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

This blog in 2013

The big news of the year: The blog survived baby number two. This was not foreordained. I came close to quitting, because at some point I just didn’t have a lot I wanted to say. But I suppose I am far too fond of procrastination and the sound of my own voice for that to happen just yet.

While there’s some truth to that, there are better reasons. I learn a lot from my readers and the blog-driven conversations. It pushes me to read widely and think through big questions. Also, I didn’t spend my life trying to come up with good ideas to reduce poverty and violence only to have 78 people read my papers. This blog is the closest I will ever come to social change.

A surprise for me in 2013: the (slight) majority of traffic came from search engines, Twitter, and Facebook. In past years it would have been RSS readers or direct visits. The way we read the Internet and consume content is changing. I suspect this means I get a much more diverse, irregular readership as opposed to more loyal followers.

People do get bored. I’ve almost stopped reading blogs regularly, and sample from many hundreds or thousands rather than a few. With the possible exception of Marginal Revolution, I can only follow one person (or group) so long. The implication, I realize, is that a good proportion of my friends and professional colleagues are tired of listening to me. I suppose this should not be surprising.

Now, some highlight from the year. Other than the home page, the ten most viewed posts:

  1. Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers
  2. “Correlation versus causation in a single graph”
  3. Dear governments: Want to help the poor and transform your economy? Give people cash.
  4. The problem with graduate degrees in international affairs and development?
  5. 10 things I tell undergraduates
  6. The standing desk: I am a convert
  7. About me
  8. Picture of the day? Irony. Bitter irony.
  9. Frequently asked questions on PhD applications
  10. Columbia PhD and post-doc advising

This list is somewhat misleading, however, because regular readers go to the home page, and so are not counted as reading the post. These are just the links that happened to get passed around most in Facebook and Twitter.

Number 1 is possibly my greatest public service to the profession. Or so my colleagues tell me. Especially the ones who have read my research.

Total traffic is more or less steady. There were 866,075 page views in 2011, 1,153,543 in 2012, and 1,152,949 in 2013. Possibly this is because I shut down the blog for most of July and August, in what may become an annual tradition.

Where do you come from (by number of page views)? The audience has become slightly less Western centric than earlier years:

  1. United States 598,325
  2. United Kingdom 103,323
  3. Canada 65,254
  4. Australia 32,710
  5. India 26,926
  6. Germany 26,237
  7. France 16,568
  8. Brazil 11,095
  9. Netherlands 10,917
  10. Sweden 9,691

Yes, it is still Western-centric but I am still happy to see two non-Western countries on the list. Also, Kenya and South Africa were 13 and 15.

My annual financial disclosure: as usual, I don’t look to make money from this blog, in large part because ads make me feel icky. But when I link to Amazon (for book reviews and the like) Amazon gives me 2% of any revenues from the stuff you buy. This used to just cover the cost of running this blog–about $600 a year. This year you guys were trigger happy and I made $3,032.42. So yes it seems I am profiting off of you.  Thanks. I don’t think it’s affected my judgement yet. If I don’t like something, I just don’t blog it.

Of course, if that’s true, then you might ask yourself why I am linking now to the most expensive things on Amazon I could find?

And, finally, I continue to delight in seeing the random search terms that lead people to the blog. Some favorites:

  • should i be an accountant
  • standing desk
  • community development in war zones master’s degree
  • are lobsters immortal
  • chris blattman wife
  • why is latin america poor
  • sick email to professor
  • how to get a un job
  • star wars gif
  • blog de chris

Oddly, all appear at least dozens of times. I am thinking “Blog de Chris” will become the new title.

To save everyone the trouble: the short answers to “should I get a standing desk” is yes, and the answer to “should I get a job as an accountant or at the UN?” is an empathic no.

It was a fun year. A big thank you to all the readers, regular and new. I value comments on each post, and hope to see more of them in future. Please write.


Bleg: Where can I find data on full program costs for aid projects?

I’m curious if anyone has seen a collection or compendium (however incomplete) of the cost of aid projects in full. I’m especially interested in household- or individual-level anti-poverty or employment programs: from livestock or asset distribution, to business or vocational skills trainings, to conditional cash transfers, to to food distribution, to whatever, really.

I suppose the ideal data would have the full cost of the project and the number of people. For instance, to give 1000 cows to 1000 households, the total budget was $X for everything from cows to distribution to local office and staff costs.

I have a handful of these. They are typically budget proposals sent to donors. I would love to look at larger pools, even if they are not representative. It need not be identifiable data linked to a particular NGO or government or aid agency.

I’m curious to see whether it’s possible to look at rough per person or household costs of different programs by country, program type, etc.

Should the West have governed South Sudan?

The solution to these problems is not to send in more peacekeepers to Juba and Bor, or hammer out a power-sharing agreement between the warring parties. Or rather, not only to do these things. The response to South Sudan’s turmoil should be crafted with a set of policy tools that were popular in the 1950s but have been used only selectively in recent years. I am referring to the process known as “trusteeship,” whereby a newly independent nation is granted special forms of assistance and special constraints on sovereignty. In some cases, the former colonial power sought to administer the trusteeship, and in other cases an international coalition or the United Nations did so for a defined period of time.

That is Gregg Zachary writing in the Atlantic. He points to Ghana in 1957 as a quasi example.

My reactions, in order of appearance:

  1. Paternalistic, suspect, and distasteful
  2. Actually, reminiscent of the economist Rudi Dornbusch, who half-seriously suggested that the solution to Argentina’s financial woes was to hand over all financial governance to the most responsible archetype he could imagine: a Finnish woman. Perhaps temporary trusteeship is in the same spirit as independent Central Bank governors: tie your hands.
  3. Actually, on even further thought, what Zachary proposes is exactly what was done in Liberia 2003-13 and the transition has been remarkably smooth, with little distastefulness. I think it was a good idea.
  4. Maybe the deeper problem is that international norms dictate nations can have only one of two forms of government: Subjugation to a larger state dictated before 1948, or complete independence. But not every political situation fits stably into one of those two categories, and inevitably turns to violence. A third and fourth norm might not hurt, ones that provided stability and a transition to full autonomy.

I am not sure yet what my fifth or final reaction is, but I think Zachary is on to something. I think there is something to my initial discomfort, but there may be no perfect solution. Possibly his is the best of a set of bad alternatives. Is there any scholarly work here?

Update: I am told Bosnia, Kosovo and Timor Leste might also be examples. Perhaps the world had more interest and understanding of the situation there, and so were less susceptible to irrational optimism.

Update 2: A rebuttal by @kopalo drawing on this classic Fearon and Laitin article I’d forgotten (ungated)

Links I liked

  1. The shocking truth about Piranhas
  2. Deep question of the day: What is the air inside green peppers composed of
  3. I have to believe this is a long term problem for the party: Republican belief in human evolution dropped from 54% to 43% in 4 years
  4. My Ig Nobel prize nomination: In case you get lost in the woods, evidence that dogs poop in alignment with Earth’s magnetic field
  5. Yes, you should have gotten the flu shot this season and you still can

What is the most anthropologically interesting section of the New York Times?

My vote: “Real Estate”. From today’s paper:

As they leave the basketball court, Ms. Haber explains how the stairwell offers a vertiginous, Hitchcock-worthy view to the media room five floors below. “The staircase was one of my pet projects,” she said. “I grew up when ‘The Waltons’ was popular on TV — remember ‘Good night, John-Boy’? — and I wanted a staircase where every member of the family could stand on a different floor and look up and down at each other and say good night.”

This is not from a borough. It is the Upper East Side.

Amazingly, this is not unusual. Sunday after Sunday, the Times repeats itself, initially as tragedy and eventually as farce.

For instance, there is a refrigerator on every floor. “If I want a bottle of water, I don’t have to go down to the kitchen,” Mr. Haber said. “Something as simple as that is terrific. Jill was very thoughtful about every detail.”

What amazes me is that, to speak so unselfconsciously, the couple must be surrounded only by people for whom these statements are not absurd.

It is easier and easier to see why De Blasio was elected.

Henry Miller’s writing tips

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’

  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

  5. When you can’t create you can work.

  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.


An you thought you knew why NORAD tracks Santa’s sleigh

 The call had come in on one of the top secret lines inside CONAD that only rang in the case of a crisis.Grabbing the phone, [U.S. Air Force Col.] Shoup must have expected the worst. Instead, a tiny voice asked, “Is this Santa Claus?”

“Dad’s pretty annoyed,” said Terri Van Keuren, Shoup’s daughter, recalling the legend of that day in 1955. “He barks into the phone,” demanding to know who’s calling.

“The little voice is now crying,” Van Keuren continued. “‘Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?’”

The Santa questions were only beginning. That day, the local newspaper had run a Sears Roebuck ad with a big picture of St. Nick and text that urged, “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct … Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.”

But the phone number in the ad was off by a digit. Instead of connecting with Santa, callers were dialing in on the line that would ring if the Russians were attacking.

Full story.

The unappreciated history of A Charlie Brown Christmas

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock—a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. “They said, ‘We’ll play it once and that will be all. Good try,’ ” remembers Mendelson. “Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room—he had had a couple of drinks—and he said, ‘It’s going to run for a hundred years,’ and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were.”


Some NYC-based research positions related to me

As you can see, I mean that literally.

  1. For those with an MA or PhD, my wife Jeannie is hiring a research manager at IRC for several evaluations of governance and rights interventions–covering stabilization, conflict mitigation, local development and service delivery, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.
  2. For those with an MA, my colleague Macartan Humphreys is hiring a program and research manager for the Experiments in Governance and Politics (EGAP) network at Columbia University. You’ll sit right outside the offices of me, Macartan and Don Green.
  3. And for those with a BA or MA, I am still accepting applications until the end of the month for my research manager position.

What Facebook can tell us about megacity growth

Data scientists at Facebook compared users’ hometowns with their current homes to discern the 10 cities with the most “coordinated migrations,” where at least 20% of the population of one city has moved to another city.

Source. The top 10 destinations:

  1. Lagos, Nigeria
  2. Istanbul, Turkey
  3. Bogota, Columbia
  4. Bangkok, Thailand
  5. Accra, Ghana
  6. Hyderabad, India
  7. Kampala, Uganda
  8. Lima, Peru
  9. Chennai, India
  10. London, Great Britain

People will get excited about the big data, but the insight I drew was that urban politics and economics are woefully understudied in development.