Archive for the ‘Public Policy’ Category


Inappropriate application

July 3, 2011

I just want to flag this as one of the clearest examples I know of a public policy being used for something completely different than what it was intended for.

I don’t have a lot to say beyond “this is a really terrible way to approach the problem of women using drugs during pregnancy,” so I’ll keep it short: most states have, in recent years, passed fetal homicide laws.  They were intended to be applied to third party attacks–most often by abusive male partners.  Instead, several states are using them to press criminal charges against women who use drugs during their pregnancy and miscarry.

Read it here.


Also from Crossen

May 26, 2011

Well, really Benjamin Barber via Crossen.

Contrast these two questions:

1. Do you want a drug rehabilitation center in your neighborhood?

2. Do you think that the community needs drug rehabilitation centers, and if so, would you accept one in your neighborhood if you were persuaded that the policy process by which the locations were chosen was participatory and fair?

Pollsters assume that people can only answer questions of private preference.  If people are constantly asked to evaluate public polices in terms of their prejudices, they unlearn the art of civic judgment.

I don’t really blame polls for the questionable quality of our collective civic judgment, but I do find it persuasive that our questions are probably incorrectly oriented, that we would be better of if we’d explicitly require people to separate out what they believe to be best for society from what they believe to be best for themselves.



The real “other side”

May 26, 2011

Every now and then, there are rumblings about passing a law that would prohibit unions from using member dues to make political contributions without the written permission of the member.  For those of us who’ve been exposed to the portrayal of unions as corrupt special interests (think The Wire, Season Three), this makes some sense.  I admit to thinking that I could see where the impulse for such legislation might come from when I first heard of it.  For me, the two sides were: constrain political contributions or don’t.

Flying Whale, not surprisingly, was able to put it in context much more quickly, responding, “Are we going to require shareholders to sign something before corporations can make political contributions too?”  For Flying Whale, the two sides were: constrain both opposing powers or neither.

Initially, I was confined to a narrower scope, that of limiting union corruption, when imagining the other side of the argument.  Flying Whale was working from a broader and, I think, more robust understanding–that the other side was really about keeping opposing powers balanced.

The conversation reminded me that I really do think it’s a skill to be able to see the real “other side,” not the one embedded in the frame someone else is using.

Cynthia Crossen’s book, Tainted Truth, of which I’ve admittedly only read a few chapters, really made this point for me.  In her discussion of polling, she explores how poll results are affected by question wording.  Old news, right?  But I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to spot the less egregious slants.  For example, in Chapter Five, Crossen explores the public opinion polling that surrounded the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal/accusation.  Regarding a question from a New York Times/CBS News poll:

“Some people say Anita Hill’s charges should not be taken seriously because she did not make them years ago at the time she said the incidents happened.” (So far, so good.  That, indeed, was a popular argument against Anita Hill’s case.) The question continues: “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously even though they were made for the first time just recently.”  This second sentence is supposed to be the other side of the coin–the reason Anita Hill should be taken seriously.  Instead, it simply restates the negative point–she took a long time to complain.  But what would the results have been if the second part of the question had read, “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously because women sometimes have reasons to delay reporting such behavior?”

Once Crossen points it out, it’s so clear.  But just the “Some people say…other people say” structure had me fooled into taking it as an even-handed question.

Knowing that you’re susceptible to being duped certainly helps, but I’m finding this to be a slow skill to acquire.



Occupational licensing on the rise; unions on the decline

February 9, 2011

A couple days ago, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal laid out a case that the licensing of occupations – that is, the regulation of various jobs by prohibiting people from performing them unless they have a government license earned by passing specific education, training, or testing requirements – has gotten out of control, restricting competition and raising prices for consumers. The article gives all sorts of examples of ridiculous occupations for which one must be licensed by a state government to legally practice, including florists, interior designers, hairdressers, and cat groomers. These kinds of stories are easy to come by, and they’ve set the blogs aflame (Matt Yglesias in particular loves this issue). Moreover, it’s all easy fodder for libertarians, the Cato Institute, or anyone who wants to build a case against regulatory policy writ large.

Here’s one aspect of the issue I find most provocative. Occupational licensing might be viewed as a form of worker protection that, unlike unions, is very much on the rise. According to a 2009 NBER study by Morris Kleiner and Alan Krueger, far more workers are currently in licensed occupations – nearly 30 percent of the labor force – than are members of labor unions – about 12 percent (though the overlap is considerable; 45 percent of licensed workers are also unionized). In an intriguing Reuters piece, Felix Salmon makes a pseudo-progressive case that licensed occupations are the service economy’s version of a unionized workforce:

…state licensing is part of what a post-industrial economy looks like: post-industrial employment is, in the aggregate, more highly skilled and more consumer-facing. And that requires a different regulatory apparatus than an economy that largely takes place on a factory floor. So it should come as no surprise that more and more workers require a license these days… [licensing laws] are, in a sense, a form of worker protection which is acceptable to Republicans — think of them as unions for people who hate unions.

I’m not entirely sure what I think of licensing as a whole – more on that later – but I am sure that it’s a poor replacement for unions. It’s true that working in a licensed occupation comes with a wage benefit – Kleiner and Krueger estimate it to be 18 percent, which is comparable or even slightly higher than the wage benefit of private-sector unions. But that’s where the similarities end, even in pure labor market terms. Licensed occupations and labor unions are qualitatively different in at least these ways:

  • Federal vs. state: Labor law regarding unions exists at the federal level and applies, at least theoretically, to all U.S. workers. Most of the action in occupational licensing is at the state level, and different states have vastly divergent licensing laws. This has obvious implications for labor mobility and…
  • Effect on wage differential: Unions narrow the wage differential between different workers in different places working the same jobs. Indeed, this is a major goal of labor unions and one that has been so challenged by the global economy – equal work for equal pay within a sector, across regions, across demographic categories, etc. means fewer opportunities for wage arbitrage (i.e. a “race to the bottom” in wages). Licensing has no such effect, and arguably might increase variance in wages within a sector.
  • Collective action: The type of collective action that licensing encourages is narrow and occupation-based, compared to the broader collective action that exists under progressive unions. (My historical knowledge is a bit shaky here, but I’ll still share this thought I had: one might compare licensed occupations to the guild-style unions of the AFL earlier in the 20th century, before its merger with the CIO: i.e., regressive forces that sought to protect its members to the exclusion of others in the working class. Indeed, this seems to be a major thrust of much of the criticism of licensing.)
  • Employee voice: Concomitant with the above, unions bring all sorts of benefits aside from simple wage gains. Grievance processes and other formalized conduits for employee voice are not at issue at all with licensed occupations. One might posit that skilled service workers have less need for such benefits; but I’ve yet to see a serious argument that workers should have less voice.
  • Competition between occupations: Also related to the collective action item, licensing occupations results in nasty competition between related occupations. Interior designers have been fighting to be licensed (and succeeded in Florida) in part because the licensed occupations of architects and engineers have encroached on their ability to do the work they see as theirs. Similar turf battles exist between, say, dentists and dental hygienists. The ultimate result is pressure for all occupations in a given field to become licensed lest they become extinct once “competing” professions become licensed first.
  • Type of workers protected: By its very nature, licensing protects skilled occupations. Kleiner and Krueger find that some 45 percent of workers in licensed occupations have at least an undergraduate college degree. Unskilled workers – the very workers for whom unions are most important – are not only left out of this labor-market institution, they are arguably actively hurt by it. Some folks (Dean Baker comes to mind) would likely argue that licensing is basically a kind of protectionism that favors the relatively wealthy and skilled segments of the working force at the expense of the relatively poor and unskilled – especially in an era of globalization in which “free trade” means exposing unskilled workers to global competition while simultaneously sheltering skilled workers.

That’s a lot of differences, but it’s the last one I find more stark. To be sure, not all skilled workers in licensed occupations are high-wage. But if one views unions as vehicles for the working class to better their lives and enter the middle class – rather than as narrow interest groups protecting already inflated wages for a small segment of workers – occupational licensing is clearly a poor substitute.

I’ll have more on this in a following post, once I decide more clearly what I think about licensing and its effect on quality vs. restricted competition. I should leave off with a full disclosure, which is that Morris Kleiner, one of the leading scholars on this issue, is a professor of mine and I’m currently enrolled in a very relevant class of his entitled “Public Policies of Work and Pay.” I believe, but am not sure, that Kleiner would agree with the thrust of this post; perhaps an update on that will be forthcoming as well.

Flying Whale


Gotta say it

February 5, 2011

In an earlier comment, I wrote that:

we tend to view history through dual lenses of linearity and progress, forgetting that many of our greatest fights suffered deep, deep set-backs–even after we thought they were won.  Given the turn in our nation’s politics as evidenced by last November’s elections, studying up on the South’s reversals after Reconstruction seems unfortunately timely.

I wasn’t expecting rape to be up for redefinition.

For those who missed the uproar this past week, House Republicans introduced the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, the aim of which is to ban federal funds from being used to subsidize abortions, with a few exceptions.  While not a policy move I agree with, I can respect the effort.

The exceptions are the normal ones–incest, life of the woman is in danger, or forcible rape.  Wait, what?  Forcible rape, you say?  What’s that?

Does that mean that statutory rape or coercive rape–when the victim is underage or unconscious or it can’t be proven that she fought back “quite hard enough”–are no longer always considered “real rape?”

Yep.  But thanks to the quick response of many organizations and individuals from all over the country, the modifier on “rape” has been dropped from the bill.  But the fact that it was up for debate at all is a wearying reminder of the non-linearity of progress.

Rape is defined by lack of consent.  Period.  We shouldn’t ever need to return to that discussion.

The effort by this bill’s authors to create a hierarchy of rape in their attempt to limit abortion is completely unacceptable.

Work on the legislation you feel like you need to work on, friends.  But find another way to do it.  This tactic is not ok now, and it never will be.



Some Further Thoughts on Disciplines: World-Systems Theory, Sociology and Public Policy

February 4, 2011

Some personal background is useful for this post (which is likely to barely scratch the surface of what I ultimately would like to think and talk about), so bear with me.

As an undergraduate, I studied sociology at an institution in which the department’s Senior Research Scholar was Immanuel Wallerstein, the founder of world-systems analysis – so it’s little surprise that my two most influential professors, including my academic adviser, were to no small extent world-systems theorists. In fact, one served as chair of the Political Economy of the World-System (PEWS) section of the American Sociological Association, while the other recently won a PEWS “best article” award for his work studying whether domestic vs. foreign ownership of capital matters in terms of contribution to national development.

World-systems theory was such a big part of my education that I came rather close to becoming a sociology doctoral student studying under Giovanni Arrighi (RIP) at Johns Hopkins University. But instead, I’m now in public policy school, rather far from my intellectual “roots,” as it were, in macro-historical sociology. And I have some desire to tie these two disparate strands together somehow. That is to say: how can macro-historical sociology, and world-systems theory in particular, inform public policy?

Let’s back up briefly. In the spirit of Jonas’ recent post, we should first answer the question: What does it mean to take a world-systems theoretical perspective? The fundamental shift in perspective that sets world-systems analysis apart is a rejection of the nation-state, the household, or anything in between as the primary unit of analysis for social science. Instead, world-systems theorists look at the entire world as their unit of analysis: specifically, a deeply interconnected world-system in which political and economic processes cannot be examined independently of their place in (and effect on) the whole. As Wallerstein says in The Modern World-System I, “It was a false perspective to take a unit like a ‘tribe’ and seek to analyze its operations without reference to the fact that, in a colonial situation, the governing institutions of a ‘tribe,’ far from being ‘sovereign,’ were closely circumscribed by the laws (and customs) of a larger entity of which they were an indissociable part, the colony.” He transfers this assertion from tribes in a colonial context to nation-states in a world-systemic context.

The implications of this radical reconceptualization of social science are a bit difficult to grasp; I certainly don’t have a complete sense of them myself. One of the more obvious ones, though is an increased emphasis on history, and an examination of change over time. Historical context really matters to a world-systems theorist – if the only unit of analysis is the entire world, then understanding that world requires an understanding of the process by which the current system evolved. Or, as Timothy Patrick Moran puts it in a recent issue of the excellent Journal of World-Systems Research:

The difference between macro comparative social science in various forms and world-systems analysis in particular can be illustrated by looking at how each frames relevant questions for analyzing inequality, for example. Scholars of the former are currently asking questions like: why do the countries of Latin America have higher levels of inequality than those in say Western Europe? This directs inquiry inward, toward the nation-states themselves, as in: What are the conditions within the countries of Western Europe in contrast to the countries in Latin America that allow the former to have relatively egalitarian income distributions and the others to not? From a world-system perspective, inequality goes from being a condition to a process, and the questions are restated: How did the countries of Western Europe come to occupy the level of inequality they have in the world and the countries of Latin America the level of inequality they have? More interestingly, are the two related? At fundamental issue is the unit of analysis.

What world-systems analysis demands, then, is an awareness of how the structures of the modern world are embedded in a continual process of global change. It follows that this conception of the world has implications for policymaking, particularly in the arenas of foreign policy and global economic policy. (Wallerstein in his biweekly commentaries writes a great deal about U.S. foreign policy, from his general frame that the U.S. is in the midst of a long period of hegemonic decline.)

The field of public policy, if it can be thought of as such, is one that is largely based on neoclassical economic theory: rational actors, risk analyses, cost-benefit considerations, and such tend to dominate policy analysis techniques, although qualitative methods do appear to be gaining traction. For me, bringing a world-systems perspective (or even, more broadly speaking, a sociological perspective) into policy analysis has thus far been less than fruitful. For instance: a cost-benefit analysis or a process/impact evaluation of a development project is naturally somewhat confined to the boundaries of the project in question. Questions about how the project fits into a broader development agenda are often sidelined. Questions about how the project fits into a broader process of world-historical inequality are completely ignored. How does one bring such considerations into the agenda?

I’ll digress briefly into another example to illustrate how my instincts as a sociologist are difficult to apply to the policy realm. Public policy regarding work and pay – labor market regulations and institutions – are premised around labor unions as a stakeholder in a process of making policies dealing with the relationship between firms and workers. The idea of U.S. labor unions as a broader social movement, with a particular historical context in which they were the driving force behind domestic left-wing politics for some considerable part of the 20th century, never enters the discussion.

So, I see my task for the next year and a half as figuring out ways to connect sociological and world-systemic analysis – which, I believe, has a particular potency in its ability to discern both structures of power and potential leverage points in which human agency matters – to public policy analysis and policymaking, without becoming marginal in either field. (Starting with world-systems analysis is probably a terrible way to avoid becoming marginal in any situation, but if anything my inclination to do so just shows how historical context – in this case my personal historical context – matters.)

Flying Whale


Today the Supreme Court will decide whether AT&T is people, too.

January 24, 2011

From my view of the world, corporate personhood (and its continued expansion) causes serious problems–not least of which is it’s application in the Supreme Court decision Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission.

That said, Dahlia Lithwick does a great job of tracking a small setback in the advance of corporate personhood at the Supreme Court this week.  The whole thing is worth reading; here’s a taste:

But AT&T felt, passionately, that turning over these materials would violate the corporation’s “personal privacy.” One of the exemptions to FOIA—exemption 7(C)—provides that records may be withheld if their release would represent an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” But since this exemption has only ever been invoked to protect human privacy rights, never corporate ones, AT&T has to persuade the courts to extend the right to “personal privacy” to corporations as well as people. So it’s a big day: Because today the Supreme Court will decide whether AT&T is people, too.

Speaking of, I’m interested in all this enough to read more than the Wikipedia article on it.  Does anyone know of a respectable defense of corporate personhood?