What I’ve been reading this month – May/June 2018

PachinkoPachinko, by Min Jin Lee — This captivating epic follows a Korean family over decades during the Japanese occupation of Korea, migrating to Japan early in the novel. Tash Aw (Guardian): “A long, intimate hymn to the struggles of people in a foreign land.” Krys Lee (NY Times): “Each time the novel seems to find its locus — Japan’s colonization of Korea, World War II as experienced in East Asia, Christianity, family, love, the changing role of women — it becomes something else. It becomes even more than it was.” I loved everything except when a character warned me, “If you like everything you read, I can’t take you that seriously.” Hey, I don’t like everything I read.

freshwaterFreshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi — When Ada is born in southern Nigeria, she brings a spirit along with her. Not her spirit, though. It’s another, who shares control of her thoughts and actions. Over time, more spirits appear, one after a sexual assault in college. The result is wild swings of personality and shifts in gender identity. Emezi (who has told their own story of gender dysphoria) provides a potent voice to depression and despair. Emezi writes, “After you have let the wilderness in you come out and play, after you have spilled your darkness in front of a stranger, it can be difficult to look at them in the sentience of daylight.” And later, “it was as if staying alive just gave everyone else time to leave you.” I never completely got lost in the story emotionally, but I respected it. Susan Straight (LA Times): “Emezi’s lyrical writing, her alliterative and symmetrical prose, explores the deep questions of otherness, of a single heart and soul hovering between, the gates open, fighting for peace.” Tariro Mzezewa (NY Times): “Remarkable and daring… “Freshwater” builds slowly, but that only crystallizes how fractured Ada and her personalities are. As the voices in her head get louder and grow hungrier, the story gains momentum.”

dionne 1Doomed Interventions: The Failure of Global Responses to AIDS in Africa, by Kim Yi Dionne — Through a healthy mix of ethnographic fieldwork, original survey collection, and large-scale survey analysis, Dionne shows that international donors care a lot more about HIV/AIDS than African do. And yes, that includes Africans who have family members with HIV. One reason is that even Africans who are infected with HIV share a lot of their needs with their neighbors — clean water and good jobs, to start. “By privileging donor priorities over citizen priorities, global elites cripple states’ abilities to implement policies representing citizens’ interests.” The title is overstated: Internationally funded AIDS treatment has saved countless lives. But “looking at our failures to improve the human condition can help us formulate better strategies and approaches going forward.”

therecoveringThe Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, by Leslie Jamison — I just loved this mix of recovery memoir, an exploration of the historical link between addiction and literary creativity, the racial and class divide of addiction public policy, and more. “All my life I had believed — at first unwittingly, then explicitly — that I had to earn affection and love by being interesting, and so I had frantically tried to become really…interesting.” A little sprawling but I really enjoyed it. As an added bonus, development economists Dean Jamison and Julian Jamison make cameos in the book. “My oldest brother, Julian, taught me how to solve an equation for x when I was seven. ‘Great,’ he said, ‘but can you solve when x is on both sides?”

three shadowsThree Shadows, by Cyril Pedrosa (translated from French by Edward Gauvin) — How far will a parent go to save their child from death? This is an urgent little fable in a graphic novel format. “In this our springtime there is no better, there is no worse. Blossoming branches burgeon as they must. Some are long, some are short.”

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, by Kate Raworth — Raworth proposes that the field of economics has led to a narrow global focus on economic growth, and that instead we should focus on a social foundation for all the world’s citizens, as well as protecting the environment. The book is filled with nuggets on the history of economic thought (“At the end of the nineteenth century, the sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen berated economic theory for depicting man as a ‘self-contained globule of desire'”) and the power of a good diagram (“if drawing new pictures sounds frivolous to doughnutyou — like mere child’s play — believe me it is not”). Raworth includes lots of policy proposals (including LOTS of taxes) with little consideration of the incentive effects of taxes, and I sometimes felt like she was attributing self-interest itself to economics — whereas I’m inclined to believe it predates the discipline. I also didn’t feel like she reckoned with how attractive a single goal — or a handful of goals — is to get your mind around (more stuff — i.e., GDP growth! less poverty!) as opposed to a long list of items (social equity! clean water! housing! protect ozone! something about phosphorous!). Still, I admire her consistent optimism, boldness, and creativity, and as she quotes the poet Taylor Mali, “Changing your mind is one of the best ways of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

crazy rish asiansCrazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan — An untenured economics professor at NYU takes a ten-week summer vacation during which she doesn’t once think about her research? Now THAT sounds like fantasy! Seriously, it’s a fun, light book about a Chinese-American economics professor who doesn’t realize that her boyfriend — also a professor — is one of the wealthiest (and sought-after) men in Singapore until she joins him on a summer vacation. Lots of drama ensues!

Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty — Three families attend a barbecue in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Something bad happens. The effects ripple. This multi-family drama reveals itself bit by bit with great humanity. Moriarty truly madly guiltyemploys rotating narrators but focuses on two women who have been uncomfortable friends since childhood. On childhood: “No one warned you that having children reduced you right down to some smaller, rudimentary, rudimentary, primitive version of yourself, where your talents and your education and your achievements meant nothing.“ On white collar malaise: “Sam felt himself break out in a cold sweat at the thought of how little he was achieving at work. He had to get something done today. This couldn’t go on much longer. He was going to lose his job if he didn’t find a way to focus his mind.”

chastGoing into Town: A Love Letter to New York, by Roz Chast — Chast — whogoing into town - detail you might know from her New Yorker cartoons — writes that “this book is a sort-of guide and also a thank-you letter and a love letter to my hometown and New Yorkers everywhere.” It’s fun and useful. I laughed aloud repeatedly, and I will surely give a copy to future New York-bound friends. Chast loves New York! She shows that you can do ANYTHING in that city.

shadeShade the Changing Girl (Volume 1): Earth Girl Made Easy, by Cecil Castellucci et al. — Okay, so a bird creature (Loma Shade) from another planet steals a “madness coat” from a museum and uses it to take over the body of an teenage earth girl in a coma. It turns out that the earth girl was manipulative and mean, and people on Loma’s home planet are after her — they want that coat! Occasionallyshade - detail confusing but gorgeous visuals and fun story, with a healthy appreciation of poetry: “There is a poem for every feeling. It’s what gets me through when fear threatens to overwhelm.” Included among the “best graphic books of 2017.”

Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor — In this, the climax to binti masqueradethe Binti trilogy, Okorafor fuses taut, tragic action and surprises while furthering the themes of alienation (in this case, with actual aliens!) and personal growth.

Ms. Marvel: Mecca, by G. Willow Wilson et al. — If you haven’t read the meccaadventures of Kamala Khan — aka Ms. Marvel, Pakistani-American Muslim superhero — then go do it right now! Start with No Normal. Mecca — volume 8 in the series — continues the tradition!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling — I just read this harry potterto a couple of my kids. It’s still a great read!

Imagine Wanting Only This, by Kristen Radtke — “There is little linear plot in Imagine Wanting Only This, even though each of the eight chapters finds Radtke at a slightly different stage of her life … becoming obsessed with the history of ruins and disasters. At each point, she seeks answers to her nagging life questions while alsoimagine attempting to escape her reality” (Arnav Adhikari in The Atlantic). I had trouble engaging with the existential questions at the heart of this book, but Radtke captures perfectly the reason that I go to sleep listening to things — to escape the million thoughts in my head (see picture). Included among the “best graphic books of 2017.”
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Advice for impact evaluations with government: Drop the baseline

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This was a case where we did randomization without a baseline. I highly recommend this when you’re working with a government because the biggest risk is implementation failure. You’ll spend a lot of time doing the baseline – spend time, spend money – and have the intervention not be implemented. So when you’re working with the government, it’s better to get power by doubling the sample of your endline and just randomized with administrative data so you’ll get the same amount of power but you reduce risk up front.

That is Karthik Muralitharan speaking at the RISE conference today. Of course, he didn’t have to say that doubling your sample also increases your likelihood of randomization resulting in balanced intervention and comparison groups, thus making a baseline less necessary.

Update: This prompted a very active discussion on Twitter, which you can read in full here. Below are a few points.

Ultimately, there are a number of factors to consider — the potential sample size, the probability of implementation failure, the importance of baseline covariates for your analysis. But still, where there is serious concern that the program may not be implemented as expected — and especially if there are decent administrative data — it’s worth consideration. I’ll give the penultimate words to Karthik’s co-author, Abhijeet Singh.

First, responding to Pauline and Andrew’s point.

Second, to Cyrus and Seema’s points.

And the last word to Karthik himself.

 

There are many more comments, but I won’t embed them all here. You can read the full conversation here on Twitter.

Activity for teaching regression discontinuity design

One method for evaluating the impact of a program is regression discontinuity design (RDD). This works when an intervention (to be evaluated) is assigned based on a score of some sort. For example, a welfare program that is assigned for all households below a certain level of income, or an education program that is assigned to all students above a certain test score (or below a certain test score). In short, this method compares individuals who are just above and below the cut-off for assignment to the program, since they are very similar (except for 1 or 2 points on a test or a small amount of income). You then adjust for those small differences statistically, but the intuition is that you’re comparing people who are very similar, except that one group gets the intervention.

When I teach impact evaluation, an activity where students get up and move around can be helpful for more at least two reasons: It can make a point visually, and it can keep people from falling asleep. Here’s an activity I came up with for demonstrating the concept behind RDD, and it has worked pretty well.

Tell the students that we are evaluating the impact of an injection that is supposed to increase the height of recipients. Every participant under a certain height will receive the injection. How can we evaluate it?

Have all the students line up in a row by height. (With a big class, use a subset of students.) Pick a couple of students of similar (but not identical) height in the middle and explain that this is the height cut-off. The shorter student on the left will receive the injection, and the taller student on the right will not.

Now, if we were to compare the height of the tallest student (to the right of the group) and the shortest student (to the left of the group), we wouldn’t have a good sense of the impact of the injection, since their heights are already so different. But if we compare those who are just below the qualifying height (getting the injection) to those just above (not getting the injection), then differences we observe are likely to be due to the injection.

I’ve done this activity with adults in more than one country, and it’s been effective and fun.

Any ideas for how you’d make this activity better? What activities do you use to teach impact evaluation methods?

The image at the top of this post is from Impact Evaluation in Practice (Second Edition)

How I retain insights from my reading

I read and listen to a fair number of books. Yesterday I received this query.

I tend to remember little of what I read. That’s why I write it all down. In the words of Henry Jones, Sr., “I wrote them down…so that I wouldn’t *have* to remember.”

I have two strategies for remembering. First, I take notes. I use the note-taking and note-managing app Evernote. For each new book I read, I create a new note. As I listen to an audiobook or read a print book, I pause and make a note of a line or passage that I find particularly insightful. If it’s an audiobook, I’ll use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to search for the exact wording. At the end of reading the book, I have a list of the lines and insights I learned from. I’ll often label them with a topic. Evernote has a good search function, so it’s relatively easy for me to find those lines later, even if I don’t remember what book it was from.

Second, I try to write a short review of each book. Nowadays I post those here on this blog. The micro-review allows me to crystallize my main takeaways and whether I’d recommend the book to others.

What do you do to remember what you’ve learned from books?

Presenting at an economics conference? Get a room close to the coffee break.

You submit your paper to a conference. You’re all fired up to share your work and to get feedback. Then no one shows up to your session! Is it because everyone hates your work? or because it’s 8am? or both? Günther, Grosse, and Klasen (published version; working paper) identify some correlates of session attendance.

We analyze the drivers of audience size and the number of questions asked in parallel sessions at the annual conference of the German Economics Association. We find that the location of the presentation is at least as important for the number of academics attending a talk as the combined effect of the person presenting and the paper presented. Being a presenter in a late morning session on the second day of a conference, close to the place where coffee is served, significantly increases the size of the audience. When it comes to asking questions, location becomes less important, but smaller rooms lead to more questions being asked. Younger researchers and very senior researchers attract more questions and comments. There are also interesting gender effects. Women attend research sessions more diligently than men, but seem to ask fewer questions than men. Men are less likely to attend presentations on health, education, welfare and development economics than women. Our findings suggest that strategic scheduling of sessions could ensure better participation at conferences. Moreover, different behaviors of men and women at conferences might also contribute to the lack of women in senior scientist positions. [Emphasis added by me]

So, do whatever you can to angle for that second-day, late-morning slot.

How does lowering the cost of schooling in early years affect later attainment?

School Costs, Short-Run Participation, and Long-Run Outcomes: Evidence from Kenya”: My paper with Mũthoni Ngatia is out as a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper. Here’s what we learned.

uniforms abstract

Even though primary education is “free” in many countries, families face many incidental expenses: uniforms, transport, and materials, among others.

cost

In Kenya, we worked with an NGO that provided free school uniforms to children to reduce the cost of schooling.

uniform

I know that you’re going to say: Do we need another study of “giving stuff” for education and how it affects attendance? Aren’t we supposed to be focused on learning and pedagogy?

learning

First, while attending school is no guarantee of learning, it’s a really important part of the process.

school

Second, we follow these students over 8 years. Few international education studies trace the time path of impact.

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A school uniform can increase school participation by multiple means. Families don’t have to pay for the uniforms. AND students don’t feel stigmatized by being the only kid without a uniform.

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What do we find? In the short run, providing a school uniform does increase school participation.

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The impacts are particularly large for the poorest kids. Absenteeism drops by 15 percentage points for them, eliminating 55 percent of absenteeism for them.

yay2

But 8 years later, the children who participated in the program had no better educational outcomes than those who did not.

tear

Some educational interventions have long-lasting impacts: Smaller early-grade classes in the USA have translated into better college performance.

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But we can’t assume it. In this case, initial gains in school participation do not translate into more school completion.

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And a few last words from the paper: “Take care when interpreting short-term results, taking into account these results and others which demonstrate that long-term impacts may vary – sometimes dramatically – from initial effects.”

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“Gathering long-term data is costly, but without it, the trajectory of impacts resulting from the wide range of interventions currently being implemented remains a mystery.”

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That’s it! Big short-term impacts for poor kids but disappointing long-term impacts. Check out the paper!

thank you