➔ 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.

⤷ Full Article

October 21st, 2019

Sunset Red and Gold-- The Gondolier

DESCRIBED FUTURES

Automation fears and realities

Of the many justifications for introducing a universal basic income, automation is among the most popular. Over the past years, a slew of reports and endless media coverage has raised the specter of mass "technological unemployment"—a possible future that has been taken up by basic income proponents across the political spectrum. It was even a point of argument in this week's Democratic presidential debate.

In the first of a two-part series, historian AARON BENANAV (whose work on the history of unemployment categories we shared in a previous letter) critiques and situates the automation debates within long-term global trends. Framed as a response to what Benanav terms the "automation theorists," who maintain a sense of inevitability about the robot takeover, the paper pursues alternate explanations: declining labor demand, global deindustrialization, and manufacturing overcapacity.

From the paper:

“Automation turns out to be a constant feature of the history of capitalism. By contrast, the discourse around automation, which extrapolates from instances of technological change to a broader social theory, is not constant; it periodically recurs in modern history.

The return of automation discourse is a symptom of our era, as it was in times past: it arises when the global economy’s failure to create enough jobs causes people to question its fundamental viability. The breakdown of this market mechanism today is more extreme than at any time in the past. This is because a greater share of the world’s population than ever before depends on selling its labour or the simple products of its labour to survive, in the context of weakening global economic growth.”

Link to the paper, and link to an ungated version on the author's website.

  • David Autor's 2016 paper "Paradox of Abundance" examines the problem of its title: "technological changes threatens social welfare not because it intensifies scarcity but because it augments abundance." Link.
  • A previous newsletter highlights a paper by legal scholar Brishen Rogers, which critiques automation fears in the US context by pointing to labor law and the "fissuring" of the workforce as more consequential for stagnating wages and declining job security. Link. Along the same lines, but in the European context, Zachary Parolin's recent work for the OECD measures the effects of collective bargaining agreements on wages in automatable occupations. Link.
  • Three post-debate accounts of the issue: Paul Krugman in the Times; Matt Yglesias in Vox; and Jordan Weisman in Slate, featuring the following quote from David Autor: "If we talk about the economic trauma of the 2000s, that’s not primarily due to automation. Nobody can tell you what great invention happened in 1999 that wiped out 20 percent of manufacturing jobs."
  • For another broad view of macro trends and low-demand problems, see JW Mason's "Macroeconomic Lessons from the Past Decade." Link.
⤷ Full Article

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.
⤷ Full Article

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.
⤷ Full Article

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.
⤷ Full Article

October 15th, 2019

Machine

WEAK OUTCOMES

On the returns to for-profit colleges

As student debt grows and the labor market stagnates, a growing body of research seeks to answer questions about the worthiness of college. What characterizes the schools and populations for whom college is worth it? What does worthiness mean—financial, intellectual, for individuals, for society as a whole? A key way to examine these questions is to find evidence on the financial returns to college. Douglas Webber examines the question along lines of ability, major, and debt, and explores the question for marginal students; JFI’s Sidhya Balakrishnan and Barry Cynamon looked at the way that returns vary based on the type of financing (loans, IDR, ISAs).

A new paper from STEPHANIE CELLINI and NICHOLAS TURNER uses administrative data to examine the returns to public college vs. for-profit college certificate programs. The key finding is that “for-profit certificate students experience lower earnings and employment post-college than their public sector counterparts,” but the richness of the data allows for many more surprising conclusions as well: one is that for-profit college may actually have worse returns than no college whatsoever; another is that for-profits may have worse effects for women than for men. From the paper:

“Across the board, our results show that despite the much higher costs of attending a for-profit institution, the average for-profit certificate student experiences lower earnings effects relative to public sector students. For-profit colleges outperform public institutions in only one of the top ten for-profit fields—cosmetology. Further, students in online and chain for-profit institutions appear to fare worse than students in more traditional campus-based and independent institutions. Our institution-level regressions reveal that the weak performance of the for-profit sector is not limited to a few poor performing institutions, rather the majority of schools appear to have negligible average earnings effects.”

The full paper is available in the Journal of Human Resources here.

  • Scott Cunningham wrote a substantial tweet-thread summary, available here. “I’d include this paper when sorting through the human capital vs signaling debate. This is arguably pure credentialing… So why are the returns so bad if it’s also a credential? I’d be curious how proponents of the ‘education is only signaling’ hypothesis reacted to this study.” For more on that debate, see our previous JFI letter.
  • How can for-profit colleges be held accountable for poor returns to the educations that they provide? A 2016 report from Davids J Deming and Figlio explains the successes and failures of Obama’s Gainful Employment Act, and suggests the importance of financial “skin in the game” for all kinds of institutions. Link.
  • A new data explorer from the Urban Institute brings together an array of education data sets. Link.
  • Cellini and Turner’s piece examines certificate programs at for-profits. For more on certificate programs, see our March letter on the work of Di Xu and Madeline Trimble, and our May letter on the many non-Title-IV certificates, certifications, and credentials about which there is almost no data.
⤷ Full Article

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.
⤷ Full Article

June 17th, 2019

Insulators (Magritte machine)

MOBILE COGNITION

The political history of economic statistics

Debates over the relevance of indicators like GDP for assessing the health of domestic economies are persistent and growing. Critics of such measures point to the failures of such measures to holistically capture societal wellbeing, and argue in favor of alternative metrics and the disaggregation of GDP data. These debates reflect the politics behind the economic knowledge that shapes popular understanding and policy debates alike.

In his 2001 book Statistics and the German State, historian Adam Tooze examined the history of statistical knowledge production in Germany, covering the period from the turn-of-the-century to the end of the Nazi regime, "driven by the desire to understand how this peculiar structure of economic knowledge came into existence… and the relationship between efforts to govern the economy and efforts to make the economy intelligible through systematic quantification."

From the book's conclusion:

"We need to broaden our analysis of the forces bearing on the development of modern economic knowledge. This book has sought to portray the construction of a modern system of economic statistics as a complex and contested process of social engineering. This certainly involved the mobilization of economists and policy-makers, but it also required the creation of a substantial technical infrastructure. The processing of data depended on the concerted mobilization of thousands of staff. In this sense the history of modern economic knowledge should be seen as an integral part of the history of the modern state apparatus and more generally of modern bureaucratic organizations… The development of new forms of economic knowledge can therefore be understood as part of the emergence of modern economic government and as a sensitive indicator of the relationship between state and civil society."

Link to the book preview, link to the book page on Tooze's website.

  • For a more generalized account of the political history of statistical knowledge (inclusive of economic statistics), see the The Politics of Large Numbers by Alain Desrosières. Link. Another excellent item in the history of statistical knowledge: A History of the Modern Fact, on the advent and impact of double-entry bookkeeping. Link.
  • In the Winter 2019 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Hugh Rockoff examines the political history of American economic statistics, and tracks the emergence and institutionalization of measures of "prices, national income and product, and unemployment." Link.
  • Previously shared here, research by Aaron Benanev examines the institutional history linking the concept of "informality" and unemployment metrics developed by the International Labor Organization. Link to his paper.
  • A recent paper by Andrea Mennicken and Wendy Nelson Espeland surveys the quantification literature. Link. And a (previously shared) panel discussion on the historiography of quantification. Link.
⤷ Full Article

October 7th, 2019

The Balloon

DIFFERENCE ENGINE

Labor and mechanized calculation

Breathless media coverage of machine learning tools and their applications often obscures the processes that allow them to function. Time and again, services billed or understood by users as automatic are revealed to rely on undervalued, deskilled human labor.

There is rich historical precedent for the presence of these "ghosts in the machine." In a 2017 lecture, Director Emirata of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science LORRAINE DASTON examines the emergence of mechanical calculation, revealing a fascinating history of the interaction between new technologies and the methods of routinizing and dividing intellectual labor that emerges alongside them.

From the introduction:

"The intertwined histories of the division of labor and mechanical intelligence neither began nor ended with this famous three-act story from pins to computers via logarithms. Long before Prony thought of applying Adam Smith’s political economy to monumental calculation projects, astronomical observatories and nautical almanacs were confronted with mountains of computations that they accomplished by the ingenious organization of work and workers. What mechanization did change was the organization of Big Calculation: integrating humans and machines dictated different algorithms, different skills, different personnel, and above all different divisions of labor. These changes in turn shaped new forms of intelligence at the interface between humans and machines."

Link to the paper version of the lecture. (And stay tuned to the Phenomenal World for our upcoming interview with Daston.)

  • A 1994 paper by Daston entitled "Enlightenment Calculations" gives specific attention to the logarithmic tables of Gaspard de Prony, which sought to demonstrate the usefulness of the newly-invented metric system: "The tables marked an epoch in the history of calculation but also one in the history of intelligence and work." Link.
  • Matthew L. Jones, an historian at Columbia University, studies the history of calculation and computing. His 2016 book Reckoning with Matter: Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage traces the history of attempts to routinize, mechanize and apply the power of calculation. Link to the book, link to Lorraine Daston's review in Critical Inquiry.
  • Simon Schaffer's 1996 paper on the relationship between Charles Babbage's calculating engine and the contemporaneously emerging factory system. Link.
  • A syllabus prepared by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, authors of Ghost Work—a book about the "hidden" labor force behind many tech services—surveys the tech platform subcontracting labor market. Link.
⤷ Full Article

June 10th, 2019

Sketch for a Counter-Sky

MECHANICAL SHADOWS

On central bank independence and the rise of shadow money

Debates over the political impacts of Central Bank Independence (CBI) reached their peak in the late 90s and early 2000s, due to rising inequality and the volatility of financial markets. Initiated with the 1977 Federal Reserve Act and Paul Volcker’s subsequent term as chairman of the Fed, CBI was, and remains, a means of isolating the more "mechanical" field of monetary policy from the fleeting interests of politicians. In order to preserve stability and credibility, independent central banks have made inflation targeting the center point of their agenda. Critics of CBI have argued that the distinction between economic science and political incentives are not as clear as they might seem; low levels of inflation may benefit creditors and investors, but they harm those whose income entirely depends on rising wages. While monetary policy has distributional and political consequences, its decision makers are insulated from public accountability.

Expanding the literature on the politics of CBI, BENJAMIN BRAUN and DANIELA GABOR examine its financial consequences. In a recently published paper, they argue that the anti-inflationary policies of central banks have catalyzed dependence on shadow money and shadow banking, key components of a broader trend towards financialization:

"In the late 1990s, the US Federal Reserve was confronted with a peculiar predicament. While the world was celebrating central bank independence as a mark of 'scientific' economic governance after the populist era of monetizing government bonds, the US Federal Reserve worried about projections that the US government would pay down all its debt by 2012. A world without US government debt, they worried, was a world filled with monetary dangers. Market participants would not have a safe, liquid asset to turn to in times of distress.

Rather than seeking to limit shadow money supply, the Fed actively encouraged its expansion, seeking market solutions to political problems. It lobbied Congress to ensure that holders of shadow money backed by private (securitized) collateral had the same legal rights to collateral as those holding shadow money issued against US government debt. The Fed also changed its lending practices, allowing banks to issue shadow money backed by private collateral to borrow from the Fed. These concrete steps contrast starkly with the picture of central banks watching passively from the margins, as financial institutions find new ways to monetize credit and circumvent rules."

Link to the article.

  • More contemporary iterations of the debate over CBI can be found in the comparison between a 2018 HKS working paper, which distinguishes between "political oversight" and "operational independence," and a 2014 Levy Institute working paper which argues there is no practical meaning of operational independence at all. Link and link.

  • A primer on shadow banking, from Stijn Claessens and Lev Ratnovski at Vox EU. Link.

  • A new article by Andreas Kerna, Bernhard Reinsbergc, and Matthias Rau-Göhring finds that the IMF’s targeted lending practices actively encouraged the proliferation of independent central banks in low income economies. Link.

  • On CBI, inflationary targets, and the 2010 Eurocrisis, by Mark Copelovitch, Jeffry Frieden, and Stefanie Walter. Link.

⤷ Full Article