IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

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  • The Kenyan government is threatening to close all refugee camps in the country, including Dadaab, the world’s largest, with 300,000 people.
  • Meanwhile, Der Spiegel uncovered a secret deal led by Germany with other EU states to pay Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on genocide charges, and other governments, to set up detention camps to keep refugees from reaching Europe. The program would be coordinated by GIZ, the German aid agency. (h/t Lee Crawfurd)
  • Congratulations to Chris Blattman on being named one of the top 100 bloggers in economics.
  • Uganda’s cities are growing rapidly, but they don’t have many urban planners to figure out how to lay out the sprawl well. (h/t Laura Seay)
  • SurveyCTO, the survey software that IPA and J-PAL use heavily, is introducing a free version for small non-profit M&E. (IPA also produced a whole series of case  studies, how-to’s, and resources for M&E here)
  • The Kenneth Arrow award for best health economics paper was awarded to Budish, Roin, & Williams’ AER paper which found that incentives in the research process are costing a lot of lives. Cancer trials favor testing treatments for patients with late stage cancer near the end of their lives, because outcomes (lengthening life) can be measured quickly, compared to early stage cancers. The authors estimate these incentives have led to 890,000 years of life lost just to patients diagnosed in one year. (Austin Frakt summarizes it in the Upshot.)
  • Nigerians have been dominating Scrabble championships by practicing a contrarian strategy developed by a mathematician. After millions of simulations, he figured out that while most players memorize long dictionary words with lots of letters to rack up points, a defensive strategy using short words with unusual letters like “Yow” would make life very difficult for their opponents.
  • If you’re writing a letter of recommendation, this tool will help you check for gender bias in your adjectives.

And this is from a while ago, but residents of Evanston, IL, the upscale home of Northwestern, opposed a long-term hotel, fearing an influx of “transient academics.” (Some nice comments.)

What if Dr. Seuss wrote Star Wars?

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Reddit has a writing competition. The top rated contribution begins:

A long time ago, and so far far away,

There was a rebellion in space, so they say!

That old Evil Empire was up to no good

They kidnapped a princess, you knew that they would!

And then with the might only money can buy,

They set out to make a Death Star, in the sky!

That dastardly Emperor!

That Scoundrel! That Fiend!

Could nobody stop him? Would no one intervene?

The solution to bad statistical code isn’t care, it’s standardized practice

After several years of testing other people’s statistical code at the QJPS, Nick Eubank blogs:

I myself once firmly believed the fallacy that the key to preventing errors was “to be more careful.” Indeed, I fear this belief may have colored the tone of of my past work on this subject in unproductive ways. Over the last few years, however, my research has brought me into close contact with computer scientists, and I discovered that computer scientists’ mentality about programming is fundamentally different from the mental model I had been carrying around. Computer scientists assume programmers will make mistakes, and instead of chiding people to “just be careful,” they have developed a battery of practices to address the problem. These practices — often referred to as “defensive programming” — are designed to (a) minimize the probability mistakes occur and (b) maximize the probability that mistakes that do occur are caught.

He suggests a number of basic defensive programming skills: (1) building formal tests into the code; (2) never manually transcribe numbers into your article text; (4) improve your style through indenting, commenting and spacing; and (5) never manually duplicating information. This seems helpful, but I’d like to see the more advanced suggestions too.

There was no point 3, which is either subversive or ironic. There are no cures for fallibility in blogging.

Update: Several readers point me to Matt Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro’s Code and Data for the Social Sciences: A Practitioner’s Guide.

Some amazing research positions in Liberia and Sierra Leone

IPA is looking for Research Coordinator in Sierra Leone to run a big study of how cognitive behavior therapy affects employment. I’m involved as an investigator, and it’s led by Theresa Betancourt at Harvard. We are looking for someone with an MA in a relevant field and some field research experience. IPA is also looking for a Research Manager in neighboring Liberia, a more senior position to oversee many projects.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

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  • In a new study in Science today Cilliers, Dube, & Siddiqi examine the effects of a post civil-war reconciliation program in Sierra Leone. The design of the program is a common one, where people involved on all sides of the conflict come together in their villages to talk about what they did or experienced, hopefully culminating in forgiving. Tracking people in 200 villages which were randomly assigned to the program or not for over two years, they found that it did increase forgiveness and social ties, but also increased psychological trauma for those who participated.  Rachel Glennerster co-authored an accompanying piece in Science and reviews the research for the Monkey Cage, the Science articles will also be free with registration to everybody for the next two weeks, links at the IPA summary.
  • In an excellent and non-technical post, David Evans asks Why don’t economists do cost analysis in their impact evaluations? If the point is to know which programs should be expanded, shouldn’t the price tag be part of the basic information? The Economist (the publication, not Evans) has an article you’d think would be well-received about the Copenhagen Consensus’ ranking of returns per dollar spent on different programs, but in a nice discussion on twitter today, Justin Sandefur and Rachel Glennerster point out they mix studies of very different quality.
  • Evidence Action announced this week they were going to be broadening one of the interventions on that list from Bangladesh, ‘No lean season.’ Many areas dependent on farming around the world run out of food from the last harvest before the new harvest comes in, leading to a hunger season. But in Bangladesh, previous research has found a bit of cash or credit (as low as $8) to help a family member travel to find seasonal work in a city increases income and food intake for the whole family. Evidence Action hopes to reach 310,000 low-income households in Northern Bangladesh in the next four years.
  • Last Sunday Germany had so much renewable energy prices went negative, meaning they had to pay people to use electricity.
  • The Indian government is trying to consolidate 200 government functions (such as passport applications, taxes, utility bills, and land titles) into a phone app to make them more accessible and less vulnerable to corruption.

It felt like all of the 9,000 people we follow on twitter have been talking about John Oliver’s episode on how scientific studies get overblown in the media. It’s worth watching till the bit at the end. Then go read the Washington Post article from a couple days later about how Tylenol reduces empathy (headline: “This popular painkiller also kills kindness”).

A warning to my mathematical friends: doing differential equations on a plane is now an act of terror

The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over.

…That Something she’d seen had been her seatmate’s cryptic notes, scrawled in a script she didn’t recognize. Maybe it was code, or some foreign lettering, possibly the details of a plot to destroy the dozens of innocent lives aboard American Airlines Flight 3950.

…The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.

The curly-haired man laughed.

He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or some other terrorist code. They were math.

Yes, math. A differential equation, to be exact.

Oh FFS.

Had the crew or security members perhaps quickly googled this good-natured, bespectacled passenger before waylaying everyone for several hours, they might have learned that he — Guido Menzio — is a young but decorated Ivy League economist. And that he’s best known for his relatively technical work on search theory, which helped earn him a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania and stints at Princeton and Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

They might even have discovered that last year he was awarded the Carlo Alberto Medal, given to the best Italian economist under 40. That’s right: He’s Italian, not Middle Eastern, or whatever heritage usually gets racially profiled on flights these days.

…Menzio showed the authorities his calculations and was allowed to return to his seat, he told me by email. He said the pilot seemed embarrassed. Soon after, the flight finally took off, more than two hours after its scheduled departure time for what would be just a 41-minute trip in the air, according to flight-tracking data.

The woman never reboarded to the flight, Menzio said. No one told him, though, whether she was barred from returning or stayed away voluntarily, out of embarrassment or continued fear of the “dangerous wizardry” his mathematical notations resembled.

Full story. Hat tip to @zeynep.

Admittedly, even I find a paper called The (Q;S;s) Pricing Rule terrifying.

Here is our nefarious scribbler:

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IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • One of the most interesting podcasts I’ve heard in a long time was Ezra Klein interviewing World Bank President Jim Kim (itunes, soundcloud). They covered a lot of ground, but most interesting for me was listening to him talk about what it was like doing his medical anthropology dissertation research as Korea was emerging as a wealthy nation.
    • He also talks about managing the World Bank and its reorganization, particularly the challenges of spreading isolated pockets of information across a big organization.
    • Having previously done humanitarian medical assistance, this job requires doing a lot more forecasting of what will be the world’s next problems. He thinks huge numbers of stunted children in low-income countries (impairing the cognitive development needed for higher education), should be treated as an emergency. Together with machines taking over the more labor-intensive jobs, even farming, he sees it as a recipe for disaster.
  • The also very good Dani Rodrik conversation with Tyler Cowen (read or listen), opened with a similar concern he calls “premature deindustrialization” – what happens to low-income countries when mechanization and cheap imports eliminate the need for the industrial jobs that have been the foundation for growth in other countries?
  • The new issue of JEP has several articles about inequalities in different areas. With the Rio Olympics coming up, one article finds that most cities lose money on hosting the Olympics, but it’s even worse for developing countries (h/t Matt Collin).
  • A new study finds nine years and $1.4 billion spent by the U.S. government to prevent HIV through abstinence education in 14 African countries does not appear to have had an effect. Fortunately, we’re down from spending $250 million a year on these programs to just $40 million.
  • David Evans has a nice “Impact Evaluations 101” explanation on the Gov Innovator podcast, which is a great resource for non-technical types who want to understand the different types of evaluations. In 20 minutes he covers randomized controlled trials, regression discontinuity, and difference-in-differences analyses, all in very accessible language.

 

Links I liked

  1. Saudi Arabia gives women the right to a copy of their marriage contract
  2. Libyan insurgents are funded by… blood poultry
  3. A letter from George H.W. Bush to the New York Times assuring the editor none of their reporters are US spies
  4. The kind of Ivy League giving I can get behind: Stanford’s business school offers fellowship for African students
  5. This is why whites are called Caucasians
  6. Our presumptive Presidential candidate and this:

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“I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers”

Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

…I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.

Full piece in McSweeneys.

To my current students: Blogging something is not an endorsement of it’s content. Except, of course, when it is so true.

Graphic novels I read (and recommend)

A combination of recommendations from an Ezra Klein and Rachel Maddow podcast, plus conversations with Scott Ashworth (who has an encyclopedic knowledge plus infectious enthusiasm for the comic) led me to a couple dozen graphic novels in the past few months. The best, in order:

  1. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. Melodramatic teenager meets fantasy/sci-fi/comedy mashup. Won a “best book” recognition from just about every periodical you could name. Well deserved.
  2. Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine. Tales of humiliation and disappointment in people’s everyday lives. The graphic novel equivalent of a collection of sad short stories. That was a compliment.
  3. Queen & Country by Greg Rucka. If John Le Carre wrote a graphic novel, this might be what it looks like.
  4. Saga by Bryan Vaughan and Fiona Staples. A space opera. If you like space operas you will like this.
  5. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd. I’d never read the anarchist classic and finally did, and loved it.
  6. Mind Mgmt by Matt Kindt. Conspiracy theories meet spy novel meet the paranormal.

I also enjoyed We3, Prophet, and Feynman, but not enough to recommend them so strongly.

More recommendations welcome.

Can raising labor standards and wages increase sweatshop productivity?

One day late for May Day.

About half the world’s soccer balls are made in one city in Pakistan, Sialkot. So what happens if you invent a better ball design and offer it freely to all factories?

we gave out the new dies randomly to 35 of the 135 producers in Sialkot and sat back to watch. The first surprise was that few firms adopted the new die, despite indications that it was yielding more pentagons per sheet. We asked owners why not. Their number one answer: employee resistance. The vast majority of cutters in Sialkot are paid piece rates (usually per ball), and our new die was slowing them down, at least initially. Without changes to this scheme, the cutters bore the increased labor cost and saw none of the much larger benefits of reducing waste of material. Figuring that their earnings would decline, the cutters were trying to block adoption, in part by misinforming owners about the benefits of the technology.

That’s Eric Verhoogen writing in Harvard Business Review about his study, with coauthors, of barriers to technology adoption in Pakistan.

The one place that adopted it was the Nike-supplying factory with salaries and a higher wage bill. In a second experiment, they show that insuring workers against the losses from technology change increased adoption.

Black lives matter, economic history edition

I use the individual-level records from my own family in rural Mississippi to estimate the agricultural productivity of African Americans in manual cotton picking nearly a century after Emancipation, 1952-1965.

That is from Trevon Logan’s Presidential address to the National Economics Association.

Partly he calculates the productivity of his sharecropping ancestors relative to slave holding estates a century before (a persistent question in American economic history). But mainly he makes an argument for doing more qualitative interviews, which seems like an obvious point, except that systematic qualitative work is the exception in economic history (as it is in development economics).

That richer, fuller picture reveals that the work behind the estimates came to define the way that the Logan children viewed racial relations, human capital, savings, investment, and nearly every aspect of their lives. We learn not only about the picking process itself, but that chopping cotton may have been the most physically taxing aspect of the work. Similarly, the sale of cotton seed during the picking season was an important source of revenue for the family, and yet this economic relationship with the landowner was outside of the formal sharecropping contract. We also learn that it is impossible to divorce the work from its social environment{ an era in which Jim Crow, segregation, and other elements of overt racial oppression were a fact of life. Although none of the children has picked cotton in more than forty years, this experience continues to govern their daily lives and the way they interact with the world around them. Rather than being an item of the past, the work recorded in the cotton picking books continues to be a salient factor in their current economic decision-making.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

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  • A few weeks ago I wrote about how the media often stumbles in reporting new research findings particularly about replications. SciDev.net now has a nice guide for reporters (or any non-expert) on how to read science press releases and the papers behind them, and then how to report them.
  • Schilbach finds financial incentives encourage sobriety among rickshaw drivers in India, and also encouraged savings (if I’m reading it right). Participants were even willing to sacrifice money in exchange for the sobriety incentives (e.g. using it as tool to help them cut down on drinking). Yikes to the graph above.
  • How to get tenure if you’re a woman has advice that probably applies to many careers (h/t Emily Oster).
  • I’ve been enjoying in the NYTimes mag “Lives” series, first-person stories from people in other countries, like this one from Colombia about stumbling into the middle of a military/guerilla shootout as a kid, or navigating the Brazilian healthcare system.
  • Hernando de Soto is working with the Republic of Georgia and a Bitcoin company to use a blockchain, the kind of distributed public database that keeps track of who owns which Bitcoin, to record and track land titles and make them less vulnerable to corruption or mismanagement.
  • I mentioned a few months ago that a Cambridge Ph.D. student studying labor movements in Egypt was abducted, tortured, and killed. The government has finally filed a criminal complaint – against the Reuters journalist who reported the story.
  • A paper finds New York teachers are manipulating scores (PDF) on the Regents Exams required for high school graduation, and this benefits minority students. (h/t Justin Sandefur).
  • Marc Bellemare offers links to useful Stata cheatsheets (h/t Dev Impact).

If you have a co-worker you don’t like, do what my co-worker did. Hand them printout of this viz on 8 1/2 x11. (Source)

90 year life in weeks

How causal identification was born in economics

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A simply fantastic interview with Berkeley’s David Card and Princeton’s Alan Krueger on the Equitable Growth blog:

Card: Right. And you mentioned research design. I remember Alan was an assistant professor and I was a professor at Princeton and Alan sat next to me. And he, for some reason, got a subscription to the New England Journal of Medicine. (Laughter.) And —

Zipperer: Intentionally?

Krueger: Yeah. I loved reading the New England Journal of Medicine.

Card: Yeah. And the New England Journal would come in every week, so there was a lot of stuff to read. And the beginning of each article would have “research design.”

Krueger: And “methods.”

Card: Yes, and if you’ve never seen that before and you were educated as an economist in the 1970s  or 1980s, that just didn’t make any sense. What is research design? And I remember one time I said, “I don’t think my papers have a research design.”

And so that whole set of terms entered economics as a result of those kinds of changes in orientation. But I would say that another thing that happened was that Bob LaLonde got a pretty good job and his paper got a lot of attention. And then Josh Angrist, again following up a suggestion from Orley to look at the Vietnam draft—that paper got a lot of attention. And it looked like there was a market, in a way, for this new style of work. It’s not like we were trying to sell something that no one wanted. There was actually a market out there generally, in the labor economics field, at least.

And now it has been fetishized. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But then I was raised in the cult.

I wonder if interviews like these predict the apocalypse? Something is just so dominant, it looks like it can never fall. And suddenly it does.

Hat tip to Suresh Naidu.

What happens when native Americans pay themselves unconditional cash from casino profits?

The profits — amounting to $150 million in 2004 and growing to nearly $400 million in 2010 — enabled the tribe to build a new school, hospital, and fire station. However, the lion’s share of the takings went directly into the pockets of the 8,000 men, women, and children of the Eastern Band Cherokee tribe. From $500 a year at the outset, their earnings from the casino quickly mounted to $6,000 in 2001, constituting a quarter to a third of the average family income.

As coincidence would have it, a Duke University professor by the name of Jane Costello had been researching the mental health of youngsters south of the Great Smoky Mountains since 1993.

…Soon after the casino opened, Costello was already noting huge improvements for her subjects. Behavioral problems among children who had been lifted out of poverty went down 40%, putting them in the same range as their peers who had never known privation. Juvenile crime rates among the Cherokee also declined, along with drug and alcohol use, while their school scores improved markedly. At school, the Cherokee kids were now on a par with the study’s non-tribal participants.

Full news article.

From Costello’s paper with my friend Randall Akee, and coauthors:

An additional $4,000 per year for the poorest households increases educational attainment by one year at age 21, and reduces the chances of committing a minor crime by 22 percent for 16 and 17 year olds. Our evidence suggests improved parental quality is a likely mechanism for the change.

“White Savior Barbie”, a $25 portable standing desk, and other links I liked

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  1. The story on White Savior Barbie, Ken Opalo’s advice of volunteering, and my own posts on development tourism
  2. A Kickstarter for an ultra-affordable standing desk (I donated)
  3. If you’re at all interested in why people say blogging is dead, why rumors of its death is premature, and the economics of blogging in 2016, you’ll enjoy Ezra Klein’s interview with Ben Thompson
  4. In addition to updating his regular CV, Princeton’s Johannes Haushofer has started his CV of failures
  5. Saumitra Jha’s PhD syllabus for Political Economy of Development (if you don’t know him or his work then you are missing out)