War is Hell Edition
1. Cash vs Chickens Wars: Within development circles, the most widely read point/counterpoint began with Chris Blattman's piece in Vox, written almost as a letter to Bill Gates. Blattman takes issue with Gates' idea to provide livestock, specifically chickens, to poor households and instead proposes a test of the benefit of just giving cash. To be clear Blattman isn't saying that cash is better, but that we don't know--and we do know that giving chickens is much more expensive (and everyone who's been involved in aid knows at least one story about how "the chickens all died")--so we should run a test and compare. Lant Pritchett responds on CGD's blog, saying in all his years in development, never once has the question of "chickens versus cash" arisen as a pressing question. One reason is that Pritchett believes the goal of development shouldn't be marginal improvements for the poorest but generating the kind of growth that has seen hundreds of millions escape poverty in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries. Of course, Blattman responds and does a good job keeping the focus on what I would call the competing theories of change proposed by Chris and Lant. In fact, I have called it that, and if you're interested in a deeper dive into the issues in this debate, I know a good book you should read (or at least check out Marc Bellemare's and Jeff Bloem's review of it).
2. Mortality Wars: Those in the US policy community, on the other hand, have probably been too occupied following the "mortality wars" to even know there's a battle between cash and chickens happening next door. Here's the quick background: Anne Case and Angus Deaton have a new paper about mortality rates in the US--I would say more about their results but, of course, this wouldn't be a war if there wasn't vehement disagreement over what their results actually are. As with an earlier paper, Jonathan Auerbach and Andrew Gelman take issue particularly around the composition of Case's and Deaton's aggregate results, and provides charts decomposing mortality rates by race, gender and state. There are a lot of other critiques, including about the data visualization in Case's and Deaton's paper, but you can save yourself a lot of time by just reading Noah Smith's excellent post about the data and the debate which brings the attention squarely to where it should be: that mortality rates for white Americans stopped following the trajectory of other developed countries and a massive gap has opened up between the US and others.
Then there's a secondary discussion of why this is happening and what it all means so here's some supplementary reading on that, courtesy of Jeff Guo at the Washington Post: An interview with Case and Deaton; "if white Americans are in crisis, what have black Americans been living through?"; and it's more than opioids. But if there's one related thing you aren't likely to read, but should, it's this article from Bloomberg on automobile manufacturing in the South.
This also seems like the best place to insert my favorite new aphorism: "Being a statistician means never having to say you are certain." (via Tim Harford)
3. Social Enterprise and Investment Wars: So now we're progressing to the areas where there isn't so much of a war but there are some differing perspectives worth paying attention to. On the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Phil Buchanan has an incisive post decrying the idea of "sector agnosticism" between non-profits, for-profits and social enterprises: the legal form of an institution matters, not just its impact. For-profits have to make trade-offs that non-profits don't. In a similar vein, Miya Tokumitsu writes in the New York Times about accusations that a celebrated "social enterprise", Thinx, was treating employees in some less than socially conscious ways like substandard pay, verbal abuse and sexual harassment. What's notable about the piece is not only lines like, "[funds for social causes] will be taken from the same pool of funds from which her employees are paid," but that the writer is an art historian. The social investment world should be embarrassed that such fundamental concepts as fungibility, trade-offs and principal-agent problems seem to be better understood and articulated by non-profit executives and humanities teachers than by proponents.
The other major news this week was the Ford Foundation's announcement that it will, over the next decade, move $1 billion from its corpus into "impact investing"--a nebulous term precisely because of the sector's general refusal to acknowledge such things as trade-offs. The funds will be specifically dedicated to affordable housing in the US and expanding access to financial services in developing countries. I have some ideas on how Ford should think about investing those international funds so that they spur innovation rather than the status quo in microfinance.
4. Migration Wars: If you've been reading the faiV for any length of time, you know I frequently include papers and related items on the benefits of migration. Like this new paper that looks at historical data and finds that areas with higher historical rates of immigration today have "higher income, less poverty, less unemployment..." and more. Or this piece on "The Case for Immigration" from Matt Yglesias. But there's also this new paper from Hamory Hicks, Kleeman, Li and Miguel that looks at longitidunal data from Indonesia and Kenya rural-to-urban migration and finds that the productivity gains from migration are primarily due to the individuals that migrate. That's a big concern. Right now I'm thinking through my Bayesian updating--in other words, I don't know yet how to think about this, other than possibly ratcheting down my own enthusiasm for migration." Also of note, here is Tyler Cowen on declining rates of migration in the United States.
5. Microfinance Wars: Well at least there's something happening in Cambodia, where the government announced a new interest rate cap at 18 percent per year. Dan Rozas writes on how that will shut off access for many in rural Cambodia. I guess the format I've chosen for this week compels me to link to Milford Bateman's response in Next Billion in which he asserts that moneylenders care more about their communities than MFIs (really!) and explains the growth differences between Vietnam and Cambodia are materially a causal effect of lots of microcredit in Cambodia and much less in Vietnam (really! paging Lant Pritchett!).
Over the past month, however, I've been struck repeatedly by the lack of convergence about thinking about microfinance internationally and the credit and savings needs of lower income households in the US. I recently had a conversation with an executive at a US credit union, who said, "I'm so excited we finally have a 501(c)3 set-up so we can get into the payday lending business." Which seems like a very strange thing to say, but only in the United States. In related news, here's a story about SoFi's, short for Social Finance, Inc. (hmmmm....), a fintech heavy lender in the US, default rates rising rapidly. And here's an interesting paper following up on earlier work on a microcredit innovation detailing a potential trade-off (there's that word again!) between efficiency and equity in the operational choices of MFIs.