Socio-Economic problems seldom have perfect answers, what you need is a data driven, evidence-based, empirical approach that benefits the country and its citizens !

Aparna Mathur, our next pathbreaker, Senior Manager, Economics, at Amazon, is part of a team tasked with the goal to research and advocate for policies that could improve the lives of hourly workers at Amazon. 

Aparna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about several memorable projects including her stint as Senior Economist at the White House, in the Council of Economic Advisers, where she worked with epidemiologists to track the course of the Covid virus and its impact on the economy.

For students, Economics offers a powerful tool to analyze the world, to think about issues systematically and objectively, and approach policies from a range of perspectives with an open mind.

Aparna, what were your initial years like?

I grew up in India, studying in Loreto Convent, Lucknow till grade 4, and then moved to Delhi, to study at DPS RK Puram, and then Hindu College for a B.A. in Economics. My father, Yogendra Narain, was in the Indian Administrative Service at that time, so he was posted in Lucknow initially and then moved to Delhi. In Delhi, my mother worked as a librarian at the Times of India. I have two older brothers, one of whom studied Economics and is currently working at the Asian Development Bank in Manila, and the other is currently serving in the Indian Audit and Accounts Service. Motivated by my father and watching him in his job, I really wanted to take the UPSC exam and get into the IAS. I enjoyed traveling with him across Uttar Pradesh (when he served as Secretary to the Governor, Mr. Motilal Vohra) and visiting remote villages and hillside towns, listening to the concerns people shared with the Governor. The desire to serve and make a difference to the lives of people was what motivated me the most. However, in 1991 when I was still in high school, India experienced a balance of payments crisis and suddenly economic news, including discussions of currency valuations, imports and exports and fiscal imbalance, were everywhere. I remember reading the newspapers to make sense of what was going on, and trying to relate that to the economics I was studying in school. My passion for economics as a material subject that could impact the broader country but also the average person, grew. I started tracking measures of macroeconomic growth and unemployment, inflation, and the links between the labor market and the country’s measure of economic activity, GDP. This drove me to pursue a Master’s in Economics at Delhi School of Economics (DSE) and then later a PhD in Economics in the US, at the University of Maryland, College Park. Many former DSE students had found a home in the PhD program at UMD, including my brother, which made it easier for me to pursue that opportunity.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Driven by my interest in economics in high school, I opted for an Economics Honors program at Hindu College, then a Master’s at Delhi School of Economics, and finally a PhD in the US. 

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career? 

I really enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, the subject a lot. Economics offers a powerful tool to analyze the world, to think about issues systematically and objectively, and to approach policies from a range of perspectives. I loved reading about the big debates in economics around the types of economic systems, the pros and cons of each, the role of government and individuals in society, and when markets work and when they fail. Most importantly, I learned that there are seldom perfect answers to the big policy questions that governments, leaders, policymakers face. The best course of action is to to find solutions and get alignment. People often view things from a narrow perspective. But real solutions come from being willing to compromise and having an open mind, and basing decisions on facts, data and evidence. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I studied economics in Hindu College and then at the Delhi School of Economics. During my undergrad, I did an internship at the Tata Energy Research Institute, a think tank in Delhi focusing on energy and environmental issues. This got me interested in pursuing a PhD in environmental economics (though my interests switched later) and I wanted to apply to the US for a PhD program because I had heard of the great programs and opportunities that were offered there. However, after Hindu College, I was not absolutely certain about pursuing a Master’s and PhD right away. I was also thinking of getting a job and pursuing a business career. I had been studying for 16 years straight at this point, and knew that committing to a Master’s and a PhD meant several more years of school work. Many of my friends were getting really good offers from places like Arthur Andersen and other consulting firms, which seemed tempting. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to do consulting. So I took the Delhi School of Economics exam, qualified to get in, but then asked them if I could delay joining the program by a year. The faculty said it would be ok, so I took up a position working at a software consulting firm for a year just to experience what it felt like to have a job and earn a salary. While it had little to do with economics, I really enjoyed the work for a while. The new Apple computer and Mac software were starting to get adopted by companies, and so I spent a lot of time training myself as well as training business clients on it. But after a while, I realized I missed the research and analysis, and the larger policy questions that I could answer with economics, and so I came back to Delhi School to finish my Masters, and then applied straight away for my PhD program.

Delhi School of Economics has a tradition of sending people to University of Maryland, College Park (UMD). Thanks to Dr. Aravind Panagariya, who was teaching international trade at UMD, the faculty knew the program well which increased our chance of acceptance. I felt lucky to be accepted and also got a teaching assistantship, which helped pay for the tuition and also provided financial support so I could manage my living expenses in the US.

While I enjoyed my time at Delhi School of Economics, coming to the US opened up many more opportunities. I loved that the curriculum involved doing core courses in the first year, then choosing fields of specialization, and then deciding on a thesis topic. It was really well structured and our professors were amazing. While I had applied to the program stating that I wanted to explore environmental economics, the first year really piqued my interest in macroeconomics. This was a combination of having some really great professors like John Haltiwanger and John Shea, who made macroeconomics very real, explaining current events and how they played into the theory we were learning about. But it was also the subject that had originally made me want to do economics, from the time of India’s balance of payments crisis in 1991. 

So, I majored in macroeconomics and international finance, but I ended up writing my thesis paper using microdata on small businesses. This combination made me feel comfortable understanding how microdata (individual or household level data) could be used to understand big picture questions like aggregate unemployment or consumer spending. My thesis focused on how state level variations in bankruptcy regulations affected entry and exit of smaller businesses. I received a large cash award from the US Small Business Administration for this work, which helped pay for my expenses and my research during the last 2 years of the PhD.

How did you get your first break?

My first job out of the PhD program was at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in 2005. It’s a think tank based in DC that had a few openings for new PhD graduates, but primarily employed scholars and experts who came to AEI after decades of experience working in government or public agencies or even the private sector and academia. Think tanks play an important role in the US. They are influential politically and are often the connection between policymakers and researchers. They employ good researchers, who are typically not lobbyists for certain policies in Congress, but who can help advise on policy matters. This allows for certain independence in thinking and an ability to advise on the pros and cons of different approaches being considered by the government. I did not know too much about AEI when I joined, but learned very quickly how impactful the work could be. 

Over the course of my time at AEI, I had many such memorable experiences. I testified before the Joint Economic Committee and many other committees, on multiple different topic areas. Aside from that, I put together a working group on paid family and medical leave-the “AEI-Brookings Working Group” on Paid Family and Medical Leave- that brought together conservatives and liberals to propose a compromise, federal plan on the policy so that more parents could be helped by having access to paid time off when they have a birth of a child or experience a medical issue. The US does not currently have a federal paid leave policy that guarantees such paid time off to people who need it. Politically, there was a divide on this issue since Democrats wanted a more generous policy while Republicans opposed any government intervention. The report that our group put out got a lot of good press (coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, etc) since it tried to bridge the gap between the two sides. I was invited by Ivanka Trump to the White House to discuss the findings from this report, and it also received a lot of attention from Republicans ; many of them called up to understand how they could propose paid leave plans, both at the state as well as the federal level, that were in line with conservative principles. In 2017, I was mentioned in the Politico 50 list as one of the 50 people with ideas changing the world.

At the start of the pandemic, I went to work at the White House as Senior Economist in the Council of Economic Advisers. This was an exciting but very challenging time. Economists were brought in to work with epidemiologists so that we could track the course of the virus and also the impact on the economy. There was a high level of joblessness, and lots of decisions to be made around what types of relief programs to institute to help businesses and households. The CEA is like a think tank in the White House that does analysis and provides quick thinking points on any issue the White House needs, ranging from health to labor to tax to education to retirement. The CEA is a tiny team of fewer than 15 senior economists and some more junior economists. So we got to work on multiple different areas together. I feel grateful that I got to play a small role in helping the country during a period of crisis. I will never forget the meetings in the West Wing or the grand Eisenhower Executive Office building to which I got to walk in every day, even when the world was on lockdown. My experience during this time prompted me to research social safety net programs in the US, which is what I am doing currently at the Harvard Kennedy School.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

In my first year at AEI, I came across a study out of Harvard Medical School that quoted a statistic like, more than 60% of all bankruptcies are due to medical reasons. I had done some work on bankruptcies before, and this number sounded surprisingly high. So with no particular agenda in mind, except to validate the work with my own research, I wrote a paper on the topic using a more representative US household survey, and found that the number was significantly lower. I also pointed out several issues with the research design of the paper, given what I had learned about good surveys and analysis as part of my PhD. I published that as an AEI working paper, and within a few weeks, I received a call from a staffer on Capitol Hill, asking if I would come and testify to Congress about my research and to refute the findings of the other paper! I was amazed that I could be testifying to the full Senate Judiciary Committee on an empirical, research paper using the tools of economics. I testified 3 more times on that paper across different committees. The challenge of sitting in front of Congressmen, answering questions, being prepared to cite statistics and findings, and being able to express my concerns about the other research when the authors of that paper were sitting next to me, was incredible. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work as a Senior Manager in Economics at Amazon. This is a relatively new group that started within Amazon that hires economists, data scientists, applied scientists and people with qualitative research backgrounds. Our team is not even 3 years old at this point! As Amazon has grown, the need to focus not only on the customer, but on our own workers, has taken prominence as well. Amazon aims to be Earth’s Best Employer, and as part of that, has started hiring economists who have done research on labor policies, or who have good empirical skills to help Amazon evaluate the impact of it’s policies on it’s own workforce.

 While I had never worked in the private sector before, the job at Amazon relates very well to the work I have done before. Amazon employs a huge hourly workforce, which creates its own labor challenges. As part of my job, I am advocating for the best policies for our workers that will help improve their lives, ranging from competitive wages and benefits, to shift schedules, to career paths within the company from the operations to corporate roles, to education subsidies for hourly workers. Since Amazon is big, any policies it adopts, could have a ripple effect on the broader US workforce. I find the work challenging and meaningful.

In addition, I am also a senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. My research looks at the obstacles people face when they try to access social safety net programs, and how we can reform the current system to make it work better for the most vulnerable in society.

How does your work benefit society?

I have always been motivated by the possibility that I could make a difference in this world through my work and my research. Some of my earliest work looked at ways in which good policies could improve economic opportunity for disadvantaged workers. This work looked at the role played by income support programs, education opportunities and the role of job and social networks in expanding social and economic outcomes for lower income households. Later, my work with the AEI-Brookings Paid Family and Medical Leave Working group showed how the US could implement a federal policy on paid leave that would help those who were currently falling through the cracks. I have also suggested ways in which we could redesign the US tax code so that more help could be targeted where it was needed. Finally, I am currently working on a project at the Harvard Kennedy School where I am researching improvements to the US Social safety net, that suffers from issues of limited access or limited help. Even in my job at Amazon, our goal is to research and advocate for policies that could improve the lives of our hourly workers and give them stable incomes and careers at Amazon. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you! 

I have mentioned several examples above. But one additional research area that I enjoyed is a paper that I wrote right after my PhD on how high rates of corporate taxation affect workers. The traditional thinking around imposing higher corporate tax rates has been that these rates directly hurt profitable companies and rich CEOs. Therefore, in order to make companies pay their fair share of taxes, countries should have really high rates of corporate taxation. However, my research showed that high tax rates actually lower worker wages significantly. This happens because when tax rates are high, companies are less able to make investments in capital, there are fewer projects with high profitable returns, and that means that workers will have lower levels of capital to work with. This lowers worker’s productivity and leads to lower wages. So, our results showed that workers bore a large and significant burden of any corporate tax rate increases. This was a striking finding and received coverage in The Economist magazine as well as several prominent newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. It also spurred academic research into this question of incidence, and that research is still carrying on. I was excited to see that our paper was the first in this field of research, and it really changed how people and policymakers viewed this policy. Corporate tax incidence was prominently discussed during the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 that significantly lowered US corporate tax rates to 21 percent from 35 percent. A major reason cited was international competitiveness and also the effect on worker wages, that our study had found.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I think it’s important to follow your instincts for what you enjoy working on. I have never thought of my job as being separate from my broader interests in life. And that has allowed me to give it my best and to continually challenge myself to get better and set higher goals in my career. I have also had setbacks along the way. At one point, I thought I would take the CAT exam for gaining admission to the IIMs to do my MBA. I think I liked the idea of going to the IIMs more than I liked the idea of actually doing an MBA, so while I was very disappointed at the time that I did not make it, in retrospect, I think it worked out well since my primary interest was to study economics at a higher level. Also, after my undergraduate, I was uncertain about whether to go straight into a Master’s or take some time off to figure out what I wanted to do. Even though it created more uncertainty in my life, I am glad I took that year off. It helped me realize what I truly liked and wanted to do. Had I continued straight from undergrad to masters to phd, I would have probably carried that uncertainty throughout my studies and never felt a 100% commitment to my field. So, one important lesson is to always listen to yourself and know what you are committing to. And it’s ok to take a not-so straight path towards your ultimate career.

Equally important, you should know when in your career, you are ready for something different. Though many of us are stuck doing the same thing day in and day out to the point where it no longer feels challenging, we are also too nervous to step out and do something different. When you reach that point, have the courage to push yourself!

Future Plans?

Aside from my research, I want to contribute and work actively in the social sector, particularly on issues relating to education, especially for girls, maternal and child health, and women’s empowerment. My work shows that the earlier in life we address inequities, and income and resource constraints, the more we can influence future life outcomes in a positive manner. One of my research papers looked at how changes in India’s inheritance laws that allowed daughters to get an equal stake in their parent’s property lead to an increase in women’s empowerment, and possibly reduced domestic violence. I hope, through my research, to continue to contribute ideas for helping improve economic opportunity for those left behind in our current system.