Voter Turnout in the United States: An Interview with Emily Rong Zhang

Emily Rong Zhang

In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Jennie Barker, a PhD Candidate in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley — and a Matrix Communications Scholar — spoke with Emily Rong Zhang, Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley Law School, about her research on voter turnout in the United States. 

Voter turnout has been a hot topic in the news. Turnout soared to highs not seen in decades during the 2020 presidential elections and in the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections. Yet at the same time, there has been a new wave of restrictions on voting, including voter ID laws that have been introduced in a number of states. This has led to alarm that these laws could significantly suppress voter turnout. 

Emily Rong Zhang holds a PhD in Political Science and a JD from Stanford University and was a Skadden Fellow at the ACLU Voting Rights Project. She has also litigated voting rights challenges in Ohio, Kansas, and New York. We asked her to help us think through the different factors influencing voter turnout and how we should understand this concept today.

Jennie Barker: Let’s talk about why voter turnout has become such a focus for social science and legal research. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of states implement more restrictive voting laws. At the same time, we’ve also seen social scientists and lawyers become really interested in this topic in their research and in their litigation. Why is this happening?

Emily Rong Zhang: In political science, there’s always been an interest in voter turnout. Whether people vote or not has long been the dependent variable of interest. But historically, that interest has been much more at the personal level of explaining differences in why Person A votes and Person B doesn’t by looking at the effects that various socioeconomic factors have had, such as age, education, and other factors.

But the recent concern, and the focus on election laws in particular, has been driven by legal changes. The central piece of the Voting Rights Act was the preclearance regime, which subjected certain localities to the regime based on historical rates of racial discrimination and voting. If you were one of these localities that had historical racial discrimination in voting, you would have to subject changes in your voting laws to the Department of Justice in Washington, DC for preclearance before they could be implemented. That prevented the implementation of many of the kinds of state laws that we’re currently worried about. 

The decision of the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 held that the way we put localities under preclearance was invalid. It basically nullified preclearance. Without preclearance, folks were very concerned about what would happen to various localities and the kinds of laws they would choose to implement, voter ID laws being only one among many other possibilities. The other possibilities include things like changing polling locations without a lot of prior notice, removing early voting opportunities, removing other opportunities to vote, eliminating the ability to register to vote on the same day, and the like.

Barker: In your recently published paper, you focused specifically on voter ID laws, examining the effects of voter ID laws on voter turnout. Can you tell us why you examined voter ID laws specifically, and how people have historically thought about voter ID laws and why they might affect voter turnout?

Zhang: Voter ID laws actually predate the removal of preclearance. You can think of them as the OG voter suppression laws. They had gained notoriety way before 2013. For example, they were very controversial in the passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002. They have been around for a long time, and there’s a very large academic literature assessing their effects. 

It may be more accurate to characterize my paper as focusing on the studies of voter ID laws. Basically, these studies find that these laws have had no effect on voter turnout, which is a surprising finding from everyone’s perspective, including the researchers who did these studies in the first place. And of course, this was a surprising finding to those of us who are concerned about the cost that voting laws can impose on voting. This is what prompted the paper.

Barker: In this paper, you look at the standard approaches to studying vote suppression in the social sciences, but your research takes a different approach to understanding this topic. Could you explain what the standard approaches are to understanding vote suppression? How does your research differ from those?

Zhang: Most of the social science studies are trying to estimate the number of marginal voters — that is, the number of people who would have voted but for the law. I characterize this as counting the kind of number of votes suppressed, but I don’t think that captures the entire picture of what might be going on as a result of one of these laws. 

Let me tell you about two sets of people I’m worried about. The first set of people I’m worried about are folks who still vote under the law, but experience more costs to voting as a result of the law. That is, their votes are not lost as a result of the law, even if the cost of voting and their burdens of voting have increased. You might think of these as sort of especially resilient voters: voters who are willing to stand in line, who are willing to go get the underlying documentation, and the like. Obviously, calculating the number of votes lost does not begin to capture the kind of costs that these type of voters have incurred. 

There’s a second group of folks that I’m even more worried about. These are people who would not have voted, even if the law had not been in place. The reason I’m worried about these folks is that the law may still be playing quite an important role in preventing them from voting. That is, if these laws need to go away in order for these people to vote, even if they otherwise wouldn’t have, it may still be playing quite an important and deleterious role in preventing people from voting in this other sort of sense that isn’t captured by the conventional marginal votes approach.

Barker: The distinction you make in your work is that there’s a difference between focusing on vote suppression and voter suppression. What is this concept of voter suppression and how does it differ? Why are these other groups of people you’re worried about missed when focusing on only the broader vote totals? 

Zhang: What it reflects is a difference in your perspective and what you care about. I can see why a political campaign working on behalf of a candidate is interested in how many votes they might lose for the candidate, given the imposition of the law. The perspective I’m advocating for is to assess what the voting landscape looks like for voters and think about the role that these laws play for individuals, especially those who have not historically participated at very high rates. They already face an immense number of obstacles. We know this from various other parts of the literature. For voting laws to play an additional role in preventing them from voting is something that’s really worth worrying about. 

I think it’s a matter of asking the question from all perspectives. Instead of only the aggregate perspective — of how this has affected our results — it’s also looking from the perspective of how this has affected the consumer, ground-level experience of voting.

Barker: It seems to me that the social science literature takes a very narrow view on what democracy is. They think of it as people turning out to vote and exercising their voices and opinions, rather than the broader experience of what it means to have barriers when you are trying to vote, or to have unequal access in exercising your voice in the country. That’s a really interesting distinction that you’re getting at with your work.

Zhang: I appreciate that. You put that better than I would have put it myself.

Barker: I am glad that I could try. I also study political science, so I am steeped in a lot of these questions. Something you discussed in your paper is that there has been a surprising, if worrying development in that justices in state and federal courts are beginning to focus on just the numbers of votes. They are looking at vote suppression, rather than voter suppression. As someone who is always thinking about how social scientists can bridge the gap to the policy world, I think you highlight the negative side effects of this. Why do you think that this tendency to focus on vote suppression has transcended the social science studies that are really focused on studying causal effects, to the work of justices when they are hearing cases? They are engaging in and citing this research and referencing it in their opinions. Why do you think you’ve seen this happen in recent years?

Zhang: I have two primary concerns about courts and the way they engage with social science evidence. Generally, there’s a lot of interest from the judiciary about what’s going on in the social sciences, which I think is very beneficial. But then there are these two traps that I think that the judiciary can fall into when consuming social science evidence. 

The first is there are some facile inferences that can often be made by judges that are “social science-y” but not terribly rigorous. Let me give you a prime example. Judges are always interested in what happens to voter turnout after the voter suppression law in question has been put into effect. That is a very incorrect inference to make. There are lots of other reasons that may cause turnout to go up or down: the competitiveness of the race, the amount of money in the election, and the like. Comparing voter turnout before and after is just a very bad idea for all sorts of reasons that you’re very well familiar with from your social science research background. But this is something that judges are sometimes tempted to do in their kind of armchair social science mode. I think it’s motivated by a good instinct, which is to understand what effect the law has been having in the real world, but they are doing it by asking these questions that are not terribly rigorous. 

The second thing I’m worried about with courts is that they’re not terribly good at interpreting the results of studies. This is especially true in the context of voter ID laws. The literature has found no effect, but it is not a null effect that is very well estimated. The best study that I cite in the paper is still consistent with almost a -2% decrease to 2% increase in voter turnout. Simply reading the headline findings of the paper finding no effect is not actually going to peel back that particular precision issue and necessarily lead to the right inferences by courts. 

These issues are what I really worry about as we begin to see more thirst for social science evidence from the courts. We should make sure that they are interpreting that evidence in the right way and relying on it for the right things.

Barker: Another consequence of this is the title of your paper, which is “Questioning the Questions.” It seems that justices have become less interested in asking these bigger questions that you have brought up already and that you’re concerned with in your work, which are: why are these laws happening, what are they actually like, and what is the purpose behind these laws? Instead, they are instead simply asking if these laws are affecting turnout. I think we would hope that the judiciary is interested in those bigger questions as well. In your work, have you seen a neglect or perhaps not as careful study of these questions?

Zhang: You’re absolutely right. Conventionally, the legal analysis in assessing voter restrictions is a balancing test. It asks, what burdens does this law impose on voters? And what is the reason for the state imposing this particular restriction? We do lots of things in election administration that impose lots of costs on voters that we accept because they are for a good reason. Voter registration is the biggest one: we require voters to register to vote in advance of voting because it ensures that only eligible folks are participating, and it allows for the state to ensure that they’re not disenfranchised if the state has a disenfranchisement law. 

What’s interesting is that there’s been such a strong interrogation of the social science evidence on the part of the balancing test asking whether there are burdens on voters, and much, much less on questioning the state’s rationale. With voter ID laws in particular, I think that is a real shame. Voter ID laws are meant to address in-person voter fraud, which is showing up to a polling location and claiming to be someone else. The incidence of voter fraud is just exceedingly rare. You might ask why the courts do not spend more time interrogating the empirical evidence behind that. I think that is a very fair question.

Barker: So far, we’ve talked a lot about how studies and courts tend to focus on how various policies affect registered voters. There is less of a focus on the particular state’s rationale or even thinking about these populations that you mentioned being really worried about. Here I am referring to the non-voting eligible citizens (people who could vote, but don’t), as well as people who do vote but have to spend numerous hours making sure that they can exercise that right in terms of getting to the polling location, making sure they have all the documentation, all of these different barriers they have to overcome. 

In some of your forthcoming work, you focus specifically on voter turnout among system-impacted individuals, or people who have been impacted by the incarceration system in some way. I’d like to talk about who these individuals are and why voting rates are still so low for them. We have seen a spate of laws here in California aimed at restoring voting rights. In California, I believe there is even a law under consideration that would allow people who are currently in prison to vote. In other states, people who have felony convictions have also had their voting rights restored. Even still, their voting rates, as you’ve documented, are still pretty low. Why? I think this connects a little bit with our discussion of the barriers that people face that we might not see in a lot of the social science research.

Zhang: These felon disenfranchisement laws have been around a very, very long time, and they are one of the remaining vestiges of Jim Crow laws in the South. They’ve been tremendously durable. Back in my days of working with voting rights attorneys, I would chat with them and ask them what the one thing they would do to change the voting landscape in the country. The answer would be to get rid of the felon disenfranchisement laws because they disenfranchise large numbers of individuals just based on their bare application. 

There has been a tremendous amount of reform in this area, especially in some of the toughest states. Virginia, Florida, and a couple of others used to have lifetime disenfranchisement: if you committed a crime, you lose your right to vote forever. For a long time, it was thought that there was nothing much that anyone could do about it. Recently, however, we got a real landslide of reforms coming from all different sources. In Virginia, the governor used his pardon power to pardon everyone with a particular history. In Florida, a ballot initiative was passed. Other states have also made more individuals with convictions eligible to vote. In California, there was the proposition that gave the right to vote to folks on parole, which passed. The legal landscape is rapidly shifting. 

And yet, even in states that have relatively liberal (and I mean here purely descriptively liberal) felon disenfranchisement laws, we know that voting participation rates are really low. The question is, will these reforms actually have any impact if folks don’t know about it? In California, if people have the right to vote following a criminal conviction but are not voting, why would we expect the change, for instance in Florida, to have any effect? Understanding more the experiences that system-impacted folks have with the election system seems vitally important to analyzing the effect these legal changes are going to have.

Barker: In your research, you’ve done some focus groups and interviews. What have you found? How have system-impacted individuals described their experience and whether they have voted or not?

Zhang: This is a joint project with Dr. Naomi Sugie at UC Irvine and a fantastic set of graduate students at UC Irvine and one at Stanford. The big thing that I’ve taken away from the project is that we typically think of election law typically in a federalism way. We always talk about election law federalism because election administration and laws are determined at the state level. When we think about felon disenfranchisement laws, we always think about the varieties. There are some really strict states, like Florida, Iowa, and Virginia, and then there are more liberal states, where even voting from prison or from jail is a goal of the reform movement. 

However, the interview and the focus group data suggest to me that there was much less federalism going on in the lived experiences of folks than the laws would suggest. In these experiences, it seems there is actually one felon disenfranchisement law, and the contours of that law are unspecified, very unclear, and blurry to most folks at the retail level. What we have are instances where people in California will point to the example of Crystal Mason in Texas, who was prosecuted for having voted with a conviction. She was ineligible to vote under Texas’s felon disenfranchisement statute, but that has no implication for voters in California. But a Californian hears that and thinks, if she can’t vote, then I can’t. 

This has been a big realization of mine. I thought of this in relatively formalistic terms: what is the law in Texas and what is the law in California? I now think much more that there is some amorphous force that people refer to and have some experience with. This is what they go by, rather than the letter of the particular statute in their state.

Barker: I found that story so impactful. It seems that the way researchers approach this issue is focusing on specific states and what is happening there. In social science, we’re always thinking about the unit of analysis, and we’re not really thinking about what’s going on outside of that. In this case, what has been the role of media coverage? Even I remember that story about the woman in Texas. It seems like people are hearing about cases like this in the news, but then it isn’t counteracted by actual information that says, no, this isn’t actually what’s going on in the state in which you live. Why is there this gap? Why is the media filling in a lot of the space where you should see actual information that could help people?

Zhang: That’s a great point. There’s a huge information vacuum for this particular population. For folks who have been a part of the criminal legal system from a young age, there was no time between when they became eligible to vote and the point of reentry. They lack a prior history with voting and any base level of knowledge. Plus, there is a lack of official sources to obtain this information. This is not a part of what people are told by anyone, typically, in the process of reentry. Even if they receive this information, it is at a time when they need it least. Upon reentry, people are worried about making ends meet. 

The other piece of it is extreme risk aversion in this population about doing the wrong thing. Voting illegally with a criminal record is a fear that is very palpable for folks who have spent time in the criminal legal system. I think all of these forces combine to create an inclination to disbelieve that you are eligible to vote when you actually are eligible to vote.

Barker: A bright spot that you and your co-authors discussed in the paper is that these individuals can, in fact, be brought successfully into the electorate. Can you speak a bit about what has helped these individuals access their right to vote?

Zhang: The literature is very clear on this. If you tell people they are eligible to vote, some of them will vote. This suggests that the problem people face is really one of misinformation. But if you correct that misinformation, there are real gains to be had. What we don’t know beyond that is who is the best messenger for the information. We are still working on the best ways to convey that information in terms of timing, the quality of message, and the like, but there’s clearly a lot we can do on that front. 

The other frontier is drawing on this area of work on what motivates people. There may be something in particular about being system-impacted that may be motivational for folks to participate. This is a very active area of work that our team and others are working on.

Barker: In your research, you worked with community organizations. What role can these types of organizations play in helping overcome this vast information gap that people are facing?

Zhang: At the baseline level, as you’ve referenced already, we know a ton about people who are registered to vote and who regularly vote. This is because they are in a database provided by the state, which can be obtained through public information requests in many states. Campaigns regularly do this. That’s why you and I get text messages, emails, mailers, and the like, because we’re known to participate. We are typically the population that campaigns and other political actors are trying to move. 

We know much, much less about the population of folks who don’t and have not historically participated in voting at high rates. There is a way in which the high quality of information available for registered voters has further prevented work to be done about folks who have not historically participated. This is just because it is infinitely harder to know about their situation. Thus, there are many, many reasons to work with community organizations. At the baseline level, we’re actually getting to hear from people you wouldn’t otherwise get to hear from. This is enormously important because it allows research to shed light on something that we don’t know that much about already. 

Of course, there are lots of other incredible things these organizations do. In this project, we are partnering with the Alliance for Safety and Justice. They are a tremendous community organization that provides all sorts of wraparound services for folks in reentry, and they come with a tremendous amount of expertise about the particular barriers folks face. We have just learned a tremendous amount from working with them.

Barker: That makes me think a bit about the trade-offs of doing research. I’m currently a grad student, and you’re encouraged to do very innovative research, but then you have limited time and resources; you have to get data. I can see why people tend to take advantage of the high-quality data we do have on people who regularly vote. As you’ve mentioned, there are the startup costs associated with getting to these other populations, even if you work with community organizations. Obviously it’s not a great thing, but I can understand why there has been this tremendous focus on analyzing the information on regular voters. Besides finding out that, people are often thinking about disenfranchisement laws in relation to what is happening to people who I relate to, even if they’re outside the state, what are other surprising findings that you’ve had from doing this research about people whose stories do not typically make it into the literature? 

Zhang: The first thing I’m always surprised by is the number of people we talked to who learned something about their state’s felon disenfranchisement regime. There is almost always someone who says, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” This reaffirms the kind of misinformation landscape that people are typically in. 

The other thing that I have spent some time thinking about more recently is the mental transition for people who go from being a non-voter to a voter. What is the mental process that someone goes through? It’s interesting hearing the way people talk about this. Something that has occurred to me as I have been going through the data is that people who become voters tend to see themselves as a constituent. 

I was very struck by one person who said, “I never voted or participated before, but there are maggots coming out of the showerhead in the prison. Someone has to be responsible for this. Who is that person? And what role can I play in holding this person to account for this thing that’s happening to me?” 

I think there is something that happens to people that causes that transformation at some point, and that’s what motivates them to vote. For me, as someone who studies voting, trying to put my finger on that transformation has been a really interesting and fun part of the project. As you can tell, I don’t have a way of describing it yet, but I do think there is something that occurs that makes people see the role that they as an individual can play. That’s what matters.

Barker: That’s super interesting. I am excited to see what you come up with! From our discussion today, it seems like a challenge in the fields that you’re in is bridging the gap between focusing on voter turnout and how to bring new voters into the electorate. Campaigns, social scientists, and judges, as we have said, are interested in voter turnout. But it is also important to think about this question that you’ve just so eloquently discussed, which is why some people make this transition to becoming a voter and seeing themselves as having the ability to hold someone to account. How can scholars and practitioners bridge the gap between these two problems and stop talking past each other?

Zhang: That’s a such a good question — and a question that so many people face, even beyond the world that we are in, with political science and law and policy. I am still very much for all of the fancy ways of learning we now have in the world, ChatGPT being only one of many changes. However, I still think talking to people is one of the best ways of learning about things that you do not know as much about than someone else does, and facilitating that dialogue.

I do not mean to make this seem like an individual responsibility issue; I think there are structural ways that academic and other types of institutions can facilitate this dialogue. It should not be on individuals to seek out others. There should be institutional and structural incentives for that kind of dialogue to occur. This is also not without its challenges. People come to these conversations with their backgrounds, their trainings, and their particular way of seeing the world. If you are a social scientist, you come in looking for causal effects; that’s what you’re trained to do. If you are a lawyer, you are trying to bring about a lawsuit. It can be hard to get people to break out of their mold, whatever that might be. I think the trickier question is not just in setting up structures for interactions but finding ways to make those interactions really meaningful and fruitful for people. This is an ongoing struggle.

Barker: I know this is still early on in the project, but are there communities — such as counties, cities, or states — where you are seeing this dialogue happening more successfully than in other places? Maybe you have seen election administrators, lawyers, or academics take a broader view of voter turnout or seek out these opportunities or perspectives that they might be missing. Are there places where people who may not have ever voted are entering the electorate, or is this an area where there’s still a lot of room for improvement? 

Zhang: Much of this work thus far has been on the convenience voting side. For all of the gloom and doom about how hard it is to vote in certain parts of the country, there is a phenomenon where it has never been easier to vote in other parts of the country. However, the work on this is not as driven by wanting to bring new people into the electorate. Part of this is because it is really, really hard, and we don’t know much about what is good at doing that, apart from election day registration and some other measures. 

There has been a huge amount of evidence-based reform in making voting easier for folks who are already in the habit of participating, whether it’s vote-by-mail ballots or other regimes. Social scientists do not typically get involved until a policy is implemented and they are in a position of evaluating it. For example, ranked choice voting has become very prominent in recent years, and there’s going to be a large cohort of social scientists interested in the effects that these regimes will have.

Barker: Thinking about the push for vote by mail in some states during COVID-19 experience, I wonder if there is a realm of opportunity that has opened in some places that we could not imagine five or ten years ago. That’s really interesting. 

I wanted to ask you a bit about the potential broader impacts that restrictive voting laws or the more reform-minded provisions that we just discussed might have. We know, for example, that things like voter ID laws may introduce additional burdens, including from your own research. We know also that felony disenfranchisement, as your research also shows, can have long-lasting effects on access. But I wonder if there are other ways that these restrictive voting laws can impact elections. One of the things I’m really interested in is confidence in election results and institutions. How do you think these voter ID laws or more reform-minded provisions, like implementing new opportunities for people with felonies to vote, are shaping people’s perception of how confident should they should feel in electoral outcomes?

Zhang: That’s an extremely important question, and we know very little about it. There’s the very important question of whether some folks are less confident in the results of the election if there are no voter ID laws in place. Who are these people? And how does that interact with the countervailing potential, that confidence is increased among other populations? 

According to the court, voter confidence was the reason for implementing these voter ID laws. Apart from the in-person voter fraud concern, which we’ve already talked about as being not a particularly strong reason for implementing these laws, the court relied on its empirical assumption that these laws boost voter confidence. There is some evidence on this question, but not much (see here, here, and here). This research is extremely important. 

Vote by mail is the other big question, specifically whether vote by mail reduces confidence in the legitimacy of the result. This is obviously a huge concern, but we just do not know that much about it. Even if there are people whose confidence is reduced, we also need to think about the extent.

Barker: I wonder if there is another layer to this. In your research on felony disenfranchisement and enfranchisement, you found that people are not just hearing about what is going on in their states or their county, they are hearing about the whole landscape in the country. Is that another complication? Are people who are living in California thinking that because there are these voter ID laws in Georgia, they are less confident overall? In your research on voter ID laws, is this something you’ve seen or heard or are thinking about?

Zhang: It’s a nice connection. In the voter ID literature, everyone is moving towards looking within specific states, such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, and the like, and leveraging the difference between people who have and do not have ID and detecting various effects. What I’m learning about the felon disenfranchisement world leads me to think that the discrete way of thinking about these laws and their effects within states may not apply in the voter ID context as well. 

That is, do we expect people who currently do not have an ID to really be asking detailed questions about the particular voter ID regime in their state? Or do we expect them to just have the view that people like us are not allowed to vote? This obviously has not been empirically tested yet, but that is certainly a suspicion that I now have, knowing what I know about the way individuals with convictions approach felon disenfranchisement laws. Of course, there are lots of reasons to believe this would not be the case, so that is why I think the empirical tests would really tell us a lot.

Barker: Hopefully you can help contribute to this! We are approaching the end of our time here, so I wanted to turn to your experience as a scholar. This podcast is with Social Science Matrix, which is an organization that’s intended to support cross-disciplinary research across the social sciences. Your research is very much doing this. You have a background as a political scientist but you are also a practicing lawyer, and you draw on both of these traditions. You also examine where these two traditions are speaking to one another and where they are also speaking past each other. Could you talk about your own experience of the challenges and the benefits of doing the kind of work that’s bridging different disciplines, traditions, methods, and understandings of what the causes are?

Zhang: My view on this, as with my view on almost everything, is that there are costs and benefits on both sides. I think the benefits are a little easier to highlight in an interview like this, because when we talk about this topic, you can see how it all fits in. 

I can be a little more explicit in thinking about the costs. There is no free lunch; I do not have any more hours in my day than you do. Investing in two different sets of skills means a few possible outcomes. You can invest mostly in doing one well and the other poorly, or you can do both poorly. For those costs to make sense, one has to be working on something where it makes sense to take on those costs, because the benefits ultimately outweigh them. 

In many ways, I was very lucky. I happened upon election law, despite having very little background in it. It fit both my professional and personal, temperamental ways that it worked out for me. I do not want to downplay the amount of time it takes to hone one’s skills in any particular area, and having to do that in two fields entails certain sacrifices. On the other hand, it comes with immense benefits.

The final thing I’ll say about what I like about having done both of these things is, I really do feel like I have a sense of how the world works in a way that I think I would not have gotten if I’d only honed my skills in one area. That is, I feel like I both have a theoretically driven and a factually accurate view of how things happen that I have found personally and professionally satisfying. 

Barker: I think there are ways that you have been able to look at both the legal research and the social science research and say, are we missing something really important? For such an important question such as being able to vote in our democracy, I am glad that you are doing this. 

Zhang: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

Barker: Thank you for joining us today and for this very wide-ranging discussion on voter turnout and on voting rights in general, as well as how we should think about our democracy and who can participate, and who isn’t participating and who should be able to participate. UC Berkeley is very lucky to have you thinking about these questions that are, as I said, so important to our democracy. 

Zhang: Thanks so much, Jennie. 

Alumni Interview

Alumni Interview: Adriana Kugler, World Bank Executive Director for the US

Adriana Kugler

This episode of the Matrix Podcast features an interview with Adriana D. Kugler, the World Bank Group Executive Director for the United States. Dr. Kugler was appointed by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate in May 2022. She is the first Latinx person and first Jewish woman to be appointed to this position since the foundation of the World Bank in 1944. She is also a proud UC Berkeley alumna who graduated with a PhD in 1997.

Prior to joining the WBG Board, Dr. Kugler had a long and distinguished career in research and policy as a development and labor economist. Her contributions on the impact of government policies and regulations on labor markets were recognized with the 2007 John T. Dunlop Outstanding Scholar Award from the Labor and Employment Relations Association, and with the 2010 First Prize for Best Contribution in the area of “Globalization, Regulations and Development” from the Global Development Network. Dr. Kugler has also served in high-level leadership roles in the public and private sectors. She was Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor between 2011-2013.

Dr. Kugler was Professor of Public Policy and Economics (2016-2022), and Vice Provost for Faculty (2013-2016) at Georgetown University. She was Chair and Chair-elect of the Business and Economics Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association in 2020 and 2019, respectively; was a member of the Board on Science, Technology and Economic Policy (STEP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (2019-2022); and served in the Technical Advisory Committee of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016-2019). She was an elected member of the Executive Committee of the European Association of Labor Economists (2003-2009) and of the Executive Committee of the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association (2015-2019). Dr. Kugler serves on the Audit Committee (AC) and Committee on Development Effectiveness (CODE). Kugler received her Bachelor of Arts degree from McGill University in 1991, graduating with first class joint honors in economics and political science.

This interview was conducted by Danny Yagan, Associate Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, who is on leave as Chief Economist of the Office of Management and Budget. Yagan was a Faculty Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Faculty Associate of the Berkeley Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance, and Faculty Co-Director of the Taxation and Inequality Initiative of the Berkeley Opportunity Lab.

Listen to the interview below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

A transcript of the conversation is included below, edited lightly for length and clarity. 

Danny Yagan: Adriana Kugler, it’s so nice to have you join us returning to Berkeley virtually, to get to have this conversation about government service and academic impact, and public service impact, and the course of your work and trajectory from Berkeley.

Adriana Kugler: Thank you so much. And I know you’ve been in public service yourself just recently, so I know you’ve seen it from all sides, as well.

Yagan: Yes, it will be exciting to compare notes with you here. First, could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in economics, and what drew you to a PhD?

Kugler: I was born in the US, but I grew up in Colombia, where I was exposed to social problems at a very young age. In fact, my parents were heavily engaged in social projects. And I remember, even as a young girl, they would take me to the shanty towns around Bogota, and to the rural areas. We actually traveled the country by car. My parents both worked and my grandparents lived elsewhere. So I would spend the summers with them. And in fact, my maternal grandparents lived in one of the poorest states in Colombia. So from a very young age growing up, I saw homelessness, child labor, poverty, and lack of access to basic necessities like drinking water to electricity. And very poor infrastructure: I remember getting stuck on a road with my parents for almost an entire day because of destruction of a road. 

These are the things that take up your mind, and wanting to address these social issues, I embarked on a double major in economics and political science. My love for math immediately drew me toward economics, rather than political science. And I also felt, as I moved on through my undergraduate years, that data and economic tools provided answers to these social problems that I cared so much about. They grounded me more firmly in objective and clear criteria. I felt they gave me a better tool. 

Then I had to decide whether to do a PhD. There were two key factors. The first one is that I loved doing research as an undergrad. I worked for two professors as an undergrad and as a research assistant. Second, I got to see very bright women having the opportunities they deserved at work. I thought, maybe if I get the highest possible degree I can get, I’ll receive the respect and advancement opportunities that I would like to see in my career. Those were two key factors that contributed to my pursuing a PhD.

Yagan: And here you are as World Bank Group Executive Director for the United States. Looking back from where you’re sitting now, has it held true for you that by pursuing the highest degree possible, you’ve been able to break through glass ceilings and be given the runway that you merit in the course of your work?

Kugler: I feel it definitely opened doors for me. I also felt that I have been very lucky to find mentors along the way who have opened doors for me. And I certainly feel that that as a woman and a Latina and a Colombian-American, I have lived that American dream. You may have to work 10 times as hard to get to the same place. But I certainly have gone beyond what I could have dreamed.

Yagan: As you entered a PhD, you specialized in development and labor. Could you talk about what drew you specifically to development economics and developing countries, and then also the labor side of the equation?

Kugler: As I mentioned, I spent my childhood in Colombia, where I got exposed to some critical challenges facing the developing world. But I realized very quickly that it was lack of access to work that created obstacles to poor individuals and to poor households. That lack of access to labor earnings creates all sorts of income inequities, but also inequities in education, inequities in housing, inequities in access to health, and uneven in access to the legal system and to political power. It was lack of access to work and to labor earnings that generate inequities in everything else.

Yagan: I wonder if Berkeley felt like a really natural home for the kind of economics that motivated you. Could you talk about your time at Berkeley, and what it was like in those early years?

Kugler: I really loved my time at Berkeley. It was amazing, because I had four professors who taught me and mentored me closely who, after I left, ended up winning Nobel Prizes, the first being George Akerlof, who was my dissertation advisor, and Paul Romer, Daniel McFadden, and Oliver Williamson. They all taught and mentored me. George was the closest, and he had a great deal of patience and time. He allowed me to ask very unusual questions, given my background, and he actually encouraged it. And he always encouraged me to use a variety of methods, which I have done throughout my career. I was very grateful for that opportunity.

The department was a very eclectic and vibrant place. There was always a lot going on in the hallways of Evans Hall among the students. I still remain close to some of those classmates and friends from back in the day. Comparing notes to other people, it was a very cooperative environment. I remember having several study groups during those years when we were doing our coursework. And during my dissertation years, I had several dissertation discussion groups. It was just a very cooperative environment.

We spent many hours in the computer lab that was founded by Dan McFadden. He had just gotten funding from SAS to to fund the computer lab, and we spent many hours there sharing notes, and many late nights writing [software] programs, which back in the day took a lot longer. We sometimes worked overnight, or even for an entire week or several weeks, to write a simple program. We often met off campus, at Caffè Strada and Cafe Milano, spending time discussing the findings from the programs and data analytics we were doing.

I was very lucky in the last few years of my dissertation to get a fellowship for minority students from the Federal Reserve System, which gave me access to an office at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. I would go there regularly. I also got to interact with the economists in the research department there. In fact, Mary Daly, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, was just starting at the time, so I was very lucky to get to meet her, and of course, she’s a labor economist. So it was a great time to be at Berkeley and a great environment. I developed friendships and relationships that I have kept until today. And in fact, I see my former classmates here in the hallways of the World Bank on a regular basis.

Yagan: You mentioned how collaborative the environment was, among the students and the faculty. I think that might strike people as maybe surprising, who might think that the upper echelon of graduate study is super competitive, but it’s the opposite, and much of what you learn is from your peers.

Kugler: I fully agree with you that that’s where you learn the most. After I left graduate school, I continued to do a whole lot of learning from my co-authors, both my senior co-authors and my junior co-authors. Throughout your career, you continue to learn from those interactions with your colleagues. And when you enter into these policy roles, oftentimes, you’re the sole economist in the room with people from other disciplines, so you end up learning from lawyers, anthropologists, agricultural experts, or others coming from very different disciplines.

I think it is very important to keep an open mind and learn from others. But one piece of advice is to keep true to yourself. Don’t start necessarily thinking like them, but bring them value. And keep the value of your tools and your knowledge as an economist to contribute to the conversation, not to just agree with them, but to maybe agree to disagree, and bring a different perspective. Because people do value that.

One piece of advice is to keep true to yourself. Don’t start necessarily thinking like them, but bring them value.

Yagan: One of the things I have loved about Berkeley that I like to share with students is that Berkeley Economics very much has a feeling of “data first, theory second.” It’s not that it’s only the data that matter, but that whatever theory you’re going to layer on top of has to be grounded in facts that we know about the world, and that we really credibly know. Was that true when you were a graduate student?

Kugler: That has certainly permeated throughout the decades of my work. Many of the ideas for papers that I have developed came from reading the news or from talking to non-economists and trying to find out answers that we didn’t have. There was certainly a sense that there was a lot of value in having this inductive method, starting from the data and being open to exploring different answers about why the data was telling you what it was telling you. But there was a bit of a back-and-forth between inductive and deductive: you look at the data, but you also want to have an angle, a perspective to look at that data. You don’t just openly look at the data and look at a million possible interpretations of if. In economics, theory does guide you to look at potential reasons that could be explaining that data. Maybe the data will come and really question any of those theories. And then you can come up with something different than what you even expected based on the traditional theories that are out there. That was part of what we were taught back in the day: look at the data, look at the theory, and maybe even come up with new theories, of course.

Yagan: That interplay is the scientific method. In physics, there are theoretical physicists, and there are empirical physicists who are firing protons and neutrons and different atoms, and they have an interplay that advances knowledge. In the best sense, that economic paradigm that you just laid out is similar. That’s a great segue into your own academic work. You’ve taught at several renowned institutions, most recently at Georgetown. Can you give us a flavor of the types of contributions that you’ve offered and questions that motivated you?

Kugler: My academic work has focused largely on examining the impacts of policies on labor market outcomes. As I said, I think that labor earnings and access to work explain a lot of the other disparities that we observe. I’ve always cared about, how do policies affect the opportunity to access work, or deny it? It can be in both directions. I have looked at the role of labor regulations, the role of caps on regulations, immigration, trade, and other policies like that. As I mentioned, I have always been very interested in finding answers to these questions through data, and trying to look at causal effects. I have tried as much as possible to rely on experimental but also non-experimental methods, because it is not always possible to run clean experiments. Thinking very cleverly about potential non-experimental settings can allow us to identify causal effects.

I wrote a series of papers on vocational training, all based on on experimental designs, and randomly assigning people either to technical training or not training. There’s a whole debate about whether it’s even worth it to spend money on these programs. This is about second chances. This matters for a lot of the contexts that I work with here at the World Bank, and in a lot of low- and middle-income countries, where people drop out of the formal education system, and you kind of waste entire generations of people. You have to give them second chances.

This work has been very enlightening, because you’re not necessarily offering a PhD to a person, you’re instead giving them very practical skills about how to be an electrician, how to be a plumber, how to be a driver — all these things that are highly necessary. But what we found in this series of papers is that providing technical training alone may not be enough. You also have to provide life skills or soft skills, and access to transportation and childcare. Otherwise, someone might never even make it to training. So when you combine a series of services, then you find these very high returns. 

Some people say, these vocational training programs might have high returns, but they disappear very quickly. But in one paper, we were able to follow people for a very long period of time. We looked at people a decade or 15 years after. And what you see is that they’re still gaining a lot in terms of their income rising, in terms of them being able to go into the formal education system as a result of engaging in vocational training. There are these unintended but positive consequences to the rest of the family that is spread throughout the rest of the family and throughout entire communities.

As economists, we tend to focus on unintended negative consequences, but in this case, the message of this paper is that by spending a little bit of money on one person, the benefits are much more widespread. When you do a cost-benefit analysis, the result you get is totally different if you take into account not only how long-lasting the effects are for a single person — not only through immediate work, but also allowing them a door to get back into the formal education system — but how it affects an entire community. The returns and the benefits are so much greater when you take account of those other ways in which the program offers opportunities, not only to the individual participating in the program, but to their entire families.

Yagan: That’s so powerful. When I was at the Office of Management and Budget as Chief Economist, properly accounting for total benefits and total costs is very hard and very important. It’s amazing how much the cost-benefit analysis can change when, as you say, you look at social returns, not just private returns for a major investment.

Speaking of public service, this is not your first stint in public service. You served in the Obama Administration, as well. What drew you from academia into public service?

Kugler: The whole reason for me going into economics was to help come up with solutions to some of these social problems that I cared so much about. When when I started my career, even early on, I was very positively and happily surprised to see that some of my papers, even as I was an assistant professor, were starting to receive attention from policymakers in the U.S. and around the world. I was just thrilled when I was invited to serve as Chief Economist under the Obama Administration, because this was a very critical time. This was right during the Great Recession, at a time when the unemployment rate was at double-digits for the first time in many decades. We needed to come up with some ways to bring down the unemployment rate to help people navigate these very critical times for families and households. The poverty rate had increased during this time, as well. So I was very happy that we were jointly with a great team. There were two labor economists at the time at the Council of Economic Advisers that I worked with very closely. Alan Krueger was one of them. Being able to have counterparts at the White House to work with on policy solution, like unemployment insurance and training programs and all sorts of tax credits that we thought could stimulate job creation — was very keen, and we saw some good results for sure.

Yagan: That might be helpful for people in understanding how a presidential administration works. You were the Chief Economist at the Department of Labor. And you were distinguishing your role at this major cabinet department with that of Alan Krueger and another labor economist at the Council of Economic Advisers, which sits within the Executive Office of the President. Talk about that interplay between where you sat and where Alan sat, the Department of Labor versus the White House. Help people understand this aspect of how government functions.

Kugler: There is often a sense that there are these silos in the government, that the Labor Department never interacts with the Commerce Department, or the Department of Education, or the Department of Health and Human Services, or even with the White House. But I can tell you from both administrations I have worked with that I see a whole lot of cohesion and interaction between agencies, which I think is very critical to coming up with good policies. Think about labor and education: if you’re thinking about these transitions from school to work, you need to coordinate efforts. If you’re talking about some of these programs that may require additional services, you need to coordinate with Health and Human Services. If you’re talking about tax offices, you certainly need to talk to Treasury. If you need to design programs that engage the private sector, you’re going to have to talk to Commerce. But the White House at the end is doing a lot of the negotiations, which is a key part of putting policies into practice. The White House will be the interface with Congress, and they will make the magic happen and hopefully turn policies into legislation. You need funding and you need the support of Congress to make some of these policies happen.

Along with Alan Krueger, I knew Katharine G. Abraham, who was at the Council of Economic Advisers. They would organize bi-weekly meetings of all the economists in the administration to coordinate efforts, because it was very important to do that. At the Labor Department, I was one of the few economists interacting directly with the Secretary and Assistant Secretary. So I was a lone voice. But they certainly listened very carefully to me. And they counted on me to pass the message along to others in the administration, about some of the priorities and making the economic case for pursuing some of the policies that they wanted. It was very key to have that communication, to have coherent policies where we wouldn’t be duplicating efforts but in fact would be complementing each other, and also then to make it happen. 

Yagan: That resonates so much with my experience in learning how the gears move. That’s a great segue, because now you’re no longer in the administration, you are in a Senate-confirmed position at the World Bank, which hopefully everyone understands is a huge deal. Very, very few people who are appointed by the President actually become Senate-confirmed, so congratulations on that. Can you help people understand, what is the World Bank? Where does it fit in the set of international institutions, like the US State Department, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), USAID, and others in the ecosystem? And for you, as Executive Director for the United States, what are your priorities?

Kugler: After going into the Great Recession and trying to solve the issues of unemployment here in the US, I was very honored to be approached by President Biden to be nominated to be the US Executive Director of the World Bank, at a very critical time for the world. We had multiple simultaneous crises going on all at once that needed to be tackled.

The World Bank was founded in 1944, right at the end of World War II. The Bank has several arms, but the initial arm was the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or IBRD, which was founded with the goal of rebuilding or reconstructing the world after the atrocities of World War II.

By the way, being Jewish and having had my father’s side of the family flee Europe in 1939 and having had family pass away in concentration camps, the mission of the World Bank really resonates for me. And unfortunately, we’re really building the world again from many atrocities, man-made and not man-made. But we’re back in the same situation. The regional role of rebuilding and reconstructing has come back in some sense.

Much of what the World Bank does is finance long-term development for countries. It invests in infrastructure projects, but also human capital, health, and education. On the other hand,  the role of the Bank over time has grown to be a knowledge bank. There’s a lot of knowledge about best practices around the world, about policies that work and don’t work. And so there is a lot of technical knowledge and advisory services that the World Bank gives to the rest of the world to help in capacity-building, to help countries build up capacity of their own and to build institutions with regulatory processes and regulatory capacity, which facilitates the private sector to come in and function well, and to help with macroeconomic management. That’s where I think it differs from, say, the IMF, which is much more focused on the cyclical aspects and the macroeconomic management of things.

The State Department deals a lot with the diplomatic relations. We deal with more of the economic tools that we have to help countries make progress. At the State Department, a lot of the focus is on career diplomats using diplomatic tools to build relationships and to help advance development in other ways. The US Agency for International Development, or USAID, is the bilateral arm that the US has to provide assistance for development to countries, but it’s much smaller, because it’s just the US. At the World Bank, the US is the largest shareholder, but we have 179 countries contributing. Poor countries find it worthwhile to contribute to the Bank, so we can pull resources and then lend to the countries that need them the most, including very poor countries and middle-income countries. And then you have technical assistance that is provided sometimes to even higher middle-income countries.

It’s a combination of services that are provided by the Bank to advance what have so far been the twin goals of promoting prosperity and reducing poverty. Having said that, part of my role as Executive Director is to think about our strategic direction and the strategic priorities that the Bank should have. Are those twin goals where we should stay focused? Or should we be thinking about some of the new challenges that have come our way, including health pandemics, including climate change, including political turmoil and migration, and other issues that cross borders and that each country cannot solve on its own? Maybe this is a critical time for an organization like the World Bank to rethink its mission, and to think, it’s not only about working individually with countries to help them advance their growth potential and reduce poverty, but we need to deal with these issues that affect us all, that each country individually is not going to take on.

There are big benefits to all other countries from doing it. So we need to figure out ways and mechanisms, and the World Bank is an ideal place to tackle these issues, where there are large externalities, huge spillovers from undertaking actions, but [one country] shouldn’t be solidly the one assuming that cost of resolving that issue.

In some sense, this is kind of the core function. But incredibly, we also review every single project. We just approved $170 billion to be dispersed over the next 15 months, the next fiscal year and a little bit more. Last year, we had about 1000 or so projects. This year, we may have about 1000 projects that we have to approve to the board. And we review every single one of those, because it is important to know how the money’s being spent. And in some sense, we want to avoid programmatic risk, but we also want to avoid fiduciary risk, so we want to make sure that that we don’t undertake actions that are going to be harmful for countries. But we also want to make sure that we spend resources well, and in the best possible way we can. So we have both a programmatic duty and a fiduciary duty in the role of executive directors. Those are two big issues that we worry about.

Yagan: That is fascinating. And I wonder if you have a way to think about the United States’ special role in the world. You said we are one of 170 shareholders of the World Bank, yet we’re also the largest. In your experience at the World Bank, does the United States’ special role and opportunity and platform and position of influence feel like a really special catalyst for all this global change that you hope to effect?

Kugler: We are the largest shareholder. We don’t quite have veto power, which we do in some other organizations, for example in some of the regional banks. But we do carry a lot of weight, and people look for our leadership. And they have seen that leadership diminished over the past few years. So they’re happy to have us back playing a leadership role, and leading on efforts and tackling the challenges that face us today.

For example, here at the World Bank, one of the things we have done over the past past many months is to help Ukraine economically. The US has played a key critical role in addressing the economic needs of Ukraine, which as we know, has huge implications for the rest of the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, unfortunately, has affected the rest of us in all sorts of ways. It has affected economies around the world. It has affected the food insecurity that is being faced throughout the African continent, but also in South Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the world. Here again, a single country cannot take it upon themselves. It has to be an ongoing thing, because it affects all of us. And so we need to take joint action. But certainly, people look up to US leadership not only on resources, but on thought leadership. How are we going to tackle these critical issues? And how are we going to find solutions that help us address them?

People look up to US leadership not only on resources, but on thought leadership. How are we going to tackle these critical issues? And how are we going to find solutions that help us address them?

Yagan: I wonder if you can describe how you think about this unique role that you serve. How much do you try to stick to straight policy analysis, as in, “this is the right answer, and then you politicians can do what you want with it?” How much do you try to problem-solve within the political constraints to find the most viable policy that can be implemented? How do you understand your own role in the interplay between technical expert and player in a political enterprise?

Kugler: As an economist, I’m certainly very founded on evidence-based policymaking. I think we need to find the best possible policy solution that we may have to address a certain issue. But you’re so right that we have to be very aware of the political constraints, and sometimes work around those constraints. Sometimes you have a first-best solution to an issue, and to get around those political constraints and to come up with some solution, as opposed to not having any solution at all, you may have to come to a second-best solution. You may have to compromise. And you may have to adjust your original thinking on an issue and your original solution to a problem. Certainly, that’s very key.

I sit around 24 other executive directors who cover Africa, Latin America, the Asia Pacific, and other regions. You need to understand their motivations if you want to bring them along with you. You need to understand what drives them and what are their political constraints so that you can help them, and you can make the case for them that this may be better than doing nothing. If you get stuck, that’s often the solution, doing nothing. It is key to understand others’ motivations in these political settings, to understand, how can you help them, to bring them along, and to get them to understand that this will be to their benefit as well, and maybe even minimize some of the costs that they see with a given policy?

Yagan: I love the economist framework: minimizing the cost for them to take that next step. You’ve described how your motivations to get involved in economics, but also in public service, stem from your experiences from childhood, and the fact that you’re Colombian-American and a Latina, how that has shaped how you’ve thought about your career. And I wonder how that perspective shapes the work you’re doing and how you bring your technical expertise in special ways at the bank?

Kugler: I certainly believe that my background as a Colombian-American, and my global upbringing — having lived not only in Colombia, but also on other continents and having traveled to some 50 countries around the world — allows me to understand the realities of other countries and understand others’ perspectives. When I talk to my African colleagues or my Latin American colleagues, they know I’ve traveled in their countries, they know I understand first-hand the realities in those countries and the constraints, too. It’s not only their problems, but also their constraints.

And so I would say, they view me very differently. I am the first Latina to hold this role. And I have this global upbringing that is different from maybe what other US EDs have brought to the role. So this has created a sense of trust and a sense of being heard by me. That really helps to bring us together to try to tackle some of the problems we face today together at the board. It does help in communicating and finding solutions.

Yagan: I’m so glad that you’re in this role. Closing out, I wonder if you have any lessons that you would offer to academic colleagues or for people just coming out of Berkeley who want to make an impact in the world. What advice would you have for a first-year PhD student or undergrad at Berkeley, trying to find their way?

Kugler: I would certainly say to keep focusing on the key problems that we face today. If we hope to make progress as an economist, I think that’s where we can have the greatest impact, which is to find solutions not to the problems we had a decade ago, but to the problems that we’re facing today. Focus on the key problems that we face today. 

That’s where we can have the greatest impact, which is to find solutions not to the problems we had a decade ago, but to the problems that we’re facing today.

But I think you have to be passionate. In my case, I was a labor economist with a real passion. I saw that how work offered opportunities to individuals and to households to come out of poverty and to have opportunities moving forward. So I think each of us gets motivated by our own issues. 

Stay grounded in evidence. I do think about the data work that happily you’re still advancing at Berkeley, and focusing on what the data tells us to inform those problems. When you move away from that academic setting to a non-academic setting, it is good to stay true to yourself as an economist, because you’re interacting with so many others that think in a different way. And you may start thinking just like them, but then you add little value. It’s when you stay true to yourself to being an economist, and you’re surrounded by many others coming from other disciplines and perspectives, that you can bring a little bit of your way of thinking, which is not typical for most. Even here in the World Bank, there are many economists. But yet, because people have been in this organization for so many years, they do think about certain issues in certain traditional ways. And I think it is good to come from the outside to bring some new thinking. 

Yagan: That really resonates with my own experience, just having served [in the White House], and hopefully students will hear your words when they listen to this, and that can be an enduring ethos at Berkeley for years to come. So thank you so much for rejoining Berkeley virtually here, and we’ll look forward to reading and hearing about all your great work in the new post.

Kugler: Thank you. Thank you very much, Danny, and thank you very much for your service.



The Rise of Mass Incarceration: An Interview with Chris Muller and Alex Roehrkasse

Alex Roehrkasse and Chris Muller

On this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Julia Sizek spoke with two UC Berkeley scholars whose work focuses on explaining how mass incarceration has changed over the last 30 years.

Alex Roehrkasse is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Butler University. He studies the production of racial, class, and gender inequality in the United States through violence and social control. He was previously a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Sociology at Duke University and at the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect at Cornell University.

Christopher Muller is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies the political economy of incarceration in the United States from Reconstruction to the present. He is particularly interested in how agricultural labor markets, migration, and struggles over land and labor have affected incarceration and racial and class inequality in incarceration. His work has been published in journals such as the American Journal of Sociology, Demography, Social Forces, and Science

Listen to the podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

Excerpts from the interview are included below (edited for length and content).

Q: Let’s start by talking about the main topic at the center of your collaborative research, which is how mass incarceration has changed over the last 30 years. What motivated you to take on this topic?

Muller: It’s useful to step back and try to define mass incarceration. There isn’t complete agreement about how to define mass incarceration, but I think the most influential definition comes from the sociologist David Garland, who argues that mass incarceration is defined by two main features. The first is a scale of incarceration that’s unusual in both historical and comparative terms. This fits the US case because its incarceration rate is so extreme, both in comparison to similar countries and in comparison to its past. From 1970 to 2010, the US imprisonment rate rose from roughly 100 per 100,000 people to roughly 500 per 100,000 people. If you count people in jails, that number gets even higher, to about 700 per 100,000 people. That makes the US a vast outlier with respect to comparable countries.

The second feature of mass incarceration that Garland focuses on is what he calls the social concentration of incarceration. In the US, what he’s referring to is mainly the incarceration rate of young Black men. If you look at the most recent estimates, roughly a quarter of Black men can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives. When you zoom in to look at Black men who dropped out of high school, that number jumps to over two-thirds. These are really astonishing numbers, and are part of what has inspired people to try to understand how we got here over time. 

One of the main motivations of this project with Alex has been the emergence of a recent debate around this last point – about the relationship between racial inequality and incarceration on the one hand, and mass incarceration on the other. On the one side of the debate, we have a book like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. This is probably the most widely read book on mass incarceration, and it focuses mainly on its disproportionate impact on Black Americans, due in part to the War on Drugs, and due in part to the concentration of police in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods. 

On the other side, you have scholars like James Forman, Jr. and Marie Gottschalk, who are sympathetic to Alexander’s account, but who argue that it’s incomplete. In particular, they focus on the fact that mass incarceration has negatively affected many groups beyond just Black Americans, and that it’s particularly concentrated among the poor.

My read of the debate is that it’s been quite civil and collegial. But as it has spun out into wider public arenas, it’s gotten more heated. As I’ve encountered this debate, I’ve had a sense that people have been talking past each other. And so one of the main goals for me in working on this project with Alex was to try to establish a more comprehensive and up-to-date empirical foundation for the debate. I had a hunch that this foundation would help us to see why both positions actually look quite reasonable depending on how you look at the question — depending on whether you’re looking at the direct experience of incarceration, or whether you’re looking at its indirect effects. 

What we tried to do in the project was two main things. The first thing was to update previous estimates of racial and class inequality in prison admissions. They hadn’t been calculated since 2002. You would think this would be a relatively straightforward thing to do, but as I’m sure we’ll discuss, there are all kinds of complicated issues related to how you actually estimate these quantities. One of the main reasons we wanted to do this was based on research that’s come out in recent years showing that there’s been a huge shift in the fortunes of people without a college degree. One of the most famous examples of this is the work of the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who’ve shown that there’s been a marked rise in the mortality rates particularly of White people without a bachelor’s degree. We had a hunch that this shift might also be visible in prison admissions. 

The second thing we wanted to do in the paper was to look beyond the direct experience of incarceration and look at the indirect experience. This includes looking at people’s likelihood of having a family member imprisoned, and looking at people’s likelihood of living in a neighborhood with a high imprisonment rate. The reason we wanted to do this was because of a whole body of sociological research that has shown how, because of Black-White wealth gaps, for example, middle-class Black people are much more likely than middle-class White people to be the offshoots from poor family trees. That means they’re much more likely to have family members who are poor than similar White people.

We were also inspired by a lot of research, much of it coming out of sociology, showing how segregation has meant that middle-class Black people are more likely than middle-class White people to live in poor neighborhoods. If you think incarceration and poverty are becoming increasingly associated over time, these dynamics are going to influence differences in the relative direct and indirect experiences of incarceration.

Together, we thought these facts suggested that it was possible that racial and class inequality in people’s risk of having a family member imprisoned — and racial and class inequality in their risk of living in a high imprisonment neighborhood — could seriously differ from racial and class inequality in their risk of being imprisoned themselves.

Q: That points to the two challenges of studying mass incarceration: the question of the class and race factors that make one more at risk of being in prison, and the question of the people who are in direct or indirect contact with the prison system. What were your findings when you put these two different parts of mass incarceration together?

Roehrkasse: Corresponding to these two parts that you’re describing, we really have two main sets of findings. The first is that we show that there have been really significant shifts in the contours of inequality in prison admissions in the 21st century. On the one hand, Black-White disparities have pretty meaningfully declined since the late 20th century. For example, at peak levels of racial inequality in the early 1990s, Black people were somewhere between six and eight times more likely to enter prison than similarly educated White people. That’s just an astonishing level of inequality.

To be frank, you don’t often see racial disparities that large in social science. This is not reducible to any underlying educational differences, because we’re comparing like to like here. By 2015, though, the Black-White ratio of prison admissions had fallen to something more like two or three. That’s a pretty significant decline, but it’s important to say that’s still a really big disparity. 

On the other hand, inequality between people who had attained different levels of education skyrocketed over the same period. So again, in the early 1990s, people who hadn’t attended college were roughly five to six times more likely to go to prison than people who had attended college. But by 2015, when our analysis ends, people without college were 20 to 25 times more likely to go to prison than people who had been to college before. 

Our second set of findings adds some nuance to this picture. In two separate analyses, we examined people’s likelihood of having a family member in prison, or of living in a neighborhood where a high proportion of residents in that neighborhood go to prison. In both of these cases, we find that Black people with the highest levels of education or income are actually more likely to experience indirect contact with the prison system than White people with the lowest levels of education, or the lowest levels of income.

Ultimately, what we find is that while class inequality in prison admissions now appears to dominate racial inequality, it’s racial inequality that still predominates in other aspects of the lived experience of mass incarceration. Depending on whether we look at these direct or indirect experiences of the prison system, we’ll come to different conclusions about whether race or class matters more. Rather than trying to decide which is absolutely more important, we’ve become much more interested in trying to understand how racial and class inequality interact, and even how these interactions could create opportunities for new alliances to combat mass incarceration.

Q: Can you talk more about how you decided to use education as a proxy for socioeconomic class status?

Muller: The main reason is just data limitations. When people are admitted to prison, they’re not asked about their income, and so we’re forced to use their level of education. We use education as a proxy for class. This is clearly an imperfect measure, and there are all kinds of quibbles you could have with it. But on the other hand, the work of Case and Deaton shows that having a college education is an increasingly important determinant of people’s life chances in the United States. And there are even Marxist sociologists — who you’d expect would have the most issue with this proxy — who’ve come around to the importance of the college divide.

In the first analysis, we were looking at racial and class inequality in prison admission. Here, we only have measures of education; we don’t have measures of income. But in the second two analyses — of people’s likelihood of having a family member imprisoned and people’s likelihood of living in a high imprisonment neighborhood — we had both education and income. And the results were almost identical. And so in this particular case we’re not especially concerned about using education as a proxy for a class, even though we acknowledge that the two concepts are different.

Q: One of the problems you have in doing this research is not only trying to figure out what serves as a useful proxy, but how to extract the information from whatever data you’re getting from the prisons or other systems. How did you manage this giant data sample that you had?

Roehrkasse: There are three key quantities that we’re trying to measure in this study, and we use three different datasets to measure each of those. Each of those datasets has its own unique value, and some serious limitations.

The first quantity we’re interested in is the likelihood that people enter prison. You might think that’s a really straightforward thing to measure. But it turns out that there’s actually no national data that are publicly available that disaggregate rates of entrance into prison by people’s race and ethnicity or their educational attainment. And so for people who are interested in these kinds of inequalities, a really useful and common resource is what’s called the National Corrections Reporting Program. Unfortunately, this resource is restricted in access, because it involves individual-level records of imprisoned people, so the data are pretty sensitive. But for those people who are interested in these kinds of questions, this is really the most important resource available. These are administrative data, and, unfortunately, they represent the voluntary contributions of different state prison systems to this overall program. In any given year, the NCRP doesn’t actually include all state prison admissions. So an important assumption of our study is that the contributing states in the years we examine are more or less representative of the country more broadly. It’s also important to say that the NCRP no longer includes federal prison admissions. Federal prisons make up a small proportion of the total prison population in the United States, but it is by no means a trivial proportion.

A second quantity that we’re trying to understand is the likelihood that someone has had a family member go to prison. And people can use any number of different resources to do this. People have used the Fragile Families study before or the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. We use a new survey that’s designed specifically to measure this quantity. It’s called the Family History of Incarceration Survey, or FamHIS. 

The third quantity we’re interested in measuring is the likelihood that people live in a neighborhood with a high imprisonment rate. This is really challenging, because people aren’t usually imprisoned in the neighborhoods where they were living before they went to prison, and geo-locating prisoners back to the neighborhoods where they came from with any detail can actually be quite difficult. To do this, we use a resource that’s actually pretty underutilized, called the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections. This is another administrative dataset that compiles information from about 20 states, and it allows us to geolocate people in state prisons back to the specific census tract where they resided before they were imprisoned. We use census tracts, which on average have about 4000 residents, as a proxy for neighborhoods. And we use these data to calculate imprisonment rates for census tracts in these 20 states. Then we use census data to put people of different races and ethnicities and educational groups into neighborhoods to understand their likelihood of living in a high-imprisonment neighborhood. Then for all three of these experiences—prison admissions, family member incarceration, and neighborhood incarceration—we calculate the rates at which people of different ethnoracial groups and educational groups have these experiences. And then to measure inequality, we look at the ratio of these different rates across different groups.

Q: Another aspect of the complicated nature of this research is the temporality problem you have. When you’re looking at prison admissions, these are people who are entering the system. This is not representative of the body of people who are currently imprisoned as a whole. But then you’re asking people about the experience over their lifetimes, whether they’ve known someone who is incarcerated. How do you disentangle these different temporal aspects in this research?

Roehrkasse: This is a really important point. Our study is focused on prison admissions, specifically the rate at which people in the population enter prison in any given year. And this is a pretty different quantity from the proportion of the population that’s imprisoned at any given point in time. Generally speaking, prison admissions are much more volatile than prison populations, because they’re going to be more responsive to economic, social, and political changes. For example, a policy that diverts people away from the criminal justice system would have a pretty immediate impact on prison admission rates, but only delayed effects on the prison population, because that population reflects not only that recent policy, but the cumulative history of decades of previous policies, rates of imprisonment, sentencing, corrections, etc. What that means is that if we were to redo our study examining prison populations, instead of prison admission rates, some of the changes in inequality that we document would probably be a bit more muted. But what that also means is that if the trends we document in our study continue, we should expect to see similar changes in the prison population over time. There other aspects of our data—like the fact that the FamHIS survey captures whether a person’s family member has ever been imprisoned—that incorporate this whole cumulative history of incarceration over the last several decades, that we’re just limited in our ability to deal with.

Q: That points us back to one of the key topics people talk about with mass incarceration, which is the War on Drugs. How did the War on Drugs become so central to the conversation around mass incarceration, and how did your research complicate this story?

Muller: The paper itself is not directly about the War on Drugs, but the War on Drugs has become a key part of debate over mass incarceration. On the one hand, if you look at a point in time, the number of people who are in prison strictly for drug offenses is actually quite small. People often are critical of the argument that the War on Drugs was a key part of mass incarceration, given the small proportion of people who are in prison for drug offenses.

On the other hand, if you have people going into prison for relatively short sentences, that is going to mean that for people’s experience of having ever gone to prison, the relative importance of the War on Drugs is likely to be quite a bit larger. So, the temporal aspects we’re talking about have a particular relationship to the War on Drugs. 

Alex pointed to these extreme disparities in incarceration during the mid-1990s, even within educational groups. I haven’t seen a study that’s nailed this down, but I think it’s unlikely that some part of that spike does not have anything to do with the War on Drugs. Some of the spike in the racial disparity in the prison admission rate in the 90s almost certainly was related to the War on Drugs. And so the War on Drugs is quite clearly is an important part of the story. How important it is really depends on which aspects of mass incarceration you’re trying to look at — whether you’re looking at the number of people in prison and the proportion of them who are in for drug offenses, whether you’re looking at people who’ve cycled through prison, and how many of them have been imprisoned for drug offenses, and whether you’re looking at racial disparity. I think you’re going to get a slightly different story, depending on which of those quantities you’re focused on.

Q: You’ve also done research on how factors like the labor market play a central role in how we explain rises in imprisonment and mass incarceration. Can you tell us more about this relationship?

Muller: First let me step back and talk about the previous state of the literature on the causes of mass incarceration, then I’ll talk about my own research. To be honest, I’ve been working on this topic for a while, and the longer I’ve worked on it, the more complex the answers have gotten about what the sources of mass incarceration are. 

The broad contours are set out in a book by a sociologist named Bruce Western called Punishment and Inequality in America, which came out in 2006. Those main causes are still pretty widely accepted, even though there’s been a lot of important work to appear since that book was published. Western focuses mainly on economic and political causes, things like the collapse of urban labor markets, the related rise in crime, the urban uprisings of the 1960s, and then the politicization of crime that increased the chance that all of these changes would receive a punitive response. In the following years, we saw sentences increase, and we saw a greater willingness among prosecutors to pursue incarceration in cases where they might not have in the past. That’s an oversimplified summary, but it captures the main currents, and though people will disagree about the relative weight to place on any one of those causes, very few would say they’re wholly unimportant. 

To give broader context, one of the main motivations for my work on incarceration — and for my work in other areas — has been the idea that, in my view, too often in sociology we begin our studies of racial inequality in the 1960s, and that leaves out a lot of really important historical context. We forget, for example, that for much of US history, Black Americans worked primarily in agriculture, not just during slavery, but for almost a century after the Civil War. Once you recognize this fact, a lot of otherwise puzzling features about long-run patterns in the Black incarceration rate begin to make more sense. 

To take one example, there’s a popular argument that after the Civil War, incarceration became a kind of functional replacement for slavery. This is different from the argument that the form that incarceration took closely resembled slavery, which is an argument that has a lot of support, especially if you’re looking at the convict lease system, chain gangs, or things like that. But if you’re looking at the functional replacement argument, it’s hard to square with the fact that the Black incarceration rate in the years after Reconstruction was actually lowest in the counties that had depended most on enslaved labor before the Civil War. A lot of people are surprised when they hear this fact. But it becomes less surprising once you recognize that slavery and sharecropping were systems of economic exploitation, in addition to systems of racial domination. Both slaveholders before the Civil War and planters after the Civil War depended heavily on Black Americans’ labor. What that means is that, unless they could use the labor of people in prison, they had strong reasons to try to keep workers out of prison rather than in it. One of the key underappreciated ways that they did this is that planters often would go to courthouses, and they would offer to pay the fines of any people who had been convicted. The person then had to pay off the “debt” by working on their land. This system of peonage allowed planters to reestablish a coerced labor force after the Civil War. But it also had the side effect of lowering the Black incarceration rate in the Cotton Belt. So rather than see a relatively low Black incarceration rate in the Cotton Belt in those counties where slavery had been most prevalent after Reconstruction as a sign of the region’s mercy, we should instead see it as a sign of Black Americans’ continuing unfreedom outside of the prison in the years after the Civil War. 

There’s an additional puzzle that this way of looking at things helps to solve. Often, critics of the functional replacement argument — critics of the idea that incarceration was a replacement for slavery — will say, “Well, if slavery and mass incarceration are connected, why does mass incarceration take off a century after slavery ends?” For me, a key part of the answer to that question is that cotton harvesting was almost fully mechanized between 1950 and 1970 — the two decades that precede the start of the prison boom. A lot of work has focused on the effects of deindustrialization, but there’s been much less of an emphasis on the collapse of agricultural employment. This is particularly important because the effects of the collapse in agricultural employment on Black men’s labor force participation were much larger than the effects of deindustrialization.

Q: That’s fascinating because it points us to this question of the relationship between these different labor markets and ties it into other historical phenomena that we might be familiar with, like the Great Migrations. As we switch towards the 1970s, how was the labor market shift related to the rise of mass incarceration?

Muller: There are three main ways we could think about this. Here I’m more synthesizing previous work, rather than drawing on my own, but we had a massive collapse in the share of young Black men who were working in agriculture. In 1940, about a third of young Black men worked in agriculture. By 1970, it was lower than three percent. It was a dramatic shift. I don’t know of any research looking directly at the effects of this mechanization of cotton harvesting on both changes in crime and changes in imprisonment, but there’s a lot of work looking at other shocks to the labor market and showing quite clearly that those are related both to rates of crime and to rates of imprisonment. That’s actually something I’m working on right now. 

Secondly, one of the main responses to the mechanization of cotton harvesting was the second Great Migration. There was a huge political backlash to this migration. Ellora Derenoncourt, an economist who was at Berkeley until very recently, has shown how the second Great Migration led to increases in police spending, in homicide rates, in the Black incarceration rate, and in reductions in spending and other types of public goods. Ellora’s work shows clearly how this second Great Migration was related to the onset of mass incarceration. 

Thirdly, there have been economic historians who have argued that the mechanization of cotton harvesting and the second Great Migration created a material foundation for the rise and the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, a lot of the literature on mass incarceration discusses how there was a political backlash to this movement and focuses on this as a key component of the politicization of crime — one of the key ingredients in the rise of mass incarceration. 

So, it’s through a bunch of different paths, but I do think many of these causes that other scholars have focused on are related to this massive decline in agricultural employment that happened mid-century in the United States.

Q: What can scholars and policymakers learn from your research on the complicated relationship between race and class?

Roehrkasse: Part of our analysis is aimed at decomposing racial and class inequality: overall, racial inequality in mass incarceration appears in part to reflect some underlying disparities in educational attainment. That’s an important fact to understand. 

But one of the main goals of our study, and I think one of its main successes, is to show that racial and class inequality cannot be disentangled. And that’s because they’re mutually constitutive. That can sound kind of hand-wavy, but we make our best effort to measure this as concretely as we can. We show that, irrespective of one’s education or income, Black people are much more likely to have family members or neighbors imprisoned. This can seem somewhat at odds with the fact that we’re simultaneously documenting that there’s been this shift toward much greater educational inequality in prison admissions. 

We think, though, that a really important factor that can reconcile these two seemingly contradictory facts is that, as a result of racial segregation and racial discrimination, an important feature of being Black in America today is that, irrespective of your class position, you’re much more closely connected to poor people. What that means is that the scale of racial inequality really can’t be fully appreciated without reference to the ways that social networks and social environments translate these growing class disparities into racial disparities. 

Rather than being competing forms of inequality, race and class are really intersecting dimensions of domination. And for researchers, for activists, and for policymakers, the more we can do to understand that, the more successful we’ll be in our efforts to combat mass incarceration.


Race, Gender, and Political Speech: An Interview with Gabriella Licata

Gabriella Licata

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was insulted on the Capitol steps in July 2020, it was a brief media sensation. But what does being called an “effing bitch” mean for how we think about political speech? 

Gabriella Licata, a PhD candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, joined Julia Sizek for this episode of the Matrix Podcast to discuss how the standard language ideologies of political speech come to shape perceptions of language and people in Congress. Licata utilizes mixed methodologies to assess language behavior and linguistic bias in sociolinguistic experiments, social media, and political discourse.

The interview focuses largely on Licata’s recently published paper in the Journal of Language and Discrimination, “Sorry, not sorry: Ted Yoho’s infelicitous apology as reification of toxic masculinity,” which analyzes the aftermath of an insult on the Capitol steps and what it reveals about the norms of American political speech.

Excerpts from the interview are included below (edited for length and content). A full, unedited transcript is available here.

Q: Let’s jump in by discussing the event that your paper is about, which is when Ted Yoho insulted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol on July 28 2020. What happened, and who witnessed the event?

Gabriella Licata: This was highly publicized at the moment, and it hasn’t been spoken of much since then. But basically, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [AOC] had participated in a virtual town hall in her New York District. She had mentioned that people are suffering due to the effects of the pandemic, and there are urgent poverty issues that aren’t being addressed. People don’t have food, people don’t have their basic goods. And she mentioned that if a person steals a loaf of bread or something to feed their family, then that’s permissible, or that’s forgivable, because this is a new experience for people and they don’t know what to do. They’re not being given resources by their government, they’re not being taken care of.

Republicans had a really strong reaction to that saying, it’s okay to steal? And that’s how they interpreted it. When Ted Yoho saw Ocasio-Cortez walking up the steps of the Capitol, and he’s walking down, he called her out on that. He said that she was disgusting, that she was a gendered slur, “an effing bitch.” He spoke both of those slurs, he didn’t abbreviate them. He said that she was crazy. And then he continued on. And I believe they saw each other later on, and she called him out on what he had said to her. It was heavily publicized because there was a reporter there named Mike Willis from The Hill and he immediately wrote about it. From there it spiraled through secondary reporting.

Q: This didn’t happen in a dark room where there’s no record of it. There’s a presumably objective reporter who is there at the time who says, this is not what should be happening. It’s a mix of personal and political. There’s this gendered slur that’s directed at Ocasio-Cortez, and there’s the larger ackground about poverty programs in the US. This is a personal attack about a political problem. Can you tell us more about that aspect?

Licata: Progressive politics is not new. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, they have very progressive and what the right would consider “radical” ideologies. But nobody speaks to them this way. This uptick of contempt from the right is really a response to the changing representation in Congress and in politics. When Obama won the presidency in 2008, there was such a strong reaction to his presence, because he is a Black American. And he’s not even what we would consider a very progressive politician. But US politics has historically been very white. Now you have these racialized women gaining powerful political positions. And so you see the reactions in right-wing media and right-wing politics.

Later on, Supreme Court nominee of Ketanji Brown  Jackson had a very different line of questioning than did Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The stance of right-wing politics is that we live in a post-racist, post-misogynistic world, so we can call people out and not be racist or misogynistic because those systemically don’t exist anymore — because look, a a Black or brown woman is an office. So of course, we’re not racist, we’re not misogynistic. It permits them to issue these kinds of gendered and racist attacks with some kind of safety net on their end.

Q: That speaks to the value of scholarship in this arena, which is somewhat outside of your training in Romance Languages and Literature. How did you decide to pursue this line of inquiry?

Licata: A lot of what I do is rooted in language perception and attitudinal experiments, and what sociolinguistics means in language education. Everything that I do is underpinned by standard language ideologies, and understanding how they permit or prohibit people from expressing themselves fully in public and private arenas. The public-private distinction is not that clear anymore in school or in a political arena. How are people able to express themselves without being discriminated against? All of my work is looking at how standard language ideologies operate, and how they racialize and marginalize groups. Going back to colonial epistemologies, and how they privilege some folks and erase others, has brought me into trying to deconstruct right-wing discourse, and who the targets of that discourse are.

Q: Following this episode, Ted Yoho issued an apology in Congress, and there was a lot of direction-changing in this apology. What were the ways that he was avoiding apologizing in making his apology? 

Licata: Right off the bat, he issued an apology for what he said, but how he said it. He’s really apologizing for tone: “I’m sorry, I was abrupt.” But then he conflates that abruptness with passion, and we can’t apologize for passion, because it’s just who we are, right? He is associating passion with his country, with family, and with God, which are very emotional topics for Americans, but especially Republicans. He’s creating political alignment and maintaining the distinction: “this is what I care about.” In that sense, he’s dividing his own values from AOC’s values, saying “this is what I care about, and this is why I had to do this.” It’s almost like it was his duty.

But after the first apology, he talks about this post-racist, post-misogynistic realm where systemic inequities don’t exist — where if you’re poor and you work hard, you’ll make it. He gives this personal anecdote with his wife. Those are valuable, emotional stories, and in the video, he becomes visibly emotional. He tears up and pauses, kind of deflecting. He’s making it a very personal story, because those emotional experiences will draw in people’s sympathies, depending on whose side you’re on and who you believe. He deflects to personal experience. And then he transcends and talks about bigger issues, like, “it’s my duty to serve America,” and takes the conversation to a national position. A lot of the speech is mostly distraction.

Q: I’m really interested in the tone question that you brought up. What tone is he apologizing for, and what tone is he using in the apology? Is he being emotional, or is it performance? How do we evaluate this political speech as both emotional and rational?

 Licata: When he says he wishes that it had gone down differently, does he? We don’t really know the intention. He offers various alternatives to how this could have played out, but he doesn’t apologize for calling her out. He doesn’t have to; people are allowed to have opinions. But he also wishes it had played out differently while denying that he said anything bad.

This House speech was an obligation. And he stated that in an interview right after this speech. He had a Hobson’s choice, which means he had to do it and deal with it, or he didn’t have to do it and still deal with it. It was a very short speech. It was a little more than a minute. And he even walked away from the podium before he finished speaking. He just said, “I yield back.” He’s already walking away. He seemed annoyed. When we talk about why people express emotion, we don’t really know the intention. It didn’t seem insincere. But we have to wonder why he teared up. Talking about family makes people emotional, but he just seemed annoyed, like, why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why am I on the spot? Nobody reported that he was emotional, because he’s a man, he’s allowed to be emotional. And women will be called out for it. The only reporting that came out of it was, “Oh, he apologized.” 

 Q: Was his apology successful? Who saw it as being a successful apology, and who didn’t? Did it fall along the neat political lines one would expect?

Licata: Definitely not. Immediately after Yoho spoke, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who’s a Democrat from Maryland, spoke in reaction. The politics are really similar on both sides in a way, where he talks about how we need to respect one another. And then he uses that to bring up Trump and talk about how Trump is disrespectful, but not really focusing on Yoho. He’s using that to align himself with Democrats and their lack of support for former President Trump. And then he states that this was an appropriate apology, and that Ocasio-Cortez would accept this apology. He speaks on her behalf without having spoken to her and accepts the apology on behalf of what seems to be Democrats. I found that to be very interesting, because there’s benefits to both men on both sides of the aisle not wanting to talk about this, not wanting to deal with gender dynamics and misogyny in politics. It’s not just Republicans who are avoiding those conversations, it’s also Democrats. We also see it with older women in politics not wanting to talk about it, because it’s a generational divide. So after Steny Hoyer affirmed it kind of snowballed into a bunch of reporting saying this was an apology. 

Q: Another interesting element of this apology, and maybe our modern media landscape generally, is the fact that you get to apologize many times now. After you give your apology in Congress, you go on a talk show and you give a sort of reiteration of the apology (or lack thereof). There’s a clip of Ted Yoho on “The Story with Martha McCallum,” which is a Fox News show. What does he do in recounting this event?

Licata: This is a nationally broadcast interview from after AOC issued her speech in the House. She spoke for 10 minutes, and she had a slew of people supporting her, which was heavily publicized. This interview was a response in part to that. Yoho is fairly consistent in how he recounts the story, but he is now here more explicitly replacing the gendered slur with something that can’t be directed at a person. To call someone an “F-word, B-word,” to quote McCallum, is what you call “animate.” It’s an animated slur. You don’t call an inanimate object “F-word, B-word,” but you can call an inanimate object “frickin’ BS.” And it’s unclear if he pronounced those words, but now he’s removing the offensiveness of the words, and saying that’s all he said, and then he walked away. So if he’s walking away, and the conversation ensues, who’s the antagonist now? It’s not him. He’s removing himself from any of the offenses.

It’s back to the personal versus the policy situation, where he says the problem is the situation, which is all “frickin’ BS,” rather than an individual person that he has ill feelings toward. On the same Martha McCallum show, they talk about what they think she is doing with the press coverage from this.

Q: This gets back to this question of gender and how there are expectations for how women should act, and that she is not conforming to this.

Licata: Part of the right wing reaction to AOC is that she’s very popular. She reaches a young and broad audience, and they don’t like that. She uses social media to her advantage. So any time she complains about something, they just gaslight, like, “Oh, she’s doing this to fundraise, she’s doing this just to make so-and-so upset.” To be called an “F-word B-word” in public is humiliating, especially in a professional environment. But again, because Yoho and his party exist in this post-racist, post-misogynistic realm, that’s not offensive.  They’re like, “I’m not misogynistic. I have daughters and a wife, so I can’t be misogynistic.” It’s a lot of gaslighting that this is actually really important, and if this exploding in popularity, that means there’s some ulterior motive like fundraising or gaining followers.

What we see with the current line of right-wing populism is that things have to be either/or. AOC could be hurt and offended, and what he did was wrong, and she can also fundraise off of it. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas or events. It’s not, “let’s do this so that we can make money,” but “hey, let’s have people understand why this is wrong.” And if that is used to fundraise, that’s politics.

These very severe lines are drawn between what is right and wrong, and you have to subscribe to one idea or the other. That’s really what right-wing populism is doing constantly is reiterating, who is part of us and who is part of them? Who’s a member of our in-group and who’s outside? When you’re in the out-group, everything you do is scrutinized. She was scrutinized from the moment he spoke on the steps, so everything that AOC does thereafter is going to be scrutinized and twisted into something negative or pejorative.

Listen to the whole podcast above or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


Floods and Equity: A Panel Discussion

Co-sponsored by Global Metropolitan Studies and River-Lab, at UC Berkeley

Floods are the most destructive natural hazard, both at the national and international scale, and they disproportionately affect people of color and the poor. To understand this uneven exposure to floods requires that we understand the history of land use and institutional structures that have resulted in current exposure and inequitable allocation of resources for flood protection and for post-disaster aid (‘procedural vulnerability’).

One of the most critical agencies is the US Army Corps of Engineers, whose cost-benefit analysis approach tends to preclude flood risk management projects in poor communities.

In this presentation, recorded on May 12, 2022, panelists Danielle Zoe Rivera and Jessica Ludy drew upon their research on these topics and discuss pathways to improving on the current situation.

This panel was co-sponsored by Social Science Matrix, Global Metropolitan Studies, and River-Lab, from the University of California, Berkeley.

Listen to this panel as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


Danielle Zoe RiveraDanielle Zoe Rivera is Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning in the College of Environmental Design. Rivera’s research examines movements for environmental and climate justice. Her current work uses community-based research methods to address the impacts of climate-induced disasters affecting low-income communities throughout South Texas and Puerto Rico. Rivera teaches on environmental planning and design, community engagement, and environmental justice. Her work has been published by the Journal of the American Planning Association, Environment and Planning, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. She holds a PhD in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan, a Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Bachelor of Architecture from the Pennsylvania State University. Prior to joining the University of California Berkeley, Rivera taught Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder.


Jessica Ludy Jessica Ludy (she/her) is the Flood Risk Program Manager and Environmental Justice Coordinator for the San Francisco District US Army Corps of Engineers. Through the Army Corps’ “Technical Assistance Programs,” Jessica and her team partner with communities in the San Francisco District Area of Responsibility to identify and implement solutions for equitable, just, and sustainable climate adaptation. Jessica also leads the San Francisco district’s efforts to implement the federal government’s priorities to advance social and environmental justice. Jessica’s work is informed and inspired by collaborations and scholarship of researchers and colleagues both inside and out of the federal government, and by the decades of environmental and disability justice leadership from indigenous peoples, people of color, and other historically-marginalized groups. Jessica is a co-chair of the Social Justice and Floodplain Management Task Force at the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Prior to the Army Corps, she worked on flood risk management and floodplain restoration as an environmental consultant, a Fulbright scholar, and at nonprofits. Jessica completed her Master’s in Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley in 2009.


Matrix Podcast: Interview with Youjin Chung

Professor Youjin Chung

In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Professor Michael Watts interviews Youjin Chung, Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Equity, with a joint appointment in the Energy and Resources Group and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Professor Chung’s work encompasses the political economy of development, feminist political ecology, critical agrarian and food studies, and African studies. She draws on ethnographic, historical, and participatory visual methods to examine the relationship between gender, intersectionality, development, and socio-ecological change in Sub Saharan Africa with a focus on Tanzania. She is interested in understanding how agrarian landscapes, livelihoods, and lifestyles articulate with capitalist forces, and how these processes of uneven encounter reshape the identities and subjectivities of rural women and men, as well as their relationships with the state, society, and the environment.

As she explains on her website, “What animates these research interests is the broader question of how public policies and capitalist processes that aim to achieve various sustainability goals often end up reinforcing pre-existing social inequalities, or marginalizing the very groups they intend to serve.”

She is currently working on a book manuscript, Sweet Deal, Bitter Landscape, which examines the gendered processes and outcomes of a stalled large-scale agricultural land deal in coastal Tanzania. Her second project, tentatively titled Flesh and Blood, investigates the role of gender, race, and species in the making of the “livestock revolution” in Tanzania and the wider region.

Previously, Dr. Chung was Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. She received her PhD and MSc in Development Sociology from Cornell University, and an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge, Jesus College. She completed a Dual BA in International Studies, and Journalism and Communication at Korea University.

Listen to the episode below, or on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.