September 5th, 2020

Spot on the Map


In addition to straining America's existing welfare infrastructure, the pandemic has fundamentally altered labor markets and generated a wide range of new social needs. Policy responses to these changing circumstances have the potential to shape the trajectory of US inequality for decades to come.

In a 2010 paper, JACOB HACKER and PAUL PIERSON argue that failure to adapt to political developments is more than just passive inaction; in recent American history, it has been among the most effective strategies for active welfare dismantlement.

From the paper:

"A convincing political account of American inequality must explain its defining feature, namely, the stunning shift of income toward the very top. Equally important, it must explain how public policy has contributed to this trend. This means not only identifying public policies that can be linked to large increases in inequality; but also providing an account of the political processes that have led to the generation of those policies.

One oversight of existing political accounts is the presumption that if government played a central role in rising inequality, then a host of new laws and policies must have been created over the past thirty years to drive the upward distribution of income. Very important inequality-inducing laws and policies have in fact been created. But these are but one of the two principal mechanisms through which politics can reshape how an economy works. A second mechanism, which we call drift, is equally, if not more, important. Drift describes the politically driven failure of public policies to adapt to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy and society. It is not the same as simple inaction. Rather, it occurs when the effects of public policies change substantially due to shifts in the surrounding economic or social context and then, despite the recognition of alternatives, policy makers fail to update policies due to pressure from intense minority interests or political actors exploiting veto points in the political process. The design of U.S. political institutions makes policy enactments especially difficult, while maximizing opportunities to pursue policy agendas based on the exploitation of drift."

Link to the article, link to the book.

  • "Drift is difficult to study empirically because it refers to change through inaction. We suggest that closer attention to case-specific empirical implications of the effectiveness of policy implementation can make drift a more tractable concept." Daniel Bélanda, Philip Roccob and Alex Waddan analyze US retirement security and health care coverage. Link.
  • Michael Caniglia asseses how policy drift has shaped implementation of mortgage interest deduction policy. Link. And Daniel J. Galvin examines how changing labor markets have undermined the utility of the Fair Labor Standards Act: "The eroding value of the minimum wage as the cost of living rises is only the best-known example of how drift undermines the FLSA. Most pernicious, however, is the declining enforcement capacity of the Wage and Hour Division." Link.
  • "Studies of drift have paid surprisingly little attention to its feedback effects—the ways in which drift, like the adoption of new policies, may alter institutional arrangements, reshape the universe of organized interests, and recast the dynamics of political action." A new piece by Hacker and Galvin situates drift within the literature on policy feedbacks. Link.
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August 31st, 2020

Form and Color Study


The compound risks of climate catastrophe and Covid-19 have defined the year thus far. As the world continues to reel from the effects of the pandemic, and storms and wildfires dot the map, calls for marshaling a green recovery have proliferated.

The history of green investment thus far has been infamously more modest. In a comparison of the Japanese and American solar panel industries from 1973 – 2005, MAX JERNECK elucidates the rocky paths to financing low-carbon industry. From the paper:

"The United States was the birthplace of the solar cell, and American firms dominated the industry in the 1970s. Beginning in the early 1980s, the American photovoltaic (PV) industry lost ground to foreign, and particularly Japanese, competitors. By 2005, the American share of the global market had declined to under ten per cent.

In Japan, technologically innovative PV firms had ample financing and were sheltered from the turbulence of financial markets. In the United States, the financial system was unwilling to finance small entrepreneurial firms, causing the industry to become concentrated among large corporations. By identifying and evaluating 'difference makers,' it is possible to draw conclusions about which aspects of the low-carbon development process were amenable to human action, and therefore relevant to the task of devising a strategy for the future transition to a low-carbon economy. Knowing where to look requires a theory of both the mechanisms driving industrial change in general, and the particular institutional arrangements regulating them in the countries under study."

Link to the article.

  • In a related paper for Science, Jerneck takes a closer look at the financing impediments to the solar industry in the US. Link.
  • In the New Republic, Kate Aronoff writes on the prospects of a National Investment Authority. Link. Read also Saule Omarova's Data For Progress proposal for a NIA. Link.
  • "On what foundations might an alternative economy be built? Neither population nor GDP will be its fundamental metric, but rather land scarcity." Troy Vettese in 2018 on a "half-earth" approach to climate catastrophe. Link. See also: Robert Pollin in 2019 on degrowth and a Green New Deal. Link.
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August 10th, 2020

Ships in Port


It's been over a week since Congress allowed the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation scheme to lapse, and negotiations over an extension have reached a gridlock. But even prior to its end, access to the enhanced benefit was far from equal across the country—a host of administrative and practical hurdles in states like Florida and Alabama prevented scores of applicants from receiving aid.

The absence of a functional and unified federal unemployment scheme is a characteristic feature of America's patchy safety net. In a 1987 paper, Edwin Amenta, Elisabeth S. Clemens, Jefren Olsen, Sunita Parikh, and Theda Skocpol trace the history of this decentralized structure through a comparative analysis of 1930s UI legislation in Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Illinois.

"The states, not the federal government, were the units that debated health and unemployment insurance bills and passed workers' compensation and mothers' pension laws during the Progressive Era and after. The debates surrounding unemployment insurance provide considerable insight into the political dynamics of industrial society. More than any other component of welfare policy, the states' response to unemployment politicized antagonisms between capital and labor. Moreover, the emergence of unemployment as a legitimate target for state action entailed both the development of a politically viable interpretation of the cause of unemployment, and decisions concerning the appropriate extent of the government's intervention in the economy.

Neither organized labor nor political parties have been identified as important shapers of Social Security. But, as we have seen, a programmatic political alliance between organized labor and the Democratic party did shape generous unemployment insurance in New York, and the influence of labor, mediated by Democratic parties, also mattered in Massachusetts, Ohio, and even Illinois. Moreover, in Wisconsin, the 1932 unemployment benefits law grew out of patterns of administrative-led political bar- gaining established in the Progressive Era. This bargaining included organized labor and its political allies, the Milwaukee Socialists; it also occurred in a partisan context marked by the strong influence of Progressive Republicans. In short, if we examine politics at the state level, we discover that organized labor and political parties (as actors and as organizational structures) played a much more important role in the shaping of American unemployment insurance than nationally focused research reveals."

Link to the piece.

  • A report from the New York State Department of Labor provides a legislative history of UI following the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, with an appended chronology of significant legislative changes on the federal and state level. Link. And two Congressional Research Service reports summarize the structure of the current federal system, including that of the Unemployment Trust Fund which supports states in the case of insolvency. Link and link.
  • In a 1990 paper, Steve Valocchi examines the internal dynamics of the unemployed workers movement in the 1930s US: "The movement's inability to change its organizational form in the face of early New Deal reforms led to the precipitous decline in protest activity in 1934." Link.
  • "Governments shape the meaning of unemployment through policies and public declarations. Some kinds of joblessness come to 'count' as unemployment while others do not." In a 2004 book, Philip Baxandall situates categories of unemployment in Hungary within the country's changing political context. Link.
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June 18th, 2020

Phenomenal Works: Mehrsa Baradaran

Banking between states and markets

Mehrsa Baradaran is a Professor of Law at UC Irvine. Her research situates the American banking system within a dense network of legal, historical, and political relationships. Her first book, How the Other Half Banks, exposed the vast disparities in access to credit generated by the financial deregulation of the 1970s. The solution to these disparaties, the book argues, is restoring the system of postal banking which was foundational for American democracy. Baradaran's 2017 book, The Color of Money, investigates the institutional factors perpetuating the racial wealth gap. The book forcefully argues that in a segregated economy, black banks suffered from the same poverty they were meant to mitigate. Her writing urges scholars, practitioners, and the public to reenvision banking as a public good.

Baradaran is a contributing editor to Law and Political Economy, where she writes about federal banking regulations, exploitative banking practices, and the development of racial capitalism in the United States. She is co-editor at Just Money, a forum for research and policy analysis which views money as a legal entity. Her recent popular articles have also been featured in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. She tweets here.

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May 14th, 2020

The Postindustrial Welfare State

An interview with Gøsta Esping-Andersen

The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism is among the most influential works in the study of welfare states. Rather than conceiving of welfare and industrial policy on a single state-market axis, Three Worlds develops a typology to situate welfare states within broad and complex historical trajectories. In Esping-Andersen's framework, modern capitalist states with systems of social provision developed along three general paths. Social democratic regimes like those found in Scandinavia emerged through a political coalition between industrial and agricultural workers, and are characterized by universal benefit schemes. By contrast, conservative regimes in Germany and France were born of coalitions between the left and the Church, and are characterized by fairly generous welfare provisions whose distribution is dependent on traditional family structures. Finally, liberal regimes like Britain and Ireland are ones in which the labor movement was unable to form meaningful political coalitions. The mark of these states are their limited, means-tested benefits only available to the very poor.

Three Worlds is emblematic of the "power resource theory" tradition, developed by Esping-Andersen and colleagues like Walter Korpi. Unlike their counterparts in the Varieties of Capitalism school, who tend to view social safety nets as the product of high value-added economies in which employers aim to foster skill development among workers, power resource theorists hold that welfare systems are primarily explainable as the product of labor’s ability to organize against profit maximizing firms. Central to this view of welfare state development is the concept of decommodification, a qualitative and quantitative measure of the degree to which basic human needs are protected from market fluctuations. Just as central is the Polanyian notion of double movement—the dialectical process through which workers organize against the market to decommodify their labor.

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April 24th, 2020

The Weight of Movements

An interview with Frances Fox Piven

Few theorists of social movements have shaped the events that they analyze. Frances Fox Piven, Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York and one of these few, has studied and agitated within American social movements since the 1960s.

In 1966, Piven and Richard Cloward published "The Weight of the Poor" in the Nation magazine. The essay elaborates what has since been dubbed the "Cloward-Piven Strategy": the mass enrollment of the poor onto welfare rolls. If all who were entitled to government benefits claimed them, they argued, the system would buckle, exposing the magnitude of American poverty and the inadequacy of its safety net. The ensuing political crisis would provide an opening in which to enact broad and lasting anti-poverty policy. Cloward and Piven published the article in the midst of an intense period of grassroots activity among welfare recipients. That same year, anti-poverty groups around the country formed a broad coalition that became the National Welfare Rights Organization, of which Piven was a founding member. The rank-and-file membership of the NWRO grew dramatically through the late-60s, reaching over 20,000 dues paying members and 540 grassroots groups by the end of the decade, and gaining influence over national welfare politics.

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April 21st, 2020

Group Formation


Comparative development and social policy

Among the diverse local and national policy responses undertaken to combat the pandemic in recent months, Kerala's has been notable. Within the broader context of Indian economic development, Kerala's government has a tradition of successful redistributive development policies, sometimes referred to as the Kerala model.

In a 2005 article, MANALI DESAI traces Kerala's unique post-independence record of welfare provision to its experience under indirect British rule. By comparing the trajectory of its policy successes to those of West Bengal, a state with a similar electoral history, Desai strikes a distinctive balance between path dependency and contingency, arguing that "the form and content of welfare policies are shaped by the exigencies of state formation, but political struggles are the decisive determining factors of the former."

From the article:

"In the somewhat meager annals of comparable state action in third world societies, Kerala appears as a clear exception. Despite fierce party competition, a church-landlord coalition, and the imposition of presidents’ rule on two different occasions (in 1959 and 1965), the state has seen an array of policies aimed at redistributing land, and providing education, pension plans, minimum wage legislation, and housing for the poor. There have been few serious attempts at understanding these state actions as a form of historical agency. In particular, an issue that is consistently overlooked is the fact that Kerala’s post-independence policy regime was preceded by significant welfare expansion in the nineteenth century in its two southern princely states of Travancore and Cochin. In part under pressure from the British administration, both monarchies undertook significant land reforms and expanded education and health care. While reforms by princely states were not that unusual in the colonial era, the scale and scope of Kerala’s surpassed its peers.

The extreme nature of the caste hierarchy in Kerala, perhaps the most oppressive across India, meant that Christian missionaries not only found a home in Kerala but fed and even stimulated caste insurgency. In particular, one crucial effect of British rule and Protestant missionary activity was the increased porosity of the state to social (lower caste) demands. Both dimensions of colonial power (colonial power as well as social resistance to this power) destroyed status privileges, primarily those based on caste, to a larger degree than found elsewhere in British India. Early welfare policies in Kerala were implemented in a dependent colonial context and aimed at warding off annexation by the British, but their unintended consequences were to stimulate what they were precisely designed to avoid—radical caste and class movements."

Link to the piece.

  • An edited volume from 2000 looks at the history of Kerala's social policies. Link. (A 1991 exchange in the NYRB between Barbara H. Chasin and Richard W. Franke, and Amartya Sen discusses the nature of Kerala's "exceptionalism." Link.)
  • "This article addresses the welfare state in a global historical context. In the new societies of industrial capitalism, two powerful and opposite interests converged in generating public social policies. It uses the five-part model to ask what lessons, if any, it has for the likely emergence of welfare states in the developing world. It also recognizes the immense variety within the 'global South' and distinguishes the distinctive patterns of risk management within it." A 2010 paper by Ian Gough and Göran Therborn. Link. (Ungated version here.)
  • A 2007 paper by Nita Rudra looks at the applicability of Gøsta Esping-Andersen's welfare state typology in the developing context. Link. And Stephen Haggard and Robert Kaufman's 2009 book provides a comparative account of welfare state development across Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. Link.
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February 18th, 2020

The Importance of Being Evergreen


A comparative overview of national healthcare systems

In an employer-sponsored healthcare system like that of the United States, deteriorating labor market protections have immediate consequences for access to healthcare. Democratic primary candidates have presented a number of proposals to address declining rates of insurance, ranging in degrees of accessibility, coverage, and number of providers.

In her 1992 book, Healthcare Politics, ELLEN M. IMMERGUT seeks to explain America's healthcare system through a comparison of its history to Switzerland's, France's, and Sweden's. From the author's preface:

"I compare the politics of three countries where national health insurance had been proposed, but where, as a result of political struggles, the final policy results are diverse. Medical associations in all three countries had opposed national health insurance on the grounds that doctors preferred to work as private practitioners and not as government employees. How then could one explain the fact that Switzerland rejected national health insurance, France accepted it, and Sweden not only enacted national health insurance, but later converted its health system to a de facto national health service? The history of each case pointed insistently to the role played by standard political institutions. The Swiss referendum, the French parliament, and the Swedish executive bureaucracy emerged as key elements in an explanation of national health insurance politics in those countries.

The resulting book argues for the primacy of these institutions in explaining policy outcomes precisely because they facilitate or impede the entry of different groups into the policy-making process. In Switzerland, the public interest on any specific policy issue is viewed as the sum of the demands of individual citizens as expressed in national referenda. In Sweden, on the other hand, proper representation for policy issues is a matter of consensual agreements between interest groups, whose large memberships and democratic procedures ensure their responsiveness to the public. In France, the rules of representation stress the importance of an impartial executive standing above the particularistic claims of interest groups. But there is no linear relationship between a specific set of political institutions and the interest groups that will succeed or the health system that results. These histories are filled with unexpected events, sudden about faces, and new strategies. This book is a call to look at these histories, not just at the broad sweep of major events, but also at the seemingly minor struggles that make up daily political life. These are the battles that establish the constraints on politics, but they are also the junctures that extend the limits of the possible."

Link to a downloadable copy of the book.

  • "The postwar growth of public expenditures in the health sector and the growth of universalism in coverage of benefits is tied to the strength of the labor movement in each country." Vincent Navarro's influential 1989 paper situates healthcare policies within a broader distributional framework. Link.
  • "The idea of a British hospital system funded by its users is one which emerged only late in the 19th century. Before this, care was provided through thousands of voluntary hospitals." Martin Gorsky, John Mohan, and Tim Willis on "Mutualism and Healthcare" in the UK. And in a similar vein, David T. Beito's 2000 book on the fraternal societies which provided healthcare to millions of Americans throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Link and link.
  • A recent paper by Stefan Bauernschuster, Anastasia Driva, and Erik Hornung uses "the introduction of compulsory health insurance in the German Empire in 1884 as a natural experiment to study the impact of social health insurance on mortality," finding that "Bismarck’s health insurance generated a significant mortality reduction." Link.
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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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November 25th, 2019

Political Sun


The history of public housing provision

In recent decades, policy approaches to housing provision have focused on increasing the incomes of subsidy recipients and, due to declining federal investment, promoting tenant mobility both between subsidized housing units and out of the public housing system altogether. But the discourse on housing seems to be shifting. Rather than promoting ever increasing incomes, recent proposals aim instead to control housing costs—both through increasing public housing stock and pegging rent to inflation.

In a 2012 paper, Lawrence J. Vale and Yonah Freemark offer a history of public housing in the United States. Their narrative considers how changing approaches to housing provision reveal changes in the government's definition of “deserving” welfare recipients.

From the paper:

"Public housing is too often conceptualized as a single failed program that tragically concentrated deeply impoverished single-parent minority households in ill-designed and publicly mismanaged slums. Such a viewpoint does little justice to the evolution and contingencies that motivated the growth and directions of the multiphased and multifaceted history of federally supported public housing and public-private housing. Taking a longer view, the concentrated poverty welfare phase of public housing may actually be seen as an aberration, a relatively brief interlude between about 1960 and 1990. This phase, we argue, was out of step with the larger pattern of policy preferences for housing the poor, both before and since.

Seen this way, American public housing consists of a 25-year series of efforts to accommodate the upwardly mobile working class between 1935 and 1960, a 30-year consolidation of the poorest into welfare housing between 1960 and the mid 1980s, coupled by efforts to introduce direct private-sector involvement in public housing and other programs; and a series of programs and policies since the mid 1980s to return more of public housing to a less-poor constituency, while furthering growth in other kinds of both deep and shallow subsidy programs through mixed-finance projects and tax-code intervention. After 75 years of experimentation, much of the rest of public housing operations has become completely privatized. In many cities, housing authorities are regularly turning over their conventional housing stock to private managers and often own nothing more than the land beneath their redevelopment endeavors. In this context, even the basic definitional reason for calling some housing 'public housing' now comes into question."

Link to the article.

  • From November of last year, Jack Y. Favilukis, Pierre Mabille, and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh find that "Housing affordability policies create large net welfare gains." Link. See also J. W. Mason's recent public testimony on rent control, which offers an overview of empirical findings and concludes that "there is no evidence that rent regulations reduce the overall supply of housing." Link.
  • A report by Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper at 3P compares housing policy in US metropolitan areas with those of Vienna, Helsinki, and Stockholm. Link. At the Urban Institute, Emily Peiffer discusses the history of housing policy in New York City. Link.
  • "Housing Affordability in the U.S.: Trends by Geography, Tenure, and Household Income." By Andrew Dumont at the Federal Reserve. Link.
  • Data for Progress maps the diversity of America's public housing communities, accounting for rates of unemployment, poverty, and population density. Link. Another map looks at flood risk, police stops, and segregation in NYCHA buildings. Link.
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