Racial bias in the decision to shoot

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and California State University at Northridge in May reviewed a decade of empirical evidence about cops and implicit bias. They found police officers seem to possess implicit bias that might make them more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones. But this bias can be controlled through proper training, and police officers appear to perform better — meaning, they show less implicit bias — than participants from the general public.

Full article in Vox.

The mistakes made by most development reformers

Dani Rodrik is interviewed:

Suppose you’re in a setting where the rule of law and contract enforcement are really weak. And you realize that they don’t change overnight. Are you better off promoting the set of policies that presume that rule of law and contract enforcement will take care of themselves, or are you better off recommending a strategy that optimizes against the background of a weak rule of law? And I say that the evidence is that you do much better when you do the second.

The best example is China. Its growth experience is full of these second-best strategies, which take into account that they have, in many areas, weak institutions and a weak judicial system, and therefore they couldn’t move directly to the kinds of property rights we have in Europe and the United States. And yet they’ve managed to provide incentives and generate export-orientation in ways that are very different from how we would have said they ought to have done it, which would have been to simply open up their economy or privatize their enterprises. There, second-best strategies have been very effective. The same can be said of Vietnam, say, or farther afield, a country like Mauritius.

The full interview is interesting. Hat tip to the Development Impact blog.

Understand the world you live in. Think about the politics of reform. These are good points. It’s kind of amazing they need to be said out loud as news, but people do need reminders.

One trouble I have is that I think even very smart and experienced people are profoundly bad at knowing what the problems are in the economy, where the political winds are blowing, and what will work. This needs to be said out loud as well.

To take an example from a smaller scale: I spend a lot of time studying local labor markets in Africa, especially when people opt for crime or mercenary work rather than farming and business. I try to figure out what holds back legal work and test programs that deliver those things: skills, capital, socialization, and so on. And I get it wrong almost every time.

What I mean is that the experiments never end like I expect them to. Even (maybe especially) when they work out. I was blindsided by how frequently the poorest young men in slums of Nairobi have a home robbery or theft, meaning it’s almost impossible to accumulate capital. I was amazed that, yes, with a little skills and capital that a young woman can become the 183rd tailor in her community and turn a good profit.

This isn’t a defeatist point of view. I’d make a different point: the way I’ve learned how things operate is to work with a government or organization to try out a policy and succeed or fail. This kind of trial and error seems crucial to me. Karl Popper called this the piecemeal social engineer. Deng Xiaoping called it crossing the river by feeling each stone.

This sounds like a good way to figure out the way your world works (your model), and then to reform. A lot of people would say this is China’s secret to success: informal experimentation on a grand scale. The problem, as I see it, is that most governments and aid organizations I’ve worked with are really, really bad at this. They don’t use the lessons from past failures to try again a different, better way. They don’t throw out bad programs.

I think Dani would agree. He pushes policymakers to do more diagnosis before acting, to figure out the right model. But as the LSE economist John Sutton once said (in a truly terrific lecture), implementation trumps diagnosis. I think the best diagnostic is probably trial and error.

In any case, to me the important question is not “what is the right policy?”, but “what is the process for generating good policies over time?”, and more importantly “how to get governments and aid organizations to adapt to the good and throw out the bad?”.

I don’t know a good answer. To me, this is what makes most development aid and planning not just fruitless but downright dangerous.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Electronic cash payments directly to recipient accounts are thought to help reduce opportunities for corruption. An IPA study in India found moving government payments to electronic systems reduced leakage, and the government of India has switched its fuel subsidies to electronic cash transfers into free bank accounts for the poor.
  • However, the Wall Street Journal reports that this can exacerbate the problems for the poor, who (according to the story) are still being asked for bribes they can’t afford to open the new bank accounts, and without access to the fuel subsidy cash, prices have gone up for them.
  • Electronic cash systems are also susceptible to fraud and collusion among employees, as CGAP explains happened in Uganda and Rwanda. More worrying is that employees in Uganda with a few keystrokes created new e-money, not backed by real currency (wait for the gold standard folks to run with this). GiveDirectly also reported finding fraud by employees in Uganda last fall.
  • The New York Times explains that just measuring deaths can be misleading for health policy, because the death of a 30 year-old represents more life lost than that of a 90 year-old. Mortality also doesn’t account for the burden of diseases that leave people alive but disabled, hence the economist-preferred disability-adjusted life year, or DALY. A 2012 Lancet paper found:

    lung cancer kills about 200,000 more people than road injuries annually. But measured by DALYs, road injuries are almost two and a half times worse for humanity. That’s because most fatal victims of lung cancer are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, while those most likely to die of road injury are in their 20s and 30s — and road injuries cause almost 40 times more disabilities. If you are an international policy maker or aid agency choosing how much to invest in road safety relative to antismoking campaigns, that’s vital information.

It turns out when you start using DALYs to also factor in disability, major depressive disorder and lower back pain become among the largest public health problems in the US.

  • Justin Sandefur writes in the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog that Tanzania’s parliament has “allegedly” (because nobody has seen the text) passed a bill to criminalize release of statistics not approved by the government (h/t Erin L).
  • Your bonus: The guys from NPR’s Planet Money tried a bunch of economics jokes at a New York comedy club. Results illustrate:
    1) What makes perfect sense to economists doesn’t necessarily resonate with the general public.
    2) The stand-up economist will probably be welcome to his 100% market share for the foreseeable future.

Links I liked

  1. Why are Indian children so short?
  2. Village temples cause democracy in rural China?
  3. Why basic income guarantees are better than workfare programs
  4. Those of you following the “what experiments don’t replicate?” brouhahas of recent years will enjoy Michael Clemens’ paper on what makes a replication and how to have more civil science. 
  5. The InterAmerican Development Bank has a resource website of experimental design tools

The World Bank has a conflict problem

The World Bank is facing what I think of as a March of Dimes moment. The well-known March of Dimes charity was founded in 1938 with a focus on fighting polio. But after the Salk vaccine was licensed for use in 1955 and polio declined rapidly, the charity did not close up shop. Instead, it shifted its focus first to birth defects, and then to issues of healthy pregnancies and premature births.

A combination of growth in lower-income and middle-income countries around the world and change in their economic development challenges is leading to a similar crisis in the mission of the World Bank.

That is Timothy Taylor. He points to these amazing figures from Scott Morris and Madeleine Gleave:

world bank 2

world bank 3

The problem with the countries in orange is that many aren’t growing at all. Some, like the Congo or South Sudan, are conflict-ridden states. Others like Zimbabwe and Uganda have aging autocrats at their helm, and who knows if they’ll manage a change of President without chaos.

The Bank knows this. They’ve produced a steady stream of reports. they’ve reorganized the institution partly around “fragile and conflict-affected states”.

At the same time, you have to worry about an institution that is supposed to apolitical, has a mandate to push money out the door to a smaller and smaller group of countries, and at the same time can only push the money through the central government, thuggish or not. This doesn’t exactly increase the thugs’ incentives to share power.

The Bank is the world’s largest aid donor by a big margin. So it matters.

This is when most bloggers would write the solution. Truth is I don’t know and I don’t know many people who do.

Honestly, a retreat to what the Bank does best–helping get roads and power plants built, and underwriting highly decentralized development programs (cash transfers, school and clinic building, and so on)–might be the safest strategy, given that the pipeline of aid into these places is unlikely to stop pumping. But “try to do as little damage as possible” is not the most inspiring rallying cry.

Gangs as prison governments (or the economics of prisons)

I just listened to David Skarbek‘s amazing EconTalk podcast, where he talks about his new book on the economics of prisons. I liked it so much I just ordered the book.

Some things I took away.

  • How California prison evolved away from smaller sized groups of people following informal rules and norms. As prison populations got larger and larger these informal systems that enforced good behavior broke down, and more formal institutions or government were needed.
  • But the formal prison system didn’t provide what inmates needed—be it security, or guarantees for credit, or systems of insurance. And so gangs formed semi-formal systems of protection from physical harm, of credit (through group liability), and insurance.
  • If you’re in one of these prisons, you need to affiliate with a gang even if you don’t really participate, because someone has to be responsible for your behavior. Sort of like the state government makes you take car insurance with a company if you drive. They don’t want uninsured people wrecking the system.
  • One thing that influences why gangs are race-based is that this makes it almost impossible to switch gangs, and so enforces commitment. It also lets people know who’s responsible for you at a glance. This is also why tattoos are so important.
  • As prisons make more things illegal, they cede more authority and tax income to the gangs. So banning tobacco for public health reasons, or banning mobile phones and making prison pay phones very costly, enlarges the underground economy for cigarettes and mobile phones. this not only empowers the gangs and increases demand for them to govern these markets and provide the goods, but also gives them a larger source of revenue.

You might summarize it like this: Where there is demand for government, someone will supply. Even it if the real government doesn’t.

For a similar take on the “hidden internet”, see Henry Farrell’s recent piece. One of my favorite articles of the year.

People familiar with Mancur Olson’s tale of stationary versus roving bandits, or Diego Gambetta’s work on the mafia, will see a familiar pattern. But it’s the details that are fascinating.

Related is the Barry Weingast EconTalk podcast on the origins of law. Also worthwhile.

How do Yale professors recommend you teach? The podcast interviews

The Teach Better podcast, from my friend Doug McKee.

The Teach Better Podcast is a series of conversations with faculty (for now just at Yale) who care about teaching and are doing interesting things in the classroom. We just published our fifth episode with Laurie Santos (“Sex, Lectures, and Videotape”) where she talks about how she teaches a 600 student lecture class on Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature in Battell Chapel.
In earlier episodes we’ve talked to Jim Rolfe (Math), Jenny Frederick (Chemistry) and Bo Hopkins (Business and Engineering), and we have episodes upcoming with Don Kagan (History), David Bromwich (English) and Larry Samuelson (Economics).
The idea is to build a community of folks interested in teaching at Yale and around the world. You can subscribe through your favorite podcast app or listen on the website.


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action.

As we expect never to hear from Chris again, here are IPA’s weekly links:

  • With the US, Japan, and North Korea appearing to be the only countries not on board the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew seems to have softened the US stance against it.
  • The new Freakonomics podcast talks with MIT & J-PAL’s Amy Finkelstein and  physician & MacArthur “Genius” Jeffrey Brenner about using randomized controlled trials in policy, and an interesting new collaboration between the two to fix Camden, New Jersey’s chronic healthcare problems with data.
  • One of the difficult parts for an org participating in a randomized controlled trail is not being able to offer the program to the control group, since they have targets to meet also. David McKenzie suggests adding a third “wait list” group, and if takeup is less than 100%, offering the remaining spots to people in this third group, who won’t be part of the study itself. It helps the implementer do their job without risking the control group (h/t Nathanael Goldberg).
  • Justin Sandefur takes his teacher’s red pen to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. In the accompanying blog post, he explains what we learned from the last round about concrete measurable goals, and why gender equity language is a bad idea.
  • In what must be some sort of record for most information in fewest words, David Evans has 40+ great one-sentence summaries of papers from the recent Center for the Study of African Economies conference in Oxford.
  • Lessons on interpreting causation and correlations for journalists:

-J-PAL’s Rachel Glennerster has five lessons for interpreting research from a recent training for journalists in Chile (and some choice words for NPR).

-And from Buzzfeed:  Dow Falls More Than 1% As Zayn Leaves One Direction

 “The Dow began falling prior to the announcement of Zayn’s departure, suggesting some traders may have been tipped off early.”

Those two links together became one of our most popular recent Facebook posts, because apparently the internet is full of good data journalism fans.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on why the Republican party is not anti-science

I hesitate to publish anything on April 1, but the interview’s dateline was yesterday.

What I’m saying is I’ve become much more pragmatic about all of this. Washington is about politics, and Bush has an electoral base that want him to behave certain ways, but what matters is policy. People were saying there was a “Republican War on Science,” and I say, “What war are you talking about?” And they say, “Well, they’re suppressing stem cell research. Oh, and there’s the environment. And the Republicans are in bed with oil companies.” So I check those boxes and say, “Is there anything else?” Well, no, not really. The budget for the NSF went up. The budget for NASA went up. The budget for the National Institutes of Health that gives grants for health research went up. So it’s not really a war on science. It’s a resistance to things that interfere with their two political agendas: one religion-based, the other oil-based. There it is. It’s called politics.

The full interview is interesting, including a credible defense of Scientology.

Still, to this day, my favorite April Fools Day post

From William Easterly and Laura Freschi in 2011, “UN Revealed to be Gigantic 66-year-old Hoax”:

“I can’t believe it lasted this long,” said “US Ambassador to the UN” Susan Rice, laughing, “Who would really believe that there is this magical agency that would, like, be responsible for solving all the problems in the whole world?  That nobody else can solve? Or even wants to?”

“I really thought it would come out when that prankster Ban Ki Moon put Libya on the “reformed” Human Rights Council in 2010,” said Rice, “after there was a backlash against Libya CHAIRING the old Human Rights Commission. Who would fall for that?”

Ban, who in real life is a much-loved writer for 30 Rock, also bet “UNCTAD Secretary-General” Supachai Panitchpakdi three shots of Glenlivet that he would never get more than 15 crisscrossing arrows into one UN diagram. He lost the bet.

Thanks to @ithorpe for the reminder.

The problem with literary tattoos

Perhaps most of all with Samuel Beckett.

The Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka has the words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his left forearm.

…In their original contexts, they do not work quite so well as motivational mottoes or sentimental consolations. “Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” This doesn’t quite work on an athlete’s arm.


I have nothing against tattoos, but from a personal standpoint can’t for the life of me think of something I would want to wear forever. More evidence of my absurdly low discount rate.

Links I liked

  1. Why the world is getting weirder
  2. Qatar press-gangs migrant workers into running a marathon (to display it’s sports organizing prowess?)
  3. Proffesor. We’ve all been there.
  4. Astronaut Scott Kelly will return from a year in space both older and younger than his twin brother
  5. Lobbyist claims Monsanto’s roundup Is safe to drink. Journalist proffers a glass.
  6. Ben Bernanke is blogging. Looks too op-eddy to be sustained for more that a year. The secret to longevity is to blog other people’s stuff, hasty drivel, and maps.
  7. The hometown of every March Madness finalist on a map 

Can you imagine a modern New York where several million people move apartments every May 1st?

From the pre-Revolutionary period until World War II, tenants in New York City were uniformly given three months’ notice of annual rent increases on February 1 (known as Rent Day). Many then sought cheaper deals, and when all leases expired on May 1 (called Moving Day) as many as a million residents changed houses in what amounted to a single mass migration.

Lately there’s been another, more specialized real estate frenzy afoot in America’s largest city. Its most visible manifestations concern the world’s very richest people.

An NYRB article on New York’s hyper-luxury tower boom.

We interrupt this lovefest for Lee Kwan Yew with this important message

No, I’m not going to complain about the whitewashing of an authoritarian regime. I’m used to people trading off someone else’s freedom for GDP growth. Or forgetting that for every transformative dictator there are many more who take the country down the toilet.

Rather, I want to highlight this point from political scientist Tom Pepinsky:

The coverage of Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew consistently emphasizes a theme of rapid economic development in an inauspicious context, encapsulated by the slogan “From Third World to First.”

…Now, no one should doubt that Lee Kuan Yew was a developmentalist statebuilder par excellence. But Singapore at independence a third-world country? This narrative neglects the incredible legacy of openness, infrastructure, and stability that the British rule left this tiny country.

The graph below says it all. For every year since 1945, I have ranked all independent countries by real per capita GDP, the best measure we have of economic prosperity. I then normalize these to a percentile scale. Here is what we get.


…Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time.

True, Lee Kwan Yew started governing a few years before Independence from Malaysia, where we don’t have data. Conceivably the green line starts at Indonesia levels in 1959 and goes vertical before the observed data come in. Conceivably.

I invite the Singapore experts to weigh in. Miracles do happen. Like most miracles, however, this one might be mythical.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action.

In case you missed it last week, Chris is letting Innovations for Poverty Action (where he’s a Research Affiliate) share our internal weekly links on his blog, we presume so he can spend time looking for an even more progressive daycare for his kids.

  • From our blog: Development March Madness brackets for all the evaluation superfans out there.
  • Bill Gates argues in the New York Times that as bad as Ebola has been, the next crisis will be worse. Among other things, we have very bad disease tracking systems (IPA’s working on it), and we shouldn’t assume affected countries will be open to US military personnel helping next time. He argues that we could easily be building in vaccines and disease surveillance into existing efforts to improve health infrastructures.
  • Pacific Standard Magazine discusses how hard it is to get good estimates of the economic impact of Ebola (though we did help collect what little good data there is), and wonders if fear mongering made things worse.
  • Two new Gates Foundation challenges: one on better collection of financial services data, another for inexpensive mobile payment systems for merchants in low income areas. A two-page application for $100,000, potentially followed by a million for good ideas.
  • Freakonomics has a nice interview with Katherine Milkman of Wharton on her research around “Temptation Bundling,” a cousin of commitment devices, and a way of getting yourself to do something you know you should but don’t want to do. The trick is a rule pairing it with something you do like, such as only watching your favorite show while exercising. They also talk about the “fresh start effect,” why people time new commitments to particular calendar times.
  • This past week’s New York Times Book Review was dedicated to all things financial and economic (scroll down to “the secret life of money”). One book by a Financial Times reporter argues that impressive economic growth in many African countries masks huge inequality, chronicling how extractive industries bribe those at the top. There’s also one on Islamic finance, for anyone who wants a quick intro.
  • New working paper draft from Jayachandran & Pande, (with slightly changed title) “Why Are Indian Children So Short?” (PDF). They look at the height gap between 174,000 Indian and Sub-Saharan African children, and give three ways the data suggests preferences for sons in India, particularly firstborn sons.
  • In this coming weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson Debunks the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant:

The chief logical mistake we make is something called the Lump of Labor Fallacy: the erroneous notion that there is only so much work to be done and that no one can get a job without taking one from someone else.

He explains that in reality (at least for the US), most economists now believe that immigrants take low skilled jobs, moving native English speakers into higher paying jobs, while lowering overall costs for employers, and they also increasing the size of the population who is buying goods and services (h/t Michael Clemens).

  • Vox says every medical study you’ve heard of is probably wrong, because the publication process and media favor sensational positive outliers that rarely live up to replication. A dot plot shows the findings around 8 common foods that apparently both prevent and cause cancer.


  • One potential solution is hypothesis preregistration. On the Development Impact blog, rising star Ben Ozler looks at the pros and cons of preregistration. It creates a lot of later constraints and several kinds of lost opportunities that could come up later as study/analysis design evolves, while not always preventing fishing. Conclusion is that we’re in an in-between time as norms are developed for how tightly we’re going to hold researchers to their original plans.

And your bonus: Indians try American sweets for the first time

“’Do you guys have this every day??”

Links I liked

  1. Obama floated the idea of mandatory voting. John Sides says it won’t make a difference.
  2. X-Files is returning to Fox for 6 episodes
  3. Not The Onion: George Zimmerman compares himself to Anne Frank, blames Obama for his woes. Anne Frank!
  4. “Professors, what is the simplest thing students do which gets them your respect or annoys you to death?” (A Reddit thread)
  5. IPA Liberia has an open research position
  6. Children responding to the question: “What do you think being a grown up is like?”
  7. An unfortunate Georgia university course catalog cover (via @TimHarford).20-university-north-georgia-catalog.w529.h3521

“Bankspeak” (or, Orwellian development)

What can quantitative linguistic analysis tell us about the operations and outlook of the international financial institutions? At first glance, the words most frequently used in the World Bank’s Annual Reports give an impression of unbroken continuity. Seven are near the top at any given time: three nouns—bank, loan/s, development—and four adjectives: fiscal, economic, financial, private. This septet is joined by a handful of other nouns: IBRD, countries, investment/s, interestprogramme/s, project/s, assistance, and—though initially less frequent—lending, growth, cost, debttrade, prices.

…And yet, behind this façade of uniformity, a major metamorphosis has taken place. Here is how the Bank’s Report described the world in 1958:

The Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade, and is based on river navigation and on railroads which lead from river ports into regions producing minerals and agricultural commodities. Most of the roads radiate short distances from cities, providing farm-to-market communications. In recent years road traffic has increased rapidly with the growth of the internal market and the improvement of farming methods.

And here is the Report from half a century later, in 2008:

Levelling the playing field on global issues

Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.

It’s almost another language, in both semantics and grammar. The key discontinuity, as we shall see, falls mostly between the first three decades and the last two, the turn of the 1990s, when the style of the Reports becomes much more codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language. It is this Bankspeak that will be the protagonist of the pages that follow.


This recurrent transmutation of social forces into abstractions turns the World Bank Reports into strangely metaphysical documents, whose protagonists are often not economic agents, but principles—and principles of so universal a nature, it’s impossible to oppose them. Levelling the playing field on global issues: no one will ever object to these words (although, of course, no one will ever be able to say what they really mean, either).

That is Franco Moretti and Dominque Pestre in the New Left Review. Well worth reading.

The delicious irony is that the article is written in the dense, jargon-filled prose of literary criticism mingled with Marxist thought. So sometimes I have no idea what they’re saying.

A plea, then, for people to write in simple plain prose, free of jargon.

It also suggests a more mundane explanation for bad Bank reports, which might also explain badly-written literary criticism: bureaucracies (and academic disciplines) get big and decrepit over time. And obscure language preserves the insider privilege and makes mediocre work more difficult to judge.

Hat tip to David Evans.