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The Diffusion of Ideas 

New ideas can bring about social, institutional and technological change, if they diffuse successfully. How do increased connections affect the generation and diffusion of ideas? Intuitively, a denser network should increase the number of novel ideas generated and augment their diffusion. I show that in the context of knowledge production in Germany in the 19th century, the railroad network increases the generation of ideas, but decreases their diffusion. This is a by-product of specialization: with the railroad, groups of scholars can focus on narrower topics, they learn more from similar groups, but become disconnected from dissimilar ones. Specialization also affects state institutions: public officials and legislators are trained with a narrower but deeper focus of expertise. The bureaucracy thus becomes more specialized, and legislation is more exhaustive. The patterns generated by spatial connections are those that define modernity and the knowledge economy: specialization, the co-location of experts, the explosion of innovation. The findings rely on the universe of bibliographic records and novel railway statistics, among other original data, as well as cutting-edge machine learning and topology to measure ideas.

The Politics of Region-Biased Technological Change

with Torben Iversen and David Soskice

The transition to the knowledge economy has been associated with a strong urban bias and rising regional inequality, which is explained by the co-location decisions of knowledge-intensive businesses and highly-educated workers. Yet, the geographical concentration of such businesses and skilled workers is far from uniform across countries. We explain this variation as a result of public policies responding to institutionally-mediated political coalitions. We show that the concentration of innovation, measured by geocoded patent applications, is closely linked to differences in political institutions. We propose a (quasi) diff-in-diff design to demonstrate that the effects of technological shocks on inequality are also linked to differences in expected coalitions.


A Wolf in Sheep's Clothes: Citizen Uncertainty & Democratic Backsliding

with Monika Nalepa and Georg Vanberg

A prominent contemporary phenomenon is “backsliding” of democratic countries into (semi-) authoritarian practices. Such episodes often unfold gradually over time in contexts where the ultimate intentions of governments are not clear. We present a model that focuses on the role of such uncertainty in backsliding. In the model, a government engages in a reform that may allow for subsequent actions that are inconsistent with the rule of law. Citizens must decide whether to replace the incumbent following the reform. Consistent with existing work, the model suggests that polarization increases democratic backsliding. More importantly, the model demonstrates that in a dynamic setting, citizens may support incumbent governments even if citizens are fundamentally opposed to authoritarianism. The less concerned citizens are about facing a potential autocrat, as in relatively well-established democracies, the more likely it is that even moderate levels of polarization can set off the process of democratic backsliding. We illustrate the model’s implications using a survey experiment in contemporary Poland.

Why Did Conservatives Fear Democracy?

with Fabio Ellger, Brian Rathbun, and Daniel Ziblatt

Canonical works in political science and economics explain the success or failure of democratic transitions and the stability of democracy with reference to the preferences of predemocratic elites. For example, classic works ranging from Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) and Boix (2003) to recent works such as Albertus and Menaldo (2018) make predictions about the relationship of economic inequality and democracy, presuming a logic that economic redistribution under conditions of high economic inequality drives elite opposition to democracy. But are political economy motives the factors that actually historically drove conservative elite opposition to democracy? We examine this question by turning to the historical record of the predemocratic German Reichstag (1871-1933). We test the political economy assumption that fear of democracy was rooted in fear of redistribution vis-à-vis an alternative argument that conservatives in historical Germany resisted democratization out of a psychologically-rooted motivated-reasoning opposition to the leveling of social hierarchies and relative social status. We conduct a series of quantitative text analyses to unravel which narratives against democratization have been predominantly used by conservative parliamentarians and how their arguments changed over time. In addition, we present further historical evidence to substantiate our proposition of conservative social identity as a major motivation to maintain the status quo – and counteract democratic power sharing. Our findings contribute to the ongoing discussion about the role of conservative elites during the emergence of liberal democracy in Western societies.


Elites' Social Networks and The Origins of State Capacity 

A key challenge for the early modern state was the integration of the periphery into the central state apparatus. Specifically, the central state faces a credible commitment problem when trying to extract resources from the periphery in exchange for protection and public good provision. In a simple model, we argue that marriage networks can make this commitment credible, by aligning the incentives of the elites in the periphery and the center. We find the process of social integration between center and periphery to be self-reinforcing. We evaluate our argument using the case of early modern Venice. We exploit an exogenous demographic shock that pushed the elites from the center to marry the elites from the periphery. Using a difference-in-differences design to compare families that were integrated into the nobility marriage networks earlier with those that were integrated later, we show that social integration is positively associated with investment in public debt. We also observe increased tax revenues from the provinces that had families integrated and more military spending and state institutions established in the integrated provinces. Our findings highlight the role of social networks in aligning the incentives of central and local elites in favor of a strong central state.

The Religious Origins of the Welfare State

with Francesca Miserocchi [Draft]

How did the modern welfare state originate, and how did its origin affect its long-term development and efficiency? The literature has mostly pointed to the strength of the labor movement or social cleavages as determinants of welfare provision. Within the Italian post-unitary context, we take a different approach by highlighting that, in its early stages, welfare was not created anew by the state, but had instead been provided for centuries - by institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church. We study the effect of the incorporation of these institutions into the state apparatus in 1890. We thus link historical welfare provision to the quality of welfare once it was under state control, by focusing on charities that were previously run by the clergy and that had to switch to private or public administration. We expect the effect of the change in administration to be positive in the regions where state institutions originated, and negative in the regions where state institutions were exported and ineffective at the local level. Using detailed historical records of Church-affiliated charities, their services and budgets, we use a difference-in-differences strategy to study the effect of state incorporation on welfare provision, health and literacy outcomes, institutional resource management and administrative change.


What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap

with William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton, Mark Paul, Alan Aja, Anne Price, Antonio Moore

Insight Center for Community Economic Development, 2018

[Report] Coverage by: [Bloomberg],[Fortune], [MSNBC],[the Atlantic]

We address ten commonly held myths about the racial wealth gap in the United States. We contend that a number of ideas frequently touted as “solutions” will not make headway in reducing black-white wealth disparities. These conventional ideas include greater educational attainment, harder work, better financial decisions, and other changes in habits and practices on the part of blacks. While these steps are not necessarily undesirable, they are wholly inadequate to bridge the racial chasm in wealth.

Malnutrition in Port Sudan, Sudan

with Giulia Chiopris

Understanding patterns in the prevalence and severity of malnutrition and recurrent childhood diseases is often difficult in low-income settings, due to the lack of reliable data. We study the entirety of hospital admissions in a pediatric hospital in Port Sudan, Sudan between February 2021 and February 2022. The analysis of 1,200 patients contributes to our understanding of the onset of malnutrition, gender and spatial differences in malnutrition and anemia, and the prevalence of genetic diseases.

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