The Giant


Public opinion and policymaking

Covid is changing popular attitudes towards the public sector, prompting many commentators to anticipate a new period of welfare expansion. Others are more skeptical, noting that public opinion undergoes rapid fluctuations, which rarely resolve into a new equilibrium.

Like its forebear in debates over the 1981 Meltzer-Richards model, the present discussion assumes a strong relationship between public opinion and policymaking. A 2012 book by political scientist MARTIN GILENS demonstrates the flaws underlying this assumption.

From the book:

“Democracy is commonly understood to entail a substantial degree of political equality. This ideal of political equality is perhaps impossible to fully achieve in the face of economic inequality—in every democracy citizens with greater resources are better able to shape government policy. But the degree of political inequality in a society tells us much about the quality of the society’s democracy. I aim to document and explain patterns of representation in the United States over the past few decades by examining the relationship between the policy preferences expressed by the American public and the policies adopted by decision makers in Washington. To do so I have assembled a dataset of survey questions reflecting the policy preferences of hundreds of thousands of Americans at different income levels on all sorts of government policies—from raising the minimum wage, to restricting abortions, to sending U.S. troops to Bosnia.

When preferences across income groups diverged, only the most affluent appeared to influence policy outcomes. Representational inequality was spread widely across policy domains, with a strong tilt toward high-income Americans on economic issues, foreign policy, and moral/religious issues, and only modestly greater equality of responsiveness to the middle class and the poor in the social welfare domain. Even this partial exception to the dominance of the affluent was accounted for by the fortuitous confluence of preferences between middle-class citizens and powerful interest groups on issues like health care, education, and Social Security. Yet the importance of political conditions in shaping responsiveness means that our political destiny is not predetermined. The obstacles to enhancing representational equality in America are considerable, but the costs of not doing so are considerable as well.”

Link to the publisher’s page.

  • Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s much-cited Winner Take All Politics outlines the mechanisms of policy influence in the US. Link.
  • A new paper by Matias López et. al examine the economic and social factors which shape elite attitudes towards redistribution in Brazil. Link. h/t Paul
  • “In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued that the American frontier fostered individualism. We investigate this thesis by tracking the frontier between 1790–1890 and constructing a novel, county-level measure of total frontier experience (TFE). Long after the closing of the frontier, counties with greater TFE exhibit more pervasive individualism and opposition to redistribution.” Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse on the historical roots public opinion. Link.


Iraqi Sovereign Debt Through Defaults and Restructuring

In a 2019 working paper, LSE PhD candidate in economic history SIMON HINRICHSEN studies the unique story of Iraqi sovereign debt. The paper both creates a novel debt series since 1979 and uses oral history to describe the post-US-invasion restructuring, shedding light on how major geopolitical shifts over the past four decades have shaped sovereign debt relations around the world.

From the introduction:

“Iraq’s entire debt stock was a consequence of the geopolitics of the Iran-Iraq War. The US, the Soviet Union, and many European countries showed a willingness to disregard solvency concerns and gave loans to Iraq on non-market terms. In less than fifteen years, the war turned Iraq from a net creditor in 1979 to having a debt-GDP ratio of over ten. Sovereign debt restructurings are increasingly creditor friendly, but the Iraqi restructuring circumvented these obstacles, and was unlike most other restructurings at the same time. Sovereign creditors were placed under immense political pressure by the US to forgive debt, with the Paris Club inflicting large write-offs on Iraqi creditors. However, the restructuring was a missed opportunity to set precedent by declaring Iraqi debt odious, thereby reforming how sovereign debt is restructured.”

Link to the full paper.

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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  • On Friday, May 15, at 3PM EST we’ll be hosting political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez for a virtual research session covering his recent and ongoing work, with the title “Collective Action in Private Governments.” Email editorial@jainfamilyinstitute.orgto register. (And link to Hertel-Fernandez’s post for Phenomenal World.)
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics’s April Jobs Report was released yesterday, with staggering (if widely-predicted) numbers of un- and under-employment. Link to the report. EPI’s Elise Gould breaks down the numbers: “It’s as if all the gains in employment since 2000 were wiped out.” Link. And link to a CNN report on how the BLS conducted its surveys under pandemic conditions.
  • For CGDev, Martin Ravallion examines pandemic policies in the global south. Link.
  • “I merge several historical data sets from Germany to show that influenza mortality in 1918-1920 is correlated with lower per capita municipal spending, as well as the share of votes received by extremist parties in 1932 and 1933.” By Kristian S. Blickle. Link.
  • “We use new data on the distribution of PPP loans and high-frequency micro-level employment data to consider two dimensions of program targeting. First, we do not find evidence that funds flowed to areas more adversely affected by the economic effects of the pandemic. Second, we find significant heterogeneity across banks in terms of disbursing PPP funds.” João Granja, Christos Makridis, Constantine Yannelis, and Eric Zwick on the impact of the Paycheck Protection Program. Link.
  • “New Liberalism and the City of London.” Alexander Zevin on Francis Hirst and the relationship between finance and politics in turn of the century England. Link.
  • A paper by Dan Immergluck, Jeff Ernsthausen, Stephanie Earl, and Allison Powerll looks at eviction data in Atlanta and finds disparities in serial versus nonserial eviction findings, and that “property turnover is a significant predictor of rising evictions.” Link.
  • Anna Simmons on the institutional development of the Society of Apothecaries from 1670-1800. Link.
  • A timely new paper by Adam Bonica, Jacob Grumbach, Charlotte Hill and Hakeem Jefferson examines the effects of all-mail voting in Colorado: 9.4 percentage point turnout effect, with significantly larger turnout among lower-propensity voters like young people, blue-collar workers, voters of color, and voters with lower levels of educational attainment. Link to the paper, link to an accompanying op-ed in the Times.
  • “At the end of the seventeenth century, Scottish agriculture was remarkable only in one respect: the rural class structure within which it took place corresponded to the classic feudal model more closely than that of any other state west of Poland. The subsistence crisis of the 1690s exposed the productive limits of an agriculture based on feudal social relations, but also severely weakened any possible capitalist alternative. The Treaty of Union with England of 1707 brought the feudal powers of the Scottish lords into the new British state intact, but access to English and imperial markets encouraged a minority of them to experiment with the same forms of agricultural improvement which had produced such increases in landlord income south of the border. Although these attempts were not successful in the short term, they laid the basis for the transformation of Scottish agriculture in the changed circumstances after 1746.” In memory of the late Neil Davidson, the first in his three part exposition of the of the oft-overlooked Scottish revolution of 1688-1746. Link. (And links to the second and third installments.)

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

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