Welcome to the Unofficial Economist

The Unofficial Economist name reflects the fact that I want to start working on and practicing economics, thinking deeply about it, but I’m only an aspirant to graduate-level training so far.

Being ~unofficial~ allows me room to experiment, take guesses, and dig into economic ideas that interest me without too much pressure to get it completely right yet.

The blog is really a conglomeration of everything that’s interested me (and that I’ve found time to write about) in the past half year. I try my hand at interpreting economic papers and development blog posts; I send news / proof of life to my parents via the life updates section; I recommend books and podcasts; and I share other bits of my life, like the Bollywood dances I’ve been practicing.

The menu to the left breaks the posts into four categories: economics, life updates, recommendations, and other. I hope you enjoy!

Noble work: Anand Giridharadas on the EKS

There was a recent discussion on the IDinsight #philosophy Slack channel about a recent Ezra Klein Show (EKS on this blog from now on, since I talk about it all the time) podcast with Anand Giridharadas. My contribution built off someone else’s notes that Giridharadas is spot on about how companies (also IDinsight in some ways) sell working for them as an extension of the camaraderie and culture of a college campus, how he doesn’t offer concrete solutions and that’s very annoying, and some reflections on transitioning from private sector consulting to IDinsight’s social sector, non-profit consulting model. I related more to the moral arguments in the podcast, and this is what I shared:

I connected most with his argument about how the overall negative impact of many big for-profit companies on worldwide well-being vastly outweighs any individual good you can do with the money you earn. One of EA’s recommended pathways to change is making a ton of money and giving it to effective charities, but if you do that by working for an exploitative company, then you’re really contributing to the maintenance of inequality and of the status quo racist, sexist, oppressive system.

My dad was always talking about having a “noble” profession when I was growing up (he’s a teacher and my mom’s a geriatric physical therapist) and even though “noble” is a strange way to put it, I think it is really important to (as much as possible) only be party to organizations and companies that are doing good or at least not doing active harm.

That being said, there are more reasons for going into the private sector and aiming to make money than are really dealt with in the podcast. For example, a few people we’ve talked to in South Africa have mentioned that many highly skilled South Africans are responsible for the education costs for all siblings/cousins and that is a strong motivator to take a higher paying salary.

It becomes very related to the debate about how much development or social sector workers should get paid, relative to competitive private sector jobs. I think IDinsight does a pretty good job of being in the middle for US associates anyways – paying enough that you can even save some, which is more than a lot of non-profits provide, but not necessarily trying to compete with private sector jobs because our model relies a lot on hiring people who are in it to serve, not for the money. Something for us to continue thinking about is how this might exclude candidates who have other financial responsibilities and how we should respond to this issue in how we hire and set salaries.

It’s so frustrating when people identify a problem without offering solutions. The closest he comes to offering solutions is to have organizations stop lobbying for massive tax breaks or in other ways deprioritize the bottom line of profitability. Sounded to me like his vision involves a lot more socialist ideas: the full solutions to these issues would involve massive-scale reorganizing of the existing economic system… although maybe we are heading in that direction with more co-op style companies and triple bottom line for-profit social enterprises? (Don’t know a ton about this co-op stuff – mostly from another Ezra Klein show episode probably, but it sounds cool!) …Maybe his next book will try to map out solutions, though?

Feminism contains multitudes: Annotated critique of WSJ op-ed on day care in Sweden

My annotated critique of “The Human Cost of Sweden’s Welfare State” – a poorly argued op-ed in the WSJ by psychoanalyst Erica Komisar.

Follow up research

  • Andersson, 1989: “Children with early day care (entrance before the age of 1) were generally rated more favorably and performed better than children with late entrance or home care.”
  • OECD report, 1999, p. 60: Acknowledges that children with poor immune systems or who are not good in group settings, could fare better at home or in home-style day cares (similar language to what the op-ed author uses). But points out that the increased feasibility of mothers staying home with young children for longer alleviates some concerns about mother-child early separation, giving parents flexibility to choose what option works best.
  • Another poorly supported op-ed from the Irish Times, 2011:

    “Working as a management consultant, Himmelstrand heard from women how sad they were about leaving their one-year-olds in daycare. He began to notice there were no children in the playgrounds during the day. If you walked down the street with a three-year-old toddler, people were amazed and disapproving the child was not in daycare.

    He also found educational standards were slipping in Sweden, and rates of psychological distress and psychosomatic illnesses among teens had gone up dramatically, not to mention disruptive behaviour in schools.”

  • Institute of Marriage and Family in Canada, 2015 blog post by Himmelstrand from a site with the tag line “Latest developments in family friendly research”: Not much research has been done on the Sweden day care system since the 70s and 80s. Highlights some staffing issues I saw mentioned elsewhere, as well, and again mentions the shaming of parents who don’t put their kids in pre-schools. Actually has citations, but most in Swedish and couldn’t follow-up on them.
  • Another Himmelbrand op-ed, 2013: “A study done a few years ago showed that today even socially stable middle class families have problems with their children.” Okay… that’s literally always true of any family. What kinds of problems qualify here? He doesn’t elaborate, but uses this as supposed evidence of poor parenting skills. Research in Swedish, can’t follow-up.
  • Perusing various chat boards and blogs: There does seem to be a general consensus that there’s pressure to fit in and do what other parents are doing across the board in Sweden that stands out to foreign and Swedish parents alike. And a few different posters mentioned pressure to put kids in day care, but never before age 1 unless you’re a crazy foreigner. BUT, there may be a correlation between those who post online about child care and those who feel alienated by the mainstream thought on it. So hard to judge whether the pressure is meaningful, and also whether it’s gov’t promoted or peer-enforced if it is a big deal.

Why is everything called Vox?

My favorite podcast right now is the Ezra Klein Show from Vox Media, the news-explaining organization founded by the podcast’s eponymous host. I am also in love with Vox’s Today, Explained and occasionally enjoy The Weeds and Impact.

Just now, I was looking up humanitarian economics and ended up at voxeu.org – a website of the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Vox is also an amplifier manufacturer, a vodka, an anime character, and a TV network in Germany, Quebec, and Norway.

“Why is everything called Vox?” The google search answered my query on the fourth try, with a link to the Wikipedia entry for “vox.” Below the link, in the page preview, it said simply “Vox is Latin for voice.” Well, then.

I love when you think there must be a reason for something and then there is, in fact, a perfectly good explanation.

New insights on the development vs. humanitarian sectors

When I was at Middlebury, I took classes like Famine & Food Security and Economics of Global Health, learning more and more about humanitarian aid and international development. It didn’t really sink in that these were two different sectors until today.

I had a chance to talk to someone who worked for REACH – an organization that tries to collect the most accurate data possible from war zones/humanitarian emergency areas to inform policy. Seem like pretty important work.

Our conversation solidified to me that the humanitarian sector is different from the development sector. The humanitarian sector has a totally different set of actors (dominated by the UN) and missions, although the ultimate mission of a better world is the same.

Development is about the ongoing improvement of individuals living in a comparatively stable system; humanitarian aid is about maintaining human rights and dignities when all those systems break down.

There’s some overlap, of course – regions experiencing ongoing war and violence may be targeted by development and humanitarian programs alike, for example. I also think the vocabulary blurs a bit when discussing funding for development and humanitarian aid.

Development isn’t quite sure how it feels about human rights, though. Rights are good when they lead to economic development, which is equivalent to most development work.

I’d say that my definition of what I want to do in the development sector bleeds over into the human rights and humanitarian arenas. (I’m sure there’s also an important distinction between human rights sector and humanitarian sector – probably that the humanitarian sector is more about meeting people’s basest needs in crisis, although human rights workers also deal with abuses during crises.)

My interest in humanitarian work has been piqued by this conversation today, though. It was also piqued by my former roommate’s description of her work with Doctors without Borders. The idea of going on an intense mission trip for a period of time, being all-in, then taking a break is kind of appealing. Although REACH itself wasn’t described as a great work experience. Really long hours, but fairly repetitive work.

Maybe I should read more about the economics/humanitarian aid/data overlap.

You have to pay to be published??

Clockwise from top left: Dr. Francisca Oboh-Ikuenobe, Dr. Nii Quaynor, Mohamed Baloola, Dr. Florence Muringi Wambugu.

I was reading about the new African journal – Scientific African – that will cater specifically to the needs of African scientists. Awesome!

Among the advantages of the new journal is the fact that “publication in Scientific African will cost $200, around half of what it costs in most recognised journals.”

Wait.

You have to pay to be published in an academic journal? Dang.

I guess that cost is probably built into whatever research grant you’re working on, but in most other publications, I thought writers got paid to contribute content. I guess it’s so that there’s not a direct incentive to publish as much as possible, which could lead to more falsified results? Although it seems like the current model has a lot of messed up incentives, too.