Arms trading and the one-night stand

Sadly the NBER doesn’t have a single development-related paper in their line-up this week, and so I turn to the BREAD site to see if anything new and interesting has popped up.

First up, is Surveying Migrant Households: A Comparison of Census-based, Snowball, and Intercept Point Surveys by McKenzie and Mistiaen. Reading this paper will undoubtedly be good for me, and crucial for my panel studies in Uganda, but it’s 6pm and I’m already feeling a bit exhausted.

Next up in the list is Is Vote Buying Effective? Evidence from a Field Experiment in West Africa by Vicente. Now this is neat–the results of a randomized campaign against vote buying in Sao Tome and Principe.

The eye catcher, however, is definitely Detecting Illegal Arms Trade by DellaVigna and La Ferrara.

Illegal arms are responsible for thousands of deaths in civil wars every year. Yet, their trade is very hard to detect. We propose a method to statistically detect illegal arms trade based on the investor knowledge embedded in financial markets. We focus on eight countries under UN arms embargo in the period 1990-2005, and analyze eighteen events during the embargo that suddenly increase or decrease conflict intensity…

My first impression upon reading this paper: there is no hope for me. Some people are very, very creative and very, very smart. Stefano and Eliana are among this crowd. Not only does this paper identify a very innovative way to identify what publicly-traded companies are trafficking in illegal arms, but (like all great papers) they keep talking the paper to the next level–developing a theory, moving from general analysis to the identification of specific companies trading illegally, and so on. Every section offers an intellectual leap.

My second impression: wait a second. What exactly have we learned from this paper? Where do we go from here? I can’t shake the feeling that this is the intellectual equivalent of a one-night stand. (This is partly because I chatted with Stefano about this paper in its formative stages and, well, for him it is a one night stand).

Increasingly I feel like one of the real limitations of applied economics (and development economics especially) is that a smart young academic has every incentive to write clever, one-off papers on new and unfamiliar subjects simply because s/he found a cute statistical strategy for estimating a causal relationship (often between two variables s/he has never explored before and may never investigate again).

Opportunism is not in itself a research vice–we can often answer best the questions for which the evidence is most available at that time. More and more I wonder if we take this too far, however. The opportunities to really explore a social phenomenon in depth is limited by our need to focus on questions where our particular tools apply, as well as by the disproportionate rewards associated with short, clever papers over longer treatises and bigger investments. While economists tread widely across the social sciences, vast areas of any one discipline (including our own) seem to remain unexplored in the absence of an instrumental variable.

Our current research approach has its merits, but I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far? I think the smart strategy for a young development economist might be to be sure not to get clobbered by the pendulum on its swing back.

One thought on “Arms trading and the one-night stand

  1. Interesting papers, thanks for the links.

    You make a good point about the rise of “one night stand economists”, I think it’s connected with the increasing popularity of Freakonomics. People love these quirky angles on topics that demonstrate that “all we know is wrong” or show us something cool.

    Levitt, Dubner, Oster, I’ve enjoyed reading what little I have read of their work, but I also am a bit sceptical about what someone called “contrarian economics”. Depth still matters!