Dave Donaldson of Railroads of the Raj

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Dave Donaldson whose job market paper was a very interesting paper titled “Railroads of the Raj: Estimating the Impact of Transportation Infrastructure” won 2017 John Clark Bates medal given “to that American economist under the age of forty who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.” The winner only has to be working in the US- citizenship is not a criteria.

The link to the citation is here: https://www.aeaweb.org/about-aea/honors-awards/bates-clark/david-donaldson

The abstract for the Railroads of the Raj NBER Working paper is as follows:

“How large are the benefits of transportation infrastructure projects, and what explains these benefits? To shed new light on these questions, this paper uses archival data from colonial India to investigate the impact of India’s vast railroad network. Guided by four predictions from a general equilibrium trade model, I find that railroads: (1) decreased trade costs and interregional price gaps; (2) increased interregional and international trade; (3) increased real income levels; and (4), that a sufficient statistic for the effect of railroads on welfare in the model (an effect that is purely due to newly exploited gains from trade) accounts for virtually all of the observed reduced-form impact of railroads on real income in the data. I find no spurious effects from over 40,000 km of lines that were approved but – for four different reasons – were never built.”

Papers on Evaluating Policy Interventions

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  1. Building State Capacity: Evidence from Biometric Smartcards in India by Karthik Muralidharan, Paul Niehaus, and Sandip Sukhtankar

    Abstract

    Antipoverty programs in developing countries are often difficult to implement; in particular, many governments lack the capacity to deliver payments securely to targeted beneficiaries. We evaluate the impact of biometrically authenticated payments infrastructure (“Smartcards”) on beneficiaries of employment (NREGS) and pension (SSP) programs in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, using a large-scale experiment that randomized the rollout of Smartcards over 157 subdistricts and 19 million people. We find that, while incompletely implemented, the new system delivered a faster, more predictable, and less corrupt NREGS payments process without adversely affecting program access. For each of these outcomes, treatment group distributions first-order stochastically dominated those of the control group. The investment was cost-effective, as time savings to NREGS beneficiaries alone were equal to the cost of the intervention, and there was also a significant reduction in the “leakage” of funds between the government and beneficiaries in both NREGS and SSP programs. Beneficiaries overwhelmingly preferred the new system for both programs. Overall, our results suggest that investing in secure payments infrastructure can significantly enhance ‘state capacity’ to implement welfare programs in developing countries.

  2. Curbing Leakage In Public Programs With Direct Benefit Transfers: Evidence From India’s Fuel Subsidies And Black Markets by Prabhat Barnwal
Abstract:

Pervasive corruption and evasion often undermine the provision of public programs. I focus on a large in-kind subsidy program in India that provides fuel subsidies to households for do- mestic cooking. This subsidy to households, when combined with taxes on commercial usage of the same fuel, gives rise to a black market. In this setting, fictitious “ghost” beneficiaries are often used to divert the subsidized fuel from beneficiary households to the commercial sector. This paper studies the impact of a major policy change in welfare administration, which enabled direct transfers to the bank accounts of verified beneficiaries. I use unique data from admin- istrative records for 23 million fuel purchase transactions and distributor-level fuel sales, and conduct a survey that allows me to infer black market prices. My empirical strategy exploits two quasi-experiments: (a) the phase-wise policy roll-out across districts, and (b) its unexpected termination. I find that directly transferring subsidies to households’ bank account significantly reduced domestic cooking fuel purchases, suggesting a reduction in subsidy diversion via “ghost” beneficiaries to the commercial sector. Once the policy is terminated, black market prices went down drastically, that indicates policy-termination led to a positive supply shock in the black market with increased supply of diverted subsidized fuel. Finally, in response to the lower black market prices, commercial firms reduced fuel purchases through formal channels and re-entered the black market for fuel. In sum, this paper illustrates that investment in enforcement capacity can significantly strengthen the state’s ability to target program beneficiaries and reduce leakage.

 

India’s Bailout for Rural Households

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What Does Debt Relief Do for Development? Evidence from India’s Bailout for Rural Households

Abstract:

This paper studies the impact of debt relief, using a natural experiment arising from India’s “Agricultural Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme,” one of the largest household-level debt relief initiatives in history. I find that debt relief has a substantial impact on household balance sheets, but does not affect savings, consumption and investment, as predicted by theories of debt overhang or balance sheet distress. Instead, debt relief leads to greater reliance on informal credit, reduced investment, and lower agricultural productivity. Consistent with moral hazard generated by the bailout, beneficiaries are significantly less concerned about the reputational consequences of future default.

General Equilibrium Effects of NREGA

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An interesting paper on the general equilibrium effects of NREGA! Looks like by influencing the outside option for rural workers, the NREGA improved their earnings in the private sector.

Abstract:

Public employment programs play a major role in the anti-poverty strategy of many devel- oping countries. Besides the direct wages provided to the poor, such programs are likely to affect their welfare by changing broader labor market outcomes including wages and private employment. These general equilibrium effects may accentuate or attenuate the direct benefits of the program, but have been difficult to estimate credibly. We estimate the general equi- librium effects of a technological reform that improved the implementation quality of Indias public employment scheme on the earnings of the rural poor, using a large-scale experiment which randomized treatment across sub-districts of 60,000 people. We find that this reform had a large impact on the earnings of low-income households, and that these gains were over- whelmingly driven by higher private-sector earnings (90%) as opposed to earnings directly from the program (10%). These earnings gains reflect a 5.7% increase in market wages for rural unskilled labor, and a similar increase in reservation wages. We do not find evidence of distor- tions in factor allocation, including labor supply, migration, and land use. Our results highlight the importance of accounting for general equilibrium effects in evaluating programs, and also illustrate the feasibility of using large-scale experiments to study such effects.

You can find the paper here: http://econweb.ucsd.edu/~pniehaus/papers/GE.pdf

 

So have reservations helped?

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In case you missed, The Hindu got a whiff of an article from American Economic Review about the effectiveness of affirmative action in India and the American Economics Association (AEA) got a whiff about this in return:

Here is the link to the original news feature from AEA web-portal that links the article in The Hindu as well as the original research article: https://www.aeaweb.org/news/the-hindu-june-8-2016

In case you are curious: reservations do seem to work in terms of providing access to education opportunities to the disadvantaged castes students and women. But there is more to it than just that:

Despite the presence of a beneficial affirmative action program, we find large gaps in pre-college preparation, college participation, and college academic performance between the most disadvantaged castes and their more advantaged counterparts. The gaps in participation rates are magnified for women, especially for women from the
most disadvantaged castes. Our work also indicates why affirmative action policies generate debate; we find that improved educational outcomes for targeted students come at a cost to those who do not receive preferential treatment.

So Raghuram Rajan decides to go!

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So finally what I feared about RBI Governor’s term renewal has come true! Raghuram Rajan put all the speculation about his second term to rest through a letter to his colleagues in the RBI announcing his return to academia at the end of his term. Here is the link to his letter. What stands out of all in the letter is the following statement clearly indicating the role of the government in his exit:

While I was open to seeing these developments through, on due reflection, and after consultation with the government, I want to share with you that I will be returning to academia when my term as Governor ends on September 4, 2016.  I will, of course, always be available to serve my country when needed.

It is really unfortunate that Rajan will not be continuing as he brought about a lot of positive changes in the financial system, contained inflation, established a new monetary policy framework and took firm stand on issues often ruffling feathers of the Modi government. Hopefully, the new RBI governor will continue many of the reforms he initiated. The academic world should be happy as he continues contributing brilliant research papers in future.

Economics of Affirmative Action!

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Looks like affirmative action in higher education in India does work in reducing inequities in access to higher education. However, as suspected it does so at the cost of having less number of open category students being admitted. Clearly the solution lies in the problem- increase the number of higher education institutions. But we have experienced a continuous decline in planned allocation spending on university and higher education over the subsequent five year plans.

Here is the link to the article from AER: https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.20140783

and to the article in the Hindu that is based partially on the above article: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article8701809.ece

 

Debating MNREGA!

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In an article in support of Mr. Modi’s decision to limit MNREGA to only 200 poorest districts, Bhagwati and Panagariya  argue the following:

To appreciate fully how inefficient NREGA is at transferring income to the poor, consider the following. Existing data show that on average 30% of NREGA expenditures are incurred on materials and 70% on wages. Assuming daily NREGA wage to be Rs 130, this requires an expenditure of Rs 186 to employ one worker per day.

But not all Rs 130 in wages amount to transfer. When accepting NREGA employment, the worker forgoes the opportunity to work elsewhere. Even assuming daily market wage to be a low Rs 80, net transfer under NREGA is only Rs 50. So we spend a solid Rs 186 to transfer a mere Rs 50.

Even though the opportunity cost argument might sound logical prima facie it may not hold much water when confronted with reality. In absence of productive work, the opportunity cost for the rural labor could be in fact zero. In that case the transfer is the total Rs. 130. So it really boils down to the number one chooses or the wage rate and probability of finding work the actual worker faces!

Secondly, as argued by Kotwal and Sen, the wage rate offered by MNREGA may have served as a reference rate for determining the market wage rate as demanders and suppliers of agricultural labor internalize this opportunity cost. So most likely, the opportunity cost logic works from MNREGA to the market for agricultural labor and not other way round. Dili Abreu et. al provide a more balanced critic of MGNREGA that is worth reading in this context.

Are firms in India credit constrained?

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Do Firms Want to Borrow More? Testing Credit Constraints Using a Directed Lending Program

Abstract

This article uses variation in access to a targeted lending program to estimate whether firms are credit constrained. While both constrained and unconstrained firms may be willing to absorb all the directed credit that they can get (because it may be cheaper than other sources of credit), constrained firms will use it to expand production, while unconstrained firms will primarily use it as a substitute for other borrowing. We apply these observations to firms in India that became eligible for directed credit as a result of a policy change in 1998, and lost eligibility as a result of the reversal of this reform in 2000, and to smaller firms that were already eligible for the preferential credit before 1998 and remained eligible in 2000. Comparing the trends in the sales and the profits of these two groups of firms, we show that there is no evidence that directed credit is being used as a substitute for other forms of credit. Instead, the credit was used to finance more production–there was a large acceleration in the rate of growth of sales and profits for these firms in 1998, and a corresponding decline in 2000. There was no change in trends around either date for the small firms. We conclude that many of the firms must have been severely credit constrained, and that the marginal rate of return to capital was very high for these firms.

Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, The Review of Economic Studies 2014 81: 572-607.