Frohes Fest | Year in Review

The JFI Letter has grown and morphed over the past twelve months; thank you to our readers for opening, skimming, clicking, and writing us every week. We’ll be offline until January 5. In the meantime, here’s a list of our favorite spotlights from last year and a list of favorite researchers to watch in the next.


  • The staff’s favorite paper of the year was Elliott Ash, Daniel Chen, and Suresh Naidu’s work on the staggeringly influential Manne seminars, 2-3 week intensive courses in economics which, by 1990, had been attended by 40% of federal judges. This brief course shaped the federal judiciary, pushing verdicts rightward: “Economics-trained judges significantly impact U.S. judicial outcomes. They render conservative votes and verdicts, are against regulation and criminal appeals, and mete harsher criminal sentences and deterrence reasoning. When ideas move from economics into law, ideas have consequences.” Link to the archived letter.
  • “The adoption of risk assessment tools may signal the abandonment of a centuries-long project of using rationality, science, and the state to improve upon the social and economic progress of individuals and society.” The stakes are high in the estimation of Eric Silver and Lisa L. Miller, whose 2002 paper on actuarial risk assessment we paired with 2018 work by Chelsea Barabas, Karthik Dinakar, Joichi Ito, Madars Virza, and Jonathan Zittrain. The earlier work by Silver and Miller provides historical overview of the adoption of actuarial tools in the criminal legal context. Barabas et al take up their caution, probing technical alternatives commensurate to the ethical-political problems augured by risk assessment. Link to the archived letter.
  • One of the most intriguing cash transfer studies published this year was from Djavad Salehi-Isfahani and Mohammed H. Mostafavi-Dehzooei on Iran’s national cash transfer program. “No support found for a negative effect on hours worked or labor force participation.” Link to the archived letter. A related spotlight focused a World Bank review by Sarah Baird et. al about cash transfers’ impact on the labor market. Link.
  • Historical analogues to revolutionary technical advancements can be difficult to locate—a problem for many working in the digital ethics space. A spotlight from September looks to the foundations of bioethics, a field that emerged out of high-profile ethical controversy and involved rushed and innovative interdisciplinary interventions: “Outsiders to medicine—that is, lawyers, judges, legislators, and academics—penetrated its every nook and cranny, in the process giving medicine an exceptional prominence on the public agenda and making it the subject of popular discourse.” Link to the archived letter.
  • In higher education, we spotlighted work from Jeffrey T. Denning, Benjamin M. Marx, and Lesley Turner that reaches the promising conclusion, “Our estimated impacts on earnings alone are enough to fully recoup government expenditures within 10 years, suggesting that financial aid likely pays for itself several times over.” Link to the archived letter.


  • Shira Mitchell and Jackie Shadlen updated Mirror Mirror —a critical survey of quantitative articulations of fairness—earlier this year. Link to the project. Link also to a recent paper co-authored by Mitchell that covers similar themes, and whose byline is shared with another JFI favorite, Solon Barocas.
  • From Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at Berkeley, we flagged “Universal Basic Income in the US and Advanced Countries,” written with Hilary Hoynes, and “Inequality of educational opportunity? Schools as mediators of the intergenerational transmission of income,” after Chetty.
  • Martin Ravallion’s “Guaranteed Employment or Guaranteed Income?” in April looked critically at arguments in favor of and against both policies in India and beyond. Link. Two more from Ravallion with a metearesearch approach: “Social Protection and Economic Development: Are the Poorest Being Lifted Up or Left Behind?” and “Should the Randomistas Continue to Rule?” (Also on basic income, we loved Abhijit Banerjee’s work on universal basic income in the developing world. Link.)
  • Arindrajit Dube’s work on labor economics and beyond includes such noteworthy pieces as “Monopsony in Online Labor Markets,” “Monopsony and Employer Mis-optimization Explain Why Wages Bunch at Round Numbers” (both co-authored with another previously mentioned mainstay, Suresh Naidu), and a Twitter thread on Modern Monetary Theory (his Twitter is very much worth a follow).
  • Danielle Citron, an expert on privacy and digital ethics, made three appearances in our newsletter this year: for her paper on sexual privacy, her work with Daniel Solove on data-breach harms, and her classic paper with Frank Pasquale, “The Scored Society: Due Process for Automated Predictions.”
  • Ozan Jaquette’s innovative work on student recruitment by public universities came to wide attention in an excellent NYTimes data-vis piece co-authored with Karina Salazar.
  • Judith Scott-Clayton’s work on student debt and financial aid made several appearances in our letter, including her report for Brookings, “The looming student debt crisis is worse than we thought,” available here, and a piece on financial aid simplification, available here. Her work on how to measure students’ labor market outcomes furthers a much-needed discussion on accountability in higher education.
  • If you like our newsletter, here are three other links round-ups we highly recommend: Ugo Gentilini’s Social Protection Links; Jeff Mosenkis’s weekly Innovations for Poverty Action links at Chris Blattman’s blog, and the Weekly faiV from the Financial Access Initiative. All three cover development economics from different angles, providing an overview of the breadth of work in this area. We’ve also enjoyed Dylan Matthews’s Future Perfect newsletter, associated with his new Vox vertical on effective altruism.
  • Finally, this year we launched the Phenomenal World. See our recent interview with Johannes Haushofer on cash transfers, JFI fellow Kapu Rao’s exploration of medieval and early modern finance, and lead researcher Sidhya Balakrishnan’s extensive lit review, with fellow Gary Tan, on cash transfer studies. We’re looking forward to sharing more original content with you in 2019 and we are, as always, deeply grateful for your readership.

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