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Article

Samuel Berlinski and Marcos Vera-Hernández

A set of policies is at the center of the agenda on early childhood development: parenting programs, childcare regulation and subsidies, cash and in-kind transfers, and parental leave policies. Incentives are embedded in these policies, and households react to them differently. They also have varying effects on child development, both in developed and developing countries. We have learned much about the impact of these policies in the past 20 years. We know that parenting programs can enhance child development, that centre based care might increase female labor force participation and child development, that parental leave policies beyond three months don’t cause improvement in children outcomes, and that the effects of transfers depend much on their design. In this review, we focus on the incentives embedded in these policies, and how they interact with the context and decision makers to understand the heterogeneity of effects and the mechanisms through which these policies work. We conclude by identifying areas of future research.

Article

While machine learning (ML) methods have received a lot of attention in recent years, these methods are primarily for prediction. Empirical researchers conducting policy evaluations are, on the other hand, preoccupied with causal problems, trying to answer counterfactual questions: what would have happened in the absence of a policy? Because these counterfactuals can never be directly observed (described as the “fundamental problem of causal inference”) prediction tools from the ML literature cannot be readily used for causal inference. In the last decade, major innovations have taken place incorporating supervised ML tools into estimators for causal parameters such as the average treatment effect (ATE). This holds the promise of attenuating model misspecification issues, and increasing of transparency in model selection. One particularly mature strand of the literature include approaches that incorporate supervised ML approaches in the estimation of the ATE of a binary treatment, under the unconfoundedness and positivity assumptions (also known as exchangeability and overlap assumptions). This article begins by reviewing popular supervised machine learning algorithms, including trees-based methods and the lasso, as well as ensembles, with a focus on the Super Learner. Then, some specific uses of machine learning for treatment effect estimation are introduced and illustrated, namely (1) to create balance among treated and control groups, (2) to estimate so-called nuisance models (e.g., the propensity score, or conditional expectations of the outcome) in semi-parametric estimators that target causal parameters (e.g., targeted maximum likelihood estimation or the double ML estimator), and (3) the use of machine learning for variable selection in situations with a high number of covariates. Since there is no universal best estimator, whether parametric or data-adaptive, it is best practice to incorporate a semi-automated approach than can select the models best supported by the observed data, thus attenuating the reliance on subjective choices.

Article

During the 18th and 19th centuries, medical spending in the United States rose slowly, on average about .25% faster than gross domestic product (GDP), and varied widely between rural and urban regions. Accumulating scientific advances caused spending to accelerate by 1910. From 1930 to 1955, rapid per-capita income growth accommodated major medical expansion while keeping the health share of GDP almost constant. During the 1950s and 1960s, prosperity and investment in research, the workforce, and hospitals caused a rapid surge in spending and consolidated a truly national health system. Excess growth rates (above GDP growth) were above +5% per year from 1966 to 1970, which would have doubled the health-sector share in fifteen years had it not moderated, falling under +3% in the 1980s, +2% in 1990s, and +1.5% since 2005. The question of when national health expenditure growth can be brought into line with GDP and made sustainable for the long run is still open. A review of historical data over three centuries forces confrontation with issues regarding what to include and how long events continue to effect national health accounting and policy. Empirical analysis at a national scale over multiple decades fails to support a position that many of the commonly discussed variables (obesity, aging, mortality rates, coinsurance) do cause significant shifts in expenditure trends. What does become clear is that there are long and variable lags before macroeconomic and technological events affect spending: three to six years for business cycles and multiple decades for major recessions, scientific discoveries, and organizational change. Health-financing mechanisms, such as employer-based health insurance, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are seen to be both cause and effect, taking years to develop and affecting spending for decades to come.