I am a development economist with a focus on Latin America interested in studying the dynamics of economic inequality and poverty and the public policies most effective in combating them. I have also worked on the economic history of contemporary Mexico. More recently, the scope of my research has broadened to include fiscal redistribution analyses in low- and middle-income countries around the world.
I founded and also direct the Commitment to Equity Institute, a project I began in 2008, before joining Tulane. The CEQ Institute works to reduce inequality and poverty through comprehensive and rigorous tax and benefit incidence analysis, and active engagement with the policy community. With the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (US$5 million for 5 years), the Institute has completed studies for all seventeen Latin American countries plus close to thirty in other regions of the world. As CIPR’s Senior Associate Research Fellow, I collaborate on research initiatives, conferences, and speaker series focused on Latin America. I am also a nonresident senior fellow of three Washington-based think tanks. At the Brookings Institution Global Economy and Development Program, I am a contributor to their research projects on development policy after neoliberalism and on the implementation of the inclusive growth agenda. My current collaboration with the Center for Global Development is centered on advocating for a domestic resource mobilization agenda that does not impoverish the poor. After partnering with the Inter-American Dialogue since 1990, our current collaborative initiatives (with Tulane’s CIPR) include the Latin American Economies Roundtable and a forum on US-Mexico relations with the Colegio de México.
I started my career as a faculty member of El Colegio de México where I spent fourteen years before joining the Brookings Institution as senior fellow until 1997. I left Brookings to become Senior Advisor on Poverty at the Inter-American Development Bank. Subsequently, and before joining Tulane, I was president and professor at the Universidad de las Americas, Puebla, Director of the global Poverty Group at the United Nations Development Programme, and Shapiro Visiting Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University. My experience as an academic in Mexico and the United States, a researcher at Brookings, and in senior positions at multilateral organizations has given me a unique perspective on how knowledge can inform policymaking and how to translate research results into policy actions. In particular, as a senior staff member of international organizations I was able to help reshape the global anti-poverty agenda and pioneered the use of cutting-edge methods to guide policy.
My teaching is inspired and informed by my research interests which I describe below in some detail. In particular, I teach courses on inequality and poverty in Latin America, the economics of poverty, and the analytics of fiscal redistribution.
Research and publications. As a native from Argentina, from very early on, I was intrigued by the causes of persistent inequities within countries and why some countries were rich while others remained poor or stuck in the middle of the road. Thus, a large portion of my research and publications is on the determinants of inequality, poverty, and economic growth, and how public policy contributes to their evolution. My doctoral thesis at UC Berkeley (1979), for example, examined the relationship between the distribution of income and economic growth in Mexico. After graduation, I spent fourteen years as professor of Economics at El Colegio de México where I published my first book Distribución del ingreso y crecimiento en México: Un análisis de las ideas estructuralistas (El Colegio de México, 1981) and the article “Characteristics of Mexican Economic Growth: Empirical Testing of Some Latin American Structuralist Hypotheses,” (Journal of Development Economics, 1982), both based on my dissertation. Fast forward thirty years, my co-edited volume Declining Inequality in Latin America: A Decade of Progress? (Brookings Institution Press and United Nations Development Programme, 2010; Spanish translation by Fondo de Cultura Economica) and several peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters were devoted to identifying the factors that were behind the pervasive decline in inequality in Latin America during the first decade of the XXIst century. In particular, with a team of co-authors, I explored the extent to which the increase in supply of workers with higher skills and institutional factors such as minimum wages and unionization rates explained the observed decline in labor income inequality. We also analyzed how much government cash transfers targeted to the poor influenced the decline in overall income inequality. We were able to determine that a common feature in countries were inequality fell was the decline in the skill-premium associated with the rise in supply of workers with higher levels of education and, to different degrees, the expansion of progressive cash transfers.
While living in Mexico, I witnessed the harmful consequences of economic crises and austerity programs first-hand. I became a researcher, and eventually a relentless advocate, of safety nets for the poor and those hurt by fiscal cutbacks and market-oriented reforms. I published several articles documenting the social costs of adjustment and proposing policy measures to protect the poor. This research theme has been recurrent throughout my career and gave rise to several publications including the journal articles “Economic Crisis, Adjustment and Living Standards in Mexico: 1982-1985,” (World Development, 1990) and “Crises and the Poor: Socially Responsible Macroeconomics,” (Economia,, 2000); the edited volumes Coping with Austerity. Poverty and Inequality in Latin America (Brookings Institution, 1995) and Shielding the Poor: Social Protection in the Developing World (Brookings Institution and Inter-American Development Bank, 2001) and the report Social Protection for Equity and Growth, (Inter-American Development Bank, 2000). As co-director of the World Bank’s World Development Report Attacking Poverty 2000/1, I was also able to give the subject of protecting the poor against adverse shocks global prominence.
In 1989, I joined the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC where I was a Senior Fellow until 1997. At Brookings, in addition to the items mentioned above, I published Mexico. The Remaking of an Economy (first edition 1992; second edition 1998; translated into Spanish by Fondo de Cultura Económica) which sold more than six thousand copies and was selected by the magazine Choice. Current Reviews for Academic Libraries as an Outstanding Academic Title in 1994. The book, which could be described as economic history of contemporary Mexico, examines the causes of recurrent economic crises in Mexico and the challenges the government faced to bring inflation down and restore equilibrium in the fiscal and external accounts, describes the important market-oriented reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, and puzzles on the fact that—in spite of achieving macroeconomic stability and introducing market incentives in significant portions of the economy—growth did not ensue (which is still true until the present). A synthesis of the book’s findings was published as a peer-reviewed article: “Life is not Easy: Mexico’s Quest for Stability and Growth,” (Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2001).
Brookings was a unique window to policymaking in the United States. I quickly realized how little the broader Washington think tanks’ community knew about Latin America. With colleagues from the Inter-American Dialogue and other organizations we launched the Washington Exchange in 1990. The series featured ministers of finance from LA who engaged in candid exchange with leading researchers and opinion-makers in Washington. I also was an active researcher and participated in discussion and debates—including testifying in the US Congress—on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On this topic, I was co-editor of North American Free Trade: Assessing the Impact (Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 1992) and Coming Together? Mexico-U.S. Relations (Brookings Institution, 1997).
Measurement issues related to inequality and poverty have also been the object of my strong interest. In particular, I have analyzed the implications of alternative assumptions for poverty measures (“Do We Know How Much Poverty There Is?,” Oxford Development Studies, 2004), the advantages and limitations of multi-dimensional poverty indicators (“Forum on multidimensional poverty,” Journal of Economic Inequality, 2011), the assessment of the quality of inequality data (“Appraising Cross-National Income Inequality Databases, Special Issue,” Journal of Economic Inequality, 2015), the development of new poverty indicators (Can a poverty-reducing and progressive tax and transfer system hurt the poor?. Journal of Development Economics, 2016), and the controversies surrounding poverty lines (“Global Poverty Lines, Special Issue,” Journal of Economic Inequality, 2016). Since 2017, given the potentially huge impact that including the rich can have on inequality measures, I have centered my attention on the issue of undercoverage and underreporting of top incomes in household surveys (The Rich Underreport Their Income: Assessing Biases In Inequality Estimates And Correction Methods Using Linked Survey And Tax Data. CEQ Working Paper 70, 2018).
Since 2010, as part of the research agenda of the CEQ Institute and in collaboration with my graduate students and other scholars, I have published extensively on the impact of fiscal policy on inequality and poverty in low- and middle-countries. “The Redistributive Impact of Taxes and Social Spending in Latin America. Special Issue,” (Public Finance Review, 2014) and a series of papers in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters on the impact of fiscal policy on inequality (including ethno-racial inequality) and poverty in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iran, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Uganda, and Uruguay as well as cross-country studies. In addition, I edited the Commitment to Equity Handbook: Estimating the Impact of Fiscal Policy on Inequality and Poverty, (Brookings Institution Press, 2018). This over 900-page long handbook examines both the theory and the practical methods that determine the impact of taxation and public spending on inequality and poverty. In particular, it provides a step-by-step guide for policymakers, economists, and social planners on how to conduct a fiscal incidence analysis and a broad range of indicators to gauge the impact of fiscal policy on equity. The goal of this manual is to make fiscal incidence analysis accessible and easy to apply for policymakers, researchers and students around the world.