Weekly Development Links #1

Each Wednesday at IDinsight, one of our tech team members, Akib Khan, posts a few links (mostly from Twitter!) to what he’s been reading in development that week. For the next three weeks, he’s on leave and I am taking over! Thought I should cross-post my selections (also mostly curated from #EconTwitter):

Cash Transfer Bonanza: The details matter
Blattman et al. just released a paper following up on previous 4-year results from a one-time cash transfer of $400, now reporting 9-year results (see first 3 links). To liven up the internal discussion, I’m adding critiques by Ashu Handa (UNC Transfer Project / UNICEF-Innocenti economist and old family friend), who has cautioned against lack of nuance in interpretation of CT study results, esp. around program implementation details like who is distributing grants, the size of the grants, and how frequently they are given – he studies social protection programs giving repeat cash transfers.

Diff-in-diff treatment timing paper… with GIFs!
Andrew Goodman-Bacon (what a name!) has a new paper that all of #EconTwitter is going crazy over. It deals with some methodological issues using diff-in-diff when treatment turns on at different times for different groups, and other scenarios where timing becomes important. Real paper not for the faint hearted, but the Twitter thread has some great GIFs!

African debt to China: reality doesn’t match the hype

Bonus link: Eritrea & Ethiopia border opening party

Thesis revamp: All hail Ted Miguel, PhD, god of economic writing!

      Ted Miguel, god of economic writing

In order to have a high-quality writing sample for the RA jobs I’m applying to this fall, I am revamping my thesis! Joy of joys!

I thought about doing this earlier in the year and even created a whole plan to do it, but ended up deciding to work on this blog, learning to code, and other, less horrifying professional development activities.

I say horrifying because the thesis I submitted was HORRIBLY WRITTEN. So so so bad. I cringe every time I look back over it. I had tackled a 6-year project (the length of time it took to write the paper I was basing my thesis on, I later found out) in four months time. Too little of the critical thinking I had done on how to handle the piles and piles of data I needed to answer my research question actually ended up in writing.

I thought it would be a drag to fix up the paper. I didn’t expect to still be as intrigued by my research topic (democracy and health in sub-Saharan Africa!) or to be as enthusiastic about practicing my economic writing. I’m taking the unexpected enjoyment as a positive sign that life as a researcher will be awesome.

I’ve been thinking critically about the question of democracy and health and how they’re interrelated and how economic development ties into each. I’ve read (skimmed) a few additional sources that I didn’t even think to look for last time and I already have some good ideas for a new framing of why this research is interesting and important. The first time around, I focused a lot on the cool methodology (spatial regression discontinuity design) because that’s what I spent most of my time working on.

My perspective on the research question has been massively refreshed by time apart from my thesis, new on-the-ground development experience, and the papers I’ve read in the interim.

My first tasks have been to re-read the thesis (yuck), and then gather the resources I need to re-write at least the introduction. I am focusing on the abstract and introduction as the first order of business because some of the writing samples I will need to submit will be or can be shorter and the introduction is as far as most people would get anyways.

To improve my writing and the structure of my introduction, my thesis advisor – who I can now call Erick instead of Professor Gong – recommended reading some of Ted Miguel’s introductions. I printed three and all were well-written and informative in terms of structure; one of them (with Pascaline Dupas) even helped me rethink the context around my research question and link it more solidly to the development economics literature.

The next move is to outline the introduction by writing the topic sentence of each paragraph (a tip taken from my current manager at IDinsight, Ignacio, who is very into policy memo-style writing) using a Miguel-type structure. I’ll edit that structure a bit, then add the text of the paragraphs.

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?

Recommendations of the Week: June 18-24

Blog

Goddess-Economist Seema Jayachandran wrote about economists’ gendered view of their own discipline back in March. Dr. Jayachandran and PhD student co-author Jamie Daubenspeck investigate:

  1. Percent of woman authors on different development topics: Drawing on all empirical development papers from 2007-2017, they find, out of all papers, “51% were written by all men, and 15% by all women. The average female share of authors was 28% (weighting each paper equally).” Gender, health, trade, migration, education, poverty and conflict are the development topics with a greater than average number of woman authors.
  2. Economists’ perspectives on under-researched topics: They show that there is a negative correlation between a topic’s % of woman authors and perceptions the topic is under-researched, a finding they call “a bit depressing.” Same. (They also write that “whether a topic is under-researched are not significantly correlated with the actual number of articles on the topic published in the JDE over our sample period.” So what do these economists even know?)

I love their thoughtful outline of the methodology they used for this little investigation. Describing the world with data is awesome.

Awesome Humans

I ended up hearing about/reading about several amazing humans this week:

Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia – the clinical psychologist running Cook County Jail – had amazing things to say on the Ezra Klein Show last year in July. She is powerful and thoughtful and doing amazing things to improve prisons in the US.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern gave birth on the 21st. She’s only the second world leader to give birth in office, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. The best part is that she is 100% unapologetic about being a mother in office, even while she acknowledges the challenges she will personally face in balancing a new baby and work.

These two leaders are just out there in the world leading noble, thoughtful, innovative lives. In love.

And then there’s MJ Hegar, who’s running for Congress against a tea partier in Texas. Her amazingly directed ad shows how enduring her dedication to service has been throughout her life:

Life Skill

My best friend Riley and I made a pact to meditate daily for ten days, starting on Monday. I have done it each day this week and my week has felt fuller and more focused than ever. Not willing to attribute full causality to the meditation, but it definitely has been a tool to start my day well and a reminder throughout the day that I can and want to stay focused and in the moment.

Podcast

The Ezra Klein Show interviews are always on point, and “The Green Pill” episode featuring Dr. Melanie Joy was no exception. The June 11 show discussed “carnism” – the unspoken ideology that tells us eating animals, wearing animals, and otherwise instrumentalizing them is good.

I’ve been mulling it over for a while now, but the episode’s frank conversation about why veganism is so hard to talk about pleasantly – and why it’s so hard for people to shift from a carnal mindset – motivated me to head back down the vegetarian path.

I was vegetarian for a year or so in college, but now I’m aiming for veganism, or something close. I’m not eating meat and am not actively purchasing or eating eggs or milk. At this point, I’ll eat eggs or milk or other animal products that are already baked into something – a slice of cake, for example. Eventually, I want to phase out pretty much all animal products. But I’m giving myself some space to adjust and dial back the carnism bit by bit. The incremental approach should let me stick to it better.

Cheese will probably be my “barrier food” – apparently this is so common, there’s a webpage that specifically teaches how to overcome the cheese block. (hehe)

They recommend slowly replacing cheese with guac or hummus, and taking a large break from any cheese before trying vegan cheese. (Which won’t be a problem since I doubt there’s any vegan cheese in Kenya to begin with!)

Cover Image

Fruit

It is not mango season in Kenya, but I had the best mango this week. Maybe because I cut it myself for the first time, making an absolute mess. Or maybe because it was the key ingredient to the first lettuce-containing salad I’ve ever made myself at home. But there’s a lot to be said for a fruit that encourages you to embrace your messy nature.

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.

Ӧzler: Decrease power to detect only a meaningful effect

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

Reading about power, I found an old World Bank Impact Evaluations blog post by Berk Ӧzler on the perils of basing your power calcs in standard deviations without relating those SDs back to the real life context.

Ӧzler summarizes his main points quite succinctly himself:

“Takeaways:

  • Think about the meaningful effect size in your context and given program costs and aims.
  • Power your study for large effects, which are less likely to disappear in the longer run.
  • Try to use all the tricks in the book to improve power and squeeze more out of every dollar you’re spending.”

He gives a nice, clear example to demonstrate: a 0.3 SD detectable effect size sounds impressive, but for some datasets, this would really only mean a 5% improvement which might not be meaningful in context:

“If, in the absence of the program, you would have made $1,000 per month, now you’re making $1,050. Is that a large increase? I guess, we could debate this, but I don’t think so: many safety net cash transfer programs in developing countries are much more generous than that. So, we could have just given that money away in a palliative program – but I’d want much more from my productive inclusion program with all its bells and whistles.”

Usually (in an academic setting), your goal is to have the power to detect a really small effect size so you can get a significant result. But Ӧzler makes the opposite point: that it can be advantageous to only power yourself to detect what is a meaningful effect size, decreasing both power and cost.

He also advises, like the article I posted about yesterday, that piloting could help improve power calculations via better ICC estimates: “Furthermore, try to get a good estimate of the ICC – perhaps during the pilot phase by using a few clusters rather than just one: it may cost a little more at that time, but could save a lot more during the regular survey phase.”

My only issue with Ӧzler’s post is his chart, which shows the tradeoffs between effect size and the number of clusters. His horizontal axis is labeled “Total number of clusters” – per arm or in total, Bert?!? It’s per arm, not total across all arms. There should be more standardized and intuitive language for describing sample size in power calcs.