Real Dystopias: Dispatches from the Grim Meathook Future

Occasionally, I get the idea for a course I’ll probably never teach. This week’s idea is a course on real dystopias. A couple years ago, then-president of the American Sociological Association Erik Olin Wright unveiled a big collaborative project on “real utopias”. Real utopias are actually existing utopic projects, like cooperatives and Creative Commons. This of course inspires a whole mental 2×2 table of real vs. unreal utopias vs. dystopias (for a bit of humor at the time, see this old post). The category that most interests me is not so much Wright’s real utopias, but rather the actually existing, or plausible and predicted, dystopias. And then I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to teach a whole class about these things?

Following from the writing of Warren Ellis and Joshua Ellis, let’s call these “dispatches from the Grim Meathook Future.” Each week or sub-unit would cover a different real dystopia, ideally with a guest lecturer who could speak to the underlying science or politics of the particular kind of dystopia. A lot of them connect to climate change, but that’s almost too broad so we have to disaggregate, and I’ll just focus on one possibility. Here are some example units and ideas for guest lecture topics:

1. Antibiotic resistant infections. Guest lecturers: a historian of medicine to talk about the world before antibiotics, a microbiologists or epidemiologist to talk about the problems of antibiotic resistance, the lack of new antibiotics in development, and the already high prevalence of resistant bugs (e.g.). Here’s an essay from Medium that could serve as a primer.

2. Widespread droughts and massive disruptions of the food supply connected to climate change. Guest lecturers: a social scientist to speak about the current system of water provisioning, agriculture and the wacky politics thereof (e.g. Steve Jackson at Cornell), an environmental scientist to speak about draining of the aquifers, difficulties of desalination, and growing drought conditions in much of the world.

3. The dominance of the patrimonial super-rich. If we believe Thomas Piketty, absent some kind of major political realignment, revolution, or widespread war, the next century will see a continued increase in both income and wealth inequality, and especially the return of a class of super-rich inheritors who will dominate political and social life. Guest lecturers could include a historian or literary scholar to talk about the last gilded age and the cultural dominance of the super rich then, as well as an economist to walk through Piketty’s data and model and/or a political scientist or sociologist to talk about the improbability of enacting policies likely to stem the growing wealth of the super-elite (cf. Gilens and Page).

4. The Player Piano dystopia. In his optimistic vision of the future, outlined in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, Keynes argued that in the future, the economic system would be so productive that most people could live lives of relative leisure, working perhaps 15-hour weeks to share the reduced workload widely and make sure all have some meaningful labor. Kurt Vonnegut offered an alternative vision in his debut novel, Player Piano, in which a relatively small clique of engineers built and maintained the machines, while a large class of unemployed workers lived lives of aimless poverty. Modern version of Vonnegut’s argument focus on the inability of society to come up with ways of distributing resources equitably outside of the labor market. Class could focus on these literary texts, and/or the economics of automation.

5. The Surveillance state dystopia. A nice place to start, because it’s so personal and yet so vivid, might be the recent debates over big data and privacy, such as the story about Target predicting a teen girl’s pregnancy before her parents knew, and the recent (sort-of) follow-up about the lengths sociology professor Janet Vertesi had to go to to prevent automated surveillance systems from sussing out her own pregnancy. From there you could move to literature (Charles Stross’s Halting State, perhaps?), discussions of the NSA, and so on.

What do you think? And what real dystopias – social, political, environmental, etc. – would you want to teach?

Junior Theorists Symposium – August 15, 2014 – Save the Date!

I’m happy to announce the program for the 2014 Junior Theorists Symposium! JTS will be held this year on Friday, August 15 (the day before ASA), at the University of California (Berkeley). Details about the program follow. If you have any questions, please contact Jordanna Matlon and myself at

Junior Theorists Symposium
University of California (Berkeley)
August 15, 2014

8:30 – 9:00 | Coffee and Bagels

9:00 – 10:50 | Culture, Action, and Difference
* Ellis Monk (University of Chicago) – “Bodily Capital: Capturing the Role of the Body in Social Inequality”
* Daniel Sherwood (The New School) – “Acting Through the Margin of Freedom: Bourdieu as a Social Movement Theorist”
* Brandon Vaidyanathan (Rice University) – “A Cultural Theory of Differentiation”
Discussant: George Steinmetz (University of Michigan – Ann Arbor)

10:50 – 11:00 | Coffee

11:00 – 12:50 | Measures of Worth
* Alison Gerber (Yale University) – “Tradition, Rationalization and Worth: A Theory of Decommensuration”
* Michael Halpin (University of Wisconsin – Madison) – “Science and Sociodicy: Neuroscientific Explanations of Social Suffering”
* Katherine Kenny (University of California – San Diego) – “The Biopolitics of Global Health: Life and Death and Neoliberal Time”
Discussant: Marion Fourcade (University of California – Berkeley)

12:50 – 2:00 | Lunch

2:00 – 3:50 | Place and Perspective
* Hillary Angelo (New York University) – “From the City as a Lens to Urbanization as a Way of Seeing: Refocusing Social Categories for an Urban Planet”
* Jennifer Carlson (University of Toronto) – “Citizen-Protectors: Guns, Masculinity and Citizenship in an Age of Decline”
* Victoria Reyes (Princeton University) – “Global Borderlands: A Case Study of the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, Philippines”
Discussant: Saskia Sassen (Columbia University)

4:00 – 5:30 | After-panel: The Boundaries of Theory
* Stefan Bargheer (University of California – Los Angeles)
* Claudio Benzecry (University of Connecticut)
* Margaret Frye (Harvard University)
* Julian Go (Boston University)
* Rhacel Parreñas (University of Southern California)

5:30 – ? | Theory in the Wild: Beer, wine, and good conversation (off-site)

The Junior Theorists Symposium is an open event. In order to facilitate planning, please RSVP by sending an email to with the subject line “JTS RSVP.” We suggest an on-site donation of $20 per faculty member and $10 per graduate student to cover event costs. The exact locations will be announced later this summer.

Piketty’s Patrimonial Capitalism and the Racial Wealth Gap

Although I’ve been following the broad discussion of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century quite closely, I haven’t really decided where I stand on the book yet. I’m reading it with an interdisciplinary group of social science graduate students, and thus far the economists have had a lot of interesting reactions on technical grounds, while the rest of us are excited about the project but a bit disappointed that Piketty spends a lot more time praising other social sciences than actually engaging with our work.[1] I’m not sure we’ve yet come to any consensus on what it all means.

While pondering the book, and the ongoing discussion it has generated, I had a random thought that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere and so I thought I’d try it out on you nice folks here. One of Piketty’s central arguments is that we are seeing the return of the “patrimonial capitalism” that dominated for most of the last 200 years. Patrimonial capitalism here means that the economic elite mostly attain their fortunes through inheritance rather than entrepreneurship or innovation. When the returns to capital (r) exceed the real growth rate (g), the rich get richer faster than they tend to spend their money, and faster than new fortunes can be created. These inherited fortunes produce a class of rentiers who dominate politics with all sorts of (mostly implied, but very plausible) negative consequences.

The US looks, at first glance, like a bit of an outlier because the incomes of very high earners (the top 1%, .1%, .01%…) contain a relatively high share of labor income, and not just returns to capital. These incomes are traceable largely to the explosion of executive pay and the ridiculous incomes of top finance employees at hedge funds, investment banks, and the like. This income counts as labor income, although there are good reasons to believe that politics plays as much of a role as, say, marginal productivity in determining the wages of executives and the compensation of hedge fund guys.[2] But, even so, Piketty argues that the US is seeing the same trend towards inheritors having the largest fortunes. As many have pointed out, of the 10 richest Americans, four are Wal-Mart heirs, and two are the Koch brothers, all of whom inherited their money. And when the current crop of top finance employees and CEOs die, their children will join the Kochs and Waltons as next generation’s economic elites.

What interest me about this story, at least for the purpose of this post, is what it means for the dynamics of racial inequality. As far as I can tell, no one has picked up on this angle, perhaps because I’m missing something that complicates the analysis or perhaps because it’s too obvious to be worth highlighting. In general, Piketty and his admirers tend to blur traditional distinctions and focus on the biggest economic cleavages, e.g. “We are the 99%”. And there’s real value to that. But let’s stop for a moment and ask what happens if the US turns into society increasingly dominated by inherited wealth. Families who managed to make their fortunes in the relatively equal era of the 1940s-1970s, or in the increasingly unequal era of the last 30 years, will get to lock in those gains. Families who end this period with little wealth will have few opportunities to make new fortunes (a consequence of the low growth rate, implying little turnover, little economic disruption, etc.).[3]

So which families have the wealth? Well, white families. Not all white families of course, but the racial wealth gap is one of the staggering facts of contemporary inequality. Worse even than racial income gaps, racial wealth gaps have grown tremendously in the past few decades. Here’s a summary of recent research on the topic[4]:

A recent Urban Institute report finds that the racial wealth gap — measured as the difference in wealth accumulated by white Americans and black and Latino Americans — is the largest it has ever been since the Federal Reserve started tracking it. In 1983, for every dollar held by the average black or Latino family, the average white family had five. In the aftermath of the financial meltdown and the Great Recession that figure today has increased to six dollars. The figures for the median post-recession family — a measure less skewed by America’s handful of superrich — are even further apart: in 2010, for every dollar held by the median black or Latino family, the median white family had eight.

This coverage emphasizes the gaps for typical families. My guess is that the gaps at the right tail are even more extreme. Similarly, we know that CEOs of large companies are disproportionately white, with just six of the Fortune 500 companies having a Black CEO, and just eight are Latino – and none of those minority CEOs are among the highest paid.[5] I’m not finding good numbers on employment in investment banking, hedge funds, and the like by race, but those occupations also skew heavily white (if you know of a good source for racial wealth gaps at the very top, or for employment in haute finance by race, please post a link in the comments!).

Put together Piketty’s story on the return of inherited wealth with the current massive racial wealth gaps in the US, and the white dominance of “supermanager” positions that are currently producing new fortunes to be inherited, and we get a recipe for continued economic dominance by (a small group of) white families. Black and latino families didn’t have time to catch up in the era when inequality was decreasing (the mid-20th century), nor in the era when new fortunes could be made (the past few decades), and thus in Piketty’s grim, dystopic future, not only will elites dominate the economic and political sphere, but those elites will be almost entirely white.[6]

I suppose it’s not especially surprising that the future will continue to be dominated by rich white people, but it still seems worth talking about as one of the many consequences of the return of patrimonial capitalism.

[1] Michele Lamont gets a nice shout-out, though!

[2] At a minimum, politics explains why such pay is now taxed so little compared to 30 or 40 years ago. And reducing taxes on high earners increases their wealth in the following years, and thus increases the amount of labor income that turns into wealth and inherited fortunes. See also the elimination of the estate tax.

[3] This is, I think, one of the most questionable predictions. Even if we see low measured growth rates, it’s hard to imagine there being the same kind of stagnation associated with next 50 years that was associated with the pre-19th century economy, or even the relatively slow pace of change of the 1800s. That said, the wealthy may find plenty of ways to weather the storms of economic change in a world of massive disruptions but little overall growth, while labor, as usual, is left to bear risks on its own.

[4] Note, I’ve not studied wealth statistics or wealth gaps nearly as much as income. I’d love suggestions for the best contemporary research on wealth data, apart of course from Piketty and co-author’s work (which cannot see racial disparities due to the limitations of the sources, I believe).

[5] These CEOs are almost all men as well, but that matters a bit less for the analysis of inheritance (though not for other important questions around inequality).

[6] Not to mention the 17th and 18th centuries, but that’s before the modern era of economic growth and etc. where Piketty’s analysis gets interesting.

Do Economists Make Policies?

Elizabeth Popp Berman and I just received the good news that the final version of our paper on how economists influence policymaking was posted at Socioeconomic Review. We hope those interested in the political power of economic ideas, experts, and tools will find it useful. Abstract:

Economics is often described as the most politically influential social science and yet economic advice is often largely irrelevant to prominent policy debates. We draw on literatures in political science, sociology and science and technology studies to explain this apparent contradiction. Existing research suggests that the influence of economics is mediated by local circumstances and meso-level social structures, and that much of it flows through indirect channels. We elaborate three sites of analysis useful for unpacking these influences: the broad professional authority of economics, the institutional position of economists in government, and the role of economics in the cognitive infrastructure of policymaking, including the diffusion of economic styles of reasoning and the establishment of economic policy devices for seeing and deciding.

Let us know what you think!

Triangular Research

This Thursday, I’m headed to the research triangle area for my last dissertation archival trip. I’m also giving a talk this Friday at Duke’s Center for the History of Political Economy (details here). The talk is based on a paper co-authored with Elizabeth Popp Berman on how economists, economic ideas, and economic devices influence policymaking (forthcoming in Socioeconomic Review). The paper is very much aimed at sociologists and political scientists, so it will be interesting to see what the historians of economics make of it.

In addition to being excited about the talk, and about finishing off archival work, I’m delighted to be able to time travel several months into the future and arrive at Summer. If you have any recommendations for good food spots in the Raleigh/Durham area, or fun things to do that might not pop up on a casual Google search, leave your suggestions in the comments. And if you want to say hi or grab a coffee, I’ll be in the area through Friday the 18th. Thanks!

Review of “The Nature of Race”, Ann Morning (2011)

I just finished reading Ann Morning’s The Nature of Race. It’s excellent. Morning shows, through analysis of high school textbooks, interviews with scientists (biologists and anthropologists), and interviews with undergraduates, that racial essentialism is still the dominant mode of understanding race. Again, this is true among practicing biologists, and it’s even true among many undergraduates studying cultural anthropology (though this belief is not as prominent). Morning is one of a number of scholars (including Steve Epstein, Alondra Nelson, and others) who have pointed to the return of biological conceptions of race connected to modern understandings of genetics. More generally, Morning shows that peoples’ conceptions of race are mixed and messy, but with an essentialist biological argument playing a starring role in many settings.

A bit more on what Morning means by essentialism. Morning lays out three broad positions on race (“racial conceptualizations”) that are themselves not entirely coherent (as in, there are multiple versions of each): essentialism, constructivism, and anti-essentialism.

Essentialism holds that humans are divisible into discrete biological groups which we can call races, and that members of these racial groups are different in important and unchangeable ways. Contemporary essentialist arguments invoke genetics; older arguments relied on phenotypes to assign people to races and on different understandings of biology to motivate their arguments about the fixedness of various traits (intelligence, athletic ability, what have you).

A second position, anti-essentialism, says that essentialism is wrong – human biological variation does not neatly fall into discrete groups, humans have always interbred across what we think of as racial lines, and racial classifications reflect cultural biases not biological realities.

The last position, constructivism, is in many ways an ally to anti-essentialism – the two can go hand in hand, but they are often invoked separately. Constructivism says that race is a social and cultural construct, but that it is real and meaningful and connected to various forms of domination and inequality (empire, slavery, etc.). The two positions both make sense, but they sometimes seem to imply contradictory actions: constructivism implies that it’s important to measure race and racial difference because it’s so baked into how we setup society that we can’t ignore it but have to effectively fight it, while anti-essentialism seems to imply that we should just get rid of the damned thing entirely. That’s a bit of my extrapolation from her argument, but I think it holds up. I think anti-essentialism and constructivism also become more useful in different contexts: when thinking about say, school segregation vs. research on new medications.

An important caveat: these are conceptualizations not people; an individual can express multiple such positions when prompted in different ways, even though they seem to contradict. People are funny like that.

The book is excellent, and readable, and inspiring… but it’s also depressing as hell, in a subtle way. As Morning shows, strong arguments against essentialist biological understandings of race go back at least to the 1930s (and almost surely further, but in very recognizable forms to that period). The scientific evidence against racial essentialism has only gotten stronger. And yet, somehow, we are losing the fight. Morning’s last chapter offers some tentative ideas about why racial essentialism is so enduring, and why it might be especially resurgent now in an era that has seen tremendous legal victories in the fight for civil rights, but persistent and massive racial inequality and segregation. But at least one reason has to be that social scientists haven’t yet figured out how to convince everyone – especially, but not limited to, biological scientists and undergraduates – that race is not an essential biological fact, but rather an enduring cultural and social creation that plays out meaningfully in everyday life and is baked into social structures of domination. I’m not sure how we do that, but somehow we have to do better.

Piketty’s “Capital”, Link Round-Up

There’s a new big red political economy book in town! This weekend, I had the pleasure of reading the first few chapters of economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The book is impressive and interesting, if almost a bit out of time. Piketty’s analysis of the dynamics of capital and inequality feels like one part Karl Marx, two parts Simon Kuznets (both of whom he cites approvingly, if critically). This style of analysis, rooted in a long-run historical dynamic of reasonably simple aggregates, is intentionally in contrast with the dominant style of economics today. So far, it seems to be working out quite well, as everyone and their advisor is commenting on Piketty’s work. Below is a partial collection of links to blog posts and more formal reviews of the book, for my and your perusal. Even more than usual, linking here is not an endorsement. If I get a chance, I may go back through and pull interesting quotes. For now, here’s the list.

Forces of Divergence, John Cassidy, New Yorker.

Piketty’s Triumph. Short reviews by Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, Heather Boushey, Branko Milanovic at Here’s a quote from Hacker and Pierson:

Piketty suggests that the pressures for change will eventually prove overwhelming. Either ever-richer capitalists will tear one another apart in the race for diminishing returns, or the rest of society will rise up and impose a fairer framework. For a book that insists on the primacy of politics, however, Piketty has relatively little to say about how—with organized labor weakened, moneyed interests strengthened, and anti-government forces emboldened—the kind of political movement necessary for a fairer future will emerge. (It was war, after all, not universal suffrage, that ultimately tamed inequality in the 20th century.)

Heather Boushey (and Me) on Thomas Piketty. Brad DeLong, blogging at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, responding to one of the short reviews above. His conclusion:

Piketty says: sociologically, America today may be the worst of all worlds for those who are neither top income earners nor top wealth successors: you are poor, and depicted as dumb & undeserving: “nobody was trying to depict Ancien Régime inequality as fair”.

Reading “Capital”: Introduction. The first part of a reading group organized by the Free Exchange blog at The Economist. Several more parts are already posted, with more to come.

Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th. Dean Baker, blogging at the Huffington Post. A tidbit:

Rather than continuing in this vein, I will just take one item that provides an extraordinary example of the book’s lack of attentiveness to institutional detail. In questioning his contribution to advancing technology, Piketty asks: “Did Bill [Gates] invent the computer or just the mouse?” Of course the mouse was first popularized by Apple, Microsoft’s rival. It’s a trivial issue, but it displays the lack of interest in the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.

Remind anyone of a similar critique of the last big red political economy bestseller?

[EDIT] Henry Farrell presents a strong argument that Dean Baker took the above quote out of context, and that the debate over Piketty’s small inaccuracies is both unfair and undermining the bigger conversation (where both tend to agree on, e..g, Piketty’s lack of institutional discussion). Here’s Farrell’s take:

What Piketty actually says (p.512 of the proofs version of the book, which I assume maps on to the final text):

As for Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan, each with his own cult of personality (Did Bill invent the computer or just the mouse? Did Ronnie destroy the USSR single-handedly, or with the help of the pope?)…

In other words, Piketty isn’t claiming that Bill Gates invented the computer, or the mouse, any more that he’s claiming that Saint Ronald went in there like Rambo with his missile launcher (with or without the help of trusty sidekick JP-II) to bring the Soviet Union to its knees. He’s engaging in sarcastic hyperbole to illustrate the ludicrous way in which popular wisdom attributes vast historical changes to the intervention of singular, godlike culture heroes.

Dean Baker on Piketty’s Capital: Or, How FDR Proved Marx Wrong. Steve Roth at Angry Bear, in dialog with Dean Baker’s post.

The Problem of “Capital in the Twenty First Century”. Peter Frase, writer for Jacobin, on his personal blog.

Q&A: Thomas Piketty on the Wealth Divide. An interview with Piketty by Eduardo Porter of the NYTimes’ Economix blog.

A Relentless Widening of Disparity in Wealth. Porter’s review of the book in the NYTimes proper.

Notes on Piketty (Wonkish). Paul Krugman, on his personal blog hosted by the NYTimes.

Krugman starts talking about labor share… Have hope middle class. Edward Lambert at Angry Bear, responding to Krugman’s post. Krugman continues here, Lambert responds to that here.

In Praise of the Utopian Political Imagination. Kathleen Geier writing for The Nation.

[Added 3/25]

The Top of the World. Doug Henwood’s review at Book Forum.

The Dead Are Wealthier Than the Living. Tim Noah at Pacific Standard Magazine. His critical conclusion:

It’s always dangerous to project current trends into the future, but here’s one extrapolation I’ll subscribe to: predictions about the future will usually prove wrong. With regard to r > g, lets remember that most of Piketty’s evidence comes from the pre-industrial economy. The industrial and post-industrial economies are only about 150 years old, and for nearly half that time g was greater than r. That almost certainly means we lack sufficient data to determine how, or whether, capital accumulation goes haywire in the coming years.

[Added 3/27]

Capital in partial equilibrium. A harsh review from the econ blog Updated Priors. The post concludes:

Capital is tremendously informative, and Piketty’s use of literary anecdote is a nice touch; but ultimately this is a chart book, with plenty of economic data but very little economics.

[Added 3/29]
Kapital for the Twenty-First Century?. James K. Galbraith critiques Piketty in Dissent, in part for glossing over the problems of aggregating different kinds of capital into a single measure, and thus implying that changes in the return on capital largely reflect the destruction of physical wealth rather than financial value:

Much of Piketty’s analysis turns on the ratio of capital—as he defines it—to national income: the capital/income ratio. It should be obvious that this ratio depends heavily on the flux of market value. And Piketty says as much. For example, when he describes the capital/income ratio plummeting in France, Britain, and Germany after 1910, he is referring only in part to physical destruction of capital equipment. There was almost no physical destruction in Britain during the First World War, and that in France was vastly overstated at the time, as Keynes showed in 1919. There was also very little in Germany, which was intact until the war’s end.

So what happened? The movement of Piketty’s ratio was largely due to much higher incomes, produced by wartime mobilization, in relation to the existing market cap, whose gains were restricted or fell during and after the war. Later, when asset values collapsed during the Great Depression, it mainly wasn’t physical capital that disintegrated, only its market value. During the Second World War, destruction played a larger role. The problem is that while physical and price changes are obviously different, Piketty treats them as if there were aspects of the same thing.

[EDIT] Brad DeLong response to Galbraith here. Key quote:

Piketty’s book is about distribution and social power, not about accumulation and productivity growth. I don’t know where Galbraith gets the idea that it was. … Why does Galbraith think that Piketty is a neoclassical committed to the marginal productivity theory of distribution? I cannot figure that out.

[Added 4/1]
Trickle-up Economics. David Cay Johnson at Al Jazeera America.

The Return of “Patrimonial Capitalism” (pdf). Branko Milanovic published this long review of the book back in October (based on the French edition). It’s excellent, but lengthy, and I’m looking forward to revisiting it now that I have the English version of the book in hand. Two gems from the review:

What with Africa and India? Piketty does not say anything, but again, we can assume that in some more distant future, the same process will befall them too. This, however, opens a potential crack in Piketty’s argument—even if it is fully logically coherent—namely, that the period of high global growth (on account of convergence) may continue during the entire 21st century. And if it does, then the inequality r>g may be overturned as it was during “el periodo especial” and the bleak future described in the book may be postponed by at least another one hundred years.

And the last line of the review, perhaps my favorite praise for a book ever:

When reading Piketty’s book, it is indeed hard to go back to thinking about anything else: one gets totally absorbed in it. This is perhaps the best compliment that the author of an almost thousand-page long economics book can ever expect to get. Don’t take this book on vacation: it will spoil it. Read it a home.

[Added 4/8]
The short guide to Capital in the 21st Century. Matthew Yglesias over at the new A nice summary of a vulnerable assumption of the book:

Piketty says that r = 5 percent regardless of the rate of growth and provides fairly convincing empirical evidence that this has been the case in the past. But the theoretical basis for this pattern is unclear so it might not hold up. In principle, a permanent slowdown in growth could lead to a concurrent slowdown in the rate of return on capital leading to a stabilization in the wealth-income ratio. In that case, either everything would be fine or else if things weren’t fine it would be because the growth rate is too low not because the wealth-income ratio is rising.

[Added 4/11]
Why We’re in a New Gilded Age. Paul Krugman’s long-awaited (well, two weeks-awaited anyway) review in the NY Review of Books.

And that’s just what’s come through my newsfeed! Post your reactions to the book, or links to any other interesting discussions of it around the web, in the comments.


This week I’m headed to the archives at Columbia University. I was really excited to leave snowy Michigan, only to learn that it’s going to snow here tomorrow. Alas.

Also, if you have any recommendations for good food spots – especially breakfast and lunch places or coffee shops – near Columbia, leave your suggestion in the comments. Thanks!

Regulating Better, Not Regulating Less: Occupational Licensing Edition

Today, I came across an interesting-looking NBER working paper on occupational licensing, Relaxing Occupational Licensing Requirements: Analyzing Wages and Prices for a Medical Service by Kleiner et al. The paper, which I have only skimmed, examines the consequences of relaxing restrictions on what kinds of services nurse practitioners can offer to patients (as compared to services offered by doctors). Here’s a big chunk of the abstract summarizing their findings:

We find that when only physicians are allowed to prescribe controlled substances that this is associated with a reduction in nurse practitioner wages, and increases in physician wages suggesting some substitution among these occupations. Furthermore, our estimates show that prescription restrictions lead to a reduction in hours worked by nurse practitioners and are associated with increases in physician hours worked. Our analysis of insurance claims data shows that the more rigid regulations increase the price of a well-child medical exam by 3 to 16 %. However, our analysis finds no evidence that the changes in regulatory policy are reflected in outcomes such as infant mortality rates or malpractice premiums.

So, to summarize: letting nurse practitioners do more decreased the cost of care to patients without sacrificing quality. Assuming for a moment that the results hold up, this paper clearly strikes a blow against the current system of occupational licensing which puts such restrictions on nurse practitioners. Keen.

I posted the above paper to Facebook and was amused to see quick responses from two libertarian friends who read my posting of the paper as an endorsement for a general end to occupational licensing (as called for e.g. here).* But this paper contributes virtually nothing to our understanding of the possible consequences of eliminating licensing. The point of the paper is that some kinds of care can be done by a larger set of licensed professionals than currently do them – there’s not much evidence here (for or against) abandoning licensing entirely. And I think it’s telling that this paper drew such a reaction, where evidence of a regulatory imperfection is read as strong proof that the entire idea is flawed, even when the proposed alternative (i.e. no licensing) has not actually been tested.

More generally, to make social democracy work means regulating better, not (necessarily) regulating less.** It’s very much in keeping with social democratic principles to argue that particular rules should be reformed, and even better, to draw on evidence to make those arguments. But that’s a far cry from abandoning a whole class of regulation because we have evidence that they’re not perfectly implemented, especially when we’ve just been given tools to make those regulations work better.

*Some of this may have been in mocking jest, i.e. “Dan <3s neoliberal schemes for deregulation:-)".
**Regulating better has been made especially difficult lately by the performative insistence of half the political class that government as a whole must be incompetent.

On Informative File Names

Warning: This post is about professional etiquette and/or venting about a pet peeve.

Suppose you are submitting a paper to a conference, paper award, or the like – a judged competition which usually receives a relatively large number of submissions – by means of an email attachment.* What should you name the attached document? There are some real issues here. There is no standard format, and there has been some historical variation in which characters were acceptable (spaces used to be annoying, now are not, etc.). But I think we can all agree that a reasonable answer should include, at a minimum, the author’s last name, some version of the paper title, and perhaps some indication of the competition to which it is being submitted, e.g. “Hirschman_Totally Awesome Paper Title_Section Award.” My preferred variant is actually “Hirschman (2014) Totally Awesome Paper Title (Section Award Version)” as it’s most useful for me, but I don’t have a strong claim to it being the perfect solution.

What doesn’t, and can’t, make sense is a submission simply titled “Section Award.pdf.” This can’t make sense because it doesn’t scale. If everyone uses the same filename, the organizers or award committee members will have a directory entirely consisting of “Section Award (n).pdf” for n from 1 to N, and no way of telling which was which without using some kind of internal search feature. So what possible logic leads people to consistently title attachments this way? Arguably, the purpose of the submission is the least important piece of information in the filename as it’s the one thing the recipient already knows, and which is shared across all submissions!

Tl;dr: When sending out a paper as an attachment, please use an informative file name.

* The same holds for submissions to, say, department workshops where only one paper is being presented at a time, but in that context proper naming is somewhat less urgent, as receiving only one submission at a time makes it more likely I will rename the file anyway. That said, the more informative your file name, the easier it is for everyone receiving it rename to their liking, and usually such submissions have larger audiences and thus burden more people if you use an uninformative file name as everyone has to rename it.


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