Links I liked

  1. Be a research advisor for education at International Rescue Committee*
  2. Foreign policy wonks: Are you a zen master?
  3. Security at ComicCon
  4. The psychological effects of poverty

* People who would like their job postings listed on this blog, please note: I only post job listings if you’re either (1) me, or (2) married to me. #2 is kind of hard to pull off, but I do accept candy, flowers, and romantic mix tapes at my office address.

What countries are the most hypocritical on human rights?

Courtesy of Kate at Wronging Rights, here is Wednesday’s UN Human Rights Council vote on investigating Israel for war crimes in Gaza: Gaza-vote And here is the vote four months ago to investigate Sri Lanka: SL-voteMost flip. From Kate:

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes.

Note that this is a vote to investigate—to gather more information to see whether a violation has been made. Presumably this need not be a high bar. I for one would love to see a UNHRC hypocrisy index. A simple variance measure would be an easy start, though if the Council gets a large number of questionable proposals to vote on, some conditions could be set (e.g. count only those cases where concerns of possible human rights violations has been raised by one of the more independent watchdogs.) Major paper love to write stories about international rankings.

“Africans in America”

Some fascinating facts from a new paper by Elo, Frankenberg, Gansey, and Thomas:

  • The number of migrants to the U.S. from Africa has exploded in recent years, and for the first time in America’s history Africans are the most rapidly growing group of foreign-born migrants.
  • Some 1.73 million African-born migrants live in the U.S., accounting for about 4% of the foreign-born population
  • Since the 1950s the number of foreign-born who have become legal permanent residents has quadrupled, but the number from Africa has increased nearly 60-fold—a rate of growth more than twice that for migrants from Asia, the next fastest growing source of new Americans.
  • In the 1950s, Morocco, South Africa and Egypt accounted for 60% of migrants from Africa. The vast majority were white. [In 2011] close to three quarters of African-born migrants in the U.S. self-identify as black.
  • Changes in immigration policy such as the 1980 Refugee Act, the 1990 Immigration Act, and the Diversity Visa Program have fueled some of the increase.
  • In the 1980s nearly three-quarters of legal permanent residents from Africa entered the U.S. on family-based visas. …By 2010, employment visas accounted for around 45% of all visas issued to African legal permanent residents.
  • nowadays about one-quarter of all African-origin legal permanent residents entered as refugees. …One-third of refugees over the last 3 decades were born in Sudan and Somalia, one-quarter were born in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and most of the rest were born in Liberia and East Africa.

Papers I liked

Am at the NBER development summer institute. Some interesting papers:

  1. Providing farmers with rainfall insurance makes them take more risks, and do better, but there’s a downside: much more risk for landless laborers. So what happens when you insure landless laborers?
  2. Reforming bureaucracies is hard, and getting the incentives for middle managers right might matter more than getting the policies and reform right. Evidence from six randomized control trials with Indian police.
  3. As with bureaucracies, with firms. Better methods don’t get adopted when they run against employee self-interest. Evidence from Pakistani soccer ball production. Notable also because the authors actually invented a better soccer ball in their spare time.
  4. In Brazil, halving the cost of migration doubles internal migration. To estimate this, they use the effects of an ad hoc capital city and highway network. 

Highly recommended podcasts

In spite of me. I’ve been interviewed on one of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk:

Chris Blattman of Columbia University talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about a radical approach to fighting poverty in desperately poor countries: giving cash to aid recipients and allowing them to spend it as they please. Blattman shares his research and cautious optimism about giving cash and discusses how infusions of cash affect growth, educational outcomes, and political behavior (including violence). The conversation concludes with a discussion of the limits of aid and the some of the moral issues facing aid activists and researchers.

If you read my blog, you have heard it all before. So I actually recommend other episodes instead:

Random US-Brazil fact of the day

The Confederados were individuals from the U.S. Confederate states who left the American South and resettled in São Paulo, Brazil, immediately after the Civil War. Although the exact number of individuals is difficult to determine, between 2,000 and 4,000 emigrants are estimated to have participated in the movement between 1865 and 1875.

Leading researchers of the topic have identified 154 families that arrived in Brazil during this time, with 37 families being from Alabama. About half the total number eventually returned to the United States, whereas the remainder established themselves in their new homeland and went on to have a significant influence on local society.


You might think, “hey I could use this for an empirical paper on institutions!” Unfortunately for you, right now, somewhere in Cambridge Mass., Acemoglu and Robinson have hired a graduate RA, have come up with a better empirical strategy than yours, and (I predict) the paper will be on Daron’s website in three weeks.

It’s almost enough to make the rest of us give up. Maybe that’s why I left political economy and history for field experiments…

Links I liked

(Links fixed)

  1. I always believed that a handful of Californian counties produce nearly all our fruits and nuts, but I didn’t know it was real fruits and nuts.
  2. A Volkswagen Beetle compressed into a ball, from artist Ichwan Noor

  3. “It turns out the can’t-miss star who misses the N.B.A. can make a fair living in Algiers or in Halifax” 

  4. “A small metal shack with no electricity on a jetty does not seem like the kind of place frequented by Hamas” (or, further evidence Israel has lost the New York Times)

Science Magazine raises its statistical bar. Will we?

From the Editors of Science:

….unfortunately, there have been far too many cases where the quantitative analysis of those numbers has been flawed, causing doubt about the authors’ interpretation and uncertainty about the result. Furthermore, it is not realistic to expect that a technical reviewer, chosen for her or his expertise in the topical subject matter or experimental protocol, will also be an expert in data analysis.

For that reason, with much help from the American Statistical Association, Science has established, effective 1 July 2014, a Statistical Board of Reviewing Editors (SBoRE), consisting of experts in various aspects of statistics and data analysis, to provide better oversight of the interpretation of observational data.

…I have been amazed at how many scientists have never considered that their data might be presented with bias. There are fundamental truths that may be missed when bias is unintentionally overlooked, or worse yet, when data are “massaged.” Especially as we enter an era of “big data,” we should raise the bar ever higher in scrutinizing the analyses that take us from observations to understanding.

This is an important move. I would love to see medical journals do the same, where I think the problems are greater and the consequences for human welfare more immediate.

At the same time, if your research mainly deals with numbers, then I think it is time to expect people with substantive expertise to become better statisticians. They need this not only to produce better work, but to be effective users of what their peers produce. This cannot simply be exported to a committee in the top journal.

Raising the refereeing bar is going to get the incentives right, which is a step in the right direction. But something will need to change in graduate admissions requirements and training.

In particular, I think that a 21st century undergraduate degree in social science ought to require fluency in statistics. It’s such a fundamental part of science, medicine, social science, and even reading the newspaper. But even the Columbia’s and Yale’s of the world don’t impress this on their undergraduates, let alone require it. I’m a big supporter of the liberal arts education, but on the margin I’d substitute a couple courses in the humanities for statistics and causal inference.

What I’ve been reading (or short book reviews for busy people)

  1. Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and Its Demise in Mexico, by Beatriz Magaloni. An enlightening book. In brief: how countries with elections but de facto single parties (like, for many years, the PRI in Mexico) maintain power and lose it. This is a useful book for understanding weak autocracies, and how a good many countries have democratized over time. Some of the best insights are on why hegemonic parties try to build super-majorities of mass and elite support, and how they’re vulnerable to both growth and leader transitions.
  2. Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, by Peter Sahlins. A history of one of the oldest borders in Western Europe. Some fascinating bits include the fact that “natural” barriers like mountain ranges are not so natural or clear after all; the slow means by which people took on French or Spanish identities across some of the more arbitrarily cleaved valleys (including the slow emergence of Catalan identity); and the resemblance between France’s strategies in the 18th century to assimilate its periphery and China’s strategies in its periphery in the 21st.
  3. Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin. Novelistic account of the Aeneid (an early Latin epic poem) by one of the great science fiction writers, all told from the perspective of a minor female character. Good but not great.
  4. Mating, Whites, and Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush. Mating and Whites are two of my favorite books written on foreigners in Africa by a foreigner in Africa. Brilliant, satirical, and must-reads for the modern neocolonialist. I mean aid workers. I believe Rush ran the Peace Corps program in Botswana in the early 80s, and the novels draw on his experiences with absurd people and circumstances, I assume. Read the collection of short stories, Whites, first. Subtle Bodies is a new work about a bunch pompous, unsympathetic people who reunite in upstate New York. I couldn’t quite finish it, but it made me go back and reread the earlier novels with pleasure.
  5. The Battle for Spain, The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, by Anthony Beevor. This was recommended by several poeple when I went looking for engaging Spanish history. The book was a gatling gun of names and dates. Completely bewildering. I put it down quickly. Any other suggestions? I like my history to have a coherent narrative.

Just say no

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

That is Warren Buffett, quoted in Farnam Street.

I’m always delighted when something I’ve been doing is vindicated by brilliant people. (Statistically speaking, of course, once in a while I’m bound to do something right.)

Saying no is something I push on my colleagues and grad students, mostly unsuccessfully. I was forced to start it after (1) saying yes to too many projects, (2) starting a blog, and (3) having two children. (Having babies, it turns out, is also an excuse that people accept without question. Now that the youngest is 16 months, however, I will need to start coming up with new socially acceptable reasons for refusal.)

Now here’s the hard part: This rule doesn’t just mean turning down the good-but-not-great opportunities. It means saying no to terrific opportunities as well.

For instance, I stopped starting new field projects three years ago. No exceptions. I extended existing ones, but that’s it. In six weeks I won’t have a single survey or field experiment running anywhere in the world. Sweet bliss! It won’t last long, but I will enjoy it while it does.

Why? It keeps me sane. It also means I can get my current projects out in reasonable time. And it gives me space to think and to read and ponder big new projects. It is simply amazing how too many projects (especially field experiments and surveys) crowded out my ability to think.

Saying no is hardest for new scholars and professionals. For the first time, opportunities will start crossing your desk. They will do so with increasingly speed and quality. The trick is not to say yes to the first ones out of the sheer joy, novelty, and opportunity. It will crowd out better options just a few months down the road.

The only thing that gives me pause, however, is that the two projects that midway through I wished I’d said no to, turned out to be two of my best published papers. It’s hard to pick winners. So my addendum to Warren Buffett is this: “Very successful people might also know better what to say no to, but most of the time they are just very lucky.” So still say no, live a little less frantically, and your work will probably be better as a result.

The civilizing process, evidence from 150 years of British court transcripts

The jury trial is a critical point where the state and its citizens come together to define the limits of acceptable behavior. Here we present a large-scale quantitative analysis of trial transcripts from the Old Bailey that reveal a major transition in the nature of this defining moment.

…we demonstrate the emergence of semantically distinct violent and nonviolent trial genres. We show that although in the late 18th century the semantic content of trials for violent offenses is functionally indistinguishable from that for nonviolent ones, a long-term, secular trend drives the system toward increasingly clear distinctions between violent and nonviolent acts.

…This work provides a new window onto the cultural and institutional changes that accompany the monopolization of violence by the state, described in qualitative historical analysis as the civilizing process.

A new PNAS paper by Klingenstein, Hitchcock, and DeDeo.

I’m sincerely curious where text analysis will continue to take social science. Other examples welcome.

The political fallout of Brazil’s loss

From the Washington Post, governments may fall:

Elections are scheduled for later this year, and President Dilma Rousseff, while still ahead in the polls, may have real cause to lament the loss. The Brazilian government hedged its bets with the World Cup, hoping victory in the tournament could boost popular goodwill for the government and quieten the chorus of protesters, angry at wasteful spending and the country’s inability to provide much-needed improvements on infrastructure, health care and education.

You can bet that, by 6pm yesterday, dozens of political scientists and economists around the world thought to themselves: “How can I use this game as an empirical strategy?”


Strunk and White were CIA sources

The CIA has an internal writing style guide! Choice bits include:

  • regime: has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to democratically elected governments or, generally, to governments friendly to the United States.
  • tortuous (adj, twisting, devious, highly complex), torturous (adj, causing torture, cruelly painful)
  • number of: a phrase that is too imprecise in some contexts. A number of troops were killed. (If you do not know how many, say an unknown number.)
  • casualties: include persons injured, captured, or missing in action as well as those killed in battle. In formulating casualty statistics, be sure to write “killed or wounded,” not “killed and wounded.” (See injuries, casualties.)
  • nonconventional, unconventional: Nonconventional refers to high-tech weaponry short of nuclear explosives. Fuel-air bombs are effective nonconventional weapons. Unconventional means not bound by convention.Shirley Chisholm was an unconventional woman.
  • Free World: is at best an imprecise designation. Use only in quoted matter.

Full manual here. Full story from Michael Silverburg at Quartz.

Something I’ve noticed in my dealings with the US government and foreign service: People are incredibly smart and articulate, but the more senior they are, the more unintelligible they get. I sat through a 30 minute lunch talk recently and I swear he could have been just linking random words together. Diplomacy.

“The dream is the truth”

That’s the title of a superb humanitarian blog, equal parts angst, cynicism, and idealism.

One excerpt:

Somewhere in the offices of almost any humanitarian aid agency–typically on a manager’s wall, or in the entryway, or perhaps displayed prominently in meeting spaces, or on rare occasion tucked into a discrete binder–you will find a map.  The map may represent the country where the agency is working or may also be a district, region, or provincial map, depending on the size and location of the office.  The map will be marked somehow–perhaps pushpins for each of the villages or communities where the agency is working, often color-coded by project, or with areas shaded to show “coverage” of the agency’s work.  The more shading, the better.


A panel discussion in a windowless room; the air is stultifying.  Passionate and well-meaning experts dissect violence for us: they explain why girls with disabilities are more likely to be raped, or why older women’s experiences of violence often escape our humanitarian radars.  Hearing the concepts and the interventions and the services splayed so clinically, always by PowerPoint, I cannot help but feel disconnected from the pain.  Perhaps that is the point — are we numbing ourselves? 

As Tyler Cowen would say, it is “self-recommending”.

“We Just Ran Twenty-Three Million Queries of the World Bank’s Website”

That’s the title of a new paper by data guerrillas Dykstra, Dykstra, Sandefur:

Much of the data underlying global poverty and inequality estimates is not in the public domain, but can be accessed in small pieces using the World Bank’s PovcalNet online tool. To overcome these limitations and reproduce this database in a format more useful to researchers, we ran approximately 23 million queries of the World Bank’s web site, accessing only information that was already in the public domain. This web scraping exercise produced 10,000 points on the cumulative distribution of income or consumption from each of 942 surveys spanning 127 countries over the period 1977 to 2012. This short note describes our methodology, briefly discusses some of the relevant intellectual property issues, and illustrates the kind of calculations that are facilitated by this data set, including growth incidence curves and poverty rates using alternative PPP indices.