Week of March 19, 2018

The Wheel of Morality Edition

Editor's Note: The reference this week is to the classic bit on the cartoon Animaniacs. The connection is in the first item.--Tim Ogden

1. Household Finance, Debt Specifically: This week I had the chance to talk about the moral dimensions of debt with Fred Wherry, as part of Aspen EPIC's focus on consumer debt in the US (and there are more conversations about debt before and after in that video). One of the things that doesn't get mentioned in the video is that the ancestor of mine who was rescued from debtor's prison later became the official Collector for Jersey City. It's a topic that fascinates me because attitudes toward debt vary so widely across time, culture, context and individual. It often seems like perspectives on debt are pulled from the Wheel of Morality. Just the selective use of the words "credit" and "debt" could be fodder for 100,000 words or more, much less the tension between the lack of access to credit coinciding with troubling debt burdens in many contexts.
To get up to speed on the current situation with consumer debt in the United States, you couldn't ask for a better overview than Aspen EPIC's just published primer. Well, you could ask for one, but given the gaps in the underlying data, you wouldn't get it. And to push some more moral buttons, here's a profile of one of the most influential figures in consumer debt today: Dave Ramsey. If you don't know who that is, you really do need to read the profile.


2. Microfinance and Digital Finance: I suppose I'm sending a message by increasingly conflating these two categories. This piece from NextBillion on the need for Indian MFIs to digitize at least gives me an excuse this week. But while I figure out what message I'm sending (or at least intending to send), here are a couple of recent pieces about digital accounts helping people save more. First, a paper from the job market that I missed about M-Pesa boosting savings among those whose alternatives were most costly. And a new paper about an experiment with female entrepreneurs in Tanzania finding digital savings accounts boosted savings rates. My priors aren't shifted much by these, but they are shifted some.  
To maintain some strategic ambiguity, here's a new paper that fights the digital invasion--there's nothing less digital than grain storage. Providing farmers with a way to communally store grain at harvest has high take-up and as a result were able to sell grain later at a higher price. An intervention to allow individual cash savings for inputs was less successful, though possibly because there wasn't much margin to improve on.

3. Methods and Economics: It took a lot of willpower (though apparently not ego-depleting) not to put this item first, but I worry that my excitement over things like this is not normative for the faiV readership. But for those of you in this niche, here's a new comment from Guido Imbens on the Cartwright and Deaton critique of RCTs (and if you prefer a simpler version, here's my interview of Deaton for Experimental Conversations which gives an overview of most of the issues). To give you a flavor of Imbens perspective: "Nothwithstanding the limitations of experimentation in answering some questions, and the difficulties in implementation, these developments have greatly improved the credibility of empirical work in economics compared to the standards prior to the mid-eighties, and I view this as a major achievement by these researchers."
Imbens places RCTs within "the credibility revolution" in empirical economics (which of course is the crux of the debate--how much do RCTs improve credibility?). The credibility revolution, in turn, has played a big role in the growth of empirical economics compared to theory and econometrics. Here's Sylvain Chabe-Ferret with an overview of "the empirical revolution in Economics", some thoughts on the path forward and a treasure trove of links. I have to note here, for those not so enmeshed in the details, that while Deaton is a critic of RCTs, he is a part of the credibility/empirical revolutions through his careful and detailed work with surveys.
Finally, here's something form the Royal Economic Society with the headline "Tweeting Economists Are Less Effective Communicators Than Scientists". I haven't read it yet but how could I not link it when it has such an exquisite combination of direct and implied slights on economists?

4. US Inequality, Immobility and Instability: I'm assuming that any of you with an interest have already seen the new results on mobility and the central problem of immobility for African-American men from Chetty, et. al. so well illustrated by the NYT's piece. Hidden in Chetty's shadow are a couple of other pieces on this topic that deserve attention. Inspired by Chetty et al's earlier work on variation in mobility geographically, here's Davis and Mazumder on racial differences within geographies, finding that low mobility in the Southeast is driven by whites; African-Americans in the Southeast have higher mobility than those in the Northeast and Midwest. And here's Guyot, Reeves and Winship with a different approach to the question of African-American male immobility and marriage rates, which confirms the latest Chetty et. al. results.
Our work in the US Financial Diaries ties helps shine a light on short-term instability as a factor in immobility. There are a couple new pieces in that domain. Alieza Durana looks at instability in the suburbs and how it contributes to general feelings of insecurity. And Molly Kinder and Kristin Sharp look at the prospects for improving stability by changing the workforce (or at least how and what people are trained to do.)
Finally, the St. Louis Fed Center for Household Financial Stability (tm) has an upcoming symposium on whether college is still worth it, given the disparate returns to education. My synthesis of some of the recent work: college is most expensive for people with the lowest rates of return to enrollment. That'll have an impact on mobility, for sure.

5. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Last week I talked about how AI seems to be just as interested in gaming manager's incentive schemes as humans. Here's a piece about computers liking spurious correlations just as much as human story-telling brains, it's just that they are much faster at finding the spurious correlations.
I could hardly avoid a mention of the current kerfuffle over the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations. Asif Audowla sent me this link which helps tell the story if you've been buried under a rock. I use the word kerfuffle purposely: I'm still really unsure what to think about all of this, with the pieces I see about fake news proliferating without the need for psychographic targeting, about how hard it is to influence people, and about partisan bias in the reaction to the story. So, I leave this one to you dear readers to tell me what to think. To help you along in that process, here's a piece from New Inquiry that's quite on topic: Privacy for Whom? 

  Following on those studies of US mobility, this chart depicts the mobility, or lack thereof, of the white and African-American men and women. It's worth thinking hard about the similarities and differences here. To help you do that,  check out this thread from Arindrajit Dube  which puts the chart below in context. 

Following on those studies of US mobility, this chart depicts the mobility, or lack thereof, of the white and African-American men and women. It's worth thinking hard about the similarities and differences here. To help you do that, check out this thread from Arindrajit Dube which puts the chart below in context. 

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