September 28th, 2020

An Evening, Chapter 32


It is well known that the share of the global labor force working in services has risen precipitously over the past several decades, with nearly half of all workers around the globe now counted in the service sector. Scholarly work on the source and effects of this transition has risen in tandem, producing attempts to variously project visions of a "knowledge economy" in the global north and account for premature deindustrialization across the global south.

In a 1992 volume, Jean-Claude Delaunay and Jean Gadrey shed light on the history of services as a concept, with a chronological summary of three centuries of theories of service work. From the introduction:

"It is difficult to interpret correctly the major characteristics of what has been called the 'services revolution,' even though these characteristics are clearly visible. As economic activities, services have appeared fragile and unimportant, not suitable to ensure employment or economic prosperity. Yet services have fundamentally changed economic and social structures.

The notion of a post-industrial society was particularly popular in the late-1960s because it offered to intellectuals, who were tired of the technocratic power of enterprises and governments, the perspective of an intelligence-based society, which would finally do away with the notion of production for no other purpose than production itself. The services with which we are concerned today are not the same as the ones observed by Adam Smith. They differ in the way they are produced, in their results and in their diversity. Moreover, services, as we know them now, cannot be separated from goods; they are intimately interwoven with production and use. In the 18th and 19th centuries, economists discussed the role of services in society. Today, they study the service society."

Link to the book.

  • A 2013 article in the Cambridge Journal of Economics by Guarav Nayyar looks at the "black box" of services in India. Link. In a 1988 commentary paper also in the CJE, Deepak Nayyar examines the political economy of international trade in services. Link.
  • "Little is known about the size of the informal economy either across the service sector as a whole, or in particular service industries, either globally, in particular global regions, or nations." An overview article by Abbi Kedir, Colin Williams, and Levent Altinay on services and informality introduces a journal issue dedicated to the topic. Link.
  • In a 2008 paper, Fiona Tregenna examines the relationship between manufacturing and services in South Africa, "focussing on the ‘Hirschmanian’ channels through which sectoral growth can lead or support aggregate economic growth." Link. A 2009 paper by Tregenna looks at services as a concept in the history of Marxian economic thought. Link. (See also a 2018 paper by Tregenna on the question of sectoral analysis and definition more broadly. Link.)
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August 8th, 2020

Economics, Bosses, and Interest

An interview with Stephen Marglin

Stephen Marglin is Walter S. Barker Professor Economics at Harvard University, where he has taught since he received tenure in 1968. Somewhat infamous for his post-tenure radicalism, Marglin has published extensively on a wide range of topics over his decades-long career. Among his most cited early works is the two-part "What Do Bosses Do?", which sought to explain hierarchical production as a function of accumulation, not technical efficiency. Divisions of labor between workers, managers, and bosses do not, Marglin argued, serve increases in productivity and material prosperity, but rather the consolidation of wealth and power.

Similarly influential work conducted with Amit Bhaduri contested neoclassical models that view economic growth as a product of technological advancement and increases in the factors of production. Drawing on a Kaleckian framework which sees output as a function of effective demand, their paper distinguishes between "wage-led" and "profit-led" growth regimes. In the former, income redistribution increases employment and productivity, and in the latter it does not.

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June 30th, 2020



Brazil's Bolsa Familia is widely credited with lifting more than 20 million people out of extreme poverty, making it a global model for anti-poverty initiatives. Developed as part of a broader theory of equitable development, it serves as the basis for ongoing efforts to expand the social welfare system for the country’s poor and working class.

In a 2017 book, economist LENA LAVINAS takes a critical approach to Brazilian social policy. Examining the relationship between social policy and financial markets, Levinas argues that, despite its successes, the strategy of "social developmentalism" in Brazil unwittingly entrenched both unequal growth and the stagnation of social protection.

From the book:

"The twenty-first century seemed poised to pluck Brazil from its history of underdevelopment. After suffering through two decades (1980–2003) of low growth and considerable macroeconomic instability, Brazil—in step with the rest of Latin America—was ready to begin a series of rosy years. In the new developmental strategy, the missing link on the way to social cohesion, so the argument went, would emerge with the advent of mass consumption. In Brazil, as in the rest of Latin America, the core impediment to the expansion of a mass consumption society resided (above all else) in the absence of mechanisms for boosting consumption in the context of low productivity and the persistent oversupply of labor.

Performance in terms of the provision of public facilities has not tracked remotely close to the vitality of the market. It does, however, reveal welfare inequities that the market obscures. Through this prism, the upward social mobility observed in Brazil in the years spanning 2003–2014 failed to even come close to promoting a true expansion of the country’s middle classes. Social policy served as collateral to access financial markets through credit. In Brazil, the market has universalized access to color TVs and fridges among those in the lowest income quintile. Treated water, however, to say nothing of adequate sanitation, remains a luxury, the province of few."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • A 2018 by Lavinas details one of the book's arguments—"the collateralization of social policy." Link. And a 2013 paper by Lavinas examines the broad adoption of conditional cash transfer schemes throughout Latin America. Link.
  • In a 2014 paper, Michael McCarthy examines union attempts to control pension fund investment. Link. Another paper by Natascha van der Zwan on the financial politics of occupational pensions. Link. See also: McCarthy's book Dismantling Solidarity, on these same themes. Link.
  • Marie Gottschalk's book The Shadow Welfare State examines the American "private-sector safety net." Link. See also: Frank R. Dobbin's 1992 paper "The Origins of Private Social Insurance: Public Policy and Fringe Benefits in America, 1920-1950." Link.
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June 15th, 2020

Green Stripe


As debate and discussion continues over reforms to US policing, attention has been drawn to the share of municipal and state budgets dedicated to police departments. While a useful proxy of governmental priorities, these budgets only tell part of the complex story of the role and function of police in society.

In a their 2008 book chapter titled "The Enforcement-Equality Trade Off," ARJUN JAYADEV and SAMUEL elaborate the role of what they term "guard labor"—the labor units "devoted to the maintenance of order."

From the chapter:

"In order to maintain order, all societies allocate resources to defence, policing, surveillance, contractual monitoring and other activities that sustain the property rights and other claims that characterise status quo institutions. Data from the United States indicate a significant increase in its extent in the USA over the period 1890 to the present. Cross-national comparisons show a significant statistical association between income inequality and the fraction of the labour force that is constituted by guard labour, as well as with measures of political legitimacy (inversely) and political conflict.

Continental European welfare states devote considerably less resources to the maintenance of order than do the English-speaking economies. A possible explanation is that these economies divert fewer resources from directly productive uses to guard labour by undertaking larger transfers of claims on resources in the form of social expenditures and higher wages."

Link to the report.

  • For more on guard labor, link to a 2019 newsletter, in we shared Jayadev's classic 2006 paper with Samuel Bowles on guard labor. Also shared in that letter, a 2014 Times op-ed by Bowles and Jayadev on the subject, with an unbeatable infographic comparing the US' share of guard labor to other rich nations.
  • See Jayadev's paper "Estimating Guard Labor" for more on the employment statistics behind their analysis. Link. And link to a 2018 blog post on police and prison spending in the US and Europe. Link.
  • For more on the relationship between the labor market and policing and prisons, see this recent paper by Seth Prins and Adam Reich. Link. See also a 2002 paper by Eric Gould et al on crime rates and labor market opportunity from 1979-1997. Link.
  • "Inequality and Guard Labor, or Prohibition and Guard Labor?" by Vincent Geloso and Vadim Kufenko. Link.
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March 31st, 2020



Historical comparisons of European monetary unions

The need to formulate a unified COVID response has placed pressure on European integration in recent days, with Germany and the Netherlands resisting Southern European calls for the issuing of "coronabonds." A 2018 paper by John Ryan and John Loughlin assesses the history of the Latin Monetary Union (LMU), the Scandinavian Monetary Union (SMU), and the Austro-Hungarian Monetary Union (AHMU) in order to glean lessons for EU policymakers in the present.

From the paper:

"The LMU was originally envisaged as a bimetallic agreement, though it transitioned into an effective gold standard in 1878. French economist and politician Félix Esquirou de Parieu saw such a union as the first step in a process of European (even global) integration, which he hoped would culminate in the creation of a full common currency, and, as he predicted somewhat precociously, a 'European Union' directed by a 'European Commission'. The disintegration of the union with the Great War illustrates the danger of insufficient coordination among member states. Partially inspired by the LMU, the SMU was deeply tied to the rise of a political Scandinavism. Like the LMU, it foundered as a result of the impact of the First World War. The conditions were propitious in the Scandinavian countries as they imitated each other’s policy approaches. There were, however, great economic disparities across the different countries, and this points to the dangers of a monetary union without sufficient economic convergence among its member states. Finally, The AHMU was created through an agreement known as the 1867 Compromise which ensured that Austria and Hungary shared a common currency while remaining fiscally sovereign. The main lesson of the AHMU is about the nature of institutional structures. Because of the relative size and power of Austria and Hungary, the union's disintegration illuminates the game theoretic interaction of nations within a monetary union, including their asymmetric ability to exert power and influence over the terms of the supranational agreement."

Link to the piece.

  • "The decision to create the monetary union, the decision of whom to admit, and the decision of whom to appoint to run the ECB are political decisions, taken by political leaders, subject to political constraints, not the social-welfare maximizing decisions of some mythical social planner." Barry Eichengreen and Jeffry Frieden analyze "The Political Economy of European Monetary Unification." Link.
  • A 2019 Max Weber lecture by Philippe Van Parijs discusses notions of justice and their (in)operability within the monetary union framework, featuring discussion from Rawls on the EU and a reading of Hayek on monetary unions. Link.
  • "Many regional currency institutions were established in sub-Saharan Africa under colonial rule. Surprisingly, a number of these colonial institutions survived the transition to national independence, and several have survived to the present day." Scott Cooper and Clark Asay on the colonial legacy of the West African franc zones and the Southern African rand zone. Link.
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March 25th, 2020

Tilted Ark


Wartime economic planning

This week, reports swirled regarding President Trump's invocation of the Defense Production Act—a 1950 law passed to manage production in the context of the Korean War—to meet the coming demand of crucial medical supplies to treat people with COVID-19. Much of the ensuing commentary has elided necessary distinctions between the Cold War–era DPA and the more memorable interventions into the productive capacity of the US economy that defined the Second World War. (For a helpful disaggregation, see this essay by Tim Barker; for a rundown of the DPA's history, see this summary from the Congressional Research Service.)

In his book, Arsenal of World War II (the fourth in a five-volume series on the political economy of American warfare), PAUL KOISTINEN provides a uniquely comprehensive and detailed account of the often misunderstood economics and administration of America's World War II mobilization effort.

From the book's introduction:

"An ironic legacy of the New Deal was that it helped create the partnership between corporate and military America that was destructive to reform. In the defense and war years, New Dealers took the lead in preparing the nation for World War II. Once hostilities ensued, the same reformers were at the center of devising the structure and controls essential for successfully harnessing the economy for war under stable economic conditions. Many of those same New Dealers became victims of the industry-military alliance that their mobilization policies and methods had assisted in bringing into being.

Despite advancement in weaponry, massive output was the critical World War II development, and that depended on successful economic mobilization policies. The political economy of warfare involves the interrelations of political, economic, and military institutions in devising the means to mobilize resources for defense and to conduct war. In each war, the magnitude and the duration of the fighting have dictated what the nation had to do to harness its economic power, but prewar trends have largely determined how this mobilization took place."

Link to the book page.

  • Mark Wilson's 2016 book, Destructive Creation, also on the business-government relationships that defined the World War II mobilization effort. Link.
  • A few recent articles on medical supplies: on the ventilator shortage; on mask production in China; on Taiwan's response to the virus; on the EU's plans to airlift masks; on China's increasing medical supply delivery to Europe.
  • From Otto Neurath's 1919 "War Economy": "The main result of our investigation may be expressed as follows: war forces a nation to pay more attention to the amount of goods which are at its disposal, less to the available amounts of money than it usually does." Link to Neurath's collected writings on economics.
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February 27th, 2020

The Economics of Race

On the neoclassical and stratification theories of race

Black America has had less wealth, less income, less education, and poorer health than white America for as long as records have been kept. To account for this disparity, economists have advanced three explanations: genetic, cultural, and structural. While the first of these had mostly fallen out of favor among social scientists by the mid-20th century (until a worrying revival in recent decades), the latter two have been adopted by somewhat distinct research communities that frequently collide. According to the cultural theory, racial disparities are the result of social capital deficits. This is the view that has been most widely adopted by the mainstream of the economics profession, and I refer to it as the neoclassical economics of race. By contrast, the structural theory argues that racial disparities in socioeconomic outcomes are created and maintained over time by American institutions, which privilege White Americans at the expense of Black Americans. This view is known as stratification economics, and, as I argue here, it offers a more accurate and empirically sound explanation for racial disparities in America than its counterpart. The neoclassical and stratification approaches disagree over the causes of and remedies for racial disparities in socioeconomic outcomes and differ substantially in their understanding of income, education, wealth, and health.

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February 6th, 2020

Decision Making in a Dynamic World

Exploring the limits of Expected Utility

I once wrote a post criticizing modern microeconomic models as both overly complex and unrealistic, leading their practitioners into theoretical dead ends without much corresponding increase in explanatory power. I suggested the entire enterprise of Expected Utility (EU) was a dead end based on a mistake and that I’d eventually write about superior ways of modelling individual decision making under uncertainty. It’s been a long time coming, but below I outline why taking time into account leads to better theories of decision making, and why human psychology does a fairly good job of guiding decisions in a dynamic world.

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November 22nd, 2019

Development and Displacement

The effects of big development initiatives

Infrastructure lies at the heart of development. From transportation and telecommunication networks to electrical grids and water pipelines, large-scale infrastructure projects play a pivotal role in the global development landscape. (In 2015, infrastructure spending totaled $9.5 trillion or 14% of global GDP). Infrastructure development also holds political significance.

Both historically and in the present, state investment in resource generation in the Global South has been a cornerstone of national movements for economic independence. But while infrastructure development projects generate jobs and drive long-term growth, the economic gains are often unevenly distributed. The burden of development weighs heavily on individuals and communities who are forced to leave their homes to make way for these large-scale projects.

In the development literature, this phenomenon is referred to as development-induced displacement and resettlement (DIDR)—individuals and communities being forced to leave their place of residence and abandon their land due to development initiatives. Some accounts estimate that 200 million people were displaced by development projects over the last two decades of the 20th century, and the current scale of DIDR is estimated to be around 15 million people per year. People displaced by development projects fall into the broader category of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)—a United Nations designation for "persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, and habitual violations of human rights, as well as natural or man-made disasters involving one or more of these elements, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border." In the case of DIDR, resettlement—if any occurs—is often inadequate, leaving migrants impoverished and disempowered. Unlike refugees that cross international borders and are under the protection of international law, internally-displaced persons remain within the jurisdiction of their own government—vulnerable to the same lack of protection that caused their displacement. Urban, transportation, and water supply projects account for the majority of displacements—between 1986 and 1993, 80 to 90 million people were involuntarily displaced by these three types of infrastructure development projects alone.

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October 28th, 2019



The origins of American tax policy

Tax reform is at the forefront of contemporary policy debate. US citizens pay taxes at lower rates than their European counterparts, and a growing number of researchers agree that progressive taxes on wealth and income have the potential to rectify inequality. The historically less progressive nature of American tax policy is commonly explained as a product of the colonies' early opposition to "taxation without representation," as well as the large population of immigrants, the absence of traditional aristocracy, and the ubiquity of "country party republican" ideology which characterized the country's formation.

In an essay accompanying the publication of her 2006 book, historian ROBIN EINHORN introduces a new factor into the debate: the impact of domestic politics around slavery on early American state-building. From the piece:

"Americans are right to think that our anti-tax and anti-government attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. In 1776, Congress was talking about slavery because its members were framing a national government for the new nation—what would become the Articles of Confederation. Trying to figure out how to count the population to distribute tax burdens to the various states, the members inevitably faced the problem of whether to count the population of enslaved African Americans. Since slaves were 4% of the population in the North and 37% of the population in the South, this decision would have a huge impact on the tax burdens of the white taxpayers of the northern and southern states.

Slaveholders developed three solutions to this general problem. First, they tried to guarantee that they dominated the legislative process by manipulating the representation rules. Second, they demanded weak governments that would make few of the decisions that provoked discussions of slavery. Third, they insisted on constraining the tax power through constitutional limitations on its use. Yet the real slaveholder victory lay in a fourth strategy—persuading the nonslaveholding majorities that the weak government and constitutionally restrained tax power actually were in the interests of the nonslaveholders themselves. Slaveholders persuaded many of their contemporaries that expansions of slavery are expansions of 'liberty,' constitutional limitations on democratic self-government are defenses of 'equal rights,' and the power of slaveholding elites is the power of the 'common man.' In the topsy-turvy political world we have inherited from the age of slavery, the power of the majority to decide how to tax became the power of an alien 'government' to oppress 'the people.'"

Link to the essay, and link to a 2000 academic article by Einhorn which presents the argument in greater historical detail.

  • "The growth in cash transactions was critical to the evolution of the modern income tax. Because the market's cash nexus permitted more and more individuals to derive a greater portion of their income and wealth from the sale of their labor services, lawmakers were able to more easily measure and tap the growing tax base. Consequently, the national tax structure began to shift away from a reliance on indirect levies, namely import duties and excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco, toward more direct and graduated taxes on income and wealth transfers." Ajay Mehrotra looks at the economic developments behind the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913. Link.
  • In a new paper, Lucy Barnes links tax progressivity to the strength of capital-labor coalitions in European countries prior to World War I. Link.
  • A 2017 paper by Raymond Fisman, Keith Gladstone, Ilyana Kuziemko, and Suresh Naidu offers the first ever evidence on the taxation preferences of US citizens, finding that Americans are more likely to support taxes on wealth than on savings. Link. See also this 2016 paper by Naidu, Felipe González, and Guillermo Marshall on the role of slave property rights in promoting early American economic development. Link.
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