“The Obama administration is quietly trying to make it harder to study public officials”

That’s the title of a Vox article today:

A lot of what we know about how the government works — what motivates politicians, how exactly the three branches of government respond to one another — is thanks to the work of political scientists, who have been studying public officials for decades.

Much of their research, which involves interviews, surveys, and field experiments with politicians, is made possible by a special exemption in federal law that allows academics to study public figures without burdensome ethics restraints that govern all other research conducted on humans.

But the federal government is looking to quietly remove that exemption.

Right now the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which writes the rules on what can and can’t be permitted in human subjects research, is in the process of rewriting its whole ethics code. It issued a set of proposed regulations in September, and January 6 marked the deadline to submit comments on those proposed changes.

Overall, social scientists are pleased with the direction these new rules are pushing: If finalized, surveys and low-risk experiments would no longer be held to the same standard as medical trials, which researchers find unduly burdensome.

But snuck into the 300-plus pages of proposed rules is one line suggesting the government intends to close the major loophole that makes studying public officials practically possible.

The full article is worthwhile, but a little hard to figure out the bottom line. Basically the exemption will be removed and it’s not clear if this will actually affect ethical approvals. It sounds like it could stop researchers from implicating specific officials.

Any opinions here?

Hat tip to Jeff Mosenkis.

An anti-bullying program that works. Big time.

[Update: You should just go and read Jesse Singal’s fantastic summary, which is much more instructive than the paper abstract I post below. I’m predicting Singal becomes one of the best known science journalists over the coming years. Or, if you like opaque abstracts…]

Theories of human behavior suggest that individuals attend to the behavior of certain people in their community to understand what is socially normative and adjust their own behavior in response.

An experiment tested these theories by randomizing an anticonflict intervention across 56 schools with 24,191 students. After comprehensively measuring every school’s social network, randomly selected seed groups of 20–32 students from randomly selected schools were assigned to an intervention that encouraged their public stance against conflict at school.

Compared with control schools, disciplinary reports of student conflict at treatment schools were reduced by 30% over 1 year.

The effect was stronger when the seed group contained more “social referent” students who, as network measures reveal, attract more student attention. Network analyses of peer-to-peer influence show that social referents spread perceptions of conflict as less socially normative.

An incredible new PNAS paper by Paluck, Shepherd, and Aronow.

The finding is interesting, but those of us who run field experiments look at this social network mapping and our jaws hit the floor.

How to train yourself to go to the gym

Heather Royer, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, thinks she has hit on a way. In partnership with a Fortune 500 company, she and her research partners ran an experiment that combined two interventions: One to get people to start going to the gym, and another to keep them there. For four weeks, the company paid its employees to work out, $10 per visit up to three times a week. After those four weeks, there were no more payments, but some workers were offered a “commitment contract”: They could set aside their own money that would be released to them only if they worked out over the next two months; otherwise, it would be given away to charity.

Even though those commitment contracts ended three months after the start of the study, the effects on workout frequency persisted for years: Three years after the study, the workers who had been offered the contracts remained 20 percent more likely to work out than those who had not been offered any incentives.

Source. Habit formation through incentivized practice is underrated.

Cognitive behavior therapy, man. It’s the new cash transfers.

The Force Awakens: My belated thoughts and my favorite reviews

I meant to write this a week ago, but I’m preparing two new classes, meaning I’m reading in a frenzy and making up the rest, and haven’t had the time to blog.

One benefit of the delay is I had a chance to see the movie a second time. That sounds kind of pathetic, but it’s even sadder when you consider that, with two toddlers, I only see two or three movies a year in the theater.

It also means this is part original review and part round up of my favorite comments and memes. Which I of course read obsessively.

Naturally there are spoilers (what else would you expect?) but even though everyone who cares has seen the movie by now, I put everything below the fold.

Continue reading

Links I liked

  1. A fantastic This American Life podcast on propaganda
  2. “Your Farts Can Prevent Cancer And Are Good For People Around You”
  3. Jerry Seinfeld interviews President Obama. My favorite question: which world leaders are batshit crazy and why?
  4. “This paper is an attempt to broaden the standard economic discourse by importing insights into human behavior not just from psychology, but also from sociology and anthropology.”
  5. This Japanese book store stocks only one book at a time
  6. A woman correctly detected 11 out of 12 subjects in a Parkinson’s study using her sense of smell, but 8 months later the one extra she believed had Parkinson’s was diagnosed with the disease, making her 12/12
  7. For people who do a lot of short and long haul flights (like me), and occasionally rent cars, my new travel tip might be to pay $450 a year for this credit card: free airline lounge access, and never pay for car insurance. Probably pays for itself in free meals and insurance. And a little TLC on those 20 hour odysseys. Any advice?

Publish or punished

Under Romanian law, prisoners can shave 30 days off their jail terms for every book of scientific value that they have published

…While in prison for graft offences, politicians and businessmen in particular are churning out papers in order to take advantage of the loophole

…According to the country’s prison administration, 415 scientific works written by prisoners were published between the start of 2013 and December 9, 2015. In 2012, there were just seven.

Source. My favorite bit (emphasis mine):

There are strong suggestions that many of the books are being written by ghostwriters, or at least heavily guided by outside research assistants, who then pass the text on to the prisoners who handwrite them – the manuscripts must be handwritten rather than typed – and pay for a small print run of a few hundred copies.

Replace “text” with “Stata code” and this starts to sound like economics professors.

Hat tip to Paul Lagunes.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • If you saw the new Star Wars movie, the character Nien Nunb is speaking the Kenyan dialect Haya. Kenyan audiences were surprised and delighted when he first appeared in 1983’s Return of the Jedi (h/t Naunihal Singh).
  • The peer-to-peer room renting service Airbnb, which has been having trouble with regulators, said they would release their New York City rental data to the public. Buzzfeed found though that viewing the data required going to one of their offices, and looking at a spreadsheet with 170,000 anonymized rows of raw data, without being able to save or photograph it, for “user privacy.” They were allowed to copy it down by hand though and mapped some of their findings (h/t Ben Casselman). Airbnb: Call our data repository team, we can help.
  • An interesting insider’s look from a former State Department official at a DC ritual where a high-level government official invites think tank researchers to a “confidential off-the-record briefing.” The researchers think they’re there to explain their policy research, but the real purpose is to get them to write op-eds and go on news shows to support the official’s policies.
  • Liberia had an “Integrity Idol” competition, where the public could vote for a government worker with outstanding integrity, an emergency room night-shift nurse who also does family planning education won. The contest idea came from the non-profit accountability lab which fights corruption.
  • A journal editor rejected a paper with a series of studies because the findings looked too good to be true. He suspected a file drawer effect with the bad results not included, and was right. They resubmitted using the samples previously omitted with a meta-analysis of all the findings. The overall average effect was much smaller but he says it’s a model for transparency.

And for your new year, remember Rodrik’s Ten Commandments for Economists:

10 Commandments of Economists

(Source: reddit)

Links I liked

  1. With the AEA meetings coming up next week, my old post on the art of being a discussant
  2. Larry Summers on what Bernie Sanders gets right and wrong about the US Fed
  3. “One of biggest environmental disasters in US history is happening right now & you’ve probably never heard of it”
  4. Jamelle Bouie on US policing, and how the monopoly of violence comes at a price
  5. “This Las Vegas Taco Shop Was Robbed, So They Put Out This Awesome Video”
  6. The political roots of the Ethiopian famine

IPA’s Weekly Links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • In a new (holiday release?) edition of WormWars (PDF), Miguel, Kremer, and Hicks address some of the critiques made online, as well as the media handling.
  • As Chris mentioned, the new episode of Freakonomics Radio focusing on migration, with Clemens, Tabarrok, and many others is very good.
  • The Council on Foreign Relations is using data visualizations to help track violence in Nigeria.
  • Some interesting long(ish) reads for your holiday down time:
  • An album made by Malawian prisoners has been nominated for a Grammy.
  • Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time, and a new paper supports it, finding important new ideas by outsiders spike after a superstar scientist dies. Paper here, Vox article here.

And some alarming new rankings data from Clickhole:


Top image via Flickr/Ne



Links I liked

  1. A Swahili cover of Adele’s hello
  2. There is a new version of my paper on reducing crime and violence with cognitove behavior therapy
  3. Don’t expect US or European progressives to get on this train right away, but Freakonomics radio features Alex Tabarrok, Michael Clemens, and Madeline Albright on whether migration is a human right
  4. Greg Mankiw on why university tuition bills are high and rising
  5. A good example of how Vox.com is becoming the most serious place for news analysis
  6. I worked with Zayzay in Liberia for several years, and he’s one of the most talented people I’ve met. He now has a GoFundMe for some training he’d like to do. I know few better people to invest in.
  7. Finally, the most appropriate Christmas cookies this unseasonably warm season:


Last minute holiday gifts (if you have a family member like me)

AR-151109724.jpg&updated=201511031234&MaxW=800&maxH=800&updated=201511031234&noborderWhile we are on the subject of gift exchange, There’s still time for one-day delivery! All of the following are unsolicited, unprompted, unpaid product endorsements—10 things I happened to buy during the year that proved amazingly valuable, and I want to spread the consumer surplus around.

  1. Purple Carrot food delivery. Mark Bittman of New York Times food column fame (I love his famous eating tips) left the paper to start a vegan food delivery service. Every Tuesday a box arrives with two meals worth of ingredients (and recipes). This would be slightly too time intensive for a couple with two kids and two busy jobs, except my kids like to mix the ingredients with me. Most of all, though, this service is perfect because I want to be more vegan on the margin (rather than full vegan) and this is the perfect commitment device.
  2. The OK to Wake! alarm clock for toddlers. You set it to 6:45 AM and it lights up green at that time. And our children obeyed it! This is in part because they get yogurt raisins if they obey. But THIS CHANGED MY LIFE.
  3. Widow Jane Bourbon whiskey. This is so good that when I have my grad students and staff over for dinner and drinks, I put out the expensive aged scotch instead, so there’s more bourbon for me. (Sorry guys.)
  4. I only used this portable phone charger a couple of times this year, but each time it saved me.
  5. This 60-year-old series of children’s books, about Jenny the Cat, were one of my favorite things to read to my kids. Not that there were a lot of competitors in the 4-year-old chapter book category. I look forward to next year when I think she might like Roald Dahl.
  6. The best nonfiction books I read were probably Empire of Cotton, Ghengis Khan, and the Social Order of the Underworld.
  7. A very inexpensive pair of good ceramic knives for the cook who can’t seem to keep knives sharp
  8. I really, really love the Reply All podcast, which is of course free.
  9. This vest substitutes for a car seat when you’re taking taxis or short car rides with little ones. Peace of mind and easy to carry.
  10. I liked the Duolingo app for practicing foreign languages. It is not very good mainly because it is linear and non-adaptive, but it is the best of a bad bunch. (I was kind of struggling to get to 10 items.)

In full disclosure, whenever you buy something on this site that links to Amazon, I get 1-2%. Annually that’s enough to pay for the blog site and management. So on net there’s almost no profit, and the blog remains ad free. Just my sincere, peculiar endorsements.

Other suggestions?

The true meaning of Christmas

Grinch sled

Tim Harford burnishes his crotchety economics credentials with a terrific article, “In praise of Scrooge”.

His point: many presents are not well chosen. And givers, he says, like to give original or spontaneous gifts, not cash or items on a wish list. But recipients prefer that cash or wish list items. “We waste energy, material resources and labour that could have been far better deployed making something people did want,” writes Tim.

In the language of Econ 101, there’s a deadweight loss of Christmas.

So why not give cash, says Harford? That’s what a ghost-chastened Scrooge did for Bob Cratchit: the old miser gave his employee a pay raise.

But gift-giving is one of the most universal behaviors in every society from the Stone Age to the Information Age. Maybe we need to consult the anthropologists.

The short answer: gifts are a way of communicating our status and maintaining strategic relationships, and cash is good for some of those signal and relations but not all.

I’m hardly the best person to do this, but here are a few things I’ve gleaned from anthropology:

  • Gifts are used to signal our identity, especially our position in a hierarchy, as peers, patrons, or clients
  • They’re also used to signal and strengthen small group networks and alliances, ones that are important for economic cooperation, protection, shared public goods, informal insurance, and so many other things
  • The different dimensions of a gift—price, quality, time, thoughtfulness—have a purpose: they help to create, maintain, increase, decrease, or end these relationships.

[See, for example, this summary article]

This doesn’t quite answer Tim’s question, “Why not cash?” Couldn’t cash do all these things equally well?

Think about the times it’s not distasteful to give cash or buy from a wish list. Aunts give checks to nephews. Richer people pay the school or medical bills of a poorer friend or acquaintance. Older well-established couples buy gifts off a newlyweds’ registry.

These are all cases where there’s a clear hierarchy of wealth and status.

Now think about gift exchange between relative equals. Cash would be pointless. I’d give you $50 and you give me $50. What would be the use of that?

Every other kind of gift, however, tells a thousand words.

Giving gifts also creates inequalities, very much on purpose. These gifts quietly say, “I did something nice for you. Now we’ll see if you pay me back and how. I’m watching and waiting.”

This sounds cynical. You might say “What about the warm glow of giving?” People genuinely enjoy gift exchange. That’s true. Not all giving might be strategic. Social science theories don’t explain all of a behavior. Just regularities.

Then again, it’s possible the warm glow is an evolved response. People who are better at reciprocity and alliance building are more likely to pass on their genes.

Tim wanted to ruin your Christmas with talk of deadweight loss. But like the Grinch whistling down the mountain back to Whoville, I bring tidings of another spirit of giving: an evolved approach to communicating your status, creating a system of social insurance and club goods, and keeping the boundaries of the club clear through reciprocal, sometimes unequal exchange.

Happy holidays everyone!

Work in the family

My wife Jeannie runs the research department at the International Rescue Committee, a large, conflict-focused humanitarian organization. In the tradition of advertising job openings on behalf of anyone, so long as they are married to me:

Senior Technical Advisor, Education Research. Looking for a creative and experienced researcher focused on education in development and/or fragile contexts to create and implement the IRC’s research agenda on education.

Technology Innovation Lead  & Design Innovation Lead. Recruiting two outstanding user-centered design and technology experts to be core members of the IRC R&D Lab, which will build and invest in a portfolio of projects to design, develop, and scale new humanitarian interventions for breakthrough impact in the lives of our clients.

Idea Pipeline Lead. Recruiting a seasoned social sector innovator to shape the strategic direction of the IRC R&D Lab by building an ‘idea pipeline’ within the IRC that identifies, nurtures, and refines potential new design projects.

To apply, respond directly within the job postings.

Links I liked

  1. In 2013 Facebook used the same amount of electricity as Burkina Faso
  2. Martin Ravallion has a new Economics of Poverty textbook coming out soon, and the website is here
  3. “Hoping to settle the matter, we asked 11 physicists the question, ‘What would happen to Endor if the Death Star blew up?’ Almost all of them responded right away.”
  4. Spaghetti Monster church member wins right to wear colander in US driver’s license photo
  5. What’s Rachel Dolezal been up to?

Political science cherry-picking

Many transparency advocates call for pre-registration of planned research online… but there are some instances in which we can already examine the difference between an initial research proposal and the published outcome.

In the study “Underreporting in Political Science Survey Experiments: Comparing Questionnaires to Published Results“, authors Annie Franco, Neil Malhotra and Gabor Simonovits from Stanford University examined how accurate published findings were in political science survey experiments.

…Franco et al. collected pre-analysis plans and questionnaires for 249 studies that were conducted between 2002 and 2012; out of these, 53 studies made it into peer-reviewed political science journals such as the American Journal of Political Science or Public Opinion Quarterly.

When they compared the planned design features against what was reported in published articles, they found:

  1. 30% of papers report fewer experimental conditions in the published paper than in the questionnaire

  2. 60% of papers report fewer outcome variables than what are listed in the questionnaire;

  3. 80% of papers fail to report all experimental conditions and outcomes.

Raed more at the political science replication blog.

On the one hand, this is a terrific service to the profession. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that there are mitigating factors, and that theory and common sense help drive what is reported in a paper, among other factors. Nonetheless, the authors highlight a big problem.

Pre-analysis plans will be very useful for keeping people from cherry picking results. But if applied too stringently (as I think they will) they are also very useful for generating dull papers—papers that do not feel free to do more speculative and suggestive analysis and theory generation.

You could say “fine if they also cherry pick speculatively, but just label it so”, and I agree, but I still think this kind of inductive work will become even more rare than it already is.

It’s easy to forget that inductive work (theory-building, more speculative work based on finding interesting patterns) is a crucial part of scientific discovery. And sadly referees and journals seem to have little appetite for it. People who take inductive work and rewrite it to look at deductive work are just responding to incentives.

IPA’s Weekly Links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


And a company selling bottled Canadian air as a novelty product was surprised to find it flying off the shelves in China, which has been experiencing high pollution levels.



Top image from Flickr/thibaut_demare/

This new book probably comes closer than any other to how I teach international development

51DZTUDk8lLSteve Radelet has a new book, The Great Surge, about why so many countries have risen out of poverty in the past half century. There are many good things about it, but most of all, it’s the best introduction to development I’ve seen for a lay audience, including students. (And for the development experts, it’s a great Christmas present for parents who, after all these years, still don’t understand what you do.)

About eight years ago I started teaching an introductory class on development. I wanted to give undergraduates a sense of why, after so many years of trouble, so many developing countries were growing richer and more democratic, and why others were not. I also wanted them to think critically about the ways in which the West affects the developing world, from trade to aid to statecraft to military invasions. Very quickly the class veered in an unexpected direction: history.

Today, the average undergraduate that walks into my class was minus six when the Cold War ended. This might be obvious if you’re 20 years old. But whenever I point it out to my 40- and 50-year old colleagues, it stops them in their tracks. Maybe they’re just feeling extra old in that moment, but maybe it’s dawning on them how hard it is to talk about where countries are today without a sense of recent history.

What I found was this: to teach why so many countries democratized in the 1990s, I had to teach the tumult of the 1980s. To explain the economic meltdowns and skyrocketing civil wars of the 1980s, I had to talk about the political systems that were built in the 1960s and 1970s. To explain those I had to teach colonial history and politics. And so on.

Of course I didn’t know half that history myself, and over several years of teaching the class I read more and more, until one day I was no longer just making it up at the front of the class. (Well, I still fake it a little bit.)

You see, an economics education does many wonderful things, but it doesn’t give you a sense of history and policy. I had to teach myself two hundred years of politics and events before I got back to familiar areas where respectable economists wrote papers, about the legacies of settler economies and slavery, or the growth of states and markets in Europe.

Filling this gap seems to be Steve’s aim too. He was an official in the US State Department, USAID, the U.S. Treasury, and the Center for Global Development before he settled at Georgetown University a few years ago, and this is a book that draws on his experiences in Washington, Indonesia, and Liberia alongside academic literature. He’s also been a friend and colleague for many years.

This isn’t exactly the book I’d write. I’d want to write one that is a little closer to the social science literature—a little more geared for the intermediate reader than the introductory one. And a little easier to teach from. But then, if I did that, your parents probably would not want to read it.

Recommended, for you or for that parent.