Can you imagine a modern New York where several million people move apartments every May 1st?

From the pre-Revolutionary period until World War II, tenants in New York City were uniformly given three months’ notice of annual rent increases on February 1 (known as Rent Day). Many then sought cheaper deals, and when all leases expired on May 1 (called Moving Day) as many as a million residents changed houses in what amounted to a single mass migration.

Lately there’s been another, more specialized real estate frenzy afoot in America’s largest city. Its most visible manifestations concern the world’s very richest people.

An NYRB article on New York’s hyper-luxury tower boom.

We interrupt this lovefest for Lee Kwan Yew with this important message

No, I’m not going to complain about the whitewashing of an authoritarian regime. I’m used to people trading off someone else’s freedom for GDP growth. Or forgetting that for every transformative dictator there are many more who take the country down the toilet.

Rather, I want to highlight this point from political scientist Tom Pepinsky:

The coverage of Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew consistently emphasizes a theme of rapid economic development in an inauspicious context, encapsulated by the slogan “From Third World to First.”

…Now, no one should doubt that Lee Kuan Yew was a developmentalist statebuilder par excellence. But Singapore at independence a third-world country? This narrative neglects the incredible legacy of openness, infrastructure, and stability that the British rule left this tiny country.

The graph below says it all. For every year since 1945, I have ranked all independent countries by real per capita GDP, the best measure we have of economic prosperity. I then normalize these to a percentile scale. Here is what we get.


…Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time.

True, Lee Kwan Yew started governing a few years before Independence from Malaysia, where we don’t have data. Conceivably the green line starts at Indonesia levels in 1959 and goes vertical before the observed data come in. Conceivably.

I invite the Singapore experts to weigh in. Miracles do happen. Like most miracles, however, this one might be mythical.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action.

In case you missed it last week, Chris is letting Innovations for Poverty Action (where he’s a Research Affiliate) share our internal weekly links on his blog, we presume so he can spend time looking for an even more progressive daycare for his kids.

  • From our blog: Development March Madness brackets for all the evaluation superfans out there.
  • Bill Gates argues in the New York Times that as bad as Ebola has been, the next crisis will be worse. Among other things, we have very bad disease tracking systems (IPA’s working on it), and we shouldn’t assume affected countries will be open to US military personnel helping next time. He argues that we could easily be building in vaccines and disease surveillance into existing efforts to improve health infrastructures.
  • Pacific Standard Magazine discusses how hard it is to get good estimates of the economic impact of Ebola (though we did help collect what little good data there is), and wonders if fear mongering made things worse.
  • Two new Gates Foundation challenges: one on better collection of financial services data, another for inexpensive mobile payment systems for merchants in low income areas. A two-page application for $100,000, potentially followed by a million for good ideas.
  • Freakonomics has a nice interview with Katherine Milkman of Wharton on her research around “Temptation Bundling,” a cousin of commitment devices, and a way of getting yourself to do something you know you should but don’t want to do. The trick is a rule pairing it with something you do like, such as only watching your favorite show while exercising. They also talk about the “fresh start effect,” why people time new commitments to particular calendar times.
  • This past week’s New York Times Book Review was dedicated to all things financial and economic (scroll down to “the secret life of money”). One book by a Financial Times reporter argues that impressive economic growth in many African countries masks huge inequality, chronicling how extractive industries bribe those at the top. There’s also one on Islamic finance, for anyone who wants a quick intro.
  • New working paper draft from Jayachandran & Pande, (with slightly changed title) “Why Are Indian Children So Short?” (PDF). They look at the height gap between 174,000 Indian and Sub-Saharan African children, and give three ways the data suggests preferences for sons in India, particularly firstborn sons.
  • In this coming weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson Debunks the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant:

The chief logical mistake we make is something called the Lump of Labor Fallacy: the erroneous notion that there is only so much work to be done and that no one can get a job without taking one from someone else.

He explains that in reality (at least for the US), most economists now believe that immigrants take low skilled jobs, moving native English speakers into higher paying jobs, while lowering overall costs for employers, and they also increasing the size of the population who is buying goods and services (h/t Michael Clemens).

  • Vox says every medical study you’ve heard of is probably wrong, because the publication process and media favor sensational positive outliers that rarely live up to replication. A dot plot shows the findings around 8 common foods that apparently both prevent and cause cancer.

  • One potential solution is hypothesis preregistration. On the Development Impact blog, rising star Ben Ozler looks at the pros and cons of preregistration. It creates a lot of later constraints and several kinds of lost opportunities that could come up later as study/analysis design evolves, while not always preventing fishing. Conclusion is that we’re in an in-between time as norms are developed for how tightly we’re going to hold researchers to their original plans.

And your bonus: Indians try American sweets for the first time

“’Do you guys have this every day??”

Links I liked

  1. Obama floated the idea of mandatory voting. John Sides says it won’t make a difference.
  2. X-Files is returning to Fox for 6 episodes
  3. Not The Onion: George Zimmerman compares himself to Anne Frank, blames Obama for his woes. Anne Frank!
  4. “Professors, what is the simplest thing students do which gets them your respect or annoys you to death?” (A Reddit thread)
  5. IPA Liberia has an open research position
  6. Children responding to the question: “What do you think being a grown up is like?”
  7. An unfortunate Georgia university course catalog cover (via @TimHarford).20-university-north-georgia-catalog.w529.h3521

“Bankspeak” (or, Orwellian development)

What can quantitative linguistic analysis tell us about the operations and outlook of the international financial institutions? At first glance, the words most frequently used in the World Bank’s Annual Reports give an impression of unbroken continuity. Seven are near the top at any given time: three nouns—bank, loan/s, development—and four adjectives: fiscal, economic, financial, private. This septet is joined by a handful of other nouns: IBRD, countries, investment/s, interestprogramme/s, project/s, assistance, and—though initially less frequent—lending, growth, cost, debttrade, prices.

…And yet, behind this façade of uniformity, a major metamorphosis has taken place. Here is how the Bank’s Report described the world in 1958:

The Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade, and is based on river navigation and on railroads which lead from river ports into regions producing minerals and agricultural commodities. Most of the roads radiate short distances from cities, providing farm-to-market communications. In recent years road traffic has increased rapidly with the growth of the internal market and the improvement of farming methods.

And here is the Report from half a century later, in 2008:

Levelling the playing field on global issues

Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.

It’s almost another language, in both semantics and grammar. The key discontinuity, as we shall see, falls mostly between the first three decades and the last two, the turn of the 1990s, when the style of the Reports becomes much more codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language. It is this Bankspeak that will be the protagonist of the pages that follow.


This recurrent transmutation of social forces into abstractions turns the World Bank Reports into strangely metaphysical documents, whose protagonists are often not economic agents, but principles—and principles of so universal a nature, it’s impossible to oppose them. Levelling the playing field on global issues: no one will ever object to these words (although, of course, no one will ever be able to say what they really mean, either).

That is Franco Moretti and Dominque Pestre in the New Left Review. Well worth reading.

The delicious irony is that the article is written in the dense, jargon-filled prose of literary criticism mingled with Marxist thought. So sometimes I have no idea what they’re saying.

A plea, then, for people to write in simple plain prose, free of jargon.

It also suggests a more mundane explanation for bad Bank reports, which might also explain badly-written literary criticism: bureaucracies (and academic disciplines) get big and decrepit over time. And obscure language preserves the insider privilege and makes mediocre work more difficult to judge.

Hat tip to David Evans.

Economics has an Africa problem?

A couple of months ago, Grieve Chelwa, a PhD student in South Africa, wrote a much-tweeted and blogged post about Economics’ Africa problem. A huge number of scholars produce a huge amount of research about Africa. Most of them are not African born or Africa based. Most conferences are held in the US or Europe. And the major development journals have almost no representation of African born or based scholars.

More meetings in Africa would be a good thing. Probably this is a question of willpower and cost, both of which have relatively simple solutions. But I can’t really see these accomplishing much. It strikes me a distraction.

The deeper problem is the absence of well-funded universities in Africa, and the fact that the best funded research universities don’t get that many African-born applicants. There are other barriers and problems, of course, but it’s hard to argue that inputs don’t matter.

Take African universities. Most governments don’t see these are important areas for investment, and they don’t have the taxes to support them. Aid donors could fill the gap, but find me a top ten aid donor that cares. Free primary education has sucked up all the air in this space.

For all the good that a focus on extreme poverty and Millennium Development Goals have done, it’s turned most aid donors away from indirect paths to growth and development, such as investing in the institutions that train the engineers, bureaucrats, doctors and accountants of the developing world. It’s hard to have an effective state or an industrial revolution without these ingredients.

As a result, if you happen to be an Africa-based scholar, chances are your teaching load is overwhelming, your research resources are nil, and your students have nothing at all.

You would think this would send young African scholars flooding to the West. To some extent it does. But take Columbia’s political science program as an example (which isn’t economics but I have the statistics at hand). We have three faculty specializing in Africa, and a ton of students, making it one of the best places in the US to study African political economy.

Even so, of about 500 applications to the PhD program this year, only 1.5% were from African-born students—fewer than I can count on my hands. We accept less than 10% of applicants, all of whom get full funding (including a stipend). Even with heavy attention to admitting underrepresented groups, most years we get zero or perhaps one admitted African student. We would take more, but the poor state of many African universities means that few people have the training to succeed in the program, even with some help and extra attention.

Concrete steps I could see happening:

  • One or two of the big donors, such as the World Bank or DFID, taking a third of the billions pointlessly spent on business or vocational training programs every year (not one of which has ever passed a cost benefit test when evaluated) and directing it to general university development. Or scholarships. Some evaluations here would be interesting.
  • Donors paying more attention to startups like the African School of Economics, started by Princeton’s Leonard Wantchekon. If I were a donor, I would invest heavily.
  • Professional organizations like AEA or APSA extending the mentoring and catchup and funding programs that they have developed for American minorities and women, and extending these to people from the least developed countries.
  • More research donors, like 3ie already does, providing incentives for projects to include scholars or students from low income countries.

My first instinct, when I see a problem, is not to jump to the supply-side, centralized, donor driven solution. In this case, however, I think science and the university has a good track record of benefiting from the first few, and even the last few, public dollars. But I am interested to hear other perspectives because I don’t really know what I’m talking about on this subject.

Links I liked

  1. Offensive lineman for Baltimore Ravens publishes in math journals in his spare time
  2. The science of empathy and why we hate our enemies
  3. Story: I, Robot by Cory Doctorow
  4. If “heterogeneous treatment effects” is something you do, read this
  5. The final sequence in Return of the Jedi, without Ewoks
  6. Andy Weir, author of “The Martian” soon to be a movie, tweeted this picture
  7. Amazon will begin testing delivery drones outdoors
  8. African scholars interested in field experiments might consider this EGAP event in Accra

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action.

Chris has generously offered to let us at IPA (where he’s a Research Affiliate) share the internal links of interest on development and research we send around weekly here, we presume so Chris can devote more time to making us feel bad about how little outside reading the rest of us do. (Direct your disagreement tweets to @poverty_action, not Chris)

  • There’s a new China-led development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The U.S. has asked European countries not to join, but Britain, Germany, France and Italy (and potentially Australia) are:

The United States has argued that the bank at best duplicates, and at worst undermines, the role of the Washington-based World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which has its headquarters in the Philippines, a close American ally at odds with Beijing over the South China Sea.

  • The US House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing this week on effectiveness of US Foreign Aid. Here’s my screenshot of what the hearing room looked like:

Embedded image permalink (Archived video of the hearing is here)

“The toughest moment was 12:01 Sunday night, moments after the challenge began,” Carey wrote. “It felt like hours had passed, but I looked down and realized I was less than halfway through a single song. That’s when I realized the gravity of my decision. I hit rock bottom within a minute of the challenge beginning.”

We thought about it, but there are some things the human subjects committee won’t let us do.

Shakespeare in Tehran

Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean scholar, tells the tale of his invited lecture at the University of Tehran:

Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare’s imaginative and verbal powers—his fancy, his notions, and his expressions—is familiar enough and, of course, perfectly just. But I proposed to focus for a moment on terms that seem at first more like a personality assessment: “honest, and of an open and free nature.” That assessment, I suggested, was also and inescapably a political one. Here is how I continued:

Late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth- century England was a closed and decidedly unfree society, one in which it was extremely dangerous to be honest in the expression of one’s innermost thoughts. Government spies carefully watched public spaces, such as taverns and inns, and took note of what they heard. Views that ran counter to the official line of the Tudor and Stuart state or that violated the orthodoxy of the Christian church authorities were frequently denounced and could lead to terrible consequences. An agent of the police recorded the playwright Christopher Marlowe’s scandalously anti-Christian opinions and filed a report, for the queen of England was also head of the church. Marlowe was eventually murdered by members of the Elizabethan security service, though they disguised the murder as a tavern brawl. Along the way, Marlowe’s roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, was questioned under torture so severe that he died shortly after.

To be honest, open, and free in such a world was a rare achievement. We could say it would have been possible, even easy, for someone whose views of state and church happened to correspond perfectly to the official views, and it has certainly been persuasively argued that Shakespeare’s plays often reflect what has been called the Elizabethan world-picture. They depict a hierarchical society in which noble blood counts for a great deal, the many-headed multitude is easily swayed in irrational directions, and respect for order and degree seems paramount.

…How could Shakespeare get away with it? The answer must in part be that Elizabethan and Jacobean society, though oppressive, was not as monolithic in its surveillance or as efficient in its punitive responses as the surviving evidence sometimes makes us think. Shakespeare’s world probably had more diversity of views, more room to breathe, than the official documents imply.

There is, I think, another reason as well, which leads us back to why after four hundred years and across vast social, cultural, and religious differences Shakespeare’s works continue to reach us. He seems to have folded his most subversive perceptions about his particular time and place into a much larger vision of what his characters repeatedly and urgently term their life stories. We are assigned the task of keeping these stories alive, and in doing so we might a find a way, even in difficult circumstances, to be free, honest, and open in talking about our own lives.

Hat tip to Kaushik Basu.

Half of Ferguson’s African American men are missing

An important but unreported indicator of Ferguson’s dilemma is that half of young African American men are missing from the community.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while there are 1,182 African American women between the ages of 25 and 34 living in Ferguson, there are only 577 African American men in this age group.  In other words there are more than two young black women for each young black man in Ferguson.  The problem of missing black men extends to other age groups.  More than 40% of black men in both the 20 to 24 and 35 to 54 age groups in Ferguson are missing.

It is worth noting that there are approximately equal numbers of African American boys and girls, under the age of 20, in Ferguson (2,332 boys and 2,341 girls).  What has happened to young African American men in Ferguson?  There are several possibilities.  First, the Census counts only the civilian population, and excludes individuals serving in the Armed Forces.  Second, tragically, some of these young men have already died.  Third, Census figures do not include individuals who are incarcerated at the time of the survey.  Finally, the Census Bureau may undercount homeless men, men who are marginally attached to the community, and men who are primarily engaged in criminal behavior.

That is Stephen Broners, with the hat tip to (meaning stolen wholesale from) Tyler Cowen.

Knausgaard does America, part II

The Norwegian/Swedish writer finishes his mini-saga in the New York Times Magazine.

A nice excerpt starts with language difficulties in Michigan, which remind him of his early years in Sweden:

In those early years, every time I met people from Norway, I felt relief. They only had to say a few sentences, and at once I could place them geographically and socially and address them accordingly. When I was still living in Norway, I wasn’t even aware that this kind of knowledge existed, it was entirely intuitive and obvious, just part of what being Norwegian entailed, and my easy access to this whole subconscious mountain of implicit knowledge and shared references was probably what it meant to have a national identity.

Once, I mentioned this to a Swedish woman. She looked indignantly at me. “But those are just prejudices!” she said. “You’re judging people before you’ve even spoken to them! It’s much better not to know all those things, so that you can make up your own opinion about them. We’re individuals, not representatives of a culture!”

That is the most Swedish thing anyone has ever said to me.

What is culture, if not a set of prejudices? A set of unformulated and unconscious rules and ways of behavior that every member of a given society nonetheless immediately recognizes and accepts?

Nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America. More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness, that every place had the same hotels, the same restaurants, the same stores. And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home.

Not The Onion (reincarnation edition)

The Chinese government is outraged after the Dalai Lama suggested he might not reincarnate.

“Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China,” said Mr. Zhu, formerly a deputy head of the United Front Department of the Communist Party, which oversees dealings with religious and other nonparty groups.

Is there value in an MA in economics?

From Tyler Cowen, it will help you climb the government or NGO bureaucracy, sends good signals to the job market, and you will actually learn something of value.

I agree that MAs in economics are under-provided relative to the UK and Canada. But I think there are some good reasons for this. I have a few points to add:

  • Any answer should consider the opportunity cost: what you could do with $100k (or more) and two years of your life.
  • “Trip around the world” could be a lifetime happiness-maximizing answer. Consider it and other non-school alternatives carefully: Peace Corps, working for a foreign corporation or government abroad, and other experiences that will enrich you and set you apart.
  • But if education and a career in the public service is on your mind, then my sense is that (in the US) a good policy school MA program can be better than one in economics for a few reasons:
    • My sense is that the core faculty in policy schools have more incentives to teach and advise MPAs than at a top research university, where they typically prioritize PhDs and undergrads before MAs.
    • You can still have core training in economics. But you will have to force yourself to take hard courses.
    • My sense is you will develop a better professional network in a policy school.

Other past advice of relevance;


The love-hate relationship between political scientists and House of Cards

I’m working through a number of different theories about why “House of Cards” is so profoundly wrong about American politics while still being a rather entertaining and addictive show. Maybe it’s actually a comedy. Maybe it’s being written by an evil political scientist who knows full well how the American political system works but is aggressively (and most effectively) trolling other political scientists.

Seth Masket in the Monkey Cage.

I completely agree: fantastically unrealistic politics, incredibly entertaining.

My rule of thumb: any political show, spy novel, or detective story with a devious and complicated plan that comes to fruition was written by someone who has never, ever tried to implement a devious complicated plan.

This reminds me of an earlier post on the best television on Washington DC.