I have an idea for another get-out-the-vote experiment

An Arizona woman was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for running over her husband because he failed to to cast a vote about who would spend the next four years in the White House.

Holly Nicole Solomon, 31, hit her husband, Daniel Solomon, and he suffered a fractured pelvis from being run over after a wild chase on November 10, 2012, that left him pinned beneath her Jeep.

Solomon was upset with the 36-year-old following the November 6 re-election of President Barack Obama and believed their family would ‘face hardship’ because he had won another term.

Full story. I expect Stanford to implement within the month.

If you want people to believe your research, write it in Baskerville font?

We have entered a new, unexpected landscape. Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true. Could it swing an election? Induce us to buy a new dinette set? Change some of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs? Indeed, we may be at the mercy of typefaces in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize. An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutablythere. (“Mommy, Mommy, the typeface made me do it.”)

For every thousand respondents to the Times quiz, nearly five more people agreed with Deutsch’s statement when written in Baskerville’s typeface than they did when they read it in Helvetica. A typeface that nudges (to use the vernacular of experimental psychology) us to uncritical belief? Did Baskerville, despite his opposition to the irrationalities of religion, create a typeface that has a religious pull?

That is Errol Morris in the New York Times, in 2013. Fast Company covered the experiment last week.

While we are on the subject of transparency of methods, and sharing of data and code: has anyone replicated this? Getting the data and scrutinizing it strikes me as a great term paper for a PhD student.

What should social science learn from the faked Science study on gay marriage?

Not much.

If you haven’t heard about the article, the apparent fraud, and the aftermath, follow the links. The duped coauthor, Don Green, speaks to New York Magazine here. It’s a great interview.

My view: Asking what social science should learn is like asking how we reform corporate governance after Apple’s accountant steals $2 million. After the audit firm caught him.

Actually, paying attention to such fraud is a harmful distraction. This kind of blatant fraud is rare. What concerns me is that every other paper, as far as I’m concerned, massages its data until it fits a nice story. Those that don’t are less likely to get published in the best journals. This is true of everything from ethnography to experiments.

According to my “drama queen” rule, the journal Science is worse than some. The rule is simple: if a journal issues press releases and embargoes work for the biggest news splash, take it less seriously. Gratefully political science and economics journals do not do this.

Some other rules of thumb I use: Real data never look perfect. Large results are usually wrong. And scholars who have big splashy result after splashy result have a huge file drawer full of papers with null results. Discount their work.

But saying we shouldn’t learn much from this episode doesn’t mean we learn nothing at all. Here are a few points I take away:

  • The production of knowledge is changing, with teams of researchers on bigger projects. We all have to trust our coauthors not to make mistakes or be sloppy. Probably we all trust a little too much, and are too lazy in checking each others work. Especially work by our least experienced coauthors.
    • Social science probably needs to move to a slightly lower “trust equilibrium” to do good work, even if that means fewer projects and findings.
    • This balance is going to be trickiest for the senior scholars who foster dozens of studies and students. The people who do this are delivering a huge good to the world by apprenticing so many people, and producing so many great social scientists. But it comes with risks. I don’t know the right balance.
  • Fields and methods that are more transparent will get bitten by more discoveries of malfeasance. Do not penalize them for this, or you mess up incentives even more.
    • I have heard snide remarks about field experiments over this incident. The virtue of experimental work is that there are strong norms of describing replicable methods, and sharing data and code. Arguably this makes it easier to discover problems than with ethnography or observational data. Indeed it did, in just weeks.
    • The conversation worth having is how norms of data sharing and replicability can be extended to all kinds of empirical work.
  • This episode reinforces what I tell my students: your reputation for careful, conscientious work is everything in this business.
    • Don’t undermine it by hiding your study’s weaknesses, massaging results, or keeping null results in the file drawer. Even if the journals penalize the current paper, your reputation will be enhanced, because people notice.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have some biases: I run lots of field experiments; foster grad student coauthors; consider Don Green a friend, colleague and mentor; and (last but not least) stole $2 million from Apple but didn’t get caught.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

And your bonus: Listen to Wikipedia is sublime, best with headphones (h/t Aaron D.)

These weak states of America (aid and corruption edition)

A special treat for my sky-is-falling-from-corruption nemeses.

An excerpt from an ODI briefing paper on risks involved in using cash in humanitarian emergencies:

The largest documented case of fraud in a humanitarian program providing money is from the United States. In the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) quickly provided aid through the Individuals and Households Program, which provided money for housing and immediate needs.

As of February 2006 more than 2.6 million payments were made totalling over $6 billion. The US Government Accounting Office estimated $1 billion of these payments were fraudulent from bogus claims and double registration (GAO, 2006).

Help me stop being an Africanist? (Colombia bleg)

I’m ready for a change of scenery, so I plan to spend several weeks in Colombia this summer looking for new research ideas and opportunities.

I always thought of myself as a political economist who happened to work in Africa rather than an Africanist. I still plan to work south of the Sahara, including a new project or two in Kenya. But I’m ready to shake things up a little bit. I’ve dusted off my 15-year old Spanish books and the lessons have begun anew.

The whole family is going. We have a beautiful home exchange for the last week of July and first week of August in Bogota, plus an office at Universidad de los Andes. Then two weeks holiday.

I welcome advice for both work and play. Jeannie and I went in 2009 and you gave us some good advice. So I am coming back for more.

Holiday-wise, we haven’t even begun to explore options, and so we’re wide open to suggestions. We will have a 2- and 4-year old in tow, so the ideal situation is to visit two places for a week each, and use each as a home base for day trips and exploration. We were thinking maybe Medellin and then the coast, but really have not thought it through yet. Are there places of historical/conflict interest that are now family-friendly? FARC’s Wonderland?

Research-wise, I’ve been thinking about a few different directions:

Suggestions of interesting people or programs or organizations are welcome.

These weak states of America (Waco edition)

A new series, to remind us that the developed world is not as distant from the rest as we’d like to think. From yesterday’s New York Times:

The gunfire erupted about 12:15 p.m. outside a Twin Peaks Restaurant, where members of the motorcycle clubs had gathered. The fight spilled into the parking lot, initially involving just fists and feet, but escalating quickly to chains, knives, clubs and firearms. Waco police officers were already at the scene when the confrontation unfolded because they had anticipated problems as hundreds of bikers from at least five groups gathered at the shopping plaza.

My take on how the New York Times would have written this up, had it been a poorer country:

Rival militias exchanged deadly fire in Waco, a remote area of Texas, the former stronghold of the militarized spirit group known as the Branch Davidians. The hostilities initially involved just fists and feet, but escalated quickly to chains, knives, clubs and firearms. Police officers were present at the scene when the confrontation unfolded, and opened fire on the combatants. No foreign nationals were injured at the scene.

The new Peace & Recovery program at Innovations for Poverty Action

The mission is “Evidence for Stability and Development” and I will be the new academic lead.

In the coming decades, most of the poor will live in fragile states, yet, in spite of the studies already conducted, the rigorous evidence for building peace and stability is limited. Our Peace & Recovery Program aims to build an evidence base to facilitate peace and address the conflicts and crises that face the majority of the poor around the world. We seek out programs that strengthen state capacities, reduce violence, or respond to crises ranging from health to natural to human-made. We work in both fragile states as well as states that have recently experienced conflict, violence or disaster. The program also collaborates with decision-makers to ensure that this evidence is both useful and implemented at scale. Research in this program area is led by numerous affiliated researchers, and Academic Lead Chris Blattman will be supporting IPA’s expansion of research in this program area.

Learn more here. The focus is on program evaluation of innovative programs for reducing violence and conflict, and promoting order and stability. We welcome suggestions of innovative models, and organizations interested in research and learning. Email us at [email protected].

When the long term data tell you hope is lost, wait for the long long run data

Everyone thought the Perry preschool program was a loss, until they saw the long run data on the children as adults.

Now one of the other great American social experiments is showing a surprising turnaround:

The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment offered randomly selected families living in high-poverty housing projects housing vouchers to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods.

We present new evidence on the impacts of MTO on children’s long-term outcomes using administrative data from tax returns. We find that moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved. These children also live in better neighborhoods themselves as adults and are less likely to become single parents.

The treatment effects are substantial: children whose families take up an experimental voucher to move to a lower-poverty area when they are less than 13 years old have an annual income that is $3,477 (31%) higher on average relative to a mean of $11,270 in the control group in their mid-twenties. In contrast, the same moves have, if anything, negative long-term impacts on children who are more than 13 years old when their families move, perhaps because of disruption effects.

The gains from moving fall with the age when children move, consistent with recent evidence that the duration of exposure to a better environment during childhood is a key determinant of an individual’s long-term outcomes. The findings imply that offering families with young children living in high-poverty housing projects vouchers to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods may reduce the intergenerational persistence of poverty and ultimately generate positive returns for taxpayers.

Continue to file under “migration is still the most effective development intervention known to humankind”.

Heart of darkness, Manhattan edition

Wednesday Martin treks into darkest Manhattan, the Upper East Side, to dwell amongst the Glam SAHM tribe (for glamorous stay-at-home-moms).

Sex segregation, I was told, was a “choice.” But like “choosing” not to work, or a Dogon woman in Mali’s “choosing” to go into a menstrual hut, it struck me as a state of affairs possibly giving clue to some deeper, meaningful reality while masquerading, like a reveler at the Save Venice ball the women attended every spring, as a simple preference.

And then there were the wife bonuses.

…A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • A new IPA/J-PAL six-country randomized controlled trial looking at the ultra-poor (people living on less than what $1.25 would buy in the US, about 1 in 7 people worldwide), was published in Science. The Graduation approach offers six things:
    • A “productive asset” (way to make a living, livestock, or goods to start a store, or beehives to make honey)
    • Training on how to use it
    • Basic health support to keep them healthy enough to work
    • “Consumption support” – some cash or food for daily living while they’re learning to use the asset
    • Weekly visits from a coach for 2 years to help them overcome obstacles and raise aspirations
    • A savings account to help them build a buffer for future expenses

The researchers found benefits across the board, and scale-ups are happening in Ethiopia, India, and Pakistan. Study here (ungated), and more on the Graduation approach from NPR and the New York Times Fixes.

And finally, what happens when political economics fans have kids? They argue about what kind of economy keeps the trains in kids’ show Thomas and Friends moving. While some see it has a corporate oligarchy, others see it as a worker owned collective, which shows you – econ people can’t even agree on a fictional show.
(And if you liked that, you might also like: adjusting 70’s show the Six Million Dollar Man for inflation.)


Links I liked

  1. Unreal interview with Seymour Hersh
  2. Jason Furman on the evidence for social safety welfare programs in the US
  3. Machine learning methods for estimating heterogeneous causal effects
  4. Great review of the crime and economics literature by Draca and Machin (though I selfishly wish for more on behavioral interventions and developing countries)
  5. A homicide monitor for Latin America
  6. How witnesses to a murder can remember the facts wrong
  7. Whites increasingly disapprove of police commissioner (or police in general?) in NYC
  8. How safe is train travel?

Will modern agriculture will turn more of America back to nature?

Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature, stripping and despoiling it, and reducing acreage left. Then, in about 1940, acreage and yield decoupled in the United States. Since then American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land.


…Corn matters because its production towers over other crops, totaling more tons than wheat, soy, rice, and potatoes together.

…Crucially, rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs. The inputs to agriculture have plateaued and then fallen — not just cropland but nitrogen, phosphates, potash, and even water.

…If we keep lifting average yields toward the demonstrated levels of David Hula and Randy Dowdy, stop feeding corn to cars, restrain our diets lightly, and reduce waste, then an area the size of India or of the United States east of the Mississippi could be released globally from agriculture over the next 50 years or so.


Just a sample from Jesse Ausubel’s fascinating full article. Prepare for more bears and other wildlife, he says. Hat tip to Suresh Naidu.

I don’t know if all the details are correct, but this more or less fits my view that fears of a food crisis of any kind (in the developing or developed world) are overplayed. And also why on balance I’m a fan on GMO crops.

Dissenting views welcome in the comments, as I’m an amateur at best.

America’s 21st century elite is covert

Shamus Khan, a sociologist colleague here at Columbia, returned to his elite secondary school as a teacher cum ethnographer. I have finally gotten around to reading his book, Privilege, which is superb.

The main reason to read the book, other than the voyeuristic peep into the Harvard of high schools, is an insight into culture and inequality in the US. An example:

…the new elite are not an entitled group of boys who rely on family wealth and slide through trust-funded lives. The new elite feel their heritage is not sufficient to guarantee a seat at the top of the social hierarchy, nor should their lives require the exclusion of others.

…Like new immigrants and middle-class Americans, they believe that anyone can achieve what they have, that upward mobility is a perpetual American possibility. And looking around at their many-hued peers, they are provided with experiential, though anecdotal, evidence that they are correct.

Instead of entitlement, I have found that St. Paul’s increasingly cultivates privilege. Whereas elites of the past were entitled—building their worlds around the “right” breeding, connections, and culture—new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them.

The old entitled elites constituted a class that worked to construct moats and walls around the resources that advantaged them. The new elite think of themselves as far more individualized, supposing that their position is a product of what they have done. They deemphasize refined tastes and “who you know” and instead highlight how you act in and approach the world.

Other insightful bits:

What students cultivate is a sense of how to carry themselves, and at its core this practice of privilege is ease: feeling comfortable in just about any social situation.

And this::

[In the past,] Elites knew who they were as a group, and they knew who wasn’t one of them. They were a “class” who protected their interests. They had a distinct culture that they isolated from others and used to distinguish themselves.

But today elites are far more “omnivorous,” culturally constituting themselves quite freely across social boundaries or distinctions. They no longer define themselves by what they exclude, but rather their power now comes from including everything. What marks elites as elites is not a singular point of view or purpose but rather their capacity to pick, choose, combine, and consume a wide gamut of the social strata.

The “highbrow snob” is almost dead. In its place is a cosmopolitan elite that freely consumes high and low culture, and everything in between.

Personally, there is not enough scholarly fame or rewards to make me go anywhere near my high school, but I’m glad someone else had the courage. I will stick to conflict zones.

IPA’s weekly links

This is guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • The New York Times Dealbook has a review of the new book, Misbehaving, by Richard Thaler, discussing how behavioral economics developed in contrast to the “rational choice” perspective of traditional econ. The review points out that economics became the privileged field for influencing policy because it was good at putting price tags on things, but a by-product was also importing the rational econ assumptions into policy.
  • A paper (PDF) by Jishnu Das, Alaka Holla, Aakash Mohpal and Karthik Muralidharan looks at skills of doctors in India by sending “standardized patients” (trained on presenting with a particular set of symptoms) to the same doctors who worked at both public and private clinics. The same doctors made better diagnoses when seeing the patients at their private clinics, and accuracy correlated with prices (h/t David Evans).
  • A political science journal started pre-publication replications of papers, rerunning the analysis, and all papers failed (many because the authors hadn’t submitted sufficient documentation).
  • Who do government officials listen to? Aid data presents results of a survey of government officials and NGOs in low and middle-income countries about who and what kinds of development advice officials listen to, particularly when it comes to external assessments. Executive summary here (PDF), h/t Delia W.
  • A doctor who is Director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Refugee and Disaster Response writes on the Washington Post site that we still don’t know how to best help in disasters like Haiti’s and Nepal’s earthquakes because we don’t collect data on disaster relief.

Two things from Berkeley – I’m not sure which is better:

Via the BITSS blog, a rough guide to spotting bad science

And via IPA alum Cameron, Nickelback goes to grad school


The Wire got it backwards

My Baltimore friends who had seen the show also believed, given the police violence in their town, that The Wire‘s view of Baltimore’s finest was almost comically kind. The one policeman who accidentally shoots someone (a fellow officer) not only isn’t prosecuted but gets reintroduced later in the series as a big-hearted public school teacher. And then other people just said to me that living in Baltimore was a struggle and the idea of anyone making commerce out of their pain was simply not their idea of entertainment.

That is Dave Zirin in The Nation. I have to agree. The more I’ve been reading lately the more broken and discriminatory the policing seems to be. I don’t think this is a story of a few bad cops and many good ones, but rather normal people in a perverted system that brings out their bad.

This article by Emily Badger in WashPo doesn’t say it outright, but for lower class black Americans, this country basically looks like a failed state.

Some books and articles I recommend:

  1. Vesla Weaver’s book, Arrested Citizenship, or her shorter Boston Review article on the criminal justice system
  2. Alice Goffman’s amazing ethnography of a Philadelphia neighborhood, On The Run
  3. Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, on murder and policing in Watts LA
  4. Mark Kleiman’s When Brute Force Fails, on the behavioral perversities of criminal justice
  5. The Harper High School episodes of This American life

With one exception, these have all been written by white people. And I would bet all fall in the category of reading The New Yorker and find Starbucks lowbrow. While I am myself in that category (well, I’m actually sick of The New Yorker) I would appreciate pointers to the best of the best books and essays by another race and class.

What would happen if the EU opened its borders to everyone?

Michael Clemens is kicking ass and taking names over at Vice.

His best guess is population would rise 10% and this would have more benefits than costs, even to lower-income EU residents. But there are far more interesting parts of the interview.

VICE: Mr. Clemens, apart from political reasons—why do people try to migrate to wealthy countries?
Michael Clemens: People from poor countries migrate mainly to get safety for themselves and their families, and to get proper compensation for their hard work and study. Safety and opportunity depend mostly on what country you live in, and 97 percent of humanity lives in the country they were born in. For those of us born in safe, prosperous countries, such a random lottery seems quite satisfactory. Most migrants are people who have simply decided that they will not let lottery results enforced by others determine the course of their lives.

Within our own countries, we know why people leave neighborhoods that are dangerous, poor, or both. These are the same reasons that people leave countries that are dangerous, poor, or both. But there are two differences. Many people in dangerous, poor countries live with risk and destitution that even the poorest people in rich countries will never face and cannot imagine. And, of course, no one stands at the exit to poor neighborhoods, coercing people to stay inside with a gun.

…VICE: Alright then. But would easier emigration not hurt the development of those poorer countries that the people come from?
Michael Clemens: We are talking about immigration policy here. That is, we are not talking about whether people should or shouldn’t stay in poor countries. We’re talking about the extent to which rich countries should or shouldn’t forcibly obstruct migration. That is what “migration policy” does. A visa doesn’t oblige a person to move; a visa is a decision not to actively stop that person from moving.

So if we’re talking about immigration policy, the question “Does migration substantially harm low-income countries?” is the same as the question, “Does forcibly stopping people from leaving low income countries substantially help those countries?” To put it mildly, social science has absolutely no evidence of such a effect.

Would it be different in poor countries? How about in poor areas of Africa? We do not need to wonder that either. Parts of Africa that are as prosperous as parts of Europe—Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town—have spent several generations actively blocking most black Africans from living and working there. Many people in those enclaves claimed that this was somehow beneficial to black Africans, encouraging them to “develop” their own lands. There is no evidence at all of such a positive effect.

I think bringing the debate back to basic notions of liberty is important, especially the reminders about men with guns enforcing the status quo.

Even so, I would have thought it’s also true that emigration is not just the best development intervention in the world for the person to gets to migrate, but it’s good for poor countries too.

For instance, when people migrate out of a place, labor supply decreases, increasing wages and incentives to mechanize and improve productivity. Plus remittances from the huge increase in migrant incomes reduce poverty and increase demand, again putting upward pressure on wages. Surely this study exists?

Yes, I am too lazy to open the development textbooks on myself to the undergraduate chapters on “Migration” that no doubt supply this answer. Besides, the random responses from readers are probably far more interesting.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • On Nepal earthquake relief (disclaimer: we don’t do any work in Nepal, and haven’t vetted any of this):
    • As Chris mentioned, GiveWell’s blog has some disaster giving tips (summary: give cash, to somewhere transparent with an established network in the country, don’t forget about the long term, and harness your giving urge by also donating to others in everyday danger not in headlines).
    • Lists of groups working in Nepal from USAID and the New York Times
    • Paypal is also waiving processing fees for donating to Nepal earthquake relief here.
  • The New York Times Magazine has a feature on a new app inspired by research on psychology and economics of the poor showing the difficulty of mental accounting, particularly under the stress the poor often experience. It allows people to “smooth” their own income, turning irregular “lumpy” income into regular income, more like a paycheck (h/t Shardul O.)
  • Stanford Social Innovation Review article “School for Scaling” talks about lessons from how deworming went from research findings to a multi-country effort deworming millions of kids.
  • Research to Action has some really good toolkits for communicating to policy audiences, covering how to write a good policy brief, how to communicate with the media, and online tools, among others (h/t Lindsey S.)
  • Yale Economist & IPA founder Dean Karlan is finishing up a book on his field research failures, and looking for a title, feel free to tweet him @DeanKarlan or leave suggestions in the comments.

And your bonus, Ryan Briggs tried to create a Drunk World Bank twitter feed which randomly combines phrases from different World Bank reports. His intention was to make it sound drunk, but turns out, randomly combined phrases sound a lot like regular World Bank reports.

Links I liked

  1. Using Times New Roman on your resume is like wearing sweatpants to a job interview?
  2. Confessions of a secret aid worker: how you lose your compassion
  3. The new issue of JHR has a great symposium on practical empirical methods by some of the econometric greats, including articles on matching, clustering, and weighting
  4. Native workers benefit more than they lose from immigrant workers?
  5. How the New York Times searches Twitter better than you
  6. 10 ways to appear smarter than you actually are in meetings
  7. And the best worst tweet of the week: