I'm a Ph.D. Candidate in Economics in The Vancouver School of Economics at The University of British Columbia. My primary research interests are in Political Economy, Development Economics, and Economic History.

My current research agenda focuses on the determinants of state capacity in developing countries, and on the long-term impact of conflict on economic development. You can find my CV, here

Email: jf.riano@alumni.ubc.ca
Mailing Address: Iona 6000, Vancouver, BC Canada
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Working Papers
Political Competition and State Capacity: Evidence from a Land Allocation Program in Mexico
with Leopoldo Fergusson & Horacio Larreguy (Revise & Resubmit to The Economic Journal)
We develop a model of the politics of state capacity building undertaken by incumbent parties that have a comparative advantage in clientelism rather than in public goods provision. The model predicts that, when challenged by opponents, clientelistic incumbents have the incentive to prevent investments in state capacity. We provide empirical support for the model’s implications by studying policy decisions by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that affected local state capacity across Mexican municipalities and over time. Our difference-in-differences and instrumental variable identification strategies exploit a national shock that threatened the Mexican government’s hegemony in the early 1960s. The intensity of this shock, which varied across municipalities, was partly explained by severe droughts that occurred during the 1950s.

Collateral Damage: Legacy of the Secret War in Laos
with Felipe Valencia (submitted)
As part of its Cold War counterinsurgency operations in Southeast Asia, the U.S. government conducted a "Secret War" in Laos from 1964-1973. This war constituted one of the most intensive bombing campaigns in human history. As a result, Laos is now severely contaminated with UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) and remains one of the poorest countries in the world. In this paper we document the negative long-term impact of conflict on economic development, using highly disaggregated and newly available data on bombing campaigns, satellite imagery and development outcomes. We find a negative, significant and economically meaningful impact of bombings on nighttime lights, expenditures and poverty rates. Almost 50 years after the conflict officially ended, bombed regions are poorer today and are growing at slower rates than unbombed areas. A one standard deviation increase in the total pounds of bombs dropped is associated with a 9.3% fall in GDP per capita. To deal with the potential endogeneity of bombing, we use as instruments the distance to the Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh Trail as well as US military airbases outside Laos. Using census data at the village and individual levels, we show the deleterious impact of UXOs in terms of health, as well as education, structural transformation and rural-urban migration.

Media, Secret Ballot and the Process of Democratization in the United States
with Leopoldo Fergusson & BK Song (submitted)
Can the media determine the success or failure of institutional reforms? We study the adoption of secret voting in the US and the role of media in this arguably crucial step to improve democracy. Using a difference-in-difference identification strategy and a rich dataset on local newspapers, we find that areas with high levels of media penetration exhibited multiple improvements in democratization outcomes following the adoption of the electoral reform. Specifically, the press contributed to the decrease in partisan attachment and support for dominant parties. It undermined the unintended consequence of the manipulation of electoral boundaries and the fall in turnout. We consider multiple concerns about our identification strategy and address the potential endogeneity of newspapers using an instrumental variable approach that exploits the introduction of wood-pulp paper technology, and woodland coverage at the county level in 1880. Exploring the heterogeneous effects of our results, we argue that the media mattered through the distribution of information to voters, and the increase of public awareness about political misconduct.

Social Dissent, Coercive Capacity, and Redistribution: Evidence from Authoritarian Mexico
with Horacio Larreguy & Mariano Sánchez Talanquer
The extent to which authoritarian regimes use coercive, relative to redistributive, strategies to manage social dissent exhibit significant variation across the territory they govern. We argue that the incidence of different authoritarian tactics to deal with dissent depends on the coercive capacity of the state, which autocrats often inherit from the past. Where autocrats facing increasing discontent can rely on their capacity to coerce regime dissidents, they are more likely to eschew redistributive strategies. In contrast, dissent increases the likelihood of redistribution where autocrats lack readily-available tools for coercion. We provide empirical support for this argument primarily using a difference-in-differences identification strategy that exploits three sources of variation. First, we use a land reform that between 1910 and 1992 redistributed more than 50% of Mexico’s agricultural land. Second, we exploit a wave of dissent around the 1960s. Finally, we use municipal data on the availability of loyal semi-formal militias to coerce dissidents. Our results indicate that, when confronted with dissent, the PRI regime redistributed relatively less land in municipalities with more rural militia presence. We also show that, in those municipalities, events expressing social discontent were more successfully deterred. The study sheds light on how state coercive capacity shapes authoritarian strategies.

Bureaucratic Nepotism
Job Market Paper (draft in progress)
Nepotism is one of the most chronic pathologies within public administrations around the world and one especially endemic to developing countries. Yet, empirical evidence on the impact of this behavior on the functioning of the state is scarce. In this paper, I document how family connections within the public administrations could distort the process of hiring, promotion, and compensation of civil servants, and how these strategically respond to the enforcement of anti-nepotism legislation. I also investigate how the presence of nepotistic career paths ultimately relates to the performance of governmental agencies and individual bureaucrats. My analysis focuses on the Colombian public administration and its entire bureaucratic system. I use un-anonymized administrative data on the universe of civil servants and their family members in the first degree of consanguinity. Based on this, I reconstruct bureaucratic family networks and full career paths of public servants. My empirical strategy exploits discontinuities in anti-nepotistic legislation and the political turnover of top bureaucrats to evaluate the impact of kinship ties on civil servants' outcomes. As opposed to most of the literature on patronage and political quid-pro-quo exchange, I emphasize the role of kinship networks within the complete hierarchical structure of the state, from top managers to low tier bureaucrats, regardless of the political affiliation of individuals and their inherent jurisdictional power.
Conflict, Educational Attainment, and Structural Transformation: La Violencia in Colombia
with Leopoldo Fergusson, & Ana Maria Ibañez in Economic Development and Cultural Change. 69(1), 335-371. The Univeristy of Chicago Press, 2020.
We examine the long-term impact of violence on educational attainment, with evidence from Colombia's La Violencia. Individuals exposed to violence during, and especially before, their schooling years experience a significant and economically meaningful decrease in years of schooling. This impact has consequences beyond human capital accumulation: exposed cohorts engage in activities with less human capital content. Violence thus influenced aggregate development - particularly the process of structural transformation, in which some sectors gain prominence as income increases. The effects result not so much from the direct destruction of physical infrastructure, but from affected households' responses to the hardships of conflict.

Consumers as VAT Evaders: Incidence, Social Bias, and Correlates in Colombia
with Leopoldo Fergusson, & Carlos Molina in Economía Journal 19(2), 21-67. Brookings Institution Press, 2019.
Tax evasion lies at the core of the relationship between citizens and the state: it reflects the level of trust in the state and compliance with society’s implicit ‘social contract’. However, empirically analyzing it is challenging, with few direct and reliable measures. This has hampered the advancement of the theoretical and empirical literature, which is especially underdeveloped in the case of indirect tax evasion. We conduct list experiments on a large sample of households to estimate the incidence of value-added tax (VAT) evasion, as well as the extent of social desirability bias in respondent answers. Around 20% of respondents engage in evasion and, surprisingly, they are not ashamed to recognize this openly. Evasion is more prevalent in places with more informality and less physical presence of the state, as well as among poorer, less educated individuals, and those who disregard the rule of law.

I Sell My Vote, and So What? Incidence, Social Bias, and Correlates of Clientelism in Colombia
with Leopoldo Fergusson, & Carlos Molina in Economía Journal 19(1), 181-218. Brookings Institution Press, 2018.
Exchanging one’s vote for particularistic benefits—practices usually grouped under clientelism—is often thought to weaken programmatic links between citizens and politicians and disincentivize public good provision, as well as undermine voter autonomy and the ideal role of elections. However, empirically analyzing this key phenomenon for the working of democracies entails formidable challenges. We conduct list experiments on a large sample of households to estimate the incidence of clientelistic vote buying, as well as the extent to which respondents refrain from openly recognizing this behavior. Nearly one out of every five respondents engage in clientelism, and, surprisingly, they do not feel ashamed to admit it. Guided by the existing literature and systematically verifying the sensitivity of the results to model specification, we examine the robust correlates of clientelism and discuss the implications of our key findings.