The new best thing on Ferguson

Many people were happy with Hillary Clinton’s comments. I agree, but two weeks later it feels safe, as though she waited to see where the people were heading so she could get in front and lead them.

As for the best thing said so far, I thought it would be hard to beat this. But that was because I didn’t realize Jon Stewart would come back from vacation just to weigh in. I do not use the word genius lightly:

And here is Stewart’s “Ferguson challenge”:

“Yes you dolt, diseases can expand exponentially and Ebola just may”

That is the general tenor of some (only some) of the Twitter responses to my posts on whether or not the Ebola crisis is overhyped or not, including that from some experts who know more than I do. Some comments were less kind. Others sympathetic. Either way, it’s a fair point.

More importantly, there has been actual information coming in which is interesting. So this is a last Ebola post (I hope)—hurried, apologetically, because I’m conferencing the rest of today and this week.

First, a clarification: yesterday’s post was actually agreeing with the people pushing back (Kim Yi Dionne and Stéphane Helleringer in that case) saying “this crisis is actually, by the numbers, more serious than you think.”

My main response, which apparently I garbled a bit, was supposed to be simple: The chicken littles (I singled out and tarred an MSF post with that brush) are absolutely right about Liberia if the conditions are there for the Ebola epidemic to spiral out of control. That is the question on which many, many lives are staked.

There seem to be some partial answers, but let me get back to that in a moment.

I also wanted to make a second point: In responding, we must make sure the cure is not worse than the disease. All the negative hype will hinder, and might even destroy, Liberia’s economy for the next 5 or 10 years. Maybe the optimal response to a disease outbreak is overhype, to get the most resources possible. I’m worried about the aftershock. The cost to everyone who survives the disease looks to be very, very high in terms of lost growth, jobs, social programs, and the like.

What might be the consequences of hype? Here’s a US survey that suggests 40% of Americans are concerned about an outbreak at home and that a quarter think their family might get it. And that was two weeks ago. Frankly that smells like it might be a poorly worded question or interpretation, but either way, I think “large scale irrational fears” adequately sums up the situation.

At the same time, people like me who urge caution on the hype have a responsibility not to diminish a truly serious crisis—in this instance, the potential for the Liberia epidemic to go out of control.

Readers have made some good points and sent some useful links.

Three claims that were made, that I’m not sure are true, but are worrying if they are:

  • The recorded numbers of the disease well vastly underestimate the actual numbers
  • The people who are responding to the disease are leaving the country or dying
  • The organizations responding to the disease (the government, the WHO, etc) are doing a poor job

These seem like the right claims for researchers and the media to investigate.

Here are the models and science that I’ve been sent (please let me know if I missed some). It’s hard for me to say, but I think they paint a picture of a deadly serious outbreak, but one where it’s very unclear if it will leave Liberia or even grow exponentially for long:

Surely I am missing research. Suggestions?

One comment: having spent a lot of time running forecasting models of violence, I can tell you that extrapolating history is a reasonable but seldom reliable method. You have to factor in the response, things that interrupt the vector, etc. I can only assume epidemiological models do this.

The sad thing is that I haven’t seen the media identify these as the main questions and seek answers that are not simply speculative. Surely this is out there.

What happens when you release people from bonded labor in the Emirates?

It turns out serfdom is not so terrific for workers or the economy.

In 2011, a reform in the UAE allowed any employer to renew a migrant’s visa upon contract expiration without written permission from the initial employer. We find that the reform increased incumbent migrants’ earnings and firm retention of these workers. This occurs despite an increase in employer transitions, and is driven by a fall in country exits. While the outcomes of workers already in the UAE improved, our analysis suggests that the reform decreased demand for new migrant workers and lowered their earnings. These results are consistent with a model in which the reform reduces the monopsony power of firms.

A new paper by Naidu, Nyarko and Wang. Naidu’s other work on labor coercion–both today and in American history–is hugely interesting and important.

Does Chicken Little have Ebola?

This is my second post about Ebola, in which I continue to pontificate about things I don’t really know anything about. Yesterday I suggested Ebola is the Kardashian of diseases and we ought to be a little less worried about Ebola and talk more about HIV, malaria, and TB.

There are some excellent graphs and discussion from Kim Yi Dionne and Stéphane Helleringer, who do know what they are talking about.

Africa is a continent – not a country. If a health problem is only prevalent and problematic in one country rather than in many of Africa’s 54 countries, does that make it as irrelevant as a Kardashian? Continent-wide metrics can mask dramatic impacts of disease outbreaks in countries or even sub-regions. If we consider Ebola in the context where it’s unfolding, it matters a great deal. By the end of 2014, it may matter even more in these countries than the other infectious diseases mentioned by Blattman.

…So, how many deaths from Ebola can we expect by year’s end under these conditions? To try and answer this question, we did some simple arithmetic: at a rate of 18 deaths per day (i.e., the average number reported for August so far in Liberia), it will only be 10 days until Ebola has killed as many people as road-traffic accidents usually kill in the country in an entire year. It will be 20 days until Ebola reaches the yearly level of maternal deaths; 70 days until it reaches the number of deaths from HIV/AIDS deaths and 125 days (i.e., before the end of 2014) until it reaches the estimated annual number of malaria deaths in the country. And of course, these “projections” rest on the very optimistic assumption that the public health response will be able to maintain the number of deaths due to Ebola at 18 per day. In recent days however, the daily number of deaths seems to have been rising quite sharply over time.

This is a good response. The full post is worth reading. A few thoughts.

  1. I care unusually about Liberia, having worked there for the past six years and seeing the toll this disease is taking on the country. But it seems to me the fearful and overblown coverage will do more damage in the long run as businesses and NGOs pull out, or deals in the future never get done. I’d venture a guess that shaving a percentage point off GDP for the next few years will lead to more preventable deaths than the disease will in the end. This is disastrous for the country and it doesn’t help when organizations like MSF say it is “spiraling out of control“.
  2. Unless it is actually spiraling out of control. Donne and Helleringer tell us what happens if they project a linear trend. But diseases also expand exponentially. I think the discussion ought focus mainly on the realistic potential for a linear or exponential increase for a long period of time. If agencies can get this under control in a month, the hype will have done much more lasting damage than the actual disease.
  3. I’m conflicted as to whether history suggests the disease has this potential. If this blog is correct, there have been less than about 3000 confirmed deaths from Ebola in human history in every country in the world. This does not sound like a world ravaging killer.
  4. At the same time, the 2014 outbreak probably accounts for about half those deaths. So maybe this time is different. 99% of the time “this time is different” is wrong. Until it is not.
  5. I am waiting for science to weigh in on the trend. Anyone?

America’s other one percent

How many Americans live on less than $2 a day (in purchasing power terms) and so are below the international poverty line? Laurence Chandy blogs over at Brookings.

We obtain estimates of the $2 a day poverty rate in the U.S. for 2011/12 that range from 4 percent (12 million people) to zero depending on the definition of resources and the data source used…

[But] Not so fast. If we used the exact same criteria to measure poverty in the U.S. as is used by the World Bank to obtain official poverty estimates for the developing world, we would conclude that no-one in the U.S. falls under the $2 threshold. Part of the reason for this is that even the poorest people surveyed in America appear to find a way to meet their most basic material needs (valued above $2 a day) even if their reported income is zero or close to zero. Furthermore, the poor in America have access to public goods—public education, criminal justice and infrastructure—that would be the envy of the poor in the developing world.

One of his nicer points is that we don’t know because we don’t have the tools or data to measure the bottom 1% in the US. But we have the top 1% down pretty well (excepting those secret offshore accounts and actual wealth, of course). Ironically, we know all about the bottom 1% in poor countries, but almost no data on their top 1%.

My thought, the fact that we can write serious research papers trying to figure out how many Americans live under the international poverty line, and that a credible answer is “millions” is a very sad statement on the country.

In case you are at APSA this week…

What panels look especially interesting? Will be interested to hear in comments.

Twitterati: There is apparently a tweet-up Wednesday at 630p at St Arnold’s.

If you are the bright eyed and bushy tailed early riser, come to the post-conflict peace, democracy and development session Thursday at 8am, with me, Cyrus Samii, Mike Gilligan, Aila Matanock, Oeindrila Dube, Irfan Nooruddin, and Leonard Wantchekon in attendance. I’m presenting my paper on whether employment programs can reduce crime and rebellion.

If you are more of a lazy bones, then I’m chairing a session on order and violence: patterns, predictions and prevention, with me, Libby Wood, Alex Hartman, Guy Grossman, and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra in attendance. I’m presenting a new paper on predicting local violence, which should otherwise be posted in a couple of weeks.

“Ebola is the Kardashian of diseases”

I tweeted that statement earlier this week, followed by “Do not get distracted. Malaria, TB, HIV is what matters.”

First, credit goes to @gbloembergen who comes up with much cleverer statements while holding alcoholic beverages than I do.

Second, why I agree with him:

  • Ebola is deadly serious but it seems to me the scaremongering is getting out of hand. Countries with even basic state capacity, such as Uganda, tend to be able to get outbreaks under control. A Western country could contain an outbreak, as could many (but not all) of Liberia or Sierra Leone’s neighbors. The reason we are seeing this explode is because, inevitably, Ebola is appearing in some of the weakest states in the world.
  • Thus the problem is not Ebola. Ebola outbreaks are the symptom of very weak states. The world can and should help to contain the outbreak there, but not forget what the cause is.
  • Meanwhile, malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS are already at pandemic proportions and I venture destroy more lives, more economies, and perhaps even more politics than Ebola.
  • Something like a third of Botswana have HIV or AIDS. 25 millions Africans have it, and more than a million die a year from it. A million. This is hugely economically and politically disruptive in some of the most advanced and politically important states in Africa, especially southern Africa.

I am not a public health expert so I’d love to be corrected. The right person to talk about this is probably Evan Lieberman at MIT, and in my ignorance I welcome summaries or insights from readers.

One response I received on Twitter that is important: the reaction to Ebola is what is abruptly destroying the economies of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Some of this is sensible, and maybe that economic and political disruption will make Ebola a greater curse than HIV or TB or malaria. But I can’t escape the idea that the reaction is an overreaction, and that the economic and political destruction is partly due to Western hype. That’s a tragedy indeed.

Essential reading on foreign aid

One of my favorite economists, Nancy Qian, reviews the literature on foreign aid. This is probably one of the better and more serious reviews out there, and should be read.

  • Aid flows have remained relatively constant during the period of 1960-2013
  • The countries that comprise the top donors also remain mostly unchanged
  • The composition of the top foreign aid recipients changes significantly over time [and] …much of the change in recipient composition seems aligned with foreign policy concerns of donor countries rather than changes in poverty levels in the recipient countries.
  • Annual aid to the poorest twenty percent of countries of the world comprise only 1.69% to 5.25% of total global aid flows.
  • A significant portion of aid is spent in donor countries.

Also, she picks up on the silliness of asking the question “does aid work?”

I focus my discussion on the need for future research to shift away from
examining aggregate aid towards more narrowed definitions because aggregation exacerbates several fundamental difficulties of empirical research. First, aggregate ODA is difficult to interpret as it is comprised of many different types of aid (e.g., debt relief, cash transfers, food, etc.). Each type of aid faces different measurement issues and, more importantly, each affects a different set of outcomes.

That is, it depends what you mean by “aid” and what you mean by “work”. It might even depend on what you mean by “does”.

Still the best thing I’ve read on Ferguson

A week later this is still it. Max Fisher asks how the American media would cover what happened if it were in another country.

FERGUSON — Chinese and Russian officials are warning of a potential humanitarian crisis in the restive American province of Missouri, where ancient communal tensions have boiled over into full-blown violence.

“We must use all means at our disposal to end the violence and restore calm to the region,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments to an emergency United Nations Security Council session on the America crisis.

The crisis began a week ago in Ferguson, a remote Missouri village that has been a hotbed of sectarian tension. State security forces shot and killed an unarmed man, which regional analysts say has angered the local population by surfacing deep-seated sectarian grievances. Regime security forces cracked down brutally on largely peaceful protests, worsening the crisis.

America has been roiled by political instability and protests in recent years, which analysts warn can create fertile ground for extremists.

Missouri, far-removed from the glistening capital city of Washington, is ostensibly ruled by a charismatic but troubled official named Jay Nixon, who has appeared unable to successfully intervene and has resisted efforts at mediation from central government officials. Complicating matters, President Obama is himself a member of the minority sect protesting in Ferguson, which is ruled overwhelmingly by members of America’s majority “white people” sect.

Analysts who study the opaque American political system, in which all provinces are granted semi-autonomous self-rule, warned that Nixon may seize the opportunity to move against weakened municipal rulers in Ferguson. Missouri’s provincial legislature, a traditional “shura council,” is dominated by the opposition faction. Though fears of a military coup remain low, it is still unknown how Nixon’s allies within the capital will respond should the crisis continue.

Meanwhile, for those unpersuaded that the police force in St. Louis (and everywhere) may have some deep seated issues, there is this.

Does industrialization de-skill workers?

From a paper de Pleijt and Weisdorf that looks at skill composition of the English workforce during industrialization:
dePlejit_Weisdorf_2014_fig10

Dietz Vollrath (I really like his blog) has a great discussion:

It’s a really interesting paper, and it’s neat to see how much information you can keep sucking out of these parish records from England. It leaves me with two big questions/ideas. First, does industrialization depend on a concentrated core of skills, rather than a broad distribution of skills? That is, if Mokyr is right about the source of English industrialization, then it’s those extra 650K high-skilled workers that really made all the difference. Industrialization didn’t involve spreading skills all around the (rapidly expanding) population, but in getting together a critical mass of skilled workers. Are we paying too much attention to average human capital levels when we talk about development and growth, and not enough to looking at when/how/if countries achieve that critical mass of skilled workers? Is the overall level of education irrelevant to industrialization?

Second, should we care about de-skilling? In a vacuum, telling someone that the share of unskilled workers in the economy rose from 25 to 40% of all workers would send up red flags. That must be a bad thing, right? Is it? As England added population, much of that new population was unskilled, presumably because there was no longer a demand for certain low- and medium- skilled professions that had been replaced by machines. Could this just mean that the economy was getting more efficient at using the human capital at hand? England didn’t need to waste all that time and effort skilling-up a big mass of workers. They could be used immediately, without much training.

My quick comments are (1) I agree, and (2) however fascinating, this probably has little relevance for patterns and consequences of industrialization today, so I wouldn’t try to glean insights for Ethiopia or Vietnam.

Will have more to say in a few weeks, when Stefan Dercon and I unveil the very unexpected results of our randomized trial of factory jobs in Ethiopia.

Win $20,000 to be part of the problem?

In order to help bring attention to the need for scholarship and fresh ideas in this area, and to encourage broad participation, the Global Development Network (GDN) in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announces an international essay contest. The contest invites essays on the future of development assistance. The primary objective of the contest is to invite fresh thinking related to the future of aid that can inform the ongoing discourse on development assistance and to make this thinking available to policymakers and key stakeholders.
Up to 20 winning entries will be chosen, and receive $20,000 each.

I think a good answer would start with thinking why this is probably the kind of question and mindset that leads foreign aid not to be a disaster in the first place.

First, most policies and institutions cannot be reinvented, they must be either hijacked and changed on the margin (unless you can drown them in a bathtub).

Second, grand schemes have a bad track record. Cue Hayek, Popper, Scott, and Easterly, albeit using them to be constructive (which they are not–that’s the hard part).

There is a good essay to be written here, possibly from the perspective of the piecemeal social engineer who recognizes it is generally very hard to social engineer, and that most of the time you don’t have the right to do so.

That is as close as I will get to writing 5000 words on this I am afraid.

Peer review, the experiment

We evaluate policies to increase prosocial behavior using a field experiment with 1,500 referees at the Journal of Public Economics. We randomly assign referees to four groups: a control group with a six-week deadline to submit a referee report; a group with a four-week deadline; a cash incentive group rewarded with $100 for meeting the four-week deadline; and a social incentive group in which referees were told that their turnaround times would be publicly posted.

We obtain four sets of results.

First, shorter deadlines reduce the time referees take to submit reports substantially.

Second, cash incentives significantly improve speed, especially in the week before the deadline. Cash payments do not crowd out intrinsic motivation: after the cash treatment ends, referees who received cash incentives are no slower than those in the four-week deadline group.

Third, social incentives have smaller but significant effects on review times and are especially effective among tenured professors, who are less sensitive to deadlines and cash incentives.

Fourth, all the treatments have little or no effect on rates of agreement to review, quality of reports, or review times at other journals.

We conclude that small changes in journals’ policies could substantially expedite peer review at little cost. More generally, price incentives, nudges, and social pressure are effective and complementary methods of increasing prosocial behavior.

A new paper in the JEP by Chetty, Saez and Sandor.

Blog holiday for August

The blog will be off for the majority of August. I will probably still tweet a little, since I’m browsing what’s out there for pleasure and the extra effort of hitting the RT button is not so great. I’ll have limited to no access to email, and will get to any messages and requests towards the end of the month.

Have a great rest of summer.

Catalonia travel bleg

We’ll be in Catalonia for the next three weeks, mostly in a small village just west of Figueres, and a little in Barcelona. Recommendations for food or sightseeing around Figueres or Barcelona are welcome.

Caveat: True New Yorkers that they are, the kids hate driving in cars. And they have a tendency to throw up if we drive more than 45 minutes. So, far-flung destinations are welcome, but only if they are worth risking el coche vómitos.

Links I liked

  1. Be a research advisor for education at International Rescue Committee*
  2. Foreign policy wonks: Are you a zen master?
  3. Security at ComicCon
  4. The psychological effects of poverty

* People who would like their job postings listed on this blog, please note: I only post job listings if you’re either (1) me, or (2) married to me. #2 is kind of hard to pull off, but I do accept candy, flowers, and romantic mix tapes at my office address.

What countries are the most hypocritical on human rights?

Courtesy of Kate at Wronging Rights, here is Wednesday’s UN Human Rights Council vote on investigating Israel for war crimes in Gaza: Gaza-vote And here is the vote four months ago to investigate Sri Lanka: SL-voteMost flip. From Kate:

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes.

Note that this is a vote to investigate—to gather more information to see whether a violation has been made. Presumably this need not be a high bar. I for one would love to see a UNHRC hypocrisy index. A simple variance measure would be an easy start, though if the Council gets a large number of questionable proposals to vote on, some conditions could be set (e.g. count only those cases where concerns of possible human rights violations has been raised by one of the more independent watchdogs.) Major paper love to write stories about international rankings.

“Africans in America”

Some fascinating facts from a new paper by Elo, Frankenberg, Gansey, and Thomas:

  • The number of migrants to the U.S. from Africa has exploded in recent years, and for the first time in America’s history Africans are the most rapidly growing group of foreign-born migrants.
  • Some 1.73 million African-born migrants live in the U.S., accounting for about 4% of the foreign-born population
  • Since the 1950s the number of foreign-born who have become legal permanent residents has quadrupled, but the number from Africa has increased nearly 60-fold—a rate of growth more than twice that for migrants from Asia, the next fastest growing source of new Americans.
  • In the 1950s, Morocco, South Africa and Egypt accounted for 60% of migrants from Africa. The vast majority were white. [In 2011] close to three quarters of African-born migrants in the U.S. self-identify as black.
  • Changes in immigration policy such as the 1980 Refugee Act, the 1990 Immigration Act, and the Diversity Visa Program have fueled some of the increase.
  • In the 1980s nearly three-quarters of legal permanent residents from Africa entered the U.S. on family-based visas. …By 2010, employment visas accounted for around 45% of all visas issued to African legal permanent residents.
  • nowadays about one-quarter of all African-origin legal permanent residents entered as refugees. …One-third of refugees over the last 3 decades were born in Sudan and Somalia, one-quarter were born in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and most of the rest were born in Liberia and East Africa.

Papers I liked

Am at the NBER development summer institute. Some interesting papers:

  1. Providing farmers with rainfall insurance makes them take more risks, and do better, but there’s a downside: much more risk for landless laborers. So what happens when you insure landless laborers?
  2. Reforming bureaucracies is hard, and getting the incentives for middle managers right might matter more than getting the policies and reform right. Evidence from six randomized control trials with Indian police.
  3. As with bureaucracies, with firms. Better methods don’t get adopted when they run against employee self-interest. Evidence from Pakistani soccer ball production. Notable also because the authors actually invented a better soccer ball in their spare time.
  4. In Brazil, halving the cost of migration doubles internal migration. To estimate this, they use the effects of an ad hoc capital city and highway network. 

Highly recommended podcasts

In spite of me. I’ve been interviewed on one of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk:

Chris Blattman of Columbia University talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about a radical approach to fighting poverty in desperately poor countries: giving cash to aid recipients and allowing them to spend it as they please. Blattman shares his research and cautious optimism about giving cash and discusses how infusions of cash affect growth, educational outcomes, and political behavior (including violence). The conversation concludes with a discussion of the limits of aid and the some of the moral issues facing aid activists and researchers.

If you read my blog, you have heard it all before. So I actually recommend other episodes instead: