Published Papers

The Efficiency of Local Government: The Role of Privatization and Public Sector Unions” with Matthew E. Kahn and Shanjun Li (Journal of Public Economics (2017), 154: 95-121)

Selected press coverage: Forbes

Local governments spend roughly $1.6 trillion per year to provide a variety of public goods ranging from police and fire protection to public schools and public transit. Despite the fact that a sizable amount of economic activity is supplied by local governments, we know little about this sector’s productivity in delivering key services. We argue that the operating cost of providing public transit bus miles offers a standardized output for benchmarking the cost of local government service provision both over time and across space. We measure the cost savings from privatization and study the cost premium associated with unionization. We explore the political economy of why privatization rates are lower in high cost unionized areas.

Working Papers

The Local Consequences of Federal Mandates: Evidence from the Clean Water Act

This paper estimates, first, how local governments finance federal mandates and, second, how much value local residents place on mandated local spending using a change in federal rules on municipal infrastructure following the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA). I leverage the role of river networks in distributing pollutants across cities, combined with pre-CWA state regulatory intensity, to account for the endogeneity of municipal infrastructure adoption decisions, and to predict ex ante compliance with the CWA infrastructure mandate. This paper has three main findings: first, cities under the burden of compliance experienced substantial improvements to local ambient water quality as well as a two-fold increase in resident fees. Second, public spending on nonmandated items did not change, indicating that mandates are unlikely to displace local funding of other goods and services. Lastly, using housing prices as a metric, I find that residents valued the mandated infrastructure above their local costs. These results imply that mandates may reduce inefficiencies to local public goods provision, and thereby generate local pareto improvements in addition to national efficiency improvements.


Road Rationing Policies and Housing Markets” with Panle Barwick, Shanjun Li, and Jing Wu

Canonical urban models postulate transportation cost as a key element in determining urban structure. This paper examines how road rationing policies impact the spatial distribution of households using rich micro data on housing transactions and resident demographics in Beijing. We find that Beijing’s road rationing policy significantly increased the demand for housing near subway stations as well as central business districts. The premium for proximity is stable in the periods prior to the driving restriction, but shifts significantly in the aftermath of the policy. The composition of individuals living close to subway stations and Beijing’s central business districts shifts toward wealthier households, consistent with theoretical predictions of the monocentric city model with income-stratified transit modes. Our findings suggest that city-wide road rationing policies can have the unintended consequence of limiting access to public transit for lower income individuals.

Works in Progress

“Determinants of the Gender-Commute Gap among Married Couples in Beijing” with Ziye Zhang and Jing Wu

“Local Public Finance and Natural Disaster Risk” with Matthew E. Kahn and Gary Lin