traditionally situated in the framework of the policy oriented voter. Even without the assertion of rationality, voters are, at the very least, presumed to be voting in order to advance a policy position or to express a political preference. While this preoccupation is not misplaced, the results suggest that candidates' personal characteristics constitute a significant, if substandard, criterion for vote choice."

Link to the paper.

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February 23rd, 2019

Grievous Plans


New evidence on the relationship between skills and labor supply

More than a decade after the financial crisis of 2008, median household incomes have stagnated at their pre-2008 levels, and global economic growth is expected to decline further from what is already a historic low. While the unemployment rate has rebounded, part time, service, and temporary work remain the principal drivers behind labor market growth. Weak recovery from the crisis has been widely attributed to the “skills gap”; commentators and policymakers alike hold that quality jobs are there, but Americans are simply not qualified to perform them.

At the American Economic Association’s most recent conference, ALICIA SASSER MODESTINO, DANIEL SHOAG, and JOSHUA BALLANCE provide evidence against this view. Using a proprietary database of more than 36 million online job postings, they show that employers increased skill requirements in states and occupations which experienced larger increases in the unemployment rate. Their findings suggest that it wasn’t a shortage of skills which weakened labor markets, but rather the ubiquity of qualified applicants which drove employers to raise hiring standards. By testing employer responses to an influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the authors are able to confirm this mechanism:

"As a source of exogenous variation in the availability of skilled workers, we make use of a natural experiment resulting from the large increase in the post-9/11 veteran labor force following troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan... Panel A of Table 5 demonstrates that there is a strong, significant, and positive relationship between the sharp increase in the supply of returning veterans and the rise in employer skill requirements for both education and experience."

This is among the first pieces of empirical evidence which suggests that employer skill requirements are driven, in part, by labor supply. Link to the conference webpage, where a full version of the paper is available for download.

  • As early as 2011, Lawrence Mishel argued against analysts who asserted that the unemployment crisis was structural, proposing instead that the economy was experiencing a crisis of demand. Link.
  • In his most recent book, LSE anthropologist David Graeber examines the relationship between skill and value, questioning why jobs which produce the most social value tend to be categorized as unskilled, consequently earning lower wages. Link to Graeber's widely acclaimed essay from 2013 that first outlined his argument, and link to the Google preview of his new book.
  • In a report for the Roosevelt Institute, Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan argue that the 'skills gap' narrative is inconsistent with student debt crisis: "Although the country’s populace is becoming more educated, each educational group is becoming less well paid." Link.
  • Paul Osterman wrote an accessible overview of the debate for The Atlantic in 2014: “The claim that a shortage of skilled workers has exacerbated inequality has gained traction but it is not supported by the data… For instance, while 38 percent of manufacturing firms require math beyond simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication, the type of math employees need to be able to handle are standard features of a good high school education and part of the curriculum for most community-college students…Nearly 65 percent of businesses report they have no vacancies whatsoever, and another 76.3 percent report they have no long-term vacancies…” Link.
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