➔ Phenomenal World

September 22nd, 2018

➔ Phenomenal World

Red Wall

MATERIAL UNDERSTANDING

The full resource stack needed for Amazon's Echo to "turn on the lights"

In a novel new project, KATE CRAWFORD and VLADAN JOLER present an "anatomical case study" of the human labor, data, and planetary resources necessary for the functioning of an Amazon Echo. A 21-part essay accompanies an anatomical map (pictured above), making the case for the importance of understanding the complex resource networks that make up the "technical infrastructures" threaded through daily life:

"At this moment in the 21st century, we see a new form of extractivism that is well underway: one that reaches into the furthest corners of the biosphere and the deepest layers of human cognitive and affective being. Many of the assumptions about human life made by machine learning systems are narrow, normative and laden with error. Yet they are inscribing and building those assumptions into a new world, and will increasingly play a role in how opportunities, wealth, and knowledge are distributed.

The stack that is required to interact with an Amazon Echo goes well beyond the multi-layered 'technical stack' of data modeling, hardware, servers and networks. The full stack reaches much further into capital, labor and nature, and demands an enormous amount of each. Put simply: each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch."

Link to the full essay and map.

  • More on the nuanced ethical dilemmas of digital technology: "Instead of being passive victims of (digital) technology, we create technology and the material, conceptual, or ethical environments, possibilities, or affordances for its production of use; this makes us also responsible for the space of possibilities that we create." Link.
  • As shared in our April newsletter, Tim Hwang discusses how hardware influences the progress and development of AI. Link.
⤷ Full Article

September 9th, 2019

Original & Forgery

MULTIPLY EFFECT

The difficulties of causal reasoning and race

While the thorny ethical questions dogging the development and implementation of algorithmic decision systems touch on all manner of social phenomena, arguably the most widely discussed is that of racial discrimination. The watershed moment for the algorithmic ethics conversation was ProPublica's 2016 article on the COMPAS risk-scoring algorithm, and a huge number of ensuing papers in computer science, law, and related disciplines attempt to grapple with the question of algorithmic fairness by thinking through the role of race and discrimination in decision systems.

In a paper from earlier this year, ISSA KOHLER-HAUSMAN of Yale Law School examines the way that race and racial discrimination are conceived of in law and the social sciences. Challenging the premises of an array of research across disciplines, Kolher-Hausmann argues for both a reassessment of the basis of reasoning about discrimination, and a new approach grounded in a social constructivist view of race.

From the paper:

"This Article argues that animating the most common approaches to detecting discrimination in both law and social science is a model of discrimination that is, well, wrong. I term this model the 'counterfactual causal model' of race discrimination. Discrimination, on this account, is detected by measuring the 'treatment effect of race,' where treatment is conceptualized as manipulating the raced status of otherwise identical units (e.g., a person, a neighborhood, a school). Discrimination is present when an adverse outcome occurs in the world in which a unit is 'treated' by being raced—for example, black—and not in the world in which the otherwise identical unit is 'treated' by being, for example, raced white. The counterfactual model has the allure of precision and the security of seemingly obvious divisions or natural facts.

Currently, many courts, experts, and commentators approach detecting discrimination as an exercise measuring the counterfactual causal effect of race-qua-treatment, looking for complex methods to strip away confounding variables to get at a solid state of race and race alone. But what we are arguing about when we argue about whether or not statistical evidence provides proof of discrimination is precisely what we mean by the concept DISCRIMINATION."

Link to the article. And stay tuned for a forthcoming post on the Phenomenal World by JFI fellow Lily Hu that grapples with these themes.

  • For an example of the logic Kohler-Hausmann is writing against, see Edmund S. Phelps' 1972 paper "The Statistical Theory of Racism and Sexism." Link.
  • A recent paper deals with the issue of causal reasoning in an epidemiological study: "If causation must be defined by intervention, and interventions on race and the whole of SeS are vague or impractical, how is one to frame discussions of causation as they relate to this and other vital issues?" Link.
  • From Kohler-Hausmann's footnotes, two excellent works informing her approach: first, the canonical book Racecraft by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields; second, a 2000 article by Tukufu Zuberi, "Decracializing Social Statistics: Problems in the Quantification of Race." Link to the first, link to the second.
⤷ Full Article

September 15th, 2018

The Marshes

THE JANUS FACE

The paradoxical outcomes of university-centered economic growth

A recent paper by RICHARD FLORIDA and RUBEN GAETANI takes an empirical look at the role of research universities in anchoring local economies and driving economic growth. The paper examines the density of patenting and financial investment within the internal geographies of specific American cities and argues that knowledge agglomeration exacerbates economic, occupational, and spatial segregation.

“Although universities certainly affect national levels of innovation and growth, research has shown that they tend to affect innovation and growth by operating through more localized channels. The roles played by Stanford University in the rise and economic performance of Silicon Valley and of MIT in the Boston-Cambridge ecosystem are cases in point.

Universities constitute a rare, irreproducible asset at the local level. At the same time, it is increasingly clear that the knowledge-economy metros and so-called college towns suffer from relatively high levels of inequality and segregation.”

Set to be released in the October issue of MANAGERIAL & DECISION ECONOMICS, the paper presents a nuanced exploration of agglomeration economies and complicates the use of universities as levers for economic revitalization, job creation, and mutual prosperity.

Link to the working paper.

  • As spotlighted in a November newsletter, Lyman Stone discusses national problems with the role of the US higher education system: “The problems we face are: (1) the regional returns to higher education are too localized, (2) the price of higher education is bid up very high, (3) the traditional entrepreneurial player, state governments, is financially strained or unwilling, (4) private entrance is systematically suppressed by unavoidable market features.” Link.
  • At CityLab, Richard Florida examined venture-capital invested start-ups and found they disproportionately clustered in metropolitan regions with high-performing universities. Link.
  • For a deep dive into the role universities play in economic and spatial development, see Margaret O’Mara’s book on Cold War era “Cities of Knowledge." Link.
⤷ Full Article

September 8th, 2018

Very First Stone

WEALTH BEGETS WEALTH

Matt Bruenig's Social Wealth Fund proposal, and responses

Last week, MATT BRUENIG of the PEOPLE’S POLICY PROJECT published the most detailed version of a bold policy he’s been writing about for a long time: a Social Wealth Fund for America.

“If we want to get serious about reducing wealth and income inequality, then we have to get serious about breaking up this extreme concentration of wealth.

A dividend-paying social wealth fund provides a natural solution to this problem. It reduces wealth inequality by moving wealth out of the hands of the rich who currently own it and into a collective fund that everyone in the country owns an equal part of. It then reduces income inequality by redirecting capital income away from the affluent and parceling it out as a universal basic dividend that goes out to everyone in society.”

The full report contains history on Sweden and Norway, information on the Alaska Permanent Fund, and then a sketch of the “American Solidarity Fund,” including funding and governance. The report stakes conceptual ground, and doesn’t offer new macroeconomic analysis. Link.

  • Matt Yglesias summarizes and adds context in Vox, noting that Bruenig’s political angle is not imperative for the SWF idea. Other proposals for government stock ownership “invariably conceptualize the government as a silent partner in the enterprises it would partially own, trying to find a way for the government to reap the fiscal or economic benefits of government stock ownership without the socialistic implications of government officials running private firms. Bruenig’s proposal is the opposite of that, a way to put real meat on the bones of “democratic socialism” at a time when the phrase is gaining momentum as a slogan and an organizing project but also, to an extent, lacks clear definition.” Link.
  • In an illustration of Yglesias’s point, Roger Farmer, who has suggested funding a SWF through countercyclical asset purchases, makes his ideological differences clear on Twitter: “You don’t have to be a Democratic Socialist to see value in a scheme whereby government borrows and invests in the stock market…unlike Matt Bruenig I do not see this as a tool for political control of corporate agendas and I have advocated that the Treasury purchase an index fund of non-voting shares.” Link.
  • Mike Konczal criticizes the SWF idea along multiple lines. “We want shareholders to ruthlessly extract profits, but here for the public, yet we also want the viciousness of market relations subjected to the broader good. Approaching this as shareholders is probably the worst point of contact to try and fix this essential conflict.” Link.
  • Bruenig responds to Konczal. Link.
  • Peter Gowan expands on the idea in Jacobin: “Following [Rudolf] Meidner, I think it is worth considering multiple social wealth funds to be established along sectoral lines.” Link.
  • Rachel Cohen gets responses from Peter Barnes and others in the Intercept. [Link](https://theintercept.com/2018/08/28/social-wealth-fund-united-stat
⤷ Full Article

September 1st, 2018

The Braid

CONSTRAINED POSSIBILITIES

On the relationship between academic economics and public policy

In a recent working paper, ELIZABETH POPP BERMAN discusses the interconnected fields of academic economics and public policy. The paper conceptualizes the translation of certain academic ideas into public policy, clarifying the relation by describing different economic theories as having certain “affordances”:

"I borrow the concept of affordances, which has been used widely to describe how particular technologies proved the potential for some kinds of action but not others. I suggest that knowledge, like technologies, may afford some possibilities but not others. In particular, some theories produce knowledge that, simply because of the kind of knowledge it is, is useful and usable for particular actors in the policy field, while others, regardless of their truth or the accuracy with which they describe the world, do not.”

The paper also examines the gap between academic theory and policy application and includes takeaways for those interested in the role of academic experts in the process of policy creation:

"It is important to recognize the relative autonomy of the academic field from the policy field. While outside groups may support one school of thought or another, the development of academic disciplines is not determined solely by who has the most money, but also by stakes—including intellectual stakes—specific to the academic field. Similarly, while the academic and policy fields may be linked in ways that facilitate the transmission of people and ideas, the academic dominance of a particular approach does not translate to policy dominance, even given influential champions.”

Link to full paper. ht Michael

  • This work builds off a 2014 paper Berman co-authored with David Hirschman, which also explores the degree to which economists, their tools and ideas, influence and create policy. Similar to the concept of “affordances”, Berman and Hirschman argue that “economic style can shape how policymakers approach problems, even if they ignore the specific recommendations of trained economists.” Link.
  • A 2010 paper offers a new framework for properly assessing research impact, which includes quantifying conventional citation data as well as other qualitative outputs. Link.

PRESCIENT HEGEMON

Branko Milanovic with a speculative paper on globalization from the turn of the millennium

Back in 1999, economist Branko Milanovic wrote a ("several times rejected") paper proposing three periods of globalization—the third being the present one—and the countervailing ideologies that sprang up to contest the first two. From the paper:

“We are currently standing at the threshold of the Third Globalization. the Roman-led one of the 2nd-4th century, the British-led one of the 19th century, and the current one led by the United States. Each of them not only had a hegemon country but was associated with a specific ideology. However, in reaction to the dominant ideology and the effects of globalization (cultural domination, increasing awareness of economic inequities) an alternative ideology (in the first case, Christianity, in the second, Communism) sprang up. The alternative ideology uses the technological means supplied by the globalizers to subvert or attack the dominant ideological paradigm."

Read the full paper here.

  • For more Milanovic on the politics of globalization, slides from a recent presentation of his on global inequality and its political consequences features much of relevance to this vintage paper. Some of its broader questions: "Does global equality of opportunity matter? Is 'citizenship rent' morally acceptable? What is the 'optimal' global income distribution? Can something 'good' (global middle class) be the result of something 'bad' (shrinking of national middle classes and rising income inequality)? Are we back to Mandeville?" Link.
⤷ Full Article

August 25th, 2018

A Ship So Big, A Bridge Cringes

SPATIAL PARAMETERS

On place-based and adaptable public policy

A recent report published by BROOKINGS INSTITUTE discusses the potential effectiveness of place-based policies for strengthening the economies of depressed areas. Co-authored by Harvard’s BENJAMIN AUSTIN, EDWARD GLAESER, and LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS, the report emphasizes that region-specific, flexible policies may best foster a nation-wide equilibrium:

"Traditionally, economists have been skeptical towards [place-based] policies because of a conviction that relief is best targeted towards poor people not poor places, because incomes in poor areas were converging towards incomes in rich areas anyway, and because of fears that favoring one location would impoverish another. This paper argues for reconsidering place-based policies ...

Indeed, even the most diehard opponent of place-based redistribution should see the logic of tailoring Federal policies to local labor market conditions. Standard social policy rules, like the Bailey (1976)—Chetty (2006) formula for unemployment insurance, depend on parameters that differ across space. If non-employment is particularly harmful in one location and particularly sensitive to public policies, then that diehard could still support a place-based revenue-neutral twist that reallocates funds from benefits that subsidize not working to benefits that encourage employment, without encouraging migration or raising housing prices.”

Link popup: yes to full paper. The two main policy recommendations are an expanded EITC and subsidies for employment.

⤷ Full Article

August 18th, 2018

House Fronts

COMPENSATION TREATMENT

In Iran, cash transfers don't reduce labor supply

A new study examines the effects of Iran's changeover from energy subsidies to cash transfers. From the abstract, by DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI and MOHAMMED H. MOSTAFAVI-DEHZOOEI of the ECONOMIC RESEARCH FORUM:

“This paper examines the impact of a national cash transfer program on labor supply in Iran. [...] We find no evidence that cash transfers reduced labor supply, in terms of hours worked or labor force participation. To the contrary, we find positive effects on the labor supply of women and self-employed men.”

Most recent version here. The ungated working paper is available here.

  • Another paper co-authored by Salehi-Isfahani further details the energy subsidies program and the role that cash transfers played in the reforms, with a specific focus on differences in take-up. Link.
  • We’ve previously shared work from Damon Jones and Ioana Marinescu on the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, which found that “a universal and permanent cash transfer does not significantly decrease aggregate employment.” Link.
  • In other Basic Income news, petitions and protests are being organized in response to the cancellation of the Ontario pilot.
⤷ Full Article

August 11th, 2018

Constellation

ALCHEMIST STOCK

Automation, employment, and capital investment

At his blog STUMBLING AND MUMBLING, CHRIS DILLOW discusses recent reporting on rapid automation fears in the United Kingdom:

"'More than six million workers are worried their jobs could be replaced by machines over the next decade' says the Guardian. This raises a longstanding paradox – that, especially in the UK, the robot economy is much more discussed than observed.

What I mean is that the last few years have seen pretty much the exact opposite of this. Employment has grown nicely whilst capital spending has been sluggish. The ONS says that 'annual growth in gross fixed capital formation has been slowing consistently since 2014.' And the OECD reports that the UK has one of the lowest usages of industrial robots in the western world.

My chart, taken from the Bank of England and ONS, puts this into historic context. It shows that the gap between the growth of the non-dwellings capital stock and employment growth has been lower in recent years than at any time since 1945. The time to worry about machines taking people’s jobs was the 60s and 70s, not today.… If we looked only at the macro data, we’d fear that people are taking robots' jobs – not vice versa."

Link to the post.

⤷ Full Article

August 4th, 2018

The Great Abundance

ENERGY BOOM

A new carbon tax proposal and a big new carbon tax research report

Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) introduced a carbon tax bill to the House last week (though it is “sure to fail” with the current government, it's unusual to see a carbon tax proposed by a Republican). According to Reuters popup: yes, “Curbelo said the tax would generate $700 billion in revenue over a decade for infrastructure investments.” A deep analysis popup: yes is available from The Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia SIPA, which started up a Carbon Tax Initiative this year.

For a broader look at carbon taxes, earlier this month the Columbia initiative published a significant four-part series on the “economic, energy, and environmental implications of federal carbon taxes” (press release here popup: yes).

The overview covers impacts on energy sources:

“The effects of a carbon tax on prices are largest for energy produced by coal, followed by oil, then natural gas, due to the difference in carbon intensity of each fuel. Every additional dollar per ton of the carbon tax increases prices at the pump by slightly more than one cent per gallon for gasoline and slightly less than one cent per gallon for diesel.”

And examines a few possible revenue uses:

“How the carbon tax revenue is used is the major differentiating factor in distributional outcomes. A carbon tax policy can be progressive, regressive, or neither.”

Overview here popup: yes. Link popup: yes to report on energy and environmental implications; link to report popup: yes on distributional implications; link to report popup: yes on implications for the economy and household welfare.

⤷ Full Article

September 3rd, 2019

Eye Machine

IMPLICIT FAVOR

The failures of research on fin-tech and poverty alleviation

Last week, we considered how social and political standards can pressure climate scientists to under-report their findings, introducing an underestimation bias into published climate research. In a recent thread, Nicholas Loubere examines the development buzz around mobile money, showing how similar factors can serve to exaggerate the findings of academic studies.

In a new article quoted in the thread, MILFORD BATEMAN, MAREN DUVENDACK, and NICHOLAS LOUBERE contest a much cited study on the poverty alleviating effects of mobile money platforms like M-Pesa. The criticism rests largely on grounds of omission: the study, they argue, ignores the closure of nearly half of microenterprises opened with M-Pesa, the jobs and incomes lost with the introduction of new businesses into fragile markets, the burgeoning debt accrued through digital loans, the overwhelmingly foreign ownership of M-Pesa and its profits, and the wealthy networks composing its primary users. Methodologically, it had no control group, used a small sample size, and overlooked the potential for reverse causality.

Why was a potentially flawed study so well regarded? According to Bateman, Duvendack, and Loubre, it's in part because its results told researchers and policymakers what they wanted to hear. From the article:

"The rapid popularization of fin-tech as a developmental solution is premised on the continued prominence of microcredit and the broader concept of financial inclusion. The microcredit movement was established and validated in the 1980s on overblown and ultimately false claims that providing small loans to groups of poor women was a panacea for global poverty reduction—claims that were especially associated with Dr Muhammad Yunus. Empirical justification came from an impact evaluation undertaken in Bangladesh by then World Bank economists Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker, which claimed that microcredit programs had significant beneficial results for impoverished female clients. For many years, Muhammad Yunus used Pitt and Khandker’s findings to successfully ‘sell’ the microcredit model to the international development community, generating a consensus that the microcredit model was the most effective way to efficiently provide enormous benefits to the global poor."

Link to the article, and link to a blogpost in which the authors outline their key findings.

  • "Kenya’s new experience of debt reveals a novel, digitized form of slow violence that operates not so much through negotiated social relations, nor the threat of state enforcement, as through the accumulation of data, the commodification of reputation, and the instrumentalization of social ties." Kevin P. Donovan and Emma Park report on the consequences of mobile debt for poor borrowers. Link.
  • In an article from 2017, Loubere "examines examples of exploitation, fraud, instability, and extraction related to expanded digital financial coverage in contemporary China." Link. At Bloomberg, David Malingha compares credit markets in Asia with those of sub-Saharan Africa. Link.
  • "This article claims that to bring finance back to serve the real economy, it is fundamental to (a) de-financialize companies in the real economy, and (b) think clearly about how to structure finance so that it can provide the long-term committed patient capital required by innovation." Mariana Mazzucato on governments' role in ensuring that finance serves public ends. Link.
⤷ Full Article