Social Studies: Pandemic insurance, ride-share bias, and blue-collar eyes


Pandemic insurance

Economists at Carnegie Mellon University compared infant mortality across counties with different levels of vulnerability (because of urban density and air pollution) and different levels of Medicaid eligibility (because state welfare programs varied) during mid-20th-century flu pandemics. Medicaid “led to a 6 to 7 percent decrease in infant mortality during the 1968-69 pandemic, averting between 2,646 and 2,777 infant deaths,” relative to the pre-Medicaid 1957-58 pandemic. Some of the reduction in deaths appears to be due to spillover effects on community-wide health, beyond the direct effect for Medicaid recipients themselves.

Clay, K. et al., “The Value of Health Insurance during a Crisis: Effects of Medicaid Implementation on Pandemic Influenza Mortality,” National Bureau of Economic Research (May 2020).


Cancel culture

In a month-long experiment, researchers initiated thousands of ride requests with a ride-hailing service to go from downtown Washington, D.C., to the airport. After a driver accepted a request, the name and picture of the rider was transmitted to the driver. An earlier version of the ride-hailing service app had allowed the driver to see the name and picture before accepting, but that was changed to prevent discrimination. The experiment tested whether discrimination was happening after acceptance. The name and picture of the rider was varied to indicate gender, race, and LGBT affiliation (with a rainbow flag). Drivers were more than twice as likely to cancel after seeing the profile of a black person, although this disparity was reduced during peak (higher-priced) times. Driver cancellations were also higher for LGBT riders, but there was no gender disparity.

Mejia, J. & Parker, C., “When Transparency Fails: Bias and Financial Incentives in Ridesharing Platforms,” Management Science (forthcoming).

From plowshares to swords

Using the staggered rollout of China’s domestic digital surveillance program across its local governments, a political scientist found that implementation of enhanced surveillance didn’t just increase local security spending and the number of political prisoners, it also allowed local governments to invest less in public welfare and agriculture. In other words, enhanced surveillance — and the resulting improvement in targeted repression — reduces the need to keep people happy with social programs.


Xu, X., “To Repress or to Co‐opt? Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

The eyes have it

In repeated experiments, people who categorized themselves as middle, upper-middle, or upper class performed worse, compared to the poor or working class, in tests of the ability to discern emotion from looking at someone’s eyes and the ability to understand a scene from a different visual perspective. The researchers theorize that, because working-class individuals are more interdependent with others, they must also be more attuned to others’ feelings and thoughts.

Dietze, P. & Knowles, E., “Social Class Predicts Emotion Perception and Perspective-Taking Performance in Adults,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Whose growth?

If your favorite president is taking credit for great economic growth, should you believe him? A new analysis of over a half century of worldwide economic data suggests that making such an inference is very challenging, given other trends and shocks to the economy. The analysis finds that “only roughly 45 leaders (of 650 leaders with tenures of at least 3 years with growth data for every year of their tenure) have a statistically significant growth contribution,” and that “the average growth rate during a leader’s tenure is virtually useless by itself to measure the leader’s true effect on growth.”


Easterly, W. & Pennings, S., “Leader Value Added: Assessing the Growth Contribution of Individual National Leaders,” National Bureau of Economic Research (May 2020).