Phenomenal World

March 30th, 2019

Phenomenal World

Place Distant Place


Recruitment strategies and representation at public research universities

Public research universities have long been understood as engines of meritocratic social mobility. Relative to other higher ed institutions, public universities remain those with the highest mobility rates. But research over the past decade has shown that these institutions are failing to represent the diversity of their state populations, and adoptingfinancial aid models that cater to the wealthy.

A new report co-authored by CRYSTAL HAN, OZAN JAQUETTE, and KARINA SALAZAR looks at one mechanism behind this trend. Analyzing off-campus recruitment events, it finds that public research universities prioritize recruiting out-of-state students from wealthy, white, urban communities over all others:

"In contrast to rhetoric from university leaders, our findings suggest strong socioeconomic and racial biases in the enrollment priorities of many public research universities. A small number of universities exhibit recruiting patterns broadly consistent with the historical mission of social mobility for meritorious state residents. However, most universities concentrated recruiting visits in wealthy, out-of-state communities while also privileging affluent schools in in-state visits. Although most universities did not exhibit racial bias in in state visits, out-of-state visits consistently exhibited racial bias. Since most universities made many more out-of-state visits than in-state visits, overall recruiting visit patterns for most universities contribute to a student composition where low-income students of color feel increasingly isolated amongst growing cohorts of affluent, predominantly White, out-of-state students. These recruiting patterns and enrollment priorities are a function of a broken system of state higher education finance, which incentivizes universities to prioritize rich out-of-state students with lack-luster academic achievement."

Link to the report.

  • The report includes contextual background on the "enrollment management" industry, which advises universities on strategic admissions and recruitment strategies to improve their financial and ranking standings: "While scholarship and policy debate about college access focuses on the final stages of the enrollment funnel—when applicants are admitted and financial aid 'leveraging' is used to convert admits to enrollees—the EM industry expends substantial resources on earlier stages of the funnel." Link to Don Hossler and John Bean's 1990 book on the subject.
  • Elizabeth Popp Berman discusses the results in a brief thread: "This is a function of the funding model we've created, in which public university behavior is driven by a toxic mixture of 1) the status economy and 2) state funding cuts… The good news is that there is variation in this behavior: not all schools are doing it to the same degree. There's less in states with strong state support. And there's a difference among schools with similar state support/demographics." Link.
  • A 2006 report from Kati Haycock and Danette Gerald charts the trends in decreasing access for low income students. Link. Further work co-authored by Haycock in 2010 details the trend of public research universities offering financial aid to out of state students. Link.
  • In our newsletter last year, a spotlight on previous work by Ozan Jaquette and Bradley Curs finds that shrinking state funding leads public universities to increase their out-of-state enrollment. Linkto that paper, link to the archived letter, which includes several other relevant papers.
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March 23rd, 2019



On the history of protectionist development and trade policy

There is renewed debate around the merits of protectionism and free trade, spurred by political rhetoric from the left and right in the US, and in Europe and Latin America. Active disagreements over the consequences of free trade date back to policies promoted in the 50s and 60s, a period during which many newly-decolonized countries undertook an import-substitution-industrialization (ISI) model of development. Popularized by Argentine economist Raul Prebisch, ISI was a development strategy which advocated a prolonged period of state investment in manufacturing and infrastructure prior to trading in the global market. Subject to extensive criticism, it was thought to have been discredited in favor of the Washington Consenus throughout the late-70s and early 2000s.

Beginning most notably with Hajoon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder, however, a growing number of economists have come to question the viability of the Washington Consensus as a development model, both historically and in the present. In a 2017 article, AREGBESHOLA R. ADEWALE lends further evidence to these critiques. Using the World Bank’s Development Indicators, he develops a model which tests the relationship between ISI policies and industrialization in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). His model finds a strong and consistent correlation between economic growth and ISI policy:

"The analyses confirm the short and long run relationships between growth and ISI’s measurable indicators, in a chronological manner that supports import substitution in the short run and exports promotion in the long run… A conclusion can thus be drawn, both from literature and econometric estimations, that the ISI macroeconomic policy defies the self-defeating prophecy levied against it by the institutions of the Washington Consensus."

Link to the paper.

  • Dani Rodrik’s 2011 book, The Globalization Paradox, offers a detailed overview of the distributional consequences of free trade both domestically and globally. Chapter 8 of the book presents a compelling vindication of ISI policies: "Even where ISI underperformed, it often bequeathed industrial capacities that would later prove very helpful." Link to the book, and link to an earlier blog post in which Rodrik takes Mexico as a case study for the potential benefits of ISI.
  • "This special issue is an attempt to advance a production-centred agenda focusing on the real dynamics of productive organisations and ecosystems, with the emphasis on their transformation and innovative renewal in mature economies." Hajoon Chang introduces an issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics. Link.
  • John Waterbury’s The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat provides a rigorous evaluation of the transition from state- to market-led development in Egypt from the 50s and into the 80s. Link.
  • "I find that regions in the French Empire which became better protected from trade with the British for exogenous reasons during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) increased capacity in mechanized cotton spinning to a larger extent than regions which remained more exposed to trade.” Réka Juhász tests the economic impacts of protectionism through a natural experiment. Link.
  • An excellent new paper by Nathaniel Lane surveys new empirical research examining industrial policy. Link.
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March 16th, 2019

The Somnambulist


Studying the impact of certificate programs in the higher ed landscape

Research surrounding student debt and the labor market value of postsecondary degrees focuses primarily on students obtaining a 4-year degree, secondarily on students receiving a 2-year degree, and only rarely considers students in certificate programs—non-degree awards that are cheaper and shorter than traditional degree programs. The scarcity of discourse on certificate programs is remarkable; given the rising costs of education and declining college premiums, certificate programs have assumed an increasingly large role in the postsecondary landscape. Moreover, the mission of community colleges has gradually shifted away from academic preparation and towards vocational education and job training programs.

There is very little in the way of a literature examining the role that certificate award programs play in the postsecondary landscape. In a rare example, a 2016 paper by DI XU and MADELINE JOY TRIMBLE estimates "the relationship between earning a certificate and student earnings and employment status after exiting college." The authors use detailed student-level information from North Carolina and Virginia to understand the impact of certificates on individual employment and wage earnings:

"The paper indicates that certificates have positive impacts on earnings in both states overall, and in cases where there is no impact on earnings, certificates may nonetheless lead to increased probability of employment or to other benefits. In some cases, certificates appear to promote entry into a student’s desired industry of employment, even if the industry switch is not associated with an increase in earning on average. The paper finds substantial variation in the returns across fields of study and, more importantly, across specific programs within a particular field. These results suggest that important evidence is lost when information about the benefits of certificate programs are simply averaged together. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the programs earnings relative to the institutional context and the local labor market."

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August 5th, 2019

Where is the Artist?


The state of a new pedagogical field

Technology companies are coming under increased scrutiny for the ethical consequences of their work, and some have formed advisory boards or hired ethicists on staff. (Google's AI ethics board quickly disintegrated.) Another approach is to train computer scientists in ethics before they enter the labor market. But how should that training—which must combine practice and theory across disciplines—be structured, who should teach the courses, and what should they teach?

This month’s cover story of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery describes the Embedded EthiCS program at Harvard. (David Gray Grant, a JFI fellow since 2018, and Lily Hu, a new JFI fellow, are co-authors, along with Barbara J. Grosz, Kate Vredenburgh, Jeff Behrends, Alison Simmons, and Jim Waldo.) The article explains the advantages of their approach, wherein philosophy PhD students and postdocs teach modules in computer science classes:

"In contrast to stand-alone computer ethics or computer-and-society courses, Embedded EthiCS employs a distributed pedagogy that makes ethical reasoning an integral component of courses throughout the standard computer science curriculum. It modifies existing courses rather than requiring wholly new courses. Students learn ways to identify ethical implications of technology and to reason clearly about them while they are learning ways to develop and implement algorithms, design interactive systems, and code. Embedded EthiCS thus addresses shortcomings of stand-alone courses. Furthermore, it compensates for the reluctance of STEM faculty to teach ethics on their own by embedding philosophy graduate students and postdoctoral fellows into the teaching of computer science courses."

A future research direction is to examine "the approach's impact over the course of years, for instance, as students complete their degrees and even later in their careers."

Link to the full article.

  • Shannon Vallor and Arvind Narayanan have a free ethics module anyone can use in a CS course. View it here. A Stephanie Wykstra piece in the Nation on the state of DE pedagogy notes that the module has been used at 100+ universities. Link.
  • In February 2018, we wrote about Casey Fiesler’s spreadsheet of tech ethics curricula, which has gotten even more comprehensive, including sample codes of ethics and other resources. Jay Hodges’s comment is still relevant for many of the curricula: "Virtually every discipline that deals with the social world – including, among others, sociology, social work, history, women’s studies, Africana studies, Latino/a studies, urban studies, political science, economics, epidemiology, public policy, and law – addresses questions of fairness and justice in some way. Yet the knowledge accumulated by these fields gets very little attention in these syllabi." Link to that 2018 letter.
  • At MIT, JFI fellow Abby Everett Jacques teaches "Ethics of Technology." An NPR piece gives a sense of the students' experiences. Link.
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March 9th, 2019

Incomplete Squares


Expanding the frame for formalizing fairness

In the digital ethics literature, there's a consistent back-and-forth between attempts at designing algorithmic tools that promote fair outcomes in decision-making processes, and critiques that enumerate the limits of such attempts. A December paper by ANDREW SELBST, dana boyd, SORELLE FRIEDLER, SURESH VENKATASUBRAMANIAN, and JANET VERTESI—delivered at FAT* 2019—contributes to the latter genre. The authors build on insights from Science and Technology Studies and offer a list of five "traps"—Framing, Portability, Formalism, Ripple Effect, and Solutionism—that fair-ML work is susceptible to as it aims for context-aware systems design. From the paper:

"We contend that by abstracting away the social context in which these systems will be deployed, fair-ML researchers miss the broader context, including information necessary to create fairer outcomes, or even to understand fairness as a concept. Ultimately, this is because while performance metrics are properties of systems in total, technical systems are subsystems. Fairness and justice are properties of social and legal systems like employment and criminal justice, not properties of the technical tools within. To treat fairness and justice as terms that have meaningful application to technology separate from a social context is therefore to make a category error, or as we posit here, an abstraction error."

In their critique of what is left out in the formalization process, the authors argue that, by "moving decisions made by humans and human institutions within the abstraction boundary, fairness of the system can again be analyzed as an end-to-end property of the sociotechnical frame." Link to the paper.

  • A brand new paper by HODA HEIDARI, VEDANT NANDA, and KRISHNA GUMMADI attempts to produce fairness metrics that look beyond "allocative equality," and directly grapples with the above mentioned "ripple effect trap." The authors "propose an effort-based measure of fairness and present a data-driven framework for characterizing the long-term impact of algorithmic policies on reshaping the underlying population." Link.
  • In the footnotes to the paper by Selbst et al, a 1997 chapter by early AI researcher turned sociologist Phil Agre. In the chapter: institutional and intellectual history of early AI; sociological study of the AI field at the time; Agre’s departure from the field; discussions of developing "critical technical practice." Link.
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March 2nd, 2019

Weak Local Lineament


Charting the significance of credit and debt throughout society

Household debt has proliferated in the past decade. In the final quarter of 2018, it reached $13.54 trillion—an $869 billion increase since the previous peak in 2008 and a 21.4% increase since the post-crisis trough. While it is now widely recognized that the financialization of household consumption set the groundwork for the Recession (see for example this chapter by Manuel Aalbers), credit markets seem immune to structural reform.

On the one hand, access to credit enables purchases and investments crucial to long term financial mobility; on the other, it incorporates those who lack resources into a cycle of obligations to lenders. In her most recent publication in the Annual Review of Sociology, RACHEL E. DWYER questions how debt has shaped the American social landscape. She develops a two dimensional model of formal debt relationships which categorizes contracts according to the source of credit (state vs. market) and the nature of the obligation (prospective vs. retrospective). The model integrates the logic of debt and credit relationships with an analysis of distributional politics:

"The top row of prospective credit offers are more likely made to affluent or middle-class and disproportionately white populations, and the bottom row of retrospective financial obligations are more likely to fall on lower-income or poor and disproportionately racial/ethnic minority populations. The experience of debt and financial fragility is thus different across these social groups defined by class, race/ethnicity, and other social status, though also tied together by similar logics of financialization and individualized accountability for life conditions."

Dwyer's research shows how credit and debt relations vary geographically and temporally, encouraging a comparative analysis of debt relationships in countries with different political economies. Link to the article.

  • On the unique role that credit markets play in the American economy, see Monica Prasad on the credit-welfare state tradeoff, and Colin Crouch on privatized-mortgage Keynesianism. Link to the first; link to the second.
  • For a pre-crisis examination of credit and inequality, see Patrick Bolton and Howard Rosenthal's Credit Markets for the Poor. Link.
  • Vicki Been, Ingrid Ellen, and Josiah Madar explore the relationship between urban segregation and subprime mortgage lending. Link. ## New Researchers: VISIBILITY PREMIUM

Political effects of celebrity exposure

In a novel paper, HEYU XIONG—a Phd candidate at NORTHWESTERN and newly appointed professor at CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY—studied the political consequences of television celebrity. He used the career of Ronald Reagan as a case study and exploited quasi-experimental variation in television reception to estimate the effects of celebrity media exposure on political outcomes, finding that
support for Reagan based on non-political factors extended nearly two decades after his television career—an effect more pronounced in areas in which Reagan was not a known political entity. The findings suggest that elections hinge considerably more on non-political media exposure and personal characteristics than previously assumed.

From the abstract:

"My results contribute to our knowledge of the vote decision process. Understanding what candidate information is pertinent and how that information is processed is key to understanding the selection of elected officials and, subsequently, the policies those elected officials enact. The economic theory of electoral competition is traditionally situated in the framework of the policy oriented voter. Even without the assertion of rationality, voters are, at the very least, presumed to be voting in order to advance a policy position or to express a political preference. While this preoccupation is not misplaced, the results suggest that candidates' personal characteristics constitute a significant, if substandard, criterion for vote choice."

Link to the paper.

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February 23rd, 2019

Grievous Plans


New evidence on the relationship between skills and labor supply

More than a decade after the financial crisis of 2008, median household incomes have stagnated at their pre-2008 levels, and global economic growth is expected to decline further from what is already a historic low. While the unemployment rate has rebounded, part time, service, and temporary work remain the principal drivers behind labor market growth. Weak recovery from the crisis has been widely attributed to the “skills gap”; commentators and policymakers alike hold that quality jobs are there, but Americans are simply not qualified to perform them.

At the American Economic Association’s most recent conference, ALICIA SASSER MODESTINO, DANIEL SHOAG, and JOSHUA BALLANCE provide evidence against this view. Using a proprietary database of more than 36 million online job postings, they show that employers increased skill requirements in states and occupations which experienced larger increases in the unemployment rate. Their findings suggest that it wasn’t a shortage of skills which weakened labor markets, but rather the ubiquity of qualified applicants which drove employers to raise hiring standards. By testing employer responses to an influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the authors are able to confirm this mechanism:

"As a source of exogenous variation in the availability of skilled workers, we make use of a natural experiment resulting from the large increase in the post-9/11 veteran labor force following troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan... Panel A of Table 5 demonstrates that there is a strong, significant, and positive relationship between the sharp increase in the supply of returning veterans and the rise in employer skill requirements for both education and experience."

This is among the first pieces of empirical evidence which suggests that employer skill requirements are driven, in part, by labor supply. Link to the conference webpage, where a full version of the paper is available for download.

  • As early as 2011, Lawrence Mishel argued against analysts who asserted that the unemployment crisis was structural, proposing instead that the economy was experiencing a crisis of demand. Link.
  • In his most recent book, LSE anthropologist David Graeber examines the relationship between skill and value, questioning why jobs which produce the most social value tend to be categorized as unskilled, consequently earning lower wages. Link to Graeber's widely acclaimed essay from 2013 that first outlined his argument, and link to the Google preview of his new book.
  • In a report for the Roosevelt Institute, Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan argue that the 'skills gap' narrative is inconsistent with student debt crisis: "Although the country’s populace is becoming more educated, each educational group is becoming less well paid." Link.
  • Paul Osterman wrote an accessible overview of the debate for The Atlantic in 2014: “The claim that a shortage of skilled workers has exacerbated inequality has gained traction but it is not supported by the data… For instance, while 38 percent of manufacturing firms require math beyond simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication, the type of math employees need to be able to handle are standard features of a good high school education and part of the curriculum for most community-college students…Nearly 65 percent of businesses report they have no vacancies whatsoever, and another 76.3 percent report they have no long-term vacancies…” Link.
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February 16th, 2019

Cup and Ring


New life in the debates over poverty measurement

In recent weeks, a familiar debate over how we understand the global poverty rate across time reappeared in mainstream op-ed pages. Sparked initially by Bill Gates tweeting out an infographic produced by Our World in Data—which visualizes massive decreases (94% to 10% of people) in global poverty over the past two-hundred years—the notable discussants have been LSE anthropologist JASON HICKEL and Our World in Data researchers JOE HASELL and MAX ROSER.

Hickel published a polemical Guardian op-ed criticizing the publication of this chart, which, he argued, misrepresents the history it claims to communicate and relies on contestable and imprecise data sources to bolster its universal progress narrative, taking "the violence of colonisation and repackaging it as a happy story of progress." Theresponses were numerous.

Among them, a post by Hasell and Roser provided detailed descriptions of the methods and data behind their work to answer the following: "How do we do know that the vast majority of the world population lived in extreme poverty just two centuries ago as this chart indicates? And how do we know that this account of falling global extreme poverty is in fact true?"

In addition to methodological arguments regarding data sources and the poverty line, Hickel's argument emphasizes the gap between poverty and the capacity to eliminate it:

"What matters, rather, is the extent of global poverty vis-à-vis our capacity to end it. As I have pointed out before, our capacity to end poverty (e.g., the cost of ending poverty as a proportion of the income of the non-poor) has increased many times faster than the proportional poverty rate has decreased. By this metric we are doing worse than ever before. Indeed, our civilization is regressing. On our existing trajectory, according to research published in the World Economic Review, it will take more than 100 years to end poverty at $1.90/day, and over 200 years to end it at $7.4/day. Let that sink in. And to get there with the existing system—in other words, without a fairer distribution of income—we will have to grow the global economy to 175 times its present size. Even if such an outlandish feat were possible, it would drive climate change and ecological breakdown to the point of undermining any gains against poverty.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course."

Link to that post, and link to a subsequent one, which responds directly to the methods and data-use questions addressed by Hasell and Roser.

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July 29th, 2019



Inherited institutions and the early American welfare state

Many recent policy proposals are variations on European programs implemented throughout the twentieth century. Despite their marked diversity, European welfare states share a foundation of social protections largely responsible for their lower rates of inequality. Theories on the development of this safety net, whether employee- or employer-driven, hold little explanatory power in the American context; they can't tell us why the US failed to expand the early pension system of the Civil War, or why protections for female workers and mothers preceded the sort of male oriented, class based policies which were common in Europe.

In her 1992 classic book, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol offers a compelling account of the development of modern social provisions in the United States. Conceptually, her narrative balances path dependency with historical contingency, stressing the "fit" between politicized group formations and the design of government institutions.

A brief summary of her conclusions, from the introduction:

"In certain European countries, state bureaucratization preceded the emergence of parliamentary parties, or the democratization of the male electorate. When political parties emerged in such circumstances, they had to make programmatic appeals to collectively organized constituents, including organized workers. Circumstances were sharply different in the 19th century United States, where no pre-modern centralized bureaucracy held sway, and where full democratization of the electorate for white males was virtually completed nationwide by the 1840s.

Because they were already voting, American workers did not need to mobilize along class lines to overcome exclusion from suffrage. But patterns of exclusion from electoral politics shaped the possibilities of women's political consciousness. National and local groups claiming to speak for the collective interests of women were able to mount ideologically inspired efforts on behalf of maternalist welfare policies, outside of parties or regular electoral politics."

Link to the publisher page.

  • In their more recent, widely cited paper, Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote trace the weakness of America's welfare system to race, concluding: "Racial animosity in the US made redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters." Link.
  • More on Civil War pensions: A focused analysis from Skocpol in 1993, and a detailed legislative history submitted as a PhD dissertation by John William Oliver in 1917. Link and link.
  • "By the turn of the 20th century, more than 350,000 women were gainfully employed in New York City, making it the largest urban concentration of female workers in the country. The Women's Trade Union League of New York served as an important training ground for working women and upper-class social reformers alike." Nancy Schrom Dye on the WTULNY and the cross-class alliances it forged. Link.
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July 22nd, 2019

...Höhere Wesen befehlen


Blog highlights

At the Phenomenal World, we have been publishing pieces covering a wide-range of topics, many of which are common ground in this newsletter. Below, in no particular order, is a round-up of some recent work in case you missed it.

Be on the lookout for upcoming posts over the next months—including work on counterfactual fairness by Lily Hu; an interview with scholar Destin Jenkins on race and municipal finance; an examination of the philosophy of Neyman-Pearson testing by Cosmo Grant; and a piece on UBI in the 1970s by Nikita Shepard—and subscribe to the Phenomenal World newsletter to get new posts directly in your inbox.

As always, thank you for reading.

  • Max Kasy discusses the standard of social science experimentation—randomized controlled trials—and proposes, in a new working paper with his colleague Anja Sautmann, a new method for designing experiments that lead to the optimal policy choice. Link.
  • Amanda Page-Hoongrajok reviews James Crotty's new book, Keynes Against Capitalism. Page-Hoongrajok discusses Keynes's thought, Crotty's interventions, and the relevance of these discussions for the current macroeconomic environment. Link.
  • Owen Davis surveys the monopsony literature, dispelling some persistent misunderstandings and clarifying its significance for the state of current economics research. Link.
  • Maya Adereth interviews the legendary and influential political scientist Adam Przeworski. In an expansive conversation, Przeworski discusses his intellectual trajectory, his experience and observations around Allende's government in Chile, the neoliberal turn, and the future of popular politics. Link.
  • Greg Keenan examines the history of copyright formalities in the United States and Europe, arguing that the frequently derided US copyright regime is, in fact, well suited for the digital age. Link.
  • Hana Beach interviews basic income scholar Almaz Zelleke on the neglected history of feminist welfare rights activists's campaigns for unconditional cash transfers, the complex relationship between advocacy and policy, and the current drive towards UBI. Link.
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