All the advice I have to give on how to do college right, whether you should go to grad school, where, and how to get in

It’s that time of year. Kids are starting college. Near graduates, terrified by the job market, are wondering whether they can just stay on for an MA. People who have been working for a few years have become wistful about going back for grad school. And many indulge dreams of starting a PhD.

Let’s start at the beginning, with 10 things not enough kids know about college, my post at Vox. There I tell you why you should to learn how write well, choose courses based on teachers not topics, and do more technical classes. But my most controversial point is don’t spend too much time on languages:

Languages are hugely important. And you should learn another (or many others) besides English. But I think they’re better learned in immersion, during your summers or before and after college. Maybe take an introductory course or two at university to get you started, or an advanced course or two to solidify what you already know, but only that.

Statistics are not more important than languages. But the opportunity cost of skipping a statistics course is high because it’s hard to find ways to learn statistics outside the university. Remember you only get 30 or 40 courses at university. There are a dozen other times and places you can learn a language. Arguably they’re better places to learn it too.

Related is how much economics should you study in college?

For people interested in professional careers in policy, I’ve recently updated this post on how to choose between Master’s programs. One of my favorite bits is this:

in the US I would be cautious with simple MA programs in political science and economics. These are usually money-making programs for the school and core faculty are seldom involved. There are exceptions, but I don’t know what ones are good or not. Since I’ve spent years teaching and on admissions committees at many good schools, that alone should tell you something about these MA programs.

Last, there are doctorates. I recently updated my PhD advice: Should you do a PhD, where, in what, and how to get admitted to a top school? Note this is mainly useful for people in my fields. Also, why you shouldn’t do field experiments for you dissertation.

I’m helping run admissions to the Chicago Harris PhD in Public Policy this year, so you will hear more from me on that. If you are interested in political economy of development, we aim to be the best. You can see some of the amazing action and people here. And we are recruiting some freaking amazing people right now. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, one of the weirdest things about my blog: the single most read post, visited by hundreds of people a day, every day (still!), is about when you’re too old for a PhD. I seem to have tapped into some deep well of angst on the Internet. And no, my answer is definitely not “you’re never too old.” This ain’t the Hallmark channel, people.

Finally, I give you the post that you could say started this blog: How to get a PhD and save the world. I’m still figuring that question out. Maybe the most important piece of advice: “Hang in there”:

In the first year of any grad program you will encounter a lot of required material that will feel too theoretical, too divorced from social change, and (occasionally) like too much nonsense. Much of it is good for you (see point 1), even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. After a year of metrics and micro theory, I was ready to run to the real world to do what I thought I really wanted to do. The best advice I ever got (from one of my pre-PhD advisers) was, “Shut up and hang in there; by your second to third year you will discover all the people doing interesting applied work soon enough and be free to work on whatever you want by your third year.” He was right.

Good luck.

Lessons from Francis Fukuyama in how to have real world impact

Joshua Yaffa has a good profile of two Ukrainian activists and journalists turned politicians–Mustafa Nayyem and Sergii Leshchenko–in The New Yorker. This bit jumped out at me:

After months of chaos, Nayyem was worn down, and in July, 2014, he left for California. He had been accepted into Stanford University’s annual summer course for activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and government officials from around the world. (Leshchenko had attended the summer before.) The program is led by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. “We teach them about the structures of democracy as if they were Stanford undergraduates—this is what different political systems look like, here is how you can effect political change,” Fukuyama told me. “Getting the dictator out is the easy part. The really difficult part is exercising power in a way that is legitimate and self-sustaining.” In Ukraine, he was certain, “unless you make that transition, the Maidan Revolution is going to fail, just as the Orange Revolution failed.”

Fukuyama urged Nayyem to go into politics, and introduced him to others who had made a similar transition. On his way back to Kiev, Nayyem stopped in Washington, and gave a talk at the National Endowment for Democracy. When asked whether he and others from Maidan were thinking of entering politics, he demurred, saying of Ukraine’s ruling class, “They will use us, but we don’t know how to use them.”

…When Nayyem returned to Kiev, he told Leshchenko about Fukuyama’s suggestion, and said that he was thinking of running for parliament. Leshchenko laughed, but in the coming days he and Nayyem talked about how the post-revolutionary rupture was likely to present a fleeting moment for outsiders to enter parliament—an opportunity that might never recur.

Links I liked

  1. Pranab Bardhan in the JEL on the State and development, where the subtitle is “The Need for a Reappraisal of the Current Literature
  2. Ikea “sells a set of its Billy bookcases every 10 seconds, and it’s said that one in 10 Europeans is conceived in an Ikea bed
  3. Sing Street is a very bad title for a very good movie: Irish kids start a band in the 80s, in The Commitments meet The Cure
  4. Mamdani on South Sudan
  5. And trust me, however much you may try, you cannot unsee this picture

14212602_1290471794317517_4397055322796769022_nI will not embarrass the sender by “thanking” them here.

What I’ve been reading

Not as much as you’d think, given my unplanned 6-week blogging break. Buying a home and moving a family is… intense. As I become a homeowner for the first time (after renting for 22 years) most of my reading has been appliance and repair manuals, plus houseware reviews on Amazon. But Chicago is wonderful and Hyde Park is the perfect fit. In the meantime, I have read a little.

  1. The Nix, by Nathan Hill. Hyped as one of the best books of 2016, it’s another cynical novel about a frustrated English professor at a small US college. (“Write what you know” at work?) If you like over-the-top stereotypes for your book characters, this is the novel for you. I’m reminded of the question I’ve been asking myself ever since I immigrated: “Why is sarcasm wielded like a heavy and blunt instrument in America?” I prefer a more subtle wit.
  2. The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America by Barry Latzer. A no nonsense review of crime patterns since the 1930s. Informative but not particularly engaging. I’m helping launch an international crime lab with JPAL, and I expect the book to help me fake expertise.
  3. Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan. A graphic novel that has been perfectly described as the intersection of The Watchmen and The West Wing. A slightly inept superhero removes his mask to run for Mayor of New York, edging out Bloomberg in the post 9/11 election to run the city 2002-05. Vaughan also wrote We Stand On Guard, not as good as Ex Machina, but it’s about the US invasion of Canada and the resulting insurgency. For someone like me it’s like watching your parents fight.
  4. Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. The Crittenden Compromise of 1860 tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid the US Civil War by constitutionally enshrining slave holding in the South. What if it had been passed, say because Lincoln was assassinated before he could take office? That’s the premise of this alternate US history, telling the story of a black bounty hunter who returns escaped slaves to the industrial mills in the last four states to use slavery in the 21st century. The book is so good that it deserves a post of its own, and that is the main reason why months have gone by without me writing about it.
  5. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Various excellent essays by the author of The Gin Closet. Chapter 6 is about her brother, and my coauthor, running a truly insane ultrarun through the wilds of Tennessee. Not a single mention of working on our paper during the trip, I note to myself privately.
  6. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. This would be a successful young adult book if it weren’t for the occasional raunchy sex scene. So think of it like Harry Potter for grownups, except Hogwarts is basically fighting MIT. If that sounds appealing to you then you will probably like this book.
  7. Please Like Me, Season 3. I was watching, not reading, what I still think is one of the best television shows out there, and perhaps my favorite comedy of all time. By and about a young Australian gay man, on romance, mental illness, and friendship. Subtle wit.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Jack Coleman

Above: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia Chair Jack Coleman

  • Yale economists Dean Karlan and Chris Udry are on the new episode of NPR’s Planet Money, “The Risk Farmers,” talking about the contest between them to figure out why farmers in sub-Saharan Africa don’t invest more into their fields. (Sadly the short version on Morning Edition doesn’t include the super dramatic farmer radio drama).
  • The remarkable life of Jack Coleman, labor economist at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, and later president of Haverford, who would take secret sabbaticals to work in blue collar jobs. He’s probably the only person who had to disappear from a sanitation worker job to chair Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia meetings.
  • This American Life’s follow-up show on life in Greek refugee camps is also nice, highlighting people getting on with their lives despite living in limbo.
  • Italy’s “Fertility Day” campaign to combat dwindling population by shaming women into having babies seems to have backfired.
  • Slides from Stata’s conference in July are up, with lots of how-tos to geek out on (h/t Julia Brown).
  • Want more links? David McKenzie’s got some great ones this week on the Development Impact Blog.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


Econ blogger lifecycle (somebody catch Chris up when he comes back):

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • After 50 years of conflict, the government of Colombia and the FARC have reached a peace agreement, but it needs to be ratified in a national referendum.
  • Why to test policies, pregnancy edition: In Australia, a ten-year program to discourage teen pregnancy by handing out expensive baby-simulating dolls (e.g. crying during the night) to girls had the opposite effect. The girls were tracked until they were twenty and more girls treatment group than the control group had gotten pregnant and had abortions. (Research article in The Lancet.)
  • You may be getting artificially low t statistics, because different Stata regression commands can handle standard errors differently. (See the response from Stata in the comments for which command to use when.)
  • File under the power of defaults: A paper finds that 20 percent of published findings involving genes have mistakes, because of Excel auto-formatting when thousands of values are copied from computer output into tables. As described in Slate:

SEPT2, short for Septin 2, to “2-Sep.” Likewise, MARCH1—aka Membrane-Associated Ring Finger (C3HC4) 1, E3 Ubiquitin Protein Ligase—is rendered as “1-Mar.”

  • Preregistration is being accepted for studies of the 2016 election data before they’re released. $2,000 prizes and arrangements with poly sci journals to accept the papers in advance based on the design, not results. (h/t Stephanie Wykstra)
  • Researchers played Muzak for Sting while an fMRI machine scanned his brain, for science. #GrantsThatGotFundedOtherThanYours

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Image Credit: 3ie

Image credit: 3ie

  • Academic types imagining a more #RealisticIndianaJones got it trending on twitter.
  • 3ie has updated their comprehensive database of published development impact evaluations and asked “Is impact evaluation still on the rise?” Looking at annual numbers of publications through the first 3 quarters of 2015, they may be leveling off.
  • A pretty harrowing account has come out of Juba from July 11th, when South Sudanese troops broke into a compound popular with foreign journalists and aid workers. They singled out Americans as an example, and raped, executed, and beat the people there. The U.N. peacekeeping force less than a mile away  ignored calls for help (as did the American embassy).
    • This comes after the U.N. peacekeeping force failed to protect a refugee camp in February from South Sudanese forces, resulting in 30 deaths and 123 injured.
    • And in July the peacekeepers did nothing as South Sundanese troops raped dozens of women nearby.

Ultimately, there seem to be few incentives for peacekeeping troops to actually keep peace, and few punishments for not doing anything.

  • Despite continuing dangers there, a large number of Indian businessmen have chosen to stay, refusing planes sent by the Indian government to take them out. Their interesting story here. (h/t Rachel Strohm).
  • Paper: Trying to replicate nearly all political science studies on comparative and international political economy from two journals, with a different way of dealing with missing data (multiple imputation instead of listwise deletion), makes key results disappear in nearly half the studies. (h/t Ryan Briggs)
  • How Honduras became a little bit safer.

And winner for scariest Pokémon picture:


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Operating room

  • Reason to test policies first, transplant edition: A study concludes that a Medicare policy change tying hospitals’ payments to surgical outcomes had an unintended consequence. After the regulation went into effect hospitals moved the most critical transplant patients off the waiting lists and discarded available organs that were less than perfect, presumably to avoid being penalized for a bad surgical outcome. (h/t Dina Pomeranz, as usual.)
  • In Science, a program that offered cash grants of about $1000 to people on the brink of homelessness who were facing a one-time crisis (such as a big medical bill) was very effective at keeping them off the streets two years later. The overall program cost was about $10,000 per case of homelessness averted (but could go lower with better targeting), compared to an estimated homelessness cost of $20,000 a year.
  • Psychologist Sanjay Srivastava has a syllabus for a course on current findings in replications called Everything is F**ked (it’s actually a good collection of papers).
  • Lashawn Richburg-Hayes & Nadine Deshausay of MDRC spoke with the Gov Innovator podcast about findings from a recent series of 15 RCTs with states using small behavioral nudges to improve human services. The interventions were generally cheap, such as a simple change in how information was presented. It’s a very short but fascinating interview; some of the findings and lessons are available here. In addition to the interventions themselves, the researchers also found a few interesting behavioral factors within the orgs:
    • Agencies tended to be biased towards adding information to forms (such as repeating legal disclosures), assuming more information is better. The research team explained that simplifying the forms makes it easier for people process and more likely to have the intended effect.
    • Lower-level agency employees would apply very strict interpretations of guidelines, often excluding beneficiaries, out of fear of getting in trouble. They found communicating the intent of the program from high levels to the front line employees freed them up to take more lenient interpretations, and ultimately help more people.
  • Steve Levitt asked people who were undecided about an important life decision (like leaving a job or relationship) to let him flip a virtual coin online to decide for them (done 20,000 times). Those who made the change were happier two and six months later. (Paper, Atlantic article).
  • The NYTimes Magazine has a big feature trying to understand what happened in the Middle East over the last 13 years, following six people from different regions.

From SMBC, if you’re going to have kids, have more than one (via David McKenzie):

SMBC: Game Theory Parenting

Photo credit above, Wikimedia commons

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

7-Eleven Delivery Vehicle

  • This American Life sent four people to explore refugee camps in Greece. They did a very nice job of explaining the bottlenecks in getting them settled.
  • Duncan Green and Mohga Kamal-Yanni write about a new paper from LSE anthropologist Tim Allen and LSHTM’s Melissa Parker, which is a more substantive contribution to the Worm Wars. In addition to reviewing the back and forth we all know, they discuss their and colleagues’ work going back to 2005, counting dewormed children in Uganda and Tanzania. They’ve found wide variation best summarized in a video interview (about 4:30 in), my rough transcription:

Rather than have a debate on the econometrics of a data set from the late 1990’s, let’s ask if children are actually receiving the medications? Have infection rates gone up or down, have school enrollment rates increased? There’s all sorts of work that could be done and remarkably, it’s not being done. We’ve collected data from a large number of schools in Tanzania and Uganda and the answer is that treatment in school is often much better than the general population, but it’s haphazard, sometimes the wrong drugs or wrong combination of drugs arrive. On average, about half the population of children get the tablets. If kids are going to be immediately reinfected, and we find they are, is it worth it? More importantly, the majority of children we’ve observed treated in schools since 2005 are being treated without them or their parents knowing why they’re receiving these tablets, or giving informed consent.


It’s a nice reminder that a good idea can have lots of variation in how it’s implemented and why data collection shouldn’t end with the RCT. It’s also worth noting these weren’t Deworm the World programs, and that GiveWell recently had another blog post explaining why they continue to recommend deworming & DtW as effective despite variation in estimates of the effects.

  • Landersø & Heckman have a paper on social mobility in Denmark vs. the U.S.:

Measured by income mobility, Denmark is a more mobile society, but not when measured by educational mobility. … Greater Danish income mobility is largely a consequence of redistributional  tax, transfer, and wage compression policies. While Danish social policies for children produce more favorable cognitive test scores for disadvantaged children, these do not translate into more favorable educational outcomes, partly because of disincentives to acquire education arising from the redistributional policies that increase income mobility.

In other words, Denmark has more income mobility because of taxes and transfers, but not more educational mobility. Poor kids still don’t go to college and get better jobs than their parents, they’re just less poor. More from Derek Thompson in The Atlantic.

And the next center for innovative disruption (h/t Loïc Watine):


Photo credit: Flickr/solmarch.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.



  • “Surfing helps reduce extreme rural poverty, by encouraging people to nearby towns. When a wave is discovered by the international community, economic growth in the area rises by around 3%.

    Paper PDF (via Lee Crawfurd/Max Roser), winner for best title suggestion goes to Matt Collin for “Point Estimate Break.”

  • Ezra Klein’s policy-focused interview with Hillary Clinton was good (video and article here, podcast in iTunes or web).
  • Andrew Gelman talks about how his first preregistered replication was harder than he expected, because it involved going back and thoroughly reexamining the code and fixing the glitches in the first analysis. Ultimately the process of having to register the replication plan made the research better.
  • A study from Ethiopia suggests the smell of a live chicken may keep away malarial mosquitoes.
  • In The Economist: The real Africa land grab isn’t by foreign investors or big agra companies, but middle-class urbanites. It is being driven by a combination of reforms making land ownership easier, low salaries, and demand for food in increasingly urbanized populations making farming more profitable.
  • Raul Pacheco-Vega (who’s worth following on twitter) offers a workflow matrix for responding to reviewer comments, as well as other writing tips.
  • The effects of randomly assigning people to wear a fat suit on eating habits, presumably forthcoming in the Journal of That Got Funded?? (h/t Neuroskeptic)

And I’ve long thought church signs were the original tweets:


“Hillary Clinton’s husband wore a fetching pantsuit to honor her nomination for US president”

We’ve yet to read an interview with the person who styled Bill’s silver locks for last night’s DNC appearance, or even see a brief in Women’s Wear Daily or GQ crediting the designers who dressed him for the occasion. Did he buy his suit online, like Melania Trump’s Net-a-Porter-purchased Roksanda last week? Did he go to a store? Work directly with a designer? We just don’t know, which means it’s going to be really difficult for this particular navy suit to sell out, as so many of the dresses worn by Michelle Obama have over the past eight years. Was it Hickey Freeman? Hart Schaffner Marx? Again, we just don’t know.

Here’s what we do know: Clinton’s suit was navy blue, and he wore a tonal cobalt tie in a shade similar to the Christian Siriano dress Michelle Obama wore the night before. (Some noted then that the dress matched the stage’s background. Clinton’s tie did too!) The suit had three buttons, a notch lapel, and full-cut trousers that broke substantially over his shiny black dress shoes.


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • The new Freakonomics podcast, “What are gender barriers made of?” is a nice look a little deeper than surface statistics at the subtle behavioral factors responsible for gender gaps in the labor market. They look into research on non-conscious differences in the ways people listen to men and women, and point to a few things we can change right now that we take for granted – interviews and performance review self-ratings that have been shown to have little to do with performance but tend to be biased in favor of men.
  • Economics is one of the few fields to list authors alphabetically, rather than as a signal of who contributed most to the paper. A few months ago Heather Sarsons found that women in economics face a “co-authorship penalty” in their careers (presumably, alphabetical listing leads to ambiguity and allows bias to creep in). Now a new paper reviews evidence for “alphabetical discrimination” in economics. Researchers with last names later in the alphabet (more likely to become “et al”) get tenure at top departments less, win fewer top awards, and their papers are downloaded less, but also respond strategically.
    • To summarize: economists’ revealed preferences suggest they prefer less information in their own labor markets.
  • Ashraf, Bau, Nunn, & Voena have a new paper suggesting the bride price tradition of a groom’s family pays the bride’s family for her may have an upside. In Indonesia and Zambia they find that more educated brides have higher bride prices, and when new schools are built, ethnic groups with bride price traditions increase girls’ enrollment. (h/t @DinaPomerantz)
  • Researchers have found a statistical glitch in the popular fMRI analysis software packages, allowing them to find false positives up to 70% of the time, which calls thousands of study results into question (usually the type behind the “when you do X this part of your brain lights up” headline stories).
  • Resource: a roadmap for conducting systematic reviews, dealing with confounding variables and other tip sheets in English and French (h/t David Evans)
  • An interesting long read from the Science of Us about how it took years and several incorrect published papers for researchers to admit they had their correlation sign backward.

And on Twitter, candidate Scientist Trump is campaigning against Open Access journals, urging them to #BuildThePaywall.  He’s also not a fan of Monkey Cage’s new book on Science of Trump.

Why “what works?” is the wrong question: Evaluating ideas not programs

The following are some remarks I made at the UK’s Department for International Development in June.

I want to start with a story about Liberia. It was 2008, and the UN Peacebuilding Fund had $15 million to support programs to reduce the risk of a return to war.

They asked NGOs and UN agencies to propose ideas, and set out to fund most the promising. Some were longstanding, locally-developed programs, and some were templates ready to be imported and tested in new ground.

I was in Liberia at the time, as a young post-doctoral student. When asked for my input, I suggested the Fund do one small thing: in their call for proposals, simply say that they would favor any proposal that created knowledge as a public good, including rigorous program evaluations.

The donor whistled a few opening notes, and applicants continued the tune. A huge amount of evidence was generated, with almost every project funded, including at least four randomized trials: a program that taught conflict resolution skills, a legal aid program, an agricultural skills training program for ex-combatants, and a program of cognitive behavior therapy for criminals and drug dealers and street toughs.

These studies laid the groundwork for more evaluation work. Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) established a permanent office. More international researchers came to the country. Local organizations that could do research began to form. Liberian staff gradually took on more and more senior roles, especially as they get hired and promoted in non-research organizations. The government and NGOs and UN recognized the value of these skills.

Today Liberia, one of the smallest countries in the world, has more hard evidence on conflict prevention than almost any other country on the planet. In per capita terms, it is off the charts.

For all that, Liberia is not a complete success story. We did one thing badly: we thought too much in terms of “what works?” In a couple of cases, we did one important thing well: we put a fundamental idea or assumption to the test. (Though mostly by accident.) And we did not do one of the most important things at all: set up the research to see if this very local insight told us something about the world more broadly.

I want to go through these three failures and successes one by one. Continue reading

Will Paul Romer get the World Bank out of the randomista business and into Charter Cities?

Unofficially, the WSJ reports that the next World Bank Chief Economist will be Paul Romer.

Romer made his career on growth theory, but most lately he is known for his push for Charter Cities. Here’s his web page and interesting blog. (I’ve been a skeptic, but I like Paul a lot, and we’ve had an interesting back-and-forth on the idea. See my discussion and critique from 2009, Romer replied, and I commented again.)

Meanwhile, the World Bank has become known in recent years first for it’s push for more micro data on poverty, and now for a gush of randomized control trials.

It sounds like this is something Romer might try to change. Today, Tyler Cowen pointed us to a recent blog post from Romer, that he called “Botox for Development”:

The x-ray shows a mass that is probably cancer, but we don’t have any good randomized clinical trials showing that your surgeon’s recommendation, operating to remove it, actually causes the remission that tends to follow. However, we do have an extremely clever clinical trial showing conclusively that Botox will make you look younger. So my recommendation is that you wait for some better studies before doing anything about the tumor but that I give you some Botox injections.”

If it were me, I’d get a new internist.

To be sure, researchers would always prefer data from randomized treatments if they were available instantly at zero cost. Unfortunately, randomization is not free. It is available at low or moderate cost for some treatments and at a prohibitively high cost for other potentially important treatments. Our goal should be to recommend treatments and policies that maximize the expected return, not to make the safest possible treatment and policy recommendations.

I agree and I don’t.

I agree that governments (and the development agencies that support them) have to focus on growth. And most of the policies that promote growth aren’t friendly to randomized trials. But they can be theory and evidence based, at least to some extent. Macroeconomics has a tendency to be an evidence-free zone, though, so we also need to be careful.

When I teach my political economy of development class, I always end on a few quotes. One is from Karl Popper:

The piecemeal engineer knows, like Socrates, how little he knows. He knows that we can learn only from our mistakes. Accordingly, he will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the look-out for the unavoidable unwanted consequences of reform; and he will avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which make it impossible for him to disentangle causes and effects, and to know what he is really doing.

Such ‘piecemeal tinkering’ does not agree with the political temperament of many ‘activists’. Their programme, which too has been described as a programme of ‘social engineering’, may be called ‘holistic’ or ‘Utopian engineering’.

Holistic or Utopian social engineering, as opposed to piecemeal social engineering, is never of a ‘private’ but always of a ‘public’ character. It aims at remodelling the ‘whole of society’ in accordance with a definite plan or blueprint…

This is one of the things I appreciate about randomized trials, is the regimented process of piecemeal tinkering. Even when they do not run a rigorous trial, a lot of what governments and the Bank are doing is piecemeal tinkering. And the charitable view would say that randomized trials help sort out the bad from the good results after some period of tinkering.

The good trials aren’t just Botox. One example: The Bank encourages countries to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars a year for various employment and labor market projects. A lot of my research suggests that most of the recommended programs don’t work. That is a big problem, and randomized trials have been part of the solution.

Romer would probably agree. But his blog post highlights some places where we differ.

The thing that worries me about policies that “maximize the expected return”, and that don’t “make the safest possible treatment and policy recommendations” is that development agencies and governments have a long history of getting the big answers wrong. Really wrong.

The number one book I have my students read is James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine (actually I think most of them read the short article version). I also get them to read Nic van de Walle’s book on structural adjustment. Both highlight the grand and unexpected consequences of grand World Bank plans of the past.

A next favorite is Seeing Like a State by Jim Scott. On a bigger historical scale, it too chronicles our history of big plans with big failures. I want to get some hubris and risk aversion settled into my student’s bones.

That’s not to say I’m opposed to big plans or ideas. Paul Seabright has one of my favorite critiques of Jim Scott, and why scientific and state planning are perfectly effective in some cases.  I just think any government, and every non-democratic development agency, ought to behave very cautiously and be very risk averse on behalf of the poor. It must make safe recommendations.

In any case, I welcome some new, big macro thinking at the World Bank. Alongside the piecemeal tinkering and randomized trials, I think it’s time for the Bank to do some innovative and more rigorous macro thinking beyond stabilization policies, improving the investment climate, and so on.

But I’ll leave you with the same quote I end my course on. It comes from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.”

Here is Dani Rodrik on the Turkish coup (and other coup commentary of interest)

Dani Rodrik on the baffling, almost comically bad Turkish coup attempt:

Military coups – successful or otherwise – follow a predictable pattern in Turkey. Political groups – typically Islamists – deemed by soldiers to be antagonistic to Kemal Atatürk’s vision of a secular Turkey gain increasing power. Tensions rise, often accompanied by violence on the streets. Then the military steps in, exercising what the soldiers claim is their constitutional power to restore order and secular principles.

This time, it was very different. Thanks to a series of sham trials targeting secularist officers, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had managed to reconfigure the military hierarchy and place his own people at the top. While the country has been rocked by a series of terrorist attacks and faces a souring economy, there was no inkling of unrest in the military or opposition to Erdoğan. On the contrary, Erdoğan’s recent reconciliation with Russia and Israel, together with his apparent desire to pull back from an active role in the Syrian civil war, must have been a relief to Turkey’s top brass.

No less baffling was the almost amateurish behavior of the putschists, who managed to capture the chief of the general staff but apparently made no meaningful attempt to detain Erdoğan or any senior politicians. Major television channels were allowed to continue to operate for hours, and when soldiers showed up in the studios, their incompetence was almost comical.

He predicts the consequences:

politically, the failed coup is a boon for Erdoğan. As he put it while it was still unclear if he was going to emerge on top, “this uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.” Now that the coup has failed, he will have the political tailwind to make the constitutional changes he has long sought to strengthen the presidency and concentrate power in his own hands.

Tyler Cowen has been posting many things about coups.

And you can read Naunihal Singh’s tweets, coup expert, for insights. Here is his excellent blog, one of my all-time favorites, that is more cultural in content and has almost no intersection with his professional work.

This research says that donating your eyeglasses is a waste of money

In preparation for the Chicago move, we are clearing out old and unwanted items. Unwanted furniture and housewares go into the building laundry room, where they are usually adopted within a few hours. But what about those old eyeglasses.

In a paper published in March in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, four researchers compare the full costs of delivering used glasses to the costs of instead delivering ready-made glasses in standard powers (like my drugstore readers, but for myopia as well). The authors find that recycled glasses cost nearly twice as much per usable pair.

Article. I have not read the original paper, but it jives with the Stuff We Don’t Want (SWEDOW) flowchart from the Development Research Institute:

SWEDOW-Flowchart-v2If I or the research are somehow mistaken, you still have about a day to let me know.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • A very interesting job for someone with experience: IPA’s looking to hire an experienced project coordinator in Liberia to oversee the evaluation of sub-Saharan Africa’s first large-scale education public-private partnership. It’s an idea that has attracted some attention.
    • Details: master’s and 3-5 yrs experience, full description here.  Starts soon, applicants can also email Arja Dayal & Osman Siddiqi – adayal & osiddiqi at the domain).
  • I was going to summarize the Roland Fryer shootings paper/NYTimes back and forth, but Berk Ozler did a better job. Vox has a thoughtful piece on why to be careful on how the news reports initially on counterintuitive findings. I’ll just add I think there’s a cultural difference between how reporters and researchers read a paper. A field comes to consensus over time and many data sets, but journalists have to pop in and out of many fields and quickly become expert enough to write about it, often with limited exposure to the larger body of research. I think reporters read “the data shows,” assuming this is a stable meaningful finding, while a researcher reads “this data shows,” understanding the limits of any one data set. Reporters don’t usually have the luxury of waiting 3 years for a final verdict. (And no, nobody reads “these data show.”)
  • Eugene Fama and Richard Thaler argue about whether markets are efficient (h/t Jason Zweig).
  • A really natural experiment (via David McKenzie):

In our experiment, a third of the houses in a town were covered by lava. People living in these houses where much more likely to move away permanently. For those younger than 25 years old who were induced to move, the “lava shock” dramatically raised lifetime earnings and education. Yet, the benefits of moving were very unequally distributed within the family: Those older than 25 (the parents) were made slightly worse off by the shock.

If anybody wants to collect baseline data for a replication, there may be an opportunity in the Japanese town built inside a volcano.

  • Ugandan President Museveni pulled his motorcade over on the way to an event and sat on a folding chair to make a half hour phone call. When the photos came out Ugandan twitter had a blast with the new #M7Challenge. (h/t Katherine Hoffmann)