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Week of May 24, 2019

1. India: This year I resolved to make sure I was paying more attention to events in countries with large populations that aren't the United States, and not just treating them like an instance of a broader class. Given the elections in India, and the somewhat surprising strength of the BJP's performance, this seems like an opportune moment. Here's a Vox explainer on the elections for those of you who, like me, may have been only vaguely aware of the elections as a referendum on Modi vs. (Rahul) Gandhi. Here's an interesting essay on the most important feature of Indian politics not being the rivalry between parties but the generally uncontested move toward closing off civil liberties and a more authoritarian state. Here's 12 reasons why the BJP won, with perhaps the most interesting point being the BJP's efficiency at actually delivering welfare programs rather than just vague promises about future welfare programs. For those of you following along in the US or Australia, or any other country where right-wing populism has experienced a rebirth, there are clear parallels throughout. Here's Shamika Ravi on policy priorities for the new government (written before the election).
There is more than the election going on. So here's a couple of things that may be more of traditional interest to faiV readers. Demonetization was three years ago. And everything is back to where it was--maybe this should make programs with "null effects" feel better. And here's a fascinating study of the social lives of married women in Uttarakhand, with a particular emphasis on how "empowerment shocks" spread through social networks and decay over time. 

2. Causality and Publishing Redux: A few things popped up related to last week's focus on causality. One point I touched on was spillovers and general equilibrium effects. Here's a note from Paddy Carter of CDC on the tension for DFIs attempting to invest in ways that are "transformative" (read, lots of spillover effects) and measuring their causal impact. I also noted JDE now accepting papers based on per-analysis plans. Pre-registration isn't going so well in psychology where a new study looked at 27 preregistered plans and the ultimate papers and found all of them deviated from the plan, and only one of those noted the change. Brian Nosek's money quote: "preregistration is a skill and not a bureaucratic process." Which could serve as a theme of Berk Ozler's discussion of using pre-registration to boost the credibility of results, not just for an experiment. Very useful for those interested in developing the pre-registration skill.
This may be stretching it a bit, but Raj Chetty's incipient attempt to replace Ec10 at Harvard got a lot of attention this week. There's a lot to recommend his approach, but there are plenty of people who are concerned about the apparent glossing over of causality. I'm honestly worried that some of these things may cause Angus Deaton and other critics of causal claims from RCTs to go into apoplectic fits. Just when you thought some of the messages might be getting through, along comes a new toy. So I should probably not mention that there's an update to the oldDonohue and Levitt paper on abortion and crime that claims it has better evidencewithout dealing with any of the problems in the underlying model.
3. Micro-Digital Finance: Microfinance can be pretty confusing when you get beyond the simple statements and start to worry about how it actually all works, and how it's changing, and what we do and don't know. Hudon, Labie and Szafarz have a nice little primer on those issues with a microfinance alphabet. I wish I had thought of doing this.
I complained last week about "mobile money" not including payment cards, which dominate the United States. But a telecom-driven mobile money product is now available in the US. Well sort of. Not sure what to make of this yet. 
Caribou Digital and Mastercard Foundation have a new study of Kenyan microentrepreneurs "platform practices." I also don't know what to make of this, but that's probably because I haven't read it yet, but I figured many of you would be interested. 
Among other things it's hard to know what to make of, there's Earnin, a sort-of payday lender, health care cost negotiator, fintech something. It's confusing. And New York State regulators are confused too, which is probably not a good sign for Earnin. But that's nothing new--I have to point again to City of Debtors, a book that documents New York city and state regulators confusion over how to regulate small dollar lending for more than a century. 

4. US Inequality: The history of exploitative finance in New York continues to write new chapters, which unfortunately often seem to be just remixes of the old chapters. For instance, the oft-heard story of New York taxi drivers being driven to despair by the entry of Uber and Lyft, misses a big part of the story: those drivers are often operating in deep, deep predatory debt that was going to drown them whether ride-sharing came along or not. For those of you who have followed the supposed stories of microfinance driving Indian farmers to suicide, this should all sound familiar. 
One of the reasons that those loans were unsustainable is the skyrocketing cost of housing in US cities. And that's driving people out of cities, particularly the people with just enough to be able to move away. Why? It's the zoning stupid. Well it's more than that--it's economic rationality. The higher wages for unskilled workers in cities in the US have totally disappeared along with the rise in housing costs.
Overall, though the financial situation of Americans is getting better along with the job market. The new Survey of Household Economic Decisionmaking is out, and the oft-(mis)-quoted statistic about how many Americans would pay for a $400 unexpected expense with cash or a cash-equivalent is at an all time high (for the survey, which is only 6 years old). Still that's only 60%.
And so, many people feel insecure. Here's Jacob Hacker's essay on why, building on his classic book, The Great Risk Shift. Another reason is the continued increase in student debt (I'll tackle the Morehouse/Johnson/Philanthropic angle another week). Helaine Olen has a great policy prescription on that front: make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy again (MSLDBA?). Though the mobility effects of college degrees may be substantially overstated, which makes the student debt problem even worse. And finally, what should be another reason, even if it isn't, is the many ways that the economy is corrupted by things like this

5. Three Day Weekends: Go enjoy yourself away from a screen, wherever you are.

L-IFT , a diaries research firm, is a proud sponsor of the faiV. See our video on  diaries research with 800 women microentrepreneurs in Myanmar .

L-IFT, a diaries research firm, is a proud sponsor of the faiV. See our video on diaries research with 800 women microentrepreneurs in Myanmar.

From  Alfred Twu , an illustration of "It's the Zoning Stupid" and a nice application for discussing tax incidence theory.  Source .

From Alfred Twu, an illustration of "It's the Zoning Stupid" and a nice application for discussing tax incidence theory. Source.

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 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 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 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 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 July 23, 2018

The In Bloem Edition

Editor's Note: My writing hiatus from the faiV continues. This week Jeff Bloem, a PhD student in the Applied Economics Department at the University of Minnesota, and faithful reader of the faiV, takes over. You can follow Jeff on Twitter and, yes, via his own blog. Be sure to check out his review of what sounds like a fascinating, must-read book.--Tim Ogden

1. Food Fights and Methods: First, over on the Economics That Really Matters blog, Paul Christian and Chris Barrett summarize their paper on US food aid and conflict. They call into question the results of an influential paper finding a causal link between US food aid and conflict. The authors follow up with a methodological note on the use of instrumental variables with panel data.
Next, the most recent issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (AJAE) has a nice article, comment, and response. In the article Ore Koren finds that it is food abundance, rather than food scarcity, that causes conflict across Africa. Marshall Burke writes in a comment that the effect sizes are implausibly large and are at odds with previous research. Koren responds to these comments by offering three explanations for the "implausibly" large effect sizes.     

2. Randomistas are our new Algorithmic Overlords: At the development economics section of the NBER Summer Institute, Esther Duflo delivered a lecture entitled, "Machinistas meet Randomistas: Some useful ML tools for RCT researchers". Slides from the lecture are available here, and Dina Pomeranz was live Tweeting the lecture. The paper it was based on is here. On the surface it may seem like machine learning and RCTs are interested in different parts of empirical research--the former focused on prediction and the latter focused on causal identification. Duflo highlights a couple areas where using machine learning when analyzing an RCT can be beneficial.

3. Informal Insurance: In a recent article on VoxDev, Kaivan Munshi and Mark Rosenzweig summarize some of the insights from their 2016 paper on the impact of rural informal insurance networks on rural-urban migration in India. The authors first point out that the rural-urban migration rate is relatively low in India compared to other similar countries. The explanation for this is the presence of well-functioning rural informal insurance markets. In order for these informal markets to function well, however, mechanisms must exist to prevent households from reneging on their obligations to their network. A key way this plays out is in restrictions on mobility. This raises a question: What would happen if formal insurance were introduced? Munshi and Rosenzweig run policy simulations and find formal insurance arrangements may increase rural-urban migration. Relatedly, in a new AJAE paper, Kazushi Takahashi, Chris Barrett, and Munenobu Ikegami study how the introduction of formal index insurance affects informal risk-sharing arrangements in rural Ethiopia. They find little evidence of a crowding out of informal insurance from formal insurance products.

4. The Power of Hope: This has already been shared quite a bit, but if you haven't read Seema Jayachandran's summary in the New York Times of the literature on hope and aspirations… you should. The article briefly discusses three recent studies. First, a study in Kampala, Uganda examined the effects of students watching the movie "Queen of Katwe" on educational performance. Second, a study in Oaxaca, Mexico showed an inspirational documentary to women eligible for small business loans. Finally, a study in Kolkata, India designed a psychological training program for sex workers. In each of these studies, these treatments lead to measurable changes in internal characteristics--for example: self-esteem, aspirations, self-efficacy, optimism--and also concrete changes in educational attainment, enterprise revenues and profits, and personal savings.

5. Sanitation: NPR's Planet Money podcast has a nice story about work in Dakar, Senegal helping improve the market for septic tank cleaning. The podcast frames the work as breaking up a "poop cartel." This is a catchy way frame the story, but the truth is urban sanitation is a very important issue in many developing countries. In many places with rapid urbanization and sprawling city footprints, organizing and funding the provision of environmentally-friendly sanitation services is a vexing challenge. This work offers some important insight in how cities might boost sustainable improvements of their sanitation services. More information about this research is available here.


From VoxEu, some data on something we all knew, but perhaps not this specifically and depressingly. Via  VoxEU .

From VoxEu, some data on something we all knew, but perhaps not this specifically and depressingly. Via VoxEU.

Week of July 16, 2018

A Very Rouse-ing Edition

Editor's Note: As mentioned in the last faiV, I'm taking some time away from weekly newsletter writing to work on some other writing projects. This week's edition is guest-edited by Rebecca Rouse, director of IPA's Financial Inclusion Program, which partners with researchers, FSPs and governments to design and test financial products and consumer protection policies.--Tim Ogden

1. Women's Empowerment: Our friends at JPAL released their long-anticipated Practical Guide to Measuring Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment in Impact Evaluations. It comes with a set of questionnaires and examples of non-survey tools that can be more effective at capturing the useful and reliable data. This new study from the U.S. Census Bureau is timely, showing that when a woman earns more than her husband they both tend to exaggerate the husband’s earnings and diminish the wife’s on their Census responses. Gender norms still shape survey responses, no matter where you are. Seems like a good time to revisit IPA’s discussions on mixed methods approaches to women’s empowerment measurement with Nicola Jones and with Sarah Baird from last year. Finally, the US House passed the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 this week. The bill seeks to improve USAID’s work on women’s access to finance, and is notable first because of its attention to some (not all) non-financial gender-norms constraints that impact women’s prosperity, and also because it calls for improvements to outcome measurement methods.  

2. Migration: The first ever Global Compact for Migration was approved by all 193 member states of the UN last week except for the United States (Hungary is now saying it won’t sign the final document), and one of its 23 high-level objectives is to “promote faster, safer and cheaper transfer of remittances and foster financial inclusion of migrants.” A lot of the language in here sounds like the same old story on remittances, and I am skeptical of the laser-sharp focus on reducing prices (it calls to eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5% by 2030), promoting financial education, and investing in consumer product comparison tools that aren’t based on evidence. Dean Yang’s 2016 study on financial education for Filipino migrants failed to find any positive impact on financial product take-up or usage, for example.

3. Remittances: What about looking to the behavioral econ world to enhance the positive effects of remittances? Behavioral nudges that can leverage digital finance look promising – Harvard Business Review had a nice piece last month on Blumenstock, Callen, and Ghani’s test of mobile money defaults to save in Afghanistan. This experiment is exciting because it shows that, with the right tools, successful interventions from the developed world, like Thaler and Benartzi’s Save More Tomorrow, can achieve similar results in other contexts.  Linking remittance transfers to digital finance in the receiving country can create additional opportunities to enhance impact beyond savings, for example using data for credit scoring. Here’s an op-ed from Rafe Mazer and FSD Africa on the opportunities and risks surrounding data sharing models in emerging markets.

4. Nudges: Abraham, Filiz-Ozbay, Ozbay, and Turner have a new working paper on the impact of income-based student loan repayment plans on employment decisions in the United States. They find that limiting the repayment plan options that borrowers are offered can lead them to pursue riskier careers and thereby raise their expected incomes in the long run. By only offering income-based repayment plans, which protects them from defaults by linking payment amounts to earned income, students were unburdened from fears of regret and of making the wrong choice. And lastly, Bernheim and Taubinsky summarize the use of behavioral economics in public policy, including an entire section on policies that target personal saving. 

5. Mobile Money: Finally, from Kenya, some experimental evidence on the impact of mobile money on school enrollment in a new working paper by Billy Jack and James Habyarimana at Georgetown. Parents who received a mobile money savings wallet via M-PESA, regardless of whether it incorporated a commitment mechanism or not, increased savings by three to four times, and were 5-6 percentage points more likely to enroll their children in high school. It’s interesting that the commitment savings option wasn’t more or less impactful than just the offer of any mobile wallet, and you can read a new interview with the authors discussing the results on the IPA blog. 

Thanks for the chance to take over the faiV this week! - Rebecca

From a new report by the Urban Institute: “By 2020, the federal government is projected to spend more on interest payments on the debt than on children." Source:  Urban Institute

From a new report by the Urban Institute: “By 2020, the federal government is projected to spend more on interest payments on the debt than on children." Source: Urban Institute

Week of October 16, 2017

1. The Search for Truth: The New York Times Magazine has a long piece about Amy Cuddy, the social psychologist of "power posing" fame, and the messy process by which her research has been popularized and then discredited. The piece suggests that Cuddy (though it by no means holds her out as blameless) has been uniquely and personally targeted as the face of unreplicable and bad social science in an era of changing research practices and expectations, perhaps because she is a woman. More broadly it ponders whether the process and social conventions of communication around challenging social science research may do more harm than good. It points specifically to Uri Simonsohn, Joseph Simmons and Andrew Gelman and their roles in both calling out bad social science and in specifically highlighting Cuddy's power posing paper as an example.
It's well worth the long read, careful consideration but also some critical evaluation. The piece comes at a very interesting time, with the Weinstein saga, #MeToo, and more specifically the push back about Econ Job Market Rumors and bad behavior in economics. It's important to read the piece in the context of such things as EJMR and this anecdote from Rohini Pande (in an interview with David McKenzie this week) relating how a "senior male World Bank economist wrote to our senior male colleagues at MIT and Yale asking that they review our work and correct our mistakes" in one of her early papers (with Esther Duflo; see question 4 in the link, but read the whole thing, it's very good on a lot of topics).
But on reflection, I don't think the idea that Cuddy was uniquely targeted or treated more harshly than others holds water. It only appears so to a New York Times reporter because Cuddy's works is the kind that gets broad attention. Remember when Ben Goldacre kicked off "Worm Wars" with an amazingly condescending piece asking people not to point and laugh at Miguel and Kremer for the supposed "errors" in their Worms paper because they shared their data? Or the language and dudgeon around Reinhart and Rogoff's Excel error? Or the intemperate words flowing around the failure to replicate John Bargh's priming work? From another field, here's some pointed language challenging a recent result on gene editing alleging some pretty basic errors. 
Of course, the commonality of bad behavior in academic circles doesn't excuse it. But that cuts both ways. Cuddy has also been using this faulty logic in her own defense. As far as I can tell, her main defense has always been "everyone was engaging in bad research practices, so it's not my fault", and that's definitely the implication that the NYT article gives. I don't see much distance between that and people excusing sexual harassment because they were "raised in the '60s and '70s."
Could the practice of social science be better? There's no question, but it's also not clear exactly how, other than the obvious avoidance of misogyny, ad hominem and personal attacks. But that line is difficult to see sometimes because the nature of social science research requires a great deal of personal investment. It's hard not to feel attacked when one's research, quite literally one's life's work, is criticized.
To me, the most thought-provoking part of the NYT piece is when Simmons, reviewing an email he sent to Cuddy about follow-up work on whether the power posing research was reliable, says "that email was too polite" given how serious he thought the problems were. And there is a lot of bad science that needs to be called out. This week, there's yet another update to the Brian Wansink saga--several papers flat out misrepresent who the study participants were (e.g. a paper claiming participants were 8-11 when they were 4-5). Not calling bad science out, I think, is a real contributor to real world problems, like Chief Justice John Roberts being able to call good political science research "sociological gobbledygook."
Here's a Chris Blattman thread on his reactions. Here's Andrew Gelman's response to the NYT piece and for the sake of this topic it is one of the few posts anywhere on the internet where you should read the comments. Someone in one of the Twitter threads wondered about the responsibility of Gelman and other bloggers like Tyler Cowen to police their comments. I'm sympathetic to this idea, but I'm old enough to remember policing comments on my own blog. It's an incredibly time-consuming and soul sucking affair with lots of trade-offs. The "business model" of blogging just doesn't allow it. In fact, in some ways it was the business model required to police commentary, also known as paid journalism, that led to blogging: the gatekeepers of commentary shut out too many voices who should be heard. Science, and the pursuit of truth, is hard. 

2. Our Algorithmic Overlords: This isn't as much of a pivot as it might seem. Here's a fairly intemperate piece critiquing the "digital humanities." There's a good bit of whining but it's worth reading because much of the critique applies to the big data and machine learning movement in economics. And the critique is more palatable because it's not directly about those fields, and so no one, in those fields at least, will feel personally attacked. The bottom line is the same as above: even with shiny new tools, big data and algorithms the pursuit of truth is hard.
Now here's a pivot. The New Yorker has a long story (this is apparently the long reads week) about the evolving nature of factory jobs and "robot overlords." I couldn't help thinking about the distinction made in that piece about "premium mediocre" a few weeks ago: employment is bifurcating into jobs where you tell the robot what to do, or jobs where the robot tells you what to do. Still, the most compelling piece about the changing nature of jobs and employment this week isn't about robot overlords, it's this story of a worker in a ball bearing plant in Indiana losing her job. Highly, highly recommended.
Back to our algorithmic overlords. Here's some more in-depth reporting on the creation of a complete surveillance state, including AI, in China's Xinjiang province. They're not just monitoring phone and digital money use, as I noted a few weeks ago. There are now facial recognition cameras at gas pumps.
And finally, here's a chance to change your priors. Remember those papers that said that note-taking on laptops leads to less learning and poor student performance? Here's a paper that rigorously randomizes note-taking technology and finds that there isn't a difference between taking notes by hand and on a laptop, suggesting the earlier findings were primarily selection effects. And we're back to the theme of science being hard.  

3. Household Finance: OK, let's take a break from the long reads, but stay with the "quality of research" matters sub-theme. I continue to think financial literacy is the bellwether for whether "evidence-based" policy is making an impact. And apparently it's not. Betsy DeVos, the US Secretary of Education, officially announced this week that financial literacy taught in schools is number 4 of 11 priorities for the department. If only we didn't have good evidence that teaching math has an impact on financial outcomes, but financial literacy doesn't. Or how about some new work from Xavi Gine and colleagues that presenting key facts about financial products helps consumers make better choices than financial literacy does?
Here's some worthwhile reading for how households are dealing with their finances, that should sour anyone on the current financial literacy curricula. Check out these two reviews (one and two) of financial services providers in Google Maps. Remember how distributing food stamps twice a month cuts down on shoplifting in grocery stores? Less spiky delivery of benefits also changes how people spend the money they receive in a positive way. Unlikely that financial literacy in the classroom would have changed this person's perspective on money. Check out some insights from EARN on their users financial challenges and saving behavior.
Of course the most important read on household finance is The Financial Diaries. Here's a new review from Beth Rhyne of that book and Lisa Servon's Unbanking of America.

4. Digital Finance: Now let's tie these last two themes together. China is not only building a panopticon in Xinjiang, it's also ramping up it's efforts to track deadbeat borrowers with a national database and public shaming. I'm sure that's going to go well.
In other credit access news, I've long been a champion of Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, which uses psychometrics to assess credit-worthiness of small business owners, allowing more of them to get access to credit. At the same time, I've long been very wary of Lenddo, which uses alternative data, like social media connections, to assess credit-worthiness of individual borrowers. I've called it, I believe, "a tax on poor people's family ties." I've been able to avoid the cognitive dissonance of these two perspectives until this week. Lenddo and EFL announced that they are merging. Now I really don't know how to feel.
Finally, here's a story about the Gates Foundation funding fintech infrastructure software for interoperability of mobile money platforms? The one thing that's clear here is that the reporter doesn't understand the topic.

5. Global Development: To close us out, and hopefully make you feel slightly better about the state of research, here's a model of reasoned argument and debate on an important topic: will Africa experience a manufacturing boom, as wages creep up in former low-wage countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh. CGD has a paper that says no, because labor costs in many African countries are actually relatively high. That led to a lively debate which CGD has helpfully collated here. And here's a helpful overview of living standards in African cities and rural areas, that has some relevance.

I mentioned that I thought this week would be really off-topic. That's because there were a number of really terrific reads this week that are not within the traditional domain of the faiV. But you should read each of these. First,  a review of new research that shows bacteria communicating with each other via electrical signals .

I mentioned that I thought this week would be really off-topic. That's because there were a number of really terrific reads this week that are not within the traditional domain of the faiV. But you should read each of these.
First, a review of new research that shows bacteria communicating with each other via electrical signals.

A  bonkers story about how the mattress industry works . Never believe anything you read on the internet.

A bonkers story about how the mattress industry works. Never believe anything you read on the internet.

A long read about a Jewish refugee settlement in the Dominican Republic, one of the only places that was willing to welcome Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  It didn't go particularly well .

A long read about a Jewish refugee settlement in the Dominican Republic, one of the only places that was willing to welcome Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. It didn't go particularly well.

Week of June 27, 2016

Editor's Note: There won't be a FAIV next week. We'll all be on vacation or traveling.

1. LOL Nothing Replicates: Jason Collins looks back over Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow post-repligate, finding some distinctly uncomfortable language ("You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these [priming] studies are true"). Meanwhile a new paper in PNAS suggests that fMRI studies have 70% false positive rates.  

2. Migration: There's a lot of work to be done understanding intra-household bargaining in the context of migration. A new paper tries to estimate the returns to internal migration in South Africa by looking at the effects on the migrant as well as on the households from which the migrant departs and which the migrant joins. A southern New Zealand town is trying to recruit internal migrants because it has too many jobs. Perhaps they could expand the Tongan lottery. And the New York Times magazine has a long piece on Canada's refugee sponsorship program where you can find this unexpected but lovely statement: "I can't provide refugees fast enough for all the Canadians who want to sponsor them." 

3. The Future of Microfinance: Next Billion has a terrific collection of posts on last year's sale of six microfinance banks by Opportunity International to MyBucks, a for-profit fintech firm. Dan Rozas and Gabriela Garcia provide an overview, Chuck Waterfield expresses skepticism that the transaction is good for customers and Vicki Escarra, Opportunity International Global CEO, responds. Anybody else miss the old days when this type of back and forth was common?

4. Financial Inclusion: Michael King summarizes his new co-edited volume on the state of financial inclusion in Kenya. As ever, the story is more complicated than the headlines about M-PESA and M-Shwari suggest and there is still a great deal of work to be done.  

5. Agent Banking and Gender: Some new work from MicroSave looks at looks at how banking agents differentially interact with women in Uttar Pradesh, India. Agents report a preference for serving female customers, but that preference comes from women being more "manageable", less knowledgeable and asking fewer questions.

Turns out that if you ask economists a very narrow yet vague question about a basic income policy, most will reject it. Anyone want to join a faiV experts panel where we promise to ask better (at least better written) questions?   Source:  IGM Economic Experts Panel

Turns out that if you ask economists a very narrow yet vague question about a basic income policy, most will reject it. Anyone want to join a faiV experts panel where we promise to ask better (at least better written) questions?   Source: IGM Economic Experts Panel

Week of August 31, 2015

1. Employment and Wages: Despite signs of an improving economy such as lower unemployment rates and increased productivity, take home pay for low-income workers in the U.S. has fallen since 2009. The New York Times

2. Behavioral Economics: Reminders are an oft-cited example of nudges that can improve welfare. Sometimes not following through isn't about forgetting or procrastination, though. An experiment using reminders to pay for child support in Ohio finds negligible effects. MDRC

3. Microfinance: "In the annals of Twitter spats, this is no Nicki Minaj vs. Taylor Swift. But even this muted public shade-throwing is relatively rare among anti-poverty stalwarts of Counts’ and Karlan’s caliber. And since IPA and Grameen Foundation are both NextBillion content partners, I feel the urge to act as referee." (Shockingly, reading some of the comments is worthwhile.) NextBillion

4. Mystery of Microenterprise: Efforts to increase revenues and profits at microenterprises through business training have been largely unsuccessful. But it's not because the business practices being taught don't matter find McKenzie and Woodruff in a new paper. NBER

5. Savings: A new report on digital savings provides an extensive overview of current products from around the world, with a specific focus on how they meet women's saving needs. Women's World Banking

Week of July 6, 2015

1. Transfers: Cash transfers are a more common form of benefits for the world's poor than you might think. In fact, Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where food and other in-kind transfers are more prevalent than cash transfer programs. The World Bank

2. Global Poverty: Between 2001 and 2011, the global middle-income population (those living on $10-$20 per day) almost doubled while those living on less than $2 per day halved from 29% to 15%. However, the poor just became slightly less poor as the portion of people living on $2-$10 increased 6 percentage points during this time while high income categories barely changed. Pew Research Center

3. Digital Literacy: A new report finds many women rely heavily on their social circles for instruction and trouble-shooting when it comes to accessing mobile internet, an important finding for mobile money and digital content providers. GSMA

4. Microcredit: Interest rate ceilings are in place to protect poor customers from excessively costly loans. But how much do they push riskier customers out of credit markets in the first place? Macrothink Institute

5. SME Financing: Since 2008, the outstanding portfolio of online lenders in the US has grown about 175% a year (compared to a 3% decline in the traditional banking sector). But more does not always equal better - what does this explosive growth mean for borrowers, particularly small businesses? The Huffington Post

Week of May 25, 2015

1. Mobile Money: Will a handful of high-profile fraud cases damage mobile money?  It depends on how fast operators can adapt 21st century security and authentication systems to protect customers and retain their trust. NextBillion   

2. Retirement Savings: For the 53 million public pension participants in Mexico, making a contribution to a retirement account is now as easy as buying a pack of gum or a lottery ticket (well, except for the delayed gratification). CFI

3. Microcredit: Is there a tradeoff in using digital products to serve microcredit clients and maintaining a strong client relationship built on trust or is it possible to have it all? SEEP Network

4. Big Data: The Big Data revolution might be driving many new technological innovations, but "small data" (qualitative, contextual information) may actually help us be more effective at making big decisions. The New York Times

5. Financial Inclusion: The US can learn and apply many of the lessons from around the world to decrease its unbanked population. TechCrunch

Week of May 4, 2015

1. Financial Inclusion: This week, InterMedia released the results of its research on digital financial inclusion within eight of the poorest countries across Africa and Asia, focusing on gender divides, customer engagement, and financial behaviors. Financial Inclusion Insights

2. Mobile Money: Data from 2014 reports 13.4 million registered bKash accounts in Bangladesh...but only 5.1 unique users.  A deeper look at agent and user behavior begins to explain this 8 million user gapWorld Economic Forum 

3. Gender and Development:  "Not to empower these missing men is to condemn the poor woman in their lives to have to do absolutely everything for their families, from making all the money to changing all the diapers. Is that right or fair?" CFI

4. Credit: According to a new report, 1 in 10 adults in the US (or about 26 million individuals) are “credit invisible,” meaning they do not have a credit history (or have insufficient information to receive a score) with any of the 3 nationwide credit reporting companies.  CFPB

5. Bitcoin: There are many theories that predict Bitcoin's downfall but Felix Salmon thinks the digital currency community's lack of gender diversity is the most probable. Fusion

Source: The World Bank

Week of April 6, 2015

1. Digital Payments:  A body of research contains evidence that people spend more with credit cards than cash because the former reduces the "pain of paying."  Do mobile wallets like Apple Pay increase or relieve this pain?  The Atlantic

2. G2P Transfers:  The US doesn't drug test farmers receiving crop subsidies or requirePell Grant recipients to limit their field of study - so why do the poor have to prove they are worthy of aid?  The Washington Post

3.  Mobile Money Agents:  Agents in Uganda use creative ways to "bend the rules" in order to meet the needs of a diverse customer base.  Helix

4. Economics of Gender:  A new report (and interactive digital tools) examines the current state of women’s economic, social, and political progress in the US.   Despite gains over the past few decades in educational attainment, women have higher rates of poverty, earn less, and have lower rates of business ownership than male peers.  IWPR

5. Financial Inclusion:  Tilman Ehrbeck, who recently moved from CGAP to Omidyar Network, discusses the value that finance apps that go beyond enabling payments may bring.  Huffington Post

Week of October 20, 2014

1. Financial Inclusion: Dean Karlan asks: If microcredit has reached maturity, what's next for the financial inclusion movement? SSIR

2. Impact Evaluations:  It may take a long time, a really long time, to see the impact of development interventions. The World Bank - African Can End Poverty

3. Housing:  As much as 70 percent of the world’s population uses “incremental building,” a process of slowly improving shelter by adding components of a house. A new report looks at how to better serve these customers with housing-related financial products. SEEP Network

4. Wealth Inequality: The gender wage gap seems to be closing but the gap in wealthbetween men and women in the U.S. is a completely different story. Stanford Knowledgebase

5. Microfinance:  Carmen Velasco, founder of Pro Mujer, shares her thoughts on the future of microfinance and how much profit is too much for MFIs.  NextBillion

The image above is taken from Five Talents' recent  photo essay  on savings groups in Burundi.  Photo credit: Ross Oscar Knight for Five Talents

The image above is taken from Five Talents' recent photo essay on savings groups in Burundi.
Photo credit: Ross Oscar Knight for Five Talents

Week of May 31, 2013

This week’s mostly new and definitely notable list includes a new report on health insurance in Ghana, investigations into calculating global poverty figures, and new thoughts on financial inclusion.

  • Recently the Consortium on Financial Systems and Poverty sat down with Emmanuel Maliti, a researcher and seed grant recipient, to discuss his work in Tanzania. Maliti is investigating the efficacy of direct and indirect punishments on repayment performance among informal savings groups in Dar es Salaam.
  • In this article for the Boston Review, Pranab Bardhan reviews four books on development and poverty alleviation released in the last few years and compares two major approaches - the macro-political camp versus the micro experimentalists.
  • CGAP released the third blog post in its series highlighting themes from its recently approved five-year strategic plan. This installment describes CGAP’s approach to “building an enabling and protective policy environment” for financial inclusion and includes video clips from interviews with Philippine central bank Deputy Governor Nestor Espenilla and his colleague Pia Roman.   
  • new report from the ILO Microinsurance Innovation Facility evaluates the impact of consumer education on health insurance enrolment in Ghana. Researchers found evidence that convenience of registration and timing of premium payments were more common challenges to enrolment than lack of knowledge of health insurance. See also FAI’s Jonathan Bauchet on an experiment marketing life insurance in Mexico. In a forthcoming paper, Bauchet discusses evidence from a natural experiment that ease of payment was a major factor in insurance purchases.
  • MicroSave released a report this week exploring the role of information sources in poor household’s decision-making processes. Researchers review what decision making paths people use to reach a decision, and how information sources accessible to them influence the process in an effort to inform better approaches for increasing financial literacy.
  • The World Bank released a working paper, authored by Asli Demirguc-Kunt, Leora Klapper, and Dorothe Singer, documenting and analyzing gender differences in the use of financial services using data from 98 developing countries. The data, drawn from the Global Financial Inclusion (Global Findex) database, highlights the existence of significant gender gaps in ownership of accounts as well as usage of savings and credit products.
  • Using a RCT of a large-scale micro-entrepreneurship program in Chile, the Consortium on Financial Systems and Poverty assessed the effectiveness s of training and asset transfers on individuals’’ employment and income. The results of the research indicate an increase in both for participants in the program. 
  • In a recent blog post for the Center for Financial Inclusion, Ignacio Mas makes the case that financial inclusion involves both formal and informal channels. He uses a cake analogy "to represent the idea of platforms, of capabilities arranged horizontally and interworking with each other." 

Week of May 9, 2011

Week of March 18, 2011

Here’s what we’ve been reading over the past two weeks! Feel free to add any that you think are missing via comments.

•    More evidence for the link between microfinance and health. 

•    An overview of econometric approaches to measuring the impact of microfinanceand FAI’s Jonathan Morduch’s response to the paper.

•    David Roodman also reminds us that there is no clear evidence that microfinance reduces poverty and references a paper co-authored with FAI’s Morduch.

•    Timothy Ogden on the downside of microfinance’s focus on women and girls.

•    Elisabeth Rhyne at CFI-ACCION on 3 microfinance industry efforts to raise standards.

•    13 key institutions in microfinance industry sign open letter supporting Muhammad Yunus. 

•    David Roodman offers 5 angles on the Grameen/Yunus microfinance scandal that the media haven't covered.

•    National India microfinance law might nullify repressive Andhra Pradesh one.

•    Good overview of what’s happening in Indian microfinance from the Indian Development Blog.

•    How do the poor get by in Malawi? 5 million data points from new financial diaries.

•    Measuring cross-indebtedness - new evidence from Latin America.

•    Half of Americans Lack Financial Safety Net.

•    Playspent asks: Can you make it through a month, tapped out and unemployed? Try it, you’ll be surprised by the results.

•    Even economists can be fashionistas. Portfolios of the Poor co-author Daryl Collins profiled in Elle magazine.