Awesome things at SVRI Forum

After an awesome week in Bangkok, I thought I’d share some of the conversations, research, and events that happened last week because I’m feeling privileged to have been able to spend time with such a diverse, animated group of researchers and people passionate about ending sexualized violence. It was a singular experience, to be sure, and I can’t wait for the next one. Below is a partial list of the awesome things I saw and heard at the SVRI Forum in Bangkok, in no particular order.

  • Research on LRA child soldiers and the harsh methods used to control them by Jocelyn Kelly of the Harvard Humanitarian Institute.
  • Tweet-ups. Such a fantastic group tweeting the Forum and interacting online. Storified here.
  • An Egyptian woman recounting how she and her daughter went to the Tahrir protests for two weeks in a large group of women, and how her daughter became more autonomous, independent, and opinionated as a result.
  • A Bhutanese woman talking lovingly of her King, who she thinks looks like Elvis Presley, and the modest cottage he inhabits.
  • Limited positive effects of cash transfers on instance of intimate partner violence in Ecuador by Amber Peterman of the school that shall not be named.
  • An American woman recalling the 70s in Berkeley and abortion activists offering to pay her to get arrested to perform an abortion without a license
  • The same American woman recalling her interactions with rural Japanese housewives.
  • Lots of UN and NGO politics.
  • A Kenyan woman surmising that Kenyatta has the potential to be Kenya’s greatest president yet, if (and that’s a big IF) he doesn’t end up being a war criminal.
  • Thai food. So much wonderful, delicious Thai food.
  • Kate Falb of the Yale School of Public Health on multi-faceted interventions addressing gender inequality and economic empowerment in Cote d’Ivoire.

There were so many more. Check out all the presentations online.

Twilight Zone Tuesday, or Delayed Sept. Jobs Report

As if I didn’t already feel like I’d stepped into the twilight zone, trying to teach classes on a Tuesday morning after two days of traveling from Thailand to Easton, the September jobs report came out today, two and a half weeks late due to the shutdown.

In sum, the economy was already struggling before the shutdown, and now $24 billion later, it’s probably going to be even more difficult to get humming again. One bright spot, many more full time jobs than part-time jobs are being created than previously thought, which is good and exposes a chink in the Obamacare-kills-jobs refrain. There’s lots of good summaries out there on the jobs report, but if you have time, I think you should go read it yourself.

Statistical significance and complex intervention environments

One of the resounding themes of this morning’s plenary at the SVRI Forum is how to deal with high standards for statistical significance in extremely complex, sometimes dangerous and impoverished communities. In particular, the presentation on SASA!, a GBV intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa, tried to show very large effects of their program with a very small sample size and very little statistical significance. Charlotte Watts discussed at length how we shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and how if we’re missing statistical significance by “a hair’s breadth,” we shouldn’t ignore the results.

It grated on me that the discussion took this particular path because I think there is a large opening for those doing research to examine the different ways that we use and examine quantitative evidence, but most involved still heavily relied on the semantics of statistics. There is a strong argument for mixing qualitative and quantitative research. Each method can uncover patterns and trends and events that are not evident in the other, and qualitative work can provide justification for small-scale quantitative work with small sample sizes or insufficient power. I don’t think this is the only way of dealing with the problem, however.

We know that RCTs are expensive. Lori Heise, of the London School of Tropical Medicine, made an excellent point that if RCTs are the standard, there has to be more funding and recognition of that from the donor community.

There’s a lot of work and questioning to be done around this issue. Just because there is not sufficient power or sample size to find a statistically significant effect, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the question, but it does affect how we can present the results. And presenting the results as of a particular magnitude (especially when that magnitude is large), just identifying that it matches the expected direction is not really sufficient and worse, perhaps disingenuous.

SVRI Forum

I’m in Bangkok this week for the SVRI Forum. I was promised a lively event full researchers, practitioners and those generally interested sexualized violence and gender-based violence, and it’s turned out to be awesome. The Forum has expanded this year to include trafficking and child protection; the latter topic brought me here.

I’m tweeting much of it (when I’m not too tired to think), as are several others at the conference. If you’re interested, I suggest checking out the hashtags #SVRI and #SVRIForum@TheSVRI is retweeting many of the best tweets and a fellow conference-goer, @prabudeepan, has storified yesterday’s tweets. So, even if you’re sleeping as I hear about stats and interventions, you can get all caught up.

For just a taste of my first day’s reflection, I’ll say that it’s wonderful to be at a conference of like-minded people. It’s rare to look at a conference program and think, “I want to attend every one of those sessions,” but that’s the case here. It’s also wonderful to reconnect with the folks I’m working with in Zimbabwe, as well as many individuals I met last year in London at the Nike/DFID conference on adolescent girls. And new people! There are so many smart, wonderful people doing work in this field.

I’ll leave my more somber notes for a longer post after it’s over.

Shutdown is not the answer, to anything really

I spoke with a friend yesterday who has been waiting for a launch window for his astronomy research balloon, the culmination of years of work by talented astronomers, programmers, designers, and more. The most likely day for the launch window to open is Saturday, and if the government is shut down, the balloon doesn’t go up, and there’s no funding to continue the project. So zero science, zero new knowledge, comes out of an expensive, years-long project because Congress can’t get its act together and a minority of extremists believe this is the appropriate forum to push forward their agenda. Even if the shutdown is short, getting back up and running means delays and backlogs and the possibility of success is low. This is not cost-effective. Though science may be a minor part of the deficit, it’s definitely not going to be part of any “partial shutdown” deal. It’s so maddening how little foresight is being shown in these negotiations. And this is just one tiny example, totally ignoring the millions of 1,800,000 people who won’t get paychecks, threatening a fragile recovery, and myriad other hidden costs of shutdown.

There’s plenty of good analysis out there concerning the impending government shutdown. The Guardian, in particular, is live-tweeting the day and will hopefully be both entertaining and informative.

*Updated to reflect partial shutdown number of estimated employees furloughed 800,000 and another million to work without pay.

GBV and social norms. By me! In print!

I’m constantly amazed at both how long the publishing process is and how quickly the years have gone since I started a handbook chapter with my wonderful, talented colleagues, Betsy Levy Paluck and Laurie Ball Cooper. I’m happy to say that today, the The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Psychology is available for sale and has some great essays on gender, including ours on gender based violence and social norms around the world.

Beer: Actually not a Giffen good

One of the great things about being a professor on twitter is that you have a built-in following. A few professors I know even require that their students follow them as part of their grade (in a social media sociology class, but details, shemtails, right?). I don’t force students to follow me, but I do invite them to, and I promise I will not read their tweets unless they ask me to follow them back. This is better for all involved, I promise.

Occasionally, though, students send me really interesting and novel pieces of news or goings on that relate to economics, and that’s where the joy of twitterteaching, yeah, I just made up a new word, comes in. Last night, a former student sent me an article on Oktoberfest beer, which claimed that Oktoberfest beer is a great example of the Giffen paradox because as the price went up, so too did sales, per capita!

If this immediately puts up red flags for you, you’re right to be thinking it sounds a little bit fishy. It is.

The law of demand states that as price rises, quantity demanded decreases. A Giffen good is a good for which price increases translate to increased consumption, hence the paradox, but the part the article is missing is that all else must remain equal. The only thing that can change is the price.

The example I use in class comes from my principles of microeoconomics professor, Thomas Nechyba. Imagine a family living on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan who heats their house with coal and spends two months in Florida each year during the winter. Now imagine that the price of coal rises so much that the family can no longer afford to go to Florida for the winter. In turn, they spend more time in Michigan, and actually use more coal because they need to heat their house during months in which they otherwise wouldn’t have heated their house. The price of the good is the only thing that changed, and it caused them to buy more of it.

Paul Krugman‘s Microeconomics textbook (written with Robin Wells) uses the example of potatoes during the Great Famine in Ireland. As a result of the potato blight, potatoes–a staple food for many Irish, but particularly the poorest–became increasingly expensive. In fact, they became so expensive that the poor couldn’t afford to buy other vegetables and meat, so they actually bought more potatoes. Again, a price rise translates to increased consumption.

By now, it should be clear that Oktoberfest beer doesn’t fit in with these goods. In these examples, the Giffen good is an inferior good (meaning we buy less of it as we get richer) and commands a large share of the budget. It’s also probably a little weird that I the only example I use was given to me over ten years ago when I was a student. The reason is that there just aren’t that many Giffen goods in the real world.

There are plenty of goods that we consume more of, on a macro level, as the price rises: Luxury goods, conspicuous consumption goods, goods for which advertising budgets increase substantially, goods that gain popularity through use by a celebrity, goods that start at introductory low pricing and creep up as they gain notoriety. None of these is a Giffen good, necessarily, and all probably still follow the law of demand, but notice that other things changed besides the price. There are few goods individuals consume more of as the price rises, and even fewer for which nothing changes but the price and we consume more.

The article demonstrates a fallacy of economic logic as it’s often applied by journalists, pundits, and politicians. This is a rather benign example of why I say that a little economics is a dangerous thing. In order for Oktoberfest beer to be a Giffen good, nothing else would have been able to change. Not the number of people attending Oktoberfest, not the composition of people attending Oktoberfest, not the price or availability of substitutes or complements, not advertising or popularity around the event, nothing. Those simply aren’t realistic assumptions normally, but particularly not when we aggregate up individual decisions to a big, world-renowned event.

So, I say not a Giffen good. What do you think?

(As a side note, I realize this space has been lightly used of late. Thanks for continuing to read.)

IWPR, Janet Yellen, and the next Fed Chair

All signs lately point to Larry Summers being named as the next Chairman of the Federal Reserve. I have to say I’m rather disappointed. I’m sure he’s very intelligent and qualified, but for someone with those qualities, he’s certainly made a few public blunders that seem to indicate he wouldn’t be an effective leader. There have been several articles written about this over the past two months and so I will not attempt to either link to them, summarize them, or even provide novel arguments. I will however, encourage professional economists to read (and sign if you are so moved) this open letter to President Obama in support of Janet Yellen for that same position.

The letter is being supported by IWPR, an organization that tends to focus on issues pertaining to gender, but what is so wonderful about this letter, and about Yellen, is that her gender is irrelevant. The letter doesn’t even mention it. I kind of feel like this is one of those experiments where we sent identical resumes, just changing the names and apparent genders of the applicants to show discrimination. Not because we’re trying to identify discrimination, but rather because she’s that good. Her experience and qualifications put her at the top of the bunch, regardless of gender or other demographic consideration.

Cognitive effects of poverty

A new paper by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao shows some pretty profound effects of poverty on cognition and decision making. The paper says that poverty is equivalent to pulling all-nighters in terms of its effect on your ability to perform routine tasks and make good decisions. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Mark Hecker, director of Reach, Inc., a nonprofit working on literacy in DC, about children who’ve been abused. He asked me to think about that feeling of indigence and anger that shoots up when someone bumps into you. It’s startling, difficult to process, and affects everything we do next. Children who’ve suffered abuse feel that way all the time, which puts additional stress on them to make good decisions, to concentrate in school, and more.

It’s a good reminder that putting ourselves in someone else’ shoes is often impossible; someone who has grown up middle class never worrying about money is not going to approach large expenditures the same way that someone who grew up poor will. Analyzing decision making of poor and disadvantaged individuals is subject to so many more constraints that we realize.