Week of April 17, 2017

1. FinTech Like a State:  Aadhaar, the Indian government's unique identifier system, is now ubiquitous with 99% of citizens over 18 having an ID. That makes it a powerful platform for delivering both government programs and digital financial services. But it also raises a lot of concerns about what the government might do--or what others could do if they gain access to or corrupt the system--when it can track and/or regulate citizen behavior at a detailed level. That certainly plays into the longer-term ramifications of Indian demonetization, especially since it appears that it has driven many more people to digital transactions. CGD held an event this week with Annie Lowery interviewing Arvind Subramanian about Aadhaar, demonetization and universal basic income. I haven't gotten all the way through it yet, so I don't know whether my pre-submitted question was asked, "Which governments should be trusted with the power to deny people the ability to transact legally?"

And for some reason I feel like this piece, nominally about why Silicon Valley keeps getting biotechnology wrong, is really about FinTech.

2. Financial Literacy Like A State (University): "Shut Up About Financial Literacy" says Sara Goldrick-Rab contemplating how higher education institutions blame a lack of financial literacy for the problems students have paying for college. Here's Helaine Olen documenting the head of Penn State University's FinLit program saying: "The real problem is not the rising cost of education, it is in the... lack of financial literacy..." Goldrick-Rab cites a new paper from Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton (and here's a Chronicle of Higher Education write-up) making the case that the financial literacy movement as a whole tends to blame the victim rather than acknowledging that many of the choices that look like "low financial literacy" are in fact choices born of poverty and the racial wealth gap. That's a key element of Scott's Seeing Like A State: The drive to solve problems at scale often leads to simplified measurement systems that obscure important distinctions, or miss reality altogether, and ultimately reinforce the problems they are meant to address or create worse ones.  

3. Financial Services Regulation: You pretty much have to do financial services regulation like a state. In the United States one of the main financial regulators is the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). This week we learned that the OCC had received more than 700 whistleblower complaints about Wells Fargo's practice of opening accounts without customer knowledge or consent, but did nothing. Well not quite nothing. Matt Levine points to part of the OCC's report where it admits it focused too much on process and not enough on outcomes: "You spend so much time making sure that there are processes to stop bad things that you forget to actually stop the bad things." [You have to scroll past the amazing JuiceTech story] That's certainly another part of seeing like a state. And it's a particular concern when you get isomorphic mimicry, in Lant Pritchett's application, of financial services regulation.
On the bright side, I worry a bit less about the progress of our algorithmic overlords when apparently none of the deep learning programs noticed that videos about Wells Fargo like this or this (and many, many, many others) have been on YouTube since at least 2010. But then there's also this about how United's algorithms led to it's disastrous decision-making.

4. Behavioral Economics: If you squint real hard you can see several connections between item 2 and these papers, but it's probably not worth the effort. Here's a new paper looking at how quickly and how much social nudges wear off, in 38 different experiments. And here's a paper on an experiment in Senegal comparing time discounting in a hypothetical versus real exercise; "Our results show that hypothetical time preferences parameters are poor predictors of actual behavior."

5. Impact Investing Like A State: The most annoying version of impact investing is "negative screening," a choice not to invest in firms one doesn't like. Apparently it has started taking the Portland (OR, US) City Council too long to figure out (i.e. listen to complaints from activist citizens) which firms it doesn't like, so it recently voted to stop investing in corporate debt altogether. The city treasurer estimates the decision will cost the city $3 to $5 million a year via lower returns on its investments. I guess I have to give them credit for making trade-offs? (One of the more amazing parts of this story is that it allegedly costs Portland only $17500 for an "affordable housing unit" but $6000 to build a wheelchair ramp). And connecting to our other theme of nothing new under the sun, here's a blog post about impact investing in Victorian England, complete with "no tradeoffs!" marketing. The investment was in affordable housing and there was quite a robust market until complaints that the housing was still inaccessible to the poorest and profits were too high--and the state imposed even more trade-offs by stiffening building regulations--took the luster off.

A few weeks ago we talked about mortality wars. So I felt I had to include this interactive project from FiveThirtyEight that allows you to view the changing causes of death in every American county for the last 35 years. Source: Five Thirty Eight

A few weeks ago we talked about mortality wars. So I felt I had to include this interactive project from FiveThirtyEight that allows you to view the changing causes of death in every American county for the last 35 years. Source: Five Thirty Eight

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