Action Plan


Competing definitons of the term have vast policy implications

The formal definition of family is “blood, marriage, or adoption,” but that leaves out many possible arrangements, including families of unmarried people, foster children, co-ops, and, until 2015, gay partnerships. In the 1970s, family law became more open to “functional families” outside the formal definition, while zoning law kept to the strictly formal. Legal historian KATE REDBURN writes, “These contradictions leave critical family law doctrines unstable in thirty-two states.”

In a recent working paper, Redburn examines how these changes came to be, and looks more generally at how legal regimes exist within connected networks and influence each other despite traditional boundaries of scale (local, state, etc.) and subject (family law, zoning law):

“Viewed through a broader lens, this story might suggest lessons for law and social movements. While progressives oriented their campaigns at the state level, homeowners imbued local governance with conservative social politics in defense of their prejudices and property values. Neither movement, nor the judges adjudicating their case, nor the legislators revising state and local statutes, paid adequate attention to the interlocking nature of legal doctrines, rendering their movements less successful than they have previously appeared. Though we tend to think of legal fields as distinct regimes, ignoring the multifaceted ways that doctrines overlap, connect, and contradict each other can have perilous consequences. Their blind spot has has grown to encompass millions of Americans.”

Redburn’s case study provides ample evidence that micro-level legal conflicts can uphold and alter legal understandings:

“Motivated constituencies of voters and their elected representatives can produce legal change quite out of sync with social trends. Such was the case in the zoning definition of family in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite social change resulting in more functional families, protective homeowners and the conservative movement successfully shifted zoning law away from the functional family approach.”

Link to working paper. ht Will

  • In a related working paper, Christopher Elmendorf discusses how California works against the “double veto”—the local embrace of state imposed growth-control missions, environmental reviews and other legal tools that inhibit residential development—and fights for housing affordability on the state and local level. Link.
  • At Stanford University, Clayton Nall and William Marble examine whether self-interest or ideology influence liberal homeowners’ attitudes towards housing density. Their results indicate that “self-interest manifests in local contexts and can jeopardize national policy goals.” Link.
 ubi metrics


On “big data blacklisting”

An essential 2016 paper by MARGARET HU provides a detail-rich description of existing systems of big data blacklisting—”the process of categorizing individuals as administratively ‘guilty until proven innocent’ by virtue of suspicious digital data and database screening results”—and argues that they pose an accountability challenge that greatly exceeds questions of procedural justice:

“Big data blacklisting impacts fundamental constitutional rights when digital data is flagged as ‘suspicious’ through big data tools and data tracking systems, and when individuals are categorized as ‘guilty until proven innocent’ through big data-generated inferential guilt. [This article] contends that big data blacklisting harms are not just procedural in nature—that the government has failed to offer proper procedures for remediation of these harms—but that big data dataveillance systems may obstruct fundamental liberty interests. It poses the following question: whether freedom from big data blacklisting harms should be protected as a cognizable fundamental liberty interest under substantive due process.”

Link to the paper.

  • Frank Pasquale with a post situating Hu’s work more firmly within the algorithmic accountability literature and emphasizing its import: “With the benefit of her comprehensive, trans-substantive critique of big data blacklisting programs, she comes to the conclusion that extant proposals for reform of such programs may not do nearly enough to restore citizens’ footing, vis a vis government, to the level of equality and dignity that ought to prevail in our democracy. Rather, Hu argues that, taken as a whole, the current panoply of big data blacklisting programs offend substantive due process: basic principles that impose duties on government not to treat persons like things.” Link.
  • Not to be missed: an indispensable new law and policy resource from AI Now compiles key journalism, books, papers, cases, and statutes covering automated decision systems. Link.


A paper on ISAs from JFI’s researchers

This week, our own SIDHYA BALAKRISHNAN (JFI’s lead researcher) and BARRY CYNAMON (JFI fellow and Better Future Forward CFO) posted “Borrowing Arrangements and Returns to College Education,” a preliminary draft of our work in trying to understand the effects of financing on the value of post-secondary education. Link to the paper on SSRN.

We’ll have a lot more to say in the coming weeks about this paper and our broader research initiative, but look at this result in particular, which shows that how you pay for college significantly affects its value:

Y-axis is lifetime wealth, X-axis is borrowing amounts. We assume a 7% interest rate. Greater borrowing significantly reduces the college premium: at 70k of borrowing, it’s reduced by 79%. The decline in the college value premium is dramatic, but the reduction to college returns per se derived from the volatility of post-college earnings and moderate risk aversion (CRRA 4) is already substantial: Many studies evaluate the purely financial returns to college, measured by the net present value of post-college earnings, and find the college premium to be 49.5% (in our model). But accounting for individuals’ risk preferences and the uncertainty of the returns to a post-secondary education the premium drops to 33.2% (wealth CE, our model).

  • For similar results, see Jeffrey Brown’s paper “Risk and Returns to Education Over Time.” Link.
  • There are important caveats, including that mapping CRRA to actual risk preferences is difficult, as Miles Kimball describes in this 2009 paper. Link.
  • For more on the student debt crisis, a new paper from Marshall Steinbaum at the Roosevelt Institute makes four major points: “More education has not led to higher earnings over time. Student debt is a burden for a growing share of young adults. Credentialization better explains these dynamics than the ‘skills gap.’ These trends have had particularly negative impacts on Black and brown Americans.” Link. Jillian Berman summarizes the study on Marketwatch. Link.


  • From Sidewalk Labs (Google’s “smart city” company), a digital governance proposal for their Toronto development project. Among the proposed ideas: establishing an “independent Civic Data Trust” to manage the data—environmental, personal, and so on—collected by the project. Link to the blog post, link to the proposal presentation.
  • “Kinky labor supply and the attention tax”: Media entertainment, status signaling, and the labor supply of younger demographics. Link. ht Barry
  • Canadian CEOs for Basic Income. Link. ht Lauren
  • On “probabilistic horserace” election coverage: “We hypothesize that it will lower uncertainty about an election’s outcome (perceived potential pivotality), which lowers turnout under the model.” Link.
  • “Why do some ethnic groups vote along ethnic lines while others do not? In this article, we theorize that the level of ethnic voting depends, partially, on how ethnicity interacts with economic cleavages. Specifically, we argue that between–ethnic group inequality (BGI) increases ethnic voting and that its effect strengthens as within–ethnic group inequality (WGI) decreases.” Link. ht Will
  • A new paper explores the increasing heterogeneity among cities and explains that in order to properly address questions of neighborhood effects, researchers must “conduct ethnographic observation in ostensibly unconventional cities, and address the historically extreme conditions in a newly unique subset of cities.” Link.
  • From Douglas Rushkoff: “Instead of kicking over additional, say, 10% in tax for a government UBI fund, how about offering a 10% stake in the company to the people who supply the labor? Or another 10% to the towns and cities who supply the roads and traffic signals? Not just a kickback or tax but a stake.” Link. ht Jay
  • Unifying the “zooful” of identification terms in econometrics literature. Link.
  • “Because they were human bodies, relics held a special position in the medieval economy. Their value was based in part on their connection to the spirit that had once inhabited the body, or the personality of the saint. But because they were objects (and often highly mobile objects too), relics were commoditised by medieval society – traded, bought and sold for profit by the communities that held them.” Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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