At Age 26, Jesse Shapiro Practices Accessible Economics. 'I'm Happy to Do That.'
Macomber, Shawn, The American (Washington, DC)
IN THE MALKIN Penthouse of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, janitors worked in the fading light of afternoon to dismantle coffee urns and rearrange furniture. They also tried, gently, to disperse the crowd that had gathered around a 26-year-old academic wunderkind named Jesse Shapiro. Shapiro, who received his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 2005, is a fellow at the University of Chicago's Becker Center. He was wrapping up a brief triumphal tour of Cambridge with a one-day guest appearance. He could easily have used this custodial nudging to beg off any further discussion. Instead, he moved the freewheeling seminar that was dissecting his presentation--"What Drives News Media Slant?"--to a narrow passageway downstairs. Never flustered, always engaged, Shapiro defended his work, pausing occasionally to jot down a bit of constructive criticism.
"The whole fun of giving seminars or presenting a paper is the give and take with the audience," Shapiro said later. For many of his challengers, the respect was mutual. "This is one of the best studies in this area I've seen in 35 years," says Benjamin Compaine, who teaches at Northeastern University.
Shapiro and his co-author, Matthew Gentzkow, applied a "revealed preference ... measure" based on partisan keywords--such as "estate tax" versus "death tax"--to a wide slate of U.S. newspapers, cross-referenced with the voting preferences of readers. Shapiro and Gentzkow found that even the most ideological newspaper owners face market discipline. The political bias of a particular paper is much more likely to match the voting preferences of its local audience than the beliefs of its owner.
Shapiro has rapidly grown to prominence in his field by finding clever ways to apply economic principles outside traditional areas. Topics have included the roots of obesity in America, how TV ads affect urban development, the effect of prison on inmates, and the role of charisma in U.S. elections.
For that last project, Shapiro and co-author Daniel Benjamin showed subjects silent video clips of unfamiliar gubernatorial debates. The subjects were then asked to predict the vote share each candidate would receive. Their snap judgments turned out to have more predictive power than traditional economic variables did. But when Shapiro and Benjamin turned the sound on, the predictions became less accurate. …