Hidden Structures


Labor and discipline in the economy

As inequality has grown in salience as a political issue and object of research over the past decade, increasing numbers of social scientists are mapping the distribution of power and access throughout society. This new attention joins longstanding work that maintains, among other things, that free economic relations are accompanied by unequal property relations, involuntary employment, and an institutional framework to assure against incomplete contracts.

In a 2004 paper, Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev argue that these dynamics are actively reproduced by guard labor: a section of the labor force whose primary function is to discipline other workers. Bowles and Jayadev find that all governments allocate a significant portion of their labor force towards these ends. Moreover, they find a strong correlation between the proportion of the labor force devoted to guard labor and domestic levels of economic inequality:

“The differences in the extent of guard labor among countries are substantial, ranging from a tenth of the labor force in Switzerland to over a fifth in the U.K and the U.S. Broadly, three groups are evident. Social Democratic countries which display low levels of guard labor, English-Speaking countries which display high levels of guard labor (with substantial supervision), and Southern European economies which exhibit unusually high unemployment rates and thus, large amounts of guard labor.

The composition of guard labor differs substantially among the nations, especially in the proportions of the two largest components: supervision and unemployment. The top four in guard labor—Spain, the U.K., the U.S. and Greece—for example, devote about a fifth of their labor force to supervision and unemployment combined. But the U.S. is distinctive, with less than half the amount of unemployment as either Spain or Greece and 50 percent more supervisory labor. A comparison between the English speaking countries suggests a similar story. The U.S displays between 90 and 50 percent more supervisory labor than Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but about 50 percent less unemployment than these countries.”

Link to the paper, link to a 2014 Times op-ed by Bowles and Jayadev.

  • Drawing a comparison between unregulated American labor markets in the Gilded Age and those of the present, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman find that “the unregulated labour market generated militant and coercive labour movements and employer organizations, and led to increased allocation of resources toward the domestic policing and military capacities of the US government.” Link.
  • “Between 2007 and 2017, the U.S. added more than twice as many guards as teachers,” mapped by Richard Florida. Link.
  • From the article’s footnotes, a debate over the relationship between military capacity and economic development: In his 2000 book, Kenneth Pommeranz argued that England’s military capabilities explain why the industrial revolution took place there rather than in other rapidly growing economies like those of the Yangzi Delta; by contrast, Robert Brenner and Christopher Isett’s 2002 paper holds that greater reliance on markets compelled English elites to “allocate their resources so as to maximize their rate of return.” Link to the first, link to the second.

New Researchers: LADEN FEELING

On the use of “well-being” in policymaking and social science research

In a forthcoming paper in Philosophical Quarterly, GIL HERSCH, a postdoc at Virginia Tech’s Department of Philosophy, examines definitions of well-being in the policymaking context. Exploring the uneasy balance between, on the one hand, a wish to leave well-being without a clear definition, and, on the other, define and measure policies by their effect on well-being, Hersch attempts to produce an intermediary account of the category.

From the paper:

“When policymakers take it as one of their goals to implement policies that will improve people’s lives, they might want to base their policy decisions on one of the many substantive theories of well-being available. But since reasonable people can disagree on what constitutes well-being, this would amount to policy-makers imposing their own views of the good life on others. Generating an account that can sidestep the disagreement among substantive theories of well-being as to what really constitutes well-being, while at the same time still providing useful guidance regarding well-being policy would be a significant achievement.

I argue that any attempt to provide meaningful well-being policy advice while remaining agnostic regarding the correct substantive theory of well-being by avoiding any appeal to such theories will ultimately fail. Ultimately, there are no theory-free lunches in well-being policy. “

Link to the paper, and link to Gil Hersch’s website.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way: editorial@jainfamilyinstitute.org.


  • New on Phenomenal World: JFI Fellow Kapu Rao interviews war finance scholar Rosella Zielinski. “In the absence of this strong connection to the idea of sacrifice, many argue, one of the few connections citizens feel to a war effort is financial. I think this ultimately has to do with inequality. And this is the bigger problem: how these changes affect the redistribution of wealth in the United States.” Link.
  • “We investigate whether these ‘deaths of despair’ trends have been mitigated by two key policies aimed at raising incomes for low wage workers: the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit (EITC). Our estimates suggest that increasing both the minimum wage and the EITC by 10 percent would likely prevent a combined total of around 1230 suicides each year.” By William H. Dow, Anna Godøy, Christopher A. Lowenstein, and Michael Reich. Link. h/t Sidhya
  • Will autonomous vehicles create efficiency? A new report from Ashley Nunes and Kristen Hernandez at MIT says no. “Capacity utilization rates would need to improve by nearly 100% and margins lowered by 37% for autonomous vehicles to achieve cost parity with their conventionally driven counterparts.” Link to the paper, link to coverage in FT Alphaville.
  • “The US government is the largest purchaser of consumer goods in the world. City and State agencies spend close to $3.25 trillion annually, making local government the second largest US industry behind manufacturing.” Brett Bachman at Vox on Amazon’s moves into the US procurement market. Link.
  • In a new study, Donald Grimes, Penelope Prime, and Mary Beth Walker find that structural factors like education, labor market density, and unionization rates do not impact the wages of low-earning workers. However, a higher minimum wage does. Link.
  • Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis with an edifying paper on green growth: “We ask: how do international organisations define green growth? Does the theory of green growth (and specifically, the assumption that absolute decoupling of GDP growth from material throughput and carbon emissions can be accomplished at a sufficiently rapid rate) withstand scrutiny in light of existing data and model-based projections? And if not, what are the implications for policy?” Link.
  • An open letter in Science with over twenty signatories declares support for the ongoing youth climate strikes and marches throughout Europe and the US: “Their concerns are justified and supported by the best available science. The current measures for protecting the climate and biosphere are deeply inadequate.” Link.
  • A judge in California has implemented an algorithm called Clear My Record to identify and expunge cannabis-related criminal convictions. Link.
  • “Like classical Rome, America’s empire today depends less on pomp than on plumbing. Instead of roads, aqueducts and seaports, it relies on pipelines conveying financial flows and torrents of data, as well as vast distributed supply chains. America’s domination of obscure, seeming technical structures is generating its own forms of hubristic folly among imperial administrators, who have begun to think that there is nothing they cannot do with it.” Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman on the history and future of America’s global financial infrastructure. Link.
  • Christina Romer and David Romer on fiscal space in the aftermath of financial crises. Link.
  • At CGDev, David Evans with a post titled “Beyond Regressions.” Link.
  • “Standardization must be understood as a heterogeneous practice capable of producing very different outcomes depending on the details of the standard and the organizational infrastructure surrounding its use. We compare selection devices—simple quantified tools for making allocation decisions—in undergraduate admissions and child welfare to highlight the complex relationships between race and standardization.” By Daniel Hirschman and Emily Adlin Bosk. Link. h/t Beth Popp Berman
  • Daron Acemoglu surveys the automation landscape and asks: “Where Do Good Jobs Come From?” Link.
  • “Between 1000 and 1900, world population grew from under 300 million to 1.6 billion. The increase accelerated dramatically over time and occurred almost entirely towards the end of the period. This study uses country-level historical data on population and urbanization to empirically investigate the extent to which this historical increase is due to the introduction of potatoes from the New World to the Old World, by which we mean the entire Eastern Hemisphere.” By Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian. Link.

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

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