First, please pass along to your skiing friends that the owner of the ski treehouse above in Whitefish, MT (Glacier National Park adjacent) is offering to donate proceeds to the non-profit I work for, IPA, from any rentals between now and Jan 31. (Instructions here)
Among other things, IPA’s been investing in expanding the things that academics don’t always have incentives to do, hiring Ph.D.s and sector experts to do the replications and tinkering (AER probably won’t publish the 4th attempt to test a phenomenon, but to get it right, somebody has find out how it works across borders), build infrastructure for open-science and data transparency, and run longer term coordinated cross-country research agendas on big problems. Creating information might not sound like an urgent cause, but all of the work enables us to make sure we’re responding to the urgent causes in the right way. We’d also welcome your support in this on our donate page. Feel free to share both with friends and social networks also, thanks!
Caitlin Tulloch of the IRC shows us one reason testing the practical stuff across contexts matters. Looking at the same humanitarian program, run by the same organization in different places and scales, costs varied by as much as 20x! (Ungated here) But, she’s able to model for that knowing some basic characteristics of the program and place.
In the wake of Nobel-spawned critiques of RCTs, philosopher Peter Singer, along with Johannes Haushofer and Arthur Baker respond on the ethics of RCTs. Noah Smith responds to Lant Pritchett’s criticism, which as far as I’ve ever been able to tell amounts to “there should be no development microeconomics” because national economic growth will lift all ships much more efficiently than tinkering with individual programs. Among other things, Noah points out that we all agree poor people getting richer would solve their problems, but there’s no obvious “get rich” button to hit to make that happen. Meanwhile, as the Nobel committee pointed out, plenty of individual programs *have* improved the lives of many many people. To Lant’s credit, rumor has it he enjoyed the tool during one of the last laps around this pool to help you figure out what he thinks of your work (better with sound).
In any other time this would be more of a bombshell – ProPublica reports that Vice President Mike Pence broke USAID guidelines by overruling career staff to direct aid money to Christian groups in Iraq.
In GitHub’s latest annual State of the Octoverse report, developers from Africa created 40% more open source repositories on the software engineering marketplace over the past year—a higher growth percentage than any other continent globally. Among African countries with established developer communities (defined by GitHub as having more than 10,000 contributors to the platform), Morocco accounted for the most growth on the continent.
The above from Quartz. Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt followed Morocco for growth in the large category. But there was major growth from a number of smaller African countries as well, including the French-held islands of Mayotte.
Two Blattman-related things, for researchers and aspiring researchers:
IPA’s Peace and Recovery program is accepting research proposals, on topics such as war, peace, electoral violence, state-sponsored violence, terrorism, forced displacement, natural disasters, and recovery from all the above. They fund: “full randomized trials, pilot studies, exploratory and descriptive work, travel grants, and (in rare but deserving cases) non-experimental evaluations.” Applications from early career researchers (including Ph.D. and post-docs) are welcome, and there are small exploratory funds (under $10k) earmarked for them. Deadline December 6th, more here, and you can see previously funded work here.
For those who want to do that work someday and want to work with Chris, a very cool Senior RA job posting, to work with Chris in Liberia following up in a landmark study (summary & ungated paper) combining cognitive behavioral therapy with cash transfers for seriously at risk youth (if I recall, interviews were sometimes interrupted so the respondent could go pickpocket someone.) Three reasons I think this follow-up project is cool: -It’s part of a burgeoning literature on mindset/psychological interventions, and answers questions about the lasting effects. It’s also Chris’ 3rd study following up on the long-term effects of cash transfers, and the first 2 have yielded interesting findings. -Methodologically, working in these circumstances is really interesting. The original team developed a new method to figure out if people were telling the truth in surveys on questions like how much crime they were committing. -The original cognitive-behavioral program was developed by Johnson Borh, a Liberian conflict survivor. You can hear him and Chris talking about it on Freakonomics here. Feel free to send the job link to anybody who might be interested (and really good)
An amazing interview between Dave Evans and Nobel laureate Michael Kremer this week. I wish I could pick just one excerpt, but it was all really great (stay for the questions at the end). Video here, and audio below for those on the go:
I’m still processing this psych paper where 49 authors from 15 research teams tested 5 hypotheses with >15,000 participants (there was also a prediction component), and did both meta and Bayesian analyses on the effect sizes/replicability. As you can see from the graph above, there was a lot of variation in replication, but (if I understand), they attribute it mainly to the choices the research teams made in how to test the hypotheses (e.g. study design). I can’t decide if it’s good or bad news that researcher choices in how to answer the same question yields so much variation.
Dave Evans offers a short PhD in Michael Kremer’s work, with quick summaries of 100+ of his papers. But being a Nobel-winning researcher is only one of his jobs. He’s founded, or been instrumental in, more than one non-profit, and in USAID DIV. As a friend told me this morning, most people who know him from just one facet of his life often never know about his many other accomplishments.
GiveWell is hiring people for their impact research work at the Ph.D. and other levels. Impressively, they do sponsor work visas, so please let people outside the mainstream U.S. world know. Reach out to them at jobs at givewell.org with questions.
Side note: The first is another example of a good Ph.D.-level job doing meaningful, applied work. IPA recently hired three Ph.D.s to lead applied research agendas, does anybody know of good resources for Ph.D.s looking for non-professor jobs in development? (let me know and I’ll share)
Also, a cool (but only part-time) U.S. field RA job in Omaha, working on an eval of unconditional cash transfers for mothers of new babies (including brain/bio measures).
An interesting paper reminded me of the 1800’s version of a current debate on the value of philanthropy in providing public goods. (Oversimplifying, tax-exempt philanthropy represents an abdication of government responsibility, and public subsidy to the whims of a few, or else, the counterfactual taxation of that wealth would mean a much smaller amount going to the government, out of which, an even smaller sliver would go to those kinds of causes.) What missing ingredient could help shed some light on this heated controversy? How about Oxford’s Asli Cansunar’s dataset on Ottoman-era drinking fountains in 1876? (I know, you were about to say it). In Istanbul, clean water, along with many other public services, was provided by wealthy Muslim philanthropists, with little government involvement. Cansunar shows that the majority of the water fountains went into the neighborhoods of other Muslim and elite groups, rather than other religious and ethnic communities, so even the philanthropies set up to provide for the public good ended up showing in-group favoritism. (h/t Dani Rodrik)
In ScienceObermeyer, Powers, Vogeli, & Mullainathan show a pretty dramatic consequence of large dataset-trained algorithms being used to provision public goods (Washington Post summary). The commercial algorithm, sold to help health systems identify at-risk patients for more intensive interventions for millions of patients, misallocated resources away from Black patients to white ones, even though it was developed without ethnicity as a variable. It used prior healthcare spending as a proxy, and less is spent on Black patients. “Remedying this disparity would increase the percentage of Black patients receiving additional help from 17.7 to 46.5%,” the authors report. As Mullainathan told the Post,”It’s truly inconceivable to me that anyone else’s algorithm doesn’t suffer from this.”
That is Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo above, thanks to Neela Saldanha and Elizabeth Koshy for explaining that Abi Jit means “(He) just won” or “won now,” so it means “just won the Nobel.” And that the dairy cooperative Amul is known in India for their punny billboards (which you can also find on their twitter feed).
On the Nobel sugar high, as a friend called it, a couple of nice interviews:
Michael also credits all the people who work on these studies, and there have been some nice tributes to and from them for example here, and here, and the very nice parties with video connections from all the organizations devoted to doing this work in Nairobi and Busia. (James Vancel pointed out that this week in Nairobi may be the only place you can get invited to a joint marathon/Nobel party).
Jason Kerwin, Laura Derksen, and a few others mentioned that they got into development econ (or similar academic fields) after going on student trips to low-income countries. Chris Udry had a similar story after being in the Peace Corps in Ghana, and Dean Karlan was heading to Wall Street before what was supposed to be summer in a microfinance org in Latin America turned into a year, then a career. One thing that Kremer’s pointed out in a few interviews (including the Bloomberg one above), was that his first RCT (showing textbooks weren’t helping kids) happened because he’d been a teacher in Kenya, he happened to be back visiting, and talking to a friend in education there. He also knew from his experience that Kenyan kids were being taught in English, which was often their third language.
I’ve seen a few criticisms of the RCT world over time, but I think the one that resonates with me the most, highlighted by Kremer’s teaching example, is how much better our tests and solutions would be if the researchers had the opportunity to spend more time in the countries they study, or if more economists who are afforded the opportunities to do those kinds of studies came from the places being studied. I think there’s more being done on this front and hope to see the field expanding over the coming years.
Which reminds me – applications are now open for The Mawazo Institute’s PhD Scholars Programme for African women studying STEM and Social Sciences. More on the program here.
Registration is also open for the Sadie Collective conference, Feb 20th, encouraging black women to go into economics and related fields. All the reviews I’ve heard from last years’ were incredibly positive.
A correction from last week, I’d quoted a statistic of Ethiopia as having the highest number of internally displaced people, nearly 3 million. Reader Pablo Abitbol pointed me to this UNHCR report, which reports Colombia has more than twice that amount, approaching 8 million people.
I’d been eagerly awaiting the podcast from Mary Daly Zip Code Economies (Apple/iTunes) which (if I recall) had been announced right before she became President and CEO of the San Francisco Fed, and then was understandably delayed a long time so somehow I missed it when it was released in June. Its premise is exploring the economies of 5 local zip codes and I don’t know what I was expecting but it was not this. I binged it & got about halfway through the season on the first day. It’s very NOT central banker, much more documentary style about the everyday lives of people, with the goal of being uplifting. So far, I think she’s only mentioned data once, and that was to say that economists’ data isn’t everything, people’s lived experiences are important (according to the FAQ, a goal of the podcast is to connect the macro to micro. If you view through the econ lens you’ll understand the connection, but it’s deliberately jargon-free.). Anyway, kudos to Dr. Daly, the producers and the SF Fed for putting the effort into it. And for more on Mary Daly and her interesting career journey listen to her on Freakonomics (Apple/ITunes) or the St. Louis Fed Women in Economics podcast (Apple/iTunes).
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work towards peace with Eritrea, though the committee acknowledged it’s still a work in progress. Ethiopia has also loosened some of its more repressive policies around security and journalism recently. Commentary from BBC starting around 6 minutes here (both stories h/t Laura Seay). For longer background on how Ali came from being a relatively minor figure to a reformer, listen to this UN Dispatch podcast from a few months ago (Apple/iTunes). I learned that Ethiopia still has a huge number of internally displaced people in the world because of internal conflicts – an astounding 3 million people. UPDATE: While the podcast said Ethiopia’s number was the largest, reader Pablo Abitbol pointed me to this UNHCR report, which reports Colombia has more than twice that amount, approaching 8 million people.
Uganda’s government announced it was reintroducing a bill to make gay sex punishable by death. The bill failed to pass by the required 2/3 majority in 2014.
USAID spent $70 million to build a commercial port in Haiti as part of earthquake recovery and successfully built two concrete electrical poles (no electricity or wires, just the poles). Also, the reporter informed the Haitian officials that USAID had cancelled the project, because apparently USAID hadn’t. According to the article:
By January 2019, nine years after the earthquake, USAid had spent $2.3bn in Haiti. Most of it was given to American companies and hardly any passed through Haitian hands. Less than 3% of that spending went directly to Haitian organisations or firms, according to research by CEPR. In contrast, 55% of the money went to American companies located in and around Washington DC. Most likely, according to the research, the majority of what USAid allegedly spent on Haiti’s recovery ended right back in the US.
Mercy Corps’ CEO, two board members, and legal counsel, have resigned after a news investigation showing the organization allowed its founder to stay on, ignoring credible allegations that he’d sexually abused his daughter for years.
Sandip Datta and Geeta Gandhi Kingdon have a paper showing that gender bias favoring sons’ education over daughters’ in India appears to have gone down over the 20 years between 1995 and 2014, as daughters’ enrollment in school rose to levels similar to boys. However, if you look at expenditures, families still spend more on boys, particularly via private schools. (h/t Susannah Hares)
Have fun to everybody at the NEUDC conference this weekend! Fun fact: the Northeast Universities Development Consortium conference is being held at Northwestern, which is neither in the Northeast, nor the Northwest. The conference has never been held at Northeastern University. So for everybody complaining about confusing econ speak, this is what they do to themselves.
An interesting idea from Michael Lokshin and Martin Ravallion, addressing U.S. (or other wealthy country) labor market needs, immigration, and global poverty at the same time: People in the rich country rent out their right to work to someone who wants to come to the country to work. They outline the basics on VoxEU, Martin goes into more detail on his blog, and here’s the full paper.
Chinese cell phone manufacturer Transsion is valued at $6.5 billion, despite having never sold a phone in China. It focuses exclusively on African markets, where it sells a phone for the equivalent of $130 that can compete with an iPhone. One thing they’ve done well is optimize the camera for dark skin tones. Even before cell phones, this was a problem in the U.S. film camera market which was well-known among photographers. It turns out to go back to Kodak having produced a series of color reference cards for the industry with a light-skinned woman wearing light clothes. In a sense the problem foreshadowed modern AI data training problems – the early reference that the system is normed/trained on can have massive and persistent downstream effects.
Jobs – these might appeal to a different sort of career track than what people often look for at IPA. They involve working with the underlying data on studies to make research projects better across a lot of studies. Ideally these are for someone with a good data background, but is interested in growing in the position long-term (e.g. not a stopover on the way to grad school). Please share if you can!
A fascinating paper from Andrew Bacher-Hicks and Elijah de la Campa. They use the quasi-random movement of police commanders between New York City police precincts to study the effects of the stop-and-frisk policies those commanders bring with them on the long-run educational outcome of kids in the neighborhoods. The stop-and-frisk policies apparently improves education and safety outcomes slightly for white and Asian kids, who interact with the police the least, while it substantially reduces high school and college outcomes for African-American kids, who have the most interaction with police. (via John Holbein, who often shares interesting papers like this.)
In 1998, Dutch civil servant Sirak Asfaw, who was born in Ethiopia, noticed something shiny in a houseguest’s suitcase. It turned out to be a stolen Ethiopian religious crown. He locked out the guest, took the crown and hid it for 21 years, afraid officials in Ethiopia might have been complicit with the looting, and is now trying to have it returned.
A cool travel hack below (and follow the thread for more in the replies). Also, if you have trouble sleeping on the road or at home, I really like the podcast Sleep With Me (Apple). He’s just a savant at telling really boring stories (I don’t know how else to describe it, but he’s got a huge following).
@itsafronomics points out the number of things black and Latina women report having had to do to avoid harassment or discrimination (such as giving up a job or other opportunity) is remarkably high – 4.4 compared to 1.5 for the average white male respondent.
Brett Matsumoto points out that people with disabilities including mental health issues also reported being made to feel worse about it by their colleagues
I was also surprised by the rates of religious discrimination experienced by Muslims (table 5D) – rates of 29-39%
Mexico’s famously randomized Prospera (previously called Progresa and Oportunidades) national program designed to support the production of econ papers about conditional cash transfers, is being phased out. One of the arguments for getting rid of it was that it was poorly targeted (money ended up going not just to the poorest families). It will be replaced in part with a scholarship program, which I believe was evaluated and found not to be effective, in part because it was poorly targeted.
The animation above comes from a cool page of causal inference animations by Nick Huntington-Klein (h/t Alex Tabarrok), which go through, step-by-step with scatterplots, how different methods work. Alex was one of many who offered helpful tips for getting through undergrad econometrics.
Call for papers for the Y-Rise conference Dec 15-21 on the science of scaling promising interventions. They have research networks looking at broad questions (Political Economy; Evidence Aggregation/External Validity; Macro, Growth, & Welfare Effects of Policy Interventions; and Spillovers, Network & Equilibrium Effects), as well as working groups on three promising intervention areas (seasonal poverty, informational failures, and improving agricultural extension). Submission deadline Oct 2.
Today, from NPR Planet Money’s The Indicator (Apple), the fascinating life of economist Edith Penrose. She helped colleagues escape the Nazis in Europe, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, earned a Ph.D. in Economics in 1950, and later ended up in Baghdad studying the oil industry. Penrose’s understanding of firms as dynamic creative organizations advanced how economists think about how businesses grow. You can read more in Tyler Cowen’s review of her biography.
Dave Chang (the chef behind Momofuku) has an interview podcast, I enjoyed one from a few months ago interviewing Michael Shur (Apple), who’s behind the TV show The Good Place (as well as Parks and Rec and The Office), about making ethics and philosophy funny and appealing to a broad audience (and lots of other stuff in their lives).
And a fun web cartoon, Mzungus in Development and Governments, is a satirical look at expat researchers and development workers, I couldn’t pick just one frame but it’s well done. After you’re done reading what’s already up there, you can subscribe by email for updates, or follow the adventures on twitter & Facebook. Make sure to share it in your expat FB groups).
A very cool job market paper and explanatory thread, from Ph.D. candidate Matthew Klein. He, Bradford L. Barham, and Yuexuan Wu, link women’s household bargaining power to malaria rates in Malawi. They find that a one standard deviation increase in a woman’s household bargaining power implies a 40% reduction in chances that anybody in the household contracts malaria. They caution their ability to infer why this works is limited in their data set, but it offers an intriguing route to test to decrease malaria rates, something the WHO just called for.
It reminds me of the paper “Do The Effects of Social Nudges Persist? Theory and Evidence from 38 Natural Field Experiments”, which reviews several studies showing that effects of habit change interventions often fade after the intervention ends. If I understand it, they then look at a series of field experiments on home energy reports (those mailings from the power company about your energy use) which is considered a very successful nudge. First, they mention that it only reduces power use by 2.4 percent (which over a big population is nothing to shrug at), and that the effects fade by over half after the program ends. The remaining effects are driven by people who’ve invested in “physical capital” (more energy-efficient appliances), which in a sense is like changing the default. Big behavior change is hard, but if you can change the setup around people to reduce the continuing challenge, you’ll have a better chance.
How do we liberate agriculture and development from academic preferences? By Charles Dhewa, on the FP2P blog, argues slow academic literature accumulation led by professors far away is not a good way to either capture or retain what’s actually known by the people who know their areas best. But there’s been elite academic capture of development agencies which then privilege those kinds of limited distant knowledge when it comes to directing development efforts.
Literature review cannot explain emerging issues in agriculture and health. For instance, many countries in Southern Africa are now experiencing crop and livestock diseases like Tuta Absoluta, Fall Army Worm and January diseases as well as several human ailments which did not exist a few years ago. You cannot find useful literature on these diseases going back 10 years to 50 years. When literature review is prioritized ahead of real-time knowledge, countries in the Global South end up recycling old ideas at the expense of new ideas that speak to the evolving context. Countries end up doing endless policy reviews instead of developing new fluid policies.
He suggests an alternative way of thinking about knowledge management that collects what people are currently talking about. (Sorry about the formatting break)
Duncan’s weekly audio summary podcast of his daily FP2P blog posts (Apple) are a great quick way to get the point of that week’s posts or to find out which ones are of interest to go back and read in full.
IPA and J-PAL have merged their RCT data hubs on Dataverse, and now have 149 data sets for free download there. They list some of their most recent and most popular downloads in the blog announcement.
And, this important replication came out this week and thankfully is open access. Really, the paper is a gift that keeps on giving:
I realized after I posted it last week that it was my 200th links, which is a nice occasion to acknowledge and thank my colleague Cara Vu, who, despite being one of the busiest people I know, edits them and saves me from self-humiliation on a weekly basis. She catches between 8 and 200 mistakes in every one. And also thanks for reading. I really do appreciate the occasional emails, twitter shout outs, and in-person hellos from people I’d never meet otherwise. I don’t know if it’s still possible to comment (we had to make the comments harder b/c of spammers), but feel free to tweet or email me. And of course, thanks to Chris for lending me the blog while he works on his book. And if you appreciate the time IPA lets me spend on this, monetize it with a donation – it’s like a GoFundMe, but tax deductible and ultimately goes to support anti-poverty research.
FHI 360’s library manager, Allison Burns, evaluates EndNote’s manuscript matcher tool, which will analyze your manuscript title, abstract, and citations and using Web of Science, suggests a journal that might be a good match to submit to. She concludes it’s got some solid suggestions.
David Leonhardt talks about Marty Weitzman’s contributions to environmental economics in his newsletter today, but here’s a much more detailed discussion and tribute from colleague Sanjay Reddy. The Times reported that Weitzman’s colleagues said he was despondent at being passed over for the Nobel Prize and a recent mistake in a working paper and his suicide note referenced doubts about his self-worth as a scholar. It led to an interesting discussion about whether the culture of econ encourages unrealistic intertwining of one’s work with one’s self-worth. As an outside observer of the field, I don’t think econ is the only place where people conflate professional and personal success, but I do think econ’s overemphasis on a few top journals and programs hurts people’s ability to realistically calibrate their intellectual contributions. Obviously the shadow of Alan Krueger looms large over this discussion, Leonhardt’s column above gives suicide hotlines if you feel like you need to reach out to someone.
In Science (gated), researchers conclude governments can get 30% more effects out of soda taxes just by taxing the amount of sugar in the drink rather than overall size of the drink.
P.hD.-level: The World Bank research group is hiring for multiple positions in development research, and particularly interested in climate/environment/resources and in gender. They also seem flexible for candidates who might be coming from non-traditional econ programs/background (but read the post to see if that describes you or someone you know).
The tax policy that brought us White Claw alcoholic seltzer. Brewers have figured out how to make vodka that’s legally beer, which is taxed at a lower rate than spirits. Hooray for combining the American ingenuities of alcoholizing products with avoiding taxes on a technicality! So crack yourself open a tax loophole this weekend.
P.S. I just found out (after writing the above) my wife bought some alcoholic seltzer for entertaining this weekend, so looks like our guests are in for an exciting treatise on competitive response to industrial regulatory capture.
Thanks for being patient with the intermittent links schedule over the summer, I expect to have some catch-up ones included over the next weeks.
Congrats to Mauricio Romero, Justin Sandefur, and Wayne Sandholtz, on their forthcoming article in American Economic Review, (ungated) on the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) program, a public-private partnership testing how a variety of private school operators compared to government operations of public schools. It was a very difficult study to pull off very quickly, and involved incredible work- as Jishnu Das said “Finding children who have left a school is like finding a needle in a haystack. In a country where only 42 percent have access to a cell phone, it’s heroism.” Big congrats to the Liberia research team including Dackermue Dolo, Arja Dayal, and Osman Siddiqi. You can read an explanatory thread from Dina Pomeranz here. And Wayne is on the job market this fall. Stay tuned for three-year results!
In incredible timing Starbucks placed this ad in my feed the day the PSL paper came out
As the college semester starts, the #EconTwitter community reminds us that first-generation college students might not know what office hours are or to come ask for help, so it helps to explain that explicitly on the first day.
The NYTimes has an interesting visual opinion piece about trying to communicate statistical uncertainty about hurricane paths. While forecasters use the widening cone above to indicate increasing uncertainty about the path as a storm progresses, many people in the potential path misunderstand it as communicating widening size of the hurricane. They offer some alternative visual options.
ICYMI, a very sad, and good article about American Renee Bach, who felt called to set up a feeding center for poor children in Uganda, who is being sued for expanding her mission to providing medical care to severely ill children despite having no formal medical training. What jumps out is how easy it is for foreigners to do things like that in low-income countries when they could never do that at home.
Psychologists put together a tool that helped them figured out that they could cut 3 million air travel miles, with the equivalent CO2 footprint to 12,567 trees for 10 years (not to mention $340k in airfare), by moving their conference from Portland to Atlanta. You can use the tool here.
Another way to cut one’s individual academic climate footprint is Skyping into conferences and seminars (particularly international ones)
Dartmouth settled a lawsuit against the school for the rampant sexual harassment and assault by three prominent psychology professors, for $14 million (make sure to read the second to last paragraph). One Penn education professor accused of sexual harassment reportedly made her students and lab members sign non-disclosure agreements, which made it more intimidating for them to try to report her behavior.
Why don’t you see more scholars from low-income countries at big research conferences? Well, read this post about a Sierra Leonean trying to get a a visa to attend a conference in Sweden. To get a visa for Sweden, Sierra Leoneans have to apply in person. In Nigeria or Morocco. But wait, that’s not all. Lots of scholars present their ideas at conferences, only to see them taken by colleagues from wealthier countries – see some crazy stories here and here.
Chris has been threatening it for a while but looks like he’s finally done it (click through to see the full thread and description of why his answer’s not what you might expect):
If you can’t wait till then, much of his materials are in his class slides and syllabi on this very site.
And a really good related thread on criminal governance – when gangs replace functions of government – from Brazil. In this case the gangs extended from prison out into neighborhoods and actually made them safer. They set rules like not doing drugs in front of children, murders went down, and it became safer for government employees, like healthcare workers to come in and serve the community again. (Not to say this was altruistic – presumably, this is all in the service of making it easier to sell more drugs to people coming from outside the neighborhood.)
A new study found “spin” in abstracts and titles of British psychiatry (and one psychology) journal. When the main findings in an RCT were null in, authors would write the abstract or title to focus on other findings. One reason this is an issue is that in medicine, busy doctors often only read the title and abstract so might miss the null main finding (original research article).
I’ve mentioned before the study that found a major source of misleading news on health research wasn’t the news media overhyping the findings, but exaggerated claims given to them by university press releases. The same research team followed that up by going back to the source, with a clever and impressive randomized controlled trial of university press releases. They persuaded university press offices to allow them to intercept and (randomly) re-write press releases to more accurately reflect the research findings, such as adding caveats. They found the altered press releases resulted in more accurate coverage, with no reduction in likelihood to make it into news. Article here, but I’ll drop you into this mega thread from one of the authors covering both studies here – he describes the backlash from offended journalists over the first study, and how they had to persuade them and the press offices to agree to be randomized into this study.
The French Development Agency is loaning Benin 20 million euros to Benin for a museum to house artifacts looted by France (pending French parliamentary and legal challenges). Well, some of the artifacts at least:
The 26 artifacts, which include statutes and thrones looted by French troops during a military raid against the once powerful West African Kingdom of Dahomey in 1892, are among some of the 5,000 artifactsrequested from France by Benin.
And that’s just Benin, there are an estimated 90,000 looted African artifacts in France.
A holy grail in economic development, and really all of business investment, is figuring out which small businesses will grow when given the opportunity. A few years ago David McKenzie evaluated a very successful program in Nigeria involving an intense business plan competition with $50,000 for the winners. The program’s being copied by other countries, but David and Dario Sansone went back to use all the data collected to compare different methods of predicting later business success, including machine learning. The upshot? As their title suggests “Predicting entrepreneurial success is hard” (ungated here, and let’s hear it for clear titles!):
Business plan scores from judges, simple ad-hoc prediction models used by researchers, and machine learning approaches. We find that i) business plan scores from judges are uncorrelated with business survival, employment, sales, or profits three years later; ii) a few key characteristics of entrepreneurs such as gender, age, ability, and business sector do have some predictive power for future outcomes; iii) modern machine learning methods do not offer noticeable improvements; iv) the overall predictive power of all approaches is very low, highlighting the fundamental difficulty of picking competition winners.
Bonus: listen to David and Lariat Alhassan, one of the Nigerian business plan competition winners, on this Planet Money episode.
IPA isn’t all RCTs. Our young Right Fit Evidence Unit does M&E consulting to other orgs and governments to help them use data better, and is looking to hire an Engagement Manager and a Senior Associate, but is looking for with folks with different backgrounds than often end up at IPA. Management consulting, previous M&E work, or other research management could all be good backgrounds to work on help orgs use data better.
Dina Pomeranz and Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham are taking grad school & career advice questions and sharing them with the larger econ twitter community under the hashtag #EconAdvice. If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, feel free to DM them and they’ll remove identifiers before sharing.
Johannes Haushofer shares this really nice introduction for RAs who work with him on how to work productively together and what to expect. Note the emphasis on what they should expect from him and on not being afraid to ask.
Gray Kimbrough re-upped advice for econ grads applying to non-academic jobs
J-PAL North America has released a pretty spiffy-looking toolkit for doing evaluations in North America, covering conceptual things like assessing feasibility as well as technical things like power calculations, with links to code and more resources (most of the info isn’t specific to North America).
It is the policy of the American Economic Association to publish papers only if the data and code used in the analysis are clearly and precisely documented, and access to the data and code is clearly and precisely documented and is non-exclusive to the authors. Authors of accepted papers that contain empirical work, simulations, or experimental work must provide, prior to acceptance, information about the data, programs, and other details of the computations sufficient to permit replication, as well as information about access to data and programs.
Shameless plug for working with my colleagues at IPA, where there’s a dedicated data curation team that deidentifies and cleans the data, checks code, makes sure results are reproducible, and posts the data in AEA-approved archives.
Nature Human Behavior published an editorial alongside its first two registered reports, vetted (down to checking the code for at least one) and accepted before the studies were run. When the findings came in they contradicted what had previously been found in the literature.
Check out this interview with Brian Nosek on the Circle of Willis Podcast (iTunes) about his work with the Center for Open Science, trying to rethink how the scientific process could work if the incentives were to advance knowledge, rather than career pressure.
(BTW, after discovering I had 850 unlistened to podcast episodes, I recently declared podcast bankruptcy, deleted them all and am resubscribing judiciously. Circle of Willis – the name comes from a neuroanatomy thing – is one of the few I’m back on board with)
Also, one point I hadn’t thought much about, open access journals are free to access and the EU will be transitioning to requiring research they fund be published in open-access journals. But those journals often collect fees from authors, does that discriminate against researchers with less funding and from lower-income countries? Follow this thread for a discussion from Deborah Ghate & Duncan Green and calls for papers on the topic.
And I’m told some people might be using Sci-Hub to get to paywalled articles, make sure to avoid that or using any of these tips on how not to do it.
Cancer researcher Peter Bach points out how Novartis used anchoring to set price expectations high for a new immunotherapy, making a 2 million dollar drug price (much higher than other life-saving treatments) sound reasonable years in advance by consistently referring to the new treatments in development as “million dollar therapies.”
Duke University researchers apparently violated their IRB requirements by compiling a video database of thousands of students on their way to class to use in facial recognition development. The data was made available widely and has been used by companies in China, where AI and facial recognition have been used in state surveillance and repression (though it’s unclear the role of this specific dataset).
Noah Smith reviews studies showing the effectiveness of management consulting helping businesses in low-income countries. I’ve heard several people who’ve observed firms say that what they see missing is basic middle management skills (operations, marketing, etc.)
Andrew Foster, Dean Karlan, Edward Miguel, and Aleksandar Bogdanoski wrote a post on the IPA and World Bank Development Impact blogs reviewing what they’ve learned from the Journal of Development Economics’ experiment having a pre-results review track. Overall it seems to have gone well, and they’re making it permanent.
There’s been a dust-up online over this study, which tested encouragements/incentives for university students in Hong Kong to participate in anti-authoritarian protests and caused some surprise online (I believe it went through several university IRBs). (Update: Berk Ozler discusses the paper and how to potentially avoid misunderstandings around ethical considerations.)
For students or anybody dealing with busy people – how to manage up for working with your academic adviser – be aware of their time constraints, and be very specific on what you need (via Lindsay Page).
Jobs at IPA:
Chris Blattman is looking for an RA to work in Colombia studying gang politics (must be very good with local Colombian contexts).
Work on my team, in the policy group! We try to get evidence used around the world, making results understandable, supporting embedded research labs in governments, and lots of other stuff to make sure good findings get put into practice.
Thanks for being patient while the links were sleeping, expect some summer disruptions of schedule as well
Measles cases are up 300% over last year with outbreaks in the U.S., Europe, The Philippines, Myanmar, and several African countries. I heard a PSA that adults vaccinated before a certain period (when the vaccine process changed) might no longer be immune. So I got checked and sure enough I wasn’t, and had to get a new vaccination. My doctor said about half the people she tests have lost their immunity (though it’s obviously not a random sample). So if you’re planning summer travel, or even not, you might want to talk to your doc about getting checked (it’s a simple blood test).
An impressive pair of papers on a randomized controlled trial of a national program in Ghana to give disadvantaged kids meals at school (if I’m reading it right, it was a national policy and the order of communities where it was phased in was randomized). The research teams found big impacts on nutrition, growth, education, and cognitive performance, particularly among girls and more disadvantaged kids (via Justin Sandefur).
Liberians are protesting today against the government. Shipping containers with the equivalent of over $100 million of newly minted currency went missing from a port last year, and it’s not clear what happened to the $25 Million the U.S. put into the economy. The government is restricting access to the internet and social networks. (h/t Grace McLain)
A nice profile in WIRED of John Arnold, an admired energy trader who became the youngest billionaire in the U.S., then retired at the age of 38, and with his wife Laura, has since been supporting efforts to improve replication and reproducibility in science.
On the topic, the BITSS blog interviewed Irenaeus Wolff, one of the guest editors of a trial of pre-results review, at Experimental Economics, accepting papers based on study design, before the results are known.
Which you’ll be even sadder about once you hear the new podcast by Michael Lewis, Against the Rules, which looks at the referees of society, and how they’re increasingly under attack. The episode Baby Judge School (Apple) looks at the myth of robot-like impartial judges, the statistics showing systematic bias, and profiles a judge who left the bench to run a training academy teaching judges about combatting their own biases.
I’m still working my way through the episodes, but The Neutral (Apple) about Kenneth Feinberg, the go to guy called to (pro bono) run victim compensation funds after national tragedies like 9/11, and has to put values on the lives of the victims, was also great.
Ever wonder why conference audiences get sleepier later in the day? Astronomer Adam Ginsburg measured CO2 levels at a conference and found that the room full of breathing warm people heated up and went past recommended levels of CO2 pretty quickly, but dropped during a coffee break when organizers opened doors and windows. So if people are falling asleep while you’re on your second set of supplementary slides going through regression coefficients, it’s probably because of the CO2. Read the thread below or the Washington Post write-up. (h/t John Branch)
IPA’s looking for a Director of Poverty Measurement. In particular the job involves overseeing the Poverty Probability Index, a short, country-specific tool practitioners use to estimate poverty rates, and developing new non-monetary measures (requires strong quant background). Please share with anybody who might be interested.
How the government of Odisha, one of India’s poorest states, moved a million people out of the path of a cyclone.
Can a whole field of researchers be wrong? On Slate Star Codex Scott Alexander describes how an initial paper on how the gene 5-HTTLPR might relate to depression spawned decades of research and hundreds of papers into the gene’s relationship with all manner of disorders and parts of the brain. But now a group of geneticists has written a blistering reprimand based on a genetic database of more than 600,000 people. The authors of the new paper argue that it’s impossible for that one gene to play such a massive deterministic role, given how multiply causal gene-disorder relationships are. If they’re right, what does that mean for the research process? Alexander argues:
First, what bothers me isn’t just that people said 5-HTTLPR mattered and it didn’t. It’s that we built whole imaginary edifices, whole castles in the air on top of this idea of 5-HTTLPR mattering. We “figured out” how 5-HTTLPR exerted its effects, what parts of the brain it was active in, what sorts of things it interacted with, how its effects were enhanced or suppressed by the effects of other imaginary depression genes. This isn’t just an explorer coming back from the Orient and claiming there are unicorns there. It’s the explorer describing the life cycle of unicorns, what unicorns eat, all the different subspecies of unicorn, which cuts of unicorn meat are tastiest, and a blow-by-blow account of a wrestling match between unicorns and Bigfoot.
There will be another pandemic. We don’t know the date or how many will be infected, but the extent of the latter is largely up to us. CGD’s Jeremy Konyndyk reviewed responses to the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, particularly from the U.S. government and makes recommendations. In particular he considers the political realities of different response measures.
Health officials are warning that the current Ebola outbreak in Congo risks expanding past the 1,000 already dead, and infection rates accelerating as health and safe burial teams are violently attacked. While there was good news of an experimental vaccine, there are far fewer doses than needed, and an infection hotspot is near the Rwandan border, with a lot of back-and-forth traffic. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough:
Arthur said mistrust of outsiders is common in North Kivu and a social media disinformation campaign has led many to believe that the Ebola scare is a hoax or that vaccinations actually cause the disease.
For Arthur Brooks’ podcast on productive disagreements he interviewed psychologist John Gottman (Apple), a world expert in how couples get along and argue. One of his main findings, disagreement, even argument, can be productive, but contempt is destructive. It’s a good conversation (also useful tips if you’re in a relationship). They summarize four rules, which I’ll copy from the Gottman Institute’s summary of the conversation:
Rule 1: Focus on other people’s distress and focus on it empathetically Empathy is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, an essential quality for successful relationships. You don’t have to agree with someone to empathize with them.
Rule 2: Keep your positive vs negative comments and interactions at a ratio of 5:1 You have power to do this. The positive things you say versus the criticisms that you level should be at a 5:1 ratio at least. That means five affirming, praising, and loving tweets and Facebook comments for every critical one.
Rule 3: Avoid contempt with everybody, all the time No exceptions. It’s bad for you and it’s bad for the country if you treat anybody with contempt.
Rule 4: Learn to cooperate and have dialogue with those of whom you disagree Seek out and be around people who are different than you are. Before you speak, see if you understand what the speaker before you has said. Listen to understand, and then frame your rebuttal.
Nudge approaches have had success showing that you can encourage a behavior by making it easy, but the opposite is true also. “Sludge” is when a desired behavior is discouraged by making it hard, like confusing forms, or Arkansas requiring poor people receiving benefits to report their work hours on a website, but closing the website every night from 9PM to 7AM. Cass Sunstein proposes government “Sludge Audits” to find these inefficiencies in their processes.
A few years ago, the “Worm Wars” broke out when a team reanalyzed data from a classic finding on the benefits of treating kids’ intestinal parasites and failed to reach the same conclusion. Owen Ozier reflects back on what it means for replication in a new paper and explanatory tweetstorm.
Great article on the history of the U.S. Census, and how the need to count the growing U.S. population faster spurred technological innovation. If you want to follow current developments on adding a citizenship question to the census, I’d encourage you to follow NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang.
The government has most of your tax information (that’s how they know if you’re lying), and in some countries doing your taxes takes a couple minutes b/c the government fills out the form for you and asks if it looks right or if you want to make adjustments. But in the U.S., tax prep companies like Intuit have lobbied hard to keep the process complicated, so people have to use software to navigate it, effectively creating a tax on doing your taxes. A bill recently passed the House preventing the IRS from making it easier to file. One argument the tax prep companies have used is that, through an agreement with the IRS, they already offer and advertise a free version that most Americans are eligible for (anybody making under $66k). But only 3% of those eligible actually use the free version. Why? ProPublica has been doing some bang-up reporting on how tax companies have effectively hidden the free versions of their software that they’d agreed to offer. Among other things, they prevented the websites for the free versions from being indexed by google, while using fake versions to make it look like customers had found the free version, but then were redirected to the paid version, and directed staffers not to tell customers about the free version. Thanks to their reporting, the bill seems to have been stalled in the Senate.
A good Planet Money episode on the Stanford law professor who nearly got California to offer a pre-filled state tax version (in the pilot it was very popular).
Two African mobile health startups have each won $1.5 million from the Skoll awards: Uganda’s mPedigree lets customers confirm the authenticity of the medicine and agricultural products they’re buying with their phones (counterfeits are rampant in both markets). In Ghana, mPharma helps pharmacies with the drug supply chain to make sure medicines are stocked and priced appropriately.
This was interesting: Investment company Vanguard developed a method to avoid paying taxes on ETFs. I’m not sure I understand it but it involves temporarily borrowing stocks from friendly banks for a day or two when they have to make a payout to investors. Their method of not paying taxes is so clever they patented it.
Two more former students have joined the lawsuit against Dartmouth, with really disturbing allegations of rape and sexual coercion by prominent professors using threats against the students’ future academic careers.
A great article on how the world came to slowly realize how pervasive mental health problems are in the developing world, and some efforts to do something about it.
I had the chance to hear Dr. Dixon Chibanda, whose work is profiled in the piece, talk a while back, one thing he mentioned was how difficult it is to get research grants, because local researchers like him are often not included in research, so they don’t get publications, and it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. (You can follow him on twitter)
The Research Meets Africa conference taking place in Ouagadougou in October has a call for papers. They particularly encourage financial inclusion researchers who want to collaborate with African researchers to submit. Deadline is May 15th.
Jobs postings: Busara (in Kenya, Nigeria, & India), EPoD at Harvard, & IOM doing impact evals in West Africa.
A wonderful back and forth between David Evans and DFID Deputy Chief Economist Nick Lea, ostensibly about regressions, but to me resonated more broadly on methods. Papers seem to have to need the magical pixie dust of a regression to get accepted for publication, but is it the case that every problem in development is a nail waiting for a regression hammer? Lea wonders if methods are constraining the kinds of questions economists ask. See his thoughtful response to David’s post here.
I’m continually stunned by how prevalent intimate partner violence is in places where development economists work, and how under-studied it is in development. For example, the WHO estimates over 50% of women sampled in Uganda have experienced that kind of violence. Seems like that would have as big an impact on people’s daily life as plenty of more commonly studied topics. The good news is that there’s reason to think plenty of things that researchers do work on – education, livelihoods, skills training – may also reduce violence at home. So IPA is offering money to add on research on intimate partner violence to existing or planned studies, and to do research on how to measure it. More information here, deadline May 17, and please share.
What if everything we’ve been told about the giant impacts of early childhood interventions is wrong? The conventional “Heckman Curve” wisdom argues that the earlier the childhood intervention, the higher the returns, but I’ve also heard child development folks quietly say that interventions work at all ages and we shouldn’t privilege any one window. Andrew Gelman discusses a meta analysis that indeed disputes the early childhood window idea. He suggests original analysis may be heavily skewed by two small and unusual studies.
Johannes Haushofer explains his new paper with Ingvild Almås and Jeremy Shapiro about whether a calorie-based poverty trap exists. Do people not get enough food to work effectively, which keeps them poor and not getting enough calories? Using GiveDirectly cash transfer experiment data, they don’t think so.
As much as it pains me to link to both David *and* my other Friday links competitor, Tim Ogden of NYU’s faiV, (which focuses on financial inclusion) he’s got a really good piece on CGAP’s blog. It’s ostensibly on what can we expect to learn from financial inclusion research, but really about systematic reviews and meta-analyses in general, and how we’re limited by the scope of very specific studies, and lack of standardized reporting. Studies are often limited in scope to begin with (for instance, analyzing effects of a financial product on individual users, but not spillovers on the economy as a whole), then once you start reducing and reducing to just what’s common among studies AND reported in a way that’s comparable, you’ve limited the scope of what can be concluded. Standardized reporting might be a helpful solution.
The National Academies had a task force of big brains assigned to figure out how to cut U.S. child poverty in half in a decade (which the U.K. did between 2001-2008) . Here’s a good summary of what they recommended. Even shorter highlights:
Without current programs, child poverty would be higher than it is now, so we’re already helping
Just expanding two existing programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit would do half the job by themselves
Reducing child poverty would likely save the country substantial amounts of money in the long run through increased employment, lowered healthcare costs, and reduced incarceration
If you want to know what Chris is teaching now, see his lecture slides from the first couple weeks of his Order and Violence class.
From the Arnold Foundation, programs which have positive RCT results may have their effects fade over time, which you never know if you don’t do long-term follow-up. This is similar to what Chris, Nathan Fiala, and Sebasian Martinez found with IPA in Uganda doing a 9-year follow up of a cash grant/transfers program. Grantees who got $400 increased their earnings for a number of years (compared to a control group which didn’t), but by 9 years out, the control group had caught up and had similar earnings. (All those intermediate years of increased earnings were more than the amount they received, so it worked, but we should be careful about extrapolating beyond the time period for which we have data.) h/t Marc Gunther
Managing Director for Teaching at the Right Level, a multi-organization collaboration (including J-PAL, IPA, Pratham, Young1ove and others), aiming to help scale a proven education program to reach three million students in several African countries over the next five years.