Phenomenal World

September 9th, 2019

Phenomenal World

Original & Forgery


The difficulties of causal reasoning and race

While the thorny ethical questions dogging the development and implementation of algorithmic decision systems touch on all manner of social phenomena, arguably the most widely discussed is that of racial discrimination. The watershed moment for the algorithmic ethics conversation was ProPublica's 2016 article on the COMPAS risk-scoring algorithm, and a huge number of ensuing papers in computer science, law, and related disciplines attempt to grapple with the question of algorithmic fairness by thinking through the role of race and discrimination in decision systems.

In a paper from earlier this year, ISSA KOHLER-HAUSMAN of Yale Law School examines the way that race and racial discrimination are conceived of in law and the social sciences. Challenging the premises of an array of research across disciplines, Kolher-Hausmann argues for both a reassessment of the basis of reasoning about discrimination, and a new approach grounded in a social constructivist view of race.

From the paper:

"This Article argues that animating the most common approaches to detecting discrimination in both law and social science is a model of discrimination that is, well, wrong. I term this model the 'counterfactual causal model' of race discrimination. Discrimination, on this account, is detected by measuring the 'treatment effect of race,' where treatment is conceptualized as manipulating the raced status of otherwise identical units (e.g., a person, a neighborhood, a school). Discrimination is present when an adverse outcome occurs in the world in which a unit is 'treated' by being raced—for example, black—and not in the world in which the otherwise identical unit is 'treated' by being, for example, raced white. The counterfactual model has the allure of precision and the security of seemingly obvious divisions or natural facts.

Currently, many courts, experts, and commentators approach detecting discrimination as an exercise measuring the counterfactual causal effect of race-qua-treatment, looking for complex methods to strip away confounding variables to get at a solid state of race and race alone. But what we are arguing about when we argue about whether or not statistical evidence provides proof of discrimination is precisely what we mean by the concept DISCRIMINATION."

Link to the article. And stay tuned for a forthcoming post on the Phenomenal World by JFI fellow Lily Hu that grapples with these themes.

  • For an example of the logic Kohler-Hausmann is writing against, see Edmund S. Phelps' 1972 paper "The Statistical Theory of Racism and Sexism." Link.
  • A recent paper deals with the issue of causal reasoning in an epidemiological study: "If causation must be defined by intervention, and interventions on race and the whole of SeS are vague or impractical, how is one to frame discussions of causation as they relate to this and other vital issues?" Link.
  • From Kohler-Hausmann's footnotes, two excellent works informing her approach: first, the canonical book Racecraft by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields; second, a 2000 article by Tukufu Zuberi, "Decracializing Social Statistics: Problems in the Quantification of Race." Link to the first, link to the second.
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September 3rd, 2019

Eye Machine


The failures of research on fin-tech and poverty alleviation

Last week, we considered how social and political standards can pressure climate scientists to under-report their findings, introducing an underestimation bias into published climate research. In a recent thread, Nicholas Loubere examines the development buzz around mobile money, showing how similar factors can serve to exaggerate the findings of academic studies.

In a new article quoted in the thread, MILFORD BATEMAN, MAREN DUVENDACK, and NICHOLAS LOUBERE contest a much cited study on the poverty alleviating effects of mobile money platforms like M-Pesa. The criticism rests largely on grounds of omission: the study, they argue, ignores the closure of nearly half of microenterprises opened with M-Pesa, the jobs and incomes lost with the introduction of new businesses into fragile markets, the burgeoning debt accrued through digital loans, the overwhelmingly foreign ownership of M-Pesa and its profits, and the wealthy networks composing its primary users. Methodologically, it had no control group, used a small sample size, and overlooked the potential for reverse causality.

Why was a potentially flawed study so well regarded? According to Bateman, Duvendack, and Loubre, it's in part because its results told researchers and policymakers what they wanted to hear. From the article:

"The rapid popularization of fin-tech as a developmental solution is premised on the continued prominence of microcredit and the broader concept of financial inclusion. The microcredit movement was established and validated in the 1980s on overblown and ultimately false claims that providing small loans to groups of poor women was a panacea for global poverty reduction—claims that were especially associated with Dr Muhammad Yunus. Empirical justification came from an impact evaluation undertaken in Bangladesh by then World Bank economists Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker, which claimed that microcredit programs had significant beneficial results for impoverished female clients. For many years, Muhammad Yunus used Pitt and Khandker’s findings to successfully ‘sell’ the microcredit model to the international development community, generating a consensus that the microcredit model was the most effective way to efficiently provide enormous benefits to the global poor."

Link to the article, and link to a blogpost in which the authors outline their key findings.

  • "Kenya’s new experience of debt reveals a novel, digitized form of slow violence that operates not so much through negotiated social relations, nor the threat of state enforcement, as through the accumulation of data, the commodification of reputation, and the instrumentalization of social ties." Kevin P. Donovan and Emma Park report on the consequences of mobile debt for poor borrowers. Link.
  • In an article from 2017, Loubere "examines examples of exploitation, fraud, instability, and extraction related to expanded digital financial coverage in contemporary China." Link. At Bloomberg, David Malingha compares credit markets in Asia with those of sub-Saharan Africa. Link.
  • "This article claims that to bring finance back to serve the real economy, it is fundamental to (a) de-financialize companies in the real economy, and (b) think clearly about how to structure finance so that it can provide the long-term committed patient capital required by innovation." Mariana Mazzucato on governments' role in ensuring that finance serves public ends. Link.
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August 26th, 2019

Summer in Brabant


On the pressures of policy-relevant climate science

Without any “evidence of fraud, malfeasance or deliberate deception or manipulation,” or any promotion of inaccurate views, how can bias enter a scientific assessment? In their new book, Discerning Experts, Michael Oppenheimer, Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson, et al explore the pattern of underestimation of the true consequences of climate change.

Climate change's impacts are uncertain; predictions about climate change are difficult to make. Taking an ethnographic approach, Discerning Experts shows how those difficulties, coupled with the nature of the public discourse, and the pressures that come when research is going to be discussed and used in policy, have tilted climate assessment optimistic and cautious.

In a summary of their book, Oreskes et al explain three reasons for the tilt:

“The combination of … three factors—the push for univocality, the belief that conservatism is socially and politically protective, and the reluctance to make estimates at all when the available data are contradictory—can lead to ‘least common denominator' results—minimalist conclusions that are weak or incomplete.”

These tendencies, according to the authors, pertain to the applied research context. The academic context is different: “The reward structure of academic life leans toward criticism and dissent; the demands of assessment push toward agreement.” Link to a summary essay in Scientific American. Link to the book.

  • In an interview, Michael Oppenheimer elaborates on other elements that skew the assessments: the selection of authors, the presentation of the resulting information, and others. Link.
  • In a review of the book, Gary Yohe reflects on his own experience working on major climate assessments, such the IPCC’s. Link.
  • A David Roberts post from 2018 finds another case of overly cautious climate science: models of the economic effects of climate change may be much more moderate than models of the physical effects. To remedy this, “We need models that negatively weigh uncertainty, properly account for tipping points, incorporate more robust and current technology cost data, better differentiate sectors outside electricity, rigorously price energy efficiency, and include the social and health benefits of decarbonization.” Link.
  • Tangentially related: carbon tax or green investment? It’s worth considering not just all possible policy options but also their optimal interactions. A paper by Julie Rozenberg, Adrien Vogt-Schilb, and Stephane Hallegatte concludes, “Optimal carbon price minimizes the discounted social cost of the transition to clean capital, but imposes immediate private costs that disproportionately affect the current owners of polluting capital, in particular in the form of stranded assets.” Link to a summary which contains a link to the unpaywalled paper.
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August 19th, 2019

Tennis Court


Energy production and political institutions

The role of labor (with some notable exceptions) has been relatively marginal in debates over how to decarbonize the economy. But given the growing number of clean energy jobs (and some recent labor news), it is reasonable to predict that any large-scale shifts in the nature of energy production will be accompanied by large-scale shifts in the nature of energy work and the labor relations that define it.

In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Columbia University professor TIMOTHY MITCHELL explores the political history of energy production. The wide-ranging study spans history from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, and charts the relationship between carbon-based energy production and various forms of governance. Among the arguments at the core of the book is Mitchell's identification of the emergence of democratic labor institutions within the structure and position of coal mines during industrialization—a position that was weakened in the transition to oil.

From the book:

"Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry. The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness, and the autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home, or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.

Changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labor kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily enable large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power."

Link to the book preview, link to a 2009 article that preceded its publication.

  • For more on labor dynamics in industrial Britain, see Robert Steinfeld's 2010 book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, and Suresh Naidu and Noah Yuchtman's 2012 paper on coercive contract enforcement in coal and other industries. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • A 2012 review of Mitchell's book by Matt Stoller: "Globally, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. You can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil." Link.
  • A book on the role of Mexico's oil fields in labor disputes during the Mexican revolution, by Myrna I. Santiago. Link.
  • A Next System report by Johanna Bozuwa imagines a network of democratically-run energy projects as the core of a "just transition." Link.
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August 12th, 2019

The Geometry of a Wave


Young workers and the "gig economy"

The emergence of companies like Uber and Taskrabbit has prompted commentators across legal, economic, and policy research spheres to pronounce the beginning of a new era of work, marked by the prevalence of technologically mediated casual work arrangements.

A new report published by AARON MEDLIN and HYE JIN RHO at the Center for Economic and Policy Research casts doubt on these bold claims. Using data from the BLS 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement, it analyzes the preponderance of nonstandard work arrangements for workers between the ages of 21 and 25.

From the report:

"A majority of young workers, ages 21–25, with and without a college degree, are in standard work arrangements. Between 2005 and 2017, the share of young workers in standard work arrangements with a college degree increased from 94.1 to 95.4 percent. Contrary to common expectations, young workers are more likely to hold such jobs compared to the workforce as a whole. Furthermore, data from BLS show that only 1.0 percent of young workers engaged in electronically mediated (gig) work in May 2017.

The much-hyped growth of the gig economy cannot be found in the 2017 survey of nonstandard work arrangements. Even young workers overwhelmingly opted for employment in traditional jobs. Most pressing are the problems of low wages, lack of benefits, and less than full-time hours for all workers without a college degree, but especially young workers without a college degree. These are the labor market policy issues that should be on the table."

Link to the report.

  • In an earlier report co-authored by CEPR and EPI, Eileen Appelbaum, Arne Kalleberg, and Hye Jin Rho analyze the degree of nonstandard employment for older workers, aged 55-65 and 65+: "Older workers are more likely to be independent contractors than any other age group in both 2005 and 2017. However, the share of all older workers who are independent contractors declined from 10.8% of those ages 55–64 and 18.3% of those ages 65+ in 2005, to 9.3% and 16.2%, respectively, in 2017." Link.
  • "In any conference on the future of work, Uber and the gig economy deserve at most a workshop, not a plenary." Lawrence Mishel's 2018 analysis found that Uber wages averaged $11.77 an hour, and that total hours worked in the gig economy "represent a very small share of total hours worked in the overall economy." Link.
  • While part time, temporary, and casual labor may be declining, work induced precarity remains a prominent feature of the contemporary global landscape. For a substantive overview of the nature and development of precarious work, see Guy Standing's 2011 book, The Precariat. Link.
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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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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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July 15th, 2019

The River


Swedish wage earner funds and their limitations

Beyond growing calls for welfare expansion and a more progressive tax system, recent policy debates have begun to consider alternative models of firm ownership. Last year, the UK Labour party published a report outlining a path towards a more diverse set of ownership arrangements, including worker cooperatives and municipally owned service providers. The party also articulated an intention to transition ownership of up to 10% of shares to workers in large firms. More recently, the Bernie Sanders campaign announced a proposal for the formation of inclusive ownership funds, whereby large corporations contribute a portion of their stocks to an employee controlled fund. This comes in addition to Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, which calls for increased workers representation on company boards.

These recent proposals are distinctly reminiscent of programs put forward throughout the twentieth century, the most famous of which is Sweden’s 1976 Meidner Plan. In his 1992 book, Princeton politics professor JONAS PONTUSSON analyzes the origins of the plan, and the barriers to its successful implementation. He compares the movement for wage earner funds with that of co-determination, suggesting that the failure of the former has to do with the politics of legislation:

"In unfavorable political circumstances, it made sense for organized business to avoid major political confrontation and instead use post-legislative bargaining to define co-determination. By contrast, the Meidner Plan and subsequent wage-earner funds proposals left very little room for post-legislative bargaining. In other words, the co-determination offensive was a legislative success for the same reason that the implementation of new legislation became a disappointment for labor.

Organized business spent about as much on its advertising and media campaign against wage earner funds in 1982 as the five parliamentary parties spent on the election campaign that same year. But couldn’t the labor movement have devoted more resources to acquiring the expertise needed to influence industrial policy? The final lesson seems to be that when industrial policy, and investment policy more generally, fails to address wage earner’s immediate concerns, they are bound to become less supportive of further efforts to democratize investment decisions."

Link to the book chapter, and link to an article in which Pontusson assesses the diluted version of the plan which was implemented in 1983.

  • "The concept of a society which is built on moral values remains, in my view, too promising to be extinguished by inhuman market forces." The disintegration of the Swedish model, in Rudolf Meidner’s words: Link. See also this interview with Meidner from 1998. Link.
  • In the largest study of its kind, Joseph Blasi, Douglas Kruse and Dan Weltmann explore the impact of employee stock ownership plans (ESOP) on firm performance, concluding that "Privately held ESOP companies were only half as likely as non-ESOP firms to go bankrupt or close, had significantly higher post-adoption annual employment and sales growth, and demonstrated higher sales per employee." Link.
  • In 1987, political theorist Jon Elster argued that the plan’s failure was the result of a fundamental problem in its conception of justice, which would leave much of the real decision making capabilities in the hands of the union bureaucracy. Link.
  • A report on Public-Common Partnerships, an "alternative institutional design that moves us beyond the overly simplistic binary of market/state." Link.
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July 8th, 2019

Model of a Cabin


Examining the college premium

Higher education is widely understood to be a major driver of intergenerational mobility in the United States. Despite the clear (and growing) inequalities between and within colleges, it remains the case that higher education reduces the impact that parental class position has on a graduate's life outcomes.

In an intriguing paper, associate professor of economics at Harvard XIANG ZHOU scrutinizes the implied causal relationship between college completion and intergenerational mobility. Specifically, Zhou uses a novel weighting method "to directly examine whether and to what extent a college degree moderates the influence of parental income" outside of selection effects, seeking to distinguish between the "equalization" and "selection" hypotheses of higher ed's impact on intergenerational mobility.

From the paper:

"Three decades have passed since Hout’s (1988) discovery that intergenerational mobility is higher among college graduates than among people with lower levels of education. In light of this finding, many researchers have portrayed a college degree as 'the great equalizer' that levels the playing field, and hypothesized that an expansion in postsecondary education could promote mobility because more people would benefit from the high mobility experienced by college graduates. Yet this line of reasoning rests on the implicit assumption that the 'college premium' in intergenerational mobility reflects a genuine 'meritocratic' effect of postsecondary education, an assumption that has rarely, if ever, been rigorously tested.

In fact, to the extent that college graduates from low and moderate-income families are more selected on such individual attributes as ability and motivation than those from high-income families, the high mobility observed among bachelor’s degree holders may simply reflect varying degrees of selectivity of college graduates from different family backgrounds."

In sum, Zhou finds that the "selection" hypothesis carries more weight than the "equalization" hypothesis. One implication of this finding is that "simply expanding the pool of college graduates is unlikely to boost intergenerational income mobility in the US." Link to the paper.

  • A 2011 paper by Michael Bastedo and Ozan Jaquette looks at the stratification dynamics affecting low-income students within higher ed. Link. A paper from the same year by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski surveys the state of inequality in postsecondary education. Link.
  • An op-ed by E. Tammy Kim in the Times argues for higher-education as a public good. Link.
  • Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan's 2018 paper examines the student debt crisis in the broader context of labor market trends: "Reliance on the college earnings premium [as a measure of success] is that it focuses primarily on the individual benefit of educational attainment, implying that college is worthwhile as long as individuals are making more than they would have otherwise. But in the context of public investment in higher education, we need to know not only how individuals are faring but also how investments in higher education are affecting our workforce and the economy as a whole." Link.
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