Link I liked

  1. A simulation of births and deaths in the world in real time
  2. Quartz covers our statistical prediction of violence in Liberia paper
  3. Lant Pritchett reacts to yesterday’s SNL 39 cents a day video to make a bigger point about the problem with the SDGs
  4. Are you a Comic Sans criminal?
  5. America, the equal opportunity jailer: The US has more women in prison than China, India & Russia combined
  6. Indications my kids will not learn their algebra:

Disenfranchisement kills babies?

It’s not a *huge* stretch.

This paper studies the introduction of electronic voting technology in Brazilian elections.

Estimates exploiting a regression discontinuity design indicate that electronic voting reduced residual (error-ridden and uncounted) votes and promoted a large de facto enfranchisement of mainly less educated citizens.

Estimates exploiting the unique pattern of the technology’s phase-in across states over time suggest that, as predicted by political economy models, it shifted government spending towards health care, which is particularly beneficial to the poor.

Positive effects on both the utilization of health services (prenatal visits) and newborn health (low-weight births) are also found for less educated mothers, but not for the more educated.

From Thomas Fujiwara, who cannot seem to write a bad paper. (Now with a link!)

We cannot reasonably generalize his result to insidious voter ID laws in the US, but oh, I will.

The big data is under the mountain

The [Granity Mountain Records Vault] now holds parish records and old English manuscripts dating from the 1500s, including records from London, when civil registration began in 1837, and copies of jai pu, Chinese family records, which date back before AD 1. Overall the data the Mormons have gathered is equivalent to thirty-two times the amount of information contained in the Library of Congressand the church adds a new Library of Congress’s worth of new data every year.

…Trying to determine and then store everyone’s name and existence for perpetuity is also an insanely costly process. Today the Church has 220 data-gathering teams in forty-five countries that are making digital copies of new records. They are also converting 2.4 million microfilm records into a digital format.

…LDS photographers have produced more than 115 million images of the files, which recorded the lives of over five hundred million Italians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Right now I imagine an MIT econ grad student in the 18th basement, writing a genius job market paper, and I am jealous.


Links I liked

  1. “I’m still writing to you, maybe because I want you to give me a little hope. You can lie, if you feel like. Please, Etgar, tell me a short story with a happy ending, please.” Letters between Israeli-Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua and Jewish-Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret.
  2. I will give them credit for this: The GOP 404 error page (h/t to Dan Drezner)
  3. “The perfect response to people who say all Muslims are violent, in one tweet”
  4. This is getting worse and worse: Mexican activist slain during on-air radio broadcast
  5. And, from @seenfromafar, how Ebola reminds us of the true meaning of Columbus Day:

Bz39tYNCMAAV8H- (1)

China’s growth: When something seems too good to be true, it usually is

Consensus forecasts for the global economy over the medium and long term predict the world’s economic gravity will substantially shift towards Asia and especially towards the Asian Giants, China and India. While such forecasts may pan out, there are substantial reasons that China and India may grow much less rapidly than is currently anticipated.

Most importantly, history teaches that abnormally rapid growth is rarely persistent, even though economic forecasts invariably extrapolate recent growth. Indeed, regression to the mean is the empirically most salient feature of economic growth.

…Furthermore, statistical analysis of growth reveals that in developing countries, episodes of rapid growth are frequently punctuated by discontinuous drop-offs in growth. Such discontinuities account for a large fraction of the variation in growth rates.

We suggest that salient characteristics of China—high levels of state control and corruption along with high measures of authoritarian rule—make a discontinuous decline in growth even more likely than general experience would suggest.

…our analysis suggests that forecasters and planners looking at China would do well to contemplate a much wider range of outcomes than are typically considered.

That is Lant Pritchett and Larry Summers in a new NBER paper. This appears to be an older ungated copy.

Without ever having actually analyzed any data, my hunch is that an awful lot of growth halts in authoritarian countries comes from badly managed transitions of power. Whether this is true, and what makes transitions more or less stable, is not something I’ve seen a lot of work on.

My second hunch is that institutionalized rather than personalized systems of rule are one reason for stable transitions. You could say the strength of the party over any one person in China is a reassuring sign. You even see the same in places like Ethiopia. There are not many African countries where the autocrat dies suddenly and the world barely notices because the country keeps chugging along.

Even so, I agree with the basic point: things could turn upside down in China and the world is not really prepared for what follows.

I would be grateful for pointers to any work on my political transitions hunches.

What happens when you try to bring your Nobel Prize through airport security?

“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’
I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’
They said, ‘What’s in the box?’
I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.
So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’
I said, ‘gold.’
And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’
‘The King of Sweden.’
‘Why did he give this to you?’
‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’
At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’”

That is Brian Schmidt as quoted by Scientific American.

If you want to learn about Tirole, the Economics Nobel winner today, you can do no better than to read Marginal Revolution.

Links I liked

  1. Coffitivity “recreates the ambient sounds of a cafe to boost your creativity and help you work better.”
  2. What the location of your capital city has to do with conflict risk
  3. A Christian woman rewrites Harry Potter, swapping wizards and magic for the faithful and miracles. Either Ann Coulter-like reality or Stephen Colbert-like spoof. I can’t tell. “Career woman” is used as evidence of the villainess of Aunt Petunia.
  4. How to buy a mattress
  5. As NSF (and similar) deadlines approach for PhD students, I point you to my advice for PhD grant writing. Comments and dissent welcome.

Evidence that ethnic divisions are counterproductive. Literally.

Ray Fisman gets credit for the title, Jonas Hjort gets credit for his paper on how ethnic divisions on productivity:

In team production at a plant in Kenya, an upstream worker supplies and distributes flowers to two downstream workers who assemble them into bunches.

The plant uses an essentially random rotation process to assign workers to positions, leading to three types of teams: (a) ethnically homogeneous teams, and teams in which (b) one or (c) both downstream workers belong to a tribe in rivalry with the upstream worker’s tribe.

I find strong evidence that upstream workers undersupply non-coethnic downstream workers (vertical discrimination) and shift flowers from non-coethnic to coethnic downstream workers (horizontal discrimination), at the cost of lower own pay and total output.

A period of ethnic conflict following Kenya’s 2007 election led to a sharp increase in discrimination. In response, the plant began paying the two downstream workers for their combined output (team pay). This led to a modest output reduction in (a) and (c) teams – as predicted by standard incentive models – but an increase in output in (b) teams, and overall. Workers’ behavior before conflict, during conflict, and under team pay is predicted by a model of taste-based discrimination.

Humans depress me yet again.

And a footnote to the academics who worry that field experiments are taking over the discipline, or the grad students who think they need to do an experiment (a hear this a lot, especially in political science): I think this paper is a great example how observational work (when well done) can be better, more interesting, and harder. And I think these papers get rewarded more.

Here’s my advice post on why grad students should think twice about field experiments for their dissertations.

How to overcome writer’s block, by David Sedaris

Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll open an English textbook, and do the homework.

There are a lot of college writing textbooks that will include essays and short stories, and after reading the story or essay, there will be questions such as “Have YOU Had any experience with a pedophile in YOUR family?” or “When was the last time you saw YOUR mother drunk?” and they’re just really good at prompting stories. You answer the question, and sometimes that can spring into a story.

You know, this is really good advice: I mean, I don’t have advice to offer on many things, but THAT is good advice, and you’re NOT gonna hear it from a lot of other places.

Sedaris did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit.

Another bit I liked was his response to “What’s one thing you wished you knew about writing when you first started out?” I basically feel the same way about my blogging.

I wish I’d understood that people were actually going to read what I wrote.

For some reason, that came as the biggest surprise to me!

I got that they would buy the books, I would see them at the cash register, handing over their money. That I understood. But i never occurred to me that they would actually read them.

That’s terrifying.

Well, I think especially when you get older as a writer and you look back at things that you wrote 30 years ago, it’s so embarrassing for you, and the thought that somebody in Lincoln, Nebraska, is reading that right now… makes me want to cry BLOOD.

What does (European) schooling do to religious belief and practice?

A new paper from Pogorelova and Mocan:

We exploit information on compulsory schooling reforms in 11 European countries, implemented in the 1960s and 70s, to identify the impact of education on religious
adherence and religious practices. Using micro data from the European Social Survey, conducted in various years between 2002 and 2013, we find consistently large negative
effects of schooling on self-reported religiosity, social religious acts (attending religious services), as well as solitary religious acts (the frequency of praying). We also use data from European Values Survey to apply the same empirical design to analyze the impact of schooling on superstitious beliefs. We find that more education, due to increased mandatory years of schooling, reduces individuals’ tendency to believe in the power of lucky charms and the tendency to take into account horoscopes in daily life.

I’d be interested to see the effects on attitudes to modernization, nationalism, and political systems as well. What ideologies and identities displace religion?

Before people run off an extrapolate too much, it’s also worth noting that when you get a causal estimate from compulsory schooling laws, it doesn’t necessarily apply to the population. It’s estimated off of the people who would not have gone to school without the law, but do once the law gets introduced.

Links I liked

  1. What exactly is dry cleaning? (I actually did not know)
  2. xkcd on the IPhone predictive keypad
  3. The greatest books of all time, as voted by famous authors
  4. Everyone read this: Steven Pinker on why academic writing stinks
  5. This map of median age by country:


Links I liked

  1. 1/3 of Americans think the government spends more on foreign aid than Social Security or interest on debt
  2. A very good article on the Ebola crisis in WashPo
  3. An important, understudied topic: overconfidence in political behavior
  4. A wearable camera drone that snaps off your wrist, flies up, takes a picture, plies back
  5. For the New Haven folks out there, I’m giving a paper on Predicting Local Violence at Yale Thursday (Oct 9) in the political methods seminar, and in the psychology seminar on Oct 20 will be presenting (for the first time) a new experiment on reducing crime and violence among street youth in Liberia.

More taxes for Africa

If you have not heard it already, one thing you will hear a lot more of in the next decade is not that Africa needs more aid, but that it needs more taxes.

A traditional reason you hear is that it builds state capacity. It might give voters an economic incentive to organize politically. And there’s a big literature saying that it makes a state more accountable because it forces them to bargain with the middle class.

But what if there was something psychologically different about taxes for the average voter? Here is an excellent paper from Lucy Martin, a Yale PhD student of mine who is on the market:

While corruption is a key challenge for state development, we still know little about what factors affect citizens’ toleration of non-accountable behavior by government officials. This paper argues that taxation is a significant predictor of citizens’ demands, introducing and formalizing a micro-level theory of how taxation affects citizens’ preferences over accountability.

By taking away earned income, taxation pushes loss-averse citizens below their reference point, increasing the utility citizens lose from corruption and making them more likely to enact costly sanctions against non-accountable officials.


Novel laboratory experiments, conducted in Uganda, find that taxation increases citizens’ willingness to punish leaders by 12% overall, and by 30% among the group who has the most experience paying taxes in Uganda.

Additional experiments confirm that this effect is driven by the loss aversion mechanism, and a conjoint survey experiment demonstrates support for taxation’s effect on citizen behavior among politically-active Ugandans.

Basically, citizens will hold leaders more accountable for taxes than aid, simply because they feel the loss of funds they once had (or think they had) more acutely than funds they might receive. Fairness could also be part of what is going on. The paper is recommended.

On a similar subject, there’s an excellent paper on taxation in developing countries by my colleague Kimuli Kasara. The paper makes a few great points, including that the whole idea that the rich vote more than the poor is yet another way we take something that happens in America and assume it’s true in the rest of the world.

Kasara and Suryanarayan make a good case that wealthy voters are more likely to turn out at the polls where the state has the bureaucratic capacity to tax them. Which (in Africa at least) they often do not. Lucy’s work could be one mechanism that strengthens the impulse.

I think taxation and the politics of public finance are probably one of the biggest areas of future research. For a look at what I assigned for my PhD course, search for “tax” on the syllabus. Suggestions welcome.

Can we use data and machine learning to predict local violence in fragile states? As it turns out, yes.

After years of working on program evaluation and related things, it is with great joy that I toss causation out the window and learn to data mine.

A few years ago, a foundation said to me, “hey, all that data you’re collecting to study property disputes and other violence in Liberia–could you use it to test early warning systems for riots and major crimes?” My reaction: “That sounds crazy. As if that’s possible.” Their response, “We will fund your survey if you try.” My reply: “Did I say crazy? I meant that sounds like a great idea.”

After six years of data collection, Rob Blair and Alex Hartman and I finally have a paper:

We use forecasting models and new data from 242 Liberian communities to show that it is to possible to predict outbreaks of local violence with high sensitivity and moderate accuracy, even with limited data.

We train our models to predict communal and criminal violence in 2010 using risk factors measured in 2008. We compare predictions to actual violence in 2012 and find that up to 88% of all violence is correctly predicted. True positives come at the cost of many false positives, giving overall accuracy between 33% and 50%.

From a policy perspective, states, international organizations, and peacekeepers could use such predictions to better prevent and respond to violence. The models also generate new stylized facts for theory to explain.

In this instance, the strongest predictors of more violence are social (mainly ethnic) cleavages, and minority group power-sharing.

This is not precisely “big data” in that it’s a small number of villages and three years of events. But it’s “big” in the sense of having lots and lots of detailed information about the villages themselves, which is rare. We think of this as a pilot, or proof of concept for the approach, and plan to test it next on much bigger data from other countries.

The most interesting finding, to me, was how power-sharing at the local level was associated with more violence. There’s actually a number of papers looking at national power-sharing right now that find the same thing. And yet the common political response to a crisis nowadays is to push for power-sharing. Worth investigating.

I would have liked to name this paper “I just ran 32 million regressions,” but besides other drawbacks, the more honest title would be “My RA just ran 32 million regressions,” which is slightly less compelling.