Chris Blattman is an Associate Professor at Columbia University. Through his blog, Chris explores statistics and cultural trends to examine poverty and political participation. His weekly links capture some of the best content on the web.
Tyler Cowen interviewed Chris Blattman and in typical Cowen fashion came prepared – I had to slow down my usual podcast playback speed to keep up. Topics Included what Chris learned from his first job at a higher class Canadian KFC, interviewing child soldiers, causes of the Peloponnesian Wars, why he’d rather transfer accountants to poor countries than cash, and how he tries to get inside a problem that other people haven’t really thought about yet.
One of my favorite economists and voices for econ in public policy, Jennifer Doleac, with Anita Mukherjee published a working paper suggesting there may be unintended consequences of states passing laws allowing access to Naloxone (the anti-opioid overdose drug). They suggested the laws were associated with more ER visits, and if anything more opioid deaths, and that perhaps there was a moral hazard of making treatment available. Then, as Olga Khazan describes in The Atlantic, the world jumped down their throats, particularly those in public health and others involved in the opioid treatment world. Things got uncivil at times, accusations of not knowing anything about the field and confusing correlation with causation, what’s this whole “working paper” thing – is it just somebody’s Word doc?, etc. But a lot of the disagreement seems to stem from misunderstandings across disciplines in what counts for evidence.
Political scientist Corrine McConnaughy does a service here explaining why people often see economists as tone deaf, parachuting into a field full of people who’ve spent careers studying one topic and making broad generalizations of how the world works. She cites an interesting JEP paper “The Superiority of Economics” about the implicit pecking order within social sciences.
A veteran NPR investigative journalist was dismissed from NPR after sexual harassment allegations, but three organizations representing former Peace Corps volunteers and others want NPR to release the story he was working on, about the potentially very dangerous side effects of commonly-prescribed anti-malarial drugs.
And Bloomberg’s Iain Marlow points out, Indian and Pakistani diplomatic spats have devolved to high school level:
This comment came, even as it came to light that tension has been brewing between the two sides for a couple of months — one of the incidents involved the doorbell of the Indian deputy High Commissioner J P Singh being rung at 3 am. Since the Indian side felt that this was done by Pakistan’s security agencies, the Pakistan deputy high commissioner Syed Haider Shah’s door bell was also rung at 3 am in next few days.
First, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy has a new Obama Scholarship, which will pay (full tuition plus, travel costs and living stipend) for professional policy folks from anywhere in the world to get a 1-year mid-career masters there. It’s open to people from all sectors working for the public good with 3-5 years of work experience and a strong track record. Please forward to colleagues and friends who might be interested.
Also David’s Development Impact blog links are really interesting this week, including a massive farm experiment in China that helped a lot of people.
In 2017 36 states had pending laws encouraging or requiring financial literacy training, usually among the young, such as in schools, or the poor. States like Wisconsin and Florida are putting them into school curricula. In Colorado, prisoners exonerated of crimes and owed payments by the state must complete a personal financial management class first. Kentucky is now considering financial literacy training as a requirement for Medicaid. This all despite a mountain of research showing financial literacy programs generally don’t work.
Evidence Action is looking for an implementation director for their successful “No Lean Season” program in Bangladesh, which helps subsidize farmers who want to find temporary work in the city during the off season. The program’s been successfully RCTed by IPA, and named as a GiveWell top charity, but Evidence Action wants to really put it through its paces and test for things like unintended consequences before scaling it up.
In The Atlantic Derek Thompson cites a new NBER paper by Kugler and Rojas about the Mexican conditional cash transfer program Prospera to argue that the debate over whether cash benefits make people lazy is irrelevant. (Important background, Prospera had a randomized component to it, allowing it to be studied with much greater confidence). They tracked children who are now adults, and found that those whose families received benefits had an average of 3 years more schooling, and went on to work more hours and earn higher wages as adults. Regardless of what you think about the morals of parents receiving benefits, the positive long-term effects on children should be part of the equation. (h/t Rebecca Rouse).
Seema Jayachandran uses great writing, national data, and clever methodology to explain the problem of 21 million unwanted girls in India.
And, I’m pretty sure the first two months of that UChicago policy scholarship above are going to be spent trying to undo the damage from the Utah State House of Representatives attempting to rap how a bill becomes a law to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme.
Markus Goldstein reports on a study from India which finds that paying respondents for their time participating might change their responses.
There’s a bipartisan bill to create a new U.S. overseas development finance agency. It would combine several private sector-focused functions that currently exist across different agencies, offer higher spending caps, and would be allowed to make equity investments.
There’s a long and disturbing story about longstanding sexual harassment in Harvard’s government department. It will sadly come as no surprise that the university didn’t do enough to stop it, even when alerted to it. But what’s been interesting is to see the reactions to it, summarized by Kate Cronin-Furman:
Male political scientists in my timeline: OMFG this is awful!
It seems like whisper networks and rumors are the only meager source of information within departments, leaving the victims to deal with it alone, and male faculty remain oblivious to colleagues’ bad behavior. It’s sad to think how many great minds have been discouraged from going into a field or had their careers actively derailed by this kind of self-reinforcing obliviousness. But it seems like one simple way to combat this would be a pledge like Owen Barder’s against participating in all-male panels. Male (and all, but absolutely male) faculty can take a public pledge to not tolerate abusive behavior in their department, and to support those who come to them wth reports of private behavior, and also take it these reports into account in promotion decisions. Then print it out and stick it on their doors (and obviously stand by it). Men (and all faculty) making clear that they’ll be supportive seems like a free no-brainer starting point to fight a norm of collective ignorance that allows this kind of behavior to continue.
For students: a weird implicit thing to be aware of – if you’re passing open faculty doors and interrupting someone’s work to ask for a stapler (à la Stanford’s Pascaline Dupas), or directions to the bathroom (à la LSE’s Oriana Bandiera), don’t make it disproportionately female faculty.
The classic example of a financial bubble is the Dutch tulip craze of the 1630’s. Historian Anne Goldgar writes that our current understanding is probably wrong. While they did become a luxury commodity, when she went back to examine records of actual prices, she found extremely high prices were rare, and most of what is reported today comes from satirical writing of the time.
IPA is offering funding for research on ideas about “Peace and Recovery” very broadly defined – looking to test new ideas for counteracting violence (including state and electoral), helping refugees, recovery from humanitarian crises, or countering extremism, and is accepting proposals from Ph.D. students. (The photo above is from research in a Colombian FARC demobilization camp). Expressions of Interest are due NEXT FRIDAY March 2. Please share with anybody who might be interested.
Bryan, Choi, and Karlan (also with IPA) in an RCT find a business training program for the poor run by a Christian group in the Philippines works better with the Christian component than without it, with some caveats:
We find significant increases in religiosity and income, no significant changes in total labor supply, assets, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a significant decrease in perceived relative economic status.
Singapore’s government is happy to try to change its people’s behavior with a range of tactics from mandatory savings (less nudgy), to cash bonuses for having kids, to subsidizing food carts for offering healthier options.
An interesting article on 20 randomized experiments to get people Kenya to use health insurance for hospitalization (with a nice little gem of a line about the sample). Even when the insurance was free only 45% of people wanted it, but marketing through social networks helped. IPA found something similar with rainfall insurance for farmers – barriers often are around trust in a new financial product, or that the seller will be good for it, or understanding the value of insurance (I’ve heard about people selling fake insurance). Which is a good reminder that not all agents think like omniscient rational economist article authors. (via David Evans)
J-PAL finds more trials are being registered on the AEA registry at the start of the process. But people are not great at following up when the study is completed, by linking to the paper. But their picture might be overly rosy:
When Sanjay Srivastava had his (psych) open science grad class go back and compare published studies to their registries, they found lots of inconsistencies – registration happening after the study was complete, only one hypothesis out of the many tested registered, vague analysis plans, etc.
Despite 3ie’s best efforts, adversarial relationships developed between original and replication researchers. Original authors of five of the seven non-replicated studies wrote in public comments that the replications actively sought to refute their results and were nitpicking.
And things went downhill from there. When they tried to re-run the code from 203 studies, they successfully got the required files and got the code to run fewer than 1 in 7 times.
A nice article by Jina Moore in the New York Times summarizes the history of the current Kenyan political conflict between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, which isn’t quite history repeating itself, but certainly rhyming as the saying goes. Their fathers, Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, both fought for independence from the British and were initially President and vice-President together, but then differences emerged in how to deal with returning British land to Kenyans. Kenyatta favored selling it (which effectively favored elites), while Odinga wanted it distributed more equitably among Kenya’s different ethnic communities. Similarly Kenyatta favored centralized government power while while Odinga favored more distributed power. Over time they drifted farther apart in their orientations, then Odinga started a new party and was jailed. Now their sons are political rivals as well.
I wasn’t going to even address the SNAP/Box of canned foods proposal in the news, but thankfully Paul Niehaus and Michael Faye of cash transfer fame did it well.
As always, when it comes to international development, even cash advocates say that some conditions need to be right. See this conversation with Berk Ozler, Seema Jayachandran, and Andrew Zeitlin for some reminders – markets need to function well so people can get when they want, they have to know/want what’s good for them, and watch out for unintended consequences (like rising prices or resentment in people who don’t get aid).
Good news for the Graduation model for the poorest of the poor, which gives several different kinds of aid at once to help get them earning income. IPA and Village Enterprise released the results of a 6-arm study testing several variations, including just cash of the same value as the program (about $300 PPP). We found the Graduation approach was very effective and cost-effective. In that setting it worked better than the cash. The program will be at the center of a $5.26 Million development impact bond.
Good news for cash also: Haushofer and Shapiro report on the 3-year results from GiveDirectly’s cash transfers in Kenya. The benefits at 9 months are sustained at 3 years, and education factors even improved. Blog, paper.
There’s an interesting new podcast from NPR national security correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, “What were you thinking,” through Audible (I think free with the Audible app) which looks at why teenagers do destructive things, and specifically the latest neuroscience on the topic. She got interested in the question after talking to a Somali-American teenager from Minneapolis who seemed well-adjusted but then tried to join ISIS after a number of his friends did. She updates our understanding on the development of the adolescent brain beyond developing impulse control, to a very complex rewiring process required to switch design from attachment to parents to social groups.
Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the 2017 Mo Ibrahim prize, for an elected African leader who advances democracy, strengthens their country, and steps down, handing power to another elected leader. The prize had not been awarded since 2014.
And, in one of those coincidences that only happen in development, a colleague from our New Haven, CT headquarters (who happens to have grown up in New Haven), is in Kampala this week. He went for a walk and ended up behind this gentleman:
The National Science Foundation is requiring that universities receiving funding from them report sexual harassment. One potential unintended consequence (as I read the article) is that reporting just upheld findings could just incentivize universities to make reporting harder or quietly dismiss cases even more than they already do.
Police departments have done similar things – lowered crime statistics by making it harder to report crimes or weakening the description of a crime to a misdemeanor. The LAPD was found to have done this (h/t Elizabeth Pancotti), and NYPD in 2011, 2012, and last month.
The census isn’t glamorous to the general public, but it’s really really important, among other things for apportioning Congressional representation. In an opinion piece David Leonhardt summarizes urgent concerns about how new leadership (not subject to Senate approval) and changes in questions and counting methods could rig the results for political benefit.
You may recall from last week that the U.S. is cutting back on emerging disease surveillance abroad by 80 percent. A investigation finds that a last-line antibiotic (one used when all other fails) is being used by the ton in chicken feed in India and exported to other countries. This allows poultry producers to grow more chicken in crowded and unsanitary conditions, but is begging for a drug-resistant superbug.
A public service announcement for economists, wherein Dina Pomeranz reminds Josh Angrist that seminar questions can be engaging without being contentious. Michael Kremer always comes up as a role model for asking questions in a supportive way.
And everybody’s getting psyched for the new movie coming out to learn how Wakanda aced governance, avoided the resource curse, and developed a healthy tech sector. But the Black Panther will premiere in Kisumu, Kenya, actress Lupita Nyong’o’s hometown before it’s shown in the U.S.
One of the things Chris is up to these days is being the academic lead for the new Peace and Recovery Initiative at IPA, which is looking to fund research about fragile states, repression, reducing crime and violence, and recovery from humanitarian disasters. Deadline for proposals is March 2 (that’s one short month), and please share with colleagues. But even for general interest reading, I recommend this “guiding principles” document, which is also a very readable summary of what Chris and our colleagues think is and isn’t yet known for the field.
Recall that in 2015, the Gates Foundation ran a simulation of how a 1918 Spanish Flu-type epidemic would spread today in light of modern travel patterns. They found it would be in every major global city within 60 days, and by 250 days would kill more than 33 million people. Or, as Ezra Klein called it in his interview with Bill Gates, “The most predictable disaster in the history of the human race.” Ebola and Bird Flu showed how unprepared we were at the time, and continue to be.
In addition to Kenny and Sandefur’s response to Deaton’s NYTimes piece arguing that extreme poverty is as bad in the U.S. as in the developing world, Ryan Briggs explains the confusion. Like everything else in poverty policy it comes down to whether you’re measuring income or consumption. Income is very difficult to measure accurately in people with low and irregular earnings, and doesn’t include the many other ways the poor have to scrape to get by.
That said, comparative suffering is a rough game to play though, and as the Brookings folks point out we don’t have to sacrifice domestic anti-poverty spending for global. Here’s a short but pretty moving portrait from the Wall Street Journal on one way people in poor Mississippi scrape by, using high-interest lenders for short-term loans. They of course can end up deeper in debt or losing the car they need to get to work. But if you listen to what people say they weren’t being irresponsible – they knew what they were getting into, but the choice was better than the alternative (such as being evicted, having the heat turned off, or not being able to feed their children).
One contribution I’ve mentioned before to bad domestic poverty policy are stereotypes about the poor as being undeserving, lazy, or preferring government benefits to working. This would be a good time to recall the U.S. had not just one, but multiple TV shows about people’s cars being repossessed because they couldn’t keep up with loans.
So with the announcement this week that Grameen USA will be raising money for impact investing funds, it might be worth thinking about why there’s been so much attention to socially-minded microcredit abroad, but not domestically.
China built the African Union a brand new headquarters building full of shiny technology and then spied on them for five years. China says it has no idea why the African Union servers were connecting to Beijing at midnight.
I mentioned last week that Cape Town is set to run out of water, now in less than 80 days, and users there don’t seem to be adhering to the recommended daily water usage guidelines. A Cape Town consultant is asking behavioral scientists to help brainstorm ideas for what might work. Google doc for sharing ideas here.*
In Quartz, “The Chart That Can Make Kids Taller.” A simple intervention from some colleagues at IPA in Zambia and Fink, Levenson, Tembo, & Rockers that seems to combat growth stunting by just reminding parents how big their kids should be.
Angus Deaton got some people annoyed in his New York Times op-ed about extreme poverty in the U.S. He seemed to set up helping the poor abroad as conflicting with helping the poor at home. In fact the U.S. already spends 34 times as much on domestic health and social welfare as it does on international development (my quick calculation based on Lee’s numbers).
Balding and bespectacled, with an unmistakable New York accent, Thomas has spent more than 30 years in the foreign service, serving in U.S. missions from Nigeria to India to the Philippines — but nowhere was he treated quite like this. “My staff and I are called names that the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t even use anymore,” he said.
Chris is migrating his site to new servers, our apologies for any recent downtime. FYI that we’re still getting SSL worked out so your browser might warn you the website is insecure (just offering http not https). I don’t really know what that means for a blog, but just in case, don’t put your bank account number in the comments section until it’s worked out?
In the meantime I’m reposting last week’s links that got lost in the transition.
An addendum/correction to last week’s link about an op-ed on North Carolina rating below some autocracies in election integrity. Andrew Gelman looked into the underlying methodology and thinks it doesn’t hold up (the researchers defended their methodology, even if it yielded strange results).
Gelman also talks about his response to Deaton and Cartwright’s critique of randomized controlled trials in econ. He suggests that people put too much stock in them because of the empirical methodology despite other weaknesses that could affect the conclusions. But honestly I don’t think there’s much disagreement here. Here’s Rachel Glennerster:
“Economists have now settled down into RCTs as just one tool,” Glennerster told Devex. Among academics, the kind J-PAL works to connect with the world’s policymakers, she said, “the trend toward using RCTs is simply part of this bigger movement in economics to care more about where we can really pin down what is causing what we see.”
Any critique I’ve seen of RCTs as a method apply in one way or another to any empirical study – the results and conclusions are limited, or as Pam Jakiela put it:
Nice insight by Deaton and Cartwright, but for some reason they keep spelling "study" as R-C-T. https://t.co/vBVRFj4M09
Chris Blattman presented some RCT results to Deaton among others at Princeton soon after the paper first circulated, and said they didn’t disagree on much. Deaton seemed more concerned with people just putting too much stock in RCTs because of the method.
I’d add that I’ve never met an economist or policy professional in the development RCT world these days who’d copy and paste a program based on one RCT. I think the way the world is going is more like Mushfiq Mobarak’s No Lean Season – slow-scale up, with multiple years of testing as a program expands, looking for externalities or changes in effects at larger scale, and very careful expansion into other locales where the same intervention may work differently.
Most RCTs I see these days are part of a body of research all trying to get at the mechanism behind a larger question and test solutions, and any important insight is usually based on a body of research.
Tim Ogden has some nice papers from AEA in his newsletter, the faiV
After SpaceX (South African Elon Musk’s company) appeared to have lost a reported billion-dollar U.S. spy satellite code-named “Zuma,” the value of the South African Rand on currency markets briefly spiked:
News-reading algorithmic traders may have been further confused by reports on the wires of a US congressional aide saying that Zuma was lost.