White people sleep better too

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 65 percent of Americans polled said they usually get at least seven hours of sleep per night, the benchmark recommendation. It’s self-reported data, not confirmed with any kind of tracking, but it’s fairly consistent with other estimates, the CDC says.

When the responses were broken down by race, they found that non-Hispanic whites had the highest rate of healthy sleep duration, at 66.8 percent. Close to 66 percent of Hispanics got seven-plus hours, as did 62.5 percent of Asians and 59.6 percent of Native Americans. Black people were at 54.2 percent, and multiracial people were at the bottom, with 53.6 percent. Overall, people who were employed and college-educated slept better, too.

Source: The Science of Us.

21st century prison diaries

From one of an amazing, and funny, series of articles by Barrett Brown, an imprisoned journalist.

In fact, the gangs really don’t have control over the prison. But then neither does the administration, if by “control” we mean the ability to make uncontested decisions over what happens within a given space, in which case control is always a matter of degree. The federal and state governments of the United States, for instance, exercise some degree of overlapping control over their territory, but not to such an extent that the various law-enforcement agencies — er, law enforcement agencies — arrest any but a small minority of residents who violate the law.

This is just as well, since the law requires that the tens of millions of Americans who use drugs or gamble or involve themselves in prostitution be imprisoned — and that’s not even counting federal law, which, as convincingly estimated by civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate in his book Three Felonies a Day, the average American unwittingly violates every day. And thus it is that the U.S. can continue to exist above the level of an unprecedented gulag state only to the extent that its laws are not actually enforced — an extraordinary and fundamental fact of American life that one might hope in vain to see rise to the level of an election issue, but which is at least worth keeping in mind when it comes to the debate over whether or not we should keep granting the state ever more powerful methods of surveillance until it becomes the All-Seeing God Against Whose Laws We All Have Sinned. (Personally I’d vote “no,” but then I’m a felon and can’t vote anyway.)

…The reality is that control is shared by way of a sort of makeshift federalism that varies in particulars from prison to prison but in which real power is always divided among the various gangs, the staff, and local and regional administrators in an arrangement that’s best described as a cross between the old Swiss canton system and China during the Warring States period, which I’ll be the first to acknowledge is not especially helpful. Suffice to say that it will take me the remainder of my sentence to provide a real sense of this remarkable state-within-a-state and its inimitable politics — the politics of the literally disenfranchised, who live their lives in the very guts of government without being able to rely on its protections, and so are forced to provide their own. Really, it’s a state-within-a-state-within-a-state.

Hat tip to Patrick Ball.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest Post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • We’ve collected some of our favorite #DevelopmentValentines from last week.
  • Africa is a Country has a new economics column.
  • The New Yorker has the great story of the science behind the announcement last week of detection of faint gravitational waves. It involved decades of collaboration, $472 Million, spheres held in place by glass strands so thin that if touched they would disintegrate, and moles on the research team who hid false positives in the data. They ended up with a system so sensitive it had to counterbalance interference from a wolf walking nearby or a lightning strike in Africa.
  • Get Uganda election updates from reporters Simone Schlindwein and Malcolm Webb.
  • A sociology Ph.D. student published an ethnography (open access) after working in three infant cognition labs about the process by which researchers make an inherently messy topic (unpredictable infant behavior) seem clean, scientific and publishable. In the process he documents processes like selective inclusion/exclusion of data, peeking at data as it comes in and redirecting the study if it looks like it won’t turn out as expected, and HARKing (Hypothesizing After Results Known).
    • Sanjay Srivastava has a summary of the article here and a deeper discussion here.
    • If you wonder why a researcher would do this, read this tweetstorm from a researcher whose paper was rejected because the findings weren’t statistically significant and what it means for publication bias.
    • Recall what Chris has pointed out before, whose research practices would come out of deep outside scrutiny unscathed?
  • The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has a “repo man” who goes after governments to recover missing or misused grant money.

Legislators need to follow Eliot Engels’ lead in naming their bills:


An advertisement (of sorts) on the blog

Screenshot 2016-02-18 18.33.33Those of you visiting the website will see an advertisement on the sidebar for GiveDirectly, the charitable organization that gives cash directly to the world’s poor. It is one of GiveWell’s top charities in the world and a favorite of mine. I don’t take advertising revenue on the blog, and this is no exception. It’s a pro bono advertisement in the hopes some of you will contribute. Thanks!

The ghost in the machine, in drag

There’s no real evidence that any of these characters are the gender people assume them to be. They borrow the voices of real men or women, but playing back feminine voices from a database doesn’t make a machine female – if I play Cat Power on my iPod it doesn’t start ovulating.

That is Martin Robbins in The Guardian, on why we insist giving R2D2, HAL, and other droids in life and film, a gender. Funny but also poignant:

Back in our galaxy, companies have been quick to use female voices for assistive technologies. Apparently we respond better to them, imagining them as ‘women’ and helpfully projecting all our conscious and subconscious biases on to them. Apple’s Siri is named after the Norse for “a beautiful woman who leads you to victory”, while Microsoft’s rival system, Cortana, takes ‘her’ name from a super-hot virtual lady in Halo who walks around in simulated body paint.

This could soon become a problem. What does it mean for the perception and treatment of real women if male-dominated tech companies surround us with subservient female voices? If you think that’s a silly question, imagine if instead of vending machines we had robotic black people obediently handing over cans of Coke to us.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.



  • David Evans has two good posts, an intro to eval for NGOs “Is My NGO Having a Positive Impact”  & one explaining that zero effect might be hiding more than you think.
  • Pacific Standard Magazine looks at what really happened to woolly mammoths, and not just them:

    There were mastodons, six-foot tall beavers, ground sloths the size of black bears, armadillos bigger than Volkswagen Beetles, American lions and cheetahs and camels, and saber-toothed tigers—to name just a few. Between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago, the Americas alone—once a zoo filled with enough wonders to put a modern African safari to shame—lost over 70 genera of large mammals.

The prevailing opinion used to be that climate change killed them, but that is giving way to an economic explanation, the tragedy (or problem) of the commons. When these potential sources of wealth aren’t owned, everybody has an incentive to hunt them and nobody to preserve them. Elephants hunted for ivory today face the same problem and the article discusses solutions from economics.

  • Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, is making millions of academic papers available free.
  • A Cambridge Ph.D. student in Egypt studying labor and unions was abducted and killed.
  • Yale Ph.D. student William Schpero created a STATA module to notify your phone when your code is done running.
  • Not development related, but two really good podcasts to broaden your horizons:
    • Gimlet’s Sampler podcast searches out really compelling excerpts from other interesting podcasts, so far it’s been very good.
    • One episode of the Reply All podcast, excerpted by Radiolab, is the incredibly compelling story of a programmer whose son had cancer and turned the experience into a videogame.
  • UChicago’s summer institute on field experiments is accepting applications from young researchers.

And, the (still hypothetical) Equipay app lets you fix the wage gap by splitting the restaurant bill fairly. (h/t Planet Money)

Can political ideas drive development? My prediction for the next thought revolution in development circles

Everywhere I turn I keep seeing people writing about the way that ideas and ideology shape development paths: what political strategies get pursued, what institutions get put in place. Most of these are isolated examples. Only some of the scholars are aware of one another. Some examples:

  • Josh Simon at Columbia, a political philosopher, is considering how Americas-born “Creole” thinkers, like Bolivar or Alexander Hamilton, shaped the kind of political unions and nations that formed. Also here.
  • I have been re-reading an old favorite book, Coffee and Power, by Jeffrey Paige, which tries to understand why relatively similar countries in Central America took incredibly different political paths. Liberal ideologies and inventive, ideological politicians in the late 19th century play a big role in his explanation.
  • Dani Rodrik has tried to place ideology in the kinds of models economists are comfortable talking about, and suggests a political possibilities frontier that is often below the production possibilities frontier, that can both limit what options we pursue as a society, but also shows the role for ideology and innovative political entrepreneurs to change the system.
  • In international relations, the diffusion of norms and ideas is now one of the most predominant explanations for political change, such as democratization. See this famous piece by Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink.

A few years ago, when Acemoglu and Robinson wrote Why Nations Fail, they singled out “ideology” as one of the theories that simply can’t explain development paths. I mostly buy the Acemoglu and Robinson view of the world, and teach the book, but I remember thinking to myself at the time: “If I had to place bets on where the most interesting research will be, it’s where the new orthodoxy tells us we have to stop looking.”

More pointers welcome.

Technology giveth to Uber and technology will taketh away?

Adrian Chen in the New Yorker describes one man, Fabio Krasniqi, and his attempt to organize Laguardia airport Uber drivers after Uber suddenly dropped fares by 15%.

Bits and pieces of the piece made me wonder: Technology giveth to Uber but technology can taketh away?

New York has an estimated thirty thousand Uber drivers, and a while ago Krasniqi and some other LaGuardia drivers started a group on the messaging app WhatsApp called the Drivers Report, where they trade information about traffic and the level of demand at the airport.

…Krasniqi designed a flyer on his smartphone and ordered twenty thousand copies at a print shop near the airport. The other drivers chipped in.

..Now, in Lot 7, Krasniqi was trying to keep the previous day’s momentum going. He stood over a picnic table, scrawling the name of a Facebook page he had created on a piece of poster board. It was called Uber Drivers Report. In the hoarse bark of a coach at halftime, Krasniqi urged his audience to like and share the page to get the word out about upcoming protests.

There is still much room for the traditional social network.

Eventually, Dorjee, Krasniqi, and about a dozen other drivers from Lot 7 formed an informal committee to plan a protest the following Monday. They represent the many ethnic groups that comprise the approximately seven hundred drivers who regularly work out of LaGuardia: “I said, ‘Listen, guys, in order for us to be powerful and to be strong and for the drivers to trust exactly what we’re saying, we have to leave the door open to all communities,’ ” Krasniqi said.

…Each member of the committee reached out to well-connected members of his or her own ethnic community.

Plus fascinating bits about different union locals competing to represent them.

The full article.

The downside of having chimp brains and just 140 characters: A theory of Internet nastiness

On a long car drive this weekend, I happened to listen to this brilliant This American Life podcast: If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS. Stories of why otherwise nice people say awful things on the Internet.

Those of you following me on Twitter Thursday and Friday will understand why this was cathartic. (If not, don’t worry about it, it’s not the point of this post or a very big deal.)

Rather, in the midst of nastiness, @dadakim tweeted something that at first I found off topic: “This=sometimes how it feels to be a woman with an opinion on the internet.”

I will say this: If you are remotely skeptical of that statement, you should listen to the TAL podcast.

I am forced to update my theory of Internet nastiness. Previously I ascribed nastiness to the same instincts that make us nasty gossips. In haste, in irritation, and in private we tend to say things that we would never say in front a wider audience, or to a person’s face. For some reason people seem to engage their gossip brain on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs rather than their “I’m speaking to you directly” brain.

The Internet is curiously dehumanizing. You have to teach yourself not to write like that, and on the receiving side coach yourself not to read it too seriously (or at all). Both are difficult. For me the first is easier than the second.

I still buy my theory. But this isn’t quite sufficient to explain the frequency and maliciousness of attacks against women.

It’s tempting to look at the anecdote from TAL–a reformed troll who comes to understand how his insecurity feeds a loathing of women, and how the dehumanizing Internet lets him relieve his own anger without understanding the consequences. But deep-rooted misogyny seems like too simplistic an answer to be full or correct.

I am guessing many have thought about this subject and would be interested in pointers. Especially science on the subject.

How your city can create more criminals of its young men

Why do crime rates differ greatly across neighborhoods and schools? Comparing youth who were assigned to opposite sides of newly drawn school boundaries, we show that concentrating disadvantaged youth together in the same schools and neighborhoods increases total crime.

We then show that these youth are more likely to be arrested for committing crimes together — to be “partners in crime”.  Our results suggest that direct peer interaction is a key mechanism for social multipliers in criminal behavior.  As a result, policies that increase residential and school segregation will — all else equal — increase crime through the formation of denser criminal networks.

A new paper by Billings, Deming, and Ross.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Priceonomics combines census data with historical accounts in a very interesting piece “The Great Migration: The African American Exodus from The South.” The conversations in the comments section have been really good as well (I also learned that we’re in the midst of a reverse migration back to the South).
  • UN peacekeeping troops from France and Georgia sent to help refugees in the Central African Republic are accused of rape there. More here and here.
  • In Ghana, regulators hope to merge the four separate mobile money platforms that exist now, but there is a dispute between banks and telecom companies over interest payments. The banks would like to return 100% of the interest to the customers while the telecom companies would like it returned to them, so they can take 20% of it, passing the rest back to the customers.
  • Normally, low-income students can send four sets of SAT scores to colleges free. Doubling this number to eight (which is very inexpensive to do) had a very impressive effect: 

Specifically, we estimate that inducing a low-income student to send one more score report, on average, increased on-time college attendance by nearly 5 percentage points and five-year bachelor’s completion by slightly more than 3 percentage points. The policy impact was driven entirely by students who, based on SAT scores, were competitive candidates for admission to four-year colleges.

  • Tim Harford has his top five economics podcasts to listen to in 2016 (and a reminder that some of our favorite individual episodes from 2015 are here).
  • And, telemarketers and scammers have been using internet calling with caller ID spoofing to avoid rules. Sometimes the conversation is driven by a human in a call center clicking on pre-recorded phrases to engage in a conversation. But one hero is trying to waste telemarketers’ time and drive up their costs with an AI interface designed to keep telemarketers on the phone as long as possible, and he’s letting other people use it too. More from his site, Jolly Roger Telephone Co (he also has a kickstarter to expand it). Via Gizmodo.

My favorite television of the past year


In order that I have enjoyed shows in the past year:

  1. The Expanse. A new space opera. The best since BSG, and maybe only second to that overall.
  2. Please Like Me, Season 2. Funniest show ever about a young gay man facing rejection, death, and mental illness. All the usual ingredients of comedy.
  3. Homeland Season 5. As a supposedly liberal intellectual I think I’m supposed to not like this show. But I do. Probably the best season since the first.
  4. Man in the High Castle. From the Phillip K Dick novel, about an alternate history where the Nazis and Japanese win WWII.
  5. Jessica Jones. Emotionally disturbed superheroes and villains. The best take on the genre.

I have yet to watch Narcos but I plan to. The only people who don’t seem to like this are Colombians, who think they got the history right but are angry that Escobar is played by a Brazilian.

What do you recommend?

The rainbow bagel is so wrong for so many reasons

I have only lived in New York for about nine years, so I’m not really in a position to decide who gets to be a New Yorker or not, but my vote would be to deport these people from the state. We’ll take more Syrian refugees, and the governor of Texas can grow fat on neon bagels for breakfast.

Via Business Insider. Hat tip to my sister in law, who lives in Ottawa with direct access to the incredible Montreal-style bagel, and should know better than to be enthused by this culinary travesty.

This is probably the best argument I’ve ever heard for admitting Syrian refugees, or really anyone


Developed by three young software-engineering students at the University of Iceland, it lets users instantly compare their lineage by bumping their mobile devices together. The app includes an “incest-prevention alarm,” says Arnar Freyr Adalsteinsson, one of the developers. “When you bump, it shows your nearest common ancestors. If you bump with someone who’s too closely related, you get an alarm sound and a text warning.”

That’s right, a country where people are so similar you need a mobile app to tell you if your drunk booty call is a relative.

Links I liked

  1. A Chinese firm has purchased the rights to the Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” photo from Bill Gates
  2. Men talk more than women, even in Disney princess movies
  3. While I was hesitant to share credit card statements with a random company, this New York Times article persuaded me to try, and I discovered two unexpected subscriptions they will now cancel for me
  4. “A modularized and automated structure to improve the quality, consistency and organization of empirical data analysis”
  5. A Sam Bowles podcast on inequality, and an exciting new book on the horizon


Four reasons why buying houses is overrated

Alex Tabarrok gives us two reasons

Housing is overrated as a financial investment. First, it’s not good to have a significant share of your wealth locked into a single asset. Diversification is better and it’s easier to diversify with stocks. Second, unless you are renting the basement, houses don’t pay dividends. Stocks do. You can hope that your house will accumulate in value but don’t count on it. Indeed, you should expect that as an investment your house will appreciate less than does the stock market.

…Another problem with houses is that home ownership locks people to location making it harder to move for jobs. The problem is especially severe because no one likes to sell at a “loss” even when it is rational to do so. So when jobs disappear and home prices fall instead of moving, people hold on for too long just hoping that things will get better.

I would add one more: People who own seem to spend a LOT of time on their weekends and holidays doing repairs and maintenance. If this is something you enjoy, great. If you would rather spend time with family, read, work, or Netflix binge, then it’s not so fantastic. Personally, my marginal value of leisure is high. I don’t even like thinking about my apartment or what needs to be done.

Alex highlights some of the benefits of housing. Some people like them a lot (or have been socialized to), and there are tax breaks. Plus so much of life in America is structured around home buying, such as public schooling.

I would add “forced savings”. If you are the kind of person who does not invest first spend later, then your mortgage forces you onto an intensive savings plan (in an albeit suboptimal investment).

So, basically, the best argument for houses is “distortions and weakness”.

I suspect some readers will still say things like “but housing is historically a great investment!”. I’m not sure they are thinking in real terms, and I do not think they are comparing it to historical stock market returns. And I am guessing people selectively remember the houses that appreciated, not the ones that stayed mainly flat. It’s like making the case for stocks based on people who bought Apple in 1987.

Surely someone has done the numbers here. Any pointers?