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?


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.

What The Economist should have read before suggesting that US slavery wasn’t always so bad

First, remind me, when I’m writing my first book, to try to get The Economist to write a racially insensitive review. I’m pretty sure Edward Baptist’s sales are pretty terrific right now.

The Economist has withdrawn the offending book review and apologized (the book in question, and the article and apology). Here’s the uncontroversial bit:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Nothing in history (least of all the growth of the largest economy humankind has ever known) has a single explanation. Academics like to overstate their case and need to be reined in a little.

Even so, here’s the jawdropping finale:

…Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

What could have shed light on this, had The Economist writer bothered to read the literature (and had the academics bothered to write in comprehensible prose)?

First, when do employers use coercion and how well does it work? There’s a pretty new and exciting literature here:

  • Violence and pain work better in labor markets where people have really poor options, and are easily controlled, like children or the least educated. You see this in child labor during British industrialization, or even in child soldiering in Uganda (my own work). Here’s a graph of how long someone stayed with a rebel army in Uganda based on his age of conscription. The paper argues that ones you can scare and indoctrinate the easiest (in this case, kids) stay longest:

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.07.24 AM

  • Adults will tend to escape if you use violence, so slavery and serfdom work best when the overlords control the legal system or can hunt you down. You see this with servants in 19th century Britain or with European feudalism and US slavery
  • When you make it harder for employers to use force, wages go up. You see this in 19th century Puerto Rico coffee growing, or in the Emirates today
  • It’s not unusual to see a mix of rewards and coercion. For instance, in the child soldiering paper, rewards are more likely for the people who can run away, and they’re also useful (with violence) if you’re trying to indoctrinate and brainwash.
  • And when you turn the entire system against them, yes, whipped people work harder. Here’s an unpublished graph from Suresh Naidu from one US plantation and the correlation between the number of whippings a slave received and her productivity at cotton picking:whipping

So a moral of the story is that yes, rewards can be a substitute for violence, but in a coercive labor market, better pay or food is just service to your larger evil plan to enslave more people more profitably.

Then, on the longer term consequences of slavery (again, hat tip to Suresh, who breathes this stuff):


Is anyone else feeling depressed and hopeless?

More suggestions welcome.

More subways

Public transit accounts for only 1% of U.S. passenger miles traveled but nevertheless attracts strong public support. Using a simple choice model, we predict that transit riders are likely to be individuals who commute along routes with the most severe roadway delays. These individuals’ choices thus have very high marginal impacts on congestion.

We test this prediction with data from a sudden strike in 2003 by Los Angeles transit workers. Estimating a regression discontinuity design, we find that average highway delay increases 47% when transit service ceases.

This effect is consistent with our model’s predictions and many times larger than earlier estimates, which have generally concluded that public transit provides minimal congestion relief. We find that the net benefits of transit systems appear to be much larger than previously believed.

A new paper by Michael Anderson.

I’m curious about the politics and economics of actually increasing subways. It seems to me that affordable subways were more feasible when fewer people could vote and the economic value of the land was lower. So many people stand to lose in the short term from a new subway line (say, because your store loses traffic or you live with noise) and wages and other costs so high, that I’m skeptical a city like New York could ever expand the network.

Then again, I’d be happy with inframarginal changes, like stations that are less than 90 degrees hot and do not smell like urine.

And you thought the news about Twitter becoming more like Facebook was bad. Look what Apple is doing:

Soon your Twitter feed may be curated by some kind of prediction algorithm. Even worse, from Apple’s website, the new autocorrect:

“As you type, you’ll see choices of words or phrases you’d probably type next, based on your past conversations and writing style. iOS 8 takes into account the casual style you might use in Messages and the more formal language you probably use in Mail. It also adjusts based on the person you’re communicating with, because your choice of words is likely more laid back with your spouse than with your boss.”

Full story.

Besides the specter of bad and mediocre writing perpetuated endlessly, I wonder how long before bots are predicting passable term papers. I guess if it lets me predict grades automatically it wouldn’t be all bad.

At the same time, in my experience the prediction algorithms are pretty poor.

  • Exhibit A: Facebook feeds
  • Exhibit B: Netflix recommendations. I most certainly do not want to watch National Lampoon Vacation VII
  • Exhibit C: My iPhone occasionally suggests “thou” instead of “you”

So I do not fear the replacement of writer by machine anytime soon.

Depressing fact of the day: Professors are less likely to reply to emails from women and minorities

In our experiment, professors were contacted by fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities before applying to a doctoral program.

Students’ names were randomly assigned to signal gender and race, but messages were otherwise identical.

Faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from Caucasian males, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions. 

A new paper by Milkman, Akinola, and Chugh.

The most surprising sentence in the paper, to me: “Sixty-seven percent of the emails sent to faculty from prospective doctoral students elicited a response.” I would have guessed 10%. I mean, most professors barely respond to my emails.

Did a robot just put scientists out of work?

Keeping up with the ever-expanding flow of data and publications is untenable and poses a fundamental bottleneck to scientific progress. Current search technologies typically find many relevant documents, but they do not extract and organize the information content of these documents or suggest new scientific hypotheses based on this organized content.

We present an initial case study on KnIT, a prototype system that mines the information contained in the scientific literature, represents it explicitly in a queriable network, and then further reasons upon these data to generate novel and experimentally testable hypotheses. KnIT combines entity detection with neighbor-text feature analysis and with graph-based diffusion of information to identify potential new properties of entities that are strongly implied by existing relationships.

We discuss a successful application of our approach that mines the published literature to identify new protein kinases that phosphorylate the protein tumor suppressor p53. Retrospective analysis demonstrates the accuracy of this approach and ongoing laboratory experiments suggest that kinases identified by our system may indeed phosphorylate p53. These results establish proof of principle for automated hypothesis generation and discovery based on text mining of the scientific literature.


You can argue that (1) scientists can leverage this technology to shift to higher level tasks, simply increasing their productivity, and (2) in principle this could simply put more scientists to work. Or you could believe that the next step is The Terminator.

Links I liked

  1. The inaugural issue of the very promising Journal of Experimental Political Science, which among other things encourages replication studies
  2. Local attitudes to insurgency predict violence in Afghanistan
  3. A pleasantly unusual list of development books you should read. Incidentally, here is mine.
  4. The most interesting boring people in the world
  5. Researchers had misidentified skeletons as male simply because they were buried with their swords & shields


How your language changes with your power status

Pennebaker pointed to some of his own email, a batch written long before he began studying status.

First he shares an email written by one of his undergraduate students, a woman named Pam:

Dear Dr. Pennebaker:
I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I’ve learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?

Now consider Pennebaker’s response:

Dear Pam –
This would be great. This week isn’t good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30. It will be good to see you.
Jamie Pennebaker

Pam, the lowly undergraduate, used “I” many times, while Pennebaker didn’t use it at all.

Now consider this email Pennebaker wrote to a famous professor.

Dear Famous Professor:
The reason I’m writing is that I’m helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come… I really hope you can make it.
Jamie Pennebaker

And the return email from Famous Professor:

Dear Jamie –
Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one … and the conference idea will provide us with a semiformal way of catching up with one another’s current research…. Isn’t there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?
With all best regards,
Famous Professor

Pennebaker says that when he encountered these emails he was shocked to find that he himself obeyed this rule.

The full post is fascinating.

Or should I say “I think the full post is fascinating”?

Is this the best political science syllabus ever?

Jake Bowers at UIUC teaches a course on political science and science fiction, called “Future Politics”:

How can imagining the future help us understand the present? How does considering the future help us think critically about politics today? In this course we will read social science and political philosophy together with science fiction in an attempt to enhance the political, social and economic imagination of the social sciences.

The future hopes and imaginings of past political thinkers do not include either enough detail or enough information about our rapidly changing technological, social, political, and economic landscape to provide us with enough practice to confidently confront the future as citizens as it happens to us. Science fiction allows us a much more detailed view of life in alternative futures, and the writers that we choose to read here tend to think seriously and logically about how current cutting edge technology might have social and political ramifications

The readings are terrific.

I like science fiction best when it is basically doing social science: reimagining society if you relax this constraint or that assumption.

The new best thing on Ferguson

Many people were happy with Hillary Clinton’s comments. I agree, but two weeks later it feels safe, as though she waited to see where the people were heading so she could get in front and lead them.

As for the best thing said so far, I thought it would be hard to beat this. But that was because I didn’t realize Jon Stewart would come back from vacation just to weigh in. I do not use the word genius lightly:

And here is Stewart’s “Ferguson challenge”:

“Yes you dolt, diseases can expand exponentially and Ebola just may”

That is the general tenor of some (only some) of the Twitter responses to my posts on whether or not the Ebola crisis is overhyped or not, including that from some experts who know more than I do. Some comments were less kind. Others sympathetic. Either way, it’s a fair point.

More importantly, there has been actual information coming in which is interesting. So this is a last Ebola post (I hope)—hurried, apologetically, because I’m conferencing the rest of today and this week.

First, a clarification: yesterday’s post was actually agreeing with the people pushing back (Kim Yi Dionne and Stéphane Helleringer in that case) saying “this crisis is actually, by the numbers, more serious than you think.”

My main response, which apparently I garbled a bit, was supposed to be simple: The chicken littles (I singled out and tarred an MSF post with that brush) are absolutely right about Liberia if the conditions are there for the Ebola epidemic to spiral out of control. That is the question on which many, many lives are staked.

There seem to be some partial answers, but let me get back to that in a moment.

I also wanted to make a second point: In responding, we must make sure the cure is not worse than the disease. All the negative hype will hinder, and might even destroy, Liberia’s economy for the next 5 or 10 years. Maybe the optimal response to a disease outbreak is overhype, to get the most resources possible. I’m worried about the aftershock. The cost to everyone who survives the disease looks to be very, very high in terms of lost growth, jobs, social programs, and the like.

What might be the consequences of hype? Here’s a US survey that suggests 40% of Americans are concerned about an outbreak at home and that a quarter think their family might get it. And that was two weeks ago. Frankly that smells like it might be a poorly worded question or interpretation, but either way, I think “large scale irrational fears” adequately sums up the situation.

At the same time, people like me who urge caution on the hype have a responsibility not to diminish a truly serious crisis—in this instance, the potential for the Liberia epidemic to go out of control.

Readers have made some good points and sent some useful links.

Three claims that were made, that I’m not sure are true, but are worrying if they are:

  • The recorded numbers of the disease well vastly underestimate the actual numbers
  • The people who are responding to the disease are leaving the country or dying
  • The organizations responding to the disease (the government, the WHO, etc) are doing a poor job

These seem like the right claims for researchers and the media to investigate.

Here are the models and science that I’ve been sent (please let me know if I missed some). It’s hard for me to say, but I think they paint a picture of a deadly serious outbreak, but one where it’s very unclear if it will leave Liberia or even grow exponentially for long:

Surely I am missing research. Suggestions?

One comment: having spent a lot of time running forecasting models of violence, I can tell you that extrapolating history is a reasonable but seldom reliable method. You have to factor in the response, things that interrupt the vector, etc. I can only assume epidemiological models do this.

The sad thing is that I haven’t seen the media identify these as the main questions and seek answers that are not simply speculative. Surely this is out there.

What happens when you release people from bonded labor in the Emirates?

It turns out serfdom is not so terrific for workers or the economy.

In 2011, a reform in the UAE allowed any employer to renew a migrant’s visa upon contract expiration without written permission from the initial employer. We find that the reform increased incumbent migrants’ earnings and firm retention of these workers. This occurs despite an increase in employer transitions, and is driven by a fall in country exits. While the outcomes of workers already in the UAE improved, our analysis suggests that the reform decreased demand for new migrant workers and lowered their earnings. These results are consistent with a model in which the reform reduces the monopsony power of firms.

A new paper by Naidu, Nyarko and Wang. Naidu’s other work on labor coercion–both today and in American history–is hugely interesting and important.

Does Chicken Little have Ebola?

This is my second post about Ebola, in which I continue to pontificate about things I don’t really know anything about. Yesterday I suggested Ebola is the Kardashian of diseases and we ought to be a little less worried about Ebola and talk more about HIV, malaria, and TB.

There are some excellent graphs and discussion from Kim Yi Dionne and Stéphane Helleringer, who do know what they are talking about.

Africa is a continent – not a country. If a health problem is only prevalent and problematic in one country rather than in many of Africa’s 54 countries, does that make it as irrelevant as a Kardashian? Continent-wide metrics can mask dramatic impacts of disease outbreaks in countries or even sub-regions. If we consider Ebola in the context where it’s unfolding, it matters a great deal. By the end of 2014, it may matter even more in these countries than the other infectious diseases mentioned by Blattman.

…So, how many deaths from Ebola can we expect by year’s end under these conditions? To try and answer this question, we did some simple arithmetic: at a rate of 18 deaths per day (i.e., the average number reported for August so far in Liberia), it will only be 10 days until Ebola has killed as many people as road-traffic accidents usually kill in the country in an entire year. It will be 20 days until Ebola reaches the yearly level of maternal deaths; 70 days until it reaches the number of deaths from HIV/AIDS deaths and 125 days (i.e., before the end of 2014) until it reaches the estimated annual number of malaria deaths in the country. And of course, these “projections” rest on the very optimistic assumption that the public health response will be able to maintain the number of deaths due to Ebola at 18 per day. In recent days however, the daily number of deaths seems to have been rising quite sharply over time.

This is a good response. The full post is worth reading. A few thoughts.

  1. I care unusually about Liberia, having worked there for the past six years and seeing the toll this disease is taking on the country. But it seems to me the fearful and overblown coverage will do more damage in the long run as businesses and NGOs pull out, or deals in the future never get done. I’d venture a guess that shaving a percentage point off GDP for the next few years will lead to more preventable deaths than the disease will in the end. This is disastrous for the country and it doesn’t help when organizations like MSF say it is “spiraling out of control“.
  2. Unless it is actually spiraling out of control. Donne and Helleringer tell us what happens if they project a linear trend. But diseases also expand exponentially. I think the discussion ought focus mainly on the realistic potential for a linear or exponential increase for a long period of time. If agencies can get this under control in a month, the hype will have done much more lasting damage than the actual disease.
  3. I’m conflicted as to whether history suggests the disease has this potential. If this blog is correct, there have been less than about 3000 confirmed deaths from Ebola in human history in every country in the world. This does not sound like a world ravaging killer.
  4. At the same time, the 2014 outbreak probably accounts for about half those deaths. So maybe this time is different. 99% of the time “this time is different” is wrong. Until it is not.
  5. I am waiting for science to weigh in on the trend. Anyone?

America’s other one percent

How many Americans live on less than $2 a day (in purchasing power terms) and so are below the international poverty line? Laurence Chandy blogs over at Brookings.

We obtain estimates of the $2 a day poverty rate in the U.S. for 2011/12 that range from 4 percent (12 million people) to zero depending on the definition of resources and the data source used…

[But] Not so fast. If we used the exact same criteria to measure poverty in the U.S. as is used by the World Bank to obtain official poverty estimates for the developing world, we would conclude that no-one in the U.S. falls under the $2 threshold. Part of the reason for this is that even the poorest people surveyed in America appear to find a way to meet their most basic material needs (valued above $2 a day) even if their reported income is zero or close to zero. Furthermore, the poor in America have access to public goods—public education, criminal justice and infrastructure—that would be the envy of the poor in the developing world.

One of his nicer points is that we don’t know because we don’t have the tools or data to measure the bottom 1% in the US. But we have the top 1% down pretty well (excepting those secret offshore accounts and actual wealth, of course). Ironically, we know all about the bottom 1% in poor countries, but almost no data on their top 1%.

My thought, the fact that we can write serious research papers trying to figure out how many Americans live under the international poverty line, and that a credible answer is “millions” is a very sad statement on the country.

In case you are at APSA this week…

What panels look especially interesting? Will be interested to hear in comments.

Twitterati: There is apparently a tweet-up Wednesday at 630p at St Arnold’s.

If you are the bright eyed and bushy tailed early riser, come to the post-conflict peace, democracy and development session Thursday at 8am, with me, Cyrus Samii, Mike Gilligan, Aila Matanock, Oeindrila Dube, Irfan Nooruddin, and Leonard Wantchekon in attendance. I’m presenting my paper on whether employment programs can reduce crime and rebellion.

If you are more of a lazy bones, then I’m chairing a session on order and violence: patterns, predictions and prevention, with me, Libby Wood, Alex Hartman, Guy Grossman, and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra in attendance. I’m presenting a new paper on predicting local violence, which should otherwise be posted in a couple of weeks.