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Energy production and political institutions

The role of labor (with some notable exceptions) has been relatively marginal in debates over how to decarbonize the economy. But given the growing number of clean energy jobs (and some recent labor news), it is reasonable to predict that any large-scale shifts in the nature of energy production will be accompanied by large-scale shifts in the nature of energy work and the labor relations that define it.

In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Columbia University professor TIMOTHY MITCHELL explores the political history of energy production. The wide-ranging study spans history from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, and charts the relationship between carbon-based energy production and various forms of governance. Among the arguments at the core of the book is Mitchell’s identification of the emergence of democratic labor institutions within the structure and position of coal mines during industrialization—a position that was weakened in the transition to oil.

From the book:

“Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry. The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness, and the autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. Strikes became effective, not because of mining’s isolation, but because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home, or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.

Changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labor kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily enable large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power.”

Link to the book preview, link to a 2009 article that preceded its publication.

  • For more on labor dynamics in industrial Britain, see Robert Steinfeld’s 2010 book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, and Suresh Naidu and Noah Yuchtman’s 2012 paper on coercive contract enforcement in coal and other industries. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • A 2012 review of Mitchell’s book by Matt Stoller: “Globally, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. You can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil.” Link.
  • A book on the role of Mexico’s oil fields in labor disputes during the Mexican revolution, by Myrna I. Santiago. Link.
  • A Next System report by Johanna Bozuwa imagines a network of democratically-run energy projects as the core of a “just transition.” Link.


Dodd-Frank and political violence in Sub-Saharan Africa

In his job market paper, JEFFREY BLOEM analyzes the unintended consequences of the Dodd-Frank Act, which, in the wake of the financial crisis, heightened the transparency requirements for trade in minerals from Central Africa. The act attempted to cut ties with armed rebel groups by mandating that companies cease purchasing minerals from rebel-controlled mines. Bloem compares the intensity and spread of conflict in countries covered by the Dodd-Frank Act with that in sub-Saharan African countries which the Act did not cover.

His findings:

“Impact estimates show that the Dodd-Frank Act roughly doubled the probability of conflict at the sub-national level within the DRC. This general result persists across different types of conflict. Violence against civilians, rebel group battles, riots and protests, and deadly conflict all increase within the DRC due to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act. There are at least, two relevant theoretical mechanisms that could explain these results. The feasibility mechanism suggests that limiting the revenue earned by armed rebel groups through the extraction of 3TG minerals tightens the budget constraint of armed rebel groups and limits their ability to cause conflict. Alternatively, the opportunity cost mechanism suggests that a reduction of income earned by families, households, and individuals in Eastern DRC decreases the opportunity cost of joining a rebel group and increases the ability of armed rebel groups to perpetuate conflict.

Although policies and norms that push the private sector toward more accountable business practices are likely necessary, they are not sufficient. Ultimately, the Dodd-Frank Act, while perhaps forming beneficial international norms regarding natural resource extraction in the context of weak political institutions, has also made life much more difficult for many in Africa’s Great Lakes Region and in the DRC in particular.”

Link to the paper, and to Bloem’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:


  • JFI advisor Greg Duncan is one of several researchers leading Baby’s First Years, a groundbreaking study of “the impact of poverty reduction via monthly, unconditional cash gifts on family life and infant and toddlers’ cognitive, emotional, and brain development.” Link.
  • “Social Security does much more to help kids today than TANF. In 2018, nearly 3 million children under age 18 received $20.9 billion in Social Security benefits. By contrast, about 1.7 million children received financial assistance from TANF. If you care about today’s children, you should be very upset about how little TANF is doing to help them.” Shawn Fremstad on the CEPR blog. Link. Mentioned in the post is this 2016 analysis of Social Security’s role in alleviating child poverty, from Peter Arno and Jeannette Wicks-Lim at PERI. Link.
  • “What we seek to explore here is a set of interventions by the public sector targeted at expanding productive employment opportunities by supporting firms and workers in their efforts to acquire and extend the capacities needed to participate in the dynamic sector of the economy” A proposal for a new economy, by Dani Rodrik and Charles Sabel. Link.
  • From Matthew S. Jaremski and David C. Wheelock: “The Founding of the Federal Reserve, the Great Depression and the Evolution of the U.S. Interbank Network” Link. In a recent VoxEU article, the authors “[use] evidence from 20th century America to show how the founding of the Federal Reserve and the Great Depression affected interbank networks and lending practices.” Link.
  • Priyaranjan Jha and Antonio Rodriguez-Lopez analyze the interaction effects of trade liberalization and monopsonistic labor markets, finding that “Monopsony power reduces social welfare and the gains from trade.” Link.
  • Elise M. Dermineur “explores the world of informal financial transactions and informal networks in pre-industrial France.” Link.
  • “It is impossible to build an equitable and prosperous future with decision-making machines that amplify historical patterns of oppression.” Mona Sloane and Emanuel Moss call for interdisciplinary collaboration and the integration of qualitative research methods into AI system design in the August issue of Nature Machine Intelligence. Link.
  • A new report from Autonomy outlines the shortcomings of the UK’s work-based Universal Credit system, and considers “how the principles of UBI can speak to the specific problems of the UK’s current welfare benefit system.” Link.
  • Ben Williamson looks at how the expanding data infrastructure is shaping policy making in higher education. Link.
  • Clint Peinhardt, Alisha A. Kim, and Viveca Pavon-Harr use “satellite imagery of deforestation across Peruvian border regions” to assess the “limits of external imposition of environmental rules, like the 2009 United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement. The regulations appear prone to failure unless domestic interests mobilize in their support.” Link.
  • “Drawing on witchcraft cases reported in newspapers and coming before Ireland’s courts, this article argues that witch belief remained part of Protestant and Catholic popular culture throughout the long nineteenth century. We paint a complex picture of the Irish witches and their ‘victims’, who are respectively seen to have fought accusation and bewitchment using legal, magical, physical, and verbal means. We reveal the contexts in which witchcraft was linked to other crimes such as assault, slander, theft, and fraud in an era of expansion of courts and policing. This illustrates how Irish people adapted to legal changes while maintaining traditional beliefs, and suggests that witchcraft is an overlooked context in which interpersonal violence was exerted and petty crime committed.” By Andrew Sneddon and John Fulton. Link.

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

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