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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Putting Policies to the Test

From Tim Harford of the FT, author of the Undercover Economist:

I don’t recall it myself, but like most babies born in 1973, I apparently slept face down in my cot. This was the standard advice, made famous by Benjamin Spock in 1948. We now know that for many unlucky families, this well-meaning advice was fatal. According to research published in 2005, putting babies to sleep on their fronts has led to about 60,000 cot deaths.
The story is a favourite of Sir Iain Chalmers, a campaigner for better standards of evidence in medicine and beyond...
It is a shame, then, that there is so little appetite from politicians for the same standards of evidence outside medicine. In fact it is more than a shame – it’s a scandal. While randomised trials are not going to tell us when to raise interest rates or get out of Afghanistan, there are many policies that could and should be tested with properly controlled trials. Is Jamie Oliver right to emphasise healthy school meals? Run a trial. Should young offenders be sent to boot camp, or to meet victims of crime? Run a trial. What can we do to persuade households to use less electricity? Run a trial.
Yet such trials are not common in the US, and downright rare in the UK. There is no financial, ethical or practical excuse for this. Trials are cheap. (Even if they were expensive, solid practical knowledge is well worth paying for.) This is not a question of carrying out dangerously speculative crank experiments, but simply adding the essential ingredient of randomisation to a standard pilot project that would have happened anyway. Randomising is often what distinguishes proper evidence from statistical mush, by removing biases in the setting of experiments – such as running pilots only in the most needy areas.

Does setting up GK villages improve development outcomes? Run a trial. Does providing more textbooks, facilities in schools increase educational achievement? Run a trial. Does providing computers to public schools in the Philippines really help students? Run a trial. Randomize.

Economists are usually looked down upon for their economic models and theories that have little basis on reality. But other people are actually no different. Politicians often implement policies based on ideology. NGOs run development programs which work in theory (because we need to help the poor!) but have little grounding on empirical evidence and testing.

We once thought that everything revolved around the earth. That was a great theory, but it turned out to be wrong when Galileo looked at the evidence. In this day and age, we equally have great theories for development. But the problem is, we are not doing enough scientific evaluation to be able to determine if they actually do succeed.

The link to the full article is here (you will need to register for free at FT for access).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Open Government

So many events happening around town, but not enough time to blog about all of them. But I will say something about this talk I attended at Brookings the other day on The Power of Open Government. The speaker was no other than Cass Sunstein (America's premier legal scholar and author of Nudge). The seminar was mostly on policies the White House was adopting to make government more transparent. My interest was on what could be replicated in the Philippines by the incoming administration. How could one democritize data?

Here are some notes:

1. The White House discloses visitor records. You can now know who visited when and for what purpose, even if the visitors were just there on a group tour. Malacanang can easily implement this.

2. data.gov hosts machine readable micro level datasets generated by the Federal government. For example, one can easily download monthly data on state energy use, or the geographic distribution of expenditures on veterans or different surveys like the labor force surveys.

3. The new IT Dashboard is a user friendly website that lets you track IT investments of the US real time. Why can't Malacanang do this for pork barrel spending, infrastructure expenses?

I really can't see any credible arguments that politicians can put forth against adopting these systems. These are low cost policies, much like the Freedom of Information Act, whose passage I strongly support. But the gains in terms of trust seem enormous.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Enunciating Different Conceptions of Development

Excellent blog post by David Roodman about What We Talk about When We Talk About Development. David just finished his last chapter on his microfinance book -- the drafts of which he makes available through his open book blog. I particularly like it when David channels Amartya Sen, as he reflects upon what he has learned through writing this book:

So the heart of my book is three chapters (6–8) that evaluate microfinance in light of three different definitions of success, which are really three different conceptions of “development”:
Development as proven poverty reduction
Development as freedom
Development as industry building
Each conception generates distinct empirical questions. The first leads one into the pros and cons of randomized trials for evaluating impacts, among other things. The second leads to an interest in when microfinance “empowers” women—and when it traps them in debt. The third took me into the question of when growth in credit constitutes and contributes to healthy economic transformation and when it is just a bubble.
“Development” is a vague word in English. It can be an outcome (as encoded in the Sen-inspired Human Development Index), a specific activity (as when an aid agency “does development”), and a process (which I think is its root meaning). So in fact the various conceptions of development I listed are not really parallel concepts. The first is about outcomes. The last is about process. The second is a blend since, Sen argued, freedoms are both ends in themselves and means to other freedoms (as when democracy prevents famine).
Despite the muddiness, I’ve found my simple construct essential in sizing up the broad class of interventions we call microfinance. I think it is interesting and important to note, for example, that microsavings generally outperforms microcredit on all three definitions. It has been shown in one randomized study to raise incomes (among women in a Kenyan market town), which cannot be said for microcredit; people can’t lose freedom by saving too much but can by borrowing too much; and financial institutions enrich the domestic economic fabric more when they take savings locally and lend locally, rather than solely channeling credit from the antipodes.
I'm curious now about how to extend and systematize this kind of thinking. Are there other useful definitions of “development” (as a process or outcome or activity)? Bill Easterly, for example, writes of Planners and Searchers. Not that Planners aren’t important in development, I think he says, but if you’re an outsider wanting to help, support Searchers like Muhammad Yunus. Zak and Knack have faith in the importance of trust in economic growth. Nancy Birdsall emphasizes the role of the middle class. If that’s the key, she has suggested to me, then perhaps rich countries should drop their barriers to goods and services from all poor countries, rather than conditioning openness on good governance or economic policies, on the idea that the more independent sources of economic power there are in a poor country, the more responsive its politics will become. And so on.

Although I've only read the book's introductory chapter, I would not be surprised if this will be the book on microfinance after it is published. Watch out for it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Please Vote For Me

Ever wonder how the Chinese would deal with democracy, should it come to them? If this documentary is any indication, it would be a complete mess. Please Vote for Me follows a 3rd grade class at Evergreen Primary School in China going through the motions of electing a Class Monitor. Is this real?



I watched the film last night and cringed many times; it was like the Lord of the Flies come to life. This film captured for me everything that's dirty about politics: vote buying, lying, threatening, manipulation of voters, bribing, double-talking, backstabbing. By no other than 3rd graders! What's sad is I think I cannot say Philippine politics is any better.

Obtain a copy and watch this. If you cannot, Youtube seems to have the film in five parts. Hat tip to Chris Blattman.

How does one learn democracy?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

What you probably didn't know about Facebook

This story is from the Business Insider:
In the fall of 2003, Harvard seniors Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra were on the lookout for a web developer who could bring to life an idea the three say Divya first had in 2002: a social network for Harvard students and alumni. The site was to be called HarvardConnections.com.
The three had been paying Victor Gao, another Harvard student, to do coding for the site, but at the beginning of the fall term Victor begged off the project. Victor suggested his own replacement: Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard sophomore from Dobbs Ferry, New York. 
Later that night, Mark wrote an email to the Winklevoss brothers and Divya: "I read over all the stuff you sent and it seems like it shouldn't take too long to implement, so we can talk about that after I get all the basic functionality up tomorrow night."
In December, 2003, a week after Mark's first meeting with the HarvardConnection team, when he was telling the Winklevosses that he was too busy with schoolwork to work on or even think about HarvardConnection.com, Mark was telling [Eduardo, a cofounder,] a different story.  On December 7, 2003, we believe Mark sent Eduardo the following IM:
Check this site out: www.harvardconnection.com and then go to harvardconnection.com/datehome.php. Someone is already trying to make a dating site. But they made a mistake haha. They asked me to make it for them. So I'm like delaying it so it won't be ready until after the facebook thing comes out.
Ah, the scumminess that gets things done. I'm quite a fan of Facebook. But does the end justify the means?

Thanks to James Choi for the pointer.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Case for Dating Older Women

Just to be clear, I'm not looking to go back dating (don't worry Ynna!).

That being said, check out this persuasive argument for dating older women by dating site OkCupid. They use messaging data from their site to argue why men would generally be better off dating slightly older ladies. Among their many interesting charts is this, my favorite, showing "the zone of greatness":


I also like the argument about looks:
The final thing I want to address is looks, because I think that is guys' most fundamental worry about dating someone older. There's no doubt that younger people are are more physically attractive—indeed in many ways beauty and youth are inextricable... [But] if you separate out the absolute best-looking women, almost all of whom are very young, and also remove the people you won't realistically want to date (the worst-looking women), you find that everyone else's attractiveness doesn't change much with age:


The question is, does the same apply to guys? Read the whole blog, it's interesting.

In case you're wondering, OKCupid seems to be a pretty legit site. A couple of friends have actually told me their positive experiences off of it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Writing A Good Essay

Some excellent advice from Henry Farrel over at The Monkey Cage. It's a well written essay about, well, how to write an essay. Highly recommended to undergrads and anyone who does any sort of writing. Here's an excerpt:
Some excellent essayists can get away with apparently disorganized writing. It is usually a very bad idea to try to emulate them. Very often, apparently disorganized work is in fact highly organized. The author has merely kicked away the essay’s supports and scaffolding (e.g. an explicit introductory section and so on) as soon as it was strong enough to stand on its own. Sometimes, apparent disorganization is instead the product of a highly subtle mind, or of an elliptical writing style that approaches its topics indirectly rather than directly. 
Unless you are very confident indeed (and have evidence in the form of past work, print publications etc to justify this confidence) I strongly recommend that you avoid overly clever and non-linear approaches to writing. They require a lot of practice (usually at the more traditional sorts of writing) before they can be carried off well, and when they are carried off badly, they are very bad indeed. 
Genius may do as it will; mere intelligence and talent should be appropriately modest in their ambitions.
This article arrives just in time, as I am starting to take this blog more seriously and make my writing style less tedious. Every post is a mini essay. If I am to be an effective academic, then I will need to sharpen my writing.

Which reminds me, it's probably time to do a rereading of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style: Write in the active voice. Do not overstate. Avoid the use of qualifiers... I wonder how many of these I already violated in this post alone.