September 7, 2004
Volume 57, Number 03
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September 7, 2004
Dezhbakhsh goes to Washington for GAO
Many professors take sabbatical time to finish a book
or visit another university to teach a class. Hashem Dezhbakhsh wanted
an entirely different experience. He spent his 2003–04 sabbatical
at the General Accountability Office (GAO) in Washington.
“The GAO is a wonderful place for people who do policy-oriented research,” said
Dezhbakhsh, a newly promoted professor of economics. The department’s director
of undergraduate studies, Dezhbakhsh also is acting department chair, so he isn’t
lacking for activity upon his return to Emory.
Dezhbakhsh spent almost nine months (mid-August 2003 to April 2004) working not
only on his own research but contributing to GAO work. He played a role in the
completion of two prominent studies: a tracking of the relationship between the
performance of government programs and their budgets; and a study on whether
the mergers of several oil companies in the 1990s had an effect on gas prices.
Performance-based budgeting was an idea that first came about in 1950 but didn’t
really develop legs until the Clinton administration. When George W. Bush took
office, more reforms were instituted, and now there are enough data to determine
whether performance of discretionary programs affects budget allocation (mandated
programs, such as Social Security, were not studied).
“On one side you have the public, which you can argue would like to see
some accountability from government,” said Dezhbakhsh, who had been doing
some of his own research on budgeting before going to the GAO (which until recently
had been known as the General Accounting Office). “Then you have the bureaucrats,
who probably are happy with the status quo. They don’t want additional
competition, they don’t want substantial scrutinizing, and perhaps many
of them don’t like the idea of having their funding linked to how well
they do. Then you have the policy makers.
“So you can look at it as a three-player game among the public that wants
it, the bureaucrats who don’t and the politicians. Politicians cannot come
out and say they don’t want it. For a long time they have introduced legislation
suggesting they really want to have increased accountability, but at the same
time, funding is a source of power. When you try to share power, you see some
tension. So, they may not be too eager to give up that power.”
After studying the data, Dezhbakhsh found a relationship, but not a particularly
strong one. The effect is more prevalent for small programs, and budgeting is
used more frequently to penalize programs than to reward them.
“There is a compromise,” he said. “You start with the smaller
programs and apply budgeting in a punitive fashion rather than as a reward. It’s
less costly to penalize the weaker than to reward the stronger programs.”
recently completed an academic paper on the relationship and will submit it to
economic or political science journals. Dezhbakhsh also provided the Council
of Economic Advisers with a copy for its use.
Dezhbakhsh’s contributions to the oil-company merger study were mostly
methodological, but when the results came out in May, they made a huge impact.
“[Some] economists argue that when firms merge, they try to capitalize
on ‘scale economies,’” Dezhbakhsh said. “They try to
reduce the cost of producing, gain efficiencies, get rid of duplicate structures
and the reduced costs are passed onto consumers in the form of lower prices.
“There is another school of thought that argues firms merge so that they
have less competition,” he continued. “They own a larger percentage
of the market and they can control the price better. That leads to a price increase.
Ultimately it becomes an empirical issue. Let’s look at it and see what’s
That’s what the GAO researchers did, and they found that increased market
concentration led to higher wholesale gas prices. The increase was as high as
7 cents a gallon for certain fuels sold in California through 2000.
The results of the study released in May led, in part, to a contentious debate
in the Senate concerning President Bush’s nominee to head the Federal Trade
Commission (FTC). The debate was related to the agency’s policies regarding
petroleum industry mergers, and the study was used as evidence of price gouging
in the gasoline industry as a result of the FTC’s merger policies in the
Dezhbakhsh contributed to other studies as well. One of his methodological suggestions
led researchers to uncover a pattern in wage gap between men and women, one that
had been shrinking until 2000, when it widened following Bush’s election.
The study that resulted found its way to the website of a Democratic Congresswoman—the
politicization of the nonpartisan GAO research was plain to see.
“Here you are sitting in a meeting, you are having an intellectual exchange,
all of a sudden there is a suggestion, then two weeks later a report is affected
by these suggestions and the result makes it to the webpage of a lawmaker,” Dezhbakhsh
said. “That is fascinating.”
Dezhbakhsh and his co-writers are working to turn his efforts with the oil industry
study into an academic paper similar to his performance-based budget piece.
“The advantage of being at the GAO was having access to the data and then
having the opportunity to talk to people who work on budget issues all year long,” he
said. “They are familiar with a lot of the subtleties.”
Dezhbakhsh’s relationship with the GAO isn’t finished. He invited
its head, Comptroller General David Walker, to Emory for a public presentation
on some of the strategic issues that face the United States in the 21st century.
Walker accepted, and the two are working to secure an appearance date.