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.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


Greetings from IPA & J-PAL’s global staff training in Kenya. It’s where new staff from all over who’ll be collecting and analyzing the data that goes into dev econ papers come for a week. They learn advanced STATA commands, sampling methodology, and good data publication practices – it’s the summer camp that band camp makes fun of. The best training session was probably the one with tips on how to communicate with economists.

  • A Brown University student created a visual guide to statistics, with interactive explanations of basic concepts like confidence intervals (above). You can change parameters like sample size and see how it would affect results over multiple draws.
  • A number of contributors summarize a lot of new research from the Centre for the Study of African Economics conference. They’re helpfully condensed into single sentences, broken down by topic and tagged by methodology.
  • And David Evans summarizes 35+ education(ish) papers he’s read over the past few months in usual pithy fashion.
  • An Africa trade and economics summit in Los Angeles had no Africans this year. All of the participants from African countries were denied visas. (h/t Faith McCollister)
  • When poor countries have a natural resource, it can often end up hurting the general population. The benefits accrue to the few in control and the political and economic conflict around securing that control can end up hurting the general public, a phenomenon known as the resource curse. A new paper concludes that the resource curse can happen even without the actual resource. In São Tomé e Principe, off the coast of West Africa, there was an expected oil boom in the late 1990s, while Madagascar had expectations of a sapphire discovery in the late 1990s followed by oil in the 2000s. Contracts were signed with outside companies, and even though the resources never materialized, the political upheaval associated with resource curses did. (h/t This Week in Africa)
  • A prominent Cornell behavior and food lab, known for headline-grabbing research on clever nudges for healthier eating, is coming under scrutiny. A student in the Netherlands reviewed papers from the lab and discovered 150 cases of impossible statistical findings or other inconsistencies. The researcher has refused to share the data behind the studies.

But that’s nothing compared to PizzaChartGate. Remember never to annoy the data viz community.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • IPA and the International Rescue Committee are teaming up to figure out how to reduce intimate partner violence in Liberia (where 36% of ever-partnered women have experienced physical or sexual violence in the last 12 months). We’re looking to hire a spectacular senior RA to start testing ideas from public health, psychology, and economics to see what methods work. Please see & share the full job posting here.
  • And the story of the grassroots campaign that helped elect Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (h/t Rachel Strohm)
  • Chris Blattman had an open letter to Bill Gates in Vox. Gates is committed to an ambitious goal of boosting chicken ownership in sub-Saharan Africa from five to 30 percent. But Chris points out that giving out livestock can be very expensive and risky, while giving out cash is cheap and effective. The crazy thing is that we don’t yet know which is better at fighting poverty, but we could find out if we wanted to.
    • I should add that my IPA colleagues are working on two efforts to find out in Ghana and Uganda.
  • Long read: Invisible Children, the group behind the viral Kony 2012 video, now operates an intelligence gathering network of radio operators in the DRC and CAR tracking the whereabouts of the Lord’s Resistance Army for military groups trying to hunt them.
  • And convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is trying to use his lobbying skills to fight Boko Haram.
  • Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), the ethics boards that oversee academic research, are known for often having crazy and arcane bureaucratic hoops researchers have to jump through to get their projects approved. Everybody has a story like my anthropologist friend. She was working on her research in rural India talking to people about religion when she got a notification that her study was being halted. To restart it she would have to go to the nearest town where she could find internet access to watch a completely irrelevant series of long NIH videos on proper blood and tissue sample collection over the equivalent of a dial-up modem connection.
    • Now, a new regulation has gone into effect that could streamline the IRB process, making low-risk studies (such as those talking to consenting adults or recording in very public situations) exempt from review, but it’s up to universities to put it into effect.
    • The flip side of the debate though, is this discussion on a paper that paid online workers 50 cents for an hour of work, which seems a bit odd. I think this encapsulates the paradox of regulation; regulations have to be written for the .1% of bad actors, and end up constraining the other 99.9%. Or as one sociologist put it, “Social scientists identify a regulation they’re against.”
  • Dina Pomeranz does a great public service here starting a discussion thread on the stress and anxieties most academics cope with privately.

Want to solve world poverty? We don’t know the answer but the answer is knowable

Bill Gates spent a lot of 2016 talking about how chickens can solve world poverty, and how he’d like to help a third of rural sub-Saharan Africans start to raise them (up from about 5 percent today). I have a Vox piece today asking “why not cash instead?” It should be at least as effective at helping people start small business, and it’s cheaper and simpler to give away.

But that’s not my main point. We actually don’t know the answer. And to me that is the big  message.

Despite the suggestive research that I’ve cited here, no one has run the race between chickens and cash programs. No one has asked whether the expensive training or supervision that often goes along with these things is worth it. No one uses that information to hold organizations like Heifer accountable for being cost-effective.

You could. It would put your intuition about chicken returns to the test. It would be straightforward to run a study with a few thousand people in six countries, and eight or 12 variations, to understand which combination works best, where, and with whom. To me that answer is the best investment we could make to fight world poverty. The scholars at Innovations for Poverty Action who ran the livestock trial in Science agree with me. In fact, we’ve been trying, together, to get just such a comparative study started.

Is this just a way to hit you up for funding? Sort of, because — let’s be honest — when was the last time someone said something to you that wasn’t a funding proposal? But I’d be happy to see others run these trials. My day job is studying ways to reduce conflict, and running a massive cash and chickens trial will pull me away from that. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen anyone try this kind of multi-country, multi-pronged, coordinated trial. Until they do I’ll keep trying to make it work.

I think a few words from you could make those studies happen. When it comes to ending poverty, you could tell people that we don’t know the answer yet, but it is answerable. You could say: “The future is randomized trials testing different poverty programs against one another in many countries, focusing on cost-effectiveness.” That sentence is short enough for a tweet. And that one tweet, with some money to back it up, could change the world.

Read the full piece.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Heard about Universal Basic Income (UBI)? UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI, UBI.
  • A sad but fascinating long read, on what happened with the refugee crisis in Greece. It was a languishing overwhelmed and underfunded system, until the photo of the drowned 3-year-old boy Alan Kurdi circulated around the world. Money and pressure to act poured in, turning Greece into the center of one of the most expensive humanitarian responses in history. Refugee resources and professionals typically work in situations with little infrastructure. In this case though, they were layered on top of an existing political system in a relatively well-off country and it ended up in chaos. (h/t Michael Clemens I think)
  • A really nice conversation between Annie Lowrey and Angus Deaton. They cover a lot of topics including how to tell if it’s better to be poor in a rich country or a poor country, opioids and life in rural America, and meeting President Obama after Deaton’s Nobel.
  • South Sudan created a famine by impeding people’s access to resources. A few days after it was declared, the government raised the visa fee for foreigners (such as aid workers) from around $100 to $10,000.
  • Political scientist Aili Mari Tripp asks why in African countries recovering from conflicts, like Liberia, Uganda, and Rwanda, women’s public status advanced quickly, achieving changes in a few years that took a century in Nordic countries. She concludes that having fewer men around allows women to move into more public roles, and peace accords provide opportunities to formalize women’s rights, among other reasons. (h/t Rachel Strohm)

There’s a new book The Parent Track, on balancing parenting and academic careers. No better PR than the video going around this morning:



IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Two new user-friendly briefs from my colleagues at IPA’s Financial Inclusion Program:
    • A common assumption is that a solution to many people’s financial problems (debt, undersaving, etc) is better financial education. U.S. financial firms alone spent $670 million/yr on financial education (much more if you include the governments and NGOs around the world offering it). But there’s pretty strong evidence that it almost never works. They offer 5 promising ideas for how to make it better – it’s fastest to just show the picture:FinEdAdvice
    • Another brief summarizes how to use three nudges that do work for financial health: commitments, defaults, and reminders.
  • A Norwegian news site is making readers answer questions to prove they read the story before commenting. (If twitter starts doing that with NBER abstracts/papers I’m in trouble).
  • Justin Sandefur says we don’t really know how badly students in many poor countries are doing in school because most of those kids aren’t represented on the big international standardized tests. As he says, “What gets measured gets managed, and for now, learning isn’t.”
    • His attempt to statistically link different math tests given in different countries suggests average math scores in lowest performing countries are well below the 5th percentile of the top performing countries. Paper here, sad picture via David Evans.
  • Nigeria’s The Guardian isn’t too subtle in their story that for the second year in a row the Mo Ibrahim Foundation failed to find a head of state to whom they could award their excellence in African leadership prize.
  • A psychology journal editor was asked to step down for refusing to accept any more papers for which the authors won’t share the data or explain why they can’t (he’s not).
  • Two economists found some new data on WWII German pilots, and looked at what public recognition of top pilots did for their fellow pilots. When a colleague was publicly recognized for their achievements, it boosted performance of their high performing fellow pilots, but led average ones to start taking more risks and get killed much more often. Keep that in mind when your co-worker gets promoted.

Why I’m a Universal Basic Income skeptic, especially for poor countries


New York Times published an article last week, titled “The Future of Not Working.” In it, Annie Lowrie discusses the universal basic income experiments in Kenya by GiveDirectly: no surprise there: you can look forward to more pieces in other popular outlets very soon, as soon as they return from the same villages visited by the Times. One paragraph of the article drew my attention in particular: “One estimate, generated by Laurence Chandy and Brina Seidel of the Brookings Institution, recently calculated that the global poverty gap — meaning how much it would take to get everyone above the poverty line — was just $66 billion. That is roughly what Americans spend on lottery tickets every year, and it is about half of what the world spends on foreign aid.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but that paragraph makes me think that if we just were able to divert 50% of the current foreign aid budget towards cash transfers, we would eliminate extreme poverty. But, is that really true? The answer is: “not even close.”

That is World Bank economist and blogger Berk Ozler. His reasons are here. The short answer is “it is very hard to know who the poor are, find them, and know how much to give them”.

I would have added a couple more points. One is that we don’t really know what will happen when we scale up seemingly successful anti-poverty programs.

Also, I doubt there is long term political support in rich countries for a UBI for the poor, even if it were cheaper and more effective than our current aid programs. Mexico is already trying to figure out ways to get out from under the financial burden of its famous conditional cash transfers program. It’s such a big behemoth of a program that cash transfers draw more attention than the accumulation of many smaller but worse programs. They’re also unpopular among some. UK newspapers are already waging wars against Britain’s excellent cash transfer programs.

A successful UBI program for the poor has to find some political insulation, and have some paths for people to graduate out of it by getting wealthier.

My last comment: has no one reminded the “end of work” people that we’ve heard this claim every 20 years since the sewing machine and combine were invented? It’s possible that robots and AI mean it will be different this time. But I do not see the early warning signs. If structural unemployment will eventually be 60%, then at some point it will need to be 20%, and I don’t think we are even close. Wake me up when we see that happening.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


There have been a few related things over the past couple months that all get at this tension between how applied/practical vs. theoretical policy-related research should be:

  • At the AEA Ely Lecture in January, Esther Duflo suggested economists should be more like plumbers, tinkering and adjusting, concerned with the details. For example, whether a voucher system works can really come down to the nitty gritty. The theoretician focuses on whether a voucher is a good idea, but in practice, lots of tiny decisions, like how the voucher is distributed, and what kinds of information the designer chooses to put on the voucher can make the difference between whether the program works or not. Papers rarely even discuss those kinds of day-to-day details of a program, but she argues if the field wants to make a difference, details matter. Video and print versions available here.
    • Beatrice Cherrier puts it into historical context, including the “physics envy” some use to describe the fields’ march towards more complex mathematical models in recent decades.
    • Side note: In Cherrier’s interview on the Economics Rockstar podcast she talks about tracking how the MIT model of highly quantitative economics came to be so popular in the U.S. along with using The Wire as a teaching tool.
  • For another historical alternative model of how to think about economics, see The Economist’s article on the history of the Cambridge school of economics. The thinking there was less concerned with mathematical models and more with training economists who’d understand the social and political contexts in which their work would be used.
  • In Nature, Duncan Watts asked “Should social science be more solution-oriented?” He cites an organizational scholar’s likening of that field to the Winchester mansion in California, based on a dream the rifle company heiress had:

    Because the dream didn’t specify any particular plan for the house, however, she embarked on an open-ended construction project in which hundreds of rooms, stairwells and other elements of a normal house were added over nearly 40 years of continuous construction with no overall objective other than to keep building. The result was an agglomeration of components, each of which was individually well-constructed, but that did not cohere into any sort of functional whole: stairways ran directly into walls, doors did not open, stained glass windows were installed in interior rooms with no light exposure, and so on. In Davis’s view, organizational science has the same problem: although each individual contribution must comply with strict disciplinary standards, no attention is paid to how all the contributions fit together; as a consequence, they do not.

He suggests a solution in which research contributions are judged not on their theoretical contributions but on how well they actually solve a social problem, the way prize-oriented contests do (such as the Netflix or SpaceX challenges). This would also incentivize cross-disciplinary collaborations.

  • What might this look like? Take a look at the New Yorker profile: “Can Behavioral Science Save Flint?” It’s a very engaging ride-along with cognitive scientist Maya Shankar, of the Obama White House Behavioral Sciences Unit. In the waning days of the Obama administration she got on a plane to Flint, Michigan, and worked tirelessly to try to resuscitate the relationship between health officials and residents who’d been hurt by their governments’ poisoning of their water. (A literal plumbing crisis ruining thousands of lives.)
    • She started with listening to the problem and to the affected people, then brainstorming on what tools from the social scientists’ toolkit might be able to help. It’s a very inspiring read about what social scientists can do.

The only thing anti-poverty programs are missing is the long arm of the law?


In a minute I’m going to get to a great new book on U.S. poverty and policing. But first I have to digress. You’ll see where I am going in a minute.

Overly paternalistic poverty programs give me a nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling whenever I see them. These are the programs that assume someone will go full speed into self-destruction if they don’t have their hand held with every step. The telltale sign is a huge staff of well educated idealists whose main job it is to lecture poor people on how to be more like them.

Partly I don’t like the paternalism on principle. (This is my old college-age libertarian self speaking.) And partly I don’t think this paternalism is particularly effective. But then what really galls me is that these staff cost a ridiculous amount of money, and so many more people could be helped if we did away with the paternalism. It’s hard for me to believe the paternalism is worthwhile. How many desperate people never got help because it came tied to such an expensive helping hand? What a crime.

Mostly I see these programs in poor and desperate places in other countries. (Here’s one review article.) People get driven into these programs by poverty and desperation. This is as tragic as it gets. Or so I thought.

Now I see it could be worse. What if the police got involved, using the threat of arrest to push someone into a mediocre social program? What if the state gave cops the power to fine people for the tiniest infractions, and the cops used every one of these stops and fines  to play social worker and tell the poor soul where they should go to get help? What if the paternalistic NGOs with half-baked programs but great intentions hooked arms with the state to turn policing into their intake process?

That is the situation in LA’s Skid Row. According to Forrest Stuart, that’s actually the new policing paradigm sweeping US cities.

Forrest is my new colleague at U Chicago, in the sociology department. I’m meeting him for the first time later this week, so I decided to buy his book, Down, Out & Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row. I did not expect to get haunting ideas of what anti-poverty programs could become in the places where I work.

Policing in America’s poorest neighborhoods used to be a problem of neglect. Police simply managed the rabble and gave real policing to the good neighborhoods. But as crime rose in these neighborhoods, rabble management gave way to intensive policing with zero tolerance. Stops and frisks became the norm. Tickets and arrests rained down on offenders (and non-offenders) to signal the state was back, and not to be messed with.

Since old wealthy white people like me know about the problem, that means it’s old news.  Forrest’s book is about the latest shift, from zero tolerance policing to what he call therapeutic policing. He spent five years hanging out with both sides, the rabble being managed and the police themselves. What he found were cops who wanted to make a difference in these communities, who could use the power to arrest or ticket for good.

Lounging on the sidewalk? Here’s a ticket that will get forgiven if you enroll in this rehab program. Jaywalking? I could arrest you or you could go visit a counselor at the non-profit next door.

I can see how this would be persuasive to the police. Who doesn’t want to help someone improve, and be a part of that process? I can also see how this is persuasive to the non-profit. When you work with poor people, it’s incredibly difficult to see people leave. It’s painful to see them fail. And it’s tragic to think it could have been avoided. Especially if you just had a little more time.

Unfortunately I doubt this approach works. And even if it did, the college Libertarian in me joins forces with the grad student who read just a little too much Jim Scott, and the professor who has seen too many middling but expensive anti-poverty programs, and rebels against the coercive state and the forces of paternalism.

Thinking about it, what’s surprising to me is that I haven’t seen this police-NGO marriage in the places I work. Lots of the Ethiopian, Ugandan, Liberian and Colombian leaders I know would like this idea. This makes me think it’s only a matter of time before the enthusiasm spreads. How long before microfinance programs and vocational training come backed by the law?

You can read Forrest’s book here. Recommended.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.



Happy 100th links everybody. Thanks for the wonderful feedback and to Chris for loaning out his space, and to Jenn Cowman and Cara Vu. On to the links:


  • An interesting investigation from one of the more interesting development writers, Francisco Toro. He used a reporting fellowship to go to Uganda and investigate why farmers there keep using old, less productive seeds and technology rather than more productive hybrid seeds used in many parts of the world. He finds both metaphorical and literal market failures. There are newer seeds and better fertilizer readily available, but the markets are flooded with adulterated and counterfeit hybrid seeds, and farmers quickly learn not to risk it. One farmer bet his son’s education money on “better” soybean seeds to find that only 20 percent germinated.
    • Why doesn’t the government monitor the seed quality? Toro (with an assist from Lant Prtichett) concludes the Ministry of Agriculture has evolved to be dependent on foreign aid groups, and ends up being not terribly connected to the farmers. (It is worth noting the irony that the private firm he mentions at the end as having the tech solution seems to have been caught faking soil tests in the U.S.)
    • Bold, Kaizzi, Svensson, & Yanagizawa-Drott confirm the Uganda counterfeiting problem in a forthcoming paper in QJE. They tested seed and fertilizer purchased in Ugandan markets and found 30% of fertilizer nutrients missing, and 50% of seeds counterfeit. They propose that diluting batches, rather than selling 100% fake ones, confuses the signals enough that farmers’ yields are inconsistent. The result is that farmers stay hungry but the markets don’t collapse. (Some of the same authors had a paper on fighting counterfeit anti-malarial meds by introducing cheaper real ones.)
  • A look at the “Replicability Index” of studies Daniel Kahneman cited in the bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow about priming (changing behavior based on subtle or non-conscious messages). Calculations based on effects and sample sizes of the studies show they’re all a little too good to be true, and sure enough many of them didn’t replicate. (h/t David Batcheck)
    • This finding isn’t a surprise, but it’s worth reading Kahneman’s eloquent response, admitting he fell victim to a phenomenon he himself studied:

      As pointed out in the blog, and earlier by Andrew Gelman, there is a special irony in my mistake because the first paper that Amos Tversky and I published was about the belief in the “law of small numbers,” which allows researchers to trust the results of underpowered studies with unreasonably small samples. We also cited Overall (1969) for showing “that the prevalence of studies deficient in statistical power is not only wasteful but actually pernicious: it results in a large proportion of invalid rejections of the null hypothesis among published results.” Our article was written in 1969 and published in 1971, but I failed to internalize its message.

He points out that he still believes that one should believe the preponderance of published studies, but that he didn’t understand the extent to which only positive results were being published. (He should also get credit for being one of the forces behind the replication push).

  • Bill & Melinda Gates’ letter is structured as a reply to Warren Buffett and is very well written and communicated. One message is that the world is getting better, with fewer children dying every year. They calculate 122 million children have been saved since 1990.
  • Economist Jishnu Das wonders if econ researchers are really the best people to be in the policy communication/recommendation business. Among the points he brings up is if their comparative advantage is in communication. He also wonders about  the focus on finding effective things and push to scale them up, compared to stopping things we’re not sure about.

Which still brings us to wonder how economists ended up near the top of the Y axis here (h/t Charles Kenny):


The problem with global elites

A fantastic essay by Dani Rodrik, that should be read in full:

Last October, British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked many when she disparaged the idea of global citizenship. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she said, “you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

…I know what a “global citizen” looks like: I see a perfect specimen every time I pass a mirror. I grew up in one country, live in another, and carry the passports of both. I write on global economics, and my work takes me to far-flung places. I spend more time traveling in other countries than I do within either country that claims me as a citizen.

…And yet May’s statement strikes a chord. It contains an essential truth – the disregard of which says much about how we – the world’s financial, political, and technocratic elite – distanced ourselves from our compatriots and lost their trust.

…Real citizenship entails interacting and deliberating with other citizens in a shared political community. It means holding decision-makers to account and participating in politics to shape the policy outcomes. In the process, my ideas about desirable ends and means are confronted with and tested against those of my fellow citizens.

Global citizens do not have similar rights or responsibilities. No one is accountable to them, and there is no one to whom they must justify themselves. At best, they form communities with like-minded individuals from other countries. Their counterparts are not citizens everywhere but self-designated “global citizens” in other countries.

cosmopolitans often come across like the character from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov who discovers that the more he loves humanity in general, the less he loves people in particular. Global citizens should be wary that their lofty goals do not turn into an excuse for shirking their duties toward their compatriots.

…We have to live in the world we have, with all its political divisions, and not the world we wish we had. The best way to serve global interests is to live up to our responsibilities within the political institutions that matter: those that exist.

More eloquent than my Twitter crisis the morning after the Trump victory:

Links I liked

  1. Ezra Klein’s interview of tech reporter Kara Swisher
  2. A pre-doc in India for students interested in experimental research (scroll down)
  3. Not so realistic in America, but more sensible governments take note: Visas as aid
  4. The puzzle is why peacekeeping works, not why it fails (link fixed)
  5. Strangely satisfying: A New Yorker editor live copy edits Trump’s Black History Month speech
  6. This Fantasia 2000 Rhapsody in Blue animation
  7. And we now have the ability to see light moving?

We now have the technology to see light moving! This is a 100 BILLION FPS recording.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • A new report from Amnesty International documents mass torture and hangings in Syria’s Saydnaya prison. They estimate 13,000 people were hanged between 2011 and 2015, and they are probably continuing:

    “A former judge who witnessed the hangings said: “They kept them [hanging] there for ten to 15 minutes. Some didn’t die because they are light. For the young ones, their weight wouldn’t kill them. The officers’ assistants would pull them down and break their necks”.”

More on it from Vox here.

  • Hans Rosling died this week. The doctor and epidemiologist started off as a healthcare provider in Mozambique and then in the DRC, where he worked to identify the source of the paralytic disease Konzo (it was the naturally occurring cyanide in cassava roots, which weren’t being washed enough because of a drought). He later devoted himself to using statistics and creative visualization to show how the world is getting better. There was a nice interview with him in Nature just a few months ago (he refused to let the reporter mention his cancer, fearing it would detract from his message about reducing poverty).
    • In addition to being a pioneer in computer visualization for the general public, he found creative analog ways of showing shifting distributions using Ikea bins, pitchers of water, and dollar bills from his wallet. You can see some of his videos here.
  • A court in Kenya stopped that country’s attempt to close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. Judge John Mativo ruled that sending some 200,000 residents to Somalia would put them in danger and would be discriminatory.
  • How to spot data visualization lies and mistakes (h/t David Batcheck).
  • Job designing behavioral interventions in education at the University of Virginia.
  • A guide for non-scientists on how to read a scientific paper (h/t Neela Saldanha). Summarized below, geneticist Jennifer Raff recommends literally drawing out the methodology.