scroll

  top
  back

Viewing all FaiV posts with topic: Mobile Money  

Week of August 2, 2019

The Attention is a Suckers' Game Edition

Editor's Note: Nothing particularly new to report this week, other than the faiV will be off the next two weeks. Oh and that Imbens paper on potential outcomes vs. DAGs is at least as good as expected, and there's now an NBER version.
--Tim Ogden


1. Financial Systems: I've referenced several times over the last year some work I've been doing for the CDC (the UK DFI, not the one in Atlanta) on investing in financial systems. The first public version of that work, a summary of a much longer paper that I'm still hoping to finish in the next few weeks, is now available. As a summary, it necessarily elides a lot but it does capture what I think are the essential points on the topic right now. The main one I want to highlight here is a somewhat esoteric one: the question in front of us in the sector is not whether or not financial systems matter for the poor, it's whether we know how to intervene in the development of those systems in ways that specifically benefit target populations we care about, in the timeframes and manner in which we can measure. It's an important distinction that I think is missing in too many current conversations about where we are on financial inclusion. Please do read it, and let me now what you think.
In related financial system development and development ideas, Paddy Carter from CDC pointed me to this paper from Paula Bustos, Gabriel Garber and Jacopo Ponticelli on how the financial system in Brazil channeled a productivity shock in agriculture into other sectors (which apparently is on its way to appearing in the QJE) which is exactly what one hopes a financial system accomplishes from a development perspective.
The longer paper for CDC and my research for it emphasizes the history of financial system development. A couple of 2018 books on the topic, specifically on John Lawand Walter Bagehot, are reviewed in the New Yorker by John Lanchester. Rebecca Spang has some thoughts on the continuing focus on the "great man" approach to the history of financial systems and how that misleads. Again, I hope that my work for CDC takes this into account by spotlighting what we know about informal financial systems and how to factor that into thinking about investing in financial system development.
Finally on this topic, two papers that I've had sitting in open tabs for quite some time but have never found a place for in the faiV. First, here's Anginer,Demirgüç-Kunt, and Mare on how institutions affect how much bank capital influences systemic risk (and here's the blog summary). The bottom line is that bank capital matters less when there are well functioning regulatory institutions, but higher capital requirements can substitute for quality institutions in reducing risk. Of course, those higher capital requirements limit the outreach and inclusion of those banks. Trade-offs forever. And here's Ben-David, Palvia and Stulz on how banks in the US react under distress finding that the banks generally reacted prudently rather than gambling in an attempt to revive their sick balance sheets. Which is a further argument for higher capital requirements in weak institutional settings, but creating an alternative system for financial inclusion that isn't bank-based.

2. The Corrupted Economy: My comments a few weeks ago on the "great convergence" and the "corrupted economy" in the US got more positive feedback than I was expecting. So we may now have a new regular section of the faiV.
Unequal access to a quality education is one of the areas where the US increasingly looks like middle income countries. Here's a minor, but infuriating, version of the corrupted system: wealthy parents giving up their children to "guardians" so those children can in turn apply for financial aid as if they don't have any resources. And here's a less blatantly evil version of a similar corruption: children who receive extra time on tests due to some psychological/medical diagnosis are disproportionately white and wealthy--because those are the parents who can afford the thousands of dollars required to pay a private psychologist to deliver such a diagnosis. And the issue is much broader than that because the article only briefly touches on the systemic impact on families and school districts, one I'm acutely aware of personally. I know the educational outcomes for my son, with a rare disease, are almost certainly going to be much better than many other kids in this country with the same disease, because we can afford to live in a school district that isn't so strapped for cash that they have to cut back on services, and I can be an intimidating presence in meetings with the district when necessary.
Here's a story about how the "adjustment" payments for farmers negatively affected by Trump's trade war are all going to the largest, wealthiest farmers. Here's a story about how minor criminal offenses are turned into profits and debtors prison. And here's a story about the actual labor market conditions faced by the lower half of the income distribution: a few days in the life of a meal-delivery bicyclist in NYC. Marvel at how DoorDash preys on income volatility to take tips away from riders. And how the riders' existence is pushed to margins with minimal and shrinking interaction with the customers, how they acknowledge that they are being used to generate data so they can be replaced by drones, and in the meantime how they are subject to the capricious whims of NYC police who can confiscate their bikes on a pretext at any time. And how the riders are grateful that this is a step above working directly for the restaurants. This is America.
And speaking of the Great Convergence, check out this trailer for a new Indian movie about a heroic effort to help kids break out of their corrupted economy. Then think about the long history of American movies with essentially the same plot:Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, etc. etc. And they are all essentially a distraction from the systemic issues.

3. FinTech and Social Investment: The systemic issues are something I really struggle with, and it came up this week as I was asked to review some applications for a FinTech incubator. I'm not going to name either the incubator/investor or the applicants, but it was impossible to miss the disjuncture between the systemic issues that were the motivation for the program and the proposed solutions. Those solutions ultimately boil down to a theory of change that rests on individuals being primarily responsible for their financial distress--and therefore apps that get their attention or "gamify" savings are somehow "solving" the problem. Now, I think there are some people that are going to be helped by an app that draws their attention to not missing payments and harming their credit, or who aren't saving not because their wages are volatile and well below what they need to afford housing and healthcare, but because it's not fun enough. But I have a hard time caring much about those people. Especially when the business models of many of the FinTech apps I see seem to be built on gaining trust of users and then profiting from referral fees paid by other financial services. I have to wonder: what kinds of financial services firms are going to be interested in paying for access to these kinds of customers? I doubt it's going to be ones that are offering high-quality, low cost services that are good for people--for no other reason than those products aren't going to be profitable enough to pay referral fees.
Many of these apps also raise an issue I've been concerned about in the application of behavioral science since I wrote a review of Scarcity: if everyone recognizes limited attention and behavioral barriers and tries to address those, where do we end up? I think it's likely that attention-focused interventions are going to be revealed as a sucker's game: you constantly have to do more and spend more to compete with all the other people trying to grab attention. Case-in-point: a large scale intervention to grab students attention and redirect it to studying shows no effect. But if you look back at the article about delivery riders, you'll notice that those apps are doing a great job of using behavioral tricks to take advantage of riders. The takeaway from the "studying" study is that you should shift your priors toward high-touch financial coaching and away from FinTech.
One more quick related rant: the whole process reminds me that there is a long way to go in thinking rigoroulsy about social investment and social capital, and I feel better that this chapter Jonathan and I wrote on that topic is worthwhile. (By the way, I took advantage of a plane ride earlier this week to read through most of the rest of the chapters and the whole book is worthwhile.)

4. SMEs: While filling out my evaluations for the FinTech incubator I couldn't help linking to the now published (and open access for a limited time) paper from David McKenzie on how hard it is to pick winners in business competitions, and that experts and machine learning are both bad at it. Inspired by David's earlier work on management, here's a piece on how management consulting could be the best form of foreign aid (factor into your research theories of change how long it's been since the research cited in that article was done).
And here are two recent articles from Next Billion on SMEs--on the difficulties of scaling up local manufacturing in Uganda, and from TechnoServe on building links between SMEs and foreign firms.

5. Global Development Miscellany: I'll confess this is self-indulgent, but it's on topic: the NYT covers the rising tensions in northern Colombia as Wayuu people cross the border fleeing from Venezuela. The village in the story is a couple of hours from where I grew up and only a few miles from where my mother was born--and for the record the descriptions ring very true to me.
Here's a story that I hope gets attention in proportion to it's past history. Prospera, that staple of CCT discussions, and of evidence-based policy, is being abolished. The story seems to be a political economy one combined with fairly significant mistargeting. I hope to read a lot more about this.
There were concerns that DFID was on the verge of a major demotion under Boris Johnson, but that didn't come to pass, yet. Large concerns remain about the future of the British development agency, though not as large, of course, as concerns about the future of British anything.
And finally, you can consider this a global development story if you squint hard, but it's fascinating never-the-less: there is a form of communicable canine cancer that has spread all over the world, and biologists have mapped that process of globalization with remarkable similarities to economic development.

Historical context really does change perspective, as Matt Yglesias suggests that too many of today's policymakers "spent their formative years in a period of anomalously high interest rates." Though I would argue that the long term perspective also means that short-term rates really are concerningly anomalous. Via  Matt Yglesias .

Historical context really does change perspective, as Matt Yglesias suggests that too many of today's policymakers "spent their formative years in a period of anomalously high interest rates." Though I would argue that the long term perspective also means that short-term rates really are concerningly anomalous. Via Matt Yglesias.

Week of July 26, 2019

1. MicroDigitalFinance: The nominal intention of the faiV is to keep you aware of what's happening in various domains, especially microfinance. But there is a more systematic approach to documenting trends in the industry, e-MFPs survey of people in the industry on what they perceive to be the most important trends and developments. Here's their report from last year's survey. This year's survey is now open--so click here (French; Spanish) and go produce some data on trends in the industry.
There's some new experimental evidence on the impact of mobile money from Christina Weiser, Miriam Bruhn and co-authors, who managed to work with Airtel to randomize the expansion of mobile money agents in Northern Uganda. The findings, to my eye, are broadly similar to Jack and Suri's work in Kenya (keep that in mind, we'll be coming back to it later), though without the direct impact on income poverty.
And here's a report from Karandaaz Pakistan on the regulatory and policy bottlenecks limiting the spread of digital financial services there. The basic issue is a lack of clear policy and regulation, rather than existing policies that prevent action--which raises a question of why the lack of clear policy and regulation was a boon to digital financial services development in so many places, but a hindrance in others.

2. Digital Security: One of the areas the report on Pakistan highlights is lack of clarity on data privacy and protection, but mostly from the compliance side. One of the things I've been thinking a lot about lately is the other side of digital security and the huge burden we are rapidly putting on individuals and firms to protect themselves from bad actors.
I'll admit this is somewhat driven by personal anecdote--I've spent a good bit of time over the last few weeks helping my in-laws recover after falling for one of the "Microsoft" security alert scams. These are older folks, obviously, but both are highly educated, experienced professional people--and they found it completely plausible that Microsoft had a customer service department that was monitoring their computers and helping protect them. Which is not a crazy thing to think, unless you've spent most of your life living in an era where digital service providers have effectively declaimed all responsibility for the damage using their products could do.
But apply this more broadly to people and institutions. As digital financial services spread, we are asking essentially the entire world to become immediately savvy about what a plausible claim is in the digital world. Google and Firefox and other browser providers who have policies and authorized "stores" for browser extensions actually enforce those policies right? Ha, ha, no, of course not, why would you think that? If you get a call from travel agent to book your accommodation at the conference you have been invited to give a keynote at, that's safe right? I mean, how would some scammer know that you're the keynote speaker and the right dates, etc. No of course that's a scam too.
But individuals aside, institutions should have the expertise to protect themselves. Unless it's say, local governments who keep being compromised by ransomware. Or you know, institutions that don't deal with anything particularly crucial, like say, elections.
But the old adage is that "banks" will be the most attacked targets because that is where the money is. Here's an interview with the former CEO of Thomson Reuters and now founder of a digital security company that touches on some important points, especially for financial services providers that aren't behemoths. Here's a blog post about how you can't "hire enough people to fix your cybersecurity problems." The nominal solution is to hire data scientists, which while great for the job market prospects of future economics PhD cohorts, isn't much of an answer for most organizations. How on earth are microfinance institutions going to be able to secure their digital infrastructure?
The bottom line on all of this for me is simply this: we pushed digital financial services as a way of pushing down transaction costs but it seems increasingly likely that if we add up the costs of keeping up with technology and ensuring digital security, we actually radically increased total cost.

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Digital security is even more of a concern because of our algorithmic overlords--I keep picturing the movie Brazil, which a minor change to data triggers an unstoppable set of processes, ruining a man's life. It was conceived in an era where those processes were totalitarian/bureaucratic; it's all the more plausible today when those processes are automatic.
What does the age of algorithmic control mean for how governments make decisions. Here's video of a session on that topic from the Institute for Government's recent conference featuring Sendhil Mullainathan and Rachel Glennerster. Rachel makes the point that decision rules hidden by machine learning and algorithms are a big problem for good governance.
I've argued before that decision rules tend to be much more hidden when the decisions are carried out by people, who actually have motivation to hide their real reasoning. Sendhil (et al.) makes a similar point in the video and in this paper which I've featured in the faiV before but is now published in the Journal of Legal Studies.
Consider a few specific instances. Amazon has secret deals with local police forces to turn them into salespeople for the company's Ring video surveillance doorbells; in return the cops get expedited access to video from the installed Ring devices. This is frighteningly terrible, but the core issue is not the technology, it's the people who made the decision to enter into such partnerships and agreed to keep them secret from the public. Or how about Palantir's secret manual for local police forces to use the company's mass digital surveillance technologies. Again, terrible, but mostly because of the people who can use this data to retroactively come up with justification for the surveillance, and the people who agreed to give the government data to Palantir that enables this type of mass surveillance.
Another factor is how people react to the algorithms: who uses them, and how do they react to the information or decision the algorithm generates? We're getting more research on both of these questions and they tend to point to people problems. Last week I included, though it was somewhat buried, a paper on howKentucky judges react to algorithmic risk scores in determining bail. The short version: the judges follow the algorithm for white defendants but overrule it for black defendants, imposing harsher bail conditions. Here's a new paper from Kate Bundorf, Maria Polyakova and Mig Tai-Seale on using algorithms to help people choose optimal insurance plans. The key headline for me: the people most likely to gain from using the tools were least likely to use them.

4. Subsistence Retail: Although I've done a recent faiV on the "research production" function, there are still lots of parts of the system that I don't understand. For instance, the most recent set of NBER papers featured four papers on agricultural extension services. You may be wondering why that fits into the category of subsistence retail. Here's how: the problems of low agricultural productivity, the problems that ag extension aims to solve, are essentially the same problems of low microenterprise productivity. As urbanization occurs globally, the numbers of people engaged in subsistence retail is increasing and the number engaged in subsistence agriculture is decreasing. If we're going to figure out interventions to help subsistence retailers, the best place to learn is from decades of work on subsistence agriculture. So it's helpful to know about a) spillovers from training delivered via video, b) how well groups of undifferentiated producers can effectively coordinate for improved profits, c) the success of an intensive program that targets multiple constraints at once, and d) how information interacts with social networks. And although it's not about ag extension, here's another relevant paper that explores how much small-scale farmers are simply wrong about their plot sizes and how that can mislead conclusions in other work.
Here's an interesting overview of one of the few programs that I've heard of that are directly targeting subsistence retailers: "The Informal Retailer Platform aims to deliver sustainable, large-scale social and financial impact by building the business capacity and income potential of low-income shopkeepers in the global South via education and access to services."
I mentioned that you should keep the Jack and Suri paper on mobile money in Kenya finding increased economic activity, and a decrease in extreme poverty in mind. This is where it comes up again. There's a new paper from Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere critiquing that paper and it's findings. Here's the layman's version. I've had my own problems with the way the Jack and Suri paper was framed, in line with Pritchett's larger point about "kinky" development: there's too much emphasis on moving people from slightly below to slightly above an arbitrary line. But I don't find the new critiques particularly compelling--e.g. whether the majority of the benefits of mPesa flowed to wealthy investors in the form of profits is an interesting point but it doesn't tell us anything about benefits to users. My interpretation of the Jack and Suri result is from the perspective of subsistence retail and consumption smoothing: mobile money provides a big boost to liquidity in poor communities where literal absence of physical currency is a real constraint. That in turn enables people to jump into and out of subsistence retail in a way that helps them smooth income and consumption. That again is consistent with the new paper from Uganda cited above. And it's consistent with mobile money having some positive impact but not a large one on individual households. Here I think we're going to learn a lot from a few papers Emily Breza has in the works that shed light on the decisions that Indian village households make in switching between casual labor and subsistence retail.

5. Methods: Two very important items that I've left for the end, largely because they speak for themselves. First, Guido Imbens has a new paper on the Rubin Causal Model and Directed Acyclic Graphs and their relevance and usefulness in empirical economics. It's one of the few times when I've been actually tempted to use the popcorn-eating animated gif. I'm hoping to spend most of my upcoming flight to the West Coast reading it.
And if you pay attention in this space you know about the controversy over a new paper that appeared to incent young people to participate in protests in Hong Kong. Berk Ozler has a lengthy post on the controversy and a better approach to ethics in experimental economics that is a must read, including the comments where Berk has a long response to some of the critics of the critiques.

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.

A map of the current location for authors of World Development articles created by editor-in-chief  Arun Agrawal . I find it surprisingly diverse, especially considering this doesn't count where the author is originally from, just where they are currently are. I'm not sure how to think about the difference between those two metrics.  Source .

A map of the current location for authors of World Development articles created by editor-in-chief Arun Agrawal. I find it surprisingly diverse, especially considering this doesn't count where the author is originally from, just where they are currently are. I'm not sure how to think about the difference between those two metrics. Source.

Week of June 21, 2019

The Concentration Camp Edition

1. Concentration Camps: The United States is operating concentration camps again, and one soon will be at the site of one of the Japanese-American camps operated in the 1940s. The conditions are inhumane and unconscionable, both for children and for adults,and getting worse. People are dying. Babies are being denied medical care. Last week, I joked about a scream of helpless rage about financial literacy programs. This week, I'm not joking, and I don't know what else to do, except to do my best to not look away.

2. Philanthropy and Social Investment (and Microfinance): What would it look like if US philanthropy en masse decided the reappearance of concentration camps in the United States was a crisis that deserved all hands and funds on deck? I don't know, but I don't think historians would view that decision unkindly.
There is something going on in American philanthropy--for the first time since 1986, charitable giving did not track GDP, falling 1.7% last year. More specifically, giving by individuals fell 3.4% and for the first time (since the data has been tracked) made up less than 70% of total contributions. Here's the researchers' analysis of the new data. And here's Ben Soskis' Twitter thread on the important questions the decline in giving raises about giving culture and inequality. Several years ago I speculated about whether Giving Tuesday's hidden theory of change was to shore up American giving culture, and that question has new relevance.
On the social investment front, there's a new book out that I can recommend, A Research Agenda for Financial Inclusion and Microfinance. If you're wondering about the connection to social investment, Jonathan and I have the opening chapter, "The Challenge of Social Investment Through the Lens of Microfinance." Keeping on that theme, Beisland, Ndaki and Mersland have a new paper on agency costs for non-profit and for-profit microfinance firms, finding that CEO power determines whether residual losses are higher or lower in non-profit firms. Governance matters in social investment!
If you're one of those CEOs (or just any aspiring social entrepreneur), you may be interested in Alex Counts', founder of the Grameen Foundation, new book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind. Here's an interview with Alex about the book and the evolution of microfinance (which I'm including even though he says a couple of nice things about me).

3. Digital Finance, Part I: Libra: The news of digital finance this week was dominated by the announcement of Libra, Facebook's proposed...well, depending on what you read, either Facebook's "me too" derivative payments service masquerading as crypto, or Facebook's attempt to take over the world and replace all governments. Here's Vox's explainer.
My favorite immediate response was from Erik Hinton, which I have to quote in full: "God, grant me the confidence of Facebook, a company that has managed to lose most of the data that it's either stolen or extorted and has repeatedly been caught lying or miscounting its own analytics, deciding to create a global financial system."
As that response hints, there are a lot of questions. Here's a start at some of them and some answers about who is participating and why. Here are Tyler Cowen's questions about how exactly Libra will work as a currency without an underpinning banking and regulatory system. Here's a view that Facebook's main target in the near-term is remittances, but that it really does have ambitions to replace national currencies. One of the things I find most interesting about the whole thing is that this is a like Facebook building a giant sign to the world's governments saying: "Come seize all our data and regulate us heavily!" (and governments are indeed reading the sign!) I would guess that there will be approximately .1 seconds between the first cross-border transfer and an accusation of money laundering or terrorist financing. I was having a conversation this week about the main reason Amazon hasn't started consumer lending: it would never do something to invite regulator access to its data.
Here's a piece on the good and bad of Libra which I highlight because it's an odd mix of complete ignorance about how money works and evolved (did you know that before bitcoin there had never been money that wasn't controlled by a government?), with some actual engagement on the dangers of private digital monetary systems.

4. Evidence-Based Policy (and Information Interventions and FinLit Redux): I never intended for the faiV to become a regular discussion of financial literacy and information interventions, but here we are. In one of the most amazing tests I've seen of whether evidence can affect policy, Jonas Hjort, Diana Moreira, Gautam Rao and Juan Francisco Santini work with 2000+ Brazilian mayors and find that they are a) willing to pay to learn the results of impact evaluations, and b) change their beliefs, and c) are willing to implement new policies. The only thing missing is a test of whether they would be willing to shut down an existing program (say, financial literacy in schools). Score another one for David Evans' point from last week that information interventions do sometimes change behavior.
And here's a test of a financial literacy program in Colombia that delivered content through tablets to women recipients of a CCT program, with some social interactions built in. Attanasio, et. al. find that the program boosts not only knowledge but actual practices, with poorer, less educated and more rural women benefiting more. But still not impact on access to and use of formal services.

5. Financial Exclusion: This is so great it deserves its own item: a "visual essay" from the American Historical Review on how access to capital in 1800's New Orleans required getting yellow fever--and surviving. And how that channel led to many new migrants attempting to catch yellow fever as quickly as possible, despite the 50% chance it would kill them. Of course, that only applied to whites. While survival was a symbol of fitness for whites, blacks' relatively higher rates of survival was evidence that they were destined to be slave laborers in the fields.

Week of June 14, 2019

The Colorblind Edition

1. FinLit Redux: A few weeks ago I had an op-ed in the Washington Post bemoaning the ongoing emphasis on financial literacy training. David Evans had an issue with one particular sentence in that op-ed, not about financial literacy, but about the effectiveness of information interventions. Here's his list of 10 studies where providing information (alone) changes behavior. And I suppose my inclusion of this is another piece of evidence supporting his point? On the other hand, here's a long, rambling essay from the president of the (US) National Foundation for Financial Education which is one of the finest examples I've ever seen of not just moving the goalposts but denying they even exist. He's got all the greatest hits: don't evaluate based on current practice because we're changing; don't evaluate based on average practice, because of course there are bad programs; don't evaluate based on standard measures because programs vary; don't pay attention to negative stories because they are "old and tired"; and even, "hey look over there!" Is there an emoji for scream of helpless rage?
The reason I find such defenses so enraging is because the huge amount of resources being poured into financial literacy could be put to so much better use that actually are likely to help people. Here's a piece looking at one of the specific trade-offs: financial literacy distracts from the very real need to protect consumers from bad actors. That's not just theoretical. The (US) CFPB is actually shifting from consumer protection to education. Where's that scream of helpless rage emoji again?

2. Household Finance and Regulation: Thinking about consumer protection and the role and value of financial literacy requires thinking about household finance. Fred Wherry, Kristin Seefeldt and Anthony Alvarez have a short essay on how to think about these issues, with several sentences I wish I had written, including, "Stop treating the borrowers as if they are ignorant or irresponsible. And start treating the lenders as if they are inefficient (and sometimes malicious) providers of needed financial services."
There is a tension there, however, that I think too often gets short shrift. Consumer protection regulation necessarily involves removing some choices, and therefore some agency, from consumers. I hope to write more about this, but here is Anne Fleming, (author of City of Debtors which I've been citing frequently) writing about the trade-offs in the caps on interest rates proposed by some prominent Democrats. Making those trade-offs also requires regulators to decide what consumers really want. And that's not always so clear--for instance, here's a look at how "social meaning of money" sociological frameworks do a better job of predicting behavior in retirement accounts than behavioral or rational actor models. And of course the needs and desires of consumers vary so you're not just trading-off between choice and protection but between the needs and desires of different consumers. Yes, this is a bit of a stretch, but here's an article about how women are carving out their own niche in a bit of the household finance world that has been dominated by white men.
Now I recognize that all of this so far is about things going on in the US. But as I frequently argue, the US has a lot more relevance to global conversations than is generally recognized. For instance, here's a story about Facebook turning into a platform for the kind of informal insurance networks we talk about so often in developing countries.
  
3. Digital Finance: That's a reasonable segue into digital finance, especially since the piece quotes Mark Zuckerberg's ambition to make money as easy to send as a picture (which, y'know, isn't actually very ambitious given that a billion+ people can already do that). But in Hong Kong a lot of them are choosing these days not to do it. Well, at least not to use digital tools to make purchases. Why? Because they are worried that the government will use the data trail to identify who is participating in protests. It's a well-founded worry not just in Hong Kong but around the world, and one that digital finance advocates should be taking much more seriously. And no, cryptocurrency is not in any way a solution for this.
Aside from the arguments I've frequently featured on that issue, here's an op-ed andTwitter thread from Rebecca Spang nominally about Italian proposals for a currency alternative to the Euro but really about alternative currencies and good and bad money, and the effects on the poor. Another thing all of us, not just digital finance advocates, could do more of is relearn the lessons of the past--none of the problems of finance are new! 
That doesn't mean that I don't think there is value and promise in digital finance. I do! Here's a story about Nubank, Latin America's largest fintech, now expanding from Brazil to Mexico, offering digital bank accounts and credit cards. Yet more proof (like the report a few weeks ago that Bangladesh has more mobile money accounts than Kenya) that digital finance has taken hold globally. But more relevant to most readers, here's a new report from the European Microfinance Platform on the promise of digital pathways for boosting financial inclusion based on the experiences of practitioners using digital tools. And here's a review of some hearty debates from the launch event for the report. So I do believe in the potential of digital finance, I just take issue when it seems that people believe the problems of finance magically dissolve in the face of bits and bytes. 

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Speaking of problems that don't dissolve in the face of bits and bytes, how about the exploitation of children? YouTube is an app for that.
Meanwhile, Europe's data protection policies that were intended to help protect consumers seem to have further entrenched the power of BigTech.
Other problems that don't go away in the face of technology are the need for people to earn a living wage, and for businesses to have a business model that allows them to cover their costs. Uber is caught between those two problems and it increasingly appears that there isn't a way to navigate between the two. I'm increasingly convinced that the idea of negligible marginal costs in the digital realm is simply not true in most instances and that has huge implications for how we think about digital finance. Again, a topic I hope to return to.
In the meantime, here's a long essay from Vi Hart on how she has changed her mind about AI, UBI and the value of data. It's worth a close read. 

5. Global Development: I wasn't planning this but the transitions are really working today--since this is mostly going to be about cash transfers. In all of the stories about UBI and cash transfers, it had slipped my notice that Stockton, CA is running a test of a basic income guarantee. Stockton is one of those places that has a lot in common with many developing and middle-income countries, and very little in common with Silicon Valley, so the experiment is worth following.
In other transfer news, there's a new paper on a Targeting the Ultra-Poor experiment in Afghanistan which shows large effects. Of course, if I'm reading the charts right, the transfer was 5x ex-ante consumption so there darn well better have been large effects. Markus Goldstein has a nice write-up of the paper at Development Impact.
The big question about TUP, in my mind, is not about the near term impact of large transfers, but about the possibility of fade-out of effects, a la Blattman, Fiala and Martinez. Since TUP programs are very expensive, gains have to be sustained for quite a long time for them to be cost-effective. Imran Rasul notes that 4-year follow-up of one of the original TUP programs in Bangladesh showed sustained gains, and there is an 11-year follow-up forthcoming (though I'll admit I'm confused since the 4-year follow up was in 2016). But you should also read these results alongside this"different take on TUP programs" by Naila Kabeer (summary and further thoughtsfrom Berk Ozler) who does a qualitative study of two TUP programs.
Finally, late last week, Evidence Action announced that No Lean Season, a program to encourage seasonal migration in Bangladesh, based on a well-known impact evaluation finding large gains in income, was being shut down. There were two main issues: the discovery that the local implementer bribed local officials to get a license for the program, possibly with the knowledge of local Evidence Action staff, and that the program was not generating results at scale. Note that I have lots of ties here: I'm chairman of GiveWell who had recommended No Lean Season (here's their write-up), and I advised (pro-bono) Evidence Action on its communications.
 

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.

This is right up there with the most self-indulgent graphics I've ever included. I'm colorblind. Hence, I find most color-based charts enormously frustrating. So, a tear came to my (color-blind) eye when I came across this page for color patterns for use in R that are actually interpretable by the 10% of the male population that is like me. I promise that if you use this and then send me your chart/paper/whatever it will go in the faiV.  Source .

This is right up there with the most self-indulgent graphics I've ever included. I'm colorblind. Hence, I find most color-based charts enormously frustrating. So, a tear came to my (color-blind) eye when I came across this page for color patterns for use in R that are actually interpretable by the 10% of the male population that is like me. I promise that if you use this and then send me your chart/paper/whatever it will go in the faiV. Source.

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 May 17, 2019

1. Causality: In this great book I know, Jonathan Morduch describes an obsession over causality as "the marker of the tribe" of economists. Most people outside the field, then, might be surprised to find out how unsettled the science of causality is and how much, after all these years, the practice of academic economics is 80% arguing about causal inference. Well, at least in the circles of applied micro that I run in. Recently Emi Nakamura, an "empirical macroeconomist", won the Clark Medal("American economist under the age of 40 who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge") for her work mapping macro theory to macro reality. One of her more well-known papers is a discussion of the gap between theory and evidence in macro; it has a jaw-dropping section on the best existing "evidence" on the effects of monetary policy. So much for an obsession over causal identification. 
Now before getting too holier-than-thou over what is considered evidence in macroeconomics, it's worth pointing out that the experimental micro-crowd is just getting around to measuring general equilibrium effects, the defining feature of macro debates. I've linked multiple times to recent work on GE effects of microcredit (and related programs) on labor markets (See here for links and lots of discussion on that). While I was writing about that the other day, it occurred to me to wonder, given what we know about peer effects in education, whether anyone had looked at whether spillovers/GE effects were responsible for the rapid fade-out of early childhood education interventions. Less than 24 hours later, this new paper from List, Momeni and Zenou showed up in my Twitter feed, finding large spillover effects from an early childhood intervention (1.2 SD! on non-cognitive skills, which are increasingly found to be the more important feature of such programs), which lead to substantial underestimation of program impact. On a related note, here's a short video of Paul Niehaus talking about the value of experiments at scale, including better measurement of GE effects.
Still, there are lots of appealing things about using experiments to establish causality, even if it is somewhat akin to looking for the keys under the streetlights. For instance street lights cause a 36% reduction in nighttime outdoor crime in New York City housing developments. Unfortunately, people really don't like the idea of being experimented on, or even the idea of other people being part of an experiment even when the treatment arms are "unobjectionable." (MR summary here). I'm not really sure how to think about that. 
If you want to dig deep into causality discussions, Cyrus Samii's syllabus for hisQuant II class this spring is here. Lots (and lots) of interesting and useful links there. If you're more of the video type, Nick Huntington-Klein has a new series of videos on causal inference, including one on causal diagrams and using Daggity to draw them. If you are among the obsessed and want to be even more so, Macartan Humphreys is looking for a post-doc to work with him on causal inference at WZB Berlin.

2. Academic Publishing: To understand the RCT movement you have to know something about one of the world's least efficient markets: economics journals (Yes, I'm sure someone has a paper/post explaining how the market is actually efficient after all). Seema Jayachandran tweeted this week about stats from her first year as co-editor at AEA: Applied: "4% were R&R, 36% were reject w/ reports, 60% were desk rejects." All of her R&Rs were eventually accepted and average and median time to decision was less than 2 months.
Data on the acceptance rates at all the AEA journals shows that Seema is doing an exceptional job. AEJ: Micro received 415 papers over a 12 month period, made decisions on only 55% of them, which were all rejections. Yes, zero of those 415 papers were accepted. The overall data led to this thread from Jake Vigdor with the provocative question: "If a journal...never accepts a manuscript, does it exist?" Or how about this paper from Clemens, Montenegro and Pritchett that was finally published in REStat after a decade in R&R? For the record, I have a paper with Michael that we got back for R&R after 4 years that I'm supposed to be revising but I'm writing the faiV instead. While I'm grinding an axe, let me also boost this question from Justin Sandefur on why citations still exist and haven't been replaced by hyperlinks. I wonder if an estimation of the dead weight loss from searching for, formatting and copyediting citation details could get published in an economics journal?
One of the reasons for the dismal acceptance rates in journals is the same as the dismal acceptance rates at top ranked universities. Reputation matters a lot. Tatyana Deryugina has a (revised) proposal on a different way of ranking journals that could lead to a more efficient publishing market. It's a start.
And to close out with some positive news: JDE is now prospectively accepting papers based on pre-analysis plans, without requiring the authors to commit to publishing there. It's almost as if the editors aren't maximizing their oligopolistic power. I hope they don't have their economist credentials revoked.
  
3. Digital Finance/Bangladesh: When the subject turns to mobile money, the country under discussion is still almost always Kenya even 12 years after the founding of m-Pesa. I have a particular axe to grind about counting use of mobile money without including payment cards, but there is now another reason to look beyond Kenya. There are now more people in Bangladesh with mobile money accounts than in Kenya. Of course, that's a function of population--penetration in Kenya is 73% (axe grinding: 70% of Americans have a credit card; this discussion does not include China), while it's just over 20% in Bangladesh. But we should expect adoption to accelerate in Bangladesh, and Kenya to be left well in the dust in terms of accounts.
Also, helpfully, there is an increasing amount of research on digital finance in Bangladesh. I'm a big fan of this particular paper. Here's a review of the state of digital microfinance in Bangladesh. And here's a report on the "opportunities, challenges and way forward" for the digital transformation of MFIs in Bangladesh. The latter builds off an earlier report on "retail micro-merchants" in Bangladesh that I've been meaning to link to but hadn't gotten around to. 
But that's also a platform to explain why I hadn't gotten to it: I hate the framing of "retail micro-merchants." That framing allows for comparing the "retail micro-merchant" sector to the garment industry in Bangladesh, which is honestly ridiculous. The better framing--and I am consciously trying to make this a term of art--is subsistence retail. We shouldn't be thinking of this group of people as an industry sector and looking for opportunities for growth for the same reasons that no one talks about boosting the "subsistence agriculture sector." The goal shouldn't be to boost it, but to get rid of it. To get as many people as possible out of subsistence retail as quickly as possible. These aren't frustrated entrepreneurs looking for tools to improve their business, they are frustrated employees. Now I'm not saying I think helping subsistence retailers is a bad idea. We should be looking for ways to boost their productivity, but mainly so they can invest in things that get them out of the sector and into jobs.  

4. Jobs: Which is a useful segway into the next item. An open question in my mind is whether we should consider the online-platform sector part of subsistence retail. I'm leaning toward yes. Here's a look back on what has happened to the "servant economy" companies in the 10 years since Uber's founding created a stampede of companies looking to exploit the slack of frustrated employees.
Here's Daron Acemoglu with a short essay on where good jobs come from, and specifically the insane bias in the last 20 years to investing in technology to replace low-wage workers rather than boosting productivity. Here's a new paper from David Kunst on the fall-out of that weird bias, documenting evidence of premature de-industrialization, and which jobs are being lost. Of note, there is an interesting interaction here with formality that may affect how we think about the barriers to formalization.
Getting people into good jobs is certainly a challenge the world over. Here's a new paper on an apprenticeship program in Ghana from Morgan Hardy, Isaac Mbiti, Jamie McCasland and Isabelle Salcher. The results are a bit complicated. In the short-run at least average income falls as youth shift from casual labor into self-employment. But the kids who trained with more experienced and more ex-ante profitable trainers actually do better. The paper's conclusion is that result can be improved by recruiting better trainers. I always have a problem with conclusions like that, because that option is probably not in the choice set. While spillover effects of early childhood education are probably masking some of the gains (see above), it's also likely that the decreased quality of teachers once you move from pilot programs to scale is a factor. I certainly don't know of any programs where the average quality of the staff increased as the program grew. 
Take for instance this program from the US which promised to teach coal miners to code and get them good jobs in the tech sector. I'm always amazed that people's initial reactions to programs like this isn't, "I have a better idea--let's teach them to be NBA players, they make even more money than coders!" It's about as plausible a theory of change (a classic study from the 1970s established that the productivity difference between "good" and "bad" programmers was at least 10x). Predictably, the program turns out to have been mostly a scam to enrich the founders. 

5. Our Algorithmic Overlords: In case you haven't seen it, Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, thinks it's time to break up the company. But there's a question about how much Facebook will continue to matter in a lot of the world, asChina perfects the tools of online surveillance and monitoring (I'm beginning to wonder if traveling to China ever again is going to be a good idea for me). Certainly an increasing amount of the hardware and software being used outside of the developed world is being created in China, and with TikTok even in the developed world. I specifically have to give a shout out to the subtle reference to James Scott and Seeing Like a State in that essay to explain the burgeoning black market in old Nokia feature phones.
The view of big tech coming out of China is an interesting lens to look at thediffering perspectives on big tech among right-wing populists in the US and Europe. In the US, where conservative viewpoints are traditionally stronger, big tech is viewed as an enemy of conservatism. In Europe, where the left has long had a stronger grip on more of the institutions of power, big tech is seen as an ally. And after you've thought about that for awhile, think about the new ways that tech in general provides tools of social control--say like deleting references to the ACA from US federal government websites. Why does that ring a bell? Oh yeah, because Intuit does roughly the same thing to con people into paying for their tax prep software

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.

A proposal from  Josh Zumbrun  on what the default style for all economic data charts should be, to emphasize measurement error and uncertainty. I kind of like it.  Source .

A proposal from Josh Zumbrun on what the default style for all economic data charts should be, to emphasize measurement error and uncertainty. I kind of like it. Source.


 

Week of April 12, 2019

1. Arbitrary and Biased: I feel like "arbitrary and biased" should have been the tagline for the faiV but it'll have to do as just the name this week's edition (I won't make the obvious joke). The reference here specifically is an update to my post at CGAP on impact evaluations and systematic reviews of financial inclusion interventions. Duvendack and Mader, authors of a systematic review of reviews that I've mentioned in the faiV and in that post, responded. And then I responded to them. The short version, if you don't want to click on all those links or do a lot of scrolling, is that we disagree substantially (though in good faith!) and particularly on the issues of arbitrariness and bias. My perspective on these issues have been substantially influenced by Deaton's and Pritchett's critiques of RCTs, which feels a bit ironic. Systematic reviews are useful, but they are no less arbitrary nor less biased than other attempts to synthesize the literature--they're just arbitrary and biased in different ways, albeit generally more transparent ways (though what we know about how disclosure affects people's trust leaves a question about the benefits of that disclosure). 
Reveling in the arbitrarily biased essential nature of the research enterprise, here are a couple of papers that raise different questions about how the literature on microcredit may be biased. Bedecarrats, Guerin, Morvant-Roux and Roubaudreplicate the Al-Amana microcredit impact study and find errors and issues with the data and code--though exactly how much it matters to the big picture conclusion isn't clear. Meanwhile Dahal and Fiala review the microcredit RCTs focusing on whether they have sufficient power to detect likely magnitude of effects (and find that they aren't) and find significant and meaningful effects on profits when the data is pooled. I need to read both these papers more closely, but they are interesting enough that I didn't want to wait before including them in the faiV.

2. Evidence-Based Policy/Methods: Speaking of arbitrarily biased research, the 5% statistical significance threshold is perhaps the most influential arbitrarily biased feature of modern academic research. Some people are trying to change that--well more than 800 who signed onto a letter in Nature protesting the cutoff. Before you come to a conclusion on whether that letter will make a difference, I must note, as many on Twitter did, that it's not a statistically significant portion of scientists who have signed on.
Another arbitrary bias, according to Nick Lea, deputy chief economist at DfID, is the need to run regressions in economics papers. David Evans, now ensconced at CGD, responds with a defense of regressions and some ideas on how development economics can be better.
Here's a reminder that "purely evidence-based policy doesn't exist" though I'm not sure how many people thought it did. And here's a reminder from Straight Talk on Evidence that short-term impact often fades out, something evidence-based policy really needs to take into account.
And finally, here's an interesting piece from mathemetician Aubrey Clayton adjudicating a long-running dispute between Nate Silver and Nassim Taleb over probabilities, finding that Taleb "overplays his hand."
  
3. Household Finance: The mythology of Spanish colonialism in the Americas centered heavily on cities of gold (anybody remember this?). Here's a story about the reverse--Dominicans searching Spain (and Switzerland) for lost troves of gold. It's all a scam of course, of the sort immediately recognizable by anyone who has spent time in Latin America. It's a fascinating read because of how the story delves into the psychology that has led so many Dominicans to believe (and continue to believe) an ancestor secreted billions of dollars of gold in Spanish and Swiss banks that they stood to inherit--to the point that they quit jobs and made all sorts of other bad financial decisions. When there is little hope, believing that slow, steady abstemious frugality will matter may seem as much magical thinking as hidden inheritances. Here's a piece from Morgan Housel on how much our (macro)financial experiences affect our later decision making.
The mismatch between advice, reality and experience means that most financial advice on offer today is useless for people living on low incomes--and the piece doesn't even address the problems of volatility. Here's Helaine Olen taking Suze Orman to task on the magical thinking that buying coffee makes a meaningful difference in household budgets.
Keep that in mind when you read this announcement from Walmart that customers have "moved $2 billion through" their prize-linked savings program. Don't get me wrong--that's great. But do notice that "moved...through" sounds a lot like high-frequency savings and isn't defined, while the claims remain that people are learning saving habits and becoming more financially secure.
On a related note, here's a recent Planet Money story on Purdue University's new income-share college loan program (which grew out of an idea from a Colombian economist and was piloted in Colombia). And here's a story I stumbled across on the lingering death of a much earlier program at Yale that was a miserable failure

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords/Digital Finance: Lucy Bernholz has a problem with "AI for good" and other such constructions. The big issue for civil society is not how to use the technology but to figure out how to manage, counteract, regulate, or build on the technology that is already in use. She suggests this essay on AI and the administrative state, which I haven't read yet, but I always trust Lucy's recommendations so I'm passing it on to you.
I think Lucy and I would have a similar perspective on this article, and I'm going to let you guess what that is via this quotation: "We believe that the lack of access to financial services is fundamentally a technology problem." It's a near perfect illustration of Matt Levine's dictum that the fate of FinTech is to relearn all the lessons of modern finance, painfully and in public. Now I'll take JUMO (the source of that quotation) at face value and believe that they are using AI and machine learning to find ways to include rather than exclude. But here's a different fundamental problem: it's always more profitable to fire bad customers than gain new ones.
Of course there are many more issues when it comes to applying AI and machine learning to financial services. Here Aaron Klein does a terrific job of walking through some of them. They of course don't apply to JUMO, yet, because Aaron is looking at how the application of AI and machine learning interacts with US anti-discrimination law. But it's an illustration of some actual fundamental problems of access to financial services and the potential benefits from much deeper engagement between regulators and practitioners in the US and developing and middle-income countries. 

5. Cash Transfers and UBI: We'll end with some quick hits on some new stuff on cash transfers and UBI. Here's a write-up of a survey of poor Indian households on their preferences when it comes to cash transfers versus spending on public health, roads and jobs: cash transfers come in last, public health comes first. Perhaps one reason why is a trust gap--here's a story from Kenya about the lack of transparency and limited reliability of public nutrition cash transfer programs.
Another way of determining preferences related to cash transfers is the revealed preferences of what people do with the money. That's what Almas, Haushofer and Shapiro do with the GiveDirectly cash transfers to assess whether there is a nutrition poverty trap (there isn't)

From  Natalie Michelle  and  Joshua Tait  a typology of superheroes as neoconservatives. I include this in the hope that someone will produce a version of this for superheroes as neoliberals.  Source  

From Natalie Michelle and Joshua Tait a typology of superheroes as neoconservatives. I include this in the hope that someone will produce a version of this for superheroes as neoliberals. Source 

Week of March 1, 2019

The Post-Neoliberal Edition

1. Economics: The dismal science doesn't often generate positive reviews from outside the discipline, so when it does happen it's worth noting. Julia Rohrer, who in addition to having one of the best titled blogs I've ever seen, is a psychology graduate student who procrastinated on her dissertation by attending a summer program in economics. Here is her list of things she appreciated in economics as a positive contrast to her experience in psychology.
On the other hand (hah!), economists typically have a lot to say about what is wrong with economics--certainly I encounter more "friendly-fire" in the econ literature than when I dip my toes in other disciplines (though this is perhaps my favorite example of the intra-disciplinary critique). There's an ongoing discussion about the future of economics going on in the Boston Review--I don't know if that counts as friendly-fire in terms of the outlet, but the participants are economists--starting with an essay by Naidu, Rodrik and Zucman, Economics after Neoliberalism. Then there are responses from Marshall Steinbaum, who notes that "every new generation proclaims itself to have discovered empirical verification for the first time," and from Alice Evans who focuses on the nexus of economics and political power in the form of unions.
But, because it's me writing this, I have to close on a new paper in JDE, that finds that communal land tenure explains half of the cross-country agricultural productivity gap. And here's a piece about how small teams of researchers are more innovative than large teams. generate much more innovation than big teams Neo-liberalism won't go down without a fight!

2. Migration: I haven't touched on migration for a while so it felt serendipitous that Michael Clemens and Satish Chand put out an update to their paper first released in 2008(!) on the effects of migration on human capital development in Fiji. The basic story is that in the late 80's formal discrimination against Indian-Fijians increased sharply, causing the community to both increase emigration and investment in human capital to aid emigration prospects. The net effect, rather than the dreaded "brain drain," was to increase the stock of human capital in Fiji. grapes
Cross-border migration is really the only option in Fiji, but in many countries, like Indonesia, there are lots of internal migration options. Since there is typically a large gap in productivity within countries as well as between countries, internal migrationhas always been a part of the development story. Bryan and Morten have a new article in VoxDev about this process in Indonesia, looking at the productivity gains possible from removing barriers to internal migration.
Since we started off talking about Economics, here's a post from David McKenzie considering the effects of migration on economists--or more specifically, how to think about job market papers about a candidate's country-of-origin. True to his style, David goes deep, including a model, and a survey. The post was inspired by a tweet from Pablo Albarcar who later noted it was mostly a joke about "brain drain" worries.
It is surprising to me how tenacious the brain drain idea is. When I have conversations about it, I try to cite the literature like Clemens and Chand, but I rarely find that makes a dent. People can always find an objection. So I've taken to just asking people how they feel about the "destruction" of Brazilian soccer/football culture and skill due to the mass emigration of the most skilled players. Typically, that leads to several moments of silent blinking. If you're interested here's a paper about "Rodar" the circular human capital investment, migration and development among Brazilian footballers
  
3. US Poverty and Inequality: I typically try to avoid the grab-bag approach to items of interest but I'll confess this one is a bit of a grab bag with a variety of connecting threads. We'll start by connecting to a piece I included last week about tax refunds and saving. If you haven't read that, you should. I noted I was grateful for the piece because it meant I could skip the annual ritual of linking to a piece I wrote for SSIR several years ago about rethinking tax refunds. But I should have known that the zombie idea of tax refunds being bad personal finance wouldn't die so easily. Here's Neil Irwin from the NYT on how people being angry about lower refunds shows that "humans are not always rational." I'm struck by the irony that the continuing common use of "rational" in economics requires zero-cost attention, while a foundational truth of the discipline is "nothing is zero-cost." There is nothing irrational about paying a very small fee (in foregone interest) for the valuable service of helping you to save when other services are ineffective. That's especially true if you include, as you should, the cost of the tax advisors and financial advisors required to accurately calculate the proper amount of withholding and to choose the right investment/savings account in which to store those savings. So I guess that connects to the thread about economics maybe not being post-neoliberalism quite yet. And here's a column from the Washington Post's personal finance columnist withpush back on the "refunds are bad" idea from readers who explain their rational choices in their own words.  
This week a 3 year project by the National Academy of Sciences to provide a "nonpartisan, evidence-based report" on the most effective ways to reduce child poverty in the United States was released. The summary that most everyone is latching on to is that work supports are not going to get the job done. The only way to cut child poverty by at least half is direct cash support to parents. Here's the Vox overview.
If you were thinking about intergenerational poverty, you were probably also thinking about education. The last few years have seen a proliferation of videos of "poor kids" getting into elite schools. Here's a piece about a new book on what happens to the lower-income students once they arrive at elite schools. It's not so joyous--"money remains a requirement for full citizenship in college, despite institutional declarations to the contrary."
Finally, how much do financial incentives and tax rates affect the incentives to innovate and invent? Not much--exposure to innovation matters much more

4. Management: This is a last minute "swap" of an item, since David McKenziemaligned managers in his weekly links tweet this morning. As some of you know, I have a semi-secret identity ghost-writing and editing management books, with several of them specifically about Toyota and lean process and management, so I couldn't let it lie. Of course, David's quip was a joke. The piece he links to is a terrific overview of the research on how management matters, a literature that David is a significant contributor to. It is a topic that I wish the development field paid much much more attention to (I really hope this is the most clicked link of the week), and this overview is a great introduction, both in content and structure/organization. I think I'll make some of my papers look more like this in the future.
And here's a piece about how middle managers deserve more respect. In my read of the literature above, it is middle management that is the actual missing middle in development. 

5. Digital Finance: I relinked the piece on why there's no reason to trust blockchain in the notes above. Here's another reason: "Once Hailed as Unhackable, Blockchains Are Now Getting Hacked." On the other hand, here's, "Bitcoin Has Saved My Family," from a Venezuelan economist.
One of the under-examined topics in the emergence of digital finance is the shift in the organizations and organizational structures that are providing financial services. The institutions and people in telecoms are systematically different than those in finance. That's something that always strikes me as I look at the GSMA's annual report on the state of the mobile money industry. Not because of something in the report specifically, but the fact that the report is from the GSMA.
And finally, a little curiosity that may only interest me. Uganda is opening up the purchase of government debt to individuals using mobile money, on the theory that it will reduce the government's dependence on commercial banks and institutional investors. It's historically sound, but I'm skeptical. For instance, it hasn't worked as well as hoped in Kenya.  

The musing on the quality of Brazilian football in the face of mass emigration gives me an excuse to include a video in support of my argument. If you're interested in falling down the rabbit hole a bit, here's  a short documentary on the 1982 Brazil team , which is my Platonic ideal of how the game is supposed to be played. Though that could have something to do with the fact that I was 9 that summer, and it was the first World Cup I watched. I still have a visceral rage reaction any time I see the Azurri take the field.  

The musing on the quality of Brazilian football in the face of mass emigration gives me an excuse to include a video in support of my argument. If you're interested in falling down the rabbit hole a bit, here's a short documentary on the 1982 Brazil team, which is my Platonic ideal of how the game is supposed to be played. Though that could have something to do with the fact that I was 9 that summer, and it was the first World Cup I watched. I still have a visceral rage reaction any time I see the Azurri take the field.  

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 February 11, 2019

The Writing on the Wall Edition

1. Our Algorithmic Overlords: I've long argued that teaching kids to code is as much of a waste of time as financial literacy. The simplified version of the argument is that most people are terrible programmers and computers are already better at coding than the average human. As a consequence I emphasize to my own kids and to others who are blinkered enough to ask my advice, that learning how to communicate/write is a much more important tool for the future (yes, yes, cognitive dissonance).
While I still think I'm right about the first part, it turns out I'm wrong about the second part. Yesterday OpenAI "released" work on an AI system that writes shockingly good text. I use scare quotes because, in another sign of things to come, OpenAI has only published a small subset of their work because they believe that the potential malicious use of the technology is great enough to restrict access. There are a bunch of news stories about this. Here's Wired, for instance. But the most interesting one I've come across is The Guardian because they had the algorithm write an article based on their lede.
Let's stick to the disturbing for a bit, because it's that kind of day. The World Food Program has formed a partnership with Palantir to analyse its data on food distributions, apparently with the main motivation being to look for "anomalies" that indicate that aid is being diverted or wasted. The idea of handing over data about some of the world's most vulnerable people to a private company that specializes in surveillance and tracking of people hasn't gone over well with a wide variety of people. As background, here's an article about what Palantir does for their biggest client, the NSA. Sometimes it seems like some people at the UN look at the one world government kooks and think, "What could we do to make their conspiracy theories more plausible?"
On a more theoretical level, Kleinberg, Ludwig, Mullainathan and Sunstein have a new paper on "Discrimination in the Age of Algorithms," arguing that despite fears of algorithmic discrimination, proving discrimination by algorithms is a lot easier than proving discrimination by humans. Of course, that requires putting regulations in place that allow algorithms to be examined. I'm going to flatter myself by pointing out it's similar to an argument I made in my review of Automating Inequality. So I feel validated.
Speaking of transparency, regulation and of algorithmic surveillance, here's David Siegel and Rob Reich arguing that it's not too late for social media to regulate itself, by setting up something like FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which polices securities firms). It's an argument that I would have given short-shrift to, but the FINRA example is credible.
Finally, I'll be dating myself in the Graphic of the Week below, but here's another way to figure out how old I am: when I was an undergrad, most of the "power imbalance" between developing countries and private firms literature was about GM. Here's a new piece from Michael Pisa at CGD on the new power imbalance and it's implications: the relationship between developing countries and tech giants.

2. Digital Finance: That feels like as reasonable a transition as I'm going to get to new data from Pew on the global spread of smartphones. Given limited consumer protections, regulatory and enforcement capability, and "digital literacy" in many developing countries, I will confess this worries me a lot, cf Chris Blattman's thread on "creating a 20th Century...system in an 18th Century state."
Here's a particular instance of that concern, tieing together the last few items: the rapidly growing use of "alternative credit scores" using things like digital footprints and psychometrics. You can make an argument that such things are huge boon to financial inclusion by tackling the thorny problem of asymmetric information. But there are big questions about what such alternative metrics are actually measuring. For instance, as the article above illustrates, the argument is that in lending, character matters and that psychometrics can effectively evaluate character. But it doesn't ask whether character is in-born or shaped by circumstance? No matter which way you answer that question, you're going to have a tough time arguing that discriminating based on character is fair. And that's all before we get to all the other possible dimensions of opaque discrimination.
The growing use of alternative data is starting to get attention from developed world regulatory agencies, but the first frontier of regulation is likely to be from securities regulators. I don't think they are going to be particularly interested in protecting developing world consumers. I guess that idea about self-regulation is starting to look more appealing, particularly if it's trans-national.
Meanwhile, the frontier of digital finance is advancing rapidly, even without alternative data. Safaricom introduced what is here called a "overdraft facility" in January, but I think of it more as a digital credit card. In the first month it was available, $620 million was borrowed. The pricing seems particularly difficult to parse but that may be just the reporting. One of the very first things I wrote for FAI was arguing for development of a micro-line-of-credit. Now that it's here, I confess it makes me very nervous.
 
3. Financial Inclusion: That's not to say that digital tools don't hold lots of promise for financial inclusion, just check the Findex. This week CGAP hosted a webinar with MIX on "What Makes a Fintech Inclusive?" There are some sophisticated answers to that question with some good examples, but I often return to the simplest answer: it cares about poor and marginalized people. And so I especially worry when I see answers to that question that lead with tech.
The financial inclusion field as a whole has been in something of a slow-moving existential crisis for the last few years. The best evidence of that is the number of efforts to define or map the impact of financial services and financial inclusion, several of which I'm a part of. Last week I linked to an IPA-led evidence review on financial inclusion and resilience. The week before that to a Cochrane Collaboration review of reviews of evidence on financial inclusion. This week, the UNCDF and BFA published their take on pathways for financial inclusion to impact the SDGs (full report here). I could say I expect there will be more, but I know there will be more in this vein, if I can finish revisions, etc.

4. US Inequality: It's tax return/refund time in the US. So there's a lot of discussion of the size of tax refunds and how people should withhold less and save more of their refund etc. It's particularly an issue this year because refunds seem to be smaller because of last years tax law changes and perhaps pressure on the Treasury to reduce withholding so more people would see a quick boost in their paycheck. Justin Fox takes a look, using the US Financial Diaries and some related work to show what a dumb policy that was and saving me from reposting my annual tax time lament.
There are a few things here I've been meaning to include for a few weeks but haven't gotten to. Here's a look at how tech is "splitting the workforce in two" which has some big implications for inequality. Here's a look at how stacked against the young the US system has become, which has implications for the persistence of the current very high levels of inequality. And here's one of those very depressing looks at how well-intentioned policies to do something about inequality end up being churned up in the meatgrinder and making things worse, in this case having to do with pushing colleges to admit poorer kids. The latter two are why I have a problem with the proposed incremental approach to Medicaid-for-All by allowing people between 50 and 62 to buy in to the system. I'm usually a great fan of incremental, but that specific proposal seems likely to accelerate the transfers from young-to-old in many ways worse than we can imagine.

5. Evidence-Based Policy: Yes, it's a dark day. So I'm going to revel in it and continue that theme of well-intentioned not working out so well, in this case from the old scale problem. One of the staples of "evidence-based" interventions in the last decade or so has been home visitation for new mothers/infants. An evaluation of a scaled-up version of the program found "no statistically significant effect on the evaluations focal outcomes" and no significant heterogeneity of effects (e.g. no larger or smaller effects for ex-ante determined high-risk or low-risk families). Chile scaled up cognitive behavior therapy in schools to deal with disruptive kids. It made things mostly worse. Pittsburgh scaled up a "restorative justice" program in an attempt to deal with discriminatory discipline practices for disruptive students (African-American kids get suspended from school much more often than white kids). Some people are saying it made things worse, but I look at the results table and see "no effect" given the number of outcomes.
Andrew Gelman features an old Michael Crichton piece on why media depictions of research are so wrong with some actually, it seems to me, good advice on what to do about it. If anyone ends up creating the proposed organization to do rapid response to spurious reporting of research, hire me. I want to do that. I suppose in some small way, that is what the faiV does. So, I guess, sponsor the faiV?
And here's a report from the William Grant Foundation on "Reframing Evidence-Based Policy to Align with the Evidence" which seems a useful thing to do if you've clicked on the three links above.

This isn't new, but it's fun. Merriam Webster has a site where you can put in any year and see words that first appeared in that year. This is a snippet of my birth year. Source:  Merriam Webster Time Traveler

This isn't new, but it's fun. Merriam Webster has a site where you can put in any year and see words that first appeared in that year. This is a snippet of my birth year. Source: Merriam Webster Time Traveler

Week of February 4, 2019

The Global Con Edition

1. MicroDigitalHouseholdFinance: 
I've had to cram what I usually break out into 2 categories into this first item. First, last week I featured a story about Kenyan MFIs being driven "to [an] early grave"and asked if any one had some additional knowledge of that situation. Thanks to David Ferrand (of FSDAfrica) and Alexandra Wall (of CEGA's Digital Credit Observatory), I'm reasonably confident that story is reasonably accurate (I do try to be good Bayesian). Meanwhile, with a broader perspective, Gregor Dorfleitner sent me a link to his recently published research looking at adoption of digital infrastructure by nearly 1000 MFIs globally. It's generally a more hopeful picture of evolution over disintermediation than what is happening in Kenya. 
This week, coincidentally I had two conversations about household finances that revolved around individuals' willingness to hide their income from others in the household and that affects outcomes for good or ill. And then, up pops Fred Wherry and colleagues with a new paper on exactly on the mechanics intrahousehold bargaining around borrowing and lending based on research in California. I'm very impressed they avoided "Neither a borrower nor a lender be..." and I do kind of love "Awkwardness, Obfuscation and Negative Reciprocity." And in other new paper news, the titans of financial choice architecture, have a new paper on how use implicit defaults to spur people to make active choices--which seems a better form of nudging than much of what I see. 

2. Banking (and Money Transfer Operators): I frequently talk about how financial system regulators in the developing world need to look to the US for a peek into their future. This week I learned that Australia is also a useful cautionary tale. Pretty much the entire banking sector in Australia is facing the prospect of criminal prosecutions after a wide ranging royal commission report that details rampant "fee for no service" practices were widespread.
Meanwhile there are some big changes happening in the global money transfer space, related to Chinese operators attempts to expand globally, and the Trump administrations general antipathy to such moves. Last year, Ant Financial tried to buy MoneyGram before regulators put a stop to the transaction. MoneyGram is now essentially moribund, having lost 83% of it's market value since then, and trying to sell itself to anyone who might have some cash. Ant Financial has moved on to a UK company, WorldFirst, which this week announced it was shutting down it's US operation so that American regulators have no say in the deal. Neither of those stories sound like the prospects for cutting the costs of global remittances are improving.
  
3. Global Inequality: Last week I purposely skipped over the ridiculous annual OxFam global wealth inequality brouhaha. Perhaps I should stick to my guns, but given the number of people I saw engaging with this Guardian piece from Jason Hickel, that somehow argues that global poverty hasn't been decreasing, and life was great in the 1820s, well...Here's pushback from Martin Ravallion. Here's Max Roser, who was a particular target in the Hickel op-ed.
Turning to doing something about global inequality rather than fantasies about the pastoral idylls of the 1820s, there's been a remarkable flourishing of pieces about tax avoidance by the wealthy. Here's the op-ed from the NYT that inspired the name of this week's edition on the Trump tax cuts enabling corporate tax dodging. Here's a new paper in the AER finding that globalization since 1994 has led to the labor income tax burden of the middle class rising, while that on the top 1 percent fell. Here's a new brief from Danny Yagan at SIEPR on how high earning wealthy entrepreneurs dodge taxes on labor income of about $1 trillion per year. And using data from Gabriel Zucman, here's a piece from the Washington Post on the new club of wealth inequality, with charter members China, Russia and the US

4. Philanthropy and Social Enterprise: There's a good bit to catch up on here. Back in the fall, I featured several entries in an on-going discussion involving Rob Reich (the political scientist, not the economist), Phil BuchananAnand Ghiridharadasand Ben Soskis on the role of philanthropy in the US (each of those links is to their books/sites). Phil has a newish post trying to take stock of the various critiques and defenses.
Last summer, I took note of Just Capital, a newish organization trying to create an index of socially-responsible firms using criteria less laughable than most of the SRI indexes. Just Capital has partnered with Forbes Magazine to create a list of the US's 100 most "just" companies with the criteria determined by surveying (what I presume is a convenience sample) readers.
On the topic of philanthropy worth critiquing and just companies, the Pennsylvania Attorney General is suing one of the largest non-profits in the state, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, for being neither philanthropic nor just. And here's someVox reporting on the equally unphilanthropic and unjust Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, with the added twist of the City of San Francisco playing the "man behind the curtain." The Vox critique has already had an effect; I'll be cheering for the PA Attorney General. As a side note, one of the problems I have with the concept of "financial health" is it makes an analogy to the only industry that is more of a mess of conflicting incentives and hidden bad behavior than the finance services industry.
Dramatically changing the topic, GiveWell has announced some changes to it's research focus, and as a consequence, is hiring. Full disclosure: I'm Vice-Chairman of GiveWell's board. I think it's likely that faiV readers know some people who might be interested in those jobs. So click and check them out.
Finally, this week Guidestar and the Foundation Center announced that they are merging. I'm not sure whether to think of this as evidence of maturing philanthropic infrastructure or further evidence of a market failure in data on philanthropy. Regardless, I have a lot of respect for Jacob Harold and Brad Smith, the respective CEOs of the two organizations for taking a step that many in the non-profit world avoid. 

5. Methods: Behold, the first ever "listicle" in the faiV. What should experimental economists do more of? These 12 things, according to John List. And here's a review of how field experiments have improved our understanding of labor markets (List again). Though I have to ask, is this use of "natural field experiments" standard outside of development economics or is it a Nature thing? One of the things that experimental economists should perhaps hesitate before doing more of are list experiments--that according to a new paper from Pascaline Dupas and co-authors(and do read the comments).

I had decided to make the graphic/video of the week a bit more fun and less on-topic. But then  Kieran Healy created something both fun and on-topic . The best of both worlds. Source:  Kieran Healy . 

I had decided to make the graphic/video of the week a bit more fun and less on-topic. But then Kieran Healy created something both fun and on-topic. The best of both worlds. Source: Kieran Healy

Week of January 21, 2019

1. MicroDigitalFinance: Many of you will be familiar with the story of microcredit's rise and sort-of fall, and it's current state of--I don't know, existential angst? But if not, the story is ably told in a new Vox piece by Stephanie Wykstra, with some comments from Jonathan and I included. Not too long after that, the Campbell Collaborative and 3ie issued a "systematic review of reviews" of the impact of financial inclusion, led by Maren Duvendack. I have to say it's kind of weird. The one sentence conclusion is "Financial inclusion interventions have very small and inconsistent impacts." Which apart from appending an "s" to the perfectly plural "impact", I don't disagree with. But this format is a review of reviews which imposes some weird constraints. Ultimately only 11 of 32 identified studies were included, and only one of those was from an economics journal, two are earlier Campbell or 3ie publications, two are specifically only about women's empowerment, and three are about strangely specific topics like HIV prevention. So I'm left really uncertain what to think of it.
Of course, the hot topic isn't generic microfinance but digital finance. The Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa has an updated "evidence gap map" of research on the impact of digital finance featuring 55 studies (which is more than I have had the time to delve into so I can't compare it to the Campbell/3ie inclusion set). There's a summary of the findings at Next Billion.
Finally, here's an interesting story about Econet, the Zimbabwean mobile money provider--interesting in that it is really about the evolution of mobile money providers from following M-Pesa to following Tencent.
  
2. US Inequality: A big part of the story of understanding US inequality specifically, and inequality in developed countries in general, is understanding what has happened to wages of low-skill workers. The NYTimes has a piece on how cities have shifted from being the "land of opportunity" for such workers to a trap, based on work that David Autor presented in his Ely Lecture at the AEAs (by the way, AEA, it's still a good time to rename the Ely Lecture!).
One policy option for addressing stagnant wages for low-skill workers is to raise the minimum wage. Cengiz, Dube, Lindner and Zipperer continue their long-running work on the effects of 138 minimum wage changes between 1979 and 2016. They find increased earnings and essentially no effect on number of low-wage jobs
That's encouraging. Less encouraging is a new paper from Rodrik and di Tella finding that people are really, really happy to support protectionist policies, regardless of their politics, as a policy response to trade shocks.

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Speaking of people's attitudes, there's a big new report on Americans' attitudes on artificial intelligence from something called the Future of Humanity Institute, which as a name is somewhat creepy in my opinion. Maybe I've seen/read too much dystopian fiction. Anyway, they find that Facebook is the least trusted institution when it comes to AI development (no surprise) and the US military is tied for most trusted (big surprise, apparently these people haven't seen/read the same dystopian fiction I have). Also of interest, the median respondent thinks there's a 50% chance that robots will be able to fully replace human beings in less than 10 years. And just because, here's a Night Before Christmas style poem about the future of AI.
Meanwhile, MIT Technology Review "analyzed 16,625" AI papers to predict directions of future research. As someone interested in the future of humanity who doesn't trust either Facebook or the US military to develop AI, I'm encouraged to see cyclical patterns of research consistent with over-confidence.
One of the questions about the development of AI and machine-learning is how it will integrate into existing procedures. Flint, MI is a particularly fascinating case study on those challenges--and they are large. In a community with every incentive possible (they are literally being poisoned by their water and have extreme budget constraints) except politics to adopt the most efficient approach, the machine-learning approach was abandoned. I guess that should make me re-think my attitude toward phrases like "The Future of Humanity."

4. Methods and Evidence-Based Policy: Back in the fall I featured a paper about the effect of political connections on business success because I was so impressed by the method: Abhit Bhandari set up an actual company in Senegal and had his salespeople vary their pitches to signal political connections. Turns out Bhandari is not alone. David McKenzie has a new post at Development Impact on the apparently hot new trend in experimental development economics: setting up your own firm so you can run experiments on it. If you thought the barriers to running and publishing an experiment were high before...
Eva Vivalt has a new paper on specification searching and significance inflation in impact evaluations (see, you don't need to add an "s" to impact!). She finds less bias in economics and health papers than what's been found in political science and sociology. She also finds significance inflation in RCTs is lower than other methods and has fallen over time.
Here's an article from Gelman, Goel and Ho on what statistics can't tell us about affirmative action at Harvard. I'm a sucker for experts writing about the limits of their field.
I mentioned new research earlier punching some gaps into existing evidence bases. Here we go. Money priming, like other forms of priming, doesn't actually have a meaningful effect on behavior. The charts in this one are particularly striking. And an at-scale implementation of CBT for disruptive kids in Chilean schools radically backfired.
And because I have no other place better to put it, but wanted to include it, here's Ray Fisman and Michael Luca on how free pens are killing so many people in the US that average lifespans are falling. And on a related note, ugh, ugh, ugh. There are some things that need to be re-named more urgently than the Ely Lecture.

5. Global Development: When you can write about industrial policy and subsistence agriculture in the same item, you have to take advantage. Thanks VoxDev! Dani Rodrick has an overview on the resurgent economics of industrial policy, which is a very helpful refresher if you've looked at David's post on setting up your own firm to run experiments and are thinking it may be time to change your topics of interest. But VoxDev also has a summary of work reviewing what's been learned about improving agricultural extension services from the Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative. Which is a very helpful overview if you, like me, have long-standing plans to look at what we can learn from research on subsistence farming to design programs for subsistence retail.
But there's still a long way to go, because even after all this time studying small-scale agriculture we still don't know a lot. Like how much of the difference in productivity from farm-to-farm is real or just mismeasurement. That paper should also be of interest to anyone thinking about studying firms, by setting up their own or otherwise, or in industrial policy.

Apropos of nothing, I found this chart, and  the related blog post  looking at data from lots of different drugs, on the frequency of use of marijuana quite interesting.

Apropos of nothing, I found this chart, and the related blog post looking at data from lots of different drugs, on the frequency of use of marijuana quite interesting.

Week of November 26, 2018

1. faiVYourJMP: Let's start there with a paper from Ryan Edwards on palm oil plantation expansion in Indonesia. That he finds trade-offs certainly shouldn't be surprising, much less astounding, but it is surprising how well he documents how the growth of export-led agriculture reduces poverty and increases consumption--including the specific channels by which that happens--and the connection to deforestation. Specifically, "each percentage point of poverty reduction corresponds to a 1.5-3 percentage point loss of forest area." Put another way, it's astounding to be able to see the price of poverty reduction outside of a carefully designed cash-based experiment.
And let me give a shout out to the Development Impact Blog team at the World Bank who were the inspiration to do this. Their crop of "Blog your JMP" posts is growing by the day and includes many entries worthy of your attention.
 
2. MicroDigitalFinance: Here's an astounding story about predatory lending and debt collection in New York (and from there, across the US). And I don't care how cynical you are, this is stunning because it's perfectly legal--so legal that there are registered investment companies gathering capital in public markets to do more of it.
That story then led me, via Rebecca Spang, to a book that came out at the beginning of this year that I'm embarrassed that I didn't know about, City of Debtors: A Century of Fringe Finance by Anne Fleming. It tells the story of small dollar credit in New York City and the attempts to regulate it and protect consumers, with lots of unintended consequences along the way. Although I've only begun to read it, what's astounding is how easily, if you changed the names of places and people, you could convince someone this was a book about modern microfinance. There's one chapter that could easily be pasted into Portfolios of the Poor with no one the wiser. Fleming is a law professor, and so she doesn't make the connection to the economics literature, past or present (at least that I've seen so far), which is frustrating but also assuages my guilt at being unaware of the book. Anyway, if you care about financial services for low-income households, regulation and/or consumer protection, you need to pick up this book.
It would be easy to make a snide and cliche comment about those who cannot learn from history, but is too much to ask to learn from present in other places? Here's a story about "neo-banks" in the US attempting to remake the banking industry, while confronting the hard reality that even without a physical presence, the margins on transactional accounts are razor thin. But, like Fleming's book, it's easy to read this as a story about how banks and MFIs are struggling to cope with the threat of digital financial services being provided by telecom firms which are built on a high-volume, low-margin business model.
That is a major theme of the e-MFPs new report on trends in microfinance/financial inclusion, released this week. It's the output of a survey of providers, funders, consultants and researchers on where the industry is headed. I was encouraged to read that other major challenges noted include "client protection, privacy...and preventing an erosion of the social focus of financial inclusion...in the face of new entrants." I'm betting those aren't on the list of very many people in the fintech/neobank space in the US.
Finally here's a story from September that somehow slipped by me: Kiva is working with the government of Sierra Leone to use blockchain to create a national ID/credit bureau. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this one but it definitely seems like the kind of thing that would benefit from and generate lots of opportunities to learn from other places. If any of the faiV readers at Kiva want to share more, please call me.

3. MicroSmallMediumFirms: I'm often frustrated that I don't get to spend more time thinking about firms--those of you who know me know I've been wanting to start a project on "subsistence retail" for years. Hope springs eternal--maybe next year is the year I get to do that.
But in the meantime, here's a job market paper from Gabriel Tourek featured on Development Impact that finds an astounding reaction to a tax cut in Rwanda: the firms pay more even though they owe less. What's going on? The firms don't know their annual revenues so they don't know how much tax they owe, so they anchor on prior year tax payments. And that's even more true of the least able/least profitable, which isn't surprising but is depressing.
Relatedly, here's Chris Woodruff talking for 2 minutes about research on firms at VoxDev, including the difference between studying large firms and small firms.
And, new in AER, here's Jensen and Miller delving into that great puzzle of small firms: why don't they grow? Really, though, given what we know about small firms around the world the astounding thing is that any of them do grow. Anyway, Jensen and Miller use a natural experiment that affects boat builders in Kerala and find that consumers tend to buy local, which limits the ability of productive small firms to grow their market beyond their "neighborhood." When consumers can learn about non-local providers, competition makes things better for everyone (except the low-quality/low-productivity builders).

4. Philanthropy: This was the week of Giving Tuesday, which has become a global phenomenon. And as with any global phenomenon, there is good and bad. The good wouldn't be that astounding, so let's start at the other end. Here's a fundraising consultancy providing advice on how to use behavioral biases to trick people into giving more. You may not find that terribly surprising, but I found it amazingly cynical. This isn't about a nudge toward a positive outcome, it's guidance on how to mislead people to induce them to overspend their budgets. And if that's not cynical enough to surprise you, here's Lucy Bernholz on the first Giving Tuesday astroturfing she's seen--a charity created by a PR firm to raise money to hire the PR firm.
Giving Tuesday's growth also inspired a lot of debate on Twitter about critiques of the day itself and of philanthropy in general. Here's a thread that includes a collection of links to my longstanding Giving Tuesday skepticism and some thoughts from Ben Soskis, a historian of philanthropy and Asha Curran, one of Giving Tuesday's leaders. That thread bleeds into a couple of other threads. Here's one posted by Rob Reich, whose book Just Giving I highlighted last week, on the need to think critically about philanthropy. That then created this thread including Rob, Phil Buchanan from CEP, Felix Salmon, Asha, Ben and I and connecting back to the earlier conversation. Perhaps the message here is that we should all be astounded that Twitter continues to hold its place in the discussion of ideas.
This week also included the release of GiveWell's Top Charities list--note, that I'm the vice-chairperson of GiveWell's board--which continues to focus on deworming and bednets as the most effective use of marginal giving. There is one change to the list which is surprising, in a surprising way. Last year, Evidence Action's "No Lean Season" program to encourage seasonal migration in Bangladesh was a recommended charity. Results of the on-going RCT of the program showed the scale-up wasn't working, which Evidence Action shared with GiveWell and publicly. Both agreed that it should no longer be a recommended charity until Evidence Action can implement changes and document that the results are closer to what the initial impact evaluation found. Here's GiveWell's post about it, here's Evidence Action's post, and here's Dylan Mathews at Vox on how astounding this is.

5. Our Algorithmic Overlords: It would be tough to find anything surprising about the behavior of tech companies after the revelations highlighted in the last faiV. But you may be surprised which company said this: "We already know and have data on our customers...they trust us...We know what people make...we know where they work...We know if they’re married. We know how long they’ve lived in their house...We’ve never ever been challenged on how we use that." No I'm not going to tell you here, you have to click, but make sure you guess before you do.
In related news, electric vehicles in China made by Tesla, Volkswagen, GM, Ford, BMW, Nissan and more are sending real time data to the government about their usage patterns and precise location.

Ever struggle to understand what is  happening to data with a particular statistical method? Me too. Nick  Huntington-Klein has created a fantastic new resource to help  conceptualize what various statistical methods are doing rather than how  to do them. It's astounding work, and astounding that it didn't already  exist. The world needs more of this. You can see the  full page of animations and explanations here . Source:  Nick Huntington-Klein

Ever struggle to understand what is happening to data with a particular statistical method? Me too. Nick Huntington-Klein has created a fantastic new resource to help conceptualize what various statistical methods are doing rather than how to do them. It's astounding work, and astounding that it didn't already exist. The world needs more of this. You can see the full page of animations and explanations here. Source: Nick Huntington-Klein

Week of November 12, 2018

1. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Since it hasn't featured for a few weeks, I'm going to lead with our old friends this week. If you're in development circles, you know about Aadhaar. And if you're a reader of the faiV you know about China's intrusive citizen monitoring and control (let's dispense with calling it a "social credit score"--this apologia for what's happening is frightening in its own right). But did you know that Venezuela is on the forefront of assigning every citizen an ID and tracking their behavior, including their votes (maybe)? Here's a Twitter thread with some additional details from the reporter of that piece. Guess who's providing the technology? 
The frightening frontier in the US is from private technology companies, well, let's be honest, the frightening frontier is Facebook. Here's a New York Times investigation of the company's conduct that is jaw-dropping, over and over again. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him? For now, we've got Kara Swisher's thoughts on cleaning up the "toxic smoke".
Tying the domestic and global back together, here's Susan Liautaud of CGD on how the perspective on the ethics of automation and AI may look different in developing countries

2. Development Finance and Banking: Sticking with CGD, here's the polymath of development, Charles Kenny, on reforming the World Bank's Private Sector Window to comply with, y'know, the World Bank's guidance on appropriate design for private sector subsidies.
The big question for development finance (and social finance of all sorts) is whether it is crowding-in or crowding-out private sector investment, or neither. Here's Paddy Carter on the "Elusive Quest for Additionality" (have to love a shout-out to old school Bill Easterly) in summary form and in full length paper form (with van de Sijpe and Calel).
Let's say that there is additionality and DFIs are increasing capital flows to developing countries. The next big question is, what impact does that have? Here's Judith Tyson and Thorsten Beck on how those capital flows are affecting domestic financial system development. They conclude that the capital flows are too pro-cyclical and not doing enough to boost domestic capital markets.
There is a specific kind of capital flow that is actively undermining financial development specifically and development in general: regulations on anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist-financing (regulations are a form of capital right?). Here's a brief from the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI on how bad it's gotten in humanitarian relief. And just a reminder that this is a pervasive problem. No really,it's a pervasive problem.
Speaking of financial system development, here's an interesting post on what is happening in Ghana's banking sector--well, what's happening is consolidation, the post explains why and what's next. And here's a perspective on the liquidity crunch for Indian NBFCs

3. MicroDigitalFinance: It feels like we might be hitting an inflection point on mobile money services, the point where it's no longer possible to talk about it without prominently noting the negatives. CGAP has a new report on digital credit in Kenya and Tanzania, which leads them to the conclusion that "It's Time to Slow Digital Credit's Growth in East Africa." Late payment and default rates are enough to make any MFI executive faint. One particularly interesting tidbit: loans taken in the morning are much more likely to be repaid than loans taken at night. That's not really surprising but it's amazing to have that level of insight. Of particular concern is that many borrowers don't understand the terms of the loans they are taking. All the progress made on consumer protection for MFIs doesn't matter much if the market shifts to getting credit elsewhere. 
This week Graham Wright of MicroSave gave one of the keynotes at European Microfinance Week on a similar theme. You can see a shortened text version of Graham's talk at Next Billion or video here (though that's a Facebook link so, given the above, I understand if you don't want to click it).
His framing is that digital financial services are an existential threat to microfinance because of the ability of digital service providers to peel off the best customers and leave the hardest to serve to the MFIs. You'll have to work very hard to convince me that is not what is coming, and even harder that that doesn't have lots of negative consequences. It's consistent with what happened with the growth of for-profit MFIs--while the for-profits serve more customers, the non-profits are more likely to serve women, poorer clients, and rural areas. But more importantly, it's also the story of historical development of consumer financial services in high income countries, particularly the United States: pro-poor institutions find innovative ways to expand the market, but struggle because they are serving the most expensive, riskiest clients and eventually other institutions take the most profitable parts of the new markets that have been established. David Roodman's chapter on the lost history of microfinance in Due Diligence is useful on this and I'll have more on this in some of those writing projects I've mentioned.
Graham also mentions the growing possibility of digital financial services creating a new, harder form of exclusion, specifically for rural customers on the wrong side of the digital divide. Elsewhere he's also made the point that digital blacklisting could create rigid barriers to those defaulting on their quick and easy but not well understood digital loans. Again, if you're at all skeptical, take a look at the United States--it's an underappreciated cautionary tale for where many countries are headed. Here's a quick example of hardening digital exclusion in the US
Here's where you'll typically hear the argument about how FinTech can deliver all sorts of useful money management tools to those who need them most. Sure, in theory. Here's a new report from the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center (and I'm as shocked as you are that I'm linking to something there; that feeling when someone you normally disagree vehemently with writes something that confirms your priors in a different domain) on mobile payments use and financial behaviors in the US. Annamaria Lusardi's summary in the WSJ is here. Mobile payments users are more likely to carry balances on their credit cards and make minimum payments. They're more likely to overdraw their bank accounts and to withdraw from retirement accounts. The same skepticism you should now have for Big Tech needs to be the default setting for FinTech and digital financial services as well. 

4. Evidence-Based Policy: Your clicks demanded it, so here's more evidence-based policy links. But first, you have to take a look at this job market paper producing some evidence that's policy relevant. Abhit Bhandari wanted to study how political connections affect economic behavior of firms--so he started a company in Senegal (for real!) and then randomized what his salespeople said to customers, in order to signal (or not signal) political connections. Bhandari has displaced Chris Blattman's randomizing factory job offers and Dina Pomeranz's randomizing tax enforcement in my pantheon of amazing experiments.
OK, back to tips for connecting research to real-world impact. Last week we had eight tips on policy relevance from Oxfam. This week you've got four tips on making evidence synthesis more useful from a variety of folks in the UK government (though I have to say, the UK doesn't seem like the best place to be sourcing evidence-based policy advice at the moment does it?) and the editor-in-chief of Nature. Or perhaps you'd prefer to think about six pathways for evidence to influence policy from J-PAL? To explain how the pathways work they also have 17 case studies that you can delve into

5. Philanthropy: My friend Rob Reich's (not that Rob Reich) new book on the dangers that large-scale philanthropy (alternatively, massive wealth inequality) poses to democracy and what to do about it, Just Giving, is now out. Here's an extended essay drawn from the book. You can hear Rob discuss the book on TinySpark here. 
While thinking about Rob's arguments, I finally read Tyler Cowen's description of Emergent Ventures. It's a very useful pairing; Tyler's description of how some of the pathologies of big philanthropy emerge from "commonsense," unobjectionable choices about how to organize institutional philanthropy and his alternative approach mesh quite well with Rob's vision of a better future for philanthropy. Should I apply for an Emergent Ventures grant to support faiVLive and my (ever forthcoming) next book about big data/machine learning and economics?
Of course, sometimes democratized philanthropy can yield pretty unpleasant outcomes. Remember a few months ago when I linked to a scandal where a couple apparently pocketed $400K from a GoFundMe campaign for a homeless veteran? It turns out that the whole thing was a scam from the beginning, the "homeless vet" had been in on it the whole time, and none of the story was true. 

I feel the need for a little lightness. So here's an amazing image from a Japanese history of the United States for children from 1861. That's John Adams directing the fusillade of the incredibly strong Ben Franklin, who apparently can aim better when he can hold the cannon himself. The other images of the book are equally amazing, so  check them out . Via  Nick Kapur .

I feel the need for a little lightness. So here's an amazing image from a Japanese history of the United States for children from 1861. That's John Adams directing the fusillade of the incredibly strong Ben Franklin, who apparently can aim better when he can hold the cannon himself. The other images of the book are equally amazing, so check them out. Via Nick Kapur.

Week of September 17, 2018

1. MicroDigitalFinance: A few weeks ago I wrote that small-dollar short-term loans have always been the bane of the banking industry. We're getting a new test of that. US Bank is launching an alternative to payday loans: loans are between $100 and $1000 and repaid over three months. Interest rates are well below payday lending rates, but still around 70% APR--interestingly on US Bank's page about the loan they very clearly say: "Simple Loan is a a high-cost loan and other options may be available." All of that is good news. But the loans are only available to people with a credit rating (even if it's bad), who have had bank accounts with US Bank for 6 months and direct deposit for 3 months. It will be fascinating to watch take-up, repayment rates, and outcomes--those are where banks have always struggled in this market. Here's Pew's Nick Bourke's take on the US Bank move and the potential for others, with some more regulatory action, to follow suit.
I occasionally remark on insurance being the most amazing invention of all time. It's astounding that it works at all, even in the most developed, trusting and well-regulated markets (see this attempt by one of the US's oldest life insurance providers to collapse the market); it's not surprising that it's a struggle to make it work elsewhere, in the places where households face more risk and would most benefit from access to insurance. So I'm always interested in new work on insurance innovation. Here's a new paper on a lab-in-the-field insurance experiment in Burkina Faso. The basic insight is that many potential purchasers struggle with the certain cost of an insurance premium versus the uncertain payoff. It turns out that framing the premium around an uncertain rebate if there is no payout--which makes both premium and benefit uncertain--increases take-up, especially among those that value certainty most. Yes, you probably need to read that sentence again (and then click on the link to see that even that obtuse sentence is marginally clearer than the abstract). If we want to delve into the details of insurance contract construction, there's also a new paper that delves into how liquidity constraints--a huge factor that hasn't generally gotten enough attention--affect the perceived value of insurance contracts, and how to adjust the contracts accordingly.
And finally, William Faulkner's dictum that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." applies to fintech. A new paper finds that common law countries in sub-Saharan Africa have greater penetration of Internet, telecom and electricity infrastructure, and thus much greater adoption of mobile money and FinTech. That's consistent with history of banking literature that finds common law countries do better on financial system development, financial inclusion and SME lending. 
For the record, I've clarified in my own mind the difference between the MicroDigitalFinance and Household Finance categories. The former provides perspective on providers, the latter on consumers. I reserve the right to break that typology as necessary or when it suits me.  

2. Household Finance: I suppose another way to distinguish between the two categories is that MicroDigitalFinance features bad news only most of the time, while Household Finance is just all bad news. At least that's the way it feels when I come across depressing studies like this: Extending the term of auto loans (e.g. from 60 months to 72 months as has become increasingly common during this low-quality credit boom) leads to consumers taking loans at a) higher interest rates, and b) paying more for the vehicle. Liquidity constraints mean consumers pay much more attention to the monthly payment and get screwed.
It's not just auto loans where liquidity constraints lead to people making sub-optimal choices (yes, I'm thinking a lot about managing liquidity lately). For instance, when people move from traditional health insurance to high-deductible plans they suddenly reduce spending on health care--but not in the ways you want. People don't learn to price shop, even after two years, and they don't reduce spending only on optional or low-value services. And here's the JP Morgan Chase Institute study that shows how much liquidity constraints or their removal affect health care spending using a different approach.
Now if you are a loyal faiV reader, I know you're not thinking, "We need financial literacy training!" But just in case, here's some more bad news: "peer-to-peer communication transmits financial decision-making skills most effectively when peers are equally uninformed, rather than when an informed decision maker teaches an uninformed peer." Or this: "provision of effective financial education to one member of a pair...does not lead to additional improvements in the quality of the untreated partner's decisions." 
If you're thinking, "That hasn't ruined my Friday yet, Tim, give me more," don't worry. How about "Twenty-four million homeowners think it's acceptable to tap into home equity to cover everyday payments." Granted, that's from one of those ridiculous bankrate.com surveys that should be taken with several kilos of salt, but still. 

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Here's a quick story about an egregiously bad algorithm the State of Idaho was using to determine how much assistance Medicaid recipients should receive. You can probably already guess--bad data, bad software, bad implementation. But it took a lot of work, and a lawsuit, to figure that out. 
Stories like that emphasize that before handing over decisions to our algorithmic overlords we should want those algorithms to be understandable and fair. Here's a new paper from Jon Kleinberg and Sendhil Mullainathan developing a model that shows you have to pick between simple and equitable. You can't have both.
And here's the "Anatomy of an AI System" that in some ways is a visual proof of the Kleinberg and Mullainathan paper. It's also one of the coolest visualizations I've seen in a while--both in scope and because it isn't reductionist about AI. It takes into account all of the surrounding processes as well. You won't regret clicking on this, unless you have something else really important to do.

4. Global Development: So many things to include this week. Let's start with the biggest: Asher, Novosad and Rafkin have assembled an incredible dataset on incomes in India that allows them to measure intergenerational mobility in a country of more than a billion people, down to the level of 5600 rural districts and 2300 cities and towns. One key finding: increasing mobility among scheduled castes is offset by decreasing mobility among Muslims.
At a necessarily smaller scale, but still big in terms of scope and time, Casey, Glennerster, Miguel and Voors have a long-term follow up on the results of a large scale experiment on Community Driven Development in Sierra Leone, finding that CDD doesn't break down traditional autocratic governance mechanisms enough to allow full exploitation of human capital, which as I understand it was part of the motivation for CDD, and there are easier and cheaper ways to to do so. Of note, they also look at the "prior beliefs of experts on likely impacts"--which, given the "Everything Is Obvious" responses research like this often generates, is pretty cool. Here's Rachel's Twitter thread summary.
Another of the arguments I've heard both for and against CDD-style programs is side-stepping difficult targeting questions--just let the community decide who needs help. Rema Hanna and Ben Olken have a new paper on targeting, specifically on the relative welfare gains of universal basic income versus means-testing. They find means-testing wins using data from Indonesia and Peru, despite some issues; and they discuss adding community-targeting to means-testing.
Meanwhile, here's a piece by Josh Blumenstock that tries to deflate some of the excitement around using high-tech means of targeting, like satellite maps, social networks and call records. In summary, data without theory is useless, and so is data + theory without anthro/soc (or at least anthro/soc informed economics).

5. Methods and Evidence-Based Policy : That's a good lead-in to methods. Let's start with some quick hits. Brian Wansink, whose scandals I've covered in this item in the past, has resigned from Cornell. Noah Smith has a column on the replication crisis in Economics though it's about a very different kind of replication crisis than the one Wansink faced. Now that I type that, it occurs to me that it was in fact easy to replicate Wansink--just making up numbers that matched his would apparently be both a literal and conceptual replication. And here's a new paper on improving diff-in-diff methods to account for effects changing over time.
The idea of evidence-based policy sort of requires that there is evidence of something working. But y'know, nothing does. Encouraging women to get mammograms? Those most likely to respond are those least likely to need one, and because of false positives, the net welfare effect is negative. The health effect of better trade and transport links in the United States in the early 19th century? So negative that it made it people shorter (I mean, as a whole, not specific people). What else? Oh, those gains we all know of like improved water and sanitation, and food safety standards during the early 20th century...no effect on total or infant mortality. That last one reminds me of an old LantRant about assessing whether development interventions matter based on whether they were important in the history (or present) of developed countries. Shall we scratch food safety and urban sanitation off that list? 
I suppose we can hope that these results won't replicate, like the examples that Noah Smith cites. But on the other hand, it's already too late. Once a result is published, no one (or at least no doctors) changes their mind, or changes their behavior.
Wow, this has been bleak. So here's one hopeful note on something that did work. Women's suffrage caused large gains (via demand for more spending on education) in educational attainment of poorer/disadvantaged children, and long-term earnings gains. So go out this weekend and help a woman register to vote (and then go back and make sure she has everything she needs to follow through and vote on election day).

I would have had the Anatomy of an AI visualization here, but it's way too big, and  Justin Sandefur  created this really great example of how simple choices in the visual representation of data can radically change the way we interpret it. The two charts are of the same data, on the left from the World Bank and on the right from The Economist. Via  Justin Sandefur .

I would have had the Anatomy of an AI visualization here, but it's way too big, and Justin Sandefur created this really great example of how simple choices in the visual representation of data can radically change the way we interpret it. The two charts are of the same data, on the left from the World Bank and on the right from The Economist. Via Justin Sandefur.

Week of August 20, 2018

Editor's Note: I'm back on faiV duty. Many thanks to Alexander Berger, Jeffrey Bloem, John Thompson, and Rebecca Rouse for filling in. If you would be interested in being a guest editor of the faiV at some point, feel free to reach out.
This week, I'm casting my eye back over the many things I've been reading over the last few months. Don't worry, I'm not going to try to cover all of those in one faiV, though there will be, perhaps a bit less commentary than usual.--Tim Ogden


1. Financial Inclusion and Digital Finance: The last time I was writing the faiV, various takes on the Global Findex data were being featured prominently. So it only seems fitting to come back to that as I return. Greta Bull of CGAP has a two-part blog, part I and part II, reacting to Beth Rhyne's and Sonja Kelly's take (may I take a moment to smile at the inclusion that sentence reveals?) on the Hype vs. Reality of inclusion. Bull argues that the Findex data shows greater progress on inclusion than Rhyne and Kelly see. For what it's worth I lean to toward Bull in this debate. It would be surprising, given the incredibly rapid progress in access, if the access-use gap wasn't growing, especially in countries with relatively low levels or recent gains in access as network effects won't kick in for awhile.  
There is another concern beyond the use/access gap--does use of the available accounts make people better off. Here's a new paper from Kast and Pomeranz showing that providing free savings accounts in Chile led to lower debt burdens (and some additional evidence on rotten kin). On the other hand here's an open letter from Anup Signh to Kenyan Central Bank governor Patrick Njoroge making the case for urgent regulatory action on digital credit to protect borrowers. On the third hand (hat tip to Brad DeLong) mobile money seems to have saved lives (note no counterfactuals there, but it seems plausible) during Ebola outbreaks in Liberia and Sierra Leone during Ebola outbreaks by ensuring that response workers got paid.  
Of course, benefit depends not just on use, but on who is using the services. Microsave found that 80% of the "addressable LMI market" in India was not being served by fintechs, and, with CIIE's Bharat Inclusion Initiative, has launched a "Financial Inclusion Lab" to help Indian fintech's address that market.   

2. Our Algorithmic Overlords: If you've gotten out of the habit of reading the faiV, what better way to grab your attention back than sexbots! Here's Marina Adshade, an economist at UBC, with a thoroughly economic argument about how sexbots could make marriage better (by changing how it works and what it does). And here's Gabriel Rossman, a sociologist at UCLA, making the counterargument. Apparently he reads Justin Fox.
On a much more prosaic, and more urgent, front, there have been a raft of stories on the increasingly alarming situation in Northwest China where the tech-driven panopticon seems to be racing ahead in the service of persecution of Muslims and ethnic minorities. Here is the NYTimes "inside China's Dystopian Dreams". Here's Reuters on the "surveillance state spread[ing] quietly." MIT Technology Review asks, "who needs democracy when you have data?" And here's Foreign Affairs on the "coming competition between digital authoritarianism and liberal democracy." If I have a bone to pick it's the lack of attention to the possibility of "authoritarian democracy" that comes along with a surveillance state and AI overlords.

3. Global Development: If sexbots don't get your attention, what about hyperselectivity of migrants? I think, quite a while ago, I linked to Hicks, et al. on the systematic differences between those who migrate from rural to urban Kenya, and those who stay on the farm, finding that urban productivity is a factor of the traits of the workers who migrate. But if not, now they are in VoxDev with a great summary of the work. It's particularly interesting to read in conjunction with this new paper on the hyper-selectivity of migrants to the US--the fact that migrants to the US are both more likely to have a college degree than their compatriots, and than the US native-born population. That hyper-selectivity plays a role in second generation outcomes, but has mixed results for economic mobility of Asian, African and Latino migrants.
What to do for those who don't migrate? I really like this new paper from Beaman et al. on using Network Theory-Based targeting to determine how to deliver agricultural training. Why? Well, because I find technology adoption a particularly interesting set of questions, but mostly because they "identify methods to realize these gains at low cost to policymakers."

4. Philanthropy: There's an old saw that two data points are anecdotes, but three are a trend. It's mostly applied to journalism, but I originally heard it at my first job doing market research on the IT industry. Regardless of it's source, it definitely indicates there is a trend to looking much harder and more skeptically extreme wealth-driven philanthropy (or social investment, or impact investment, etc.). Anand Giridharadas expands a talk he gave at Aspen into a full length book called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Rob Reich, a political scientist at Stanford (who I have the temerity to call friend), has Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, and David Callahan, founder of Inside Philanthropy, has The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. None of them sound much like Philanthrocapitalism or Giving. I'm excited by all three, and I think you should buy and read them, but let's be realistic. You're much more likely to read this review of the three from Elizabeth Kolbert. The most interesting review--from a meta-perspective--though is this review in SSIR ofWinners Take All from Mark Kramer, clearly one of the targets of Giridharadas's book. Well done SSIR. 

5. US Inequality: Continuing on that theme, it's not just the billionaire philanthropists who are undermining American society and democracy, according to Matthew Stewart. If you're a US-based reader of this newsletter you are likely part of the problem. If you prefer the academic version of an argument like this, here's a new paper from Schneider, Hastings and LaBriola on income inequality and the growing, and amplifying, gap in parental investments in children. They also read Justin Fox (and enough with the cryptic link, that's a piece about sociologists engaging with the public more like economists, including making their papers open access.) Or if you prefer the academic version in summary form, here's Schneider's tweet thread. And since it's back-to-school time, here's the most depressing back-to-school news I can imagine: School districts in my area are hiring private detectives to follow kids and make sure they aren't crossing district lines in order to go to a good school. No arguing with Stewart's thesis allowed while this is how wealthy school districts are spending their money.

It's not just the US that has concerns about the influence of extreme wealth and inequality. Here's a 3 minute book preview of James Crabtree's book,  The Billionaire Raj .

It's not just the US that has concerns about the influence of extreme wealth and inequality. Here's a 3 minute book preview of James Crabtree's book, The Billionaire Raj.

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 June 18, 2018

The Do U Care Edition

1. Migration: If you don't get the "edition" reference, I think I envy you. But I care, and in the absence of other specific ways to oppose cruelty and barbarism, I'll spend some time here sharing some useful information about migration. Such as the fact that the US has become a "low-migration" country. I think this is as significant a change to the nature of the country as the closing of the frontier, especially since so many people don't seem to realize how much migration, whether within the US or to the US from other countries, has dropped.
On to that other crucial fact about migration: it's very very good for the people migrating and doesn't harm the people who are already there. Here's the newly officially published in AER paper by Clemens, Lewis and Postel studying the effect of the end of the Bracero program which led to 1/2 a million Mexican workers leaving the country, without any detectable benefits for native workers (employers simply invested in labor-replacing technology it appears). Here's a new NBER paper on the forced migration of Poles after World War II finding that migrants invested more in human capital for three generations. That's consistent with other work that shows long-term positive, sustained effects for people who move, even those who don't have full choice. Here's a story about how migrants fleeing the US to Canada are finding employment and thriving.
If you're interested in the big picture on global migration, the 2018 OECD International Migration Outlook is out.


2. Banking: I talk a lot about the overlaps between US and global financial inclusion issues--from household finance to consumer protection to business models to regulation. So I think both of these next two items are relevant well-beyond the countries they are focused on.
First, here's New America with a new report on how local and community banks systematically charge people-of-color more for their accounts (here's the OpEd version), which doesn't exactly encourage these historically excluded populations to join the banking mainstream. Oh, and the consumer protection regulatory system is being undermined in more ways than you might realize. Not only is there direct deregulation, but recently the Supreme Court ruled that the way the SEC carries out many of its "trials" for investment fraud are unconstitutional--and the CFPB is too. Here's Arjan Schutte writing about being fired from the CFPB's consumer advisory board which, y'know, at least he's not being unconstitutional now.
On the other hand, in India, the RBI is working to turn urban cooperative banks into "small finance banks." This piece explains a bit about the history of Indian urban cooperative banks and the regulatory issues involved--it's not all good. It's worth reading for anyone thinking about productive ways forward for more inclusive banking systems.

3. Digital Finance: In most of the countries where digital financial services have made inroads among poor households, agents are playing a big role. But those agents are often basically the same folks we see running microenterprises that we can't figure out how to improve. And that probably means that their growth is being limited by the quality of services offered and decisions made by those agents. Here's a paper from Acimovic, Parker, Drake and Balasubramanian who attempt to help mobile money agents in Tanzania (way to go including the country in the paper title guys!) improve their business practices. Specifically not be plagued so much by "stock-outs" that mean they can't serve customers either trying to deposit or withdraw cash ("stock" can be either mobile money or cash depending on the transaction). They find what I would term the "heavy paternalism" approach works best--showing up in person to train and then giving specific direction via text each day. It reminds me a lot of the "mind the change" paper of a few years ago, and the Kenyan enterpreneur mentor paper from last year. Overall it seems that an important dimension for improving microenterprise profitability is inventory management.
Another big piece of the digital financial services equation is designing services that are helpful to the customers you are trying to serve and that they actually want. That's a new report from ProsperityNow focused on low-income US consumers, but you already know that I think such things are globally relevant.

4. Methods etc.: Here's an idea for experiment design: don't substantially and repeatedly mislead people for decades about your experimental design. Forget everything you think you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment, a staple in pop culture and social psychology, because almost everything published about it is an inaccurate representation of what actually happened. Given the horrors happening around us, it's hard to get too riled up about this but it really is stunning reading as a famous researcher repeatedly denies specific accusations until evidence from the archives of the experiment force him to acknowledge what really happened. 
On a more positive note, here's a clever little interactive game to explain concepts of "network science" or more simply, how social connections influence perceptions and behavior, or more complicatedly, how to think in a bit more structured way about spillovers from treatments that have an informational component. 
And here's David Evans sharing a provocative statement from Karthik Muralidharan at the RISE Conference--paraphrased, when working on a large scale experiments run by governments you might be better off not doing a baseline survey--and various reactions, which lead to a very good discussion. 

5. Consumer Behavior/Social Enterprise: So this one makes most sense in light of what is coming after, but bear with me. What happens when you get parents involved in improving teaching practices in Ghanaian preschools? Bad, bad stuff. Well at least counterproductive stuff.
So keep that in mind as we move finally to an interesting experiment on how much influence customers can have on corporate behavior (via Ray Fisman). A key part of the social enterprise movement is the idea that just behavior will resonate with customers and lead to, if not higher sales, than at least loyal customers. But it turns out customers have a hard time remembering who the good and bad actors are when it comes time to make purchases. So while there may be some loyal customers out there, it's going to be hard to get the mass consumer to get on board with shifting corporate behavior via their spending. Which ultimately is a pretty good argument for Just Capital's approach of building an index that socially-conscious consumers of stocks at least can get what they want without having to remember any of the details. 

I'm always a sucker for Twitter threads with interesting data, and twists and turns. This one is about the  curious case of rising opioid deaths in the US in states that did or did not expand Medicaid . 

I'm always a sucker for Twitter threads with interesting data, and twists and turns. This one is about the curious case of rising opioid deaths in the US in states that did or did not expand Medicaid

Week of June 11, 2018

1. Household Finance: If you'll bear with me I'm going to write about household finance mostly with links to pieces about corporate finance. Corporate finance matters a lot, and it deserves the attention and resources invested in it (Channeling Willie Sutton: why do you write papers about corporate finance? Because that's where the money is). After several hundred years of lots and lots of resources and attention we've pretty much got this thing licked right? Well, maybe not the biggest questions but at least the basic questions like accounting and financial reporting, right? Right?
Here's Warren Buffet complaining about Generally Accepted Accounting (GAAP) rules being applied to his company. And here's an argument from several business school professors that GAAP rules aren't meaningful given changes in the economy--with the enticing tidbit that in many companies having a CPA, in other words having deep familiarity with the rules of corporate finance and accounting, is a disqualification for a senior-level job in the finance department. And here's Buffet again, this time with Jamie Dimon, arguing that quarterly financial reporting is broken.
Lest you think that this is some emerging consensus, here's Felix Salmon arguing they are wrong. Here's Matt Levine arguing they're wrong. And here (via Justin Fox, which we'll return to later) is a whole book about GAAP rules being wrong for entirely different reasons
So all of this is interesting (OK, maybe not) but what does it have to do with household finance? We haven't even begun investing the kind of resources necessary to really understand household finance, but we act like we have all the important questions licked. Or at least that households should be able to, with a little financial literacy training perhaps, be able to get a grasp on their finances and make consistently sound decisions. The fact is, for the most part, we just don't know what we're talking about when we talk about household finance. Or loss aversion


2. Digital Finance: In another brief diversion to start off an item, an astute reader pointed out that the way I had been writing about Findex made it seem like the Findex team did not have it's own report on the findings. They do, so click on it.
One read of the both the Global Findex team's report and the CFI report highlighted last week is that the promise of digital finance is largely unfulfilled. But there's still a lot of excitement over the promise in places like Egypt apparently. I found this piece particularly remarkable because I stumbled on it right after reading through the Findex analyses, and all I could think was "I don't think that data means what you think it means." Oh, and the note that moving to digital finance would allow the government to closely inspect everyone's spending habits, wheeee!
There's a different sort of excitement over digital finance in Uganda apparently where the parliament has approved taxing mobile money and social media(?!?). Apparently there was some concern that such taxes would be regressive, but some MPs objected that people shouldn't be exempted from paying taxes just because they were poor. Clearly those people don't read CGD/Vox.
In other CGD news related to digital finance, here's a piece about using blockchain in development projects--or perhaps more on point, *not* using the blockchain for development projects. There's a terrific decision tree graphic in the piece that is worth the click on its own, even though I disagree substantially with one part of it.

3. Firms, Productivity and Labor: Earlier this week I attended two days of the Innovation Growth Lab conference put on by Nesta. A number of interesting papers and research proposals were presented--the session I found most interesting was on the global productivity slowdown. The conclusion I came away with--though this wasn't what any of the papers were about--is that the big policy problem is insufficient labor mobility. And by that I don't mean geographic mobility (though I do think more of that would be great) but more firm-to-firm labor mobility. 
But while I was sitting in the research meeting discussing a) whether its possible to boost productivity of small firms, and b) whether the adoption of Toyota Way principles could be an effective proxy for increasing experimentation in firms, this new paper from Tanzania popped up in my Twitter feed via David Evans. It's an experiment introducing Toyota-style problem-solving training for small garment firms--three years after training they find significantly higher profits (though no short-run gains). I can't imagine a paper designed to more efficiently challenge my priors--which are/were a) Toyota has developed an incredibly productive system for sustaining and improving performance, b) it is incredibly hard to improve performance of small businesses.
I mentioned returning to Justin Fox's piece earlier--the column is about how firms behave from a theoretical and empirical perspective, especially how well Friedman's perspective is holding up. It's definitely worth one of your precious Bloomberg-pay-wall-exception clicks (though you may want to open it in an incognito tab anyway). The column will make one more appearance before we're through.

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords: In the interests of time I'm going to hit you with several links and very little commentary. The NY Times Magazine has a feature on differing perspectives on the future of AI among the titans of Silicon Valley. I feel like some very close analog of this piece was done last year but I don't have an AI assistant handy to find it for me.
Here are two new NBER papers on the impact of AI and policy: from Jason Furman and Robert Seamans and from Ajay Agrawal, Josh Gans and Avi Goldfarb.
And two stories about surveillance--of crowds looking for violent behavior, and of Chinese school students looking for boredom.

5. Social Investing: Finally, this week a new Exchange Traded Fund focused on "just" corporations launched--it's a collaboration between hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II and Goldman Sachs, exactly who you would expect to be arbiters of socially-positive corporate behavior (if only they could have had an actor portraying Milton Friedman at the launch event!). But the methodology for the index is actually quite interesting and the basis for the rankings are remarkably transparent. There are a number of interesting perspectives to read on it. Here's a positive take. A neutral one. And a skeptical one. (And that's why you want to save your Bloomberg clicks)

Here's the last return to that Justin Fox piece because he features one of the greatest faiV-style videos ever: the Stockholm School of Economics choir signing an original composition based on Friedman's view of firm's social responsibilities.

Week of May 21, 2018

1. Banking: Coinbase, a cryptocurrency trading platform, is doing something strange: acting a lot like a traditional bank by emphasizing its stability and trustworthiness. As Matt Levine points out (save that link, it's going to come up again later),  this is the central paradox of cryptocurrencies--they supposedly do away with the need for trust, but most everyone needs a trusted intermediary to keep hold of their cryptocurrency and protect them against fraud. Y'know the sort of things that banks or governments do (or enable and enforce with regulation). You've probably heard the mantra that cryptocurrencies aren't that important but blockchain is. The Coinbase approach, which is apparently successful, puts the lie to that notion. Why do you need an expensive and inefficient distributed ledger when you can have a cheap and efficient one provided by a trusted intermediary, like Coinbase? 
Trusted intermediaries are really important and the reason why it's worth caring about financial sector deepening. Rather than being distracted by cryptocurrencies, and their inevitable march toward realizing the need for trusted intermediaries, a more fruitful line of thinking is paying attention to what trusted intermediaries are emerging and how they affect consumers, transactions and the flow of money. This was a big part of the story of MFIs success, and one which I think remains underappreciated. Telecoms providing mobile money platforms is a really interesting case, of course. So are the commerce platforms that are rapidly becoming (or already are) payment platforms: Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent and Alibaba. And so stories like this about Amazon and this Planet Money story about Tencent and Alibaba (it's called "A Series of Mysterious Packages," how can you resist?) may not seem like they are about banking, but they are about banking.
Beyond the obvious, the reason that the emergence of non-bank but sort-of-like-a-bank trusted intermediaries is that they change the structure of the market. Here's a new paper from de Quidt, Fetzer and Ghatak on market structure and borrower welfare in microfinance, arguing that competition can yield borrower outcomes that match non-profit lending. I'm not yet convinced. And yet, the NY Times Upshot new "Marx Ratio" determines that banks are socialist collectives (that's the Matt Levine link again, I really really wish I could link to specific parts of his posts).
Speaking of market structure, here's a story about American Samoa creating the first public bank in the United States since the turn of last century. Why? I suppose you could say the lack of competition was hurting borrower welfare.

2. Digital Finance: Here's a paper on how using social pressure to encourage positive health behaviors that every MFI that uses groups in any way should read, whether they are doing anything digital or not. There's a U-shape to the curve: the most influential people in changing behavior are those that are neither too close nor too distant in the social graph.
MicroSave has a new piece that gets helpfully specific on the opportunities for using digital finance to close the inclusion gap in six Asian countries (Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal and Vietnam). There are also country specific reports for most of the countries. Here's something similar from the IFC on Africa. And here's something similar from IIF with a focus on data rather than delivery.
Here is Felix Salmon's interview of the last remaining founder of Simple, one of the first digital banks in the United States, as he prepares to exit. It's mostly a discussion of why it's so hard to be a good bank, while complying with regulations designed to ensure that banks remain trusted intermediaries. Here's a recent announcement from Simple about their Emergency Savings tool which promises to help people figure out the right amount of emergency savings. I'm really curious about how they are really doing that, but the company hasn't responded to my questions.  

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Boy there's a lot of stuff built up here so I'm just going to list it out. Here's Erik Brynjolfsson interviewing Danny Kahnemann about algorithmic decision-making and AI. I bet you can guess whether Kahnemann is more worried about bias among humans or algorithms. Here's an article about Judea Pearl's (an important contributor to the development of AI systems) new book, which criticizes the current state of AI development for reasons that will make economists everywhere stand and cheer: AI systems don't understand cause and effect. Of course, per Kahnemann, that's a criticism that could probably be leveled more devastatingly at humans than at machines. Here's Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis writing about how underwhelmed we should be about Google Duplex and that AI is harder than you think. But again, it's plausible to say that AI is harder than you think because human beings are so bad at thinking.

4. Storytelling: Time for a little--I promise--rant from me. Here's a useful piece from SSIR on how to tell stories about complex issues. It's important to tell stories about complex issues and the piece has some good tips. But it includes this line, "no one has ever taken action because of a great graph or data point" which is so demonstrably false that it makes me want to bang my head against a wall until it's bloody. Millions of people--researchers, economists, analysts, engineers, medical professionals, even manufacturing line workers--are taking action every day based on a graph or data point. The statement--the whole paragraph really which suggests that it's common to talk about complex issues with data rather than stories--illustrates exactly what's wrong with storytelling. Stories help us suspend disbelief and critical thinking, and give rise to all the biases that Kahnemann is worried about.

5. Data: So let's talk about some data, eh? Here's Mary Kay Gugerty and Dean Karlan on collecting and using data rather than stories. The new Survey of Household Economic Decision Making from the Fed is out and is required reading for anyone who cares about the state of household finances in the United States. A "good" news headline that got some attention: 40% of Americans can't cover a $400 emergency expense. If you're wondering why that's good news, in 2013 it was 50%. I really can't imagine it's actually true, but I have to wonder if the widespread media coverage of the finding has led to a lot of financial counselors and households setting $400 as the emergency savings target. If you're interested in the data that Jonathan found most interesting, click here, here, here and here.  
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the new Global Findex is also out. Here's Kaushik Basu on the value of Findex data. If you see other pieces putting Findex data to good use, be sure to let me know.

Via  Arianna Legovini , [ready for some  Drunk World Bank -worthy convolutions?] the World Bank's Research Group's DIME group's i2i (which is a trust fund of monies from several European aid agencies) has a report on it's work, "Science for Impact: Better Evidence for Better Decisions." I think the graphic is very cool, and interestingly, aligns quite well with short-term poverty spells in the US. I wonder if anyone will take action based on it? There are lots of stories in the report too, just in case. Source:  World Bank

Via Arianna Legovini, [ready for some Drunk World Bank-worthy convolutions?] the World Bank's Research Group's DIME group's i2i (which is a trust fund of monies from several European aid agencies) has a report on it's work, "Science for Impact: Better Evidence for Better Decisions." I think the graphic is very cool, and interestingly, aligns quite well with short-term poverty spells in the US. I wonder if anyone will take action based on it? There are lots of stories in the report too, just in case. Source: World Bank