CSAE Conference 2019 Blog

CSAE Conference Day 2: A few thoughts on culture

One of the things about the CSAE conference is that everyone’s experience of it is quite different. With so many parallel sessions, each participant takes an idiosyncratic walk through a forest of research, occasionally emerging into the collective clearings of the plenary and keynote sessions. My path today was a little disjointed, taking me from macro to micro, from management surveys to growth regressions, voter behaviour to mental health. But one thing that kept popping into my head was how culture influences how we behave.

The obvious impetus for these thoughts about culture was Eliana La Ferrara’s great keynote talk about Shuga, a behaviour change intervention that seeks to encourage people to act in a less risky fashion with respect to their sexual life. As the paper title (‘Fighting HIV with MTV’) indicates, that behaviour change was effected through a TV programme, Shuga.

I don’t want to go into the paper – it’s really cool, just read it – but it did make me think a lot about the mechanisms through which behaviour changes. The idea behind Shuga is that just giving information isn’t enough – it might have to be given in a way that either disarms resistance or changes beliefs about how others act or what is socially accepted. This second mechanism strikes me as in some sense cultural – it changes what we consider to be the norm among the people we live among or aspire to be like.

This mechanism fits my priors like a glove. If we believe that culture influences how we behave (and really, such a belief is almost tautological to some definitions of culture), then it shouldn’t surprise us that an intervention that seeks to shift some aspect of received culture influences our beliefs and behaviours. What becomes super interesting, though, is quite how fast it acts, through which media it happens best and on what aspects of behaviour it acts most quickly. And from a policy point of view, we care also about how much we can manipulate received culture.

In a sense this is something Governments have known about and encouraged for a long time. In a crude form, we call it propaganda and it brings to mind early 20th century autocracies; but even in places we don’t consider propaganda-soaked, it’s pretty prevalent. It’s behind those ‘Everyone Welcome’ posters on the tube, the proscriptions on swearing on TV before the watershed, and the movement to discourage ‘glamourous smoking’ in the movies. The Government does manipulate our cultural environment to affect behaviour, almost everywhere – it’s a question of what manipulations we consider acceptable and where. I liked Eliana’s proposed solution, focusing on ‘objective’ rather than ideological behaviours, a higher bar than how most Governments act now.

Two more random thoughts I had, both of which can be boiled down to culture, and which get pretty meta-Conference-y. First, what makes a good discussant? Every paper at CSAE (like many conferences) has a formal response, usually delivered by one of the other researchers presenting in the session. It’s structured to avoid tit-for-tat commenting (and hence mutually assured destruction of all the research papers), but the way in which people approach the task differs wildly. My favourite discussant sessions have really engaged with the conceptual and empirical spirit of the paper they’ve talked about, suggested ways of clarifying and amplifying the concepts being raised and – almost always – made concrete suggestions for the paper. These discussants are setting out with the task of helping build a better piece of research. I always find it easier to find three problems and stop thinking, so I really appreciate how much more effort it takes – anything we can do to develop this as the norm for all discussions will only help all the researchers here.

And my final random thought about culture: why is it that every economist makes the same gestures when they present? You know that odd little move where they bunch their hands up into fists and push and pull them in alternation as if they’re connected by a pulley system? Every time an economist is talking about how one variable might affect another they almost involuntarily do that. I asked Matt about it before his session and minutes after confidently stating that he didn’t do it, he was up their involuntarily doing the same thing, looking like he was moving an invisible puppet. It’s infuriating, and if I present next year I’ve got no doubt I’ll wind up doing it too. It must be our culture.

I’m off for tomorrow, sadly, missing both a bunch of great papers and the after-party, but keep an eye on twitter – much smarter people than I will be live-tweeting the events.

 

Share
Posted in CSAE Conference | Leave a comment

CSAE Conference 2019 Blog

CSAE Conference Day 1: The sceptics guide to innovation and AI

Apparently, sufficiently large gatherings of development economists can generate freak weather occurrences (n=2). Last year the CSAE conference was held in a freak patch of sunshine sandwiched by the Beast from the East, while today we’ve been alternating between glorious sunshine and vicious hailstorms. I’m no climatologist, but the evidence suggests that a sudden increase in the number of people saying ‘identification’ and ‘welfare impact’ in a concentrated geographical space opens some sort of weather variability vortex.

In that part of the day I wasn’t being pelted by hail, though, I spent a lot of time thinking about innovation and technology. The morning session I attended focused largely on innovation in African firms, while the evening plenary (during which I type, exiled to a spillover room by the popularity of the session) focused on the potential impact of AI and automation – specific innovations – on Africa’s future economic development, and there was some really smart comment throughout. But one thing that we didn’t spend that much time on is why we care about any of this at all.

I’m not being flippant, for a change. Why do we bang on about innovation, AI and the like, apart from an inherent fascination with the new? Ultimately, we care only in so far as it makes our lives better or worse – we care because of the welfare effects it brings. That sounds trite, but it actually helps frame our thinking in important ways when we’re thinking about how innovation matters.

The morning’s discussions focused a lot on innovation in the product or process space on its own terms, but ultimately we shouldn’t care about this at all. We care mainly about increases in welfare generated by more things being produced; things being produced more efficiently or more cheaply (and allowing our scarce resources to be conserved); or because it allows people to produce and exchange stuff more or more effectively and so providing them with a pathway to improving their lives. We care, not necessarily about innovation, but about the application and consequences of technology.

But there’s something about the word technology that seems to focus minds on the new, which is part of our obsession with shiny new toys and new ways of doing things. This seems unhelpful to me. Whether the thing that helps all of this along is new or old doesn’t matter. If what we need is more of an old technology like roads, or running water, or pickaxes, then that’s what we should care about; we only care about innovation if it either creates an easier way of producing or exchanging stuff (or services) or if it makes it harder for people to find any way of making, doing and exchanging as a pathway for improvements in their lives. In most sectors of most economies, adopting old ideas matters more than discovering new ones.

If a misplaced obsession with the new is at the root of an unhelpful fetishization of innovation, it’s a misplaced obsession with the old that’s behind an equally unhelpful fear of innovation that formed the focus of the evening plenary. If the welfare impact of adopting an old technology is the same as that of adopting a

new technology, we should be indifferent between them; so equally we should be indifferent between new ways of working and living and old ones, as long as the welfare implications are the same. If that’s the case, why are we so scared of the possibility that manufacturing might disappear? Or that certain jobs or types of human capital might? Do we think that the set of ways of working that exist now are all that we can do, the pinnacle of human achievement?

Doug Gollin made a similar point with a simple observation. Humans are quite good at doing stuff, and have proven good at doing a huge array of stuff in our recent history. The fear that we will run out of valuable stuff we can do seems to be driven by a linear extrapolation of what things robots can do holding what alternatives we can put humans to constant. But, as Doug pointed out, predicting what technology will do in the future is a notorious fools’ errand – we both underestimate and overestimate technological advances, so the shape of future production is extremely hard to predict. But more subtly, his comments suggested that predicting how people will respond to what technological change does happen is equally foolish.

That’s partly because our behavioural response is hard to predict. Noone knows how we will reallocate our time if we find that some tasks no longer need human intervention – it may be that we do more of other things that do require humans and so create more of some jobs that already exist. That’s what happened when the ATM machine came about – with the time spent physically counting cash and filling out forms saved, we spent more time asking for advice on our finances. Beyond that, it’s hard to predict our own price response. Will labour just become cheaper? If it does, how much cheaper can it become before it makes (some) machines obsolete? Or will it just switch to other areas where the price is higher?

Neither the panel, nor I, were saying that none of this matters – just that thinking about this stuff requires we think flexibly about human welfare, and all the ways open to improve it and to think less rigidly about what we do and how we do it. I think that fosters optimism, but then I’m an optimist.

On non-tech matters, the best thing about the conference is all the opportunity to catch up with amazing researchers doing things I wish I’d thought of; and having my priors challenged. Patrick Premand presented a paper on apprenticeships that went so against my priors I needed a rear-view mirror to see them. I’m sure there are loads of others on twitter – make sure to follow the #OxCSAE2019 hashtag.

Share
Posted in CSAE Conference, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Links round-up

Hi all,

This week’s links are just a tiny foretaste of a barrage of economics to come: on Sunday, the 2019 CSAE Conference on Economic Development in Africa starts. I’ll be blogging the Sunday and Monday of the conference, picking up on whatever papers, presentations and arguments pique my interest. I’ll be sadly missing the Tuesday for personal reasons (and thus, the annual highlight, Stefan’s after-party), but if you’re registered, make sure you attend the plenary on trade featuring DFID’s own Nick Lea. The Sunday panel on what automation and AI means for Africa should be fun, too. The debate has moved on a lot from the faintly disguised luddism and techno-pessimism of a couple of years ago, so I’m really looking forward to hearing what the panel have to say. I’m geekily, and giddily, excited. This week’s links are also geeky and giddy, but at least culminate with Gin and Juice.

  1. One of the best things about the conference is how it showcases the diversity of opinions, methods and interests of the economists presenting, and of course the high average quality of the work. It’s a good reminder that this is a diverse profession, dealing with difficult problems, and making progress on them even as they evolve. It gives us succour when we have to read crap like this in the media: “These are just three recent examples of how economists have dropped the ball… [E]conomists are struggling to explain recent productivity developments, the implications of rising inequality, the impact of persistently negative interest rates in the eurozone… They also failed to foresee the Brexit saga and the political explosion of anger and alienation across the west in general.” That’s from a piece by Mohamed El-Erian in the Guardian.  Um, what the actual eff? Is he writing an equivalent piece about the failure of physical science becausequantum physics is still as incomprehensible as a bag of (both dead and alive) cats? And why the hell were economists supposed to do the job of political scientists and foresee Brexit? Let me rephrase his complaint: “there are difficult things that we have not obtained absolute truth over.” If that’s the standard, find me a discipline worth saving. The worry would be if economists weren’t asking these questions. But in fact, lots of brilliant people are trying to work them out – and what they find might just make things better. Grrr.
  2. Normally, I save all the frivolity for the end, but that pissed me off so much I need something to make me smile: in one of the most American stories of all time, a court has ruled that giving someone the finger is a constitutional right.
  3. Back to the economics, Raghu Rajan is interviewed by Tyler Cowen and though the questioning is a bit scattershot at times, there are some gems in there. I particularly liked this section: “more than institutions is the political environment in which these institutions are created that matters. The political dispensation… The same institution can function very differently if the distribution of power is different”. This pretty much captures a lot of my own disquiet with institutional economics.
  4. Planet Money talk occupational segregation explaining that a large part of the disparity in labour market outcomes for men and women comes from the jobs they choose (or are able) to do, rather than discrimination within them (transcript). They don’t explicitly cite it, but they seem to refer to the Campos et. al. paper on female metalworkers in Uganda, one which has been extremely personally influential. It was an epiphany, reading it for the first time because it said something that seemed obvious after it was said, but which I hadn’t thought much of before, and which I think is still criminally underappreciated in actual interventions aiming to support gender equality in the labour market. Related: Javaeria Qureshi shows that having an educated elder sister improves outcomes for younger siblings, probably working through their household care role.
  5. Rachel goes to twitter for hypotheses on why Pakistan’s poverty rate is so low. No slam dunk answers, as far as I can see, but lots of interest.
  6. Two links on research: CGD cause a sharp intake of breath among researchers by examining whether too much UK aid is going towards research, or at least if it could be better run. Before clutching your pearls, read it: it makes a good case. And secondly (via David McKenzie’s always brilliant links), Penny Goldberg explains exactly why she, unlike her predecessor, thinks the World Bank needs a research department.
  7. And finally, two bizarre links, one hilarious and one unsettling. Let me unsettle you first: this website creates pictures of people who do not exist. It is properly creepy and can only be properly appreciated while listening to Picture This. The hilarity is much less creepy: it’s been 25 years since Gin and Juice ruled the hip-hop charts, and the Ringer celebrate brilliantly: creating an exam based on the lyrics. I got nine out of ten, and kicked myself for the one I missed.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Links round-up

Hi all,

It’s International Women’s Day today, and while I unfortunately won’t be celebrating by seeing Captain Marvel (I suspect any attempts to play the IWD card to get my partner to watch an action flick only I am interested in would get very short shrift indeed), the reaction to the film is a pretty good starting point for thinking about why we need an international women’s day at all. Apparently, some people are so worked up that Brie Larsen is both female and not obviously dedicated to making the men watching the film feel like she likes them (in other words, she isn’t smiling while fighting a race of alien warriors) that they’ve tried to hijack the online ratings of the film to sink its performance at the box office. My hobbies, notably cricket and birdwatching, are notorious for inducing obsessive behaviour, but even I find that deeply sad.

  1. Anyway, it feels appropriate to start with a few gender links, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to the sunniest opening possible. Planet Money investigate the tampon tax, crossing linguistic barriers in search of new colloquialisms to describe the period, but in typical fashion they don’t simply decry the tax as a disgrace and leave it there, they also look at how much money it raises, and what the welfare impact of eliminating it might be (transcript). Meanwhile Marginal Revolution report on some other pretty depressing results, specifically a paper that reports that girls who have younger brothers rather than younger sisters suffer an earning penalty, that might come from parents redistributing focus to the boy. At least Markus found something to be happier about: it turns out that conditional cash transfers directed to women may well be giving them more power in the household, and not by a negligible amount.
  2. Speaking of conditional cash transfers having good side-effects, a cool paper from VoxDev: when drug enforcement action in Colombia shifted coca production to Peru, it induced many kids to stay home from school and enter the coca production sector. Many of these kids remain engaged in criminality throughout their lives, and this might be because they develop industry-specific human capital – that is, they become good at crime (another reason, not addressed as far as I can see is that they might just get arrested and then find it hard to get other jobs, or develop better networks among criminals than among non-criminals). However, a CCT that rewarded parents for keeping their kids in school seems to have had an amerliorating effect buy making it less likely that they enter the criminal sector at all. Related: somehow, these researchers are surprised that giving kids internet access and a laptop at home induces more time spent on youtube and other crap than on studying. I am confident that the two things I’ve googled most on my laptop are ‘how to [insert basic function] in Stata?’ and ‘funny videos of people falling over’.
  3. A really good summary of the key results from the literature on the impact historical events on current income or growth by two of the key authors in the field, Michalopoulos and Papaioannou. While it’s hard – indeed, foolhardy, to try and argue that historical events haven’t impacted current development, I do think we need to be careful about how strong these claims are, and what they actually mean for what we do now. As ever, I direct you to Dietz Vollrath.
  4. We need an IgNobel Prize in economics, and I propose that the first one go to Matt Collin of AidThoughts fame, who has written a paper suggesting that democratic pressure causes leaders to smile more. I’ve got no idea what we can do with these findings (are we hoping for reverse causality? Do we send Maduro a DVD of The Big Lebowski and hope he calls an election?) but the write up made me laugh out loud.
  5. More from Planet Money, interviewing Raghu Rajan about his new book, about inequality in the US and the increase in returns to ‘superstars’. The idea is that since technology has dramatically integrated markets, the returns to being the best have dramatically risen. He illustrates his point with the most popular female singer in the world now and in the 1800s; it turns out that Taylor Swift earns around 150 times what the opera singer Elizabeth Billington raked in (transcript).
  6. I really do like these VoxDev videos, but why was this one filmed in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse? It adds a certain tension to the research finding that China’s bureaucracy may be becoming less meritocratic, because it did make me worry that Yang Yao had been abducted and forced to film the video under duress.
  7. The last link is normally frivolous frippery, and I’ll get there. But first, do not read this if you’re feeling emotional: a man has gone through all of the last words of executed prisoners in the US and written an incredibly moving article about them. Love is the most common word used. And if you read that and need to come down a bit, here are some hilariously negative reviews of Wuthering Heights.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

In the mid to late 1990s, there was a spate of ‘disaster’ movies, focusing on plausible but unexpected or unlikely natural catastrophes. They had names like Volcano (in which Tommy Lee Jones kicks a volcano’s ass), Dante’s Peak (in which Pierce Brosnan frowns disapprovingly at a volcano) and Twister (in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman repeatedly screams ‘awesome’ about the wind). They were followed by a spate of monster movies about semi-plausible and terrifying creatures went on rampages, often the result of human intervention gone awry (like Deep Blue Sea, in which LL Cool J fights a massive shark, and Thomas Jane decided as his biceps got larger his name had to become shorter, and became Tom Jane; and Lake Placid in which a nonagenarian invents new swearwords). All these movies followed a similar pattern: there would be a few unusual events which politicians ignored, but which some off-the-reservation scientist would identify as the first signs of Something Bad (lava covering LA; or a massive, genetically engineered shark outsmarting LL to get out to the open water). I used to think this was a trite and ridiculous narrative affectation, but after the polar bear invasion I reported a while back, there’s now a humpback whale in the Amazon. Something Bad is definitely happening, and the politicians seem, true to the movies, very slow to recognise it.

  1. Speaking of the first signs of Something (that might be) Bad: last week the Supreme Court ruled that the IFC (and presumably, other international organisations) can, in fact be brought to trial in national court systems. Vijaya Ramachandran has the details here. Tyler Cowen’s take on this is that it’s a blow to multilateralism and (presumably) Something Bad. I have much more sympathy with Vij’s view, which is that when an institution fails to protect the vulnerable and exposes them to harm without some working system of justice to rectify or redress this, they must expect that justice will be imposed on them. That this is right, though, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about: down the line you can see, in extremis, exploitative firms in developing countries litigating if an international organisation does something (like perhaps help a country reform its legal code) that unambiguously raises social welfare but harms their bottom line.
  2. Last term, I taught Optimal Taxation Theory, a body of work I’d regarded as unlovely and unlovable when I studied it myself, knee-deep as I was in the maths and up to the eyeballs in the data. I had an epiphany, though, when the course convenor pulled my eyes away from the trees and showed me the landscape all those details were describing: an elegant theory which fundamentally rests on three sets of beliefs and how you calibrate them. That was how I then structured my classes, and its become one of my favourite areas of economics. Few people have the clarity of thought and language to do what my colleague did, though. Tim Harford gets close to that epiphanic description here.
  3. This is really nice: the Development Impact crew have given David Evans a fitting send-off as he leaves for CGD, a round-up of what we’ve learnt from him via his blogging on their platform. It’s a good sign about just what an asset CGD are gaining that reading it – specifically this piece on how to think about insignificant results – prompted me to rewrite the thing I’m working on now, and (I think) improve it substantially. His (presumably) parting post, on how best to communicate the impact of learning interventions is here. No more standard deviations! Abhijeet Singh is probably pleased.
  4. “Protectionism! What is it good for?! Very little, according to the academic consensus!” as an early, unreleased, demo by Edwin Starr said. A panel of IMF researchers preach very much to the choir over at VoxEU, and either they or the sub-editors or both make my skin crawl by using ‘loath’ when they seem to mean ‘loathe’. But that’s not enough to prevent me from linking it, because who wants a policy that dents productivity, jukes inequality and has no effects on the trade balance to make up for it (well, apart from the millions who voted for it).
  5. I recently linked Kaushik Basu’s excellent three minutes on VoxDev which contained as much to digest as a short paper. I have to say, this one by Justin Lin doesn’t have quite the same power does it? I’ve watched it twice now and still can’t quite work out what mainstream economics (which is what? Put three economists in a room, you get four opinions and a broken lightbulb) is meant to be saying that a new economics would refute.
  6. Planet Money are doing a series on unsung economists, and they’re going *really* unsung. I’d never heard of Sadie Alexander before I this, and wish I had (transcript).
  7. I’m going to go on the last link and indulge myself, but they’re my links dammit: Georges St. Pierre, the black hole of charisma who turned his lack of a personality beyond ‘niceness’ and his relentless dedication to hard work into one of the most magnetic sporting presences of this millennium, has retired. Fighting might not be your favourite sport, but GSP made it equal parts art form and science. If my own tastes can be understood as a mix of aesthetics, obsession and analytics, he was the perfect sportsperson for them.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

I’ve been suffering from two productivity sinks today, which are killing my attempts to make some sense of the results of a survey I ran last year in the hopes that there’s a paper lurking somewhere inside it (I know, the bar for distracting me today is even lower than usual). Firstly, a blackcap <https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/blackcap/migration/>  has taken up residence in my garden, the first one I’ve seen there. It’s a violent little bugger, too, having a pop at everything else that dares come close. It reminds me of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas <https://uproxx.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/pesci-goodfellas1.jpg?quality=100&w=650> . Meanwhile, Sri Lanka are currently 25 for no loss chasing 197 to become the first Asian team to win a series in South Africa, while Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn are bowling fireballs like they’re characters on Street Fighter II <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DT3quU5xh0> . My plans to learn how to draw confidence intervals on my bar charts in Stata this morning were looking in tatters before I realised that Emma Riley had already done all the hard work for me on Coders Corner <https://www.csae.ox.ac.uk/coders-corner/coders-corner> , a fantastic resource for the hard-of-Stata like myself.

  1. It’s been a while since I’ve opened the links with a proper bit of lunacy (well, apart from my barely-veiled political allusions <https://i.gifer.com/8di.gif> ). But this makes up for the long dry spell: USAID are considering <https://www.devex.com/news/usaid-mulls-proposal-to-train-aid-workers-as-special-forces-94321?fbclid=IwAR3wzNMzQPudSn0–vnXEeyqQ66Ooiu8Yy7P_5hl62EDza12I5cdf0teK30> rolling out a team of development worker – Special Forces hybrids, called RED Teams, trained in both social development and ass-kicking. The idea probably isn’t as cray-cray as it sounds in a headline – or at least I hope it isn’t – but I’ve got some recruitment ideas. There are a couple of people in DFID who definitely fit the bill, and surely Stephen Chan <http://soasspirit.co.uk/features/humans-of-soas-stephen-chan/>  OBE (SOAS political scientist by day, black belt in Karate by night) must be on the list.
  2. A few years ago, you couldn’t throw a rock in DFID without hitting someone in the process of saying ‘evidence-based policymaking’, a phrase that used to crack me up. One of my friends used to manage to keep a completely poker face and talk about policy-based evidencemaking regularly, and it was actually pretty rare that anyone would pick it up. Anyway, the most obvious objection to the phrase is that policymaking is never based on just one thing. But Lars Peter Hansen makes a further point: there is no single reading of any evidence <http://review.chicagobooth.edu/economics/2019/article/purely-evidence-based-policy-doesn-t-exist?fbclid=IwAR2HTbrcYJpeW79fDb7XzJNdoK9C1Rr7RKWly9qKl85_bCrw4OC7N6EkPGI> . Even the construction of data requires some theoretical scaffolding, and while that might not always be controversial (though it can be, viz. last week’s ruckus about poverty measurement), the interpretation of what the data means almost always requires some theory too. In a sense this is obvious, and the answer links to Tim Harford’s blog this week <http://timharford.com/2019/02/blue-monday-pseudoscience-should-teach-us-to-be-more-curious/> : that it is not that policy should be evidence-based per se, but that policy should be constructed through the questioning of evidence and competing explanations. It’s not about evidence or no evidence, it’s about good evidence and good interpretation.
  3. This one is going to get Nick Lea’s heart racing: Guzman, Ocampo and Stiglitz summarise a new paper on the role of the real exchange rate in economic development <https://voxeu.org/article/real-exchange-rates-economic-development> , and how it can be mobilised as a policy lever for public welfare. They distinguish between tradeables with positive spillovers and those without, and suggest how support can encourage the former without pushing the latter. Worth a read.
  4. Why does tipping suck so much? Well, I could just refer you to Mr. Pink <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-qV9wVGb38> and the rest of the Reservoir Dogs, but the only slightly-less brilliantly monikered Cardiff Garcia (and Stacey Vanek Smith) bring a bit more economics into <https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2019/02/20/696426869/why-americans-can-t-quit-tipping>  it at Planet Money. In a further sign that people are the worst, the discretionary functioning of tipping seems to bring out prejudices: women corresponding to traditional norms of attractiveness (that’s me trying to find a less depressing way of saying ‘thin women with big breasts’) get better tips than others; meanwhile black waiters get tipped less than white ones for the same assessment of service quality. People suck and economics can prove it (transcript <https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=696421086> ).
  5. David McKenzie thinks a lot about the process of doing research, so it’s always worth reading his particular brand of introspection. This time, he’s looking at whether development economists tend to focus on their home country more than they should <http://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/should-we-worry-about-home-bias-development-research> , and if that might be a problem (it might not be, even if they do: they may think of better questions and better ways of answering them than an outsider might, and especially early-career that might lead them to develop expertise that leads them elsewhere). Related: David, Francisco Campos and Markus Goldstein on the (limited) gains to formalising firms in Malawi <https://voxdev.org/topic/firms-trade/costs-and-benefits-helping-firms-formalise-malawi> . I’m pretty sure I’ve linked to another version of this before, but it’s a good write-up and a very good demonstration that the gains of a policy are often not automatically realised. They may need more help than we think.
  6. One of the greatest bits of observational comedy I’ve ever seen has a geeky, put upon software engineer break off in the middle of a conversation while standing at the office printer to spit out the words: “PC Load Letter? What the **** does that mean? <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QQdNbvSGok> ” If you’re too young to remember office printers that would pronounce incomprehensible errors messages every second use, you probably don’t remember Office Space, which is now 20 years old. The Ringer’s oral history of probably the greatest comedy about work <https://www.theringer.com/movies/2019/2/19/18228673/office-space-oral-history> in history is a massive nostalgia trip for anyone whose reaction to the name Michael Bolton is “I celebrate the man’s entire catalogue <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BaMx_n2_hM> ”.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

In the normal run of things, scoring a match-sealing century and captaining your team to victory in a Test is pretty much as good as it gets for an England captain, used as they are to painful drubbings overseas, badly punning newspaper headlines calling for them to be sacked and the odd teammate being arrested for some description of drunken idiocy. This week, though, it’s all overshadowed by Joe Root demonstrating a much more important kind of leadership. When an opposing player used a homophobic insult on the pitch, Root, unaware that he was being picked up on a microphone, gave him a very well-worded piece of his mind. This probably all seems very normal for people about ten years younger than me, but if you’re my age you probably remember a time when people routinely used casual intolerance in conversation, and the vast majority of people just accepted it. We didn’t have many examples like this to demonstrate how easy – and helpful – it would be to object. I’m reminded of when Ron Atkinson was sacked after a horrific racist outburst on TV: ITV acted quickly in getting rid of him, but as one of my friends pointed out: “Isn’t it interesting that the microphones didn’t pick up anyone objecting?”. Anyway, this week I’m in the unusual position of being proud of the England cricket team.

  1. One of the most impressive talks I’ve ever attended was given by Kaushik Basu in DFID a few years ago, though I didn’t realise quite how much I took from it at first. He’s not a bombastic speaker at all, quiet and measured, and he didn’t have any slides or research to present. What was striking, though, was quite how carefully he understood things. He seemed to really dig into the mechanisms underlying the things he observed or thought to be important and wound up explaining things that ought to have been obvious, but somehow weren’t – a sign of a special thinker. This VoxDev interview has these characteristics: he talks about his new book, The Republic of Beliefs (about the law and economic behaviour), and in just two minutes demonstrates the same clarity of thought and ability to draw out the salient characteristics of a problem that so impressed me back then. It’s rocketed the book up my to-buy list.
  2. Is it possible that the very things that lead girls to outperform boys in school contribute to their slower rate of advancement in work? This largely speculative piece in the NYT by a psychologist suggests that girls feel less able to blag their way through life, which results in overworking in school (with resultingly good, if inefficiently achieved, grades) and a sense of under-preparedness later in life with a corresponding anxiety or lack of confidence. As a result, boys who are equally underprepared are more likely to demand promotions, pay rises and responsibility, simply because they don’t let their lack of preparation bother them too much. I have no idea if there’s any merit to this at all (I rather suspect not much), but it’s an interesting idea.
  3. I feel a little dirty after linking to psychological speculation, so to make up for it, here’s David Evans summarising a huge body of actual research on gender and development.
  4. I was sent this a few weeks ago by a friend, but completely forgot to post it: The Bank of Jamaica have won economics. In a series of reggae videos and brilliantly conceived tweets, they are trying to improve communication to the public, essentially doing what Mark Carney does when he holds his (brilliant, and occasionally darkly hilarious) press conferences. This kind of communication is one of the most important functions of a central bank, since their policy influence depends fundamentally on the public believing what they say and behaving accordingly. Planet Money also pay homage to the Bank of Jamaica – and how MMA teaches us about monopsony, among other things – here (transcript).
  5. Speaking of communicating economics clearly, Tim Harford has a story for you. He describes how he reduced his addiction to his phone using behavioural economics.
  6. And lastly, I’ve had an idea to deal with climate denialism: have you heard about the Russian town that has been besieged by polar bears? They’re coming into apartments, swarming playgrounds, walking the streets (btw – I have no idea how anyone managed to film this stuff: if I see a polar bear anywhere near my flat, I’m screaming and running the other way). My idea: let’s do a house-swap. Residents of Polarbearhellski and the climate deniers swap places for a few weeks. One way or another, average beliefs about climate change will converge towards the scientific consensus.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | 1 Comment

Links round-up

Hi all,

It’s nice to be able to start the links without some reference to sporting humiliation. Granted, this has mainly been because neither England nor Sri Lanka have been playing test cricket this week, but still: I will take what respite I get when I get it. Speaking of respite, do you follow Eric Barker? His blog is full of the worst kind of click-bait titles, the kind of thing that you see in the sponsored adverts at the bottom of bad news website (“You’ll never guess what happened three seconds after this photo was taken!”), but the content is actually very serious: he draws on proper research from across the (social) sciences to draw up actually practical advice about how to make your life better. The titles always overclaim, but these do actually seem like decent ways of making your life better. Actually, another thing that would make my life better is if the couple having the ostentatious PDA at the table next to me tone things down a  bit.

  1. Last week, I suggested economists should read more from the theory of the firm, industrial organisation and the economics of contracting. This week, two excellent bits of research reinforce the point. In the first, Arthur Blouin and Rocco Macchiavello look at how dysfunctional contract enforcement can undermine inter-firm relations so badly that the gains from exposure to global markets can be lost. Essentially, they show that firms can exploit poor contract enforcement to renege on deals in the face of unexpected shocks (there are a lot of these in the real world), leading to the adoption of suboptimal inter-firm relationships and industry structure, eroding the gains from trade. Another piece of research, in India, focuses on the slowness of Indian courts, which also makes contract enforcement patchy and unreliable. The upshot is that firms restructure themselves and their input sourcing and trading relationships to protect themselves from risks, but at the cost of being less productive. The economics of firm organisation is a pathway to understanding so much of what’s wrong with an economy: every firm choice tells you something about the environment it has to swim (or sink) in.
  2. Another way of becoming a better economist would be to enrol in the University of Houston, and make sure you sign up for every talk and course delivered by Dietrich Vollrath. The third part of his course on the economics of institutions is summarised here, and it is a masterclass in how to be a good economist. Dietz has absolute conceptual clarity, disambiguating the various ideas that coalesce around ‘institutions’, which makes it easy to understand his teaching and the merits and drawbacks of the research. He has paid attention to the empirical detail, so he knows what is right and wrong with the interpretation of the data, and what it can and cannot be used for. And he has a broad enough view to then put the work in its correct context. Seriously, this is how most economics should be written and taught. He also writes so well that I would read his shopping list for literary value.
  3. Marginal Revolution’s online university now has a series on inspiring women in economics. I am looking forward to seeing how two dyed-in-the-wool libertarians cover Joan Robinson (who, incidentally, did not become a full Professor until a few years before her retirement, despite her canonical contributions to economic thought).
  4. Branko Milanovic takes an extremely fair and even handed view of the controversy between Steven Pinker and Jason Hickel about the long term trend in global poverty. Do read it, but also make sure you read the linked post by Max Roser and Joe Hassel from Our World in Data, a website you should almost certainly be using more than you do.
  5. I am almost always driven to fury by academics talking about ‘engaging with policymakers’ like we’re an undifferentiated mass of lemmings (I once sat through a presentation by a poverty scholar who repeatedly said “policymakers don’t care about causality”, turning me ever deeper shades of furious). Markus Goldstein avoids this trap in a nice blog which differentiates between different kinds of policymakers and the kind of interactions researchers are likely to have with them. I would emphasise Markus’s point that the categories are not mutually exclusive, but this is a much better starting point for understanding how to influence policy.
  6. This is absolutely one of the coolest bits of research I’ve seen for a while: Eliana La Ferrara and coauthors do an amazing piece of work looking at the effect of implicit biases among schoolteachers on migrant children’s scores. Unsurprisingly, biased teachers tend to penalise migrant kids more than is justified by their actual work. What’s really fantastic, though, is that they find that if you inform these teachers of their own implicit bias scores, that penalty starts to disappear, and migrant kids are more likely to be assessed on merit. The effect seems to be driven by those teachers who don’t explicitly endorse discriminatory views, i.e. the ones who don’t think they’re biased. My erstwhile ex-blogging partner, Matthew Collin sent me another cool piece of work: Mara Revkin uses social media and other sources to map out the tax network set up by ISIS.
  7. The best board game I’ve ever played is Pandemic (recommended so regularly by Tim Harford, I bought it for my niece and enjoyed it so much I bought it for myself as well). It turns out it’s not just fun, it’s pretty realistic, as this Planet Money show on disease control demonstrates (transcript).
  8. I normally end the links with some happy insanity, but this definitely doesn’t count: on average, American airport security staff found 12 guns a day being taken as hand luggage onto flights there, the vast majority of which were loaded. They ‘credit’ enhanced security features for this number. I blame a completely insane culture of leaving the house strapped like Neo and the worst low-level equilibrium possible.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

It was tempting to just copy and paste the intro from last week today: like a glitch in the Matrix, England have had a batting collapse, Sri Lanka are being stomped like the bad guy from The Naked Gun and you still need an electron microscope to find the funny side of the newspapers. I was going to complain about the weather, too, but then I saw that it’s so cold in Chicago that noodles are freezing in mid-air and they’re setting fire to the trainlines to keep them running and thought better of it. Into the links, which at least start a little warmer.

  1. Anecdote alert: when I was in secondary school, I had one particularly amazing teacher, who was clearly passionate about the subjects he taught and was always so excited to be talking about them that the excitement was contagious. He taught me both history and economics, and made economics in particular come to life as a struggle between opposing forces that shape the world. Though biology was actually my best subject, I ended up taking history and economics at university, and I’m eternally grateful: I suspect that but for him, I’d be an unhappy, third-rate scientist rather than a second-rate economist who finds actual joy in what I do. In one of those rare cases where received wisdom and research wisdom are in broad alignment, teacher quality really does matter for young people’s learning and life outcomes. Dave Evans and Tara Beteille have summarised the latest evidence on how to get the most out of teachers here, organised around five key principles. Related: Dave is leaving the World Bank to join CGD, to bolster their already excellent team of research fellows.
  2. Jeremy Singer-Vine’s Data is Plural (well worth subscribing to) threw up a gem earlier this week: a free, online data source that measures the ethno-nationalism of political competition in Europe. I haven’t looked at the data properly yet, but it will be interesting to see if the ‘eye-test’ of increasing nationalism across the party spectrum in Europe is borne out by the data. Even taking the narrow lens of economics, nationalism that reduces the role of outsiders is short-sighted: this VoxEU piece shows how the presence of multinational firms drives productivity improvements in even domestic firms in the same sector, an effect driven by both within-firm improvements and (possibly) sharper competition across firms.
  3. How to improve tax revenues in countries where there is chronic under-reporting of incomes and under-filing of returns? This seems like a deeply difficult question, full of complicated politics and technical problems, but it turns out one solution is as simple as imaginable: just ask. An intervention in Costa Rica literally just sent e-mails to firms (ok, the e-mails themselves were carefully sculpted) and it had a significant and lasting impact on returns.
  4. David King’s e-mail today reminded me that I missed this in the links last week – our Chief Economist, Rachel, summarises the seven things she’s learnt in her first year on the job.
  5. Vox are running a series of pieces that summarise some of the key ideas of recently-deceased economists. They cover Harold Demsetz here, a pioneer in the economics of organisation and industrial economics (both areas I have a keen interest in). I highly recommend reading it. Despite something like four Nobel wins in this field, at least two of which have been awarded in the last 20 years, it’s an area that a lot of professional economists have a relatively shallow knowledge of. It offers deep insights to a range of economic questions (especially in developing countries, where industrial organisation is pretty dysfunctional thanks to failures of contracting, dispute resolution and generally high transactions costs).
  6. My own interests sit somewhere between the economics of organisation and economics of decision-making. A lot of the economics of decision-making focuses on behavioural biases or systematic ways in which people are wrong about thing. But increasingly, I wonder whether non-systematic ways of being wrong are more important in practice – this NBER paper (via Tyler Cowen) takes one approach to this question.
  7. Of course, the perfect setting for examining decision making would be the New York Knicks. They might be biased, or they might just be garden-variety imbecilic, but there’s no question that they consistently do very stupid things. Take yesterday: they traded a Latvian unicorn for a bag of week-old bread, a packet of instant noodles and the husk of DeAndre Jordan. The only upside is that Porzingis might be the first player to make fans cry both when he was acquired and when he was discarded.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

I’m not a miserable person, honestly. I actually smile quite a lot and find the funny side of most of life (well, about most things – you’d need an electron microscope to find the funny side of the impending political ructions here). Yet these weekly e-mails seem to start far too often with the two grim certainties of life: death and humiliating defeats in the cricket. While England and Sri Lanka compete to demonstrate the greatest lack of spine in sports (for those paying attention, England are currently the more amoebic), we’ve also lost two literary giants in the last couple of days. Diana Athill, editor to some of the greatest novelists of them all (VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys, John Updike) and brilliant author in her own right managed to make her century, while Hugh McIlvaney fell a little short. If you’ve never come across him, I highly recommend spending a few hours scouring the Observer archives for his writing on boxing. It’s filled with little bits of poetry, as when he said of Johnny Owen, the near-mute Welsh bantamweight who died in the ring: ‘It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.’.

  1. Economics isn’t a dangerous language (though I have annoyed more than one anthropologist to the brink of physical violence in the past), but it can sometimes induce a kind of mania in researchers. In that vein, let David McKenzie talk you through the dos and don’ts of setting up your own business for the purposes of running a randomised control trial. And in case you think this is a concern for highly funded researchers with the kind of track record that makes Usain Bolt blush, one of the examples he cites is a work in progress from two DPhil students from Stanford, examining how gender profit gaps arise. Related, David apparently read Angus Deaton’s book on the Analysis of Household Surveys several times from cover to cover as a student(if you’ve noted how careful he is with data, this shouldn’t surprise you at all). It’s now been released with a new preface for free online.
  2. Research on monopsony isn’t nearly as cool as setting up your own firm, but it’s one of the more important and under-studied aspects of the economy. This excellent VoxEU piece looks at monopsony power by sector and region in the UK to understand when labour has relatively little power compared to the firms that hire them, and what the consequences are. It’s really interesting: within sectors, monopsony varied dramatically by region, with parts of the North faring particularly badly; but even within individual regions, workers can face extremely different power dynamics with their employers depending on the sector they’re in. This has real implications for wages, job stability and precarity. I wish there was more work like this.
  3. For economists of a certain vintage, ‘industrial policy’ is a bit like Masterchef – one of those things you know you’re not meant to like, but you secretly have some affection for. Very slowly, and unlike Masterchef (do any of them every begin to look less smug?), it may be being rehabilitated. Dani Rodrik stans hard for it (industrial policy, not Masterchef) over at VoxDev.
  4. I briefly toyed with a new year’s resolution to shout ‘FAKE NEWS’ at people more often, but I desisted after a few trial runs ended in unpleasantness. Anyway, a new paper in Science digs into the phenomenon with more panache, and discovers that fake news is actually pretty tightly contained: 0.1% of twitter users shared 80% of fake news, and only 1% of users were exposed to 80% of the fake news. I’ll leave you to judge if the Links are in the 99% or not…
  5. Ted Miguel and co. lay the smack down on rural electrification. Their policy conclusion is that it’s not cost effective.
  6. Planet Money do a piece on the impact of the China-US trade war on farmers. It’s really great: they talk to a farmer who has been hit hard, and whose community is doing worse – yet still supports Trump’s policies. Transcript here.
  7. Lastly, new s**t has come to light (by the way, if I ever write a paper about the effects of providing new information on decision-making, that’s what I’m calling it and none of you are allowed to steal it): Jeff Bridges has tweeted a tantalising 15 second clip that suggests that a sequel to The Big Lebowski might be on the way. The Guardian, however, crush my hopes and dreams by suggesting that it’s just an advert featuring the Dude that’s forthcoming. Well, you know, that’s just, like, their opinion, man.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up