Phenomenal World

July 6th, 2020

Phenomenal World

Desert Walk


Historically, the expansion of the American frontier symbolized a unity between political liberty and economic growth, at the same time as it justified the violent expropriation that continues to define the country's racial and distributional politics.

In a 1998 article, environmental historian DONALD J. PISANI analyzes these dynamics through the monopolization of California's mining industry, arguing that legislation enacted during the California Gold Rush shaped the trajectory of property relations in the American West.

From the piece:

"Those who flocked to California at the end of the 1840s carried with them strong ideas about the nature of property, the right of American citizens beyond the pale of law to govern themselves, and the power of American citizens to make their own rules concerning the acquisition and use of public lands—including those containing mineral deposits. Nevertheless, Congress had authorized the sale of lead and copper lands. Would it now authorize the sale of gold-bearing land to the highest bidders? This was the question that faced the U.S. Army in California when gold was discovered in January 1848.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, free mining provided reasonably equal access to wealth. But during the 1850s, as corporations increasingly dominated mining, the law changed from encouraging economic democracy to protecting capital. Perhaps the best example was the legal permission to "follow the vein." Initially California's mining camp codes limited hardrock miners to part of a vein, often one hundred feet. As early as 1852, however, Nevada County modified its laws to encourage miners to follow a vein downward to any depth and in any direction, even if they tunneled under an adjoining claim. The new laws were designed to protect investors from financial loss when only the tail end of an out cropping was located within their claim. For decades after the golden years of the mining industry had passed, these monopolies enjoyed disproportionate power in the legislature."

Link to the open access article.

  • "War and emancipation brought profound change not only to the lives of enslaved people but also to broader patterns of economic development, forms of governmental activity, and, above all, property relations." Emma Teitelman examines the "transregional wave of land enclosures" that took place during reconstruction. Link. (Stay tuned for Teitelman's forthcoming piece in Phenomenal World.)
  • Paul Gates' History of Public Land Law Development offers a comprehensive account of legislation regulating the use of the public domain. Link.
  • "The claim club or squatters' association has long occupied a place in western history. No historian, however, has fully explored the social interactions in these frontier groups." Allan G. Bogue examines the dynamics within the squatters associations which proliferated across the West in the early 19th century. Link. And Alan Derickson's excellent book tells the history of hardrock miners' self-organized health and welfare programs, which emerged in the following decades. Link.
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June 30th, 2020



Brazil's Bolsa Familia is widely credited with lifting more than 20 million people out of extreme poverty, making it a global model for anti-poverty initiatives. Developed as part of a broader theory of equitable development, it serves as the basis for ongoing efforts to expand the social welfare system for the country’s poor and working class.

In a 2017 book, economist LENA LAVINAS takes a critical approach to Brazilian social policy. Examining the relationship between social policy and financial markets, Levinas argues that, despite its successes, the strategy of "social developmentalism" in Brazil unwittingly entrenched both unequal growth and the stagnation of social protection.

From the book:

"The twenty-first century seemed poised to pluck Brazil from its history of underdevelopment. After suffering through two decades (1980–2003) of low growth and considerable macroeconomic instability, Brazil—in step with the rest of Latin America—was ready to begin a series of rosy years. In the new developmental strategy, the missing link on the way to social cohesion, so the argument went, would emerge with the advent of mass consumption. In Brazil, as in the rest of Latin America, the core impediment to the expansion of a mass consumption society resided (above all else) in the absence of mechanisms for boosting consumption in the context of low productivity and the persistent oversupply of labor.

Performance in terms of the provision of public facilities has not tracked remotely close to the vitality of the market. It does, however, reveal welfare inequities that the market obscures. Through this prism, the upward social mobility observed in Brazil in the years spanning 2003–2014 failed to even come close to promoting a true expansion of the country’s middle classes. Social policy served as collateral to access financial markets through credit. In Brazil, the market has universalized access to color TVs and fridges among those in the lowest income quintile. Treated water, however, to say nothing of adequate sanitation, remains a luxury, the province of few."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • A 2018 by Lavinas details one of the book's arguments—"the collateralization of social policy." Link. And a 2013 paper by Lavinas examines the broad adoption of conditional cash transfer schemes throughout Latin America. Link.
  • In a 2014 paper, Michael McCarthy examines union attempts to control pension fund investment. Link. Another paper by Natascha van der Zwan on the financial politics of occupational pensions. Link. See also: McCarthy's book Dismantling Solidarity, on these same themes. Link.
  • Marie Gottschalk's book The Shadow Welfare State examines the American "private-sector safety net." Link. See also: Frank R. Dobbin's 1992 paper "The Origins of Private Social Insurance: Public Policy and Fringe Benefits in America, 1920-1950." Link.
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June 24th, 2020

Running Horse


In her 2007 book, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt, sociologist CHING KWAN LEE paints an intricate portrait of the two segments of the Chinese working class that have most acutely experienced the country's changing political economy: laid-off and retired workers in China’s industrial rustbelt, and young migrant factory workers in the export-oriented sunbelt.

From the preface:

"Although unemployment and exploitation can be found in many places and at different times, peculiarities of China’s postsocialist conditions have engendered features of labor politics that defy conventional categorization. First, the law, fledgling legal institutions, and the rhetoric of legal rights are central to labor protests throughout China, even though very few workers actually believe in the effectiveness of the regime’s ideology of law-based government. Second, leading to the formation of neither a national labor movement nor representative organizations, the several thousand worker protests that erupted every year throughout the 1990s took the prevailing form of localized, workplace-based cellular activism. With workers blocking traffic in the streets, lying on railroads, or staging sit ins in front of government buildings, these demonstrations presented a palpable threat to social stability, at least in the eyes of the national leadership. What must be emphasized, however, is that workers’ cellular activism has thus far rarely escalated into large-scale, coordinated, cross-regional unrest.

What, then, is the nature of working-class agitation in this period of marketization and globalization? Above all, I have found that the communist regime’s strategy of accumulation, in the form of what I term 'decentralized legal authoritarianism,' both generates the impetus for and places limits on working-class protests in this period of market reform. This larger political economic context of reform shapes not only collective mobilization by workers but also popular rebellion in general, and therefore is a key to understanding the institutional foundations of China’s economic dynamism and sociopolitical tensions."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • "Labour strikes in China are always launched by unorganized workers rather than by trade unions." Feng Chen on China's quadripartite wage setting system. Link.
  • "This chapter investigates the role of social networks during China's most dynamic period of urban protest (1919–1927) in Shanghai." A 2007 book chapter by Elizabeth Perry. Link. See also: Perry's groundbreaking 1993 book on Chinese labor politics in the early 20th century, and her 1980 analysis of peasant rebellions in Huaipei from 1845–1945. Link and link. ht Julian G.
  • Meg Rithmire reviews regional approaches to Chinese political economy, asking: "How have local governments differently interpreted and implemented national reform policies? What explains different decision-making regarding investments and growth strategies? And how have different local growth strategies beget different socioeconomic consequences?" Link.
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June 15th, 2020

Green Stripe


As debate and discussion continues over reforms to US policing, attention has been drawn to the share of municipal and state budgets dedicated to police departments. While a useful proxy of governmental priorities, these budgets only tell part of the complex story of the role and function of police in society.

In a their 2008 book chapter titled "The Enforcement-Equality Trade Off," ARJUN JAYADEV and SAMUEL elaborate the role of what they term "guard labor"—the labor units "devoted to the maintenance of order."

From the chapter:

"In order to maintain order, all societies allocate resources to defence, policing, surveillance, contractual monitoring and other activities that sustain the property rights and other claims that characterise status quo institutions. Data from the United States indicate a significant increase in its extent in the USA over the period 1890 to the present. Cross-national comparisons show a significant statistical association between income inequality and the fraction of the labour force that is constituted by guard labour, as well as with measures of political legitimacy (inversely) and political conflict.

Continental European welfare states devote considerably less resources to the maintenance of order than do the English-speaking economies. A possible explanation is that these economies divert fewer resources from directly productive uses to guard labour by undertaking larger transfers of claims on resources in the form of social expenditures and higher wages."

Link to the report.

  • For more on guard labor, link to a 2019 newsletter, in we shared Jayadev's classic 2006 paper with Samuel Bowles on guard labor. Also shared in that letter, a 2014 Times op-ed by Bowles and Jayadev on the subject, with an unbeatable infographic comparing the US' share of guard labor to other rich nations.
  • See Jayadev's paper "Estimating Guard Labor" for more on the employment statistics behind their analysis. Link. And link to a 2018 blog post on police and prison spending in the US and Europe. Link.
  • For more on the relationship between the labor market and policing and prisons, see this recent paper by Seth Prins and Adam Reich. Link. See also a 2002 paper by Eric Gould et al on crime rates and labor market opportunity from 1979-1997. Link.
  • "Inequality and Guard Labor, or Prohibition and Guard Labor?" by Vincent Geloso and Vadim Kufenko. Link.
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June 8th, 2020

The Burning


As commentators and policymakers have scrambled to find explanations for and responses to the unprecedented uprisings against police brutality across the United States, interest in the role of police unions in local politics has soared. Recent research into the question joins a decades-long debate in the labor movement over the distinctive character of police associations—not only as regards their power relative to the public, but also their political strength relative to the rest of the public sector.

A 2017 research paper by CATHERINE FISK and L. SONG RICHARDSON examines the evolution of US police unions, analyzes their impact on policymaking, and evaluates the efforts of cities to reform police departments over the past fifty years.

From the piece:

"Police officers formed local unions in various cities in the 1940s, and some police unions affiliated with national labor federations. However, well into the 1960s, police departments routinely fired officers who attempted to unionize, and courts upheld the power of cities to ban officers from joining unions. In the absence of legal rights to unionize or bargain collectively, government employee unions became adept at securing their members’ interests through political activity and negotiating informal agreements with public officials. Unions succeeded in gaining a lasting foothold in American police departments in the late 1960s. Not surprisingly, they negotiated for contractual protections against discipline and lobbied legislators to incorporate these protections in legislation. They opposed constitutional criminal procedure restrictions on police conduct and sought to block civilian oversight of police discipline. The legacy of the 1960s is collective bargaining agreements which make it difficult to investigate and punish officers to this day."

Link to the report.

  • "Cities which have low levels of police protections are also less likely to experience police abuse. Local-level politics does not have a salient effect on the level of police protections, but state labour laws have a significant impact on the level of protections which officers receive." Findings from a novel police protection index drawing on data from the US's 100 largest cities. Link. And a 2008 paper by Samuel Walker looks at, among other things, the relationship between the civil rights movement and the growth of police unions. Link.
  • Analyzing the consequences of a 2003 Florida Supreme Court decision which increased unionization among sheriffs' deputies, Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard McAdams, and John Rappaport find that "collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents." Link.
  • A recent paper by Michael Zoorob looks at the electoral impact of the Fraternal Order of Police. Link.
  • "Until 1919, the AFL refused to charter police unions. The 1897 AFL convention rejected an application from a police group in Cleveland, explaining that 'it is not within the province of the trade union movement to organize policemen, no more than to organize militiamen, as both are often controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement.'" Joseph Slater's 2004 book recounts the tensions between police and the early American labor movement. Link.
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June 2nd, 2020

Clouds, Sun, Sea


This week has seen policymakers, scholars, and the public debate the meaning of collective violence. While political and media discourse often fails to examine the long-term effects of social unrest, a vast literature grapples with the mechanisms that link protests and uprisings with institutional change.

A 1978 book by JAMES W. BUTTON integrates a vast amount of interviews, archival sources, and statistical data to analyze the public response to the US urban uprisings of the 1960s. Focusing the analysis on three federal agencies—the (now-dismantled) Office of Economic Opportunity, HUD, and the DOJ—the book suggests that the 1960s riots were understood by policymakers as political demands.

From the introduction:

"Although domestic collective violence has played a prominent role in American history, few other episodes of urban violence in this country's history have been as dramatic as the black riots of the 1960s. As a result, the causes, precipitating events, and participants of the outbursts have been thoroughly studied over the past several years. Yet what is remarkable about this extensive analysis is the almost complete neglect of the political effects or consequences of these pervasive disorders. By concentrating instead on the factors that may have caused the riots, most investigators have implicitly reflected a normative bias concerning the disutility of domestic violence for affecting social and political change.

The fundamental purpose of this study is to evaluate some of the political consequences of the urban black riots of the 1960s and early 1970s, focusing on responses of the executive branch of the federal government. In fulfilling such a task, it asks: did the riots affect executive officials' decisions and ultimately federal public policy? Did the federal executive branch respond differently to the initial, less intense riots (1963-1966) than it did to the later, more severe disorders (1967-1968) and, if so, why? how have national executive responses to urban rioting been affected by the local political and environmental context and by local reactions to such violence? And how do public officials tend to view the role of violence in American society?"

Link to the book page.

  • A new article by Omar Wasow examines the relationship between violent and nonviolent protests, media, public opinion, and policy alignment from the Civil Rights Era, and in particular on Nixon's election in 1968. Link. And a 2018 paper by Shom Mazumder looks at the persistent effects of Civil Rights protects on political attitudes. Link.
  • A 1978 paper by sociologist Charles Tilly on collective violence: "Historically, collective violence has flowed regularly out of the central political processes of western countries. People seeking to seize, hold, or realign the levers of power have continually engaged in collective violence as part of their struggles." Link.
  • In a 2007 article, historian Michael Kazin asks: "Many of the conditions thought to have precipitated the eruption of civil violence in the 1960s either persist or have grown worse. What accounts for the absence of civil violence on American streets?" Link. And a new book by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener looks at the 1960s in Los Angeles. Link.
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May 26th, 2020



Analyses of variation in state-level responses to the coronavirus tend to focus on party determination: On the whole, states led by Democrats have been found to undertake more rapid and extensive responses to the crisis. The focus on immediate political factors, however, masks the broader history of America's uneven and disaggregated bureaucratic capacity.

A 1982 book by STEPHEN SKOWRONEK presents one of the most comprehensive accounts of the origins of the US administrative state. Focusing on reforms in civil administration, the army, and national railroad regulation from 1870-1920, the book demonstrates how regional differences contributed to the particular character of American state development.

"Unravelling the state-building problem in modern American political development places the apparent statelessness of early America in a new light. The governmental forms and procedures necessary for securing order in industrial America emerged through a labored exercise in creative destruction. Modernization of national administrative controls did not entail making the established state more efficient; it entailed building a qualitatively different kind of state.

The Civil War brought national military conscription, a national welfare agency for former slaves, a national income tax, national monetary controls, and citizenship. Yet, this was a state grounded in only half the nation. As the South returned, national electoral politics changed, and these institutional achievements began to be undone. Here, then, was a state only in the sense of the word imputed to it by the interests and strategies of the mass electoral organizations controlling its offices. No institution stood beyond the reach of party concerns. The fate of the wartime governmental apparatus suggests that if new institutional forms are to constitute a new state, they must alter the procedural bonds that tie governmental institutions together and define their relationship to society."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • Theda Skocpol and Kenneth Finegold expand Skowronek's research into the New Deal era. Link.
  • "In societies where social status is a cleavage, elites can use the threat of desegregation to unite wealthy and poor members of high-status groups against taxation and the bureaucratic capacity required to collect taxes." Pavithra Suryanarayan and Steven White on "Slavery, Reconstruction, and Bureaucratic Capacity in the American South." Link. In another article, Roberto Stefan Foa and Anna Nemirovskaya analyze the development of state capacity on the frontier. Link.
  • Daniel Berliner, Anne Greenleaf, Milli Lake, and Jennifer Noveck present "systematic study of relationship between state capacity and labor rights." Link.
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May 19th, 2020

Plate Study


Remittances across contexts

Among the many corona-induced shocks rippling through the global economy is the crash in remittance payments to developing countries. The World Bank predicts that remittance flows will fall 20% this year—a decline of $100b—largely as a result of shutdowns and wage losses in the global north. The politics of remittances are complex: the scholarly literature both touts the positive development effects of countercyclical cash inflows, and questions the effects of a system that supports consumption at the expense of longer-term economic development.

In a fascinating study on remittances from GCC countries—where migrant workers tend to have few rights while making up a large share of the population—FAISAL Z. AHMED looks at the political effects of remittance economies.

"Using duration models of government turnover for a sample of 97 countries between 1975 and 2004, this article demonstrates that the combination of aid and remittance inflows can empower governments in autocracies to survive longer. The link between the effects of foreign aid and remittances on government survival hinges on the fact that these inflows of money constitute forms of unearned foreign income that a government can potentially exploit for nefarious purposes. This is achieved via two channels. In the first, governments direct some foreign aid to finance patronage goods (income effect). In the second, governments respond to shocks in unearned and largely untaxable household income (i.e., remittances) by diverting expenditures from the provision of welfare goods in favor of patronage goods (substitution effect). My findings suggest that domestic political institutions (and the incentives they generate for governments) mediate the impact of aid and remittance inflows on the quality of governance and the endurance of governments in autocracies."

Link to the paper.

  • A 2019 analysis from the Financial Times provides an excellent overview of remittances to emerging market economies. Link. Part of a FT series on remittances, including case studies on Zimbabwe and Nepal, and reporting on the nations attempts to issue "diaspora bonds" to attract the earnings of expatriate workers. Link to the series.
  • A paper by Muhammed Tariq Majeed looks at the effects of remittances on poverty across 65 countries from 1970-2008. Link. Relatedly, a 2015 paper by Phanindra Wunnava et al looks at the impact of financial liberalization on remittances across 84 countries from 1986-2005, and finds mixed results: increased economic freedom in the financial sector has a positive impact, while improved robustness of financial markets has a negative and lagged effect. Link. h/t Alison Oh
  • A 2011 paper by Rui Esteves and David Khoudour-Castéras examines remittances and capital flows in the European periphery from 1870-1913. Link.
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May 12th, 2020

The Giant


Public opinion and policymaking

Covid is changing popular attitudes towards the public sector, prompting many commentators to anticipate a new period of welfare expansion. Others are more skeptical, noting that public opinion undergoes rapid fluctuations, which rarely resolve into a new equilibrium.

Like its forebear in debates over the 1981 Meltzer-Richards model, the present discussion assumes a strong relationship between public opinion and policymaking. A 2012 book by political scientist MARTIN GILENS demonstrates the flaws underlying this assumption.

From the book:

"Democracy is commonly understood to entail a substantial degree of political equality. This ideal of political equality is perhaps impossible to fully achieve in the face of economic inequality—in every democracy citizens with greater resources are better able to shape government policy. But the degree of political inequality in a society tells us much about the quality of the society’s democracy. I aim to document and explain patterns of representation in the United States over the past few decades by examining the relationship between the policy preferences expressed by the American public and the policies adopted by decision makers in Washington. To do so I have assembled a dataset of survey questions reflecting the policy preferences of hundreds of thousands of Americans at different income levels on all sorts of government policies—from raising the minimum wage, to restricting abortions, to sending U.S. troops to Bosnia.

When preferences across income groups diverged, only the most affluent appeared to influence policy outcomes. Representational inequality was spread widely across policy domains, with a strong tilt toward high-income Americans on economic issues, foreign policy, and moral/religious issues, and only modestly greater equality of responsiveness to the middle class and the poor in the social welfare domain. Even this partial exception to the dominance of the affluent was accounted for by the fortuitous confluence of preferences between middle-class citizens and powerful interest groups on issues like health care, education, and Social Security. Yet the importance of political conditions in shaping responsiveness means that our political destiny is not predetermined. The obstacles to enhancing representational equality in America are considerable, but the costs of not doing so are considerable as well."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's much-cited Winner Take All Politics outlines the mechanisms of policy influence in the US. Link.
  • A new paper by Matias López et. al examine the economic and social factors which shape elite attitudes towards redistribution in Brazil. Link. h/t Paul
  • "In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued that the American frontier fostered individualism. We investigate this thesis by tracking the frontier between 1790–1890 and constructing a novel, county-level measure of total frontier experience (TFE). Long after the closing of the frontier, counties with greater TFE exhibit more pervasive individualism and opposition to redistribution." Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse on the historical roots public opinion. Link.
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May 4th, 2020

Security for the People


Ethics in mitigation

Following the comparative success of South Korea and Singapore to flatten the Covid-19 curve, governments around the world have been discussing the merits and feasibility of tech-aided contact tracing systems. (Whether these comparative public health successes are actually attributable to such systems remains a point of debate.) In the US context, app-based tracing proposals have been floated by various think tanks, and Apple and Google have released protocols for their design.

Privacy concerns are paramount, as are questions of efficacy and the opportunity costs of new mitigation tools. In a white paper last month, Danielle Allen, Lucas Stanczyk, Glenn Cohen, Carmel Shachar, Rajiv Sethi, Glen Weyl, and Rosa Brooks examined the ethical and legal bases of pandemic mitigation.

From the paper:

"We are currently in the initial stage of facing the spread of an epidemic, with clear emergency needs to secure our health system while seeking to minimize lives lost and ensure that all patients, including the dying, are treated with dignity. We have to fend off a near-term catastrophe, and in that regard we are in our 'triage' moment. We are currently making triage decisions across all sectors of society.

Securing our health infrastructure and minimizing loss of life requires changing the trajectory of transmission through screening, testing, contact tracing, mobility restrictions, and social distancing. Whereas contact tracing and individualized quarantine and isolation suffice in non-pandemic circumstances, community quarantine and isolation become necessary under pandemic conditions in order to address the emergency. Here the challenging questions are to create the right package of temporarily adjusted norms, regulations, and laws around rights of mobility and association, and to determine whether the relevant packages of norms, regulations, and laws are best."

The authors propose guidelines for decision procedures that promote mitigation without violating civil liberties, justice, democratic institutions, or the "material supports of society." Link to the paper. h/t David Grant

  • An evolving list of projects using personal data for Covid-19 response. Link.
  • From a 2019 paper on the efficacy of contact tracing and epi models: "A major concern identified in future epidemics is whether public health administrators can collect all the required data for building epidemiological models in a short period of time during the early phase of an outbreak." Link. A 2018 paper on contact tracing's role in the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Link.
  • Previously shared in this newsletter, a technical paper for the Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T) protocol. The tweet-length summary from researcher Michael Veale: "Health authorities learn nothing about users. Users learn nothing about other users. Users learn if they were too close to others who tested positive. Governments learn nothing about users. No-one is coerced: everything based on genuine, voluntary consent." Link to the paper. (And link to a comic strip explanation of how it works.)
  • An excellent blog post from Ross Anderson at Cambridge's Department of Computer Science and Technology on contact tracing in the real world. Link. See also "Apps Gone Rogue: Maintaining Personal Privacy in an Epidemic." Link.
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