What should I ask Esther Duflo?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, no associated public event, so what should I ask?

I thank you all in advance for your sage wisdom and counsel.


Ask her what she thinks about Angus Deaton's critique of RCT especially regarding external validity.

Ask her about whatever blowback she received for her AER article showing that the 100 mm+ spent on enclosed stoves didn’t work.

Back in 1993 when Yeltzin shelled Russian Parliament from tanks, she supported it (https://meduza.io/en/feature/2019/10/28/deja-vu).

Does she regret it now?

Many people consider this as a turning point in Russia from democracy towards oligarchich and KGB dominated state.

The link you provided was about the August putsch in 1991, when Communist hardliners tried to stage a coup against Gorbachev. That failed attempt brought about the swift dissolution of the Soviet Union a few months later.

There is no mention in your link about the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis.

Terrible honest mistake with the year.

The question remains

What do you think of payday loans in the United States?

What are the main differences between payday loans (which are generally seen to be exploitative of the poor) and microfinancing loans (which are generally seen to be helpful to the poor)?

Payday loan borrowers like payday loans (or at least, like them better than not having them). Social Justice activists could fix this terrible injustice by setting up a service to lend money to poor people who don't have bank accounts, good credit ratings, stable employment, incomes appreciably above the basic subsistence level, etc., at "non-exploitative" rates.
Difference: payday loans are used for consumption rather than investment.

@Renzo, not sure if you're aware, but a number of Democrats have proposed just that, particularly Kirsten Gillibrand and her "postal banking" proposal.


"The more ambitious approach, which Gillibrand and other Democrats have embraced, would be far more seismic. Gillibrand’s bill would allow the postal service to also make small loans at low interest rates and would almost certainly compete payday lenders out of business.

The bill states that postal banks could make loans of up to $500 at a time at interest rates in line with the yield on month Treasury bills, which today is sitting at a low 1.65 percent. That rate of interest is probably too low given how many of these loans will likely default. The Postal Service’s Inspector General report pictured interest rates closer to 25 percent, which would still save customers hundreds of dollars compared to payday loans that commonly come with APRs around 400 percent.

But while Gillibrand’s lending proposal may not be entirely realistic in its current form, it is a powerful statement of intent. “They see this as a shot across the bow,” University of Georgia Law Professor Mehrsa Baradaran, who helped advise on the bill, told me. “What Gillibrand wants most is to undercut payday lenders.”"

One critique of the experimental school is that you can't run experiments on macroeconomic policy; ask her how much good macroeconomists have done in the third world. Another critique is that third world governments aren't capable of replicating the results from successful experiments; ask her how capable third-world governments are in implementing policies that have never been tested at all.

Ask her whether if she was a regulator’s examiner, she would have failed or passed a student who, being asked about risk weighted bank capital requirements, had favored a 20% risk weight to the dangerous AAA rated, and one of 150% to the so innocuous below BB- rated?

What is the best form of humanitarian aid for poor country’s from governments of wealthy ones which have some but limited state funds to help poor countries

Professor Duflo: your title at MIT is "Professor of Poverty Alleviation".

What concessions to reality does the notion "poverty alleviation" make that the notion "equality" routinely fails to make?

very interesting

Do you mean "eradication" instead of "equality"? If not, i.e., if "equality" is correct, I've never seen the expression "poverty equality." Either way, it strikes me as a weird title for a professor.

Ask her what her ambition is - eradication of poverty or alleviation of poverty? And is this be achievable random sample survey? And who have gained anything substantial from her research?

Could you ask her to compare the elite French system (grandes écoles) with the US one? She has studied and worked in both? What are their strength and weaknesses? How do they select students?

Is “poverty” best measured in absolute (e.g. 2000 cals of nutritionally adequate food per day) or relative terms (e.g. functional vs fashionable clothes).

Does society in general have any responsibility to alleviate relative poverty? Why? Does society in general have a corresponding right or obligation to impose a “spendthrift clause” on the recipients of such benefits?

Poverty in the 1st world is most related to drug and alcohol use. Should people with drug and alcohol abuse problems be given welfare?

I’d like to hear if she has an opinion on inequality measurement. If everyone’s income doubles, should a proper inequality measure go up? What about if everyone gains a constant amount of $?

Her RCTs are huge, employing many people. What are her personal philosophies on management / leadership?

Some effective altruism related questions:

Why/how/what motivated her to work on extreme poverty - was is a philosophical commitment? An interesting/growth area in economics? An emotional pull?

She evaluates extreme poverty interventions -- does this motivate her to contribute monetarily to these interventions? More or less than she would if she cared just as much, but didn't have such intimate knowledge?

The EA community relies on her work to some extent in getting people to give more/differently. What does she think of it? Does she consider herself a utilitarian? If so, is she interested in other utilitarian hobby horses like animals and the far future?

Your paper that "everyone" has read is a methods paper on clustered SEs and your prize was basically for a methodological approach too.

Do you expect the point estimates from your papers to remain useful over time too like the methods or not so much and that's ok?

Her latest book rightly argues that financial incentives are much less powerful than commonly believes, but her examples cite relatively small amounts such as the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
Isn’t she overlooking the power of large financial incentives, such as the rewards that come or may come from successful innovations or entrepreneurship?

Ask her about what she believes are the main structural causes of poverty smd what are the best policies to combat them, and precisely how she could devise experiments with regard to it

To solve global poverty, shouldn't we first learn from historical poverty reductions, and figure out if there's any way to replicate them? How do you justify focusing on small scale interventions instead of promoting growth? What is the optimal allocation of resources between alleviating poverty and promoting growth?

Why do you suppose that there is a trade-off? A successful investment in a poverty reduction program would presumably have a pretty high net present value. An institutional change that increased growth, say strengthening the rule of law or reducing corruption, would presumably be good for equality.

What's your elevator pitch to senior executives in a public policy role in a developed country, to convince them they need to run more counterfactual impact evaluations?

Ask about incorporating project design and data gathering as part of program implementation in large, non RCT-able programs.

Ask her about Deidre McCloskey's and others critique of their work. Basically that liberty and the market system can make a much bigger impact in poverty reduction than her RCT experiments as evidenced by the billion people taken out of poverty in China and India in the past 40 years.

She teaches an online course in graduate statistics that can be taken for free. How can elite universities like MIT balance the need for tuition with a mission for spreading technical knowledge to a much broader audience?

I’d love to hear her answer to something along the lines of “which criticism of your work do you think is the most noteworthy/important?”

Maybe not enough time, but I’d also love a section of overrated/underrated devoted to “causes” of poverty (“geography as a root cause of poverty,” “institutions as a root cause of poverty,” etc etc.)

What does the likely impossibility of empirically measuring the impact of RCT's say about their worth?

Ask her about whether (the French brand of) Protestantism has shaped her thinking in a way that other religions would not have.

I'd be interested to hear if she has any strong feelings about the gambling industries. To my mind, there is a fair crossover between her work and the various gambling markets around the globe (both regulated and unregulated). If so, what might she consider an appropriate level of regulation (from prohibition right through to open-slather)?

Given the rise of RCTs, and their popularity in certain places like Kenya and India, does she worry of risk that the subjects (whether control or treatment) can also be subjects in other experiments? If yes, how can that be accounted for.

How important are discontinuities and indivisibilities (the need to reach a certain threshold or get a certain minimum resource lump) in explaining behavior and outcomes? How should policy interventions account for them?

I think a discussion of the literature on deworming could be fascinating.

If you had to choose between the following two options:
- a rigorous impact evaluation that provides clear evidence for the benefits of a program, but no information on its costs.
- a less rigorous IE on the same issue, but this one does provide accurate information on costs.

Which one do you choose and why?

Also, discussion on free trade, the Stopler-Samuelson theorem, and chapter 3 of their most recent book (“The Pains From Trade”) would be interesting.

Interested in her views on the replication crisis. Pre-registering RCT hypotheses, in-house code-replicators at journals, how to deal with p-hacking?

Does the world of experimental economics have the same problems? How often are RCTs recreated - is it even possible? What are the benefits to repeating an RCT to ensure initial findings are replicated. How to interpret different results in different countries?

Also interested in her views on the "Streetlight effect" - RCTs necessarily analyse relatively trivial programs (compared to big picture issues). Do optimizing many small programs really matter, compared to getting the big issues like institutions and trade right?

What prevents JPAL/IPA from scaling further?

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