There is no major policy topic that can’t be rescripted because of its complexity: 15 examples of useful counternarratives in the making


–“The discourse of apocalyptic climate change-induced mass migration is now past its prime. Particularly since the early 2010s, it has been extensively critiqued (see Hartmann 2010; Bettini 2013; Piguet, Kaenzig, and Guélat 2018; Wiegel, Boas, and Warner 2019), and the majority of migration scholarship no longer expects a linear, massive and world-transforming movement of people under climate change. Indeed, an ever-rising number of studies shows the opposite is the case: that relations between climate change and human migration are often indirect, small-scale, and taking shape in context-specific ways, influenced by a host of other socio-economic and political factors. The ways in which people move in a changing climate are diverse, and typically consist of relatively local mobilities (for overviews see: Black et al. 2011a; Foresight 2011; McLeman and Gemenne 2018; Hoffmann et al. 2020; De Sherbinin 2020).”

–“Between 2010 and 2019, over 2 million people have crossed the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Europe, escaping conflicts, persecution and poverty and looking for a better chance in life (D’Angelo, 2018a; UNHCR, 2020). Since the mid-2010s, this phenomenon, widely labelled as a ‘Refugee Crisis’ (Crawley, 2016), has been at the centre of media and academic debates, with considerable attention being devoted to the humanitarian concerns over search and rescue at sea and the implementation of the European Asylum System (Crawley et al., 2017; Spijkerboer, 2016; Vassallo Paleologo, 2016). . .Specifically, the current mainstream narrative is one that looks at these people as passive components of large-scale flows, driven by conflicts, migration policies and human smuggling. Even when the personal dimension is brought to the fore, it tends to be in order to depict migrants as victims at the receiving end of external forces. Whilst there is no denying that most of those crossing the Mediterranean experience violence, exploitation and are often deprived of their freedom for considerable periods of time (Albahari, 2015; D’Angelo, 2018a), it is also important to recognize and analyse their agency as individuals, as well as the complex sets of local and transnational networks that they own, develop and use before, during and after travelling to Europe.”

Immigration controls at EU borders

–“Scholars, NGOs and journalists have paid increasing attention to how states produce and share information about migration, and which databases they use to store data about migrants’ crossings, arrivals and presence in their territory. Within this context, the metaphor of the black box has gained traction, pointing to the perceived ‘unknowability’ and opacity of the technologies used at the border, the way they operate, and the data they store. . . .

“The pitfall of the black box metaphor is twofold. Theoretically, the black box implies that there is something like a secret archive kept hidden from citizens’ view and presupposes a certain degree of coherence and consistency in states’ practices. Yet, we argue, this is often not the case: unevenness, technical glitches and states’ refusal to share data characterise police operations and border controls at the EU’s frontiers. Indeed, the metaphor of the black box restricts our ability to understand the relation between an operation’s internal workings and its outside environment, its conditions and effects. . . .”


–“1.6% — The decline in global remittances, or money that foreign-born workers sent back to their home countries, to low- and middle-income nations last year. That drop was far less than the 20% decline projected by the World Bank early in the pandemic. Migrant remittances have become crucial economic lifelines as the recoveries of rich and poor countries diverge.”

–“Remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries in 2020 as a whole remained resilient, contrary to initial projections and despite having recorded a strong decline in Q2 2020. The latest available data shows remittances are estimated to have reached USD 540 billion in 2020, just 1.6% below the 2019 total of USD 548 billion. . .The decline was smaller than that recorded in 2009 during the global financial crisis. Fiscal measures in migrants’ host countries, including cash transfers and employment support programmes implemented in many large economies, the widespread use of remote work, and migrants’ commitment to continue providing a lifeline to families by cutting consumption or drawing on savings contributed to this better-than-expected outcome. However, there are important regional and intra-regional differences, including between the countries covered in this study.”

Welfare State

–“The economic narrative according to which the welfare state is a luxury that only growth-rich societies can afford can thus be turned upside down: the welfare state has been the backbone of developed economies in the past 70 years, especially European ones, and a major source of economic growth for more than a century. Nevertheless, the European welfare state has gradually developed a growth dependency.”

–“Results reveal no evidence for a magnet effect to the most generous welfare states in the world net of other recognized factors, and even suggest a negative influence linked to the region’s high cost of living. Migrants are instead drawn by the promise of social and political inclusion, migrating to destinations where co-ethnics have become full-fledged citizens.”

Inflation Control and Targets

“This paper considers two basic questions with respect to inflation control, inflation targeting, and overall macroeconomic performance. The initial question is: what has been the justification in research for establishing an inflation target, and specifically a low inflation rate target of 2 – 3 percent, as the organizing principle and overarching goal of macroeconomic policy? The second question is: do we actually observe stronger macroeconomic performances—as measured in standard terms of GDP growth—when macro policy operates within the framework of such low inflation targets?

“Our answers to these questions are straightforward. First, no serious body of research has been produced that provides a clear justification for a 2 – 3 percent inflation target as the central goal of macroeconomic policy. Further, there is no body of evidence showing that economies at any level of development consistently experience stronger economic growth outcomes when inflation is maintained at less than 3 percent as opposed to higher inflation rates, certainly within a 4 – 5 percent inflation range and, in some circumstances, somewhat higher rates still.

“These findings are significant insofar as they open space for considering the set of measures other than contractionary monetary policies as viable inflation control tools. It is possible that these other measures do not operate as forcefully as contractionary monetary policy in bringing inflation down to a 2 – 3 percent target range. But our findings suggest that it is not typically necessary to force down inflation to such low levels, especially given that contractionary monetary policies succeed in controlling inflation primarily through the channel of raising mass unemployment and weakening workers’ bargaining power.”

European Union

–“[T]he Dutch case offers an important rebuke to certain nationalist critiques of the European project, either from the left or the right, in which the European Union is cast as the domain of unelected Eurocrats, who endanger national sovereignty and enforce market discipline on unwilling nation states. . .The Dutch case, in contrast, shows how a strict, rule-based form of austerity policy was first the product of a largely domestic transformation, which was then transposed to the European level. It dovetails with interpretations of European political culture as a composite, defined more by the particular trajectories, ideas and interests of different national elites rather than a single supranational logic”.

–“This article analyses the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) to challenge interpretations of neoliberalism as an international project. The fiscal rules of the SGP are a paradigmatic example of how neoliberalism uses constitutional techniques to put limits on national democracy. These rules, however, have never worked as intended with adherence having been the exception rather than the norm. Although scholars readily admit neoliberal rules misfire in practice, conceptualisations of neoliberalism have remained largely unscathed. In contrast, this article argues that techniques of budgetary planning have had a more crucial impact on neoliberal fiscal governance than legal rules. In the case of the SGP, supranational actors have been empowered not by their capacity to put constitutional limits on public expenditure, but by analysing and intervening in the purposes and uses of public finance through managerial techniques of budgetary planning. In making this argument, I argue that neoliberal rules matter to international fiscal governance only through their failure.”

Uncertainty and Inequality

–“By using a battery of structural vector autoregression (SVAR) models, we show that macroeconomic uncertainty shocks lead to lower inequality in income, earnings, and consumption. A one standard deviation uncertainty shock reduces the Gini coefficient for income after one and a half years, reaching a trough of 0.5% within 4 years. Consumption inequality drops faster, after only two quarters from the shock, while it reaches its maximum decline of 0.6% in 2 years. The response of the wage measure is also negative. It takes 4 years for the Gini of gross wage to reach its maximum drop of −0.25%. The response of all measures to the shock is negative, significant, and persistent for a long time.”

Regional Climate Change

–“Surprisingly, we find that an intra-annual temperature volatility shock produces adverse effects on aggregate productivity in more developed regions (i.e., Europe and North America). In contrast, there are no significant evidence of temperature variability affecting productivity growth in South America and Africa. Unexpected changes in intra-annual temperature volatility come instead with good news in Asia.”

Urban Poor

–“Many people seemed to have no clue where most of the poor people in the [Seattle] metro actually lived: in the suburbs. So their political imaginary just didn’t include these places. They had this fantasy version of the city inherited from the New Left, with its emphasis on “inner city” organizing within distinct ethnic enclaves. In this American leftist imaginary “the suburbs” means white people, even though in Seattle it’s just the opposite: the inner city is more white than the suburbs.”


–“Today, it is almost impossible to identify an area of life that has not been radically transformed by the presence of petrochemicals. Whether as feedstocks for manufacture and agriculture, the primary ingredients of construction materials, cleaning products and clothing or the packaging that makes transport, storage and retail possible—all aspects of our social being are bound to a seemingly unlimited supply of cheap and readily disposable petrochemicals. Synthetic materials derived from petroleum have come to define the essential condition of life itself; simultaneously, they have become normalized as natural parts of our daily existence. This paradox must be fully confronted if we are to move beyond oil.”


–“A central political consequence – acknowledged in the report, but not explicitly addressed in the recommendations – is that more research, especially research designed to promote solar geoengineering activities, might raise expectations about solar geoengineering which could discourage emissions reductions and the societal transformation away from fossil fuels. This risk is termed ‘mitigation deterrence’ (McLaren 2016), and arises through political, social and economic tradeoffs. The risk of mitigation deterrence is demonstrated acutely by the increased interest in solar geoengineering among those opposed to investing in mitigation and those resisting efforts to reduce fossil fuel reliance (Ellison 2018).”

Child Labor and Criminal Behavior

–“First, as the data [from three countries] have demonstrated, labor, and the need for children to work, is the predominant lens through which young people and the adults that surround them conceptualize children’s engagement with gangs and organized crime. This was in contrast to the other standpoints that permeate discourse. Labeling the children as gang members is a poor reflection of their drivers of involvement in crime and is likely to stigmatize children engaged in a plight to ensure their own survival. Alternatively, the young people were not child soldiers nor were they victims or perpetrators of trafficking or slavery.

“A victim lens is also problematic in this context. The relationship between young people and organized crime is complex and multifaceted. Young people are victims of acute marginalization, poverty and violence but they do have some agency over their decision making. The data from all studies illustrated how gangs offer young people ways to earn an income but they also provide social mobility, ‘social protection’ (Atkinson- Sheppard, 2017) and ‘street capital.’ In some instances, criminal groups offer young people ways to earn ‘quick and easy money.’ Thus, the young people are not devoid of agency, but their decision making should be considered within the context of restricted and bounded lives.”

Tax Flight of the Rich?

“Taxing the rich is one of the central debates in this era of rising inequality. Elite taxation can alleviate income disparities and fund public investments. Yet, if top earners engage in tax flight, moving from high-tax to low-tax places, redistributive goals suffer as the tax base erodes. The incentive for tax flight, however, is counterbalanced by elite embeddedness – socio-economic ties to places where the rich became successful. To understand how tax incentives and embeddedness shape millionaire tax flight, we study two large-scale natural experiments. First, historic federal tax reform in 2017 changed incentives to favor lower-tax states, and tax flight was widely predicted. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted local embeddedness for those who could work remotely. We study these unique shocks using administrative data on top earners from IRS tax returns. We find that millionaires overall are highly embedded in their states, but there is a small ‘anomic elite’ with few ties to place and high mobility. Tax reform had small effects on millionaire migration, implying the viability of high taxes on the rich. Finally, the pandemic reduced elite attachment to place, raising questions about the future of work-from-home policies and their potential impact on the geography of the elite.”

COVID-19 Pandemic

“Factors contributing to low COVID-19 mortality include Africa’s young population profile which significantly reduces the likelihood of dying from COVID-19. . . .

“Viewed through the lens of the COVID-19 crisis narrative, Africa’s exceptionally low rates of COVID-19 mortality amid pervasive informality have widely been regarded as a delayed reaction, or a product of low testing capacity, masking a ‘ticking time bomb’ (Nordling, 2020). Yet, the statistical evidence shows that, nearly two years into the pandemic, high levels of informality remain inversely related to levels of COVID-19 mortality in Africa, and this pattern has continued to the present. The reality is, for a variety of reasons, larger informal economies are not associated with a higher level of COVID-19 mortality, either at a global level, or at the level of African sub-regions. However, social policy measures to facilitate lockdowns for precarious workers have been more problematic, supporting efforts to crowd the poor together in informal settlements and social provisioning activities.

“COVID-19 crisis narratives have framed African informal economies as a source of extreme vulnerability to the ravages of COVID-19, and put the international social protection agenda at the forefront of the mission to save Africa from the pandemic (Devereux, 2021; Gentilini et al., 2021; Schwettmann, 2020). Yet ‘best practice’ social policy responses have focused on lockdowns and expanded cash transfer systems that ignore actual needs and capacities on the ground. A closer look at the evidence reveals that informal economies have an inverse relationship with COVID-19 mortality and have been perversely affected by ‘best practice’ social policy responses ill-suited to the realities of poor, informalized environments.”

Pandemic Modelling

“Our analysis has yielded four different periods in the evolution of intersecting policy and media frames. Initially, modellers, policymakers and media alike emphasized uncertainty about available data, and hence the speculative character of modelled projections, thus justifying a ‘wait and see’ approach to government intervention. With growing public pressure for government action, policy and media frames were adjusted to emphasize the importance of timing interventions for best effect, with modelling evidence mobilized to justify inaction. This gave way to a period of crisis, as the press increasingly questioned the reliability of the existing models and policies, leading modellers and policy makers to dramatically revise their projections. Finally, with the imposition of the first UK lockdown, policy and media frames were brought back into alignment with one another, in a process of domestication through which the language of modelling became a basic resource for the discussion of the epidemic. Our epistemological microhistory thus challenges general accounts of the impacts of pandemic modelling and instead emphasizes contingency and interpretative flexibility. . . .

“It was this adaptability, above all, which made it possible for models to be accepted as authoritative statements on the state and future of the pandemic (Christley et al., 2013; Sismondo, 1999), and thereby to create rather than describe the pandemic as an object of political and public knowledge.”

Sources. These are verbatim extracts from publications, many peer-reviewed. If your interest is piqued, citations are available on request.

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