March 20th, 2021

Peacock

STRUCTURE AND SOCIAL CHANGE

Debates concerning the relative role of structure versus agency in explaining social phenomena has endured for decades. Drawing parallels between the teleology of nineteenth century approaches and more modern, variable-oriented research methods, historian WILLIAM SEWELL JR's 2005 book reflects on the pitfalls of structural thinking, and posits a path forward.

From the book:

"Structure is one of the most important and elusive terms in the vocabulary of current social science. If social scientists find it impossible to do without the term structure, we also find it nearly impossible to define it adequately. The term structure empowers what it designates. Structure, in its nominative sense, always implies structure in its transitive verbal sense. Whatever aspect of social life we designate as structure is posited as structuring some other aspect of social existence. Structure operates in social scientific discourse as a powerful metonymic device, identifying some part of a complex social reality as explaining the whole.

The most fundamental problem in the current use of the term is that it tends to assume a far too rigid causal determinism in social life. Those features of social existence denominated as structures tend to be reified and treated as primary, hard, and immutable, like the girders of a building, while the events or social processes they structure tend to be seen as secondary and superficial, like the skin of a skyscraper. What tends to get lost in the language of structure is the efficacy of human action, or agency. But the notion of structure does denominate, however problematically, something very important about social relations: the tendency of patterns of relations to be reproduced, even when actors engaging in relations are unaware of the patterns or do not desire their reproduction."

Link to the book.

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March 13th, 2021

Development in Rose

PUBLIC HEALTH & MEDICINE

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought attention to the underfunding of US public health infrastructure over the last several decades. Alongside a fragmented system, a gap has emerged between public health and clinical care, with consequences for the public.

A 2000 article by ALLAN BRANDT and MARTHA GARDNER offers insight into the historical origins of this divide, tracing the "antagonism" between public health and medical fields in the US to the early 20th century.

From the text:

"As the medical profession became more homogenous and powerful, medicine increasingly viewed public health interventions as a potential infringement on the doctor-patient relationship. Early 20th-century calls for the reporting of communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and syphilis, came under sharp attack from physicians’ professional organizations on these grounds. Physicians complained that such reporting requirements would ultimately dissuade patients from seeking care. Public health officials insisted that the public good periodically required the abrogation of individual rights. The interests of the state in policing individuals with communicable diseases now seemed at odds with the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship.

The delivery of health services by public health agencies appeared to threaten the economic well-being of the rising medical profession. Institutions and programs from outpatient dispensaries to well-baby care, from diagnostic laboratories to school-based nursing, came under attack as incursions into the medical profession’s domain. Public health officials were quick to identify the economic interests behind these protests, labeling such attacks on state authority as mere hypocrisy and medical self-interest. Even so, medicine generally triumphed in direct political conflicts. Innovative programs such as the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, which was organized to ensure prenatal and postnatal care for mothers and infants, fell prey to medicine’s lobbying in Congress and the state legislatures. The rise of the hospital, focused on acute tertiary care, as the preeminent institution of modern medicine further separated medicine from public health. Public health officials no doubt chafed at the notion of ending their efforts at the hospital’s door. Instead, legislative and administrative proposals for neighborhood public health centers that could combine public health interventions with clinical care were derailed by medical interests because of concerns about provision of 'free care' to potential paying patients."

Link to the article.

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March 6th, 2021

Clown Underwater

PERSONNEL DEPARTMENTS

Deindustrialization is a key orienting point for research in political economy. But around the world, factory production remains significant, with employment in industry constituting between one-fifth and one-third of total employment in large economies.

While factory production persists, its form and function has changed dramatically. In his 2004 book, SANFORD JACOBY analyzes the bureaucratization of employment through the lens of factory organization, and particularly through the early-twentieth-century invention of the personnel department.

From the text:

"This book treats bureaucratic employment practices as the outcome of a prolonged struggle to overcome the insecurity and inequities produced by a market-oriented employment system. The struggle was played out both within management and between management and other groups. Within management, the conflict between the traditional and the bureaucratic approach to employment was epitomized by clashes between the production division and the new personnel departments that began to appear after 1910. The creation of a personnel department signaled that employment policy would now be treated as an end in itself rather than as a means to the production division’s ends. One of the personnel manager’s chief responsibilities was to stabilize labor relations, a task that required trading off short-term efficiency in the interests of achieving high employee morale over the long run.

But personnel management was more than a new slot in the corporate hierarchy. Unlike marketing or finance, it was deeply affected by developments external to the firm, such as changes in social attitudes and norms regarding industrial employment. Because it had its roots in various Progressive reform movements, personnel management was influenced by new middle-class beliefs in the necessity of market intervention, the beneficial effects of rational administration, and the power of the educated expert to mediate and mitigate social conflict. Many early personnel managers thought of themselves as neutral professionals, whose job was to reconcile opposing industrial interests and make employment practices more scientific and humane. Personnel management and the new bureaucratic approach to employment did not gradually take hold in an ever-growing number of firms. Instead they were adopted during two periods of crisis for the traditional system of employment—World War I and the Great Depression."

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February 27th, 2021

Queen Mab's Cave

AGRICULTURAL REFORM

Since November 2020, thousands of Indian farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and other states have protested the implementation of national market-based agricultural reforms.

A look to a series of liberalization measures in the 1990s, which did not specifically address agriculture, reveals a dramatic restructuring of the agricultural sector. In a 2017 paper, Abhijit Sen and Jayati Ghosh investigate the impacts of these measures, highlighting shifts in investment, subsidies, and credit that inform the current debate.

From the paper:

"In the initial years, the reforms package did not include any specific policies specifically designed for agriculture. In the early 1990s, it was felt that the devaluation of the rupee had already provided sufficient incentive to agriculture, because it was expected to make it more attractive to export crops and thereby improve farm incomes. However, even if no explicit attention was paid to agriculture, various economic policies and other changes in patterns of government spending and financial measures had significant implications for the conditions of cultivation.

Over the initial period of economic reforms, which coincided with government attempts at fiscal stabilisation, there were actual declines in government expenditure on agriculture and rural development. Thereafter, there were cuts in particular subsidies such as on fertilizer in real terms, and the 1990s experienced overall decline in per capita government expenditure on rural areas in both absolute per capita terms and shares of GDP and aggregate public spending. There were also very substantial declines in public infrastructure and energy investments that affect the rural areas. These were especially marked in irrigation and transport, both of which matter for agricultural growth and productivity. In addition, financial liberalisation measures, including the emerging scope of what was designated as 'priority sector lending' by banks, effectively reduced the availability of institutional credit. Although the problem of credit access to cultivators was far from solved in India, the nationalization of banks had caused some positive differences, as public sector banks made more efforts to open rural branches and rural accounts, and to provide more crop loans to farmers. But after 1993 in particular, various financial liberalization measures, and the explicit and implicit incentives provided to public sector banks, made this much less attractive for bankers who anyway faced very high transaction costs when dealing with agricultural lending. The growth of branches, accounts and lending to agriculture all decelerated and in some states showed absolute declines. This forced many cultivators, particularly smaller farmers, tenant farmers and those without clear titles to land, to seek recourse to informal channels of credit like input dealers and traditional moneylenders. All this made farm investment and working capital for cultivation more expensive and more difficult, especially for smaller farmers."

Link to the text.

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February 20th, 2021

The Great Conspiracy

ELECTRICITY

Earlier this week, millions of households lost power in the face of a powerful snowstorm. While these numbers are unusual, they are not new—the US suffers among the most frequent power outages of any industrialized country, concentrated especially in rural areas and the South.

In a recent paper, ABBY SPINAK analyzes the political trajectory of America's weak electrical infrastructure by comparing the underlying economic assumptions of the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration (REA) with those of the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission in Canada.

From the paper:

"In the early twentieth century, experiments in electricity were experiments in statecraft. A malleable technology with significant financing and distribution challenges, electricity was a proxy through which budding welfare states could hash out their responsibilities to the public. Early public electrification efforts became sites of deliberation about balancing urban and rural needs, industrial development, and the public interest. Through electrification programs, policymakers in industrializing countries proposed and tested ideas of economic citizenship, the proper role for government, and the limits of private enterprise. Vibrant forums within and between industrializing nations intensely debated whether electricity was a right or a privilege—and where and for whom.

Why did REA power flow not quite so freely as it did in Ontario? With an explicit charter not to distinguish between private, municipal, or cooperative power companies for dispersal of loans, the REA focused on keeping rates low and distributing power to areas where it could encourage rapid economic growth. It only begrudgingly supported the use of federal loans in the construction of generating stations where power could not be purchased inexpensively enough through the private market. Despite the explicit connection of the REA to Dust Bowl mitigation efforts, its emphasis was less on protecting natural resources for the common good and more on ensuring the efficiency and sustainability of natural resources for national economic growth. In the latter case, who owned what mattered much less than how capably it would be put to use."

Link to the piece

  • "Although REA programs were planned and administered in Washington, D.C., western residents rather than New Deal administrators initiated most of the region's rural electrification projects." Brian Q. Cannon on "Rural Electrical Cooperatives and the New Deal." Link. & Carl Kitchens and Price Fishback examine "The Spatial Impact of the Rural Electrification Administration 1935-1940." Link.
  • "Africa is the most undersupplied region in the world when it comes to electricity, but its economies are utterly dependent on it." David A. McDonald introduces a book of collected essays on inequality and electrification across the continent. (Also inside: river privatization and hydropower, nuclear energy in South Africa, corporate power in Uganda.) Link.
  • Wuyuan Peng Jiahua Pan with a history of rural electrification in China. Link. And from Jonathan Coopersmith's 2016 book: "Electrification transformed capital markets, the military, manufacturing, the spatial geography of cities, and many other facets of Russian life." Link.
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February 13th, 2021

The Legend

INFLATION

The proposed Covid-19 stimulus package in the US has reignited debate around inflation. Much contemporary concern and discussion on the topic still bears the mark of the 1970s, the Volcker disinflation, and the past consensus around the relationship between unemployment and inflation.

In a recent paper, Jonathon Hazell, Juan Herreño, Emi Nakamura, and Jón Steinsson find evidence that points instead to the determining role of expectations around future monetary policy.

From the paper:

"The episode in US economic history that has perhaps most strongly influenced the profession’s thinking regarding the slope of the Phillips curve is the Volcker disinflation. In the early 1980s, Paul Volcker’s Federal Reserve sharply tightened monetary policy. Unemployment rose sharply and inflation fell sharply. The conventional interpretation of this episode is that it provides evidence for a relatively steep Phillips curve. The insensitivity of inflation to changes in unemployment over the past few decades has led many economists to suggest that the Phillips curve has disappeared—or is 'hibernating.' During the Great Recession, unemployment rose to levels comparable to those during the Volcker disinflation, yet inflation fell by much less. The 'missing disinflation' during and after the Great Recession then gave way to 'missing reinflation' in the late 2010s as unemployment fell to levels not seen in 50 years, but inflation inched up only slightly. A similar debate raged in the late 1990s, when unemployment was also very low without this leading to much of a rise in inflation. Some have argued that the apparent flattening of the Phillips curve signals an important flaw in the Keynesian model.

An alternative to the standard narrative of the Volcker disinflation is that the decline in inflation was driven not by a steep Phillips curve but by shifts in beliefs about the long-run monetary regime in the United States that caused the rapid fall in long-run inflation expectations. Volcker’s monetary policy constituted a sharp regime shift that was imperfectly credible at the outset but became gradually more credible as time passed. This regime shift led to a large and sustained decline in long-term inflation expectations over the 1980s but also a transitory rise in unemployment. Perhaps it was this large change in inflation expectations that was the primary cause of the rapid fall in inflation over this period rather than high unemployment working through a steep Phillips curve."

Link to the paper.

  • Employ America's Skanda Amarnath and Alex Williams blog on "Inflation: the good, the bad, the transitory." Link. And Tim Barker blogs on the present inflation discourse. Link.
  • "A puzzle emerges when Phillips curves estimated over 1960-2007 are used to predict inflation over 2008-2010: inflation should have fallen by more than it did." Laurence Ball and Sandeep Mazumder analyze inflation after the Great Recession. Link. And James Stock and Mark Watson probe the question of inflation forecasting. Link.
  • Two recent Phenomenal World essays on the topic: Yakov Feygin on "The Deflationary Coalition" and Andrew Elrod on "Inflation, Specific and General." Link, and link.
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February 6th, 2021

The Villa in the Snow

SOCIAL DEMOCRACY

While the neoliberal era appears to be in crisis, we took on a project to investigate its historical foundations. The tensions of the current political moment are commonly traced to the financial deregulation and economic liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s. The "turn" that took place in these decades has been attributed to economic necessity, ideological commitments, and the interests of powerful political actors.

But key to critiquing the economic policies of this period is the assumption of viable political alternatives. Adam Przeworski's classic 1986 text examines the details of this question.

From the piece:

"What is a 'mistake'? The very possibility of committing mistakes presupposes simultaneously a political project, some choice among strategies, and objective conditions that are independent with regard to the particular movement. If the strategy of a party is determined by economic circumstances, then the notion of mistakes is meaningless: the party can only pursue the inevitable. In a world of economic necessity, the question of errors cannot even be posed.

The notion of mistakes is also rendered meaningless within the context of a radically voluntaristic understanding of historical possibilities. If everything is always possible, then only motives can explain the course of history. For an error is a relation between projects and conditions; mistakes are possible if and only if some strategies are ineffective in advancing the realization of a given project under existing conditions, while other strategies would have advanced it under the same conditions. If we are to draw lessons from historical experience, we can assume neither that the practice of political movements is uniquely determined by any objective conditions, nor that such movements are free to act at will, independently of the conditions they seek to transform. These conditions constitute at each moment the structure of choice: the structure within which actors deliberate upon goals, perceive alternatives, evaluate them, choose courses of action, and pursue them to create new conditions."

Link to the book.

  • In Phenomenal World's first book, Market Economy, Market Society, Przeworski reconsiders the issue: "The social democratic vision of transforming society survived for nearly one hundred years, even when it was imperative to cope with immediate crises, and even when social democrats experienced political defeats. This is what faded at the end of the 1970s." Link. In the book's second introductory text, Stephanie Mudge notes, "social democratic parties can make the difference between mere rights and actual representation. But simply occupying that space isn’t enough—it matters how these parties work, the agendas and policies they promote, and how and for whom (or what) they speak." Link.
  • "It is, decisively, the Italian left’s weakness in proposing achievable reforms at the state level which has made it particularly suffer the effects of the decline of the mass workplace." In the book's first section, David Broder analyzes the "Italian Left After Keynesianism." Link. Also in this section, an interview with former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, link, and interviews with Emanuele Macaluso and Claudio Petruccioli.
  • In the book's second section, an interview with former Spanish Prime minister Felipe González: "What worries me is that to some degree social democracy died of success. It died because it couldn’t understand that the society that it had helped create was not the society which existed when it started." Link to the interview, link to the section's introduction by Juan Andrade. Also in this section, interviews with Begoña San José and Héctor Maravall.
  • "Mitterrand shows that if the path of radical reformism is challenging and uncertain, the alternative has been disastrous." In the final section, Jonah Birch analyzes the political shifts in France. Link to the article. And the section also features interviews with Anicet Le Pors, François Morin, and Roger Martelli.
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January 30th, 2021

Turn and Burn

SOCIAL HISTORY

Next week marks the launching of our first book-length Phenomenal World publication: Market Economy, Market Society: Interviews and Essays on the Decline of European Social Democracy. The book examines the fracturing of the social democratic consensus through the eyes of policymakers, trade union leaders, and party politicians who lived through, and in some cases enacted, the liberal market reforms of the 1980s and 90s.

A 1997 essay by Eric Hobsbawm reflects on the social, political, and cultural importance of historical inquiry in shaping collective understandings of the present and future.

From the piece:

"To be a member of any human community is to situate oneself with regard to one's (its) past, if only by rejecting it. The past is therefore a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other patterns of human society. The problem for historians is to analyze the nature of this 'sense of the past' in society and to trace its changes and transformations.

Paradoxically, the past remains the most useful analytical tool for coping with constant change. Some sort of historicism, that is the extrapolation of past tendencies into the future, has been the most convenient and popular method of prediction. At all events the shape of the future is discerned by searching the process of past development for clues, so that the more we expect innovation, the more history becomes essential to discover what it will be like. However, at this point a contradiction arises: the capacity to discern general tendencies does not imply the capacity to forecast their precise outcome in complex and in many respects unknown circumstances of the future. History ceases to be of use at the very moment when we need it most. The value of historical enquiry into 'what actually happened' for the solution of this or that specific problem of present and future is undoubted. Yet the nature of this often arbitrary process of dipping into the past for assistance in forecasting the future by itself does not replace the construction of adequate social models, with or without historical enquiry. It merely reflects and perhaps in some instances palliates their present inadequacy."

Link to the book containing the paper.

  • "Students of history have imagined that they were dealing with phenomena like ocean tides, whose regularities they could deduce from sufficient knowledge of celestial motion, when they were actually confronting phenomena like great floods, equally coherent occurrences from a causal perspective, but enormously variable in structure, sequences, and consequences." Charles Tilly on explaining political processes. Link.
  • "By the late twentieth century, it can be argued that concepts of identity at every level are crucially derived from highly fashioned and coherent narratives about the past." A 1995 paper by Olivia Harris examines the relationship between historical narrative and political agency. Link.
  • A 1980 reflection from Braudel: "The one thing that fascinates me in the history profession is the extent to which it can explain the life of men as it is being woven before our very eyes, with its acquiescences and reticences, its refusals, complicities, or surrenders when confronted with change or tradition." Link.
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January 23rd, 2021

Luxor

SOCIAL POLICY IN BRAZIL

Outside of Brazil, the Bolsa Familia is known as the hallmark social policy of the former President Lula and remains the world's largest conditional cash transfer program. Less well known is the history of Brazil's social policy in the early decades of the twentieth century.

In her 1996 book, BARBARA WEINSTEIN examines how industrialists influenced the nation's social programs from 1920 to 1964.

From the book:

"Although the industrialist proponents of rational organization did aspire to remake the workplace and the workforce, their concern in the first instance was to remake themselves, or at least their class image. By identifying with new currents in rational organization and scientific management, these industrialists, engineers, and educators claimed for themselves the professional authority and technical expertise necessary to modernize Brazilian society. In contrast to the 'arbitrary' authority of the old-style planter or mill owner, these new industrial owner-managers defined a wide variety of problems affecting the organization of production in the workplace, and even life beyond the factory walls, as technical, not social, questions to be resolved on a systematic, scientific basis. Such an approach, they claimed, would not only increase productivity but also promote social peace.

This effort by certain industrialists and their allies to capture the discourse of technical competence had formidable implications for labor relations and the work process, but workers were not the industrialists' sole concern. The industrialists also sought to change the perception of industry among politicians, professionals, and middle-class reformers who harbored doubts about the industry's contribution to economic progress and social peace. By asserting the centrality of technical expertise as well as their privileged access to it, industrialists attempted to protect and expand their authority within the factory and claim an authoritative role in the making of public policies and programs."

Link to the book.

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January 16th, 2021

Metaesquema

DECENTRALIZATION

The simultaneous integration of global markets and decentralization of government within nation states has been a hallmark of the age of globalization.

In a 2004 article, NEIL BRENNER looks to Europe to argue that through processes of decentralization and localization, national state power has been increasingly articulated through competitive forms of urban and regional governance.

From the paper:

"As in the 1970s, the reorientation of urban governance during the 1980s was initiated in part through the bottom-up strategies of local political coalitions struggling to manage the disruptive consequences of economic restructuring by means of ad hoc, uncoordinated policy adjustments. In this period, national goals of equalizing economic development capacities across the national territory was increasingly seen to be incompatible with a new priority of promoting assets within each country's most powerful cities and city-regions. Accordingly, in addition to their strategies to undercut traditional redistributive regional policy relays, national governments now mobilized a number of institutional restructuring initiatives in order to establish a new, competitive infrastructure for urban economic growth within their territories.

Local governments were granted new revenue-raising powers and an increased level of authority in determining local tax rates and user fees, even as national fiscal transfers to subnational levels were diminished. New responsibilities for planning, economic development, social services and spatial planning were devolved downwards to subnational (regional and local) governments. In a number of western European countries, local economic development projects were a key focal point for such devolutionary initiatives. Although these trends were most apparent in traditionally centralized states, such as France and Spain, various policies to enhance regional and local autonomy were also enacted in less centralized European states as well. Decentralization policies were seen as a means to limit the considerable welfare demands of urban areas and to encourage lower-level authorities to assume responsibility for growth policies that might reduce welfare burdens. Even in the United Kingdom, where major aspects of local governance were subjected to increasing central control under the Thatcher regime, the problem of local economic governance was among the key issues upon which the restructuring of intergovernmental relations was focused."

Link to the text.

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