IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Why Poverty is Like a Disease” looks at epigenetics and how poverty interacts with one’s own biological development. It’s well written, by someone who describes what it was like growing up poor and how hard it was to escape. (h/t David Batcheck)
  • Our World in Data asks “How Much Will it Cost to Mitigate Climate Change?”
  • Some nice news via Dina Pomeranz: globally deaths from diarrheal disease fell by a third between 2005 and 2015. Researchers attribute much of the drop to the development of a vaccine, but also say good sanitation is key.
    • An interesting process story behind a current sanitation RCT; A design firm talks about the process for coming up with a handwashing station appropriate for use in rural Kenya. They describe how they couldn’t just drop in what they thought was a clever design because it kept failing, and how they kept going back to the drawing board. (8,000-person RCT results coming soon)
  • Poachers are targeting newly discovered rare species apparently by reading the scientific papers that describe where to find them.
  • The Freakonomics podcast asks “Are The Rich Really Less Generous Than the Poor?” (as posited by previous lab experiments). They discuss a field experiment in the Netherlands in which the researchers left people fake misaddressed letters with cash (or the equivalent of a check, which could only be redeemed by the person named). Economist Jan Stoop dressed in a fake postal uniform and dropped them in mailboxes in rich and poor households to see if the recipients would re-mail them to the intended destination. Going against conventional wisdom, the rich returned the letters more often, but this gap was entirely explained by a mental scarcity model, which is based on the body of research showing how the pressures of poverty can sap mental bandwidth. The farther away in the month from pay period the poor were (when presumably money was tighter and pressures of life greater), the less often they took the time to re-mail the envelopes.
  • The authors mention in the Freakonomics episode that they decided to add time from paycheck as a covariate based on a chance comment from an audience member at a talk. A new meta-analysis of studies in the American Journal of Political Science finds covariates can make all the difference:


    In almost 40% of observational studies, we find that researchers achieve conventional levels of statistical significance through covariate adjustments. Although that discretion may be justified, researchers almost never disclose or justify it.


    That they were able to discover this seems to have come down to one editor’s decision (h/t Ryan Briggs):

Our analysis is possible because the American Journal of Political Science (AJPS), a leading political science journal, began enforcing the posting of replication data and code. In practice, then Editor Rick Wilson would not proceed with the copyediting of accepted papers until the authors posted their data to Dataverse. We therefore analyze AJPS volumes 56-59 (2012-2015).


And a reminder about those “most in each state” maps from XKCD:


IPA’s weekly links



  • World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer is giving up some of his management duties, in part due to frictions over trying to get researchers to communicate better, pressuring them to create shorter presentations and use fewer run-on sentences (like this one). Bloomberg and FT’s reports seem gossipy and read like only part of the story. Romer has responded with a post on his personal blog, and offered a public mirror of the internal blog he uses to communicate with World Bank staff.
    • Taking on global poverty and trying to get economists to communicate clearly seems ambitious. But from my experience in both areas I have faith there’s a solution out there to the first.
  • If you’re doing any traveling this weekend, some podcasts:
    • The two Planet Money episodes on how the biggest shock in modern currency, surprise demonetization, happened in India. Turns out it was the brainchild of an engineer who just sold his idea relentlessly for years with a powerpoint of cartoons and got to PM Modi early on (Part 1, Part 2, or iTunes episodes 770 & 771).
    • If you’re in the humanitarian relief world – Tiny Spark talks with a veteran aid worker and a psychologist who specializes in aid workers on how to avoid burnout. One of the most interesting things was how much bad management contributes to aid worker demoralization. (iTunes)
    • Tyler Cowen talks with Raj Chetty (web or iTunes)
  • On that last one (getting back to World Bank) – it’s worth noting Cowen and Chetty both attribute some of the success of Chetty’s papers to the attention his group pays to the writing. He explains that it takes many revisions that go into writing it in a way that makes circuitous methods accessible:

    CHETTY: That is our strategy. I think the other thing that’s extremely important is, we spend a lot of time on trying to achieve clarity. There are ways to write papers in economics that are more accessible to the public and thereby have greater  impact, and there are ways to write papers that are more technically oriented and narrow the set of readers.

  • Two job opportunities:
  • Rachel Glennerster and Mary Ann Bates have a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about how to decide if a successful program will work in another context. They propose four steps:
    • Step 1: What is the disaggregated theory behind the program?
    • Step 2: Do the local conditions hold for that theory to apply?
    • Step 3: How strong is the evidence for the required general behavioral change?
    • Step 4: What is the evidence that the implementation process can be carried out well?

On the Development Impact Blog, David Evans walks through applying those steps to decide whether a technology-aided teaching program that worked in urban India would also work in rural Tanzania.

  • Also in the same issue of SSIR, Blattman, Faye, Karlan, Niehaus, and Udry have a straightforward piece (written for the general public) on what we know and still need to find out about just giving the poor cash.

And the award for best RAs of the year goes to the ones on this Argentina study that found having someone else in a public bathroom increased urinal flushing and hand washing:

Researchers first identified three male restrooms that allowed observers to reliably hear whether a user flushed the urinal and washed his hands. For each user who entered the restroom, researchers alternated assignment between the treatment and comparison group. When a treatment group-assigned individual entered the restroom, an observer entered the restroom eight seconds afterwards and placed himself at another urinal. The observer acted as another user of the restroom without flushing the urinal or washing his hands and stayed in the restroom until the participant left. For individuals assigned to the comparison group, the observer waited outside the restroom and listened to determine whether the participant flushed the urinal and/or washed his hands. To avoid any possible influence by a third party, observers excluded instances when other people were also using the restroom.

Wonder if the RAs were trained in physics.

Final lecture: Order & Violence

Screenshot 2017-05-22 14.21.24

There were supposed to be 10 weeks to the quarter but turns out UChicago doesn’t do a makeup day for Memorial Day! So some major surgery later, my last two lectures fit into one. This is just as well because I don’t know that much about democratization.

Thanks to everyone for the comments and suggestions over the quarter. One of these days, maybe soon, I would like to write this up into a book. So critical comments are valuable.

My syllabus is here and the slides are here:

  • Week 9 – Democracy promotion & wrap-up
  • Week 8 – State building without war making
  • Week 7 – Armed interventions
  • Week 6 – Legacies of Imperialism and post-colonial politics
  • Week 5 – The State and Society
  • Week 4 – Institutions
  • Week 3 – State development
  • Week 2 – Conflict
  • Week 1 – The demand for order

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Injectable birth control

  • An attempt to measure and rank the most effective ways to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere ranked educating girls and family planning (globally) above green energy. Fewer unplanned births means fewer carbon footprints. (h/t Osman Siddiqi)
    • On Monday, President Trump expanded the “global gag rule” to mean no funding can go to any NGO that also discusses abortion with beneficiaries anywhere in their operations. This expansion grows its impact from about $600 million to $8.8 billion in funding.
  • There’s a birth control that women can inject themselves (photo above) with minimal training. Each one lasts 3 months, and the price has just come down from $1 to 85 cents a dose.
  • Does foreign aid work? Featuring Charles Kenny, Rachel Glennerster, and Amanda Glassman.
  • A profile of the federal judge leading Brazil’s anti-corruption campaign, “Operation Car Wash,” which is modeled after Italy’s fairly successful anti-corruption campaign in the 1990s.
  • This week’s The Weeds podcast from Vox discusses the Universal Basic Income experiment IPA is conducting with GiveDirectly in Kenya, along with the accompanying general equilibrium one examining how the large influx of cash affects the local economy. As a bonus they also talk about the controversial private school instruction program which we’re also evaluating in Liberia.  The prior “Weeds in The Wild” episode went to visit a Kenyan village in the UBI experiment. (h/t Chris Boyer)
    • One fear of UBIs is that they’ll reduce motivation for work. A review of previous UBI programs in the U.S. and Canada finds no evidence for that, but evidence of positive effects in consumption, education, and health.
    • An analysis of a UBI in Iran also found little reduction in adult recipients working, with some increases for service sector workers. (h/t David McKenzie & Dina Pomeranz)
  • Melissa Dell & Ben Olken find lasting positive effects of Dutch colonialism in Java. Areas close to where colonial sugar was grown in the 19th Century have better infrastructure, more schools, and higher education levels today.

And if you thought it was hard to make sure your survey questions preserve their meaning when translated into multiple languages, be thankful you’re not the sign language interpreter for Snoop Dogg and the Wu-Tang Clan.

Her prep work also includes researching dialectal signs to ensure accuracy and authenticity. An Atlanta rapper will use different slang than a Queens one, and ASL speakers from different regions also use different signs, so knowing how a word like guns and brother are signed in a given region is crucial for authenticity.

Sorry, there’s pretty much no video with Snoop Dogg or Wu-Tang lyrics I can post (but you can find an extended interview with interpreter and taekwondo black belt Holly Maniatty here).

Week 8 of my Order & Violence course: State building without war making

Screenshot 2017-05-17 10.10.44

This week’s lecture draws heavily on one of the most important books on development I’ve ever read: Building State Capability by Harvard’s Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woodcock. It is open access and you can download it for free. If you hate trees but love the authors, buy a print copy.

My syllabus is here and the slides are here:

  • Week 8 – State building without war making
  • Week 7 – Armed interventions
  • Week 6 – Legacies of Imperialism and post-colonial politics
  • Week 5 – The State and Society
  • Week 4 – Institutions
  • Week 3 – State development
  • Week 2 – Conflict
  • Week 1 – The demand for order

The conformity of economics papers?


Noah Smith has a fantastic essay on the problem with economics papers. Some excerpts:

…in practice, I think what often happens in econ is more like the following:

1. Some papers make structural models, observe that these models can fit (or sort-of fit) a couple of stylized facts, and call it a day. Economists who like these theories (based on intuition, plausibility, or the fact that their dissertation adviser made the model) then use them for policy predictions forever after, without ever checking them rigorously against empirical evidence.

2. Other papers do purely empirical work, using simple linear models. Economists then use these linear models to make policy predictions (“Minimum wages don’t have significant disemployment effects”).

3. A third group of papers do empirical work, observe the results, and then make one structural model per paper to “explain” the empirical result they just found. These models are generally never used or seen again.

A lot of young, smart economists trying to make it in the academic world these days seem to write papers that fall into Group 3.

…It’s easy to see this pro-forma model-making as a sort of conformity signaling – young, empirically-minded economists going the extra mile to prove that they don’t think the work of the older “theory generation” (who are now their advisers, reviewers, editors and senior colleagues) was for naught.

…But what is the result of all this pro-forma model-making? To some degree it’s just a waste of time and effort, generating models that will never actually be used for anything.

…Paul Romer worries about this in his “mathiness” essay:

[T]he new equilibrium: empirical work is science; theory is entertainment. Presenting a model is like doing a card trick. Everybody knows that there will be some sleight of hand. There is no intent to deceive because no one takes it seriously.

Pure theory papers seem to rarely get checked against data, leading to an accumulation on the shelves of models that support any and every conclusion. Meanwhile, pure empirical papers don’t often get used as guides to finding good structural models, but are simply linearly extrapolated.

Noah flags a bigger problem, however:

In other words, econ seems too focused on “theory vs. evidence” instead of using the two in conjunction. And when they do get used in conjunction, it’s often in a tacked-on, pro-forma sort of way, without a real meaningful interplay between the two.

…I see very few economists explicitly calling for the kind of “combined approach” to modeling that exists in other sciences – i.e., using evidence to continuously restrict the set of usable models.

Another view, however, is that for many problems it’s too soon to build a model. We need more data points and stylized facts before our models will be any good. For a given question, it’s rare to have more than a couple good empirical studies, especially outside the US.

I don’t completely buy this view. Theories and models will be useful along the way to guide where we seek data or how we design experiments. And I personally have found simple general models help me in interpreting the results of my own experiments. So I like seeing them. But I think we are a long way from having enough evidence to restrict the set of useable models.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.BhubHomepage

  • Chris Blattman had a nice interview with Stephen Ladek of the Terms of Reference podcast (iTunes). Chris talked about his approach to what RCTs are good for – less about that specific program but more about testing our assumptions behind the mechanism through which something might work. They also get into how he got started studying conflict and resolution (because someone offered to let him borrow some Land Rovers), but why he’s now putting his money on that as the enduring question of development.
  • Yesterday IPA and ideas42, with Penn’s Center for Health Incentives & Behavioral Economics and Harvard’s Behavioral Insights Group, launched a new website to make nudge-style behavioral interventions easy for non-researchers to access and understand. It’s called the Behavioral Evidence Hub, www.bhub.org, and has easy to browse and skim explanations of programs that have worked in the past and the principles they use. It’s also got checklists for designing new programs drawing on evidence from past studies.
    • We’re still collecting examples of rigorously tested behavioral interventions. If you know of good candidates, please submit them on the site.
  • People seem optimistic about the new USAID administrator nominee, Mark Green.
  • It might get lost amidst a higher-profile departure this week, but the U.S. Census director resigned, and that’s really important.
  • For the geeks, a really nice discussion on the Development Impact blog on list randomization, and how to get respondents to tell the truth about very personal things like HIV status.
  • From Uganda, a new comedy film about two guys who try to make money starting an NGO.
  • If you want an update on the “China’s great/terrible for Africa” debate, China doubled its investment in Africa in 2016 as the U.S. and the U.K. were pulling back, and is the biggest foreign direct investor in Africa. A long read from the NYTimes Magazine profiles an engineering project in Namibia and questions the China good/bad dichotomy. It’s complicated, and the relationships and markets are maturing and changing the dynamic.

If the census bureau can’t get their digitization act together in time, they may want to hire this guy. The best data entry person in the world may be working in a gas station convenience store, where he’s been taking inventory for 30 years.


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • The datasets above all have the same means, SD, and correlations explain Justin Matejka & George Fitzmaurice of Autodesk in a modern update of Anscombe’s Quartet. But the lesson is the same – always plot your stuff. (h/t everybody)
  • Jobs postings: Summer jobs with Busara Center, full-year with Michael Clemens, and many at the IPA/J-PAL (and several other orgs) jobs portal.
  • Podcasts: Tyler Cowen talks with Cardiff Garcia on FT Alphachat about his new book on his philosophy of economics that he put online free, Stubborn Attachments. My takeaways:
    • A world of full-on Peter Singer effective altruists would be a world with no ice cream because every extra dollar above what one absolutely needs should go to alleviating someone else’s suffering. He doesn’t think that’s realistic to push for but does believe in a slightly scaled down version.
    • He also thinks people undervalue the usefulness of economic growth for alleviating suffering at large scale. So it may be more advantageous to invest a dollar in economic growth if it can alleviate 3 dollars’ worth of future suffering than in alleviating 1 dollar of suffering now.
    • Mainly, it was nice to listen to a conversation that looks at the big picture of how we should be thinking about using the tools of economics. It’s nice to imagine a world where economics draws more on philosophy than math.
  • Last week’s The Weeds discussed Dube & Harish’s paper looking at 500 years of wars, showing Queens were more likely to go to war than Kings (article about it from Pacific Standard). (h/t Dina Pomeranz)
  • How many people have to die for a disaster to make the news? One if it’s from a volcano, 2 from an earthquake, and 38,920 if from hunger (ungated here). Also, if it happens in an Olympic year, the chances of it making the news and getting disaster aid go down. (via Emily Troutman)
  • Using White House visitor logs, Brown & Huang find companies whose executives visited Obama’s White House were more likely to have stock prices go up in the following months (by about 1%), and to experience better regulatory treatment after meeting with federal officials. But those firms also took a bigger hit immediately after the Trump election. (Gated, article about in Bloomberg).
  • PubMed is adding in conflict of interest information on studies after abstracts, though research shows sometimes conflict disclosures can backfire for a number of reasons, including the perception of the conflict having been addressed, while the person receiving the information doesn’t sufficiently adjust for it.
  • Apparently (at least according to Wikipedia) in the years 1937-1942 there was another organization called IPA. A collaboration of social scientists, historians, educators, and journalists, it was devoted to flagging fake news. (h/t Colin Rust)

I don’t know why people think conflicts of interest are a problem. Ocean Spray was happy to be of assistance co-authoring a paper on the healthy effects of Cranberry Juice (which have been questioned elsewhere), and even helped out with the clinical trials registry (via that Vox article):






IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Chris Blattman & Stefan Dercon have an op-ed in the New York Times, reporting on their study with IPA and the Ethiopian Development Research Institute. They randomly offered poor workers in Ethiopia who were applying for factory jobs the jobs they wanted or an alternative entrepreneurship opportunity. Turns out the jobs were pretty bad – most quit and those that stayed weren’t any better off than those who never god a job offer (the entrepreneurs did pretty well though.) Similarly to what Chris discussed with Russ Roberts on EconTalk, they conclude that middle management and professionalization is really what’s lacking in industrialization, along with a more robust social safety net to support those looking for better jobs.
  • Jonathan Morduch presented new findings from Bangladesh. He, with Lee, Ravindran, Shonchoy, and Zaman, encouraged rural migrants who were going to cities to find factory work to use mobile money, and found it bumped up remittances to their families back home. There were all sorts of positive savings and poverty outcomes (but not consumption). Similar to what Blattman and Dercon found in Ethiopia though, this came at the expense of worse health for the factory workers.
  • Some podcast recommendations:
    • On FT Alphachat, Princeton economist Anne Case discusses her triad of papers that have made a big splash about the middle-age white mortality and “deaths from despair” (overdoses, alcohol, and suicide). (iTunes)
      • In addition to the actual findings, what was really interesting was to hear was how she and her co-author have searched for explanations by engaging with colleagues in other fields like sociology and medicine (many of the findings were out there separately, but hadn’t been put together systematically), as well as how they engaged productively with methodological critiques.
    • Freakonomics has a couple of episodes with a collection of big name economists (I believe the technical term is a Davos) to ask how they’d design a new economy from the ground up. But better is a few episodes back “Why is My Life So Hard” where they talk to a couple of experimental psychologists who asked – if we know how good gratitude is for well-being, why are people always complaining about what’s going wrong in their life? They dub it  “headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry” – we take the good for granted but always notice the bad – and go into some fun studies (in pairs of siblings, each thinks the parents treated the other better) then how to avoid the trap. (Part of their inspiration is Louis C.K.’s observation, that Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy, similar observations to what Max Roser and Hans Rosling have made about the general state of humanity.) iTunes
    • Ezra Klein’s interview with computer scientist Cal Newport, about taking your life back from technology in the age of distraction, was very good (iTunes)
    • The first and most popular episode of Finding Impact speaks with Liz Jarman of Living Goods about how their entrepreneurial model of healthcare delivery in Uganda is reducing childhood mortality significantly, and how the RCT data helped change the way they expanded into Kenya. (iTunes)
  • Automakers met this week with the heads of the EPA and Department of Transportation about rolling back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards, but a new paper finds that higher efficiency standards led to lighter cars, and fewer deaths in traffic accidents. Using the statistical value of a life, they argue the lives saved alone economically justify the higher standards:

    This result is critical for policy: our illustrative calculations suggest that CAFE standards are more likely to have positive net benefits once we account for the saved lives. Further, CAFE may have positive net benefits even if the value of future fuel savings is not included as a benefit.

    (h/t Alexander Berger)

When studies have suggested a gender gap in tenure, I’m not sure they were talking about The Gap actually having a women’s clothing line called “The Tenure Track Professor” (J Crew’s Assistant Professor line seems less than practical too). Still waiting for a men’s relaxed fit Tenure Track Suit. (h/t Laura Seay)


Do sweatshops lift workers out of poverty? This experiment might surprise you.


Expecting to prove the experts right, we went to Ethiopia and — working with the Innovations for Poverty Action and the Ethiopian Development Research Institute — performed the first randomized trial of industrial employment on workers. Little did we anticipate that everything we believed would turn out to be wrong.

Stefan Dercon and I have an op-ed in today’s New York Times.

The best tweet so far:

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer started an initiative to make government data from all levels very easy to access. So if you’re in the middle of a Facebook debate and want to know how much the government spends on healthcare versus defense, or how medicare is doing, or how many firearms are found at TSA checkpoints every year since 2005, you can find an easy chart at https://usafacts.org/
  • Owen Barder argues that it would be much more effective for poor countries to prepare for disasters in advance, just like everybody else does, by taking out insurance. In a new short briefreport, and CGD event video, he argues that setting up insurance would make responding to a crisis like an Ebola outbreak orders of magnitude cheaper. An automatic payout would mean a much faster response than the current system of starting fundraising after the disaster occurs, and could be designed in a way that works with the private sector and governments to incentivize better development (freeing up governments to build effective water management in conjunction with guaranteed protections in case of flood.)
    • This article was written by someone from the African Risk Capacity (ARC) insurance org, which does just that. It argues nobody heard about the drought in Senegal last year because Senegal had bought into the insurance pool, which helped it cope much more effectively than Somalia is coping now.
    • But Barder adds a cautionary tale about ARC from last year. Malawi had agreed to terms requiring a payout in the case of a drought affecting more  than 1.39 million people. While an assessment found over 6 million people affected, ARC’s computer models (based on satellite cloud imagery and previous years’ data) only computed 21,000 people at risk. (Though ARC did later make an $8 million payout after a household survey and concluding farmers were growing different crops than their model had assumed.)
    • I’m sympathetic to the insurers though. Economists Dean Karlan and Chris Udry told Planet Money about some of their problems setting up a rainfall insurance program to test in Ghana. Insurance requires very specific and objective (non-debatable) criteria to trigger a payout, which often doesn’t jibe with how individuals are suffering, and also good data from the past to estimate future risk, both of which can be hard where rain is fickle.
  • Jonathan Morduch was interviewed about his new book with Rachel Schneider The Financial Diaries, the result of them tracking every dollar spent by 235 low- and moderate-income households for a year.
  • An investigative piece in BMJ finds Coca-Cola tried to influence how journalists covered scientific research. According to the piece (gated), the company funded conferences for journalists to attend, through grants to the University of Colorado so the journalists didn’t know the true sponsor. At the conferences, they heard research emphasizing that obesity was exercise-related rather than about diet, in line with Coca-Cola’s marketing strategy.

This is my colleague David Batcheck’s last day at IPA, and he left me with a warning about “Big Data”

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Rachel Strohm has a new subscribable newsletter, “Africa Update,” which will have the kinds of links she offers on her blog.
  • Kenya’s high court has ruled that a third of parliamentarians must be women.
  • Daron Acemoglu has put up a 569 page PDF book of his political economy class notes.
  • Taxes are here, so this is your reminder that in other countries the government figures out your taxes for you and just sends you the bill. Here’s a comparison between Sweden and Wisconsin. But a Stanford professor spent a year and $30,000 of his own money hiring a lobbyist to try to get California to adopt a European-style pre-filled system. The pilot program was universally loved by participants but quashed thanks to lobbying by Intuit (maker of tax prep software) who argues that making taxes easier “minimizes the taxpayers’ engagement.”
    • Interestingly, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist makes the behavioral economics argument against it. He argues that putting tax prep on automatic would make it easier for the government to raise taxes. Print story at Priceonomics, and podcast version from Planet Money.
  • David Evans has a thoughtful blog post about what researchers owe study participants, citing the case of Nairobi sex workers, long of interest to HIV researchers. Researchers often come in and collect data with complex IRB consent forms and vague assurances that the participants are contributing to a greater good, but they rarely see any direct benefit. The Nairobi workers are following the example of the San people of southern Africa (another longtime target of researchers), and writing their own code of ethics for outside researchers to follow (h/ts also Seema Jayachandran & twitter discussion here).
  • It’s worth knowing the name of Vasili Arkhipov (above). The Russian submarine officer is credited with preventing World War III at the height of the cold war because he refused his captain’s order to fire their submarine’s nuclear torpedoes. Or as Robert Krulwich summarizes: “You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man.” The rest of Arkhipov’s story is also interesting, he would eventually die of complications from the radiation exposure he received while saving his previous submarine from a nuclear meltdown.

The banality of anarchy

A brilliant article on the emergence of “order” from anarchy:

For April Fool’s Day, Reddit launched a little experiment. It gave its users, who are all anonymous, a blank canvas called Place.

The rules were simple. Each user could choose one pixel from 16 colors to place anywhere on the canvas. They could place as many pixels of as many colors as they wanted, but they had to wait a few minutes between placing each one.

Over the following 72 hours, what emerged was nothing short of miraculous. A collaborative artwork that shocked even its inventors.

From a single blank canvas, a couple simple rules and no plan, came this:

There is drama. An epic war between Germany and France. And of course Dickbutt.

Then 4chan gets involved, trying to turn the entire canvas black: The Void.

Take, for example, the part of the canvas right in the center. Almost since the very beginning, it had been one of the most contested areas on the map. Time and again, Creators had tried to claim the territory for their own. First with icons. Then with a coordinated attempt at a prism.

But the Void ate them all. Art after art succumbed to its ravenous appetite for chaos.

And yet, this was exactly what Place needed. By destroying art, the Void forced Placetions to come up with something better. They knew they could overcome the sourge. They just needed an idea good enough, with enough momentum and enough followers, to beat the black monster.

That idea was the American flag.



Hat tip @arvind_ilamaran

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • ICYMI, there’s a famine affecting 20 million people across a number of countries. From the Guardian, here are some orgs helping (via Rachel Strohm, with the caveat that IPA doesn’t endorse any particular one).
  • Happy birthday to the great Development Impact Blog (one of their unsung accomplishments, often amazing discussions in the comments section).


  • As shown in the figure above, most nudges for changing habits wear off pretty quickly, except for home energy conservation (last box), according to a new paper by Brandon, Ferraro, List, Metcalfe, Price & Rundhammer.
  • A new study finds in the U.S. 1 in 10 pregnant women with Zika have babies affected by the impacts. This is likely an underestimate, based on limited detection of impacts at birth.
    • Some scientists speculate that Brazilians experienced higher rates of microcephaly than Americans because of an interaction with dengue, which is closely related to Zika.
  • VOA reports a shift in Kenyan families’ strategies to cope with drought – rather than marrying daughters off early to get a dowry, a combination of lower value of cattle (because of their dying in the drought), and social safety net cash transfers from the government has led more families to send their daughters to school. (also via Rachel Strohm)
  • There’s finally an (apparently) safe and effective male injectable contraceptive that’s completely reversible, but it’s having a harder time finding it’s way to market than you might think. (h/t Osman Siddiqi)
  • Think your students are annoying arguing about grades? A University of Texas government student got a “C” on a paper about constitutional amendments, so he got the U.S. Constitution amended (seriously, it took him 10 years, but he did it.)

I wonder, when GiveDirectly decided to do a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” with three cash transfer recipients in rural Uganda, if GiveDirectly considered what it would be like for them to watch Reddit users mansplain poverty to one another? Regardless, the internet did not disappoint with their questions:


And the debate between Chris Blattman and Lant Pritchett about giving cash vs. chickens got an M. Night Shyamalan-like conclusion:


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


Most of what I post here is blatantly ripped off from other people, if you notice the h/t’s you’ll see a few names account for a disproportionate share of really good links. I’m probably forgetting many, but for interesting sources these are a good start:

(And I assume if you’re reading this, I don’t have to mention Chris Blattman).

Two views on fighting world poverty



Not everyone like my idea for fighting world poverty.

Bill Gates wants to solve African poverty by helping more poor people raise chickens. So recently I wrote Gates an open letter in Vox asking him two things. First, consider cash, because chickens are probably not that great a gift to the poor. Second, we really don’t know who is right. But an awful lot of people would be better off if we invested in a little research to find out. I think $15 million would be enough to run a horse race between different ways of giving poor people stuff to help them raise their earnings: cash, chickens, training, and combinations thereof.

Yesterday Lant Pritchett expressed his bewilderment on the CGD blog. You should read the full post, but let me summarize in a few sentences.

First, Lant thinks that focusing on the very poorest is arbitrary. Official development goals and lots of programs target the people living under $1 or $2 a day, but people living under $10 a day are also pretty badly off.

Second, and more important, if we really wanted to alleviate poverty we’d focus on economic growth, and changing the systemic problems that keep countries poor. Anti-poverty programs like mine are band-aids.

I think Lant’s right and he’s wrong. We have to focus on the big picture and growth as a society, but I think there’s a strong argument for directly tackling the worst poverty now. Especially because we know how to do that pretty well. And we could do it even better pretty easily. More so than figuring out the secret to growth. I have a hard time imagining the $15 million research project that would affect country growth rates one bit.

Let me explain.

First, I agree with Lant that we can’t lose sight of the important goal: doing whatever possible to get economic growth rates up and steady in the poorest countries. But then, I’d argue that development economics is focusing on the wrong things.

The problem in the poorest countries today is first and foremost politics.  More people should be trying to understand what is up with Sudan or Nigeria or Afghanistan, and how societies like these can constrain their leaders and states; how states can build better bureaucracies, collect more revenues, and shape society; and how the risk of coups and conflicts and crises can be averted. And how US and European policy is partly to blame.

Currently that’s a niche area (to say the least). Lant has written about this topic more than most in articles I love and teach. And indeed I think the question of getting politics right is so important I teach a whole course on it.

I’m glad rich countries spend money on this. The UK’s development agency, DFID, is one of the few donors supporting this work on a large scale. I wish they would do more of it.

But that gets me to my second point: I would have a hard time convincing myself, let alone Bill Gates, that this is the first and best way to spend money.

This is partly because I’m not even sure money is the missing ingredient. I don’t know what the secret sauce is to be honest. I’ve seen DFID pour millions upon millions into research on the questions Lant likes. I’ve enjoyed reading many of the papers and reports. Others weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. But did any of them, even the best, ever have a direct impact on policy? I’m not sure anyone knows.

In spite of this, I’m glad DFID and others invest in it. But the best use of Bill Gates’ money? I doubt it.

The reason I like the research I propose is simple: I can see exactly how it will be used and how it will change life for a large number of people in a short period of time.

International organizations and governments give poor people a lot of a lot of expensive stuff to help them be less poor. Billions a year. Most of that money is wasted, because they give the wrong stuff. I think that could change.

In fact I’ve seen it change. In the last five years the cash and other program evaluation evidence has had a big impact on these “give stuff” programs, pushing them to be more efficient and better at helping some of the poorest. I think a couple of monumental studies would be an even bigger push for more governments and organizations to change. That is, I am betting that a $15 million study would change how hundreds of billions are spent. If I’m right, the marginal return to this investment is pretty good. I don’t know many better examples.

Does this kind of policy focus too much on people who are below an arbitrary threshold like a dollar a day? Maybe. If it does, I don’t have a big problem with that, because under a dollar a day is a really miserable place to be. It’s probably the place where an extra dollar of income per day will have the biggest impact on things like child heath and mortality.

Also, my impression is that getting someone from $1 to $2 a day is easier then getting them from $10 to 11.

The little utilitarian in me feels good about this.

It’s a moot point. The fact is, these kinds of “give stuff” programs go to the $1 a day and $10 a day earners alike. In the Syria region, the research has pushed organizations to give ATM cards and cash to millions of refugees. In sub-Saharan Africa it’s pushed governments to give cash out to huge swathes of the population to stimulate local development, including the “middle class” who seem to do quite well with some extra cash. And my hope is that in Latin America maybe the evidence would push governments away at least a little from ubiquitous middle class training programs that don’t work very well.

But just because I think the best use of Gates’ $15 million is my project, doesn’t mean I think all or most of development aid should go to poverty alleviation. Not surprisingly, the answer is we need to focus more on growth and direct poverty alleviation. I think Lant is focused on the totals we spend: the world spends too much on the worst forms of poverty now and not enough on growth and ending poverty in the future. That might be right. But it’s an argument that has to be made partly on faith, because it is very, very difficult to connect the salary of a growth economist to somebody’s life being better off in 40 years. I think growth economics needed a little competition and has gotten it, and will hopefully get better and rise again.