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AEA Research Highlights
15 minutes | Jul 25, 2022
Ep. 53: Grade inflation and graduation
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the share of students leaving college with a degree steadily declined. But according to a paper in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, the trend since then has taken a turn for the better. Authors Jeffrey T. Denning, Eric R. Eide, Kevin J. Mumford, Richard W. Patterson, and Merrill Warnick documented a large increase in graduation rates over the last three decades. By digging into the records of nine large public universities, a public liberal arts college, and a nationally representative survey, the researchers concluded that grade inflation is the most likely driver, ruling out explanations such as better student preparation. Denning says that more research is needed to determine whether this grade inflation is beneficial on the whole. But it should be something that school administrators consider when making decisions about grading standards. Denning recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the impact of grade inflation on college completion rates and the upsides it has as a policy tool.
13 minutes | Jun 27, 2022
Ep. 52: Just what the doctor ordered?
In the 1990s, drug manufacturers began marketing their products directly to consumers. Since then, prescription drug advertising has become a multibillion dollar industry, and some have worried that it might be getting between patients and what their doctors think is in their best interest. But in a paper in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, author Bradley T. Shapiro found that advertising antidepressants on television led to significant improvements in indicators of depression. He says that the gains from decreasing workplace absenteeism far outweigh the costs associated with higher antidepressant sales. Shapiro recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the challenges of estimating the impact of advertising on consumers and how direct-to-consumer advertising of antidepressants can improve mental health.
18 minutes | May 31, 2022
Ep. 51: The returns to an economics degree
Publicly available statistics on career earnings show that an economics degree pays far more on the job market than degrees in other social sciences. But it’s not clear that those higher salaries reveal the true returns to studying the dismal science. In a paper in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, authors Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Mehta identify the causal effects of choosing one major over another by analyzing the outcomes of a policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that prevented students with low grades in introductory economics courses from declaring an economics major. They found that studying economics boosted annual early-career wages by $22,000 compared to students' second-choice majors—a return roughly as large as enrolling in college in the first place. Bleemer says that returns to a major can vary significantly from student to student and college to college. But the results highlight the importance of carefully evaluating information about career earnings when choosing a field of study. He recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the earnings premium of an economics degree and the downsides of major restriction policies at universities.
19 minutes | May 2, 2022
Ep. 50: Comparing 911 responses
Black Lives Matter protests have put a spotlight on police abuses since 2014, but it has been challenging for researchers to assess the impact of race from the available data. In a paper in the American Economic Review, authors Mark Hoekstra and CarlyWill Sloan found that White officers use force more frequently than Black officers, especially in Black neighborhoods. Sloan says that their work is a step toward showing that some police departments may have systemic race problems rather than just a few high-profile, one-off incidents. She recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the challenges of studying officer–civilian interactions and the lessons her work might have for US police departments.
19 minutes | Apr 4, 2022
Ep. 49: The great reset?
The COVID-19 pandemic has already significantly widened wealth and income disparities around the world. Poorer populations suffered higher rates of infection, and workers in low paying jobs were the most impacted by widespread shutdowns. But not all pandemics have had the same effect. In a paper in the Journal of Economic Literature, author Guido Alfani looks at the history of pandemics stretching back to the medieval Black Death to examine how factors like mortality rates and the response by wealthy elites affected gaps between the rich and poor. Alfani says that the lessons from previous pandemics like cholera in the 19th century offer hope for how public policy responses can actually have a meaningful impact on reducing inequality over the long run. Alfani spoke with Chris Fleisher about how the history of global pandemics can help inform responses to COVID-19 and efforts to address the root causes of poverty. Music in the audio by Podington Bear.
25 minutes | Mar 16, 2022
Ep. 48: Reframing development in Africa
The past weighs on every country, and nowhere is that more true than in Africa. The continent’s legacy of slavery, colonialism, and division has stood in the way of Africa’s struggle for stability and economic progress. But in a paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, authors Nathan Canen and Leonard Wantchekon argue that economists must primarily consider the impact of modern-day policy choices to fully understand long-term growth in Africa. They say that political distortions—situations where special interest groups are able to direct economic development toward their own ends rather than toward improving general welfare—play an underappreciated role in Africa’s development. Approaching the continent’s economic growth through that lens may lead to more insights about how to create institutions that give average citizens a leg up on special interest groups. Canen and Wantchekon recently spoke with Tyler Smith about how state capture is holding back economic progress in Africa and what to do about it.
20 minutes | Mar 2, 2022
Ep. 47: Moving on up?
In the first half of the twentieth century, four million African Americans left the Jim Crow South to create new lives for themselves. They moved to cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago in what came to be known as “the Great Migration.” And indeed, they did improve their economic standing, with some families doubling their earnings. But opportunities to move up the ladder would dwindle for the generations that followed. In a paper in the American Economic Review, Ellora Derenoncourt shows that the way northern cities responded to the migration dampened the earnings potential for African Americans living in those locations today. She says the findings offer insights into how some policies that encourage families to move to opportunity, such as voucher programs, ignore more fundamental questions about the elements that make neighborhoods thrive. Derenoncourt spoke with Chris Fleisher about her research, the mechanisms that reduced earnings potential for Black residents in some northern cities, and the implications for programs aimed at moving low-income and minority families to opportunity.
22 minutes | Feb 16, 2022
Ep. 46: Money well spent
The United States has dramatically increased its funding for public schools over the last four decades. Real per-pupil expenditures have nearly doubled since 1980. In a paper in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, author Jason Baron found that when school budgets increased in Wisconsin, how that money got allocated made a big difference into student outcomes. Baron says that additional spending on operations, such as teacher salaries and support services, positively affected test scores, dropout rates, and postsecondary enrollment. But extra capital expenditures on new buildings and renovations had little impact. He spoke with Tyler Smith about why different types of school funding matter and how school budgets may continue to evolve.
18 minutes | Feb 2, 2022
Ep. 45: Immigration politics
Nine in ten Republicans say increasing border security is important, and immigration remains a salient issue with voters entering the 2022 midterm elections. But it’s not just general opposition to immigrants that registers with voters. The skills immigrants bring shape how US voters view them. In a paper in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, authors Anna Maria Mayda, Giovanni Peri, and Walter Steingress investigate how Republican vote share changed with an influx of differently skilled workers. They say that Republicans lost votes in places where the immigrants were highly skilled, for example, in fields like health care or IT, while gaining vote share where there was an influx of low-skilled foreign workers. Additionally, they find that if overall immigration—including all skill levels—had been cut in half in certain states between 1990 and 2016, it would have swung the 2016 election for Democrats. Mayda spoke with Chris Fleisher recently about how immigrant skill level shapes public perceptions, the extent to which this affected Republican support, and the implications for how immigration is talked about by policymakers and covered in the media.
22 minutes | Jan 19, 2022
Ep. 44: Inverted outcomes resulting from the Electoral College system
Only four times in US presidential history has the candidate with fewer popular votes won the election. Two of those occurred recently in 2000 and 2016, leading to calls to reform the system. Far from being a fluke, this peculiar outcome of the US Electoral College has a high probability in close races, according to a paper in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Authors Michael Geruso, Dean Spears, and Ishaana Talesara say that regardless of changes in demographics and institutions, the odds of so-called inverted elections in close races has been about the same over the last 200 years. Geruso says that while Republicans benefit today from the chance of an inverted election, it hasn’t always been that way. He recently spoke with Tyler Smith about why the Electoral College causes inversions and what he thinks about moving to a national popular vote.
21 minutes | Jan 5, 2022
Inoculating adolescents, protecting the public
This is a rebroadcast of a conversation that Chris Fleisher had with University of Georgia professor Emily Lawler back in 2019 about her research on vaccine mandates for adolescents.
15 minutes | Dec 22, 2021
Ep. 43: The long-run benefits of public preschool
Head Start was launched nearly sixty years ago as part of the United States’ War on Poverty. Since then, it has helped prepare millions of kids for first grade. The architects of the program hoped that putting disadvantaged children on more equal footing with their better-off peers would set them up for future success. But the long-run impacts are only now becoming clear. In a paper in the American Economic Review, authors Martha J. Bailey, Shuqiao Sun, and Brenden Timpe found that Head Start significantly boosted educational attainment and economic self-sufficiency later in life. The returns were so great that the program more than paid for itself. Bailey says their findings offer important insights into evaluating large-scale social programs, especially those that invest in people while they are young. She recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the long-term effects of Head Start and its lessons for early childhood intervention programs.
26 minutes | Dec 8, 2021
Ep. 42: Reimagining public safety research
The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a national conversation around police reform, with proposals ranging from reallocating resources to outright abolition of local departments. Economists could help inform these discussions. But critics say existing economic research falls short of understanding the true impacts of policing on communities. In a paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Yale sociologist Monica C. Bell offers proposals for how economists can deepen their understanding of policing and public safety. She says a good first step is to separate those two concepts. Bell recently spoke with Chris Fleisher about how focusing on crime limits our understanding of the way policing shapes communities, why more research is needed on community-based safety programs, and how qualitative approaches can inform research based on big data.
21 minutes | Nov 24, 2021
Ep. 41: Divergences in life expectancy across US states
With advances in modern medicine, US life expectancy steadily improved over the second half of the 20th century. But that progress masked a growing gap in mortality between poorer and richer states that started in the 1980s. The exact reasons for this divergence are still unknown, but a paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives helps rule out some possibilities and provides guidance about where to look next. Authors Benjamin K. Couillard, Christopher L. Foote, Kavish Gandhi, Ellen Meara, and Jonathan Skinner say that two types of explanations stand out. On the one hand, previous research has found numerous ways that state institutions and policies have affected health outcomes. And on the other hand, there are reasons to believe that behavior and culture also contribute to mortality differences. Disentangling these two strands may be a significant challenge for future research, according to the authors.Meara, who is Professor of Health Economics and Policy at Harvard, and Foote, who is Senior Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, recently spoke with Tyler Smith about rising geographic disparities in US mortality.The edited highlights of that conversation are below, and the full interview can be heard using the podcast player. [Note: The views expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve System or the Boston Fed.]
26 minutes | Nov 10, 2021
Ep. 40: The recovery of Southern wealth after the Civil War
The American Civil War and emancipation ended chattel slavery, and as a result, substantially reduced the fortunes of slaveholding households in the years immediately following the war. In a paper in the American Economic Review, authors Philipp Ager, Leah Boustan, and Katherine Eriksson find that many White former slave-owning households rebuilt much of their lost wealth in just one generation, and within two generations, most had recovered entirely. According to the authors, this rapid recovery was made possible by non-material advantages, such as social networks and political connections, which persisted in spite of the large loss of wealth. The research challenges common narratives around the South’s recovery from the Civil War by documenting the persistence of much of the wealth created from chattel slavery. Boustan recently spoke with Chris Fleisher about how she and her coauthors approached their research and what their findings say about wealth and inequality.
20 minutes | Oct 27, 2021
Ep. 39: Deterring crime with DNA databases
DNA databases have become essential for solving crimes with few to no leads. But their benefits extend beyond finding suspects. They provide a powerful tool for preventing crimes from happening in the first place, according to a paper in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Authors Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer L. Doleac, and Rasmus Landersø found that the expansion of DNA databases in Denmark led to a sharp reduction in recidivism. While some citizens worry about potential abuse of this surveillance tool, the effectiveness of registering offenders in DNA databases stands out compared to traditional policing measures. Professor Doleac recently spoke with Tyler Smith about how DNA registration deters crime and how policymakers should weigh the tradeoff between privacy and effective policing measures.
24 minutes | Oct 13, 2021
Ep. 38: Growth by proximity
Austin was a laid-back college town in the 1980s when a student at the University of Texas named Michael Dell began selling computers from his dorm room. At the time, Texas’s capital city was perhaps known more for high hats than high-tech. But the company Dell started would become the world’s largest PC maker and attracted a slew of talent that turned Austin into a technology hub. Enrico Moretti has studied how these “agglomeration economies” develop and the ways they drive growth. In a paper in the American Economic Review, he says that inventors produce more patented research when surrounded by other top talent in their field. He also says that tech clusters will continue to thrive after the pandemic, despite speculation that they will be less relevant in a world of more remote work. Moretti spoke with Chris Fleisher about agglomeration and what the case study of Kodak in Rochester, New York, can tell us about how clusters affect innovation.
22 minutes | Sep 29, 2021
Ep. 37: Going from gasoline to electric
Countries around the world are contemplating aggressive plans to curb CO₂ emissions in the coming decades. Many see the electrification of the transportation sector as the first step, but in a paper in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, economist Stephen P. Holland warns against using simple bans on the sale of gasoline vehicles to achieve that goal. Holland and coauthors Erin T. Mansur and Andrew J. Yates analyzed a range of policies to encourage the transition from gas powered vehicles to electric vehicles and found that governments may have little control over when that switch happens. Their work shows how policymakers can incentivize manufacturers to ramp down production of gas cars while avoiding too much damage to the overall economy. Professor Holland recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the dangers of banning gasoline vehicles and how best to transition to electric cars.
23 minutes | Sep 15, 2021
Ep. 36: Demagoguery on the airwaves
Right-wing radio has served as a megaphone for populist outrage in America. Talk-show hosts like Alex Jones and the late Rush Limbaugh have railed against cultural elites, promoted baseless claims of election fraud, stoked a backlash against immigrants, and questioned the effectiveness of masks and vaccinations amid the Covid-19 pandemic. How and to what extent do these charismatic radio personalities influence public opinion? In the American Economic Review, author Tianyi Wang goes back to the 1930s to help answer this question by examining the impact of the religious firebrand Father Charles Coughlin. Known as the “Father of Hate Radio,” Father Coughlin had a devoted following of tens of millions of listeners across the United States, who tuned in to hear him thunder against the evils of Communism, Wall Street bankers, and America’s involvement in World War II. Wang found that Coughlin’s program resonated profoundly with listeners, persuading more than a quarter of them to vote against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. Wang spoke with Chris Fleisher about Coughlin’s history as a populist media figure during the Great Depression, his influence over US public opinion, and the insights for today’s fragmented media. *Theme music in the podcast is from Podington Bear and the Father Charles Coughlin clip is from OldTimeRadioDownloads.com.
22 minutes | Sep 1, 2021
Ep. 35: Work and childcare during the pandemic
COVID-19 has reshaped work in numerous ways. Many fortunate white-collar Americans spent the last year working from home. Others in service-oriented jobs lost work or spent their workdays behind masks and plexiglass. These pandemic-related changes have been especially hard on women, according to a paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Economists Stefania Albanesi and Jiyeon Kim found that unlike in previous business cycles, employment losses during this recession have been larger for women than for men. They argue that gender differences in occupations and in childcare responsibilities are the main drivers. The authors’ findings highlight the impact that childcare policies may have on the career prospects of women, as well as on the overall economy. Professor Albanesi recently spoke with Tyler Smith about why the COVID-19 recession poses unique challenges and what policymakers can do to help. *Theme music by Podington Bear
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