“Ebola is the Kardashian of diseases”

I tweeted that statement earlier this week, followed by “Do not get distracted. Malaria, TB, HIV is what matters.”

First, credit goes to @gbloembergen who comes up with much cleverer statements while holding alcoholic beverages than I do.

Second, why I agree with him:

  • Ebola is deadly serious but it seems to me the scaremongering is getting out of hand. Countries with even basic state capacity, such as Uganda, tend to be able to get outbreaks under control. A Western country could contain an outbreak, as could many (but not all) of Liberia or Sierra Leone’s neighbors. The reason we are seeing this explode is because, inevitably, Ebola is appearing in some of the weakest states in the world.
  • Thus the problem is not Ebola. Ebola outbreaks are the symptom of very weak states. The world can and should help to contain the outbreak there, but not forget what the cause is.
  • Meanwhile, malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS are already at pandemic proportions and I venture destroy more lives, more economies, and perhaps even more politics than Ebola.
  • Something like a third of Botswana have HIV or AIDS. 25 millions Africans have it, and more than a million die a year from it. A million. This is hugely economically and politically disruptive in some of the most advanced and politically important states in Africa, especially southern Africa.

I am not a public health expert so I’d love to be corrected. The right person to talk about this is probably Evan Lieberman at MIT, and in my ignorance I welcome summaries or insights from readers.

One response I received on Twitter that is important: the reaction to Ebola is what is abruptly destroying the economies of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Some of this is sensible, and maybe that economic and political disruption will make Ebola a greater curse than HIV or TB or malaria. But I can’t escape the idea that the reaction is an overreaction, and that the economic and political destruction is partly due to Western hype. That’s a tragedy indeed.

Essential reading on foreign aid

One of my favorite economists, Nancy Qian, reviews the literature on foreign aid. This is probably one of the better and more serious reviews out there, and should be read.

  • Aid flows have remained relatively constant during the period of 1960-2013
  • The countries that comprise the top donors also remain mostly unchanged
  • The composition of the top foreign aid recipients changes significantly over time [and] …much of the change in recipient composition seems aligned with foreign policy concerns of donor countries rather than changes in poverty levels in the recipient countries.
  • Annual aid to the poorest twenty percent of countries of the world comprise only 1.69% to 5.25% of total global aid flows.
  • A significant portion of aid is spent in donor countries.

Also, she picks up on the silliness of asking the question “does aid work?”

I focus my discussion on the need for future research to shift away from
examining aggregate aid towards more narrowed definitions because aggregation exacerbates several fundamental difficulties of empirical research. First, aggregate ODA is difficult to interpret as it is comprised of many different types of aid (e.g., debt relief, cash transfers, food, etc.). Each type of aid faces different measurement issues and, more importantly, each affects a different set of outcomes.

That is, it depends what you mean by “aid” and what you mean by “work”. It might even depend on what you mean by “does”.

Still the best thing I’ve read on Ferguson

A week later this is still it. Max Fisher asks how the American media would cover what happened if it were in another country.

FERGUSON — Chinese and Russian officials are warning of a potential humanitarian crisis in the restive American province of Missouri, where ancient communal tensions have boiled over into full-blown violence.

“We must use all means at our disposal to end the violence and restore calm to the region,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments to an emergency United Nations Security Council session on the America crisis.

The crisis began a week ago in Ferguson, a remote Missouri village that has been a hotbed of sectarian tension. State security forces shot and killed an unarmed man, which regional analysts say has angered the local population by surfacing deep-seated sectarian grievances. Regime security forces cracked down brutally on largely peaceful protests, worsening the crisis.

America has been roiled by political instability and protests in recent years, which analysts warn can create fertile ground for extremists.

Missouri, far-removed from the glistening capital city of Washington, is ostensibly ruled by a charismatic but troubled official named Jay Nixon, who has appeared unable to successfully intervene and has resisted efforts at mediation from central government officials. Complicating matters, President Obama is himself a member of the minority sect protesting in Ferguson, which is ruled overwhelmingly by members of America’s majority “white people” sect.

Analysts who study the opaque American political system, in which all provinces are granted semi-autonomous self-rule, warned that Nixon may seize the opportunity to move against weakened municipal rulers in Ferguson. Missouri’s provincial legislature, a traditional “shura council,” is dominated by the opposition faction. Though fears of a military coup remain low, it is still unknown how Nixon’s allies within the capital will respond should the crisis continue.

Meanwhile, for those unpersuaded that the police force in St. Louis (and everywhere) may have some deep seated issues, there is this.

Does industrialization de-skill workers?

From a paper de Pleijt and Weisdorf that looks at skill composition of the English workforce during industrialization:

Dietz Vollrath (I really like his blog) has a great discussion:

It’s a really interesting paper, and it’s neat to see how much information you can keep sucking out of these parish records from England. It leaves me with two big questions/ideas. First, does industrialization depend on a concentrated core of skills, rather than a broad distribution of skills? That is, if Mokyr is right about the source of English industrialization, then it’s those extra 650K high-skilled workers that really made all the difference. Industrialization didn’t involve spreading skills all around the (rapidly expanding) population, but in getting together a critical mass of skilled workers. Are we paying too much attention to average human capital levels when we talk about development and growth, and not enough to looking at when/how/if countries achieve that critical mass of skilled workers? Is the overall level of education irrelevant to industrialization?

Second, should we care about de-skilling? In a vacuum, telling someone that the share of unskilled workers in the economy rose from 25 to 40% of all workers would send up red flags. That must be a bad thing, right? Is it? As England added population, much of that new population was unskilled, presumably because there was no longer a demand for certain low- and medium- skilled professions that had been replaced by machines. Could this just mean that the economy was getting more efficient at using the human capital at hand? England didn’t need to waste all that time and effort skilling-up a big mass of workers. They could be used immediately, without much training.

My quick comments are (1) I agree, and (2) however fascinating, this probably has little relevance for patterns and consequences of industrialization today, so I wouldn’t try to glean insights for Ethiopia or Vietnam.

Will have more to say in a few weeks, when Stefan Dercon and I unveil the very unexpected results of our randomized trial of factory jobs in Ethiopia.

Win $20,000 to be part of the problem?

In order to help bring attention to the need for scholarship and fresh ideas in this area, and to encourage broad participation, the Global Development Network (GDN) in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announces an international essay contest. The contest invites essays on the future of development assistance. The primary objective of the contest is to invite fresh thinking related to the future of aid that can inform the ongoing discourse on development assistance and to make this thinking available to policymakers and key stakeholders.
Up to 20 winning entries will be chosen, and receive $20,000 each.

I think a good answer would start with thinking why this is probably the kind of question and mindset that leads foreign aid not to be a disaster in the first place.

First, most policies and institutions cannot be reinvented, they must be either hijacked and changed on the margin (unless you can drown them in a bathtub).

Second, grand schemes have a bad track record. Cue Hayek, Popper, Scott, and Easterly, albeit using them to be constructive (which they are not–that’s the hard part).

There is a good essay to be written here, possibly from the perspective of the piecemeal social engineer who recognizes it is generally very hard to social engineer, and that most of the time you don’t have the right to do so.

That is as close as I will get to writing 5000 words on this I am afraid.

Peer review, the experiment

We evaluate policies to increase prosocial behavior using a field experiment with 1,500 referees at the Journal of Public Economics. We randomly assign referees to four groups: a control group with a six-week deadline to submit a referee report; a group with a four-week deadline; a cash incentive group rewarded with $100 for meeting the four-week deadline; and a social incentive group in which referees were told that their turnaround times would be publicly posted.

We obtain four sets of results.

First, shorter deadlines reduce the time referees take to submit reports substantially.

Second, cash incentives significantly improve speed, especially in the week before the deadline. Cash payments do not crowd out intrinsic motivation: after the cash treatment ends, referees who received cash incentives are no slower than those in the four-week deadline group.

Third, social incentives have smaller but significant effects on review times and are especially effective among tenured professors, who are less sensitive to deadlines and cash incentives.

Fourth, all the treatments have little or no effect on rates of agreement to review, quality of reports, or review times at other journals.

We conclude that small changes in journals’ policies could substantially expedite peer review at little cost. More generally, price incentives, nudges, and social pressure are effective and complementary methods of increasing prosocial behavior.

A new paper in the JEP by Chetty, Saez and Sandor.

Blog holiday for August

The blog will be off for the majority of August. I will probably still tweet a little, since I’m browsing what’s out there for pleasure and the extra effort of hitting the RT button is not so great. I’ll have limited to no access to email, and will get to any messages and requests towards the end of the month.

Have a great rest of summer.

Catalonia travel bleg

We’ll be in Catalonia for the next three weeks, mostly in a small village just west of Figueres, and a little in Barcelona. Recommendations for food or sightseeing around Figueres or Barcelona are welcome.

Caveat: True New Yorkers that they are, the kids hate driving in cars. And they have a tendency to throw up if we drive more than 45 minutes. So, far-flung destinations are welcome, but only if they are worth risking el coche vómitos.

Links I liked

  1. Be a research advisor for education at International Rescue Committee*
  2. Foreign policy wonks: Are you a zen master?
  3. Security at ComicCon
  4. The psychological effects of poverty

* People who would like their job postings listed on this blog, please note: I only post job listings if you’re either (1) me, or (2) married to me. #2 is kind of hard to pull off, but I do accept candy, flowers, and romantic mix tapes at my office address.

What countries are the most hypocritical on human rights?

Courtesy of Kate at Wronging Rights, here is Wednesday’s UN Human Rights Council vote on investigating Israel for war crimes in Gaza: Gaza-vote And here is the vote four months ago to investigate Sri Lanka: SL-voteMost flip. From Kate:

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes.

Note that this is a vote to investigate—to gather more information to see whether a violation has been made. Presumably this need not be a high bar. I for one would love to see a UNHRC hypocrisy index. A simple variance measure would be an easy start, though if the Council gets a large number of questionable proposals to vote on, some conditions could be set (e.g. count only those cases where concerns of possible human rights violations has been raised by one of the more independent watchdogs.) Major paper love to write stories about international rankings.

“Africans in America”

Some fascinating facts from a new paper by Elo, Frankenberg, Gansey, and Thomas:

  • The number of migrants to the U.S. from Africa has exploded in recent years, and for the first time in America’s history Africans are the most rapidly growing group of foreign-born migrants.
  • Some 1.73 million African-born migrants live in the U.S., accounting for about 4% of the foreign-born population
  • Since the 1950s the number of foreign-born who have become legal permanent residents has quadrupled, but the number from Africa has increased nearly 60-fold—a rate of growth more than twice that for migrants from Asia, the next fastest growing source of new Americans.
  • In the 1950s, Morocco, South Africa and Egypt accounted for 60% of migrants from Africa. The vast majority were white. [In 2011] close to three quarters of African-born migrants in the U.S. self-identify as black.
  • Changes in immigration policy such as the 1980 Refugee Act, the 1990 Immigration Act, and the Diversity Visa Program have fueled some of the increase.
  • In the 1980s nearly three-quarters of legal permanent residents from Africa entered the U.S. on family-based visas. …By 2010, employment visas accounted for around 45% of all visas issued to African legal permanent residents.
  • nowadays about one-quarter of all African-origin legal permanent residents entered as refugees. …One-third of refugees over the last 3 decades were born in Sudan and Somalia, one-quarter were born in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and most of the rest were born in Liberia and East Africa.

Papers I liked

Am at the NBER development summer institute. Some interesting papers:

  1. Providing farmers with rainfall insurance makes them take more risks, and do better, but there’s a downside: much more risk for landless laborers. So what happens when you insure landless laborers?
  2. Reforming bureaucracies is hard, and getting the incentives for middle managers right might matter more than getting the policies and reform right. Evidence from six randomized control trials with Indian police.
  3. As with bureaucracies, with firms. Better methods don’t get adopted when they run against employee self-interest. Evidence from Pakistani soccer ball production. Notable also because the authors actually invented a better soccer ball in their spare time.
  4. In Brazil, halving the cost of migration doubles internal migration. To estimate this, they use the effects of an ad hoc capital city and highway network. 

Highly recommended podcasts

In spite of me. I’ve been interviewed on one of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk:

Chris Blattman of Columbia University talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about a radical approach to fighting poverty in desperately poor countries: giving cash to aid recipients and allowing them to spend it as they please. Blattman shares his research and cautious optimism about giving cash and discusses how infusions of cash affect growth, educational outcomes, and political behavior (including violence). The conversation concludes with a discussion of the limits of aid and the some of the moral issues facing aid activists and researchers.

If you read my blog, you have heard it all before. So I actually recommend other episodes instead:

Random US-Brazil fact of the day

The Confederados were individuals from the U.S. Confederate states who left the American South and resettled in São Paulo, Brazil, immediately after the Civil War. Although the exact number of individuals is difficult to determine, between 2,000 and 4,000 emigrants are estimated to have participated in the movement between 1865 and 1875.

Leading researchers of the topic have identified 154 families that arrived in Brazil during this time, with 37 families being from Alabama. About half the total number eventually returned to the United States, whereas the remainder established themselves in their new homeland and went on to have a significant influence on local society.


You might think, “hey I could use this for an empirical paper on institutions!” Unfortunately for you, right now, somewhere in Cambridge Mass., Acemoglu and Robinson have hired a graduate RA, have come up with a better empirical strategy than yours, and (I predict) the paper will be on Daron’s website in three weeks.

It’s almost enough to make the rest of us give up. Maybe that’s why I left political economy and history for field experiments…

Links I liked

(Links fixed)

  1. I always believed that a handful of Californian counties produce nearly all our fruits and nuts, but I didn’t know it was real fruits and nuts.
  2. A Volkswagen Beetle compressed into a ball, from artist Ichwan Noor

  3. “It turns out the can’t-miss star who misses the N.B.A. can make a fair living in Algiers or in Halifax” 

  4. “A small metal shack with no electricity on a jetty does not seem like the kind of place frequented by Hamas” (or, further evidence Israel has lost the New York Times)

Science Magazine raises its statistical bar. Will we?

From the Editors of Science:

….unfortunately, there have been far too many cases where the quantitative analysis of those numbers has been flawed, causing doubt about the authors’ interpretation and uncertainty about the result. Furthermore, it is not realistic to expect that a technical reviewer, chosen for her or his expertise in the topical subject matter or experimental protocol, will also be an expert in data analysis.

For that reason, with much help from the American Statistical Association, Science has established, effective 1 July 2014, a Statistical Board of Reviewing Editors (SBoRE), consisting of experts in various aspects of statistics and data analysis, to provide better oversight of the interpretation of observational data.

…I have been amazed at how many scientists have never considered that their data might be presented with bias. There are fundamental truths that may be missed when bias is unintentionally overlooked, or worse yet, when data are “massaged.” Especially as we enter an era of “big data,” we should raise the bar ever higher in scrutinizing the analyses that take us from observations to understanding.

This is an important move. I would love to see medical journals do the same, where I think the problems are greater and the consequences for human welfare more immediate.

At the same time, if your research mainly deals with numbers, then I think it is time to expect people with substantive expertise to become better statisticians. They need this not only to produce better work, but to be effective users of what their peers produce. This cannot simply be exported to a committee in the top journal.

Raising the refereeing bar is going to get the incentives right, which is a step in the right direction. But something will need to change in graduate admissions requirements and training.

In particular, I think that a 21st century undergraduate degree in social science ought to require fluency in statistics. It’s such a fundamental part of science, medicine, social science, and even reading the newspaper. But even the Columbia’s and Yale’s of the world don’t impress this on their undergraduates, let alone require it. I’m a big supporter of the liberal arts education, but on the margin I’d substitute a couple courses in the humanities for statistics and causal inference.

What I’ve been reading (or short book reviews for busy people)

  1. Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and Its Demise in Mexico, by Beatriz Magaloni. An enlightening book. In brief: how countries with elections but de facto single parties (like, for many years, the PRI in Mexico) maintain power and lose it. This is a useful book for understanding weak autocracies, and how a good many countries have democratized over time. Some of the best insights are on why hegemonic parties try to build super-majorities of mass and elite support, and how they’re vulnerable to both growth and leader transitions.
  2. Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, by Peter Sahlins. A history of one of the oldest borders in Western Europe. Some fascinating bits include the fact that “natural” barriers like mountain ranges are not so natural or clear after all; the slow means by which people took on French or Spanish identities across some of the more arbitrarily cleaved valleys (including the slow emergence of Catalan identity); and the resemblance between France’s strategies in the 18th century to assimilate its periphery and China’s strategies in its periphery in the 21st.
  3. Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin. Novelistic account of the Aeneid (an early Latin epic poem) by one of the great science fiction writers, all told from the perspective of a minor female character. Good but not great.
  4. Mating, Whites, and Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush. Mating and Whites are two of my favorite books written on foreigners in Africa by a foreigner in Africa. Brilliant, satirical, and must-reads for the modern neocolonialist. I mean aid workers. I believe Rush ran the Peace Corps program in Botswana in the early 80s, and the novels draw on his experiences with absurd people and circumstances, I assume. Read the collection of short stories, Whites, first. Subtle Bodies is a new work about a bunch pompous, unsympathetic people who reunite in upstate New York. I couldn’t quite finish it, but it made me go back and reread the earlier novels with pleasure.
  5. The Battle for Spain, The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, by Anthony Beevor. This was recommended by several poeple when I went looking for engaging Spanish history. The book was a gatling gun of names and dates. Completely bewildering. I put it down quickly. Any other suggestions? I like my history to have a coherent narrative.