That is the point

I am in Colorado for what is an admittedly enviably long break from teaching classes. I have been spending time in various cities and this week had the pleasure of spending a day in the mountains with my dear friend from high school and her family.

B’s mom, M, and I were chatting a bit before we headed to breakfast (at the Butterhorn Bakery in Frisco. Love!) and she mentioned Yoram Bauman’s piece in the New York Times two weeks ago on his experiments to uncover the nature of economists’ stinginess. M was curious to hear my opinion on the matter, and so I thought I might share here what I shared with her.

At the heart of the paper is an experiment in which college students are asked whether they want to donate a nominal amount, $3, to one of two charities at the time of their class registration. One is a left-leaning group, WashPIRG, and the other a non-profit with the aim to reduce tuition rates, Affordable Tuition Now (ATN). The take-home message is that economics majors were less likely to contribute to either group and thus are “free-riding.” In addition, those who took economics classes but didn’t become majors were less likely to contribute than those who never took an economics class.

In his NYT piece, and in his paper, Bauman dismisses the type and name of the charities he employs in the experiment as rather meaningless to the outcome. “You may question whether these groups actually serve the common good, but that’s mostly beside the point.” It is my belief that the types and aims of charities are driving a lot the effect he sees, or at least have the potential to drive the effect.

For purely anecdotal purposes, I’ll tell you that I was an economics major, and I’m a little bit cheap, (have been my whole life), but that I also give to charity. Despite five years of impoverished grad student living, I still gave and will continue to give to charities I trust and admire. Now that I have a job and am feeling as though I’ve recuperated much of the year’s moving and dissertation writing losses, I’m also looking to expand that giving. Whether I give more to the charities I know or include new ones is to be determined, but you can bet that it will be a careful decision.

And I think that is where the problem comes in with Bauman’s experiment, carefulness. Research, thought, time, and emotional value all come into play when choosing charities to support. So do politics, often. And while I can’t say for sure that economics students are more careful about those decisions, if Bauman can’t account for that either, I don’t think he has a paper. Snap decisions about giving are likely very different than careful decisions about giving. And just because an economics class makes you less likely to give your money to an unknown organization with an unknown track record (or perhaps a known one that works for something that goes against some part of your belief system), I don’t think that makes us more stingy, it makes us more careful.

From an econometric standpoint, if the students who are more (or even less!) careful are the ones who are choosing not to donate–at least in that moment–then the effect you are attributing to stinginess is in fact not there. It’s what economists call an unobservable. The unobservable effect may be driving the difference in donations.

Even if economics students are not more careful, if there is any unobservable quality that is correlated with unwillingness to contribute, the effect is biased.

It’s also my experience that economics majors are more conservative–politically–than their arts and sciences counterparts. I have a hard time believing that right-leaning students would be inclined to donate to WashPIRG anyway, especially when they have likely spent a good deal of their college career dodging their canvassers in the street. (Maybe that’s just COPIRG.)

Overall, I disagree with the interpretation as much as the method. That taking an economics class leads to “loss of innocence” and thus not contributing is overly dramatic, patriarchal, and just plain silly. Aren’t we supposed to be educators? Since when is it my job to protect the innocence of college students? And why should we conflate giving with innocence?

No loo, No I do

A few weeks ago, a coauthor sent me a job market paper from an environmental economics student at Yale. Though in a very different department than me, we have similar interests and she thought I would find the paper interesting. Not only did I find it interesting, I found myself wishing it had been my job market paper. Apparently, so did a lot of people. The paper has been blowing up my twitter feed and was featured on the World Bank’s Development Impact Blog.

The paper evaluates the effects of a media campaign in Haryana, India designed to encourage women to make latrine presence a requirement for marriage. The project is particularly interesting because it allows for reasonable evaluation of a campaign targeting social norms without the the randomized control component so in vogue in economics right now. In addition, it provides real evidence as to the causal effect of skewed sex ratios. While we have speculated and reported on the effects of sex ratios, many of which I’ve discussed here, there is little statistical evidence. Now, we have some. It’s pretty great.

In summary, the paper shows that men of marrying age are more likely to build latrines when they live in areas with a more skewed sex ratio. Thus, a woman’s bargaining power in demanding a good that has an outsized benefit for her (privacy, sanitation, health) increases when she becomes relatively ‘scarce’ on the marriage market. While this doesn’t discount the other, more undesirable possible effects of a skewed sex ratio (bridenapping, increased violence against women, etc), it is certainly evidence that women are leveraging their bargaining power to improve their outcomes.

In addition, the means to test a social norms marketing campaign are huge. My own work on such campaigns directed at reducing gender-based violence showed the near impossibility of successfully and credibly evaluating their impact. The use of a sex ratio as a (somewhat?) exogenous measure of potential impact is novel, exciting, and I’m sure will be in use by many papers to come. There’s the obvious question of whether it’s plausibly exogenous, but perhaps we’ll save that conversation for another day.

The paper has two parts, one presents a theoretical model to explain the mechanism and the other presents empirical evidence from the program itself to show how a skewed sex ratio has increased women’s bargaining power, at least on this one dimension in Haryana, India. I have some nitpicky comments, like the theory section needs to be more thoroughly explained, or there are square brackets where there should be curly ones, but overall, I think it’s a great paper. It’s kind of wonkish, but you can download the paper here, if you’re interested. Good luck in Chicago, Yaniv!

Violence and Venezuela

I spent much of the last few weeks of the semester trying to convince my Latin American economics students that Venezuela is unabashedly the craziest place on earth. I may have made this claim about several places I’ve lived, but new evidence shows that I may actually be correct about Venezuela.

In Al Jazeera this week, former Fulbright scholar and current Stanford PhD student, Dorothy Kronick, discusses the prevalence of violence in Venezuela and how Chavez amazingly escapes the blame for it. Comparisons of Venezuela’s level of violence have been made to Iraq during the height of the war, Ciudad Juarez, and other dangerous places, but Dorothy points out that unlike Iraq or Ciudad Juarez, there is no war going on in Venezuela. Petty crime often ends in murder, gang-related deaths are all too common, and I’ll add that violence against women, at least in my anecdotal knowledge, is rather high.

Despite the relative impunity with which these criminals act and the astounding levels of violence that permeate society, President Chavez does not seem to suffer electorally. In fact, Dorothy shows that the areas showing the highest growth in rates of crime have lost very few Chavez and chavista votes.

“People don’t seem to blame the government for the security problem,” Gerardo Gonzalez, an analyst with one of Venezuela’s top polling firms and a Central University of Venezuela graduate, told me in an interview. “In fact, it seems to us that violence might even help Chavez: the more people talk about violence, which they don’t attribute to him, the less they’re talking about unemployment, which they do attribute to him.”

So, there’s only so much you can complain about, but I still find it most amazing that Venezuelans don’t attribute la inseguridad (violence or insecurity, loosely) to Chavez. I never knew a pre-Chavez Venezuela, but it can’t have always been like this.

Over on Caracas Chronicles, my former editor gives his take on the same article: it can’t go on forever.