The JFI Letter has grown and morphed over the past twelve months; thank you to our readers for opening, skimming, clicking, and writing us every week. We'll be offline until January 5. In the meantime, here's a list of our favorite spotlights from last year and a list of favorite researchers to watch in the next.
A new book examines the economic and social impacts of R&D
Last May, we highlighted a report on workforce training and technological competitiveness which outlined trends in research and development investment. The report found that despite "total U.S. R&D funding reaching an all-time high in 2015," it's shifted dramatically to the private sector: "federal funding for R&D, which goes overwhelmingly to basic scientific research, has declined steadily and is now at the lowest level since the early 1950s." This week, we take a look at the returns to these investments and discuss how best to measure and trace the ways research spending affects economic activity and policy.
In the most recent Issues in Science and Technology, IRWIN FELLER reviewsMeasuring the Economic Value of Research, a technical monograph that discusses how best to measure the impact and value of research on policy objectives. Notably, the book highlights UMETRICS, a unified dataset from a consortium of universities "that can be used to better inform decisions relating to the level, apportionment, human capital needs, and physical facility requirements of public investments in R&D and the returns of these investments." While it represents a big data approach to program evaluation, Feller notes that UMETRICS' strength is in the "small data, theory-driven, and exacting construction of its constituent datasets," all of which offer insight into the importance of human capital in successful R&D:
"The book’s characterization of the ways in which scientific ideas are transmitted to and constitute value to the broader economy encompasses publications and patents, but most importantly includes the employment of people trained in food safety research. This emphasis on human capital reflects a core proposition of UMETRICS, namely the 'importance of people—students, principal investigators, postdoctoral researchers, and research staff—who conduct research, create new knowledge, and transmit that knowledge into the broader economy.'
In particular, the chapters on workforce dynamics relating to employment, earnings, occupations, and early careers highlight the nuanced, disaggregated, and policy-relevant information made possible by UMETRICS. These data provide much-needed reinforcement to the historic proposition advanced by research-oriented universities that their major contribution to societal well-being—economic and beyond—is through the joint production of research and graduate education, more than patents or other metrics of technology transfer or firm formation."
The UMETRICS dataset traces the social and economic returns of research universities and allows for a larger examination of universities as sociopolitical anchors and scientific infrastructure.
A discussion of different approaches to climate policy
Last week, the U.S. government released the Fourth National Climate Assessmentwhich outlined the dire economic and environmental consequences of climate change. Instead of highlighting key findings of the report—two good summaries are available here and here—we'll contextualize the current climate debate within legal history, which shows the limitations of current economically-focused arguments for climate policy.
A 2010 Yale Law Journal article by Jedediah Purdy situates the current climate debate within the long tradition of political argument about the natural world, and challenges assumptions that environmental values which appeal to moral and civic duty are too weak and vague to spur political action. In fact, Purdy argues that major environmental legislation emerged from "democratic argument over the value of the natural world and its role in competing ideas of citizenship, national purpose, and the role and scale of government." Purdy does more than just argue that environmental public language is more coherent than conventionally understood, he argues that understanding climate policy through economic self-interest diminishes the role political struggle plays in shaping national values and interests:
"Consider one example that makes little sense through the lens of narrow self-interest, much more as part of an ongoing debate over environmental values: the organizing project that has led 1015 city governments to adopt the goals of the Kyoto Protocol (a seven percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2012) through an instrument called the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Since the costs are not zero, and the benefits, in theory, are almost exactly that, the question of motivation is still fairly sharply presented.
In private interviews and public statements, city officials explain their efforts in several ways. They are quick to cite the advantage certain regions hope to enjoy from early adoption and manufacture of technologies that may later become standard. They embrace a simple public-choice motive: city governments hope to benefit from green-development block grants and, in the longer term, density-friendly economic development, and early efforts may position them to do both.
They also regard themselves as engaged in political persuasion that they hope will induce others to take similar action. Whether this is plausible is partly endogenous to the politics itself. This politics seeks to affect the reasons—specifically those grounded in environmental values—that people understand themselves to have for joining collective undertakings. Rather than a specimen of an independently established logic of collective action, it is an engagement with that logic itself."
Link to full paper.
In a 2018 article, Purdy looks more deeply at the history of environmental justice, and why its concerns were left out of mainstream environmental law: "Mainstream environmental law was the last major legal product of 'the great exception,' the decades of the mid-twentieth century when, unlike any other time in modern history, economic inequality was declining and robust growth was widely shared." Link.
A 2017 dissertation examines the environment as an object of politics, as opposed to natural capital, and argues that the environment is a "political problem that entails ongoing negotiations over the legitimacy of market rule, the role of the state in relation to the market, and the value of ecological stewardship." Link.
The new climate reports have brought attention back to solar geoengineering, which the Guardian, covering a Gernot Wagner paper, notes is extremely inexpensive and possibly an option for desperate circumstances: “The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report said geoengineering might be adopted as a temporary “remedial measure” in extreme circumstances.”Link.
PLACE-BASED SUBSIDIES | UBERLAND | HISTORY OF QUANTIFICATION
The inefficiency of lobbying
A few weeks ago, we spotlighted work by Elliott Ash et. al. on the startling influence of the Manne economics seminars in shaping judicial decision-making. This week we’re looking at an industry that, conversely, seems extremely influential, but is frequently ineffectual: lobbying.
In a 2009 book, "Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why," FRANK R. BAUMGARTNER et. al. take an unprecedentedly thorough look at lobbying in Washington, scrutinizing "ninety-eight randomly selected policy issues in which interest groups were involved and then followed those issues across two Congresses." What they find is complexity and gridlock:
"Since we followed our issues for four years, we know a lot about what eventually occurred (if anything did). In fact, as we outline in the chapters to come, for the majority of our issues, little happened.
If what they are supposed to be doing is producing change, interest groups are a surprisingly ineffectual lot. A focus by the media and many academics on explaining political change or sensational examples of lobbying success obscures the fact that lobbyists often toil with little success in gaining attention to their causes or they meet such opposition to their efforts that the resulting battle leads to a stalemate.
Of course, many lobbyists are active because their organizations benefit from the status quo and they want to make sure that it stays in place. We will show that one of the best single predictors of success in the lobbying game is not how much money an organization has on its side, but simply whether it is attempting to protect the policy that is already in place."
Preview on Google Books here.
NEW UBI REPORTS | ELECTORAL VIOLENCE | BEYOND GDP
On the varying modes of conceiving of privacy (and its violation) in the law
In a 2004 YALE LAW JOURNAL article, comparative legal scholar JAMES Q. WHITMAN explores differing cultural and legal postures toward privacy. Through his comparison, he draws a slim taxonomy: privacy rights are founded on either dignity (throughout Western Europe) or on liberty (in the United States). The distinction—while far from perfectly neat either historically or in the present—raises a number of interesting questions about privacy law that are currently being worked out as scholars and legislators move forward in the creation and implementation of digital governance procedures. From the paper:
"If privacy is a universal human need that gives rise to a fundamental human right, why does it take such disconcertingly diverse forms? This is a hard problem for privacy advocates who want to talk about the values of ‘personhood,’ harder than they typically acknowledge. It is a hard problem because of the way they usually try to make their case: Overwhelmingly, privacy advocates rely on what moral philosophers call ‘intuitionist’ arguments. In their crude form, these sorts of arguments suppose that human beings have a direct, intuitive grasp of right and wrong—an intuitive grasp that can guide us in our ordinary ethical decisionmaking. The typical privacy article rests its case precisely on an appeal to its reader’s intuitions and anxieties about the evils of privacy violations. Imagine invasions of your privacy, the argument runs. Do they not seem like violations of your very personhood?
Continental privacy protections are, at their very core, a form of protection of a right to respect andpersonal dignity. The core continental privacy rights are rights to one’s image, name, and reputation, and what Germans call the right to informational self-determination—the right to control the sorts of information disclosed about oneself. They are all rights to control your public image.
By contrast, America is much more oriented to values of liberty. At its conceptual core, the American right to privacy is the right to freedom of intrusions by the state, especially in one’s own home."
Link to the paper.
- Forthcoming in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, an in-depth review of the significance of the Supreme Court's June decision in Carpenter v. United States: "Carpenter holds that the police may not collect historical [cellphone location tracking data] from a cellphone provider without a warrant. This is the opinion most privacy law scholars and privacy advocates have been awaiting for decades." Link.
- An excellent repository of scholarship on the GDPR—the new European data protection law—from the journal International Data Privacy Law. Link.
- Danielle Citron and Daniel Solove's 2016 paper explores how US courts have dealt with legal standards of harm—anxiety or risk—in cases of personal data breaches. Link. See also Ryan Calo's 2010 article "The Boundaries of Privacy Harm." Link.
- Khiara Bridges' 2017 book The Poverty of Privacy Rights provides a corrective to universalist claims to a right to privacy: "Poor mothers actually do not possess privacy rights. This is the book’s strong claim." Link to the book page, link to the introductory chapter.
FUTURE OF WORK | MEDIEVAL FLOOD INSURANCE | GENDERED EMPLOYMENT
How do we meaningfully compare regime change?
In last week’s newsletter, we spotlighted work by Elliott Ash, Daniel Chen, and Suresh Naidu that provided quantitative analysis of the judicial effects of the law and economics movement. More generally, the paper examined how small-scale intellectual projects—like a series of economic seminars by the Manne Economics Institute—carry significant judicial and ideological outcomes. This week, we examine ideological diffusion on the macroscale and explore the role of external and international influences on democratic uprisings throughout history.
Democratic uprisings (beginning with the American Revolution and culminating in the Arab Spring) mark the last two hundred years of global democratization. The specific regional, historical, and economic circumstances surrounding these turbulent and diverse democratic revolutions make meaningful and effective comparisons hard to achieve.
In a recent paper, SEVA GUNITSKY offers a conceptual framework for better comparing democratic regime shifts over time and identifies the recurring mechanisms that catalyze and shape democratic uprisings. The work approaches regime changes as clusterings or cascades and so organizes thirteen democratic 'waves' into four typologies along two central dimensions: the origins of external influences (horizontal or vertical) and the role of those influences in timing the democratic wave (contagion or emulation). With this framework, Gunitsky claims that global interactions spark democratic changes:
"The looming presence of waves suggests that studies of democratization cannot focus only on the local drivers of revolts from below or elite concessions from above. Episodes of mass political contention were often embedded in broader transnational processes that involved regional cross-border ties and global hegemonic rivalries. More generally, examining the causes of democratic waves is a reminder that global democratization is more than the sum of its parts. The spread of democracy embodies multiple facets of a systemic phenomenon, driven by cross-border linkages that cannot be reduced to their individual components. Examining how democracy spreads can offer fundamental insight into the nature of democracy itself."
Gunitsky delves further into democratic regime changes—and those that resulted in fascism and communism—offering prescient insight into the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil:
"Sudden shifts in the structure of hegemonic power have produced some of the most consequential regime cascades in modern history. In some ways, the twentieth century can be imagined as a series of hegemonic shocks and institutional waves. Yet the links between systemic shifts and institutional waves were not limited to democracy: German economic recovery in the 1930s led to the diffusion of fascist ideas and institutions, and the Soviet victory in World War II prompted a global communist wave that spread through both force and admiration. Future hegemonic transitions, including the decline of American dominance, are likely to produce similar anti-democratic cascades, particularly in case of a sudden U.S. decline."
- In a 2013 paper, Nathan Nunn and Paola Giuliano examine the importance of local-level democracy—a tradition of electing a local leader through consensus rather than appointment—and its relationship to state and national level democratic institutions. Link.
- James Kloppenberg's Toward Democracy probes the Atlantic Democratic Wave and provides a major synthesis of Western intellectual thought. Link.
Applying quantitative methods to examine the spread of ideology in judicial opinion
In a recent paper, co-authors ELLIOTT ASH, DANIEL L. CHEN, and SURESH NAIDU provide a quantitative analysis of the judicial effects of the law and economics movement. Comparing attendance at seminars run by the Manne Economics Institute for Federal Judges from 1976 to 1999 against 380,000 circuit court cases and one million criminal sentencing decisions in district courts, the authors identify both the effects on judicial decision-making and the dispersion of economic language and reasoning throughout the federal judiciary.
“Economics-trained judges significantly impact U.S. judicial outcomes. They render conservative votes and verdicts, are against regulation and criminal appeals, and mete harsher criminal sentences and deterrence reasoning. When ideas move from economics into law, ideas have consequences. Economics likely changed how judges perceived the consequences of their decisions. If you teach judges that markets work, they deregulate government. If you teach judges that deterrence works, they become harsher to criminal defendants. Economics training focusing on efficiency may have crowded out other constitutional theories of interpretation. Economics training accounts for a substantial portion of the conservative shift in the federal judiciary since 1976.”
Link to the paper.
- Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber picks out some additional highlights. Link.
- A Washington Post article from January 1980 provides some contemporaneous context on the Manne seminars. Link.
- In a relevant 2015 paper, Pedro Bordalo, Nicola Gennaioli, and Andrei Shleifer apply salience theory to model judicial decision-making: "The context of the judicial decision, which is comparative by nature, shapes which aspects of the case stand out and draw the judge’s attention. By focusing judicial attention on such salient aspects of the case, legally irrelevant information can affect judicial decisions." Link.
WHAT IS A FAMILY?
Competing definitons of the term have vast policy implications
The formal definition of family is “blood, marriage, or adoption,” but that leaves out many possible arrangements, including families of unmarried people, foster children, co-ops, and, until 2015, gay partnerships. In the 1970s, family law became more open to “functional families” outside the formal definition, while zoning law kept to the strictly formal. Legal historian KATE REDBURN writes, “These contradictions leave critical family law doctrines unstable in thirty-two states.”
In a recent working paper, Redburn examines how these changes came to be, and looks more generally at how legal regimes exist within connected networks and influence each other despite traditional boundaries of scale (local, state, etc.) and subject (family law, zoning law):
“Viewed through a broader lens, this story might suggest lessons for law and social movements. While progressives oriented their campaigns at the state level, homeowners imbued local governance with conservative social politics in defense of their prejudices and property values. Neither movement, nor the judges adjudicating their case, nor the legislators revising state and local statutes, paid adequate attention to the interlocking nature of legal doctrines, rendering their movements less successful than they have previously appeared. Though we tend to think of legal fields as distinct regimes, ignoring the multifaceted ways that doctrines overlap, connect, and contradict each other can have perilous consequences. Their blind spot has has grown to encompass millions of Americans.”
Redburn’s case study provides ample evidence that micro-level legal conflicts can uphold and alter legal understandings:
“Motivated constituencies of voters and their elected representatives can produce legal change quite out of sync with social trends. Such was the case in the zoning definition of family in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite social change resulting in more functional families, protective homeowners and the conservative movement successfully shifted zoning law away from the functional family approach.”
CLAIMS THAT CAN'T BE TESTED
What policy lessons can we derive from UBI experiments?
Political philosopher KARL WIDERQUIST of Georgetown has published a 92-page book examining historical and current basic income pilots, the difficulties of extrapolating from policy research to policy, and “the practical impossibility of testing UBI.”
In his introduction, Widerquist mentions that the challenges for translating research into policy stem not only from the science, but also from the audience’s moral preferences and judgments, which are particularly heightened in the basic income discourse:
“Except in the rare case where research definitively proves a policy fails to achieve its supporters’ goals, reasonable people can disagree whether the evidence indicates the policy works and should be introduced or whether that same evidence indicates the policy does not work and should be rejected. This problem greatly affects the UBI discussion because supporters and opponents tend to take very different moral positions. Many people, including many specialists, are less than fully aware of the extent to which their beliefs on policy issues are driven by empirical evidence about a policy’s effects or by controversial moral evaluation of those effects. For example, mainstream economic methodology incorporates a money-based version of utilitarianism. Non-money-based utilitarianism was the prevailing ethical framework when basic mainstream economic techniques were developed but it lost prominence decades ago.”
Widerquist also writes lucidly on considerations for how to communicate scientific caveats and takeaways. The full book is available here. ht Lauren who comments: "It’s incredibly difficult to test every aspect of many, many policies (including most that are currently at full national scale). Testing a given welfare policy arguably only has to get decision makers to a point where it can be determined that the policy substantially helps those who need it and doesn’t hurt anyone as a result."
- Activist Stanislas Jourdan spoke at the European Parliament in September about a basic income for Europe. Video of the presentation is here; slides are here. On the financing question, Jourdan proposes VAT ("already the most harmonized tax at EU level, large and reliable tax base"), as well as a European Corporation Tax, carbon taxes, and "quantitative easing for the people."
Federal student aid pays for itself
Economic growth vs. natural resources
A recent Foreign Policy op-ed by JASON HICKEL examines “green growth,” a policy that calls for the absolute decoupling of GDP from the total use of natural resources. Hickel synthesizes three studies and explains that even in high-efficiency scenarios, economic growth makes it impossible to avoid unsustainably using up natural resources (including fossil fuels, minerals, livestock, forests, etc).
“Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Sure, we might be able to produce cars and iPhones and skyscrapers more efficiently, but we can’t produce them out of thin air. We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs. Once we reach the limits of efficiency, pursuing any degree of economic growth drives resource use back up.”
The op-ed sparked debate about the state of capitalism in the current climate crisis, most notably in an Bloomberg op-ed by NOAH SMITH, who claims that Hickel is a member of “a small but vocal group of environmentalists telling us that growth is no longer possible—that unless growth ends, climate change and other environmental impacts will destroy civilization.” Though Smith’s op-ed doesn’t directly engage with many of Hickel’s points, his general position prompted a clarifying (and heated)response from Hickel:
“Noah is concerned that if we were to stop global growth, poor countries would be ‘stuck’ at their present level of poverty. But I have never said that poor countries shouldn’t grow—nor has anyone in this field of study (which Noah would know had he read any of the relevant literature). I have simply said that we can’t continue with aggregate global growth.
While poor countries may need some GDP growth, that should never—for any nation, rich or poor—be the objective as such. The objective should be to improve human well-being: better health, better education, better housing, happiness, etc. The strategy should be to target these things directly. To the extent that achieving these goals entails some growth, so be it. But that’s quite different from saying that GDP needs to grow forever.”
- From a study on the limits of green growth: “GDP cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible. GDP is increasingly seen as a poor proxy for societal wellbeing. Society can sustainably improve wellbeing, including the wellbeing of its natural assets, but only by discarding GDP growth as the goal in favor of more comprehensive measures of societal wellbeing.” Link.
- In a recent article, Juan Moreno-Cruz, Katharine L. Ricke, and Gernot Wagner discuss ways to approach the climate crisis and argue that “mitigation (the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions at the source) is the only prudent response.” Link.