How You Can Help


Shaping future economists requires all of us.

Our alumni are vastly important to everything we do. Your support helps fund a variety of activities for the Economics Department. Some include:

  • Providing financial support for students-with-need to participate in the Economics Society’s annual trips, which have recently included visits to the San Francisco Federal Reserve and to Disneyland for a collaborative research project.
  • Funding for our faculty-student mentorship program, where students work as research assistants and receive mentoring from faculty about the research process and future career paths.
  • Offering research support for faculty and students, including funding for travel to academic conferences, data collection, and computing needs.
  • Hosting a seminar series, in which professors from other universities present their research and meet with our faculty and students to discuss exciting ideas in economics.

If you’re interested in giving to Cal Poly, please consider designating your gift to the Economics Department of the Orfalea College of Business. A link to donate online can be found here.

Thank you for your support!

Econ Interview


A Q&A with Professor Stefanie Fischer

By Eduardo Zambrano | MS Quantitative Economics Program

This fall, I sat down with Professor Stefanie Fischer, who obtained a Ph.D. in Economics from UCSB in 2015 and has been an Assistant Professor of Economics at Cal Poly since. She teaches Introductory Economics, Labor Economics, and Econometrics. As we spoke, we covered her research, which studies peer dynamics in economically motivated scenarios. We also discussed civic engagement, data analysis, and how empirical research with a focus on inequality can have a real-world impact. Read on for more.

EZ: I see that your paper, “Coordination and Contagion: Individual Connections and Peer Mechanisms in a Randomized Field Experiment,” was just accepted at the Journal of Public Economics. Congratulations! Can you tell us what it’s about?

SF: Thank you! Yes, so to provide some context for the paper: for quite some time, economists and other social scientists have been interested in understanding how one’s peers influence economically meaningful outcomes. This paper makes a technical contribution to the peer effects literature which, to the best of our knowledge, had not been previously identified.

What we do is estimate spillovers (peer effects) between a treated individual and another treated individual, where the previous literature has only been able to estimate spillovers that arise between treated and control groups. Our approach allows us to isolate each spillover separately.

There are many settings in which there may be no spillovers present between treated and control individuals, but where there might be between the treated.

For example, safety net programs (i.e., SNAP or Head Start) are often concentrated among lower income individuals. And if lower income households are mostly interacting with other low-income households who are also recipients of such benefits, we may miss important spillovers if we don’t consider those that arise between the recipients of the benefits (the treated).

So in this paper we run a field experiment in a large university dorm where we financially incentivize a random subset of individuals to go to the university gym. In the first stage, we elicit the friend network so we know how every person is connected and to what degree. In the second stage, we randomly assign the treatment to 60 percent of the subjects. The treated subjects were told that if they visited the gym eight or more times in the 30-day period they would earn $60.

The randomization of the treatment serves two purposes: First, it induces random variation in exposure to the treatment, identifying the direct effects—that is, the effect that operates through the private incentive. Secondly, it induces random variation in exposure to treated and untreated peers, which allows us to estimate the spillover effects. Crucially, we can estimate the effect of having a treated best friend on control and treated subjects.

We find that the financial incentive, not including any spillovers, increased gym visits by about four, if you’re treated with a control best friend. We find however, that if you’re treated with a treated best friend, you visit the gym one additional time. Another way to say that is that the spillover between treated and treated is 25 percent of the direct effect of the treatment. Interestingly, we detect no spillovers between treated best friends and control subjects. It is worth noting that the observed peer effect, a spillover from treated subjects to treated subjects, would not have been identified by a standard approach, where only spillovers from treated to control are identified.

So you might wonder what is the mechanism underlying this spillover? We consider three common mechanisms put forth in the peer effects literature: The first is coordination. The second is imitation/conformity. And the third is information.

We find strong evidence in favor of coordination, where coordination may include a commitment mechanism or complementarities. Specifically, we find that subjects with treated best friends make, on average, one more simultaneous visit with their best friend than their counterpart. This suggests that the entire spillover is operating through this coordination channel.

EZ: So what’s next?

SF: While this paper is finally complete, we also have a follow-on project. We implement a similar field experiment as the gym experiment, but we incentivize students to register to vote, and then to vote. Our goal with this project is to understand the role of peer effects in civic engagement. One thing that is neat is that we have merged the experiment data with the universe of California administrative voting records. We’re still working on analyzing the results of the experiment. Stay tuned for a draft soon!

EZ: On your website you state that your research employs quasi-experimental techniques and field experiments to address policy-relevant empirical questions with a focus on inequality. How do you see the empirical tools you use in your research being of value to economists working in different capacities in companies, the government, and NGOs?

SF: The tools I use in my research are widely applicable. I use various research designs, whichever one is best for the question I am trying to answer, with the general goal of nailing down a causal relationship. I think a well-executed causal analysis is valuable in lots of contexts.

EZ: At Cal Poly you teach Econometrics and Labor Economics. In what ways is teaching these courses useful for the kind of research that you do, and in what ways the research that you do is useful for teaching these courses?

SF: Teaching Graduate Labor Economics has been useful for my own research. It helps me stay current. I often assign new papers or working papers that I want to read, which are also relevant to the course material. Sometimes through this I get new ideas for projects. I also gain a better grasp of the literature and methods that are on the cutting edge of my field (Labor Economics).

Teaching introductory undergrad econometrics is fun. I love when students have that moment in class when they realize what a useful tool applied econometrics can be!

EZ: Anything else you would like to tell us?

SF: Thanks for your interest in my work!

Student Spotlight: Jack Keefer


Award-winning student, who’s studying the impacts of social media on mental health.

Jack Keefer is last year’s winner of the annual Excellence in Economics Award, presented to our top graduating senior in the Orfalea College of Business Economics Department. He earned his B.S. in Economics this past spring and is currently enrolled in the M.S. Quantitative Economics program at Cal Poly.

Jack’s senior project was selected as the Outstanding Senior Project in his class. For the undertaking, Jack surveyed students at a California high school about their feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as numerous other aspects of their lifestyle. He found that greater social media use led to higher levels of anxiety.

“The subject is important because social media is such a big part of students’ lives now, much more so now than even five years ago when I was a high school student. It’s a growing problem that anecdotally affects many students, but I found there was very little research on the topic, and I thought I had the ability to do better than what had already been done. Social media causes people to compare themselves to an ‘ideal’ that they can’t possibly live up to, and even though most people know that, it’s good to have data to back it up so it’s not just a hunch that we all have.”

He is following up his senior project with a randomized experiment across multiple high schools to further test whether social media use contributes to feelings of anxiety and depression. He hopes to submit his findings for publication in an economics journal. Jack is also currently applying to Ph.D. programs in Economics to begin the next academic year.

“I would like to stay in academia and get a position as a tenure-track professor doing research.  My interest is in labor economics with a secondary application in econometrics. I like the collection and processing of data, and labor economics is an important field with future issues related to automation and the changing labor market.”

Good luck in your future studies, Jack!

The MS in Quantitative Economics


How an ongoing initiative to refine our curriculum—in consultation with leading experts from Amazon, Google, Zillow, and other top technology and data companies—is helping us shape the economists of tomorrow.

By Eduardo Zambrano | MS Quantitative Economics Program Director

The MS in Quantitative Economics delivers structured thinking about empirical problems and incentives. The overarching goal of our program is to teach students to work with data in messy, real-world environments.

During their time here, students learn advanced econometrics for prediction and causal inference, computer programming, and receive training in the analysis of individual and group incentives. They also learn how to use basic economics principles and experimental designs to help individuals and organizations make decisions with the aim of improving people’s lives.

Our job placement is outstanding—from Booz Allen Hamilton, Hulu, Oracle, Uber and Visa to top Ph.D. programs offered by universities such as the University of Minnesota and UC Santa Barbara.

We’re also of course always striving to improve. Recently, we developed and refined our curriculum in consultation with an Advisory Task Force of leading economists, consultants and data scientists from Amazon, Google, OnPoint Analytics, Streamlit and Zillow.

These are some of the things we learned from this exercise: Our industry advisors are impressed with the heavily empirically oriented nature of our program, and they recommend for this to be kept this way. They also like that our students begin coding and doing empirical work from the start of the program, and that this work is solidly grounded in economic theory.

Our advisors also tell us that four topics, which we already cover, are vital within industry and could be emphasized even more: coding proficiency, data management skills, machine learning, and experimentation. Our plan is to address the first two items by revamping our computer programing class, GSE 524. We’ll address the second two by creating two new courses: a Machine Learning for Prediction and Causal Inference elective, and a Behavioral and Experimental Economics elective.

We are confident that the implementation of these changes will help us as we continue to equip our graduates with first-rate training, allowing them to succeed in any organization, anywhere in the world.

The applications cycle for the fall of 2020 is now open. We encourage you to forward this information to anyone you think might be interested in what the MS in Quantitative Economics has to offer, and to contact us with any questions.

Click here to learn more about the MS in Quantitative Economics.

A Letter from the Chair


Updates, introductions, and points of interest from Aric Shafran, Professor and Chair of Economics.

Welcome to the Winter 2020 edition of the Cal Poly Economics Newsletter. After several years on hiatus, I am pleased to reestablish our annual department bulletin.

The Economics Department here at the Orfalea College of Business continues to thrive. Our graduates have been finding jobs at top companies, including recent placements at Apple, Amazon, KPMG, Ernst & Young, and Disney, to name just a few. Our faculty continue to publish well, with recent publications in Journal of Public Economics, Ecological Economics, Journal of International Economics, and Journal of Development Studies. Faculty research has also recently been funded by the National Institute of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

In this newsletter we put a spotlight on a few of the initiatives and people that we are especially excited about right now. Some highlights include:

  • A piece about how our master’s students continue to excel, where we also discuss a current initiative to refine our curriculum to better fit the needs of industry based on feedback from our alumni and other experts.

 

  • Assistant Professor Stephanie Fisher talks about her recently published work on peer effects.

 

  • We highlight the accomplishments of Jack Keefer, last year’s winner of the Excellence in Economics Award, which is presented to our top graduating senior.

 

  • And we feature how your support and the engagement of our alumni community remain crucial to everything we do.

For up-to-date information on the department, its staff, course offerings, and activities, check our website.

As excited as we are to share what’s been going on with the Economics Department here at Cal Poly, we are also excited to hear from you. With that in mind, please get in touch with me (ashafran@calpoly.edu) or our Administrative Coordinator Sheila Smith (smsmith@calpoly.edu) for updates on what you have been doing, or if you have any questions or comments related to the department. And, if you are ever passing through the San Luis Obispo area, please stop by and say hi.

We hope that you are doing well and wish you all the best for the new year!

Regards,

Aric Shafran

Professor and Chair of Economics