Week of April 16, 2018

Wash, Rinse, Repeat Edition

Editor's Note: Of late, I've been thinking a lot about comments Tyler Cowen made to me in our interview for Experimental Conversations: "..what we're lacking are incentives...to do what I would call synthesis...it's a very intangible skill and it's hard to tell how good someone is at it." There are people doing synthesis (as you'll see in the links), and I like to flatter myself that I'm one of them, but there aren't enough and it is really hard to tell when you're getting it right.--Tim Ogden

1.  Read, Synthesize, Repeat: Two weeks ago I featured a bunch of links about new and new-ish research about cash transfers, including a synthesis by Berk Ozler which particularly draws attention to the growing evidence of negative spillovers from cash transfers. This week Justin Sandefur wrote up his own synthesis, which disagrees with Berk in important ways, and followed up with a Twitter thread summary, which includes the amazing line: "unless cash recipients literally spent the money on gasoline to set fire to their neighbors farms..." Which of course led to a response from Berk and then lots of further replies--much of which center on how to think about the scope of negative spillovers and what to do with data that doesn't seem to be entirely trustworthy. That's the job of synthesis! But there's a long way to go before there's any consensus on the right synthesis.
The site Straight Talk on Evidence has been working on, if not synthesis, at least part of the work of synthesis, sorting through lots of research on US policy interventions and whether it holds up. A few weeks ago they started a series of blog posts on what the path forward should be "when most rigorous program evaluations find disappointing effects." Here's part two with their proposed steps (I try to avoid using the word "solution" even when it's just quoting others). And here's Chris Blattman's Twitter thread response to their proposed steps.
I may have already linked this but in case I didn't, it's relevance to this conversation in particular compels me to include it: The Political Economy of RCTs. Equally I have to include this short article titled "Evidence-Based Claims About Evidence" which challenges the conventional wisdom on how long it takes for evidence to influence physician behavior.
And yes the connection is tenuous, but here's Ideas42 first ever Impact Report on their first 10 years of work. I think there remains a lot of work to be done on synthesizing behavioral science and other approaches and the real world. 


2. Banking: When I first started working with Jonathan at FAI, one of the first things was helping get the book Banking the World out the door--based on work by Jonathan and others estimating that "half the world is unbanked." The World Bank's Findex database has just been updated with 2017 data, with a new report and complete data, and it now seems that the proper statement is "a third of the world is unbanked." Of course, that begs the question of what we mean by unbanked or financial inclusion, and how to think about people who have access to formal accounts but choose not to use them--often because those formal accounts aren't as useful as the alternatives (or in some cases are actively harmful). Obviously, the Findex has a lot to explore and I'm sure I'll be sharing more in the coming weeks as people try to synthesize the findings. 
But coming back to that point about how to think about financial inclusion and exclusion, here's the text of a speech from N.S. Vishwanathan, Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, about evolving regulation of Indian banks and stressed assets, which closes with an all-too-familiar warning: "There appears to be taking hold a herd movement among bankers to grow retail credit and the personal loan segment. This is not a risk-free segment and banks should not see it as the grand panacea for their problem riddled corporate loan book."
Meanwhile, the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Mick Mulvaney has drastically cut back it's enforcement actions, apparently to zero. The latest is dropping charges and sanctions against an abusive payday lender and scaling back regulations of high-cost consumer lending. Perhaps Mick should place a call to India.

3. Philanthropy: Discussions of philanthropy would be improved if there was more synthesis of public choice economics--too often I see writing about philanthropic actors that seems to start with either an assumption of saintly altruism or evil capitalist intent in disguise. A reasonable example of something better is this new report on "what goes wrong in impact-focused projects" and finds roughly half of the "roadblocks" are funder-created obstacles. 
Another example is an important set of stories about the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which has become one of the largest foundations in the world, that illustrate that the world of philanthropy is even messier than most human endeavors where altruism, good intentions, power and self-interest collide. Marc Gunther, writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, details many accusations of abusive behavior by SVCF's leading fundraiser, who has resigned in the few days since the article was published. There was a lot of work to get the story published, as Marc details here on his own blog, but like so many other "revelations" in this season, the accusations were well-known and apparently ignored by a great many people, including allegedly by the president of SVCF, Emmett Carson. SVCF is no stranger to controversy. Though I've linked these before, as a refresher here's Marc's earlier reporting on SVCFs' role, or lack thereof, in Silicon Valley itself and an excellent piece by Phil Buchanan of CEP on how to think about community foundations' role in the complicated world of philanthropy. And here's Rob Reich (the Stanford political scientist, not the Berkeley Economist) on interrogating the power of large philanthropy.  

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords: I'm not sure if this long essay on what Artificial Intelligence means and doesn't mean and the challenges the use of the term creates qualifies as synthesis, but it is worthwhile reading.
Oh, and Palantir knows a lot more about you than Facebook, in fact, everything about you.
If you're looking for some hope, here's Allison Fine and Beth Kanter on "Leveraging the Power of Bots for Civil Society."

5. Jobs: Leveraging the power of bots, for good or ill is one of the big questions about the future of jobs. The Hechinger Report is running a series on the challenge to education systems of educating students when there is so much uncertainty about what skills those students will need. The Hechinger Report is US-based, but the problem is the same globally. Here's the World Bank on how automation is changing the jobs and development outlook for lower-income countries. I'm linking there because while Arvind Subramanian has a piece in the FT on this very topic today, in my experience very few people (including me) have access to the FT.     
And I've been meaning to link this piece from Tyler Cowen on reining in occupational licensing for a long time and keep forgetting. To fully bring things around full circle, I will say that I don't think Tyler does enough synthesis of the findings that occupational licensing can be good for excluded communities who are denied opportunities in many fields.

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