Back to School

It’s the first day of classes here at Gettysburg College and I am working hard (as I’m sure are many) to get back into the swing of things, to readjust to the humid Pennsylvania weather, and to find my rain jacket and galoshes only to have the sun come out while I’m in class.

I’m done with my first day and I’m happy to report that my students will be blogging again. This time, there will be two different classes, Quantitative Methods and Labor Economics. I’m really excited to have my Labor students reading BLS jobs reports every month and getting them as addicted to on-the-spot analysis as I am…I mean, well, moving on. Hopefully, we’ll get some good conversations going this semester.

For my part, I’ll be back up and running soon. I owe you all an explanation of what I was doing in Venezuela. It’s forthcoming and will be cross-posted at Caracas Chronicles, so might have a slightly different feel to it than what I usually write here. After that, I should be back to a normal posting schedule. My apologies for a slow August. Good luck to all going back to school with the new semester and talk to you soon!

On harmful traditional practices and disbelief

If you’ve ever read a news article about female genital mutilation or footbinding and found yourself wondering, why on earth would anyone submit another person to such a horrific act, I have just the article for you. Mackie and LeJeune, in this 2009 UNICEF working paper on harmful traditional practices, do an excellent job of explaining, without judgement and with grace, the persistence of FGM/C and footbinding (among other harmful practices) in an eloquent and approachable manner. I can’t say you’ll leave the article uplifted, but I promise it reads faster than its 42 pages might suggest. And, you’ll learn a lot. There’s even a little game theory in there for my economist friends. The abstract is here:

The essay refines the application of the social convention theory to the practice female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The theory compares footbinding in China to FGM/C in Africa, explains each practice in terms of simple game theory, and recommends that the methods used to end footbinding be adapted to end FGM/C. It hypothesizes that each practice originated in highly stratified ancient empires, and became an ongoing requirement of marriageability, general and persistent within the intramarrying community because no one family can give it up on its own. The continuation or the abandonment of each practice involves a set of social rewards and punishments and operates as what is known in social science as a social norm. The theory argues that each practice is a community practice that must be ended by the whole community coordinating on its abandonment, thereby solving the marriageability problem. The game-theoretic portrayal also identifies social dynamics of abandonment, observed in both China and Africa. An initial core group, called the critical mass, recruits others through organized diffusion, until a large enough proportion of the community, referred to as the tipping point, is ready to abandon. A moment or process of public commitment is essential to ensure a stable abandonment. The essay also refines the theory, in light of observed mass abandonments of FGM/C in different countries. Overcoming self-enforcing beliefs surrounding the practice requires credible new information, including about the feasibility and desirability of attaining the uncut alternative. FGM/C is maintained as a marriageability convention, social norm, or both. The process for reversing a social norm can be identical to reversing a social convention. Reversal is motivated by the fundamental moral norm of loving one’s children and wanting the best for them, as discovered and developed in transformative human rights deliberations. The essay establishes a conceptual foundation for programme design that facilitates community abandonment of a variety of harmful practices in ways that promote human rights and are respectful of the culture and the values of local communities.

Cited: Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune (2009), ‘Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look at the Theory’. Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices, Innocenti Working Paper No. 2009-06, Florence, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

Striking a balance in data collection

A big part of my research time is spent on violence against women, gender-based violence, domestic violence, and harmful traditional practices. Though sometimes all whipped into a category of “women’s issues,” I’ve argued before that these are problems that everyone should care about, that they exert severe effects on our health and well-being as a society, emotionally, physically and economically.

Currently, I’m mired in two data collection projects, both with various degrees of hopelessness. I’ll write more later about my time in Caracas, but suffice it to say for now that there simply isn’t data available on issues like the ones I mention above. Or if it is available, no one’s going to give it to me. No surveys, no police data, no statistics on hotline use, nothing. We don’t know anything.

Conversely, in a meta-analysis of programs for adolescent girls that I’m writing with a colleague, my coauthor came upon a study suggesting that in order to correctly assess prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) we should submit randomly selected female villagers in rural areas to physical exams.

I was shocked and disgusted when she sent me the study. I don’t doubt for a minute that the most accurate way to gauge prevalence of FGM is to randomly select women and examine them, but seriously? I am astounded that no one thought through the psychological consequences of women who have already been victims of gender-based violence being examined by a foreigner who thinks they are lying about whether they’ve been cut.

These days, it’s a good reminder for me that in collecting data there is such a thing as too much, and such a thing as not enough. It’s all about striking a balance.

Big data and what it means for economists

Over the past few days, a couple of pieces have come out about Big Data, or rather how economists and other social scientists are incorporating the extremely large datasets that are being collected on every one of us at every minute. Justin Wolfers, at the Big Think, says “whatever question you are interested in answering, the data to analyze it exists on someone’s hard drive, somewhere.” Expanding on Wolfers, Brett Keller speculates as to whether economists will “win” the quant race and “become more empirical.” Marc Bellemare thinks (in a piece that’s older, but still relevant) that the social sciences will start to converge in their methods, with more qualitative fields adopting mathematical formalism to take advantage of how much we know about people’s lives. Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson go on in a related piece at Bloomberg about the boon that big data is for economics.

Not withstanding the significant hurdles to storing and using large datasets over time (ask a data librarian today about information that’s on floppy disks or best read by a Windows XP machine. Heck, look at your own files over the past ten years: can you get all the data you want from them? What would it take to get it all in a place and format you could formally analyze it?), I find the focus on data a little short sighted. And don’t get me wrong; I love data.

Wolfers and Stevenson think that the mere existence of data should change our models, that the purpose of theory nowadays should be “to make sense of the vast, sprawling and unstructured terabytes on our hard drives.” We do have the capability to leverage big data to gain a more accurate picture of the world in which we live, but there is also the very real possibility of getting bogged down in minutiae that comes from knowing every decision a person ever makes and extrapolating its effect on the rest of their lives. It’s the butterfly flaps its wings effect, for every bite of cereal you take, for every cross word your mother said to you, for every time you considered buying those purple suede shoes and stopped yourself–or didn’t. I’m being a bit melodramatic, of course, but it’s very easy, as an economist, as a graduate student, as a pre-tenure professor short on time, to let the data drive the questions you ask. It’s also often useful, I’m not saying that finding answerable questions using existing data is universally bad, by any means. But if we have tons of information on minutiae, we’ll probably ask tons of questions on minutiae, which I don’t think brings us any closer to understanding much of anything about human behavior.

On the convergence side, I worry about losing things like the ethnography. It may not be my strong point, but it’s useful, its methods and ouput informed my own work, and if convergence and big data mean anthropologists start relying solely on econometrics and statistics and formal mathematics, we’ll lose a lot of richness in our history and academics. I’m all for interdisciplinary work, for applying an economic lens to all facets of human interaction and decisions, but I don’t think our way of thinking should supplant another field’s. Rather, it should complement it.

Finally, incorporating big data into models that already exist will mediate some problems (unobserved heterogeneity that can now be observed, for example), but not all. Controlling linearly for now observable characteristics in a regression model has plenty of downsides, which I won’t enumerate, but can be found in any basic explanation of econometrics or simple linear regression.

Similarly, our tools for causal identification keep getting knocked down. At one time, regression discontinuity design was hot, and smacked down. Propensity score matching was genius and then, not so much. Instrumental variables still has this rather pesky problem that we can’t actually prove one of its key components. It’s not to say these tools don’t have value. When implemented correctly, they can indeed point us to novel and interesting insights about human behavior. And we certainly should continue to use the tools we have and find better ways to implement them, but the existence of big data shouldn’t mean we throw more data at these same models, which we know to be flawed, and hope that we can figure out the world. If we’re indeed moving towards more empirical economics (which is truthfully the part I practice and am most familiar with), we still need better tools. The models, the theory, the strategies for identification have to keep evolving.

Big data is part of the solution, but it can’t be the only solution.

Sabana Grande, renovado

The first time I lived in Caracas, I had an internship at a small business and finance magazine in a part of town known as Sábana Grande. It was not the nicest part of town. The pedestrian mall, which stretches from Plaza Venezuela to Chacaíto, was filled with buhoneros, or street vendors selling socks and batteries and burned CDs. And not just filled like If you were the one copyediting late, you weren’t allowed to be there by yourself, walking around at night was not allowed, under any circumstances. Since then, the pedestrian mall has been totally repaved and the buhoneros have been exiled to a large building named after liberatadora Manuelita Saenz (one of the few famous female figures from Latin American independence movements). It’s clean. And almost totally lacking in street vendors. It’s a supremely surreal experience, to walk up and down the mall. Music is still blaring, cheap shoes are still sold in half of the storefronts, and mannequins with impossible proportions (or rather possible with surgery) grace the windows. My enduring complaints about Caracas are being eroded. Well, at least the dirty part (we won’t get into the catcalls I endured today.) In fact, I’ve been impressed with quite a few areas that were once run down and dangerous and have been renovated. I spent the morning in areas called Altagracia and Capitolio, which has a new (not yet inaugurated) mausoleum for Simón Bolívar’s remains, a renovated Plaza Bolivar, repainted municipal buildings and more. I even saw some people scrubbing the bricks in Sábana Grande today and friends tell me that the nightlife in Capitolio is where it’s at. Unthinkable a decade ago. It seems that Caracas actually has changed in the last 10 years, though perhaps not so much in other ways. I’m here for another week, trying to dig up some data. I’ll let you all know what I’m up to after I get back.