My Conversation with Esther Duflo

Self-recommending if there ever was such a thing, here is the audio and transcript.  In addition to all of the expected topics, including gender in the economics profession, we even got around to Indian classical music and Bach cantatas (she prefers the latter).  Excerpt:

COWEN: Do you worry much that the RCT method — it centralizes authority in too few institutions? You need a certain amount of money. You need some managerial ability. You need connections abroad. It’s not like running regressions — everyone can do it on their PC. Is that, in some way, going to slow down science? You get more reliable results, but there’s much less competition of ideas, it seems.

DUFLO: I think it would be the case if we had not been mindful of this problem from the beginning. And it might still be the case to some extent. But I actually think that we’ve put a lot of effort in avoiding it to be the case.

When you take an organization like J-PAL, just in India we have 200 staff members. And we have, at any given time, 1,000 people running surveys. I say we, but these people are not running my project. These people are running the projects of dozens and dozens of researchers. When I started, I couldn’t have started without having the backing of my team because it was such a risky proposition that you needed to be able to easy risk capital kind of things.

But at this point, because of the infrastructure, it’s much more normal sense. People can get in with no funding of their own, in part because one of the things we are doing as a network is raising a lot of money to redistribute to other people widely. J-PAL has 400 researchers that are affiliated to it, or invited researchers, many of them quite, quite junior.

So that sort of mixture — it was very important to us, and I think we’ve been quite successful at making the tool marginally available. It’s never going to be like running a regression from your computer. But my philosophy is that if you have the drive and you’re willing to put in your own sweat equity, you can do it. And our students and many other students who are not at top institutions are doing it.


COWEN: On the internet, there’s a photo of a teenage Esther Duflo — at least it looks like you — protesting against fascism in Russia on top of a tank, is it?

DUFLO: That was a bus, and it was me. It was me. So that was in 1991. This was not when I lived for one year there. I lived one year in ’93–’94. But this was in ’91. I had gone to Russia about every year since I was a teen to learn Russian. I happened to be there the summer where there was this putsch against Gorbachev. That summer…

And someone gave me that fashizm ne poletit placard and asked me to hold it. And I’m like, “Sure, I’m going to hold it.” So I’m holding my placard. We stayed there for a long time when things were happening. Next time I saw in the evening, my parents called me, “What are you doing?” Because it turned out that that image was on all the TVs in the world. [laughs] And that’s how I very briefly became the face of this revolution.


COWEN: Does child-rearing in France strike you as more sensible than child-rearing in the United States?

DUFLO: Oh very much so, very much so.

COWEN: And why?

DUFLO: You know that book, Bringing Up Bébé?


DUFLO: I think she picked up on something which rings so true to me, which maybe is a marginal point about the US versus France. In France people are reasonably content to just go with the flow and do what everybody does. Every kid eats the same thing at 4:30, has dinner at the same time, has gone through the same experiences, learned the same songs, and everybody thinks they are totally free. But in fact, they are all on this pretty sensible railroad. And also, they don’t agonize about it.

In the US, child-rearing is one more occasion to make a statement about your identity. You’re the kind of mother that carries the baby, or you’re the kind of mother that puts the baby in a stroller. And somehow it almost can predict what you’re going to think about Donald Trump. That’s crazy. Some people are so concerned about what they do. Not only they feel that they have to invest a ton in their children, and they feel inadequate if they are not able to, but also, exactly what they do creates them as people.

In France that’s not there, and I think that makes everybody so much more laid back, children and adults.

Recommended throughout.


Smug intellectuals speaking about everything and nothing at the same time

A privileged young girl on top of a tank shouting against fascism in Moscow.. russians are in good hands!

"russians are in good hands!"
You mean the putschists?

I think the question that should have been asked, as a follow-up, is how RCT trials might change with changing it will be cheaper to monitor or survey when electronic and other devices become more ubiquitous.

The assertion that you need large numbers of persons to monitor or survey may be resting on the assumption that technology is constant.

On coaching: What she is describing, a coach, is called a mentor in the privileged class (privileged in the sense there are mentors who provide guidance, whether a parent, a teacher, a neighbor, a co-worker, etc.). Mentors don't reside in areas of poverty. Role model is another name for a coach. I'm old (I prefer nearly old) and yet I still have mentors, not so much in my profession but in my life. When I meet someone who has valuable advice to offer, I accept it. I can't exaggerate the importance of a coach/mentor/role model. Having one improves one's life, whether one is mired in poverty or is a member of the privileged class.

“ Mentors don't reside in areas of poverty.”

Unpack this. Do you mean that the percentage of citizens who normally would become mentors don’t want to live in slums? Or what?

What makes us think (hope?) that mentors are even wanted? They are about as welcome in the ‘hood as chaperones. How do we change the attitude towards mentors?

As Tyler says, it's a style issue. Some people don't like Trump, but no one can explain why.

"Every kid eats the same thing at 4:30, has dinner at the same time, has gone through the same experiences, learned the same songs, and everybody thinks they are totally free. But in fact, they are all on this pretty sensible railroad to the concentration camp."

When everyone is thinking the same thing, doing the same thing, learning the same thing you're already inside the camps. You need to free your mind, Neo.

We used to just call that a homogeneous culture.

Some days "homogenous culture" is the answer to everything around here. Other days, not so much.

It depends on what country is involved... dontcha know?

Another smug liberal is she.

I actually read her critique of linking child rearing to political identity as a critique of liberals and people who have the following thoughts: "Oh that person raises their kid in some way that I don't like, they must be another one of those terrible Trump supporters." Granted, Trump supporters may have similar feelings about people who they see doing things differently than they would and then assume the person is a smug, elitist liberal, or something like that.

A society of individual choice where individual choice is yoked to pleasing the opinion of various social factions and to stay a member of a fluid and changing in-group by demonstrating the right behaviours* is not a hell of a lot closer to a society of free minds. Further, perhaps.

*" child-rearing is one more occasion to make a statement about your identity. You’re the kind of mother that carries the baby, or you’re the kind of mother that puts the baby in a stroller. And somehow it almost can predict what you’re going to think about Donald Trump.")

Although whether her comment on that is actually accurate, or this is simply "Foreigner finds foreign place freeing because they don't understand and so don't care about local hierarchies", I do not know.

Well no one is required to please any societal faction, at least once you leave school. It’s easier than ever as an adult to choose your own in-group where you fit in.

You make a good point about finding foreign places freeing. This is not just limited to foreign places though—I’ve lived in the same city my whole life but there is much more diversity here now (I don’t mean just racially, but people moving here from other places in general and also more business ties with other places) and some neighborhoods now do feel a bit foreign compared to in my youth—but I find this freeing as the old local hierarchies do not have the monopolistic sway they used to. You can now make a good living without local connections and even get elected to office without the backing of the traditional local political machine.

Lived in the same city your whole life?? How depressing.

This lady sounds like a real wierdo. Strangely fond of spending time in hellholes. And she surely does not bring the most important solutions to their people's problems with her. Running little experiments on the periphery, while being blind to large truths. Like a nurse who likes to go into the emergency rooms putting band-aids on patients with multiple fractures.
Remember when the elites were telling us how the French are so much more "grown up" than Americans about sexual harassment and affairs by presidents? Coincidentally it was when Clinton was doing that. The French elite are good at looking smarter than they actually are.

'Self-recommending if there ever was such a thing'

There isn't.

I have to say, you do a good job of asking the hard questions and pushing her.

Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in sweeping generalizations about French vs. American styles of child-rearing, like there is in many sweeping generalizations about lots of things, but there surely the variance is enormous, making such a statement no more useful or less pernicious than other sweeping generalizations.

What we should really recognize about France is its long-standing policy of economic and cultural nationalism, and its related 8.5% unemployment rate and endless yellow vest marches.

From my insufferable hedonistic point of view, it seems better to be a jobless subsidized poor than a working poor. So, is the 8.5% unemployment rate a "failure" in the real world or just hurts some feelings?

The unemployment rate only counts people who want a job but can’t find one; people who are happy to be subsidized and unemployed don’t count.

And 8.5% unemployment is a 10 year low.


And actually it's a stricter measurement than what you suggest. The person has to be actively seeking employment at the time of the measurement to qualify.

"The number of unemployed persons includes people age 16 and older who are without a job but looking for work. "

Does people receiving unemployment benefits are not accounted in the unemployment rate? Unemployment rates are subsidized by the whole worker pool.

Pretty excited about the Wall-E future you envision for humanity.

I don't recognize the name Duflo nor have the faintest idea what "the RCT method" is. What I do know is anyone who pretends to speak about an entire nation is both delusional and has a hyper-inflated ego. Apparently the large unassimilated immigrant community has adopted French child-rearing practices? I. don't. think. so.

narrowed it down to Rational Choice Theory or Randomized Control Trials. RA Fisher's work solidified the use of statistics in clinical trials over 70 years ago. Nice to see Econ taking note. But I guess if you've been pretending that what you do is "science", you gotta go thru the motions.

I thought it was randomized clinical trials. Basic writing rule: define your terms, and spell out your abbreviations the first time.

Rather a furious waving of hands here, to get from "economic and cultural nationalism" to its unemployment rate?

At least the folks who propose excessive internal labour regulation provide a mechanism by which that is linked to unemployment rates (high fixed staff costs, inhibited ability to expand and shift labour force, etc.). There's a causality. It's harder to see what France's rather successful "national champions" really do to cause its unemployment rate, much less the Academie Francaise, or fairly good (and by no means uninnovative) food and drink.

Typo: "Bresson" (instead of "Besson").

Corrected, thanks.

I wouldn't have minded eating at 4:30 if I could go back outside after - but I don't see myself ever pushing a hoop.

Wow, so she thinks life is easier when everyone has the same culture and values? Why are you speaking with this hate-infested racist who disparages diversity?

Hi, I am saddened by the tone of several comments here. I firmly believe we can learn something from everyone. In fact, I have learned some interesting information by reading the comments at Marginal Revolution.

Even so, essons I am drawing today from the comment section are largely not good. Esther Duflo's research is worth consideration. I do not expect you to agree with everything (or even anything) she says but I please consider her research.

AND she deserves profession engagement. Tyler's conversation with her is primarily about her research. I am not going to repeat the sexist comments above, but please think about how you engage. :-)

Agree completely.

The comment section on MR has really gone downhill in the last few years. It's sad. I don't know what (if anything) could be done to fix it.

When you feel your goal is to defend amoral capitalism, and to stand against virtue signalling, things trend this way.

If Tyler could just have one of his students write a script that deletes all comments which include the word "cuck," the tone of the comment section would improve materially.

The guy who does the “cuck” characters and comments is on the left with Claudia. He uses the term to both mock its use in far right internet communities and to emasculate conservative commenters here. Notably, Claudia has nothing to say about that. There isn’t much grift and media interviews to be had for her about that.

Nobody said anything about "cuck" in today's section but the comments up higher still suck. Everyone has a hot take or edgy comment but no real analysis.

To be fair, the main attraction here is the way Cowen looks at the world, and his posts in any given year are better than the year before, which is what you would expect.
I say that as someone with a near-photographic memory, and as someone who has read something like one third of his posts since 2010, which is in quantity like reading the complete works of Keynes.
It was sad seeing many of the more interesting commenters hounded off the comments section by mentally ill slanderous creeps, but it was also an interesting lesson in the basic fault of classical libertarianism.
I wish that Cowen and Tabarrok had asked for a few bucks for some moderation back in the day, I would have contributed, and many of the comment section contributors who had the most valuable insights might still be commenting here.

Generally agreed. Quit for a coupla' years. Now have time on my hands, but will quit again. Moderation can't be that expensive.

Best of luck to this blog.

1) The conversation was ok, but not stellar, and I'm not especially sold on Duflo's insights.

2) That said, the quality of many of the responses (comments) here is pretty attrocious. The comments section here has become a bit of a sewer over the last few years. That's unfortunate. Good dialog can be valuable in promoting understanding and learning. I would like to see more effort and resources devoted to cleaning up the comments section to MR. That doesn't mean suppressing dissenting views (not by a long shot), but cutting back on the snark, drive-by insults and other trashy comments.

To be clear, I'm not trying to comment generally on Duflo's work, but rather on this particular conversation, including some of what she had to say that's not so directly related to her development economics work.

I am disappointed the comment section seems anomalously bad in this thread. The comment thread in the "What should I ask..." thread at least engaged with Duflo's research much better despite being rather negative about it.

It was an interesting conversation to read, although I disagree about French cinema -- Godard and the New Wave are ultimately shallow, Bresson is better but of a completely different style. It is a similar aesthetic difference to why Econ 101 and macroeconomics are things that I found very interesting when I first learned them. Perhaps an aesthetic difference like this even ties back to something ideological.


I wish you still commented here with regularity. Here and the other Econ blogs. Been reading these for well over 10 years now. You always provided an insightful and intelligent voice from a very different set of priors from my own.

Comments sections have declined, inversely proportional to Alexa rank. Personally I blame Twitter. There are probably about 5 trolls dedicated to derailing every single comments section and they have no interest economics whatsoever. They weren’t economics nerds who stumbled upon MR in search of dialogue. They were reading hyper partisan Twitter links and decided to wage a weirdly specific Jihad against people wanting to discuss consumption taxes and economic efficiency in 2015.

The comments on this blog are atrocious, and discourages me from sharing it with friends who might be interested.
Just get a mod and delete the worst 20% and the atmosphere f the place would improve remarkably.

I'm a bit late in reading this post and these comments, I wonder if MR did delete the worst comments today before I started reading them.

Because although as of right now there are still some low quality comments to this post, I've seen much worse here on MR. So I'm guessing that the really bad ones -- the ones that inspired some widespread agreement that the comments here have gotten out of hand -- were deleted before I saw them.

So maybe moderation is working, albeit slowly, here at MR?

The larger point is that totally free speech is, as we've repeatedly discovered since the days of Usenet, is not just a bad policy, it's an unsustainable one. Blogs quickly go down the toilet, just due to spambots let alone the trolls.

And it's an area where I'm more inclined to back regulation of social media companies that Tyler is. Tyler would let them set their own speech policies rather than having the government impose them. Free markets at work. I'm less optimistic. The policies that say Facebook would like to implement are the ones that are good for it, not the ones that are good for society.

It's bad enough when bad commenters drive out good, Gresham's Law applied to comments on the web. But we now have fake news threatening to out-compete valid news, degradation of news media, etc. etc.

Cowen and Tabarrok will likely have comments deleted which induce disgust without actually saying anything (the seemingly Tourettoid guys/gals) and will delete posters with a long running bitter vendetta against them (prior_approval) but you will be waiting a long time if you are waiting for them to blanket delete the unWoke.

So, please enlighten us. Which ones of the comments above is sexist?
Is it "privileged young girl" in Bigot's comment @ 8:53am yesterday? What else? Or have they been deleted?

I doubt you will be able to find and demonstrate the word subhuman or any epithets of any kind in either Sailer's or dearieme's comments on this site. (Sailer's personal blog or other blogs I don't know).

Anything anti-female on here generally seems mild by the standards of TC's "brutes" comments or Hazel Meade launching into misandric posts about working class white men and so on.

Check out Wednesday's assorted links - if the site were awash with misogynistic comments, you'd expect these to come out when discussing "gender segregation" in darts. But they don't, and 99% of comments are simply "Gender segregation in darts because women aren't as good. Duh". Hardly misogynistic.

You will see some comments you could charitably classify as anti-female emerge when various specious proposals are linked to explain outcome "gaps" between men and women with things other than male skill and ability or straightforward gender differences (time out of the workplace due to kids, specialisation in domestic stuff, etc.). But that is reasonable pushback.

Oh wait, you're prior_approval again? Well that was a waste of time. (Seriously, why not just stop using that easily identifiable quotation style?)

Ah, you're right, Hamburger is prior_approval. The worst is that I realized that myself a few days ago, and I had forgotten. Waste of time.

There could have been an interesting discussion about this very interesting interview but this long trend of woke people (how many are they, really? how many are prior_approval under various names?) congratulating themselves for being superior to unspecified other commenters kind of killed it in the egg.

So which one are the sexist comments Claudia mentions? And the worst in general?

Interesting discussion here, in response to Claudia's comments.

But speaking of comments deleted by moderators, it seems that a number of comments in this very thread have been deleted. I don't see them on this page now, but did see them in my email. I don't see why they got deleted, they seemed similar to the comments that are still here in this thread.

Are there economics forums that attract a variety of viewpoints, that aren't too purely academic in tone (i.e. with good participation from both academics and non-academics) that have a high signal-to-noise ratio?

Alternatively, are there other blogs, run by one or a handful of economists, with active comment sections that have significantly higher quality than this one? i.e. Something like M.R. was 5+ years ago?

Acclaimed technocrat economist who likes to run studies on poor people while being agnostic about what actually creates wealth, has a chat about various "first world problems" that sounds like smug Davos cocktail chatter. Commentators critique it from different angles. Then commentators didn't like that. Tell me, exactly what brilliant economic insights from this interview did you counter-critics think we missed? Feel free to copy/paste from the transcript.

I liked this part, after T.C. asked why mobility is down in the US. I like the suggestion that there are certain things people, however irrationally, are going to privilege or preserve, at the expense of a possible new job.

"So those are some of the economic reasons. Then I also think there is one social reason, which is, people like to be part of a social network. I think it’s profoundly human. We are not made to be lonely. We are meant to live with our friends and derive some amount of meaning from our place in the social network. And moving makes it difficult, especially if you’re going to move to something that’s completely unknown, and you don’t exactly know what you’re moving to and why.

Then finally is . . . and that’s one thing that we think we should start to put a little more in our economic model, is the fact that people are . . . It seems in surveys, people keep declaring one thing: to derive meaning from their job. But they don’t always do. And they are more likely to be deriving meaning from their job if they’ve held this job for a long time and if they’ve grown in expertise and in ranks in doing this particular job."

What happened to the conversation with Salman Rushdie?

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