Why We Fight is out April 19, available for pre-order!


Never forget: Most rivals prefer to loathe one another in peace.

It’s easy to forget that war shouldn’t happen—and that most of the time it doesn’t. War is costly to fight, so enemies almost always find it better to find compromise. That is why there are millions of hostile rivalries in the world, yet only a fraction erupt into violence. Forget this fact and you will get the causes of conflict all wrong.

Why We Fight draws on decades of economics, political science, psychology, and real-world interventions to show that there are five ways that conflict can win over compromise. These five logics drive peace and conflict at every level, from warring states to street gangs, ethnic groups, and political factions,

Why We Fight also shows how peacemakers turn the tides by focusing on the five logics, getting rivals back to bitter compromise, and that they do so through tinkering, not transformation.

[Learn more]

Out with Viking Press on April 19, 2022. Pre-order your copy through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Bookshop, or Apple Books

For media, speaking events, or bulk book buys, contact Maya Baran.

“The sloth cartel”

I’d come to Colombia to find a man named Isaac Bedoya, described by the Colombian media as Latin America’s most notorious sloth trader. The country’s wildlife authorities estimate that he and his accomplices captured and sold as many as 10,000 sloths into the pet trade during the three decades before his conviction in 2015.

That is Natasha Daly writing in National Geographic on the sloth cartel, with photos by Juan Arredondo. But (as is so often true in so-called organized crime, but seldom reported) instead of a kingpin and a nefarious and sophisticated network, the reality was more slipshod, amateurish, and sad. She found people like Yilber Benites.

The last time I saw Benites, we were in a mall food court in Montería, an hour-long bus ride from his home. He’d said he wanted to talk more, so he made a detour on his way to Medellín, where he was heading to sell a poached owl. A middleman there had a client who wanted the bird as a pet.

He stashed the owl somewhere before sitting down to talk. After graduating from high school, Benites said, he went to a local technical institute to train to be a medical technician. It’s a steady job with a decent salary. But school cost about $80 a month. “Selling animals is how I paid for it,” he said.

Money had been particularly tight ever since Benites was 10. That’s when his dad, who drove a taxi and also sold animals, went to work one day and never came home. His body wasn’t found, and Benites believes an armed group killed him. “They were disappearing a lot of people at that time,” he said. Increasingly, it fell on Benites to take care of his mother, six brothers, and three sisters.

He tried to stay in school. But he couldn’t keep up with the fees and dropped out. That’s when he turned to poaching full-time.

It made me recall something Mendoza, the environmental police officer, had said: Many people in rural Córdoba are poor, but they don’t all traffic wildlife. Benites’ livelihood was a product of desperation compounded by personal tragedy—and his own choices.

I wanted Benites to understand that publication of this story could put him at risk. He said he knew that and started to cry. I did too. “I really want to stop,” he said through tears, “but I don’t have another option. I hope to God things will get better.”

I got in my taxi, and Benites went off to collect his owl and take the bus to Medellín.

This, as it turns out, is the sloth “cartel.” Not a sophisticated, interconnected criminal enterprise but supply and demand at its most elemental: tourists wanting baby sloths, and desperate young men hunting them down to sell for a living.

Individual roadside interactions add up to a market. The elusive Isaac Bedoya is believed to have trafficked 10,000 sloths over 30 years—some 28 a month. That’s about the same monthly number that Benites and Morales, who represent a new generation of strivers, said they sell during the peak season. It’s barely enough to survive, Benites said. “If I continue like this selling animals, I won’t make it. The money we make, it’s just enough to eat.”

When I asked Benites and his friends in Altos de Polonia if they knew where I could find Bedoya, they responded with blank smiles. Then they admitted they didn’t really know who he was.

Links I liked

  1. Topography of Colombia
  2. If you like Wordle, you might also like this history timeline game (via Kottke)
  3. Great thread on why violence sometimes rises, sometimes doesn’t, when police pull back

  1. List of best science fiction and philosophy books
  2. The incredible courtship ritual of the Hooded Grebe, via Duncan Green

Remembrances of an Indian development economist

The statistical assistants at ISI were literally called ‘computers’ (I was a bit taken aback when on the first day a man came to see me and said “I am your computer, sir”). One day when I was chatting with this human ‘computer’, he said some years back he had worked with a foreign professor who was rather short-tempered and used to scream at him for the slightest delay or lapse. (It so happened that I knew this professor). I said he should have protested if the professor was unnecessarily rude. He gave me a sneaky smile and said that he and other ‘computers’ had taken their ‘revenge’ on that guy. When I asked how, he said they used to mess up his calculations without the professor knowing about it.

Back to office, TN told me that in India when I wanted something in a Ministry I should not go to the lower officials; I should instead work my way from the top down (this was called ‘proper channel’ in official parlance). TN gave me the contact of the higher-up officer in the same Ministry, who when I told him what I needed immediately called the lower official and asked him to share the data.

Next day I went to the same official who had refused me before. He was now full of oily politeness and said that it was the great fortune of the Ministry that a professor like me was going to make good use of the data. But for the next few months on one excuse or another he made it very difficult for me to lay my hands on the data.

After a lot of running around I finally got the data, but I tried to fathom the reason behind his delaying tactics. Was it his resentment that I went to his boss instead of buttering him up? Was it his way of asserting his passive-obstructive power (the weapon of the weak)? Or did he expect some bribe from me? (In general, on bribery in Indian offices, apart from the ethical problem, practical problems abound: how to know whom, when and how much? Sometimes touts are there to help in this matter.)

The famed Berkeley economist Pranab Bardhan has been writing his memoirs in a series of posts. The excerpt above is from Part 26.

Here is a bit from Part 27, on his role in the invention of modern development micro theory:

Sometime before Ashok Rudra and I started on our large-scale data collection, I was already doing some theoretical and conceptual work on agrarian relations. My first, mainly theoretical, paper on share-cropping (jointly with TN) came out in American Economic Review in 1971. That paper was unsatisfactory and had quite a few loose strands, but it was one of the first papers to look theoretically into an economic-institutional arrangement of a developing country at the micro-level.

This was a time when development economics was preoccupied with macro-issues like the structural transformation of the whole economy involving transition from agriculture to industrialization or problems of its aggregate interaction with more developed economies.

In a short trip abroad I presented my work on share-cropping in a seminar at Yale where my friend, Martin Weitzman who was teaching there, was present. He later told me that it made him start thinking of a more general context, that of sharing profits or revenues with workers in a modern firm that might resolve some macro-economic problems like unemployment—he later came out with a book on this titled The Share Economy.

Joe Stiglitz by that time had also moved to Yale, and asked me to stay overnight with him after my talk. That night at his home kitchen, as he was washing the dishes after our dinner, we kept on talking on various aspects of share-cropping. I told him that to me share-cropping was clearly an inefficient institution in agriculture, and yet it had been around for millennia in different parts of the world. We were both wondering why. Joe started looking at it from his point of view of imperfect information (the landlord unable to monitor how much effort the peasant put in). That led to his chain of thinking which ultimately produced his classic paper on share-cropping in 1974.

And his brush with insurgency:

In Delhi in the early 70’s the eminent historian Ranajit Guha often visited us in the evenings. He was sympathetic with the Naxalite movement, and had connections with some of the active youths who were then underground. He once challenged me if I’d dare meeting these youths, and get acquainted with their ‘ground-level experience’ on land relations in India; he said that this could be a ‘learning opportunity’ for professors like me. I immediately agreed.

So I (and few other academics) were instructed to come one evening to a ‘secret’ place in Delhi.

At the appointed hour we gathered in a darkened room with windows curtained and only a couple of candles lit. Soon we saw about 10 or 12 young men marching into the room, chanting the hushed greeting of ‘Red Salute’. (To me they looked like earnest young men of affluent families, possibly ex-students of St. Stephen’s College). Guha, presiding over the occasion, said that we’d have first a statement of the current land and the village revolutionary situation from those youths as they see it. Then I, as someone who had researched on the agrarian relations in India, would make a statement, and then if the other academics had anything to add they could. After that the youths would respond, and then the meeting would end.

It started with the group leader putting up a tiny map of India on the wall and pinning a little red flag at each of the places where ‘action’ was currently going on. Even though India has more than half a million villages, the map was so small that ten or so red flags were enough to make the whole map look red. The leader pointed to the map as an obvious proof that India was ‘ripe’ for revolution. Then he gave his understanding of the ground reality of land and peasants. All I heard then was a collection of clichés, as if he was just regurgitating rhetoric he had learned from some cheap pamphlet. I actually expected much better from these intelligent-looking young men.

Then when my turn came I said I agreed with them that the condition of the landless peasants of India was indeed atrocious, but the nature of exploitation and the type of agrarian relations in different areas were quite complex and diverse. I then cited some simple data from my research to illustrate my points. I ended by saying that not being aware of the complexities might actually hurt their revolutionary cause.

Then, after some brief comments from the other academics, Guha invited the youth leader to respond to our comments. I braced myself for being called ‘reactionary’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘class-enemy’, etc. but what happened next left me agape. The leader just repeated his initial statement, and nothing whatsoever in response to our points. It seemed to me that he had learned one statement by rote and used it for all occasions. Then they all stood up and left the room marching and chanting ‘Red Salute’. That was indeed a ‘learning experience’ for me!

Dispatches from China

Censorship is hard:

Fight Club is getting an entirely different ending in a new online release in China, where imported films are often altered to show that the law enforcement, on the side of justice, always trumps the villain.

The 1999 film by David Fincher originally ends with the Narrator (Edward Norton) killing his split personality Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). With the female lead Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), he then watches all the buildings explode outside the window and collapse, suggesting Tyler’s anarchist plan to destroy consumerism is in the works.

The exact opposite happens in the edit of the same film released in China. In the version on the Chinese streaming site Tencent Video, the explosion scene has been removed. Instead, viewers are told that the state successfully busted Tyler’s plan to destroy the world.

“Through the clue provided by Tyler, the police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding,” a caption said. “After the trial, Tyler was sent to lunatic asylum receiving psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012.”

See the full story from Viola Zhou in Vice. At first I thought this was just a cute post. Then I looked at her other pieces. It’s such rich and unusual reporting.

Here is an excerpt from a piece on the hardships revealed by contact tracing.

After his 19-year-old son went missing in 2020, a Chinese man surnamed Yue quit his job as a fishing boat sailor and embarked on a searching trip across north China. Along the way, he took up all sorts of physical work to support his wife and a younger son and pay for his sick parents’ medical bills.

The 43-year-old toiled day and night. This month, in Beijing, he worked at construction sites, restaurants, office buildings, residential compounds, a trash collection point, and a shopping mall. Over the course of two weeks, he did 31 gigs, including many overnight ones, and only ate out once.

The migrant worker’s extraordinary hardship was accidentally exposed this week after he tested positive for COVID-19 and had his detailed itinerary released to the public, a routine practice by health authorities seeking to trace a patient’s possible contacts.

Yue’s tough life came as a shock to many middle-class Chinese, reminding them of an entire class of underprivileged workers who did not enjoy the prosperity brought by China’s economic boom as they did.

“This was the first time I cried reading contact-tracing information,” a person wrote on the microblogging site Weibo, where many users have expressed sympathy and sadness.

On Jan. 10, for example, he worked at a chain restaurant from midnight to 1:45 a.m., and moved to work at another branch at 2 a.m.

At 3 a.m., he started working at an office building in Beijing’s central business district. One hour later, he arrived at a suburban industrial zone 20 kilometers away. At 9 a.m., he went to work at a villa compound.

And if you wondered what the crackdown did to Hong Kong’s journalists:

For Stanley Lai, driving a cab is a lot like being a breaking news photographer. Both jobs require overnight work, skilled driving, and a good sense of direction navigating Hong Kong’s disorienting urban space. The biggest difference is speed. He used to hit 180 km/h (112 mph) in a company Toyota Corolla speeding to the scene for the best shots. Now he follows the traffic rules—being a few seconds slower wouldn’t matter to his passengers as much as it would to his newspaper’s readers.

Following three decades of being a photojournalist, Lai was forced to make a career change at the age of 53. Last summer, police raided the newsroom of Apple Daily, Lai’s employer and Hong Kong’s most popular pro-democracy newspaper, accusing it of endangering national security. The paper was forced to shut and several hundred journalists were laid off.

Some of the reporters found jobs at other news outlets, but Lai chose to become a night-shift taxi driver. “I have always been driving,” he recalled. “It seemed to be the fastest, easiest switch.”

Her stories and her Twitter profile. Hat tip to FP’s Morning Brief.

Traveling abroad with young kids: Our approach

A friend asked this on Twitter, and it got me thinking about our approach. To a lot of people, unless it’s a resort, taking kids abroad sounds challenging, expensive, and anything but rejuvenating. We’ve found the opposite. Our foreign trips are easier, cheaper, and more more rewarding and replenishing than our US holidays. Gradually, over regular trips to Latin America, a few Western Europe visits, as well as Canada and Vietnam, we’ve figured out some things that work for us. On the chance they work for you too, here’s our list.

  1. Find the family Venn. I like to investigate unfamiliar, off-the-beaten path locales, eat amazing food, and have time for reading. Jeannie prizes beauty and sun and calm. Our kids want swimming, zip lines, animals, chicken nuggets, and pancakes. There is not a whole lot of overlap here. The trick is to find places that intersect a little each day. For instance, we’ve found that as long as the kids get regular swimming and adventure parks, they’ll tolerate the grownup excursions. It took us several trips to get the intersection right (and of course the kids shift as they grow older). So, be patient, and look at the inevitable failures and moments of misery as a learning experience for the future.
  2. One place base. Moving around always creates minor headaches and costs, but these balloon with little kids in tow. Plus a lot of kids dislike change, and I dislike constant packing and repacking of the ridiculous amount of stuff we lug along. So we almost always stay in fewer places longer. The younger the kids, the more we parked in one spot, and the more rural we went. When they were littlest, we’d get a house in a village, one with lots of space for them to run around, and use it as a base for day trips. Our favorites were 2 week stays in villages in Languedoc and Catalonia, as well as a long visit to Hanoi. We would rent a car and explore whatever random assortment of hikes or ruins or caves or towns or museums were within a short drive. In a dense place, there’s usually a lot there. We also lowered our ambitions, going on one half-day adventure a day, then a languid lunch, then hanging out in the beautiful spot we were staying. As the kids got older, we started moving around more, on quasi-road trips, but almost always staying on one spot for several days. One highlight was drifting along a Bucaramanga—Barichara—Villa de Leyva—Bogotá route in north central Colombia over 12 days.
  3. Home exchange. This was the very best thing we ever discovered, and we have never stopped. Back when the only option was a mutual exchange, we traded homes with a family in rural Spain, and later with another in Bogotá. It was great. Then sites like HomeExchange started a non-reciprocal exchange program, where you get points when a family stays in your house, and you use them to stay elsewhere. It’s transformed our travel. We host a family 2–3 times a year, and in return we’ve had everything from ski chalets in Utah, comfortable homes in the center of Mexico City, huge lakeside cottages in Minnesota and Michigan, and both alpine and urban retreats in France. It’s free, and we’ve never had an adverse experience. The homes are usually spacious, with lots of room for kids to run around, plus a kitchen to cook their nuggets before we had out for the meal I want to eat. Often we can find one with swimming. The places you stay are idiosyncratic, meaning you end up in cities and neighborhoods you might never have visited. Also, we often end up exchanging with families with kids, so we arrive to new toys plus bikes (both of which made an unexpectedly huge difference). Finally, because we’re not in a hotel, we usually end up with meaningful interactions with people other than tourist staff, whether it’s the friendly neighbors or the local market or whomever.
  4. Pick “second or third tier” and explore. We try to avoid the highest-profile cities and destinations, because they’re crowded and over-touristed. For example, in Yucatán we avoided the biggest pyramids and colonial towns. Or in France we opted for Rennes and Grenoble rather than Paris. The first-tier cities and sites are amazing but I find them overfull. The food usually suffers as a result. And the kids get distracted by tourist crap designed to induce their whines. Meanwhile, the so-called third tier tourist destinations are still marvelous, understated, and often calm. More so when we find ourselves the only people exploring a castle or hike, or the only foreigners at a restaurant.
  5. Find second hand stores and flea markets. In our first days, we look for nearby spots and buy a haul of toys, board games, kiddie pools, sports equipment, and beach toys—all for a few dollars. Flea markets are always fun to explore in a faraway place, sometimes have interesting food stalls, and our kids LOVE spending an hour trying to find something for the $2 I gave them. They’re occupied with it when we head to the lunch place I picked out weeks before. And, most importantly, now your kids have activities for the trip. Because NEW TOYS. This probably means some quiet reading for me and Jeannie. Also, because the one place base strategy, we don’t have to worry about carting junk around. And we don’t bring it home—we donate it to our home exchange, or drop it off at the local equivalent of the Goodwill before we leave.
  6. Avoid large or major hotels. We can’t always exchange a home. Our other approach is to find a home or apartment to rent on VRBO or AirBnB (like the villa we got in a tiny colonial Colombian mountain town for less than the price of an Ohio Howard Johnson). Absent that, I’m a fan of mom and pop hotels and small boutique hotels and B&Bs that welcome kids. Most of the places we travel are full of these, and I’ve found TripAdvisor to be one of the more reliable raters (especially in South America, but almost anywhere). Our kids are happiest if swimming, so if we can find one with a pool, then they are delighted and I can read. In Europe and South America it’s often easy to find one with a great in-house restaurant, so that the kids can go to bed early in the room and Jeannie and I can be downstairs relaxing. In a 10-room hotel that’s not a big deal, and the kids know where to find us.
  7. Ask around for what the locals do with their kids. People who live nearby want a Saturday excursion with their kids. Where do they go? Often there’s a park or lake or the like nearby for a relaxing afternoon. We found a lot of remote and remarkable cenotes in Yucatán this way, and treetop adventure parks in Germany. You might be the only foreigner there, which is interesting in an anthropological way, even if the place isn’t spectacular. Usually there is good local food. We’ve also ended up at a huge number of weird theme parks this way, only a few of which are really good. Most tend to be a bit campy. But our kids are overjoyed, and campy things are more interesting when they’re another culture’s version of campy.
  8. Combine with work if you can. This is easiest as an academic who studies international development married to an executive at a humanitarian organization. Others might have conferences or sales meetings or something. If you can manage it, I love it. When one of us has a conference or field visit, sometimes the whole family tags along. We exchange a house. Because one of us is working locally we usually have a number of colleagues. This becomes a source of babysitting (there’s always a teenager or someone’s part-time nanny to hire) so the other spouse can work remotely for the week. The work is also a source of local activities and friends, so you end up getting to know a range of people at their homes or restaurants, and parts of the city you would not otherwise see. Then after the week of us both working, we go on a holiday nearby—something on the beach, or in a village, or a quasi-road trip. You leave with a much deeper appreciation for life in a different place, which to me is one of the most lasting gifts of the holiday. Now, when I go to a country as a simple tourist, it feels superficial and short-lived.
  9. Special advice on the youngest. We are out of practice, but here are some miscellaneous tricks that worked for our kids and our sanity over the years.
    • The easiest time to travel adventurously was when our daughter was 3-6 months. She was totally portable and we could eat out, hike, whatever. This is the golden time for new parents to travel if they can. It will be your last holiday with normal dinner conversations for…. well a very long time. Take advantage of it.
    • As our daughter neared 1, we took her to Vietnam to visit her grandparents, who were working there. We discovered that it is completely normal for restaurant and tourist attraction staff to take and entertain your child for hours. Many people have had the same positive experience across Asia. Highly recommended.
    • As the kids got older but were small, we invested in a few different carriers. Because we were carrying them all the time. But this freed us up to do walk in the countryside or explore interesting places while they napped or stared. Nap times were perfect for the all-important fabulous lunch.
    • Car seats are a lot to lug. If we weren’t doing a long road trip, we brought these travel vests that make adult seatbelts safer for kids. They are fabulous for short trips and taxis (and indeed, when we lived in Manhattan, this is what we used in cabs on a regular basis).
    • When the kids were <8, if we weren’t going to a place we knew had new toys, Jeannie would plan a a surprise a day. Usually this was a craft or small lego, and it would create a couple of hours of occupation. We’d buy the one for the plane in advance, then try to get most of the rest at a flea market or second hand store. This was the easiest way to get some relaxation time after a morning adventure, or to occupy them during a restaurant lunch.
    • Always pack fever and cold medicines, a thermometer, and many bandages. You will need them. Especially if you forget them.
    • From a young age, we got the kids used to carrying their own backpacks with activities and small toys (most important for the plane). From about age four, we got them their own roller bags too (first small, now regular size) focusing on ones that are easy to roll. We also gave them packing lists. We found this helps (a little). It’s an ongoing investment in the future.
    • We got them both cheap tablets (we’ve gotten Kindle Fires for less than $100) and fill it up with movies and games that they can use on planes or for occasional meals where mom and dad want grown-up conversation.
  10. Expect periods of sheer misery. Any self-guided trip or adventure will end in occasional disaster. That’s a standard part of any of our trips, long before kids. But those moments are more frequent and louder with children in tow. So be it. Remember in the moment that this too will pass and everyone will be happy again in a few hours.

What advice do you have to add?

Links I liked

  1. A photoessay with Bolivian skateboarding girls, via kottke
  2. Gimlet is killing it podcast-wise, including this 2-part Heavyweight episode and this one from Crime Show — whatever you expect from the titles, you will be wrong
  3. Tatooine sucks
  4. With such an experienced President and team, why isn’t Biden’s foreign policy coherent and bold?
  5. How you can study history in the field rather than the archives

I would have never discovered these dynamics if I had stayed in the archives alone. It was only by spending extensive time talking to local elites that I gained insight into how palpable precolonial histories remain in rural West Africa. Although archival research was a core component of my research design, alone it would have produced an incomplete understanding of why Senegal’s precolonial states are shaping distributional outcomes today.

The most useful things on Russia-Ukraine I’ve read

Russia is a strategic petrostate in a double sense. It is too big a part of global energy markets to permit Iran-style sanctions against Russian energy sales. Russia accounts for about 40 percent of Europe’s gas imports. Comprehensive sanctions would be too destabilizing to global energy markets and that would blow back on the United States in a significant way. China could not stand by and allow it to happen.

Furthermore, Moscow, unlike some major oil and gas exporters, has proven capable of accumulating a substantial share of the fossil fuel proceeds. Since the struggles of the early 2000s, the Kremlin has asserted its control. In the alliance with the oligarchs it calls the shots and has brokered a deal that provides strategic resources for the state and stability and an acceptable standard of living for the bulk of the population…

Putin’s regime has managed this whilst operating a conservative fiscal and monetary policy. Currently, the Russian budget is set to balance at an oil price of only $44. That enables the accumulation of considerable reserves.

If you want a single variable that sums up Russia’s position as a strategic petrostate, it is Russia’s foreign exchange reserve… Hovering between $400 and $600 billion they are amongst the largest in the world, after those of China, Japan and Switzerland.

This is what gives Putin his freedom of strategic maneuver. Crucially, foreign exchange reserves give the regime the capacity to withstand sanctions on the rest of the economy. They can be used to slow a run on the rouble. They can also be used to offset any currency mismatch on private sector balance sheets.

That is Adam Tooze on the long run background to the current situation, in a week-old post I missed. One of the most persuasive pieces I’ve read.

What Tooze also points out (and I didn’t appreciate), is that while Russia has been rising, Ukraine has stagnated.

…What makes Ukraine into the object of Russian power is not just it geography, but the division of its politics, the factional quality of its elite and its economic failure.

…Ukraine’e elite have not come up with a formula for delivering the material basis of legitimacy, i.e. a minimum of stability and sustained economic growth. Economic frustration compounds the divisions between regions, language groups, factional interests. Since independence, the oligarchic super-rich have played a baneful and disruptive part in Ukraine’s politics.

In a long post on Ukraine’s economic malaise, Noah Smith puts it more bluntly:

  • Billionaire oligarchs can claim a fifth of national income and most of the manufacturing center
  • They’ve spent two decades living off checks and haven’t tried to grow their investment—meaning they resisted export led growth and block more competitive foreign investment and firms
  • The better investment, it seems, has been capturing government and preventing economic change

Unfortunately, this is a pretty common feature of a lot countries. Elites can either embrace creative destruction, and take their chances on a growth strategy, or they can try to protect their privileges and try to milk their cow, even if it means that cow gets leaner and weaker with time.

As a result, Ukraine is unusual in Eastern Europe for being no richer than it was in 1990. Or (dare I say it) Ukraine is weak.

All this fits well into the political economy of the situation I outlined last week: Russian power has risen in relative terms in the last 30 years, and it expects its influence to rise in proportion (especially because it doesn’t have many allies or client states).

These reserves give Putin some of the insulation he needs if he invades. Still, invasion is so costly to him and to Russia, I still predict a nonviolent outcome—one that sees the West recognizing Russia’s strength in this situation and rolling back Western engagement with Ukraine.

This peaceful prediction will be wrong if Putin cares more about his relative status than his absolute position (something Tyler Cowen pointed out this week). This is possible, but I’m not persuaded. Tooze and Rob Lee both have takes that suggest Putin is more reasonable.

Thanks to Luis Martinez for the video tip.

The plague year (but not that plague year)

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.

But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true; till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre

That’s from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year [free online version], one Londoner’s eyewitness account of London’s last great bubonic outbreak, in 1665. It’s fiction. Defoe wrote it more than a half century after the great plague.

The disease crept through London’s outlying parishes from west to east. The earliest affected neighborhoods tried to conceal the cause of death, and falsified their numbers.

This turned the people’s eyes pretty much towards that end of the town, and the weekly bills showing an increase of burials in St Giles’s parish more than usual, it began to be suspected that the plague was among the people at that end of the town, and that many had died of it, though they had taken care to keep it as much from the knowledge of the public as possible

Instead of the New York Times‘ steady counts of infections by state, Defoe gives us tables of parish bills, showing the number of people buried in the neighborhood each week. From chapter to chapter, the figures grow higher and creep ever closer to his home, until he too is immersed in the misery and chaos.

The disease killed about an astonishing one quarter of London’s population in just 18 months. Defoe’s story, if nothing else, about human complacency and short-sightedness, even in the face of such mortality.

I often reflected upon the unprovided condition that the whole body of the people were in at the first coming of this calamity upon them, and how it was for want of timely entering into measures and managements, as well public as private, that all the confusions that followed were brought upon us, and that such a prodigious number of people sank in that disaster, which, if proper steps had been taken, might, Providence concurring, have been avoided, and which, if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and warning from. But I shall come to this part again.

There is even the 17th century version of Ivermectin and bleach!

they were as mad upon their running after quacks and mountebanks, and every practising old woman, for medicines and remedies; storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives, as they were called, that they not only spent their money but even poisoned themselves beforehand for fear of the poison of the infection; and prepared their bodies for the plague, instead of preserving them against it. On the other hand it is incredible and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ ‘An universal remedy for the plague.’

It’s a long and unusually detailed book, with little plot or narrative drive, and yet still it’s fascinating and pulls the covid-afflicted reader along. It’s comforting in that it makes some sense of the reactions to our own own pandemic—the extremities in both ways—and depressing because it dispels my prior belief that, had this been a truly deadly disease, the world would have responded differently.

Let there be light

The universe was born in light. If modern cosmology is right, for the first forty thousand years or so after the Big Bang the most important component in the young, hot universe was electromagnetic radiation, a situation that continued until the universe had cooled sufficiently for the first hydrogen and helium atoms to form. Temperatures were still high enough at that point for the cosmos to be filled with an opaque, glowing plasma.

After a few hundred thousand years, as the universe continued to expand and cool, the first neutral atoms formed and a great darkness began, broken perhaps a billion years later by the appearance of the first stars.

These pioneers are thought to have been much more massive than their descendants in today’s night sky, each several hundred times the mass of the Sun. They would have been short-lived, as the enormous temperatures at their cores drove nuclear fusion fast enough to exhaust their reserves of fuel in less than a million years, finally exploding in brilliant supernovae. Extreme conditions during the explosion would have stimulated further nuclear reactions, producing carbon, oxygen and a rich variety of other elements which, scattered throughout a nascent galaxy by the power of the explosion, were incorporated into subsequent generations of stars.

Though their lives were brief and their existence solitary, with perhaps just one forming per galaxy, the first stars have a long legacy. The Sun, the Solar System and the Earth, not to mention our bodies and much of what we see around us, probably include material that was produced in the dramatic death of the Milky Way’s first star. In a few months, for the first time, light from some of those first stars will encounter a device capable of recording it.

A model of beautiful science writing from the LRB. It’s also full of amazing information on the James Webb Space Telescope and its predecessor Hubble.

Because of the expansion of the universe, stars and galaxies which shone brightly thirteen billion years ago in the range of wavelengths detectable by the human eye are now best seen in the infrared. (Crudely put, the light has been stretched into longer waves.) To make the observatory sensitive to this redshifted light, the hexagonal segments that make up JWST’s primary mirror are coated with a thin layer of gold, which is much better at reflecting infrared than visible light. A telescope’s collecting power is dictated by the size of the primary mirror: astronomers, both amateur and professional, suffer from ‘aperture fever’, an insatiable yearning for bigger and bigger mirrors. JWST has a mirror 6.5 metres across, larger than any telescope on Earth built before the 1990s, but also wider than any rocket can hold. On the launch pad, therefore, much of the telescope structure was folded in on itself, stowed in an extremely expensive and fragile piece of origami…

Telescope mirrors are made with incredible precision – you could stretch Hubble’s to the size of the continental United States without finding a bump an inch high – but the lack of a single washer, no more than a millimetre thick, missing from a piece of test equipment, had led Hubble’s team to fashion with exquisite care a mirror of the wrong shape. The result was blurred images no better than those achieved from the ground. But Hubble in low Earth orbit could be reached by astronauts on the Space Shuttle, who were able to install a set of corrective optics.


Links I liked

  1. What the Spider-verse sadly missed (above)
  2. The anti wordle
  3. Great slides on why you should use Poisson regression instead of using log(1+y)
  4. Advice from Abby Post on approaching teaching evaluations:

  1. Lee Harris on the case for rapprochement with Russia and, on the same topic, another amazing Paul Poast international relations Twitter thread:

Enrolling more kids in school is easy, teaching them is hard

We use literacy tests in survey data to construct long-term trends in literacy for 87 developing countries, spanning birth cohorts from the 1950s to 2000. We show that over this period literacy rates have increased substantially, but virtually all progress has been due to the increase in access to school rather than any improvement school quality, which we define as the propensity for schooling to generate literacy after five years of schooling.

Overall, school quality is low in developing countries with about 70% of women able to read after grade five and quality has been declining over time. From the 1950s to 2000, school quality deterioration implied the probability that a woman with five years of schooling could read a sentence fell by roughly two to four percentage points per decade and about six percentage points for men.

Although the negative trends in school quality is concerning, a more generous reading of the results is that most school systems have managed to dramatically expand their education offer without very large drops in school quality. Trends in school quality are relatively stable over time, and there are few if any identifiable cases of large and rapid improvements in school quality at the national level.

That’s from a new paper by Alexis Le Nestour, Laura Moscoviz, and Justin Sandefur, emphasis mine.

If I understand this correctly, the generous reading comes from the idea that a vast expansion of schooling implies that poorer and less able kids are being pulled into the system (along with the creation of new and presumably less capable schools) and so the learning outcomes of these kids are far better than they would have been otherwise. Schools skimmed the cream in the 1950s, and so the numbers look falsely promising.

In a blog post, Lant Pritchett discusses the paper and (proving he puts far more work into his posts than I do) uses their data to make a whole new set of figures! It displays how literacy rates and enrollment change from the 1950s to the 1990s, with countries in red if they get girls in school but fail to get them literate by grade 5, green if they succeed.

Best nonfiction I read this year, Part II

Continuing from last week, a few more favorites of the past 12 months (none of which were written all that recently). And a reminder that you can sign up to get posts by email.

Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King, alongside Euphoria, by Lily King (and Gillian Tett’s Anthrovision for good measure)

Euphoria was my recommendation for best book in 2015. “Pioneering anthropologists in the field, making it up as they go along: The novel,” was my description. It was a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Margaret Mead  “I find it impossible to imagine the equivalent book on economists or political scientists,” I added. That has not changed. But now there is a fabulous non-fictional account of Mead and her unorthodox fieldwork, by Charles King. The subtitle is How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. It begins with Mead’s mentor, Franz Boas, the state of anthropology in the early 20th century (mostly racist and poorly researched), and the empirical turn that Boas and Mead and others brought about (including Zora Neale Hurston, for more books to add to this trio.

There are some beautiful ideas (like Boas’s concept of anthropology as Herzensbildung—the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another). And there are some amazing factoids (did you know that, back in the 1920s, Foreign Affairs was called the Journal of Race Development?). Mostly this is a book about a scientific revolution and the individuals who brought it about.

As I was finishing these books I spotted and skimmed Anthrovision, a guide to using some of the basic tools and ideas of the field in your everyday life. Now, I don’t think you can teach anthropology in a class or a book. I’m no expert, but (having worked alongside or under a couple of ethnographers and anthropologists) it seems to me it’s something you have to do, and have your notes and your conclusions relentlessly critiqued. Then read and critique others. But alongside these other books, I grew a much better sense of what anthropology strives to do and why.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford

If I’d been around to blog a best-of list for 2019 or 2020, books that would have placed would be Tamin Ansari’s Destiny Disrupted and perhaps Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment. Both are histories of Central Asia that reversed my thinking on the region. I had taken Adam Smith quite seriously, who once wrote that all the inland parts of Africa and Asia lying any considerable way from the sea “seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilised state in which we find them at present.” That’s not true for many parts of Africa (think the Malian Empire) and these books show how it was anything but true for Central Asia. The Silk Road flowed through, rather than any river system or sea, and this brought about some of the biggest cities, the most advanced technologies, and the most sophisticated art and philosophy, all while Adam Smith’s great-great-great-great grandparents were wallowing in sheep and mud. Much of this was a revelation to me and it made me more curious about the region.

The Genghis Khan book was the next one to really satisfy. The leader and his troops arrived out of the desert and devastated the civilizations that had grown up, but laid the foundations for the next ones to grow. The mongols created countries that survive to modern times, from Korea to India. They spread like a plague, destroying entire cities, but in their wake came an epidemic of commerce and trade and the exchange of ideas. The Mongols emphasized ideas that were unusual then, but more commonplace now: free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and participatory administration. They created the first global culture, Weatherford concludes. That’s maybe a tiny bit grandiose, but not by much.

Taliban, by Ahmed Rashid

Continuing with my unaccountable Central Asia theme: after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, I decided I wanted to try to understand the war better. Why did it even happen? Why didn’t the Taliban concede just enough to keep the US from invading? Why didn’t the US leave shortly after the successful toppling of the regime? And when they didn’t, why did it take so long to depart.

Despite what many people say, I see nothing inevitable about this war. Had a few events gone differently, the world might look back on the capitulation of the Taliban, or the brief US invasion, as benignly as they regard the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, or or as forgetfully as the collective amnesia over the US invasion of Haiti in 1994 to uphold an election and stop a coup. But those alternative histories, and the origins of the war, are a post for another day.

This book isn’t about the war, because it was written just before the attacks of September 11, when few people cared about the curious band of fundamentalists who were winning the Afghan civil war, in defiance of all expectations. Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, had been following then and events for years. Having the United States attack your book’s subject right around the time of publication is more or less the best thing that can happen to your book sales, and reputedly every US military officer read a copy of Rashid’s book (or at least claimed to). It’s a great book. How the Taliban prosecuted the pre-2001 civil war is a great start to understanding why some of its leaders were unwilling to compromise with the United States. I would summarize it as a mix of principled intransigence and asymmetric information (or really just an absence of information and communication). Plus Pakistani private interests and meddling. More on that in my future post on why the US and Taliban fought.

1491, by Charles Mann

If I had read this book before I entered grad school, I might have become an archaeologist. From the outside, archeology feels like a field where it’s hard to do pathbreaking work. How much more can we really learn about the Egyptians? But what 1491 makes clear is that there is an enormous amount we do not know about pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas, and what archeologists learned in the late 20th century was radical and field changing. Mexico and the Andes were home to vast, sophisticated states and empires with technologies and populations that rivaled any on the planet. The Inca were bigger than Ming China or the Ottoman Empire. Their dominion extended “over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude—as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo,” Mann tells us. The book was full of mind-blowing revelations–science that is out there but seldom taught. And we still have an astonishing amount to learn about these places, their competitors, and their predecessors.

If there is an updated book on this subject (1491 first came out in 2006) I would love to hear about it. Which reminds me: I haven’t seen an updated take on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and I’m curious how far the science has come in two decades.

In Service of the Republic, by by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah

Last time I said I wasn’t going to blog any of the books from my How to Change the World class, but I have to mention this one. It’s a bit of a niche pick. If you want the most earnest and neoliberal take on how to make India a more functional and dynamic place, then this is the book for you! I realize that is not much of a sales pitch. But Kelker and Shah give us one of the best examples of simple and straightforward prose writing, of commonsensical policy design, and of synthesizing a century of social science on social change, all rolled into one book. They are are Indian economists, living and working there, who have spent most of their careers trying to make the state and the economy work for people. If you live in a liberal democracy anywhere in the world (including the United States) and you want to try to make your government function better, this is one of the top five books you can read.

Links I liked

  1. If you like Wordle, you will love Evil Wordle (which keeps changing the word to give you the fewest possible matches)
  2. You probably underestimate the wage you can earn elsewhere
  3. A summary of the differences in the differences-in-differences literature
  4. America’s falling democracy score looks more like politics than political science
  5. A flurry of articles on whether the US is headed for sustained insurgent violence (I’m working on a post about why that’s not the risk that worries me most)
  6. Dan Wang’s annual letter (especially illuminating on China)
  7. Noah Smith interviews Tyler Cowen

Should you work for a government you disagree with?

I spoke first to Eric Rubin, a career diplomat since 1985 at the State Department, a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, and currently president of the American Foreign Service Association. He is crystal clear that “you cannot speak publicly against government policy. If you want to do that, you must resign. It’s anti-democratic. It is inappropriate to believe you know better than the people’s elected representatives.”

Rubin also believes that resignations rarely have any impact on policy. “You might be a ‘One Day Wonder’ — generating a bit of a splash in the news for a few days, perhaps be invited to write an op-ed, or speak at a think tank, but that’s it.” He believes that people frequently overestimate the consequences of their resignations. “I have had people tell me they want to influence policy or stop something happening, but my view is that you can’t — you can’t fix foreign policy.” He cites the case of Iraq, where people who resigned in protest over the decision to invade “had no impact on the rush to war.”

That’s Alexandra Hall in TNSR, who in 2019 resigned as Brexit counselor at the British Embassy in Washington. Margaret Thatcher once said, “Advisers advise, and Ministers decide.” Being a civil servant in a democracy means implementing policy you disagree with. But as politics gets more polarized, and sometimes more populist and authoritarian, Thatcher’s advice becomes harder to bear.

In her essay, Hall talks about why she decided to be a One Day Wonder.

I had had enough. I realized I was not going to be able to influence what was said or done on Brexit, but nor could I distract myself by working on other parts of my portfolio, since Brexit was the entirety of my job. Worse, my job actively required me to go out and speak in public about Brexit, day after day, using talking points that were nakedly dishonest. The stress was materially affecting my mental health and relationships. Moreover, Parliament had finally agreed to resolve the political impasse by holding a general election on Dec. 12, 2019. This meant that the British people would have a chance to cast their verdict on the government’s approach. This was the democratic way forward, but whatever the outcome, I no longer wanted to be part of it. I wrote my resignation letter and sent it.

But Hall doesn’t just describe her own tortured decision, she spoke to others and describes their decision to stay or go. There are too few essays like this one. Highly recommended. Please post similar essays kin the comments, or send them my way.

War in Ukraine seems unlikely but, for the US and Europe, peace will taste bitter

If more U.S.-Russia talks are to happen, what should be on the table?

Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon, writing in Politico Magazine, attempt to thread the needle of Russia’s Ukraine demands by considering a moratorium on the country’s future NATO membership amid a larger security compromise. “Now is the time to think big and imagine a new, more durable order, one that can encompass Russia,” they write.

Others go further, with Anatol Lieven, writing in the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s blog, arguing for U.S. backing for an autonomous Donbas region as well as a treaty of neutrality for Ukraine—worked out by the United States and Russia—which would both hobble Russia’s territorial ambitions while holding off the prospect of greater Ukrainian integration with the West.

“An agreement along these lines will be bitterly attacked by Western hardliners with all the usual accusations of ‘cowardice’ and ‘appeasement.’” Lieven writes. “They need to ask themselves however whether they are really prepared to contemplate war with Russia; and if not, what they are proposing as a concrete alternative to these proposals.

That is Colm Quinn in his daily Morning Brief, a Foreign Policy newsletter that is one of the first I look for each morning. Recommended for a wide range of international news and analysis.

I hesitate to comment on a region I know so little about, but there are some general insights on war that underlie the logic in the Graham/Menon and Lieven pieces. (Also, I had my colleague Scott Gehlbach check my homework and offer color commentary). These general propositions make me optimistic that prolonged violence is unlikely, but they make me pessimistic about Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

  • Russia has risen in relative power in the last 20 years, and so it’s in a position to demand a wider sphere of influence, client states, and territorial control
    • Moreover, for a power of its size, Russia has strikingly few allies and client states (plus many adversaries close by) and so Russia arguably places greater value then the West on more allies, clients, and coopted or docile neighbors
  • A nation’s bargaining power comes from a lot of different sources, but a big one is the ability to cause the other side pain by fighting—especially by threatening to burn the whole house down
    • The West remains powerful, but among other things, mistakes and misfortune in Iraq and Afghanistan mean they’re reluctant to use force anywhere, thus reducing their relative bargaining power
    • An even if Iraq and Afghanistan never happened, the US just doesn’t have anything at stake here—in Washington’s eyes, Ukraine is a poor, corrupt, nonstrategic, and only marginally democratic country too close to Russia
  • Russia also gains some bargaining power from Putin’s autocratic rule—he can more credibly threaten conflict precisely because he and his cabal bear just a fraction of the costs of fighting (a factor that has long been one of the reasons autocracies and democracies fight)
    • And lest you think he can be held accountable for wars, Putin has that covered too—journalists can expect every bone in their body broken if they report on deaths of Russian soldiers in the Donbas
    • Some people think war might even benefit Putin and the military, letting them test new toys and distracting the country from covid mismanagement—not a story I usually buy (the empirical evidence that this works is weak) but we only need Putin to think it works
  • Of course fighting is still extremely costly and risky for Putin, but how much is not clear—his resolve and willingness to use force is uncertain
    • That means Putin needs to signal his determination through costly displays (such as mass mobilizations on the border), and the West has to decide whether those signals are credible or not (which is hard)
    • An example: Graham and Menon note how Putin told his diplomats in mid-November that a certain amount of tension would force the West to take Russia seriously
    • This means that insisting on preconditions for negotiation, like removing troops from the border, totally ignores Putin’s bargaining incentives
  • Also, in a time-honored tradition, Putin can gamble and try to exact more concessions by pretending to be a little irrational
    • Others have worked out the game theory, but appointing a hawkish and crazy-seeming President is a risky but sometimes effective strategy for getting concessions
    • Now, in my view, people are too ready to paint strongmen as unreasoned, and so they get fooled by these tactics
    • Leiven writes how, far from Putin having gone mad, or Russian policy being mysterious, or innately aggressive, Russian motives and actions are quite rational—and close to how Washington runs its own foreign policy
  • The good news is that war is costly enough that both sides will try to avoid it, and if there is violence, prolonged fighting is unlikely
    • That means, contrary to what some people say, Putin is unlikely to be hellbent on invasion
  • Still, within the set of compromises both sides prefer to fighting, there’s wide room for deals more favorable to Russia, and so we can expect Putin to try to get the better bargain
    • This leaves a lot of room for what Thomas Schelling called “strategic moves”: an attempt to suddenly change the game through a sudden and decisive action—such as a surprise invasion of a territory, one that is quick enough that it cannot be averted, and modest enough that it’s not worth the West going to war over it (think Crimea)
  • The main reason I worry about war is that calibrating the right strategic move is hard—you never really know what your opponent is willing to tolerate, and (if history is any guide) all sides are subject to overconfidence and prone to project their own values onto their adversaries (meaning they get the probability of an angry or calculated armed response wrong)
    • In other words, a lot can go wrong in crises and brinksmanship
    • That i scary, and it ‘s why I think war is unlikely but not impossible
  • All this is why the Biden administration is talking about sanctions and threatening Putin and his cabal with other terrible punishments—they want to deter Putin from strategic moves
    • One name for this tactic is conditional repression, and while it’s hard to know if targeted sanctions ever work, there’s lots of evidence it works at lower levels, against drug cartels and city gangs
    • That said, it’s hard to say how painful sanctions will be for Putin—“Sanctions will hurt us, especially gas and oil industry. The problem is that the Kremlin might be not very interested in what industries say.” my colleague Konstantin Sonin told NPR
  • All this is why both articles suggest that the US and Europe are going to have to live with painful concessions: an indefinite or permanent delay in Ukraine’s NATO admission, autonomy for the Donbas region, and the like.

If you are interested in the social science behind all this, I have a book for you.

Image from Al Jazeera

Does buying organic save lives?

Image from The Atlantic

Pesticides are linked to negative health outcomes, but a causal relationship is difficult to establish due to nonrandom pesticide exposure. I use a peculiar ecological phenomenon, the mass emergence of cicadas in 13 and 17-year cycles across the eastern half of the US, to estimate the short and long-term impacts of pesticides. With a triple-difference setup that leverages the fact that cicadas only damage tree crops and not agricultural row crops, I show that insecticide use increases with cicada emergence in places with high apple production. Exposed cohorts experience higher infant mortality and adverse health impacts, followed by lower test scores and higher dropout rates. I exploit geo-spatial sources of variation and find evidence for pesticide exposure through a water channel. Moderate levels of environmental pollution, not just extreme exposure, can affect human health and development. The study design, which encompasses the entire chemical era of US agriculture since 1950, provides insights into the regulation of pesticides in the US and globally.

That is Charles Taylor, a job market candidate from Columbia’s Sustainable Development PhD program, in his brilliantly titled paper, Cicadian Rhythm: Insecticides, Infant Health and Long-term Outcomes.

His cost-benefit analysis on the value of buying organic (in brief):

Applying my results to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, 556 infant deaths can be attributed to insecticides in the limited context of apple production and cicadas, equating to a total welfare loss of $5.3 billion using the EPA’s value of statistical life of $9.6 million (2020 dollars),1 or $81 million annually from 1950 to 2016. The annual value of apple production in the sample counties ranged from $500 million to $1 billion in recent decades, so this cicada-driven response of infant mortality to insecticides could account for 8-16% of apple production value. For reference, organic apples cost 5-10% more to produce than conventional ones (Taylor and Granatstein 2013), suggesting that organic production may be cheaper after accounting for the social cost of insecticides. However, apple production in the eastern US accounts for only 0.5% of US pesticide use, so if these effects scale across other crops, the total welfare cost of insecticides could be 200x larger

Image from The Atlantic.

PhD applicants: Writing your statement of purpose

I’ve read a lot of personal statements for PhD applications. I sat on admissions at UChicago, Columbia, and Yale, mostly in economics, political science, and public policy. Here’s the advice I’ve given my own students and research assistants to craft their statements. I give it because, sadly, I don’t find most statements helpful. This means they are not helping you, the applicant.

As with all my advice posts, it’s important that students outside elite colleges get this information, so here are some personal thoughts.

[Note: You can now subscribe by email to receive posts to your inbox.]

First, let’s clarify your number one job as an applicant: Send the best, clearest signal of your abilities as a future researcher, and minimize the noise around that signal. I explain why in a longer post on whether and how you should apply to PhD programs (including the other elements of an application packet):

the fundamental problems in graduate admissions are “information overload” and “noise”. For every slot in a PhD program, there are probably 30 to 50 applicants. A department that plans to have a class of 20 students may receive 1000 applications.

Meanwhile, most departments delegate admissions to a small committee of two to six faculty. They don’t have time to read 1000 applications in detail. And the committee may change every year. Thus, their experience may be limited. And you never know who will be on the committee or what they care about. This adds further randomness.

These faculty want to admit the most talented and creative young researchers who will push the field ahead. And they also want you to pass all the most technical classes, because they hate kicking students out. So the admissions committee are looking for strong signals of intelligence, creativity, determination, and other proclivities for research.

But this is hard. There are too many applications. Applicants don’t have many good ways to signal quality. All applicants are trying to send the same signals. And there is a ton of uncertainty around each signal. Hence: Information overload and noise.

Yet most schools as for a written statement of some kind. Sometimes they ask for both a biographical statement and a research statement. What do they want and what should you write?

  1. Don’t tell your life story. This statement is not an undergrad entry essay where you describe your life’s trials and tribulations, or your journey to wanting to do a PhD. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that it’s probably not relevant to judging your ability as a researcher. If it is, then weave that into the narrative around your research interests and plans. We have hundreds of these things to read and so you only want to focus on the most important information.
  2. Don’t be cliché. Do not start your with your epiphany—the day the scales fell from your eyes and you realized you wanted to be a professor, or were inspired tackle big questions and social issues. Especially if it involves a child in a poor country. This approach is overused and unoriginal, and the information does not help us judge whether you will be a great researcher (see point 1).
  3. Most material is unnecessary and unhelpful; delete it. Be information dense. Every sentence should communicate important ideas and information about your abilities as a researcher. You see, there are so many applications that readers are looking for an excuse to stop reading or skip a paragraph. Busy people will look at your statement for for 20 seconds. If its information dense they will look at it for for 45 or maybe 60 seconds. Every time you give banal information, it is another reason to stop reading. Some examples of things you should avoid:
    • Platitudes about wanting to be a professor or researcher
    • Generic or flattering statements about being excited to join a program, your admiration for the faculty, etc.
    • Unspecific interests in a research subject or field
    • Routine information such as “I am graduating in May…”
    • Filler sentences like “Please find enclosed…”
  4. The reader should immediately understand what kind of scholar you want to be. I recommend that he first 1-2 paragraphs of your statement do the following:
    • Start with your broad fields of interest (e.g. “I am principally interested in labor and development economics” or “I want to work at the intersection of comparative politics and international relations”)
    • Then give 2-3 examples of broad topics and questions that interest you. (“I’m interested in studying inefficiencies in labor markets, especially market power and monopsony. I’m also interested in…”)
    • You can also describe who you would like to work with in the department and why this is a good fit. Sometimes I suggest putting this at the end, after the specific research proposal. Wherever you put this, make sure that most of the faculty you mention:
      • Are tenure or tenure-track faculty
      • Have their primary appointment in the department you are applying to
      • Are actually there and take students (i.e. they didn’t retire last year, etc.)
  5. Then develop 1-2 of these ideas as specifically as possible. This is the core of your statement. The idea is not to say “this is what I will do for my dissertation”. No applicant knows that. The goal is to show that you know how to ask an answer an interesting and innovative research question. This is hard to do (because you don’t yet have a PhD) but doing it well is a good signal of your creativity, knowledge of the field, and potential as a researcher.
    • You could discuss two ideas in moderate depth, or one idea in greater depth. Either way, I recommend this research discussion be 40-60% of your entire statement.
    • Ideally this is a question or topic of current interest in the field. One thing I often see is that students are focussed on the research frontier 10 years ago (because those are the papers they read in their classes) and are not clued in to some of the current puzzled and priorities. This is hard to avoid, but some reading and your advisors should be able to help you avoid this.
    • The best discussions will (if empirical) identify interesting data and discuss plausible empirical strategies. This is difficult, which is why it is a good signal if you do it well.
    • It’s important to locate your question in the literature without overdoing that discussion. Try to motivate the question with reference to recent and recognizable research papers and agendas. If you are mainly citing articles with few citations, in lower-ranked journals, this is a sign that you need to link your idea to bigger debates in the field, or perhaps rethink the question you are proposing.
    • This is (in my experience) the most crucial section for most social science departments. Except possibly economics. It’s not clear how seriously many departments take your statement in economics, and some of my colleagues profess to never look at the statement. That may be true, but some will look, and you have to have a statement, so I suggest following this advice to make it a research proposal.
  6. Only if necessary, give information that might help us understand any apparent weaknesses or puzzles in your application. Some examples:
    • Why you studied physics but now are doing political science
    • What happened in that single bad semester on your transcript
    • How to interpret your foreign GPA, and where you ranked in your class
    • Clarify your classes if they have off names (e.g. “My class called XX was a Real Analysis class using textbook X, and so I have all the mathematical requirements for entry.”
  7. Get help. Your letter writers, professors you work for, or PhD student you know can read and give feedback on your statements. Ask them for their advice. Do this early–a couple months before the application, ideally. they can help you frame your question in a more interesting way, decide what papers to mention, or what is or is not frontier.
  8. Don’t be repetitive. This is not the place to restate your CV (“First I worked for Professor… and then I worked for…”). They have your CV. Use this document to do something no other in your application can do. Only mention work or other experience if you can add essential, high-density information the reader cannot get elsewhere in the application packet. Maybe you picked up specific technical skills working on a project that relate to the research proposal you just described? If not, you don’t have to say anything at all about your past. Just let the research proposal speak for itself.
  9. Delete useless words and sentences! After you have deleted all the plartitudes and routine sentences (see point 3) keep deleting! Every extraneous word or sentence lowers the average quality of the document. Look for the least useful paragraphs. Delete them, or at least cut most of that material. Try to make a 6-line paragraph 4 lines. Try to make a 15-word sentence 10 words.
    1. I recommend using the Hemingway Editor as a tool to write more clearly. Some long and complex sentences are ok, but sparingly. And they can often be improved. Aim for a grade 10 reading level.
  10. Make it easy to skim and read quickly. In particular:
    • Use active voice
    • Omit needless material and words (see points 3 and 9)
    • Limit jargon
    • Each paragraph should be a distinct idea
    • Paragraphs should have a hierarchical structure, with the big idea or general point as the first topic sentence, and the rest of the paragraph elaborates. Someone should be able to get an “executive summary” but simply reading the first line in every paragraph. they should make sense as a story/summary.
    • Use subheadings if possible, to delineate sections such as your broad fields of interest (point 4), your research proposal (point 5), and other key information (point 6)

This is just my view. Other professors will have different preferences and advice here. So ask them. Get more opinions. Or put your advice in the comments below.

Best nonfiction I read this year, Part I

It must be four or five years since I last blogged. I’m going to test the engine a little, see if the thing starts up again, and how far I feel like running it. I’ll start with some favorite books of the past year, blurred as that period may be. I will highlight some today, more in a few days, and some fiction after that.

If any of this interests you, I’ve made the newsletter function of the blog easier to use. Sign up to get email delivery of posts as they happen. I decided against going the paid newsletter route for various reasons (surely the subject of a future blog piece), and so there will be no fees, no gated articles, and no ads. Just a handful of posts each week in your inbox.

As for books, all my nonfiction picks of the year have a few things in common: they were mostly written long before 2021; they were subjects I knew little about; they revolutionized how I thought about the subject; and they were beautifully written and appropriately organized throughout. I finished all of these books because they demanded to be finished. The pace seldom become slow, the level of detail was just right, and it was clear that every chapter mattered. This is rare!

But before getting to them, a few things that are not on my list.

  • Some of the best books I read (or reread) this year were on the social science of what makes good public policy. I won’t talk about them here, since I am thinking about a series of posts (or a book club, or a short online course, or something). For now you can see the readings on my How to Change the World syllabus.
  • Sadly, there are also no books on Chinese political and economic history, though not for lack of trying. I read some amazing articles (another post I hope to write) but struck out on books. I tried reading about 10 economic or political histories. Sometimes the first chapter was excellent (presumably because this is where the author or editor spent the most time). Then the book plodded along, poorly written or providing excessive detail. I don’t like to name names, so I will not tell you which ones I disliked, but I will happily take recommendations of books to try. (Yuen Yuen Ang’s books are still on my to-read list, and I am most optimistic about those. I also saw Noah Smith’s recent post, and I know and like several of those on his list, but I was browsing more academic stuff, which could be my mistake.)
  • Finally, despite the fact that I spent most of the year reading about wars, there is only one book on conflict here. Most I read were good, and necessary if I was going to cover the whole subject in my book. But with one exception, none of the volumes individually rose to the level of a great read for a general audience. So, for those of you who do not share my obsession with violence, this list is for you.

Continue reading

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


A quick note, my posting frequency has slowed down in 2021, thanks for sticking with it. One reason has been that I’ve been co-authoring another set of links with my brilliant IPA colleagues, Luciana Debenedetti & Rachel Strohm, every other week focused on new research on COVID and social protection (this week’s is here). Among other, I think I also hit what I now realize was a quarantine burnout. If it’s helpful to anybody else, this article which colleagues shared with me helped me realize it was widespread phenomenon, and this one from Wharton’s Adam Grant, had some suggestions for combating it. In any case, I’ll be continuing with the links (even if at a slightly slower pace sometimes), and thanks for reading! 


  • I haven’t mentioned it in a while, but I always owe a big thanks to my colleague Cara Vu, the busiest person I know at IPA in the U.S., who’s been editing these links and saves me from embarrassing mistakes in every post.
  • A new study finds 71-77% efficacy of a new Malaria vaccine in a phase 2 trial with 450 children in Burkina Faso. The vaccine will now proceed to a larger trial.
  • You may recall last fall there was an AER article (ungated version here) by Abel Brodeur, Nikolai Cook & Anthony Heyes estimating p-hacking prevalence across different methods in econ, using 21,000 hypotheses tests in 25 journals. They concluded that some methods (looking at you, IV) were more prone to p-hacking than others, but also that overall econ compared favorably to other disciplines. I didn’t see at the time, but one of the team that coined the term p-hacking and started the replicability/credibility movement in psych and was one of the reviewers of the article, Uri Simonsohn, who was one of the reviewers of the article, had a detailed post about why he disagrees with their conclusion.
  • In this cool paper (from November) Karthik Muralidharan & Abhijeet Singh, looked at a school improvement program in India that sounded good (implementing management best practices), but an RCT showed had no effect on learning. Despite that, it was scaled up to 600,000 schools, and still appeared to have no effect on learning. What it did do though, they found in qualitative interviews, was give the appearance that schools were innovating and improving, and the authors suggest that may be where incentives really lie.
  • This seems to parallel this accusation by UN aid coordinator Mark Lowcock, that aid agencies are failing because they’re not really listening to what the people suffering really need. They can send what they want/have handy/theorize would be good, even if refugees end up trying to sell what they’ve been sent, because of misaligned incentives:

    “Ultimately, organisations or decision-makers can choose to listen to people and be responsive, or they can choose not to. There are no real consequences for the choice they make. There are weak incentives to push them in the right direction.”

It’s unclear if he also means the agency he was in charge of, but Ilya Gridneff calls this pattern the development sector’s “self-licking ice cream cone
Lowcock proposes an independent body to listen to what humanitarian beneficiaries actually need and grade aid agencies on whether they’re delivering it.

  • A nicer ed story though, from Aker & Ksoll; a simple phone call to adults enrolled in a literacy program in Niger (weekly calls to the students and teachers in the class, along with village chiefs), increased learning and how long those learning gains lasted. They think the calls encouraged the teachers to be more prepared for class and reduced student dropouts.
  • A nice look at how Vietnam kept COVID death rates so low, and also grew its economy in 2020 raises some uncomfortable points:
    • Strict border closures (particularly early with China), seemed to work, defying the mantra that viruses know no borders (one source points out that was an assumed truth not really tested). Karen Grépin says those restrictions work well early, when there are few cases and the response seems like overkill.
    • The single party communist government harnessed its existing surveillance system for disease monitoring and tracking. (Though countries like Taiwan and New Zealand also accomplished containment through different means.)
    • It’s possible that their cyber spying on China got them better data about the disease and earlier than was publicly available
  • How a bad social science study ended up making the Vietnam war worse.
  • An interesting NPR story on a new paper about disease surveillance that upends a popular myth. Many viruses like COVID-19 start in animals and jump to humans, but it’s not a one-time deal. The virus usually jumps several times, often over decades, before a version evolves that can spread from human-to human. (The other versions might be catchable from the animal and can make a person sick but don’t spread in the human population). Surveilling groups of sick people, which they’re doing in Malaysia, can find those sick with an early new virus, potentially before it’s transmissible between humans.
  • The BBC “People Fixing the World” podcast had a couple of episodes on research-driven impact: satellite data for identifying needy cash beneficiaries in Togo (Apple) with Josh Blumenstock, and a nice story on World Bicycle Relief (Apple) with a lot of on the ground reporting from Zambia and Ana Garcia Hernandez discussing the RCT of giving bicycles to schoolgirls in rural areas. (For more, here are study summaries on cash & bikes.)
  • Jobs:
  • Funding available from IFPRI ($25,000-$200,000) for research on cash transfers and intimate partner violence in low- and middle-income countries (deadline July 9th)