↳ Interviews

May 22nd, 2020

↳ Interviews

Municipal Bonds, Race, and the American City

An interview with Destin Jenkins

The rapid and expansive action taken by the Fed over the past two months in response to the coronavirus crisis has muddied the distinction between monetary and fiscal policy. In particular, its Municipal Liquidity Facility provides a path for financing emergency spending by local governments. In some optimistic accounts, MLF-backed investment has the capacity to dramatically reduce the geographical, income, and racial inequalities which have increased in recent decades. But in order to do this, the MLF must explicitly prioritize investment in these communities.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, UChicago Professor Destin Jenkins argued the historical case. In the aftermath of WWII, a municipal bond market that valued white, middle-class consumption diverted investment outside of cities and into the suburbs. Federal housing officials, mortgage bankers and real estate agents profited off of the construction of debt-financed highways, shopping malls, schools, and parks for this upwardly mobile demographic. Cities took on billions in debt, but their black, brown, and immigrant populations saw few of the benefits. Jenkins argues that the history of municipal debt is intimately tied to the history of racial disparity in American cities, and that interventions in the politics of bond markets could enable municipalities "to avoid the punitive credit ratings that devalue certain regions or populations over others."

We spoke to Jenkins last fall about his research, which focusses on the history of racial capitalism and its consequences for democracy and inequality in the United States. His forthcoming book, The Bonds of Inequality, examines the role of municipal finance in growing American cities and widening the racial wealth gap. Jenkins is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago. You can follow him here

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May 14th, 2020

The Postindustrial Welfare State

An Interview with Gøsta Esping-Andersen

The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism is among the most influential works in the study of welfare states. Rather than conceiving of welfare and industrial policy on a single state-market axis, Three Worlds develops a typology to situate welfare states within broad and complex historical trajectories. In Esping-Andersen's framework, modern capitalist states with systems of social provision developed along three general paths. Social democratic regimes like those found in Scandinavia emerged through a political coalition between industrial and agricultural workers, and are characterized by universal benefit schemes. By contrast, conservative regimes in Germany and France were born of coalitions between the left and the Church, and are characterized by fairly generous welfare provisions whose distribution is dependent on traditional family structures. Finally, liberal regimes like Britain and Ireland are ones in which the labor movement was unable to form meaningful political coalitions. The mark of these states are their limited, means-tested benefits only available to the very poor.

Three Worlds is emblematic of the "power resource theory" tradition, developed by Esping-Andersen and colleagues like Walter Korpi. Unlike their counterparts in the Varieties of Capitalism school, who tend to view social safety nets as the product of high value-added economies in which employers aim to foster skill development among workers, power resource theorists hold that welfare systems are primarily explainable as the product of labor’s ability to organize against profit maximizing firms. Central to this view of welfare state development is the concept of decommodification, a qualitative and quantitative measure of the degree to which basic human needs are protected from market fluctuations. Just as central is the Polanyian notion of double movement—the dialectical process through which workers organize against the market to decommodify their labor.

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April 24th, 2020

The Weight of Movements

An interview with Frances Fox Piven

Few theorists of social movements have shaped the events that they analyze. Frances Fox Piven, Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York and one of these few, has studied and agitated within American social movements since the 1960s.

In 1966, Piven and Richard Cloward published "The Weight of the Poor" in the Nation magazine. The essay elaborates what has since been dubbed the "Cloward-Piven Strategy": the mass enrollment of the poor onto welfare rolls. If all who were entitled to government benefits claimed them, they argued, the system would buckle, exposing the magnitude of American poverty and the inadequacy of its safety net. The ensuing political crisis would provide an opening in which to enact broad and lasting anti-poverty policy. Cloward and Piven published the article in the midst of an intense period of grassroots activity among welfare recipients. That same year, anti-poverty groups around the country formed a broad coalition that became the National Welfare Rights Organization, of which Piven was a founding member. The rank-and-file membership of the NWRO grew dramatically through the late-60s, reaching over 20,000 dues paying members and 540 grassroots groups by the end of the decade, and gaining influence over national welfare politics.

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February 13th, 2020

Austerity and Ideology

An interview with Kim Phillips-Fein

Kim Phillips-Fein is an associate professor of history at New York University and the author of the books Invisible Hands: the Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal and Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, as well as the editor and co-editor of several collections in political economy, business history, and labor history.

In a conjuncture defined by high ideological tension, in which elite consensus and power structures seem increasingly discredited and the scope of political possibility is wider than in recent memory, Phillips-Fein's work is particularly topical. She is an historian of social movements and of ideology—the political action that it both stems from and engenders, and the repercussions of elite politics for the lives of ordinary people. Her two books—which deal, respectively, with New York City's 1970s fiscal crisis and the rise of conservative business movement—also offer cautionary tales about the severe constraints under which political officials operate, and the ease with which powerful reactionary interests organize, relative to the public interest.

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January 29th, 2020

Historicizing the Self-Evident

An interview with Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston has published widely in the history of science, including on probability and statistics, scientific objectivity and observation, game theory, monsters, and much else. Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science since 1995 (emeritus as of Spring 2019), she is the author and co-author of over a dozen books, each stunning in scope and detail, and each demonstrating of her ability to make the common uncommon—to illuminate what she calls the “history of the self-evident.”

Amidst the ever expanding reach of all varieties of quantification and algorithmic formalization, both the earliest of Daston's works (the 1988 book Classical Probability in the Enlightenment) and her most recent (an ongoing project on the history of rules) perform this task, uncovering the contingencies that swirled around the invention of mathematical probability, and the rise of algorithmic rule-making.

We spoke over the phone to discuss the labor of calculation, the various emergences of formal rationality, and the importance of interdisciplinarity in the social sciences. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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October 24th, 2019

Exploitation, Cooperation, and Distributive Justice

An interview with John Roemer

Throughout his career, John Roemer's work has been uniquely situated between the fields of microeconomics, game theory, philosophy, and political science. His research makes use of the tools of classical economics to analyze dynamics typically thought to be outside the scope of economics: from notions of fairness and morality, to the possibility of overcoming capitalist social relations. In doing so, it defends those tools against charges that they can’t describe the behaviors we see, at the same time as it renders vital social questions digestible for disciplines that rarely engage them.

Roemer is perhaps best known for his contributions to theories of distributive justice. Within the field of moral philosophy, he is one of a handful of scholars who have sought to formalize distributive theories in order to compare their merits. To moral philosophers, he argues that outright dismissal of consequentialist theories of justice, and their replacement by complicated deontological models, is a mistake. And to the world of economics, he posits that economic theory cannot be divorced from moral philosophy—that the emphasis on reaching equilibrium itself necessarily carries moral assumptions.

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September 26th, 2019

Optimizing the Crisis

An interview with Seda Gürses and Bekah Overdorf

Software that structures increasingly detailed aspects of contemporary life is built for optimization. These programs require a mapping of the world in a way that is computationally legible, and translating the messy world into one that makes sense to a computer is imperfect. Even in the most ideal conditions, optimization systems—constrained, more often than not, by the imperatives of profit-generating corporations—are designed to ruthlessly maximize one metric at the expense of others. When these systems are optimizing over large populations of people, some people lose out in the calculation.

Official channels for redress offer little help: alleviating out-group concerns is by necessity counter to the interests of the optimization system and its target customers. Like someone who lives in a flight path but has never bought a plane ticket complaining about the noise to an airline company, the collateral damage of optimization has little leverage over the system provider unless the law can be wielded against it. Beyond the time-intensive and uncertain path of traditional advocacy, what recourse is available for those who find themselves in the path of optimization?

In their 2018 paper POTs: Protective Optimization Technologies (updated version soon forthcoming at this same link), authors Rebekah Overdorf, Bogdan Kulynych, Ero Balsa, Carmela Troncoso, and Seda Gürses offer some answers. Eschewing the dominant frameworks used to analyze and critique digital optimization systems, the authors offer an analysis that illuminates fundamental problems with both optimization systems and the proliferating literature that attempts to solve them.

POTs—the analytical framework and the technology—suggest that the inevitable assumptions, flaws, and rote nature of optimization systems can be exploited to produce “solutions that enable optimization subjects to defend from unwanted consequences.” Despite their overbearing nature, optimization systems typically require some degree of user input; POTs uses this as a wedge for individuals and groups marginalized by the optimization system to influence its operation. In so doing, POTs find a way to restore what optimization seeks to hide, revealing that what gets laundered as technical problems are actually political ones.

Below, we speak with Seda Gürses and Bekah Overdorf, two members of the POTs team, who discuss the definition of optimization system, the departures the POTs approach makes from the digital ethics literature, and the design and implementation of POTs in the wild.

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August 8th, 2019

Networks, Weak Ties, and Thresholds

An Interview with Mark Granovetter

Few living scholars have had the influence of Mark Granovetter. In a career spanning almost 50 years, his seminal contributions to his own field of sociology have spread to shape research in economics, computer science, and even epidemiology.

Granovetter is most widely known for his early contributions to social network analysis—in particular his 1973 article, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” In that paper, Granovetter demonstrated that, because of the way social networks evolve, “weak ties” between people often form bridges between clusters of more strongly connected individuals and thus serve as important conduits of novel information. This surprising finding has proven to have important and enduring implications for a diverse range of fields. The paper remains one of the most cited social science articles of all time.

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June 13th, 2019

Elections, Social Democracy, and the Neoliberal Shift

An interview with Adam Przeworski

Throughout the 20th century, radical social movements were plagued by their relationship to existing state institutions. Across Western Europe, labor movements found political expression in parties like the Swedish Social Democrats, the German SPD, and the French Socialist Party. In their pursuit of the democratization of wealth and political power, these organizations were criticized for moderating popular demands in favor of cross-party compromise. And while social democratic governments did make significant gains in the postwar period, today's landscape seems to testify against the durability of their reforms.

I met with Adam Przeworski—Professor of Politics at NYU, former member of the September Group of analytical Marxists, and a leading theorist of political economy—to discuss the role of elections in effecting social change, and the political transformations underway today. Over the course of a career spanning thirteen books and over 150 published articles, Przeworski's foremost contributions have been in the study of democratic transitions, distributional politics, and the determinants of economic growth.

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May 16th, 2019

Feminist Theory, Gender Inequity, and Basic Income

An interview with Almaz Zelleke

Feminist and women's movements in the mid-20th century developed demands for an unconditional basic income that emerged out of concrete experiences with the welfare state. What can the current discussion around UBI learn from examining this largely sidelined history?

In this conversation with basic income scholar Almaz Zelleke, we look at this history—and examine the reasons for its absence from the dominant intellectual histories of unconditional cash transfers. More broadly, our conversation explores political change and the processes that lead to policy creation. It touches on the movements that have brought basic income into the 2020 election cycle, considers how to focus political will surrounding basic income, and concludes with policy recommendations that will move America incrementally towards an unconditional UBI.

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