Is there value in an MA in economics?

From Tyler Cowen, it will help you climb the government or NGO bureaucracy, sends good signals to the job market, and you will actually learn something of value.

I agree that MAs in economics are under-provided relative to the UK and Canada. But I think there are some good reasons for this. I have a few points to add:

  • Any answer should consider the opportunity cost: what you could do with $100k (or more) and two years of your life.
  • “Trip around the world” could be a lifetime happiness-maximizing answer. Consider it and other non-school alternatives carefully: Peace Corps, working for a foreign corporation or government abroad, and other experiences that will enrich you and set you apart.
  • But if education and a career in the public service is on your mind, then my sense is that (in the US) a good policy school MA program can be better than one in economics for a few reasons:
    • My sense is that the core faculty in policy schools have more incentives to teach and advise MPAs than at a top research university, where they typically prioritize PhDs and undergrads before MAs.
    • You can still have core training in economics. But you will have to force yourself to take hard courses.
    • My sense is you will develop a better professional network in a policy school.

Other past advice of relevance;


The love-hate relationship between political scientists and House of Cards

I’m working through a number of different theories about why “House of Cards” is so profoundly wrong about American politics while still being a rather entertaining and addictive show. Maybe it’s actually a comedy. Maybe it’s being written by an evil political scientist who knows full well how the American political system works but is aggressively (and most effectively) trolling other political scientists.

Seth Masket in the Monkey Cage.

I completely agree: fantastically unrealistic politics, incredibly entertaining.

My rule of thumb: any political show, spy novel, or detective story with a devious and complicated plan that comes to fruition was written by someone who has never, ever tried to implement a devious complicated plan.

This reminds me of an earlier post on the best television on Washington DC.

Who does Errol Morris despise?

He said the person that most challenged his capacity for empathy was Donald Rumsfeld.

He’s confident right now! He doesn’t have to wait 100 or 500 years. He doesn’t care. I really care whether I’m right or wrong. I really do care. And probably for lots of reasons. I don’t want to be seen as a dumbass, I don’t want to be seen as someone who believes in something that’s absolutely false, untrue, something that can’t be substantiated, checked. I believe that there’s some deep virtue in pursuing truth. Maybe it’s the highest virtue. I believe that. Whether you can attain it or not, you can pursue it. It can be a goal. It can be a destination. I don’t believe that’s Donald Rumsfeld’s goal. I believe that Robert S. McNamara really wanted to understand what he had done and why he had done it. You know, we remain a mystery to ourselves, among the many, many, many other mysteries there are. And McNamara’s struggle with his own past — I was deeply moved by it. I think he’s a war criminal, I think he sees himself as a war criminal, but I like him.

Full interview. Hat tip to Kottke.

Ferguson as organized crime and the failed state

Alex Tabarrok dissects the incredible Department of Justice Report on Ferguson. Truly astonishing things: $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household, a parking ticket leading to multiple arrests and jailings. Much of it pursuit of revenue.

The abuse in Ferguson shouldn’t really surprise us–this is how most governments behave most of the time. Democracy constrains what governments do but it’s a thin constraint easily capable of being pierced when stressed.

The worst abuses of government happen when an invading gang conquer people of a different race, religion and culture. What happened in Ferguson was similar only the rulers stayed the same and the population of the ruled changed. In 1990 Ferguson was 74% white and 25% black. Just 20 years later the percentages had nearly inverted, 29% white and 67% black. The population of rulers, however, changed more slowly so white rulers found themselves overlording a population that was foreign to them. As a result, democracy broke down and government as usual, banditry and abuse, broke out.

I’m reminded of Charles Tilly on Warmaking and Statemaking as Organized Crime.

Incidentally, when we look across countries over time, one of the most reliable predictors of state failure and conflict are ethnically-factionalized quasi-democracies.

And I thought I hated meetings before

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

That is Paul Graham, and there is more.

Hat tip to Michael Kleinman

“These were people who believed their own PowerPoint presentations.”

I asked Todd Moss for a (more or less) politically authentic thriller, and he recommended David Igantius’ Body of Lies.

The thought of returning to CIA headquarters was depressing. It wasn’t the flat, linoleum feel of the place, or the instantly dated, 1960s “modernist” look of the architecture. It was the civil-service culture that permeated the corridors like dry rot. Ferris had heard the elite, band-of-brothers rhetoric when he joined. The agency had to be less smugly bureaucratic than Time, Inc., he reckoned, but he had been wrong.

It was worse. It was a culture that had been lying to itself for so long that people had lost the ability to differentiate between what was real and what wasn’t. Failure wasn’t acceptable—so, as far as the agency was concerned, the CIA never made mistakes. These were people who believed their own PowerPoint presentations.

Don’t worry, there is also a secret crack CIA team under a parking lot at Langley. Count that on the “less” side of authentic, I think. Nonetheless, I am satisfied.

Talk in NYC March 5: Evidence 4 Peace

3ie has been analyzing the universe of rigorous impact evaluations on peacebuilding and conflict, to identify gaps. They’ll present results Thursday in NYC, and invitation/RSVP information is below. Open to all. I will be a discussant.

To spark interest, here’s some preliminary figures from a presentation last month at the World Bank.

First, the number of impact evaluations and the variety of outcomes they look at, by country. (I am only partly responsible for Liberia.)


If you took the ratio of evaluations to population, little Liberia (4 million) would look even crazier. So yes there are gaps.

Here, impact evaluations by intervention type: Untitled

The details:

The Evidence for Peacebuilding Initiative: Supply and demand for evidence on peacebuilding interventions

Annette Brown, Ph.D., Head of the Washington Office of the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)

Chris Blattman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Columbia University

Sheree Bennett, Research, Evaluation, and Learning Advisor, International Rescue Committee

Thursday, March 5
12:00 pm – 2:00 pm

The International Rescue Committee’s Headquarters
122 E 42nd Street
New York, NY 10168

Conference Rooms 11B/C

To attend the meeting in person, please RSVP to Rick Bartoldus by March 3

To attend the meeting remotely from a computer or mobile device:
1. Go here
2. If requested, enter your name and email address.
3. Click “Join”.
To view in other time zones or languages, please go here.

Links I liked

  1. How to be efficient and, as usual, all the other links fro David McKenzie
  2. Median wealth in the USA? $134k if white, $11k if black.
  3. Facebook makes you envious and sad
  4. Children’s books have 50% more rare words written in them than words in the average adult prime-time television show
  5. Knausgaard goes to Newfoundland. Then America:

“So your idea is to drive across America and write about it without talking to a single American?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That’ll be a challenge,” he said.
“I know,” I said.

White people are ex-pats and black people are immigrants?

According to Wikidpedia, “An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”).”

Defined that way, you should expect any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat regardless of his skin color, country, etc.

That is not the case in reality: expat is a term reserved exclusively for western White people going to work abroad.

Africans are immigrants.
Arabs are immigrants.
Asians are immigrants.
However Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for inferior races.

That is Mawuna Koutonin writing in Silicon Africa. h/t Tom Murphy.

If you think this is a fringe view, even the WSJ has made the point.

Here’s my only rebuttal: if you asked me, “Is an employee of the Indian embassy to the US, or a Ghanaian on a 2-year posting to the UN in New York, an ex-pat or an immigrant?” I would probably say ex-pat.

Why? That person has no intention of staying more than a short period. I would say the same of a Chinese McKinsey consultant in DC for a couple of years. And the Sierra Leonean UNICEF manager in Uganda, or the Nigerian police trainer in Liberia, would probably call themselves ex-pats as well.

I wouldn’t say the same of a Jamaican fruit picker. So is ‘ex-pat’ a term of privilege rather than race? I went back to the Wikipedia article, and indeed if you read a sentence or two further that’s exactly the point it makes. So classism not racism?

Too many white permanent immigrants call themselves ex-pats, though, and so Koutonin (selective quoting notwithstanding) has a good point.

Unjust justice

Do wronged and outraged people displace their revenge against innocent third parties?

Yes, but it depends on how similar the third parties are to the person who committed the injustice. Three experiments:

The first involved hypothetical scenarios; the second had subjects recall a time they had felt wronged and then speculate about how they would feel if they had a chance get revenge on various third parties.

In the third experiment, real-life victims could choose to exact revenge on innocent, real third parties. Students were manipulated into believing that their partners in a puzzle-solving test had decided not to share a prize of raffle tickets for a restaurant gift card. Before taking the test, the students had watched a video in which their partner—later their nemesis—either conversed with or ignored two other students who were dressed similarly or dissimilarly to the malfeasant partner. The wronged students could choose to do nothing or pursue vengeance by forcing these other students to view unpleasant images.

Across all experiments, avengers reported higher feelings of justice-related satisfaction against more closely tied people.

The Scientific American article and the actual study.

The experiments are somewhat small N so caution. But I can believe the result.

I am very intrigued by outrage and injustice as a motive for taking action, including violence. I think it is understudied, but perhaps it is not and readers can suggest some social science I should read. Suggestions?

The cult of community development

In the conventional story, development is a field dominated by “modernizers,” whose hubristic efforts result in catastrophic consequences for those they were designed to benefit: think everything from hydraulic dams that displace thousands of residents to agricultural rationing that leads to famine.

But community development—“development without modernization,” in the words of one of its advocates—was just as central as modernization to mid-century development strategies. The automatic moral outrage inherent in what Immerwahr calls the “Modernization Comes to Town” story has overshadowed the problems of grassroots, decentralized approaches, which have received less critical scrutiny and an implicitly favorable assessment from scholars.

Unfortunately, far from eliminating deprivation and attacking the social status quo, bottom-up community development projects often reinforced them. And today, Immerwahr argues, “the new wave of communitarianism has been carried out in near-total ignorance of the global community development campaign that preceded it by only a few decades.” This is a history with real stakes. If that prior campaign’s record is as checkered as Thinking Small argues, then its intellectual descendants must do some serious rethinking.

That is Merlin Chowkwanyun reviewing historian Daniel Immerwahr’s new book, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development. Sounds like a familiar question answered in an unfamiliar way, which is refreshing.

Also, an interview with Immerwahr and his web page at Northwestern.

Some miscellaneous thoughts, noting that I have not read the book:

  1. The thrust of the argument, I believe, is that grassroots development projects have generally been less coherent, less successful, and more likely to get hijacked by local elites than the enthusiasts would believe. And because this is a book about history (the US, India and Philippines) it’s obligated to say that this has all happened before, and no one is learning from past failure.
  2. I hear echoes of the insurgent critique of localized development with the World Bank.
  3. A lot of the community development promoted by big players, from Mohammed Yunus to the World Bank, feels more like astroturf than grassroots development. I think there’s a difference.
  4. You could read this as anti-Jim Scott and anti-Bill Easterly, but I get the sense they are saying the same thing: large-scale localized development schemes (astroturf) are just another utopian solution to complex problems, and in the end it’s hard to escape the pattern of development as the subjugation of the poor by the powerful and the state.
  5. I also don’t read a lot into project failures. Absent some fairly rapid industrial change in the center of the country, and a huge increase in labor demand over a generation, I find it hard to believe that community development projects can accomplish a lot. Steering isn’t very helpful if you’re not moving.

I am persuaded enough to buy the book, and I look forward to assigning it (or the article) and outraging my Master’s students—partly because of the argument, and especially if I ask them to read a whole book.

I am Marianne Bertrand?

Or so I am told by, which scores you using the same questions asked to the minds interviewed by the IGM Economic Experts Panel.

A caveat: I’m guessing that Marianne did not select “neutral” half the time because she had no freaking clue. So maybe I am not Marianne quite exactly.

That, or all along I and this blog have been a front for Marianne’s secret desire to study political economy of development.

Hat tip to the IPA communication team.

What I’ve been reading. And reading. And reading. And reading.

More often than not I suggest novels and nonfiction. But the average book I read has pictures and comes with a 2- and 4-year old on my lap.

What follows are the children’s books that I enjoy the first and second time, and are slightly less maddening than average the 641st time.

  1. Wild About Books. The library truck goes to the zoo. It is amazing how many children’s books in verse get the meter wrong. It drives me completely nuts. This book is pitch perfect and fun to read.
  2. The Circus Ship. A menagerie stranded off the coast of Maine.
  3. Micawber, by John Lithgow. Better known for his theater and TV performances, Lithgow writes excellent books in verse, including this central park squirrel who learns to paint.
  4. A Sick Day for Amos McGee. A zookeeper gets sick. Strangely endearing.
  5. Mister Seahorse. A tale of different daddy fish who take care of babies. Ideal for yuppie parents who refuse to buy Barbies or toy guns. For now, the naive souls.
  6. Rosie Revere, Engineer. More non-gender-stereotypical fare. It is a great book. Even so, have I mentioned that we send out children to a daycare where they always sing “Baa baa white sheep” after singing “Baa baa black sheep”? My life is a caricature.
  7. Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. A tiger in a prudish Victorian town decides to get all wild and naked. Our Grandpa thought this one was a little too risqué. I dig it.
  8. A Visitor for Bear. A bear who prefers to be alone is tormented by an obnoxious mouse until he finally relents and socializes. I don’t think it was intended as a parable about professors and PhD students, but…

Recommendations welcomed. Seriously. Because I am losing my mind. Thank goodness I think we are starting to move onto chapter books. Things suitable for a 4-5 year old will be especially appreciated.

What are the best television shows about Washington DC?

Note: Each show has been rated on four criteria — each on a scale of 1 to 10. The first is accuracy (do they get the acronyms, the job titles and responsibilities, the procedures right?). The next is authenticity (facts aside, do they capture the feel of Washington, the U.S. government, or the agency or function they depict?) The third is entertainment value (not only do they make time spent with the show gripping or moving or fun, but do they do it consistently?) And the fourth is quality (do the actors, writers, producers, and directors do a good job relative to the best of what is out there in this golden age of the medium?) Thus, the highest possible score is 40.

That is Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf describing how he graded shows about the “Hollywood for ugly people”.

No his answer is not West Wing. Or House of Cards.

You should read it for no other reason than the fact that Rothkopf is such a skillful writer he makes you care and laugh about shows you will never watch, and all the while give you an unexpected insight into politics as it bumbles in reality.

Hat tip to Todd Moss.

Snowden on activism

Reddit has an Ask Me Anything with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald. Interesting throughout. Snowden easily has the most interesting answers.

For example, on how to make domestic spying more of a political issue:

I suspect that governments today are more concerned with the loss of their ability to control and regulate the behavior of their citizens than they are with their citizens’ discontent.

How do we make that work for us? We can devise means, through the application and sophistication of science, to remind governments that if they will not be responsible stewards of our rights, we the people will implement systems that provide for a means of not just enforcing our rights, but removing from governments the ability to interfere with those rights.

You can see the beginnings of this dynamic today in the statements of government officials complaining about the adoption of encryption by major technology providers. The idea here isn’t to fling ourselves into anarchy and do away with government, but to remind the government that there must always be a balance of power between the governing and the governed, and that as the progress of science increasingly empowers communities and individuals, there will be more and more areas of our lives where — if government insists on behaving poorly and with a callous disregard for the citizen — we can find ways to reduce or remove their powers on a new — and permanent — basis.

Order without law? How the hidden Internet learned about politics the hard way

Henry Farrell has a truly fantastic article about the hidden internet and anonymous communication (via Tor, for instance) and how libertarian and anarchist dreams collide with politics:

Tor’s anonymity helps criminals by making it harder for the state to identify and detain them. Yet this has an ironic side-effect: it also makes it harder for them to trust each other, because they typically can’t be sure who their interlocutors are. To make money in hidden markets, you need people to trust you, so that they will buy from you and sell to you. Having accomplished this first manoeuvre, the truly successful entrepreneurs go one step further. They become middlemen of trust, guaranteeing relations between others and taking a cut from the proceeds.

To this end, entrepreneurs have found it necessary to create and maintain communities, making rules, enforcing them, punishing rule-breakers, and turning towards violence when all else fails. They have, in effect, built petty versions of the very governments they are fleeing. As the US sociologist Charles Tilly argued, the modern state began as a protection racket, offering its subjects protection against outsiders and each other. The same logic is playing out today on the hidden internet, as would-be petty barons and pirate kings fight to tax and police their subjects while defending themselves against hostile incursions.

The rise and fall of Texan Ross Ulbricht, founder of the drug trading site Silk Road, is a highlight:

Initially, Ulbricht saw himself as bringing ‘order and civility’ to a black market where others, like him, were committed to libertarian ideals. Yet order in actual markets depends on threats of violence – whether the penalties embedded in the laws of the state, or the bloody interventions of mob bosses. In the absence of such arrangements, predators move in. The Silk Road’s business model worked only if genuinely ruthless people didn’t notice its critical vulnerabilities. As soon as it began to attract attention – and earn enormous amounts of money – its course was set.

I am assigning this article for my new Order & Violence seminar this fall.

Real World Development Indicators, version 2.0

Last week’s post spurred a bunch of great suggestions from commenters. The RWDI contenders, in no particular order:

  1. Number of tall buildings not occupied by the government or United Nations
  2. Probability that the President/Prime Minister seeks medical treatment in own country
  3. Proportion of political leaders younger than the average life expectancy
  4. Proportion of resort vacationers from that or neighboring countries
  5. Percent of young people that prefer to start a business rather than work for an NGO
  6. Percent of undergraduate students taking a real major, rather than development studies
  7. Number of wrecked airplanes near the runway of the main airport
  8. Proportion of NGO websites not written in English or French
  9. Number of people who take pictures of you
  10. Percent of people too busy to answer your survey
  11. Number of government officials who give foreign experts the “who the hell are you?” look

Institutions, shminstitutions.

Additions welcome.