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If the United States seems like a morass of unknowns when it comes to economic policymaking these days, consider this: This year kicked off with more uncertainty over the direction of economic policy worldwide than there has been in at least two decades.

This insight comes from the Global Economic Uncertainty Index, a monthly measure based on local news coverage of economic policymaking in 18 countries representing 95 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. It is the brainchild of Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor and SIEPR senior fellow, and researchers from Northwestern and the University of Chicago.

Few people understand the high costs of medical services in the United States better than David Chan, a practicing physician and Stanford economist specializing in health care. But even Chan isn’t immune from sticker shock at the doctor’s office.

On a recent visit to his doctor, Chan underwent a routine test for seasonal allergies. He figured it would cost about $500. The actual charge was closer to $5,000. To Chan, a SIEPR faculty fellow and assistant professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, the experience illustrates what’s hobbling U.S. health care.

For 35 years, Marcel Fafchamps has studied poverty in developing countries. He’s seen one proposal after another for helping the poor come into vogue, vanish and reappear — again and again.

The problem, says Fafchamps, is that one-size-fits-all solutions to poverty in the developing world tend to be driven from the top-down. They lack a deep understanding of life in poverty, and an awareness of the unique cultural norms and unwritten rules that guide how individual groups of villagers interact with each other — and the outside world.

Many people dread dealing with health insurance. Choosing the right plan, navigating benefits and understanding premiums, copays and deductibles can leave you frustrated and confused. Even in economic research, health insurance markets pose some of the most challenging questions.

But Maria Polyakova, a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research, is motivated to find the answers.

Intrigued by the shifting dynamics of the industry and inspired partly by her own experience of finding health care coverage during graduate school, Polyakova has joined a small group of health economists who are at the forefront of examining the increasing complexities surrounding the provision of medical insurance.

“Illegal alien” or “undocumented worker?” Mere words, yes. But their connotations are so ideologically loaded that economist Matthew Gentzkow sees a window to understanding: when combined with today’s data-analysis technologies, the use of one phrase over the other reveals a great deal about right- or left-leaning biases. Developing meaningful methods to quantify weighty words is one of the innovative specialties that Gentzkow has honed to explore the economics of the media industry — the extent of political slant, the impact of media on politics and society, and vice versa. Gentzkow, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research, is known for capitalizing on text mining and automated content analysis to expose the interplay between media and politics.

As the topic of income inequality reverberates across America, Raj Chetty’s research is helping ground the political rhetoric.

Chetty’s work puts inequality and social mobility under a microscope and traces their roots and consequences. And he is making an impact in the worlds of academia, economics and policy.

His studies have been cited in President Obama’s State of the Union address. He’s been an economic advisor to the Congressional Budget Office. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton consulted with him, and so did Jeb Bush. Now he is working with federal housing authorities to design interventions that will use housing-assistance vouchers to increase the opportunities for people to live in better neighborhoods.

When Susan Athey answered a question about the impact of machine learning techniques on economics for the website Quora, the page attracted over 445,000 views within the week.

While it may seem surprising that such a technical topic attracts that much attention, it is a sign of the growing interest generated by Athey's recent work bridging the divide between the statistical techniques used by economists and the techniques computer scientists use to extract useful information from massive amounts of data. The work is a natural extension for Athey.

Grade inflation is a hot topic in education circles. An A was once a mark of distinction. Now, at many schools, it’s the new normal. What’s not clear though is what the effects of this practice might be. Is it a harmless boost to student self-esteem or does it unfairly tilt the education and employment playing fields to the advantage of those whose grades get inflated?

Petra Persson, an assistant professor of economics and a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, is using tools of economic analysis to examine this question in her home country of Sweden. Her research finds that inflating grades when students were 16 had big effects in later life.

The standard way of measuring a country’s economic success is to look at per capita gross domestic product — the total output of goods and services divided by population. The more cars and computers produced and the more doctor visits and restaurant meals per person, the better the economy is thought to be doing. By that yardstick, the U.S. performs best among the world’s large, diverse economies.

But is per capita GDP really the best way of gauging how good a job an economy is doing at taking care of people? Pete Klenow, Ralph Landau Professor in Economic Policy and Gordon Moore Senior Fellow at SIEPR, proposes a more comprehensive measure of economic welfare.

Dave's portrait

Many economists have studied how reducing international trade barriers can benefit developing countries. Stanford associate professor of economics and SIEPR Senior Fellow Dave Donaldson also wants to understand internal trade barriers—things, like bad roads, that raise the cost of bringing goods to market. In Africa and other developing regions, shipping products from point A to point B can be grueling, especially when point B lies deep in the interior, far from a country’s more developed areas.