➔ 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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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.
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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.

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June 3rd, 2019

Convex Mirror

GREEN PLAN(K)

Growing the Green New Deal in the US and Europe

Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington State and Democratic presidential candidate, has made climate policy the center of his longer-than-long-shot campaign. On May 3rd, he released 8 pages of goals, and on May 16th, he released the 35-page, 28-policy “Evergreen Economy Plan,” with several more similarly lengthy reports on the way. David Roberts, an energy commentator at Vox, had a representative reaction to Inslee’s policies: “Inslee’s campaign is systematically translating the Green New Deal’s lofty goals — to decarbonize the economy sector by sector, in a way that creates high-quality jobs and protects frontline communities — into policy proposals.”

The report includes policies on infrastructure, manufacturing, R&D, and policies for energy workers, including a “GI Bill” and 8 million new jobs over the next 10 years. But beyond its extremely detailed recommendations, a key point of interest is seeing how the GND’s idealistic goals are cashed out. The introduction emphasizes a restorative approach:

“Inherent throughout ... is the urgent need to support frontline, low-income, and Indigenous communities, and communities of color. These communities are being impacted first and worst by the accelerating damages of climate change, and have endured a legacy of air, water, toxics and climate pollution, along with a deficit of public investment and support. Through an assertive agenda of reinvestment that is guided by strong local input, Governor Inslee’s plan seizes the opportunity to build a clean energy economy that provides inclusive prosperity — upon a foundation of economic, environmental, racial and social justice.”

Link to the report.

  • Leah Stokes, a climate and energy policy expert, contextualizes the expense on Twitter: “Spending $300 bn annually on climate is about 10% of the federal budget. Warren’s plan aggressively targets climate action by the military, which is about 20% of the federal budget. Hence, Inslee’s plan is about half the size of military spending. That’s BIG.” Link to the thread. - -
  • Noah Smith also takes up the cost question: "It’s probably less than 20 percent of what Ocasio-Cortez’s plan would cost, and only a quarter of the total would be paid by the government, so new budget deficits or taxes would be relatively modest. And because Inslee’s plan is more narrowly focused on value-generating investments like infrastructure rather than new entitlement spending, a higher percentage of the cost would be recouped down the road." Link.
  • As the GND gains momentum in the US, some in Europe are taking similar steps. DiEM25 (a pan-European organization co-founded in 2015 by Yanis Varoufakis) and the European Spring have released a report on a Green New Deal for Europe. Link. (Their candidates fell short in last week’s elections.)
  • An article in the World Economic Forum on the Green New Deal for Europe explains some of the theoretical differences between the US and European plans. "Whereas the Americans are building on a century-old tradition of the original New Deal, we’re trying to marry that language with existing programs." Link.
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May 28th, 2019

Interior Spring

CONTINGENT REFORM

The history and theory behind the Earned Income Tax Credit

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is the country's largest anti-poverty program. In 2018, over 20 million filers received $63 billion in EITC refunds. Because of its bipartisan popularity and its secure position in the tax code, with no distinct administrative unit managing its payouts, it is also at the center of several substantial anti-poverty programs recently floated in the House and Senate. These proposals variously expand and modify the EITC, often in concert with the Child Tax Credit, in order to offer a more robust benefit.

A look into the history of the EITC reveals that, at its formation, the credit was an unlikely candidate for a major anti-poverty vehicle. In a CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE paper, MARGOT KRANDLE HOLLICK lays out its legislative history, showing that its 1972 introduction by Senator Russell Long was an intervention against proposed guaranteed income programs, and that "the bill had originally included a provision that would have required states to reduce cash welfare by an amount equal to the aggregate EITC benefits received by their residents." From the paper:

"The origins of the EITC can be found in the debate in the late 1960s and 1970s over how to reform welfare—known at the time as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Some policymakers were interested in alternatives to cash welfare for the poor. Some welfare reform proposals relied on the 'negative income tax' (NIT) concept. The NIT proposals would have provided a guaranteed income to families who had no earnings (the 'income guarantee' that was part of these proposals). For families with earnings, the NIT would have been gradually reduced as earnings increased. Influenced by the idea of a NIT, President Nixon proposed in 1971 the 'family assistance plan' (FAP) that 'would have helped working-poor families with children by means of a federal minimum cash guarantee.'

Senator Russell Long, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, did not support FAP because it provided 'its largest benefits to those without earnings' and would, in his opinion, discourage people from working. Instead, Senator Long proposed a 'work bonus' plan that would supplement the wages of poor workers. Senator Long stated that his proposed 'work bonus plan' was 'a dignified way' to help poor Americans 'whereby the more he [or she] works the more he [or she] gets.'"

Link to that paper.

  • A 1999 Brookings paper by historian Dennis Ventry also examines the unique political history of the EITC, writing that its emergence appealed to legislators as "both an anti-poverty and an anti-welfare program." Link.
  • Brian Steensland's excellent book The Failed Welfare Revolution: America's Struggle Over Guaranteed Income Policy surveys this history in depth. Link. And link to a 2006 paper that preceded its publication, on cultures of "worth" and anti-poverty programs.
  • A 2015 Duke Law Review Note titled "Earned Income Tax Credit: Path Dependence and the Blessing of Undertheorization," examines "the credit’s path-dependent past, which has resulted in a present-day EITC that manifests a diverse, uncoordinated assortment of policy purposes." Link.
  • The above-linked recent proposals have focused on expanding the program's breadth, but retain in some form the "phase-in" structure originally proposed by Long, which excludes non-waged workers from claiming the return. Link to a (previously shared) critique of this structure—and work-tied benefits more broadly—by Matt Bruenig. Link to an also previously shared paper by JFI Fellow Max Kasy, which proposes expanding the EITC into a universal benefit.
  • Our colleagues at the Economic Security Project have developed a proposed "Cost of Living Refund," which tackles several important issues with the EITC. It includes proposals for monthly disbursements and expanding eligibility to un-waged care work. Link to the project's website, which hosts research and model legislation.
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May 20th, 2019

Flower Meadow in the North

TANGLED PATHS

First steps to mapping the non-Title-IV education landscape

Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 permits certain postsecondary institutions to be eligible for federal financial aid funds. A wide variety of programs are Title IV eligible: public, private, for-profit, vocational. Yet there are also a vast number of non-Title-IV (NT4) programs, offering credentials, certifications, and various forms of training—and neither the Department of Education, nor any other body, collects unified data on all these programs. How many students attend them? What subjects are they learning? What are their outcomes?

There's only been one recent paper that's made a serious attempt to understand the scale of NT4 programs. In a 2012 working paper, Stephanie Cellini and Claudia Goldin calculated that NT4 institutions educate 27% of students enrolled in for-profit institutions each year (670,000 enrollments).

A 2017 paper by Jessie Brown and Martin Kurzweil for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences attempts to map the alternative postsecondary landscape, including "certificate programs; work-based training; skills-based short courses; MOOCs; and competency-based education programs." That paper finds that these programs are growing:

“While each of these alternatives has roots that reach back decades if not longer, for a number of reasons, alternatives have increased in size, diversity, and importance in recent years, and are likely to continue to grow. Though the length and cost of alternative programs vary, most last for less than two years and cost significantly less than a four-year degree, the cost of which continues to rise rapidly… A characteristic feature of all the programs discussed is their flexibility to align directly with specific employer needs and competencies in skill-based fields. Despite these reasons for their appeal and likely growth, evidence of the efficacy and value of these alternatives—for students and taxpayers—is still thin.”

As the debate over the skills gap continues and the cost of college soars, the obscurity in which these programs operate becomes increasingly untenable. Link to that paper.

  • Brown and Kurzweil work includes three recommendations for policymakers, including recommendations to create a robust data system and quality assurance scheme. George Washington University has just launched the Non-Degree Credential Network project to begin building out research and data. Link.
  • Andrew Reamer's 2018 list of credential info aggregators brings into relief the diversity of the programs as well as the chaotic state of the information about them. Link.
  • In a March letter, we featured work by Xu and Trimble on a closely related topic: what are the outcomes of students who participate in certificate programs? Link to that letter, link to their paper.
  • A 2016 paper by Santa Falcone examines US certificate programs at Title IV schools from 1980-2013, and includes some relevant education history: "This growth period [1870-1910] also brought into existence private, external, independent university ratings agencies. These agencies successfully used coercion and incentives on higher education institutions to develop more standardized admissions, instruction, and accreditation criteria to counter the lack of any existing academic standards." Link.
  • A 2013 paper by Rosenbaum and Rosenbaum covers occupational colleges and certificate programs (with, again, a focus on Title IV institutions). Link.
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May 13th, 2019

Reality Slays Art

PREMATURE PROGRESS

New patterns in deindustrialization

As economies across Europe and in the United States have become more knowledge-based, urban-centered, and tech-driven, people in manufacturing reliant regions have seen declining life expectancies, stagnating real incomes, and minimal job growth.

In recent years, social scientists have been grappling with the interconnected political, economic, and social effects of deindustrialization. But this literature is almost entirely confined to Europe and the U.S. In a new paper, DAVID KUNST broadens the scope of this research using a novel dataset on manufacturing employment by occupation in developing countries. He studies the labor market effects of 'premature deindustrialization,' finding a general decline in the hiring capacity of manufacturing sectors and a genuine risk from automation in emerging markets. The study comes to four conclusions:

"First, it is mostly unskilled jobs that have disappeared, and also the wage premium of workers with little formal education in manufacturing relative to other industries has declined. Second, the disappearing jobs have been among the most formal both relative to other industries, and to the manufacturing average. Third, premature deindustrialization has been driven by occupations which are intensive in tasks that are vulnerable to an increasing adoption of ICT. Fourth, the phenomenon pertains most clearly to middle income countries, as low income countries have been spared from premature job losses.

250 years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it appears that manufacturing is losing its ability to employ unskilled workers more productively than other industries. Developing countries, abundant in unskilled labor, lose their comparative advantage in producing an increasing range of manufactured goods. Hence, future growth in developing countries may have to rely more on improvements in 'fundamentals' such as education and governance, and policy makers need to focus on a broader range of sectoral policies than in the past."

Link to the full paper.

  • The notion of 'premature deindustrialization' was developed by Dani Rodrik in 2015. In that paper, Rodrik argued that "countries are running out of industrialization opportunities sooner and at much lower levels of income compared to the experience of early industrializers" and suggested that "early deindustrialization could well remove the main channel through which rapid growth has taken place in the past." Link.
  • In a 2017 report, Carol Graham, Sergio Pinto, and John Juneau II map the "geography of desperation" in the United States: "In general, minorities scored worse on all of the variables in states where there are proportionately fewer minorities, such as Washington State and Kansas. These include Maine, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Florida. Poor whites, meanwhile, tended to score lower across the board in the Appalachian states, and then poorly in many of the Midwestern and Western heartland states." Link. Two more reports from Brookings offer suggestions for place-based policies in the U.S. to counter these effects. Link, link.
  • David Clingingsmith and Jeffrey G. Williamson study the causes behind Indian deindustrialization from 1750-1860. Unlike literature which attributes the decline to growing competition in textile production from Britain, the authors find that the dissolution of Mughal hegemony and deteriorating climate conditions better account for the shift. Link.
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May 6th, 2019

Hidden Structures

RESERVE GUARDS

Labor and discipline in the economy

As inequality has grown in salience as a political issue and object of research over the past decade, increasing numbers of social scientists are mapping the distribution of power and access throughout society. This new attention joins longstanding work that maintains, among other things, that free economic relations are accompanied by unequal property relations, involuntary employment, and an institutional framework to assure against incomplete contracts.

In a 2004 paper, Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev argue that these dynamics are actively reproduced by guard labor: a section of the labor force whose primary function is to discipline other workers. Bowles and Jayadev find that all governments allocate a significant portion of their labor force towards these ends. Moreover, they find a strong correlation between the proportion of the labor force devoted to guard labor and domestic levels of economic inequality:

"The differences in the extent of guard labor among countries are substantial, ranging from a tenth of the labor force in Switzerland to over a fifth in the U.K and the U.S. Broadly, three groups are evident. Social Democratic countries which display low levels of guard labor, English-Speaking countries which display high levels of guard labor (with substantial supervision), and Southern European economies which exhibit unusually high unemployment rates and thus, large amounts of guard labor.

The composition of guard labor differs substantially among the nations, especially in the proportions of the two largest components: supervision and unemployment. The top four in guard labor—Spain, the U.K., the U.S. and Greece—for example, devote about a fifth of their labor force to supervision and unemployment combined. But the U.S. is distinctive, with less than half the amount of unemployment as either Spain or Greece and 50 percent more supervisory labor. A comparison between the English speaking countries suggests a similar story. The U.S displays between 90 and 50 percent more supervisory labor than Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but about 50 percent less unemployment than these countries."

Link to the paper, link to a 2014 Times op-ed by Bowles and Jayadev.

  • Drawing a comparison between unregulated American labor markets in the Gilded Age and those of the present, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman find that "the unregulated labour market generated militant and coercive labour movements and employer organizations, and led to increased allocation of resources toward the domestic policing and military capacities of the US government." Link.

  • "Between 2007 and 2017, the U.S. added more than twice as many guards as teachers," mapped by Richard Florida. Link.

  • From the article’s footnotes, a debate over the relationship between military capacity and economic development: In his 2000 book, Kenneth Pommeranz argued that England’s military capabilities explain why the industrial revolution took place there rather than in other rapidly growing economies like those of the Yangzi Delta; by contrast, Robert Brenner and Christopher Isett’s 2002 paper holds that greater reliance on markets compelled English elites to "allocate their resources so as to maximize their rate of return." Link to the first, link to the second.

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April 29th, 2019

Green Power

MODELED WISDOM

Modeling policy levers for housing affordability in urban centers

In nearly every major urban center, housing affordability is in crisis. Since the 1960s, median home value has risen by 112% across the country, while median owner incomes rose just 50%. For renters, especially since 2008, the problem is increasingly acute:nearly half of renters (over 20 million people) pay over 30% of their income on rent.

In New York City, nearly two-thirds of all residents are renters (half of whom are rent-burdened), and the politics of housing policy remain correspondingly fraught. In a recent paper, researchers JACK FAVILUKIS, PIERRE MABILLE, and STIJN VAN NIEUWERBURGH at Columbia Business School develop a dynamic stochastic spatial equilibrium model to quantify the welfare implications of various policy tools. Calibrating the model to New York City, the authors examine the interactions between funding and affordability policies to chart a possible path forward. From the paper:

"Policy makers are under increasing pressure to improve affordability. They employ four broad categories of policy tools: rent control (RC), zoning policies, housing vouchers, and tax credits for developers. Each policy affects the quantity and price of owned and rented housing and its spatial distribution. It affects incentives to work, wages, commuting patterns, and ultimately output. Each policy affects wealth inequality in the city and in each of its neighborhoods.

While there is much work, both empirical and theoretical, on housing affordability, what is missing is a general equilibrium model that quantifies the impact of such policies on prices and quantities, on the spatial distribution of households, on income inequality within and across neighborhoods, and ultimately on individual and city-wide welfare. Consistent with conventional wisdom, increasing the housing stock in the urban core by relaxing zoning regulations is welfare improving. Contrary to conventional wisdom, increasing the generosity of the rent control or housing voucher systems is welfare increasing."

Link to the paper, and link to a press release from Columbia Business School.

  • Data for Progress analyzed housing proposals from the leading 2020 candidates. Link to the reports, and link to an updated version of Senator Warren's proposal.
  • A report from last spring by authors Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper advocates for an across-the-board expansion of social housing in the United States. Link.
  • Tangentially related, a JFI letter from last year highlighted thinking and proposals around the implementation of a land value tax. Link.
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April 20th, 2019

Gesture Dance

EXPLICIT SPHERE

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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