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.

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.