Links round up

Hi all,

Am I allowed to ignore disastrous failures of judgement in the weekly links? You know, the kind of slow-motion car-crash disasters that make you despair, question your future and engage in cut-rate Kierkegaardian – massive props to autocorrect for recognising that, btw – fatalism? I am, of course, referring to the ongoing omnishambles that is the Sri Lankan cricket team, currently in the process of throwing themselves into a deep well of cricketing incompetence. Of course I was talking about the cricket. What else has been going on that fits that description?

  1. The annual Development Impact Job Market Papers series is pretty much the best regular thing that happens on the internet, with the exception of NBA twitter memes (Alonzo Mourning acceptance is pretty much how the I react to the front page of the papers every day now). Two really interesting papers caught my attention this week: the first, by Erin Kelley is a clever experiment that uses mobile phone tracking data to reduce informational asymmetries between the owners of Kenyan Matatus and their drivers, which also seems to sharpen incentives. The really interesting stuff from this paper isn’t the core result per se but the implications: one issue is that this appears to be at least partly a transfer of power from labour to owners, but high proportion of workers reported a better employee-employer relationship afterwards (Erin rings the external validity klaxon herself on this point, though). Also this week: Christian Meyer suggests present-bias results in reduced in-employment job-search, with the implication that workforce churn isn’t high enough in Ethiopia. I will need to read this one in detail, as it goes fully against my priors.
  2. Duncan Green speculates about what an Oxfam programme run entirely on experimental lines would look like. “Expensive”, is one answer. More generally, it would require a commitment to subjugate any narrative spin to a specific kind of evidence which will sometimes be contradictory – is an advocacy-heavy organisation ever going to do that? Or a politically-controlled donor? Maybe the real answer is “like J-Pal, so why not fund them instead?”
  3. On a recommendation, I recently read Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, a book that examines the use of machine learning and smart algorithms to target services and learn about markets (my review: Type 1 error matters; feedback is crucial; market power is a problem; and equity and efficiency sometimes trade off – in sum, learn economics). This piece by Monica Andini and others suggests that machine learning, while unable to generate causal policy value (i.e. proving that X causes Y, so we should/shouldn’t do it) does have predictive policy value (i.e. predicting that X will happen, so we should prepare for it). They should have read O’Neill. One of the issues with this is that we would have to limit the information used by these machines, because some of it will lead to discrimination: if race correlates with likelihood of default, should we start thinking about restricting access to student loans on that basis? If the answer seems obvious, you may be surprised by some of the algorithms in current use.
  4. W. Gyude Moore at CGD argues that ‘Billions to Trillions’ is more slogan than reality in Africa, and will be until a different approach is developed.
  5. Reasons to globalise: firms with more global networks of customers and suppliers are much less affected by natural disasters than those with a more local scope. While this should be obvious anyway, it’s nice to have evidence that the retreat from international economic exchange is perhaps a bad idea.
  6. And finally, because my head feels like the Incredible Hulk has been negotiating with me, two bits of marginalia that reflect my headache-induced mood: first, is this the grossest thing that happens in fast-food joints? I certainly hope so (warning for the faint-of-stomach: it involves a grilled rat). Second, are you, too, disgusted by how early Christmas stuff starts every year? Then this Ringer appreciation of Scrooged is for you. It’s made me want to go home and rewatch it, if only to see Bill Murray literally scare someone to death.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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