Tobin Center for Economic Policy Takes Next Steps

Friday, November 22, 2019
Tobin Center Leadership: David Wilkinson, Steven Berry, Zack Cooper, and Rebecca Toseland
A little more than a year after its announcement, the Tobin Center for Economic Policy is moving forward by hiring leadership and staff, actively planning programming and research, and advancing the building of a new facility that will bring together economics faculty. The central mission of the Tobin Center is to support research that offers a counterweight to pure ideology; bears directly on questions of public policy; brings together research methods from a variety of methodological perspectives; and is shared effectively with opinion-shapers and policymakers. 
Thanks to a leadership gift from Jeffrey Talpins ’97, Professor Steven Berry was appointed in October 2018 as the inaugural Jeffrey Talpins Faculty Director of the Tobin Center for Economic Policy. Professor Berry, who has been at Yale since 1988, is a renowned economist whose research analyzes industrial organization, empirical models of product differentiation, and market equilibrium. 
Dave Wilkinson ’06 J.D., was named the executive director beginning his role in September. Mr. Wilkinson is a former senior White House official and has served two Connecticut Governors in cabinet-level roles.  He directed the White House Office of Social Innovation, leading, among other things, the domestic evidence-based policy making portfolio. In Connecticut, he directed one of the state’s largest agencies, leveraging annual funding of nearly half a billion dollars in support of approximately 200,000 children and families.  Mr. Wilkinson’s work has contributed meaningfully to fields of data-driven and evidence-based policy. At the federal and state level, he has helped design, pass and implement laws and policies founded in research and enabled by data-intensive social science. He has won national recognition for advancing innovations in government, which have attracted bipartisan support. His work has been covered by the New York Times, Time Magazine and other national media outlets. 
Zack Cooper, Associate Professor of Public Health (Health Policy) and of Economics and in the Institution for Social and Policy Studies will serve as associate faculty director. Professor Cooper is a leading researcher and scholar in the field of health policy. He has analyzed the impact of competition in hospital and insurance markets, studied the influence of price transparency on consumer behavior, and examined the influence of electoral politics on health care spending growth.
Rebecca Toseland ’07, a senior lecturer in the Department was appointed director of research support. Dr. Toseland is helping to launch the Tobin Center/Economics Pre-Doctoral Fellows program, which provides research support to faculty and a high-quality education and training experience for individuals considering a Ph.D. in economics. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Toseland was a research scholar at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research where she managed Professor Raj Chetty’s research team. 
Professor Zack Cooper is studying the drivers of America’s high healthcare costs. A recent study with School of Management Professor Fiona Scott Morton uncovered widespread occurrences of surprise out-of-pocket medical bills after trips to in-network emergency rooms at hospitals. Through analysis of insurance billing data 2.2 million emergency room visits, they were able to determine that over 20% of patients were treated by an out-of-network doctor at in-network hospital emergency rooms, likely resulting in considerable unforeseen costs. This research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, and Wall Street Journal. The work also became a catalyst for U.S. senators to begin studying surprise out-of-network billing and to the development of bi-partisan legislation to curb the practice. 
Assistant Professor John Eric Humphries and his coauthors are examining the Pulitzer Prize–winning “eviction” hypothesis of sociologist Matthew Desmond at Princeton who provides compelling stories about the lives of families facing eviction, and this has led some to conclude that stopping evictions would have a large effect on the lives of poor families. To this point, there has been limited investigation of whether evictions are more a “cause” or “effect” of financial distress. The new research uses a rich linked dataset on households in Cook County, Illinois, and finds little evidence that eviction, at the margin, has a major effect on the financial outcomes of poor households. That is, eviction appears to be more a symptom than a cause of financial distress. Given the large amount of media and policy attention given to Desmond’s work, this is an important result. One take-away is that policy may need to focus on events “upstream” of eviction. This work demonstrates the broader principle that well-meaning policy reforms may or may not lead to desired outcomes, and careful study may lead to better policies. The work was covered by The Economist. Such nonpartisan research at the Tobin Center can help to guide policy makers to better conclusions.  
The Tobin Center was founded in significant part on the recognition that big data will enable a promising new frontier in economics. Accessing this untapped resource will expand the capabilities of economists to understand and improve the world. To take advantage of this vast new opportunity, faculty require access to two key things: a reliable infrastructure to access large data sets; and a supply of junior researchers skilled in coding as well as data analytics, cleaning, and collection. Supporting a top priority of President Salovey and Provost Polak, the Tobin Center will help lead efforts at Yale to develop a secure digital infrastructure to enable advance analytics of large data sets by economists. 
To attract essential junior research support, the Tobin Center has launched the Tobin/Economics predoctoral program.  Faculty interest and participation levels have exceeded expectations, with economics faculty across the university hiring more than 30 research assistants who participate in the overall program. 
A central part of the Tobin theory of change is that the Center can overcome collective action problems by making strategic investments that reduce barriers to data-driven, empirical research at Yale.  The predoctoral program and data efforts are two signature efforts on this front.  
Tobin Predoctoral RA group picture in front of 28 Hillhouse Ave.
Another key strategy is the communications of research and policy implications to policy makers.  This coming year, the Center is supporting a health care cost conference in Washington, D.C., which will bring together health care cost economists from Yale and around the country to meet with key policy makers. The Center is also the new academic co-sponsor of an annual Federal Trade Commission conference featuring research on competition policy, and it is supporting a Yale conference on climate change accounting. With the hiring of new staff this year, the Center anticipates an acceleration of event activity moving forward.