UMass Spotlight Scholar Kevin Young uses data to pinpoint how corporations gain political advantage

Kevin L. Young of UMass AmherstPhoto Credit: John Solem for UMass Amherst
Wednesday, December 13, 2017

--Via Research Next, by Ellen Keelan

Kevin L. Young is not one for easy answers. In fact, when it comes to beating corporate lobbyists at their own game, Young is a lot more interested in finding the right questions.

“We don’t know enough about how business operates as a political force,” says Young, associate professor in the UMass Amherst Department of Political Science whose innovative use of “big data” and seemingly endless appetite for rigorous analysis has made him one of his generation’s leading scholars of international political economy.

“If corporate elites can only tolerate one degree of difference from themselves, that has huge implications. These are the people who manage the wealth of our society.”

-Kevin L. Young

Young’s interest in the power of elites began during his undergraduate days in Ontario, when he made ends meet by pulling a rickshaw—a job that led him to confront what he saw as injustices committed toward the financially vulnerable. “People were being pushed out into the street due to a wave of really bad policies,” he says. “Issues of economics became tangibly important to me. It made the world real.”

But as Young went on to study the workings of the financial industry, he found himself becoming critical of the empirical claims made by his fellow academics and activists. “Academics studying the financial industry tend to be wrapped up in an embattled ethical position, whereby they emphasize the strength of the industry,” says Young. While he shares that ethical position, Young is not afraid to challenge perceived wisdom to uncover hidden truths.

That may mean disproving long-accepted notions, such as the number of “intellectual tribes” in his own academic discipline. Since the rise of neoliberalism in the mid–twentieth century, scholars have described two basic schools of international political economy. Young’s research identified seven schools, revealing that the picture is far more complicated. “We work in a world of plurality, but we teach our own field to graduate students as dualistic,” he says.

More recently, through a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation, Young and colleagues have launched the first comprehensive quantitative study on the “revolving door” concept, a widely accepted theory that describes the flow of personnel between government agencies and the industries that lobby them. “We know that social connection is doing something substantially important,” says Young. “But does being close to your regulator mean you lobby more or less? Is advocating more a sign of weakness, or strength?”

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