How on earth did I find myself the defender of the IMF?

Yet here I go again, in The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

I actually spend one of the 13 weeks of my development class talking about the mistakes of the World Bank and IMF in the 1980s and 1990s. So I’m an unusual defender.

But I don’t think of it so much of it as a defense of the IMF as promoting a particular way of thinking about public finance and development: that poor governments face hard choices, have have deep capacity problems, and that while organizations like the IMF might have made things worse in the past, it doesn’t do to ignore the fundamental problems.

Especially in weak states. If I have one refrain, it’s that you can’t take what you’ve learned in strong states and apply it in fragile ones.

A recap: Last week I reacted to a Lancet op-ed that blamed the IMF for Ebola. A fellow Monkey Cage contributor pushed back, and then the Lancet authors responded in the same pages.

There have been some good points on all sides. This is going to be my last word. An excerpt:

I want to suggest a rule of thumb for any public finance question: When someone suggests “This country should spend more on X”, the most important thing you can ask is the unpleasant accounting question: “Where should that money come from?” More loans? More aid? Less spending on something else? The next thing you should do is take back the point I conceded, and ask whether spending equals results. Because of tradeoffs: money wasted on one thing is money not spent saving lives in other ways. Anything less doesn’t add up, IMF or not.

The fastest way to get gun control laws in the US South?


The Dallas New Black Panthers have been carrying guns for years. In an effort to ratchet up their organizing efforts, they formed the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, uniting five local black and brown paramilitary organizations under a single banner. “We accept all oppressed people of color with weapons,”

…The Huey P. Newton Gun Club was formed partially as a response to a grassroots gun-advocacy group called Open Carry Texas. Texas is one of only six states in the country that still outlaws the open carrying of handguns, but it legally permits brandishing assault rifles and shotguns.

Article and more photos here. I wonder if the NRA will champion their cause. Even if I disagree, consistency I could respect.

Podcast of possible interest

In the event you read the blog and for some reason still think “Gosh I just don’t get to hear enough about Chris Blattman”, then Mark Goldberg’s UN Dispatch podcast interviewed me last week on how I came to work on conflict, employment, and cash, and what I think about cash based aid.  Listen below.

I’m number 47 in a long list of podcast guests in international development, journalism, and politics. It’s a really impressive list. Most don’t blog so they are probably a better use of your time. Listen to them here.

Links I liked

  1. I updated my “When are you too old for a PhD post?“. Thanks to so many readers for their comments.
  2. Brad Delong’s blog recommendations
  3. The economics of academic presses
  4. Planning for a post-Ebola West African economy
  5. In comic news: Is this the year Marvel Studios redefined itself (again)? and Could Valiant Entertainment seriously rival DC and Marvel Comics?

While we are on the subject of comics in the media, I sampled some recent television and feel confident that Agents of SHIELD is probably the best comic-based show out there (good enough I stayed on to the second season). But not so good that I don’t think I’m wasting my time a little.

How many blacks pass for whites? Historically, more than you think.

Using the full population of historical Censuses for 1880-1940, we document that over 19% of black males “passed” for white at some point during their lifetime, around 10% of whom later “reverse-passed” to being black; passing was accompanied by geographic relocation to communities with a higher percentage of whites and occurred the most in Northern states.

A new paper by Emily Nix and Nancy Qian.

2014: The annual report

Every year about this time, I escape from either work or family obligations to thank everyone for reading, and of course navel gaze a little, reporting back what happened in the blog in the past year. Also, I have a few upcoming changes to report.


For the first few years of the blog, readership grew. the last three years have stayed pretty steady, at about 1.1 million page views a year, or about 3000 a day. This seems like a ridiculous amount even to me. It might help to know that a large chunk of these are 3-second visits. So there are a lot of people coming through from Twitter or Google search and saying, “this is definitely not what I wanted to read”. So the world seems a little more sensible now.

Even so, a lot of you stay and read and come back, and thank you for that. The landscape of readers has changed a lot in the last couple of years, however. Most people come to the blog from Twitter or Facebook or Google search, and a smaller and smaller number are regular readers who come regularly by their browser or RSS feed reader.

I’m guessing this reflects a very general and surprisingly rapid change in how people consume online news and opinion, partly because of the huge increase in the number of voices. It certainly reflects my own shift as a consumer. I think it means I have a much broader but less regular readership than before.

I think it also reflects the fact that, after reading the same blog for a few years, people get tired of it. Tyler Cowen said this to me once, and I didn’t believe it at the time. But I’ve found I typically tire of a blog after shorter and shorter periods now, and follow very few people regularly.

Most-read posts of 2014

Excluding the home page, or fixed pages like “About me” and my research page, here were the most viewed posts of 2014. Almost all were pre-2014 posts:

  1. When are you too old for a PhD?
  2. 10 things I tell undergraduates
  3. Frequently asked questions on PhD applications
  4. Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers
  5. The problem with graduate degrees in international affairs and development?
  6. Getting a job in international development
  7. The standing desk: I am a convert
  8. What MA, MPA, or MIA program is for you?
  9. What The Economist should have read before suggesting that US slavery wasn’t always so bad
  10. Which is for you: MPA, MPA/ID, or PhD?

Number 1 had almost 40,000 views, which is kind of nuts. There’s clearly a lot of PhD angst out there.

The fact that these are all old advice posts is kind of boring, though. The most read new posts were the following:

Referrals and searches

To the extent people come from other blogs, it’s mostly from Marginal Revolution and The Economist’s View. So thanks to them. But a majority now come from Google searches.

The most common searches are always interesting. I continue to get a lot from “should i be an accountant” because of this post, and also “average age of phd student” because of the most read post, above. “Chris Blattman wife” used to be a common search term, but now it’s gone, perhaps because I turned 40 and am no longer so sexy to the stalkers. Sigh.

Do I make money off of you?

I continue to say no to ads, because it feels icky. And there are no sponsored posts or instances where I get free products for a review. In short, I don’t blog for the money.

That said, somewhat by accident, this year the blog started to make real money. Whenever I blog a book or music I like, I usually link to the relevant Amazon page (if there is one). In the interest of full disclosure, Amazon gives referrers a percentage when this happens. This year, almost 10,000 of you clicked on one of the Amazon links, you bought 3,000 items for about $85,000 total (as it happens, mostly stuff I didn’t link to), and so Amazon gave me almost $6,000.

So, the blog is now at the point where I have a financial incentive to link to books and related stuff. What does this mean for my reviews? Not much I think. I only link to about a half or a third of the books I read, since I don’t bother mentioning stuff I didn’t like or find provocative. But it means I am more likely to blog books than I was before. Probably the quality margin is now lower. So I’m trying to be clear what I loved versus just liked.

Thus, in this small way, you are helping me send my children to a truly wonderful albeit politically correct Manhattan daycare, where they learn to sing “baa baa white sheep” in addition to “baa baa black sheep”. The world is mad.

Upcoming changes

There will be two small ones. One is that I’d like to donate ad space to charities I particularly like, so you may see an ad in the near future. It’s given for free.

The second is that I may try to highlight the Amazon book recommendations with a widget in the sidebar. Because, let’s be honest, baa baa white sheep ain’t cheap, especially in Manhattan.

Bleg: When (if ever) are you too old for a PhD? And what should you know?

In June 2013 I wrote a short post on the question. I didn’t think much of it, and I didn’t have very many useful things to say. Even so, somehow it bacame my most-viewed post in 2014. Almost 39,000 people viewed it this year (and there’s still a few more hours to go.)

I think I have discovered one of the great sources of existential angst on the Internet.

Now I feel kind of bad that it’s such a crap post. My new year’s resolution is to better it. Before I do, I am asking for stories, comments, and opinions from readers. What advice do you have for older PhD students? What should they consider?

You can put comments below, tweet them to me, or email me directly. If you want to make sure that the most number of people see them, however, please comment on the original post, since that’s where people seem to go.


Links I liked

  1. Why Invisible Children dissolved
  2. Each state in one word, courtesy of Google autocomplete
  3. “Why does phone quality still suck, while Skype and FaceTime sounds like the person is right next to me?” 
  4. “How I imagine all Facebook pictures are made”
  5. The Guardian’s favorite aid parodies
  6. American views of what professions have above average ethical standards
  7. Huygens spacecraft telemetry video of the descent onto Saturn’s moon Titan (2005)

Did the IMF cause the Ebola crisis? Of course not.

There’s been a lot of news coverage today of a Lancet op-ed that blames IMF austerity for making the Ebola crisis worse.

My reaction in The Monkey Cage:

Unfortunately, this just doesn’t really make sense if you’re familiar with the governments in these places, local politics, or more generally how weak states actually work. …it illustrates of the perils of doing research from afar, and ignoring politics.

In my experience, you don’t see this as much when people write about India or China or Iraq. Too many people know something about these countries, including newspaper and journal editors. As a writer or researcher, you don’t get away with ignoring the context: who makes the decisions, who has what incentives, and what arms of the government can actually get things done.

When it comes to Africa, however, too many people are willing to assume it’s a blank slate, and that nations dance to the tune of Western donors and banks. Or that weak states are functioning, rational bureaucracies. I think this is one reason why so many newspapers are picking up the “IMF caused the Ebola crisis” so uncritically.

Read more here.

“The Interview”

interview1The Axis of Evil didn’t want me seeing this movie. So my principled self streamed it last night on YouTube ($5.99).

It’s schlock, but more or less entertaining schlock. It has a 50% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which sounds about right. It’s a slight notch above my “good enough to watch on an airplane” bar. Right around the level of “perfect for continuing to avoid those serious documentaries and dramas that have been in my aspirational Netflix queue for 2 years.”

It had truly hilarious moments and very dull ones, and mostly lame plot lines. But good performances by genuinely funny and likable people. I got a kick out of Randall Park’s Kim Jong Un.

I say: buy it for the principle and watch it if you have an evening you’d normally waste on something else.

Of course I’ll be thrilled for Sony if they end up making real money off the film. But a victory for freedom? Hardly. The North Koreans win either way. I can’t see a studio running with another anti-NK script anytime soon, for fear of the hacking or other threats. Even if the studios get courageous, their insurance companies probably won’t. And the theater chains already demonstrated their misplaced cowardice. A sad day for Hollywood. But in the new Golden Age of television, most days are sad for Hollywood.

My Christmas music mix includes…

  1. Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels and Blood Oranges in the Snow albums
  2. Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack
  3. Soul Christmas, Various Artists
  4. Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas
  5. Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas
  6. Elvis Presley: The Classic Christmas Album
  7. Christmas #1s, Various Artists
  8. This classic

Recommendations welcome. With the exception of #1, it’s been a while since I updated the mix.

High on the list of things I did not remember about Paddington Bear

Began reading A Bear Called Paddington to my daughter last night.

Mrs Brown bent down. “You’re a very small bear,” she said.
The bear puffed out its chest. “I’m a very rare sort of bear,” he replied importantly. “There aren’t many of us left where I come from.”
“And where is that?” asked Mrs Brown.
The bear looked round carefully before replying. “Darkest Peru.”
“You don’t mean to say you’ve come all the way from South America by yourself?” exclaimed Mrs Brown.
The bear nodded. “Aunt Lucy always said she wanted me to emigrate when I was old enough.
That’s why she taught me to speak English.”

Which brings to mind a recent statement from Prime Minister David Cameron to illegal immigrants:

We will find you and make sure you are sent back to the country you came from.

An excellent plot line for the 2015 Paddington movie?

The most serious and ignored public health crisis of the 21st century?

This Christmas, do not forget the forgotten:
Screenshot 2014-12-23 09.09.38

when no exam is imminent the family death rate per 100 students (FDR) is low and is not related to the student’s grade in the class. The effect of an upcoming exam is unambiguous. The mean FDR jumps from 0.054 with no exam, to 0.574 with a mid-term, and to 1.042 with a final, representing increases of 10 fold and 19 fold respectively.

Only one conclusion can be drawn from these data. Family members literally worry themselves to death over the outcome of their relatives’ performance on each exam. Naturally, the worse the student’s record is, and the more important the exam, the more the family worries; and it is the ensuing tension that presumably causes premature death.

Full paper.

There is only one solution, of course: cash transfers to poor-performing students. I await the GiveDirectly program.

Hat tip to @freakonometrics.

If Christmas was run by foreign aid agencies

Your response to RFP 666_01 for the “Sustainable Agriculture Networks Trial-Afghanistan” (SANTA) project has been received, and we had the following RFIs. Please respond no later than COB on 31 December 2014. Be advised I will be out of the office from 18 December through 15 January. My backstop will be John Hanover* from 18–22 December, and Jill Perkins from 23–31 December, and Evan Harris from 01–15 January.

I’ll be able to address your responses no later than 31 January, since I will be spending most of those first two weeks back answering emails. Then I will be out on leave beginning on 15 February, and my replacement should arrive sometime in May. We hope to begin SANTA implementation no later than 01 June 2015.

Full post. Via Texas in Africa.

The only thing worse than Comcast technical support?

In June, Two wealthy Macau residents stayed at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The hotel suspected that they were running an illegal gambling operation out of their room. They enlisted the police and the FBI, but could not provide enough evidence for them to get a warrant. So instead they repeatedly cut the guests’ Internet connection. When the guests complained to the hotel, FBI agents wearing hidden cameras and recorders pretended to be Internet repair technicians and convinced the guests to let them in. They filmed and recorded everything under the pretense of fixing the Internet, and then used the information collected from that to get an actual search warrant. To make matters even worse, they lied to the judge about how they got their evidence.

The Atlantic on the limits of police dishonesty.

Turning our understanding of Russian politics upside down

While watching the roller coaster that is the Russian ruble, I recalled how much I liked this NYRB review of Karen Dawisha’s new book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

An excerpt:

For twenty years now, the Western politicians, journalists, businessmen, and academics who observe and describe the post-Soviet evolution of Russia have almost all followed the same narrative.

We begin with the assumption that the Soviet Union ended in 1991…

We continue with an account of the early 1990s, an era of “reform,” when some Russian leaders tried to create a democratic political system and a liberal capitalist economy.

We follow the trials and tribulations of the reformers, analyze the attempts at privatization, discuss the ebb and flow of political parties and the growth and decline of an independent media.

Mostly we agree that those reforms failed, and sometimes we blame ourselves for those failures: we gave the wrong advice, we sent naive Harvard economists who should have known better, we didn’t have a Marshall Plan.

Sometimes we blame the Russians: the economists didn’t follow our advice, the public was apathetic, President Yeltsin was indecisive, then drunk, then ill.

Sometimes we hope that reforms will return, as many believed they might during the short reign of President Dmitry Medvedev.

Whatever their conclusion, almost all of these analysts seek an explanation in the reform process itself, asking whether it was effective, or whether it was flawed, or whether it could have been designed differently. But what if it never mattered at all?

…the most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism.

Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves.

Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.

The whole review is fascinating. Book is here.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • There’s a nice parallel here to the failures of foreign aid. Western observers, especially the donors, look at the collapse of democracy and growth in the 70s and 80s, and the rebound in the 90s and 00s, and give blame or praise to aid policy and institutions like the World Bank. All the while ignoring the mismatch between the institutions and policy reforms on paper, and the actual incentives and sources of power that drive politics. (Here is a book that makes this argument for Africa.)
  • There’s also a nice parallel to my long-running rant against anti-corruption policies. They attack the symptom (theft) not the disease (few constraints on power).
  • Although I’ve not read the book, this is the kind of book that I think political scientists can write better than anyone. When I see graduate students all rushing to write applied micrometric papers, especially field experiments, I worry that too few people are getting trained to do this more traditional analytical, historical, and comparative work well.
  • All is not lost. It’s partly a fad. There was too little micrometric work, possibly now there is too much, and it will balance out in the next decade. I predict a lot of the people who started the micrometric revolution, and are recently tenured, are going to exit first and follow the old ways. The people who could get crushed in future job markets and journals are the grad students and recent grads who rushed to the fad.