The environment is not the most important thing in this world.
A strange thing to read, maybe, from the data team at an institution whose mission is to "move human society to live in ways that protect the Earth's environment." But the objective of any good think tank (and WRI is good) is to offer information that can actually be incorporated into policy.
This post is inspired by the curmudgeonly report of Princeton's Jeff Hammer, who writes that economists are failing policy makers in poor countries. Hammer reports that the Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan (population: 101 million) recently asked a room full of development economists, "Should I put more money into transport?"
This isn't like the age-old question of how many development economists does it take to screw in a light bulb. This is more like how many development economists does it take ... to do their job. Turns out, it doesn't really matter, because all that comes back is an array of disconnected results from randomized control trials.** And this array can't answer the Chief Minister's question.
Ok, so full disclosure: I am Jeff Hammer's son, Dan Hammer, and I am a PhD student in environmental economics. I am biased. (Although the direction of bias is unclear, since I spent my teenage years defying everything he said.) Still, his point is part and parcel of a broader criticism of the trajectory of development economics, including from prominent economists like Lant Pritchett and Angus Deaton.
So what? Why should this matter for the Data Lab? An objective of the Data Lab is to equip economists with information so that they can better evaluate tradeoffs. It is hard enough to know where to allocate scarce resources with perfect and common information on the resources. How much do we have? What is the value of these resources? It is way, way harder to answer these fundamental questions with imperfect and asymmetric information on resources. That is, it is not in the mandate of the Data Lab to inform policy makers directly, but we can collect and process data to make more information more available to more people.
Environmental conservation is just one element of a broad set of social objectives. And resources are constrained. The objective of the Data Lab is not to identify how to allocate resources, but rather to substantively help those who do.
** So, sure, I am not saying that RCTs are all bad. There is value to be gained from examining human behavior in very, very specific situations, especially when positioned in a broader behavioral framework. It is a good thing that this footnote is near the comment section, since this is where I might get lambasted -- and lose all hope at an academic position. The point of the post is to demonstrate why we the Data Lab care so much about open and accessible information, not necessarily to wade into the RCT fray without pants on. And also to support the economists who can answer the Chief Minister's basic question.