Week of May 15, 2017

Editor's Note: I really do wonder how many people are trying to measure the negative productivity shock to the American, and possibly global, economy. I mean, there those ridiculous annual stories about how the NCAA basketball tournament costs billions in lost productivity, so someone has to be doing this right?

1. Data (and Our Algorithmic Overlords): Many of you probably saw the Economist piece on data becoming the world's most valuable resource. It does a darn good job at producing conflicting reactions for me: Yes, we should be paying more attention to the accumulation and use of data among private companies! But governments aren't to be be trusted with this kind of data any more than private companies! And you're spending way too much time in Silicon Valley--we're a long long way from data being more valuable than physical resources for most of the people in the world!

So I'm going to use it mostly as a foil to introduce two pieces that you should read that you probably don't think are relevant to the faiV. First, here's a piece by Ted Knutson, a protagonist in the development and use of "advanced statistics" in football/soccer, about why he developed and continues to use a terrible visualization of data to evaluate player performance. Second, here's a piece about how adapting behavior based on data in baseball has helped some players but hurt others so that there is zero net gain. The point here being, understanding data is hard enough. Using data is even harder. Figuring out how to help people change based on data--without just turning everything over to our algorithmic overlords--is the toughest of all. And if you don't believe, that let me remind of you of one of my all-time favorite papers about seaweed farmers. Take that, "vast empirical literature"!


2. Theories of Change (and Demonetization): In my book of interviews of development economists on RCTs etc. the throughline is theory of change. How do ideas get translated into policy and into making the world a better place? I argue that a lot of debate about methodology is really debate about theory of change, particularly around the role of experts and the value of small vs. large changes. This Planet Money episode about the Indian demonetization has the most jaw-dropping "theory of change" story I think have ever encountered. The short version is an engineer developed--through divine inspiration--a model of the Indian economy, complete with cheesy illustrations, and just kept talking about it until a powerful politician took notice and decided to introduce one of the biggest economic shocks in modern history. If you know someone graduating from high school or college, perhaps you should make them listen to the episode rather than buying them a copy of Oh, The Places You'll Go. (Oh, and that feeling when you visit the Smithsonian with your kid and get to talk about how even our heroes fail us.)

3. Digital Finance: Over at CGAP, IPA has a post about fees for 21 mobile money services in seven different countries, with an eye to how the highest fees are paid on the smallest transactions, presumably serving as an effective tax on the poorest customers. This of course is the same issue we've been talking about in microfinance for decades: small transactions don't cost less to process than large ones and so small transactions are more expensive. While it's less of an issue in things like digital services than in-person services it doesn't entirely go away and so providers have to make decisions about whether they are going to over-charge their relatively wealthier clients to subsidize their poorer ones, or tax their poorer ones for their inability to transact in larger amounts. The problem with the former is that there is almost certainly going to be a competitor who is willing to take those wealthier clients by not asking them to subsidize costs for smaller transactions.

This also raises one of my long-term fascinations: people tend to react strongly to poor customers being charged more for financial services but not for telephone services--even when it's the same company doing it! The same poor customers who are paying more for mobile money transfers are almost certainly paying more for cellphone minutes by buying them in small increments, but I don't ever see that being charted.

4. Financial Advice: Speaking of fees for financial services, one of the things that chaos in Washington has swallowed is debate about how American investors should be charged for financial advice. There's long been concern that conflicts-of-interest lead financial advisers to push their clients into high-cost investments from which the adviser gets a commission. The Obama administration proposed changes to the rules governing financial adviser compensation and fiduciary duty that are now on hold. In the meantime, a WSJ reporter tried to figure out how much she was paying in fees on her investments. It was difficult, even though she worked with a flat-fee adviser, not one paid on commission. The answer in the end was 1.4%--Noah Smith illustrates how expensive that seemingly small number is (it's hard to interpret data!).

Matt Levine, meanwhile, illustrates how the story complicates efforts to reform financial advice and fees (scroll down to "Fiduciaries"): "If the fiduciary rule pushes investors from high-cost mutual funds recommended by commission-based advisers to medium-cost mutual funds recommended by expensive fee-based advisers -- and if investors' all-in costs aren't any lower -- then what have we gained?" Or as I would put it, financial decisions are complicated and getting good advice is going to be expensive especially for customers of modest means. Seems like households in the US, Kenya and India (for instance) may have more in common than often thought.


5. American Inequality: The new report on the Survey of Household Economics and Decision Making (SHED) is out from the Federal Reserve Board. I am, unsurprisingly, drawn immediately to the data on income and expense volatility--the survey asks more detailed questions in this area, due in part to the findings of the US Financial Diaries--on pages 23-25. Roughly a third of households report monthly income changes, with 43 percent saying the volatility comes from an irregular work schedule. Unsurprisingly, volatility is more common among blacks and Hispanics.

Speaking of the US Financial Diaries, here's my new favorite review of The Financial Diaries. And here are Jonathan and Rachel on Marketplace. And here's some counterprogramming on the state of the job market.

From the new SHED report, the reasons people say their income varies from month-to-month. Source: Federal Reserve Board

From the new SHED report, the reasons people say their income varies from month-to-month. Source: Federal Reserve Board

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