IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Data and computer algorithms are playing a part in policy decisions, like bail or parole recommendations based on a computer’s recidivism guesses. Pro Publica and WNYC have an interesting series on “Machine Bias” – what happens when data-based algorithms are mistaken. They’re crowdsourcing a test of how accurate what Facebook thinks it knows about you is. Use their Chrome extension to help anonymously. (h/t Alex Goldmark)
  • Some practical tips from my financial inclusion colleagues for setting up conferences where academics and real-world types actually communicate (it’s short and you can skip to the bullet points).
  • Brazil is starting “race committees” to determine who has enough African heritage to qualify for affirmative action. One government job applicant tried to prove he was Black enough, he:

went to seven dermatologists who used something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. The last doctor even had a special machine.

“Apparently on my face I’m a Type 4. Which would be like Jennifer Lopez or Dev Patel, Frida Pinto [sic] or John Stamos. On my limbs I would be Type 5, which is Halle Berry, Will Smith, Beyonce and Tiger Woods,” he said.

  • World Bank Presiden Jim Yong Kim plans on naming and shaming countries with high child growth stunting (e.g. malnutrition) who aren’t using proving methods for addressing the massive problem:

     

    The problem is huge. In India 38.7% of children are stunted, in Pakistan 45% and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 70%.

It becomes even worse when you consider the future of work is in skilled jobs, and kids in poor countries are starting out with lifetime cognitive deficits.

 

Neuroscientist and data guy John Borghi points to one table from 1959 that explains psychology’s current replication crisis*:replicationcrisis1959

* (Many more fields have replication crises, psychology’s the one that seems to be dealing with it)

 

More sweatshops for Africa?

img_0536After six long years, my randomized trial of factory jobs is at last public. Here is today’s coverage in Vox:

In the past several decades, manufacturing jobs have fled the developed world for the developing world. Obviously, that’s profoundly reshaped the economies of developing countries like China and Bangladesh. But what does that mean for the ordinary people that are doing the work — often for incredibly low wages?

Answering this question can be tricky. Large-scale data — like a nation’s poverty rate or GDP — can help us give a general sense of trade’s effect on growth and the poor. The problem is it can often be tough to figure out what low-wage manufacturing, specifically, adds to a country’s economy. It’s even harder to drill down and measure the impact on those employed in the factories.

Enter economists Chris Blattman of the University of Chicago and Stefan Dercon of Oxford University. They came up with an interesting way of answering this question: Run a random, controlled experiment.

Normally, economists can’t do stuff like this: You can’t exactly run a lab test on an economy. But Blattman and Dercon convinced five companies in Ethiopia to hire people at random from a group of consenting participants, and then tracked the effects on their incomes and health. That way, you could pretty clearly figure out the effects of taking a low-wage manufacturing job on actual people.

The Vox article is a nice summary. So is the paper summary at IPA. Here is the academic paper.

To sum up the findings I’d say this:

  • Most people who applied for these factory jobs didn’t like them or intend to stay, rather the jobs were low paid and unpleasant and used as a safety net of sorts, while people looked for other entrepreneurial activities or less difficult wage work
  • Taking a factory job didn’t give you higher or more steadier incomes, because the firms gave steadier hours but at significantly lower wages that people’s other opportunities (it’s a relatively frictionless, competitive market)
  • But the health risks of industrial work were high (think chemicals and dirty air, for example) and there’s evidence that serious health problems doubled if you took the factory job: Chances of a chronic health issue went up 1 percentage point for every month in an industrial firm!

So these Ethiopian factory jobs offered a risky safety net, mostly for poor young women.

When you gave them $300 cash, meanwhile, they started a small business and earnings went up by a third (I couldn’t help myself–I had to do this comparison).

The last line of the Vox article illustrates why I love their coverage. Can you imagine many newspapers saying “it’s complicated” when writing about this subject, especially on something in Africa?

So perhaps the most fundamental takeaway is that we need to have a more nuanced picture of globalization’s effect on the global poor. Instead of thinking in binary terms, we need to separate out the ways globalization has benefited the poor versus the way it hurts them.

Something as complicated as globalization is never going to be just good or just bad. We need to divide the good and the bad, and figure out how to address the latter without eliminating the former.

Graph of the Day: The International Development Jargon Detector

screenshot-2016-09-28-12-19-30A few weeks ago I mentioned the International Development Jargon Detector. In an effort to make this blog more inclusive, and build blogging capacity among the stakeholders of this site, I said that if someone graphed different aid organizations against one another on the jargon-meter, I would happily blog that.

The Economics That Really Matters blog is holding me accountable, and the beneficiary of that is intern Jeong Hyun Lee, who made many interesting graphs, including the figure above. Strategically or not, IFPRI appears to be the worst offender. I trust it will have the desired impact, which is for none of you to use these words in your writing.

Links I liked

  1. Inside the race for the new UN Secretary General
  2. A skeptical take on Seymour Hersh’s argument that Bin Laden was being hidden by the ISI and the Saudis
  3. Winning the lottery makes you more likely to vote for incumbent politicians
  4. the Führer, by Ohler’s account, was an absolute junkie with ruined veins by the time he retreated to the last of his bunkers
  5. Hungarian anti-Semitic leader moves to Israel after learning he is a Jew (at least he’s somewhat consistent in his nationalism)

Links I liked

  1. Angus Deaton and Nancy Cartwright release their essay, “Understanding and Misunderstanding Randomized Controlled Trials,” containing many important messages, not least of which include “don’t underestimate imbalance”, “don’t overestimate generalizability”, and “don’t forget that all that matters is changing our theory of how the world works”
  2. GiveWell is hiring a senior fellow
  3. This is what Dan Drezner thinks Nate Silver’s models miss (and why he is sanguine about Hillary)
  4. One thing the sites are not intended to do is to help women seek out multiple husbands — a practice known as polyandry. This is not because Mr. Chaiwala opposes the idea, he said, but because it is ‘not a viable business proposition.’
  5. Most pro-Hillary videos make supporters feel good about themselves without convincing anyone else, but here is an attempt to sway millennials by having a silly number of famous people act ironic (where Don Cheadle gets the best line), and here is a short, sometimes funny video of Zach Galifianakis interviewing Clinton, where he saves the best for last
  6. Like many colleagues, I’ve gotten my FINAL opportunity to sign a short and unimpressive list of economists “concerned” by Clinton’s economic agenda, but while my first response was to snicker and sneer, my second was to wonder how many are afraid to say they dislike Clinton because they fear the consequences from their academic colleagues

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“Don’t you Harvard people have enough sense to be scared?”

From Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer of U.S. Presidents:

L.B.J. had his amphibious car when he was president. He tricked me and took me in his car one day, and the Secret Service collaborated with him. L.B.J., behind the wheel, warned me, “Be careful, we’re going toward a lake. The brakes aren’t working.” Well, we go into the lake: the car became a boat. Then he got so mad at me because I didn’t get scared. I’d figured, He’s not going to die. And he said, “Don’t you Harvard people have enough sense to be scared?”

From an exit interview she conducted with Obama. Hat tip to Kottke.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest Post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • IPA’s looking to fund research in financial services for the poor (especially digital ones), deadline Nov 4th.
  • José A. Quiñonez of the Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco was named a MacArthur Fellow (or “genius”) for his work formalizing informal lending among immigrants to create credit histories, which in turn gives them access to credit cards, loans, and the like.
  • Bruce Wydick and colleagues’ second paper from an RCT evaluating the effects of TOMS shoes in El Salvador came out, concluding:

Thus, in a context where most children already own at least one pair of shoes, the overall impact of the shoe donation program appears to be negligible, illustrating the importance of more careful targeting of in-kind donation programs.

They found no evidence that the program improved food security, and there were some indications that the program decreased the food security of non-beneficiaries living in the same communities as program participants.

When a big or well-known program is evaluated and turns out not to have a detectable effect, I’m always impressed at the guts of the org/government who agreed to an independent evaluation and to make it public for others to learn from it as well. Bruce has written eloquently about this in the TOMS case here and here.

(And if your problem with TOMS was the style, there’s a new socially-minded shoe on the block you’re not going to like.)

  • Under the guise of looking at the Clinton Foundation, Dylan Matthews tells the behind the scenes story of how the Clinton Global Health Initiative saved millions of lives by helping convince pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of HIV drugs in poor countries, which involved radically changing their business model. It’s easy to forget that HIV treatment used to cost $10,000/yr for one person.
  • A somewhat technical but pretty good data detective story about how investigative journalists responded when the water utility in L.A. wouldn’t tell them who was using millions of extra gallons of water during the drought. They used satellite and GIS data to unmask “The Wet Prince of Bel Air.”
  • Lots of great links I didn’t have room for on the Development Impact Blog today.

Proof that 6-year-olds are better at policy than most politicians, (and probably better at appropriate use of Skittles):

 

Photo credit above: Tugela Ridley

What do you do when an autocratic war criminal who has also pulled his country from poverty wants to shake your hand?

Paul Kagame came to my campus today. I did not condemn my university for inviting him and I did not boycott him. Instead I shook his hand and I smiled at him and I thanked him for sharing his thoughts with us. Because I needed to hear him to confirm what, as a historian, I have long suspected – we’ve seen his kind before. And, apologies Mr. Kagame, but you know that – because you correctly condemn my country for minding its own business in April, May and June 1994. People like you are our business precisely because people who tell others to mind their own business tend to be the sorts of people who leave bodies in their wake. And bodies and human suffering are the cursed currency of history, as Paul Kagame’s Rwanda has taught and regrettably continues to teach.

That is Dan Magaziner, a Yale historian of 20th century Africa. I had to hold back from posting his full piece, but it is excellent. Read it in full.

The most interesting and talented new blogger I have read in years

“I’m scared to post this” she begins.

Erin, a self-described Southern white lady and stay-at-home mom, decides to tackle race in America (including the Kaepernick won’t-stand-during-anthem controversy) in what appears to be her fourth week of blogging. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a brand new blogger. We are a dying species. But she is very, very good. Here is the crescendo:

Clemson’s football coach, Dabo Swinney, made a speech yesterday about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, about his choice to remain seated during the National Anthem. I realize that down where I live, to question Dabo isn’t just treasonous, but downright sinful, but here’s my problem. He didn’t condemn Kaepernick. He just said that his protest wasn’t at the right time or place. He said that our problem was sin, not racism. And on the surface, that’s pretty innocuous. He’s being lauded by nearly everyone I know as an example of what humans should be like.

However.

I wonder when, exactly, is the right time for a protest. I wonder where, exactly, is the right place.

He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He held him up as an example to which we should all aspire. But maybe he forgot about some things. He seems to have forgotten Dr. King’s 13 arrests. Maybe he never learned about the death threats Dr. King and his family received, year after year of his peaceful protests. Dabo wasn’t there, I assume, when people called for Dr. King’s blood. I certainly wasn’t. But I can read. I paid attention in history class. Those incidents are well-documented. It’s just more comfortable to forget, I guess.

What I really want to say is that you need to decide what it is that you want.

“We wouldn’t mind peaceful protests.”

(Okay. We’ll forget for a minute that this is being said by the same country that arrested, beat, tear gassed, and set actual fire to peaceful protesters not all that long ago. Okay. That can’t be used as evidence by the jury. Didn’t happen. It was all hand-holding and rainbows and everyone recognized Dr. King as a saint from Day One, and immediately saw him as the force that would unite our country forever. Nobody threw books at little girls just for walking into school. No one poured acid into swimming pools because black people were swimming in them. Nobody lynched anybody. Nobody set fire to any churches. White America collectively opened their eyes, all at the same time, and said, “Holy gee whiz! You DON’T want fewer rights? Our bad! Won’t happen again!”)

So. Since you said, “We wouldn’t mind peaceful protests,” that’s what Colin Kaepernick did. You actually can’t get much more peaceful than that. He just sat. He didn’t yell. He didn’t hold up a sign. He didn’t throw punches or set fire to anything. He just sat.

America collectively lost its mind over this.

“We wouldn’t mind peaceful protests, just not like that. It was the wrong time and place. It was inappropriate. It was disrespectful. It was distracting.”

People are burning his jersey. Boycotting his team. Using his name as a swear word. He is vilified and called a disgrace. People are FURIOUS. But he did EXACTLY WHAT YOU SAID YOU WOULD BE TOTALLY FINE WITH.

Read the full thing. And other posts.

Soros is offering $500 million to save the Skittles

Here he is in the WSJ.

In response, I have decided to earmark $500 million for investments that specifically address the needs of migrants, refugees and host communities. I will invest in startups, established companies, social-impact initiatives and businesses founded by migrants and refugees themselves. Although my main concern is to help migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, I will be looking for good investment ideas that will benefit migrants all over the world.

If you don’t get the Skittles reference, then you missed the Twitter brouhaha of the last 24 hours. The Guardian’s round up is the appropriate level of introduction. But I’ll get you started:

screenshot-2016-09-20-11-11-02I will take a different tack than most, and say that Trump’s logic is valid, but his numbers are not. Probably it is more like one in ten thousand Skittles is poisonous, but for every twenty Skittles you eat a dying child lives. I will funnel Skittles for those odds.

Dani Rodrik on how and why we should roll back globalization

After Brexit and Trump, I expect more people will listen.

We must reassess the balance between national autonomy and economic globalization. Simply put, we have pushed economic globalization too far — toward an impractical version that we might call “hyperglobalization.”

The transition to hyperglobalization is associated with two events in particular: the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s decision in 1989 to remove all restrictions on cross-border financial flows, and the establishment in 1995, after almost a decade of negotiations, of the World Trade Organization, with wide-ranging implications for domestic health and safety rules, subsidies and industrial policies.

The new model of globalization stood priorities on their head, effectively putting democracy to work for the global economy, instead of the other way around. The elimination of barriers to trade and finance became an end in itself, rather than a means toward more fundamental economic and social goals. Societies were asked to subject domestic economies to the whims of global financial markets; sign investment treaties that created special rights for foreign companies; and reduce corporate and top income taxes to attract footloose corporations.

That is Dani Rodrik in the New York Times.

I am reminded of this EconTalk podcast with MIT’s David Autor, where he talks about his work on the impact of Chinese manufacturing on US workers.

I’m increasingly persuaded that the OECD, NAFTA, the WTO, and so forth, led to a much more rapid change in work and production than anticipated–too rapid for most workers to adjust to. The shift benefited some, especially the previously poor exporting countries, and wealthy white collar consumers like me. Meanwhile, we haven’t any good ways to compensate losers in this sudden shift. Not that they want to be compensated. For the most part they’d probably like to work.

I don’t object to the end state, I see a good argument for going more slowly. I don’t see very many policy prescriptions for doing so, at least ones that are wise to the fact that individual countries will always try to privilege themselves at the expense of their neighbors. I like Dani’s suggested directions. But I don’t see how any new set of rules or negotiations would tackle a fundamental problem: that those with power will use it to advantage themselves.

This is what I would do if I were graduating from my PhD today

In the 1960s, young PhD graduates interested in sub-Saharan Africa headed to the continent to teach and engage in academic life there. One of my PhD advisers, David Leonard, taught in Dar Es Salaam for a few years when it was the intellectual hub for emigres and revolutionaries and future Presidents. He went on to become a Professor at Berkeley. Two of my senior colleagues at Yale, David Apter and Bill Foltz, spent time working and teaching in Africa in the early years of Independence before going on to distinguished careers. I tried my best to soak up some of their stories before they passed away early into my time at Yale. It’s hard to imagine their later success without their early unorthodox choice.

When I graduated in 2007, this option was much less attractive. Most African countries were growing, but their universities struggled for a lack of funding, swollen student rolls, and discontent. Few universities seemed to be the sources of intellectual vibrancy in their country.

In Liberia, for example, the President’s office seemed more dynamic. In East Africa it was the newspapers where I thought the more vibrant work was going on. None were paths that fit for me. I figured I could do more good, for others but also for me, by taking a US post-doc and job and spending a few months a year abroad. But I missed my chance to immerse myself in a place. Visiting for weeks or even months was no substitute.

I’m happy to say that I think this is changing. Here is one example:

The African School of Economics (ASE) invites applications for postdoctoral fellowships starting in January and September 2017. Postdoctoral positions are contracted for a duration of 6 months to a year; appointments can be renewed for an additional semester or a year. Successful candidates will be required to teach at least one course and to engage in research activities in ASE’s research institutes (Institute for Research in Political Economy (IERPE) and Institute for Finance and Management (IFM)).

The ASE was started by Princeton political economist Leonard Wantchekon and strikes me as one of the more important educational experiments on the continent. I urge newly minted PhD students to apply.

And if you are a donor organization, I urge you to take a close look and consider fostering what I think will become the training ground for the continent’s 21st century leaders.

Q: “What did you learn today?” A: “I learned not to f*ck with a Google manager”.

Ali Afshar is a manager at Google, a physician, and a pretty heroic concerned citizen:

…when I saw a man in his twenties muttering to himself, handcuffed and surrounded by 4 white male police officers on El Camino, in Northern California. As a physician, I have a duty (shit, I swore an actual oath) to preserve the health of all humans. There was no way I was going to drive past this situation without making sure that guy was going to be fine.

As I pulled over to ask if the gentleman was OK, I was immediately threatened with a ticket for blocking traffic. I re-parked my car legally and returned. My exact words were “I want to help to make sure this guy is OK”. The officers were aggressive and angry, instantly.

“Show me your ID?”

“Why?”

“Show me your ID! You must obey an officer.”

“I haven’t done anything, I need to know he is OK, and I will be on my way”

“He is resisting arrest!” Shouted one of them.

“What?”

And before I knew it, I was face first on the sidewalk. I didn’t fight or protest or resist — I’m a nerdy non-violent type, and then things started to get really weird.

“He is fighting” one shouted as he planted his knee in my lumbar spine.

“I am not fighting, I am calm”

“He is resisting arrest!”

“No I am not”

They were running this weird fake dialog in the background.

“The ID looks fake” As he bent it and tried to scratch the numbers off of my CA driving license.

“Look it is bent”

“You just bent it”

“Definitely a fake ID, we have to take him in”

And then, weirdly someone grabbed my left middle finger and bent it back as far as it would go. Then my right ankle.

“Why would you bend my finger back?”

“Because you are resisting arrest.”

By now I am bleeding below my right eye (thanks for smacking my bespectacled eyes into the pavement) and my elbow has some road burn on it. I can’t move because of the pain in my lumbar spine and of course I have bilateral torn deltoids from cuffing procedure. I have not resisted or shown aggression in the slightest. It was obvious that there had been a collective decision to “teach this guy a lesson”…

“I hope you learned something today”

“Yes sir, I learned that everything I read and hear about the corrupt and criminal police departments in this country is fact. I have seen it for myself.”

Wrong answer, I guess, because he put me in the back of his car and started driving me to the police station.

“You are going to jail”.

“Why?”.

“Resisting arrest.”

“Arrest for what?”

“Disobeying an officer.”

“If you asked me to jump off a bridge do I have to do it?”

“Did I ask you to jump off of a bridge?”

Fair point I guess.

“Why can’t I just go home.”

“Because we have procedures, otherwise people will think we beat you for nothing.”

“So you admit you beat me for nothing?”

“No, that’s the procedure.”

“Have you seen the videos of police shooting black guys for no reason?”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you see on YouTube.”

“I want a lawyer.”

I was out within an hour. The best they could do was a citation for driving without a seat belt (in addition to resisting/delaying arrest). But only after I answered the question “what did you learn today?” with “I learned not to interfere with police business”.

Correct answer.

But you know what? Fuck you.

More from Ali. Hat tip @felipehoffa

This reminds me of a quote from a police officer I recently read (I wish I could remember where). He was bemoaning the fact that some people will not listen to him. If a criminal with a gun told you to to give him your wallet, he said, you would give him your wallet. Why wouldn’t you listen to a gun toting officer with just the same obedience.

To me there are a dozen ready answers, including “you are not a criminal”, “you defend the peace not command obedience from all citizens”, or “the fourth amendment”. But these are all things the police officer knows. But that police officer is safer, more comfortable, and convenienced by obedience, so not surprisingly desires it.

There might be something universal about the human condition going on here (the Standford prison experiments come to mind). But I don’t think the police in other developed countries are nearly as likely to expect and demand obedience. There’s an important difference in police culture. Also, in most of these countries you do not have concealed carry laws. The police here bear risks I can’t begin to imagine. I don’t pretend to know the answer.

I would welcome suggested readings or people to talk to. As it happens, figuring out the answer to this is the job of a friend and colleague of mine in Colombia. There is a reasonable chance that good ideas will be studied and implemented in major cities. I promise to pass along good recommendations.

The most interesting email I received today (and why I’m learning less than I used to)

From my email inbox this morning, one of my research assistants reports issues on a large field experiment and crime victimization survey I am running in Colombia:

In Santa Fe the prostitutes and transvestites haven’t let enumerators do the surveys. The survey firm is contacting two leaders of this transvestites community they have worked with before, but the leaders are currently outside Bogota, so the survey firm is waiting for their return on the next few days.

One of the things I enjoy about my work is collecting data on populations that few people have tried to survey. Often the problems are more harrowing, for the subjects and my staff. The emails from Colombia are considerably better than the ones I got accustomed to trying to track ex-combatants in Liberia (“The Land Cruiser fell through a bridge again, but fortunately no one was seriously hurt”), working with street youth (“some of the research subjects got so enthusiastic they decided to stop drugs, and so we’ve had to turn one of the vehicles into an ambulance”) or an African country not to be named (“Yesterday one of the field mangers was arrested by the secret police”).

One of the underappreciated aspects of running large surveys, and especially field experiments, is having to deal with entirely unexpected logistical and political and economic problems. I now miss the pre-teaching, pre-toddler days when I got to do most of this myself, rather than pay assistants to do the really hard work.

In retrospect, these everyday problems of running a project were the most educational part of my research. Everything I know about weak states, crime, and violence came not from surveying bureaucrats or criminals or victims, but navigating problems with them in an attempt to get the study done.

I’ve said this before: field experiments will have a huge effect on international development not because they will give us clean treatment effects, but because the act of doing difficult things in the real world will change the way academics think the world works, and what the real problems are.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Eviction

  • How We Undercounted Evictions By Asking The Wrong Questions is a good story about good data gathering in FiveThirtyEight, and how persistent enumerators learning to count evictions in Milwaukee changed the way government measures evictions.
    • The follow-up today (both around Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond’s work), looks at why there’s far less government assistance for paying rent than you’d expect, given that the poor spend an outsized portion of their income on rent.
    • The answer is in Planet Money’s episode from a few months back, explaining that in part, government housing assistance was originally designed as a subsidy for the construction industry, not to meet the needs of the poor.
  • Sri Lanka is being declared malaria-free. They’d been down to 17 cases in 1963, and had slowed down, but by 1969 were back up to 500,000 cases. The aggressive strategy that worked despite a prolonged war and evolving parasite resistance, involved testing anybody coming into clinics or getting blood drawn for any reason, and going door to door in high-risk areas. (Short version in the NYTimes, more detailed in Indian Express).
  • Incoming World Bank chief economist Paul Romer has a paper calling out the entire field of macroeconomics:

    For more than three decades, macroeconomics has gone backwards. The treatment of identification now is no more credible than in the early 1970s but escapes challenge because it is so much more opaque. Macroeconomic theorists dismiss mere facts by feigning an obtuse ignorance about such simple assertions as “tight monetary policy can cause a recession.” Their models attribute fluctuations in aggregate variables to imaginary causal forces that are not influenced by the action that any person takes. A parallel with string theory from physics hints at a general failure mode of science that is triggered when respect for highly regarded leaders evolves into a deference to authority that displaces objective fact from its position as the ultimate determinant of scientific truth.

Exegesis on the paper from Dan Drezner.

  • Oxfam is launching a blog series, Real Geek (it’s an acronym) on the technical side of evaluation, giving people a window into their internal conversations. Even the logo has unnecessary math.

And if you saw the XKCD visualization on global temps, there’s a tiny methodological footnote (we don’t have good data on pre-industrial era temp so that dotted line uses computer modeled data and looks smoother than it probably is). However, it’s still quite effective, below if you haven’t seen it:

From XKCD: "[After setting your car on fire] The car's temperature has changed before"

Photo above via Flickr/urbanbohemian

Easily the most interesting things I read and heard in the last 24 hours

In the past couple of days I have tentatively returned to reading Twitter, Facebook and Reddit and, tellingly, none of these finds came from any form of social media. The third find is by far the best.

  1. Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan on “Who Is Kim Jong-un?” I’ve been loving Nathan’s contributions to the NYRB.
  2. Samantha Power’s idealist manifesto for US foreign policy, also in the NYRB. She tries to set this up as the counter to Kissinger’s realist approach. I agree somewhat. The US government’s selective support for democracy, mainly when it’s convenient, undermines the moral status that most Americans think we have. Even so, I don’t think you can argue the idealist approach on self-interest alone, which is what Power tries to do. I think you probably need to argue the idealist approach on principle. Self-interest will not get you there. I hope Power or someone Power-like will write the idealist manifesto soon. This one was too short and wishful than factful but, more importantly, felt politically calculated. I look forward to the day when she says “f*ck it all” and tells us what she really thinks.
  3. Ezra Klein interviews Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist. She spent months immersed in Tea Party and Trump culture in Lousiana, trying to bridge the gap in understanding and empathy. One of the most fascinating things I’ve listed to, and easily one of the most thoughtful discussions on American politics I’ve heard this year. I just bought her book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Some examples:
    • A conversation with a woman who explains that one of the reasons she loves Rush Limbaugh is that “he defends people like me”
    • The (less original insight) that the support is coming from people who (until recently) were in the demographic and moral and economic majority, and are seeing their position erode. This is not just emotionally hard, it feels demeaning. That provokes intense and powerful feelings.
    • Listening to people describe the feeling that they’ve been doing their best, and waiting in line for the American dream, and not only do they see other people (refugees, immigrants, young people) jumping the line, but the President is waving and smiling at the line jumpers, not helping the patient waiters. (and no, this is not necessarily the truth or the whole truth, but it’s the perceived truth, and that’s important to understand.

I am tempted to remain off Twitter so that I can engage more magazines, books, and podcasts. But I fear it will suck me in. Ezra Klein put it nicely, in another podcast I heard: humans seem to have become better at making habit forming things, and that the problem with Twitter is that it makes you feel the scarce resource is the tweets not your time. My first impressions from the return to social media is that the tweets are not worth the time, and that turning it off completely is the only real way to resist. We will see.

One more reason to be wistful of politics north of the border

In the midst of this US election season, I bring you the first and last time that Canada’s Rhinoceros Party was allowed to appear on national public broadcasting. Hat tip.

From Wikipedia, various elements of their platform over the years:

  • Providing higher education by building taller schools
  • Instituting English, French and illiteracy as Canada’s three official languages
  • The Queen of Canada would be seated in Buckingham, Quebec.
  • Rather than awarding money as prizes in the lottery, the winners would be appointed to the Canadian Senate.
  • Making the Trans-Canada Highway one way only.
  • Changing Canada’s currency to bubble gum, so it could be inflated or deflated at will.
  • Amending Canada’s Freedom of Information Act: “Nothing is free anymore; Canadians should have to pay for their information”.
  • Adopting the British system of driving on the left; this was to be gradually phased in over five years with large trucks and tractors first, then buses, eventually including small cars, and bicycles and wheelchairs last.

All the advice I have to give on how to do college right, whether you should go to grad school, where, and how to get in

It’s that time of year. Kids are starting college. Near graduates, terrified by the job market, are wondering whether they can just stay on for an MA. People who have been working for a few years have become wistful about going back for grad school. And many indulge dreams of starting a PhD.

Let’s start at the beginning, with 10 things not enough kids know about college, my post at Vox. There I tell you why you should to learn how write well, choose courses based on teachers not topics, and do more technical classes. But my most controversial point is don’t spend too much time on languages:

Languages are hugely important. And you should learn another (or many others) besides English. But I think they’re better learned in immersion, during your summers or before and after college. Maybe take an introductory course or two at university to get you started, or an advanced course or two to solidify what you already know, but only that.

Statistics are not more important than languages. But the opportunity cost of skipping a statistics course is high because it’s hard to find ways to learn statistics outside the university. Remember you only get 30 or 40 courses at university. There are a dozen other times and places you can learn a language. Arguably they’re better places to learn it too.

Related is how much economics should you study in college?

For people interested in professional careers in policy, I’ve recently updated this post on how to choose between Master’s programs. One of my favorite bits is this:

in the US I would be cautious with simple MA programs in political science and economics. These are usually money-making programs for the school and core faculty are seldom involved. There are exceptions, but I don’t know what ones are good or not. Since I’ve spent years teaching and on admissions committees at many good schools, that alone should tell you something about these MA programs.

Last, there are doctorates. I recently updated my PhD advice: Should you do a PhD, where, in what, and how to get admitted to a top school? Note this is mainly useful for people in my fields. Also, why you shouldn’t do field experiments for you dissertation.

I’m helping run admissions to the Chicago Harris PhD in Public Policy this year, so you will hear more from me on that. If you are interested in political economy of development, we aim to be the best. You can see some of the amazing action and people here. And we are recruiting some freaking amazing people right now. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, one of the weirdest things about my blog: the single most read post, visited by hundreds of people a day, every day (still!), is about when you’re too old for a PhD. I seem to have tapped into some deep well of angst on the Internet. And no, my answer is definitely not “you’re never too old.” This ain’t the Hallmark channel, people.

Finally, I give you the post that you could say started this blog: How to get a PhD and save the world. I’m still figuring that question out. Maybe the most important piece of advice: “Hang in there”:

In the first year of any grad program you will encounter a lot of required material that will feel too theoretical, too divorced from social change, and (occasionally) like too much nonsense. Much of it is good for you (see point 1), even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. After a year of metrics and micro theory, I was ready to run to the real world to do what I thought I really wanted to do. The best advice I ever got (from one of my pre-PhD advisers) was, “Shut up and hang in there; by your second to third year you will discover all the people doing interesting applied work soon enough and be free to work on whatever you want by your third year.” He was right.

Good luck.

Lessons from Francis Fukuyama in how to have real world impact

Joshua Yaffa has a good profile of two Ukrainian activists and journalists turned politicians–Mustafa Nayyem and Sergii Leshchenko–in The New Yorker. This bit jumped out at me:

After months of chaos, Nayyem was worn down, and in July, 2014, he left for California. He had been accepted into Stanford University’s annual summer course for activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and government officials from around the world. (Leshchenko had attended the summer before.) The program is led by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. “We teach them about the structures of democracy as if they were Stanford undergraduates—this is what different political systems look like, here is how you can effect political change,” Fukuyama told me. “Getting the dictator out is the easy part. The really difficult part is exercising power in a way that is legitimate and self-sustaining.” In Ukraine, he was certain, “unless you make that transition, the Maidan Revolution is going to fail, just as the Orange Revolution failed.”

Fukuyama urged Nayyem to go into politics, and introduced him to others who had made a similar transition. On his way back to Kiev, Nayyem stopped in Washington, and gave a talk at the National Endowment for Democracy. When asked whether he and others from Maidan were thinking of entering politics, he demurred, saying of Ukraine’s ruling class, “They will use us, but we don’t know how to use them.”

…When Nayyem returned to Kiev, he told Leshchenko about Fukuyama’s suggestion, and said that he was thinking of running for parliament. Leshchenko laughed, but in the coming days he and Nayyem talked about how the post-revolutionary rupture was likely to present a fleeting moment for outsiders to enter parliament—an opportunity that might never recur.