The First Week of February 2018: The Morduch Edition

Editor's Note: this week’s faiV is guest-edited by none other than Jonathan Morduch. I'll be back on regular faiV duty next week. --Tim Ogden

Guest Editor Jonathan Morduch's Note:
Thanks, Tim Ogden, for letting me take the wheel for this week’s faiV. Sean Higgins did a great job with last week’s faiV, and I’m feeling a bit of pressure to meet their high standards. Here we go:

1. Development Economics Superstars: You know by now that NYU economist Paul Romer is heading home to downtown NY, leaving his post as the World Bank Chief Economist. It’s good news for the NYU development economics community. Don’t worry about the World Bank, though – if this list of amazing seminar speakers is any indication, the World Bank continues to be a place to find exciting ideas and research. The first speaker was this week: MIT’s Tavneet Suri talking about digital products and economic lives in Africa (video).

2. Dueling Deatons: It would be embarrassing to let on just how much I’ve learned from reading Angus Deaton over the years. But there are different versions of Deaton. One of them is a careful analyst of income and consumption data with a no-BS attitude toward poverty numbers. Another wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last week.
Deaton’s op-ed argued (1) that there’s quite a lot of extreme poverty in the US, not just in poorer countries, and (2) perhaps we should move budget from anti-poverty efforts abroad to those at home. Development economists & allied cosmopolitans rose up. Princeton ethicist Peter Singer argues that argument #2 clearly fails a cost-benefit test: it’s simply much cheaper to address needs abroad. Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur of the Center for Global Development reject the idea that spending more in Mississippi should mean spending less in India, and they take a good whack at the US poverty data. But if you’re going to read just one rebuttal, make it Ryan Brigg’s essay in Vox. It’s the rebuttal to “provocative Deaton” that “no-BS Deaton” would have written. The main argument is: no, actually, there isn’t much “extreme poverty” in the US once you look at the data more carefully. Deaton’s basic premise thus falls away.
On a somewhat more personal note: in recent years, I’ve spent time down the back roads of Mississippi with people as poor as you’ll find in the state. I’ve come to know the kinds of Mississippi towns that Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer describe in their powerful US book, $2 a Day (one of Deaton’s sources). At the same time, I’ve worked in villages in India and Bangladesh where many households are targeted as “ultrapoor”. So I think I have a sense of what Deaton’s getting at in a more visceral way. He’s right about the essential point: It’s hard not to be angry about our complacency about poverty – both abroad and in the US. We should be more aware (and more angry). But Deaton picked the wrong fight (and made it the wrong way) this time. 

3. Risk and Return (Revisited): A big paper published this week. It’s nominally about farmers in Thailand, but it challenges common ways of understanding finance and inequality in general. The study holds important lessons but is fairly technical and not so accessible. The paper is “Risk and Return in Village Economies” by Krislert Samphantharak and Robert Townsend in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics (ungated).
Why does poverty and slow economic growth persist? A starting point is that banks and other financial institutions often don’t work well in low-income communities. One implication is that small-scale farmers and micro-enterprises can have very high returns to capital -- but (or because) they can’t get hold of enough capital to invest optimally. The entire microfinance sector was founded on that premise, and there’s plenty of (RCT) evidence to back it.
Samphantharak and Townsend use 13 years’ worth of Townsend’s Thai monthly data to dig deeper. The paper gathers many insights, but here are two striking findings: The Thai households indeed have high average returns to capital but they also face much risk. Making things harder, much of that risk affects the entire village or broader economy and cannot be diversified away. As a result, much of the high return to capital is in fact a risk premium and risk-adjusted returns are far, far lower. That means that poorer households may have high returns to capital but they are not necessarily more productive than richer households (counter to the usual microfinance narrative). The action comes from the risk premium.
What is happening (at least in parts of these Thai data) is that poorer farmers are engaged in more risky production modes than richer farmers. Once risk premia are netted out, the picture changes and richer farmers are in fact shown to have higher (risk-adjusted) returns.
A few implications (at least in these data): (1) better-off farmers are both more productive and have more predictable incomes. So inequality in wealth is reinforced by inequality in basic economic security, the kind of argument also at the heart of the US Financial Diaries findings. (2) Poorer farmers face financial constraints, but not of the usual kind addressed by microfinance. The problems largely have to do with coping with risk. That might explain evidence that microfinance isn’t effective in the expected ways. (3) The evidence starkly contrasts with arguments made by people (like me) who argue that rural poverty is bound up with the inability to take on riskier projects.

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords:
 Political scientist Virginia Eubanks has a new book, Automating Inequality, [Tim will have a review in next week's faiV] about poverty in the digital age. Eubanks argues that we’re creating “digital poorhouses” akin to the poorhouses of old. The basic story is that data-driven policy approaches hurt the most disadvantaged – but seem hard to understand and thus hard to criticize. Eubanks, though, says they’re not in fact so complicated. Eubanks is featured in an interesting interview in MIT’s Technology Review. One snippet on politics and activism:I do think it’s really interesting, the way we tend to math-wash these systems, that we have a tendency to think they're more complicated and harder to understand than they actually are. I suspect that there's a little bit of technological hocus-pocus that happens when these systems come online and people often feel like they don't understand them well enough to comment on them. But it’s just not true.” 
Bonus: Just learned the phrase “math-wash”. 

5. Paychecks as Commitment Devices: If you’re like me, you’re probably paid monthly by your employer. A 2016 working paper by Lorenzo Casaburi and Rocco Macchiavello (which I just saw Lorenzo present – I’m very late to the party) argues that – for members of a Kenyan dairy cooperative at least – being paid monthly has an advantage that is easy to take for granted: It helps overcome saving constraints. In effect, the cooperative is saving weekly earnings so the members don’t have to. What’s most striking is that members are willing to pay (by foregoing earnings) for the chance to be paid monthly. The result lines up with other (surprising) evidence that people are willing to pay for saving mechanisms that transform small cash inflows into meaningfully large sums (to take a phrase from Stuart Rutherford).

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