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

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