You have probably not heard of this show. An Australian comedy about sad things, including mental illness. It stars an aimless, kind of sad, bitterly witty young gay man. Maybe one of my favorite TV shows of the last couple of years. Highly recommended.
This is guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.
- The New York Times Dealbook has a review of the new book, Misbehaving, by Richard Thaler, discussing how behavioral economics developed in contrast to the “rational choice” perspective of traditional econ. The review points out that economics became the privileged field for influencing policy because it was good at putting price tags on things, but a by-product was also importing the rational econ assumptions into policy.
- A paper (PDF) by Jishnu Das, Alaka Holla, Aakash Mohpal and Karthik Muralidharan looks at skills of doctors in India by sending “standardized patients” (trained on presenting with a particular set of symptoms) to the same doctors who worked at both public and private clinics. The same doctors made better diagnoses when seeing the patients at their private clinics, and accuracy correlated with prices (h/t David Evans).
- A political science journal started pre-publication replications of papers, rerunning the analysis, and all papers failed (many because the authors hadn’t submitted sufficient documentation).
- Who do government officials listen to? Aid data presents results of a survey of government officials and NGOs in low and middle-income countries about who and what kinds of development advice officials listen to, particularly when it comes to external assessments. Executive summary here (PDF), h/t Delia W.
- A doctor who is Director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Refugee and Disaster Response writes on the Washington Post site that we still don’t know how to best help in disasters like Haiti’s and Nepal’s earthquakes because we don’t collect data on disaster relief.
Two things from Berkeley – I’m not sure which is better:
Via the BITSS blog, a rough guide to spotting bad science
And via IPA alum Cameron, Nickelback goes to grad school
My Baltimore friends who had seen the show also believed, given the police violence in their town, that The Wire‘s view of Baltimore’s finest was almost comically kind. The one policeman who accidentally shoots someone (a fellow officer) not only isn’t prosecuted but gets reintroduced later in the series as a big-hearted public school teacher. And then other people just said to me that living in Baltimore was a struggle and the idea of anyone making commerce out of their pain was simply not their idea of entertainment.
That is Dave Zirin in The Nation. I have to agree. The more I’ve been reading lately the more broken and discriminatory the policing seems to be. I don’t think this is a story of a few bad cops and many good ones, but rather normal people in a perverted system that brings out their bad.
This article by Emily Badger in WashPo doesn’t say it outright, but for lower class black Americans, this country basically looks like a failed state.
Some books and articles I recommend:
- Vesla Weaver’s book, Arrested Citizenship, or her shorter Boston Review article on the criminal justice system
- Alice Goffman’s amazing ethnography of a Philadelphia neighborhood, On The Run
- Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, on murder and policing in Watts LA
- Mark Kleiman’s When Brute Force Fails, on the behavioral perversities of criminal justice
- The Harper High School episodes of This American life
With one exception, these have all been written by white people. And I would bet all fall in the category of reading The New Yorker and find Starbucks lowbrow. While I am myself in that category (well, I’m actually sick of The New Yorker) I would appreciate pointers to the best of the best books and essays by another race and class.
Michael Clemens is kicking ass and taking names over at Vice.
His best guess is population would rise 10% and this would have more benefits than costs, even to lower-income EU residents. But there are far more interesting parts of the interview.
VICE: Mr. Clemens, apart from political reasons—why do people try to migrate to wealthy countries?
Michael Clemens: People from poor countries migrate mainly to get safety for themselves and their families, and to get proper compensation for their hard work and study. Safety and opportunity depend mostly on what country you live in, and 97 percent of humanity lives in the country they were born in. For those of us born in safe, prosperous countries, such a random lottery seems quite satisfactory. Most migrants are people who have simply decided that they will not let lottery results enforced by others determine the course of their lives.
Within our own countries, we know why people leave neighborhoods that are dangerous, poor, or both. These are the same reasons that people leave countries that are dangerous, poor, or both. But there are two differences. Many people in dangerous, poor countries live with risk and destitution that even the poorest people in rich countries will never face and cannot imagine. And, of course, no one stands at the exit to poor neighborhoods, coercing people to stay inside with a gun.
…VICE: Alright then. But would easier emigration not hurt the development of those poorer countries that the people come from?
Michael Clemens: We are talking about immigration policy here. That is, we are not talking about whether people should or shouldn’t stay in poor countries. We’re talking about the extent to which rich countries should or shouldn’t forcibly obstruct migration. That is what “migration policy” does. A visa doesn’t oblige a person to move; a visa is a decision not to actively stop that person from moving.
So if we’re talking about immigration policy, the question “Does migration substantially harm low-income countries?” is the same as the question, “Does forcibly stopping people from leaving low income countries substantially help those countries?” To put it mildly, social science has absolutely no evidence of such a effect.
Would it be different in poor countries? How about in poor areas of Africa? We do not need to wonder that either. Parts of Africa that are as prosperous as parts of Europe—Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town—have spent several generations actively blocking most black Africans from living and working there. Many people in those enclaves claimed that this was somehow beneficial to black Africans, encouraging them to “develop” their own lands. There is no evidence at all of such a positive effect.
I think bringing the debate back to basic notions of liberty is important, especially the reminders about men with guns enforcing the status quo.
Even so, I would have thought it’s also true that emigration is not just the best development intervention in the world for the person to gets to migrate, but it’s good for poor countries too.
For instance, when people migrate out of a place, labor supply decreases, increasing wages and incentives to mechanize and improve productivity. Plus remittances from the huge increase in migrant incomes reduce poverty and increase demand, again putting upward pressure on wages. Surely this study exists?
Yes, I am too lazy to open the development textbooks on myself to the undergraduate chapters on “Migration” that no doubt supply this answer. Besides, the random responses from readers are probably far more interesting.
Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.
- On Nepal earthquake relief (disclaimer: we don’t do any work in Nepal, and haven’t vetted any of this):
- As Chris mentioned, GiveWell’s blog has some disaster giving tips (summary: give cash, to somewhere transparent with an established network in the country, don’t forget about the long term, and harness your giving urge by also donating to others in everyday danger not in headlines).
- Lists of groups working in Nepal from USAID and the New York Times
- Paypal is also waiving processing fees for donating to Nepal earthquake relief here.
- The New York Times Magazine has a feature on a new app inspired by research on psychology and economics of the poor showing the difficulty of mental accounting, particularly under the stress the poor often experience. It allows people to “smooth” their own income, turning irregular “lumpy” income into regular income, more like a paycheck (h/t Shardul O.)
- Stanford Social Innovation Review article “School for Scaling” talks about lessons from how deworming went from research findings to a multi-country effort deworming millions of kids.
- Research to Action has some really good toolkits for communicating to policy audiences, covering how to write a good policy brief, how to communicate with the media, and online tools, among others (h/t Lindsey S.)
- Yale Economist & IPA founder Dean Karlan is finishing up a book on his field research failures, and looking for a title, feel free to tweet him @DeanKarlan or leave suggestions in the comments.
And your bonus, Ryan Briggs tried to create a Drunk World Bank twitter feed which randomly combines phrases from different World Bank reports. His intention was to make it sound drunk, but turns out, randomly combined phrases sound a lot like regular World Bank reports.
- Using Times New Roman on your resume is like wearing sweatpants to a job interview?
- Confessions of a secret aid worker: how you lose your compassion
- The new issue of JHR has a great symposium on practical empirical methods by some of the econometric greats, including articles on matching, clustering, and weighting
- Native workers benefit more than they lose from immigrant workers?
- How the New York Times searches Twitter better than you
- 10 ways to appear smarter than you actually are in meetings
- And the best worst tweet of the week:
Each year it should be left up to the president to decide whether there will be a Mother’s Day. Make them earn it
— @MauryCompson April 27, 2015
I really liked GiveWell’s post, where they summed up their general advice. In brief:
- Money is usually not the limiting factor at the moment, though it will be at some point
- Give to organized professionals who have a track record of turning donations into action
- Give unconditionally, letting them spend it anywhere in the world
- Give to more transparent and accountable organizations
- Give cash
- Think about giving to less publicized causes
- Don’t give to those market directly to you, on the phone or the street
I think this is great advice. On this basis, GiveWell recommends Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. I agree these are good bets. I have little to add, other than some fairly broad advice:
- Consider giving in a year when others have stopped
- Young people: consider giving up your plans to work in banking or consulting and taking a career in some form of international service, or if you do business, develop enterprise in poor countries
- The best development intervention we know is international migration. Remember that the best gift your country could give is letting people move there more freely, so remember that when you vote.
Ian Johnson in the NYRB, reflecting on his days on the WSJ desk:
One of the most vexing questions for a writer on China is how best to capture the drama of its transformation. Twenty years ago, I joined a government-sponsored reporting trip to a remote, impoverished part of the country. A low-level official and I chatted for hours as our small bus wound through the mountains of Guizhou in south-central China, speeding through long tunnels and over suspension bridges. Why, he asked me, do foreign correspondents only write about the bridge that collapses and not the thousands of bridges that don’t?
I thought he was joking, but as we talked I realized he meant it seriously: countless studies show that one of the best measures to alleviate poverty is building infrastructure, and here we were on a road that was something of a miracle to local people, allowing them to get their products to market, their children to schools, and themselves to jobs in the cities. China was in the midst of an unparalleled and largely successful attempt to reduce poverty, so why wouldn’t we write about this, he asked. All I could do was stammer that good news is no news. Back in Beijing a few days later, I wrote a story about a girl who was so poor she lived in a pig stall. My editors loved it and readers pledged money, but I was often nagged by the feeling that this had been the easy story. More challenging to expectations would have been to look at how lives had changed in this poor part of the country.
The answer is partly that reporters in free societies have an obligation to dissect problems. Journalists at home rarely write about the highways that work because this is assumed to be a given; what citizens need to know about is the backlog of unrepaired bridges. But when applied abroad, this practice means a steady stream of negative stories with no overall sense of the broad situation of the country—in the case of China, reports of dissidents, internecine contests for power, and impending crises.
He was reviewing Peter Hessler’s books, and I’m intrigued enough to buy. The problem is there are many. Recommendations?
Via a news release to my inbox (well… also told to me over dinner last night by my IRC-employed spouse):
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the world’s leading humanitarian organizations providing relief and resettlement services to people impacted by crisis, today announced the launch of IRC Service Info, an online platform that will enable the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon to search and rate aid and commercial services – ranging from healthcare to financial services and retail – online or over the phone.
Similar to websites and applications that allow users to search for hotels or restaurants and then rate those services, Service Info can be accessed on a smart phone, tablet or computer. Organizations that provide assistance to refugees – such as NGOs, medical facilities and even supermarkets – can promote services on Service Info. Once a refugee has used a service, he/she can rate their experience on the Service Info site.
Refugees can search for these services using key words. After the refugee has used a service, he/she will be able to rate the quality received by leaving a rating and comments.
While all the middle aged refugees will complain about the youngsters taking pictures of their meals-ready-to-eat, this is nonetheless a pretty impressive advance for humanitarian aid.
Casting stereotypes aside, here is Orioles COO John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos (from a series of tweets, no less):
Brett, speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.
That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importances of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.
Hat tip @pbump
Evidence from Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia:
We gave US$1,000 cash prizes to winners of a business plan competition in Africa. The competition, entitled ‘Aspire’, was intended to attract young individuals aspiring to become entrepreneurs. Participants were ranked by committees of judges composed of established entrepreneurs. Each committee selected one winner among twelve candidates; that winner was awarded a prize of US$1,000 to spend at his or her discretion.
…Six months after the competition, we compare winners with the two runners-up in each committee: winners are about 33 percentage points more likely to be self-employed. We estimate an average effect on monthly profits of about US$150: an annual profit of 80% on initial investment. Our findings imply that access to start-up capital constitutes a sizeable barrier to entry into entrepreneurship for the kind of young motivated individual most likely to succeed in business.
A new paper by Marcel Fafchamps & Simon Quinn.
The government has been trying to fight the country’s funereal stripper scourge for some time now. In 2006, the state-run broadcaster China Central Television’s leading investigative news show Jiaodian Fangtan aired an exposé on the practice of scantily clad women making appearances at memorial services in Donghai in eastern China’s Jiangsu province.
The point of inviting strippers, some of whom performed with snakes, was to attract large crowds to the deceased’s funeral – seen as a harbinger of good fortune in the afterlife. “It’s to give them face,” one villager explained. “Otherwise no one would come.
Full article. Traditional values and modern markets always interact in interesting ways. Though seldom this interesting.
Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action
- A sanitation RCT done with our folks in Bangladesh and published in Science found a latrine education/promotion program used in 60 countries had no effect on latrine use by itself, but that it did improve usage and had positive externalities when the program was combined with subsidies to build latrines (so it may be that it takes social & economic channels together). Paper here (gated) summary here.
- Post Ebola, the US will support a new African Center for Disease Control, based in Addis Ababa, with an additional five regional disease surveillance and epidemiology sites. Much of its work will be linking existing public health agencies together.
- Meanwhile, the WHO released a self-critical statement about what they did poorly in the Ebola crisis, but walked it back just an hour later, releasing a less critical version. Sarah Boseley at the Guardian combined them to show the edits. (h/t Duncan Green)
- A non-profit investigative journalism project from Germany looks at the Italian Mafia’s involvement in African economies. The series of articles is a really impressive effort that took:
Ten investigative reporters from six different countries, one data-journalist and a data-scientist, three editors, one cross-examiner and a bunch of lawyers joined the effort in producing in-depth research into the Mafia’s involvement in 13 countries.
- In Foreign Affairs, Catherine Thomas and Johannes Haushofer talk about the relationship between mental health and poverty (Rwanda has six psychiatrists for a population of 12 million, Ghana has 12 psychiatrists for 26 million people.) A fix may lie in training lay workers in locally appropriate mental health treatments. (And a profile of the first psychiatrist in Bhutan is here, via Ted Barnett).
- Peter Singer is offering the internet the chance to vote on how to distribute royalties from his new book The Most Good You Can Do to different effective charities in an online “giving game.” (Shameless plug – IPA is an included “meta charity.”)
- But a better fundraising strategy might be exploiting male sexual competitiveness. In Current Biology, researchers looked at donations to fundraising webpages of London Marathon runners:
The researchers found that males give significantly more money “when they are donating to an attractive female fundraiser, and responding to a large donation made by another male donor.”
The researchers didn’t find the effect when the genders were reversed.
- The Inter-American Development Bank’s Evaluation Hub has a number of resources on conducting evaluations, calculating effectiveness and cost-benefit analysis (h/t David Evans).
- The Overseas Development Institute launched a Data Festival this week in Cartagena with the goal of getting better data for governments in the developing world so that they can make better decisions. Report here.
And finally, some clarity for the SME community on what counts as a Small to Medium Enterprise:
As I boarded a flight last night, I tweeted that airline boarding is the new caste system.
It could be worse. Suresh Naidu pointed me to Kieran Healy’s terrific illustration of the Air Gini. Here’s what seating in an Airbus A330-300 would look like if space were proportional to the US income distribution:
If there were more than three classes, I have to imagine the people in the back would be sitting four to a seat.
There’s this idea that Toronto is becoming a post-racial city, a multicultural utopia where the colour of your skin has no bearing on your prospects. That kind of thinking is ridiculously naïve
Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action
- In our first recursive link, Chris writes about new results from his work with our team in Liberia – what happens when you offer psychotherapy and $200 cash to a group of (largely) drug dealers and other criminals. The program lowered criminal activity significantly and people seemed to spend the money responsibly, but local instability makes it tough to earn a long term living. Excerpts from the IPA project summary:
…participation had large and significant impacts on participants’ behaviors and beliefs, both in the short and long term. This effect was even greater for participants who received both the therapy and the cash grant. The cash grant alone had no behavioral effect on participants. Neither the therapy nor the cash grant impacted long-term economic outcomes.
- That Ben Olzer guy is really unstoppable, asking in a NYTimes Op-ed with Benjamin Jones if assassination is an effective method of regime change. (Short answer: not in democracies, probably in dictatorships, but attempts have a higher chance of failing, killing a lot of civilians, and provoking a crackdown).
- Field and colleagues offered business training to women in India, with or without the opportunity to invite a friend. They find (PDF):
The intervention had a significant immediate impact on participants’ business activity, but only if they were trained in the presence of a friend. Four months later, those trained with a friend were more likely to have taken out business loans, were less likely to be housewives, and reported increased business activity and higher household income. The positive impacts of training with a friend were stronger among women from religious or caste groups with social norms that restrict female mobility
In research news:
- 43 papers retracted in a fake peer-review ring bust
- On our blog, a Center for Open Science talk about how to encourage researchers to be more transparent, and what IPA’s doing
- Michael Clemens finds 41 conflicting definitions of what a replication is, and in a new paper, suggests a common definition so we can all get on same page and move forward.
Life imitates art, if you’ve seen this cartoon from xkcd
From Rohit, a long list of what published articles say when p doesn’t quite get to .05. Some creative highlights:
just at the conventional level of significance (p=0.05001)
just tendentially signiﬁcant (p=0.056)
not insignificant (p=0.056)
well-nigh signiﬁcant (p=0.11)
narrowly eluded statistical significance (p=0.0789)
Harvard scholar Christopher Jencks reviews an edited volume, Legacies of the War on Poverty, where some of the best economists weigh in on what worked and what didn’t. Superb review. I learned a lot. The review was in two parts, and here’s the conclusion:
On the one hand, there have clearly been more successes than today’s Republicans acknowledge, at least in public. Raising Social Security benefits played a major part in cutting poverty among the elderly. The Earned Income Tax Credit cut poverty among single mothers. Food stamps improve living standards for most poor families. Medicaid also improves the lives of the poor. Even Section 8 rent subsidies, which I have not discussed, improve living standards among the poor families lucky enough to get one, although the money might do more good if it were distributed in a less random way. Head Start also turns out to help poor children stay on track for somewhat better lives than their parents had.
On the other hand, Republican claims that antipoverty programs were ineffective and wasteful also appear to have been well founded in many cases. Title I spending on elementary and secondary education has had few identifiable benefits, although the design of the program would make it hard to identify such benefits even if they existed. Relying on student loans rather than grants to finance the early years of higher education has discouraged an unknown number of low-income students from entering college, because of the fear that they will not be able to pay the loans back if they do not graduate. Job-training programs for the least employable have also yielded modest benefits. The community action programs that challenged the authority of elected local officials during the 1960s might have been a fine idea if they had been privately funded, but using federal money to pay for attacks on elected officials was a political disaster.
The fact that the War on Poverty included some unsuccessful programs is not an indictment of the overall effort. Failures are an inevitable part of any program that requires experimentation. The problem is that most of these programs still exist. Job-training programs that don’t work still pop up and disappear. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act still pushes money into the hands of educators who do not raise poor children’s test scores. It has had little in the way of tangible results. Increasingly large student loans still allow colleges to raise tuition faster than family incomes rise, and rising costs still discourage many poor students from attending or completing college.
It takes time to produce disinterested assessments of political programs. The Government Accountability Office has done good assessments of some narrowly defined programs, but assessing strategic choices about how best to fight poverty has been left largely to journalists, university scholars, and organizations like the Russell Sage Foundation, which paid for Legacies. Scholars are not completely disinterested either, but in this case we can be grateful that a small group has helped us reach a more balanced judgment about a noble experiment. We did not lose the War on Poverty. We gained some ground. Quite a lot of ground.
A shameless repost from The Monkey Cage. Photo from Glenna Gordon.
In too many countries, poor and unemployed young men are recruited into riots, election thuggery and rebellions. High-crime neighborhoods are a problem in almost every big city.
Most solutions you’ve heard of probably boil down to one of two things: jobs or jail. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that either do much good. In fact, some of the policing and punishment could be making things worse.
Recently, however, social experiments from two very different places — Liberia and Chicago — suggest an alternative: a few weeks of counseling to teach self-control and how to become a better person.
Jobs and jail assume that adults are adults — you’re not going to change who they are, but you can change their incentives. I’m an economist by training, so of course I think that incentives matter. That’s practically our motto. But in repeating it, we might forget to study whether people can change, to what, and how.
Actually, we do think about this kind of change in children. Invest in early childhood. This is what so much research tells us. Developing kids’ cognitive and character skills from ages 0 to 5 is one of the best investments for lifelong success. I’m not talking math or reading skills. The research shows that “character skills” like self control and managing your emotions probably matter most of all for a successful life: learning to control your impulses, keep your temper and wait patiently for the fruits of your labor. If someone fosters these skills in you as a toddler, chances are you’re more likely to finish college, get a good job and avoid drugs and arrest.
So what about the young men who reach adulthood and don’t have these skills? Some aspects of character might be innate — nature’s gift to you — but the data say your upbringing and environment matters a lot. If you live in a place that’s unsafe, where the schools and community have broken down and families are under strain, then you might lose some of your chances to learn self control. Actually, being impatient and impulsive and being quick to anger might even be skills that keep you alive.
I work in Liberia, where a generation of young men lost their childhoods to 14 years of war and political instability. The men I work with have little more than the shirts on their backs, and they “hustle” for a living on the streets of Monrovia. The hustle can mean something as simple as hawking goods or hard labor for a few dollars a day. But said with a certain look in your eye, “the hustle” means the pickpocketing, hold-ups, home robberies and drug dealing that earn you more than just a few dollars.
The men I work with spend a third of their working lives in the criminal sort of hustle, tend to use drugs every day, and sleep on the streets on a regular basis. About half are ex-combatants from the war. They can be dangerous to the people around them. They are in fights with each other or the authorities all the time. In neighboring Sierra Leone, the political parties hired their Freetown counterparts to be election goons. And when a brief war broke out in Ivory Coast, some of the Liberian men were offered $500 to jump on a truck and go fight.
In 2010, I’d spent a couple of years studying former fighters in the rural areas, usually isolated mining sites where they were illegally panning for gold and diamonds. But on one visit, I landed in Monrovia only to find I had pneumonia, and so I sat in a clinic for a week. As I started to feel better, I still couldn’t leave the capital, so I called a friend to take me around the tougher parts of Monrovia to find out more about the crime and drugs and other risks that threatened the city’s peace.
Johnson Borh was a remarkable guy. He was a former combatant himself who’d quit the war to help young people turn their lives around. He gathered like-minded people and they began developing a short group intervention they called STYL, for Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia.
I was skeptical, but for every drug dealer or petty thief we talked to, he pointed out a guy with a shop or business that graduated from some version of STYL.
I called in two friends: a psychologist at Harvard, Margaret Sheridan, and a behavioral economist in the US government, Julian Jamison. We asked for the STYL curriculum, and Margaret said an interesting thing: This looks like cognitive behavior therapy in the U.S.
It turned out Johnson and his colleagues had cobbled together every training and therapy manual they could get their hands on for more than 10 years. They attended trainings by the U.N. or some nonprofit, and took pieces from what they learned. They tried out this and that, and after a decade of experimenting, they had an eight-week group therapy that they said could work with the toughest characters.
The STYL program looked a lot like the way that U.S. psychologists try to treat aggression, substance abuse and criminal problems. It taught men techniques to cool their anger and make more careful decisions. The men learned to plan and set goals. And men also practiced how to become more mainstream members of society: dressing differently, going to places like supermarkets or banks where they hadn’t felt welcome, and generally seeing that people (for the first time in their lives) treated them with respect.
We thought we’d put STYL to the test. Over the next few years, we worked with Innovations for Poverty Action to run a large experiment: We’d recruit men interested in taking their chances for a shot at the STYL program. A quarter would get the therapy, a quarter would get $200 cash, a quarter would get the therapy followed by the cash, and the last quarter would get none.
The cash was partly a measurement tool (how would they use it differently if they also got STYL?), but it was also a way to give them some work. The men told us that the absence of capital was what was holding them back, and a lot of evidence from elsewhere in Africa suggests this is true. So we worked with the nonprofit Global Communities to give them what they asked for: 10 Andrew Jacksons in the palms of their hands.
We started with 100 people, since we were worried that the best investment with $200 was to buy a handgun or a lot more drugs to sell. But after seeing that none of the fears came to pass, we expanded to 1,000 men.
What we found amazed us. We sought out the toughest men Johnson and his crew could find in the slums and markets of Monrovia. About two-thirds were interested in the programs and lottery, and about two-thirds of those finished the therapy if they were offered it.
Just the offer of therapy had huge impacts. Crime, carrying a weapon, fights with each other and police, arrests, and even things as simple as losing your temper — they dropped by 20 to 50 percent within a few weeks of finishing the therapy. After a year, these effects had started to dissipate if the men got therapy alone. But if they got cash after the therapy, the effects stayed steady or grew.
Men offered STYL also reported fewer impulsive behaviors and better planning and goal setting. They changed their appearance and behaviors, and found that they could earn the respect of neighbors. Normal society accepted them.
It wasn’t because the cash made them a big success. Most men invested the cash in a petty business, like buying and selling items in the market. Even the ones who didn’t get therapy. For the first month or two, most men made decent money from this petty business. But it turned out that men in these neighborhoods get stolen from, a lot. Up to once every month or two. A year after the therapy and grants, all the fruits of the cash were gone. Yet the behavior change remained.
What was going on? It’s hard to say, but our sense is that the cash let men keep practicing their new life. They could avoid crime for a while, dress and act better, and be a respectable businessman. This extended performance helped cement their new respectable self-image and practice their self control skills (at least for some men). That is to say, therapy got them partway down the righteous path, and a little cash helped them keep from falling off.
This result might seem a little unusual (and hard to repeat) if the same kind of program hadn’t produced similar results in a very different place: Chicago high schools. A group of scholars have been studying cognitive behavior therapy programs for several years, including one called the “Becoming A Man” program, or BAM.
BAM teaches the same kind of planful, reflective behaviors to young men, including how to control anger and impulses. It’s offered to teens, only some of whom are actively involved in crime or drugs. So this is a very different group than the Liberian men. But the Chicago teens have opportunities for delinquency and crime, and BAM has a similar effect: It reduces crime for a year. It also improves the chances the young men stay in school.
What these programs have in common is that they teach young men things that a lot of their peers got earlier in life from family or institutions. It’s remedial skills for being a patient, controlled person. These programs seem to work, and they’re cheap. STYL cost less than $250 per person.
Something that works is a big deal. Whether it’s in the U.S. or developing countries, job training programs have a spotty track record. Business skills programs seldom pass a simple cost benefit test. Incarceration might make criminal behaviors worse. And policing strategies, for whatever good they do, are too often violent and discriminatory.
So with behavioral therapy we might be onto something. Finally.
I wouldn’t expect this to work everywhere. In Liberia, we weren’t competing with mafioso, a terrorist group, or a drug gang for the loyalties of the men. And racial or other prejudices weren’t a barrier to the Liberian men entering normal society. My hunch is that the behavioral therapy helps some men some of the time, especially when it comes to reducing spontaneous, expressive or disorganized crime and violence. But an awful lot of crime and riots and other costly violence fits in this category. So I’d like to see this kind of therapy tried out and tested more.
So continue to invest in children, of course. But we don’t need to throw the adults under the bus to save the kids. Where jobs and jail haven’t worked, skills for self control just might.
Indeed, sitting has been called the new smoking. The only difference is that smoking looks cool and is a great way to meet people and isn’t actually that bad for you. (I smoke.) Sitting, on the other hand, looks ridiculous and shameful—like you’re afraid to admit exactly how tall you are—and is terrible for you. The human body simply wasn’t meant to be folded up for long stretches, like a sad pretzel. It was meant to be held ramrod-straight at all times, like a noble pretzel stick.
I was once a standing-desk skeptic, too. But, after I made the switch four days ago, I could immediately sense a difference in how I felt: way more self-righteous.