Bleg: Someone please explain to me why I should accept that the annexation of Crimea is a terrible thing

I’m ignorant of many facts, and am completely willing to be persuaded. But here’s my train of thought and source of skepticism:

  • I supported the independence movements in South Sudan and Kosovo. I think that there are cases where self-determination (which could include voluntary annexation) is a reasonable option. Especially if it can be decided through the most democratic and due process possible under the circumstances.
  • If I understand correctly, Crimea was historically a part of Russia, and an autocrat transferred Crimea to Ukraine a half century ago, and so the people who live there have some basis to protest being part of Ukraine today, if they do so.
  • The referendum was a farce, of course. But the world was so quick to condemn Russia’s moves and a process for self-determination that it’s hard to believe a transparent, democratic referendum with due process and a real choice between staying and going would have been possible. Some people undoubtedly proposed such a process, but it would it seem like a credible pledge if you are Crimea or Russia?
  • Also, is it the case that, if there were a democratic and due process, many people would predict roughly the same outcome?
  • So right away this looks to me like a complicated issue that people who supported Kosovo and South Sudan ought to be conflicted about. Or anyone who lives in the US, who annexed Texas long ago.
  • Lo and behold, the vast majority of articles and op-eds appear confident, indignant, and untroubled. They know who is right and who is wrong. This should always make you suspicious.
  • I can’t escape the feeling that, if Crimea were part of Russia, and a democratic Ukraine just gave Crimea its independence, most of the people denouncing Russia now would be celebrating Ukraine for the same actions.
  • In sum: if you are friendly to Russia you like the move, and if you are not you dislike it. It looks to me more like a simple case of us versus them rather than the tricky path to the least bad answer. At the end of the day, we trumpet international law when others break it but not when we or our allies break it.

I wonder if the tepid response by the Obama administration is testament to the fact that they, unlike the pundits, are likewise conflicted about whether this is so bad it’s worth an economic and diplomatic battle.

Let my education commence?

Study: “Touching men’s boxer shorts makes women crave monetary awards”

My nomination for the Ig Nobel prize:

Similar to the effect found in men, the first study demonstrates that touching a pair of boxer shorts leads to a craving for monetary rewards in women.

In the second study it is shown that touching a pair of boxers makes women less loss averse for both money and food.

The third study explicitly focuses on the relative effectiveness of tactile versus visual sexual cues in altering women’s economic decisions, and reveals that women’s willingness-to-pay for economic rewards increases only when the sexual cue is tactile.

We suggest that touching (vs. seeing) sexually laden stimuli prompts pre-programmed consummatory Pavlovian responses that promote approaching economic rewards.

Paper here.

I am having conflicting feelings about science at the moment.

“The common assumption that the West forced the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus won the Cold War is wrong”

I don’t believe that we are witnessing a renewal of the Cold War. The tensions between Russia and the West are based more on misunderstandings, misrepresentations and posturing for domestic audiences than on any real clash of ideologies or national interests. And the issues are far fewer and much less dangerous than those we dealt with during the Cold War.

But a failure to appreciate how the Cold War ended has had a profound impact on Russian and Western attitudes — and helps explain what we are seeing now.

The common assumption that the West forced the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus won the Cold War is wrong. The fact is that the Cold War ended by negotiation to the advantage of both sides.

That is Jack F. Matlock Jr., ambassador to the U.S.S.R. from 1987 to 1991, writing in the Washington Post. Worth reading in full.

I can’t escape the feeling that we can blame Twitter and Washington partisanship for posturing to domestic audiences and other dangerous rhetoric in foreign affairs. Then again, if you’ve over the age of 35, you pretty much blame everything bad in the world on Twitter and Washington partisanship, so that doesn’t count for much.

“U.S. sanctions on Russia won’t work, but we should impose them anyways”

So says Dan Drezner, scholar of sanctions:

Financial sanctions and asset freezes sound good, part of the newfound policymaker faith in “smart sanctions” as a way squeezing a country’s elite without hurting the population. It’s likely that targeted financial sanctions could, if well designed, impose some costs on Russia’s oligarchs and officials. But this assumes that Putin needs the support of Russia’s plutocrats rather than vice versa.

…As for opening up U.S. energy exports as a way of diluting European dependence on Russian natural gas, it’s not a bad idea — it’s not going to generate much pain in the short term.

Sorry, but the fact remains that sanctions will not force Russia out of Crimea. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be imposed.

The full article is very good.

I’m interested in the sanctions literature, so pointers to other articles welcome.

Are cash transfers overrated?

Kevin Starr and  Laura Hattendorf of Mulago explain why they think the evidence for cash transfers to the poor is overrated.

Basically, it comes down to how the income gains produced by cash compare to other interventions. They are underwhelmed by cash.

I have five comments:

  1. Victory! If it’s becoming standard to judge interventions by their cost effectiveness, then I can’t be more thrilled. Same goes for GiveDirectly. You can think of cash transfers like the index fund of development (making GiveDirectly the Vanguard). If the NGOs (money managers) of the world can outperform the index funds, then the world becomes a better place.
  2. They are right. There will be, I am confident, a great many interventions that do better than cash on any number of metrics. Ones that solve market failures or supply problems are big candidates, just like Starr and Hattendorf say. As I’ve said before, there’s a bubble of excitement around cash, researchers and NGOs could make their names skewering cash, and I think it’s a good trend.
  3. Scalable? Whether these other interventions prove as scalable or replicable as cash is another question. Too many NGOs search for solutions to help 1,000 people a year not 1,000,000. But I’m confident some alternatives to cash will prove promising. Some already are, from vaccines to election monitoring, if only because they solve the problems cash cannot. I’m more skeptical we’ll see better alternatives for pure poverty-alleviation, but we’ll see.
  4. But not so fast. The evidence they cite in favor of cash points to peer reviewed randomized trials. The evidence on better performing programs point to… NGO home pages. Not everything will get a randomized trial, but you’ll forgive me if, before I run to my pocketbook (or make cost effectiveness comparisons) I don’t pit PR materials against rigorous research. But perhaps those numbers have backup. Readers: anyone know the back stories here?
  5. And let’s do cost effectiveness right. Judging programs on three-year income effects is a reasonable first approximation of impact (sort of) but there are ways to do better. Take this J-PAL guide for instance (an organization Mulago funds). Present value of of a broader array of impacts at reasonable discount rates seem a sensible way to go. With considerations for scalability on top.

Anyways, even if Mulago’s evidence and method leave something to be desired, the spirit is right, and the conclusion will (I am confident) be eventually correct. In the meantime, personally I’ll Give Directly.

400 years of Chinese economic history in 79 pages

I am very excited to read this new Journal of Economic Literature article by Brandt, Ma and Rawski:

China’s long-term economic dynamics pose a formidable challenge to economic historians. The Qing Empire (1644 –1911), the world’s largest national economy before 1800, experienced a tripling of population during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with no signs of diminishing per capita income. While the timing remains in dispute, a vast gap emerged between newly rich industrial nations and China’s lagging economy in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Only with an unprecedented growth spurt beginning in the late 1970s did this great divergence separating China from the global leaders substantially diminish, allowing China to regain its former standing among the world’s largest economies.

This essay develops an integrated framework for understanding that entire history, including both the divergence and the recent convergent trend. We explain how deeply embedded political and economic institutions that contributed to a long process of extensive growth before 1800 subsequently prevented China from capturing the benefits associated with the Industrial Revolution.

During the twentieth century, the gradual erosion of these historic constraints and of new obstacles erected by socialist planning eventually opened the door to China’s current boom. Our analysis links China’s recent development to important elements of its past, while using recent success to provide fresh perspectives on the critical obstacles undermining earlier modernization efforts, and their eventual removal

Ungated version.

Also see their new book, China’s Great Economic Transformation.

How to create jobs in poor countries? The video

In case you ever wondered “Hey Chris, why aren’t you headed for fame and fortune as an actor or motivational speaker?”, I give you my presentation on youth employment in developing countries:

It comes from the Inclusive Growth conference at Columbia Business School. My tent revival starts about 8:45 but the whole set of speakers is excellent.

The latest in faith-based development: Randomized control trials?

Lant Pritchett’s fondest 10th birthday wishes to the Poverty Action Lab:

The delightfully quirky aspect of the success of the randomista movement is that it was, and remains, entirely faith-based.

…The claim that attracted resources and support from development organizations and attention from the press was the claim that “rigorous” evidence from these RCTs could, should, and would produce better development projects and policies and, hence, ultimately better outcomes for human beings.

…The randomistas were not proposing new methods or techniques but rather broader adoption into the field of development methods that already had a long history. There was a big fad toward the use of experiments in a variety of social policy domains in the USA in the 1970s.

…Strangely, whether or not decades of social policy RCTs actually did have impact on policies and outcomes in the USA just kind of never came up in arguing that they would in developing countries.

In blogger camp they say “never feed the trolls”, but since Lant is my favorite development troll, I cannot resist. Even if I should be reading someone’s dissertation at the moment.

Continue reading


It’s official: today I move from the ranks of disreputable, careless, independent bloggers to the elite cadre of disreputable, careless bloggers who write for major news outlets. I am now of the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage.

The popularity of my personal blog has been built primarily on the international development equivalent of cat pictures. I expect that tradition to continue here, since the Post only wants topical, newsy, thoughtful analysis. So do not worry–this blog will remain a lonely outpost of Star Wars trivia and cool, largely inaccurate graphs taken out of context.

I predict a period of time where I compose careful and detailed analysis for The Monkey Cage, most of which is too boring to read, before I lapse into my usual routine of idle speculation informed by reading two paper introductions (well… one paper abstract and a title).

Actually, I sincerely have no idea what I will write for The Monkey Cage, and I am basically seized by panic. Fortunately, panic is the writer’s and academic’s best friend–the source of all original thought and prose.

Finally, for those of you wondering, “How will he blog both here and at The Monkey Cage?” Won’t this affect the volume of silly trivia and obscure papers I receive?” The answer is “Yes, but it probably won’t be as bad for the blog as baby number two.” So there is that. Plus I start 18 months of leave in May, and I expect both this and The Cage to be excellent, excellent procrastination devices.

See The Cage here or @MonkeyCageBlog.

Do election monitors reduce or just displace fraud?

The short answer: a little of both.

I’m attending the NYU CESS conference, and the highlight of the day so far (and a contender for the new alpha paper on election monitoring and election day fraud) is this:

We address these questions by studying observers’ effects on two markers of fraud—overvoting (more votes cast than registered voters) and unnaturally high levels of turnout — during Ghana’s 2012 presidential elections. Our randomized saturation experimental design allows us to estimate observers’ causal effects and to identify how political parties strategically respond to observers.

We show that observers significantly reduce overvoting and suspicious turnout at polling stations to which they are deployed.

We also find that political parties successfully relocate fraud from observed to unobserved stations in their historical strongholds, where they enjoy social penetration and political competition is low, whereas they are not able to do so in politically competitive constituencies.

I learned more about elections listening to Susan Hyde’s 10-minute discussion of the paper than I’ve learned in several years of reading. Sadly not easily summarized or online.

Nonetheless, full paper here.

The one book you should read this year

Six years ago I stumbled on a book from a small Nigerian Press. I can’t remember where I found it. I think I grabbed the best-looking thing I could find in the bookshop at Entebbe airport before a long flight. My expectations were low. I certainly didn’t expect to find the best book I’d read in years.

It was a memoir. A young Nigerian doctor returns home after fifteen years in New York, and sees his native land through both native and foreign eyes. This is a terrific device for bridging the gap between an American reader and the life of Lagos. It’s also a feeling every émigré has shared–of suddenly realizing you’re a foreigner in your own land.

None of this sounds like the basis of a bestseller. And it wasn’t. But it was probably one of the most beautifully written books I could remember reading. And, as travel memoirs in Africa go, the most moving and least stereotypical. I remember thinking to myself: this guy should be famous.

It turns out, he now is. A few years later, Teju Cole would publish a debut novel, Open City, and The New Yorker (among others) would christen him one of the greatest writers of his generation. It’s now 2014, and a major press has decided to republish his Nigerian memoir, Every Day is for the Thief.

Needless to say, I can’t recommend a book more. Buy it here.

Quote of the day

Stephen Colbert speaking at an Internet security conference:

I think Bitcoin is fine,” he said. “After all, I don’t understand gold. Gold never loses its value because it’s shiny? When the apocalypse comes I’m not going to be investing in Bitcoin or gold. I’ll invest in sheep, potable water, and tradable women.

Full story