In addition to straining America's existing welfare infrastructure, the pandemic has fundamentally altered labor markets and generated a wide range of new social needs. Policy responses to these changing circumstances have the potential to shape the trajectory of US inequality for decades to come.
In a 2010 paper, JACOB HACKER and PAUL PIERSON argue that failure to adapt to political developments is more than just passive inaction; in recent American history, it has been among the most effective strategies for active welfare dismantlement.
From the paper:
"A convincing political account of American inequality must explain its defining feature, namely, the stunning shift of income toward the very top. Equally important, it must explain how public policy has contributed to this trend. This means not only identifying public policies that can be linked to large increases in inequality; but also providing an account of the political processes that have led to the generation of those policies.
One oversight of existing political accounts is the presumption that if government played a central role in rising inequality, then a host of new laws and policies must have been created over the past thirty years to drive the upward distribution of income. Very important inequality-inducing laws and policies have in fact been created. But these are but one of the two principal mechanisms through which politics can reshape how an economy works. A second mechanism, which we call drift, is equally, if not more, important. Drift describes the politically driven failure of public policies to adapt to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy and society. It is not the same as simple inaction. Rather, it occurs when the effects of public policies change substantially due to shifts in the surrounding economic or social context and then, despite the recognition of alternatives, policy makers fail to update policies due to pressure from intense minority interests or political actors exploiting veto points in the political process. The design of U.S. political institutions makes policy enactments especially difficult, while maximizing opportunities to pursue policy agendas based on the exploitation of drift."
- "Drift is difficult to study empirically because it refers to change through inaction. We suggest that closer attention to case-specific empirical implications of the effectiveness of policy implementation can make drift a more tractable concept." Daniel Bélanda, Philip Roccob and Alex Waddan analyze US retirement security and health care coverage. Link.
- Michael Caniglia asseses how policy drift has shaped implementation of mortgage interest deduction policy. Link. And Daniel J. Galvin examines how changing labor markets have undermined the utility of the Fair Labor Standards Act: "The eroding value of the minimum wage as the cost of living rises is only the best-known example of how drift undermines the FLSA. Most pernicious, however, is the declining enforcement capacity of the Wage and Hour Division." Link.
- "Studies of drift have paid surprisingly little attention to its feedback effects—the ways in which drift, like the adoption of new policies, may alter institutional arrangements, reshape the universe of organized interests, and recast the dynamics of political action." A new piece by Hacker and Galvin situates drift within the literature on policy feedbacks. Link.
On-call and on-demand work in the United States
Sociology PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago PETER FUGIEL studies labor and organizations, using working time as a lens on stratification and labor market institutions. In a 2019 paper, Fugiel and Susan J. Lambert reassess the prevalence of on-call and on-demand work in the US, finding that as many as 23% of workers are working on-demand.
From the abstract:
"On-call and on-demand work is more common in the USA than official statistics suggest. Conventional measures treat on-call work and irregular schedules as forms of employment that are categorically distinct from standard employment with regular hours. But this categorical approach confounds multiple dimensions of working time and fails to provide clear criteria for classification. A categorical approach is particularly inadequate in the US case, where the line between standard and non-standard employment is blurred by fragmented labour market institutions and unilateral employer control over working time. Using data from several recent national surveys, the authors show that at least 6% of employees work on-call and as many as 23% work on-demand. On-call work and on-demand work are most prevalent among employees with non-standard arrangements such as part-time, temporary agency, or shift work. However, employees with full-time, day shift, and other standard arrangements account for a substantial share of on-demand and on-call workers."
Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you'd like to see shared here? Send it our way: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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- "To prevent another crash, we need a market proration system that ties oil production to oil demand. This would not be new for the Texas Railroad Commission." New on the Phenomenal World: Gabriel Mathy on Gardiner Means, the Texas Railroad Commission, and oil prices. Link.
- We are hiring a fellow for quantitative work with our guaranteed income initiative, to support ongoing collaboration with cities in the United States and Brazil designing and piloting guaranteed income policy. Link to the full description and application details.
- "We develop a new source of micro-data on union membership to examine the long-run relationship between unions and inequality." New version of a great paper from Henry S. Farber, Daniel Herbst, Ilyana Kuziemko, and Suresh Naidu. Link.
- "Non-financial businesses in South Africa fundamentally transformed their investment behaviour during the 1990s, shifting from more productive uses such as trade credit towards highly liquid and potentially innovative financial investment. Financial operations—fueled by foreign capital inflows—are linked to the price inflation in property markets." Ewa Karwowski on financialization and housing in Johannesburg. Link. And Fenghua Pan, Fangzhu Zhang and Fulong Wu analyze state-led financialization in China. Link.
- Mustafa Yağcı's new book examines "The Political Economy of Central Banking in Emerging Economies." Link.
- "This article provides the first rigorous cross-national analysis of middle class regime preferences, systematically investigating the importance of its economic relationship to an authoritarian state. My findings imply that a state-supported middle class may delay democratization." Bryn Rosenfeld undermines existing theories on the democratizing role of the middle class. Link.
- A new INET working paper finds that "US taxpayers have been footing the bill for every new drug approved between 2010 and 2019." Link.
- Wim Carton, Adeniyi Asiyanbi, Silke Beck, Holly J. Buck, and Jens F. Lund "survey the 'long history' of carbon removal, drawing out lessons for ongoing research and the emerging public debate on negative emissions." Link.
- "Stockholm is in the midst of overhauling its defence and security strategies in response to a resurgent Russia, a rising China, an unreliable, erratic, and declining America, escalating incoherences and infightings within the EU, and atmospherically-induced increased activity in the Arctic." Nima Khorrami on Sweden's changing security strategy. Link. And Hans Dahlqvist uses Swedish labor history from 1880s until 1938 to critique the narrative of the Swedish model. Link.
- "The experience of bureaucratic incompetence and its ability to cause otherwise intelligent people to behave outright foolishly opens up a series of questions about the nature of power and violence. The unique qualities of violence as a form of action means that human relations ultimately founded on violence create lopsided structures of the imagination. Situations created by structural violence, by which I mean forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm, invariably tend to create the kinds of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures. To put it crudely: it is not so much that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid, or even that they tend to produce behavior that they themselves define as stupid, but rather, that they are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence. The bureaucratic imposition of simple categorical schemes on the world is a way of managing the fundamental stupidity of such situations. In the hands of social theorists, such simplified schemas can be sources of insight; when enforced through structures of coercion, they tend to have precisely the opposite effect." Link to David Graeber's 2006 Malinowski lecture on bureaucracy and violence. Link also to Graeber's 2017 book with Marshall Sahlins On Kings. And link to Debt: The First 5000 Years.