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Postdoctoral fellow Brandon de la Cuesta on using data for sustainable development and what's next for him at Stanford

In a Q&A, Brandon de la Cuesta reflects on his time spent at the King Center as a 2019 - 2020 postdoctoral fellow, as well as his research on resource-revenue accountability.

Brandon de la Cuesta is a postdoctoral fellow at the King Center and will join the Data for Development initiative as a postdoc starting summer 2020.

Brandon specializes in comparative political economy, causal inference, and experimental research design with a strong regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa. His substantive work focuses on electoral accountability using a mixed-methods approach that combines observational data with lab-in-the-field, survey and conjoint experiments. 

Before he moves to the Data for Development initiative, the center asked Brandon to share a few highlights from his time spent at the center, as well as what he's currently working on.

What has been your biggest achievement so far in your research?

Brandon de la Cuesta
Brandon de la Cuesta

A lot of my work prior to coming to Stanford was on how different government revenues -- taxes, aid, and oil in particular -- drive voters’ willingness to monitor and sanction poor performance and corruption. A major concern of scholars and policymakers has been the so-called resource curse, in which governments that rely heavily on non-tax revenues like aid and oil are able to engage in higher levels of corruption and rent-seeking. This happens because they aren’t required to tax their citizens and thus do not face the same demands that governments in more heavily-taxed countries do. Through a series of lab-in-the-field experiments, we were able to show that it is possible to harness a psychological mechanism called the Ownership Effect to increase how much accountability citizens demand from leaders when spending comes from non-tax revenues.

The Ownership Effect works by giving us an attachment to objects over which we have clearly defined control -- in the original experiments demonstrating the Ownership Effect, researchers used common objects like coffee mugs or pens. We theorized that the Ownership Effect might apply to intangible, abstract objects like government revenues, and that it could be activated by granting citizens de jure ownership over their specific portion of a collectively owned revenue source (in this case, aid and oil). This, in turn, would give them diffuse ownership over the entire budget, even though the share of the budget that they were entitled to was vanishingly small. We show that this is indeed precisely what happens, and that the effect is very powerful: simple interventions to confer ownership over aid and oil revenues can produce accountability pressures equal to those generated by direct taxation. I think this work is an important antidote to the widespread belief that new sources of non-tax revenues will lead to worse governance. As the number of natural resource finds in the developing world continues to increase, finding ways to encourage citizens to demand more accountability for resource-based revenues is more important than ever. 

What research are you focused on now?

I’m currently in the final stages of a project on how the rise of indirect taxes in the developing world --- particularly the Value-Added Tax (VAT), which is similar to a sales tax --- has affected governance outcomes. The link between taxation and accountability is an important part of many theories of political change, and countries that tax more are also less corrupt, more democratic. Most of the work on these topics, however, does not distinguish between different kinds of taxes. Where it does, it is almost always concerned with direct taxation. But developing countries, driven by a combination of donor demands and low state capacity, collect almost no direct taxes from individuals or businesses. Instead, they rely heavily on indirect taxes. Using lab-in-the-field experiments, survey experiments, and new cross-national data, we show that reliance on indirect taxes makes governments more corrupt and less accountable to their citizens.

I’m also in the early stages of a couple long-term projects with Marshall Burke that I am very excited about. This work leverages extremely fine-grained estimates of wealth that Marshall and his co-authors have generated using remote sensing data and convolutional neural networks. Our goal is to use this new data to help us understand patterns of growth in sub-Saharan Africa, and to evaluate whether and how it changes established wisdom about economic performance on the sub-continent over the last two decades. We also believe this data can be used to revisit important findings in the political economy of development, many of which rely on highly aggregated and potentially inaccurate measures of wealth. Unfortunately, using modeled data as predictors in causal models presents a range of difficult methodological problems. So part of my work with Marshall will be to identify the most important issues and to develop tools to address them. Luckily for us, many of the trickiest problems are being addressed by Stanford faculty, so I’m looking forward to applying their work to what we are doing.

What are some opportunities that the postdoc at the King Center offers that set it apart from other positions?

I’m not sure I have enough space to list them all, so I’ll focus on the big ones. First, quantitative social science is being revolutionized by advances in causal inference techniques and the increasing availability of high-frequency, high-resolution data -- satellite images are the most natural example. Taking advantage of the opportunities provided by these two things requires the ability to speak with and learn from world-class researchers across a range of disciplines, from computer science to environmental science and economics. It also requires strong institutional support for cutting edge research, not just in the form of funding but also a commitment to providing forums for people from different disciplines to interact with each other and discuss their work. The King Center has done an exceptional job at this -- of the projects I’m currently working, the two I am the most excited about came about as a direct consequence of discussions with King Center faculty who work in other fields. People often talk about the benefits of these things in the abstract, so let me give you some concrete examples: I’m currently part of an interdisciplinary lab that uses remote sensing data to answer important policy questions in political science, environmental economics, and public health; I’m auditing a course on machine learning and causal inference taught by Susan Athey and Stefan Wagner; and this summer I’ll be working closely with two of Marshall Burke’s research assistants, who are being supported by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). All of these things have improved my work, and all were made possible by King Center faculty and staff. As a postdoc, I’m not sure you could ask for anything more than that.

What do you think is a pressing issue that can be impacted by the research in your field?

The Covid-19 crisis has reminded us again, just as climate change has, that environmental problems are also economic and political problems, and that their cost can be measured not only in dollars and human lives but also in the damage they can do to our politics. Even as we move toward a vaccine for Covid-19, climate change is going to continue to put enormous pressure on political systems around the world. More frequent and more severe droughts, more extreme storms and weather events, ocean acidification, and the disappearance of cornerstone species from ecosystems all over the world -- all of these things imperil our prosperity and, because of that, generate accountability demands from citizens. Unfortunately, developing countries are both less able to adapt to these changes and less able to soften the blow for their citizens. For that reason, I think it’s more important than ever that we understand how environmental changes affect our politics, when and why they are going to be destabilizing, and what we can do to make them less so. Luckily for me, the King Center happens to be an exceptionally good place to study these topics, so I feel especially fortunate to have ended up here when I did.

What’s next for you after the postdoctoral fellowship has ended?

I’m excited to say that I don’t have to answer this question just yet! I’ll be returning next year as a postdoc in the King Center’s Data for Development Initiative. I’m excited to continue the work I’ve started this year and look forward to seeing everyone in person when we’re able to return to campus safely.

You can read more about Brandon’s research, including recent working papers and published articles on his personal website.