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.

Cash transfers to Syrian refugees: The evaluation

Fine, cash transfers work okay in Kenyan villages, but should the world use them in wars and refugee crises? Apparently yes.

In the first scientifically rigorous evaluation of emergency cash for refugees, the International Rescue Committee unveiled striking findings based on research in partnership with Daniel Masterson of Yale University and Christian Lehmann of the University of Brasilia, focused on the Syria crisis, specifically looking at Lebanon.

The results are consistent with what we know about the impact of money distribution in more stable, albeit poor, settings: it does not create disincentives to work, it enables people to study and spend money on things that improve their lives; and it doesn’t cause them to go out and squander it on drugs, alcohol or gambling.

…We found that households receiving cash assistance were half as likely to send their children out to work. Cash also increased access to education, and there is evidence of reduced tensions within the household and between the refugee and host community.

Op-ed and full report.

The authors (who are close colleagues) are presenting in London tomorrow (Oct 2). Info here. RSVP here.

A scientific journal that raises the level of maturity in referee reports

Frontiers in Neuroscience for Young Minds is a scientific journal that includes young people (from 8 to 15) in the review of articles. This has the double benefit of bringing kids into the world of scientific research – many of them for the first time – and offering active scientists a platform for reaching out to the broadest of all publics.

The journal is Frontiers for Young Minds.

Who runs the UN?

A new paper from Paul Novosad and Eric Werker:

We examine, over a 60 year period, the nationalities of the most senior positions in the United Nations Secretariat, ostensibly the world’s most representative international institution.

…The most overrepresented countries are small, rich democracies like the Nordic countries. Statistically, democracy, investment in diplomacy, and economic/military power are predictors of senior positions–even after controlling for the U.N. staffing mandate of competence and integrity.

National control over the United Nations is remarkably sticky; however the in influence of the United States has diminished as US ideology has shifted away from its early allies. In spite of the decline in US influence, the Secretariat remains pro-American relative to the world at large.

A dictator’s handbook

At the end of August, the prime minister of Lesotho fled to neighboring South Africa, saying he had been overthrown by the military. He subsequently returned to the capital with the assistance of South African police, and although the situation remains murky, he appears to have survived a failed coup attempt. In June, when the coalition government began to break down, the Monkey Cage reviewed the situation in Lesotho and expected military intervention to be unlikely, primarily because popular support for democracy was high and popular support for military rule was extremely low. It is useful to understand why this expectation is wrong-headed.

That is Naunihal Singh on what we misunderstand about coups. He has literally written the book on them.

What’s the effect of TOMS shoes on local development?

A new paper from Wydick, Katz and Janet (link now fixed):

We carry out a cluster randomized trial among 979 households in rural El Salvador to test whether shoe donations exhibit negative impacts on local shoe markets. Households in half of our communities were given a pair of children’s shoes at baseline (treatment communities), while all households were given coupons that could be used for shoe purchases at a local shoe store.

Although point estimates on coupon redemption and difference-in-difference estimations indicate shoe purchases to be slightly lower among households receiving the donated shoes, we find no statistically significant difference in market shoe purchases between treatment and control households.

Fakebook friends

A Dutch woman faked a five week trip to Southeast Asia through facebook to make a philosophical point.

She posted pictures of herself sitting next to a Buddhist monk in a temple – it was just that the temple and monk happened to be in Amsterdam.

…Zilla even redecorated her own bedroom to make it look like an Oriental hotel room so that she could have Skype conversations with her family – at random times in the night, of course – without raising suspicion.

…The reasons behind her actions, however, are noble: it was all part of a university project, in which she wanted to show how Facebook activity is not necessarily reflective of real life.

…“My goal was to prove how common and easy it is to distort reality. Everybody knows that pictures of models are manipulated. But we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.”

I like this person.

I’m also now wondering which of the blogs I follow are actually Dutch girls in disguise. I have my suspicions.

Corruption and dirty elections are a symptom not the disease

It’s easy to despair at the patronage, vote-buying, and authoritarian turn being taken in so many new democracies. Surely democracy was different in the West? I give you Spain:

The stage of convulsive liberalism in Spain was long, from 1810 to 1874, compounded by riots, military revolt, civil war, and severe regional discord.

…The nineteenth-century Spanish political intelligentsia and elites persistently pushed through sweeping constitutional reforms, for brief periods giving Spain the most democratic suffrages and the most liberal political structures in continental Europe… No other polity attempted such advanced political structures on the basis of such limited education, so little civic training, such an unproductive economy, such poor communications, such extreme regional dissociation, and so much institutionalized opposition in sectors of the Church and Carlism. Stability was eventually achieved by a more modest, restricted form of liberalism in the oligarchic system of the restored monarchy of 1874.

…universal male suffrage was reintroduced in 1890, but its effects were at first spurious if for no other reasons than the illiteracy, lack of civic interest, and poor communications among the lower classes. The existing patronage and party-boss system, commonly known as caciquismo, largely contained or deflected popular voting for about thirty years.

That’s from The Franco Regime by Stanley Payne, which is long but excellent.

Most Western democracies doled out the right to vote very slowly. Maybe more correct: middle classes seized the vote where and when they could. Not Spain. The case of Spain looks more like new democracies today, where everyone suddenly (and sometimes unexpectedly) gets the the right to vote.

The tricky part with this: the people who choose the leaders (the masses) aren’t the ones who control the wealth or weapons or other institutions, and they might have little education or civic organization. So the people who are powerful remain powerful, but now have to work through the quasi-democratic system and the masses, who now have a little more power than before. Thus you get patronage and party boss systems, or the rolling back of rights from the least powerful. At least for a time.

Some people use this as an argument for autocracy. I don’t. I’d rather see rights with corruption than no rights at all. That right to sell your vote is still a power most people didn’t hold before, and it helps them. For me, it’s a reminder to have patience. Also, it’s an argument for for tamping down the Western anti-corruption fetish, and for not setting a standard for new democracies that we never set for ourselves.

Is popular support for same sex marriage a charade?

No.

Public opinion polls consistently show that a growing majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. Critics, however, raise the possibility that these polls are plagued by social desirability bias, and thereby may overstate public support for gay and lesbian rights. We test this proposition using a list experiment embedded in the 2013 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. List experiments afford respondents an anonymity that allows them to provide more truthful answer potentially sensitive survey items.

Our experiment finds no evidence that social desirability is affecting overall survey results. Indeed, our efforts provide new evidence that a national opinion majority favors same-sex marriage.

A new paper by Lax, Phillips and Stollwerk.

Amazon is not profitable, for now, because taking over the world costs a lot of money

I’d wondered whether Amazon had no profits because their business was simply expensive and unsustainable at current prices. It seems the answer is “not necessarily”.

Amazon’s business is delivering very rapid revenue growth but not accumulating any surplus cash or profits, because every penny of cash is being ploughed back into expanding the business further. But, this is not because any given business runs permanently at a loss – it is because the profits from what is already there are spent on making new businesses.

…Amazon has perhaps 1% of the US retail market by value. Should it stop entering new categories and markets and instead take profit, and by extension leave those segments and markets for other companies? Or should it keep investing to sweep them into the platform? Jeff Bezos’s view is pretty clear: keep investing, because to take profit out of the business would be to waste the opportunity. He seems very happy to keep seizing new opportunities, creating new businesses, and using every last penny to do it.

…When you buy Amazon stock (the main currency with which Amazon employees are paid, incidentally), you are buying a bet that he can convert a huge portion of all commerce to flow through the Amazon machine. The question to ask isn’t whether Amazon is some profitless ponzi scheme, but whether you believe Bezos can capture the future. That, and how long are you willing to wait?

The full post is interesting. Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.