Week of August 1, 2017

1. More Ranting (Low-Quality Equilibria and Digital Currency): Following up on my rant last week about the prevalence of low-quality or sub-optimal equilibria because people have such a hard time figuring out what matters, here's another paper that caught my attention because it so thoroughly confirms my priors. The basics: a field experiment provided repair technicians with varying amounts and frequency of feedback. Performance suffered when feedback was weekly versus monthly because the technicians overreacted to each report. In other words, they had a hard time figuring out which details mattered to their own performance. The study could inspire another about "isomorphic mimicry" and the technology of management but I'll save that for another time.

Instead, I'll move on to a different rant about digital finance. In my world, there's only a tenuous connection between the digital finance groups and the cryptocurrency (e.g. BitCoin) groups, but the former certainly should be paying attention to the latter. As Matt Levine put it this week (again, he says this a lot): "The job of the cryptocurrency revolutionaries is to re-learn all of the old lessons of modern finance, one at a time, in public, in embarrassing ways." Right now those old lessons being re-learned seem particularly focused on how hard it is to manage and secure a money supply. I really hope that the digital finance advocates are paying attention to how often various "unhackable" and "secure" cryptocurrencies are being hacked. The spirit of Willie Sutton lives on, and as more "money" is stored in digital form, there will inevitably be more theft. And there's very little reason to believe that average users will employ security practices better than the supposed sophisticated users currently adopting cryptocurrencies. I fear though that the fate of much of digital finance is to "re-learn all of the old lessons of financial services, one at a time, in public, in especially embarrassing ways because they ignored the cryptocurrency movement's repeated mistakes."

2. Global Development (rants): On to more traditional faiV-ing. Kevin Starr has a new rant on the many outside groups making hay over government-funded private schools in Liberia (We need a hashtag to go along with #lantrant, I'm proposing #starrant). Someone once told me there were a lot less education experiments in the US than in other countries because more people were paying close attention and fighting any policy experiments where the outcomes were not already known. That may have been true, but it's certainly not true anymore in Liberia at least. Kevin's plea is to let the Education Minister do his job.

And here's a rant (with a link to another) against the "getting better" narrative that points out how much the world has improved, to the point where it is certainly the best time in history to be alive. I find the argument here pretty annoying, but not annoying enough to rant about myself. Pointing out that fewer children are dying of malnutrition and more people can read (for instance) in no way implies "this is fine."

In fact it's far more common for the "getting better" crowd to argue for more and for taking risks to make more progress, rather than settling for the status quo as Kottke says they are. In that vein, philosopher Peter Singer is probably the best known advocate for doing more, particularly associated with the "drowning child" thought experiment. Except it's not always an experiment. Last week, French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle died while trying to rescue some actual drowning children. She was particularly known for her work on taking risks.

3. US Inequality: Much of the work on household finance either presumes that households desire to smooth consumption or tries to test how much smoothing they are able to do. Here's a new paper matching up food stamp receipt dates and standardized math test scores (and dates). There's already good data that shows that food stamp recipients aren't fully smoothing food consumption over a month--households often eat less in the last week of a monthly cycle. Here the authors look at how students from these households perform when test dates are toward the end of a benefit cycle and finds there is a material negative impact on performance. There are some other interesting patterns as well. At some point, I'll have a sort-of rant about a related issue: how we should think about whether the EITC lifts people out of poverty or not, given that it does so by delivering a lump sum on one day, but nothing the rest of the year.

Evidence like the food stamp study is used by safety net advocates to argue for more generous benefits, but just as often to say that the reasons people become and/or stay poor is their own choices. One of the frameworks for the latter is known as "the success sequence," originally proposed by Haskins and Sawhill. It lays out a set of choices that make escape from, or protection from poverty much more likely. Matt Bruenig has a new post about the "success sequence" which has been getting more attention of late. While the sequence has lots of advice, Bruenig points out that the only piece that seems to make a material difference is having a full-time job.

Finally, here's a profile of the current life of Rob Cordray, the embattled head of the CFPB

4. Theories, Methods and Models: It's getting late in the day already, so I'm going to pick up the pace a little here. Don't mistake that for disinterest or lack of endorsement. This is all good stuff. You should click on the links.
Michael Kremer and Gautam Rao presented on Behavioral Economics and Development at the NBER Summer Institute. Here are their very useful slides.

Are small studies ever worth it? Some people argue they do much more harm than good. I'm guessing they didn't factor in the damage avoiding small studies would do to the careers of academics-in-training. I'm particularly interested in how this applies in the business context, where unless you are one of the truly massive companies in your space, all the "data analytics" being done are small studies.

On the opposite end of the scale, Karthik Muralidharan and Paul Niehaus have a new version of their paper, "Experimentation at Scale", which points out that development RCTs have typically been "small" (though not in the same sense as the authors above use it), and offers lots of advice for dealing with the challenges of doing very large experiments.

5. Digital Finance: Most of the time when I discuss digital finance in the faiV it's about things like mobile money or digital credit. But there's a much bigger part of digital finance that is about what's happening on the back-end of digital commerce. Here's a profile of Patrick Collison, the founder of Stripe, an increasingly important player in that back-end globally. Stripe handles a lot of digital payments and is increasingly moving to add services to make all the other parts of digital commerce much easier. If you want to extrapolate wildly from Tavneet Suri's and Billy Jack's paper on the effect of M-Pesa on poverty, just imagine the impact of quickly and cheaply enabling developing world entrepreneurs to incorporate, set-up digital storefronts, manage inventory and get access to working capital. You may also recall that Patrick Collison recently interviewed Tyler Cowen and mentioned my book (even if he forgot the name) and so I have a strong positive bias toward anything he does. 

Finally, while Stripe is a big deal in digital finance even though you hardly ever hear about them, if you follow the finance space, you hear about robo-advisors all the time. For example, last week's faiV. But Josh Brown points out that "robo-advisor" already is a meaningless term. If everyone is a robo-advisor then no one is a robo-advisor.

Not particularly new, but new to me: a proportional chart of the use of languages in the world. Source: Search Reddit because I'm worried about filters catching the name of the Reddit forum where this is from.

Not particularly new, but new to me: a proportional chart of the use of languages in the world. Source: Search Reddit because I'm worried about filters catching the name of the Reddit forum where this is from.

Return to the Weekly faiV