“I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers”

Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

…I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.

Full piece in McSweeneys.

To my current students: Blogging something is not an endorsement of it’s content. Except, of course, when it is so true.

Graphic novels I read (and recommend)

A combination of recommendations from an Ezra Klein and Rachel Maddow podcast, plus conversations with Scott Ashworth (who has an encyclopedic knowledge plus infectious enthusiasm for the comic) led me to a couple dozen graphic novels in the past few months. The best, in order:

  1. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. Melodramatic teenager meets fantasy/sci-fi/comedy mashup. Won a “best book” recognition from just about every periodical you could name. Well deserved.
  2. Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine. Tales of humiliation and disappointment in people’s everyday lives. The graphic novel equivalent of a collection of sad short stories. That was a compliment.
  3. Queen & Country by Greg Rucka. If John Le Carre wrote a graphic novel, this might be what it looks like.
  4. Saga by Bryan Vaughan and Fiona Staples. A space opera. If you like space operas you will like this.
  5. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd. I’d never read the anarchist classic and finally did, and loved it.
  6. Mind Mgmt by Matt Kindt. Conspiracy theories meet spy novel meet the paranormal.

I also enjoyed We3, Prophet, and Feynman, but not enough to recommend them so strongly.

More recommendations welcome.

Can raising labor standards and wages increase sweatshop productivity?

One day late for May Day.

About half the world’s soccer balls are made in one city in Pakistan, Sialkot. So what happens if you invent a better ball design and offer it freely to all factories?

we gave out the new dies randomly to 35 of the 135 producers in Sialkot and sat back to watch. The first surprise was that few firms adopted the new die, despite indications that it was yielding more pentagons per sheet. We asked owners why not. Their number one answer: employee resistance. The vast majority of cutters in Sialkot are paid piece rates (usually per ball), and our new die was slowing them down, at least initially. Without changes to this scheme, the cutters bore the increased labor cost and saw none of the much larger benefits of reducing waste of material. Figuring that their earnings would decline, the cutters were trying to block adoption, in part by misinforming owners about the benefits of the technology.

That’s Eric Verhoogen writing in Harvard Business Review about his study, with coauthors, of barriers to technology adoption in Pakistan.

The one place that adopted it was the Nike-supplying factory with salaries and a higher wage bill. In a second experiment, they show that insuring workers against the losses from technology change increased adoption.

Black lives matter, economic history edition

I use the individual-level records from my own family in rural Mississippi to estimate the agricultural productivity of African Americans in manual cotton picking nearly a century after Emancipation, 1952-1965.

That is from Trevon Logan’s Presidential address to the National Economics Association.

Partly he calculates the productivity of his sharecropping ancestors relative to slave holding estates a century before (a persistent question in American economic history). But mainly he makes an argument for doing more qualitative interviews, which seems like an obvious point, except that systematic qualitative work is the exception in economic history (as it is in development economics).

That richer, fuller picture reveals that the work behind the estimates came to define the way that the Logan children viewed racial relations, human capital, savings, investment, and nearly every aspect of their lives. We learn not only about the picking process itself, but that chopping cotton may have been the most physically taxing aspect of the work. Similarly, the sale of cotton seed during the picking season was an important source of revenue for the family, and yet this economic relationship with the landowner was outside of the formal sharecropping contract. We also learn that it is impossible to divorce the work from its social environment{ an era in which Jim Crow, segregation, and other elements of overt racial oppression were a fact of life. Although none of the children has picked cotton in more than forty years, this experience continues to govern their daily lives and the way they interact with the world around them. Rather than being an item of the past, the work recorded in the cotton picking books continues to be a salient factor in their current economic decision-making.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • A few weeks ago I wrote about how the media often stumbles in reporting new research findings particularly about replications. SciDev.net now has a nice guide for reporters (or any non-expert) on how to read science press releases and the papers behind them, and then how to report them.
  • Schilbach finds financial incentives encourage sobriety among rickshaw drivers in India, and also encouraged savings (if I’m reading it right). Participants were even willing to sacrifice money in exchange for the sobriety incentives (e.g. using it as tool to help them cut down on drinking). Yikes to the graph above.
  • How to get tenure if you’re a woman has advice that probably applies to many careers (h/t Emily Oster).
  • I’ve been enjoying in the NYTimes mag “Lives” series, first-person stories from people in other countries, like this one from Colombia about stumbling into the middle of a military/guerilla shootout as a kid, or navigating the Brazilian healthcare system.
  • Hernando de Soto is working with the Republic of Georgia and a Bitcoin company to use a blockchain, the kind of distributed public database that keeps track of who owns which Bitcoin, to record and track land titles and make them less vulnerable to corruption or mismanagement.
  • I mentioned a few months ago that a Cambridge Ph.D. student studying labor movements in Egypt was abducted, tortured, and killed. The government has finally filed a criminal complaint – against the Reuters journalist who reported the story.
  • A paper finds New York teachers are manipulating scores (PDF) on the Regents Exams required for high school graduation, and this benefits minority students. (h/t Justin Sandefur).
  • Marc Bellemare offers links to useful Stata cheatsheets (h/t Dev Impact).

If you have a co-worker you don’t like, do what my co-worker did. Hand them printout of this viz on 8 1/2 x11. (Source)

90 year life in weeks

How causal identification was born in economics

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 10.27.39 AM
A simply fantastic interview with Berkeley’s David Card and Princeton’s Alan Krueger on the Equitable Growth blog:

Card: Right. And you mentioned research design. I remember Alan was an assistant professor and I was a professor at Princeton and Alan sat next to me. And he, for some reason, got a subscription to the New England Journal of Medicine. (Laughter.) And —

Zipperer: Intentionally?

Krueger: Yeah. I loved reading the New England Journal of Medicine.

Card: Yeah. And the New England Journal would come in every week, so there was a lot of stuff to read. And the beginning of each article would have “research design.”

Krueger: And “methods.”

Card: Yes, and if you’ve never seen that before and you were educated as an economist in the 1970s  or 1980s, that just didn’t make any sense. What is research design? And I remember one time I said, “I don’t think my papers have a research design.”

And so that whole set of terms entered economics as a result of those kinds of changes in orientation. But I would say that another thing that happened was that Bob LaLonde got a pretty good job and his paper got a lot of attention. And then Josh Angrist, again following up a suggestion from Orley to look at the Vietnam draft—that paper got a lot of attention. And it looked like there was a market, in a way, for this new style of work. It’s not like we were trying to sell something that no one wanted. There was actually a market out there generally, in the labor economics field, at least.

And now it has been fetishized. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But then I was raised in the cult.

I wonder if interviews like these predict the apocalypse? Something is just so dominant, it looks like it can never fall. And suddenly it does.

Hat tip to Suresh Naidu.

What happens when native Americans pay themselves unconditional cash from casino profits?

The profits — amounting to $150 million in 2004 and growing to nearly $400 million in 2010 — enabled the tribe to build a new school, hospital, and fire station. However, the lion’s share of the takings went directly into the pockets of the 8,000 men, women, and children of the Eastern Band Cherokee tribe. From $500 a year at the outset, their earnings from the casino quickly mounted to $6,000 in 2001, constituting a quarter to a third of the average family income.

As coincidence would have it, a Duke University professor by the name of Jane Costello had been researching the mental health of youngsters south of the Great Smoky Mountains since 1993.

…Soon after the casino opened, Costello was already noting huge improvements for her subjects. Behavioral problems among children who had been lifted out of poverty went down 40%, putting them in the same range as their peers who had never known privation. Juvenile crime rates among the Cherokee also declined, along with drug and alcohol use, while their school scores improved markedly. At school, the Cherokee kids were now on a par with the study’s non-tribal participants.

Full news article.

From Costello’s paper with my friend Randall Akee, and coauthors:

An additional $4,000 per year for the poorest households increases educational attainment by one year at age 21, and reduces the chances of committing a minor crime by 22 percent for 16 and 17 year olds. Our evidence suggests improved parental quality is a likely mechanism for the change.

“White Savior Barbie”, a $25 portable standing desk, and other links I liked


  1. The story on White Savior Barbie, Ken Opalo’s advice of volunteering, and my own posts on development tourism
  2. A Kickstarter for an ultra-affordable standing desk (I donated)
  3. If you’re at all interested in why people say blogging is dead, why rumors of its death is premature, and the economics of blogging in 2016, you’ll enjoy Ezra Klein’s interview with Ben Thompson
  4. In addition to updating his regular CV, Princeton’s Johannes Haushofer has started his CV of failures
  5. Saumitra Jha’s PhD syllabus for Political Economy of Development (if you don’t know him or his work then you are missing out)

IPA’s weekly links

Guest Post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Population per radiotherapy machine

  • Most of us hear about radiation for cancer treatment in the troika with surgery and chemotherapy, and hopefully don’t have to think too much about it, but it is critical for treating many kinds of cancers. It also requires more infrastructure than the other two (a multi-million dollar machine, a radiation-shielded room, and specially trained technical staff to safely operate, often under oversight of a nuclear regulator like the NRC in the US or IAEA).

With life expectancies increasing in low-income countries, most cancer cases are now in the developing world, but many health systems aren’t equipped for the increased burden. A Kenyan program, for example, is sending patients abroad to India and Turkey for radiation treatments.

Now Uganda’s only radiation therapy machine (donated 26 years ago) has broken. Uganda has over 20,000 cancer cases a year, and officials say they also have a plan to send patients out of the country for treatment – to Kenya.

  • An amazing data visualization of the amount of dialogue by men vs. women in Disney movies. The graphs transform as you scroll and are clickable. The surprise in there to me was that Frozen, about the relationship between two sisters, was still 57% male dialogue. (via Katherine Milkman)
  • Google calendar is integrating Dan Ariely’s nudge to help people complete long-term goals like learning a new language. It uses free space in your calendar to suggest devoting time to them.
  • Glewwe, Rutledge, and Wydick report on their evaluation of a child sponsorship program in several countries (10,144 adults, 1,860 of them sponsored as children by an NGO). It appears to have raised secondary school completion, and adult wages (for men) significantly, which they think happened by raising the aspirations of the kids who were sponsored.

My 5-year-old daughter came home from the school library with a book for kids on survey methods and how to present data. Maria Dieci from IPA Zambia’s office suggested there are economists who could benefit from it…

Survey Tips


My Political Economy of Development exam for SIPA Master’s students

pacon-bb7816-examination-book-pic1Below are 7 sample essay questions, some with multiple parts. The actual exam will present you with 4 of these questions. You will be asked to answer your choice of 3, longhand, in exam booklets.

You will be allowed to bring in one 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper with whatever you want on it. It can be handwritten or machine produced. It can be a picture of a puppy if you like.

Your answers should draw as much as possible on the course material, referencing the ideas and authors as clearly as possible.

  1. Sources in the Obama administration have said that he will devote a part of his post-presidential years to the issue of “African governance.” One of his aides asks you draw on what you have learned in your course to write a memo outlining: (a) some of the crucial things he needs to understand about good governance in developing countries; (b) what policies he could focus on to be most effective; (c) whether he should focus on democratization; and (d) pitfalls and unintended consequences he should keep in mind.
  2. We’ve been talking about some of the parallels between weak states and bandits in European history, as well as modern day state-building in Liberia or Afghanistan. What do you think are some of the main similarities and differences between historic processes of state-building and modern ones?
  3. Make an argument for how more Western imperialism in the 21st century would lead to better development outcomes in the world’s poorest states. Then highlight at least three drawbacks to this argument. (Note: a good answer will be very clear about what you mean by imperialism and what development outcomes are important.)
  4. Name four policies (domestic or international) that, if implemented, could make autocratic states more responsive to their citizens. Argue each one using the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (EVL) model, illustrating each one with the extensive form game, and illustrating the equilibrium in each case. Ideally, name at least one policy for each of E, V and L. Be sure to explain your reasoning.
  5. “The anti-corruption campaigns promoted by Western donors in developing countries are naïve, ignore the realities of local politics, and may even be harmful to these countries.” Discuss this question, explaining arguments for and against the statement.
  6. “War-making, autocracy, and elite deal-making were good for state-making in the last millennium. The experiences of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq all show that war-making, autocracy, and elite deal-making can build stable states in this millennium too.” Discuss this question, explaining arguments for and against the statement.
  7. A new U.S. President will take office in less than a year. Their transition teams are already beginning to plan for the first 100 days. The team that is interested in reforming foreign aid turns to you for advice. What have you learned in this course that can guide their reforms of the U.S. system of foreign aid? In either case, assume the reformers/transition teams want the most effective aid policy, not the one that serves the national interest.If you prefer, you can write this memo instead to the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, who are embarking on a major foreign aid effort for the first time.

The syllabus is here.

Was today my first vote ever?

rs_600x413-140711095538-BT2bQrgCEAAWL7vIt’s only as a 41 year old that, looking back, I see the value of keeping a diary. After I moved to the U.S. in 2000, and gave us Canadian tax residency, I effectively lost my right to vote. But I turned 26 the day I moved, and so I could have voted before that. Tonight I realized that I have absolutely no recollection of voting in the 1993 or 1997 national elections.

It’s entirely possible I voted. With my memory, it’s even possible I ran a voting center and still forgot. But I have vague recollections of being one of those away-from-home university students who never registered in their new riding. And vague memories of thinking “maybe I’ll vote by mail” but missing the deadlines.

I have a coauthor who, on principle, refuses to vote. It’s individually irrational, he says, since it takes up time and there’s no chance it will sway the election. Of course there are a dozen counter arguments. I’m not sure it matters, since I think he mostly likes to not vote because it infuriates all his friends when he tells them at parties. That is the real reward.

I, on the other hand, have an overdeveloped sense of civic duty. I am one of those people who threw themselves into every student council role through high school, including school president. I can’t imagine not voting. Except that I think I never have.

Except today. Last April I became an American, and so the New York primary was my first chance.

It’s been interesting: Only my more liberal friends ask me why. I say “I just became and American” and the average citizen says “Congratulations!!!”. I say the same thing to my academic coworkers and I get almost the same response: “Congratulations?”

I had many reasons. I can’t deny that one was defensive. In principle, a grumpy border guard could turn me back any time I returned to the US. You might think this is a trivial risk, but if your job involves talking to rebels and criminals and warlords (at least on occasion) that risk is no longer so negligible.

But more importantly, at some point I realized I identified more as an American than as a Canadian.

It came very slowly. I remember my first day in the U.S. A friend and I drove a U-Haul from Toronto to Boston. We stopped for gas in some isolated spot off an interstate. The kind of place where everyone is a stranger to one another. As we walked into the station to pay for our gas, the man entering ahead of us was black. The man exiting the door ahead of all of us was also black. They looked at each other, gave a sort of nod, and kept walking. They paid no attention to us. I remember looking at my friend and saying, “What the hell just happened? Where have we come?”

Toronto at the time was just tilting to be more brown and black than white. The city is certainly no paradise free of prejudice, but I’d never seen anything like that gas station nod before. With a little time in the U.S., it all makes sense. A conspiratorial look saying “we’re in this shit together” is completely understandable. It was my first sense that life in America, no matter how close in distance to Canada, would be different in subtle and disturbing ways. (One example: the photo above is what happens if you type “most American photo ever” into Google Images.)

I think of my American time in three five-year blocks. The first five years I lived here, I experienced what I think a lot of non-Americans experience: A feeling, every few days, that “Holy crap these people are CRAZY”. It’s probably the immigrant experience everywhere.

In my second five years, though, that thought stopped occurring. I found I had more and more American friends, and no longer naturally gravitated to the other foreigners. In some ways I simply got used to the troubles facing America. But I also started seeing the great things too.

It wasn’t until my third five-year block that, visiting Canada, I caught myself thinking, “Holy crap these people are CRAZY.” My transformation was complete.

Little things also changed over the years. I went from skipping past the U.S. news section of the paper, and only reading the international news, to reading the U.S. news first. Big things changed too. At some point, looking at the country, I stopped thinking “not my problem” to “I could help that.”

You know you love a country when you want to shake it and scream at it because it is driving you crazy.

This brings me back to what was, for all intents, purposes, and apparently memories, my first vote. As much as I like and admire Bernie, my vote was with Clinton.

There are many reasons for this. You have heard some of these before: more qualified than almost any other imaginable candidate, blah blah blah.

But what makes my decision a little different from others is that, however much I might identify as an American, I’m no nationalist.

The one thing that will keep me from public office in this country is simple: I don’t think American lives are more important than other people’s lives. I’ll fight for principles, and do the most good where I can (which might be at home), but to me “the national interest” is an empty concept. (And so, having put that in writing on the Internet, “high school President” will be the highest office I ever hold.)

Both Clinton and Sanders are nationalists. What else would a Presidential candidate be? Both also care about the poor and oppressed elsewhere in the world, very deeply. The big difference, at least to me, is that one of the candidates has spent much of their life understanding and working in that wider world. That mastery matters to me. In fact, I think it’s even simpler than that: it simply matters. There are 6 billion non-Americans who also have a lot at stake in this election. I’m convinced Sanders has their interests at heart. But I don’t think he knows how to serve them.

I didn’t mean for this post to become an election pitch. In fact, when I started writing 30 minutes ago, I thought “I’ll write a few sentences about my glimmer of civic delight today”, mainly to avoid grading midterms. And here I am, hundreds of autobiographical words later.

This is the great advantage of the blog. It’s the diary I didn’t think to have in 1993 or 1997. My immigrant story, in 30 minutes, without the conceit of writing a book.

Or an editor, time delay, or chance for second thoughts, for that matter. I can’t quite believe I’m about to press the “Publish” button. Here goes…

I can’t even think of a title for this. It has to be read to be believed. And enjoyed.

UPDATE: It turns out the backstory is even weirder and more interesting

There are so many layers of absurdity I kept laughing and laughing. Full disclosure: that could simply be the consequence of last minute frantic lecture slide preparation plus bourbon.

Hat tip to @texasinafrica.

Eliminating NSF grant deadlines halved the number of proposals they received

How can the National Science Foundation cope with an exploding number of grant proposals?

Annual or semiannual grant deadlines lead to enormous spikes in submissions, which in turn cause headaches for the program managers who have to organize merit review panels. Now, one piece of the agency has found a potentially powerful new tool to flatten the spikes and cut the number of proposals: It can simply eliminate deadlines.

This week, at an NSF geosciences advisory committee meeting, Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated. “We’ve found something that many programs around the foundation can use,” Wakimoto told the advisory committee on 13 April.

From Science Magazine.

My first reaction was that procrastinators are penalized. That is, there’s a behavioral explanation. That was what many people in the article said. And it’s surely true.

That means it might also be a short term effect, and the equilibrium number of proposals will be the same.

But, after eight years working with Yale, Columbia, and IPA, another idea occurred to me: it’s sometimes impossible to get  bureaucracies to do anything without a hard deadline. Every day is “address the emergency day”. So I predict better bureaucrats and managers will be rewarded. Will the incentives finally get it right?

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


Somehow yesterday turned into Guaranteed Basic Income Day.

  • In the morning, Freakonomics released a podcast about the idea – a simple social safety net of a minimum income everybody would be guaranteed. Liberals and libertarians alike have gotten behind the idea in the past, and now some in high-income countries see it as a solution in increasingly high-tech economies where some make a lot of money while others have a very difficult time in the labor market. The main concern others have is whether it would discourage people from working.
    • The Canadian Government did a 5-year experiment with an entire town in the 1970’s. The 30% who qualified were given about $15,000 in today’s dollars a year. Amazingly, the data was never analyzed – the papers are still sitting in 1,800 boxes in the national archives (there’s a major opportunity for a funder!)
    • However, one economist was able to use health insurance records to look at the town in a quasi-experiment, and found it improved health, and education for boys (who apparently weren’t under as much pressure to drop out of high school to work). It didn’t discourage work (the main fear) for the primary earner, but did seem to allow second earners to work less (such as mothers who’d just had babies).
  • Later in the day, GiveDirectly (which just gives cash to poor people) co-founders Michael Faye and Paul Niehaus announced on Slate that the organization would be embarking on a 10-year, $30 million experiment giving a basic income to 6,000 Kenyans, and are fundraising for it.
  • Vox’s Dylan Matthews also had an article on the announcement and previous research.
  • This morning Berk Özler suggested that just comparing people who get the money to those who don’t is a wasted opportunity. Why not compare cash alone to another successful program such as the Ultrapoor Graduation Model, which offers a six-pronged approach for the poorest?
  • Some more resources on this for those interested: IPA’s currently working with GiveDirecly on a general equilibrium study, to test the broader economic effects of these kinds of cash grants on area economies and individual well-being.  We’re also doing what Berk suggested, comparing the Ultrapoor Graduation model to cash grants, in Ghana. And of course, the original evaluation is available (paper & plain language summary).
  • If you’re new to the cash transfers discussion, a couple of notes: basic income policies of course would look different in wealthy and low-income countries (tests have been announced in several wealthy countries). And nobody thinks cash to individuals can solve broader systemic problems in poor countries, such as infrastructure or governance. The question being debated really is what’s the most effective way to spend limited aid dollars. As Chris put it:

    I’ve seen many, many, many projects that spend $1500 training and all the “other stuff” in order to give people $300 or a cow. Is it fair to ask, what if we’d just given them $1800? Or what if we’d given six people cows?

  • Deaton, (as I understand him) would be skeptical of this cash influx, assuming officials will find ways to exploit it, or that it undermines the motivation of the government to provide services when people are receiving assistance from outside sources. The 10-year scope of the new study should be a good opportunity to test his hypothesis as well.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Anas Aremeyaw Anas

  • There’s a new documentary about Ghanaian reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who has gone undercover to expose corruption, abuse in psychiatric hospitals, killing of albinos, and many other things (including once hiding disguised as a rock to film). On The Media had a nice interview where he explains that the problems his country faces requires a more forward style of journalism than often seen in the West.
  • Dan Kopf at Priceonomics has been writing about the obscure histories of common statistics. His latest looks into why the average won over the median, which involves an 11th C. Persian mathematician trying to figure out the longitude of a city in (now) Afghanistan.
  • Sierra Leone’s latest export is Sea Cucumbers (which are more of a slug than vegetable). They’re considered to have healing and aphrodisiac properties in China, which is never good news for a species.
  • Venezuela is declaring Fridays for the next two months a holiday to save electricity. Marketplace has a nice primer on their economy since the 1920’s, which is essentially the story of the resource curse – freely flowing oil discourages the economy from diversifying. The Caracas Chronicles journalism project projected that by May the Bolivar will be worth less than the paper it’s printed on.
  • The YouTube drama An African City chronicles the lives of five Ghanaian women who return home after living abroad, and their career and personal lives.
  • ICYMI, Chris has an interesting thread on twitter asking how to secure data when working in an autocratic country. (Both IPA and ISIS prefer TrueCrypt for data encryption, its backstory is in the New Yorker).
  • A new Science paper from the research team who exposed the LaCour fraud, finds the same technique – long (~10 min) non-judgemental conversations – does change attitudes, in this case about transgender rights (10 points on a 100 point scale, persisting three months later). The problem with this approach is that canvassing is very time-consuming (e.g. expensive) because of the many non-responses. In this case, they were able to better target people willing to participate by using a pre-screening survey. FiveThirtyEight talks about the paper here, and Princeton’s Elizabeth Paluck has a commentary on it in Science here.

And we may have lost Merle Haggard, but the only economics country singer, Merle Hazard (give it a sec) is still going strong.