Phenomenal World

January 26th, 2019

Phenomenal World

Bone Mobile

LONG RUNNING

Learning about long-term effects of interventions, and designing interventions to facilitate the long view

A new paper from the Center for Effective Global Action at Berkeley surveys a topic important to our researchers here at JFI: the question of long-run effects of interventions. In our literature review of cash transfer studies, we identified the need for more work beyond the bounds of a short-term randomized controlled trial. This is especially crucial for basic income, which is among those policies intended to be permanent.

The authors of the new Berkeley report, Adrien Bouguen, Yue Huang, Michael Kremer, and Edward Miguel, note that it’s a particularly apt moment for this kind of work: “Given the large numbers of RCTs launched in the 2000’s, every year that goes by means that more and more RCT studies are ‘aging into’ a phase where the assessment of long-run impacts becomes possible.”

The report includes a summary of what we know about long-run impacts so far:

"Section 2 summarizes and evaluates the growing body of evidence from RCTs on the long-term impacts of international development interventions, and find most (though not all) provide evidence for positive and meaningful effects on individual economic productivity and living standards. Most of these studies examine existing cash transfer, child health, or education interventions, and shed light on important theoretical questions such as the existence of poverty traps (Bandiera et al., 2018) and returns to human capital investments in the long term."

Also notable is the last section, which contains considerations for study design, "lessons from our experience in conducting long-term tracking studies, as well as innovative data approaches." Link to the full paper.

  • In his paper "When are Cash Transfers Transformative?," Bruce Wydick also notes the need for long-run analysis: "Whether or not these positive impacts have long-term transformative effects—and under what conditions—is a question that is less settled and remains an active subject of research." The rest of the paper is of interest as well, including Wydick's five factors that tend to signal that a cash transfer will be transformative. Link.
  • For more on the rising popularity of RCTs, a 2016 paper by major RCT influencers Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer quantifies that growth and discusses the impact of RCTs. Link. Here’s the PowerPoint version of that paper. David McKenzie at the World Bank responds to the paper, disputing some of its claims. Link.
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January 19th, 2019

Self-Portrait

PLENARY CONFIDENCE

A look at China's social credit system

In a recent newsletter, we noted a spate of reporting drawing attention to the authoritarianism of China's growing Social Credit System. This week, we are sharing a paper by YU-JIE CHEN, CHING-FU LIN, AND HAN-WEI LIU that casts light on the details of the program's workings, corrects common misconceptions, proposes some likely and disturbing future scenarios, and offers a useful frame for understanding the significant shift it is bringing about in Chinese governance.

"A new mode of governance is emerging with the rise of China’s 'Social Credit System' (shehui xinyong zhidu) or SCS. The SCS is an unusual, comprehensive governance regime designed to tackle challenges that are commonly seen as a result of China’s 'trustless' society that has featured official corruption, business scandals and other fraudulent activities. The operation of the SCS relies on a number of important and distinctive features—information gathering, information sharing, labeling, and credit sanctions—which together constitute four essential elements of the system.

In our view, the regime of the SCS reflects what we call the 'rule of trust,' which has significant implications for the legal system and social control in China. We define the 'rule of trust' as a governance mode that imposes arbitrary restrictions—loosely defined and broadly interpreted trust-related rules—to condition, shape, and compel the behavior of the governed subjects… The 'rule of trust' is in fact undermining 'rule of law.'

In the context of governance, the unbounded notion of 'trust' and the unrestrained development of technology are a dangerous combination."

Link to the paper.

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January 12th, 2019

Worldviews

SOFT CYBER

Another kind of cybersecurity risk: the destruction of common knowledge

In a report for the Berkman Klein center, Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier identify a gap in current approaches to cybersecurity. National cybersecurity officials still base their thinking on Cold War-type threats, where technologists focus on hackers. Combining both approaches, Farrell and Schneier make a wider argument about collective knowledge in democratic systems—and the dangers of its diminishment.

From the abstract:

"We demonstrate systematic differences between how autocracies and democracies work as information systems, because they rely on different mixes of common and contested political knowledge. Stable autocracies will have common knowledge over who is in charge and their associated ideological or policy goals, but will generate contested knowledge over who the various political actors in society are, and how they might form coalitions and gain public support, so as to make it more difficult for coalitions to displace the regime. Stable democracies will have contested knowledge over who is in charge, but common knowledge over who the political actors are, and how they may form coalitions and gain public support... democracies are vulnerable to measures that 'flood' public debate and disrupt shared decentralized understandings of actors and coalitions, in ways that autocracies are not."

One compelling metaresearch point from the paper is that autocratic governments receive analysis of information trade-offs, while democratic governments do not:

"There is existing research literature on the informational trade-offs or 'dictators' dilemmas' that autocrats face, in seeking to balance between their own need for useful information and economic growth, and the risk that others can use available information to undermine their rule. There is no corresponding literature on the informational trade-offs that democracies face between desiderata like availability and stability."

Full paper available on SSRN here.

  • Farrell summarizes the work on Crooked Timber: "In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society." Many substantive comments follow. Link.
  • Jeremy Wallace, an expert on authoritarianism, weighs in on Twitter: "Insiders, inevitably, have even more information about the contours of these debates. On the other hand, there's a lot that dictators don't know--about their own regimes, the threats that they are facing, etc." Link to Wallace's work on the topic.
  • Related reading recommended by Wallace, from Daniel Little, a 2016 paper on propaganda: "Surprisingly, the government tends to pick a high level of propaganda precisely when it is ineffective." Link.
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January 5th, 2019

Aunt Eliza

PROCESS INTEGRATION

Bringing evidence to bear on policy

Happy 2019. We’re beginning with a report from Evidence in Practice, a project from the Yale School of Management. The report focuses on how to integrate rigorously researched evidence with policy and practice, with an emphasis on international development. The needs numerous stakeholders involved in research and policymaking are enumerated, along with their own needs and priorities: funders, researchers, intermediaries, policymakers, and implementers each receive consideration. One of the strengths of the report is its quotations from dozens of interviews across these groups, which give a sense of the messy, at times frustrating, always collaborative business of effecting change in the world. As to the question of what works:

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December 23rd, 2019

The Road in the Forest

Thank you for reading the JFI letter this year. As we prepare for another year of research and link sharing, here's some of what we sent in 2019.
We'll see you in 2020.

OVER ILLUMINATION

Highlights from a year of JFI Letters

+ In our first newsletter of 2019, we looked at a report by Yale School of Management's Evidence in Practice project, which considered the relationship between research and policymaking: "The most successful examples of evidence integration lessen the distinction between evidence generation and application, and focus on designing approaches that simultaneously generate (different types of) rigorous evidence and develop an iterative process for integrating evidence into practice." Link to the archived letter. + A July letter features work by Jonas Hjort et. al on how research evidence shaped the decisions of policymakers in Brazil. Link to the archived letter.

+ Recurring debates on the future of work: Brishen Rogers argues that labor precarity is the result of politics, not the outcome of any force of automation outside of our control: "Hotel work, food services, janitorial work, and retail work have become precarious over the past twenty years because companies in those sectors forcibly de-unionized and/or 'fissured' away their workers to subcontractors or franchisors, thereby denying them effective access to many legal rights." Link to the April letter. + In the first of a two-part series, Aaron Benanav historicizes automation debates in order to shed light on their significance for the present. Link to the October letter.

+ On education and the labor market: Alicia Sasser Modestino et. al criticize the "skills gap" theory, which suggests that labor standards are declining because American workers lack the training to enter high paid industries. They argue instead that it's due to an abundance of skilled workers that employers have raised the credentials required for entry level jobs. And Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Morgan show the "skills gap" theory to be inconsistent with the student debt crisis. Link. + In March, we looked at the proliferation of certificate programs, an understudied development in the higher education landscape. Link to the archived letter.

+ On the nuts and bolts policy history and implementation: A recent letter discussed Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan's book, Administrative Burden, which argues that, "ultimately, burdens are the fine print in the social contract between citizens and their government." Link to the archived letter. + A look into the history of the EITC, from May. Link.

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December 22nd, 2018

Frohes Fest | Year in Review

The JFI Letter has grown and morphed over the past twelve months; thank you to our readers for opening, skimming, clicking, and writing us every week. We'll be offline until January 5. In the meantime, here's a list of our favorite spotlights from last year and a list of favorite researchers to watch in the next.

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December 15th, 2018

Space Dance

SCIENTIFIC RETURNS

A new book examines the economic and social impacts of R&D

Last May, we highlighted a report on workforce training and technological competitiveness which outlined trends in research and development investment. The report found that despite "total U.S. R&D funding reaching an all-time high in 2015," it's shifted dramatically to the private sector: "federal funding for R&D, which goes overwhelmingly to basic scientific research, has declined steadily and is now at the lowest level since the early 1950s." This week, we take a look at the returns to these investments and discuss how best to measure and trace the ways research spending affects economic activity and policy.

In the most recent Issues in Science and Technology, IRWIN FELLER reviewsMeasuring the Economic Value of Research, a technical monograph that discusses how best to measure the impact and value of research on policy objectives. Notably, the book highlights UMETRICS, a unified dataset from a consortium of universities "that can be used to better inform decisions relating to the level, apportionment, human capital needs, and physical facility requirements of public investments in R&D and the returns of these investments." While it represents a big data approach to program evaluation, Feller notes that UMETRICS' strength is in the "small data, theory-driven, and exacting construction of its constituent datasets," all of which offer insight into the importance of human capital in successful R&D:

"The book’s characterization of the ways in which scientific ideas are transmitted to and constitute value to the broader economy encompasses publications and patents, but most importantly includes the employment of people trained in food safety research. This emphasis on human capital reflects a core proposition of UMETRICS, namely the 'importance of people—students, principal investigators, postdoctoral researchers, and research staff—who conduct research, create new knowledge, and transmit that knowledge into the broader economy.'

In particular, the chapters on workforce dynamics relating to employment, earnings, occupations, and early careers highlight the nuanced, disaggregated, and policy-relevant information made possible by UMETRICS. These data provide much-needed reinforcement to the historic proposition advanced by research-oriented universities that their major contribution to societal well-being—economic and beyond—is through the joint production of research and graduate education, more than patents or other metrics of technology transfer or firm formation."

The UMETRICS dataset traces the social and economic returns of research universities and allows for a larger examination of universities as sociopolitical anchors and scientific infrastructure.

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December 1st, 2018

Energy Field

GREEN INFLUENCE

A discussion of different approaches to climate policy

Last week, the U.S. government released the Fourth National Climate Assessmentwhich outlined the dire economic and environmental consequences of climate change. Instead of highlighting key findings of the report—two good summaries are available here and here—we'll contextualize the current climate debate within legal history, which shows the limitations of current economically-focused arguments for climate policy.

A 2010 Yale Law Journal article by Jedediah Purdy situates the current climate debate within the long tradition of political argument about the natural world, and challenges assumptions that environmental values which appeal to moral and civic duty are too weak and vague to spur political action. In fact, Purdy argues that major environmental legislation emerged from "democratic argument over the value of the natural world and its role in competing ideas of citizenship, national purpose, and the role and scale of government." Purdy does more than just argue that environmental public language is more coherent than conventionally understood, he argues that understanding climate policy through economic self-interest diminishes the role political struggle plays in shaping national values and interests:

"Consider one example that makes little sense through the lens of narrow self-interest, much more as part of an ongoing debate over environmental values: the organizing project that has led 1015 city governments to adopt the goals of the Kyoto Protocol (a seven percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2012) through an instrument called the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Since the costs are not zero, and the benefits, in theory, are almost exactly that, the question of motivation is still fairly sharply presented.

...

In private interviews and public statements, city officials explain their efforts in several ways. They are quick to cite the advantage certain regions hope to enjoy from early adoption and manufacture of technologies that may later become standard. They embrace a simple public-choice motive: city governments hope to benefit from green-development block grants and, in the longer term, density-friendly economic development, and early efforts may position them to do both.
They also regard themselves as engaged in political persuasion that they hope will induce others to take similar action. Whether this is plausible is partly endogenous to the politics itself. This politics seeks to affect the reasons—specifically those grounded in environmental values—that people understand themselves to have for joining collective undertakings. Rather than a specimen of an independently established logic of collective action, it is an engagement with that logic itself."

Link to full paper.

  • In a 2018 article, Purdy looks more deeply at the history of environmental justice, and why its concerns were left out of mainstream environmental law: "Mainstream environmental law was the last major legal product of 'the great exception,' the decades of the mid-twentieth century when, unlike any other time in modern history, economic inequality was declining and robust growth was widely shared." Link.

  • A 2017 dissertation examines the environment as an object of politics, as opposed to natural capital, and argues that the environment is a "political problem that entails ongoing negotiations over the legitimacy of market rule, the role of the state in relation to the market, and the value of ecological stewardship." Link.

  • The new climate reports have brought attention back to solar geoengineering, which the Guardian, covering a Gernot Wagner paper, notes is extremely inexpensive and possibly an option for desperate circumstances: “The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report said geoengineering might be adopted as a temporary “remedial measure” in extreme circumstances.”Link.

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November 17th, 2018

Poetry Machine

PLACE-BASED SUBSIDIES | UBERLAND | HISTORY OF QUANTIFICATION

STAGNANT INFLUENCE

The inefficiency of lobbying

A few weeks ago, we spotlighted work by Elliott Ash et. al. on the startling influence of the Manne economics seminars in shaping judicial decision-making. This week we’re looking at an industry that, conversely, seems extremely influential, but is frequently ineffectual: lobbying.

In a 2009 book, "Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why," FRANK R. BAUMGARTNER et. al. take an unprecedentedly thorough look at lobbying in Washington, scrutinizing "ninety-eight randomly selected policy issues in which interest groups were involved and then followed those issues across two Congresses." What they find is complexity and gridlock:

"Since we followed our issues for four years, we know a lot about what eventually occurred (if anything did). In fact, as we outline in the chapters to come, for the majority of our issues, little happened.

If what they are supposed to be doing is producing change, interest groups are a surprisingly ineffectual lot. A focus by the media and many academics on explaining political change or sensational examples of lobbying success obscures the fact that lobbyists often toil with little success in gaining attention to their causes or they meet such opposition to their efforts that the resulting battle leads to a stalemate.

Of course, many lobbyists are active because their organizations benefit from the status quo and they want to make sure that it stays in place. We will show that one of the best single predictors of success in the lobbying game is not how much money an organization has on its side, but simply whether it is attempting to protect the policy that is already in place."

Preview on Google Books here.

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December 9th, 2019

Red Wave

DEPENDENCE EFFECT

Financialization in American higher ed

Like many systems of social provision—from housing to pensions—American education has become increasingly financialized. In a recent paper, Charlie Eaton, Jacob Habinek, Adam Goldstein, Cyrus Dioun, Daniela García Santibáñez Godoy, and Robert Osley-Thomas consider the scope and consequences of financialization in the market for higher education.

From the paper:

"Increasing dependence on financial markets may bias resources towards revenue-generating commercial projects and increased student loan origination. We document the growing role of finance across the heterogeneous subsectors of US higher education: traditional public and non-profit educational providers have come to rely more heavily on financially mediated flows of investment revenue and debt-funded capital. Meanwhile, equity capital fueled the growth of an explicitly financialized sub-sector of for-profit providers. Finally, educational consumers have been saddled with growing interest payments as debt balances grew. Interestingly, the state has been one of the main participants in the transformation we describe.

How does financialization affect educational outcomes and educational stratification? We show that students’ average student loan borrowing increased fastest and to the highest levels at for-profits. Yet for-profits and the poorest public institutions disproportionately enroll minorities and students from lower social class backgrounds. Together, these facts suggest that the financialization of higher education may play a significant direct role in exacerbating educational and economic stratification. We can also expect significant effects among public and non-profit institutions. Borrowed capital has disproportionately funded investments in non-instructional commercial activities, including amenities. In this way, bond markets promote organizational behaviors that may be at odds with the goals of cost-efficient social provision in areas like higher education."

Link to the full article.

  • Another Eaton paper, co-authored with Sabrina Howell and Constantine Yannelis, uses "novel data on 88 private equity deals involving 994 schools" to study the impact of private equity buyouts on higher education: "After buyouts, we observe lower education inputs, graduation rates, loan repayment rates, and earnings among graduates." Link. See also this detailed report on financialization and higher education from the Roosevelt Institute. Link.
  • "When public higher education cannot keep pace with growing public demand for access and programs, governments often allow for-profits to rush in and help fill the gap. The future tertiary market will not be the result of a well thought out policy at the national or state levels, but a quasi-free market result that will foster lower quality providers and fail to meet national goals for increasing the educational attainment level of Americans." A 2012 article by John Douglass analyzes the rise of for-profits in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Link.
  • "One generation of Americans owed $86 billion in student loan debt at last count. Its members are all 60 years old or more." At the WSJ, AnnaMaria Andriotis writes on the emergence of senior held student debt. Link.
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