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.
First, he’s back! David Evans, ensconced in his new digs at the Center for Global Development, brings us a roundup of over 275 papers from the Center for the Study of African Economies (CSAE) conference, in a fancy new expandable format indexed by topic. (Honestly it’s probably better than going to the conference to have someone review all those papers and give you the Cliffs Notes).
It reminded me of this study, which looked U.S. media coverage of disasters abroad, and how it influenced U.S. responses (for 5,000 disasters from 1968-2002). First, it found that more dramatic disaster deaths got coverage more easily – it took one death from a volcano to make the news, two from an earthquake, and 38,920 if from hunger. And, U.S. officials were less likely to declare a disaster if other things were in the news, like an Olympics.
ICYMI this video has been tearing up the academic conversations. Psych PhD student Mike Morrison thought about how to redesign conference posters changing the starting point from mini-article on a wall, and using usability psychology to find a design that makes it easy for passersby to quickly get the message and decide if they want to stop and learn more. Here it is: Punchline in plain English in the middle in big type, supporting tables on the right, basics of the study (original poster content), bullet pointed on the left, with a QR code (just a link shortener that you can google to easily make). People can then photograph the QR code on any phone to get the link to the full paper.
Here’s an actual example converted from traditional “wall of text” format to a new one
It’s been a while since we had a podcast roundup, some great ones from the last few months I’ve stumbled across:
Planet Money did a great 3 parter (I know, sounds like a commitment, but it’s good), on anti-trust law – how do we decide as a group when bigger companies are good for the economy and when too big is bad? There’s an interesting history, first involving Standard Oil. The second episode to me was the most interesting, on how one law student, who took some classes in the University of Chicago econ dept, caused a virtual halt to anti-trust enforcement. And finally, what happens when tech giants like Amazon sell products and also control the marketplace for other sellers?
On the Financial Times Alphachat, Leah Platt Boustan of Princeton, and Margaret Peters of UCLA (Apple, or find Alphachat in your podcast app ) give a historical overview of immigration to the U.S. (and Europe a bit), and go into the findings on job competition between native and immigrant workers. A really good primer if you want to get some rational and data-based insights into the debate.
And for something fun, the podcast Good One takes a good joke and sits down with the comedian to understand how they came up with it. (It’s worth listening to the recent Gary Gulman one just for the great Trader Joe’s story they play before discussing, and definitely google for his state abbreviation bit if you haven’t seen it. The Good Place writers panel was great too if you watch the show. And if you don’t, have I got a recommendation for you!)
Scott Cunningham put out a call for advice on teaching the secrets of RCT methods and people responded with readings, syllabi, and other suggestions. A good thread to bookmark if you think you ever might be teaching it.
IPA’s Peace and Recovery initiative, led on the academic side by Chris, has an open call for funding. We define peace and recovery pretty broadly:
Reducing violence and promoting peace
Reducing “fragility” (i.e. fostering state capability and institutions of decision-making)
Preventing, coping with, and recovering from crises (focusing on conflict, but also including non-conflict humanitarian crises),
It also funds a variety of types of work, including pilots and exploratory work, specifically earmarked for junior researchers (PhD student through untenured professors). See page 1 of this doc explaining the purpose of the fund. More details here, examples of currently funded studies here. Deadline for expressions of interest is March 15th.
And if you’re in Chicago, on Monday see Dr. Rebecca Wolfe from Mercy Corps talk at UChicago about one funded project, from Nigeria, on whether playing communities audio recordings of former Boko Haram members apologizing for what they’ve done, can help with reintegration.
The World Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) has paid out its second payment, $20 million, for Ebola response in the DRC. As I understand this is a relatively recent funding mechanism (from 2017), developed after the slow response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Instead of waiting for a disease to spread, then gathering funders together to cobble together funding commitments, this is funded more like insurance. The money is funded in advance by a bond, and then pays out immediately when particular criteria are met.
A nice podcast conversation between Diane Rehm and journalist Francisco Toro explaining the situation, history, and politics of the crisis in Venezuela.
Jonathan Morduch explains positive early results from Grameen America’s RCT on a microcredit program in New Jersey (summary: the 6-month results look promising on satisfaction, some financial indicators, and business creation but it’s early). Full report link here or in his last tweet.
Happy International Women’s Day:
Here’s Justin’s one tweet summary of Eble and Hu’s research on gender attitudes and bias in Chinese schools:
I just learned about Lise Meitner, the Jewish refugee who overcame many barriers to women in academia, barely escaped Germany in WWII, and went on to co-discover nuclear fission. Her colleague published the paper without her name, and was awarded the Nobel Prize alone. Read about her fascinating life from Brain Pickings.
A lovely tribute to Dave Evans, who’s been a boon to the field, and a prolific producer of public goods, from David McKenzie and his Development Impact Blog colleagues
I ran a quick search, and I’ve cited him about 50 times in my links
It’s fitting that Dave’s final Dev Impact post is in one of his specialities, making research more understandable to non-researchers, in this case for education. While researchers often report learning outcome changes in standard deviations, he describes his new paper with Fei Yuan on how to express outcomes in increased years of schooling – a much more intuitive measure.
Whatever you think of the replication crisis/credibility revolution, the rubber meets the road on good scientific practices when it comes to medical trials. A number of top medical journals have signed onto the CONSORT guidelines for publications, requiring hypotheses to be prespecified. But what good are they if nobody goes back and compares the publication to the registration? Well, when a team compared the actually published studies in a number of top medical journals to the pre-registered hypotheses, they found 25% of the studies had switched outcomes – reporting different ones than they’d originally identified (outcome switching might mean reporting quality of life instead of overall survival, for example, even if survival had been the original goal). Almost half dropped secondary outcomes, and others added new outcomes. When the research team wrote to the journals (like JAMA, BMJ, and NEJM) fewer than half their letters were published, suggesting that top journals aren’t adhering to their own guidelines, but also that there’s no mechanism for checking and enforcing the guidelines.
The University of California, Berkeley is ending their contract with Elsevier journals after negotiations (co-chaired by chief librarian, informational science professor, and MIT-trained economist Jeff MacKie-Mason), failed to find an agreement on pricing for journals and also making publications open-access.
Their tips for finding alternative ways to access paywalled articles are helpful for all non-academics looking for paywalled articles
In econ you can often find a version on the author’s personal website, or by googling the title for a working paper version. If you can’t, try emailing an author to request a copy.
A new group of prominent economists has formed the network Economists for Inclusive Prosperity, publishing a set of concrete, research-based policy suggestions for addressing problems of wealthy economies, such as financial system stability, taxation, labor markets in the age of AI and automation, and the like. You can read a summary in the Boston Review from Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrik, and Gabriel Zucman.
I enjoyed the conversation between Tyler Cowen and Daniel Kahneman (Apple). It might be the accent, but I feel like you get a sense of the wisdom of a lifetime of studying human intuition and life satisfaction when you hear him reflect. Two things that struck me were how often he passed on questions – it seemed like if he wasn’t an expert on a topic, he didn’t feel like his opinion was worth more than anybody else’s – and how often he discouraged Cowen from labeling parts of human nature as biases.
The Indicator, from NPR’s Planet Money, interviewed economist Nina Banks about Sadie Alexander, the first African-American economist, who held both a Ph.D. and JD from Penn (Apple). For more, see Cardiff’s longer interview with Banks when he was at the Financial Times Alphachat (Apple). And Banks has two books coming out on Alexander – a biography and edited volume of her speeches.
The Sadie Collective, which encourages Black women to enter economics and related fields recently held their first conference (and I believe was crowded to capacity). You can watch the video here.
And they’ve started their their new course with Josh Angrist on basics of econometrics. It’s difficult to make an intro video about econometrics, but I have a lot of respect for the production quality and effort they’ve put into it. Here’s one on Ceteris Paribus and counterfactuals (if it moves too slowly you can always speed up youtube videos in the settings):
Berk Ozler counts the numbers of men vs. women asking questions during a seminar speaker’s talk, and guess how the ratio came out (it’s worth also checking out the discussion below, including a code of conduct being considered at one department).
In a follow-up to his informational intervention, he found a few days later the ratio changed for Seema Jayachandran’s talk there
Watch Seema’s talk on gender preferences in India here. (And note the all-star list of previous talks. Tip: you want to take them to go, podcast-style, there are any number of YouTube -> mp3/mp4 converters that will let you download to listen to offline)
Also, a really great conference video from Penn on Child Poverty and Brain Development in Global Context. A nice combination of economist, education folks, and child brain development researchers discussing what’s known about how poverty interacts with cognitive development.
How his growing up in India helps inform his research topics, but that also collaborations with researchers from other countries bring fresh eyes to things he always took for granted.
The relative effect sizes of behavioral interventions compared to others, and why standard reporting can make it hard to compare across interventions.
On the latter, I’d also encourage researchers to collect cost data (here are a primer and templates to use from J-PAL). That lets people who come later compare cost effectiveness of different programs on standard, understandable scales. When you take the extra step of reporting in terms that are more understandable, your research can have a much bigger impact (this from that Penn conference)