Fake decentralization

A very under-appreciated fact: developing countries keep cutting themselves into smaller units. Half of African countries have increased their districts by at least a fifth. Brazil, Indonesia, and Hungary have by 50%.  Is decentralization bring power to the people?

A new paper by Grossman and Lewis, coming out in next month’s APSR:

…although the proliferation of administrative units often accompanies or follows far-reaching decentralization reforms, it likely results in a recentralization of power; the proliferation of new local governments fragments existing units into smaller ones with lower relative intergovernmental bargaining power and administrative capacity. We find support for these arguments using original data from Uganda.

What’s an instinctively authoritarian guy to do when his country democratizes? Divide and conquer.

I hereby propose we cut all US House of Representatives districts in six, but leave the Senate be.

My syllabus: Political Economy of Development

My Master’s class syllabus is here. What I’ve always wanted to call it is “Why are some countries poor, violent and unfree, and what (if anything) can the West do about it?”

But that apparently looks weird on a syllabus. So boring “PE of Development” it is.

(The undergraduate class syllabus looks very similar in readings but is taught slightly differently.)

For those interested: I’ll be posting slides weekly, and you should remind me if I forget.

Sorry, no taped lectures just yet. I’m not sure that Columbia is on that wagon at the moment. Will look into it next year though. I’m getting to the point where I’m no longer just making half of it up, so I might be willing to go on the record.

How to reduce teen births in the US by one third? Reality television

MTV’s 16 and Pregnant franchise is a series of reality TV shows which follow pregnant teenagers from the end of their pregnancy through early motherhood.

We investigate whether the show influenced teens’ interest in contraceptive use or abortion, and whether it ultimately altered teen childbearing outcomes.

…We find that 16 and Pregnant led to more searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion, and ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction.

This accounts for around one-third of the overall decline in teen births in the United States during that period.

A new paper from Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine. Emphasis mine. I bolded the statement, but what it deserves is five exclamation points followed by Holy. Freaking. Moly.

The sad part: think of all the terrible damage the other 1,764 reality shows are wreaking on American social fabric.

What we talk about when we talk about corruption

I agree with Bill Gates: corruption is a second order development issue at best. A commenter pushes back:

I think both Gates and Blattman are being a bit blithe on the issue of corruption–or at least constraining the issue to an unhelpfully narrow conception of corruption. I agree that the problem of graft or illegally channeling public funds into private bank accounts is a pretty minor problem in the overall scheme of things.

But if we think of corruption in the broader sense of subverting democracy and making holders of public office accountable to people other than the public they purport to represent, I think that not only is corruption a serious problem, but that aid bears a large part of the blame.

A number people have asked me this so I’ll clear up my view.

I agree that subverting democracy and institutions, or wholesale pillaging of the nation (a la Mobutu), is a big problem. It is one facet of the governance problems that are fundamentally the cause of poverty and instability–personalized, authoritarian, unaccountable rule. Which also usually happens to be corrupt.

If that’s what World Bank president Jim Kim or others mean by ‘corruption’ then I’m all for tackling it. But that’s not what the word means, what many people understand it to mean, or what the policy solutions seem to tackle.

Merriam-Webster defines corruption as “dishonest or illegal behavior especially by powerful people (such as government officials or police officers)”. This (in my view) conjures bribery and fraud more than an overcentralized, autocratic kleptocracy. I’m guessing this is what it means to the average voter, aid worker, or unfortunate citizen of one of these regimes.

A focus on bribery and diversion of aid money is precisely what a lot of aid agencies and donors worry about, because the people that give them money hate that theft, petty or large-scale.

Their answers and policy solutions are revealing. Anti-corruption commissions for example. That is not a solution to the fundamental problem. Most anti-corruption policies obscure the real challenges. Band-aids for cancer patients.

In fact, aid donors themselves have fed the problem, giving absolute sovereignty to the head of state, channeling funds through central government, making a handful of ministries powerful gatekeepers, and sending good money after bad.

Grading the annual Bill and Melinda Gates letter on poverty and aid predictions

On Friday the Wall Street Journal previewed the key bits of the annual B&MG letter on aid and development. Today the full letter came out. This is fast becoming one of the more important aid statements each year, if only because it’s the only short and readable one. Fortunately it is often smart as well.

The questions they tackle look an awful lot like some of my Columbia SIPA class exam questions. So how would I grade it?

From the WSJ exceprts:

By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. Yes, a few unhappy countries will be held back by war, political realities (such as North Korea) or geography (such as landlocked states in central Africa). But every country in South America, Asia and Central America (except perhaps Haiti) and most in coastal Africa will have become middle-income nations. More than 70% of countries will have a higher per-person income than China does today.

B+. I buy the basic spirit that most countries are growing and, barring any unforeseen disasters, the majority will probably chug along. So I can get behind the idea of less doom and gloom.

Even so, while I’m sure you can make the numbers back these claims, it feels like exuberant optimism when simple optimism would do. I’d feel a lot more confident about proclaiming poor nations will be few in 40 rather than 20 years, especially by the China benchmark.

Here is one hasty calculation from me: By one measure, China has a per capita income (adjusting for the prices of goods) of $9k right now. Two of the best growth prospects in Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia, come in at $1.8k and $1.3k. To reach China’s level in 2035, Kenya would have to grow at about 8% per person a year, and Ethiopia at 10%.

Basically, Kenya and Ethiopia have to grow as fast and unfettered as some of the fastest-growing nations in human history. Impossible? No. Likely? Almost certainly not. But at an ambitious 5% income growth per year (per person) they’ll reach China’s level by about 2050, which is still pretty amazing by historical standards.

Two other reasons to temper our exuberance. First, I’m a bit worried that resource (especially oil) wealth will put a lot of countries over the middle income edge, leaving a number of fairly unequal, unstable states.

There’s also an authoritarian tinge to many of the recent success stories (Ethiopia, for instance) and I fear that will get worse before it gets better. African leaders are paying close attention to Chinese political systems of control, not just economic ones. I’m more optimistic about growth in incomes than freedoms in the next three decades. And ultimately that is what matters.

A slightly more measured tone, clearer numbers, and a word about the uncertainties and risks would have sailed this answer into “A” territory.

Onto the next big point:

One common complaint about foreign aid is that some of it gets wasted on corruption—and of course, some of it does. But the horror stories you hear—where aid just helps a dictator build new palaces—mostly come from a time when aid was designed to win allies for the Cold War rather than to improve people’s lives.

The problem today is much smaller. Small-scale corruption, like a government official who puts in for phony travel expenses, is an inefficiency that amounts to a tax on aid. We should try to reduce it, but we can’t eliminate it, any more than we can eliminate waste from every government program—or from every business, for that matter.

A+. Hurray! Finally a public figure with some sense. And a bold statement given that heads of aid agencies love to prioritize corruption. See here and here if you want my take why their claims are well founded.

Unfortunately, next comes this:

Aid also drives improvements in health, agriculture and infrastructure that correlate strongly with long-run growth. A baby born in 1960 had an 18% chance of dying before her fifth birthday. For a child born today, it is less than 5%. In 2035, it will be 1.6%. We can’t think of any other 75-year improvement in human welfare that would even come close. A waste? Hardly.

C-. The basis of the claim is that aid projects work and we know it. I completely agree. Plenty of aid projects have huge impact.

There’s a paradox, though: even though so many projects work, aid in total doesn’t have the association with growth or development we’d expect to see. Some of the finest minds in development (like Angus Deaton) think aid is fundamentally flawed, with good reasons.

The evidence that aid projects are associated with growth is amazingly absent. This is frustrating for those of us (including me) who believe in aid. My guess is that we throw a lot of good money after bad, and most aid is much more wasteful than it needs to be. But I think aid basically works and can do better. See me challenging Deaton’s pessimism here. Bt make no mistake: This is a leap of faith not evidence.

One answer could be that projects work alone, but that the assembly of so many projects (and so many dollars) perverts or undermines stable, good governance. Here is a good summary of the evidence, and it’s not optimistic.

So the basic problems with B&M’s claim: they gloss over the paradox, the potential political problems, and the strongest evidence against their leap of faith. I found the whole section troublingly misleading compared to the rest of the letter.

Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. Just the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality and access to contraceptives is the only way to a sustainable world.

A-. Here they are fighting the myth that saving lives leads to overpopulation. I didn’t know this was a popular belief. It seems they are banging their heads against blog commenters. I would be more concerned if they heard it again and again from government ministers. But the A- gives them the benefit of the doubt that a wary American public thinks that aid will dangerously overpopulate the world.

My overall assessment: A-

I nudge it above a B+ because (1) this is a public letter not an exam (so I’ll forgive the absence of some nuance), and (2) the unconventional and daring points (by aid world standards) about who will be poor in 25 years and why corruption is important but second order.

Of course, this is a hasty reading and grading. (Yet, truthfully and shamefully, not half so hasty as most of us professors grade their real exams.)

Readers, what do you think about the letter?

“I hope I don’t get kicked out of Yale for this”

A student responds to the university’s somewhat clumsy blocking of a student website:

Later that weekend, Yale’s administration told the student developers that the school didn’t approve of the use of its course evaluation data, saying that their website “let students see the averaged evaluations far too easily”. Harry and Peter were told to remove the feature from the CourseTable website or else they would be referred to the school’s punishment committee.

What if someone made a piece of software that displays Yale’s course evaluation data in a way that Yale disapproves of, while also (1) not infringing on Yale’s copyrights or trademarks, (2) not storing any sensitive data, (3) not scraping or collecting Yale’s data, and (4) not causing damages to Yale’s network or servers? If Yale censors this piece of software or punishes the software developer, it would clearly characterize Yale as an institution where having authority over students trumps freedom of speech.

Guess what? I made it last night.


Yale’s students weren’t so different from others I’ve taught at Berkeley, Harvard or Columbia, but one thing did stand out: they never saw any limits to what they could do.

Interested in international journalism? Maybe I’ll go to Zimbabwe over spring break, corner the central bank governor in a hotel lobby, and get a scoop I can sell to a newspaper.

The biggest difference between me as a 21-year old and them is that it would never even have occurred to me that this was possible.

While you might say that this attitude is a product of privilege, Yale was reasonably good at not recruiting just the high SAT, high socio-economic status kids. There was something else on top. A reminder to us that more is possible than we imagine.

At the same time, most of them went to work in finance or consulting, which (whatever you think of those careers) might not be humanity’s best use of so many fine minds. So there is some tragedy.

War and the state in the other stateless Great Lakes region

I have been reading The Middle Ground, a history of the French encounter with the Algonquins about the Great Lakes of North America. Many interesting insights into state building.

The French equated leadership with political power, and power with coercion. Leaders commanded; followers obeyed. But what distinguished most Algonquian politics from European politics was the absence of coercion. Only among the Miamis did the French recognize leaders who seemed to possess power in the French sense.

…The normal influence of an Algonquian okama was far different. As Chigabe, a Saulteur chief, and probably a lineage head of one of the proto-Ojibwa bands of Lake Superior told Governor Frontenac: “Father: It is not the same with us as with you. When you command, all the French obey and go to war. But I shall not be heeded and obeyed by my nation in a like manner. Therefore, I cannot answer except for myself and for those immediately allied or related to me.” Except for war leaders during a war expedition, chiefs could command no other men. There were people of power and influence among the Algonquians, but their power was, as Pierre Clastres has argued, non-coercive; it was a type of power that Europeans failed to recognize.

In Algonquian village societies, people conceived of power as arising from outside. Power came from manitous [spirit beings], who gave it to individuals or to ancestors of the group. The power of clans usually derived from an ancestral vision, and that power was actualized in a ritual bundle consisting of objects that symbolized the original vision. Each bundle had its attendant ceremonies. A clan chief was the person responsible for these ceremonies.

Coercive, stable structures that look a little like a state emerge as the French and Algonquins ally and push back aggressive Iroquois invasions.

It’s a reminder that it’s difficult to see the order and logic of places that look different from us.

Also a reminder that the central states we equate with peace exist (in most places) because someone was were conquered by coercive neighbors. Or (in their own defense) grew their own military tyrants.

Today, unstable places like South Sudan or CAR didn’t face these pressures to the same degree, and so their tumult and transition is happening now. The violence is tragic and terrible. The alternative, though, was tragic and terrible violence generations ago, as they came under the yoke of some tyrant. The difference is it’s happening beneath the gaze of the global media rather than the frumpy historian.

The other difference, I’d like to think, is that there are better paths to stability today than tyrant’s yokes. That the global gaze restrains the tyrants, and make it possible to reach a stable political balance with less violence than in the past. Of course, today we also have helicopter gunships and AK 47s, so I’m not so sure.

And that, folks, is your optimistic thought of the day.

Humans are strange creatures (our selfish unselfishness edition)

In the doomsday scenario, you are to imagine that, although you will live a normal lifespan and die of natural causes, the earth will be completely destroyed thirty days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. In the infertility scenario… the human race has become infertile, so that after everyone now alive has died of natural causes, there will be no more human beings. These are both terrible possibilities, but the interesting question is, exactly how are they terrible? What values are at work in our reaction when we contemplate the extinction of humanity?

Part of our response, of course, concerns the fate of people now living. In the doomsday scenario, those who survive your own natural death would have their lives cut short in a mass catastrophe. In the infertility scenario, those who are now young would see the population of the world gradually dwindle until there were only small numbers of lonely old people unable to maintain a civilized existence. But this is not the aspect of our response that interests Scheffler. He believes that if we think about the cases carefully, we will notice that the prospective absence of future persons would itself have major negative consequences for the living. And this reveals that the [collective] afterlife, the survival of humanity far into the future, has great importance for our lives in the present.

…the disappearance of the afterlife would undermine our sense of the value of most of what we do in the present, in a way that our own personal extinction does not. The value of our actual expiration-dated lives and activities depends on their being situated in a history of human life that stretches far beyond us into the future.

A review of philosopher Sam Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife, in the NYRB.

What I’ve been reading

  1. Bound for Canaan, by Fergus Bordewich. A history of the Underground Railroad. Part of my ongoing attempt to correct my ignorance of American history. Like too many history volumes, interesting and educational but tedious in its length and detail, and challenging to skim. Still worthwhile though.
  2. The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin. Re-read one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time which, like all good sci fi, is really philosophy and politics in narrative form. This one imagines life in an anarchist society.
  3. Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks. A WWII memoir by a junior cryptographer. For the life of me, I can’t remember what possessed me to buy or read this book, but it was strangely captivating, even if a bit campy.
  4. Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. If you think the poor make bad decisions about money and you can’t understand why, substitute “you” for poor and “time” for money, and suddenly it all starts to come into focus. An important, deep insight. Book is possibly a bit long for that but it’s also a nice intro to a lot of psychology and economics.
  5. Dreamsongs, by George R R Martin. The man who wrote Game of Thrones spent decades writing short stories and novellas in horror, sci-fi and fantasy magazines. This is his collection of favorites. I enjoyed nearly every one. Except the horror. I hate suspense and gruesomeness on their own, let alone together.
  6. Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton. The basic premise: why should the religions have all the pomp and ceremony? People value community and ritual, and the non-God-fearing would do well to provide it for one another. My reaction: an interesting point, which probably would have made an excellent magazine article rather than a book. On humans and ritual, the best thing I read this year was by Michael Chwe. Meanwhile, I am still on the lookout for intelligent discussion of morality without religion (for or against).
  7. Germinal, by Emile Zola. Possibly the best novel I read all year. I had never heard of it. The travails of a coal-mining community in nineteenth century France and their attempt to strike for a better future. Haunting and far more educational than a history or political tome.




Links I liked

  1. Should you have given a cow or cash for Christmas? The evidence based answer
  2. The left loves cash transfers too?
  3. Josh Angrist on the perils of peer effects (sadly gated)
  4. The greatest business card ever
  5. The power of human self delusion is truly awesome
  6. The case for transparency in economic research
  7. I will go insane if I have to sing The wheels on the bus one more time. Trying to get Amara hooked on this children’s version of Three Little Birds (Bob Marley). More suggestions welcome.


Our intellectual cowardice

“There is often to be found in men devoted to literature,” declared Samuel Johnson several centuries ago, “a kind of intellectual cowardice.” Writers and professors parade their toughness, their credo of “speaking truth to power.” But when it comes to talking truth to mini-power, the magazines in which they might publish and editors who might allow it, laryngitis strikes. Who criticizes the professional journals or the general book reviews? Few or no one. The reason is obvious. We all hope to be reviewed or noticed. Even the most specialized sociologist of adolescent dating patterns harbors dreams of a major book review. Some public words about the dismal quality of reviewing in this or that journal may not help that cause. Less courage is required to attack the architects of American foreign policy than the editors of Foreign Policy.

That is Russell Jacoby writing in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. His target is the New York Review of Books, which “gave space to important figures—but only once they were already important” and for 50 years “withdrew from the cultural bank while making few deposits.” Hat tip to @BostonReview.

In case you are wondering: self-censorship on this blog is rife. I’m not so worried about criticizing journalism or news outlets. But I’m an untenured professor who would like to see his work appear in top journals, and I exercise extreme caution when it comes to academics and their outlets. Fortunately for readers, suppose, I am shortsighted or carefree enough that “extreme caution” still means “unwisely mouthy”. But self-interested cowardice is alive and well here.

Is development research running in the wrong direction?

We can now see that aid and development are two distinct topics that should each have their own separate debates. If today’s development economists talk only about what can be tested with a small randomized experiment, they confine themselves to the small aid conversation and leave the big development discussion to others, too often the types of advocates who appeal to anecdotes, prejudice, and partisanship. It would be much better to confront the big issues, such as the role of political and economic freedom in achieving development.

That is Bill Easterly writing in reason. While I agree, I’m going to push back at my friend Bill. I don’t worry so much about the state of development research for a few reasons.

If you dig a trench next to a river, and knock a hole between the two, the water will come pouring in until one reaches the level of the other. A few years ago, the “macro” research on development was the river, and solid “micro” research was the trench, dug by our many wise elders in the 1980s and 1990s. I wouldn’t mistake a torrent now for the long run flow.

Also, I’m skeptical that development economists talk only about what can be tested with small randomized experiments. If you took the members of BREAD or IGC, and tallied their major papers in the last five years, I would be surprised if more than 10% related to an experiment, and if more than 50% were “small” in their focus. Those numbers shrink further if you include political science. Plus academic books on “big” development still number and outsell the books on “small” development by a mile.

Overall, I’d say one of the best things that could happen to the big study of development are better micro data, new facts, and some systematic puzzles happening in many places and projects.

Points for creativity

From the National Review Online

A New York–based Satanic church has revealed its design for a statue of Satan that it wishes to erect next to a Ten Commandments monument in the Oklahoma state capitol.

…Late last year, the American Civil Liberties Union contested the placement of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state house, arguing that if the legislature allowed the Ten Commandments, it must allow other religious groups to put up monuments as well.

Following the ACLU’s lead, several other groups requested to erect monuments, including a Hindu group, an animal-rights organization, and the pastafarian Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I would say that this is an effective way of making a point if I thought the median Oklahoma voter would see the irony. Also, it may not elevate the discourse. But protest works in mysterious ways.

Hat tip to @zackbeauchamp