Turning our understanding of Russian politics upside down

While watching the roller coaster that is the Russian ruble, I recalled how much I liked this NYRB review of Karen Dawisha’s new book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

An excerpt:

For twenty years now, the Western politicians, journalists, businessmen, and academics who observe and describe the post-Soviet evolution of Russia have almost all followed the same narrative.

We begin with the assumption that the Soviet Union ended in 1991…

We continue with an account of the early 1990s, an era of “reform,” when some Russian leaders tried to create a democratic political system and a liberal capitalist economy.

We follow the trials and tribulations of the reformers, analyze the attempts at privatization, discuss the ebb and flow of political parties and the growth and decline of an independent media.

Mostly we agree that those reforms failed, and sometimes we blame ourselves for those failures: we gave the wrong advice, we sent naive Harvard economists who should have known better, we didn’t have a Marshall Plan.

Sometimes we blame the Russians: the economists didn’t follow our advice, the public was apathetic, President Yeltsin was indecisive, then drunk, then ill.

Sometimes we hope that reforms will return, as many believed they might during the short reign of President Dmitry Medvedev.

Whatever their conclusion, almost all of these analysts seek an explanation in the reform process itself, asking whether it was effective, or whether it was flawed, or whether it could have been designed differently. But what if it never mattered at all?

…the most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism.

Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves.

Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.

The whole review is fascinating. Book is here.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • There’s a nice parallel here to the failures of foreign aid. Western observers, especially the donors, look at the collapse of democracy and growth in the 70s and 80s, and the rebound in the 90s and 00s, and give blame or praise to aid policy and institutions like the World Bank. All the while ignoring the mismatch between the institutions and policy reforms on paper, and the actual incentives and sources of power that drive politics. (Here is a book that makes this argument for Africa.)
  • There’s also a nice parallel to my long-running rant against anti-corruption policies. They attack the symptom (theft) not the disease (few constraints on power).
  • Although I’ve not read the book, this is the kind of book that I think political scientists can write better than anyone. When I see graduate students all rushing to write applied micrometric papers, especially field experiments, I worry that too few people are getting trained to do this more traditional analytical, historical, and comparative work well.
  • All is not lost. It’s partly a fad. There was too little micrometric work, possibly now there is too much, and it will balance out in the next decade. I predict a lot of the people who started the micrometric revolution, and are recently tenured, are going to exit first and follow the old ways. The people who could get crushed in future job markets and journals are the grad students and recent grads who rushed to the fad.

My favorite novels of the year

Yesterday I talked about my favorite book of the year. An autobiography. Here are the novels I liked best, excellent for holiday reading or last-minute stocking stuffers.

To the purists: Please keep in mind that I’m not one of these intellectuals who mysteriously have the time to only read and recommend books published in 2014. Or read all the seemingly best books. Frankly I’m still working on my 1985 catalog. So this is an incomplete, 2014-ish list. I left off anything before 2013. (Sort of. There’s some cheating.)

Books where I’m unabashedly enthusiastic:

  • Every Day Is for the Thief, by Teju Cole. More memoir than novel, by the author who wrote Open City. No exaggeration, this is one of the most interesting and important development books I’ve read. A Nigerian American returns home after a decade, and sees Nigeria’s culture and corruption through half-foreign eyes. Certainly the best account of the émigré experience you’ll find.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir. Remember that sequence in Apollo 13 when the guys in the space capsule will die if the engineers don’t figure out crazy science solutions with no materials? Now imagine a whole book like that, except it’s one guy, and he’s on Mars. Sounds terrible. Somehow it really works. And I’m not even a science guy. I can imagine engineers having little orgasms as they read this book. (Best part: Kindle edition only $3, as this is actually a self-published book. Warms my heart.)
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Like The Road by Cormac Mccarthy, this is a literary post-Apocalyptic novel, set before, during and after a flu outbreak that kills 99% of the population. At the same time, it’s a novel about an aging celebrity who dies naturally before the epidemic. Like most apocalyptic novels, this one gets my neurotic self planning for yet another unlikely contingency. And just when I’ve figured out the perfect thing to do in the event of a zombie pandemic. You think I’m joking.
  • Augustus, by John Williams. A classic, re-released by NYRB, relating the life of Ceasar Augustus through (fictional) letters by his contemporaries. Perfect if you have an appetite for history but you prefer a compelling narrative over true facts. I read it alongside Ides of March, by Thornton Wilder, which takes the same approach to the life of Julius Caesar.
  • The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. Missionary to the stars. A minister is sent to preach the Good News to a flock of aliens near a mining colony. This has been on a lot of “best books” lists this year, probably because it really does not conform to any particular genre or stereotype, and is a genuinely interesting take on the premise. The same author wrote Under the Skin, which I also recommend.

Good, and will not disappoint:

  • The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. The first thing everyone says about this book is “by the same guy who wrote Cloud Atlas“. This is your first clue that Cloud Atlas is a better book. This one is similar in its century-spanning, period-jumping, multi-character, genre-twisting way. Entertaining.
  • Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush. So I actually just liked but didn’t love this book. Bunch of unsympathetic rich pompous people in upstate new York. But reading it reminded me how much I loved Rush’s Mating and Whites, maybe the two best novels ever written on foreigners in Africa. I re-read them. Brilliant, satirical, and must-reads for the modern neocolonialist. I mean aid workers. Buy them.
  • All our Names, by Dinaw Mengistu. His third novel, which is very good. I liked it as much as his first, a book that established him as one of the best young writers in the US. This one is the story of two friends living through tumultuous times in Uganda, intermingled with the story of one of the friends, now resettled in Missouri, and his relationship with a white woman in the 1970s. File under “anguished immigrant narratives”. That is not a sneer, but rather the source of some of the best novels of the past 10 years in my view. See for instance Americanah, which was probably my favorite book of 2013, and Teju Cole above.
  • The Circle, by Dave Eggers. The Atlas Shrugged of the anti-NSA, pre-privacy/anonymity crowd. The premise: What happens when you take the Facebook- and Google-ization of life to it’s logical but insane extreme. A bit over-the-top but fun and makes you think.
  • The Golden Hour, by Todd Moss. A spy thriller wherein a professor who does statistical studies of conflict has to race against time to overturn an African coup and right all that is wrong US foreign policy. This is basically a linear combination of George Smiley, Indiana Jones, and me. In my mind at least. So of course I read and liked it.
  • I almost did not add this one, but: The Magicians Trilogy, the latest of which is The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman. Imagine if an R-rated, emotionally unstable Harry Potter went to Narnia. That adequately sums up this series. It is a bit campy, but probably satisfying if you have a weakness for Potter and Narnia.

Reader recommendations? I need to restock my Kindle.

Among all the other things police are being called these days, the latest is “fat”

From the WSJ, obesity by occupation:

MK-CR474A_WEIGH_9U_20141216183010Police are at the top. At the bottom are economists. It’s kind of perfect.

The charitable interpretation: all that muscle mass in police is edging them up the BMI scale. I’m sympathetic, since even in my leanest and most athletic years I was thickset enough to be obese on the crude BMI scale. I guess that means I’m pulling the economist average up. But I’m willing to bet donuts play a more significant role.


The economic and social returns to building character

I personally find this line of research fascinating and in need of more international research. A new paper by Tim Kautz, Jim Heckman, and coauthors:

This paper reviews the recent literature on measuring and boosting cognitive and noncognitive skills. The literature establishes that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills/personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. Their predictive power rivals that of cognitive skills.

Reliable measures of character have been developed. All measures of character and cognition are measures of performance on some task. In order to reliably estimate skills from tasks, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills when measuring any particular skill. Character is a skill, not a trait.

At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but skills can change over the life cycle. Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments. Skill development is a dynamic process, in which the early years lay the foundation for successful investment in later years. High-quality early childhood and elementary school programs improve character skills in a lasting and cost-effective way. Many of them beneficially affect later-life outcomes without improving cognition.

There are fewer long-term evaluations of adolescent interventions, but workplace-based programs that teach character skills are promising. The common feature of successful interventions across all stages of the life cycle through adulthood is that they promote attachment and provide a secure base for exploration and learning for the child. Successful interventions emulate the mentoring environments offered by successful families.


The best book I read this year

It is My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

I am far from alone. Rachel Cusk at The Guardian says it “deserves to be called perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times.”  Tyler Cowen calls it “the equal of the great continental novels of the early part of the 20th century.”

But the comment that got me to buy the book came over dinner, from Cyrus Samii. It’s a book, he said, about the struggle between a man who wants to love his family but also become the great artist he thinks he might be.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.

Those of us striving for tenure and other recognition can’t but help see a little, maybe a lot of ourselves. This is possibly the most brutally honest and powerful book about fatherhood ever written.

It’s also a book about ideas. Really big ideas. But Leland de la Durantaye puts it well in the NYRB: “As with all great writers, the ideas or theories are woven into the story, dramatized, and this is as true of the question of what gives meaning as of any other question in the book.”

What really struck while reading this: Knausgaard describes his daily life as a mainly selfish artist in a staggering amount of detail. Staggeringly minute details. So minute you think the book would be unreadable. Yet it is the opposite. The man is an incredible writer and storyteller.

I have just started Book One (it’s not necessary to read them in order, I gather). Excellent so far.

“Are anthropologists better than you think?”

The question is asked by Tyler Cowen. A part of his response:

Many economists like to dump on their fellow social scientists, and personally I find that reading anthropology is often quite uninspiring.  That said, I would like to say a small bit on the superiority of anthropologists.  I view the “products” of anthropology as the experiences, world views, and conversations of the anthropologists themselves.  Those products translate poorly into the medium of print, and so from a distance the anthropologists appear to be inferior and lackluster (I wonder to what extent the anthropologists realize this themselves?).

Yet anthropologists have some of the most profound understandings of the human condition.  They have witnessed, absorbed, and processed some of the most interesting data, especially those anthropologists who do fieldwork of the traditional kind.

Other hypotheses that occur to me:

  • Language and writing style make anthropology unintelligible to non-specialists. This is also true of math and theory in economics papers, but there’s also a fair amount of accessible and non-technical work in econ. The JEP is the best example but there are others. I would have thought anthropology is easier to discuss in plain english. I wonder if it’s done to create a barrier to entry or signal smarts.
  • Most research in most disciplines is bad. If you don’t know what to look for, your intelligent sampling will probably result in mediocre work on average.
  • Many people, perhaps especially economists, don’t read books beyond the first chapter. So you’d expect them to not fully appreciate the insights of fields where that is important. For example, I think if you judge political science mainly by papers, you come away with a worse impression of the field than otherwise.


The case for cash, Exhibit 12

Lant Pritchett and Yamini Aiyarit further convince me on the merits of more cash and vouchers. Paraphrasing an email:

In India the government spends Rps 14,600 for a year of schooling, which is 80 percent of rural per capita consumption.

The average private sector school costs 6000.

And of course the government schools get substantially worse results.

Giving families the private school cost and the rest in cash could double each child’s food spending.

The last bit–would people be better off with cash–isn’t known for sure, but the evidence is building. I really think we ought to see massive policy experiments comparing public goods and services to cash, vouchers, or even a basic guaranteed income.

What happens when a very good political science journal checks the statistical code of its submissions?

The Quarterly Journal of Political Science has a policy of in-house review of all statistical code. This is expensive and hard to do. Is it worth it?

According to Nick Eubank, an unambiguous yes:

Of the 24 empirical papers subject to in-house replication review since September 2012, only 4 packages required no modifications.

Of the remaining 20 papers, 13 had code that would not execute without errors, 8 failed to include code for results that appeared in the paper, and 7 failed to include installation directions for software dependencies.

13 (54 percent) had results in the paper that differed from those generated by the author’s own code. Some of these issues were relatively small — likely arising from rounding errors during transcription — but in other cases they involved incorrectly signed or mis-labeled regression coefficients, large errors in observation counts, and incorrect summary statistics.

You might think to yourself, “that would never happen in the very top journals”, or “that’s less likely among statisticians and economists. While I think expertise might reduce errors, I’m not so sure. More senior people with more publications tend to rely more on research assistants. And, speaking from personal experience, I’ve found major problems in important people’s code before.

Do development workers underestimate the poor? The survey evidence

I give you, perhaps, the best and deepest piece of analysis I’ve ever read in a World Bank report. Timothy Taylor explains it nicely:

What do development experts think that the poor believe, and how does it compare to what the poor actually believe? For example, development experts were asked if they thought individuals in low-income countries would agree with the statement: “What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me.”  The development experts thought that maybe 20% of the poorest third would agree with this statement, but about 80% actually did. In fact, the share of those agreeing with the statement in the bottom third of the income distribution was much the same as for the upper two-thirds–and higher than the answer the development experts gave for themselves!

wdr 1

It’s from the new World Development Report, and I thank Tyler Cowen for the pointer. Here’s the report:

Dedicated, well-meaning professionals in the field of development—including government policy makers, agency officials, technical consultants, andfrontline practitioners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—can fail to help, or even inadvertently harm, the very people they seek to assist if their choices are subtly and unconsciously influenced by their social environment, the mental models they have of the poor, and the limits of their cognitive bandwidth.

Conversations with openly gay canvassers about gay equality changes people’s opinions. Contagiously.

A close family member, who shall remain nameless, supports gay rights because he had a great gay hairdresser for 10 years. Turns out, all he needed was one haircut.

From Michael LaCour and Don Green in Science, a nice example of the contact hypothesis in action:

Can a single conversation change minds on divisive social issues, such as same-sex marriage? A randomized placebo-controlled trial assessed whether gay (N=22) or straight (N=19) messengers were effective at encouraging voters (N=972) to support same-sex marriage and whether attitude change persisted and spread to others in voters’ social networks.

The results, measured by an unrelated panel survey, show that both gay and straight canvassers produced large effects initially, but only gay canvassers’ effects persisted in three-week, six-week, and nine-month follow-ups.

We also find strong evidence of within-household transmission of opinion change, but only in the wake of conversations with gay canvassers. Contact with gay canvassers further caused substantial change in ratings of gay men and lesbians more generally.

These large, persistent, and contagious effects are confirmed by a follow-up experiment. Contact with minorities coupled with discussion of issues pertinent to them is capable of producing a cascade of opinion change.

Next issue, Science will publish the conservative response/experiment: sending NAMBLA door to door.

Trade leads to development: The experiment

Is there learning by exporting? Can preferential trade agreements or aid for trade promote development?

Atkin, Khandelwal and Osman provided a random group of small rug producers the opportunity to export handmade carpets to high-income markets.

Treatment firms report 15-25 percent higher profits and exhibit large improvements in quality alongside reductions in output per hour relative to control firms.

These findings do not simply reflect firms being offered higher margins to manufacture high-quality products that take longer to produce. Instead, we find evidence of learning-by-exporting whereby exporting improves technical efficiency.

First, treatment firms have higher productivity and quality after accounting for rug specifications. Second, when asked to produce an identical  domestic rug using the same inputs, treatment firms receive higher quality assessments despite no difference in production time. Third, treatment firms exhibit learning curves over time.

Finally, we document knowledge transfers with quality increasing most along the specific dimensions that the knowledge pertained to.

Neogotiating your first academic job

You’re finishing a PhD and you’ve just gotten a phone call with a verbal job offer. Congratulations! And welcome to the bottom of a whole new pyramid.

But before you get to the new pyramid, you need to do something you’ve probably never done before in your life: negotiate a real job offer.

What follows is basically the distillation of advice given to me when I worked in management consulting, when I first graduated from my PhD, and again when I deliberated over my move to Columbia. Plus what I’ve seen watching friends go through the market, or coached students through. I think it applies both to research and many teaching universities, at least in my experience. Most of the good ideas come from others.

It’s that time of year (in political science at least) and will soon be that time in economics. In the midst of advising a few students, I decided to update my negotiation advice post.

Recommended reading

Also known as “things I wish I had time to read farther than the abstract but I am occupied wiping drippy noses, cooking chicken nuggets, and cleaning up pee.”

  1. Instead of civil disobedience, there is also Uncivil Obedience.
  2. Economist’s research topics and findings are (gasp) correlated with their partisan beliefs. The details and technique are important though. A 538 summary
  3. The new World Development Report on “Mind, Society and Behavior“.
  4. Impact evaluation in humanitarian settings

Signs that something is seriously wrong in the global response to Ebola

From Buzzfeed:

When nurse Nina Pham contracted Ebola, she requested her dog, Bentley, be taken care of and monitored for the disease and not euthanized – similar to what was done with an Ebola-exposed dog in Spain.

The City of Dallas released a list of Ebola-related expenses, showing that care for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel reached $27,000, about 17% of the total costs.

Here is the breakdown of Bentley’s expenses:

  • Supplies for Pet care – $1,068.96
  • Generator and labor for Pet care facility – $2,052.96
  • Facilities make ready and security at pet care facility – $17,057.46
  • Pet Care for Patient One – $259.78
  • Pet clean up – $6,445.00
  • Pet care/clean up – $938.00
  • Total Expenses – $26,884.16

Incidentally, can anyone recommend any recent analysis of how big the crisis is, how big it is likely to be, and a sense of what went wrong (i.e. why this outbreak has been so much bigger than past ones)? Most of the news coverage I’ve read gets this wrong, or hasn’t done any serious analysis.

I was only half satisfied by Helen Epstein’s NYRB piece, which makes some nice points (the MSF response was swift, the international health ramp up was not, but that’s not necessarily unique to this outbreak). But there was too much attention, in my view, to innuendo and rumor and mistrust as a role. Plausible but not very well substantiated.

Why the NSA and Anonymous need one another

In 2012, the director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, warned the White House that Anonymous was acquiring the capability to attack the power grid; soon major newspapers were speculating about an Operation Global Blackout supposedly planned for March 31; anonymous Twitter users had a good laugh about it.

When the Anons at their computer terminals call themselves freedom fighters, and law enforcement and security agencies call them terrorists, they are not working entirely at cross-purposes; they are empowering each other.

We should have learned this much by now: denial-of-service attacks are an expensive online nuisance, but they should be confused neither with terrorism nor with freedom-fighting.

James Gleik reviews a book on Anonymous by Gabriela Coleman: Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy.

Now, every time I hear a US security official claiming we need to do X and Y about hacking, I can’t help but see it as a very sensible way to grab power and money.

What if George Lucas made the new Star Wars movie?

This made me laugh out loud:

Warning: This will only be funny to (a) diehard fans who (b) have seen the actual new trailer. Several times.

If you are especially obsessive, you will love this 70-minute takedown of Lucas’ Episode I. Genius with moments of bad taste.

This real new trailer plus the new animated Rebels series makes me think Star Wars will be better in the hands of Disney than Lucas. The animation is a bit stilted at times, and the characters are a bit formulaic, but it has the fun Old West feel of the original trilogy. I have not watched The Clone Wars and am wondering if I should.

There is a credible leak of the Episode VII plot. I started reading but forced myself to stop with the first spoilers. Too plausible and I’d rather not risk it.

Meanwhile, I’m intrigued by news that Topher Grace of all people has edited the three prequels into an 85 minute films that is, by most accounts, good. Apparently, it begins with the closing sequence of Episode I, eliminating virtually the entire movie (good riddance). Unfortunately it’s not available online. Pointers to clandestine downloads welcome.

Finally, if you want to be traumatized, here is Star Wars before they found James Earl Jones to voice Darth Vader:

Maybe the best interview I’ve read all year

Frank Rich talks to Chris Rock on comedy, politics, and race. It starts a little weak but gets very good.

What would you do in Ferguson that a standard reporter wouldn’t?

I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.

Well, that would be much more revealing.

Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

Right. It’s ridiculous.

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner.

Or this:

I told Bill Murray, Lost in Translation is a black movie: That’s what it feels like to be black and rich. Not in the sense that people are being mean to you. Bill Murray’s in Tokyo, and it’s just weird. He seems kind of isolated. He’s always around Japanese people. Look at me right now.

We’re sitting on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Central Park.

And there’s only really one black person here who’s not working. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation is what Bryant Gumbel experiences every day. Or Al Roker. Rich black guys. It’s a little off.

Also interesting: Why he no longer will do shows at colleges, the significance of a gay CEO at Apple, and why it’s easier to film drama than comedy.

Voter experiments by space aliens

The ethics of experimenting have been much in the news lately. It started with the Montana mailer experiment.

It gets weirder. Via Jeff Mosenkis, two mailers received by his family or neighbors.

First there is the now-standard Big Brother approach, which just creeps me out:



This is what happens when people actually pay attention to your research. Don Green shows this inches up participation in a field experiment and now millions of loyal democrats hate their party for at least an instant.

Then it just gets weird:


So, kudos for the sense of humor. But what is that all about. It screams “weird placebo group”. This has to be somebody’s research paper in action. I admit I’m curious what the hypothesis might be. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to read more than an abstract though.