Phenomenal World

August 1st, 2019

Phenomenal World

Decentralize What?

Can you fix political problems with new web infrastructures?

The internet's early proliferation was steeped in cyber-utopian ideals. The circumvention of censorship and gatekeeping, digital public squares, direct democracy, revitalized civic engagement, the “global village”—these were all anticipated characteristics of the internet age, premised on the notion that digital communication would provide the necessary conditions for the world to change. In a dramatic reversal, we now associate the internet era with eroding privacy, widespread surveillance, state censorship, asymmetries of influence, and monopolies of attention—exacerbations of the exact problems it portended to fix.

Such problems are frequently understood as being problems of centralization—both infrastructural and political. If mass surveillance and censorship are problems of combined infrastructural and political centralization, then decentralization looks like a natural remedy. In the context of the internet, decentralization generally refers to peer-to-peer (p2p) technologies. In this post, I consider whether infrastructural decentralization is an effective way to counter existing regimes of political centralization. The cyber-utopian dream failed to account for the exogenous pressures that would shape the internet—the rosy narrative of infrastructural decentralization seems to be making a similar misstep.

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July 18th, 2019

Student Debt & Racial Wealth Inequality

How student debt cancellation affects the racial wealth gap

The effect of cancelling student debt on various measures of individual and group-level inequality has been a matter of controversy, especially given presidential candidates’ recent and high-profile proposals to eliminate outstanding student debt. In this work, I attempt to shed light on the policy counterfactual by analyzing the Survey of Consumer Finances for 2016, the most recent nationally-representative dataset that gives a picture of the demographics of student debt.

When we test the effects of cancelling student debt on the racial wealth gap, we conclude that across all samples, across all quantiles, the racial wealth gap narrows when student debt is cancelled, and it narrows more the more student debt is cancelled.

With respect to the two presidential candidates’ plans, this means that the Sanders plan, completely eliminating outstanding student debt, reduces racial wealth inequality more than does the Warren plan, which only forgives $50,000 of debt, and phases that out for high earners. But the difference between the two plans as measured by the reduction in the racial wealth gap is not large. It would be fair to say that the Warren plan achieves the vast majority of the racial wealth equity gains that the Sanders plan achieves, while leaving the student debt held by the highest-income borrowers intact.

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July 11th, 2019

Keynes versus the Keynesians

A new book by James Crotty reexamines the career of John Maynard Keynes

What drives economic growth and stagnation? What types of methodologies and tools do we need to accurately explain economic epochs in the past and present? What models and policy approaches can lead to prosperity for all? These questions occupied the mind of John Maynard Keynes from World War One until his death in 1946. Keynes, one of the most influential economists of all time, is often claimed to have “saved capitalism.” His legacy, as understood by most of the economics profession, was to cure laissez-faire capitalism with countercyclical fiscal policy—using expansionary government spending during recessions to increase output and employment.

In his new book, Keynes Against Capitalism, economist James Crotty argues that this interpretation of Keynes is profoundly mistaken. Keynes, Crotty argues, wanted to replace capitalism with his own program of “liberal socialism.” Through the book, he demonstrates that 1) Keynes fundamentally rejected the theoretical model that undergirds laissez-faire capitalism; and 2) the cornerstone of Keynes’ liberal socialism program was permanent, large-scale public and semi-public investment guided by the state, accompanied by low interest rates and capital controls.

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July 3rd, 2019

The Politics of Machine Learning, pt. II

The uses of algorithms discussed in the first part of this article vary widely: from hiring decisions to bail assignment, to political campaigns and military intelligence.

Across all these applications of machine learning methods, there is a common thread: Data on individuals is used to treat different individuals differently. In the past, broadly speaking, such commercial and government activities used to target everyone in a given population more or less similarly—the same advertisements, the same prices, the same political slogans. More and more now, everyone gets personalized advertisements, personalized prices, and personalized political messages. New inequalities are created and new fragmentations of discourse are introduced.

Is that a problem? Well, it depends. I will discuss two types of concerns. The first type, relevant in particular to news and political messaging, is that the differentiation of messages is by itself a source of problems.

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June 27th, 2019

The Politics of Machine Learning, pt. I

Terminology like "machine learning," "artificial intelligence," "deep learning," and "neural nets" is pervasive: business, universities, intelligence agencies, and political parties are all anxious to maintain an edge over the use of these technologies. Statisticians might be forgiven for thinking that this hype simply reflects the success of the marketing speak of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs vying for venture capital. All these fancy new terms are just describing something statisticians have been doing for at least two centuries.

But recent years have indeed seen impressive new achievements for various prediction problems, which are finding applications in ever more consequential aspects of society: advertising, incarceration, insurance, and war are all increasingly defined by the capacity for statistical prediction. And there is crucial a thread that ties these widely disparate applications of machine learning together: the use of data on individuals to treat different individuals differently. In this two part post, Max Kasy surveys the politics of the machine learning landscape.

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June 13th, 2019

Elections, Social Democracy, and the Neoliberal Shift

An interview with Adam Przeworski

Throughout the 20th century, radical social movements were plagued by their relationship to existing state institutions. Across Western Europe, labor movements found political expression in parties like the Swedish Social Democrats, the German SPD, and the French Socialist Party. In their pursuit of the democratization of wealth and political power, these organizations were criticized for moderating popular demands in favor of cross-party compromise. And while social democratic governments did make significant gains in the postwar period, today's landscape seems to testify against the durability of their reforms.

I met with Adam Przeworski—Professor of Politics at NYU, former member of the September Group of analytical Marxists, and a leading theorist of political economy—to discuss the role of elections in effecting social change, and the political transformations underway today. Over the course of a career spanning thirteen books and over 150 published articles, Przeworski's foremost contributions have been in the study of democratic transitions, distributional politics, and the determinants of economic growth.

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May 31st, 2019

Copyright Humanism

It's by now common wisdom that American copyright law is burdensome, excessive, and failing to promote the ideals that protection ought to. Too many things, critics argue, are subject to copyright protections, and the result is an inefficient legal morass that serves few benefits to society and has failed to keep up with the radical transformations in technology and culture of the last several decades. To reform and streamline our copyright system, the thinking goes, we need to get rid of our free-for-all regime of copyrightability and institute reasonable barriers to protection.

But what if these commentators are missing the forest for the trees, and America's frequently derided copyright regime is actually particularly well-suited to the digital age? Could copyright protections—applied universally at the moment of authorship—provide a level of autonomy that matches the democratization of authorship augured by the digital age?

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May 16th, 2019

Feminist Theory, Gender Inequity, and Basic Income

An interview with Almaz Zelleke

Feminist and women's movements in the mid-20th century developed demands for an unconditional basic income that emerged out of concrete experiences with the welfare state. What can the current discussion around UBI learn from examining this largely sidelined history?

In this conversation with basic income scholar Almaz Zelleke, we look at this history—and examine the reasons for its absence from the dominant intellectual histories of unconditional cash transfers. More broadly, our conversation explores political change and the processes that lead to policy creation. It touches on the movements that have brought basic income into the 2020 election cycle, considers how to focus political will surrounding basic income, and concludes with policy recommendations that will move America incrementally towards an unconditional UBI.

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May 3rd, 2019

How Do States Pay for Wars?

An interview with Rosella Cappella Zielinski

Academic study of war in the social sciences is as old as historiography itself, and political economists have considered the economic logic of war and peace for centuries. Yet social scientists have left several questions on the financing of conflict unaddressed. In her 2017 book How States Pay for Wars, Professor Rosella Cappella Zielinski maps out a theory of war finance.

As a sub-discipline, war finance has long existed on the periphery of academic debates in International Relations. Cappella Zielinski’s book is a novel contribution to a growing field, providing the first systematic review and analysis of how states are able to float the cost war. Her overarching theory of war finance is expansive, flexible, and useful for understanding the far-reaching implications of wars past and present. Cappella Zielinski’s research sheds light on the “tools of the trade” for raising money, the balancing act between domestic political concerns and politicians’ war finance decisions, and the unexpected consequences war finance has on income inequality.

Below we discuss what first sparked her interest in war finance, the history of the sub-discipline, and the puzzles that remain to be solved.

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March 28th, 2019

Experiments for Policy Choice

Randomized experiments have become part of the standard toolkit for policy evaluation, and are usually designed to give precise estimates of causal effects. But, in practice, their actual goal is to pick good policies. These two goals are not the same.

Is this the best way to go about things? Can we maybe make better policy choices, with smaller experimental budgets, by doing things a little differently? This is the question that Anja Sautmann and I address in our new work on “Adaptive experiments for policy choice.” If we wish to pick good policies, we should run experiments adaptively, shifting toward better policies over time. This gives us the highest chance to pick the best policy after the experiment has concluded.

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