Week of August 27, 2018

Editor's Note: I'm still playing catch-up this week, and perhaps you are too. It's the "end of summer" in the Northern Hemisphere after all, that week we all get to, in a panic, confront all those things we had put off to the Fall AND all those things we thought we would get done during the "less busy" summer. Catching up notwithstanding, this is a somewhat truncated edition of the faiV, as I head into a weekend of labor related to the above.--Tim Ogden

1. Small Dollar Financial Services: I've been doing a lot of reading the last few weeks about the history of consumer banking (Hi Julia!), and by history I mean going back to the Middle Ages and before. From that reading, it's clear that small dollar lending has always been the bane of the banking system--and there is nothing new under the sun (thanks, David Roodman!). Which certainly colors my view when I see stories about overhauling the overdraft system in the US. Not that I don't think there is room for significant improvement. Overdraft is perhaps the worst possible way to manage small dollar lending--by pretending it's something else while still charging exorbitant fees that would make many microfinance institutions blush. There are plenty of ideas, like this story on a non-profit payday alternative lender which charges roughly half the fees of its competitors. The intent of the story seems to be offering this as a real alternative, but the details keep getting in the way. The nonprofit really is nonprofit in the literal sense of the word, not even being able to pay its CEO a $60,000 per year salary regularly, and facing "four near-death experiences" in 9 years--that sounds about par for the course in small dollar lending from the historical record.    


2. Algorithmic Overlords: Yuval Noah Hariri has a new piece in the Atlantic, the title of which is just candy-coated confirmation bias for me, so how could I resist putting it in the faiV: "Why Technology Favors Tyranny". I'm feeling validated that I started reading Asimov's I, Robot to my kids this week. But back to Hariri, two thoughts: a) borrowing a category from Tyler Cowen, this is a very interesting sentence: "At least in chess, creativity is already considered to be the trademark of computers rather than humans!", and b) the picture Hariri paints bears a remarkable resemblance to the Allende plan in Chile specifically, and to almost every example in Seeing Like A State, it's just that the technology is finally catching up to the political ideology. The big question, of course, is whether the technology will yield any better results.
One more item I couldn't resist is this piece about blockchain and supposed complacency toward technological innovation in development. The most important thing to know is that the two examples given of the benefits of a decentralized ledger (e.g. blockchain) are two of the most centralized and highly policed ledgers in existence: SWIFT and Visa payment networks. It continues with a few potshots at small dollar fintech lenders and then some ersatz blockchain evangelism about power to the people. Let's hope the author reads many of the pieces linked above, but especially Hariri's. And just because, here's a story about the very first blockchain hiding in an ad in the New York Times in 1995.

3. Methods and Evidence: You've likely seen the uproar over ridiculous nutrition studies (on alcohol and dairy--clearly the message is to only drink dairy-based cocktails this weekend) this week. I saw someone on Twitter commenting on how the credibility revolution seems to have passed right by nutritional epidemiology, probably because it would mean that no studies ever got published.
Part of the credibility revolution is the emphasis on open data and replication. Here's a report on the latest large scale replication effort (of 21 social science studies published in Nature and Science). Thirteen of the 21 were generally replicated, but the effect size was roughly half of that originally reported. Of course, this raises the question of what "successful replication" means again. Here's a Twitter thread from Stuart Buck of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation on the difficult distinction between failed replication being a part of the scientific learning process and a failed replication as part of identifying shady research and publishing practices.  
Here's a troubling story about unreliable administrative data. The US Department of Education asked school districts to start reporting "school-related shooting" incidents. There were 240 reported. But follow-up reporting was only able to verify 11 of those incidents and 161 were explicitly denied. Don't let the emotional subject of school shootings distract entirely from the reminder that there are always problems with data gathered like this, no matter what the subject. And pause for a moment to remember that it is data like this that Hariri fears will be used to automate administrative regimes.
The point of these studies, whether ridiculous nutritional ones, or administrative-data based ones, is most often to influence behavior and policy. Here's Jean Dreze on the challenge of evidence-based policy, and the need for economists "to be cautious and modest when it comes to giving policy advice, let alone getting actively involved in 'policy design.'"

4. Global Poverty: On the topic of evidence-informed policy choices, one of the most hotly debated questions in the field right now is what is happening with global poverty. At face value it seems like this is just a question of going to look at the data. But as with so many other areas, different people see very different things in the data (even if it is accurate). It all depends on how you measure poverty and whether you care more about absolute or relative numbers. There was a glimmer of detente in this debate this week as Jason Hickel and Charles Kenny published "12 Things We Can Agree On About Global Poverty." But that only lasted a day before Martin Ravallion chimed in with this Twitter thread, which begins, "it seems they only agree on the obvious, and ignore some less obvious things that really matter."
If you're looking for another way into these debates and the various issues that arrive, here's a Washington Post story about Nigeria displacing India as home to the largest number of people in absolute poverty. Maybe

5. Social Investment and Philanthropy: I highlighted a couple reviews of Anand Giridharadas' new book Winners Take All  last week. Here's another, from Ben Soskis, which I include because it's the best one yet. The theme of Giridharadas' book (and Rob Reich's new book as well) is being skeptical of the power of large-scale philanthropy or social investment. Here's a thread from Chris Cardona, of the Ford Foundation, on the multitudes contained in the word philanthropy, which is certainly important to take into account when considering the critiques. But the question of who is a philanthropist, who is abusing their power, and the trade-offs of institutionalization of philanthropy are always messy. Here's a story about a viral GoFundMe campaign to help a homeless man in Philly who gave his last $20 to rescue a stranded motorist. If you have Calvinist sympathies like me, you'll probably guess what happened next. Finally, here's Ed Dolan of the Niskanen Center on whether we need the charitable deduction.

  Returning to the topic of methods and evidence-based policy, two images popped up in my Twitter thread this week that I couldn't get out of my head. One is a snippet from a peer reviewer of the social science replication paper highlight above, explaining why it was not published in Nature or Science even though it was replications of papers from those journals. And second is a picture taken from a talk John List was giving this week about his career. You have to ask, does science advance via replication or via funerals? Via  Brian Nosek  and  Ben Grodeck  respectively.

Returning to the topic of methods and evidence-based policy, two images popped up in my Twitter thread this week that I couldn't get out of my head. One is a snippet from a peer reviewer of the social science replication paper highlight above, explaining why it was not published in Nature or Science even though it was replications of papers from those journals. And second is a picture taken from a talk John List was giving this week about his career. You have to ask, does science advance via replication or via funerals? Via Brian Nosek and Ben Grodeck respectively.

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