Week of April 2, 2018

April Showers on Parade Edition

Editor's Note: Joan Robinson once said, "The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists." I often feel like the more modern description would be, the purpose of studying economics is not to acquire ready-made answers, but to learn how to rain on as many parades as possible. Or maybe that's just my natural disposition. Anyway, the recurring theme this week is the reining in of optimistic expectations.  --Tim Ogden

1. Global Development: To start us off, how about some rain on the "rising Kenyan middle class" parade? The core point--that gains from rising incomes that don't translate into durable assets can rapidly be erased, a perspective that should sound familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of anti-poverty policy in the US. 
But the real parade in global development in recent years has been on the value of delivering cash to poor households. This is a train that's been picking up steam for a long while. I would date the current push back to the first studies of Progresa/Opportunidades, the Mexican conditional cash transfer program. Momentum has steadily built around both the positive impact of cash transfers--that recipients don't waste the money, that they use the money productively--and dropping conditions. That momentum was built on many studies, but probably the two most well known in international circles are Blattman, Fiala and Martinez on cash transfers in Uganda, and Haushofer and Shapiro/GiveDirectly in Kenya. Both showed significant gains by recipients of unconditional cash.
Both of those papers were about relatively short-term effects. Both studies included longer-term follow-ups. And you know what's coming: the large positive effects seem to have disappeared in the medium term. Berk Ozler of the World Bank is currently playing the role of Deng (it's the closest I could get geographically) with two lengthy blog posts. The first, keying off comments from Chris Blattman in the recent Conversations with Tyler, but really delving into the recently released update to the Haushofer and Shapiro/GiveDirectly update is the important one for non-specialists. The second is very useful for understanding the specific details of interpretation. The posts also kicked off a number of useful Twitter conversations (here, here, here, here and here, though that's just a sample; just scroll through Chris's and Berk's timelines for more). Berk's first post also takes on the role that academics have played in stoking that momentum and is worth a close read.
I think it's also important to think through what is happening with cash transfers in light of not only other studies of cash (like this one finding positive effects on the personality of Cherokee Native American kids whose families receive cash that was just officially published) but also other interventions. Deworming is one example--one big source of the controversy over the effects of deworming is that there isn't a medium-term biological effect to explain the long-term economic effects. The Moving to Opportunity study is another--no short-term or medium-term gains, only long-term ones. And I have to note that the Native American paper is a frustrating example of Berk's critique of the role academics can play in raising expectations too high--the paper's title and abstract simply reference a large positive effect of cash transfers with no indication of when (now? 10 years ago? 30 years ago?), where or who the participants are, or even the size or mechanism of the transfers.


2. Social Investment and Philanthropy: In one of those Twitter conversations sparked by Berk's posts, Chris gave Berk the endearing nickname "naysaying grumpy pants" (it's a compliment, honest!). This week I had my own "grumpy pants" moment tied to the release of Henry Timms' just published book New Power. Henry is the main force behind Giving Tuesday--and apparently I am the designated Scrooge on that topic, going back to a few posts I wrote for Stanford Social Innovation Review years ago. In the Chronicle of Philanthropy's long profile of Henry and the new book, I get to say things like, "I can't imagine a more useless number than the amount of money given on Giving Tuesday." Without context, that may sound like hard-hearted parade-raining. And I suppose I am parade-raining on the way that Giving Tuesday is mostly being talked about--as a wildly successful movement based on the amount of money given tied to Giving Tuesday campaigns. But what we really should care about is whether Giving Tuesday is leading to people becoming more generous, not whether their donations happen in response to a specific campaign. I'll write some more about Henry's book and New Power in the coming weeks.
In other social investment parade raining, I've been known to get riled about about the social investment rhetoric about "no trade-offs" and "double bottom lines." Here's a new paper from Karlan, Osman and Zinman that explores the trade-offs of a double bottom line in detail. It finds negative consequences for both social and financial performance. Now that's some first-class parade-raining.

3. Methods: I suppose you could call this recent work on whether regression discontinuity designs are reliable--and finds that they are--to be raining on the parades of other methdological approaches. But for good measure, here's Andrew Gelman, well-known parade-raining statistician, with some notably restrained and subtle raining on everyone's parade in response to the RDD paper. My summary: lots of methods are reliable if you do them right, but you're probably not doing them right.
But tying back to the first item and Berk's discussion of the role of academics in miss-setting expectations, here are two useful pieces from outside economics that are worth thinking about if we think of methods as not just the way a study is done or the analysis conducted but the way the results are communicated (and obviously I think that's the right way to think about methods). First, how the continuing enthusiasm for vitamins came to be. Second, Slate Star Codex takes on adult neurogenesis in humans which is particularly fascinating because it's an example of how commonly held beliefs were overturned by new research, and then more new research overturned the new beliefs. Seems particularly relevant to the conversations about cash transfers, no?

4. Microfinance and Digital Finance: Here are two related pieces raining on crypto-parades, which admittedly isn't that hard these days. But neither is about the crazy part of the crypto world. They are raining on some of the fundamental ideas that are used to justify the ultimate value of crytocurrencies. First, here's a story about Ripple and it's struggles with banks who like the idea of a simplified payments infrastructure but don't see any need for a cryptocurrency to be part of that. Second, here's a story about how crypto trades are actually happening--with a trusted intermediary using Skype, because you know having a trusted intermediary is a useful thing in markets.
In other non-parade-raining news, Walmart is getting into the global remittances game, by partnering with MoneyGram(!?!). I suppose that will rain on lots of other global remittance providers parade. And here's a story about why, after all this time, remittances are still so costly and none of the efforts to bring down the cost have worked. Of course, that was before Walmart got involved.
Finally, it's not often I get to feature some US-based microfinance stuff. Here's a new paper from Aspen FIELD on pricing in US microfinance and why it makes sense for lenders to raise interest rates (Note: I played an role advisory role developing the paper). I think a lot of people in international microfinance will sympathize.

5. US Poverty and Inequality: The role of health care costs in driving bankruptcies got a lot of attention a few years ago and was a big part of the push for the ACA. Since the ACA passage though, there hasn't been a meaningful change in bankruptcy rates even though there was a big increase in the number of people insured. Now there's a reassessment of the data on bankruptcy and health care costs that radically revises down the number of bankruptcies that can be attributed to health care costs directly resulting in papers in the New England Journal of Medicine and in AER. Here's a summary of the work, but the very short version is the culprit is loss of income from poor health more than the costs of health care.
And because it's spring temporarily this afternoon, I feel compelled to leave on some good news--or at least my version of good news. The Gap engaged in a rigorous randomized study (!) to determine if their scheduling practices--which as in most US retail leads to erratic and volatile schedules for retail workers--were helpful to the bottom line. The answer is no. Volatile schedules are bad for workers and bad for business (summary; full report). Hey, did I just suggest there was no trade-off to treating workers better?

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