Phenomenal World

April 28th, 2020

Phenomenal World

Yellow TV

ALLOVER SECTOR

A political history of the US Postal Service

It's been a turbulent week for the US Postal Service. With revenues plummeting as mail volume drops, the Postal Worker's Union leader recently estimated that the service is likely to literally "run out of money" by October. The crisis has once again sparked a debate on the organization of America's most popular public institution. Many have called for structural reforms, while others have advocated increased investment and a return to postal banking to raise revenues.

A 1998 book by RICHARD R. JOHN argues that between its founding in 1775 and the commercialization of the electric telegraph in 1844, the post office represented a communications revolution as influential for American public life as the telegraph, the telephone, and the computer.

From the introduction:

"By 1828, the American postal system had almost twice as many offices as the postal system in Great Britain and over five times as many offices as the postal system in France. In 1831, the postal system, with more than 8,700 postmasters, employed just over three quarters of the entire federal civilian work force. (The federal army, in contrast, consisted of a mere 6,332 men.) The postal system transmitted 13.8 million letters and 16 million newspapers at a cost of $1.9 million through a network that extended over 116,000 square miles.

Thanks to a variety of generous government subsidies, a large percentage of the total volume of the mail consisted of newspapers and public documents that described the proceedings of Congress. This steady flow of information helped to introduce a widely scattered population to two key ideas: that the boundaries of the community in which they lived extended well beyond the confines of their individual locality; and that the central government might come to shape the pattern of everyday life."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • A couple links from our 2018 newsletter on postal banking: A 2014 article by Mehrsa Baradaran argues that subsidies for postal banking are "appropriate and justifiable." Link. A USPS white paper details how the policy could expand financial services to the 68 million underbanked Americans. Link.
  • An extensive legislative history of "the concepts, policies, practices, and controversies associated with universal postal service from 1790 to 1970." Link.
  • Léonard Laborie on parcel post and globalization: "In 1880, several Universal Postal Union member states signed a convention for the exchange of parcel post, opening a new channel in the world of commerce. By the end of the 19th century, millions of packets poured into post offices and railway stations, crossed countries, and created unprecedented transnational connections." Link.
  • "Couriers, ships, caravans, and rest houses—throughout pre-modern history, such features have been central to the infrastructural matrix without which complex and enduring states, empires, and polities are not conceivable." Gagan Sood reviews Adam Silverstein's Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World. Link. And Ying-wan Cheng on Postal Communication in China and Its Modernization, 1860–1896. Link.
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April 21st, 2020

Group Formation

ADVANCE FORMATION

Comparative development and social policy

Among the diverse local and national policy responses undertaken to combat the pandemic in recent months, Kerala's has been notable. Within the broader context of Indian economic development, Kerala's government has a tradition of successful redistributive development policies, sometimes referred to as the Kerala model.

In a 2005 article, MANALI DESAI traces Kerala's unique post-independence record of welfare provision to its experience under indirect British rule. By comparing the trajectory of its policy successes to those of West Bengal, a state with a similar electoral history, Desai strikes a distinctive balance between path dependency and contingency, arguing that "the form and content of welfare policies are shaped by the exigencies of state formation, but political struggles are the decisive determining factors of the former."

From the article:

"In the somewhat meager annals of comparable state action in third world societies, Kerala appears as a clear exception. Despite fierce party competition, a church-landlord coalition, and the imposition of presidents’ rule on two different occasions (in 1959 and 1965), the state has seen an array of policies aimed at redistributing land, and providing education, pension plans, minimum wage legislation, and housing for the poor. There have been few serious attempts at understanding these state actions as a form of historical agency. In particular, an issue that is consistently overlooked is the fact that Kerala’s post-independence policy regime was preceded by significant welfare expansion in the nineteenth century in its two southern princely states of Travancore and Cochin. In part under pressure from the British administration, both monarchies undertook significant land reforms and expanded education and health care. While reforms by princely states were not that unusual in the colonial era, the scale and scope of Kerala’s surpassed its peers.

The extreme nature of the caste hierarchy in Kerala, perhaps the most oppressive across India, meant that Christian missionaries not only found a home in Kerala but fed and even stimulated caste insurgency. In particular, one crucial effect of British rule and Protestant missionary activity was the increased porosity of the state to social (lower caste) demands. Both dimensions of colonial power (colonial power as well as social resistance to this power) destroyed status privileges, primarily those based on caste, to a larger degree than found elsewhere in British India. Early welfare policies in Kerala were implemented in a dependent colonial context and aimed at warding off annexation by the British, but their unintended consequences were to stimulate what they were precisely designed to avoid—radical caste and class movements."

Link to the piece.

  • An edited volume from 2000 looks at the history of Kerala's social policies. Link. (A 1991 exchange in the NYRB between Barbara H. Chasin and Richard W. Franke, and Amartya Sen discusses the nature of Kerala's "exceptionalism." Link.)
  • "This article addresses the welfare state in a global historical context. In the new societies of industrial capitalism, two powerful and opposite interests converged in generating public social policies. It uses the five-part model to ask what lessons, if any, it has for the likely emergence of welfare states in the developing world. It also recognizes the immense variety within the 'global South' and distinguishes the distinctive patterns of risk management within it." A 2010 paper by Ian Gough and Göran Therborn. Link. (Ungated version here.)
  • A 2007 paper by Nita Rudra looks at the applicability of Gøsta Esping-Andersen's welfare state typology in the developing context. Link. And Stephen Haggard and Robert Kaufman's 2009 book provides a comparative account of welfare state development across Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. Link.
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April 13th, 2020

Swallow Cave

BREAK POINT

Complications in globalized food supply

Scholars of the global food system unravel a vast web linking trade policy, public health, economic development, labor issues, supply chain logistics, and so on. The pandemic has already prompted states to break with the implicit rules underpinning global food governance, and changes in supply and prices have the potential to trigger a long term food-born crisis.

It wouldn't be the first of its kind. Less known than the 1973 oil crisis, but perhaps equally important, is the 1972 food price shock which fundamentally altered the structure of global markets. In a fantastically detailed 1995 article, HARRIET FRIEDMANN recounts the origins of the post-war "surplus food regime," and its disintegration in the early 70s.

From the article:

"As the dominant economic power after World War II, the United States insisted on international rules consistent with its own national farm support programs. New Deal farm programs of the 1930s were retained despite widespread awareness that they generated chronic surpluses. U.S. commitment to mercantile agricultural trade practices led to the sacrifice of multilateral institutions which were central to the larger U.S. agenda for liberal trade: the World Food Board Proposal, which provided for global supply management and food aid through the Food and Agriculture Organization, was rejected by the U.S. in 1947; the Havana Treaty creating an International Trade Organization was never formally submitted to Congress because it contradicted mercantile clauses in U.S. domestic farm laws; even the GATT excluded agriculture from its ban on import controls and export subsidies. Postwar rules did not liberalize national agricultural policy, but created a new pattern of intensely national regulation.

After two decades, the replication of surpluses led to competitive dumping and potential trade wars, particularly between the European Economic Community and the United States. But the real catalyst of the 1973-74 food crisis was the massive Soviet-American grain deals of 1972 and 1973, which permanently broke the dam separating the capitalist and socialist blocs which had contained the 'surplus food regime.'"

Link to the piece.

  • "The sharp rise in prices of agricultural commodities in 1972-73 traces to five principal causes: a decline in world production of grains; rapid growth in the demand for meats in all developed countries; U.S. farm policies that discouraged expansion of soybean production; administrative lags and errors regarding export subsidies; and devaluation of the dollar." Another look at the 1972-73 Food Price Spiral, by John A. Schnittker. Link. For greater context: Alan Blinder catalogues the food price spiral alongside energy and decontrol as the sources of '70s inflation. Link.
  • An FAO report on global food price inflation from 2006-2008. Link. And another FAO report on the causes and prevention of food waste. Link.
  • "This article explores how the far-reaching plans of a World Food Board, advocated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization under John Boyd Orr, were abandoned and supplanted by a new approach that focused on technical aid and the distribution of surpluses." Ruth Jachertz and Alexander Nützenadel on the multiple "visions of a global food system" developed between 1930-60. Link.
  • Forthcoming from the University of Washington Press, Thomas Fleischman's Communist Pigs analyzes the trajectory of East German agricultural policy through the lens of the country's pork industry. Link.
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April 7th, 2020

Big Horse

BOUND SPREAD

Histories of public health

Comparisons of responses to the Covid-19 crisis across national lines yield as many questions as answers. Divergent histories of public health programs, differences in cultural norms, population density, age distributions, and internal migration patterns create a muddy picture for causal understandings of the national variations in impact.

PETER BALDWIN's Contagion and the State in Europe 1830-1930 provides a fundamental historical study on these questions. The book explores the "reasons for the divergence in public health policies in Britain, France, Germany and Sweden" and the "spectrum of responses to the threat of contagious diseases such as cholera, smallpox and syphilis."

From the book's conclusion:

"Since at least the era of absolutism, preventing and dealing with contagious and epidemic disease have together been one of the major tasks of states. Given that, from the first European cholera epidemics to the cusp of the antibiotical era, the problem faced by each country has been much the same in biological terms, why have they responded in markedly different ways? Especially before the bacteriological revolution, etiological knowledge was inextricably bound up with political, administrative, economic, and geographic factors.

The fundamental implication of a political interpretation of public health is that prophylactic strategy and ideology are correlated. Approaches to prevention may be expected to reflect common assumptions held in a society as to where group and individual interests diverge, how much autonomy citizens can rightfully claim, the power of the community over its members. The right to be spared prophylactic imposition was not the only measure of liberty; there was also the freedom from disease. Traditional conservative quarantinists argued this line. Conversely, liberals objected to such interventions when they impinged on personal liberties too drastically or for insufficiently redeeming purpose. There was, also an understanding of public health that transcended such sterile oppositions between community and individual, holding that society’s concern with public health was a positive freedom that, while limiting absolute individual autonomy, returned to each a higher measure of liberation from affliction.

Such political interpretations of preventive strategies appear, however, to have inverted matters. It was not British liberalism or German interventionism (to take again the outliers) that, by themselves, determined prophylactic strategies, but the imperatives of geoepidemiology, and the associated factors identified here, that helped shape not only the preventive precautions they encouraged, but indeed the very political traditions of these nations."

Link to the book.

  • A new podcast from the Cambridge history department discusses Baldwin's book as a guide for thinking through the present crisis. Link.
  • For the classic international history of public health, see George Rosen's 1958 A History of Public Health. Link. And see his 1947 paper "What Is Social Medicine?" Link.
  • "After yellow fever was firmly ensconsed, it underpinned a military and political status quo, keeping South America under Spanish rule. After 1780, and particularly in the Hatian Revolution, yellow fever undermined the status quo by assisting independence movements in the America tropics." A 1999 article by J.R. McNeill on "Ecology, Epidemics, and Empires." Link.
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March 31st, 2020

Duel

COMMON PROCESS

Historical comparisons of European monetary unions

The need to formulate a unified COVID response has placed pressure on European integration in recent days, with Germany and the Netherlands resisting Southern European calls for the issuing of "coronabonds." A 2018 paper by John Ryan and John Loughlin assesses the history of the Latin Monetary Union (LMU), the Scandinavian Monetary Union (SMU), and the Austro-Hungarian Monetary Union (AHMU) in order to glean lessons for EU policymakers in the present.

From the paper:

"The LMU was originally envisaged as a bimetallic agreement, though it transitioned into an effective gold standard in 1878. French economist and politician Félix Esquirou de Parieu saw such a union as the first step in a process of European (even global) integration, which he hoped would culminate in the creation of a full common currency, and, as he predicted somewhat precociously, a 'European Union' directed by a 'European Commission'. The disintegration of the union with the Great War illustrates the danger of insufficient coordination among member states. Partially inspired by the LMU, the SMU was deeply tied to the rise of a political Scandinavism. Like the LMU, it foundered as a result of the impact of the First World War. The conditions were propitious in the Scandinavian countries as they imitated each other’s policy approaches. There were, however, great economic disparities across the different countries, and this points to the dangers of a monetary union without sufficient economic convergence among its member states. Finally, The AHMU was created through an agreement known as the 1867 Compromise which ensured that Austria and Hungary shared a common currency while remaining fiscally sovereign. The main lesson of the AHMU is about the nature of institutional structures. Because of the relative size and power of Austria and Hungary, the union's disintegration illuminates the game theoretic interaction of nations within a monetary union, including their asymmetric ability to exert power and influence over the terms of the supranational agreement."

Link to the piece.

  • "The decision to create the monetary union, the decision of whom to admit, and the decision of whom to appoint to run the ECB are political decisions, taken by political leaders, subject to political constraints, not the social-welfare maximizing decisions of some mythical social planner." Barry Eichengreen and Jeffry Frieden analyze "The Political Economy of European Monetary Unification." Link.
  • A 2019 Max Weber lecture by Philippe Van Parijs discusses notions of justice and their (in)operability within the monetary union framework, featuring discussion from Rawls on the EU and a reading of Hayek on monetary unions. Link.
  • "Many regional currency institutions were established in sub-Saharan Africa under colonial rule. Surprisingly, a number of these colonial institutions survived the transition to national independence, and several have survived to the present day." Scott Cooper and Clark Asay on the colonial legacy of the West African franc zones and the Southern African rand zone. Link.
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March 25th, 2020

Tilted Ark

PRODUCTION MAINLINE

Wartime economic planning

This week, reports swirled regarding President Trump's invocation of the Defense Production Act—a 1950 law passed to manage production in the context of the Korean War—to meet the coming demand of crucial medical supplies to treat people with COVID-19. Much of the ensuing commentary has elided necessary distinctions between the Cold War–era DPA and the more memorable interventions into the productive capacity of the US economy that defined the Second World War. (For a helpful disaggregation, see this essay by Tim Barker; for a rundown of the DPA's history, see this summary from the Congressional Research Service.)

In his book, Arsenal of World War II (the fourth in a five-volume series on the political economy of American warfare), PAUL KOISTINEN provides a uniquely comprehensive and detailed account of the often misunderstood economics and administration of America's World War II mobilization effort.

From the book's introduction:

"An ironic legacy of the New Deal was that it helped create the partnership between corporate and military America that was destructive to reform. In the defense and war years, New Dealers took the lead in preparing the nation for World War II. Once hostilities ensued, the same reformers were at the center of devising the structure and controls essential for successfully harnessing the economy for war under stable economic conditions. Many of those same New Dealers became victims of the industry-military alliance that their mobilization policies and methods had assisted in bringing into being.

Despite advancement in weaponry, massive output was the critical World War II development, and that depended on successful economic mobilization policies. The political economy of warfare involves the interrelations of political, economic, and military institutions in devising the means to mobilize resources for defense and to conduct war. In each war, the magnitude and the duration of the fighting have dictated what the nation had to do to harness its economic power, but prewar trends have largely determined how this mobilization took place."

Link to the book page.

  • Mark Wilson's 2016 book, Destructive Creation, also on the business-government relationships that defined the World War II mobilization effort. Link.
  • A few recent articles on medical supplies: on the ventilator shortage; on mask production in China; on Taiwan's response to the virus; on the EU's plans to airlift masks; on China's increasing medical supply delivery to Europe.
  • From Otto Neurath's 1919 "War Economy": "The main result of our investigation may be expressed as follows: war forces a nation to pay more attention to the amount of goods which are at its disposal, less to the available amounts of money than it usually does." Link to Neurath's collected writings on economics.
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March 16th, 2020

Study for a Club Scene

BUNDLED SPREAD

Supply chains and geographical dispersion

At present it's difficult to think of much else beyond the fragility of our global economic infrastructure. A 2012 discussion paper by RICHARD BALDWIN looks at global supply chains: their history, future, and policy implications.

From the paper:

"Globalization’s second unbundling and the global supply chains it spawned have produced and continue to produce changes that alter all aspects of international relations: economic, political and even military. Supply chain fractionalization—the functional unbundling of production processes—is governed by a fundamental trade-off between specialization and coordination costs. Supply chain dispersion—the geographical unbundling of stages of production—is governed by a balance between dispersion forces and agglomeration forces.

The future of global supply chains will be influenced by four key determinants: 1) improvements in coordination technology that lowers the cost of functional and geographical unbundling, 2) improvements in computer integrated manufacturing that lowers the benefits of specialization and shifts stages toward greater skill-, capital, and technology-intensity, 3) narrowing of wage gaps that reduces the benefit of North-South offshoring to nations like China, and 4) the price of oil that raises the cost of unbundling."

Link to the paper.

  • "If the virus continues to spread at the same rate, supply chains will inevitably break apart and factories will start to close." From February, the FT editorial board on the "decoupling of global trade." Link.
  • A paper from the Institute for Global Law and Policy "asserts the centrality of legal regimes and private ordering mechanisms to the creation, structure, geography, distributive effects and governance of global value chains." Link. See also: a LPE Blog symposium based on the paper. Link.
  • "Capital is thoroughly globalized. Could it now be labor’s turn?" Peter Evans on a global strategy for organized labor. Link. And a new paper by Adrien Thomas "looks at strategies adopted by trade unions to unionize migrant workers, and discusses tensions related to the diversification of trade union policies and organizational structures in response to labor migration." Link.

h/t the one and only Francis Tseng for many of these links.

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March 9th, 2020

Flanked by Two Dolphins

SYSTEM CIRCULATE

An ecosocial theory of disease

The correlation between health, income, and wealth is widely recognized in contemporary research and policy circles. This broadly social understanding of public health outcomes has its origins in a theoretical tradition dating back to the 1970s and 80s, in which scholars began to embed medical research within a political and economic framework.

In a 2001 paper, epidemiologist NANCY KRIEGER seeks to strengthen the theoretical foundations of epidemiological research by linking them back to biological study.

From the paper:

"If social epidemiologists are to gain clarity on causes of and barriers to reducing social inequalities in health, adequate theory is a necessity. Grappling with notions of causation raises issues of accountability and agency: simply invoking abstract notions like 'society' and disembodied 'genes' will not suffice. Instead, the central question becomes who and what is responsible for population patterns of health, disease, and well-being, as manifested in present, past and changing social inequalities in health?

Arising in part as a critique of proliferating theories that emphasize individuals' responsibility to choose healthy lifestyles, the political economy of health school explicitly addresses economic and political determinants of health and disease, including structural barriers to people living healthy lives. Yet, despite its invaluable contributions to identifying social determinants of population health, a political economy of health perspective affords few principles for investigating what these determinants are determining. I propose a theory that conceptualizes changing population patterns of health, disease and well-being in relation to each level of biological, ecological and social organization (e.g. cell, organ, organism/ individual, family, community, population, society, ecosystem). Unlike prior causal frameworks—whether of a triangle connecting 'host', 'agent' and 'environment', or a 'chain of causes' arrayed along a scale of biological organization, from 'society' to 'molecular and submolecular particles'—this framework is multidimensional and dynamic and allows us to elucidate population patterns of health, disease and well-being as biological expressions of social relations—potentially generating new knowledge and new grounds for action."

Link to the piece.

  • Krieger's 1994 article takes a closer look at epidemiological causal frameworks, questioning the adequacy of multiple causation. And her 2012 paper asks: "Who or what is a population?" and articulates the analytical significance of this definition for epidemiological research. Link and link.
  • "Disease epidemics are as much markers of modern civilization as they are threats to it." In NLR, Rob and Rodrick Wallace consider how the development of the global economy has altered the spread of epidemics, taking the 2014 Ebola outbreak as a case study. Link.
  • Samuel S. Myers and Jonathan A. Patz argue that climate change constitutes the "greatest public health challenge humanity has faced." Link.
  • A history of epidemics in the Roman Empire, from 27 BC – 476 AD, by Francois Relief and Louise Cilliers. Link. And a 1987 book by Ann Bowman Jannetta analyzes the impact of disease on institutional development in early modern Japan. Link.
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March 2nd, 2020

Honeysuckle

CLEAR MEANS

Evaluating evidence-based policy

Over the past two decades, "evidence-based policy" has come to define the common sense of research and policymakers around the world. But while attempts have been made to create formalization schemes for the ranking of evidence for policy, a gulf remains between rhetoric about evidence-based policy and applied theories for its development.

In a 2011 paper, philosophers of science NANCY CARTWRIGHT and JACOB STEGENGA lay out a "theory of evidence for use," discussing the role of causal counterfactuals, INUS conditions, and mechanisms in producing evidence—and how all this matters for its evaluators.

From the paper:

"Truth is a good thing. But it doesn’t take one very far. Suppose we have at our disposal the entire encyclopaedia of unified science containing all the true claims there are. Which facts from the encyclopaedia do we bring to the table for policy deliberation? Among all the true facts, we want on the table as evidence only those that are relevant to the policy. And given a collection of relevant true facts we want to know how to assess whether the policy will be effective in light of them. How are we supposed to make these decisions? That is the problem from the user’s point of view and that is the problem of focus here.

We propose three principles. First, policy effectiveness claims are really causal counterfactuals and the proper evaluation of a causal counterfactual requires a causal model that (i) lays out the causes that will operate and (ii) tells what they produce in combination. Second, causes are INUS conditions, so it is important to review both the different causal complexes that will affect the result (the different pies) and the different components (slices) that are necessary to act together within each complex (or pie) if the targeted result is to be achieved. Third, a good answer to the question ‘How will the policy variable produce the effect’ can help elicit the set of auxiliary factors that must be in place along with the policy variable if the policy variable is to operate successfully."

Link to the paper.

  • Cartwright has written extensively on evidence and its uses. See: her 2012 book Evidence Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing it Better; her 2011 paper in The Lancet on RCTs and effectiveness; and her 2016 co-authored monograph on child safety, featuring applications of the above reasoning.
  • For further introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of Cartwright's applied work, and the relationship between theories of causality and evidence, see her 2015 paper "Single Case Causes: What is Evidence and Why." Link. And also: "Causal claims: warranting them and using them." Link.
  • Obliquely related, see this illuminating discussion of causality in the context of reasoning about discrimination in machine learning and the law, by JFI fellow and Harvard PhD Candidate Lily Hu and Yale Law School Professor Issa Kohler-Hausmann: "What's Sex Got To Do With Machine Learning?" Link.
  • A 2017 paper by Abhijit Banerjee et al: "A Theory of Experimenters," which models "experimenters as ambiguity-averse decision-makers, who make trade-offs between subjective expected performance and robustness. This framework accounts for experimenters' preference for randomization, and clarifies the circumstances in which randomization is optimal: when the available sample size is large enough or robustness is an important concern." Link.
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February 24th, 2020

Encore

STRANGE PUSH

A retrospective look at cap & trade

Of the various issues mired in severe and ongoing party polarization, climate crisis is among the most puzzling. Despite longstanding discussions of bipartisan market-based policy proposals like carbon taxes and cap and trade, large-scale government and industry action remains elusive.

In a masterful 2013 book-length report, Harvard political scientist THEDA SKOCPOL offers an autopsy of the 2009-10 push for cap and trade legislation. The detail-rich account illuminates not just the legislation's failure, and its leaders in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), but the innumerable complexities of the broader Washington policymaking apparatus.

(h/t to climate economist Gernot Wagner, associate professor at NYU and founder of Harvard's Solar Geoengineering Lab, for bringing this piece back up in a recent newsletter and column.)

"If environmental politics in America was ever a matter of working out shared bipartisan solutions to expert-assessed problems, it is now far from that—but in what ways and why? And what is to be done? My report ponders these matters.

The corporations that participated in USCAP could double their bottom-line bets—by participating in the "strange-bedfellows" effort to hammer out draft climate legislation that was as favorable as possible to their industry or their firms. But heads of the leading environmental organizations in USCAP had to stick by whatever commitments they made in the internal coalitional process, or else it would fall apart.

The USCAP campaign was designed and conducted in an insider-grand-bargaining political style that, unbeknownst to its sponsors, was unlikely to succeed given fast-changing realities in U.S. partisan politics and governing institutions."

Link to the full report.

  • In the footnotes: Eric Pooley's 2010 book The Climate War, which provides an in-depth account of the activities of USCAP. Link to an excerpt from the book, link to the publisher page.
  • A 2011 paper by Michele Betsill and Matthew Hoffman examines the "contours" of cap and trade, through an analysis of 33 distinct policy venues. Link. And a 2015 paper tracks climate adaptation planning across 156 U.S. municipalities. Link.
  • A previous newsletter highlighted Skocpol's essential work on US welfare history. Link to the archived letter. And link to a recent blog post featuring climate academic Leah Stokes's recommended readings on climate-related research.
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