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Social Policy

'Making the case for trade': Winning voters’ trust by strengthening social safety nets

Christopher Colford's picture

Policy persuasion is most effective when it draws on the evidence base of all the social-science disciplines. Every strand of the social sciences – not just the mathematical precision of economics, but also the nuanced interpretations of history and the subtle trajectories of sociology – has a great deal to contribute as policymakers balance competing priorities.

That multidisciplinary approach – emphasized in such recent works as The History Manifesto, in which Harvard and Brown University historians call for policymakers’ greater reliance on the combined reasoning of all the social sciences – was thoroughly borne out in the recent Development Economics Series lecture by economist David Autor of MIT (who is a scholar at the National Bureau of Economic Research). Presenting a research paper on trade policy, and underscoring the importance of public opinion in shaping policymakers’ approach to it, Autor’s presentation used the logic of political science to highlight the electoral mood swings that help shape countries’ position on international trade.

Using the perspectives of political science – in the paper, “Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure” (co-authored with colleagues from the University of Zurich; the University of California, San Diego; and Lund University) – was a valuable way to help remind Autor's economics-focused World Bank Group audience that policymaking does not occur in an academic vacuum. Even though the Bank’s economics-heavy analyses may try to distill policy options into quantifiable formulae, the policymakers whom the Bank advises get their political mandate from their countries’ volatile voters – who do not always follow homo economicus’ coldly rational approach to decision-making.

Amid the topsy-turvy 2016 electoral cycle in many countries – in which voters’ fears about job losses due to international trade have been inflamed amid an upsurge of populism and protectionism – you don’t have to be a public-opinion pollster to affirm Autor's assertion in his analysis of recent U.S. voting patterns: “We detect an ideological realignment that is centered in trade-exposed local labor markets and that commences prior to the divisive 2016 U.S. presidential election. Exploiting the exogenous component of rising trade with China and classifying legislator ideologies by their congressional voting record, we find strong evidence that congressional districts exposed to larger increases in import competition disproportionately removed moderate representatives from office in the 2000s.”

Translation: If you’re a pro-trade lawmaker in a district that has a high degree of imports from overseas, in a region that has endured what Autor calls “economic scarring,” then you’re likely to pay a heavy price at the ballot box – and, if you’re defeated, your successor just might be a strident protectionist. The Autor analysis shrewdly underscores the adjective “political” in the anodyne textbook phrase, “political economy.”

Blame It on Rio

John Garrison's picture

Unlike the 1984 movie “Blame it on Rio”, which attributed a bawdy affair between a middle-aged man (played by Michael Cain) and a teenager on the tropical vibes of the stunningly beautiful city, the recent hosting of the Rio +20 Conference served to showcase a different face of the Rio ambience -- its global environmental leadership role.  The city not only maintains the world’s two largest urban forests, Pedra Branca and Tijuca (see photo), but has just completed a state of the art waste treatment center which will allow for a 8% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and are installing 300 kilometers of bicycle lanes.  For the World Bank, the city has been the setting for the improbable significant improvement in relations between the Bank and environmental CSOs over the past 20 years.

When Rio hosted the original UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, the Bank participated with a small staff delegation and its modest publications booth at the parallel NGO “Global Forum” held on Flamengo Beach was set on fire by environmental activists.  They were protesting the Bank’s financing of the Narmada Dam project in India, which threatened to displace hundreds of thousands of small farmers without a fair and sustainable resettlement plan in place.  Some were expressing disapproval of the Polonoroeste project funded by the Bank in Brazil where the paving of a highway linking two Amazonian state capitals led to widespread deforestation in the 1980s.  

Watching People As They Walk

Sina Odugbemi's picture

If you have ever spent time on any major campus, you will be familiar with what I am about to describe. The architects of the campus will usually have laid out paved walkways for pedestrians to use as they move from one building to the other. These prescribed walkways are designed to protect the carefully maintained lawns that major campuses also tend to have, urging pedestrians to refrain from walking on the often gorgeously manicured lawns. If you are familiar with campuses, you also know that people tend to ignore the prescribed walkways. They move around the campus in ways that makes sense to them, even if that means carving ugly footpaths through carefully gardened lawns. The controllers of the environment try to forbid the use of footpaths, but they usually give up after a while. Hence, part of the story of a well-used campus is the network of footpaths, distinct from paved walkways, that sprouts over the years…and remains well-trodden with a stubborn, almost riotous, insistence.