Meet the Team: Siddharth George, Human Capital Initiative

Siddharth George, Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University, is the newest faculty member of the Human Capital Initiative at the Global Development Policy Center. The Human Capital Initiative brings together an interdisciplinary team of researchers across the Boston University community to contribute to the advancement of innovative research on the political economy of human development.

Siddharth received his BSc in Econometrics and Mathematical Economics from the London School of Economics & Political Science in 2011 and his PhD in Economics from Harvard University in 2019. He previously taught at Dartmouth College, and worked with the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Singapore and the Chief Economic Advisor of India prior to joining Boston University.

Below, Siddharth discusses his research interests in human capital and political dynasties, the impacts of COVID-19, and the policy change he would make overnight:

What drew you to the study of human capital? And what are your current research interests and work that align with the Human Capital Initiative?

I grew up in Singapore and India and became curious about why some things worked better in one place than the other. I later worked for the governments of both countries and was struck by the difference in government efficiency, despite the fact that both countries inherited the same administrative and political institutions from the British colonial era. That’s what motivated me to study development economics and specifically, the political economy of development.

People are arguably the most important resource every country has, so a key determinant of economic development is how well a country invests in its people and allocates talent within society. The project of mine that most aligns with the vision of the Human Capital Initiative examines the long-run returns to vocational education in Singapore.

Another interest is to understand how to motivate politicians to invest more in education.My hypothesis is that if politicians can be rewarded more for educational successes, if they can claim credit for educating children during their four- or five-year term in office, then they might be more willing to pay more attention and invest more political capital into improving public education.

The GDP Center is an interdisciplinary research center that encourages cooperation among researchers of different backgrounds and expertise. In your experience, what is gained from interdisciplinary research collaboration and diversity of researcher backgrounds? 

Different social scientists often ask similar questions, but with different lenses. My own work has benefitted tremendously from the insights of researchers from other disciplines. My PhD dissertation focused on how political dynasties affect economic development. I regularly presented my work to political scientists in seminars and in several political science conferences, and I found that the questions they would ask were quite different – in a healthy way – from the questions of economists. These questions pushed me to think about my project in a different way.

COVID-19 has shed light on the world’s flaws and negatively impacted efforts at human development, like access to education and health services. In your specific research field, what has been the impact of COVID-19 and what should be the next steps for policymakers?

COVID-19 has been an enormous disruption not just to work, but also to children’s education. Researchers, including BU’s own Josh Goodman, have shown children who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to falling behind while learning at home.

The pandemic has also shown many countries the importance of a good social safety net.Developing countries governments, in particular, lack both fiscal resources, as well as the ability to identify the truly poor and vulnerable. In most poor countries, 80-90 percent of the population works in the informal sector, so the government does not know who they work for, how much they earn, or whether they are unemployed. Targeting the poor and economically insecure becomes very difficult.

The pandemic has also meant that some social security programs – like employment guarantee schemes, which are a big source of social insurance in rural India, for example – are no longer possible.And governments around the world have shown much greater willingness than normal to give cash transfers to poor households and struggling businesses – and often to all households when targeting is difficult.

Together with some researchers at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Virginia, I am doing a project with an Indian state government where we deliver universal cash transfers to poor areas.The aim is to study whether these transfers not only provide social protection against individual (health or employment) shocks or aggregate shocks like the pandemic, but can also be a driver of economic growth by helping the poor and alleviating constraints (like credit) that keep them stuck.

For a long time, policymakers were skeptical about cash transfers, but there has been a lot of experimental work with large-scale cash transfer schemes over the last 20 years that show poor people make good use of the money – by improving nutrition, education, and investing in their businesses. Cash is not a solution for everything, but it is a good short-term relief instrument that politicians should be more confident about using, and increasingly are.

You recently wrote a research paper showing how dynastic rule negatively impacts local economic development. Can you expand a bit on these findings and what was unique about your research?

Political dynasties are a puzzling phenomenon. Even though many countries democratized specifically to end hereditary rule, dynasties are ubiquitous around the world – think of the Bushes, Kennedys, Sununus, Gores and Romneys in the US, and the Trudeaus, Papandreaous, Bhuttos, Yudhoyonos, Aquinos, Kirchners, Kenyattas, Gandhis, Lees and Fujimoris abroad. Nevertheless, we know little about how dynastic rule affects economic development, and this is what I try to answer in my research.

The effect of dynasties is ambiguous: on the one hand, the incentive to form dynasties makes politicians more like stationary bandits – by lengthening their time horizons and encouraging them to invest in the places they represent.These – what I call ‘founder effects’ – could well be good for local economic development, especially if the electoral cycle pushes most politicians to otherwise be myopic.

On the other hand, if the heirs of political dynasties inherit political capital and other advantages that give them an insurmountable advantage, then elections become a weak tool to hold them accountable.My paper found empirical evidence that supports both the positive founder effects and the negative descendant effects.

If you could make one policy change overnight, what would it be?

I would reform political salaries. I would substantially increase politicians’ wages, but eliminate many of the other hidden expenses, benefits and other privileges that come along with the role.

The hope is that higher wages would attract more capable and honest people to enter politics and reduce their incentives to steal.Of course, it is possible that this could draw in people who are not public-spirited and are mostly interested in money – but I would argue that this is already the case in most countries. It’s just that the current incentive structure attracts people who are comfortable making little over the table money and lots of less visible money. The point is that pay shouldn’t be the reason why people enter politics, but it also shouldn’t be the reason people don’t enter politics.

What advice would you give to others interested in human development?

Asking how you can make a difference in the world is a bit like asking how your human capital is best deployed. That is, where would your human capital – your networks, knowledge, talents and other opportunities – be most likely to accomplish some social good that wouldn’t otherwise happen if you didn’t do it? For most people that isn’t a straightforward question to answer, not just because it’s often not clear to us what our passions and interests are, but also because it’s hard to think of a setting where we are marginal – i.e., where something wouldn’t get done if you didn’t do it.

But there are settings where you are more likely to be marginal than others. Working on problems that are comparatively neglected means that you are more likely to make a difference. It’s also the case that, paradoxically, you might be least marginal in the most prestigious settings and organizations. Even if these organizations are very effective in contributing to the social good, they can often attract people almost as good as you if you turned them down and went elsewhere. In a funny way, you might be most marginal in the most dysfunctional places – where there’s lots of low-hanging fruit lying around that wouldn’t be picked otherwise.

A website that has helped me sift through these issues is 80,000 Hours, which turns out to be the approximate length of a person’s working life. The website guides us in thinking through how can we best use our 80,000 hours. I encourage you to check it out!

What is your best advice for organizing and undertaking a research project, particularly in the COVID-19 era, where researchers may be unable to travel or access archives?

COVID-19 makes certain research projects harder to do, but it also creates unique opportunities. My advice is to keep your eyes open for those opportunities. For instance, the pandemic provided some impetus for my universal basic income project and also made possible another project studying the relative efficacy of governance by elected officials versus appointed administrators.

What book, podcast, film, TV show, activity are you enjoying right now? 

I’m enjoying the TV series “The Good Place”, which is a parody about the afterlife. I’m also reading a few books:

“The Annihilation of Caste” – a speech by chief architect of India’s constitution that was never delivered, because the conference organizers who invited were so scandalized by his ideas about reforming the caste system.

“Success and Luck” by Robert Frank argues that people systematically neglect the important role luck places in their success, but tend to blame external factors for their failures. This may give rise to elites in society thinking they have earned their place, while the poor deserve their lot and cause the poor to feel resentment against elites who they feel got lucky.

“Corruption” by my colleague Ray Fisman and Miriam Golden is a whirlwind tour of research on corruption, its causes and how to reduce it.

“The Road to Character” by New York Times columnist David Brooks discusses the distinction between resume virtues (the things we show off on our CVs) and eulogy virtues (what people will say about us when we die). He argues most people think eulogy virtues are more important, but spend their lives hankering after resume virtues.


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