Introducing Jonathan K. Hanson, incoming statistics instructor

July 21, 2015

The Ford School is delighted to announce that a number of faculty members will join our community this fall. To introduce them to the Ford School and University, we’re running weekly Q&As throughout the summer that touch on their policy and personal interests alike.

Here’s Jonathan Hanson on why institutional capacity matters when we’re talking about policy, what he loves about teaching statistics, his six-year stint on Capitol Hill, and Michigan football.

Q: Describe one of your recent studies.

Hanson: In my dissertation I worked to figure out the relationship between political institutions and economic growth. Different kinds of institutional qualities matter at different points in the process of economic development. For developing countries, what really seems to matter is state capacity—to produce infrastructure, create sound macroeconomic policy, and so on. In highly developed countries, we talk about constrained rulers as being virtuous for supporting economic development, but that seems to be less crucial for early stage economic development.

Since then I’ve been working on a big statistical project to attempt to measure, across countries and over time, the level of state capacity. By capacity I mean the ability of countries to implement policies, to raise revenues, to keep order, to defend their territory from external threats. If we want to figure out how effective public policies are, we need a baseline for how effective states are.

I’ve collected a couple of dozen indicators of things that are correlated with capacity and use that as a proxy to evaluate state capacity. For example, one of the things that we think is crucial to state capacity is sophistication of the state’s tax collection apparatus. All states need revenue, but how they get that revenue differs. Does the state levy income taxes or tax international trade? Collecting revenue through income taxes requires advanced record-keeping and data collection, so that’s a good marker for state capacity.

Q: Whose work has been most influential on your career path?

Hanson: The big theoretical work that’s really been motivating for me is from a Nobel-prize winning economist named Douglass North who is known for “new institutional economic theory.” One of his well-known works is Structure and Change in Economic History (Norton 1982), where he makes the argument that neoclassical economic theory has neglected the role of institutions in economics. From the standpoint of political science, it’s obvious that institutions matter. But then the question is how do they matter? In what ways do they matter for economic growth? For improving infant health? For promoting educational achievement? All the details need to be fleshed out.

Q: What courses do you plan to teach in the coming year?

Hanson: I’ll be teaching Intro to Statistics for master’s students (Pub Pol 529) and two associated lab-based courses with Excel (Pub Pol 648) and Stata (Pub Pol 567). I love to take a difficult subject that a lot of students are not really excited about studying and make it relevant, intuitive, and useful for them so that the reluctance goes away and they can use statistics as a tool for their work. I like to believe I can walk into any classroom and make that happen.

Q: Something most people don’t know about you?

Hanson: I grew up in South Dakota and that’s a core part of my identity, although I haven’t lived there for a long time now. I went to Harvard then worked in DC for six years as a legislative assistant for my Congressional Representative Tim Johnson. So my first job coming out of college was to be involved in his reelection campaign in 1992.

In 1996, he took on an incumbent senator from our state and decided he was going to challenge him for the seat. I did a lot of his campaign research. He won, and then I spent a couple of years on the Senate side and enjoyed the new perspective from that side of Capitol Hill. I got to see my boss’s vote be a deciding vote on a number of issues.

Q: An example?

Hanson: There was a one-vote margin against the balanced budget amendment. Although I think a balanced budget is attractive, putting it into the Constitution would be terrible public policy. And the recent fiscal crisis that we’ve gone through has illustrated that perfectly. You need to run a deficit occasionally. That’s just part of the economic cycle.

Q: How did you wind up focusing on statistics?

Hanson: While I loved working on Capitol Hill, I felt like something was missing—a depth of exploration on issues I cared about. I went to the University of Michigan to study political science and worked with a lot of great professors. When I started the program I had no idea I would grow to really love statistical work. I remember starting out thinking, ‘okay I have to do this and it’s going to be hard work,’ but it turned out I found it very useful and more importantly, I found it really interesting.

One of my professors, Chris Achen, said “Don’t you think you have the desire to help other people get this and do it right?” At the time, I didn’t, but a few years later I had a completely different perspective. I said this is really fun to teach. It’s challenging, it’s a lot of hard work, but the reward is really high because you can really see student improvement. After graduation I got a job at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse, and I’ve been teaching statistics to undergraduate and graduate students ever since.

Q: Defining moment?

Hanson: Becoming a father. I’ve got three kids. My daughter’s 14 and I have sons who are 11 and 8 and they keep me running ragged all the time.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Hanson: I downhill ski, read science fiction and fantasy books, and follow Michigan sports. I’m a die-hard Michigan football fan.

Q: Are you excited about Harbaugh?

Hanson: I’m really excited. I love the energy he brings. I think he’s going to make a very good impact. I do believe he’s going to turn things around.

Q: The superpower you have, or wish you had?

Hanson: I would love to fly. Sometimes I dream that I’m flying, and it’s so much fun.


Check out Jonathan's bio and head over to Twitter to welcome him back to the University of Michigan and, for the first time, to the Ford School.