It was not obvious that Raquel Fernández would become an economist.
Now internationally admired for her groundbreaking work on the interplay of culture and economics, Fernández initially intended to major in physics and was bored by her introductory macroeconomics class as an undergraduate at Princeton University. Nonetheless, finding that physics did not allow her to pursue any of her other interests, she became drawn to the flexibility of economics, intrigued by the field’s ability to allow her to combine the discipline of mathematics with the insights of other disciplines that fascinated her, such as history and philosophy. Still, although she admired, as she says, “the beautiful edifice” of economics, and pursued a doctorate in it at Columbia University, she initially thought of the field as more artful than useful.
“But I have changed,” she says, “and economics has changed.” Economics is increasingly shaped by an emphasis on empirical work, which has transformed the discipline and its contributions to society. Many economists now hold less rigid beliefs regarding the “right assumptions” they should make in their models, and it is now perfectly respectable to ask questions about the role of culture in the study of some outcomes such as education, or labor force participation. This is in no small part due to the wide influence of Fernández’s work.
Take this question: Why does the proportion of women who work outside the home vary so widely across countries and over time? “Economists tended to believe that you come to the world with preferences and endowments and you make decisions to maximize your utility,” Fernández explains. Thus, a traditional economist would answer the question by evaluating institutions, transportation, endowments (such as education), and policies (such as whether a country subsidizes daycare). These are the fundamentals of economics. Attributing any role to culture was considered “ad hoc”—an economist’s favorite insult for work done in a non-rigorous fashion. But Fernández is invested in revealing the significance of culture. Her co-authored paper with Alessandra Fogli, “Culture: An Empirical Investigation of Beliefs, Work, and Fertility,” proposed to understand international differences in the percentage of women who work outside the home by examining one group of women in the United States: those born in this country to parents born elsewhere. Immigrant parents cannot bring institutions from their native country with them. They cannot import transportation systems or government-sponsored daycare. Beliefs, however, are highly portable. Fernández and Fogli found that how much women worked on average in these women’s countries of ancestry helped explain how much the first generation of women born in America (that is, the immigrants’ daughters) worked in the United States, even after controlling for a host of characteristics that might be inherited (such as education and a husband’s income). In essence, Fernández and Fogli found a way to account for the influence of culture.
This paper established a methodology for separating the influence of culture from the influence of institutions. It was a methodology that many followed, and the paper is a foundational text in the subfield of economics and culture.
Fernández’s current work in progress (with Sahar Parsa) also contributes to that field. She seeks to understand why the acceptance of gay people has changed so radically over the last thirty years. Throughout the 70s and 80s in the United States, cultural attitudes concerning gay people remained static. Yet between 1991 and 1993, there was a jump in the percentage of people who reported feelings of acceptance toward gay people. Intriguingly, the states where this surge was most notable were those where the incidence of AIDS was higher. Fernández also discovered that once she controlled for elements such as race and education, there was an important gender difference in reports of feelings of acceptance. Women, she found, accepted homosexuality more than men—and that gender gap widened in the early 90s. Why did women react more to the AIDS crisis then men? What was the role of politics, in particular Bill Clinton’s active courting of the gay vote and the subsequent national debate on gay people in the military? These are the questions she is tackling. Tracing the cross-currents of culture, their tug and give, and their interaction with economics and politics is exactly what inspires her.
Fernández loves the way that the knowledge of history allows her to study a wide variety of questions, particularly those that highlight the interaction between power, beliefs, and politics. For example: Why did married women obtain property rights? In almost all developed countries prior to the mid-nineteenth century, women lost their ability to control or own property after they married. As Fernández explained, the laws stipulated that, once married, “man and woman became one persona and that persona was the man.” Why did those laws change? Why, essentially, did men choose to give up some power to women?
In her paper “Women’s Rights and Development,” Fernández developed a model to answer this question. As the American economy grew and fertility fell, households became richer, allowing parents to pass on greater bequests to their children. Over time, both sons and daughters became better off, but the improvement in the welfare of daughters was smaller, because their husbands were able to control and manage their property, reaping most of the rewards. The growing inequality between the welfare of a father’s sons and that of his daughters was not ideal. Once the gap became wide enough, fathers preferred to allow women to manage their own property. Fernández’s model suggested a correlation between lower fertility and the desire for men to change property laws. Using variation across US states in the passing of these laws, she finds that this correlation exists empirically as well.
As vibrant and rigorous in person as she is in her work, Fernández is excited by the growth of the subfield of economics and culture. She remains interested in physics and loves reading about string theory, wormholes, and multiple parallel worlds. But, while in physics there are immutable laws, “there’s nothing like that in economics,” she said. “And there shouldn’t be.”