Everything I need to know about democratization I can learn from Wikipedia

In February 2002, just one year after its launch, Wikipedia was rising quickly, but it was still officially an experimental project of the for-profit company Bomis.com. When then-CEO Jimmy Wales mused on the Wikipedia email list whether to put advertisements on Wikipedia’s pages to generate revenue, it hit the community like a shock wave.

Influential members of the Spanish Wikipedia were so outraged by even a remote possibility of profiting from volunteer work that within days, they broke off into their own faction. So in 2002, very early in the Web site’s history, Spanish Wikipedians copied the entire contents of Spanish Wikipedia onto their own Internet server and asked community members to abandon Wikipedia in favor of this new alternative project, Enciclopedia Libre.

It was a jarring setback and a stark lesson about the passionate community Wales had assembled. Despite pleas from Wales, Sanger, and others that advertising was only an idea for discussion, and not in the works, the damage had been done. Most of the Spanish volunteers had left. It would take years for Wikipedia’s Spanish-language edition to recover from what is now known as the “Spanish Fork.”

Some good did result from the episode. It convinced Wales and his partners that they had to spin off Wikipedia into a nonprofit entity to convince the community never to doubt its intentions.

From the book The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih, which I’ve been reading in relation to my WIkipedia-based course (on which I’ll blog more later this semester).

I’ve been teaching students about the historical processes of democratization this semester, and the parallels are amazing. When citizens can exit or exercise voice, and are valuable to the elites, the citizens can force concessions of power. Unable to credibly commit, elites must find some way, perhaps a constitutional change, to credibly devolve power.

This reminds me: one of the valuable things on politics I’ve read this semester is this paper on a simple exit, voice and loyalty game by Clark, Golder and Golder. At first I thought it was just a useful framework for teaching about political power and change. But the more it sits with me, the more I think this simple model is a useful framework for thinking about a great deal of politics. It’s simplicity is a drawback but also a virtue. Maybe the most influential paper on my thinking in 2016.

This blogger might be the only thing that makes sense of this election season (and help you keep your sanity)

Move over Nate Silver, some of the election season’s most accurate election forecasts are coming from blogger and pundit, Carl Diggler, the fake persona created by two comedians who forecast primary winners based on their the worst caricatures and prejudices you can draw about a population.

For example:

The voters who will decide tomorrow’s Washington caucuses are what I like to call “Riot Grrrl Democrats.” Their main issues are reducing the cost of photocopying zines, ending the “one in, one out” penalty, and increasing subsidies for putting boys at the back of punk shows. One would think these acolytes of Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and Sleater Kinney would flock to Hillary Clinton, a fellow female who has promised to form a committee to evaluate the constitutionality of drink minimums. Yet these riot grrrl votrrrs are fully in Bernie’s camp, seduced by the Vermont socialist’s promises of putting Glenn Danzig behind bars, where he belongs. In this veteran pundit’s mind, it “smells like Bern spirit” in Washington state.

From the same article, reflections on the Ted Cruz sex scandals:

The biggest issue Ted Cruz has run into this campaign has been people refusing to accept him as a human being. They look at his flesh, that resembles ashen wood that was bloated with water, then dried into a warped version of itself. They see his terrifying Russian doll eyes. They look at his gut, that isn’t large in the way Chris Christie’s is, but heaving, as if he’s carrying an egg similar to that of a lizard in pregnancy. They hear his voice screech about ad hominem attacks and the gold standard. Even if they agree with him, they’re likely to think, “someone should put him out of his misery.”
But a potential series of sex scandals would be a gamechanger. Once people get past the horrifying mental image of Cruz removing his proboscis from his pleated jeans, they’ll realize this is more or less a human being who has normal carnal desires. He’s standing in front of us and saying, yes, I am a man. Yes, I get desires. No, my mating habits do not differ from a normal person’s just because of my wholly repulsive being. Cruz may lose a bit of evangelical support, but he can more than make that up in the millions who were on the fence about his humanity. The fact that he can point to a potential five women that love him and accept his melted candle body is absolutely massive.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Evans, Goldstein, Jakiela, O’Sullivan, Montalvão, & Ozier, once again do a great job boiling down 120+ papers from Oxford’s Center for the Study of African Economies into one-sentence summaries, broken down by topic and methodology here and here.
  • Millions Saved is an amazing resource from Amanda Glassman & Miriam Temin with the Center for Global Development documenting what’s worked in global health. In an example academics should be emulating, the Key Findings page extrapolates basic one-sentence principles that policymakers should know. There will also be a book version.
  • The UN is being sued over cholera brought to Haiti by UN peacekeepers (perhaps just one peacekeeper), which has infected over 770,000 people there.
  • And a UN official explains why he’s quitting:

    Six years ago, I became an assistant secretary general, posted to the headquarters in New York. I was no stranger to red tape, but I was unprepared for the blur of Orwellian admonitions and Carrollian logic that govern the place. If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result. The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again

    It’s worth reading the examples he documents of how bureaucracy, politics, and outdated rules have gotten in the way of the UN doing its own job.

  • Every few years, journalists write about how demand and prices for quinoa, the grain newly popular in rich countries, are rising and how terrible that is for the farmers in Peru who grow it, but can’t afford to eat it. Brooklynites can now rest easy thanks to Marc Bellemare, Johanna Fajardo-Gonzalez and Seth Gitter, who show that quinoa producers and consumers in Peru have been doing pretty well since the boom. The best piece of critical writing on this is from Boring Development: Strong Demand For Things Poor People Sell Somehow Bad for Poor People.
  • State laws designed to protect the poor and minority job applicants by prohibiting potential employers from checking their credit scores sound good, but seem to have backfired. A new paper finds when those laws are passed minority hiring goes down. One more reason to test and phase-in policies. (h/t Dina Pomerantz)
  • A slightly better model (but still imperfect) for policymakers comes from Tennessee which tried to combat a spike in babies born drug dependent by criminalizing drug use by pregnant women. That law also seems to have backfired (discouraging pregnant women who might be drug users from getting prenatal care), but since it was enacted as a two-year trial, it will expire on its own. The point is that across the political spectrum, sensible-sounding policies often backfire, which is why J-PAL North America recently opened to help state and local leaders figure out which policies work before passing them into law. Lawmakers – please call them.
  • Senegal has just voted in a national referendum to reduce presidential terms.

A big thank you to my colleague Jenn Cowman, who’s been helping edit these links, but is leaving IPA for Australia. Expect to start seeing more misplaced commas and horrendous typos.

And from SMBC:

SMBC Economists No Longer Welcome in Hell



How many decimals of pi do we actually need?

How many decimals does NASA use to make it’s calculations? This was a question posed to NASA engineers. The full answer is amazing.

We can bring this down to home with our planet Earth. It is 7,926 miles in diameter at the equator. The circumference then is 24,900 miles. That’s how far you would travel if you circumnavigated the globe (and didn’t worry about hills, valleys, obstacles like buildings, rest stops, waves on the ocean, etc.). How far off would your odometer be if you used the limited version of pi above [3.14]? It would be off by the size of a molecule. There are many different kinds of molecules, of course, so they span a wide range of sizes, but I hope this gives you an idea. Another way to view this is that your error by not using more digits of pi would be 10,000 times thinner than a hair!

I found the finale particularly mind blowing:

Let’s go to the largest size there is: the visible universe. The radius of the universe is about 46 billion light years. Now let me ask a different question: How many digits of pi would we need to calculate the circumference of a circle with a radius of 46 billion light years to an accuracy equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom (the simplest atom)? The answer is that you would need 39 or 40 decimal places. If you think about how fantastically vast the universe is — truly far beyond what we can conceive, and certainly far, far, far beyond what you can see with your eyes even on the darkest, most beautiful, star-filled night — and think about how incredibly tiny a single atom is, you can see that we would not need to use many digits of pi to cover the entire range.

One of the world’s largest cities in 1500 I’d never heard of

Screenshot 2016-03-24 06.44.28

Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.

…Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

That is Mawuna Koutonin in The Guardian. Hat tip to Amitis Oskoui.

All of this is now gone, in part due to European intrusions. He concludes:

Curious tourists visiting Edo state in Nigeria are often shown places that might once have been part of the ancient city – but its walls and moats are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps a section of the great city wall, one of the world’s largest man-made monuments, now lies bruised and battered, neglected and forgotten in the Nigerian bush.

A discontented Nigerian puts it this way: “Imagine if this monument was in England, USA, Germany, Canada or India? It would be the most visited place on earth, and a tourist mecca for millions of the world’s people. A money-spinner worth countless billions in annual tourist revenue.”

Instead, if you wish to get a glimpse into the glorious past of the ancient Benin kingdom – and a better understanding of this groundbreaking city – you are better off visiting the Benin Bronze Sculptures section of the British Museum in central London.

What to do when your pre-tenure review leaves you on shaky ground

I had my third-year review in the spring of 2013, and it was rough. I wasn’t publishing enough and my future at the University of Texas at Austin was uncertain. As my very nice, very supportive chair sat across from me to explain the situation, he mentioned that our colleagues were afraid he would sugarcoat it. That was when I knew I was in real trouble. Of course, I knew the threat of tenure denial was real already — some of my favorite people have been denied tenure. And I could read my CV as clearly as anyone. But, as he talked about his worries, I knew that it was really real. I felt it in my bones. And I panicked.

That’s political scientist Bethany Albertson writing an essay called Operation Keep My Job. She did. How is important. Honest, thoughtful, and useful reading for young scholars.

The war on drugs explained by a Nixon adviser (or not)

Americans have been criminalizing psychoactive substances since San Francisco’s anti-opium law of 1875, but it was Ehrlichman’s boss, Richard Nixon, who declared the first “war on drugs” and set the country on the wildly punitive and counterproductive path it still pursues. I’d tracked Ehrlichman, who had been Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, to an engineering firm in Atlanta, where he was working on minority recruitment. I barely recognized him. He was much heavier than he’d been at the time of the Watergate scandal two decades earlier, and he wore a mountain-man beard that extended to the middle of his chest.

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

I must have looked shocked. Ehrlichman just shrugged. Then he looked at his watch, handed me a signed copy of his steamy spy novel, The Company, and led me to the door.

Full story by Dan Baum in Harpers.

Update: Several people pointed me to this counterpoint by Justin Sherin:

anyone with a basic knowledge of the tapes knows that Nixon’s War on Drugs was an earnest, if catastrophic, personal failing.

The basic point is that Nixon was too out of touch to understand and come to terms with casual drug use. It’s not the strongest or best-evidenced analysis, but to say “Ehrlichman is grossly exaggerating and rationalizing the anti-Black anti-left motive” is plausible.

Please stop using “novel” and “unique” in your abstract

Screenshot 2016-03-22 07.02.44I love this. Three researchers picked 20 top biomedical journals and searched all titles and abstracts since 1975 for positive, negative, neutral, and random words.

The absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), a relative increase of 880% over four decades. All 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%.

Here are the individual words:

Screenshot 2016-03-22 07.03.21The authors conclude: “Apparently scientists look on the bright side of research results.”

Some colleagues, especially junior ones, have told me they have to use these words to sell their paper. I disagree. As a referee, when someone calls themselves innovative, my first assumption is they’re not.

At minimum it signals a rookie writer. Let me give you some unique and innovative advice (see what I mean?): Instead of calling your data set novel, just say “We collected new data on X.” Instead of saying this is an unprecedented result, say “The results suggest that we should think differently about Y.”

Those of you perusing my old abstracts for errors of commission, you will find them. Remember that all advice is a mix of “don’t do what I did” and “be more like me”. And should be discounted accordingly.

Hat tip to Dave Evans.

Was the greatest contribution to American prosperity the resettling of refugees?

Andrew Grove died yesterday. From the New York Times obituary, the former Intel engineer and chief was “chosen Man of the Year by Time magazine as the person most responsible for the amazing growth in the power and the innovative potential of microchips” and was “in some ways was considered ‘the father’ of Silicon Valley”.

He was also a refugee. I saw him speak a few years ago, at an International Rescue Committee dinner. IRC resettled Grove’s family in the United States in the 1950s, after he survived the Nazi Holocaust and fled the Soviet invasion of his home country, Hungary. He was poor and sick and spoke no English when he arrived.

It occurred to me then: this one act of resettling one refugee may have created more prosperity for America than any other private decision in the past century. It’s at least a contender.

And that’s not even the right reason the Americas and Europe should welcome more refugees. To see what I mean, watch this video:

Links I liked

  1. My colleague Jeff Lax answers questions on filling the Supreme Court vacancy
  2. Retraction watch (in PLOS One): “Following publication, readers raised concerns about language in the article that makes references to a ‘Creator’, and about the overall rationale and findings of the study. …Consequently, the PLOS ONE editors consider that the work cannot be relied upon and retract this publication.”
  3. Should all research papers be free?
  4. The Development Impact blog has advice on power calculations and the eight most active researchers from developing countries
  5. Adele, James Cordon, carpool kareoke:

In case you are concerned about his road safety

Karl Marx’s seven habits of highly effective people?

Via Ken Opalo and Stéphane Helleringer this reportedly from a Prussian spy who visited Karl Marx in the 1850s:

In private life he is an extremely disorderly, cynical human being, and a bad host. He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work day and night with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the whole world.

This sounds somewhat like me before children, and like a surprising number of my mostly childless (and most productive) colleagues. then again it also sounds like people I know who only play video games. So maybe the causal link to academic productivity is weak.

And from @kjhealy, a 32-tear old Karl Marx and family, recorded in Soho by the 1851 UK census as “Charles Mark—Doctor, Philosophical Author:


And speaking of productivity, this is kind of incredible.

Hat tips to Suresh Naidu and @MaxCRoser.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Fiber masks from Boni village (Burkina Faso) perform in the Regional Stadium of Dedougou. Music is essential, played with traditional African nstruments, accompanies very ritual and ceremony.

  • Happy St. Patrick’s day, how about some qualitative macroeconomic research explaining Irish attitudes towards austerity? (Summary: early on, the Irish public was surprisingly accepting of austerity measures, which may come down to an Irish Catholic moral principle of “you should reap what you sow” but that’s changed recently with a water tax that’s seen as unfair.)
  • An AP investigative report concludes a flashy San Fransisco company contracted by the Sierra Leone government and WHO to work on the Ebola response completely bungled it, with errors in testing and confusion in its facilities.
  • Some beautiful photos (including the one above) from the FESTIMA festival held in Burkina Faso, celebrating masks from six West African countries.
  • A paper (PDF) suggests that urbanization of African populations has driven a quiet revolution in the agricultural supply chain. Senegalese prepackaged ready to cook meals which started out for the Dakar market can now be found in stores in the US and France.
  • Via Kim Yi Dionne, drones are being tested for delivering HIV blood test samples in Malawi, where road travel is difficult and a diagnosis takes an average of 11 days. (Meanwhile, USAID funded go-pro equipped vultures in Lima, and London is using Pigeons with tiny sensor backpacks for pollution awareness).
  • The creator of one of the most sampled beats in all of hip-hop is a political scientist (10:15 into the video, and more on him here) h/t Jad Abumrad.
  • Korea really wants a Nobel Prize for literature and is trying to industrialize literature production the way it has electronics.

For your next paper, consider a trailer (h/t Catherine Rampell).

Also, from the paper, they apparently didn’t get the grant:




How the GOP defeated David Duke in 1991

Back in 1991, Duke finished second to Democrat Edwin Edwards in the state’s multiparty primary. In the ensuing run-off between Duke and Edwards, GOP incumbent Buddy Roemer—the third-place finisher in the primary—endorsed Edwards, not Duke.

More importantly, so did three-quarters of Roemer’s supporters, who were heavily Republican. Many of them detested Edwards, who had faced multiple allegations of corruption and would eventually serve eight years in jail for bribery and extortion. Indeed, six of ten people who voted for Roemer thought that Edwards was a “crook.”

But the vast majority of them voted for Edwards anyway, swayed by the campaign’s most famous bumper sticker: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” Designed by a Roemer supporter who feared a Duke victory, the sticker became so popular that Edwards affixed one to his own car.

Full article in The New Republic.

Links I liked

  1. The madness of elite airline status (first world 1% problems)
  2. Should English be the only official language of the EU?
  3. Tim Burton confirms Beetlejuice 2 is a go
  4. A nice example of classy replication/criticism and a classy response in Science: Whether or not children learn from math and reading apps
  5. The Freakonomics podcast featuring my Liberia crime-reduction-through-therapy study is airing this weekend nationwide on NPR
  6. Via @JustinWolfers, this Wonkblog graph:


Canadian culture shock, Syrian refugee edition

The fifth annual VancouFur convention, in which people dress up as fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities and characteristics, was held at the same hotel where a number of Syrian refugees are currently being housed.

A message was given to all attendees at the convention that the hotel had been chosen as one of the temporary housing locations for the Syrian refugees in Canada, and that “a major concern that VancouFur has is ensuring that each and every one of the refugees (and attendees) feels welcome and safe and the fact that this is likely to be a major shock to them”.

Full article.

Also, a good article on why the EU-Turkey deal on refugees is doomed (hat tip Tyler Cowen)

And finally, for the non-furries like me, I prefer these t-shirts:



IPA’s weekly links

Wu Tang Clan's Method Man

They found 18,470 citations, but only 19(!) of these are viable studies.

And via  Maude Lachaine, the R package Mansplainer:


That replication of the replication study that didn’t replicate? It doesn’t replicate.

I give up.

A few days ago I posted about the psychology replication study that didn’t replicate. Apparently the replication of the replication is quite problematic.

Here is a discussion from Replication Watch, which notes

independent commentaries have also emerged challenging Gilbert and colleagues’ methodology and conclusion by Sanjay Srivastava, Uri Simonsohn, Daniel Lakens, Simine Vazire, Andrew Gelman, David Funder, Rolf Zwaan, and Dorothy Bishop.

I’m sure this is a fascinating and important debate but I have not had time to read these in depth, as I am barely able to answer my emails.

I would love pointers to a simple and relatively unbiased roundup. In the meantime, I felt like I should at least note the controversy.

Bureaucracy is so hot right now

Screenshot 2016-03-07 21.03.04

Governments play a central role in facilitating economic development. Yet while economists have long emphasized the importance of government quality, historically they have paid less attention to the internal workings of the state and the individuals who provide the public services.

This paper reviews a nascent but growing body of field experiments that explores the personnel economics of the state.

To place the experimental findings in context, we begin by documenting some stylized facts about how public sector employment differs from that in the private sector. In particular, we show that in most countries throughout the world, public sector employees enjoy a significant wage premium over their private sector counterparts.

Moreover, this wage gap is largest among low-income countries, which tends to be precisely where governance issues are most severe. These differences in pay, together with significant information asymmetries within government organizations in low-income countries, provide a prima facie rationale for the emphasis of the recent field experiments on three aspects of the state–employee relationship: selection, incentive structures, and monitoring. We review the findings on all three dimensions and then conclude this survey with directions for future research.

A new paper titled “The Personnel Economics of the State”, Fred Finan, Ben Olken, and Rohini Pande. This confirms my belief that bureaucracy-building will be one of the most important topics of the next decade.

But I guess bureaucracy sounded too sexy so they decided to go with “Personnel Economics of the State”.

The photo is from an amazing series call Bureaucratics by Jan Banning.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Tina Rosenberg asks in the New York Times Fixes column why the development world is so obsessed with innovation rather than spreading existing good ideas. She uses the example of the HIV-prevention org Young1ove, started by an MIT student who read about a promising RCT.
  • Some resources:
  • As Chris posted, psychologists are arguing over whether there is a reproducibility crisis (you can get into the weeds here), but meanwhile, there’s a new Science paper on reproducibility of 18 econ papers published in AER and QJE:

    We find a significant effect in the same direction as the original study for 11 replications (61%); on average the replicated effect size is 66% of the original. The reproducibility rate varies between 67% and 78% for four additional reproducibility indicators, including a prediction market measure of peer beliefs.

  • In that vein, friends of ours are collecting case studies of data sharing through the Mozilla Science Foundation, submit your stories by March 10th.
  • A lot of misinformation and scare stories are spreading surrounding refugees in Europe, but there are also interesting attempts to correct them. The Hoaxmap is a Snopes for scare stores about crimes supposedly committed by refugees, while the Mediterranean Rumor Tracker tries to find rumors spreading among refugees (such as which border crossings are open when) and correct them.
  • David Evans says baseline data is useful for other purposes (we’ve found they can be hugely beneficial to local policymakers).
  • Panel data from India (PDF) suggests monitoring teachers to make sure they show up for work is 10 times more cost effective at lowering student:teacher ratio as hiring more teachers.

And, from SMBC:

SMBC Vaccines