April 21st, 2018

Nightmare

NON-ZERO PRICE

"Digital goods have created large gains in well-being that are missed by conventional measures of GDP and productivity"

A new paper by ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON et al. suggests using massive online choice experiments as a method to find the true impact of digital goods on well-being. The background section gives an example of the impact that is currently unmeasured:

“... [in] a number of sectors ... physical goods and services are being substituted with digital goods and services. An apropos example of such a transition good is an encyclopedia. Since the 2000s, people have increasingly flocked to Wikipedia to get information about a wide variety of topics updated in real time by volunteers. In 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica, which had been one of the most popular encyclopedias, ceased printing books after 244 years (Pepitone 2012). Wikipedia has over 60 times as many articles as Britannica had, and its accuracy has been found to be on par with Britannica (Giles 2005). Far more people use Wikipedia than ever used Britannica—demand and well-being have presumably increased substantially. But while the revenues from Britannica sales were counted in GDP statistics, Wikipedia has virtually no revenues and therefore doesn’t contribute anything to GDP other than a few minimal costs for running servers and related activities and some voluntary contributions to cover these costs…For such transition goods, consumer surplus increases as free access spurs demand, but revenue decreases as prices become zero. Hence GDP and consumer welfare actually move in opposite directions.”

One finding of note: “50% of the Facebook users in our sample would give up all access to Facebook for one month if we paid them about $50 or more.” Link to paper on NBER here popup: yes. A free draft is available here popup: yes.

 Full Article

April 14th, 2018

Inventions that Changed the World

METARESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

Changes in R & D funding and allocation

In a new report on workforce training and technological competitiveness, a task force led by former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker describes recent trends in research and development investment. Despite the fact that “total U.S. R&D funding reached an all-time high of nearly $500 billion in 2015, nearly three percent of U.S. gross domestic product,” the balance in funding has 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.” One section of the report contains this striking chart:

Link to the full report. ht Will

  • A deeper dive into the report's sourcing leads to a fascinating repository of data from the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the U.S. government's investments in research since the 1950s. Alongside the shift from majority federal to majority private R&D funding, the proportion of investments across different academic disciplines has also changed significantly. One table shows that the share of federal R&D funding for environmental science, engineering, and math/computer science has grown the most, from a combined 43.2% in 1970 to 54.8% in 2017. Meanwhile, funding for social science research has decreased the most. In 1970, the social sciences received 4.3% of the government's R&D funding; but in 2017, that share had fallen to 1.8%. Much more data on public sector R&D investments is available from the AAAS here.
  • A March 2017 article in Science explains some of these shifts.
  • A section of a 1995 report commissioned by the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations charts and contextualizes the explosion of federal research and development funding in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.
  • A study from the Brookings Institution finds that federal funding for research and development accounts for up to 2.8 percent of GDP in some of the largest metropolitan areas in America. The authors have fifty ideas for how municipalities can capture more of the economic impact generated by that R&D.
  • Michael comments: "With the diminishing share (4.3% to 1.8% of total government research) of halved expenditures—and business not naturally inclined to conduct this kind of research (except in, as one would expect, instances of direct business application like surge pricing and Uber)—social science research appears to no longer have a natural home."
 Full Article

April 7th, 2018

The Worshipper

TARGET VARIABLE

Big data's effect on the credit-scoring industry

A lengthy 2016 article from the Yale Journal of Law and Technology delves into credit-scoring then suggests a new legislative framework.

Since 2008, lenders have only intensified their use of big-data profiling techniques. With increased use of smartphones, social media, and electronic means of payment, every consumer leaves behind a digital trail of data that companies—including lenders and credit scorers—are eagerly scooping up and analyzing as a means to better predict consumer behavior. The credit-scoring industry has experienced a recent explosion of start-ups that take an 'all data is credit data' approach that combines conventional credit information with thousands of data points mined from consumers' offline and online activities. Many companies also use complex algorithms to detect patterns and signals within a vast sea of information about consumers' daily lives. Forecasting credit risk on the basis of a consumer's retail preferences is just the tip of the iceberg; many alternative credit-assessment tools now claim to analyze everything from consumer browsing habits and social media activities to geolocation data.

Full article by MIKELLA HURLEY and JULIUS ADEBAYO here. ht Will

PREMIUM MOBILITY

Tallying the gains of migration

We recently linked to a paper by LANT PRITCHETT that challenged development orthodoxy by pointing out that the income gains for the subjects of best practice direct development interventions are about 40 times smaller than those from allowing the same people to work in a rich country like the United States.

Link, again, to that paper.

That argument was built upon previous scholarship that attempted to put rigorous numbers to the obvious intuition that migration is beneficial for those drawn to wealthy countries by labor markets. From a 2016 paper by Pritchett and co-authors MICHAEL CLEMENS and CLAUDIO MONTENEGRO:

"We use migrant selection theory and evidence to place lower bounds on the ad valorem equivalent of labor mobility barriers to the United States, with unique nationally-representative microdata on both US immigrant workers and workers in their 42 home countries. The average price equivalent of migration barriers in this setting, for low-skill males, is greater than $13,700 per worker per year."

 Full Article

March 31st, 2018

White Out

URBAN WEALTH FUNDS | OWNERSHIP OF SOVEREIGN WEALTH | FILTER BUBBLE EFFECTS

URBAN WEALTH FUNDS

Social wealth funds on the municipal level

Matt Bruenig, Roger Farmer and Miles Kimball, and Sam Altman have all pushed for versions of a US sovereign wealth fund for social good. Their work focuses on funds at the national level. But another version of the idea comes from Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster, whose 2017 book advocates for “urban wealth funds,” funded via better management of government land and other nonfinancial assets. A few such funds have already had success.

Using Boston as an example of a city that could profit from an urban wealth fund, Detter writes for the World Economic Forum in February:

“…Like many other cities, Boston does not assess the market value of its economic assets. Unlocking the public value of poorly utilized real estate or monetizing its transportation and utility assets – smarter asset management, in other words – would yield a return that would enable it to more than double its infrastructure investments. Through smarter asset management, Boston could improve its public transport system and other services without needing to opt for privatization, raise taxes or cut spending elsewhere.

“What’s the catch? Actually, there isn’t one.”

Link to the full post. A 2017 Brookings report showed how Copenhagen successfully implemented urban wealth fund policy:

“This paper explores how the Copenhagen model can revitalize cities and finance large-scale infrastructure by increasing the commercial yield of publicly owned land and buildings without raising taxes. The approach deploys an innovative institutional vehicle—a publicly owned, privately run corporation—to achieve the high-level management and value appreciation of assets more commonly found in the private sector while retaining development profits for public use.”

Link to the full report.

  • Another successful version of urban value capture: Hong Kong’s metro (the MTR). “Hong Kong is one of the world’s densest cities, and businesses depend on the metro to ferry customers from one side of the territory to another. As a result, the MTR strikes a bargain with shop owners: In exchange for transporting customers, the transit agency receives a cut of the mall’s profit, signs a co-ownership agreement, or accepts a percentage of property development fees. In many cases, the MTR owns the entire mall itself.” Link.
  • Detter and Fölster’s previous book envisions better management of government assets on the national level.
 Full Article

March 24th, 2018

Do I See Right?

FAIRNESS IN MACHINE LEARNING | METARESEARCH | MICROSTRUCTURE OF VIOLENCE

DISTINCT FUSION

Tracking the convergence of terms across disciplines

In a new paper, CHRISTIAN VINCENOT looks at the process by which two synonymous concepts developed independently in separate disciplines, and how they were brought together.

“I analyzed research citations between the two communities devoted to ACS research, namely agent-based (ABM) and individual-based modelling (IBM). Both terms refer to the same approach, yet the former is preferred in engineering and social sciences, while the latter prevails in natural sciences. This situation provided a unique case study for grasping how a new concept evolves distinctly across scientific domains and how to foster convergence into a universal scientific approach. The present analysis based on novel hetero-citation metrics revealed the historical development of ABM and IBM, confirmed their past disjointedness, and detected their progressive merger. The separation between these synonymous disciplines had silently opposed the free flow of knowledge among ACS practitioners and thereby hindered the transfer of methodological advances and the emergence of general systems theories. A surprisingly small number of key publications sparked the ongoing fusion between ABM and IBM research.”

Link to a summary and context. Link to the abstract. ht Margarita

  • Elsewhere in metaresearch, a new paper from James Evans’s Knowledge Lab examines influence by other means than citations: “Using a computational method known as topic modeling—invented by co-author David Blei of Columbia University—the model tracks ‘discursive influence,’ or recurring words and phrases through historical texts that measure how scholars actually talk about a field, instead of just their attributions. To determine a given paper’s influence, the researchers could statistically remove it from history and see how scientific discourse would have unfolded without its contribution.” Link to a summary. Link to the full paper.
 Full Article

March 10th, 2018

The One With Nothing On It

CRIMINALIZATION OF DEBT | INTERNET CENSORSHIP | EQUALITY

BRUTAL ATTACHMENTS

A new report on the criminalization of debt

Last week, the ACLU published a report entitled "A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt." It details the widespread use of the criminal justice system in the collection of debts—including medical, credit card, auto, education and household—in many cases resulting in de facto debtor's jails.

"In 44 states, judges—including district court civil judges, small-claims court judges, clerk-magistrates, and justices of the peace—are allowed to issue arrest warrants for failure to appear at post-judgment proceedings or for failure to provide information about finances. These warrants, usually called 'body attachments' or 'capias warrants,' are issued on the charge of contempt of court.

At the request of a collection company, a court can enter a judgment against a debtor, authorize a sheriff to seize a debtor's property, and order an employer to garnish the debtor's wages.… In most of the country, an unpaid car loan or a utility bill that's in arrears can result in incarceration."

Link to the full report.

  • The report was given a lengthy write-up at The Intercept. "Federal law outlawed debt prisons in 1833, but lenders, landlords and even gyms and other businesses have found a way to resurrect the Dickensian practice. With the aid of private collection agencies, they file millions of lawsuits in state and local courts each year, winning 95 percent of the time." Link.
  • A brief overview of the history of debtors' prisons, leading to the upward trend of collectors' leveraging criminal consequences against debtors. Link.
  • A 2011 paper titled "Creditor's Contempt" describes the procedural and doctrinal mechanisms linking collectors and courts, and the "difficult balance between the state's and creditors' interest in rigorous judgment enforcement and debtors' interest in imposing reasonable limitations on the coerciveness of debt collection." Link. And documentation of a Duke Law conference covers the criminalization of debt alongside discussions of credit scoring and consumer bankruptcy. Link.
  • The criminalization of private debt dovetails with the more widely discussed issue of criminal justice debt resulting from fines and fees, which also leads to de facto debtor incarceration. Often called "legal financial obligations" (LFOs), these revenue-raising fees are levied for everything from warrants and case processing to parole check-ins and electronic monitoring devices. For more, see this 2010 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, this 2015 investigation from NPR, and this 2016 reform guide from Harvard's Criminal Justice Policy Program. (Also from CJPP, an interactive criminal justice debt policy mapping tool. Link.)
  • In a 2014 post on their now-defunct blog House of Debt, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi (authors of a book by the same name) on the history of debt forgiveness. Link. (For attempts at exploiting the imperfections of debt markets to cancel various kinds of debt, see the Rolling Jubilee project, and its relative the Debt Collective.)
 Full Article

March 3rd, 2018

New Fables

IVORY MECHANICS

Regional parochialism and the production of knowledge in universities

"Scholarly understanding of how universities transform money and intellect into knowledge remains limited. At present we have only rudimentary measures of knowledge production's inputs: tuition and fees, government subsidies, philanthropic gifts, and the academic credentials of students and faculty. Output measures are equally coarse: counts of degrees conferred; dissertations, articles and books completed; patents secured; dollars returned on particular inventions. As for the black box of knowledge production in between: very little."

From the introduction to a new book on American social science research that aims to uncover the institutional pathways that produce (and favor) certain areas of research.

It continues:

"The rise of 'global' discourse in the US academy has coevolved with fundamental changes in academic patronage, university prestige systems, and the international political economy. America's great research institutions are now only partly servants of the US nation-state. This fact has very large implications for those who make their careers producing scholarly knowledge."

Link to the introduction.

  • A short interview with co-authors Mitchell L. Stevens and Cynthia Miller-Idris. "Sociology department chairs said frankly that they deliberately steer graduate students away from international study because such projects on non-U.S. topics are less likely to have purchase on the tenure-line job market.… The tenure process is largely mediated by disciplines, and because those disciplines prioritize their own theoretical abstractions, contextual knowledge loses out." Link.
  • A paper examines previous attempts to map the parochialism of a discipline, finding that “conventional measures based on nation-state affiliation capture only part of the spatial structures of inequality.” Employed therein: novel visualizations and mapping the social network structures of authorship and citation. Link. Relatedly, a September 2017 post by Samuel Moyn on parochialism in international law. Link.
  • And a link we sent last fall, by Michael Kennedy, on interdisciplinarity and global knowledge cultures. Link.
 Full Article

February 17th, 2018

Two Flags

BASIC OPPORTUNITY

Considerations on funding UBI in Britain

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) published a discussion paper on UBI. ANTHONY PAINTER outlines some key points here, including some thoughts on funding:

“To fund the ‘Universal Basic Opportunity Fund’ (UBOF), the Government would finance an endowment to cover the fund for 14 years from a public debt issue (at current low interest rates). This endowment would be invested to both fund asset growth and public benefit. The fund could be invested in housing, transport, energy and digital infrastructure and invested for high growth in global assets such as equity and real estate. This seems radical but actually, similar mechanisms have been established in Norway, Singapore and Alaska. In the latter case, Basic Income style dividends are paid to all Alaskans. Essentially, the UBOF is a low-interest mortgage to invest in infrastructure and human growth that brings forward the benefits of a sovereign wealth fund to the present rather than waiting for it to accumulate over time.”

Full paper is available here. And here is the longer section on “The technicalities of a Universal Basic Opportunity Fund,” including building and administering the fund. ht Lauren

  • A new working paper on the Alaska Permanent Fund: "Overall, our results suggest that a universal and permanent cash transfer does not significantly decrease aggregate employment." Link.
 Full Article

January 20th, 2018

Potato House

PERVERSE CONSEQUENCES

Does banning the box increase hiring discrimination?

“Our results support the concern that BTB [Ban the Box] policies encourage racial discrimination: the black-white gap in callbacks grew dramatically at companies that removed the box after the policy went into effect. Before BTB, white applicants to employers with the box received 7% more callbacks than similar black applicants, but BTB increased this gap to 43%. We believe that the best interpretation of these results is that employers are relying on exaggerated impressions of real-world racial differences in felony conviction rates.”

Newly published by AMANDA AGAN and SONJA STARR, in line with their previous work on the same topic, available here.

  • These results bolster longstanding concerns about perverse consequences arising from ban the box legislation. (Similar studies include this one from 2006, and this one from 2016.) A 2008 paper provides a theoretical accompaniment to these worries, arguing that a privacy tradeoff is required to ensure race is not being used as a proxy for criminal history: “By increasing the availability of information about individuals, we can reduce decisionmakers’ reliance on information about groups.… reducing privacy protections will reduce the prevalence of statistical discrimination.” Link.
  • In a three part series from 2016, Noah Zatz at On Labor took on the perverse consequences argument and its policy implications, levelling three broad criticisms: “it places blame in the wrong place, it relies upon the wrong definition of racial equality, and it ignores cumulative effects.” Link.
  • A 2017 study of ban the box that focussed on the public sector—where anti-discrimination enforcement is more robust—found an increase in the probability of hiring for individuals with convictions and “no evidence of statistical discrimination against young low-skilled minority males.” Link.
  • California’s Fair Chance Act went into effect January 1, 2018, joining a growing list of fair hiring regulations in many other states and counties by extending ban the box reforms to the private sector. The law provides that employers can only conduct criminal background checks after a conditional offer of employment has been made. More on the bill can be found here.
  • Two posts on the California case, again by Zatz at On Labor, discuss several rich policy design questions raised by the “bright line” standards included in this legislation, and how they may interact with the prima facie standard of disparate impact discrimination: “Advocates fear, however, that bright lines would validate the exclusion of people on the wrong side of the line, despite individualized circumstances that vindicate them. But of course, the opposite could also be the case.” Link.
  • Tangentially related, Ben Casselman reports in the New York Times that a tightening labor market may be encouraging some employers to hire beyond the box—without legislative guidance. Link.
 Full Article

January 13th, 2018

Landing Place

THE WAGE EFFECT

Higher minimum wages and the EITC may reduce recidivism

“Using administrative prison release records from nearly six million offenders released between 2000 and 2014, we use a difference-in-differences strategy to identify the effect of over two hundred state and federal minimum wage increases, as well as 21 state EITC programs, on recidivism. We find that the average minimum wage increase of 8% reduces the probability that men and women return to prison within 1 year by 2%. This implies that on average the wage effect, drawing at least some ex-offenders into the legal labor market, dominates any reduced employment in this population due to the minimum wage.”

Full paper by AMANDA Y. AGAN and MICHAEL D. MAKOWSKY here.

  • Jennifer Doleac responds, “The results in this new paper…definitely surprised me—my prior was that raising the min wage would increase recidivism.” She explains: “Those coming out of prison are very likely to be on the margin of employment (last hired, first fired). Given some disemployment effects, marginal workers are the ones who are going to be hurt. Amanda and Mike find that the positive effects of pulling some (higher-skilled?) offenders into the legal labor market outweigh those negative effects.” Link to Doleac’s Twitter thread.
  • One of the co-authors, Makowsky, adds, “The EITC, dollar for household dollar, generates larger effects [than minimum wage increases], but is hampered by its contingency on dependent children. This is one more reason to remove the contingency, extending it to everyone.” Link to Makowsky’s Twitter thread.
  • Another piece sourced from Makowsky’s thread: “The Impact of Living-Wage Ordinances on Urban Crime.” “Using data on annual crime rates for large cities in the United States, we find that living-wage ordinances are associated with notable reductions in property-related crime and no discernable impact on nonproperty crimes.” Link.
  • Noah Smith rounds up recent studies on increasing the minimum wage, many of which come to contradictory conclusions. "At this point, anyone following the research debate will be tempted to throw up their hands. What can we learn from a bunch of contradictory studies, each with its own potential weaknesses and flaws?" Link.
 Full Article