↳ Democracy

May 12th, 2020

↳ Democracy

The Giant


Public opinion and policymaking

Covid is changing popular attitudes towards the public sector, prompting many commentators to anticipate a new period of welfare expansion. Others are more skeptical, noting that public opinion undergoes rapid fluctuations, which rarely resolve into a new equilibrium.

Like its forebear in debates over the 1981 Meltzer-Richards model, the present discussion assumes a strong relationship between public opinion and policymaking. A 2012 book by political scientist MARTIN GILENS demonstrates the flaws underlying this assumption.

From the book:

"Democracy is commonly understood to entail a substantial degree of political equality. This ideal of political equality is perhaps impossible to fully achieve in the face of economic inequality—in every democracy citizens with greater resources are better able to shape government policy. But the degree of political inequality in a society tells us much about the quality of the society’s democracy. I aim to document and explain patterns of representation in the United States over the past few decades by examining the relationship between the policy preferences expressed by the American public and the policies adopted by decision makers in Washington. To do so I have assembled a dataset of survey questions reflecting the policy preferences of hundreds of thousands of Americans at different income levels on all sorts of government policies—from raising the minimum wage, to restricting abortions, to sending U.S. troops to Bosnia.

When preferences across income groups diverged, only the most affluent appeared to influence policy outcomes. Representational inequality was spread widely across policy domains, with a strong tilt toward high-income Americans on economic issues, foreign policy, and moral/religious issues, and only modestly greater equality of responsiveness to the middle class and the poor in the social welfare domain. Even this partial exception to the dominance of the affluent was accounted for by the fortuitous confluence of preferences between middle-class citizens and powerful interest groups on issues like health care, education, and Social Security. Yet the importance of political conditions in shaping responsiveness means that our political destiny is not predetermined. The obstacles to enhancing representational equality in America are considerable, but the costs of not doing so are considerable as well."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's much-cited Winner Take All Politics outlines the mechanisms of policy influence in the US. Link.
  • A new paper by Matias López et. al examine the economic and social factors which shape elite attitudes towards redistribution in Brazil. Link. h/t Paul
  • "In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued that the American frontier fostered individualism. We investigate this thesis by tracking the frontier between 1790–1890 and constructing a novel, county-level measure of total frontier experience (TFE). Long after the closing of the frontier, counties with greater TFE exhibit more pervasive individualism and opposition to redistribution." Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse on the historical roots public opinion. Link.
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November 28th, 2019

Phenomenal Works: Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

On unions, advocacy, and influence

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is a political scientist who studies the mechanisms of influence. Focusing on the strategies of organized interests, including both business and labor, Hertel-Fernandez's helps illuminate crucial and poorly understood levers of American political economy. His 2019 book State Capture details the growing predominance of conservative lobbying groups at the state level across the country. His first book, Politics at Work, revealed the ways that employers actively shape the voting behaviors of their workers, shedding new light on the instruments of corporate power in American society. And his forthcoming book, Millionaires and Billionaires United, co-authored with Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, documents the growth of wealthy donor networks across the political spectrum.

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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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June 10th, 2019

Sketch for a Counter-Sky


On central bank independence and the rise of shadow money

Debates over the political impacts of Central Bank Independence (CBI) reached their peak in the late 90s and early 2000s, due to rising inequality and the volatility of financial markets. Initiated with the 1977 Federal Reserve Act and Paul Volcker’s subsequent term as chairman of the Fed, CBI was, and remains, a means of isolating the more "mechanical" field of monetary policy from the fleeting interests of politicians. In order to preserve stability and credibility, independent central banks have made inflation targeting the center point of their agenda. Critics of CBI have argued that the distinction between economic science and political incentives are not as clear as they might seem; low levels of inflation may benefit creditors and investors, but they harm those whose income entirely depends on rising wages. While monetary policy has distributional and political consequences, its decision makers are insulated from public accountability.

Expanding the literature on the politics of CBI, BENJAMIN BRAUN and DANIELA GABOR examine its financial consequences. In a recently published paper, they argue that the anti-inflationary policies of central banks have catalyzed dependence on shadow money and shadow banking, key components of a broader trend towards financialization:

"In the late 1990s, the US Federal Reserve was confronted with a peculiar predicament. While the world was celebrating central bank independence as a mark of 'scientific' economic governance after the populist era of monetizing government bonds, the US Federal Reserve worried about projections that the US government would pay down all its debt by 2012. A world without US government debt, they worried, was a world filled with monetary dangers. Market participants would not have a safe, liquid asset to turn to in times of distress.

Rather than seeking to limit shadow money supply, the Fed actively encouraged its expansion, seeking market solutions to political problems. It lobbied Congress to ensure that holders of shadow money backed by private (securitized) collateral had the same legal rights to collateral as those holding shadow money issued against US government debt. The Fed also changed its lending practices, allowing banks to issue shadow money backed by private collateral to borrow from the Fed. These concrete steps contrast starkly with the picture of central banks watching passively from the margins, as financial institutions find new ways to monetize credit and circumvent rules."

Link to the article.

  • More contemporary iterations of the debate over CBI can be found in the comparison between a 2018 HKS working paper, which distinguishes between "political oversight" and "operational independence," and a 2014 Levy Institute working paper which argues there is no practical meaning of operational independence at all. Link and link.

  • A primer on shadow banking, from Stijn Claessens and Lev Ratnovski at Vox EU. Link.

  • A new article by Andreas Kerna, Bernhard Reinsbergc, and Matthias Rau-Göhring finds that the IMF’s targeted lending practices actively encouraged the proliferation of independent central banks in low income economies. Link.

  • On CBI, inflationary targets, and the 2010 Eurocrisis, by Mark Copelovitch, Jeffry Frieden, and Stefanie Walter. 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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February 24th, 2018

The Conquest of Space


On the effects of DACA

Last week we linked to a paper that outlines the effects of DACA status on educational attainment and productivity:

"High school graduation rates increased by 15 percent while teenage births declined by 45 percent.… College attendance increased by 25 percent among women, suggesting that DACA raised aspirations for education above and beyond qualifying for legal status."

Given reader interest in that paper, we've compiled an overview, inspired by current events, of DACA-related studies across a range of domains.

  • On the economic effects of legal status for DREAMers, including the modeled impact of the DREAM Act: “We estimate DACA increased GDP by almost 0.02% (about $3.5 billion), or $7,454 per legalized worker. Passing the DREAM Act would increase GDP by around 0.08% (or $15.2 billion), which amounts to an average of $15,371 for each legalized worker.” Link.
  • The Cato Institute estimates the fiscal impact of the elimination of DACA, inclusive of projected productivity declines and enforcement costs: “The United States economy would be poorer by more than a quarter of a trillion dollars.” Link.
  • A study finds DACA moved 50 to 75 thousand unauthorized immigrants into the labor force while increasing incomes for immigrants at the bottom of the income distribution. Using these estimates, the author contends that the (now defunct) DAPA, which targeted unauthorized parents of US citizens and LPRs for legalization, would move over 250 thousand unauthorized individuals into employment. Link. Another finds a 38% reduction in the likelihood of poverty for DACA-eligible immigrants. Link.
  • As a complement to the above linked paper on education investment, more fine-grained results on education outcomes for DACA recipients: “the effect of DACA on educational investments depends on how easily colleges accommodate working students.” Link.
  • On the mental health outcomes of children of DACA recipients. Link. On the health outcomes for DACA recipients versus their unqualified DREAMer counterparts. Link. On Medicaid use in mixed-status families, and the effects of deportation risk thereon. Link.
  • Again from Cato, a report on the IRCA (alias "Reagan amnesty") reviews several studies of the economic effects of that 1986 law, which paired legalization for close to three million unauthorized immigrants with increased border security and employer verification. Alongside specific takeaways regarding wages and tax revenues for/from the population that gained legal status (increases in both), a larger claim emerges: legalization programs are most sensible "within the context of comprehensive immigration reform." Link. For more on the Reagan Amnesty and its legacy, see this report from the DHS and this post from the Migration Policy Institute.
  • Vox’s Dara Lind, one of the few reliably accurate mainstream reporters on immigration law and policy, gives an overview of the DREAMer generation: “It’s the combination of settledness and the difficulty of getting legal that make DREAMers generationally unique in the history of US immigration policy.” Link. An idea discussed in that post—that increased border enforcement paradoxically kept migrants in the U.S.—is given depth by Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey here and here. For more on the relationship between immigration law, increased enforcement, and the growth of the unauthorized population, see this paper, this book, and this article.
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