Raj Chetty on Teachers, Social Mobility, and How to Find Answers to Big Questions (Ep. 23)

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Mercatus Center
May 24, 2017 · 47 min read

On early impressions of inequality, from Agra to Milwaukee


Seeing the Taj Mahal is a striking experience in its own right because the monument is so majestic. But what struck me was the incredible contrast between the monument itself and what was outside. It was one of the most impoverished areas in India, in Agra.

Just seeing that incredible contrast between the tourists and the people who were begging for food, basically outside from the tourists, left a mark on me. I think back to that experience, wondering why things were so different on the inside versus the outside.


On growing up in academia


I’m the last person in my family to publish a paper. My sisters are also in academia on the medical and bio side. Whether it’s statistics or thinking about scientific questions or thinking about how to change things in the world, that’s the environment in which I grew up from the youngest of ages.


On deconstructing the Raj Chetty production function


[S]tudents often have this reaction, that all I need to do is get access to this big dataset, and then I’m going to be all set for my thesis. And what you end up finding is that that is often not the case. It’s very easy to write a paper that is not that good, even with cutting-edge data and modern techniques.


On the peculiarities of tax salience


And my sense, from just having conversations with friends, is that, in fact, people have no idea on a day-to-day basis about what the tax rates they’re actually paying are.


On the value-add of kindergarten teachers


Our best hypothesis is that, what’s going on is that the teacher is not teaching you skills that end up showing up on later tests. It’s not so much that they’re teaching you how to do math better, or teaching you trigonometry or something in later grades. Rather, it’s that they are teaching you things like discipline and social skills and other things that are valued in the labor market directly.


On ways to improve primary school education


“Now, what I think is striking about Teach for America is, the reason it’s so effective in attracting top talent is precisely because it’s very difficult to get into Teach for America. I think kids at top institutions like to do things that are hard to do, basically.”


On things under- and overrated

On drivers of upward mobility


If you live in a big city, it’s very easy to self-segregate in various ways. You live in a gated community, you send your kids to a private school. You essentially don’t interact with people from different socioeconomic classes. If you live in a small town in Iowa, pretty much there’s one place your kids are going to go to school. There’s one set of activities that you can all participate in. And that is likely to lead to more integration.


On geography and gender

On future research


Thinking about how technology could be used to tackle some of these social issues strikes me as an important thing that I’d like to be working on. What I see here in Silicon Valley is that technology has completely transformed the way we live our lives through the private sector. I think it’s, to date, had less of an impact on social issues, and there’s a big arbitrage opportunity there.



Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

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The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.