What I’ve been reading (or short book reviews for busy people)

  1. Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and Its Demise in Mexico, by Beatriz Magaloni. An enlightening book. In brief: how countries with elections but de facto single parties (like, for many years, the PRI in Mexico) maintain power and lose it. This is a useful book for understanding weak autocracies, and how a good many countries have democratized over time. Some of the best insights are on why hegemonic parties try to build super-majorities of mass and elite support, and how they’re vulnerable to both growth and leader transitions.
  2. Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, by Peter Sahlins. A history of one of the oldest borders in Western Europe. Some fascinating bits include the fact that “natural” barriers like mountain ranges are not so natural or clear after all; the slow means by which people took on French or Spanish identities across some of the more arbitrarily cleaved valleys (including the slow emergence of Catalan identity); and the resemblance between France’s strategies in the 18th century to assimilate its periphery and China’s strategies in its periphery in the 21st.
  3. Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin. Novelistic account of the Aeneid (an early Latin epic poem) by one of the great science fiction writers, all told from the perspective of a minor female character. Good but not great.
  4. Mating, Whites, and Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush. Mating and Whites are two of my favorite books written on foreigners in Africa by a foreigner in Africa. Brilliant, satirical, and must-reads for the modern neocolonialist. I mean aid workers. I believe Rush ran the Peace Corps program in Botswana in the early 80s, and the novels draw on his experiences with absurd people and circumstances, I assume. Read the collection of short stories, Whites, first. Subtle Bodies is a new work about a bunch pompous, unsympathetic people who reunite in upstate New York. I couldn’t quite finish it, but it made me go back and reread the earlier novels with pleasure.
  5. The Battle for Spain, The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, by Anthony Beevor. This was recommended by several poeple when I went looking for engaging Spanish history. The book was a gatling gun of names and dates. Completely bewildering. I put it down quickly. Any other suggestions? I like my history to have a coherent narrative.

Just say no

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

That is Warren Buffett, quoted in Farnam Street.

I’m always delighted when something I’ve been doing is vindicated by brilliant people. (Statistically speaking, of course, once in a while I’m bound to do something right.)

Saying no is something I push on my colleagues and grad students, mostly unsuccessfully. I was forced to start it after (1) saying yes to too many projects, (2) starting a blog, and (3) having two children. (Having babies, it turns out, is also an excuse that people accept without question. Now that the youngest is 16 months, however, I will need to start coming up with new socially acceptable reasons for refusal.)

Now here’s the hard part: This rule doesn’t just mean turning down the good-but-not-great opportunities. It means saying no to terrific opportunities as well.

For instance, I stopped starting new field projects three years ago. No exceptions. I extended existing ones, but that’s it. In six weeks I won’t have a single survey or field experiment running anywhere in the world. Sweet bliss! It won’t last long, but I will enjoy it while it does.

Why? It keeps me sane. It also means I can get my current projects out in reasonable time. And it gives me space to think and to read and ponder big new projects. It is simply amazing how too many projects (especially field experiments and surveys) crowded out my ability to think.

Saying no is hardest for new scholars and professionals. For the first time, opportunities will start crossing your desk. They will do so with increasingly speed and quality. The trick is not to say yes to the first ones out of the sheer joy, novelty, and opportunity. It will crowd out better options just a few months down the road.

The only thing that gives me pause, however, is that the two projects that midway through I wished I’d said no to, turned out to be two of my best published papers. It’s hard to pick winners. So my addendum to Warren Buffett is this: “Very successful people might also know better what to say no to, but most of the time they are just very lucky.” So still say no, live a little less frantically, and your work will probably be better as a result.

The civilizing process, evidence from 150 years of British court transcripts

The jury trial is a critical point where the state and its citizens come together to define the limits of acceptable behavior. Here we present a large-scale quantitative analysis of trial transcripts from the Old Bailey that reveal a major transition in the nature of this defining moment.

…we demonstrate the emergence of semantically distinct violent and nonviolent trial genres. We show that although in the late 18th century the semantic content of trials for violent offenses is functionally indistinguishable from that for nonviolent ones, a long-term, secular trend drives the system toward increasingly clear distinctions between violent and nonviolent acts.

…This work provides a new window onto the cultural and institutional changes that accompany the monopolization of violence by the state, described in qualitative historical analysis as the civilizing process.

A new PNAS paper by Klingenstein, Hitchcock, and DeDeo.

I’m sincerely curious where text analysis will continue to take social science. Other examples welcome.

The political fallout of Brazil’s loss

From the Washington Post, governments may fall:

Elections are scheduled for later this year, and President Dilma Rousseff, while still ahead in the polls, may have real cause to lament the loss. The Brazilian government hedged its bets with the World Cup, hoping victory in the tournament could boost popular goodwill for the government and quieten the chorus of protesters, angry at wasteful spending and the country’s inability to provide much-needed improvements on infrastructure, health care and education.

You can bet that, by 6pm yesterday, dozens of political scientists and economists around the world thought to themselves: “How can I use this game as an empirical strategy?”


Strunk and White were CIA sources

The CIA has an internal writing style guide! Choice bits include:

  • regime: has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to democratically elected governments or, generally, to governments friendly to the United States.
  • tortuous (adj, twisting, devious, highly complex), torturous (adj, causing torture, cruelly painful)
  • number of: a phrase that is too imprecise in some contexts. A number of troops were killed. (If you do not know how many, say an unknown number.)
  • casualties: include persons injured, captured, or missing in action as well as those killed in battle. In formulating casualty statistics, be sure to write “killed or wounded,” not “killed and wounded.” (See injuries, casualties.)
  • nonconventional, unconventional: Nonconventional refers to high-tech weaponry short of nuclear explosives. Fuel-air bombs are effective nonconventional weapons. Unconventional means not bound by convention.Shirley Chisholm was an unconventional woman.
  • Free World: is at best an imprecise designation. Use only in quoted matter.

Full manual here. Full story from Michael Silverburg at Quartz.

Something I’ve noticed in my dealings with the US government and foreign service: People are incredibly smart and articulate, but the more senior they are, the more unintelligible they get. I sat through a 30 minute lunch talk recently and I swear he could have been just linking random words together. Diplomacy.

“The dream is the truth”

That’s the title of a superb humanitarian blog, equal parts angst, cynicism, and idealism.

One excerpt:

Somewhere in the offices of almost any humanitarian aid agency–typically on a manager’s wall, or in the entryway, or perhaps displayed prominently in meeting spaces, or on rare occasion tucked into a discrete binder–you will find a map.  The map may represent the country where the agency is working or may also be a district, region, or provincial map, depending on the size and location of the office.  The map will be marked somehow–perhaps pushpins for each of the villages or communities where the agency is working, often color-coded by project, or with areas shaded to show “coverage” of the agency’s work.  The more shading, the better.


A panel discussion in a windowless room; the air is stultifying.  Passionate and well-meaning experts dissect violence for us: they explain why girls with disabilities are more likely to be raped, or why older women’s experiences of violence often escape our humanitarian radars.  Hearing the concepts and the interventions and the services splayed so clinically, always by PowerPoint, I cannot help but feel disconnected from the pain.  Perhaps that is the point — are we numbing ourselves? 

As Tyler Cowen would say, it is “self-recommending”.

“We Just Ran Twenty-Three Million Queries of the World Bank’s Website”

That’s the title of a new paper by data guerrillas Dykstra, Dykstra, Sandefur:

Much of the data underlying global poverty and inequality estimates is not in the public domain, but can be accessed in small pieces using the World Bank’s PovcalNet online tool. To overcome these limitations and reproduce this database in a format more useful to researchers, we ran approximately 23 million queries of the World Bank’s web site, accessing only information that was already in the public domain. This web scraping exercise produced 10,000 points on the cumulative distribution of income or consumption from each of 942 surveys spanning 127 countries over the period 1977 to 2012. This short note describes our methodology, briefly discusses some of the relevant intellectual property issues, and illustrates the kind of calculations that are facilitated by this data set, including growth incidence curves and poverty rates using alternative PPP indices.

How aid agencies can find their path in fragile states

In 20 or 30 years, most of the still poor countries will be today’s fragile states. Everywhere else will probably have reached middle income levels. Development economics will become, in part, the study of political stability. Aid programs will face greater than ever challenges. So what could civil society, aid agencies start doing now?

Fragile states are tough places to plan and program. We have little data, and arguably each fragile situation is unique. The drivers of conflict, the constraints to prosperity, and what states and aid can do about it—these are largely unknown.

So, the big question I want to pose is how one plans and programs in this environment. How can a big bureaucracy—be it a government or the World Bank or the UNDP—develop systems for learning and scaling what works in fragile, uncertain environments, and changing course as new information comes in? To me the question, “what process?” comes before “what program?”. Or at least it should.

The answer, I think, is to be a little of what Karl Popper called the piecemeal social engineer. Tinkering at small scale with many things. Crossing a river by feeling each stone.

An excerpt from my speaking notes to a recent World Bank, UNDP and ILO conference about what to do about employment and violence in fragile states.

I also talked recently about what we know about poverty and violence, not just how to program and learn. See the speaking notes here. Comments are welcome, since I’m pondering a book.

What you don’t know is that I think all of this advice is bunk if governments don’t get a few things right at the global level. If I have time, I’ll post some informal thoughts on this later this week.

Development must be seized, through struggle. It cannot be given.

My title paraphrases Claude Ake, who was talking about democracy not development. But democracy is just one kind of institutional and organizational capacity. I rank that kind of capacity as the most important thing we know next to nothing about.

Here is a recent speech by Owen Barder worth reading. Excerpts:

Too often we think of scaling up in development like rolling a new product line across an existing series of shops. That’s the wrong model. Scaling up in development is more like building a series of separate businesses from scratch, each in a different market.

…Instead of  thinking that creating capable organisations will deliver results effectively, perhaps successful organisations are the consequence, not the cause, of success. Capability in formal organisations is what happens when successful folk practices, which evolve out of years of struggle and adaptation, are consolidated into formal processes.

He talks about a few recent papers. There is a lot of micro-level work bubbling out there on state capacities, bureaucratic development, and so forth. I think I’ve said before this is probably one of the most fruitful and important areas of political economy research out there. It’s my prediction for the next “big topic” in the field.

Cartooning like a state


Today is the 51st anniversary of the Zone Improvement Plan, a.k.a. the ZIP Code.

The Post Office Department launched an advertising campaign in support of the new service, encouraging Americans to adapt the practice of adding five numbers to each mailing address. ZIP Codes appeared at a time when Americans were already juggling the new area codes and needing to remember their social security numbers on a more regular basis.

Understanding that the public would be reluctant to add more numbers to their daily memory banks, the Department planned a multi-stage publicity campaign aimed at making Americans more comfortable with the new coding system. A major part of the campaign was the use of Mr. Zip, an odd, yet friendly cartoon character who was used to personalize the ZIP Code campaign.

From the Postal Museum.

The postal system used to be a major way states would organize their societies and make them more legible. What’s the equivalent today in low and middle income countries, where mail is exceptional?

I fear the answer might (soon) be “using US and Chinese technology to record and analyze all phone and email conversations.”

“Let them eat cash”: Some post-op reflections

Lately, my research and others have suggested that simple cash handouts might be one of the most effective anti-poverty strategies in the world. Is it time to bring it home?

Today I have an Op-Ed in the NY Times on cash for New York’s homeless.

You might also worry that the poorest of New York are different. The average person in Uganda is impoverished; it’s easy to believe he would make good decisions with cash. But a homeless person in New York is not average. Substance abuse is pervasive. Maybe panhandlers here are different from the global poor.

I used to believe this. Now I’m not sure. A few years ago, I started working in Liberia’s urban slums. My colleagues and I sought out men who were homeless or made their living dealing drugs or stealing. Many abused alcohol and drugs. We tested different programs in a randomized trial of a thousand men. One thing we tried was giving out $200 in cash.

The short story: An eccentric Chinese millionaire tried to give cash to the NYC homeless last week, and an NGO put a stop to it.

The original article is equal parts fascinating and infuriating. Mostly infuriating. First, the millionaire. He took out a full page ad to announce the $90,000 giveaway. The ad probably cost more. So it was mainly an exercise in self-aggrandizement.

Then there was this:

Mr. Chen addressed the audience and then uncorked the news the crowd had been waiting for: “I will give $300 for every participant today.”

The homeless men and women shot to their feet, whooping and applauding.

“No he won’t,” Michelle Tolson, the mission’s director of public relations, said. “The police will shut him down.”

Officials from the Rescue Mission quickly brokered a deal with Mr. Chen’s assistants, allowing him to hand $300 to several chosen homeless clients in a symbolic gesture. The clients, however, would have to return the money.

I can understand Rescue Mission’s concerns. The Op-Ed was accepted Friday night. Saturday I walked by the same two homeless people that have been on my corner since I moved here two years ago. They are not in great shape. “Really?” I thought to myself, “Did I just tell New Yorkers they should hand out big bills to these people?”

Admittedly we had our worries in Liberia too. This is why we started on a small scale–a few dozen men on the streets, with innumerable safeguards and interventions a-ready–before scaling up to the full evaluation of 1000. In the following year, most of what I believed about homeless men, drugs, and petty criminals in Liberia was turned on its head. Even though I’d already spent more than a year with many of the men. So experimentation and testing your prejudices is important.

(Aside: if you’re interested in hearing more about the Liberia project, there is this NPR Planet Money podcast. Also this Foreign Affairs piece. The working paper will be out soon.)

Even so, I worry I’m wrong, and I worry about bad consequences. At the end of the day, I advocate taking chances and experimenting because I believe (indeed I’ve seen) the cost of ignorance is greater. That doesn’t mean it’s not morally troubling.

A book that help change the way I think about politics in developing countries

In the 1990s, the average country tipped from unapologetic dictatorship to holding elections. Many nations let parties compete, the free press criticize, and so forth. This has to be one of the most monumental events to happen in my lifetime–one of the few things a history book 500 years from now will probably mention.

This week I read what was, for me, an important book: Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime, by Aili Mari Tripp. This is the essential book on Ugandan politics and development.

Since that’s a niche audience, I’ll say this on top: I think the book is a perfect window into the perverse logic of the quasi-democracies that dominate most of the world. Most of the time we misunderstand them. Case studies like this one start to make things clearer.

Some things I take away from the book (and some other recent readings on authoritarianism, a new interest of mine):

  • It’s a mistake to think of regimes in most underdeveloped counties as coherent governments. Rather, most are delicate and shifting alliances of influential groups and elites. The strongman who sits atop this look and act like Presidents (and many have a tremendous amount of power) but their first priority is to manage this shifting network of alliances. This overrides everything else.
  • If you want to be crude, the strongman has three tools to keep control (and peace): patronage, repression, and “nation-building”. The last category is a ridiculously cluttered one, where I mix national identity with independent and capable bureaucracies, among other things. These are the things that make governments coherent, accountable and effective. Most nations are working on them and improving, but it takes decades.
  • In the meantime, if you limit patronage, you leave the options of repression or some kind of political instability.
  • Meanwhile, things that look like a move ahead, such as letting many parties form and compete, can also be a way to divide the opposition and entrench power while showing the world a facade of democracy.
  • “Good policy” gets filtered and perverted by this system. It’s silly and dangerous to give aid or recommend a policy reform without some appreciation of the elite alliances, the ritual of democracy, and the incentives faced by leaders. Yet that’s what most aid and reform does.

This could have been a book about Afghanistan, or Guatemala, or early modern France, and I could have drawn similar insights. The more stable and successful autocracies are the ones that (among other things) depersonalize and institutionalize parties and power. China might be an example. I say all this, of course, knowing exactly zero about Afghanistan, Guatemala, early modern France, and China. There’s a reason this blog is free.

I don’t say any of this to impel people not to act. Or to indict all aid. Only to say that this view of politics is rare. Foreigners fall for the ritual of democracy. I did for a long while in Uganda.

Obviously, I recommend the book.

What’s your summer reading list?

I’m building my list. I’m curious what you’re reading or read and loved.

I have a few below, some obvious (in that a couple are trendy bestsellers) but I welcome suggestions. We will be in Spain (specifically, the Pyrenees) for three weeks in August, after swapping houses with a professor there. So Spain-related history or really anything is welcome. (Keeping in mind that they’d need to be in English, since my Spanish can only barely get me through a newspaper.)

  1. All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu. I loved his first novel, was lukewarm on the second, have enjoyed his short fiction in The New Yorker a lot. All in all I think he’s one of the freshest current fiction writers.
  2. The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb. France was mostly uncharted, disunited, and decided not “French” until the early 20th century. This is a history of the discovery and conquering of France. I would enjoy analogous books about Spain. This one is (so far) refreshingly well written and short, as history goes. Too many brilliant books are longwinded.
  3. Silkworm, by “Robert Galbraith”. Crime fiction by J.K. Rowling, reputed to be quite good. I enjoyed reading The Cuckoo’s Calling.
  4. Africa Must Be Modern, by Olúfémi Táíwò. A Nigerian philospher calls for a culture shift in Africa. I bought it after reading Gregg Zachary’s review.
  5. Peaceland, by Severine Autesserre. An ethnography of the humanitarian crisis/peacekeeping/conflict expat crowd by my favorite Congo expert. I am partway through and will try to find time to blog about it soon.
  6. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I know nothing about this book other than a lot of people talk about it and it won the Pulitzer. That is not usually enough to get me to buy a book but it’s so easy to hit that little “send to Kindle” button.
  7. So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy, by various authors. A collection of science fiction short stories by minority and formerly colonized writers.
  8. The Golden Hour, by Todd Moss. A development scholar and former State Dept official (who is also my friend) has written a thriller about an academic who gets appointed to the State Dept to use his conflict scholarship to save the world and get the girl. I mean how can I not read this?

What do we know about poverty and violence?

I gave a talk to USAID on Monday, focusing on “the micro level”. This is an obtuse way of saying “why men rebel”.

My short answer: the usual economic incentives matter. But just because you can get a statistically significant estimate doesn’t mean it matters. Economic variables don’t explain most of the variation in violence, in my opinion. We only have fragments of evidence what does. I discuss one or two.

Here are my slides and speaking notes. It was 12 minutes, so forgive the lack of detail and footnotes. I’m pondering an article or book. Here is what I thought five years ago if you are burning for references.