Sunday, April 25, 2010


Robin Hanson has some interesting thoughts about why people are so darned hypocritical:

"Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

“X is not about Y,” … mean[s] that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X … more. … Many are well aware of this but say we are better off pretending X is about Y..."

"I’ve argued that much of our behavior is poorly explained by the reasons we give, and better explained as ways to signal abilities, loyalties, etc. But if so, why do we act so astoundingly ignorant? Why don’t we know about, and explicitly acknowledge, these functions? Yes, it can look bad to brag, or to be consciously strategic about loyalties, and some observers may be usefully fooled by our idealistic stories. But are these really enough to explain our incredible ignorance?

Man the sly rule bender offers a more satisfying explanation: we evolved to overtly and consciously embrace social norms against bragging, dominance, and sub-band coalitions, while covertly and subconsciously signaling our abilities, and loyalties...

It looks bad to brag and to be consciously strategic about loyalties not just because those can in general look bad, but because they violate strong forager norms. We signal covertly and unconsciously because our ancestors were strongly punished for overt and conscious signals...

...the main reason we have huge brains is to hypocritically bend rules"

I'm still thinking about this (and I think Robin is too). It's certainly true that people have a tendency to ascribe loftier motivations to their own behavior than often seems to be the case, not only to others but also in their own minds. I'm not sure I buy the explanation here, though.

Esther Duflo wins the John Bates Clark Medal

Esther Duflo has won the John Bates Clark Medal, which is the most prestigious award in economics other than the Nobel. She is best known for her work at J-PAL in advancing the cause of randomized control trials (RCTs) to evaluate policies and interventions, a topic I have written about here before. I met Esther at a conference recently, she's also a very nice person.

What does it mean? Well, it's good to see a development economist get the award, particularly since development tends to be rather maligned. Hopefully, this award also signals an increase in the emphasis on real-world, policy relevant research within the profession. Some people are worried that this will increase the dominance of RCTs as the approach in development economics. Personally, I don't think it will make much of a difference- the emphasis on RCTs has gone about as far as it can go.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Poverty and vulnerability to risk

Very interesting EconTalk podcast with a sociologist named Katherine Newman. The interview is about her book called Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Job Market. The book is in essence a set of case studies that follow a group of working poor in the US over a relatively long period of time to look at how they fare and why. An interesting issue that she highlighted in the interview was the capacity to use social capital to mitigate risks. The example she used was having someone to call if your kid gets sick when you have to go to work, vs. having to take off work to take care of the kid. The people with someone to call tend to do a lot better in the long run than the people who don't. This issue comes up a lot in development economics (the great Portfolios of the Poor talks about it quite a bit), I wouldn't have thought it would be so important in the US.