Women in Economics: Amanda Michaud
This 26-minute podcast was released Oct. 20, 2021.
“We learned something about how to evaluate criminal justice policy,” says Amanda Michaud, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She talks with Jennifer Beatty, an assistant vice president at the St. Louis Fed, about her research on how criminal justice policy may affect employment among men of prime working age.
Jennifer Beatty: Hello, I'm Jenn Beatty, and you're listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today I'm joined by Amanda Michaud, senior economist at the St. Louis Fed. Amanda, thanks for joining me today. Can you tell me a little bit more about your role here?
Amanda Michaud: Hi, Jenn. Thanks for having me. So I'm a senior economist here at the St. Louis Fed, and my job is primarily two things. The first is I am staying on top of frontier research and economics, partly by producing research in economics, and also keeping track of what's going on in the profession, what's new in research, what are we learning. And then I'm taking the knowledge from that side of my job and I'm applying it to our policy role.
Here at the bank we have a couple of objectives. We like to monitor inflation and are concerned about maximum employment. And so I use the knowledge from the research side of my job to help our leadership work on those goals.
Beatty: That sounds really exciting being on the frontier of research. So tell me more exactly what that means. You talked a little bit about the Fed mandates, what does it really mean to be on the frontier of research?
Michaud: Well, here's an example that's closely related to my own research. The Fed has a mandate to try to promote maximum employment in the United States, and what does that mean? So maximum employment, it means that all the people, or most of the people who want to work can work. But what you see in the data is that overtime, the amount of people who are actively participating in the labor market tends to change. So part of my research is that I study trends in these markets. You see that women are participating more overtime. But actually, prime aged men are participating less. So we want to understand are those choices or are there constraints? Do those people want to participate, but they can't find jobs? Or are they choosing other paths in their life? That's important for us and our policy goals, because if people are just making choices or there are things outside of our purview that you hear at the Fed that are affecting your ability to find jobs. Then the, you know, influences how we're going to use our limited tools to promote our goals.
One part of my research, I looked at the role of criminal justice policy and employment among prime age men. And one idea there is that experiences in the prison system or having a criminal record might prevent some men from going and finding jobs once they're released. And that is a little bit outside of what we do at the Fed, but it does speak to our tools somewhat. And we're trying to understand is that affecting the data that we see right now and our ability to influence it.
Beatty: So, that's perhaps a surprising study that you would look at criminal justice policy or incarceration rates. In that research, what were your findings, and how do those findings get used in the economics field to set policy?
Michaud: Yeah, so my research on criminal justice policy, as I said, I was concerned with the decline in male employment basically from the 1970s onward, and that lines up pretty well with the timing of when the U.S. started to imprison a greater share of the population. There were different policy changes such as, you know, the war on crime, or three strikes. There's evidence that actually district attorneys started becoming more harsh in the charges that they would bring against accused criminals for, for various reasons. And so, you just start with this kind of view of the data that these things seem to be related. The magnitudes of people going through the criminal justice system is very large.
But that doesn't, of course, imply any sort of causation. We don't know which way the causation would even go. Is it that employment prospects got worse, and so more people went into crime? Or is that criminal justice policy changed and then that fundamentally changed the employment prospects for people at risk of going into crime?
So what we do is we construct a structural model that just tries to tell us where to look to figure out that causality. And the key thing that we found in the criminal justice data was that criminal behavior tends to be very persistent. So we developed an idea that we wanted to test and it's the following.
Criminal justice policy changed very rapidly in the U.S., and we thought that people who were already involved in crime probably weren't able to change their behavior as quickly as the policy was changing. For example, these people might be involved in gangs, they might not have chosen to finish their high school degrees, because the penalties at the time, you know, weren't that harsh. So when you make the penalties more harsh, they can't undo those past choices. They've already kind of chosen a path that's difficult to change very quickly.
So we thought that these people might end up going through the criminal justice system at a higher rate. And there is some evidence that going through the criminal justice system makes your employment prospects worse off afterwards and might even make you more likely to do crime.
So in the data, we looked and we saw that yes, indeed, the cohort who was young, in the prime crime ages between, you know, let's say 15 and 30, in the early '80s when the criminal justice policies started to change, actually go to prison more often than generations before them. That's perhaps not surprising. But they also go through prison more often than generations after them. So what we see there is that behavior is able to adjust. There is some deterring effect from punitive justice policy, but it's stronger on new generations. Generations that make their choices over their entire lives under a new, harsher penalty system.
So you walk away with that thinking a couple different things. We learned something about how to evaluate criminal justice policy. A lot of studies in microeconomics use short term variation to try to figure out the influence of a policy. What we're seeing is that short term variation actually isn't enough. These policies take a long time to have deterring effects, and you can see them play out over many decades. The other is that when you're now trying to think about labor markets, it's not a point in time story to look at the impact of criminal justice policy. It's more of a cohort story. So the role of prison seems to be greater in the employment outcomes of this one generation than it is for younger generations. And that helps us, just generally understand the health of labor markets, what's going on with participation, what other factors that you might not think about are limiting people from finding employment.
Beatty: Thank you for that. Let's start at the beginning of how you actually came to choose economics as a field of study. I know you went to the University of Rochester, and then you went on to get your Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. What attracted you most to the field?
Michaud: That's an interesting question. So I did not set out with ambitions to be an economist. I had never taken an economics course. To be quite honest, I was probably a little bit intimidated by the field. I thought, it's all about the stock market, it's all about banking. And at that time, as an 18-year-old starting college, those weren't the things that were on the front of my mind.
So I took many courses when I started out in different fields just trying to figure out what I liked, and I found myself really missing mathematics. And so I took more mathematics courses, and my advisor at Rochester, who was actually a chemist, said that I might like economics. So I tried an economics course, and what I found was that economics was a very good way to organize your thoughts to understand many different things. I'm curious about many different things in the world. You can see in my research, I have research in international finance, but also in female labor force participation. I want to understand lots of things going on around me, and economics really gives you that tool. It boils down these complex problems, diverse problems into simple ideas that you can actually put structure around, so we can agree on that structure and then we can have a solution to what is correct in the data and what is not. Now, you know, that's not the end of the discussion, because our models simplify the world, but it's a good start to a discussion and a good way to frame a discussion in a way that we're speaking the same language, and, and we understand the argument.
Beatty: So throughout your educational career, you had mentors. You mentioned a professor who was a chemist who helped steer you in the direction of economics. How have these mentors throughout your education or your career supported you?
Michaud: So I want to say something about mentorship. It's not this massive endeavor that I think some people might think it is. You don't have to have a long run relationship with somebody. You don't have to be heavily involved in what they are doing. I would consider people who have mentored me to be people who have talked to me for five minutes at a conference that provided feedback on my work, showed that they were even interested in my work. I don't care if it's critical feedback. Actually, I would prefer critical feedback. That's very useful. And as somebody's giving you critical feedback, it means that they listened to you enough, and were interested in it enough to be able to provide that feedback.
So these little interactions over time, they add up and they're very important. And, and people should know that they matter, and taking that five minutes is very impactful on a person.
Of course, there are people who I've had longer relationships with who have provided me with advice. At the end of the day though, it's up to you. The advice is very useful, but you make your own decisions, and you collect data about the world and your profession and choose what you're going to do next.
Beatty: I want to dig deeper on a comment that you made. It’s an interesting take on mentoring. And you raised the question of critical feedback. Certainly that’s an aspect of the economics field that has come up on this podcast series before—this reputation for critical review of people's research and how that might impact a younger person in the field. I just wanted to see if you had any comments or wanted to speak to that? Is it true? And how have you seen that evolve in the profession?
Michaud: There's certainly no shortage of critical feedback in the economics profession. You are correct. So part of what you need to learn to do as an economist is separate the signal from the noise.
I remember when I first started out, you know, I was submitting my job market paper to different places, and I was getting feedback that would push me in 20 different directions. And, of course, when I was just starting out, I didn't really have enough experience or know better, and I tried to write one paper that went in about 20 different directions. So you learn to trust yourself a little bit and understand what feedback useful, and what feedback is not, and what criticism makes sense, and what criticism seem to be hostile perhaps.
But unfortunately, you know, sometimes these criticisms can be material in how they affect your career, and that's – you also have to realize what you can't change. You're always going to face setbacks in certain ways. There's a lot of luck in this profession, but this profession's worth it. You just keep trying and you're not always going to be unlucky, and you're not always going to get a bad draw of somebody who just wants to be grumpy with you and not provide you with useful feedback.
Beatty: So, tell me a little bit more about your experiences prior to coming to the St. Louis Fed. You worked in academia, you were a tenured professor at Indiana and at the University of Western Ontario. So, you had experiences of being a student and also advising students and working in the academic field. Is there anything you might want to share with this audience, or any advice you might want to give to women who are considering pursuing a field in academia?
Michaud: I'll start with my own experience and then I'll, I'll talk a little bit about advice.
So I've been what I view as fortunate in my academic career. All of the places that I've been really have an emphasis on teamwork and a desire to build the profession, not just individuals or build our body of knowledge. So Minnesota was a fantastic place to work on your Ph.D. studies. The professors were very involved with the students. The students were collective and talking with each other all the time. At some point when you're a student, you have to admit that you have areas of ignorance and that you need help, and your other students are going to help you. The sooner you can break down that barrier, the better your outcomes are. And you see that with, you know, the most famous economists that you know. They'll tell you when they don't understand something, and they want you to explain it to them in a way that they understand. And indeed, there are things that they don't immediately understand.
Indiana was probably the best first job I could have had because that teamwork persisted in the group of macro economists that I was working with. On the one hand, we all used very different research methods and studied different topics, so I learned a lot about the science. But on the other hand, we were all interested in educating the students and having our students go out, get great jobs, and push knowledge forward. So it was really nice to be on a very supportive team. I look back fondly on my days at Indiana.
But when I moved to Western Ontario, I was happy to find much the same. Again, the group was always in the office, always talking with each other. But the light was that I got to meet people who were studying even different things. Some of my junior colleagues were more into economic theory, and they would come to my office. We would discuss problems I never thought about discussing before, and we'd find parallels between our research. And that's really how you push boundaries.
The Fed has a lot of that as well. Some people think that the Federal Reserve is entirely macro economists studying money, banking. That's not the case. We have people who study climate. We have people who study labor. We have people who study trade, and development. Everybody's in the office, and we also have some common goals around policy. But just in general, we like talking to each other and we like trying to learn something new.
So I've had fantastic experiences in all of these roles. Some people ask me, you know, do you prefer the Fed or do you prefer academia? I think both are amazing career options. I've enjoyed my time with both Feds and in academia.
Now, I can tell you a little bit in terms of advice about particularly women starting their careers. Our gender is a form of identity and we try to find experiences that are shared by other people who share that identity. And I think that being a woman in economics, you do have some particular experiences. Some are good and some are challenges. The one thing that I found that seemed to coalesce all the experiences together started when I submitted my very first paper to a journal. So in my job market paper I had found a pretty elegant solution to a difficult math problem. And when I got back that first round of referee reports, one of the referees said, “Wow, you know, this is an elegant solution. I really like it. Did she really think of it herself?” And there's nothing inherently gender based about that, but you kind of look at it in the view of other experiences you have, and you start to wonder. So I had a little bit of a crisis moment. You know, I can produce good research, but then people don't believe that I did, so how would I ever be successful in this field? But then I realized there was a pretty simple solution.
So people might have different expectations, or what we would call an economics priors about what they think you're capable of, or what they think your priorities are, or what they think your skills are. And the only way to change those priors or those expectations is by doing things. You want to actually be louder. You want to say more at conferences You want to put yourself out there more and show people who you are and what you're doing, and that you belong. So even if they think in the beginning that maybe you're different than other people, or you might not be as skilled, by just repeating yourself, by saying smart things during conferences, you'll show them that you belong there because you do belong there, because you do have those skills.
And I see my former students and people who I have mentored out in their first jobs, and I talk with them about their challenges, and in some ways, I don't know exactly how to say this, but it gets better. And I think a big part of that is, is because people get to know you as a person instead of just one member of a group identity.
Beatty: That's a powerful story. I want to flip a little bit and talk about some of your most recent endeavors in your career. You served as the senior economist on the White House Council of Economic Advisors. What kind of work were you doing there? It just sounds fascinating. And what were the problems that you were trying to solve?
Michaud: The Council of Economic Advisors or the CEA at the White House is an interesting organization because there's nothing really set in stone about how the CEA should operate. There are very few rules around what the CEA does. It's more or less what the current administration or the current chair wants to make of it.
Now historically, the council's been staffed by research economists, maybe from academia, maybe from Feds, usually Ph.D. economists, and they served a very special role in government, because what they do is, they come from these backgrounds very much outside of government, and they carry over between administrations. So it's not uncommon to see people serve on the council under two administrations, and it's very rare to see the council completely cleaned out and restaffed when an administration changes.
Now this achieves two things. The first is you're having people come from outside government, and that's powerful because there's no conflict of interest. Most of the people on the CEA are not interested in finding permanent jobs in government. They also have to go back to their institutions and be liable to their colleagues and other people in the profession when they leave the CEA. So that kind of does a couple things. It means that they're not beholden to a boss. They're willing to speak the truth because they're going to go back to their other jobs. And the other is that they're professional economists. They're more interested in the science than providing a specific result, and that's respected within the government. So historically, the CEA builds its clout on those two things, and they'll get lots of requests from other branches of government to look over a policy analysis, or suggest policy changes, or assess current situations. And, of course, they can also speak directly to the President.
But that's not always true. Like I said, each CEA functions however the chair or the administration would like it to function. And in times when these historic precedents aren't followed, you'll see econ Ph.Ds. show up in other parts of government. You'll see more econ Ph.Ds. hired by, you know, Department of Treasury, Department of Labor and so forth. So I think that said, is that economists in general have great influence and are valued in government. And actually, this influence can come from outside of government. I want people to know that there's not anything particularly special about going and taking a job in government in terms of the impact that you can have. So, you know, economics is generally respected for the rigor that it provides and the clarity, really. And if respected economists are critical about what government's doing, they will be heard. I saw this on the CEA. We definitely heard when people were critical about policy, and that challenged us.
Finally, if you have a body like the CEA, it's only a few economists, and the questions and the challenges come so quickly that we're not starting from scratch in studying every issue. We lean heavily on academic papers. I felt free to call people up who I knew were experts around the questions that we were studying. And so people outside of government have a ton of influence. People who are Ph.D. economists, and also undergrads who were working for us as sort of assistant economists. They were fantastic. So they are some of the hardest working, most professional, smartest people that I met, and yeah. You, you don't necessarily have to have a Ph.D. to make that impact.
Beatty: Okay. So, you talked about the importance of your voice being heard. I just wondered what it's like for your and for others to kind of inspire this next generation of, of women entering the labor force and how important it is for women and underrepresented minorities to have their voice heard in the field of economics.
Michaud: I think it's important to have a variety of voices heard in the field of economics. I spoke before about gender as a form of identity. And it's usually around these identities that we collect experiences, and we start to learn about the diversity of experiences out there.
So that's true of the economic profession. I want the best and brightest and most motivated people to be in my profession, because those are the people I learn from. I also want people who have a variety of experiences and interesting takes on questions and interesting things to say to be in my profession. So when you start to hear stories that are collected by identity of maybe women feeling hostility in the profession or minorities feeling unwelcomed in the profession, I take that as symptomatic that it's not a welcoming profession. It doesn't mean that those problems are exclusive to certain groups. It means that we might want to reflect on what we're doing to make sure that we're welcoming to people who maybe aren't like us, people who have different views, different backgrounds, and so forth so that the profession truly is diverse and doing the best that it can to answer the very important questions that there are in economics, because as you said, it's about having a voice. And I think that economics gives you a very loud voice, and we want to make sure that that voice is not too narrow in how we're thinking.
Beatty: Great. Thanks, Amanda, for joining us today and sharing your experiences. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word Stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream Women in Economics on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Stitcher. Or ask your Amazon device, “Alexa, play Women in Economics from Tune In.”
This podcast features conversations with women and underrepresented minorities who are making their marks in the field of economics. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.