Being of Two Minds: The Science of Human Behavior

February 25, 2016

Postdoctoral fellow Jeremy Ferwerda has been interested in Europe since a very young age. He pursued the interest as an undergraduate at Cornell, where he majored in European history, and he’s pursuing it today, as a political scientist. Not only does he study the two salient trends currently affecting Europe – decentralization of social policy and immigration – he looks at what happens when they intersect.

After World War II, European countries built very strong welfare states – think Germany, France, Sweden. But over the past two decades, Ferwerda says, local governments have been “reactivated” as key providers of social services. This has occurred for a variety of reasons, from subnational groups vying for local autonomy, as is the case in Belgium, Spain, and the UK, to national governments trying to offload the ballooning costs of social programs from their budgets. Now, instead of being quasi-symbolic entities with little political heft, local governments have emerged as important players in redistributive policy.

The assumption of many reformers is that decentralization is an effective way to control government spending. Wrong, says Ferwerda, using the US as an example. Prior to 1932, he explains, US cities were so deeply in debt from discretionary welfare payments that they requested a federal government bailout. “This idealized view of a self-regulating decentralized system doesn’t actually obtain,” Ferwerda says. “What I show in my work is that … you actually tend to get increased spending when you decentralize control over social policy. That’s because decentralization activates all these incentives for local politicians to use social spending as a tool to shore up electoral support.” Indeed, his research shows that the poor in Europe tend to vote at relatively higher rates in local elections than in national ones.

Diversifying Settings

At the same time, these local settings are being transformed by historically high rates of immigration, making European towns arguably more heterogeneous than they have ever been. Ferwerda wants to know how this is in turn transforming how governments think about social policy.

One way to explore the question is by looking at immigrants’ voting rights. Ferwerda has found that two very different dynamics are in play. “In contexts where immigrants don’t have local voting rights –about half the countries in Europe – you see parties – even left-wing parties – cutting welfare benefits,” he says. “But in places where they do have local voting rights, you actually see competition to win immigrant votes offsetting these declines.”

In Europe, the policy debates about immigrant incorporation, or integration, are very much about social integration and economic integration. By giving immigrants voting rights to start with, Ferwerda says, local governments and communities have reasons to try to integrate them as full participants in society.

“In contexts where immigrants don’t have local voting rights –about half the countries in Europe – you see parties – even left-wing parties – cutting welfare benefits,”

These issues are crucial, because Europe is diversifying at an accelerating rate. Going forward, refugee policy is emerging as a “critical” issue in Europe because there are so many people knocking at the gates. And yet, Ferwerda says, “not a lot is understood about the long-term consequences of how you distribute refugees and the policies you enact once they arrive, in terms of reducing tensions in the host society and reaching mutually beneficial outcomes down the road.” Recent violence in Germany and elsewhere points out the importance of gaining such an understanding.

To do so, Ferwerda has launched two projects in Germany. One looks at what happens when refuges are allocated to towns by a randomized national formula: how do individuals across the income spectrum react to the sudden influx of refugees? “Many theories argue that lower-income individuals will react the strongest, due to perceived competition for public resources, such as jobs and welfare spending. Others argue that local opposition should be highest among the rich, who must bear the burden in terms of taxation. Surveying how people’s opinions change over time as they are exposed to a massive influx of refugees will help shed some light on these issues.”  

With colleagues from Stanford, Ferwerda is also interviewing Syrian refuges in Germany to see how, over time, they are integrating in society, and what policies are and aren’t working. “There are huge variations,” he says. “A lot of this is ad hoc, it’s driven by voluntary organizations, and there are few formal rules. Local policy variation will play a major role in determining the successful incorporation of these refugees.”

Ferwerda intends to follow what happens to these people two to three years down the line – something no one knows about. (In the United States, data on refugees is tracked up to 90 days, after which no more information is collected by the government.) There has therefore been no real understanding of what is happening to these groups – either from the perspective of the refugees themselves or that of the localities in which they are being placed.

Putting the science in political economy

Ferwerda – who also studied genetics at Cornell, and worked in a hedge fund for two years after graduating – likes science. Both the hedge fund work and the work he does now, which he considers political economy, “are to some extent about predicting average tendencies in human behavior.”

“For me, political science is an interesting meld of different things: I get to examine historical and contemporary questions that matter. However, there is also an attempt at rigor in the way that these questions are approached. I don’t think ‘political science’ is a science, per se, but the scientific method is certainly at the core of how I approach research. It unites the two sides of my mind.”

--Sarah C. Baldwin