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May 12th, 2020

↳ Politics

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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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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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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November 7th, 2019

Collective Ownership in the Green New Deal

What rural electrification can teach us about a just transition

This year, we once again shattered the record for atmospheric carbon concentration, and witnessed a series of devastating setbacks in US climate policy—from attempts to waive state protections against pipelines to wholesale attacks on climate science. Against this discouraging backdrop, one idea has inspired hope: the “Green New Deal,” a bold vision for addressing both the climate crisis and the crushing inequalities of our economy by transitioning onto renewable energy and generating up to 10 million well paid jobs in the process. It’s an exciting notion, and it’s gaining traction—top Democratic presidential candidates have all revealed plans for climate action that engage directly with the Green New Deal. According to the Yale Project on Climate Communications, as of May 2019, the Green New Deal had the support of 96% of liberal democrats, 88% of moderate democrats, 64% of moderate republicans, and 32% of conservative republicans. In order to succeed, however, a Green New Deal must prioritize projects that are owned and controlled by frontline communities.

Whose power lines? Our power lines!

Efforts to electrify the rural South during the New Deal present a useful case study for understanding the impact of ownership models on policy success. Up until the mid-1930s, 9 out of 10 Southern households had no access to electricity, and local economies remained largely agricultural. Southern communities were characterized by low literacy rates and a weak relationship to the cash nexus, distancing them from the federal government both culturally and materially. They were also economically destitute—a series of droughts throughout the 20s led to the proliferation of foreclosures and tenant farming. With the initial purpose of promoting employment in the area, the Roosevelt administration launched the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 sought to extend electrical distribution, first by establishing low-interest loans to fund private utility companies. The utility companies turned them down: private shareholders had little reason to invest in sparsely populated and impoverished counties, whose residents could not be assured to pay for services; private investors lacked the incentive to fund electrification for the communities who needed it most.

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October 31st, 2019

Phenomenal Works: Leah Stokes

Editor's Note: This is the first post in a new series, Phenomenal Works, in which we invite our favorite researchers to share notable readings with us. We'll be publishing new editions every two weeks, around our regular output of interviews and analysis. Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with every post.

Leah Stokes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Santa Barbara. Her research spans representation and public opinion, voting behavior, and environmental and energy politics. Her forthcoming book is titled Short Circuiting Policy and examines the role of interest groups in weakening environmental protection policy across the United States. Her academic work has been published widely in top journals, her journalism and opinion writing has been published widely including in the New York Times and The Washington Post, and she is frequently cited in news media of all kinds. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Stokes's work is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the politics of energy policy—and think through possible ways forward in the climate crisis. Below, her selection of must-read research.

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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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September 16th, 2019

Live Airborne System


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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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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January 24th, 2019

Why Rational People Polarize

U.S. politics is beset by increasing polarization. Ideological clustering is common; partisan antipathy is increasing; extremity is becoming the norm (Dimock et al. 2014). This poses a serious collective problem. Why is it happening? There are two common strands of explanation.

The first is psychological: people exhibit a number of “reasoning biases” that predictably lead them to strengthen their initial opinions on a given subject matter (Kahneman et al. 1982; Fine 2005). They tend to interpret conflicting evidence as supporting their opinions (Lord et al. 1979); to seek out arguments that confirm their prior beliefs (Nickerson 1998); to become more confident of the opinions shared by their subgroups (Myers and Lamm 1976); and so on.

The second strand of explanation is sociological: the modern information age has made it easier for people to fall into informational traps. They are now able to use social media to curate their interlocutors and wind up in “echo chambers” (Sunstein 2017; Nguyen 2018); to customize their web browsers to construct a “Daily Me” (Sunstein 2009, 2017); to uncritically consume exciting (but often fake) news that supports their views (Vosoughi et al. 2018; Lazer et al. 2018; Robson 2018); and so on.

So we have two strands of explanation for the rise of American polarization. We need both. The psychological strand on its own is not enough: in its reliance on fully general reasoning tendencies, it cannot explain what has changed, leading to the recent rise of polarization. But neither is the sociological strand enough: informational traps are only dangerous for those susceptible to them. Imagine a group of people who were completely impartial in searching for new information, in weighing conflicting studies, in assessing the opinions of their peers, etc. The modern internet wouldn’t force them to end up in echo chambers or filter bubbles—in fact, with its unlimited access to information, it would free them to form opinions based on ever more diverse and impartial bodies of evidence. We should not expect impartial reasoners to polarize, even when placed in the modern information age.

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December 1st, 2018

Energy Field


A discussion of different approaches to climate policy

Last week, the U.S. government released the Fourth National Climate Assessmentwhich outlined the dire economic and environmental consequences of climate change. Instead of highlighting key findings of the report—two good summaries are available here and here—we'll contextualize the current climate debate within legal history, which shows the limitations of current economically-focused arguments for climate policy.

A 2010 Yale Law Journal article by Jedediah Purdy situates the current climate debate within the long tradition of political argument about the natural world, and challenges assumptions that environmental values which appeal to moral and civic duty are too weak and vague to spur political action. In fact, Purdy argues that major environmental legislation emerged from "democratic argument over the value of the natural world and its role in competing ideas of citizenship, national purpose, and the role and scale of government." Purdy does more than just argue that environmental public language is more coherent than conventionally understood, he argues that understanding climate policy through economic self-interest diminishes the role political struggle plays in shaping national values and interests:

"Consider one example that makes little sense through the lens of narrow self-interest, much more as part of an ongoing debate over environmental values: the organizing project that has led 1015 city governments to adopt the goals of the Kyoto Protocol (a seven percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2012) through an instrument called the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Since the costs are not zero, and the benefits, in theory, are almost exactly that, the question of motivation is still fairly sharply presented.


In private interviews and public statements, city officials explain their efforts in several ways. They are quick to cite the advantage certain regions hope to enjoy from early adoption and manufacture of technologies that may later become standard. They embrace a simple public-choice motive: city governments hope to benefit from green-development block grants and, in the longer term, density-friendly economic development, and early efforts may position them to do both.
They also regard themselves as engaged in political persuasion that they hope will induce others to take similar action. Whether this is plausible is partly endogenous to the politics itself. This politics seeks to affect the reasons—specifically those grounded in environmental values—that people understand themselves to have for joining collective undertakings. Rather than a specimen of an independently established logic of collective action, it is an engagement with that logic itself."

Link to full paper.

  • In a 2018 article, Purdy looks more deeply at the history of environmental justice, and why its concerns were left out of mainstream environmental law: "Mainstream environmental law was the last major legal product of 'the great exception,' the decades of the mid-twentieth century when, unlike any other time in modern history, economic inequality was declining and robust growth was widely shared." Link.

  • A 2017 dissertation examines the environment as an object of politics, as opposed to natural capital, and argues that the environment is a "political problem that entails ongoing negotiations over the legitimacy of market rule, the role of the state in relation to the market, and the value of ecological stewardship." Link.

  • The new climate reports have brought attention back to solar geoengineering, which the Guardian, covering a Gernot Wagner paper, notes is extremely inexpensive and possibly an option for desperate circumstances: “The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report said geoengineering might be adopted as a temporary “remedial measure” in extreme circumstances.”Link.

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