Original & Forgery


The difficulties of causal reasoning and race

While the thorny ethical questions dogging the development and implementation of algorithmic decision systems touch on all manner of social phenomena, arguably the most widely discussed is that of racial discrimination. The watershed moment for the algorithmic ethics conversation was ProPublica’s 2016 article on the COMPAS risk-scoring algorithm, and a huge number of ensuing papers in computer science, law, and related disciplines attempt to grapple with the question of algorithmic fairness by thinking through the role of race and discrimination in decision systems.

In a paper from earlier this year, ISSA KOHLER-HAUSMAN of Yale Law School examines the way that race and racial discrimination are conceived of in law and the social sciences. Challenging the premises of an array of research across disciplines, Kolher-Hausmann argues for both a reassessment of the basis of reasoning about discrimination, and a new approach grounded in a social constructivist view of race.

From the paper:

“This Article argues that animating the most common approaches to detecting discrimination in both law and social science is a model of discrimination that is, well, wrong. I term this model the ‘counterfactual causal model’ of race discrimination. Discrimination, on this account, is detected by measuring the ‘treatment effect of race,’ where treatment is conceptualized as manipulating the raced status of otherwise identical units (e.g., a person, a neighborhood, a school). Discrimination is present when an adverse outcome occurs in the world in which a unit is ‘treated’ by being raced—for example, black—and not in the world in which the otherwise identical unit is ‘treated’ by being, for example, raced white. The counterfactual model has the allure of precision and the security of seemingly obvious divisions or natural facts.

Currently, many courts, experts, and commentators approach detecting discrimination as an exercise measuring the counterfactual causal effect of race-qua-treatment, looking for complex methods to strip away confounding variables to get at a solid state of race and race alone. But what we are arguing about when we argue about whether or not statistical evidence provides proof of discrimination is precisely what we mean by the concept DISCRIMINATION.”

Link to the article. And stay tuned for a forthcoming post on the Phenomenal World by JFI fellow Lily Hu that grapples with these themes.

  • For an example of the logic Kohler-Hausmann is writing against, see Edmund S. Phelps’ 1972 paper “The Statistical Theory of Racism and Sexism.” Link.
  • A recent paper deals with the issue of causal reasoning in an epidemiological study: “If causation must be defined by intervention, and interventions on race and the whole of SeS are vague or impractical, how is one to frame discussions of causation as they relate to this and other vital issues?” Link.
  • From Kohler-Hausmann’s footnotes, two excellent works informing her approach: first, the canonical book Racecraft by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields; second, a 2000 article by Tukufu Zuberi, “Decracializing Social Statistics: Problems in the Quantification of Race.” Link to the first, link to the second.

New Researchers: DOMICILE SPREAD

The effects of housing subsidies

In her dissertation work, PhD candidate in political science at UC Berkeley TANU KUMAR examines the effects of a Mumbai homeownership subsidy. Using a housing lottery as a natural experiment, Kumar interviewed over 800 lottery winners 3-5 years after implementation to determine its effects and, examines (in one paper) the effects of the program on children’s educational attainment, youth employment, and (in another paper) political participation. Crucially, the effects of this wealth shock are not driven by relocation.

From the paper on political participation:

“I find that on average, winners of housing lottery are roughly 29 percentage points more likely than non-winners to report attending ward level meetings where local communities improvements are discussed. They are also 14 percentage points more likely to report individually approaching bureaucrats and politicians to demand improvements to their communities, 11 percentage points more likely to report doing so in groups, and 11 points more likely to be able to correctly name a local elected official. Effects are occur in spite of increased satisfaction with local services among beneficiaries.”

Link to the first paper, link to the second, and link to Kumar’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.


  • From the latest issue of the European Journal of Industrial Relations: a roundup of articles on co-determination in Germany (link), Central Europe (link), Northern Europe (link), and Italy (link).
  • Ifeoma Ajunwa on the advent of “productivity monitoring applications” and the legal questions they raise regarding workers’ privacy rights. Link.
  • Great coverage of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust cash transfer program in Mississippi, by reporter Robert Samuels. Link.
  • From the World Resources Institute, the global forest watch tool. Link.
  • Marshall Steinbaum’s paper “Antitrust, the Gig Economy, and Labor Market Power.” Link. From the latest issue of Law and Contemporary Problems, “Work After the End of Employment,” with contributions from Cynthia Estlund, Catherine Fisk, Sanjukta Paul, and more. Link to the whole issue.
  • A new paper from Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman on progressive wealth taxation. Link.
  • Tess Penne, Tine Hufkens, Tim Goedemé et al examine the scale and nature of child support programs among the European welfare states. “The article shows that, even though with important cross-national variation, cash transfers generally amount to less than 60 percent of the cost of children. Although in five out of six countries support for families is higher at the lower end of the income distribution, for households living on a low gross wage, the income of a family with children is less adequate compared to a similar childless family and is in many cases insufficient to participate adequately in society.” Link. ht Sidhya
  • A new proposal for a universal housing guarantee in the United States. Link.
  • Sarah Trent and Khaliun Bayartsogt report on the resurgence of self-organized co-ops in rural Mongolia—a common practice during the Mongolian People’s Republic that had fallen to the side since 1992. Link.
  • Julian Gewirtz covers China’s technological advances in Foreign Affairs. Link.
  • Mark Anner on the role of pricing in brutal working conditions down the supply chain: “Purchasing practices of lead firms adversely affect working conditions and workers’ rights in supplier factories. These trends [are attributed] to a price squeeze and a sourcing squeeze in which lead firms pay increasing lower prices to suppliers while also imposing short lead times and high order volatility.” Link. ht Alice Evans
  • In the Financial Times, Adam Tooze on Hurricane Dorian’s impact on the Bahamas. Link.
  • “The controversial evolution of publicly traded equity in Amsterdam after 1602 is presented as capitalism’s fork in the road, opening a path to financialized capitalism with equity markets its driving force. This gives the process of financialization a 400-year history that accelerated in the late 20th century. With negative impacts on various enterprising economies since their inception, the forces that have driven the equity market’s ascendancy are examined and the logic underlying this arrangement is questioned. The changes to economic theory and policy that promoted this financialization shed new light on many enduring economic problems.” Catherine Macaulay on 400 years of equity market development. Link.
  • We were thrilled to see coverage of Kathryn Holston‘s successful push, with Anna Stansbury, to end hotel-bedroom job interviews at the American Economics Association’s annual meeting. Kathryn is an economics PhD student at Harvard and a JFI fellow in our guaranteed income initiative. Link to the WSJ. Link to an interview with Kathryn.

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

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