↳ History

February 13th, 2020

↳ History

Austerity and Ideology

An interview with Kim Phillips-Fein

Kim Phillips-Fein is an associate professor of history at New York University and the author of the books Invisible Hands: the Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal and Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, as well as the editor and co-editor of several collections in political economy, business history, and labor history.

In a conjuncture defined by high ideological tension, in which elite consensus and power structures seem increasingly discredited and the scope of political possibility is wider than in recent memory, Phillips-Fein's work is particularly topical. She is an historian of social movements and of ideology—the political action that it both stems from and engenders, and the repercussions of elite politics for the lives of ordinary people. Her two books—which deal, respectively, with New York City's 1970s fiscal crisis and the rise of conservative business movement—also offer cautionary tales about the severe constraints under which political officials operate, and the ease with which powerful reactionary interests organize, relative to the public interest.

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February 10th, 2020

Part of Some Totality

DELIBERATE ETHOS

"Informality" and globalization

Standard theories of development have been predicated on the goal of an industrialized economy with the potential for full and regularized employment. Such a view necessitates a host of statistical categories to define and measure labor markets. In a 2000 paper, PAUL E. BANGASSER writes an institutional history of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) evolving attempts to understand and quantify the category of the "informal sector"—by now a permanent feature of the global workforce.

From the paper:

"Over the past three decades, the ILO has been both the midwife and the principal international institutional home for the concept of the informal sector. While the phrase 'informal sector' came onto the development scene in 1972, its roots reach back into the economic development efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. With the surprisingly successful rebuilding of Europe and Japan following the Second World War, there seemed no reason why a similar sort of deliberate economy-building effort could not also be applied to the newly emerging countries in the Third World. This technical ethos towards development was especially strong in UN Specialized Agencies like the ILO. It allowed them a measure of protection from Cold War political crossfire without undercutting either their raison d’être nor their universality.

Attention to the informal sector crescendoed in the early 1990s. The 1991 Director General’s Report, The dilemma of the informal sector, notes that 'Contrary to earlier beliefs, the informal sector is not going to disappear spontaneously with economic growth. It is, on the contrary, likely to grow in the years to come, and with it the problems of urban poverty and congestion will also grow.' A growing urbanization is consistent with the developmental expectations of the 1950s and 1960s. However, that this trend towards urbanization would represent a nexus of seemingly unsolvable problems of grinding urban poverty is quite different from that earlier thinking. The upward spiraling dynamics of 'modernization' which were supposed to accompany urbanization, and lead to economic 'takeoff,' didn’t kick in; there wasn’t any trickle-down of any significance, nor should any be expected, at least not within any reasonable time frame. This is an important conclusion, with fundamental implications for the conventional development paradigm."

Link to the paper.

  • Keith Hart's 1973 paper "Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana" coined the phrase "informal sector." From the paper: "The distinction between formal and informal income opportunities is based essentially on that between wage-earning and self-employment. The key variable is the degree of rationalization of work—that is to say, whether or not labour is recruited on a permanent and regular basis for fixed rewards." Link.
  • A 2019 paper by Aaron Benanav (previously shared here) critically appraises the ILO's attempts at defining informality, situating the emergence of the "informal sector" as tied to the mid-century efforts to "generate a globally operational concept of unemployment for use in the 'developing world.'" Link. (For a broader, less empirical take along similar lines, see Michael Denning's 2006 article "Wageless Life." Link.)
  • A new IZA paper by Andrea Brandolini and Eliana Viviano looks at contemporary employment statistics and proposes supplemental indices that "account for people's experience in labor market states (e.g. work intensity for the employed and search intensity or unemployment duration for the unemployed)." Link.
  • "All the materials and human instruments of production are present in abundance, nay in excess. But their normal collaboration is impossible, because they cannot market the goods they could produce, so as to cover even the barest costs of the production." From 1924, The Economics of Unemployment by J. A. Hobson. Link.
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January 29th, 2020

Historicizing the Self-Evident

An interview with Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston has published widely in the history of science, including on probability and statistics, scientific objectivity and observation, game theory, monsters, and much else. Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science since 1995 (emeritus as of Spring 2019), she is the author and co-author of over a dozen books, each stunning in scope and detail, and each demonstrating of her ability to make the common uncommon—to illuminate what she calls the “history of the self-evident.”

Amidst the ever expanding reach of all varieties of quantification and algorithmic formalization, both the earliest of Daston's works (the 1988 book Classical Probability in the Enlightenment) and her most recent (an ongoing project on the history of rules) perform this task, uncovering the contingencies that swirled around the invention of mathematical probability, and the rise of algorithmic rule-making.

We spoke over the phone to discuss the labor of calculation, the various emergences of formal rationality, and the importance of interdisciplinarity in the social sciences. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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January 23rd, 2020

What Would a UBI Fund?

Lessons from the 1970s experiments in guaranteed income

One of the questions at the heart of contemporary debates over the merits of UBI is ‘what would it fund?’ In other words, what type of activities would it encourage? There are of course the widely debunked quibbles about guaranteed income encouraging anti-social behaviors, but there’s also a feminist critique of basic income proposals.

The feminist case against a UBI centers around the fear that, in contrast to more robust funding for social programs such as subsidized child care or parental leave, UBI would disproportionately encourage women to leave the labor force to provide care work in the home— reinscribing the gendered division of labor against which women have long struggled. In this view, UBI is undesirable—expected to fund the isolation of women in the domestic sphere, and preventing them from wielding influence over the real machinations of society.

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October 28th, 2019

Radius

RELATIVE DUTIES

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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September 16th, 2019

Live Airborne System

DIVIDED INTEGRATION

Immanuel Wallerstein's contributions to research in the social sciences

Two weeks ago today marked the passing of the great Immanual Wallerstein. His work has had resounding influence across fields: from literature, to legal theory, education, development studies, and international relations. Among his foremost contributions is the four volume Modern World System series, which recount the transformation of feudalism into global capitalism through progressive incorporation of new regions into the European capitalist core. Complementing this history was world-systems theory, an analytical approach which challenged the tendency of social science research to identify simplified and direct causal relationships.

Wallerstein argued that purely economic, historical, or political analyses of society exclude more factors than they incorporate, casting doubt on both their internal and external validity. From the introduction to World Systems Analysis:

The phenomena dealt with in these separate boxes are so closely intermeshed that each presumes the other, each affects the other, each is incomprehensible without taking into account the other boxes. The separate boxes of analysis are an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding the world. Structurally, the social reality within which we live has not been the multiple national states of which we are citizens but something larger, which we call a world-system. This world-system has had many institutions—states and the interstate system, productive firms, households, classes, identity groups of all sorts—which form a matrix which permits the system to operate but at the same time stimulates both the conflicts and the contradictions which permeate it.

The world-system is a social creation, with a history, whose origins need to be explained, whose ongoing mechanisms need to be delineated, and whose inevitable terminal crisis needs to be discerned. For this reason, it is important to look anew not only at how the world in which we live works but also at how we have come to think about this world.

Link to the book's first pages.

  • "My intellectual development led me to historicize social movements, not only to better understand how they came to do the things they did, but also in order to better formulate the political options that were truly available in the present." On his website, Wallerstein reflects on the questions and contradictions that informed his life's work. Link.
  • "The Modern World-System is a theoretically ambitious work that deserves to be critically analyzed as such." Theda Skocpol's sympathetic scrutiny of the weaknesses in Wallerstein's major work, from the 1977 Review of American Sociology. Link.
  • Wallerstein's account of feudal breakdown, which stressed external factors like increased trade, countered that of historians like Robert Brenner, who focused instead on internal factors like peasant revolts. Robert A. Denemark and Kenneth P. Thomas give an overview of the debate. Link.
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September 12th, 2019

Money Parables

Three competing theories of money

In the past year, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has shifted the policy debate in a way that few heterodox schools of economic thought have in recent memory. MMT’s central notion—that nations with their own strong currencies face no inherent financial constraints—has made its way into politics and, notably, the world of finance. The last few months have brought MMT explainers from financial media outlets including Reuters, CNBC, Bloomberg, Barron’s, and Business Insider, as well as from investment analysts at Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Fitch, Standard Chartered and Citigroup.

Popularizing the shorthand notion that “deficits don’t matter” has been an achievement for those promulgating MMT. Yet one largely unappreciated change brought about by the MMT debates involves a somewhat subtler point: a shift in the implicit story we tell about money.

The rise of MMT poses a challenge to the mainstream commodity money story. That parable, familiar to anyone who has taken high school economics or read Adam Smith, involves an inefficient barter system that gives way to the more convenient use of some token that represents value, typically a precious metal. If government plays a role in this story, it is only to regulate money after the marketplace births it.

The MMT parable—known in the literature as chartalism—reverses the commodity money view. For chartalists, money arises through an act of law, namely the levying of a tax which requires citizens to go out and get that which pays taxes; the state comes first and markets are subsequent. As Abba Lerner puts it, money is “a creature of the state.”

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July 15th, 2019

The River

APPROPRIATION FRICTION

Swedish wage earner funds and their limitations

Beyond growing calls for welfare expansion and a more progressive tax system, recent policy debates have begun to consider alternative models of firm ownership. Last year, the UK Labour party published a report outlining a path towards a more diverse set of ownership arrangements, including worker cooperatives and municipally owned service providers. The party also articulated an intention to transition ownership of up to 10% of shares to workers in large firms. More recently, the Bernie Sanders campaign announced a proposal for the formation of inclusive ownership funds, whereby large corporations contribute a portion of their stocks to an employee controlled fund. This comes in addition to Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, which calls for increased workers representation on company boards.

These recent proposals are distinctly reminiscent of programs put forward throughout the twentieth century, the most famous of which is Sweden’s 1976 Meidner Plan. In his 1992 book, Princeton politics professor JONAS PONTUSSON analyzes the origins of the plan, and the barriers to its successful implementation. He compares the movement for wage earner funds with that of co-determination, suggesting that the failure of the former has to do with the politics of legislation:

"In unfavorable political circumstances, it made sense for organized business to avoid major political confrontation and instead use post-legislative bargaining to define co-determination. By contrast, the Meidner Plan and subsequent wage-earner funds proposals left very little room for post-legislative bargaining. In other words, the co-determination offensive was a legislative success for the same reason that the implementation of new legislation became a disappointment for labor.

Organized business spent about as much on its advertising and media campaign against wage earner funds in 1982 as the five parliamentary parties spent on the election campaign that same year. But couldn’t the labor movement have devoted more resources to acquiring the expertise needed to influence industrial policy? The final lesson seems to be that when industrial policy, and investment policy more generally, fails to address wage earner’s immediate concerns, they are bound to become less supportive of further efforts to democratize investment decisions."

Link to the book chapter, and link to an article in which Pontusson assesses the diluted version of the plan which was implemented in 1983.

  • "The concept of a society which is built on moral values remains, in my view, too promising to be extinguished by inhuman market forces." The disintegration of the Swedish model, in Rudolf Meidner’s words: Link. See also this interview with Meidner from 1998. Link.
  • In the largest study of its kind, Joseph Blasi, Douglas Kruse and Dan Weltmann explore the impact of employee stock ownership plans (ESOP) on firm performance, concluding that "Privately held ESOP companies were only half as likely as non-ESOP firms to go bankrupt or close, had significantly higher post-adoption annual employment and sales growth, and demonstrated higher sales per employee." Link.
  • In 1987, political theorist Jon Elster argued that the plan’s failure was the result of a fundamental problem in its conception of justice, which would leave much of the real decision making capabilities in the hands of the union bureaucracy. Link.
  • A report on Public-Common Partnerships, an "alternative institutional design that moves us beyond the overly simplistic binary of market/state." Link.
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June 17th, 2019

Insulators (Magritte machine)

MOBILE COGNITION

The political history of economic statistics

Debates over the relevance of indicators like GDP for assessing the health of domestic economies are persistent and growing. Critics of such measures point to the failures of such measures to holistically capture societal wellbeing, and argue in favor of alternative metrics and the disaggregation of GDP data. These debates reflect the politics behind the economic knowledge that shapes popular understanding and policy debates alike.

In his 2001 book Statistics and the German State, historian Adam Tooze examined the history of statistical knowledge production in Germany, covering the period from the turn-of-the-century to the end of the Nazi regime, "driven by the desire to understand how this peculiar structure of economic knowledge came into existence… and the relationship between efforts to govern the economy and efforts to make the economy intelligible through systematic quantification."

From the book's conclusion:

"We need to broaden our analysis of the forces bearing on the development of modern economic knowledge. This book has sought to portray the construction of a modern system of economic statistics as a complex and contested process of social engineering. This certainly involved the mobilization of economists and policy-makers, but it also required the creation of a substantial technical infrastructure. The processing of data depended on the concerted mobilization of thousands of staff. In this sense the history of modern economic knowledge should be seen as an integral part of the history of the modern state apparatus and more generally of modern bureaucratic organizations… The development of new forms of economic knowledge can therefore be understood as part of the emergence of modern economic government and as a sensitive indicator of the relationship between state and civil society."

Link to the book preview, link to the book page on Tooze's website.

  • For a more generalized account of the political history of statistical knowledge (inclusive of economic statistics), see the The Politics of Large Numbers by Alain Desrosières. Link. Another excellent item in the history of statistical knowledge: A History of the Modern Fact, on the advent and impact of double-entry bookkeeping. Link.
  • In the Winter 2019 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Hugh Rockoff examines the political history of American economic statistics, and tracks the emergence and institutionalization of measures of "prices, national income and product, and unemployment." Link.
  • Previously shared here, research by Aaron Benanev examines the institutional history linking the concept of "informality" and unemployment metrics developed by the International Labor Organization. Link to his paper.
  • A recent paper by Andrea Mennicken and Wendy Nelson Espeland surveys the quantification literature. Link. And a (previously shared) panel discussion on the historiography of quantification. Link.
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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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