Conference Recap: PacDev 2016

I had the pleasure of driving down to rainy Stanford for PacDev last weekend. Aside from the obviously-most-important benefit of having fondue for dinner at my parents' house, I got to present my ongoing work with Louis. Our paper, on the effects of electrification on economic development in India, is finally almost ready to see the light of day (for real this time, we swear!) - there will of course be an announcement on this blog when that happens. But enough about me. I also got to see a bunch of interesting new papers in a diverse range of subsets of development economics, and I'm pretty excited about them. A few highlights:

  • I went to an (early) morning session on taxes, which I know almost nothing about, and really enjoyed all four papers I saw: Anne Brockmeyer's on third-party information and withholding decisions in Costa Rica; Spencer Smith's on some cool experimental evidence on information (also in Costa Rica); Jose Tessada's on regulations about firm gender ratios and capital substitution; and the always-excellent (follow her on Twitter!) Dina Pomeranz's on multinational corporations and tax havens.
  • Yong Suk Lee (previously a professor at Williams!) has an interesting new paper looking at the effect of sanctions in North Korea on economic activity. He shows that the sanctions and subsequent shifts in international trading partners led to changes in the locational composition of economic activity, as proxied by nighttime lights. While I'm always wary of the use of nightlights to proxy for sub-national GDP, this paper deals with these issues nicely, making within-country comparisons between regions and talking about relative concentration and identification. Plus, we have so little to go on with North Korea. Cool stuff.
  • I also went to two political economy sessions - like economic history, political economy often has some of my favorite papers of conferences like this. I particularly enjoyed listening to my old boss, Saumitra Jha, talk about an amazing experiment in which giving Israelis stocks led them to be more willing to vote for peace-promoting government, and hearing Kweku Opoku-Agyemang (a Berkeley post-doc), talk about the effects of raising police salaries on bribery.

All in all, a great conference. Hopefully I'll get to go back next year!

If you read all the way down here, here's a reward. Amazing. h/t Josh

Conference recap: IGC's Energy and Growth

Last week, I was lucky to have been invited to the IGC’s first annual (we hope!) Energy and Growth conference in London. Organized by heavy-hitter energy economists Michael Greenstone and Nick Ryan, this cool conference brought together economists who work on energy and development with policymakers from a range of international organizations and governments. The IGC seems to have facilitated many useful collaborations between researchers and the ``real world,’’ and this was an interesting venue to highlight some of that work (and some other work as well). A few highlights:

  • Not to plug my advisor again, but I can’t help it: Catherine’s work with Ted Miguel and Ken Lee (fellow ARE PhD student) on an RCT they’re conducting in Kenya might have been the hit of the conference. First, they noticed that a large number of households were “under-grid”, or had electricity infrastructure nearby, but not in, their homes. This is an example of the last mile (last centimeter?) problem. They’ve randomly assigned subsidies for grid connections to households in rural villages, and have varied the subsidy level across villages, letting them estimate a demand curve for electrification among these households. They also have cost information from the Kenyan Rural Electrification Authority, so that they can estimate a supply curve as well. The surprising punchline? The supply curve sits above the demand curve basically everywhere: households aren’t interested in taking up connections at the cost at which the Kenyan government can provide them. Also some cool stuff about credit constraints. I’d be interested in learning more about what’s driving this effect: is it concerns about reliability? Lack of information about the power of electricity (eheheh)? Something else? They’re also conducting a follow-up survey which will let them understand the effects of electrification in these regions, which will also hopefully shed some light on what’s going on here. Fascinating stuff.
  • Kelsey Jack has some really cool new work with Grant Smith (PhD student at UCT – one of my favorite places) on the consequences of pre-paid electricity metering in Cape Town, also using an RCT. When these meters are installed, some households do reduce their energy consumption – but many also dramatically increase their electricity-related transactions costs, by going to the shop to fill their meters multiple times a week. It turns out that pre-paid meters don’t substantially reduce consumption of the households that are being subsidized, and do reduce consumption among the subsidizers, so they don’t seem to be an effective tactic for additional revenue recovery, either. Again, lots more to be learned about pre-paid metering. I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to expand their study area as well.

·      Koichiro Ito has new work looking at willingness to pay for air quality in China, exploiting the Huai River discontinuity. While I’ve always been highly skeptical of a certain previous paper using this result (sorry, MG), this one is definitely more convincing, in particular because it measures PM10 which is a fairly local pollutant, because it includes longitude controls, and, most importantly, because the effect is only visible in the winter. Combining this with scanner data on retail outlet purchases of air purifiers, Koichiro is able to give us what’s probably a lower bound on the Chinese WTP for air quality (and in turn, quite a low VSL – though not so low as Kremer et al found using clean water in Kenya). I want to see more about getting from this number to an implied VSL, and the discount rates or lack of information that would have to be required to rationalize a VSL closer to the one we use in the US, but that should be doable in a fairly simple back-of-the-envelope calculation. Neat!

  • Rohini Pande made some insightful comments as part of a panel discussion about the importance of government oversight and regulatory strength in keeping local and global pollutants managed in the context of growing energy demand in the developing world. It sounds like she’s also got some interesting new work about the placement of energy infrastructure: should it be near people (ala China) or near coal (ala India)? These have vastly different distributional consequences, which we know from some of her earlier work (“Dams” with Esther Duflo) can be very important. Looking forward to seeing what she does. One of my favorite researchers.

Lots of other interesting work was also presented (check the program for some details); I’m inspired to do more work in this area. There are obviously a number of smart people working in this space – but luckily it’s a vast and important research space, so hopefully there’s room for another grad student or two.


Stay tuned to this blog for the next few weeks for a couple of exciting announcements about upcoming work and new results! 

Occasional Workshop Recap 2015

The Occasional Workshop in Environmental and Resource Economics is one of my favorite conferences. No, not only because it's in beautiful Santa Barbara and we got to stick our feet in the warm Southern California ocean on our way back home! This year, there were a few "long" presentations (20' each, with a 10' discussant slot), but most of the papers were "short" presentations - 8' each, with a couple of minutes for questions afterwards. There are no parallel sessions - everyone sees everything - and 8' is a great way to get a quick introduction to a topic. We see only a very limited part of the environmental economics spectrum at Berkeley, for better or for worse, and so getting to see papers on land use and endangered species and fish is really fun. I was also lucky enough to get to present some of my ongoing work on rural electrification in India, and managed to cut Louis' 60-minute, 75-slide presentation of our paper from Berkeley's development lunch earlier in the week down to an 8-minute, 20-slide presentation (which actually fit into 8', in an homage to Meredith's speaking speed). 

A couple of my favorite presentations (the full list can be found here):

  • Robyn Meeks' "Economics of a Light Bulb: Experimental Evidence on CFLs and End-User Behavior" - a cool thought experiment (plus RCT!) on technology adoption in the face of learning and technical externalities
  • The always-excellent Sol Hsiang's "A Global Experiment in Black Market Dynamics: The Effect of Legal Ivory Sales on Illegal Ivory Production" - allowing legal sales of ivory is disastrous for elephant poaching
  • Amanda Faig's "The Economic Gains to Accounting for Fisheries Induced Evolution" - I'm not a fishery person at all, but this was a really cool look at how fishery managers can induce fish evolution - and how, if they don't account for this, they're much worse off
  • Jeff Shrader's "Estimating Adaptation Using Forecasts" - thinking about how to estimate adaptation in a context with skilled forecasters. Application to ENSO (a rash of cool papers using ENSO makes me want to write a paper using ENSO...does that make me a bandwagon researcher?)
  • Corbett Grainger's "Strategic Placement of Ambient Pollution Monitors: How Local Regulators Comply with Federal Rules" - turns out EPA air pollution monitors might not be optimally placed from a social planner's perspective. Cool.

I'm excited about the future of environmental and resource economics!

Obligatory beach photo courtesy of  Becca  (who also gave a great presentation at the Occasional  and  made amazing cookie road trip snacks).

Obligatory beach photo courtesy of Becca (who also gave a great presentation at the Occasional and made amazing cookie road trip snacks).

Finally, two more items of note:

1) T-one week until the wedding!

2) This might be my new favorite energy phenomenon: British grids need to supply additional power during commercial breaks in popular TV shows - because everybody uses them to plug in electric kettles, causing a demand spike. Offfffff course they do.