“For to all those who have, more will be given…” The Matthew effect and welfare politics

The “Matthew effect” denotes the phenomenon of accumulated advantage: those who have (power, capital, resources, fame, citations, etc.) get more, whereas those who have not get less. Welfare politics is not so different. Since the important works of scholars like Esping-Andersen, Evelyne Huber and John Stephens, or Kees van Kersbergen, we know that “social policy” is not always about helping the weak and the poor. Indeed, continental European welfare states – such as Germany, Switzerland, France or Austria – tend to provide social benefits that are proportional to people’s incomes. It’s called social insurance and it’s meant to stabilize social stratification. Hence, the patron saint of continental welfare states is certainly closer to Matthew than to Robin Hood, and this explains why the mere level of social spending is a pretty bad indicator of “redistribution”.

All this has been known for a while now, but what many do not realize is that the battle between Matthew and Robin Hood is very much alive in current West European welfare politics. Consider the reform of the Swiss unemployment insurance that was adopted a few weeks ago: benefit levels for the core workers with stable, well-insured jobs were left intact, whereas cutbacks were enacted in particular for the young, the elderly and for women re-entering the labor force. Matthew sends his regards.

This represents just an example of a current welfare reform trend that the literature calls “dualization”, meaning that generous social security and income protection is maintained for labor market insiders with stable, good jobs, whereas outsiders in atypical and unstable employment are relegated to means-tested safety nets, such as social assistance. Thereby, welfare states create two categories of (potential) beneficiaries: the core workers and the rest.

In a recent paper, Hanna Schwander and I have shown that continental European welfare states create deeper insider-outsider divides than the Nordic or the anglo-saxon welfare states. What is more, taxes and transfers in continental Europe are designed such that they not only reproduce, but even increase the gap between insider’s and outsiders’ incomes. In a different paper, we also found that these differences are reflected in the attitudes of insiders and outsiders towards welfare policies: insiders want more social insurance and outsiders want more redistribution. Both groups seem well aware of what they benefit most from. Hence, dualization may very well become a major conflict line in current distributional politics.

Two questions, however, are crucial in evaluating the importance of dualization for the distribution of resources and life chances in the countries of continental Europe. First, what level of benefits and services is provided for the outsiders? If outsiders rely on relatively generous safety nets, dualization must neither lead to increasing poverty levels nor to political conflict. Countries vary largely in the generosity they provide for the “losers” of post-industrial capitalism in terms of income and social investment. Second, what are the politics of dualization? Who do insiders and outsiders vote for? Who represents their interests in the policy-process and why? Both questions are obviously related: where welfare states create deep divides between insiders and outsiders, this divide is more likely to become a political conflict line structuring representation. And these patterns of representation in turn affect the distributive outcomes of current reforms.

The Swiss National Science Foundation has just decided to fund a new project Hanna Schwander and I will start in January to find answers to precisely these questions. By means of new data on incomes, electoral behavior and party positions, we want to shed light on the cross-national variation of insiders’ and outsiders’ economic situation and political representation. Thereby, we hope to understand better why the battle between Matthew and Robin ends so differently in different countries.

“Left power”, i.e. …

In social science, we strive to replace names by variables. Contrary to e.g. historians, our primary interest is not to analyze what role Silvio Berlusconi plays in the disheartening erosion of democracy in Italy (… yes, I am on vacation in this terrible and wonderful country), but rather to investigate to what extent a particular configuration of media-ownership and –consumption, in combination with a weak state contribute to undermine the rule and legitimacy of law.

This effort of dealing with abstract concepts, however, entails a range of risks: most importantly, concepts may over time acquire a “life” of their own, meaning that the concept – and its operationalization – remains stable, while the world keeps turning. Thereby, the concept may eventually measure something new, while the empirical results are still interpreted with reference to the original meaning. A prominent example is the use of the variable “left power” (measuring vote shares or seat shares in parliaments and cabinets) in comparative political science research. In myriads of regression models, political scientists test, re-test and control for the effect of “left power” on almost everything, from welfare policies to state spending to political stability, corruption, macro-economic policies, etc. etc. What is more, the declining explanatory capacity of “left power” is one of the main insights of much comparative political-economic research.

But what do we measure, when we add the variable “left power” to our models? What does it mean when the “left power” coefficient in a regression explaining generous and interventionist government policies declines over time?

Continue reading

Reviewing the reviewers?

Two interesting recent publications address the role and effectiveness of peer review for the identification and reward of “academic excellence”. I would like to engage with their ideas in this post.

Through peer review, scholars evaluate the quality of each other’s work (most of the time confidentially). It has become the key mechanisms for assessing scientific excellence, not only when it comes to journal and book publications, but also for the allocation of research grants, fellowships, awards, university rankings, as well as – indirectly through publication records, and directly through recommendation letters and selection committees – for hiring and tenure procedures. Most of us spend a considerable amount of our time reviewing articles and applications etc. and indeed, there does not seem to be any clear alternative for the measurement of academic quality. Yet, despite its huge significance, peer review is – quite naturally – a very secretive process, for which no clear standards exist, and about which we know very little. What is a good review? How do peers define and recognize quality, or excellence? How do we know if peer review produces effective and fair results?

Continue reading

Learning the hard way?

It is well known that there are people who actually like getting slapped – but it is puzzling to discover such a penchant with the right-wing parties and business organizations in Switzerland. Or then it must be some mixture of naïveté and stubbornness that makes them impermeable to learning any lesson from past failures. The latest slap is the massive (almost 73% of the votes) rejection of occupational pension cutbacks at the polls, in a direct democratic referendum that took place this Sunday March 7th. The result is a downright triumph for the left and trade unions – especially in a country where the combined Left (Social Democrats and Greens) gained less than 30% of the votes in the last national parliamentary elections.

However, the result of the referendum is not at all surprising to anyone familiar with welfare politics in Switzerland (and – for that matter – OECD democracies in general). And it is not – contrary to what the conservative newspaper NZZ, business leaders and right-wing politicians tried to argue in their first reactions – the result of a confusing campaign, a “momentary state of uncertainty” among voters or their “denial of reality”. Rather, some denial of political realities seems to be prevailing among those parties who pushed this proposal through parliament and into the direct democratic circus maximus. Indeed, the result of the referendum is exactly what we would expect in the light of the past 15 years of research on welfare politics in the age of austerity. Here’s why.

Continue reading