Phenomenal World

September 19th, 2020

Phenomenal World

Shape in the Green

SPECIAL ECONOMIC ZONES

Since the first export processing zone was established in Puerto Rico during the 1940s, special economic zones (SEZs) have proliferated to number 5,400 across 147 countries and employ more than 100 million workers. While the zones have been lauded for generating economic growth and allowing for infant industry development, recent work has documented their concerning impact on labor markets and domestic regulatory frameworks.

In a recently published book chapter, PATRICK NEVELING analyzes the history of SEZs throughout the postwar period:

"The Roosevelt administration injected significant sums of money into Puerto Rican infrastructure after 1934, in response to massive strikes and riots across all economic sectors on the island. From the 1940s onward, Puerto Rico set up three crucial institutions: a planning board that oversaw the implementation of industrial standards, a development bank that supplied new industries with capital, and a parastatal development corporation that managed new import-substitution industries. However, the import-substitution phase in Puerto Rico was to be short-lived. Five years after those factories had opened in 1942, Puerto Rico lured mainland manufacturers with tax holidays and financial subsidies to relocate their production. As the Puerto Rican export-oriented industrialization programme coincided with the beginning of US international development aid for pro-capitalist allies across the Third World, the Truman administration’s Point Four programme made extensive use of the island’s success story. Thousands of officials from postcolonial nations were flown in and other European colonial powers in the Caribbean were pushed to embrace similar programmes.

The World Bank and IMF made EPZs an integral part of the many structural adjustment programmes that postcolonial nations had to sign up to during the 80s debt crisis. Subsequently many other nations across the world would sign SAPs and be forced to privatize national industries and establish tripartite institutions of the Puerto Rican kind, with national standard boards that now oversee compliance with the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO norms series, national development banks, and development organizations with private-sector majorities on executive boards. Why did Western nations promote SEZ in developing nations even though heart-lands of textile and garment production in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and elsewhere went into rapid decline with deindustrialization? Emerging multinational corporations in the textile and garment sector and later also in consumer electronics, automobile production, and so forth could use their increased and low-risk capital mobility to play off manufacturing locations against one another by forcing trade unions to accept wage cuts in exchange for relocation waivers."

Link to the piece.

  • "While EPZs have flourished as a vehicle for globalized production, as an employer strategy for low-cost exports, and as a governmental strategy to absorb surplus labour and attract FDI, they have failed to create decent jobs." A 2011 ILO report by Jamie K. McCallum offers a comparative review of labor market impacts of EPZs in China, Honduras, Nicaragua and South Africa. Link.
  • Nathalie Picarelli on the distributional impacts of export processing zones in Nicaragua: "the policy benefited the upper-tail the most." Link.
  • Another piece by Neveling analyzes "Free Trade Zones, Export Processing Zones, Special Economic Zones and Global Imperial Formations 200 BCE to 2015 CE. Link.
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September 12th, 2020

Technological Improvements

FINANCE AND FARMLAND

Land acquisitions have been on the rise since 2008, when rising oil prices and an international food crisis dramatically increased demand. Changing ownership patterns have the potential to influence not only the terms of agricultural supply chains, but the structure of political power in economies across the Global South.

A new book by MADELEINE FAIRBAIRN analyzes the trajectory of global land grabs, focusing especially on the expanding role of the financial sector.

From the introduction:

"The giant US pension fund Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), one of the largest players in the emerging farmland investment sector, illustrates how recently financial interest in farmland has emerged—and how rapidly it has grown. In 2007, TIAA suddenly began acquiring enormous tracts of farmland as part of the investment portfolio it manages on behalf of retired teachers and other professionals. By 2012, it already controlled $2.8 billion worth of farmland in the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Eastern Europe, making it one of the largest farmland owners and managers in the world. This included more than four hundred individual farm properties totaling 600,000 acres, most of them leased out to tenant farmers and operating companies. By the end of 2017, less than a decade after its first farmland purchase, TIAA—a firm created to manage the retirement accounts of teachers—had come to control over 1.9 million acres of farmland worldwide.

The amount of financial-sector capital so far invested in global farmland markets is fairly paltry. But financial-sector spittle has the potential to buy a lot of land. In Iowa, where farmland cost an average of $7,943 per acre in 2014, $40 billion could buy slightly over 5 million acres—approximately a sixth of the state’s farmland. In Brazil’s soy frontier state of Piauí, where farmland cost around $1,000 an acre in 2014, it would buy well over half the state. Ultimately, the prospect of landownership concentration in the hands of the financial sector matters because it has the potential to propel economic inequality. It matters greatly if the financial institutions that control much of the accumulated wealth of society decide that land is a preferred route for storing that wealth and generating income from it."

Link to the book.

  • "We devised a new methodology for uncovering corporate organization and actors who benefit from farmland investment through an analysis of creditors and proprietors." Loka Ashwood, John Canfield, Madeleine Fairbairn and Kathryn De Master draw on county-level tax parcel data to analyze corporate land ownership structures in Illinois. Link.
  • International investment law, which construes land as a commercial asset, can facilitate access to land for foreign investors and impose discipline on the exercise of regulatory powers in land matters. But shifts in the political economy that underpins international investment law can create new opportunities to reflect the non-commercial relations within which land rights remain embedded in many societies." Lorenzo Cotula's 2013 article on the legal underpinnings of global land acquisition. By the same author, a 2013 book looks at landgrabs across Africa. Link, link.
  • Another new book by Stefan Ouma presents an ethnography of agricultural-focussed asset management, through case studies of New Zealand and Tanzania. Link.
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September 5th, 2020

Spot on the Map

POLICY DRIFT

In addition to straining America's existing welfare infrastructure, the pandemic has fundamentally altered labor markets and generated a wide range of new social needs. Policy responses to these changing circumstances have the potential to shape the trajectory of US inequality for decades to come.

In a 2010 paper, JACOB HACKER and PAUL PIERSON argue that failure to adapt to political developments is more than just passive inaction; in recent American history, it has been among the most effective strategies for active welfare dismantlement.

From the paper:

"A convincing political account of American inequality must explain its defining feature, namely, the stunning shift of income toward the very top. Equally important, it must explain how public policy has contributed to this trend. This means not only identifying public policies that can be linked to large increases in inequality; but also providing an account of the political processes that have led to the generation of those policies.

One oversight of existing political accounts is the presumption that if government played a central role in rising inequality, then a host of new laws and policies must have been created over the past thirty years to drive the upward distribution of income. Very important inequality-inducing laws and policies have in fact been created. But these are but one of the two principal mechanisms through which politics can reshape how an economy works. A second mechanism, which we call drift, is equally, if not more, important. Drift describes the politically driven failure of public policies to adapt to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy and society. It is not the same as simple inaction. Rather, it occurs when the effects of public policies change substantially due to shifts in the surrounding economic or social context and then, despite the recognition of alternatives, policy makers fail to update policies due to pressure from intense minority interests or political actors exploiting veto points in the political process. The design of U.S. political institutions makes policy enactments especially difficult, while maximizing opportunities to pursue policy agendas based on the exploitation of drift."

Link to the article, link to the book.

  • "Drift is difficult to study empirically because it refers to change through inaction. We suggest that closer attention to case-specific empirical implications of the effectiveness of policy implementation can make drift a more tractable concept." Daniel Bélanda, Philip Roccob and Alex Waddan analyze US retirement security and health care coverage. Link.
  • Michael Caniglia asseses how policy drift has shaped implementation of mortgage interest deduction policy. Link. And Daniel J. Galvin examines how changing labor markets have undermined the utility of the Fair Labor Standards Act: "The eroding value of the minimum wage as the cost of living rises is only the best-known example of how drift undermines the FLSA. Most pernicious, however, is the declining enforcement capacity of the Wage and Hour Division." Link.
  • "Studies of drift have paid surprisingly little attention to its feedback effects—the ways in which drift, like the adoption of new policies, may alter institutional arrangements, reshape the universe of organized interests, and recast the dynamics of political action." A new piece by Hacker and Galvin situates drift within the literature on policy feedbacks. Link.
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August 31st, 2020

Form and Color Study

GREEN INDUSTRY

The compound risks of climate catastrophe and Covid-19 have defined the year thus far. As the world continues to reel from the effects of the pandemic, and storms and wildfires dot the map, calls for marshaling a green recovery have proliferated.

The history of green investment thus far has been infamously more modest. In a comparison of the Japanese and American solar panel industries from 1973 – 2005, MAX JERNECK elucidates the rocky paths to financing low-carbon industry. From the paper:

"The United States was the birthplace of the solar cell, and American firms dominated the industry in the 1970s. Beginning in the early 1980s, the American photovoltaic (PV) industry lost ground to foreign, and particularly Japanese, competitors. By 2005, the American share of the global market had declined to under ten per cent.

In Japan, technologically innovative PV firms had ample financing and were sheltered from the turbulence of financial markets. In the United States, the financial system was unwilling to finance small entrepreneurial firms, causing the industry to become concentrated among large corporations. By identifying and evaluating 'difference makers,' it is possible to draw conclusions about which aspects of the low-carbon development process were amenable to human action, and therefore relevant to the task of devising a strategy for the future transition to a low-carbon economy. Knowing where to look requires a theory of both the mechanisms driving industrial change in general, and the particular institutional arrangements regulating them in the countries under study."

Link to the article.

  • In a related paper for Science, Jerneck takes a closer look at the financing impediments to the solar industry in the US. Link.
  • In the New Republic, Kate Aronoff writes on the prospects of a National Investment Authority. Link. Read also Saule Omarova's Data For Progress proposal for a NIA. Link.
  • "On what foundations might an alternative economy be built? Neither population nor GDP will be its fundamental metric, but rather land scarcity." Troy Vettese in 2018 on a "half-earth" approach to climate catastrophe. Link. See also: Robert Pollin in 2019 on degrowth and a Green New Deal. Link.
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August 25th, 2020

Escaping the Bleak

DIGITAL CURRENCIES

Covid is accelerating the transition away from cash and encouraging the development of state-backed digital currencies. In the past two weeks, the People's Bank of China launched a trial run for digital renminbis in three major cities, and the Boston Fed announced a research initiative examining the technicalities of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) in the United States.

Despite its purported benefits, the shift threatens to fundamentally alter the priorities of central banks, the structure of payment markets, and the regulatory framework required to ensure financial stability. A 2018 paper by SHEILA DOW considers the limitations of CBDCs for this latter aim.

From the piece:

"The development of Central Bank Digital Currencies feeds into a more general debate on the state’s role in the financial sector. Markets price according to evidence of the past, but also according to conventional judgements about that evidence. Since these conventional bases for pricing are vulnerable to discrete changes which spread across markets, there is considerable scope for financial instability. Innovation in payments systems and digital currency assets is just part of an ongoing process of financial innovation outside the current boundaries of regulation.

Governments have placed the full onus for macroeconomic policy on monetary policy, with fiscal policy restricted to reductions in budgetary deficits and the size of the state. Ironically, since fiscal austerity policies held down aggregate demand and elevated expectations of risk attached to real projects, increases in the money supply were accompanied by low inflation. Consequently, monopoly control of the money supply in order to promote monetary stability seems to be beside the point. Rather the focus needs to be on how the financial sector might be regulated in such a way as to generate credit for useful projects and liquidity as a refuge from uncertainty. Central bank digital currencies may pose benefits, but to consider them the core of a generalised policy to avert future crises is to look in the wrong place."

Link to the article.

  • "Time and effort would be better spent on upgrading existing payment networks rather than pursuing options that, for all their innovation, could create more problems than they solve." This week's FT editorial urges caution in rolling out CBDCs mid-crisis. Link. And a Philadelphia Fed working paper from June preempts these concerns, warning that the introduction of digital currencies may turn central banks into "deposit monopolists." Link.
  • "If banks are no longer willing to act as financial intermediaries, central banks should consider using CBDCs to circumvent the banking system and inject liquidity directly to those who need it the most." Elham Saeidinezhad and Jack Krupinski present an alternative view on digital currency creation as crisis management (stay tuned for Saeidinezhad's forthcoming piece on Phenomenal World). Link.
  • In a series of collected essays published by the European Money and Finance Forum at Bocconi University, analyses of CBDC pilots in Uruguay and Sweden. Link.
  • From 2017, Ole Bjerg on the "Policy Trilemma of CBDCs." Link.
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August 18th, 2020

Lamp Effect

DEFINING CLASS

Standard postwar theories of class composition in the global north emphasized occupational differences between employers, blue collar, and white collar workers. But deindustrialization, and the army of underpaid service workers it generated, has increasingly muddied these categories.

In a 2018 article, MORITZ KUHN, MORITZ SCHULARICK, and ULRIKE STEINS redraw these distinctions for the era of asset ownership. Using household-level archival data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, they argue that portfolio composition and asset prices, rather than income or occupation, are the defining features of class in the contemporary economic landscape.

From the paper:

"A channel that has attracted little scrutiny so far has played a central role in the evolution of wealth inequality in postwar America: asset price changes induce shifts in the wealth distribution because the composition and leverage of household portfolios differ systematically along the wealth distribution. While the portfolios of rich households are dominated by corporate and noncorporate equity, the portfolio of a typical middle-class household is highly concentrated in residential real estate and, at the same time, highly leveraged. These portfolio differences are persistent over time.

An important upshot is that the top and the middle of the distribution are affected differentially by changes in equity and house prices. Housing booms lead to substantial wealth gains for leveraged middle-class households and tend to decrease wealth inequality, all else equal. Stock market booms primarily boost the wealth of households at the top of the wealth distribution as their portfolios are dominated by listed and unlisted business equity. Portfolio heterogeneity thus gives rise to a race between the housing market and the stock market in shaping the wealth distribution. A second consequence of pronounced portfolio heterogeneity is that asset price movements can introduce a wedge within the evolution of the income and wealth distribution. For instance, rising asset prices can mitigate the effects that low income growth and declining savings rates have on wealth accumulation."

Link to the piece.

  • "Of course, income from work remains vitally important for many people as a way to access subsistence goods, but by itself it is less and less able to serve as the basis of what most people would consider a middle-class lifestyle." In the LARB, an excerpt from Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings' forthcoming book, The Asset Economy. Link.
  • "I discuss three clusters of class analyses, each associated with a different strand of sociological theory. The first identifies classes with the material life conditions of individuals; the second focuses on the ways in which social positions afford some people control over economic resources; the third considers how economic positions accord some people power over the lives of others." Erik Olin Wright in 2009. Link.
  • "Wright’s class scheme is based on the premise of a free market system and private production organizations under advanced capitalism; however, the mode of production in transitional China is a complex hybrid." Xin Liu on "Class structure and income inequality in transitional China." Link. And Alejandro Portes and Kelly Hoffman analyze changing social structures across Latin America. Link. And a brand new Göran Therborn article on the "Dreams and Nightmares of the World's Middle Classes." Link.
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August 10th, 2020

Ships in Port

UNEMPLOYMENT

It's been over a week since Congress allowed the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation scheme to lapse, and negotiations over an extension have reached a gridlock. But even prior to its end, access to the enhanced benefit was far from equal across the country—a host of administrative and practical hurdles in states like Florida and Alabama prevented scores of applicants from receiving aid.

The absence of a functional and unified federal unemployment scheme is a characteristic feature of America's patchy safety net. In a 1987 paper, Edwin Amenta, Elisabeth S. Clemens, Jefren Olsen, Sunita Parikh, and Theda Skocpol trace the history of this decentralized structure through a comparative analysis of 1930s UI legislation in Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Illinois.

"The states, not the federal government, were the units that debated health and unemployment insurance bills and passed workers' compensation and mothers' pension laws during the Progressive Era and after. The debates surrounding unemployment insurance provide considerable insight into the political dynamics of industrial society. More than any other component of welfare policy, the states' response to unemployment politicized antagonisms between capital and labor. Moreover, the emergence of unemployment as a legitimate target for state action entailed both the development of a politically viable interpretation of the cause of unemployment, and decisions concerning the appropriate extent of the government's intervention in the economy.

Neither organized labor nor political parties have been identified as important shapers of Social Security. But, as we have seen, a programmatic political alliance between organized labor and the Democratic party did shape generous unemployment insurance in New York, and the influence of labor, mediated by Democratic parties, also mattered in Massachusetts, Ohio, and even Illinois. Moreover, in Wisconsin, the 1932 unemployment benefits law grew out of patterns of administrative-led political bar- gaining established in the Progressive Era. This bargaining included organized labor and its political allies, the Milwaukee Socialists; it also occurred in a partisan context marked by the strong influence of Progressive Republicans. In short, if we examine politics at the state level, we discover that organized labor and political parties (as actors and as organizational structures) played a much more important role in the shaping of American unemployment insurance than nationally focused research reveals."

Link to the piece.

  • A report from the New York State Department of Labor provides a legislative history of UI following the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, with an appended chronology of significant legislative changes on the federal and state level. Link. And two Congressional Research Service reports summarize the structure of the current federal system, including that of the Unemployment Trust Fund which supports states in the case of insolvency. Link and link.
  • In a 1990 paper, Steve Valocchi examines the internal dynamics of the unemployed workers movement in the 1930s US: "The movement's inability to change its organizational form in the face of early New Deal reforms led to the precipitous decline in protest activity in 1934." Link.
  • "Governments shape the meaning of unemployment through policies and public declarations. Some kinds of joblessness come to 'count' as unemployment while others do not." In a 2004 book, Philip Baxandall situates categories of unemployment in Hungary within the country's changing political context. Link.
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August 3rd, 2020

Nocturnal Pasture

OFFSHORING

Much research has documented the vast sums of "missing wealth" stored in tax havens, and detailed its implications for inequality, fiscal policy, and economic growth. Less present in the discussion is the institutional and political history of these offshore financial centers.

In a 2017 paper, VANESSA OGLE recounts the making of what she terms the offshore "archipelago"—the various institutions that, outside of the core of powerful nation-states, became central to the international financial system. From the paper:

"Contemporary definitions of tax havens are often too static to capture the more fluid and multifaceted legal constellation among such sites as they appear to the historian. In the age of empire, the natural state of affairs entailed legal unevenness. This world was made up of centralized nation-states, multiethnic land empires, overseas empires with their colonies, protectorates, settlements, and dominions, as well as 'informal empire' with its regimes of extraterritoriality and legal pluralism. Local administrations in overseas territories had considerable leeway in drafting company and bank laws or tax codes and accounting standards for these respective entities and sub-entities. Legal and political unevenness greatly benefited tax avoidance on a global scale.

As empires came undone, an archipelago-like landscape of distinct legal spaces re-created some of the unevenness that had characterized the nineteenth century. Yet in the twentieth century, this offshore world and the unevenness it offered existed in and for a world order in which bounded, homogeneous national state spaces and generally sizable nation states had eventually become the norm. The New Deal, the European welfare state, decolonization, and the Bretton Woods system were state-based and government-driven projects. The offshore world emerged on a more significant scale precisely at the moment when these state-based projects began to assume their greatest importance. It consisted of tax havens, flags of convenience registries, offshore financial markets and banking institutions, and special economic zones. This landscape allowed free-market capitalism to flourish on the sidelines of a world increasingly dominated by larger and more interventionist nation-states."

Link to the piece.

  • Antonio Coppola, Matteo Maggiori, Brent Neiman, and Jesse Schreger recalculate global capital flows, accounting for cross-border financing and tax havens: "We find that portfolio investment from developed countries to firms in large emerging markets is dramatically larger than previously thought. The national accounts of the United States, for example, understate the U.S. position in Chinese firms by nearly $600 bn, while China’s official net creditor position to the rest of the world is overstated by about 50 percent." Link.
  • Drawing on interviews with key informants from banks, shell companies, foreign real estate, and investor citizenship programs, Alexander Cooley and J. C. Sharman argue that "professionals in major financial centers serve to lower the transaction costs of transnational corruption by senior foreign officials." Link.
  • Daniela Gabor and Cornel Ban's 2017 paper on the political economy of shadow banking. Link. And Jan Fichtner's 2016 "anatomy" of the Cayman Islands offshore financial center. Link.
  • The 2011 book The New Fiscal Sociology, edited by Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad, marks and collects interdisciplinary research in the comparative history and politics of taxation. Link.
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July 27th, 2020

Avey From Cane

PUBLIC HEALTH FEDERALISM

Catastrophic deficiencies in the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic have led to renewed discussion over federalism and its discontents. The divergence among state responses to the crisis in the absence of federal guidance has produced analyses of Trump’s unique, “narrow” sense of federalism, pronouncements of “a new era of federalism,” and hopes for a solidarity-minded “civic federalism.”

In a 1997 article, health law professor JAMES G. HODGE JR. analyzes the impact of state-centric “new federalism” jurisprudence on the government’s ability to realize public health goals. Hodge places new federalism in the context of decades of increasing intrusion by the federal government on states’ power over public health policy:

"The impact of new federalism on the field of public health law is seen in the history of public health regulation. The metamorphosis of public health regulation from purely local to predominantly national means resulted from increased federal presence in the field corresponding to a deemphasis on traditional federalism. It is an inescapable conclusion that an increased federal presence shifted public health goals. National public health priorities dominate local ones. New federalism restrains the federal intrusion on state public health powers by requiring Congress to operate within the constraints of the political process. As a result, state police powers exercised in the interest of public health are strengthened emphatically by the political process confining federal authority to enter the field."

Full paper available here.

  • In an article published this April, Hodge reassesses federal vs. state public health powers in light of disparate responses to the pandemic: "Americans are left wondering, 'which level of government is actually in charge here?' In the face of a pandemic like Covid-19, the answer under principles of federalism is increasingly clear: neither." Link.
  • "American federalism—with its fissures and fractures—haunts the state of emergency." A March post from Phillip Rocco. Link. (See also Rocco's recent post on fiscal federalism in Notes on the Crises.) Along similar lines: Rocco, Daniel Béland, and Alex Waddan on the fiscal barriers to pandemic response. Link. And Nicole Huberfeld, Sarah H. Gordon, and David K. Jones argues that the pandemic has magnified the state-level inequities fostered by federalism. Link.
  • For another view on the relationship between federalism and public health: A 2014 paper by Adam Varvel on the West Nile outbreak of 1999. Link. See also: A post-SARS policy brief on the impact of federalism on international health regulations. Link.
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July 20th, 2020

Dramatic Fire

CENTRAL BANKS AND CLIMATE

Common wisdom around central bank independence (CBI) is increasingly a matter of debate. Before the Covid-19 crisis, a growing number of scholars and commentators have proposed means by which central banks can address looming climate catastrophe—either by integrating new risks into their assessments, or by promoting more active resource allocation—and argued that central bank's attention to climate risk has focused too squarely on financial stability.

In a 2018 working paper, SIMON DIKAU and ULRICH VOLZ outline how, despite the "second-best" nature of this kind of intervention, the shift is already occurring:

"Allocating financial resources toward or away from certain sectors and companies implies favoring certain segments of the economy over others and appears to be incompatible with our modern understanding of independent central banks. Nonetheless, many central banks in emerging and developing economies have resorted to these policies as viable, second-best solutions to promote sustainable development and green investment. The notion of the neutrality of monetary policy has come under intense scrutiny more recently, not least in the context of discussions about the distributional consequences of the negative interest and quantitative easing policies adopted by major central banks. It is apparent that central banks in developing and emerging economies especially, and in Asia in particular, have been at the forefront of using a broad range of instruments to address environmental risk and encourage green investment."

Full paper available here.

  • On VoxEU, Markus K. Brunnermeier and Jean-Pierre Landau on the applicability of central banking tools for the climate crisis: "The conventional wisdom on monetary policy is that it has no impact on long-term growth; its influence is mostly felt on a 1.5 to 2.5 years horizon. By contrast, climate change is all about the long term; effects and policies materialize and matter over several decades." Link.
  • An IMF report by Pierpaolo Grippa, Jochen Schmittmann, and Felix Suntheim surveys the field: "Climate change will affect monetary policy by slowing productivity growth (for example, through damage to health and infrastructure) and heightening uncertainty and inflation volatility." Link.
  • As governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney gave an oft-cited 2015 speech, proposing a scheme of physical risks, liability risks, and transition risks. Link. And Jean Boivin argues for abandoning CBI in the face of Covid. Link.
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