Job listing of the month

It’s August. Well, almost August. And in Econoland, that means that Job Openings for Economists has come out again after taking its July break. This means the start of the job-hunting season for many, and sure enough, there are already a few positions to be had, or at least applied for. We all know none of these people are making decisions until January or February. Such a long process.

At any rate, I thought this position at Colgate was notable. Mostly, it’s interesting to me because it’s pretty applicable to my field and research interests–gender and economics, but I’m also intrigued to see an economics position posted as really, truly interdisciplinary. My PhD institution has a strong interdisciplinary component, with students melding history and economics, environment and economics, and many professors holding joint appointments with the somewhat unfortunately named Institute for Behavioral Science, but I don’t think that’s the norm. Maybe we’re working our way there.

Shove vs. Nudge vs. None

When I first read about this new paper by a slew of economists including Esther Duflo, it was presented as part of the wave of evidence that has recently come out saying that unconditional cash transfers are just as effective at changing behavior as conditional cash transfers. The primary difference being that monitoring costs were significantly smaller, needier households would be more likely to get assistance, and there would be more flexibility in what individuals will spend the money on, likely, as they’re not being asked to do any one particular activity or investment with it.

It may be a matter of semantics, but I don’t think that this paper is actually making that claim (nor do I think they authors are really making that claim). One of the problems with measuring effects of unconditional cash transfers is that flexibility. Because individuals can spend the money where they deem it most useful or necessary, aggregate effects, or averaged effects tend to be small or even zero. In the simplest of terms, if I give three people $100 and one spends it on new shoes to plow his fields in, one spends it on school fees, and one spends it on hospital bills, the first may have a better crop output, the second may spend more time in school, and the third may be healthier but on average, income, education, and health effects are small for the group. They may all be better off, or perceive themselves as better off, but as they are better off on different metrics, we can’t observe the effect.

This idea of targeting “labeled cash transfers” as opposed to conditional ones or unconditional ones is an attempt at getting to somewhere in the middle. If we label the transfer, it implies it’s for a specific purpose, which means that we should be able to see the effect on a single metric. We know that some individuals will use the cash transfer for something other than what is labeled, but likely compliance will be high without significant monitoring costs.

Overall, though, it’s hard to imagine that recipients don’t imagine they are in some way being monitored. I can’t imagine being handed money, told explicitly it was for school, and then going and spending it on something else. Even if I were up for that, I’d be afraid of getting caught, or not being eligible for a subsequent payment. So, while this program reduces monitoring costs, which are high and probably not very effective, I don’t think this paper shows that unconditional cash transfers are as good as conditional ones, but rather that labeled cash transfers are as good as conditional ones but with fewer costs associated with them.

I also don’t doubt the principle in theory that unconditional transfers are just as good. Basic economic theory says that individuals are rational and though I may doubt that in principle, I’d guess that on average individuals will use additional funds to make themselves better off as it makes sense to them. If someone wants new shoes and someone wants to send their kids to school, and someone needs to pay hospital bills, they likely know better what will increase their own welfare. But I do think an aggregate effect on welfare is more difficult to measure with the unconditional transfers.

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) have been shown to increase human capital investments, but their standard features make them expensive. We use a large randomized experiment in Morocco to estimate an alternative government-run program, a “labeled cash transfer” (LCT): a small cash transfer made to fathers of school-aged children in poor rural communities, not conditional on school attendance but explicitly labeled as an education support program. We document large gains in school participation. Adding conditionality and targeting mothers make almost no difference. The program increased parents’ belief that education was a worthwhile investment, a likely pathway for the results.

Benhassine, Najy, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Victor Pouliquen. Turning a Shove into a Nudge? A “Labeled Cash Transfer” for Education. NBER Working Paper 19227.

Traditional gender roles and marriage quality

This is the second paper I’ve come across recently that attempts to link gender dynamics and understanding of gender roles by heterosexual couples to relationship quality or longevity.

This study examined the implications of gender attitudes and spouses’ divisions of household labor, time with children, and parental knowl- edge for their trajectories of love in a sample of 146 African American couples. Multilevel modeling in the context of an accelerated longitudinal design accommodated 3 annual waves of data. The results revealed that traditionality in husbands’ gender attitudes was linked to lower levels of love. Furthermore, divisions of household labor and parental knowledge moderated changes in love such that couples with more egalitarian divisions exhibited higher and more stable patterns of love, whereas more traditional couples exhibited significant declines in love over time. Finally, greater similarity between spouses’ time with their children was linked to higher levels of marital love. The authors highlight the implications of gender dynamics for marital harmony among African American couples and discuss ways that this work may be applied and extended in practice and future research.

Link is here (gated). Stanik, McHale and Crouter. 2013. Gender Dynamics Predict Changes in Marital Love Among African American Couples. Journal of Marriage and Family 75.

Hunger seasons

This week’s events have reminded me why I don’t want to go back to school. As I struggle through writing an application essay and wonder whether I’m really too old for this, my thoughts turn to grandiose schemes of changing the world.

Last week, a colleague and I were discussing the seasonality of hunger in some farming communities, particularly in East Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. I was so pleased with myself, thinking about a “Hunger Season,” and my journalist brain got a little revved about how I could write a book about it, only to find this one: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

My take so far, it’s a little grandiose and self-pat-on-the-back-y, but it’s well written and very well researched. It paints a fascinating and illuminating portrait of subsistence farmers in Kenya, going hungry, seasonally, for just the reasons my colleague and I had been discussing earlier. It’s definitely worth a read.

I hope to finish it this week, if my own grandiose essay writing doesn’t get in the way.

On Iran’s “Erotic Revolution”

Data are always a mischievous thing and even more so when they out of a religious autocracy. In the US, it’s commonly said that women underreport their sexual partners when asked by one to two, so you can only imagine how such a question might go over in Iran.

It hasn’t, but Foreign Policy says that other data that are more readily available point to a sexual revolution in Iran that includes sex before marriage, earlier sexual debut, and increased use of contraceptives.

While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran’s sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city,” a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States — and fast.

The article is long on speculation and short on facts, mostly because they’re not available, but many data points do point to some interesting demographic changes that could signal a cultural shift in the perception of sex outside of marriage, the value of marriage and childbearing, and more.

What’s not entirely clear is why. The article gives suggests that the current generation of young people is reacting to the lack of emergence of a utopian society and that having sex outside of marriage is part of the small rebellions they are engaging against the regime.

It’s a tidy theory, but it likely obscures the story. First, demographic shifts take time to happen. Iranians didn’t wake up in 2013 and decide to stop having children. Even if they did, we wouldn’t see the changes in national averages yet. This evolved over a few decades. Secondly, there is ample evidence that young Iranian women were fairly progressive in their attitudes regarding female independence, sexuality, and empowerment before the Revolution, so it is more likely that the children of those women who underwent their own sexual revolution in the 70s are coming of age and making decisions that reflect the attitudes projected in their own homes, if not in an official or public sense.

I’d also venture to say that it might be possible that some progressive or secular Iranians are choosing not to have children because they don’t want them to grow up under the regime they have experienced. That’s more in line with the explanation offered by FP, but it’s also pure speculation.

A Zimbabwe Update

My arrival in Harare a few weeks ago almost perfectly coincided with the most recent call for elections, and I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Watching Zimbabwe come out of hyperinflation has been astonishing, as an economist, and as a person trying to become a Zimbabwe scholar (sort of), a call for elections was electrifying.

Of course, my euphoria was short-lived. The first person I talked to about it responded with “they probably won’t happen.” The second with “no one actually thinks they will happen.” The third delved into a lengthy explanation of the coalition government and the problems associated with the implementation of the new constitution and how they likely wouldn’t happen on time and suddenly, I realized how little I actually knew.

I’d been here before. That is, I’ve jumped into a country I knew very little about with a few weeks’ worth of research under my belt and tried to answer some questions about it. I’d never been to Zimbabwe before. Zimbabwe is a place you can read a lot about. The hyperinflation, president of seemingly millions of years Robert Mugabe, agriculture and land reform, cholera and the UN, and so much more.

For all of this, things in Zimbabwe seem to be working. Sure, the power went out a few times on the streets, but even as traffic snarled, people got to where they were going and were improbably polite about it. Everyone seemed so kind and helpful. There wasn’t the constant blaring of horns you hear in Delhi or Kolkata. It didn’t seem nearly as crowded as Dar or Kampala. Though I was warned not to walk around at night and got plenty of stares for going on a jog through a park nearby my hotel, I felt incredibly safe driving around the country and walking through Harare during the day. We even managed to get buy-in from a relevant ministry on my project without too much leg work.

That’s not to say that things are perfect. An estimated one third of Zimbabweans under the age of 49 suffer from HIV/AIDS. Though the official unemployment rate is lower than that of the US (6% to 7.7%), an estimated 70-90% of Zimbabweans aren’t working for wages. Cash is short due to dollarization and prices are much higher than one would expect.

And elections, it seems, as so many tried to tell me, will be delayed. So perhaps everything doesn’t work quite as well as I had thought.

It’s really beautiful, though.


For reading on Zimbabwe, I’ll recommend the two books that were given to me as I took on this project. I’m sure there are many more good ones and I’d be happy to read/share if anyone has suggestions.

  1. Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (Voice of Witness)
  2. Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

On Financial Literacy, Past and Present

The Economic Logician picked up some of my recent research last week, and since I’ve been in the midst of trying to revise that paper and get it out, I figured it wasn’t a bad time to highlight it here myself.

Ann Carlos and Larry Neal, my coauthors, engaged in an extensive data collection project whereby they digitized the ledger and transfer books of some of the earliest English joint-stock companies and their share prices in the early 1700s. Picture hours upon endless hours in historical archives in London. You can imagine that for a data geek like myself, this was just too much fun to pass up, so with them, I have been exploring ways to combine these data and look at portfolio holdings of individuals over the period of the South Sea Bubble. We find two big things. First is that investors didn’t diversify. Despite transparent pricing and an active secondary share market, most investors we see both during the 1720s and three decades earlier owned stock in only one company. This isn’t to say that they weren’t diversifying in other ways. We don’t have full portfolio information for most, so we don’t know if they held land or bonds, for instance. We do know that within the set of financial instruments for which we have information, they didn’t diversity.

We explore a few reasons for this. Carruthers (which is a very good read) suggests that individuals traded their shares on a personal basis, mostly to business partners, family, or friends, as a way of ensuring that the stock stayed in the hands of individuals of a particular political persuasion. Stock market activity in this period does not support this hypothesis, with a large number of jobbers or brokers taking on the sale and purchase of stock and the rise of meeting places like the coffee shops in Exchange Alley where daily prices were posted.

We do not exactly, as Economic Logician suggests, show that individuals weren’t financially literate. Rather, we suggest that individuals didn’t diversity partially due to the voting rules of the companies. There was likely room for diversification to reduce idiosyncratic risk associated with holding in only one company, and many individuals had the requisite capital to purchase a portfolio of shares. However, the gains to purchasing in only one company were large for merchants who could use their vote or position on the governing boards to score lucrative contracts or help friends. We believe that the voting rules were a primary factor in the lack of diversification, at least where a wealth constraint didn’t bind.

Related: Carl Wennerlind released a very good book on this period explaining the rise of credit markets and their link to power, war, slavery, the pamphleteers, and more. Worth a read as well if you find this stuff interesting.

Zimbabwe bleg

I’m headed to Zimbabwe tomorrow! I’m super excited to see this beautiful country about which I’ve heard so much and meet with a number of government and UNICEF officials. We’ll be working on getting the ball rolling on a project to implement and cost victim services and prevention programs for child victims of sexual and interpersonal violence.

I’d also love to talk to some scholars in Zim while I’m there. I have a few local contacts, but if anyone knows any economists or political scientists or statisticians or sociologists or anthropologists, particularly those with knowledge of Zimbabwean data sources, send them my way. I’ll buy the Zambezi (does anyone actually drink that?).

Reading to girls

An Atlantic piece today outlines some current research that is very much in line with my own.

The researchers found a gender difference in what they call “teaching activities” that build cognitive skills in children as young as nine months old. Girls, not boys, in all three countries received more time from parents on three activities: reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers. Baker and Milligan scrutinized data for first-born children, to control for differences arising when parents slack off after baby number two or three arrives. They also examined parents’ time spent with boy-girl twins and again found boys receiving less time than girls on the three teaching activities.

I’ve found a small, but statistically significant difference in the amount of time parents spend reading to girls at ages one, three, and five as part of a paper focused on relationship quality and investments in children.

They’ve got a very economist-y explanation for the behavior: “It is just more costly to provide a unit of reading to a boy than to a girl because the boy doesn’t sit still, you know, doesn’t pay attention,” Michael Baker told NPR (on his research with Kevin Milligan).

Costs are not just about money, people.

Primes and Probability

At the suggestion of a colleague, I recently started reading Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data. So far, it’s a fun, demystifying sort of book, the kind I hope my students will enjoy (watch out Lafayette Economics, I’m coming, and I will make you read). It rests on the twin ideas that statistics can be fun and statistics are incredibly useful to explain, to tell stories.

The book was high in my mind this morning when I read this deliciously accessible Slate piece by Wisconsin professor Jordan Ellenberg about an advance in prime numbers by a University of New Hampshire mathematician. Economists like to make lots of bad jokes about how they are failed physicists, who are in turn failed mathematicians, so while it interests me, I wasn’t expecting to really understand the discovery when someone riffed on twitter about primes.

What’s so wonderful about this really intense mathematical discovery, at least according to the mathematician author of this piece, is that it’s really about statistics, which I can totally get my head around. The theory goes that primes come in infinitely many ‘twin pairs,’ like 3 and 5 or 17 and 19, and the intuition lies in that we can think about primes as random numbers.

And a lot of twin primes is exactly what number theorists expect to find no matter how big the numbers get—not because we think there’s a deep, miraculous structure hidden in the primes, but precisely because we don’t think so. We expect the primes to be tossed around at random like dirt.

Zhang didn’t quite prove the twin pairs theorem, but he made an important step towards proving it, it seems, and understanding probability and statistics is key to getting there.