scroll

  top
  back

Week of April 12, 2019

1. Arbitrary and Biased: I feel like "arbitrary and biased" should have been the tagline for the faiV but it'll have to do as just the name this week's edition (I won't make the obvious joke). The reference here specifically is an update to my post at CGAP on impact evaluations and systematic reviews of financial inclusion interventions. Duvendack and Mader, authors of a systematic review of reviews that I've mentioned in the faiV and in that post, responded. And then I responded to them. The short version, if you don't want to click on all those links or do a lot of scrolling, is that we disagree substantially (though in good faith!) and particularly on the issues of arbitrariness and bias. My perspective on these issues have been substantially influenced by Deaton's and Pritchett's critiques of RCTs, which feels a bit ironic. Systematic reviews are useful, but they are no less arbitrary nor less biased than other attempts to synthesize the literature--they're just arbitrary and biased in different ways, albeit generally more transparent ways (though what we know about how disclosure affects people's trust leaves a question about the benefits of that disclosure). 
Reveling in the arbitrarily biased essential nature of the research enterprise, here are a couple of papers that raise different questions about how the literature on microcredit may be biased. Bedecarrats, Guerin, Morvant-Roux and Roubaudreplicate the Al-Amana microcredit impact study and find errors and issues with the data and code--though exactly how much it matters to the big picture conclusion isn't clear. Meanwhile Dahal and Fiala review the microcredit RCTs focusing on whether they have sufficient power to detect likely magnitude of effects (and find that they aren't) and find significant and meaningful effects on profits when the data is pooled. I need to read both these papers more closely, but they are interesting enough that I didn't want to wait before including them in the faiV.

2. Evidence-Based Policy/Methods: Speaking of arbitrarily biased research, the 5% statistical significance threshold is perhaps the most influential arbitrarily biased feature of modern academic research. Some people are trying to change that--well more than 800 who signed onto a letter in Nature protesting the cutoff. Before you come to a conclusion on whether that letter will make a difference, I must note, as many on Twitter did, that it's not a statistically significant portion of scientists who have signed on.
Another arbitrary bias, according to Nick Lea, deputy chief economist at DfID, is the need to run regressions in economics papers. David Evans, now ensconced at CGD, responds with a defense of regressions and some ideas on how development economics can be better.
Here's a reminder that "purely evidence-based policy doesn't exist" though I'm not sure how many people thought it did. And here's a reminder from Straight Talk on Evidence that short-term impact often fades out, something evidence-based policy really needs to take into account.
And finally, here's an interesting piece from mathemetician Aubrey Clayton adjudicating a long-running dispute between Nate Silver and Nassim Taleb over probabilities, finding that Taleb "overplays his hand."
  
3. Household Finance: The mythology of Spanish colonialism in the Americas centered heavily on cities of gold (anybody remember this?). Here's a story about the reverse--Dominicans searching Spain (and Switzerland) for lost troves of gold. It's all a scam of course, of the sort immediately recognizable by anyone who has spent time in Latin America. It's a fascinating read because of how the story delves into the psychology that has led so many Dominicans to believe (and continue to believe) an ancestor secreted billions of dollars of gold in Spanish and Swiss banks that they stood to inherit--to the point that they quit jobs and made all sorts of other bad financial decisions. When there is little hope, believing that slow, steady abstemious frugality will matter may seem as much magical thinking as hidden inheritances. Here's a piece from Morgan Housel on how much our (macro)financial experiences affect our later decision making.
The mismatch between advice, reality and experience means that most financial advice on offer today is useless for people living on low incomes--and the piece doesn't even address the problems of volatility. Here's Helaine Olen taking Suze Orman to task on the magical thinking that buying coffee makes a meaningful difference in household budgets.
Keep that in mind when you read this announcement from Walmart that customers have "moved $2 billion through" their prize-linked savings program. Don't get me wrong--that's great. But do notice that "moved...through" sounds a lot like high-frequency savings and isn't defined, while the claims remain that people are learning saving habits and becoming more financially secure.
On a related note, here's a recent Planet Money story on Purdue University's new income-share college loan program (which grew out of an idea from a Colombian economist and was piloted in Colombia). And here's a story I stumbled across on the lingering death of a much earlier program at Yale that was a miserable failure

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords/Digital Finance: Lucy Bernholz has a problem with "AI for good" and other such constructions. The big issue for civil society is not how to use the technology but to figure out how to manage, counteract, regulate, or build on the technology that is already in use. She suggests this essay on AI and the administrative state, which I haven't read yet, but I always trust Lucy's recommendations so I'm passing it on to you.
I think Lucy and I would have a similar perspective on this article, and I'm going to let you guess what that is via this quotation: "We believe that the lack of access to financial services is fundamentally a technology problem." It's a near perfect illustration of Matt Levine's dictum that the fate of FinTech is to relearn all the lessons of modern finance, painfully and in public. Now I'll take JUMO (the source of that quotation) at face value and believe that they are using AI and machine learning to find ways to include rather than exclude. But here's a different fundamental problem: it's always more profitable to fire bad customers than gain new ones.
Of course there are many more issues when it comes to applying AI and machine learning to financial services. Here Aaron Klein does a terrific job of walking through some of them. They of course don't apply to JUMO, yet, because Aaron is looking at how the application of AI and machine learning interacts with US anti-discrimination law. But it's an illustration of some actual fundamental problems of access to financial services and the potential benefits from much deeper engagement between regulators and practitioners in the US and developing and middle-income countries. 

5. Cash Transfers and UBI: We'll end with some quick hits on some new stuff on cash transfers and UBI. Here's a write-up of a survey of poor Indian households on their preferences when it comes to cash transfers versus spending on public health, roads and jobs: cash transfers come in last, public health comes first. Perhaps one reason why is a trust gap--here's a story from Kenya about the lack of transparency and limited reliability of public nutrition cash transfer programs.
Another way of determining preferences related to cash transfers is the revealed preferences of what people do with the money. That's what Almas, Haushofer and Shapiro do with the GiveDirectly cash transfers to assess whether there is a nutrition poverty trap (there isn't)

From  Natalie Michelle  and  Joshua Tait  a typology of superheroes as neoconservatives. I include this in the hope that someone will produce a version of this for superheroes as neoliberals.  Source  

From Natalie Michelle and Joshua Tait a typology of superheroes as neoconservatives. I include this in the hope that someone will produce a version of this for superheroes as neoliberals. Source 

Week of April 5, 2019

1. Financial Inclusion: It's an "interesting" time in the world of financial inclusion, in the sense of that (apocryphal?) Chinese curse. There are arguments on whether to change the name of the "sector" accurately reflects the goals, the funding environment is uncertain, digital financial services are shifting business models and regulatory frameworks--all also indications that there is important convergence between "developed" and "developing" countries. But most importantly there are questions about whether the results from the work of the last 40 years (a rough approximation of the modern microfinance movement globally, and the asset-building movement in the US) justify further investment. 
You can see the tensions in two recent posts at Next Billion: first, Leora Klapper on the importance of investment in financial inclusion to meet the SDGs; and a fiery response from Phil Mader and Maren Duvendack, authors of the Campbell Collaborative/3ie "systematic review of reviews" that I've likely mentioned a couple of times. But the "interesting" times also explain, at least in part, the raft of other evidence reviews of various sorts that are appearing (IPADvaraUNCDF/BFA,Caribou DigitalCGAP). It's enough to get you to buy into Lant Pritchett's dictum that RCTs are "weapons against the weak."
CGAP asked me to write something about all this--and to do it in under 1000 words. You can guess how well that went, given that the summary for the evidence review I've been working on for CDC is more than 10 pages (you should also read that as an acknowledgement of a specific conflict of interest when it comes to talking about evidence reviews). Anyway, the final result is here. The bottom line is that I'm skeptical of what can be learned from systematic reviews--channeling some other Pritchett-thought on where policy-relevant insights come from.
By the way, if you're skeptical of the point about most interventions struggling to show meaningful impact, here's a new paper making the case that TB public health interventions in the early 20th century had little to do with declining TB-mortality; and here's a paper from the education sector so frustrated that they can't find evidence of impact that they propose doing away with credible large-scale impact evaluations. And here's an open letter to a hypothetical education minister with some useful statistics on how little learning happens in schools in most of the world.
  
2. Global Productivity: Plenty has been written about stagnant wages, slow growth, and rising inequality in developed countries (if you're based in the US, it might not be apparent that this is a global phenomenon, but it is.) But there's another important phenomenon that hasn't penetrated the popular consciousness nearly as much, probably because the impact isn't as immediately apparent: there's a global productivity slowdown. That's a problem because rising incomes come from growth, and growth comes from productivity gains.
Here's a new paper from Gordon and Sayed documenting the trans-Atlantic trend in slowing productivity, and how closely European productivity growth (or lack thereof) has mirrored that of the US, with a time lag. Their thesis is that the slowdown is related to a "retardation in technical change."
That probably sounds odd given that I know about the paper and you are reading about the paper on using technologies that were essentially unfathomable in 1980. But overall economic dynamism, including technical change has actually slowed dramatically since the post-war years. And there's emerging evidence that there is a single cause for all of these issues: the aging of the population
It's a fascinating thesis that makes a lot of intuitive sense, and there is growing evidence for it from lots of different directions. I'm sure there will be lots more papers on this in the years ahead, but in the meantime it suggests a few interesting thoughts: a) China has a big problem coming, and b) future productivity growth is going to come from India, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and c) we all have legitimate reasons to worry about millennials not having sex.  

3. (Mostly US) Household Finance: I'm going to open with an acknowledgment of severe cognitive dissonance related to item 1 above: my work reviewing evidence on investment in financial inclusion and financial systems, and reviewing others reviews, has changed my perspective on what is learned from such reviews. But one of my long-standing hobby horses is railing against financial literacy because of the lack of evidence that it accomplishes anything and systematic reviews that it accomplishes essentially nothing. So now as I read stories like this about more and more states in the US requiring financial literacy as a condition of high school graduation, not only do I get raging mad, but I also have to battle against my own arguments on how to understand research. To be clear, my perspective hasn't changed--current financial literacy programs are a waste of time and money. But I am more sanguine about investing in figuring out ways to provide meaningful financial literacy. 
Tying everything so far together, here's an article from SSIR on the "cost of financial precarity" which includes reduced worker productivity, suggests why financial literacy training doesn't work (it's about the wrong things) and argues for why investment in "financial well-being" (a phrase that's part of the debate over what to call financial inclusion now) is important. And here's a newish JPMorganChase Institute piece on another part of why financial literacy is about the wrong things: how families manage tax refunds and payments
For those interested in going deeper to understand to understand what is happening in the US families' finances over time, the Federal Reserve Board has created an amazing new dataset: Distributional Financial Accounts. They use a "more comprehensive measure of household wealth" and provide data quarterly to track wealth distribution. By the way, the early findings are quite consistent with the story of aging population driving asset accumulation among older and wealthier parts of the population.
How does wealth concentration happen in the US? It's not just inheritance. Ager, Boustan and Eriksson have a new paper looking at how wealthy slave-owning families quickly recovered their position at the top of the economic ladder after Emancipation, in economic terms a huge negative wealth shock. If you'd like the summary version, here's WaPo coverage of the paper with some interesting details on the work required to find and link 1800's data to track cross-generational outcomes. And before leaving the US, one more thing to tie all this together one more time. Here's a piece that leads with the idea that there are steps that individuals can take to do something about income and wealth inequality, but the ideas really are either the kind of things that are in financial literacy curricula around personal actions that don't lead to meaningful changes in outcomes, or actually systemic changes not individual actions. 
Finally, I'm going to shift gears radically to another part of household finance: intra-household bargaining. Here's a cool new paper that looks at the levels of cooperation, trust, altruism and transactional behavior in polygynous households (of note, 80% of authors are women). 

4. Bank (and other financial services) Behavior: More discouraging to me than any impact evaluation, or systematic review of impact evaluations, finding modest impact are stories about the behavior of banks and financial services firms. Walk with me on the mostly dark side for a while. 
A few weeks ago I covered the scandal in Australian banking after a government commission found widespread predatory behavior by banks. Fifty leading economists in Australia were surveyed about whether something could be done--they unanimously agreed that something could be done, but a substantial minority seem to think major changes are required (e.g. replacing Australian regulators with foreigners!). If Australian regulators are hopelessly compromised, what hope dodeveloping countries like Uganda have of maintaining regulator independence?
Sometimes the regulators do the right thing. Like reporting blatant attempts at bribery by the CEO of an insurance conglomerate looting its assets to fund his other businesses. But much of the bad behavior isn't really under the control of regulators.It's culture, and cultures don't change easily. That's not just a statement about Wells Fargo and unsavory behavior. Here's a new paper about how organizational culture at Indian banks inhibits the adoption of beneficial innovations that reduce the costs of borrowing.
How do the bad actors get away with it. It turns out that consumers enable some of the bad behavior by simply not paying attention. For instance consumers in the UKwon't pay enough attention to savings account disclosures that would allow them to save 123 pounds in the first year. Sigh. 

5. Procrastination: Perhaps the most important thing that I have ever linked to in the faiV: Procrastination isn't about laziness or self-control. And that's why the faiV is so late so often. 

Week of March 22, 2019

1. Social Investment: You've of course seen many stories about the US college admissions bribery scandal. And if you pay any attention to the world of impact investment you likely have seen that Bill McGlashan, the very public face of one of the world's largest impact investment funds, was one of the people arrested for participating in the scheme. Anand Giridharadas, who has become the very public face of criticism of modern philanthropy and social investment, discusses why McGlashan is "the most important fish" in the storyHere's the Twitter thread versionif you prefer that over a 4 minute video.
Trevor Neilson, co-founder of the Global Philanthropy Group, says that McGlashan's behavior should not be seen as a reflection on impact investing as a whole, because...well apparently because he wrote a Medium post saying that it shouldn't. There's really no argument there other than "Our goals are too important to be worried about means!" if you consider that an argument. Here's Jed Emerson, who may have an argument, but I just don't understand what is happening in this piece. Lauren Cochran, managing director of an impact investing firm, actually has a few arguments attempting to make the same point, including that McGlashan himself was a figurehead chosen to attract investors, but who wasn't involved in actual investment decisions.
She has a nice line about Giridharadas: "using one man’s ethical failings to grab the mic is characteristically self-serving, but as usual, he forgot that there might be a baby in the bath water." It's catchy but wrong. Giridharadas whole point is that there may be a baby in the bath water, but the bathwater is toxic and everyone will be better off, even the baby, if you toss the whole thing. Moreover, the fund that Cochran administers uses this language: "dual expectation of best-in-class financial returns and maximum positive social and environmental impact." And that, to me, is a big part of the toxic nature of the current impact investment environment. On reflection, that statement illuminates what is really happening in Neilson's piece--the fear that if the myth of "no tradeoffs" is exposed then the money will dry up.
To be clear, I'm not in Giridhradas' camp but I certainly appreciate how his perspective keeps putting the "no tradeoffs" crowd on the defensive, and illustrates the inconsistency if not hypocrisy hidden there.
Kristin Gillis Moyer of Mulago points to a terrific example of the inherent tension: the new Catalytic Capital Consortium funded by MacArthur, Rockefeller and Omidyar. It aims to invest in businesses with low profit potential and/or high risk. I find it an incredibly refreshing approach--it explicitly acknowledges that the no tradeoff myth is leaving many social enterprises in the lurch. But as Gillis Moyer points out, it's not clear how catalytic it can be since there are unlikely to be that many other investors chomping at the bit to invest in low-profit, risky businesses. I'd like to think the catalytic part will be creating space for more funds and investors to say that they prioritize impact over financial returns, and that's OK. 

2. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Because the faiV was so full I'd been holding on to a few things on this topic, and events have made them all the more relevant. Platforms for open sharing seemed like such a good idea for a long time. But the cost of open sharing is so so much higher than most anticipated. Not only does it enable evil, but attempting to stop evil exacts a huge toll on human beings. This is a story about the Facebook contractors whose job it is to stop the New Zealand murderer's live stream. And a Twitter thread from someone in a similar position at Google. I'm guessing many of those folks are inching toward Calvinism.
Evgeny Morozov has a different take on the costs that open platforms and big tech exact, and why the global white nationalist movement has very different views on that front. It is a helpful reminder of the costs of the old system and the structures that the liberal order created to try to limit those costs, structures that seem to not work so well in this age, and are under attack from many directions. That's in part the theme of a new book reviewed by Noah SmithThe Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri. I haven't read the book but the review is certainly influencing my thinking on the above.
Oh, and Chinese firms are working on facial recognition of pigs, while US police forces are using bad data to train their facial recognition and other AI systems. Andwhat about "behavioral recognition"? Note that this has quite obvious connections to the use of psychometrics and other "alternative data" for creditworthiness evaluations. 

3. Household Finance: There's a huge amount of new stuff here, so I'm going to be particularly eccentric this week. There's a lot more coming in the following weeks that will be more serious. 
One of the questions that fascinates me these days is what is good financial advice for households that face a lot of income volatility. The foundation of virtually everything in the financial advice world is the lifecycle model--and we know that doesn't apply to a very large proportion of households. That doesn't stop the financial advice industry from thriving--but like so many other things, the internet has disrupted that world a great deal. And that disruption creates perverse incentives. Here's the story of the "Fall of America's Money Answers Man", a once-respectable financial advice columnist who turned into a con artist. 
Advice on how to retire early by spending virtually nothing (while having a high-paying job, natch) has been growth industry. Here's a personal narrative from a Vice columnist who tried to follow the advice and decided the misery wasn't worth it.
Here's a new paper on the possible connection between credit availability and depression (the mental health kind). It finds that increased availability of credit to firms leads to less depression among low-income households. I'll note that this kind of paper is what made the RCT movement so attractive (see below).  

4. Research, Methods, Evidence: I was at a conference in Paris for a new book on RCTs and development economics this week, part of my travels. Drafting my chapter for that book turned out to be much more difficult than I had anticipated--the useful ways of saying something on this topic are much more limited than you might imagine. One thing that became clear to me, probably far later than it should have, is how often argumentation in research methods follows a pattern of: "Individual A made Proposition P at t1. Proposition P is wrong in context X. Therefore Group G is wrong at t2." That's a hard construct to argue with constructively. The other thing that became clear to me was that it would be very useful to have a more structured (in the economic sense) story about the use of RCTs in development economics. I plan on doing that in the next draft of my chapter, but while I was in the midst of pulling a near all-nighter in France to finish my draft before the conference began, Susan Athey produced an inadvertant history of the rise of RCTs in a single tweet: "Just think the most effective way to evangelize a new method is to demonstrate its effectiveness in a first-rate empirical application where the method clearly leads to a better quality and more credible result. Researchers will mimic a fully worked out, successful example."
That tweet was part of a "conversation" with Judea Pearl about Directed Acyclic Graphs, Pearl's preferred method for approaching causality. If you know anything about Pearl, you now why conversation is in quotes--if you don't, the whole thing begins with Pearl wondering why economists don't care about causality, as evidenced by the fact that they don't use his DAGs. If you, like me, don't really understand DAGs, here are a couple of useful tweet threads: one for those who don't mind the use of animated GIFs to provide pointless meta-commentary, andone for those who do. Just to be clear I recommend the second one which is from Scott Cunningham. Scott makes a reasonable case for the utility of DAGs--but Susan's point still stands: when someone/s start publishing papers using DAGs that are higher quality and more convincing than current practice is when their utility will be proven. And then they will quickly become ubiquitous.
Scott also pointed me to a very useful tutorial on another tool making headway in research practice: GitHub. I'm trying to wrap my head around the possibility of using GitHub for the kind of writing I do, which is often very iterative and splinters off into different directions. If anyone has used GitHub, or any other tool, that way let me know.
Here's a thread from Beatrice Cherrier on the historical debates within economics of the role of theory and data. It's worth reading for the reminder of how often the basic issues in these debates repeat. I'll be drawing on it as part of my discussion on the rise of RCTs.
Finally, here's a fun little exercise showing how bad humans are at randomizationeven when we are trying our damnedest to be random. I fully suspect someone is going to respond to this by referencing Fisher vs. Student on the value of randomization. 

5. Management and SMEs: I freely admit that management, particularly in the case of SMEs and development is something of an obsession of mine. Did you remember to click on the review of evidence on management from a few weeks ago? Here's a newish paper that looks at the determinants and consequences of management practices among SMEs in Ethiopia from Abebe and Tekleselassie--of note, Ethiopians working at an Ethiopian research center. They find, consistent with the other literature that good management shows up in productivity, is distinct from human capital, and is a learned skill.
Here is an overview of two recent reports on SME financing in developing countries, that unfortunately uses the "missing middle" concept. I'm quite sympathetic to these efforts, particularly one of the reports segmentation of business types, but I generally think these things are premature. We know very very little about how these small enterprises run on a daily basis, and designing "solutions" for them before we have a better handle on that doesn't seem optimal to me. That being said, it is striking that the conclusions of both reports are essentially exclusively about improving financial systems not about interventions targeted at the firms. That's a welcome change.
In terms of better understanding small firms, there are people working on that. I didn't get to go Oxford CSAE's conference or even pay much attention to it as a consequence of my trip to Paris, but there were a number of papers on the topic that I'll be trying to catch up on in the coming weeks. For instance, an experiment on equity-style investment in microenterprises in Pakistan. Here's one on spillover effects on micro and small enterprises of infrastructure investment. Here's more evidence on heterogeneity of impact of business training and credit on micro- and small enterprises, this time in Ethiopia. The operative differences here being gender, but I think we can safely say at this point that gender, opportunity and aspirations collide (to borrow a Pearl term). And here's more reanalysis of the de Mel et al capital grants research, modeling TFP and learning effects to explain differences in outcomes and capital accumulation. But my favorite example of our collective ignorance is this paper about whether electricity shortages and outages induce firms to innovate more or less. The results aren't particularly convincing to me, but the question is important: on so many dimensions we should be very humble about what the constraints to firms are and what decisions and choices those constraints lead to.
If anyone is interested in funding a very (very) small scale, and possibly idiosyncratic experiment on small firms, technology, productivity and management in order to generate some better hypothesis on these topics, let me know.

Someone recently created a new tool for creating these time-lapse bar charts--that's the only explanation I can find for why they have suddenly been showing up everywhere. Here's one on  global cities' population  that is pretty interesting. And here's  an explanation and one tool for creating them . But in keeping with my effort to keep these a bit lighter, here is one on leading goalscorers by age.

Someone recently created a new tool for creating these time-lapse bar charts--that's the only explanation I can find for why they have suddenly been showing up everywhere. Here's one on global cities' population that is pretty interesting. And here's an explanation and one tool for creating them. But in keeping with my effort to keep these a bit lighter, here is one on leading goalscorers by age.

Week of March 8, 2019

The IWD Edition

1. The OGs: I can't think about who influences me without beginning with Esther DufloErica FieldRohini PandeTavneet Suri (special links to two new papers that would have been in the faiV in a normal week--on the impact of digital credit in Kenya, and UBI in developing countries) and Rachel Glennerster

2. New Views on Microcredit: Because I'm framing this around research that has influenced me and appeared in the faiV, I've organized these into topical buckets that make sense to me. But keep in mind, that may not be the only thing these economists work on.   Cynthia Kinnan and Emily Breza have dug into the Spandana RCT to understand heterogeneity of results, and to used the AP repayment crisis and fallout to understand the general equilibrium effects of microcreditNatalia Rigol with some of the OGs above followed up on the differential returns to capital between men and women from earlier studies finding the differences are largely due to intrahousehold allocation, not gender; she's also looked into how to better target microcredit to high-ability borrowersGisella Kagy and Morgan Hardy uncoverbarriers that women-owned microenterprises faceRachael Meager creatively usesstatistical techniques to better understand heterogeneity in microcredit impact resultsIsabelle Guerin provides insight on why microcredit can go wrong. 
  
3. Savings: I will confess that I have a lot of questions about the savings literature. But that's mainly because  of the work of these economists. Pascaline Dupas, of course. Silvia Prina tests encouraging savings in Nepal, while Lore Vandewalle tries to build savings habits in IndiaJessica Goldberg runs very creative experiments to understand how savings affects decisionsSimone Schaner studies intrahousehold choices around savings.  

4. Related Development Topics: I feel a special burden here to point out the non-comprehensiveness of this item. These are economists whose work comes to mind often as I try to puzzle through evidence. Dina Pomeranz could have been in the savings items above, but she also does lots of interesting things on taxation in developing countriesSeema Jayachandran on cash transfers and changing behavior via payments. Pam Jakiela's work on intrahousehold bargaining and on occupational choicesOriana Bandiera's work on labor markets.  

5. US Household and Micro- Finance: A different kind of caveat here. These are women I work with closely who aren't economists, but whose work is important to understanding household and microfinance in the United States. Joyce Klein is the expert on US microfinance in practice as far as I'm concerned. Ida Rademacher,Joanna Smith-RamaniGenevieve Melford and Katherine McKay are doing great work delving into US household finance, particularly through the Expanding Prosperity Impact Collaborative on topics like income volatility and consumer debt.

From  Tatyana Derugina , via  Annette Brown . Though in my experience the trend line is similar to publishing in every other domain I've been a part of.

From Tatyana Derugina, via Annette Brown. Though in my experience the trend line is similar to publishing in every other domain I've been a part of.

Week of March 1, 2019

The Post-Neoliberal Edition

1. Economics: The dismal science doesn't often generate positive reviews from outside the discipline, so when it does happen it's worth noting. Julia Rohrer, who in addition to having one of the best titled blogs I've ever seen, is a psychology graduate student who procrastinated on her dissertation by attending a summer program in economics. Here is her list of things she appreciated in economics as a positive contrast to her experience in psychology.
On the other hand (hah!), economists typically have a lot to say about what is wrong with economics--certainly I encounter more "friendly-fire" in the econ literature than when I dip my toes in other disciplines (though this is perhaps my favorite example of the intra-disciplinary critique). There's an ongoing discussion about the future of economics going on in the Boston Review--I don't know if that counts as friendly-fire in terms of the outlet, but the participants are economists--starting with an essay by Naidu, Rodrik and Zucman, Economics after Neoliberalism. Then there are responses from Marshall Steinbaum, who notes that "every new generation proclaims itself to have discovered empirical verification for the first time," and from Alice Evans who focuses on the nexus of economics and political power in the form of unions.
But, because it's me writing this, I have to close on a new paper in JDE, that finds that communal land tenure explains half of the cross-country agricultural productivity gap. And here's a piece about how small teams of researchers are more innovative than large teams. generate much more innovation than big teams Neo-liberalism won't go down without a fight!

2. Migration: I haven't touched on migration for a while so it felt serendipitous that Michael Clemens and Satish Chand put out an update to their paper first released in 2008(!) on the effects of migration on human capital development in Fiji. The basic story is that in the late 80's formal discrimination against Indian-Fijians increased sharply, causing the community to both increase emigration and investment in human capital to aid emigration prospects. The net effect, rather than the dreaded "brain drain," was to increase the stock of human capital in Fiji. grapes
Cross-border migration is really the only option in Fiji, but in many countries, like Indonesia, there are lots of internal migration options. Since there is typically a large gap in productivity within countries as well as between countries, internal migrationhas always been a part of the development story. Bryan and Morten have a new article in VoxDev about this process in Indonesia, looking at the productivity gains possible from removing barriers to internal migration.
Since we started off talking about Economics, here's a post from David McKenzie considering the effects of migration on economists--or more specifically, how to think about job market papers about a candidate's country-of-origin. True to his style, David goes deep, including a model, and a survey. The post was inspired by a tweet from Pablo Albarcar who later noted it was mostly a joke about "brain drain" worries.
It is surprising to me how tenacious the brain drain idea is. When I have conversations about it, I try to cite the literature like Clemens and Chand, but I rarely find that makes a dent. People can always find an objection. So I've taken to just asking people how they feel about the "destruction" of Brazilian soccer/football culture and skill due to the mass emigration of the most skilled players. Typically, that leads to several moments of silent blinking. If you're interested here's a paper about "Rodar" the circular human capital investment, migration and development among Brazilian footballers
  
3. US Poverty and Inequality: I typically try to avoid the grab-bag approach to items of interest but I'll confess this one is a bit of a grab bag with a variety of connecting threads. We'll start by connecting to a piece I included last week about tax refunds and saving. If you haven't read that, you should. I noted I was grateful for the piece because it meant I could skip the annual ritual of linking to a piece I wrote for SSIR several years ago about rethinking tax refunds. But I should have known that the zombie idea of tax refunds being bad personal finance wouldn't die so easily. Here's Neil Irwin from the NYT on how people being angry about lower refunds shows that "humans are not always rational." I'm struck by the irony that the continuing common use of "rational" in economics requires zero-cost attention, while a foundational truth of the discipline is "nothing is zero-cost." There is nothing irrational about paying a very small fee (in foregone interest) for the valuable service of helping you to save when other services are ineffective. That's especially true if you include, as you should, the cost of the tax advisors and financial advisors required to accurately calculate the proper amount of withholding and to choose the right investment/savings account in which to store those savings. So I guess that connects to the thread about economics maybe not being post-neoliberalism quite yet. And here's a column from the Washington Post's personal finance columnist withpush back on the "refunds are bad" idea from readers who explain their rational choices in their own words.  
This week a 3 year project by the National Academy of Sciences to provide a "nonpartisan, evidence-based report" on the most effective ways to reduce child poverty in the United States was released. The summary that most everyone is latching on to is that work supports are not going to get the job done. The only way to cut child poverty by at least half is direct cash support to parents. Here's the Vox overview.
If you were thinking about intergenerational poverty, you were probably also thinking about education. The last few years have seen a proliferation of videos of "poor kids" getting into elite schools. Here's a piece about a new book on what happens to the lower-income students once they arrive at elite schools. It's not so joyous--"money remains a requirement for full citizenship in college, despite institutional declarations to the contrary."
Finally, how much do financial incentives and tax rates affect the incentives to innovate and invent? Not much--exposure to innovation matters much more

4. Management: This is a last minute "swap" of an item, since David McKenziemaligned managers in his weekly links tweet this morning. As some of you know, I have a semi-secret identity ghost-writing and editing management books, with several of them specifically about Toyota and lean process and management, so I couldn't let it lie. Of course, David's quip was a joke. The piece he links to is a terrific overview of the research on how management matters, a literature that David is a significant contributor to. It is a topic that I wish the development field paid much much more attention to (I really hope this is the most clicked link of the week), and this overview is a great introduction, both in content and structure/organization. I think I'll make some of my papers look more like this in the future.
And here's a piece about how middle managers deserve more respect. In my read of the literature above, it is middle management that is the actual missing middle in development. 

5. Digital Finance: I relinked the piece on why there's no reason to trust blockchain in the notes above. Here's another reason: "Once Hailed as Unhackable, Blockchains Are Now Getting Hacked." On the other hand, here's, "Bitcoin Has Saved My Family," from a Venezuelan economist.
One of the under-examined topics in the emergence of digital finance is the shift in the organizations and organizational structures that are providing financial services. The institutions and people in telecoms are systematically different than those in finance. That's something that always strikes me as I look at the GSMA's annual report on the state of the mobile money industry. Not because of something in the report specifically, but the fact that the report is from the GSMA.
And finally, a little curiosity that may only interest me. Uganda is opening up the purchase of government debt to individuals using mobile money, on the theory that it will reduce the government's dependence on commercial banks and institutional investors. It's historically sound, but I'm skeptical. For instance, it hasn't worked as well as hoped in Kenya.  

The musing on the quality of Brazilian football in the face of mass emigration gives me an excuse to include a video in support of my argument. If you're interested in falling down the rabbit hole a bit, here's  a short documentary on the 1982 Brazil team , which is my Platonic ideal of how the game is supposed to be played. Though that could have something to do with the fact that I was 9 that summer, and it was the first World Cup I watched. I still have a visceral rage reaction any time I see the Azurri take the field.  

The musing on the quality of Brazilian football in the face of mass emigration gives me an excuse to include a video in support of my argument. If you're interested in falling down the rabbit hole a bit, here's a short documentary on the 1982 Brazil team, which is my Platonic ideal of how the game is supposed to be played. Though that could have something to do with the fact that I was 9 that summer, and it was the first World Cup I watched. I still have a visceral rage reaction any time I see the Azurri take the field.  

Week of February 18, 2019

The Special Service Edition

1. MicroDigitalFinance (and women): Questions about gender and financial inclusion have been a part of the modern microfinance movement since the beginning, when Yunus made those initial loans to women. For a long time, the accepted wisdom was that women were more responsible borrowers, repaid at higher rates, and did better things with their earnings than men. Then came several waves of research that called that into question--finding, for instance, that men had much higher returns to capital; that women didn't spend money that differently (outside of the social norms that constrained both their income-earning and -spending choices).
Recently there has been another swing. For me it started with suggestive evidence from Nathan Fiala's grants vs. loans to men and women in Uganda that women's average low returns were driven by the women who had the hardest time protecting money from male relatives--something that didn't make it into the published paper (so factor that into your Bayesian updating). Then Bernhardt, Field, Pande and Rigol re-analysed data from the original returns to capital work and found that women who operated the sole enterprise in their household had returns as high as men. Then Hardy and Kagy dug into why returns to men and women's tailoring businesses were so different in Ghana.
Now Emma Riley has a new paper going to back to Uganda and using mobile money accounts to give a much more definitive answer to the control of funds issue that Fiala's work hinted at. Working with BRAC (it occurred to me yesterday that I think all the subsidy to global microfinance could be reasonably justified just by BRAC), she provided female business owners with a separate mobile money account to receive their loan proceeds--the theory being, of course, that this would allow them to protect the funds much better. She finds that women who received the money in the private mobile accounts had 15% higher profits and 11% higher business capitalthan controls who received the money in cash. There are number of possible mechanisms, but she finds the best explanation is indeed the ability to protect money from the family. This is a big deal.
And last year when I posted a story about Uganda implementing a social media and mobile money tax, I didn't really take it seriously. It turns out I should have. The tax went into effect and Ugandans have behaved like good homo economicuses: mobile money use and social media use is down. Say, that suddenly sounds like a useful policy intervention. 
Finally, this rang my confirmation bias bell so hard that there's no way I could leave it out or even wait another moment to put it in the faiV. Maybe I'll include it in every edition from here on out. There's No Good Reason to Trust Blockchain Technology.

2. Youth Unemployment: This wasn't supposed to be "the Uganda edition" but in other women in Uganda research news, here's a paper from a star-studded list of researchers starting with Oriana Bandiera (is it just me or has Selim Gulesci had a remarkably productive last 12 months?) forthcoming in AEJ:Applied on a program to empower adolescent Ugandan women with both vocational and sex/relationship education. They find large effects after 4 yours, boosting the number engaged in income-generating activities (all microenterprise) by 50% (5pp) and cutting teen pregnancy and reported unwanted sex by a third. That's impressive. But your homework assignment is to square these results with the five year follow-up results of Blattman and Fiala's grants to Ugandan teenagers (where all the effects fade out after 9 years) and Brudevold-Newman, Honorati, Jakiela and Ozier vocational training program for young Kenyan women where effects of training and grants dissipate after 2 years. Seriously, this is your homework. Email me with your theories. If you can work in Blattman and Dercon's Ethiopia follow-up (which as disappeared from the web, hopefully temporarily), any of the other papers from this session at ASSA2018, or McKenzie's review of vocational training programs, you get extra credit.
  
3. Economic History: I've mentioned a couple of times recently that I've been delving into Economic History to learn a bit more about financial system development and the history of banking and consumer financial services. It's been fascinating so I thought I would share a few links in that vein. There are two books that top the list, both of which I think I've mentioned, but since I now consider these as must-reads for anyone interested in financial services along with Portfolios of the PoorThe Poor and Their MoneyDue Diligence, and, y'know, coughcough cough, I'm going to mention them again. City of Debtors covers the tragically unknown history of microcredit in the United States from the 1890s on. Insider Lending is the story of how banking evolved in New England from the 1800s, specifically how economic and political forces turned something entirely self-serving for existing elites into a vital service for the masses. 
If you're intrigued by what can be learned from economic history but aren't ready to dive into a book, here's a new paper on the development of a French village from 1730 to 1895, an era very similar to conditions in many middle-income countries today. But if you're not ready for even that level of commitment, try this new Twitter account: @EmpireRomanHoly. There's a daily thread on one of the thousands of semi-independent principalities that made up the neither Holy nor Roman nor Empire. Or try this single thread about a forgotten Indian empire (though since I'm Peruvian-by-birth I have to say he gets the comparisons to the glorious Incan Empire all wrong). 

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords: I was going to give the algorithms a rest, but well, it turns out the Overlords never sleep. Well, actually, apparently they were asleep at the switch so to speak. Some Chinese company left their facial recognition database being used to track Muslims in the country exposed online.
And here's Stephanie Wykstra on some university's attempts to teach ethics to the programmers who are going to be building our overlords. I wonder if any of them have a satellite campus in China? 

5. Service Journalism: For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase, service journalism is the term of art for those articles like, "Five Ways to Eat Healthier Today" or "How to Delete Facebook From Your Phone." In my case, I often get questions about some of the tools I use, so herewith is some insight into the faiV (and my other work) behind the scenes. First up is Asana, which I apparently use in a somewhat unusual way. I've never been able to consistently use task/to-do list/project management software, which is the main use case for Asana, consistently. But a few years ago, Asana introduced a "bulletin board" style view which I now use religiously to track papers and sources whenever I'm working on a big project. I've used it for years to keep track of things for the faiV, but since the start of the year I've been experimenting with a new tool for Chrome called Workona(the tag line is "browse like it's your job" which feels a bit on the nose for me). In case it wasn't clear I'm one of those people who has upgraded every one of my machines to 16GB solely to cope with the 100+ tabs I have open on each of 4 computers I use regularly. Workona allows you to group those tabs usefully, share them between machines, suspend tabs your not using, and some other cool things. It's free for now, tough a paid model is coming, but I will be the first in line to pay because I find it so useful.
Another tool I use everyday is Synergy which allows me to park two machines beside each other and use them as one nearly seamless machine. My normal work set-up has 4 screens--two laptops side by side, each connected to a 24-inch external monitor.
Finally, I just stumbled across Perma.CC, which though I haven't used it yet, seems like something I've been looking for for a long time--a way to make sure that links don't rot. Check it out. 

Keeping with the service journalism, this week I learned that pangolins are bi-pedal and I think everyone needs to know that too. You're welcome.  

Keeping with the service journalism, this week I learned that pangolins are bi-pedal and I think everyone needs to know that too. You're welcome.  

Week of February 11, 2019

The Writing on the Wall Edition

1. Our Algorithmic Overlords: I've long argued that teaching kids to code is as much of a waste of time as financial literacy. The simplified version of the argument is that most people are terrible programmers and computers are already better at coding than the average human. As a consequence I emphasize to my own kids and to others who are blinkered enough to ask my advice, that learning how to communicate/write is a much more important tool for the future (yes, yes, cognitive dissonance).
While I still think I'm right about the first part, it turns out I'm wrong about the second part. Yesterday OpenAI "released" work on an AI system that writes shockingly good text. I use scare quotes because, in another sign of things to come, OpenAI has only published a small subset of their work because they believe that the potential malicious use of the technology is great enough to restrict access. There are a bunch of news stories about this. Here's Wired, for instance. But the most interesting one I've come across is The Guardian because they had the algorithm write an article based on their lede.
Let's stick to the disturbing for a bit, because it's that kind of day. The World Food Program has formed a partnership with Palantir to analyse its data on food distributions, apparently with the main motivation being to look for "anomalies" that indicate that aid is being diverted or wasted. The idea of handing over data about some of the world's most vulnerable people to a private company that specializes in surveillance and tracking of people hasn't gone over well with a wide variety of people. As background, here's an article about what Palantir does for their biggest client, the NSA. Sometimes it seems like some people at the UN look at the one world government kooks and think, "What could we do to make their conspiracy theories more plausible?"
On a more theoretical level, Kleinberg, Ludwig, Mullainathan and Sunstein have a new paper on "Discrimination in the Age of Algorithms," arguing that despite fears of algorithmic discrimination, proving discrimination by algorithms is a lot easier than proving discrimination by humans. Of course, that requires putting regulations in place that allow algorithms to be examined. I'm going to flatter myself by pointing out it's similar to an argument I made in my review of Automating Inequality. So I feel validated.
Speaking of transparency, regulation and of algorithmic surveillance, here's David Siegel and Rob Reich arguing that it's not too late for social media to regulate itself, by setting up something like FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which polices securities firms). It's an argument that I would have given short-shrift to, but the FINRA example is credible.
Finally, I'll be dating myself in the Graphic of the Week below, but here's another way to figure out how old I am: when I was an undergrad, most of the "power imbalance" between developing countries and private firms literature was about GM. Here's a new piece from Michael Pisa at CGD on the new power imbalance and it's implications: the relationship between developing countries and tech giants.

2. Digital Finance: That feels like as reasonable a transition as I'm going to get to new data from Pew on the global spread of smartphones. Given limited consumer protections, regulatory and enforcement capability, and "digital literacy" in many developing countries, I will confess this worries me a lot, cf Chris Blattman's thread on "creating a 20th Century...system in an 18th Century state."
Here's a particular instance of that concern, tieing together the last few items: the rapidly growing use of "alternative credit scores" using things like digital footprints and psychometrics. You can make an argument that such things are huge boon to financial inclusion by tackling the thorny problem of asymmetric information. But there are big questions about what such alternative metrics are actually measuring. For instance, as the article above illustrates, the argument is that in lending, character matters and that psychometrics can effectively evaluate character. But it doesn't ask whether character is in-born or shaped by circumstance? No matter which way you answer that question, you're going to have a tough time arguing that discriminating based on character is fair. And that's all before we get to all the other possible dimensions of opaque discrimination.
The growing use of alternative data is starting to get attention from developed world regulatory agencies, but the first frontier of regulation is likely to be from securities regulators. I don't think they are going to be particularly interested in protecting developing world consumers. I guess that idea about self-regulation is starting to look more appealing, particularly if it's trans-national.
Meanwhile, the frontier of digital finance is advancing rapidly, even without alternative data. Safaricom introduced what is here called a "overdraft facility" in January, but I think of it more as a digital credit card. In the first month it was available, $620 million was borrowed. The pricing seems particularly difficult to parse but that may be just the reporting. One of the very first things I wrote for FAI was arguing for development of a micro-line-of-credit. Now that it's here, I confess it makes me very nervous.
 
3. Financial Inclusion: That's not to say that digital tools don't hold lots of promise for financial inclusion, just check the Findex. This week CGAP hosted a webinar with MIX on "What Makes a Fintech Inclusive?" There are some sophisticated answers to that question with some good examples, but I often return to the simplest answer: it cares about poor and marginalized people. And so I especially worry when I see answers to that question that lead with tech.
The financial inclusion field as a whole has been in something of a slow-moving existential crisis for the last few years. The best evidence of that is the number of efforts to define or map the impact of financial services and financial inclusion, several of which I'm a part of. Last week I linked to an IPA-led evidence review on financial inclusion and resilience. The week before that to a Cochrane Collaboration review of reviews of evidence on financial inclusion. This week, the UNCDF and BFA published their take on pathways for financial inclusion to impact the SDGs (full report here). I could say I expect there will be more, but I know there will be more in this vein, if I can finish revisions, etc.

4. US Inequality: It's tax return/refund time in the US. So there's a lot of discussion of the size of tax refunds and how people should withhold less and save more of their refund etc. It's particularly an issue this year because refunds seem to be smaller because of last years tax law changes and perhaps pressure on the Treasury to reduce withholding so more people would see a quick boost in their paycheck. Justin Fox takes a look, using the US Financial Diaries and some related work to show what a dumb policy that was and saving me from reposting my annual tax time lament.
There are a few things here I've been meaning to include for a few weeks but haven't gotten to. Here's a look at how tech is "splitting the workforce in two" which has some big implications for inequality. Here's a look at how stacked against the young the US system has become, which has implications for the persistence of the current very high levels of inequality. And here's one of those very depressing looks at how well-intentioned policies to do something about inequality end up being churned up in the meatgrinder and making things worse, in this case having to do with pushing colleges to admit poorer kids. The latter two are why I have a problem with the proposed incremental approach to Medicaid-for-All by allowing people between 50 and 62 to buy in to the system. I'm usually a great fan of incremental, but that specific proposal seems likely to accelerate the transfers from young-to-old in many ways worse than we can imagine.

5. Evidence-Based Policy: Yes, it's a dark day. So I'm going to revel in it and continue that theme of well-intentioned not working out so well, in this case from the old scale problem. One of the staples of "evidence-based" interventions in the last decade or so has been home visitation for new mothers/infants. An evaluation of a scaled-up version of the program found "no statistically significant effect on the evaluations focal outcomes" and no significant heterogeneity of effects (e.g. no larger or smaller effects for ex-ante determined high-risk or low-risk families). Chile scaled up cognitive behavior therapy in schools to deal with disruptive kids. It made things mostly worse. Pittsburgh scaled up a "restorative justice" program in an attempt to deal with discriminatory discipline practices for disruptive students (African-American kids get suspended from school much more often than white kids). Some people are saying it made things worse, but I look at the results table and see "no effect" given the number of outcomes.
Andrew Gelman features an old Michael Crichton piece on why media depictions of research are so wrong with some actually, it seems to me, good advice on what to do about it. If anyone ends up creating the proposed organization to do rapid response to spurious reporting of research, hire me. I want to do that. I suppose in some small way, that is what the faiV does. So, I guess, sponsor the faiV?
And here's a report from the William Grant Foundation on "Reframing Evidence-Based Policy to Align with the Evidence" which seems a useful thing to do if you've clicked on the three links above.

This isn't new, but it's fun. Merriam Webster has a site where you can put in any year and see words that first appeared in that year. This is a snippet of my birth year. Source:  Merriam Webster Time Traveler

This isn't new, but it's fun. Merriam Webster has a site where you can put in any year and see words that first appeared in that year. This is a snippet of my birth year. Source: Merriam Webster Time Traveler

Week of February 4, 2019

The Global Con Edition

1. MicroDigitalHouseholdFinance: 
I've had to cram what I usually break out into 2 categories into this first item. First, last week I featured a story about Kenyan MFIs being driven "to [an] early grave"and asked if any one had some additional knowledge of that situation. Thanks to David Ferrand (of FSDAfrica) and Alexandra Wall (of CEGA's Digital Credit Observatory), I'm reasonably confident that story is reasonably accurate (I do try to be good Bayesian). Meanwhile, with a broader perspective, Gregor Dorfleitner sent me a link to his recently published research looking at adoption of digital infrastructure by nearly 1000 MFIs globally. It's generally a more hopeful picture of evolution over disintermediation than what is happening in Kenya. 
This week, coincidentally I had two conversations about household finances that revolved around individuals' willingness to hide their income from others in the household and that affects outcomes for good or ill. And then, up pops Fred Wherry and colleagues with a new paper on exactly on the mechanics intrahousehold bargaining around borrowing and lending based on research in California. I'm very impressed they avoided "Neither a borrower nor a lender be..." and I do kind of love "Awkwardness, Obfuscation and Negative Reciprocity." And in other new paper news, the titans of financial choice architecture, have a new paper on how use implicit defaults to spur people to make active choices--which seems a better form of nudging than much of what I see. 

2. Banking (and Money Transfer Operators): I frequently talk about how financial system regulators in the developing world need to look to the US for a peek into their future. This week I learned that Australia is also a useful cautionary tale. Pretty much the entire banking sector in Australia is facing the prospect of criminal prosecutions after a wide ranging royal commission report that details rampant "fee for no service" practices were widespread.
Meanwhile there are some big changes happening in the global money transfer space, related to Chinese operators attempts to expand globally, and the Trump administrations general antipathy to such moves. Last year, Ant Financial tried to buy MoneyGram before regulators put a stop to the transaction. MoneyGram is now essentially moribund, having lost 83% of it's market value since then, and trying to sell itself to anyone who might have some cash. Ant Financial has moved on to a UK company, WorldFirst, which this week announced it was shutting down it's US operation so that American regulators have no say in the deal. Neither of those stories sound like the prospects for cutting the costs of global remittances are improving.
  
3. Global Inequality: Last week I purposely skipped over the ridiculous annual OxFam global wealth inequality brouhaha. Perhaps I should stick to my guns, but given the number of people I saw engaging with this Guardian piece from Jason Hickel, that somehow argues that global poverty hasn't been decreasing, and life was great in the 1820s, well...Here's pushback from Martin Ravallion. Here's Max Roser, who was a particular target in the Hickel op-ed.
Turning to doing something about global inequality rather than fantasies about the pastoral idylls of the 1820s, there's been a remarkable flourishing of pieces about tax avoidance by the wealthy. Here's the op-ed from the NYT that inspired the name of this week's edition on the Trump tax cuts enabling corporate tax dodging. Here's a new paper in the AER finding that globalization since 1994 has led to the labor income tax burden of the middle class rising, while that on the top 1 percent fell. Here's a new brief from Danny Yagan at SIEPR on how high earning wealthy entrepreneurs dodge taxes on labor income of about $1 trillion per year. And using data from Gabriel Zucman, here's a piece from the Washington Post on the new club of wealth inequality, with charter members China, Russia and the US

4. Philanthropy and Social Enterprise: There's a good bit to catch up on here. Back in the fall, I featured several entries in an on-going discussion involving Rob Reich (the political scientist, not the economist), Phil BuchananAnand Ghiridharadasand Ben Soskis on the role of philanthropy in the US (each of those links is to their books/sites). Phil has a newish post trying to take stock of the various critiques and defenses.
Last summer, I took note of Just Capital, a newish organization trying to create an index of socially-responsible firms using criteria less laughable than most of the SRI indexes. Just Capital has partnered with Forbes Magazine to create a list of the US's 100 most "just" companies with the criteria determined by surveying (what I presume is a convenience sample) readers.
On the topic of philanthropy worth critiquing and just companies, the Pennsylvania Attorney General is suing one of the largest non-profits in the state, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, for being neither philanthropic nor just. And here's someVox reporting on the equally unphilanthropic and unjust Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, with the added twist of the City of San Francisco playing the "man behind the curtain." The Vox critique has already had an effect; I'll be cheering for the PA Attorney General. As a side note, one of the problems I have with the concept of "financial health" is it makes an analogy to the only industry that is more of a mess of conflicting incentives and hidden bad behavior than the finance services industry.
Dramatically changing the topic, GiveWell has announced some changes to it's research focus, and as a consequence, is hiring. Full disclosure: I'm Vice-Chairman of GiveWell's board. I think it's likely that faiV readers know some people who might be interested in those jobs. So click and check them out.
Finally, this week Guidestar and the Foundation Center announced that they are merging. I'm not sure whether to think of this as evidence of maturing philanthropic infrastructure or further evidence of a market failure in data on philanthropy. Regardless, I have a lot of respect for Jacob Harold and Brad Smith, the respective CEOs of the two organizations for taking a step that many in the non-profit world avoid. 

5. Methods: Behold, the first ever "listicle" in the faiV. What should experimental economists do more of? These 12 things, according to John List. And here's a review of how field experiments have improved our understanding of labor markets (List again). Though I have to ask, is this use of "natural field experiments" standard outside of development economics or is it a Nature thing? One of the things that experimental economists should perhaps hesitate before doing more of are list experiments--that according to a new paper from Pascaline Dupas and co-authors(and do read the comments).

I had decided to make the graphic/video of the week a bit more fun and less on-topic. But then  Kieran Healy created something both fun and on-topic . The best of both worlds. Source:  Kieran Healy . 

I had decided to make the graphic/video of the week a bit more fun and less on-topic. But then Kieran Healy created something both fun and on-topic. The best of both worlds. Source: Kieran Healy

Week of January 28, 2019

1. MicroDigitalFinance: Back before the holidays, I hosted the first faiVLive on how to think about microcredit impact based on recent evidence. If you missed it, you can watch it here (and people are still watching it, I'm happy to say). Here's Bruce Wydick's take on the proceedings if you prefer text to video.
Last week, there was some discussion of evidence gaps, and it's clear that I'm not the only one thinking in this direction. On the heels of that Campbell Collaborative review-of-reviews, IPA has a review of evidence (and gaps) on "Building Resilience through Financial Inclusion" that makes a lot more sense to me.
Okay, now to some less-meta items. Well only a little bit I guess. Remember that Karlan and Zinman paper about high-cost loans in South Africa that found positive effects? It was a lending for resilience story. Now there's a company in California offering high-cost loans to people via their landlords, specifically marketed to help them not miss a rent payment or to pay a security deposit. The article mostly ignores fungibility, presuming that the actual use of the loan proceeds are paying rent rather than covering some other emergency, but that seems unlikely to me. In the US Financial Diaries we saw that housing payments were much more erratic than other types of payments, though the data wasn't clean enough to really draw any firm conclusions. So is this a lending-for-resilience story or a new version of payday lending debt traps?
Speaking of payday lending debt traps, we usually use that phrase metaphorically. But there's a UK payday lender who is apparently eager to make it more literal. Yes, they are advocating for a return to debtors' prisons (darn that asymmetric information and moral hazard!). And even doubling down on the idea.
Finally, here's a story (HT Matthew Soursourian) about Kenyan MFIs being driven "to [an] early grave" as digital financial services allow commercial banks and non-banks to siphon off the customer base. Disintermediation was not exactly the story that early proponents of mobile money were hoping for, but it does fit with the historical record of financial systems development. If you know anything about this, or can vouch for the accuracy of the information in the article, I'd love to hear from you.
  
2. Global Development: I'm going to skip the on-going "shooting fish in a barrel" about OxFam's annual global wealth publicity/outrage stunt since there's nothing at all new there. Better to spend your limited attention on this NYTimes op-ed from Rohini Pande and colleagues on the "new home for extreme poverty."
If you follow these topics at all, you know that new home is middle-income countries like India. The Congress Party's proposal of a not-universal basic income to address the persistence of extreme poverty in the country has been getting a fair amount of attention. Apparently Angus Deaton and Thomas Piketty are advising Congress, though from my experience with politicians "advising" could mean "we read their books." Here's Maitreesh Ghatak's take on what it would take for the policy to work
On the other side of the world, I've watched the evolving situation in Venezuela with a great deal of personal interest. I grew up in Colombia, a few hours from the Venezuelan border, and learned relatively recently that an ancestor of mine funded an invasion of Venezuela in the early 1800s. Particularly my interest has been caught by some economists volunteering to educate politicians and pop culture figures on what is going on, in the hopes of stopping bad takes. Here, by the way, courtesy of Chris Blattman, is a deeper background piece on the Maduro regime than you may find elsewhere. The macroeconomic quirks of access to gold reserves and of sovereign and not-so-sovereign bonds under sanctions have been pretty interesting too. And here's Cindy Huang of CGD on the potential for Colombia accessing concessional funding to help finance programs for Venezuelan refugees.
Finally, I'm happy to claim, without evidence, that my request for Rachel Glennerster to post her Twitter thread on what she's learned in her first year as DfID's chief economist as a blog post so that was easier to share, cite and archive caused this blog post compiling her Twitter thread.

3. Small Business: My fixation with breaking down the silo between financial inclusion in the US and internationally extends beyond household finance. The story of most small business in the US is the same as it is in developing countries--they are not high-growth "gung-ho" entrepreneurs but frustrated employees trying to generate an income in the face of labor market failures of various sorts. So the perennial development topic of how to increase lending to SMEs should be looking to the US, and those in the US should be looking internationally.
For most small and micro-businesses the biggest financial challenge isn't getting credit to invest, but managing cash flow and liquidity. Square, which has historically been focused on enabling retail consumer-to-business payments, recently announced a new product specifically to tackle this problem: a debit card that allows real-time access to balances. To put it in development-speak, Square is offering trade credit to small merchants to cover the trade credit they provide to customers. I'm super-interested in seeing how well it works.
But, yes, small businesses often need credit as well. Lending to them is as difficult, if not more so, than lending to low-income consumers. Here's a story in the FT on how digital platforms have filled, expensively, a gap left by a secular decrease in small business lending from banks. The key point is that technology is offering several new putative solutions to classic lending problems, including direct and immediate access to small businesses' bank accounts. Supposedly this will prevent the lenders from incurring large losses in a downturn, but you have to wonder about the macro effects of immediately cutting off the supply of credit to small businesses at the first sign of a recession.
Finally, as important as finance is for small business, I think the more important missing capital is human capital. Here's a piece from Next Billion advocating for more funding for human capital interventions which reviews some of the relevant literature.

4. New Year, New You: It's still January in faiV-land, so it's not too late to pledge to learn some new things this year. Say, for instance, practical deep learning (the pinnacle of meta--learning about deep learning). That's a new, free, online course from something called Fast AI. Or perhaps, you'd like to get a better grasp on econometrics (who wouldn't?). Marginal Revolution is rolling out a new free class from Josh Angrist. In the spirit of the source, I'll say it's self-recommending. But maybe you'd like go back to fundamentals. In that case, here's a playlist of Tyler Cowen's 9 most important ideas in economics

5. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Whenever you think it can't get any worse, that's a big signal that it's about to get worse. Not on topic, but since the story on the world's worst family was such a popular link, last week, here's something even worse. But back to the topic at hand: Facebook being even worse. In this case, by paying teenagers to let the company digitally stalk them. I'm sure all those parental consent forms were authentic. The Facebook stalking broke Apple's rules, and now Apple is the de facto Facebook regulator. Yay?
Central to these issues is the nature of digital identity and what can be done with it based on the necessarily not complete picture that digital tracking provides. You may be comforted sometimes by the thought that companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple don't know everything about you. But you should also be scared, because, the limited information is already shaping what you see. Here's a very insightful piece on the limited control you have over your digital identity and how it shapes your world.
And here's a curious effort called Good ID to ensure that digital identities are "good for people as well as for business and government." Which is an idea that I wholly support--even the acknowledgment of the issue is a breath of fresh air. But perhaps they could do a better job of revealing their own identity? This is one of the least informative "who are we"'s I've ever seen. The meta! It burns!

I've  decided that in general I'm going to try to make the graphic/video of  the week a bit more outside-of-the-box of the rest of the faiV. And this  is perfect for the meta theme.  People on reddit   are   painting   recursive pictures   of people holding their paintings . And there's a  github  for it. Make sure to click on the change layout button.  Source . 

I've decided that in general I'm going to try to make the graphic/video of the week a bit more outside-of-the-box of the rest of the faiV. And this is perfect for the meta theme. People on reddit are painting recursive pictures of people holding their paintings. And there's a github for it. Make sure to click on the change layout button. Source

Week of January 21, 2019

1. MicroDigitalFinance: Many of you will be familiar with the story of microcredit's rise and sort-of fall, and it's current state of--I don't know, existential angst? But if not, the story is ably told in a new Vox piece by Stephanie Wykstra, with some comments from Jonathan and I included. Not too long after that, the Campbell Collaborative and 3ie issued a "systematic review of reviews" of the impact of financial inclusion, led by Maren Duvendack. I have to say it's kind of weird. The one sentence conclusion is "Financial inclusion interventions have very small and inconsistent impacts." Which apart from appending an "s" to the perfectly plural "impact", I don't disagree with. But this format is a review of reviews which imposes some weird constraints. Ultimately only 11 of 32 identified studies were included, and only one of those was from an economics journal, two are earlier Campbell or 3ie publications, two are specifically only about women's empowerment, and three are about strangely specific topics like HIV prevention. So I'm left really uncertain what to think of it.
Of course, the hot topic isn't generic microfinance but digital finance. The Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa has an updated "evidence gap map" of research on the impact of digital finance featuring 55 studies (which is more than I have had the time to delve into so I can't compare it to the Campbell/3ie inclusion set). There's a summary of the findings at Next Billion.
Finally, here's an interesting story about Econet, the Zimbabwean mobile money provider--interesting in that it is really about the evolution of mobile money providers from following M-Pesa to following Tencent.
  
2. US Inequality: A big part of the story of understanding US inequality specifically, and inequality in developed countries in general, is understanding what has happened to wages of low-skill workers. The NYTimes has a piece on how cities have shifted from being the "land of opportunity" for such workers to a trap, based on work that David Autor presented in his Ely Lecture at the AEAs (by the way, AEA, it's still a good time to rename the Ely Lecture!).
One policy option for addressing stagnant wages for low-skill workers is to raise the minimum wage. Cengiz, Dube, Lindner and Zipperer continue their long-running work on the effects of 138 minimum wage changes between 1979 and 2016. They find increased earnings and essentially no effect on number of low-wage jobs
That's encouraging. Less encouraging is a new paper from Rodrik and di Tella finding that people are really, really happy to support protectionist policies, regardless of their politics, as a policy response to trade shocks.

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Speaking of people's attitudes, there's a big new report on Americans' attitudes on artificial intelligence from something called the Future of Humanity Institute, which as a name is somewhat creepy in my opinion. Maybe I've seen/read too much dystopian fiction. Anyway, they find that Facebook is the least trusted institution when it comes to AI development (no surprise) and the US military is tied for most trusted (big surprise, apparently these people haven't seen/read the same dystopian fiction I have). Also of interest, the median respondent thinks there's a 50% chance that robots will be able to fully replace human beings in less than 10 years. And just because, here's a Night Before Christmas style poem about the future of AI.
Meanwhile, MIT Technology Review "analyzed 16,625" AI papers to predict directions of future research. As someone interested in the future of humanity who doesn't trust either Facebook or the US military to develop AI, I'm encouraged to see cyclical patterns of research consistent with over-confidence.
One of the questions about the development of AI and machine-learning is how it will integrate into existing procedures. Flint, MI is a particularly fascinating case study on those challenges--and they are large. In a community with every incentive possible (they are literally being poisoned by their water and have extreme budget constraints) except politics to adopt the most efficient approach, the machine-learning approach was abandoned. I guess that should make me re-think my attitude toward phrases like "The Future of Humanity."

4. Methods and Evidence-Based Policy: Back in the fall I featured a paper about the effect of political connections on business success because I was so impressed by the method: Abhit Bhandari set up an actual company in Senegal and had his salespeople vary their pitches to signal political connections. Turns out Bhandari is not alone. David McKenzie has a new post at Development Impact on the apparently hot new trend in experimental development economics: setting up your own firm so you can run experiments on it. If you thought the barriers to running and publishing an experiment were high before...
Eva Vivalt has a new paper on specification searching and significance inflation in impact evaluations (see, you don't need to add an "s" to impact!). She finds less bias in economics and health papers than what's been found in political science and sociology. She also finds significance inflation in RCTs is lower than other methods and has fallen over time.
Here's an article from Gelman, Goel and Ho on what statistics can't tell us about affirmative action at Harvard. I'm a sucker for experts writing about the limits of their field.
I mentioned new research earlier punching some gaps into existing evidence bases. Here we go. Money priming, like other forms of priming, doesn't actually have a meaningful effect on behavior. The charts in this one are particularly striking. And an at-scale implementation of CBT for disruptive kids in Chilean schools radically backfired.
And because I have no other place better to put it, but wanted to include it, here's Ray Fisman and Michael Luca on how free pens are killing so many people in the US that average lifespans are falling. And on a related note, ugh, ugh, ugh. There are some things that need to be re-named more urgently than the Ely Lecture.

5. Global Development: When you can write about industrial policy and subsistence agriculture in the same item, you have to take advantage. Thanks VoxDev! Dani Rodrick has an overview on the resurgent economics of industrial policy, which is a very helpful refresher if you've looked at David's post on setting up your own firm to run experiments and are thinking it may be time to change your topics of interest. But VoxDev also has a summary of work reviewing what's been learned about improving agricultural extension services from the Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative. Which is a very helpful overview if you, like me, have long-standing plans to look at what we can learn from research on subsistence farming to design programs for subsistence retail.
But there's still a long way to go, because even after all this time studying small-scale agriculture we still don't know a lot. Like how much of the difference in productivity from farm-to-farm is real or just mismeasurement. That paper should also be of interest to anyone thinking about studying firms, by setting up their own or otherwise, or in industrial policy.

Apropos of nothing, I found this chart, and  the related blog post  looking at data from lots of different drugs, on the frequency of use of marijuana quite interesting.

Apropos of nothing, I found this chart, and the related blog post looking at data from lots of different drugs, on the frequency of use of marijuana quite interesting.

Week of January 7, 2019

1. The History of Banking: For a project I'm working on I've been thinking a lot about financial system development and have gotten a bit obsessed with the history of banking. You might think that with a topic so core to economic thinking there would be some consensus on things like what banks do and how they came to do them. But you would be wrong. I've had great fun reading conflicting accounts of the history of banking in the US and Germany over the last few weeks. At the AEA exhibit floor I stumbled on a new book about the history of banking in France, Dark Matter Credit. The short version is that informal banking was a massive part of the French economy, and worked better in many ways than French banks until World War I, and it took regulation to finally allow formal banks to displace the informal system. I also picked up Lending to the Borrower from Hell and just in the first few pages discovered that Italian "friars, widows and orphans" were buying syndicated loans to Charles the II of Spain in 1595. The bottom line is that informal finance was much more efficient and "thick" than I believed, and formal banking extended much further much earlier than I had known. There's also a new book on banking crises in the US before the Federal Reserve, Fighting Financial Crises, which is equally relevant to thinking about the much-more-grey-than-you-would-think borderland between formal and informal banking.
To tie this all more specifically to the AEA meetings than just what was on display at the book vendors' booths, one of my favorite sessions was Economics with Ancient Data. Though I'll confess I'm not sure whether to be heartened that things we are doing now can have persistent effects for thousands of years, or depressed that our present was determined by choices thousands of years ago.
   
2. MicroDigitalHouseholdFinance: There was of course a number of new(ish) papers on our favorite topics, further condensed here. Here's the session on financial innovation in developing countries and one specifically focused on South Asia. Some of these papers have appeared in recent editions of the faiV already, but I want to call out a couple specifically. Microcredit, I've argued, is in dire need of innovation. So I'm always pleased when I see papers on innovation in the core product terms, like this paper from India on allowing flexible repayment, and while it wasn't at AEA,this one in Bangladesh. In both cases, allowing borrowers to skip payments results in higher repayment rates and better business outcomes. I see these as part of an evolving understanding that microcredit is a liquidity-management product, not an investment product. Credit can also be a risk-management product, as long as you know it's going to be there when you need it. That's the story of this paper on guaranteed loans for borrowers in the event of a flood (in Bangladesh). Another cool innovation in microcredit. Of course, the next question is who is going to insure the MFI so that it has the liquidity to make good on emergency loan promises?
There was a session titled "Shaping Norms" that I almost missed out on because of the somewhat oblique title. There were some very interesting papers here on how household preferences get formed, and how they can be changed, including longer-term data on the experiment in Ethiopia that I think of as launching the "changing aspirations" theme that we see more and more of.
I was amused that there were simultaneous sessions on "Finance and Development" and "Financial Development" but the poor Chinese student beside me was very confused as apparently the translations in the official app did a poor job of differentiating between the two. Both had interesting papers, but I found this on the sale of a credit card portfolio from a department store to a bank (which has access to more credit bureau data) in Chile, and this on bank specialization in export markets particularly interesting.
But moving outside of the AEA realm, my confirmation bias prevents me from not including two other related items on Household Finance. First, Matthew Soursourian of CGAP has some pointed questions about the usefulness of "financial health" as a concept, questions I thoroughly endorse. Second, there is documentary evidence (for instance, here) that I've long been skeptical of the story about mothers in developing countries caring about their children while fathers don't. I find it more than vaguely racist as these stories typically only involve countries where the majority of fathers are black or brown. Anyway, at long last someone, specifically Kathryn Moeller, tried to track down one of the more common statistics on women spending more money on children and found that there is no source, and it was apparently made up as part of a marketing campaign. But that's just the start. Seth Gitter links to three studies that find no difference in investment in children (and I'll add the Spandana impact evaluation to his list) and Martin Ravallion points out that the "70% of world's poor are women" stat seems equally unsourced.
 
3. Entrepreneurship, Reluctant and Otherwise: Overall, the paper that left me thinking the most is a long-term update to the Blattman and Dercon experiment randomizing employment at factories in Ethiopia. If you need a catch-up, the original experiment had three arms: control, a $300 cash grant plus business training and a job in a "sweatshop"-type factory. While there were positive effects for the entrepreneurship group, the jobs didn't improve income and had negative effects on physical health. After five years, all the differences dissipate (hours worked, income, health, occupational choice). Pause to think about that for a moment--after several years of higher incomes from entrepreneurship, the average person in that arm shut down their business. And the control group started microenterprises and got factory jobs (filling the gaps left by the treatment arm participants who dropped out?). It's another piece of a growing puzzle about why microenterprises don't grow, or more specifically why people don't seem to invest in their microenterprises, even when the income is higher than the alternatives. Stuart Rutherford has been thinking about that too, and because it's Stuart, he went out and interviewed participants in the Hrishipara Diaries to try to get some answers.
If you're a regular reader of the faiV, you know that one of my standard soapboxes is the need to pay more attention to the commonalities between the US and developing countries. And this is anther example. At AEA, Fiona Grieg of the JP Morgan Chase Institute presented updated data on participation in the gig economy in the US (not publicly available yet, here's the older version). Of the various forms of gig work, driving is arguably the most similar to the low-skill self-employment options, which I generally term "subsistence retail", available in developing countries (indeed, that's one of the jobs Stuart discusses in his piece). In that sector, specifically, the striking finding is that participation is sporadic, irregular and incomes are falling, in part apparently because of competition but also because participants are spending fewer hours doing it. It's a pattern that looks to me much like the Ethiopia experiment, and Blattman's similar experiment in Uganda which also saw all effects dissipate after nine years. 
Here's a nascent explanatory theory, based on a new NBER paper about demographic change in the US. The authors show that all of the troubling changes in the US economy related to job creation, start-up rates and the labor share of income can be explained by the US's aging population. The basic idea is this: older people start fewer firms, particularly firms that grow and add employees, than young people. With fewer start-ups you get less creative destruction and more mature firms which tend hire fewer new workers and, at least partially as a consequence, have more unequal wages and less wage growth. Now apply those ideas to developing economies which tend to be quite young demographically. There young people are trying a lot of things to figure out what the best option for them is. Because of other market failures, the need for extraordinary entrepreneurial ability to succeed is much higher and therefore much fewer small firms grow to any size. And even survival takes a huge amount of effort, especially since there are so many other low-skill young people trying out the same things at the same time. So people drop out of microenterprises before learning enough to improve them, and then bounce through other options because none of them are particularly good. And that's what we are also now seeing in the US economy, with the gig economy as one example. The jobs just aren't good enough to justify investment. Any thoughts on this very welcome. 

4. Blind Spots and Privilege: The two things that generated the most attention at AEA this year had to do with blind spots. You've likely heard about the investigations into harassment and bullying of women by (former) superstar Roland Fryer. That gave real energy to the sessions on gender discrimination in the profession that were already on the agenda by the time the story broke. Here's video of a session featuring Susan Athey, Marianne Bertrand, Sebnem Kalemli-Ozcan and Janet Yellendiscussing their experiences being economists while female. The sessions and conversations certainly caught the attention of the news media with follow-up stories, from the NYT and NPR. The conversations have brought to light plenty of blind-spots and privilege. For instance, the AEA has not had any way to remove someone from the executive committee. There is now a code of conduct, but no mechanism for enforcing it. And the post-conference conversation on Twitter has been turning to more of the blind-spots, like the persistence of one-on-one job interviews in hotel rooms. It remains to be seen how much of a reckoning there will be. Case in point is the death this week of Harold Demsetz, an economist who, the consensus seems to be, should have won a Nobel (with Armen Alchian). The third comment on Marginal Revolution is a very credible story of years of harassment by Demsetz. But here's a Twitter thread lamenting his passing in which I can't help but notice an imbalance among the commenters who knew him personally.
OK, here's a huge pivot. The other session that inspired the most passionate response, at least as far as I could tell, was about coming changes to how the US Census Bureau anonymizes data. Here's some quick background: the ability to de-anonymize anonymous data is increasingly a concern in many areas of life; and the Census Bureau is moving toward something called "differential privacy" to make it harder to do, with unclear but probably negative effects on the ability of researchers to use Census Bureau data. Whether there are real threats to privacy and how the Census plan is being implemented are apparently deeply controversial. Here's a "live" thread from Gary Kimbrough, with follow-up responses from some of the participants, that reveals some of the tensions and problems. Something that emerges from the thread of particular note is an issue I was not aware of: Raj Chetty has more access to Census data than anyone else, apparently, and that is a source of a lot of tension among researchers. There is real concern that the Census' plan will create a hierarchy of who has access to useful data and put even more power in the hands of privileged researchers--and the extreme hierarchy that already exists in Economics is certainly a part of the culture problem. 

5. Replication and Causal Inference: OK, let's expand our horizons beyond things drawn directly from AEA. David Roodman has a new piece on the lessons from his work attempting to replicate two important public health economics papers over the last few years. Roodman doesn't see a replication crisis in economics similar to that in psychology, because "most...original results can be matched when applying the reported methods to the reported data." He thinks, though, that re-analysis is more important than replication and there economics has a "robustness" crisis.
There is a new study of "push button replication"--the ability to get the same results from the reported data and methods with the resources made available--of impact evaluations from low- and middle-income countries. Brown, Muller and Wood find that only 27 of the 109 studies they find are "push button replicable." Of those that were not, 59 did not provide the necessary data and code (similar to another paper from a few years ago that David cites); 30 of those were published in journals that nominally required the data and code to be posted. Not great, Bob
Finally, a clash of titans in the world of causal inference erupted this week, with Andrew Gelman posting a review of Judea Pearl's newish book, The Book of Why. AsSue Marquez notes, the comments are where it gets really interesting (which also got me to wondering, why are the comments on Gelman's blog must reads and the comments on Tyler Cowen's blog must-not-reads?). Pearl himself responds, (eventually in multiple places in the thread) and if you thought the culture in economics was unique, maybe not so much. Most of what is in the comment thread at Gelman's blog is statisticians. The economists got to discussing it on Twitter. I wish I could provide a useful guide to that, but the conversation got so fractured that even I was stymied trying to follow it. The best I can offer is to start with Marquez's tweet, and then click on various replies to see the conversation branching. It's frustrating but worth it, and if any faiV readers end up making sense of it (nudge, nudge Marc) and summarizing the conversation in a useful way, let me know.

There were a lot of things I considered including this week, but in the end I decided that everyone could use a smile to start the year with. So without further comment, click play.

There were a lot of things I considered including this week, but in the end I decided that everyone could use a smile to start the year with. So without further comment, click play.

Week of December 17, 2018

1. Economics? What Is It Good For?: It's hard to spend any time paying attention to methodological and disciplinary debates without thinking of the Planck/Samuelson dictum about science advancing via funerals. Here, I'm thinking of attitudes toward the value of field experiments specifically and the "credibility revolution" generally. Christopher Ruhm recently gave a speech, in paper form here, about the "credibly-answered unimportant questions" vs "plausibly-but-uncertainly-answered important questions" debate. I found it helpful because it makes the hollowness of this concern more evident than usual, but you'll have to wait on the book chapter I'm procrastinating on to read why. Noah Smith has a more charitable take on Ruhm's speech, with the added important note that one of the big problems of the field is that outsiders don't understand the difference at all
On the credibility side of things, there are issues beyond just the identification strategy. Here's an interview with Ted Miguel on transparency and reproducibility, a neglected part of the credibility revolution as far as I'm concerned. David Roodman has resurfaced with two new papers doing the hard work of reproducing results. He looks at Bleakley's study of the effects of hookworm elimination in the US and of malaria control in the Americas, questioning the result of the first, but largely upholding the result of the second. 
But there's yet another dimension of credibility that I feel like is even more neglected, hearkening back to Paul Romer's mathiness paper: the comprehensibility of methods and tools. Here's a recent example: Declare Design has a lengthy discussion of whether and when to cluster standard errors, inspired by questions posed by David McKenzie and Chris Blattman. It's great. But is anyone else concerned about how few people actually understand the statistical methods we rely on? And that problem is going to get worse, as more and more machine learning and AI techniques come to the fore, techniques that perhaps even fewer understand. And the people that do understand them often don't understand causal inference or the philosophical issues around such basic concepts as fairness
I guess, therefore, in fairness I should point out that apparently economics is good for sports, specifically the NFL (at last), and it is good for showing that the Planck/Samuelson dictum is true.

2. A Clash of Civilizations: Part of the curious thing about the way the RCT debates in economics evolved is the frequent citing of the use of RCTs in medicine as justification for their use in economics. It's curious because seemingly the understanding of causal inference methods in medicine isn't great. Here's a piece from JAMA (trigger warning: it calls RCTs the gold standard) on why you shouldn't take people out of your treatment group and put them into your control group because the treatment didn't work for them. It's not quite that bad, but still. Here's a thread from Amitabh Chandra on that paper and the general lack of causal inference understanding in medicine.
And here is a fascinating piece of work about how causal claims in health research get steadily ratcheted up. The authors looked at the 50 most shared journal articles about the health effects of exposure to something, finding "that only 6% of studies exhibited strong causal inference, but that 20% of academic authors in this sample used language strongly implying causality." And then the general news media further ratcheted up the causal claims.
I include that as important background to the clash of civilizations that happened recently when Jennifer Doleac, Anita Mukherjee and Molly Schnell wrote about the causal effects of harm reduction strategies related to opioid addiction, reviewing the literature and especially their paper on the impact of naloxone distribution. They find that naloxone access reduces short-term mortality but increases long-term mortality. That doesn't sit well with a wide variety of people outside economics. This is one of the tamer reactions from outside economics (trigger warning: it also refers to RCTs as the gold standard), tamer in the sense that it actually attempts to grapple a bit with the issues. But it ultimately settles on a version of the trope that "we already know the answer, so your causal inference sucks" and "Here's a study of a different intervention that works, so your causal inference sucks." You have to admire (well, you don't, but I do) Doleac for continuing to wade into controversial topics where there are people with very strong priors such as whether bail-setting algorithms might in fact be fairer than judges.
Public Health and Medicine aren't the only areas where economics clashes with other disciplines. Perhaps that has something to do with how insular economics publishing is. Tying all this together, here's a thread from Jake Vigdor about economic publishing insularity (See Graphic of the Week below) linking to this very cool set of visualizations about cross-disciplinary references in academic journals. Suffice it to say Econ is not doing well at being noticed outside of Econ journals. Perhaps the Doleac et al paper may make a dent in the public health journals.
 
3. Impact, Scale, Policy, Oh My: One of the critiques of the experimental approach is that it necessarily must focus on relatively short-term effects, when from a policy perspective we should care much more about long-term outcomes. Here's a new paper from Bouguen, Huang, Kremer and Miguel on the possibility of long-term follow-up of RCTs finding that many do lend themselves to possible long-term follow-up, and offer advice on how to make more studies amenable.
Another critique is the necessarily small scale of RCTs and that the results tell us little about would happen if the intervention was scaled up (and the historical record has lots of examples of interventions where the effects faded out when scaled up). Now, the "necessarily" part has been pretty conclusively debunked, it is absolutely true that most experiments are small scale (cf. that same link). Yale has a new program specifically to study issues of scaling up: the Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale, or Y-RISE. They recently held their first conference on external validity, with lots of tweets. Here's a Vox summary of a conversation with faculty director Mushfiq Mobarak. This is obviously written for a general audience, but I have to point out that everything in this discussion can be found in critiques of RCTs by people like Lant Pritchett written years ago. I expect this to feature in an updated version of Lant's presentation, "The RCT Debate is Over. I won."
Now the thing that is obscured in Lant's framing is that the main argument for "I won" is that the randomistas are doing nearly everything that he advocated. Studying how to effectively scale-up is an example. Another LantRant is how impact evaluations are often essentially adversarial and outside the chain of policy-making. That's something the randomistas are doing something about as well. Here's a new J-PAL report on their partnerships with Latin American governments to both conduct and use impact evaluations as part of policy-making.

4. My Wish List: Seema Jayachandran is taking a term as an associate editor at the Journal of Economic Perspectives, and is wondering what topics in development you would like to see covered in JEP. Here's my wish list: 
1) An update on microcredit impact since the Banerjee Karlan Zinman 2015, with a focus on heterogeneity, intrahousehold decisions, general equilibrium, labor and other market effects and mediators. (Yes, that's exactly the topic of the first faiVLive. If you haven't seen it, you should click here. Especially if you're Seema or any of the other JEP editors).
2) A synthesis of the low-income household savings literature, including studies in high-income countries, from the last decade.
3) David McKenzie writing a review of his dozen(s) of papers on micro- and small firms, training, formalization, etc.
4) A paper that revisits behavioral econ/finance ideas, in the wake of much of the social psychology underpinnings getting shaky, (e.g. every sort of reminder you can imagine fails to have an effect on medication adherence).
5) Someone reflecting on the curious case of the "no short-term effect but big long-term effect" (e.g. deworming, MtO, now HeadStart), and the "big short-term but no long-term effect" (e.g. Blattman, Fiala) phenomena
What's on your wish list?
Perhaps, though, your wish list turns more toward who should win the next few Nobel prizes. If so, you can submit an essay to Econ Journal Watch.

5. To Take Your Mind Off Things: And finally, here are a few odds and ends that have nothing to do with the faiV's usual topics to use for some R&R over the holidays. How about What termites can teach us? Or What if the placebo effect isn't a trick? (OK, that one isn't so far off normal faiV topics). How the Math Men Overthrew the Mad Men? Now I'm realizing that perhaps my interests aren't as varied as I like to think.
Well, this is truly a breakaway. Here's a book that you should buy and read over teh holidays, and it's not a big commitment because it's a set of essays, so you won't add to your guilt pile. Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips.

Here's  a portion of one of those visualizations of Econ journals links, or  lack thereof, to other disciplines. This is only part of of only one of  the visualizations but you can see the self-referential nature of  citations. Source:  I'm not really sure what to call it .

Here's a portion of one of those visualizations of Econ journals links, or lack thereof, to other disciplines. This is only part of of only one of the visualizations but you can see the self-referential nature of citations. Source: I'm not really sure what to call it.

Week of December 10, 2018

1. Targeting: I intended for the faiVLive conversation to spend more time on targeting than we did--it's a sort of rushed conversation at the end. Targeting is something that I've been thinking about a lot, but I'm not sure what I think yet. So forgive me for just ruminating on a few things here.
The whole concept of microcredit is based on targeting--every lender has to target not only those interested in taking a loan but those interested in repaying a loan. Hand-in-hand with targeting repayers was targeting borrowers who were "entrepreneurs," people who would start a business, since the belief was a new microenterprise was the only plausible way for these very poor households to repay. But since the rhetoric emphasized that the poor were natural entrepreneurs, targeting repayers substituted 1:1 for targeting entrepreneurs. Given the findings of microcredit impact studies--namely that while average impact is minimal, there are people who see large gains--the focus on targeting has returned. See for instance, asking middle men who the best farmers are, or surveying other microenterprises.
But if your aim is reducing poverty, then you have to care about more than just finding the borrowers who will repay and have the highest returns on capital--you have to care about equity as well and the effect on, or exclusion of, the poorest or least able to generate high returns. Earlier this year I linked to a paper by Hanna and Olken on the equity effects of targeted transfers vs. UBI. Here's an interview with the two that summarizes their findings: for most poor countries, targeted transfers far outperform a UBI in terms of total welfare. And by the way, here's new Banerjee et al paper from Indonesia showing limited distortions from proxy-means tests.
Of course, in targeting microcredit we are doing the opposite essentially: looking for a proxy-means test to exclude the least-able to generate high returns. What effects might that have? If we boost market efficiency, it could be good for most everyone. That's not just theoretical--here's an empirical finding from Jensen and Miller on improving market efficiency in Kerala boat-building finding higher aggregate quality, lower production costs and lower quality-adjusted prices. But maybe not. That paper above on using middle-men to target finds that traditional allocation of loans does better for the poorest. And as we discussed on the faiVLive conversation, there can be systematic differences in market structure that limits who can generate high returns (in this case, among women seamstresses in Ghana). It's why I worry about what exactly is being measured in targeting algorithms like EFL/Lenddo.
The possible gains and losses have to be measured against the cost of targeting. The cost of microcredit as it exists, without targeting, is pretty low. The median subsidy per loan is about $25, not much for spreading access to the liquidity management features of microcredit well beyond those with high returns to capital. And then there is reason to think about the effect of greater targeting on the microfinance business model. Here is one of the few economics papers to make me actually angry, suggesting that microcredit contracts were purposefully designed to limit the growth of borrower's businesses. While I wholly reject that claim, the underlying idea is worth considering: microcredit's low relative costs are based on a mass-lending business model and MFIs have largely failed to find a way to compete higher up the banking value chain. Altering that business model could have unintended consequences. That's not just based on that paper. As I mentioned last week, City of Debtors, a book about small sum lending in New York City during the 20th century confirms the business model problem is real and pervasive.
So I don't really know what I think. I'll keep thinking about it, but as always I appreciate your thoughts if you're willing to share them.
    
2. US Inequality: I haven't covered US Inequality for several weeks, and so things have been building up. And there's been a whole lot of new stuff in the last few weeks. Let's start with the state of median US income over the last 30 years. The widely held current view is that incomes for all but the top quintile or decile have been stagnant. But that's heavily dependent on all the adjustments that need to be made for taxes, transfers, inflation and innovation. Stephen Rose at the Urban Institute summarizes the past and new work trying to measure changes in median income, and then writes in more detail about the methodological issues. One thing that had particularly slipped by me: Picketty, Saez and Zucman have a newish paper updating the famous results that showed stagnation and find median incomes have increased about 30% over the last 30 years. That shifts the proportion of gains by the top decile from around 90% to around 50% (I'm intentionally rounding these numbers because they are so sensitive to methodological choices, that I think we're all better off not reporting precise numbers because of the illusion of certainty that goes along with them). Perhaps one of the reasons that these new findings didn't seem to get as much attention as the idea of stagnation for the middle class, is that the new paper also finds that stagnation is true for the bottom 50% of the income distribution.
This week the US Census also released it's "Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates" for 2017, with county-level data on incomes and poverty rates. They find that over the last 10 years, median incomes in 80% of US counties were unchanged, with 11% of counties seeing an increase and 8% seeing a decrease. When you look at the maps, it's apparent that a majority of the counties seeing an increase are related to the fracking boom (and thus mostly in places with very few people). On the poverty front, there's a whole lot of stagnation too, with almost 90% of counties seeing no change, but 8% seeing an increase and only 3% seeing a decrease. Not an encouraging picture.
Whenever you talk about incomes and poverty, it's worthwhile to think about the definition of poverty. Here's Noah Smith on updating the definition of poverty to include volatility (though he shockingly fails to mention the US Financial Diaries). And here's Angus Deaton on "How  America poverty became fake news"--with some more methodological detail and the horrid engagement of the present administration with international attempts to measure poverty.
There's plenty new on the policy front as well. Here's a new paper estimating the total budget effect of the EITC--finding that the program self-finances 87% of its cost by reducing use of other transfer programs and increasing taxes collected. And here's The Hamilton Project on the work histories of people receiving SNAP and Medicaid benefits, finding that the majority are working, but irregularly and a substantial portion would "fail to consistently meet a 20 hour per week-threshold" because their hours worked vary so much from week-to-week.

3. US Inequality, Part II: I told you things were building up. Here are a few more things that are a bit less connected, to each other at least. People born in the late 1920s have had consistently higher mortality rates beginning at age 55, "rendered vulnerable by being born during and just after the Great Depression."
The Federal government took over the public housing system in Wellston, MO, near St. Louis, 20 years ago because of chronic mismanagement. It didn't get any better and now it's being shut down. That means 20% of the town's population is going to receive vouchers to leave the town and find housing elsewhere. Here's a thread from Jenny Schuetz of Brookings on the issues. She's a lot more concerned about moving people than I am.
Finally, some new data on women's earnings. You probably saw the study that measures the wage gap not based on hourly earnings, but on what people earn cumulatively over 15 years, finding that women earn about 50% of what men do because of lower rates of participation (hey Stephen Rose is a co-author on this one too). It's an interesting way to look at the issue, but I haven't figured out how to think about it yet. But that finding very interestingly dovetails with new work on the effect of attending an elite college. The traditional finding is that on average, the selectivity (I'm purposely avoiding using the world "quality") of the college someone attends doesn't matter. But for women it does matter--it substantially increases wages through the labor participation rate. But it also decreases the chances of marriage.

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords: I haven't been neglecting this category as much as US Inequality but I have been curtailing the entries because of time. Which means that there's also plenty built up here too.
I've frequently covered stories about China's surveillance state, especially when it comes to Uyghurs in Xinjiang province where it's increasingly clear that hundreds of thousands of people are being sent to concentration camps. Here's a first person story about how that surveillance state works.
Most of what I feature here is from academics researching the application of AI or machine learning or skeptics. But I occasionally like to cast my eye over what the business world is saying. Here's how AI can make us more human. Though I have to confess, of late, I'm not sure I can fully endorse anything that makes us more human. For the more traditional, at least for the faiV, perspective here's the new AI Now Institute report. They use the phrase very differently than, say, Prosperity Now: the headline is 10 recommendations for immediate and significant regulation of tech companies in general and AI applications in particular.
The other frequent area of coverage in this heading is mocking blockchain. Was there ever a more perfect item than blockchain projects in development have a 0.0% success rate. Here's a post with more details and less snark, but the same scathing conclusions. In an attempt at a veneer of fairness, here's a thread for Vitalik Buterine making a case that as the transaction costs of blockchain entries fall, there are some compelling use cases. Your mileage may vary.

5. Methods and Evidence-Based Policy: A special edition of the faiV focused on these built-up items is coming later this week.

Very  relevant to the inequality conversation, and whether people should  move, here's new data from the US Census on the cratering rates of  Americans moving geographically. This remains to me one of the great  mysteries of the current US economy. Source:  Quartz

Very relevant to the inequality conversation, and whether people should move, here's new data from the US Census on the cratering rates of Americans moving geographically. This remains to me one of the great mysteries of the current US economy. Source: Quartz

Week of December 3, 2018

1. faiVLive Background: The motivation for the faiVLive experiment is discussing what to think about microcredit impact given all the research in recent years. If you can't make it, or if you can, here's your quick cheat sheet to the recent research.
Of course it's starts with the average impact of microcredit being very modest. A Bayesian Hierarchical model look at the data confirms those findings. But there is important heterogeneity hidden within those average effects--"gung-ho" microborrowers do see substantial gains from increased access to credit. It's also true that these are mostly studies of expanding access to formal credit, not introducing it. That's hard to measure, but we can get a cleaner view of the value of credit when it gets taken away from most everyone--and that shows significant benefits, though through a somewhat unexpected channel: casual labor wages. Changes in labor wages can matter a lot for understanding the impact of a program, even entirely masking any benefits of an intervention with evidence that it makes a substantial difference in many contexts. And it's clear that changes in labor supply are quickly passed through into labor rates--in this case, the markets seem to be working fairly well. But it's not just labor markets. When microcredit affects local markets--by increasing or decreasing the supply of tradeable goods--the benefits may be substantial but mostly captured by the people who aren't using microcredit (what economists call general equilibrium effects). Which makes it all the more important to understand local market dynamics, especially when in many cases microenterprises are operating in sectors where supply exceeds demand. That being said, microcredit is a cheap intervention relative to other options. And it's possible we could increase the returns to microcredit for more reluctant microenterprise operators by boosting their aspirations. Or perhaps by doing better targeting of lending. But is it worth targeting? Households do seem to do a pretty good job of allocating access to capital to its most productive use within the household, and the gung-ho entrepreneurs are benefiting even without the expense of targeting.

2. MicroDigitalFinance and Household Finance: I suppose all of the above would qualify here as well, but here's a bunch of different new stuff, starting with the digital side of things. There are two new papers about the effects of SMEs adopting digital payments. In Kenya, an encouragement intervention led to 78% of treated restaurants and 28% of pharmacies adopting Lipa Na m-Pesa, and consequent increases in access to credit. In Mexico, a different kind of encouragement--the government distributed massive numbers of debit cards as part of the Progresa program--led small retailers to adopt POS terminals. That led to wealthier customers shifting some of their purchasing to these smaller retailers, and increased sales and profits for the retailers, but not an increase in employees or wages paid. On a side note, it's curious that the smaller shock of debit card distribution (pushing debit card ownership to 54% of households) had a large effect on retailers but the larger shock of m-Pesa being adopted by practically everyone has not led to more Lipa Na m-Pesa adoption.
A few weeks ago I featured a puzzle in savings from two savings encouragement experiments--the encouragement worked but savings plateau at a level well below what would seem optimal. Isabelle Guerin sent me a couple of papers that I'm still reviewing that might help explain why, but this week I stumbled across another example. The US CFPB, back in the days when it was allowed to do stuff and wasn't a hollow shell of existential dread, ran an experiment using American Express Serve cards and the "Reserve" functionality. They find that encouraging savings works--people boost their savings--but that the savings plateau after the 12 week encouragement and stay at roughly the same level for 16 months. That's consistent with the results from India and Chile but not with a model of accumulating lump sums or precautionary savings. You would expect among this population that they would experience a shock in that 16 month period and draw down the savings. Participants say they reduce payday loan use, but frankly I don't believe any claims about payday behavior that isn't based on administrative data (and it doesn't make sense if balances were stable).   
And finally because I want to encourage this behavior, Maria May sent me an interesting new paper on offering microcredit borrowers flexibility in repayment--customers get two "skip payment" coupons to use during the term of their 12 month loan cycle. Consistent with the much earlier work from Field et al, it yields more investment from borrowers, better outcomes and lower defaults.

3. Evidence-Based Policy: I noted last week that GiveWell, where I have served on the board since it's founding, released it's Top Charity recommendations. One of those is GiveDirectly. GiveWell, as is it's wont, wrote up some details of it's analysis of GiveDirectly, particularly about spillovers from cash transfers. That analysis was significantly informed by a forthcoming paper on general equilibrium effects and spillovers from one of GiveDirectly's programs that GiveWell was given access to even though it is not yet public. Berk Ozler took issue with that. And GiveWell responded. I have nothing whatsoever to do with GiveWell's research process or conclusions, but I was heavily involved advising GiveWell on its response to Berk's questions.
All of that is interesting, but I wanted to quickly draw attention to the Evidence-Based Policy subtext: internal and external validity. As Berk noted there are a number of papers that show negative spillovers from cash transfers in other contexts, and he makes the implicit argument that those papers are more internally valid because of public scrutiny and peer review. But are they externally valid--do their findings apply in other contexts? And more specifically, how should one weight research that has not had it's internal validity "boosted" by public scrutiny but is presumably more internally valid for being a study of the actual program being considered? GiveWell is putting a lot of weight on the non-public study because it has a large sample, is randomized and is pre-registered. Of course, one of the co-authors is a co-founder of GiveDirectly, which obviously presents some conflict-of-interest concerns. But one of the other co-authors might be called a godfather of the research transparency movement (OK, I'm doing it; I'm calling Ted Miguel a godfather of the research transparency movement).
Evidence-based policy is hard.
And that's before we factor in any of the complications of working with government and trying to incorporate community voice and self-determination. Susannah Hares reviews some lessons on "how, why and when to evaluate government-led reforms" through the lens of three impact evaluations of education policy reforms, from Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Liberia. And since I'm speaking with Karthik Muralidharan later today, here's a throwback to a discussion he kicked off with comments at a recent RISE conference on evaluating policy reforms.  

4. Methods: I suppose that last link might belong more in a methods category, let's go right there. Well, let's go back to those internal validity questions. There's no shortage of discussion on the internet of whether peer review makes a difference or not. But it's much more rare to be told that "robustness checks are a joke." Double faiV points if you guess who wrote that before clicking. Quadruple points if you can guess who it links to. 
On the other hand, sometimes the rigors of peer review, robustness checks and working to have your research finding integrated into policy are just too much. It would all be much easier if your findings were suitably dramatic, surprising and large, even if that's not consistent with the data you've gathered. Here are ten simple rules for faking your research and getting it published (and not retracted).

5. Global Development : Please don't interpret that last link as having anything to do with what is in this item. Esther Duflo famously has noted that an advantage of RCTs is they have the ability to surprise. For my part, I'm frequently surprised by what expermenters manage to convince people to randomize. For instance, how about randomizing the religious content of a poverty intervention delivered by a Christian charity? That happened, in the Philippines, and here's a Freakonomics podcast about it. The results indicate that the evangelical Protestant content does increase effort and earnings. That's consistent with historical work in Germany, and by the way with the wave of work on the role of aspirations and hope. 
Speaking of aspirations and hope, those two characteristics would seem to be disproportionately held by migrants. Here's Michael Clemens and Katelyn Gough on the "best ideas for making migration work.
Finally, I've had a few links on updated work on the impact of the Green Revolution, which remains surprisingly controversial, hanging around waiting for the right faiV to include them, and well, I'm going to include them today. Here's a paper exploiting time variation in the development of high yielding crop varieties and their diffusion that finds that a 10% increase in use of HYVs increases GDP per capita by 15% (within a sample of 84 countries). Alternatively, here's work that finds that HYVs delayed industrialization and urbanization in India, and thereby limited GDP growth. But here's another new paper that finds that while HYV may have kept people in rural areas, it did decrease infant mortality. So if you weren't feeling bad enough about the difficulty of evidence-based policy and evaluating policy reforms as they happen, keep in mind that 30 years later people will still be arguing over whether the reform was good or bad.

Whether you survey husbands or wives about household assets matters, and can have a substantial effect on poverty measures. Via  Development Impact Blog , Source:  Adnan Silverio-Murillo .    

Whether you survey husbands or wives about household assets matters, and can have a substantial effect on poverty measures. Via Development Impact Blog, Source: Adnan Silverio-Murillo.    

Week of November 26, 2018

1. faiVYourJMP: Let's start there with a paper from Ryan Edwards on palm oil plantation expansion in Indonesia. That he finds trade-offs certainly shouldn't be surprising, much less astounding, but it is surprising how well he documents how the growth of export-led agriculture reduces poverty and increases consumption--including the specific channels by which that happens--and the connection to deforestation. Specifically, "each percentage point of poverty reduction corresponds to a 1.5-3 percentage point loss of forest area." Put another way, it's astounding to be able to see the price of poverty reduction outside of a carefully designed cash-based experiment.
And let me give a shout out to the Development Impact Blog team at the World Bank who were the inspiration to do this. Their crop of "Blog your JMP" posts is growing by the day and includes many entries worthy of your attention.
 
2. MicroDigitalFinance: Here's an astounding story about predatory lending and debt collection in New York (and from there, across the US). And I don't care how cynical you are, this is stunning because it's perfectly legal--so legal that there are registered investment companies gathering capital in public markets to do more of it.
That story then led me, via Rebecca Spang, to a book that came out at the beginning of this year that I'm embarrassed that I didn't know about, City of Debtors: A Century of Fringe Finance by Anne Fleming. It tells the story of small dollar credit in New York City and the attempts to regulate it and protect consumers, with lots of unintended consequences along the way. Although I've only begun to read it, what's astounding is how easily, if you changed the names of places and people, you could convince someone this was a book about modern microfinance. There's one chapter that could easily be pasted into Portfolios of the Poor with no one the wiser. Fleming is a law professor, and so she doesn't make the connection to the economics literature, past or present (at least that I've seen so far), which is frustrating but also assuages my guilt at being unaware of the book. Anyway, if you care about financial services for low-income households, regulation and/or consumer protection, you need to pick up this book.
It would be easy to make a snide and cliche comment about those who cannot learn from history, but is too much to ask to learn from present in other places? Here's a story about "neo-banks" in the US attempting to remake the banking industry, while confronting the hard reality that even without a physical presence, the margins on transactional accounts are razor thin. But, like Fleming's book, it's easy to read this as a story about how banks and MFIs are struggling to cope with the threat of digital financial services being provided by telecom firms which are built on a high-volume, low-margin business model.
That is a major theme of the e-MFPs new report on trends in microfinance/financial inclusion, released this week. It's the output of a survey of providers, funders, consultants and researchers on where the industry is headed. I was encouraged to read that other major challenges noted include "client protection, privacy...and preventing an erosion of the social focus of financial inclusion...in the face of new entrants." I'm betting those aren't on the list of very many people in the fintech/neobank space in the US.
Finally here's a story from September that somehow slipped by me: Kiva is working with the government of Sierra Leone to use blockchain to create a national ID/credit bureau. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this one but it definitely seems like the kind of thing that would benefit from and generate lots of opportunities to learn from other places. If any of the faiV readers at Kiva want to share more, please call me.

3. MicroSmallMediumFirms: I'm often frustrated that I don't get to spend more time thinking about firms--those of you who know me know I've been wanting to start a project on "subsistence retail" for years. Hope springs eternal--maybe next year is the year I get to do that.
But in the meantime, here's a job market paper from Gabriel Tourek featured on Development Impact that finds an astounding reaction to a tax cut in Rwanda: the firms pay more even though they owe less. What's going on? The firms don't know their annual revenues so they don't know how much tax they owe, so they anchor on prior year tax payments. And that's even more true of the least able/least profitable, which isn't surprising but is depressing.
Relatedly, here's Chris Woodruff talking for 2 minutes about research on firms at VoxDev, including the difference between studying large firms and small firms.
And, new in AER, here's Jensen and Miller delving into that great puzzle of small firms: why don't they grow? Really, though, given what we know about small firms around the world the astounding thing is that any of them do grow. Anyway, Jensen and Miller use a natural experiment that affects boat builders in Kerala and find that consumers tend to buy local, which limits the ability of productive small firms to grow their market beyond their "neighborhood." When consumers can learn about non-local providers, competition makes things better for everyone (except the low-quality/low-productivity builders).

4. Philanthropy: This was the week of Giving Tuesday, which has become a global phenomenon. And as with any global phenomenon, there is good and bad. The good wouldn't be that astounding, so let's start at the other end. Here's a fundraising consultancy providing advice on how to use behavioral biases to trick people into giving more. You may not find that terribly surprising, but I found it amazingly cynical. This isn't about a nudge toward a positive outcome, it's guidance on how to mislead people to induce them to overspend their budgets. And if that's not cynical enough to surprise you, here's Lucy Bernholz on the first Giving Tuesday astroturfing she's seen--a charity created by a PR firm to raise money to hire the PR firm.
Giving Tuesday's growth also inspired a lot of debate on Twitter about critiques of the day itself and of philanthropy in general. Here's a thread that includes a collection of links to my longstanding Giving Tuesday skepticism and some thoughts from Ben Soskis, a historian of philanthropy and Asha Curran, one of Giving Tuesday's leaders. That thread bleeds into a couple of other threads. Here's one posted by Rob Reich, whose book Just Giving I highlighted last week, on the need to think critically about philanthropy. That then created this thread including Rob, Phil Buchanan from CEP, Felix Salmon, Asha, Ben and I and connecting back to the earlier conversation. Perhaps the message here is that we should all be astounded that Twitter continues to hold its place in the discussion of ideas.
This week also included the release of GiveWell's Top Charities list--note, that I'm the vice-chairperson of GiveWell's board--which continues to focus on deworming and bednets as the most effective use of marginal giving. There is one change to the list which is surprising, in a surprising way. Last year, Evidence Action's "No Lean Season" program to encourage seasonal migration in Bangladesh was a recommended charity. Results of the on-going RCT of the program showed the scale-up wasn't working, which Evidence Action shared with GiveWell and publicly. Both agreed that it should no longer be a recommended charity until Evidence Action can implement changes and document that the results are closer to what the initial impact evaluation found. Here's GiveWell's post about it, here's Evidence Action's post, and here's Dylan Mathews at Vox on how astounding this is.

5. Our Algorithmic Overlords: It would be tough to find anything surprising about the behavior of tech companies after the revelations highlighted in the last faiV. But you may be surprised which company said this: "We already know and have data on our customers...they trust us...We know what people make...we know where they work...We know if they’re married. We know how long they’ve lived in their house...We’ve never ever been challenged on how we use that." No I'm not going to tell you here, you have to click, but make sure you guess before you do.
In related news, electric vehicles in China made by Tesla, Volkswagen, GM, Ford, BMW, Nissan and more are sending real time data to the government about their usage patterns and precise location.

Ever struggle to understand what is  happening to data with a particular statistical method? Me too. Nick  Huntington-Klein has created a fantastic new resource to help  conceptualize what various statistical methods are doing rather than how  to do them. It's astounding work, and astounding that it didn't already  exist. The world needs more of this. You can see the  full page of animations and explanations here . Source:  Nick Huntington-Klein

Ever struggle to understand what is happening to data with a particular statistical method? Me too. Nick Huntington-Klein has created a fantastic new resource to help conceptualize what various statistical methods are doing rather than how to do them. It's astounding work, and astounding that it didn't already exist. The world needs more of this. You can see the full page of animations and explanations here. Source: Nick Huntington-Klein

Week of November 12, 2018

1. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Since it hasn't featured for a few weeks, I'm going to lead with our old friends this week. If you're in development circles, you know about Aadhaar. And if you're a reader of the faiV you know about China's intrusive citizen monitoring and control (let's dispense with calling it a "social credit score"--this apologia for what's happening is frightening in its own right). But did you know that Venezuela is on the forefront of assigning every citizen an ID and tracking their behavior, including their votes (maybe)? Here's a Twitter thread with some additional details from the reporter of that piece. Guess who's providing the technology? 
The frightening frontier in the US is from private technology companies, well, let's be honest, the frightening frontier is Facebook. Here's a New York Times investigation of the company's conduct that is jaw-dropping, over and over again. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him? For now, we've got Kara Swisher's thoughts on cleaning up the "toxic smoke".
Tying the domestic and global back together, here's Susan Liautaud of CGD on how the perspective on the ethics of automation and AI may look different in developing countries

2. Development Finance and Banking: Sticking with CGD, here's the polymath of development, Charles Kenny, on reforming the World Bank's Private Sector Window to comply with, y'know, the World Bank's guidance on appropriate design for private sector subsidies.
The big question for development finance (and social finance of all sorts) is whether it is crowding-in or crowding-out private sector investment, or neither. Here's Paddy Carter on the "Elusive Quest for Additionality" (have to love a shout-out to old school Bill Easterly) in summary form and in full length paper form (with van de Sijpe and Calel).
Let's say that there is additionality and DFIs are increasing capital flows to developing countries. The next big question is, what impact does that have? Here's Judith Tyson and Thorsten Beck on how those capital flows are affecting domestic financial system development. They conclude that the capital flows are too pro-cyclical and not doing enough to boost domestic capital markets.
There is a specific kind of capital flow that is actively undermining financial development specifically and development in general: regulations on anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist-financing (regulations are a form of capital right?). Here's a brief from the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI on how bad it's gotten in humanitarian relief. And just a reminder that this is a pervasive problem. No really,it's a pervasive problem.
Speaking of financial system development, here's an interesting post on what is happening in Ghana's banking sector--well, what's happening is consolidation, the post explains why and what's next. And here's a perspective on the liquidity crunch for Indian NBFCs

3. MicroDigitalFinance: It feels like we might be hitting an inflection point on mobile money services, the point where it's no longer possible to talk about it without prominently noting the negatives. CGAP has a new report on digital credit in Kenya and Tanzania, which leads them to the conclusion that "It's Time to Slow Digital Credit's Growth in East Africa." Late payment and default rates are enough to make any MFI executive faint. One particularly interesting tidbit: loans taken in the morning are much more likely to be repaid than loans taken at night. That's not really surprising but it's amazing to have that level of insight. Of particular concern is that many borrowers don't understand the terms of the loans they are taking. All the progress made on consumer protection for MFIs doesn't matter much if the market shifts to getting credit elsewhere. 
This week Graham Wright of MicroSave gave one of the keynotes at European Microfinance Week on a similar theme. You can see a shortened text version of Graham's talk at Next Billion or video here (though that's a Facebook link so, given the above, I understand if you don't want to click it).
His framing is that digital financial services are an existential threat to microfinance because of the ability of digital service providers to peel off the best customers and leave the hardest to serve to the MFIs. You'll have to work very hard to convince me that is not what is coming, and even harder that that doesn't have lots of negative consequences. It's consistent with what happened with the growth of for-profit MFIs--while the for-profits serve more customers, the non-profits are more likely to serve women, poorer clients, and rural areas. But more importantly, it's also the story of historical development of consumer financial services in high income countries, particularly the United States: pro-poor institutions find innovative ways to expand the market, but struggle because they are serving the most expensive, riskiest clients and eventually other institutions take the most profitable parts of the new markets that have been established. David Roodman's chapter on the lost history of microfinance in Due Diligence is useful on this and I'll have more on this in some of those writing projects I've mentioned.
Graham also mentions the growing possibility of digital financial services creating a new, harder form of exclusion, specifically for rural customers on the wrong side of the digital divide. Elsewhere he's also made the point that digital blacklisting could create rigid barriers to those defaulting on their quick and easy but not well understood digital loans. Again, if you're at all skeptical, take a look at the United States--it's an underappreciated cautionary tale for where many countries are headed. Here's a quick example of hardening digital exclusion in the US
Here's where you'll typically hear the argument about how FinTech can deliver all sorts of useful money management tools to those who need them most. Sure, in theory. Here's a new report from the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center (and I'm as shocked as you are that I'm linking to something there; that feeling when someone you normally disagree vehemently with writes something that confirms your priors in a different domain) on mobile payments use and financial behaviors in the US. Annamaria Lusardi's summary in the WSJ is here. Mobile payments users are more likely to carry balances on their credit cards and make minimum payments. They're more likely to overdraw their bank accounts and to withdraw from retirement accounts. The same skepticism you should now have for Big Tech needs to be the default setting for FinTech and digital financial services as well. 

4. Evidence-Based Policy: Your clicks demanded it, so here's more evidence-based policy links. But first, you have to take a look at this job market paper producing some evidence that's policy relevant. Abhit Bhandari wanted to study how political connections affect economic behavior of firms--so he started a company in Senegal (for real!) and then randomized what his salespeople said to customers, in order to signal (or not signal) political connections. Bhandari has displaced Chris Blattman's randomizing factory job offers and Dina Pomeranz's randomizing tax enforcement in my pantheon of amazing experiments.
OK, back to tips for connecting research to real-world impact. Last week we had eight tips on policy relevance from Oxfam. This week you've got four tips on making evidence synthesis more useful from a variety of folks in the UK government (though I have to say, the UK doesn't seem like the best place to be sourcing evidence-based policy advice at the moment does it?) and the editor-in-chief of Nature. Or perhaps you'd prefer to think about six pathways for evidence to influence policy from J-PAL? To explain how the pathways work they also have 17 case studies that you can delve into

5. Philanthropy: My friend Rob Reich's (not that Rob Reich) new book on the dangers that large-scale philanthropy (alternatively, massive wealth inequality) poses to democracy and what to do about it, Just Giving, is now out. Here's an extended essay drawn from the book. You can hear Rob discuss the book on TinySpark here. 
While thinking about Rob's arguments, I finally read Tyler Cowen's description of Emergent Ventures. It's a very useful pairing; Tyler's description of how some of the pathologies of big philanthropy emerge from "commonsense," unobjectionable choices about how to organize institutional philanthropy and his alternative approach mesh quite well with Rob's vision of a better future for philanthropy. Should I apply for an Emergent Ventures grant to support faiVLive and my (ever forthcoming) next book about big data/machine learning and economics?
Of course, sometimes democratized philanthropy can yield pretty unpleasant outcomes. Remember a few months ago when I linked to a scandal where a couple apparently pocketed $400K from a GoFundMe campaign for a homeless veteran? It turns out that the whole thing was a scam from the beginning, the "homeless vet" had been in on it the whole time, and none of the story was true. 

I feel the need for a little lightness. So here's an amazing image from a Japanese history of the United States for children from 1861. That's John Adams directing the fusillade of the incredibly strong Ben Franklin, who apparently can aim better when he can hold the cannon himself. The other images of the book are equally amazing, so  check them out . Via  Nick Kapur .

I feel the need for a little lightness. So here's an amazing image from a Japanese history of the United States for children from 1861. That's John Adams directing the fusillade of the incredibly strong Ben Franklin, who apparently can aim better when he can hold the cannon himself. The other images of the book are equally amazing, so check them out. Via Nick Kapur.

Week of November 5, 2018

1. Household Finance: One of the trips keeping me busy was to Mexico City for the PRONAFIM conference. Here's a video version of my current thinking on household finance, in Spanish.  
Of course, one of the key questions in household finance is to what extent a household is a household. I've had a hard time not thinking about this recent paper from Afzal et al, which through a series of "lab in the field" experiments, shows there are a lot of schisms in the household. Let me just quote from the abstract: "Subjects are often no better at guessing their spouse's preferences than those of a stranger, and many subjects disregard what they believe or know about others' preferences when assigning them a consumption bundle." Is there some explanation there for the puzzle in the Graphic of the Week (see below?). 
In the household finance realm I often pick on financial literacy--specifically as a bellweather for evidenced-based policy (if money is going into financial literacy, evidence isn't making a dent on policy). Here's some interesting new evidence on financial literacy and why it doesn't seem to work, from Carpena and Zia. They are looking for what parts of financial education might affect behavior, and find attitudes matter more than awareness or numeracy. I feel like that connects to this new paper from Gine and Goldberg documenting endowment effects in account choice in Malawi, and that the endowment effect can be overcome with experience, but maybe not.      

2. Inequality: Teaching a class on wealth inequality and policy makes anything on the topic grab my attention just a bit more. And there is a lot out there. On the downside, there's a lot out there and my attention is drawn to all of it. Here's a handy Twitter thread guide (and in a perhaps easier to follow/read format) to the global inequality literature that I found very helpful. Here's a new paper from Ayyagari, Demirguc-Kunt and Maksimovic calling into question the idea that a group of "star" firms are pulling away from others and boosting inequality. You probably already know about this, but the Chetty team has published their Opportunity Atlas. And here's a recent paper from Card et al. on the role of school quality in transmitting economic inequality in the US during the 20th century (in digest form here). 

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Nothing particular profound here but I couldn't resist pairing these two pieces together: a) "China’s brightest children are being recruited to develop AI ‘killer bots’" and b) A list of artificial intelligence programs that do "what their creators specify, not what they mean." I suppose since the actions of the AI programs sound a lot like children trying to annoy their parents, China's approach seems optimal? 

4. Migration: I mentioned too much travel as one of the reasons for the occasional nature of the faiV lately. One of those trips was to Vienna to present at the OSCE's Development and Migration meeting. It was an excuse to go back and re-read a paper I co-wrote with Michael Clemens on "Migration as a Household Finance Strategy." It's good, as you should expect from something that Michael led. I'm linking it here because it lays out a research agenda that's still valid. And so I can also link this video that came out of it. I'm pretty sure it's the video that got me the invitation to Vienna. 
Meanwhile, here's a new paper from Michael debunking brain drain (again; now read that like Eliza Doolittle) and a related article from Harvard Political Review. Or try the even shorter version, a tweet from Michael with this useful fact: "In the 71 countries that grew to middle-income or higher between 1960 and 2013, 67 had a concurrent rise in the emigrant share." 
Here's a recent story from the New York Times about how Uganda is integrating refugees successfully. And here's data on the crossing from Libya to Europe--1 in 5 die or go missing. hel Glennerster examines several cases where evidence led to scaling up n?

5. Evidence-Based Policy: Who isn't interested in making research more useful to policymakers and influencing policy with research? I mean, other than tenure committees. For everyone else, the Evidence in Practice project at Yale SOM has a report on their two years of work on how evidence can be better integrated into policy and practice. Check out particularly, page 32 and the "currency of exchange" for each of the groups involved in evidence-based policy development and implementation. Maybe print it and hang it on your office wall. (Full Disclosure: I participated in one of the Evidence in Practice workshops). The recommendations align pretty well with Oxfam's lessons for influencing policy, summarized in a post by David Evans at the Development Impact Blog. In fact, point 5 could reasonably be a summary of the Evidence in Practice report (I think that's a good thing. That's good right?). But you should still print and hang page 32 because you won't be able to do point 5 without it.    

I  was chatting with Lore Vandewalle earlier this week (she's visiting at  NYU-Wagner this fall), talking about savings behavior and that led me to  look back at  an experiment she had run in India with Vincent Somville   where some people were paid cash and others were paid via deposit into a  savings account. While I had read the paper, it didn't really strike me  at the time how similar the results were to another savings  encouragement experiment-- Kast, Meier and Pomeranz in Chile .  So I show them side-by-side here. The interesting thing to me is that  balances for the treatment group rise quickly but plateau at a fairly  low level (e.g. in India it's about a week of food expenditures  according to Lore). It's consistent with using these accounts to manage  liquidity needs (buffering day-to-day or week-to-week volatility) but  not with precautionary or investment savings. But that doesn't explain  why the control groups also plateau, just at a lower level. Is there  another story I'm not thinking of? 

I was chatting with Lore Vandewalle earlier this week (she's visiting at NYU-Wagner this fall), talking about savings behavior and that led me to look back at an experiment she had run in India with Vincent Somville where some people were paid cash and others were paid via deposit into a savings account. While I had read the paper, it didn't really strike me at the time how similar the results were to another savings encouragement experiment--Kast, Meier and Pomeranz in Chile. So I show them side-by-side here. The interesting thing to me is that balances for the treatment group rise quickly but plateau at a fairly low level (e.g. in India it's about a week of food expenditures according to Lore). It's consistent with using these accounts to manage liquidity needs (buffering day-to-day or week-to-week volatility) but not with precautionary or investment savings. But that doesn't explain why the control groups also plateau, just at a lower level. Is there another story I'm not thinking of? 

Week of October 15, 2018

1. China: This is a very meta way of kicking things off, but I do think often of the gaps in knowledge that go along with the language gap between centers of academic inquiry and China (and to a lesser extent, India, Indonesia and Nigeria). It takes a lot of cognitive work to push back against the unconscious equation of value/quality with English-language facility, and that's just for the papers and stories that ever do appear in English (thank goodness for Jing Cai!). Anyway, here's a small attempt to address some of the knowledge gap.
The P2P lending industry in China continues to melt down in very scary ways, and in ways reminiscent of bank runs in the US around railroad bubbles in the late 19th century. The common ingredients--a working class population with enough income to start seriously saving and limited outlets for saving/investing and even more limited consumer protections. It's ugly and getting uglier as the authorities crack down on both the lenders and protestors who have lost their savings.
But that's not the only credit market problem in China. The head of a very large state-backed lender was pushed out of the party for corruption (and he's not the first and likely not the last). Meanwhile, local governments have been creating weird vehicles to borrow via private (or are they public? it's hard to know what's the right phrase to use when it comes to China's hybrid economy) markets. Current estimates suggest there is a $5.8 trillion dollar local government credit problem. Amidst the trade war, the Chinese economy seems to slowing just at the time these credit market problems are coming to light--I don't see anything in these stories about a causal effect--and there are other signs of bad news. If you are a Planet Money listener, you may recall a recent story about a rumored "vast postal conspiracy" that largely checked out. This week the Trump administration announced that it is withdrawing from the Universal Postal Union, a system that was set-up for the US' benefit post-WWII but became a huge boon to small Chinese manufacturers. Planet Money's "The Indicator" also did a series recently on China's social credit scoring system, including talking with someone who has been blacklisted.
Finally, here's a story to lead us into the next item: accusations of racism by Chinese firms are becoming increasingly common in Kenya and other African countries were China has been investing heavily.
 
2. Global Development: The gap (particularly the growth gap) between high-income and low-income countries is what the field is all about, indeed "it's hard to think about anything else." The gap has been stubbornly high and growing since World War II. Dev Patel, Justin Sandefur and Arvind Subramanian have a new post at CGD, reacting to a new paper about the lack of convergence, pointing out that cross-country convergence has been happening   since 1990. The authors of the paper respond on Twitter.
There's a curious connection that back when many of the original ideas of development economics posited that convergence should happen--e.g. poorer countries should grow faster than richer ones--while recognizing that it wasn't happening, one of the prescriptions was a "big push" to help poor countries escape a poverty trap. The idea of the big push eventually went into hibernation, but was revived around the time that the convergence did start happening (though we didn't know it yet). This time the big push was at the village level, not the country level. It didn't work any better there. Last week, the results of "the first independent impact evaluation" of Millenium Villages Project (of a village in Ghana) were released and the bottom-line is scathing. There was no gap-closing here--the only positive effects found, the study notes, could have been accomplished at dramatically lower cost. On a similar note, here's a look at another MVP-project village, Sauri, Kenya, and finding that locals did not believe in the benefits of MVP enough to bid up the prices for land in the village. Which honestly is kind of remarkable given all the money that was showering into the villages. You would think people would want to move there simply to benefit from the opportunities for corruption/patronage.
Finally, here's a really fascinating example of a growing gap--the gap in gender preferences grows with economic development and gender equality. This definitely feels like an "everything is obvious once you know the answer" example.

3. Formality: Another important gap is the lack of formal firms in lower-income countries. Campos, Goldstein and McKenzie have a new experiment from Malawi on inducing firms to formalize. They find high demand for formalization, but not for tax registration (shocked, shocked I say!). The most interesting part is that formalization doesn't seem to help the firms unless there is handholding to introduce them to banks, which does work to get them to open accounts and substantially boosts revenue and profits. But before you get too excited, here's a summary of new work by Gabriel Ulyssea finding that there isn't a gap between formal and informal firms in terms of productivity or welfare. Well, there's a lot more to it than that. Perhaps it's better put as the gap isn't between formal and informal firms but between productive and unproductive firms, and the two categories are not necessarily related.
And on the topic of informality, here's a new "note" from Ng'weno and Porteous about informal firms and "gig work" in Africa. There's a quite large gap between what they write and what I believe, once they get beyond "the informal sector is resilient but unproductive" but perhaps it's especially worth reading because of that.

4. Methods: Yes, this is continuing the theme on gaps. Here it's the gap between data and reality, and what that implies for how much we should believe just about any research. Let's start with a practical example: by comparing surveys (the supposedly reliable ones like the SIPP, ACS and CPS) and administrative records, this new paper finds that 23 to 50% of recipients of food stamps report that they have never received food stamps; and a substantial number of people who don't received them report receiving them. Here's the more general case from a paper by Xianchao Xie and Xiao-Li Meng that showed up in my Twitter feed this week courtesy of Stuart Buck. And via Alexander Berger, here's another paper from Meng showing how quickly the gap of reliability opens when straying away from true random sampling. The abstract closes with this gem: "the more the data, the surer we fool ourselves."

5. Our Algorithmic Overlords: That seems a great segue into the gap between the perceptions and realities of artificial intelligence. Just based on the recommendations I see daily from Google Now I've come to the conclusion that either machine learning and AI are way, way behind what I generally think, or Google is running a comically inept system in order to make me think the former. Here's "A Skeptic's Guide to Thinking about AI" based on this week AINow Symposium.
And to close us out, here's "The Automation Charade" which begins by pointing out that most "automation" we currently interact with is just about shifting work onto the (human) customer from the (human) employee, and gets more interesting from there.

Week of September 24, 2018

1. Poverty and Inequality Measurement: How do you measure poverty, and by extension, inequality? Given how common a benchmark poverty is, it's easy to sometimes lose sight of how hard defining and measuring it is.
Martin Ravallion has a new paper on measuring global inequality that takes into account that both absolute and relative poverty (within a country) matter--for many reasons it's better to be poor in a high-income country than a low-income one, which is often missed in global inequality measures. Here's Martin's summary blog post. When you take that into account, global inequality is significantly higher than in other measures, but still falling since 1990. 
The UK has a new poverty measure, created by the Social Metrics Commission (a privately funded initiative, since apparently the UK did away with its official poverty measure?) that tries to adjust for various factors including wealth, disability and housing adequacy among other things. Perhaps most interestingly it tries to measure both current poverty and persistent poverty recognizing that most of the factors that influence poverty measures are volatile. Under their measure they find that about 23% of the population lives in poverty, with half of those, 12.1%, in persistent poverty.
You can think about persistence of poverty in several ways: over the course of a year, over several years, or over many years--otherwise known as mobility. There's been a lot of attention in the US to declining rates of mobility and the ways that the upper classes limit mobility of those below them. That can obscure the fact that there is downward mobility (48% of white upper middle class kids end up moving down the household income ladder, using this tool based on Chetty et al data). I'm not quite sure what to make of this new paper, after all I'm not a frequent reader of Poetics which is apparently a sociology journal, but it raises an interesting point: the culture of the upper middle class that supposedly passes on privilege may be leading to downward mobility as well.   
There's also status associated with class and income. On that dimension, mobility in the US has declined by about a quarter from the 1940s cohort to the 1980s cohort. That's a factor of "the changing distribution of occupational opportunities...not intergenerational persistence" however. But intergenerational persistence may be on the rise because while the wealth of households in the top 10% of the distribution has recovered since the great recession, the wealth of the bottom 90% is still lower, and for the bottom 30% has continued to fall during the recovery.
 
2. Debt: What factors could be contributing to the wealth stagnation and even losses of the bottom 90% in the US? Just going off the top of my head, predatory debt could be a factor. If only we had a better handle on household debt and particularly the most shadowy parts of the high-cost lending world. Or maybe it's the skyrocketing amount of student debt, combined with bait-and-switch loan forgiveness programs that are denying 99% of the applicants. I'll bet the CFPB student loan czar will be all over this scandal. Oh wait, that's right, he resigned after being literally banned from doing his job.

3. Banking, SMEs, US and Global: Given those links, you'd be forgiven for assuming that banks, and the financial system in general, are a big factor in driving inequality and downward mobility. But on a global and historical basis, financial system development lowers inequality (that's the classic paper on the topic, not anything new, but I didn't think I could say that without the citation). One way to measure financial system development is the cost of financial intermediation--more development, more intermediation, lower costs. The spread between interest rates for deposits and loans is a reasonable way to measure the costs of intermediation. Here's a new paper from Calice and Zhou measuring the spread in 160 countries (blog summary). They find, not unexpectedly but usefully nonetheless, that intermediation costs are higher in lower income countries, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Why? A combination of higher overhead, higher credit risk and higher bank profit margins. They also helpfully provide a guide for policymakers on where action will be most effective in lowering intermediation costs.
One way financial system development lowers inequality is by funneling capital to SMEs and entrepreneurs (along with, of course, to its most productive use, banking theory 101). Here's the OECD's 2018 Scoreboard for doing just that. The overall trend is a bit puzzling--falling rates of new lending, with a shift to longer-term lending and generally declining interest rates (though this is based on 2016 data). One striking data point: the most expensive places for SMEs to borrow are Mexico, Chile and...New Zealand? (What's going on there, Berk and David?)
Perhaps one factor in falling rates of new lending that the OECD report doesn't take into account is the closing of physical bank branches. In general, SMEs may depend more on relationship banking--getting to know the loan officer and developing trust through direct contact--than transaction (arms-length) banking: SMEs and start-ups financial statements are simply not going to look that impressive. That does seem to be the case, and it may particularly be a problem for women and minorities, somewhat counterintuitively. That's the finding from Sweden, in a new paper from Malmstrom and Wincent (blog summary). Without the ability to work with a loan officer, women-owned businesses don't look credit-worthy to the algorithms. Another reason to click on that Blumenstock piece in the Editor's Note.
In the US, one of the tools to drive funding of women- and minority-owned SMEs is the Community Reinvestment Act. But that's up for revision, and the two men overseeing that revision have a long-standing beef with the CRA and the non-profits who support it. Uh oh.

4. Unlearning: Last week I linked to a piece about how difficult it is to get even experts to change their minds with a second research finding, focused on doctors. It was criminally under-clicked so I'm specifically linking it again. But the universe seemed to want to prove the point, and so this week I saw a bunch of tweets about a PNAS piece that shows the famous finding of judges being more lenient on parole after a meal break rather than before doesn't hold up. The order of cases is not random. I was all set to include it, along with a snide comment about people (not) changing their minds and the fact the paper was from all the way back in 2011 and the original finding was still being repeated. Then I noticed that there was a response to the paper from the original authors, showing that their original findings did hold up despite the not completely random ordering. But a bunch of people were retweeting the 2011 critique this week, apparently without knowledge of the response. So now I'm confused about whether this whole sequence supports or contradicts the article about people not updating their beliefs.
So let me try again. Here's "Women in Agriculture: Four Myths" that takes on four widely repeated statements about women's role in agriculture that aren't true. Hopefully there is a chance for us to successfully unlearn something.

5. Philanthropy and Social Investment: I'll admit that it's not really clear that this belongs in this category, but then it's not really clear that it belongs anywhere else either. So without further ado: the disturbing parallels between modern accounting and the business of slavery. That's a story about the new book from Catilin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management. Think of that the next time you hear there are "no tradeoffs" in impact investment. It's a stretch, but still--it will definitely throw the person off when you point out that their statement not only violates basic economic theory but is based on principles developed by slaveholders.
Finally, Brest and Harvey have a new edition of their book Money Well Spent, a guide to strategic philanthropy. Here is their reflection on what has changed in philanthropy since the first edition was published ten years ago. And here are several critical (re)views of the book and the concept of strategic philanthropy from a forum hosted by HistPhil blog.

Week of September 17, 2018

1. MicroDigitalFinance: A few weeks ago I wrote that small-dollar short-term loans have always been the bane of the banking industry. We're getting a new test of that. US Bank is launching an alternative to payday loans: loans are between $100 and $1000 and repaid over three months. Interest rates are well below payday lending rates, but still around 70% APR--interestingly on US Bank's page about the loan they very clearly say: "Simple Loan is a a high-cost loan and other options may be available." All of that is good news. But the loans are only available to people with a credit rating (even if it's bad), who have had bank accounts with US Bank for 6 months and direct deposit for 3 months. It will be fascinating to watch take-up, repayment rates, and outcomes--those are where banks have always struggled in this market. Here's Pew's Nick Bourke's take on the US Bank move and the potential for others, with some more regulatory action, to follow suit.
I occasionally remark on insurance being the most amazing invention of all time. It's astounding that it works at all, even in the most developed, trusting and well-regulated markets (see this attempt by one of the US's oldest life insurance providers to collapse the market); it's not surprising that it's a struggle to make it work elsewhere, in the places where households face more risk and would most benefit from access to insurance. So I'm always interested in new work on insurance innovation. Here's a new paper on a lab-in-the-field insurance experiment in Burkina Faso. The basic insight is that many potential purchasers struggle with the certain cost of an insurance premium versus the uncertain payoff. It turns out that framing the premium around an uncertain rebate if there is no payout--which makes both premium and benefit uncertain--increases take-up, especially among those that value certainty most. Yes, you probably need to read that sentence again (and then click on the link to see that even that obtuse sentence is marginally clearer than the abstract). If we want to delve into the details of insurance contract construction, there's also a new paper that delves into how liquidity constraints--a huge factor that hasn't generally gotten enough attention--affect the perceived value of insurance contracts, and how to adjust the contracts accordingly.
And finally, William Faulkner's dictum that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." applies to fintech. A new paper finds that common law countries in sub-Saharan Africa have greater penetration of Internet, telecom and electricity infrastructure, and thus much greater adoption of mobile money and FinTech. That's consistent with history of banking literature that finds common law countries do better on financial system development, financial inclusion and SME lending. 
For the record, I've clarified in my own mind the difference between the MicroDigitalFinance and Household Finance categories. The former provides perspective on providers, the latter on consumers. I reserve the right to break that typology as necessary or when it suits me.  

2. Household Finance: I suppose another way to distinguish between the two categories is that MicroDigitalFinance features bad news only most of the time, while Household Finance is just all bad news. At least that's the way it feels when I come across depressing studies like this: Extending the term of auto loans (e.g. from 60 months to 72 months as has become increasingly common during this low-quality credit boom) leads to consumers taking loans at a) higher interest rates, and b) paying more for the vehicle. Liquidity constraints mean consumers pay much more attention to the monthly payment and get screwed.
It's not just auto loans where liquidity constraints lead to people making sub-optimal choices (yes, I'm thinking a lot about managing liquidity lately). For instance, when people move from traditional health insurance to high-deductible plans they suddenly reduce spending on health care--but not in the ways you want. People don't learn to price shop, even after two years, and they don't reduce spending only on optional or low-value services. And here's the JP Morgan Chase Institute study that shows how much liquidity constraints or their removal affect health care spending using a different approach.
Now if you are a loyal faiV reader, I know you're not thinking, "We need financial literacy training!" But just in case, here's some more bad news: "peer-to-peer communication transmits financial decision-making skills most effectively when peers are equally uninformed, rather than when an informed decision maker teaches an uninformed peer." Or this: "provision of effective financial education to one member of a pair...does not lead to additional improvements in the quality of the untreated partner's decisions." 
If you're thinking, "That hasn't ruined my Friday yet, Tim, give me more," don't worry. How about "Twenty-four million homeowners think it's acceptable to tap into home equity to cover everyday payments." Granted, that's from one of those ridiculous bankrate.com surveys that should be taken with several kilos of salt, but still. 

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Here's a quick story about an egregiously bad algorithm the State of Idaho was using to determine how much assistance Medicaid recipients should receive. You can probably already guess--bad data, bad software, bad implementation. But it took a lot of work, and a lawsuit, to figure that out. 
Stories like that emphasize that before handing over decisions to our algorithmic overlords we should want those algorithms to be understandable and fair. Here's a new paper from Jon Kleinberg and Sendhil Mullainathan developing a model that shows you have to pick between simple and equitable. You can't have both.
And here's the "Anatomy of an AI System" that in some ways is a visual proof of the Kleinberg and Mullainathan paper. It's also one of the coolest visualizations I've seen in a while--both in scope and because it isn't reductionist about AI. It takes into account all of the surrounding processes as well. You won't regret clicking on this, unless you have something else really important to do.

4. Global Development: So many things to include this week. Let's start with the biggest: Asher, Novosad and Rafkin have assembled an incredible dataset on incomes in India that allows them to measure intergenerational mobility in a country of more than a billion people, down to the level of 5600 rural districts and 2300 cities and towns. One key finding: increasing mobility among scheduled castes is offset by decreasing mobility among Muslims.
At a necessarily smaller scale, but still big in terms of scope and time, Casey, Glennerster, Miguel and Voors have a long-term follow up on the results of a large scale experiment on Community Driven Development in Sierra Leone, finding that CDD doesn't break down traditional autocratic governance mechanisms enough to allow full exploitation of human capital, which as I understand it was part of the motivation for CDD, and there are easier and cheaper ways to to do so. Of note, they also look at the "prior beliefs of experts on likely impacts"--which, given the "Everything Is Obvious" responses research like this often generates, is pretty cool. Here's Rachel's Twitter thread summary.
Another of the arguments I've heard both for and against CDD-style programs is side-stepping difficult targeting questions--just let the community decide who needs help. Rema Hanna and Ben Olken have a new paper on targeting, specifically on the relative welfare gains of universal basic income versus means-testing. They find means-testing wins using data from Indonesia and Peru, despite some issues; and they discuss adding community-targeting to means-testing.
Meanwhile, here's a piece by Josh Blumenstock that tries to deflate some of the excitement around using high-tech means of targeting, like satellite maps, social networks and call records. In summary, data without theory is useless, and so is data + theory without anthro/soc (or at least anthro/soc informed economics).

5. Methods and Evidence-Based Policy : That's a good lead-in to methods. Let's start with some quick hits. Brian Wansink, whose scandals I've covered in this item in the past, has resigned from Cornell. Noah Smith has a column on the replication crisis in Economics though it's about a very different kind of replication crisis than the one Wansink faced. Now that I type that, it occurs to me that it was in fact easy to replicate Wansink--just making up numbers that matched his would apparently be both a literal and conceptual replication. And here's a new paper on improving diff-in-diff methods to account for effects changing over time.
The idea of evidence-based policy sort of requires that there is evidence of something working. But y'know, nothing does. Encouraging women to get mammograms? Those most likely to respond are those least likely to need one, and because of false positives, the net welfare effect is negative. The health effect of better trade and transport links in the United States in the early 19th century? So negative that it made it people shorter (I mean, as a whole, not specific people). What else? Oh, those gains we all know of like improved water and sanitation, and food safety standards during the early 20th century...no effect on total or infant mortality. That last one reminds me of an old LantRant about assessing whether development interventions matter based on whether they were important in the history (or present) of developed countries. Shall we scratch food safety and urban sanitation off that list? 
I suppose we can hope that these results won't replicate, like the examples that Noah Smith cites. But on the other hand, it's already too late. Once a result is published, no one (or at least no doctors) changes their mind, or changes their behavior.
Wow, this has been bleak. So here's one hopeful note on something that did work. Women's suffrage caused large gains (via demand for more spending on education) in educational attainment of poorer/disadvantaged children, and long-term earnings gains. So go out this weekend and help a woman register to vote (and then go back and make sure she has everything she needs to follow through and vote on election day).

I would have had the Anatomy of an AI visualization here, but it's way too big, and  Justin Sandefur  created this really great example of how simple choices in the visual representation of data can radically change the way we interpret it. The two charts are of the same data, on the left from the World Bank and on the right from The Economist. Via  Justin Sandefur .

I would have had the Anatomy of an AI visualization here, but it's way too big, and Justin Sandefur created this really great example of how simple choices in the visual representation of data can radically change the way we interpret it. The two charts are of the same data, on the left from the World Bank and on the right from The Economist. Via Justin Sandefur.