Which risks are social and which are private? How much of their GDP do states spend on social welfare? Who exactly is entitled to which benefits? Is it still possible to finance an encompassing welfare state in times of deindustrialization, technological and demographic change, and globalization? And why do the answers to these questions differ so much across countries? These and similar questions—all central to social cohesion in capitalist democracies—ensure that the analysis of welfare politics is one of the theoretically as well as methodologically most dynamic and richest research areas within comparative political economy and political science more generally. Besides outlining the comparative development and the difficulty of measuring social policy, the focus of this contribution lies in a critical review of the most important past and current theoretical debates in the field of welfare state research, as a subfield of comparative political economy. These debates include party- and power-resource-centered approaches and their critiques, institutional explanations of welfare state retrenchment and restructuring, and the importance of multidimensional distributional effects for the analysis of social policy. The article concludes with a review of three more recent debates: the importance of public opinion and individual preferences for the development of the welfare state, the interaction of social policy and the changes of party systems, and the increasing relevance of social investment policies. The political and scientific need for innovative political science research will continue for the foreseeable future: Theory building and methodological possibilities are developing quickly, and the welfare states as research subject are constantly being challenged.
Michael J. Lee
Since the 1970s, financial crises have been a consistent feature of the international economy, warranting study by economists and political scientists alike. Economists have made great strides in their understanding of the dynamics of crises, with two potentially overlapping stories rising to the fore. Global crises appear to occur highly amid global imbalances—when some countries run large current account deficits and others, large surpluses. A second story emphasizes credit booms—financial institutions greatly extend access to credit, potentially leading to bubbles and subsequent crashes.
Global imbalances are, in part, the product of politically contested processes. Imbalances would be impossible if states did not choose to liberalize (or not to liberalize) their capital accounts. Global political structures—whether international institutions seeking to govern financial flows, or hierarchies reflecting an economic power structure among states—also influence the ability of the global system to resolve global imbalances. Indeed, economists themselves are increasingly finding evidence that the international economy is not a flat system, but a network where some states play larger roles than others.
Credit booms, too, and the regulatory structures that produce them, result from active choices by states. The expansion of the financial sector since the 1970s, however, took place amid a crucible of fire. Financial deregulation was the product of interest group knife-fights, states’ vying for position or adapting to technological change, and policy entrepreneurs’ seeking to enact their ideas.
The IPE (international political economy) literature, too, must pay attention to post-2008 developments in economic thought. As financial integration pushes countries to adopt the monetary policies of the money center, the much-discussed monetary trilemma increasingly resembles a dilemma. Whereas economists once thought of expanded access to credit as “financial development,” they increasingly lament the preponderance of “financialized” economies. While the experimentalist turn in political science heralded a great search for cute natural experiments, economists are increasingly turning to the distant past to understand phenomena that have not been seen for some time. Political scientists might benefit from returning to the same grand theory questions, this time armed with more rigorous empirical techniques, and extensive data collected by economic historians.