Evans, Goldstein, Jakiela, O’Sullivan, Montalvão, & Ozier, once again do a great job boiling down 120+ papers from Oxford’s Center for the Study of African Economies into one-sentence summaries, broken down by topic and methodology here and here.
Millions Saved is an amazing resource from Amanda Glassman & Miriam Temin with the Center for Global Development documenting what’s worked in global health. In an example academics should be emulating, the Key Findings page extrapolates basic one-sentence principles that policymakers should know. There will also be a book version.
The UN is being sued over cholera brought to Haiti by UN peacekeepers (perhaps just one peacekeeper), which has infected over 770,000 people there.
Six years ago, I became an assistant secretary general, posted to the headquarters in New York. I was no stranger to red tape, but I was unprepared for the blur of Orwellian admonitions and Carrollian logic that govern the place. If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result. The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again
It’s worth reading the examples he documents of how bureaucracy, politics, and outdated rules have gotten in the way of the UN doing its own job.
Every few years, journalists write about how demand and prices for quinoa, the grain newly popular in rich countries, are rising and how terrible that is for the farmers in Peru who grow it, but can’t afford to eat it. Brooklynites can now rest easy thanks to Marc Bellemare, Johanna Fajardo-Gonzalez and Seth Gitter, who show that quinoa producers and consumers in Peru have been doing pretty well since the boom. The best piece of critical writing on this is from Boring Development: Strong Demand For Things Poor People Sell Somehow Bad for Poor People.
State laws designed to protect the poor and minority job applicants by prohibiting potential employers from checking their credit scores sound good, but seem to have backfired. A new paper finds when those laws are passed minority hiring goes down. One more reason to test and phase-in policies. (h/t Dina Pomerantz)
A slightly better model (but still imperfect) for policymakers comes from Tennessee which tried to combat a spike in babies born drug dependent by criminalizing drug use by pregnant women. That law also seems to have backfired (discouraging pregnant women who might be drug users from getting prenatal care), but since it was enacted as a two-year trial, it will expire on its own. The point is that across the political spectrum, sensible-sounding policies often backfire, which is why J-PAL North America recently opened to help state and local leaders figure out which policies work before passing them into law. Lawmakers – please call them.
How many decimals does NASA use to make it’s calculations? This was a question posed to NASA engineers. The full answer is amazing.
We can bring this down to home with our planet Earth. It is 7,926 miles in diameter at the equator. The circumference then is 24,900 miles. That’s how far you would travel if you circumnavigated the globe (and didn’t worry about hills, valleys, obstacles like buildings, rest stops, waves on the ocean, etc.). How far off would your odometer be if you used the limited version of pi above [3.14]? It would be off by the size of a molecule. There are many different kinds of molecules, of course, so they span a wide range of sizes, but I hope this gives you an idea. Another way to view this is that your error by not using more digits of pi would be 10,000 times thinner than a hair!
I found the finale particularly mind blowing:
Let’s go to the largest size there is: the visible universe. The radius of the universe is about 46 billion light years. Now let me ask a different question: How many digits of pi would we need to calculate the circumference of a circle with a radius of 46 billion light years to an accuracy equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom (the simplest atom)? The answer is that you would need 39 or 40 decimal places. If you think about how fantastically vast the universe is — truly far beyond what we can conceive, and certainly far, far, far beyond what you can see with your eyes even on the darkest, most beautiful, star-filled night — and think about how incredibly tiny a single atom is, you can see that we would not need to use many digits of pi to cover the entire range.
Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.
Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.
…Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.
All of this is now gone, in part due to European intrusions. He concludes:
Curious tourists visiting Edo state in Nigeria are often shown places that might once have been part of the ancient city – but its walls and moats are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps a section of the great city wall, one of the world’s largest man-made monuments, now lies bruised and battered, neglected and forgotten in the Nigerian bush.
A discontented Nigerian puts it this way: “Imagine if this monument was in England, USA, Germany, Canada or India? It would be the most visited place on earth, and a tourist mecca for millions of the world’s people. A money-spinner worth countless billions in annual tourist revenue.”
Instead, if you wish to get a glimpse into the glorious past of the ancient Benin kingdom – and a better understanding of this groundbreaking city – you are better off visiting the Benin Bronze Sculptures section of the British Museum in central London.
I had my third-year review in the spring of 2013, and it was rough. I wasn’t publishing enough and my future at the University of Texas at Austin was uncertain. As my very nice, very supportive chair sat across from me to explain the situation, he mentioned that our colleagues were afraid he would sugarcoat it. That was when I knew I was in real trouble. Of course, I knew the threat of tenure denial was real already — some of my favorite people have been denied tenure. And I could read my CV as clearly as anyone. But, as he talked about his worries, I knew that it was really real. I felt it in my bones. And I panicked.
That’s political scientist Bethany Albertson writing an essay called Operation Keep My Job. She did. How is important. Honest, thoughtful, and useful reading for young scholars.
Americans have been criminalizing psychoactive substances since San Francisco’s anti-opium law of 1875, but it was Ehrlichman’s boss, Richard Nixon, who declared the first “war on drugs” and set the country on the wildly punitive and counterproductive path it still pursues. I’d tracked Ehrlichman, who had been Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, to an engineering firm in Atlanta, where he was working on minority recruitment. I barely recognized him. He was much heavier than he’d been at the time of the Watergate scandal two decades earlier, and he wore a mountain-man beard that extended to the middle of his chest.
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
I must have looked shocked. Ehrlichman just shrugged. Then he looked at his watch, handed me a signed copy of his steamy spy novel, The Company, and led me to the door.
anyone with a basic knowledge of the tapes knows that Nixon’s War on Drugs was an earnest, if catastrophic, personal failing.
The basic point is that Nixon was too out of touch to understand and come to terms with casual drug use. It’s not the strongest or best-evidenced analysis, but to say “Ehrlichman is grossly exaggerating and rationalizing the anti-Black anti-left motive” is plausible.
I love this. Three researchers picked 20 top biomedical journals and searched all titles and abstracts since 1975 for positive, negative, neutral, and random words.
The absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), a relative increase of 880% over four decades. All 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%.
Here are the individual words:
The authors conclude: “Apparently scientists look on the bright side of research results.”
Some colleagues, especially junior ones, have told me they have to use these words to sell their paper. I disagree. As a referee, when someone calls themselves innovative, my first assumption is they’re not.
At minimum it signals a rookie writer. Let me give you some unique and innovative advice (see what I mean?): Instead of calling your data set novel, just say “We collected new data on X.” Instead of saying this is an unprecedented result, say “The results suggest that we should think differently about Y.”
Those of you perusing my old abstracts for errors of commission, you will find them. Remember that all advice is a mix of “don’t do what I did” and “be more like me”. And should be discounted accordingly.
Andrew Grove died yesterday. From the New York Times obituary, the former Intel engineer and chief was “chosen Man of the Year by Time magazine as the person most responsible for the amazing growth in the power and the innovative potential of microchips” and was “in some ways was considered ‘the father’ of Silicon Valley”.
He was also a refugee. I saw him speak a few years ago, at an International Rescue Committee dinner. IRC resettled Grove’s family in the United States in the 1950s, after he survived the Nazi Holocaust and fled the Soviet invasion of his home country, Hungary. He was poor and sick and spoke no English when he arrived.
It occurred to me then: this one act of resettling one refugee may have created more prosperity for America than any other private decision in the past century. It’s at least a contender.
And that’s not even the right reason the Americas and Europe should welcome more refugees. To see what I mean, watch this video:
Retraction watch (in PLOS One): “Following publication, readers raised concerns about language in the article that makes references to a ‘Creator’, and about the overall rationale and findings of the study. …Consequently, the PLOS ONE editors consider that the work cannot be relied upon and retract this publication.”
In private life he is an extremely disorderly, cynical human being, and a bad host. He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work day and night with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the whole world.
This sounds somewhat like me before children, and like a surprising number of my mostly childless (and most productive) colleagues. then again it also sounds like people I know who only play video games. So maybe the causal link to academic productivity is weak.
And from @kjhealy, a 32-tear old Karl Marx and family, recorded in Soho by the 1851 UK census as “Charles Mark—Doctor, Philosophical Author:
And speaking of productivity, this is kind of incredible.
Happy St. Patrick’s day, how about some qualitative macroeconomic research explaining Irish attitudes towards austerity? (Summary: early on, the Irish public was surprisingly accepting of austerity measures, which may come down to an Irish Catholic moral principle of “you should reap what you sow” but that’s changed recently with a water tax that’s seen as unfair.)
An AP investigative report concludes a flashy San Fransisco company contracted by the Sierra Leone government and WHO to work on the Ebola response completely bungled it, with errors in testing and confusion in its facilities.
Some beautiful photos (including the one above) from the FESTIMA festival held in Burkina Faso, celebrating masks from six West African countries.
A paper (PDF) suggests that urbanization of African populations has driven a quiet revolution in the agricultural supply chain. Senegalese prepackaged ready to cook meals which started out for the Dakar market can now be found in stores in the US and France.
Back in 1991, Duke finished second to Democrat Edwin Edwards in the state’s multiparty primary. In the ensuing run-off between Duke and Edwards, GOP incumbent Buddy Roemer—the third-place finisher in the primary—endorsed Edwards, not Duke.
More importantly, so did three-quarters of Roemer’s supporters, who were heavily Republican. Many of them detested Edwards, who had faced multiple allegations of corruption and would eventually serve eight years in jail for bribery and extortion. Indeed, six of ten people who voted for Roemer thought that Edwards was a “crook.”
But the vast majority of them voted for Edwards anyway, swayed by the campaign’s most famous bumper sticker: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” Designed by a Roemer supporter who feared a Duke victory, the sticker became so popular that Edwards affixed one to his own car.
The fifth annual VancouFur convention, in which people dress up as fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities and characteristics, was held at the same hotel where a number of Syrian refugees are currently being housed.
A message was given to all attendees at the convention that the hotel had been chosen as one of the temporary housing locations for the Syrian refugees in Canada, and that “a major concern that VancouFur has is ensuring that each and every one of the refugees (and attendees) feels welcome and safe and the fact that this is likely to be a major shock to them”.
The new Surprisingly Awesome has Adam Davidson and John Hodgeman in a debate over whether chasing airline miles is rational. Some highlights include the story of the man who traveled the world for a decade thanks to pudding, and a great discussion at the end over rational choice vs. behavioral econ.
Governments play a central role in facilitating economic development. Yet while economists have long emphasized the importance of government quality, historically they have paid less attention to the internal workings of the state and the individuals who provide the public services.
This paper reviews a nascent but growing body of field experiments that explores the personnel economics of the state.
To place the experimental findings in context, we begin by documenting some stylized facts about how public sector employment differs from that in the private sector. In particular, we show that in most countries throughout the world, public sector employees enjoy a significant wage premium over their private sector counterparts.
Moreover, this wage gap is largest among low-income countries, which tends to be precisely where governance issues are most severe. These differences in pay, together with significant information asymmetries within government organizations in low-income countries, provide a prima facie rationale for the emphasis of the recent field experiments on three aspects of the state–employee relationship: selection, incentive structures, and monitoring. We review the findings on all three dimensions and then conclude this survey with directions for future research.
A new paper titled “The Personnel Economics of the State”, Fred Finan, Ben Olken, and Rohini Pande. This confirms my belief that bureaucracy-building will be one of the most important topics of the next decade.
But I guess bureaucracy sounded too sexy so they decided to go with “Personnel Economics of the State”.
The photo is from an amazing series call Bureaucratics by Jan Banning.
Tina Rosenberg asks in the New York Times Fixes column why the development world is so obsessed with innovation rather than spreading existing good ideas. She uses the example of the HIV-prevention org Young1ove, started by an MIT student who read about a promising RCT.
IPA’s new “Goldilocks” toolkit written with non-technical orgs in mind explains that RCTs aren’t always the best solution and gives resources for helping orgs figure out what data they should be collecting to monitor impact.
As Chris posted, psychologists are arguing over whether there is a reproducibility crisis (you can get into the weeds here), but meanwhile, there’s a new Science paper on reproducibility of 18 econ papers published in AER and QJE:
We find a significant effect in the same direction as the original study for 11 replications (61%); on average the replicated effect size is 66% of the original. The reproducibility rate varies between 67% and 78% for four additional reproducibility indicators, including a prediction market measure of peer beliefs.
In that vein, friends of ours are collecting case studies of data sharing through the Mozilla Science Foundation, submit your stories by March 10th.
A lot of misinformation and scare stories are spreading surrounding refugees in Europe, but there are also interesting attempts to correct them. The Hoaxmap is a Snopes for scare stores about crimes supposedly committed by refugees, while the Mediterranean Rumor Tracker tries to find rumors spreading among refugees (such as which border crossings are open when) and correct them.
A recent article by the Open Science Collaboration (a group of 270 coauthors) gained considerable academic and public attention due to its sensational conclusion that the replicability of psychological science is surprisingly low. Science magazine lauded this article as one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year across all fields of science, reports of which appeared on the front pages of newspapers worldwide.
We show that OSC’s article contains three major statistical errors and, when corrected, provides no evidence of a replication crisis.
Indeed, the evidence is consistent with the opposite conclusion — that the reproducibility of psychological science is quite high and, in fact, statistically indistinguishable from 100%. The moral of the story is that meta-science must follow the rules of science.
For example, many of OSC’s replication studies drew their samples from different populations than the original studies did. An original study that measured American’s attitudes toward African Americans was replicated with Italians, who do not share the same stereotypes;
an original study that asked college students to imagine being called on by a professor was replicated with participants who had never been to college;
and an original study that asked students who commute to school to choose between apartments that were short and long drives from campus was replicated with students who do not commute to school.
What’s more, many of OSC’s replication studies used procedures that differed from the original study’s procedures in substantial ways: An original study that asked Israelis to imagine the consequences of military service was replicated by asking Americans to imagine the consequences of a honeymoon;
an original study that gave younger children the difficult task of locating targets on a large screen was replicated by giving older children the easier task of locating targets on a small screen;
an original study that showed how a change in the wording of a charitable appeal sent by mail to Koreans could boost response rates was replicated by sending 771,408 e-mail messages to people all over the world (which produced a response rate of essentially zero in all conditions).
While the fact that this was detected and reported on quickly is (in some sense) evidence of science working, it seems that something is broken about the review and referee process that the original paper got through the publication process.
I think I can hear the armies of angry Tiger moms amassing.
A large and growing literature has documented the importance of peer effects in education. However, there is relatively little evidence on the long-run educational and labor market consequences of childhood peers.
We examine this question by linking administrative data on elementary school students to subsequent test scores, college attendance and completion, and earnings.
To distinguish the effect of peers from confounding factors, we exploit the population variation in the proportion of children from families linked to domestic violence, who were shown by Carrell and Hoekstra (2010, 2012) to disrupt contemporaneous behavior and learning.
Results show that exposure to a disruptive peer in classes of 25 during elementary school reduces earnings at age 26 by 3 to 4 percent.
We estimate that differential exposure to children linked to domestic violence explains 5 to 6 percent of the rich-poor earnings gap in our data, and that removing one disruptive peer from a classroom for one year would raise the present discounted value of classmates’ future earnings by $100,000.