Links round-up

Hi all,

Even after a week in Hong Kong, I still get culture shock returning to the UK. People complaining about crowds here after I’ve been fighting my way through Causeway Bay at rush hour make me feel like Crocodile Dundee; my four pounds at lunchtime now buys me a soggy disgrace of a sandwich instead of this magnificent bowl; and the phrase “it’s really hot today” means wearing a slightly thinner jumper rather than a slow descent into a puddle of human sweat. Still, there are benefits to being back, including writing the links again, my favourite task of the week even when my RSS feed is an avalanche of geekery. Once more unto the breach:

  1. Every once in a while, the stars align and my central interests in life collide to form a supernova of incandescent geekery. It happened when Kirk Goldsberry introduced spatial mapping to the analysis of professional basketball and it is happening again now, as a few economists decide to surf the zeitgeist with articles and books about the economics of the Marvel superheroes. Starting gently, Tim Harford investigates whether the Malthusian-with-an-Infinity-Gauntlet, Thanos actually had a point when he wiped out half of humanity in Infinity War. After all, in Endgame [redacted] tells [redacted] about a pod of whales he saw swimming in the Hudson. Was Thanos right? Was Malthus? Lest you succumb to homicidal mania in pursuit of ecological balance, Tim Harford is here to put you right. Thanos is not right (and while I’m at it, the doughnut is just a nice pair of trousers lacking the suspenders of sound analysis). Planet Money dig deeper. Ever wonder why Jessica Jones has a job, and everyone in Luke Cage’s life complains that they need him to make some money? It’s because they’re producing public goods without the benefit of a taxation system to pay for it. Why doesn’t Superman take over the world? If he can instead defend the institutions that do the hard work of governing properly without doing so, why bother? (Transcript).
  2. Why do economists love taking on the frivolous in this fashion? I do it a lot myself, and most of my explanation of economics in teaching takes the form of metaphor and similie. David Evans, himself one of the best communicators in economics, summarises a paper that demonstrates that clarity pays off handsomely in influence. I can hear all the non-academics facepalming now (“really? Did we need research to know that incomprehensible gobbledygook is ignored?”) but the message is important for those of us who do any analysis or research. Explain yourself simply and it’s simple to understand.
  3. Meanwhile, always resist the other temptation, to pimp up your finding to make it sound much more than it is. The twitter feed @justsaysinmice digs into sensationalist headlines and points out when the findings are based entirely on trials conducted in mice. Economics needs a version of this, for all the partial equilibrium results trumpeted as solutions to problems like unemployment.
  4. Really excellent VoxDev video in which Erick Gong shows results that find that people who are given HIV tests and are surprised to discover they are positive are less likely to take due precautions in future sexual activity. He calls this the ‘nothing left to lose’ effect. I call it the ‘people are effing appalling and maybe Thanos was right’ effect.
  5. When is a conditional cash transfer unconditional? When there’s an election round the corner. Eliana La Ferrara drops knowledge, covered in the Economist.
  6. Rich parents tend to have rich kids. Part of this effect is simply though inheritance, after which the only skill a rich child has to show is the ability not to fritter away a fortune on wine, women and amateur dramatics. Part of the effect, though, is what this research summarises as nurture: having (most likely) well-educated parents and a stable home life, as well as the various connections a rich parent affords you (one would imagine). This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it should make you even more committed to doing something about inequality.
  7. Good news for exports geeks: a VoxDev piece digs into the data on the domestic content of Chinese exports and suggests that its extraordinary growth was at least partly due to bucking the global trend in declining domestic content in exported goods. Unfortunately, it’s not so good on how you replicate this.
  8. Lastly, it’s playoff times, a magical time of year when the committed witness 4am buzzer beaters from absurd distances by Dame Lillard in a state of fatigued hallucination. But the best story of the playoffs by far is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis lays a strong claim to being the greatest player in the world now and has a good chance of becoming a champion in the next couple of weeks. He is also a refugee, the son of Nigerian refugees to Greece. He was stateless until one month before he finally joined the NBA, still selling sunglasses on a Greek beach to make money, with his asylum application being processed. He’s now a Greek Olympian and a proper feel-good story.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

I’ve spent much of my week knee-deep in a one-million line Excel spreadsheet which has the power to make my laptop spontaneously collapse and fray my patience until the final, tenuous strand that keeps me tethered to my sanity is inches from collapse. Honestly, despite my nine hour struggle to open the spreadsheet for long enough to update some of the data yesterday, I’ve been grateful for it as it distracts me from both the appalling (goings on in Sri Lanka, how many times does internecine violence need to repeat until it is exhausted? And how many times do I need to link this piece from Tim Harford reminding us not to reward terrorists with our terror, hatred or overreactions); and the amazing: I am going to see Endgame on Sunday and basically I’m only half aware of anything I do or say as 50% of my brain is devoted to breathless anticipation. Let’s distract ourselves with economics.

  1. A couple of weeks ago, Planet Money ran a fascinating two-parter on one of the odder episodes in economic history: the close association of a group of economists from the University of Chicago (including, briefly, Milton Friedman) and the Pinochet regime in Chile. You need to listen to both parts (transcript 1transcript 2), as the first alone does not at all reflect the overall balance of the commentary. It’s quite chilling hearing some of the interviewees so neatly divorce the economic strategy they implemented from the horrific brutality and political repression that it bolstered and in turn bolstered it. As Andy Haldane said a couple of years ago, the best economist is the one with dirty shoes, and you get a sense that some of these ones never got so much as a scuff on theirs. (As a bonus, two more from PM: On the introversion earnings penalty, and working out when – rather than whether – minimum wages do harm).
  2. Speaking of dirty shoes, I really enjoyed this set of interviews with the enumerators working for IPA. We spend a lot of our time reading research and thinking about poverty but there are fascinating stories everywhere.
  3. I first became familiar with Doug Gollin’s work through his very careful paper on the agricultural productivity deficit in developing countries, which demonstrated that the gap between urban and rural productivity wasn’t so bafflingly large as we had previously thought (which was an enormous puzzle for economists, because it implied correspondingly enormous barriers to movement between sectors). His latest working paper with Chris Udry, which I first saw presented a year or two ago does a similarly careful analysis of productivity differentials across farms, again showing they are not quite so bafflingly large as we thought, with a similar implication for the barriers to land trading. The paper is dated December 2018, but for some reason it only now popped up in my RSS.
  4. One of my prized possessions is a copy of the 1969 classic, The Peter Principle, which posits that organisations promote people based on their ability in junior jobs, which is at best uncorrelated with their ability to do more senior jobs. We’ve all seen this: someone who is brilliant at being an analyst becoming a bad manager. It was originally written as a joke, and has never really been proven, though. Recent research suggests that there might be something to it, however, though I wouldn’t lean too heavily on these correlations…
  5. I envy Dietrich Vollrath’s students. His fifth post in his series on the deep roots of development, which covers geography, institutions, culture and the like and their effect on long run economic outcomes is a masterclass in clarity of thought and expression. I’m very dubious of much of the ‘deep roots’ literature, not because I don’t think there’s any truth to them, but because they tend to overclaim and oversell. I get the sense that this isn’t too far from Dietz’ position.
  6. Branko’s musings are equally brillianthere he looks at the possibility that growth in the global North may be causally bad for the South through its climate effects. Branko is as sceptical as you will probably be of the econometrics here (it’s Barro all over again) but his discussion is fascinating, linking these ideas to the old literature on dependency theory (something my 18 year old self was convinced of and my 37 year old self just facepalmed over; I think the crossing over happened at around 21).
  7. There is more and more literature on the longer term impacts of cash transfers and they seem to be converging on a few key points: that in the longer run, many effects diminish; that certain once-and-for-all changes they induce can have long term benefits; and that even if the long term effects are minimal, the short term effects are far from trivial. Berk Ozler summarises.
  8. Finally, in a list with plenty to enrage and amuse, the BBC have tried to pick the 100 stories with the greatest global cultural impact. There are some oddities, which is part of what makes this kind of thing so fun: Howl outranks the Ramayana (how many of your were able to discern the story in Howl, irrespective of how iconic the first lines are). And apparently, climate change is starting to hit the Emperor penguins, so apart from the fact that they’re dressed rather ridiculously, those protesters outside have got a point.

Have a great weekend, everyone! I’m off to Hong Kong soon, so no links for the next two weeks.

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

The world is so odd right now. In the last week, we’ve seen the US President tweet out an advert set to the Batman music (thanks to Huw, I was able to watch it in all of its glorious insanity before it was taken down), featuring the line “they call you a racist”; the Daily Star deciding – in 2019 – that it might be a bit weird to have topless women right at the front of the newspaper (well done, guys, you’re only around 2 centuries behind); Chinese scientists adding human genes relating to brain function to a monkey (Pogo?); and LeBron James not being in the NBA Playoffs. Eventful, too: Assange being dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy looking like Trevor Slattery, Omar al-Bashir being removed in Sudan (and replaced by the army – can anyone suggest what I should read to understand all of this better? Does this mean Sudan get a version of this t-shirt?), Joaquin Phoenix gearing up to be the third iconic Joker (seriously: this trailer has me more excited than the Endgame ones).

 

  1. Let’s keep with momentous events with the first link, shall we? A team of 200 researchers have collaborated to produce the first ever image of a black hole, which looks exactly like what any six year old would have drawn when tasked with designing one. But what’s incredibly cool about all of this is not actually the image, but the technology they’ve used to assemble it. The researchers have basically used a series of techniques to put together multiple highly incomplete data sources to produce a near complete composite picture. As 538 point out, Black Holes might be one of the least valuable applications of this work, which might one day revolutionise medical diagnosis and imaging, for example. Among the brilliant researchers working on this project was an absurdly young woman in charge of creating the algorithm underlying much of this, building on work she started as a 23 year old. She’s 29 now. Another shovelful of dirt with which to bury stereotypes about gender and science. Related: CEPR’s new Women in Economics initiative.
  2. While we aren’t at all certain what the final implications of that particular technological innovation will be, Owen Barder and colleagues at CGD make the case for the central role of technology in development in this blog, using the relationship between child mortality and income to illustrate their points. While at any point in time, there is a general negative relationship between income and child mortality (that is, if you have more money, your children are less likely to die young), Owen and co point out that this curve has itself been shifting downwards. Essentially, improvements in how we deal with child mortality means that over time, your ‘child health purchasing power’ per dollar has been increasing. While a lot of the writing on technology and development has been so poor as to be almost absurd, this is worth reading. Always keep in mind, though, what they mean by technology: not typically ultrasounds or fancy new machines but things like vaccines, plastic tubs to transport clean water and so on.
  3. Another couple of great pieces on the CGD blog this week: first, as befits the man who wrote Getting Better, Charles Kenny takes down Robert Kaplan’s recent assertion that his famous article ‘The Coming Anarchy’ has held up well over time. Kenny points out that while a couple of his doomy predictions look good, West Africa has outperformed virtually all of his other dire predictions. And Michael Clemens says what Donald Trump could have discovered with five minutes of research or critical thought, beyond him as they may be: cutting aid to the Northern Triangle is not going to help him reduce migration.
  4. Guo Xu, whose feat as a DPhil student in coding an entire colonial civil service database still leaves me slightly breathless in admiration, has written a new paper with Marianne Bertrand and Robin Burgess, arguing that allocating civil servants to the areas they’re from reduces their performance, and in particular leaves them less able to withstand political pressure.
  5. Speaking of data, I liked this by Tim Harford: what we measure, how we measure it and what we miss out have serious implications for how the world changes and can be changed. Sometimes we can be obsessed by ‘big data’, and I’m struck by how often the people ask me ‘how many observations do you have’ when I talk about potential research, but the most important first question is ‘how good are the data’? Pollsters have known this for years: it’s far better to have a small(ish) sample that is well balanced across a population than a big sample with a defined blind spot, which is much more likely to bias your conclusions. As Tim points out, the blind spot often have isn’t so much a ‘spot’ as a ‘half’, given the paucity of data about women.
  6. Related: sometimes it’s super expensive to collect good data, so checking if readily available alternatives are usable is always helpful. Sometimes local experts are as reliable as price surveys.
  7. April means two things: the NBA Playoffs start, and County Cricket kicks off again. The playoffs are a funny event. Everyone already knows the ending: Golden State win, deploying a line up featuring four hall of fame locks, three of the four greatest shooters of all time and two of the five best players of the century. But what happens before that might still be interesting, even if it will never involve Dirk Nowitzki again, standard bearer for unathletic, unlikely superstars. Not supporting a county myself, the main interest is keeping tabs on who’s up for England this year, and the early signs are VERY encouraging: Haseeb Hameed has scored a century in a warm up and is currently unbeaten with a fifty in his first match. With any luck, this is the future of English batting, right here.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

You know, every once in a while my mood just plummets after spending five minutes reading the news and not just for the obvious reasons. I’m very much a big-picture optimist, in the Max Roser camp of taking the long view to realise how much better things are getting. Every once in a while, though, people  behave like such complete s**ts that even a gregarious optimist like me has no response but a massive face palm and an expletive filled rant at the world. Two examples: the NRA campaigning against a domestic violence bill because they think it’s overkill to deny convicted abusers of their guns (not The Onion); and Danny Rose having had all the joy sucked out of being a professional footballer by the sheer level and frequency of the racist abuse he has to endure. Seriously, even if things are getting better, there’s still a lot of selfish, mean-spirited idiocy in the world. It’s incumbent upon all of us to do something against it.

  1. At the CSAE conference, Nick Lea said (to spontaneous applause) that the requirement of every paper to be built around a piece of causally robust econometrics was hampering the discipline. Many of the problems that we should care most about may have no prospect of being ‘solved’ by such approaches, he said . He’s not alone. A number of economists I’ve spoken to have expressed similar concerns; one, a recently-retired (and very brilliant) professor, said he thought what young economists are taught now is orthogonal to what they should care about. David Evans takes up the (measured) defence of regression-based economics, arguing that it is our best way of falsifying hypotheses and therefore being scientific about the accumulation of knowledge; he also talks about modelling as an alternative way of structuring econ papers. I rather suspect that the key part of Nick’s complaint was that we start with the constraint to use econometrics as our falsifying procedure. Instead we should start with the selection of the most important question and then pick the best available falsification, even imperfect.
  2. Back in the intro, I mentioned the racist abuse Danny Rose is subject to as a football player. In not-unrelated news, research shows that media outlets are far more likely to report a crime if it’s performed by an ‘outsider’ (in this case an immigrant) than a native-born person. We have a moral responsibility to argue for and promote a more thoughtful, evidenced and compassionate approach to migration, as Michael Clemens and Kate Gough do here, even when the messages aren’t the easiest ones to sell.
  3. I’ve often said that one of the best things about 538 is how scrupulously it examines its own performance in forecasting and making predictions. This piece by Nate Silver, looking at thousands of forecasts the site have made is fantastic, demonstrating just how important making probabilistic forecasts is.
  4. More economic policy should start with David Bowie. When Bowie was in the midst of his career, he wanted to raise a substantial lump sum to invest in future musical ventures. What he did was sell the rights to a fraction of his future royalties for a defined period of time. The idea has now spread to the education sector, where in some countries, you can be fully funded for university education in exchange for a small percentage of your future earnings, subject to a ceiling. Planet Money has the details (transcript). And since it all started with Bowie, Starman.
  5. I really liked this VoxEU piece on zombie firms, something that should be a much bigger topic in developing countries than it is. The idea is that these are firms that can’t actually compete on productivity or cost grounds but do not fail and die either, due to some other advantage they have (in the VoxEU case, it comes from the banking system, but it could easily be political connections). The existence of these firms has knock on effects for economy wide productivity which are not all obvious.
  6. Branko Milanovic summarises all the fights Francis Fukuyama tried to pick with mainstream economics in his new book, The Origins of Political Order.
  7. Speaking of slapdash economics, I found this via MR: almost all studies about the effects of social media use / screen time are based on fundamentally unsound measurement, so very few of those ridiculous ‘ten extra minutes on facebook makes you 20% more likely to run into a wall’ headlines actually are as rubbish as they sound.
  8. Lastly, I’m not really sure how to treat the news that Skillrex can protect you from Malaria: do we now propose prescribing anti-malarials and Wild for the Night on repeat? And if A$AP Rocky is too violent and ridiculous for you, try this: I’ve been listening to 70s soul classics all week, and my goodness they don’t make them like they used to. Stevie Wonder plays Sesame Street and make it feel like Montreux; Marvin Gaye hits on an entire room at once on Soul Train; and David Ruffin sounds like he’s having an exorcism during the chorus of Rainy Night in Georgia.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Normally as the calendar turns towards Spring, the intros to the links become easier and easier to write: I make some comment about the first rays of sunshine (I took an hour-long walk over my lunch break today and remembered what it was like not to be constricted by a woollen python around my neck to prevent pneumonia), the birds in my garden (today extending to a Jay and a number of duelling Robins) and some comment about the incipient NBA playoffs.  But it’s become harder and harder not to mention the big blue furry monster, tied up as it is (at least in one scenario) with the full turn of the seasons in early April. And that’s not the only sign of change: LeBron will not be in the playoffs this year, after eight consecutive trips to the final, no less; and we’ve lost yet another musical hero. Scott Walker was deeply odd, deeply visionary and wrote one of my favourite pop songs of all time. I’ll try make the rest of the links less depressing, but make no promises.

  1. Actually, let’s double down on depressing for a moment, shall we? Planet Money ran a pair of shows (transcript 1, 2) this week about Venezuela, interviewing an economist in Caracas (affiliated with the opposition, it should be noted). The numbers coming out of there are mind-boggling, but also mind-numbing: how do you even think about 10 million per cent inflation? A rate so high that as soon as you change your money into Bolivars (if you’re lucky enough to be paid in dollars), you have to run to the store to avoid prices rising while you shop? Where average weight has fallen by 25 pounds? Even if you think the numbers are juked, even doubled, what’s that – 5 million per cent and 12.5 pounds? I’m reminded again of Matt’s call for the designation of Economic Crimes against Humanity (I’d link it, but it’s being blocked by DFID’s firewall and I don’t want to propagate any viruses. Here’s a related link).
  2. Getting more positive: David Evans’s move to the Center for Global Development has not spelled the end for his epic, extraordinary conference reports. Here he summarises what feels like several hundred papers presented at the CSAE Conference in a line or two each. He truly is a phenomenon. He must sweat knowledge.
  3. Staying on the geeky side of things, Kathleen Beegle’s post on defining and measuring work should be required reading for all economists of Africa. Knowledge is built on good measurement, but the quality of what we measure in Africa remains substantially below optimal. As an example, depending on how you ask people, measures for productive work among farmers can vary by a factor of four. She explains that the consequences of this depend on what you want to measure, but still. That is remarkable.
  4. Going back to CSAE for a moment, one of my favourite papers (from one of my favourite programmes of work) was Dan Rogger’s work with Ravi Somani, looking at the incentives for information acquisition among civil servants in Ethiopia, the implications for their knowledge of the areas they work on, and how you can improve matters. It seems prosaic, but the welfare implications of helping a Government function a little bit better are enormous.
  5. My brother-in-law is a historian, and we often discuss China. From both a historical and an economic standpoint it’s completely fascinating: a total basket case just 50 years ago, and now one of the most powerful countries on the planet. We’ve often puzzled over the Cultural Revolution, which is just extraordinary when you think about it: a revolution impelled from the state because its own revolutionary ethos was being diluted. The suffering was extraordinary, and this piece by Alison Booth and Xin Meng demonstrates it has had a lasting impact on trust several generations later. More currently, Wei Xiong points out that the mechanism that has powered China’s recent growth – competition between regional bureaucrats to earn promotion with growth – has also led to the unprecedented stress their financial sector is under.
  6. Do we need p-values? Well, I’m definitely not leaving them out of my first paper, but I can absolutely see why researchers are worrying deeply about how we use them, the incentives they set and their unintended consequences.
  7. Lastly, I had totally forgotten how awesome 1999 was, but the Ringer is here to remind me, pointing out that both The Matrix and Go were released that year. You know how old these films are? I watched one of them on LASER DISC! Anyway, despite their age, they both induce a giddy excitement when I think about them; I’m in my late thirties and I’m still capable of having an internal argument about whether Neo or Ronna is the cooler character. Neither of these, though, is the best thing to happen this week. No, without a doubt that is this discovery: Tom Hiddleston is in a Chinese advert for vitamin supplements in which he spends every second of every shot VISCERALLY WISHING HE WAS ANYWHERE ELSE. It is the most gloriously awkward thing in history.  And on that happy note…

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

During the CSAE conference, I heard that Alan Krueger had passed away. My exposure to Krueger was primarily through his seminal paper with David Card on minimum wages – a case study in tackling a big topic carefully (important topics and careful research are two circles of a venn diagram with a smaller overlap than you’d hope). I didn’t know much else about him – just the headlines you’d expect any economist to have picked up. The tributes to him show how much I missed. He was an economist who worked on things that mattered because he wanted to make the world a better place, and furthered that end. He took his own life, which given how hard and competitive life in academia is will prompt some introspection.

  1. That sad news apart, CSAE was a lot of fun. I blogged summaries of the first two days here and here. I’ll add one more thought here, one I’m echoing from others I spoke to. In the intro I talked about the venn diagram of great research: an important, interesting question and a good method for finding an answer. The culture of economics is heavily weighted towards the second circle of this venn diagram, and I sometimes wished the presentations and discussions spent more time establishing the first. There’s a distinction between ‘building on a literature’ and ‘asking something important’ that we sometimes gloss over. More thoughts and papers were discussed on twitter: #OxCSAE2019.
  2. Extremely cool: The Africapolis website has an incredible data explorer which allows you to map the evolution of urbanisation across Africa.
  3. I’ve been trying to avoid Brexit talk in the links as far as possible, and I’m not going to break that habit now – if you want to hear what I really think you can stand anywhere within fifteen feet of me and wait: within 30 minutes I’ll say something unfiltered. However, on a Brexit related note, this piece from the FT on how it has posed uniquely destructive challenges for governance in here is worth reading from the first word to the last. You need to register to read the FT, and you should.
  4. While I’m depressing everyone, here’s the NYT on how effed up it is to be woman in the economics profession. “Nearly 100 female economists say a peer or a colleague has sexually assaulted them. Nearly 200 say they were the victim of an attempted assault. And hundreds say they were stalked or touched inappropriately”. If your first response is to quibble with the numbers or the methods, you are getting this wrong. We should be more tolerant of doing too much to make this profession more welcoming than doing too little.
  5. More positive gender work: an intervention that improved girls’ outcomes even under the severe stress of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone; and how we can find things that support girls education well among those interventions that weren’t set up to help girls specifically.
  6. I love FiveThirtyEight. Maggie Koerth-Baker answers a child’s question about whether scientists study other scientists and uses it to launch a discussion about the psychology (and sometimes herd mentality) of scientists, and the good and bad reasons (and consequences) for them.
  7. Jobs and automation came up at CSAE repeatedly: the first day’s plenary was essentially a long warning about shoddy thinking on the topic (Stefan’s best line was “we’ve never been scared of tractors, so why are we so scared of robots?”, and there were something like 9 papers presented that related to some aspect of the labour market. Two good pieces on the Voxes: at VoxEU, David Autor on how automation is affecting the US labour market; and Girum Abebe summarises his work (with various co-authors) in Ethiopia.
  8. This whole week has been pretty depressing. Two things have been cheering me up, both of which I’ve linked before. First, watching this video on repeat, I’m increasingly struck by how cool Wendy Melvoin is: how is she dancing like that while playing those guitar lines? It takes a lot to attract attention away from Prince. And secondly, Baloji. Always Baloji.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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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

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