Analyses of variation in state-level responses to the coronavirus tend to focus on party determination: On the whole, states led by Democrats have been found to undertake more rapid and extensive responses to the crisis. The focus on immediate political factors, however, masks the broader history of America’s uneven and disaggregated bureaucratic capacity.

A 1982 book by STEPHEN SKOWRONEK presents one of the most comprehensive accounts of the origins of the US administrative state. Focusing on reforms in civil administration, the army, and national railroad regulation from 1870-1920, the book demonstrates how regional differences contributed to the particular character of American state development.

“Unravelling the state-building problem in modern American political development places the apparent statelessness of early America in a new light. The governmental forms and procedures necessary for securing order in industrial America emerged through a labored exercise in creative destruction. Modernization of national administrative controls did not entail making the established state more efficient; it entailed building a qualitatively different kind of state.

The Civil War brought national military conscription, a national welfare agency for former slaves, a national income tax, national monetary controls, and citizenship. Yet, this was a state grounded in only half the nation. As the South returned, national electoral politics changed, and these institutional achievements began to be undone. Here, then, was a state only in the sense of the word imputed to it by the interests and strategies of the mass electoral organizations controlling its offices. No institution stood beyond the reach of party concerns. The fate of the wartime governmental apparatus suggests that if new institutional forms are to constitute a new state, they must alter the procedural bonds that tie governmental institutions together and define their relationship to society.”

Link to the publisher’s page.

  • Theda Skocpol and Kenneth Finegold expand Skowronek’s research into the New Deal era. Link.
  • “In societies where social status is a cleavage, elites can use the threat of desegregation to unite wealthy and poor members of high-status groups against taxation and the bureaucratic capacity required to collect taxes.” Pavithra Suryanarayan and Steven White on “Slavery, Reconstruction, and Bureaucratic Capacity in the American South.” Link. In another article, Roberto Stefan Foa and Anna Nemirovskaya analyze the development of state capacity on the frontier. Link.
  • Daniel Berliner, Anne Greenleaf, Milli Lake, and Jennifer Noveck present “systematic study of relationship between state capacity and labor rights.” Link.


Credit, Crisis, and Recovery in the Great Depression

In a recent working paper, Assistant Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt SARAH QUINCY examines the effect of credit supply shocks on local economies during the Great Depression.

“I take advantage of the expansion of Bank of America branches in 1920s California to isolate local lending variation during the largest financial crisis in United States history. Some towns all over California had much better access to credit supply during the banking crisis of the early 1930s. These cities, despite their similarity to those without access to Bank of America during the 1920s, contracted by ten percentage points less from 1929 to 1933. The spillovers from credit supply shocks to the real economy persisted even after California returned to full employment. Areas with Bank of America branches grew by 25 percent during the decade, while those without branches did not grow at all from 1930 to 1940.”

Link to the paper, link to Quincy’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:

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  • We’re hosting Adam Tooze, Michael Pettis, and Matthew Klein for a discussion on Pettis and Klein’s new book Trade Wars are Class Wars next Thursday, May 28, at 10am EST. Email to register.
  • “As voters, all we usually see on Election Day is a simple choice: Yes to more debt; no to more debt. It’s an extreme flattening of a very complex world. In the 1960s, there was actually blistering and prescient criticism of bondholders by many voters. Black San Franciscans noted that they had been servicing debt for 20 years with very little in return. And until that changed, they would boycott local bond referenda.” On the blog, Daniel Kay Herz interviews historian Destin Jenkins about municipal bonds and racial disparites. Link.
  • C. Jessica Metcalf and JFI senior fellow Johannes Haushofer have an important and timely new paper in Science: “Which [non-pharmeceutical] interventions work best in a pandemic?” Link.
  • Striking new research by David Altig et. al compares effective tax rates across income groups, finding that “one in four low-wage workers face marginal net tax rates above 70 percent, effectively locking them into poverty.” Link.
  • A new paper by Tiago Couto Porto analyzes the changing political coalitions of the Brazilian PT. Link.
  • “This paper analyzes the determinants of the labor-capital split in national income for 20 countries since the late 1800s. Our findings show that the capital share decreased in response to radical institutional and political shifts, such as the introduction of universal suffrage in the early 1900s, the undoing of colonialism and the implementation of redistributive policies during the post-war period.” New research from Erik Bengtsson, Enrico Rubolino, and Daniel Waldenstrom. Link.
  • A new version of Jesse Rothstein’s paper on labor market scarring for new graduates after the Great Recession. Link.
  • Isabel Rousset examines the housing reform debates induced by the proliferation of tenements (mietskaserne) in late 19th century Berlin. Link.
  • Farwa Sial with a fascinating analysis of informality in the trucking industry in Tanzania. Link. And a newly open access issue of South Atlantic Quarterly examines contingent labor around the world. Link.
  • “Workers in the bottom quintile of the wage distribution experienced a 35 percent employment decline while those in the top quintile experienced only a 9 percent decline. Overall, we document that the speed and magnitude of labor market deterioration during the early parts of the pandemic were unprecedented in the postwar period, particularly for the bottom of the earnings distribution.” The state of the labor market since covid-19. Link.
  • “This article investigates how, with increasing land pressure during Russian settlement in Kazakh steppes in the late nineteenth century, clan institutions affected the transition from nomadic pastoralism to settled agriculture. Using a novel dataset constructed from Russian colonial expedition materials matched with clan genealogies, we find that, controlling for geographic factors, clan identity strongly influenced the duration of transhumance period, the organization of production, and the acquisition of new agricultural tools. Information transmission within clans, external economies of scale in nomadic pastoralism, and clan-specific values and norms underlie the results.” Link.

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

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