Links round-up

Hi all,

What are the ethics of movie spoilers in the intro to a links round-up? (don’t worry, I’ve avoided them.) I finally saw Avengers: Infinity War on Wednesday and it’s been on my mind, not least because of the use of an odd mix of unreconstructed Malthusianism and a kind of repeated strategic trolley problem to motivate the film: with a little basic economics and a primer on game theory, the whole thing would have lasted about five minutes. Maybe the sequel next year will feature two new superheroes: Empirical Economic History Man (by day, mild-mannered Max Roser) and Strategic Man (a.k.a. Avinash Dixit). As an aside, I rushed out of a great seminar by Esther Duflo to make it to the cinema, the steepest slope from good economics to bad in history?

  1. Would you, too, like to be better prepared for the coming of an economically illiterate tyrant? (What do you mean, ‘too late’?) Then a pretty good place to start would be this list of the best books on economics and economic thinking, compiled by Diane Coyle, Tim Harford and others. It’s not exactly the list I would have chosen (which is kind of the point of these lists), but there are some great books selected, including Oliver Williamson. I’m disappointed that there’s no specifically development-focused book there, but lots to learn from nevertheless, and several I haven’t read.
  2. Of course, to understand much modern economics, you need to at least have a basic grasp of how statistics are used. My go-to book on this is still The Signal and the Noise, and it’s no surprise that Nate’s website, 538 carries much of the best, most accessible writing about statistics for laypeople – most of it written by Christie Aschwanden. Here, she examines the go-to statistical test used in sports science and shows that it’s poor scientific practice. It boils down to this: statistical tests basically make a trade-off between correctly rejecting ‘wrong’ results and accidentally rejecting ‘correct’ results. You want to do more of the former, but doing so increases the chances of the latter. Bad science plays around with this trade-off, increasing the chances of your result being accepted, but at the cost of increasing the chance that it should really have been rejected.
  3. Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur argue that, after accounting for how effectively the Government spends money, taxation in some developing countries is not just regressive, it might be increasing poverty. Get the basic systems Governments fund to work and this effect might change.
  4. John Sutton explains the challenge (and payoff) of attracting FDI.
  5. And, Dietz on the rest of the Paradox of Mark-ups he introduced last week. I cannot think of a blogging macroeconomist who is both so accessible and challenging at the same time. A learning experience, every time he blogs.
  6. So, I hate Duty Free shops. I hate the way airports are structured to corral you through as many as possible, and I hate the idea that my last moments in a country should be concerned with a sort of placeless accumulation of crap. However, Karen Duffin and Robert Smith at Planet Money do something interesting with the idea of duty free: they illustrate the concepts of the race to the bottom and arbitrage by examining the history of the establishment of Duty Free shops and the effect of their spread. (Transcript).
  7. Lastly, on books: I tend to use either a bookmark or my memory to hold my place in a book (my current bookmark, a picture of The Thinker bought at the British Museum, is the most pretentious thing I own by a considerable distance). Apparently, I’m doing it wrong – bacon, a handsaw, even a piece of broccoli are all apparently bookmarks returned inside library books. And lastly, Michael Ondjaate’s favourite books to re-read. Amazingly, no sign of Rumpole or Bertie Wooster.

I’m away next Friday, so see you in two weeks! Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

With the basketball on a temporary pause between series (and LeBron James playing so well that people are actually now digging into the numbers to work out on exactly what metrics Jordan was better – the summary seems to be: at his peak, Jordan was better; but taking the whole career, LeBron seems to win), and the weather pretty inoffensive, I’m struggling to think of how best to open the links. There is the cricket: but I’m not an IPL-watcher, and Ireland’s first Test hasn’t started yet. So, cricket and weather, then I’ve exhausted my small talk: I may have hit peak Englishman.

  1. Very often, over a standing coffee appointment we had, my colleague Matt would hit one of his pet peeves: that the economic concept that is simultaneously most useful and most abused is opportunity cost. Fortunately, Tim Harford agrees, which is a good indication that the argument is sound. The biggest abuse of opportunity cost that Tim mentions also applies to DFID: we assume that time is costless, when it is actually an incredibly precious commodity. This applies to our interventions, where we too often fail to account for the opportunity cost of poor people’s time (“hey guys! Come to this 3-day training workshop, it’s free!”) and we too often ignore the opportunity cost of our own time (“hey guys! Come to this hour-long meeting that doesn’t have any obvious objective! It’s free!”). Even Matt and I made that mistake: the opportunity cost of ranting about opportunity cost was time spent on other topics where we didn’t already agree.
  2. Dietz is back! This is definitely only one for the economists, but he remains the clearest interlocutor of good macroeconomic research out there. In this post, he explains how mark-ups affect general equilibria. Read it and become a better macroeconomist.
  3. In an article that was clearly designed to maximise its chances of getting into the links, Jordana Cepelewicz looks into a new model that uses energy budgeting to explain migration – the migration of birds, that is. It’s modelling at its best: the use of a simplified set of behavioural rules to explain (part of) why complicated things happen. I was really struck by this quote: “[For humans] it doesn’t seem rational that birds will travel thousands of kilometres each way… but… [this] taxing journey is energetically favourable”. Actually when I see the extremes that humans will go through to make a better life, it seems the most natural thing in the world.
  4. David Evans and Muthoni Ngatia on the long-term effects of an education intervention (spoiler: none). Maybe I’ve misunderstood this (a skim of the underlying paper didn’t clarify either), but is it surprising that a free school uniform today doesn’t affect outcomes after eight years? Surely the kids would outgrow it within a year – why would we expect a one-off reduction in outgoings to have such long-term effects?
  5. Eric Posner and Glen Weyl bemoan the death of the economist as grand philosopher, blaming the specialisation of the academy for the paucity of systemic thinkers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx. In an interpretation that would no doubt irritate them endlessly, perhaps this is simply a case of diminishing marginal returns? The grandest ideas have been had; the biggest impact is now on more modest additions to knowledge. In a way, this ties in with what Lant often argues: what we already know about economies accounts for most of what matters in them – we just need to apply it somehow.
  6. This week in ‘research that suggests what seems blindingly obvious’: expanding exports of goods made with labour of a given skill level increases support for free trade among those workers (uses an IV. Usual health warnings apply).
  7. Lastly, The Ringer scientifically explores the art of the low-blow. Extremely useful for the manspreading jackasses on the tube at rush hour.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

“Vote early, and vote often” – and in the local council elections you can actually do it. If you’re a student and registered to vote both at your University address and your home address, you can vote in both (though not for a General election). So yesterday I woke up at ridiculous’o’clock, voted in London, then hopped on a bus, spent the day in meetings and presentations and then got to cast my second vote in Oxford just before the polling stations closed. As one of my friends said, “I still get excited that I have the suffrage.” You should, too. (and also, everyone should be extremely excited that LeBron continues to do very LeBron things; and that Shaq’s approach to saving money is to spend $20 regularly, instead of $80 rarely. Yes, it is insane).

  1. The bicentenary of Marx’s death has sparked a small flurry of activity, as well as the odd pilgrimage to Highgate Cemetary (where, irony of ironies, you are charged for admission). I really enjoyed this piece by Branko Milanovic, which emphasises just how much chance and events after his death contributed to his fame and influence. It’s always worth emphasising that Marx’s writings varied enormously, with much of the economics genuinely insightful and important, much of the history weakened by the sources he used and his rigid framework, and the social theory largely for the birds.
  2. The Economist is running a series on the shortcomings of the economics profession, and turns its gaze on the state of microeconomic research, simultaneously celebrating the rise of the empiricists and bemoaning the fact that there’s still so much variation in what they find. I’m definitely no apologist for the economics profession, but these critiques strike me as fundamentally flawed. The problem is not that economics cannot give us a straight answer about whether minimum wages are good; it’s that we want universalist certainty on things which can never have them. Economics teaches us how to think about these problems and assess trade-offs and risks – not what you should always think, always and everywhere.
  3. A friend has pointed out that virtually everything I say can be paraphrased as ‘I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that’, and yes, I’m aware it’s literally the title of Ben Goldacre’s book. I’ve been thinking a bit about data and privacy recently, to which that really applies. Maggie Koerth-Baker at 538 wrote a fantastic piece about this recently, pointing out a fundamental regulatory challenge: “all… privacy law and policy is framed around the idea of privacy as a personal choice” but increasingly, data is network based. There may be no answer to this problem.
  4. Apparently, I did my undergraduate degree at the same time Dave Donaldson was studying for his physics degree, in the same (pretty small) college. As far as I’m aware, I never once engaged him in conversation, which now seems like something of an error. He won last year’s John Bates Clark award, but given the snail’s pace of academic publishing, only now is Daron Acemoglu’s appreciation of his work
  5. Globalization is arbitrage… constrained by three costs: trade costs, or the cost of moving goods; communication costs, or the cost of moving ideas; and … the cost of moving people.” Richard Baldwin discusses globalization and trade, using a very simple football analogy to explain why it’s simultaneously raising overall human welfare by supporting the poorest, delivering outsize benefits to a few people and eroding the relative position of those who used to be in the middle. Read it.
  6. Duncan Green reviews a new book about aid, the best bit being the part which examines its domestic (i.e. in donor countries) political constituency. As an aside, why do people feel obliged to mention Dambisa Moyo every time someone writes about aid? Dead Aid was comfortably the worst use of paper I’ve ever encountered (Matt and I once gave a copy of the book away as a prize, complete with our frustrated scrawls in the margin, annotating every missed point and inanity).
  7. Lastly, I started back at work on a very limited basis this week, and one of my colleagues was literally in meetings from 9:30am till 6pm, so this piece from the Guardian on how organisations can minimise meetings feels a good place to end. I note that Barack Obama has copied my preference for the ‘walk and talk’ option, in my case preferably through St. James’s Park, interrupted by birdwatching.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

So, as predicted, the Great British Summer lasted slightly less time than it would take to learn the words to Got My Mind Set On You, and we’re now back in winter, at least in Oxford. Bah. And the playoffs are still completely draining all of my mental energy. After all, who needs sleep when you can watch LeBron do this instead (and you marvel at the fact that his team is so bad that he still might not go through). Thank god I don’t watch the IPL, or I’d be a zombie.

  1. Speaking of zombies, no-one seems to be able to kill the idea that the robots are coming to make us all unemployed. The new WDR is on the future of work, and in a fit of transparency the World Bank are uploading a new draft every week (because “I want to read the WDR every week” is apparently a thing that someone at the Bank thinks people are saying). Anyway, Duncan Green takes issue with the draft he read for being too optimistic about robots: he argues that just because they haven’t taken our jobs away in the past doesn’t mean they won’t this time. The problem with this argument is that there’s no evidence that it is different this time. Why would relative prices stop adjusting just because there’s a car without a driver in it? The pace of change may seem daunting, but it seemed pretty damn daunting in the past too: lamplighters must have had visions of the apocalypse when electric lighting was invented, and rightly. Jobs will be destroyed. The question is how fast, and how flexible we are for dealing with it.
  2. Related: while we worry far too much about sewbots taking jobs, Adrian Wood suggests we probably worried too little about trade doing the same. He’s not arguing that we need to erect the barriers and press the autarky button. Rather, he suggests that the academic arguments about globalisation in the 1990s fostered a false sense of security among policymakers. The ultimate conclusion that it would have a small effect on employment depended on assumptions about the flexibility of the economy and the labour market, including geographic mobility. If we want to do something sensible to prepare for the rise of the machines, it’s on that side. Luckily [heavy sarcasm voice] geographic mobility of workers is a completely uncontroversial topic, and so is housing.
  3. Staying on the general theme, Trump’s response to failure of the US to distribute the gains from globalisation fairly has been to engage in some trade policy button-mashing. I floated the prospect that it might actually work last week, but don’t worry – Rebecca Shimoni Stoil points out that the tariffs are hugely damaging to farmers, who are abandoning him in droves.
  4. The last salvo in the cash transfers war, as Berk Özler goes into minute detail (and this is a compliment) on his reading of the Give Directly evaluation, arguing that the large negative spillovers that Justin Sandefur deemed implausible are in the ballpark of previous studies, while the positive effects are not – they are much larger.
  5. This is brilliant: Samuel Bowles looks at the link between Marx’s view of how society and the firm are structured and those of Ronald Coase, Herbert Simon and Oliver Hart. I’ve read all four and never considered the links before – it’s a fascinating exercise, and leads Bowles to suggest that most economics is the economics of ‘solved political problems’, but the most interesting work is about open political problems. It’s an unconventional phrasing, but does illuminate some aspects of what differentiates some of the best new research.
  6. Planet Money do some digging into recent cases of grand corruption involving Chinese businessmen in Africa, and their links to State-Owned Enterprises and the massive Belt and Road initiative. It’s hard to summarise, but really worth listening to (transcript), even if I question some of the more reaching interpretations they make.
  7. Lastly, some glorious randomness: Noah Smith tries to interrogate the economics of rap music lyrics and is stunned to discover it’s capitalist and materialistic. What the heck was he listening to before he discovered that? Did he not know that Miami, DC prefer Versace? And that Meek didn’t, in fact, lease that Rolls Royce? That Rakim was, finally, Paid in Full? Though I suppose he might have been confused by the lax approach to property rights on show.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Welcome to the annual advent of low-productivity Ranil. It occurs during the relatively short coincidence of two events: the British summer bringing glorious sunshine and good cheer, hence reducing my ability to concentrate on my computer during the day (I’m writing these in the garden – thank god for WiFi); and the advent of the NBA Playoffs, severely denting my sleep patterns for fear of missing even 15 seconds of Playoff Lebron or (for the first time ever) Post-season Troll Embiid. I’m on limited sleep and even less patience. But still, on to the links.

  1. Was Biggie right after all? Do cash transfers actually cause more damage than they do good? I linked to a piece by Berk Özler last week that looked into the possibility of catastrophic negative spillovers in the recent long-term evaluation of the GD cash transfer programme in Kenya, but Justin Sandefur is here to keep you calm. He points out that the scale of the negative effects are so large as to be implausible, but this does not mean that all is sweetness and light. The findings do suggest that the gains to cash transfers are, while important, limited. They are not a cure-all; and they are not even a cure-something-for-ever. That said, they work for some things, for as long as you use them. If this was a medicine, we’d say it did its job – just so long as we were realistic about what that job is. You don’t take painkillers to cure a broken leg – just to dull the pain. He also cites the excellent Pam Jakiela to point out: “The idea that we want every poor person to run a bigger microenterprise is not entirely innocuous.”
  2. Tim Harford, a man who literally wrote a book called Messy about the value of chaos, reckons that Donald Trump’s style of ‘governance’ is way too chaotic to work. I’m still reeling from my confident predictions that Trump could never win either a presidential nomination, nor an election against a sentient human being, so I make no predictions on how this will all play out. I would like Tim to be right, but do we underestimate how much is actually working pretty well? Is his North Korea policy in danger of becoming sensible? Might the tariff threats between the US and China end in a negotiated settlement the US benefits from? We shouldn’t discount all of this altogether.
  3. FiveThirtyEight continues to be the best outlet to read about the MeToo movement, and its complexities. Here, Kathryn Casteel and Andrea Jones-Rooy talk about the difficulties our limited vocabulary relating to the different kinds of ‘sextual misconduct/harassment/assault’ generate for action, activism and justice.
  4. I used to joke about Alex Tabarrok’s ‘tinfoil hat blogging’, but he’s been making a lot of sense recently (I’ve just checked my head, and I’m not wearing any kind of hat at all). Here he argues that Facebook never took ‘our data’. It co-created it.
  5. Dan Rogger writes a round-up of the latest work on governance, institutions and public policy. It’s excellent.
  6. Magical economics, part 3 of a continuing series: it turns out that the costs of structural reforms to labour markets are smallest for those countries that need them most.
  7. Amazingly, the coolest thing that happened this week was not Justise Winslow and Joel Embiid trading blocks last night. Rather, it was the release of Prince’s hitherto unheard original studio recording of Nothing Compares 2 U, and the incredible accompanying video. Not only is his version predictably amazing, just look at the moves he’s busting – in the studio! Soundtrack for the summer sorted. (The track is only slightly shorter than the British summer, too…).

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

It’s an early morning links round-up today, as I’m showing my visiting mother around all day (which mainly seems to consist of a tour of all the bookstores in the UK – if you ever wonder where I get my reading habits, it runs in the family). I’m going to let you all in on a secret: I am not a morning person, so bear that in mind when you read the inchoate and incoherent jumble of words below. If at work you ever want a thoughtful opinion from me, wait till after 10am. That’s no guarantee you’ll get it, but at least you’ll maximise your chances…

  1. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I don’t tweet, so I missed this until a friend sent it to me: Chris Blattman asked people for ‘unpopular’ research findings in development. Unsurprisingly, Lant Pritchett had a few. What makes Lant a great communicator is that he finds the controversy and argument in what he wants to get across – he either thrills or annoys you into listening. This list is as good as you’d expect from him: he points out that democracies have a much tighter variance in growth rates than non-democracies, so most major growth and poverty-eradication experiences come from non-democracies (with an obvious flip side); that in absolute terms, it’s still better to be poor in a rich place than rich in a poor one, whatever Angus thinks; and that any within-country gaps in outcomes still pale compared to the across-country gaps.
  2. Speaking of good communicators, I was pretty devastated when Hans Rosling died last year – he had a rare gift of being both an absolutely riveting speaker and being absolutely honest with data and evidence in building his discourse. Many great speakers rely on distorting analogies or reductio ad absurdium to get their points across. Hans used our own biases to surprise us with simple fact. Tim Harford writes about the book he was writing with his children, now published: unsurprisingly, the review is positive. I will be buying it, and encourage others to as well.
  3. I had a secondary school teacher who loved quoting Keynes (more generally, he just loved Keynes, as the macroeconomist in me still does). Every few lessons, someone would point out that ‘in the long run, this system should reach an equilibrium’, to which he would inevitably shoot back “in the long run, we’re all dead”. But how long is the long run? David Evans investigates, and finds that macroeconomists consider everything from 9 to 10,000 years to be ‘the long run’. (I’m not typically a fan of path-dependency papers that say X happening 300 years ago led to Y today without any real analysis of why it didn’t change or what mechanisms translate the effects to the present day, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
  4. Occupational segregation is increasingly part of the popular discourse on gender inequality in work, which is fantastic, as it’s slowly crowding out those naïve comparisons of average hourly compensation that have dominated the discussion to date (in developing contexts, Markus and his brilliant team in the World Bank do great work on this). This fantastic article by Maggie Koerth-Baker explains why this shift matters so much: it focuses our attention on a different set of root problems and solutions, and also allows us to see how uneven the progress to date has been. While things like education or outright discrimination have declined as explanatory factors in the gender pay gap in America, for example, they’ve declined more for white people than for others – so race is now a more important explanatory variable than it was 40 years ago.
  5. The Economist on the development of an academic science community of Africans, in Africa.
  6. Good research into the penalty you accrue in the labour market from being a refugee compared to an immigrant; Lant points out that development gains from movement far outweigh what you get from staying put, but not all forms of movement are equal. (And speaking of immigrants, the making of Little Punjab in Southhall).
  7. What do you think the best thing about The Rock is?… It doesn’t matter what you think the best thing about the Rock is! The Ringer lays out all you need to make an awesome movie starring The Rock. Mainly, you need the Rock. Then you need an enormous enemy for him to lay the smack down on. And if you manage to pair him up with an albino gorilla taking steroids (not you, Brock), well.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Sorry I forgot to warn you all that I wouldn’t be sending any links out before Easter: partly forgetfulness, partly the fact that my stomach had entirely overtaken my brain in anticipation of our Easter trip to Italy. The preparatory re-routing of blood to my belly proved a good move as much more of me has returned than left (a growth rate that would make China blush with shame). I’ve just spent hours catching up with my RSS feed. This one might be a bit epic, but on the plus side they start with a clip from Ferris Bueller and end with Justin Bieber’s moobs.

  1. How often do you get to preach free trade with the help of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? But if you remember the greatest teaching scene in the history of movies (thankfully, no idiot climbs up on his desk to shout ‘oh Captain, my Captain’) you’ll know that the tariffs made famous by Ferris Bueller’s absence, those of the Smoot-Hawley Act made the Great Depression – anyone, anyone? – worse, not better. Planet Money uses this scene as a stepping off point to talk some of the dumber tariffs of all time here (transcript); they also investigate the effects of China’s retaliatory tariffs here (transcript, note that the US and China have now escalated the proposed schedules and China will be imposing tariffs on Boeing and soybeans), pointing out they’re hitting agriculture hard to hit Trump’s base. 538 used the impending trade war to teach us a little game theory, but found that their readers tended to get more vindictive as games repeated, rather than less, as the theory would predict. We might all be headed to an – anyone? Anyone? – recession, but at least we got some good reading.
  2. Let’s cheer up by reminding ourselves how dumb our more popular political instincts are. Jonathan Portes summarises around 20 years of reading on the effects of immigration on the UK’s economy and points out that not only does it have no negative effect on employment in the medium/long run, it appears it doesn’t have any in the short run, either (Adam is saying ‘magic economics’ somewhere); it increases productivity; and increases wages for most of the distribution. Also, immigration increases in the US haven’t increased crime: if anything they’re associated with lower crime. And if the US does restrict its H1-B visas, not only will it disproportionately hit the most highly-skilled groups, it seems local people will not be employed in their stead – companies would just shrink.
  3. Lant mentions immigration in this barnburner of a post, but really it’s about focusing on the big questions of economics. Elaborating on a point he made in our last economics conference, he points out that successful growth accelerations (or decelerations) have a much, much larger impact on welfare than even the best things donors can implement directly, like cash transfers or livelihoods work. I agree with Lant that the big questions are the most important ones, but the implied either/or isn’t there for me. Not everyone should be doing the same kind of work. We need more Lants, but not fewer Esthers.
  4. Speaking of more Esthers, a series of podcasts with women in economics – the most recent one is Claudia Sahm. And researchers have found that in the movies, men are much more likely to be smart and make cognitively sophisticated points. Someone should show them Iron Fist, which should really be renamed ‘Leaden Brain’. Lastly, Justin Sandefur argues that girls education is not the answer to the gender pay gap; the problems lie elsewhere (he is not, obviously, saying we shouldn’t fund it – it is the answer to a lot of other things).
  5. I’ve thought about this a lot, because I expect some of the things I want to research to throw up null results: how do you emphasise how interesting the lack of a statistically significant effect is? David Evans has answers. Also on Development Impact, Berk goes into great detail about why the new Give Directly results imply no long-term effect from cash transfers in the setting investigated.
  6. Dietz is back – and he’s dissecting a paper from the fantastic Jane Humphries, who taught me years ago, when I was an 18 year-old.
  7. “OK, so basic income is all about the freedom to say no. That’s a privilege for the rich right now. With a basic income, you can say no to a job you don’t want to do. You can say no to a city in which you no longer want to live. You can say no to an employer who harasses you at work . . . that’s what real freedom looks like.” There’s some I disagree with here (especially the implication that in developing countries structural problems can be ignored and cash will solve all), but a very good piece on UBIs.
  8. Lastly, as a reward for wading through all those links, a definitive ranking of all the ridiculous tattoos on Justin Bieber’s ridiculous torso. Did you know he has what appears to be a lion wearing a tiny crown tattooed on one of his moobs? There’s a bear on the other one. He looks like the drawing wall at a kindergarten.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

I’m going to be honest: my brain is fried. The CSAE conference started on Sunday morning, and I was either in a session, picking brains for opinions about my own research design or pickling brains with Matt in The Bear pretty much constantly until Wednesday morning; then there was the one-day GrOW conference, about research on women and economic growth; and after that a half day in DFID where I spent some time lobbing grenades of ill-informed speculation at some of the smartest researchers out there on gender and jobs, growth and the economy, trying to work out what the frontiers for new research are. So, if this week’s links are even more incoherent than usual, that’s the reason; that and the fact that I’ve spent the day trying to get my own ideas into some kind of coherent shape for transfer of status. They are putting up an enormous fight against my attempts to impose order, like a group of highly persistent anarchists in my brain.

  1. The CSAE conference is amazing. The sheer range of research being presented by researchers from the US, Europe and Africa was mind-boggling, and logistically what must have been a nightmare to synchronise went off without a hitch. I wrote something about each of the three days: on the first, talking about Pamela Jakiela’s paper with Owen Ozier, considering the links between ‘gendered language’ and female outcomes; on the second I focused on Rachel Glennerster’s fantastic keynote, while noting that I think not all researchers are good at communication, nor should focus too much on becoming so; and on the final day, talking about optimisation, and how the limits to how people make decisions can help frame our understanding of the world. If that’s not enough, check out Markus and co’s set of one-line summaries of most of the research presented; and the #OxCSAE2018 tag on twitter. My only gripe: when the chair asks for a short question, please stop with the speeches disguised as questions.
  2. Raj Chetty has just released the latest paper from his gargantuan equality of opportunity project, and it’s a barn-burner. He shows that while being born to wealthy parents is typically a great predictor of one’s own wealth, this is not true for black males, who have large gaps in their employment and wage results compared to similar white males. Paper here, NYT coverage here.
  3. While we’re being pessimistic about the world, Seema Jayachandran blogs on the persistent and substantial gender gap in the kind of things men and women study in academic economics. Also depressing: a court case is raging in California, about who should pay for climate change. 538 have a fantastic summary of how it’s being argued, and it boils down to whether you blame fossil fuel companies for digging the stuff up, or society for wanting it.
  4. I really liked this research from Japan, using an experimental design to elicit attitudes about migration from elderly Japanese without really making it clear that it was about migration at all. Two interesting things: first, it manages to partly separate out the economic and cultural objections to migration; and it manages to induce people to change their attitudes towards migration by providing information on the former.
  5. In a kind of empirical economics version of Pacific Rim, Guido Imbens brings the ruckus to Angus Deaton’s critique of RCTs. I feel strongly that you should only read this while listening to the GZA verse of Bring da Ruckus.
  6. Brian McCaig and Nina Pavcnik look at the effect of a trade agreement between Vietnam and the US on labour demand. We were literally discussing the need for more research on the demand effects on employment yesterday. This fits the bill.
  7. Lastly, with March Madness in full swing, a reminder that DeAndre Ayton may not be in the Elite Eight, but he could still fold you up and play you like an accordion.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Who’s optimizing what, now?

As a horde of tired and wired academics prepare to converge on Stefan and Pramila’s (I feel like this has to instrument for something) this evening, I’m using what little is left of my brain to think about some of the links between the various sessions I attended today – on migration, education and institutions, and the final panel on the limits of evidence-based interventions. The papers themselves were hugely varied, with slides ranging from detailed maps of Addis Ababa to screenshots from a role-playing game a researcher created for a lab experiment. As an aside: has anyone documented the rise of pop-culture paper titles over the last decade? The biggest surprise of the week was that none of the job-search papers was called Searching with my Good Eye Closed.

One thing that occurs to me: in some way, a number of the papers being presented examine (or inadvertently) reveal the surprising ways individuals and firms or groups optimise (or don’t) some of the most fundamental decisions they’re making. In the morning, Zack Barnett-Howell presented a very cool lab experiment he ran, showing how well people process information to optimise a ‘migration’ decision in a game he designed – doing better than the computer, which is pretty staggering. So, chalk one up for optimisation. So, feed people information and watch social welfare grow? Not quite: the discussion in that session was rammed with people who have been doing field research or working in migration policy, and the consensus seemed to be that information doesn’t seem to really shift what people actually do. As Zack said, what a lab experiment can show is an underlying mechanism – not necessarily all the nuances it manifests in reality with, particularly when we know as little as we do about the decision to migrate in practice, and what activates it.

There was a throwaway comment in Justin Sandefur’s education presentation that I found amazing in the opposite direction – he mentioned that all the various education providers he was investigating had completely different practices when it came to managing their teachers. They’re all trying to optimise something (in this case the effort/impact of their teachers, subject to cost), but they’ve settled on totally different ways of doing it. Now it’s possible that they’re all optimising cleanly with totally different technologies, but it’s got to be equally plausible that noise just drowns out the last bits of signal. Getting that last 10% of effort might not matter that much as long as you’ve got the 90 in the absence of the kind of cutthroat competition that kills everything but the absolute best.

I’m going to torture this back around to the final panel – policy is, in many ways, not a process of optimisation subject to evidence. It’s a process of occasionally making incremental improvements over the next cab on the rank. That doesn’t mean that research shouldn’t be about constantly looking for margins of improvement. It just means that which battles are available to fight are often a small subset of the battles that matter; and that the costs of getting things perfect (personally and globally) might be prohibitive, or outweigh the gains available; and that the most useful metric for success is getting better, not getting ‘best’.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sleep for a week.

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Bring your whole toolbox, and kill your priors

I’m a DFID economist, working out of a public policy school, so Rachel Glennerster’s superb keynote presentation was like catnip to me. She talked about turning research into policy impact, a production function of sorts that remains something of a black box, despite being the presumed intention of all social science (as Rachel asked – if we’re not trying to change things, then why the hell are we here?).

There aren’t many economists better placed to talk about this: her research pedigree is well-established, but she’s done time at HMT, the IMF and now DFID; her presentation well-reflected her experience. A lot of what she discussed focused on those margins of communication and engagement that don’t have a very direct return on the research incentives of an academic economist – things like repetition of the message (you don’t change minds with a single presentation); good use of descriptive data; focus on the broader literature and not just one’s own paper; and engaging in the language of policy rather than academia. She located her advice in a behavioural theory of research uptake by policy makers – something like quasi-hyperbolic discounting, with up front costs looming very much higher than substantial long-run benefits. More subtly, she was also appealing to the intrinsic motivation of researchers: much of the implied gain to better engagement from researchers was about using evidence to make the world better, at least in the dimension your research covers. (She did point out the research returns to gaining the trust of a policy partner, too).

Coming from a policy background, I loved Rachel’s suggestions. My inner geek rejoices when a presenter at DFID spends 15 slides on identification, but I know they’ve lost the room before they get to their results; and my experience is that good descriptives and a strong story often carry more weight than a poorly explained or contextualised causal estimate. If researchers listen to her, I’m pretty confident policy makers will listen more to researchers.

But in discussion with some of the people who commission research for DFID, they’ve surprisingly often pushed back at the idea that academics should be the people fighting for policy change. The skills required to have great policy impact and to be a great researcher don’t often overlap (though they sometimes do – as with Rachel). So perhaps this is a conversation crying out for an interpreter? More specialisation might not be the answer, but surely that job of translating good research into the language of politics and policy is or should be the central job of good think tanks. In any case, I am very much in favour of more direct contact between researchers and policy makers. It doesn’t just improve research uptake, but also the questions we choose to ask.

On that note, before I started my career break from DFID, I spent a lot of time discussing what the right questions were if we wanted to investigate what is holding back job creation in productive activities in Africa, and in the afternoon, Francis Teal presented his take on it. It was a fantastic presentation, not least because he started it by explaining that the results he would present completely contradicted previous research he did. It smashed my priors, too: I went in expecting him to tell us there was a bargaining/rent sharing explanation for the high wages paid by large firms in Africa, but the story turns out to be much more complex, and at root one about the scarcity, and marginal return, of capital. I can’t do justice to the research here, partly because I will be digesting it for some time, but anyone interested in the topic should read it.

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