Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Review of AEA sessions in Atlanta (Jan 4-5)

I took last month off from this blog (and most other productive activities) because I was on holiday for three weeks in the Bay Area. I hope all of you had a great holiday season 2018 with friends and family and a refreshing start to the new year 2019. The first topic I wanted to come back to is a review of the webcast sessions from the American Economic Association's annual meetings held in Atlanta from Jan 4-5, 2019. Several of the sessions are webcast here and you can access lectures on various topics including growth in the developing world, automation and the future of work, public debt, and - returning from last year with an extremely compelling panel - the gender problem in economics and what steps the profession can take to address it. In this post, I discuss two of the panels with an eye to discussing Autor's lecture on the future of work in the next post.

Growth challenges in the developing world 

The AEA convened a "World Bank economists" session consisting of three former World Bank Chief Economists (Justin Lin, Francois Bourguignon, Kaushik Basu), current Chief Economist Pinelopi Goldberg, and moderated by former Acting Chief Economist Shanta Devarajan. The purpose of the panel was to deliberate on the challenges facing the developing world. Given the very broad - arguably too broad - scope of the topic, it is natural that the panelists settled on a narrower topic over the course of the conversation: industrialization and the informality trap facing Africa.

Historically, industrialization and the rapid job creation in the formal wage sector that accompanies it have been seen as the most effective ways to raise wages and lower the poverty rate in developing countries. Lin cited historical examples of low-income countries' growth trajectories after capturing manufacturing jobs moving from the U.S. to Japan in the aftermath of WWII, Japan to Southeast Asia in 1960s and 1970s, and from Southeast Asia to China in 1980s and 1990s. Now that wages are increasing in China, many of these manufacturing jobs will be looking for a new home. How can Africa capitalize on these opportunities in coming decades was the question most of these economists were trying to answer. Chapter 2 of this policy report from the African Development Bank does a good job of summarizing these issues including evidence of what some economists call "de-industrialization" and the obstacles to small business growth. Given the demographic changes that will add 2 billion to the working age population in the African continent in this century, the creation of jobs in the formal wage sector will be important not only for economic but social and political stability. 
  1. The primary point of contention is that it is not clear that "de-industrialized" countries will capture these manufacturing opportunities without concerted policies. E.g. automation is a real threat to manufacturing jobs in certain industries and less so in others (retail incl. clothing, shoes, and furniture). Furthermore, the trade environment is rapidly changing with advanced economies looking to be less hospitable to imports from low-income countries. The second half of the panel asked panelists to comment on different ways of approaching this issue wherein I think the issue of too broad a topic came to light. I think it would have been more useful to showcase specific examples and evidence from recent research. 
  2. It wasn't discussed in the panel but it is relevant discuss the impact of a shift from self-employment and agriculture to industrial employment on working populations and whether there is desire on the part of working populations to hold these types of jobs in the first place. Specifically, J-PAL poses the issue in preface to a 2017 paper from Chris Blattman and Stefan Dercon that studied the effects of industrial employment on Ethiopian workers: "Industrial sector development to boost mass hiring is seen as important to poverty alleviation at the macroeconomic level. But how those jobs, particularly in early stages of industrial sector development, affect the workers themselves and what the workers prefer are less well-understood." The findings from this paper are summarized in this New York Times article with the bottom line being: workers are initially unaware but quickly become aware of the safety hazards and poor wages paid in sweatshop conditions leading to a high turnover rate in these early-stage manufacturing firms. The authors find that particularly when the constraints to self-employment were addressed through cash grants the workers preferred self-employment. 
      1. Does this mean that industrialization is not the best way to raise wages and lower the poverty rate in low-income countries? No. But it indicates that there may be a more efficient equilibria where a set of regulations providing a baseline level of safety for workers that address the issues identified in this study (chemical fumes, repetitive stress injuries, and probability of serious injury) can be beneficial to both employers via a lower turnover rate and to workers who would more likely work there if these health concerns were addressed. Such a set of regulations need not be so stringent that they reduce the comparative advantage of setting up shop in sub-Saharan Africa given the low wages on the continent but they will provide better standards of living for workers expected to drive these changes. 
Gender in the profession

On the panel on gender in the economics profession. The community by now is well aware of statistics indicating the low proportion of women who study economics as undergraduates, the lower proportion who study it as PhD candidates, and the even lower proportion who are tenured faculty at universities. The primary questions now, in my opinion, are (1) whether members of the community believe that these statistics are indicative of gender bias (as opposed to differences in ability or preference between the genders); and (2) whether members of the community believe that they can and should take action to address this bias, particularly when it is implicit and particularly where it requires the buy-in of economists who are neither part of the problem nor the solution.

Several of the questions posed in the panel revolve around these ideas. First is the need for data and evidence that is reflective of implicit bias to indicate to said economists that there is a problem at hand. Erin Hengel's paper on publication records of male and female economists that I discussed last year and Alice Wu's paper on sexism within the Econ Job Market Rumors website which is informal but commonly used among academic economists for job postings and career advice (see this interview with Wu on this paper) are two examples of this type of evidence. This webpage put together by the UC Berkeley Women in Economics group offers other useful information.

From my own anecdotes and research experience within the Gender Innovation Lab at the World Bank, there are a few issues that I think are actionable to address:
  1. Role models and social networks among women 
  2. Gender gap in perceived abilities in STEM fields 
  3. Culture and implicit bias within the profession
Given that the third issue is probably the one that is most difficult to address I think it requires first the buy-in from the community that I mentioned above. Being aware of implicit bias and its effects on the community are important because they are needed to take the next steps. For example, one issue that was talked about in the panel is aggression in economics seminars. It likely impacts women more than men because women tend to do better in collaborative and non-aggressive environments and the aggression tends to be more often directed towards women than it does towards other men (e.g. see Wu's paper on EJMR). But suffice it to say, I think we would all do better - men and women alike - if we were all a bit kinder to one another without compromising the rigor of our work. Specifically, to both acknowledge that we can and should be able to communicate questions and criticisms without resorting to aggression and be willing to learn the techniques to do so. Same with being willing to learn the techniques to recognize and address implicit bias.  

I have been supported in my efforts by peers and role model figures - mostly male - that have been enthusiastic about my ability to succeed in this profession. I have been blessed in not only role models in professional and academic life but also partners in my personal life that have been the most influential factors in my decision to undertake graduate studies. My thoughts on this issue are - in addition to addressing systematic issues within the field - if you can support a young person and believe in their abilities it is probably a determining factor in their decision to pursue higher studies. Whether we have the data or not as of yet (and there is more empirical research being conducted on role model figures and mentoring), we can't underestimate the value of empathy in how people decide whether or not they want to be in a particular location, field, university, firm. 


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  2. Hi Girish, thank you for reading the blog. Sorry for the delayed response. I don't read too many popular economics books - too much reading of journal articles means I prefer to read something else outside of work - but I did see these suggestions last year: Let me know if there are any topics you'd like to hear about on the blog. Thanks!

  3. Replies
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