IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Alicia Munnell, a Harvard-trained economist who studies retirement policy, worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and served on the president’s Council of Economic Advisors realized she hadn’t saved sufficiently for retirement. Harvard behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan recently confessed to similar economic sins. (h/t Jason Zweig)
  • Somebody put a compendium of Trump speech text content on GitHub for your analysis pleasure.
  • Gosnell, List, & Metcalfe experimented on 335 pilots of 40,000 Virgin Atlantic flights and saved a lot of fuel and pollution by encouraging them to adopt more efficient practices. Experimental treatments included providing feedback on their fuel efficiency, setting personalized targets with “Well Done” messages for achieving them, and having money donated to charity for achieving the goals:

We estimate that our treatments saved between 266,000-704,000 kg of fuel for the airline over the eight-month experimental period. These savings led to between 838,000-2.22 million kg of CO2 abated at a marginal abatement cost of negative $250 per ton of CO2 (i.e. a $250 savings per ton abated) over the eight-month experimental period.


Which is great, but if I’m reading it right, just the Hawthorne effect of the pilots knowing they were being observed was much stronger, saving 6.8 million kg of fuel ($5.3 million) over the eight-month study period. (h/t Alexander Berger)

  • Summaries of 18 papers on improving education systems from the RISE conference.
  • A new report questions the Broken Windows theory of policing, the idea that cracking down on minor crimes (like graffiti and littering), also reduces major crime. The idea started with speculation by two sociologists in a 1982 Atlantic article. Supported by a probably spurious correlation (many things got better in the 90s), and popularized in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and elsewhere, it became pop-sociology, then eventually police policy. The New York Police Department Inspector General report (PDF) concludes that while the 2010-2015 NYPD crackdown on these types of crimes led to many more arrests in minority neighborhoods with no impact on major crime.
  • On a related note, J-PAL North America announced they will be working with five U.S. state and city governments to actually test policies before implementing them.

And if you want to give a TED Talk here’s how to be a thought leader (h/t Lindsey Shaughnessy).

This is the novel of the next world war, and it’s great

1313099932668866964Finally someone besides Todd Moss has combined social science with pulpy beach-reading thrillers. Suresh Naidu turned me onto P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet during one of our morning runs, and you should think of this as our combined book review.

In short, China attacks the U.S. Anything past this point is a minor spoiler. If you don’t want to hear more, then simply know that the book was good fun and more thought-provoking than any security paper I’ve read in a long time. So I say buy it.

First you should know that some war bloggers hate it. Here are Noel Maurer‘s many posts, which mostly raise technical and technological complaints.

Nonetheless, some of my favorite insights, some of which come from Suresh:

  • Economists who think about the pros and cons of globalization and trade have not even begun to think about the security implications of their policies.
  • The inherent superiority of dumb warfare when smart weaponry becomes too good.
  • Walmart is a weapon of mass destruction.
  • The maxim “always take the high ground” means orbit, at least.
  • Sadly there were no Chinese political scientists and economists run counter-insurgency randomized trials.
  • It would have been a better book if there were a moral justification for Chinese aggression that made an average American see America from the outside, uncharitably.

Personally I don’t know the authors’ politics. I only know Singer from his early books on child soldiers, before he got into writing about the U.S. military. But, intentional or not, the book strikes me as excellent nationalist propaganda. Even a liberal idealist like me found myself sneering at NATO, offshoring, and those Chinese devils. It is possible you will be subtly turned on to a President Trump. You have been warned.

Reflections after a week of no social media

I have been Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit free for a week now. I’m mainly happy with the decision, at least so far. I stare at my phone less. Not THAT much less, because the emails are endless and I can always plumb the depths of the New York Times app. But I do feel like I’m doing less frivolous browsing.

One drawback is that my news sources are seriously curtailed. I like the times but I need more breadth. I will consider subscribing to a few more blog and news feeds by email. I’m reading more books and magazines, but only a little. But this week was not representative: we put an offer in on a house, and that has eaten up enormous amounts of time, simply in learning how it all works. (I’m 41 and, until now, the most expensive thing I ever bought was a Honda Fit.)

All in all, I feel a little more focused and I don’t miss the info flow all that much.

Is there a methodological war in development economics?

Following my post on misleading methodological wars in political science this morning, I saw for the first time David McKenzie’s blog post on whether randomized control trials (RCTs) have taken over development economics:

Another claim is that the “best and brightest talent of a generation of development economists been devoted to producing rigorous impact evaluations” about topics which are easy to randomize  and that they take a “randomize or bust” attitude whereby they turn down many interesting research questions if they can’t randomize

To explore this, I examined the publication records of the 65 BREAD affiliates (this is the group of more junior members), restricting attention to the 53 researchers who had graduated in 2011 or earlier (to give them time to have published). The median researcher had published 9 papers, and the median share of their papers which were RCTs was 13 percent. Focusing on the subset of those who have published at least one RCT, the mean (median) percent of their published papers that are RCTs is 35 percent (30 percent), and the 10-90 range is 11 to 60 percent. So young researchers who publish RCTs also do write and publish papers that are not RCTs. Indeed this is also true of Esther and her co-authors on this paper (Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer) – although known as the leaders of the “randomista” movement, the top-cited papers of all three researchers are not RCTs.

And as for journals:

RCTs are a much higher proportion of the development papers published in general interest journals than in development journals. However, even in these journals they are the minority of development papers – there are more non-RCT development papers than RCTs even in these general journals. Moreover, since most of the development papers are published in field journals, RCTs are a small percentage of all development research: out of the 454 development papers published in these 14 journals in 2015, only 44 are RCTs (and this included a couple of lab-in-the-field experiments). As a result,  policymakers looking for non-RCT evidence have no shortage of research to choose from.

Read the full post. Here is a graph.


David was responding to Esther Duflo’s talk on the subject.

See my comments on why I think you can explain these trends with normal responses to technological change. Does this mean we have reached peak RCT? I think so.

Hat tip to the excellent FAI newsletter, to which I subscribe..

The rumored methodological wars in political science are not the wars actually being fought

From the position of a political scientist, I commonly hear say, historians or anthropologists summarize what they understand political scientists to believe. Having done a fair bit of participant observation within the tribe of the tsitneics-lacitilop, those descriptions are often frustrating, describing something akin to what I understand were debates within the discipline during the 1990s. It is now 2016.

Personal frustrations aside, such outdated or erroneous views of what “political scientists believe or argue about” are problematic for a couple of more general reasons. For one, they may stand in the way of interdisciplinary collaboration by proposing that political scientists do not study certain things or work in certain ways. They also encourage fence-building between disciplines, by portraying disciplines as having settled debates, doing work that is essentially uninteresting to those elsewhere.

…The most common misconception that I encounter is that political science is divided along a cleavage of quantitative scholars and rational choice theorists versus qualitative or historical scholars. The errors here are two. First, this view lumps together “rational choice theory” with quantitative methodology, which both mistakenly equates theory and methodology and misses that some of the strongest critiques of rationalism in political science come from a quantitative behavioral origin (and vice versa). Second, it misses the extent to which quantitative methods are used in service of historical arguments, and the extent to which rationalist arguments are frequently grounded in qualitative insights. There is probably much more to write on this, but the idea of a discipline characterized by this singular cleavage on this particular axis always makes me cringe.

That is Cornell professor/blogger Tom Pepinsky. Hat tip to Ken Opalo. He goes on to argue that some of the most intense debates are within quantitative political science right now, including:

  1. Is it better to do statistics right, or not at all? It seems easy to conclude that of course we should only do statistics the right way, but if the standards for correct are formidably high, are we prepared to abandon whole areas of inquiry as unstudy-able? There exist quantitative political scientists who believe that we should basically never run cross-national regressions, for example.

  2. Experiments versus observational data. Experiments offer control, but almost always sacrificed realism in service of that control. What is the optimal balance between the two? On what terms should we make tradeoffs between the two?

  3. Microfoundations and macrostructures. Regardless of whether data is observational or experimental, research designs tend to be more straightforward with micro-level data than with aggregate or macro-level data. The problem of reconciling micro-level evidence (what individuals say or do) with macro-level phenomena (how institutions, countries, policies, and/or international systems work) will be, I suspect, one of the core issues that political scientists confront over the next decade.

I would add that I think a lot of disciplinary struggles have to do with the way that innovations in research lead, initially, to a lot of crowding into the new area, combined with the innovators getting a little exuberant with their claims.

For instance, the huge burst of formal theory came on the heels of some innovations in how to write mathematical models (and people with the training to do so).

The waning of formal theory and the waxing of empirical work started with the advent of computers and statistical software, meaning large data could be analyzed cheaply for the first time. This meant high returns to collecting new data.

The fetish for causal identification grew were bolstered by innovations in how to do so, such as instruments and regression discontinuity. Once people showed how you could run field experiments in social science, or labs, and built the institutions and the donor base to implement them, you saw a lot of growth there.

In each case you get a rush of followers, especially among junior professors and graduate students. So it can feel like the profession is marginalizing what others do. Especially when the leaders of the movement, or their followers, make very grandiose claims that seem plausible, for a short while.

I’m not sure what the next technological innovations will be.

  • Maybe in text analysis. This could increase the returns to collecting qualitative data.
  • Psychology seems underutilized. Behavioral economics, for example, focuses on a small number of biases and rules of thumb and hasn’t plumbed the depths of emotion, social identity, and so forth. You’re seeing more work on the formation and effects of personality. Political science is a little further along here but not much, and on in US politics.
  • Maybe there will be neuroscience insights but I don’t see it.
  • Other ideas?

I wonder if productivity improvements in qualitative research are disadvantaged by current  trends. Do we have quant-biased technological change? What would the switch look like when eventually comes? Because the smart social scientist always bets on regression to the mean.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest Post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.



  • A new working paper suggests the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African-American men may hurt even more people by damaging trust in the medical system. Using GSS data, Marcella Alsan & Marianne Wanamaker conclude that following the 1972 public revelation of the study, fewer African-American men saw doctors, and this shortened their lives significantly:


    Our estimates imply life expectancy at age 45 for black men fell by up to 1.4 years in response to the disclosure, accounting for approximately 35% of the 1980 life expectancy gap between black and white men.

    Some important caveats: it appears only for one subgroup, and the paper hasn’t been fully reviewed yet. h/t Rachel Strohm via The Science of Us.

  • Markus Goldstein and David Evans summarize 25 papers on urbanization in Africa.
  • Near the end of Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan is a rollback of the new “fiduciary rule” that starting in 2018 financial advisers have to act in their clients’ best interest rather than their own. Why can’t consumers decide for themselves if the financial advice is good? From the NYTimes:

So the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards hired a professional D.J. named Azmyth Kaminski, shaved off his dreadlocks, removed his body piercings and put him in a suit. It taught him a few financial phrases and sat him in a conference room. Then it brought in people looking for a financial adviser.

“We gave him buzzwords, like ‘401(k) is the way to go,’” said Joe Maugeri, managing director for corporate relations at the CFP Board. “I talked to him about 529 plans and he said, ‘All 56 states have 529 plans?’ I said, ‘Well, yes, all 50 of them have them.’ He was a real nice guy.”

So how did he do? After Mr. Kaminski spent about 15 minutes with each person, all but one were ready to work with him, Mr. Maugeri said.

  • Mathematica Policy Research’s new free RCT-YES software package is designed to make it easier to analyze RCT data for those who might not be code experts. I haven’t used it, but it looks like it’s a layer on top of R or STATA that takes care of the code and nicely formats the output. (h/t David Batcheck)
  • Facebook, which has gotten in trouble over conducting experiments on users (involving for example, manipulating emotions through news feeds), published a law review article on revamping their IRB process.
  • There’s a recent working paper from Canice Prendergast who helped a network of food banks solve supply/demand problems. The Planet Money Econ Talk  podcasts explain how a group who literally gives out free lunches got help from a UChicago economist.

Photo above: New York Times/CFP Board

The world’s most effective development intervention: life jackets?

More than 1,300 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in boats from North Africa in the last few weeks alone. Most of the people who risk everything to make the crossing come from places like Eritrea, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia and other African countries where the job market is decimated.


Actually, the world’s most effective intervention would probably be plane tickets and visas (Michael Clemens has made a case). But since most OECD governments will not do that, maybe the effective altruists out there should be providing speedboats and life jackets. That is a cynical and over-simplistic thing to say, but utilitarian calculus is utilitarian calculus.

Out of curiosity, what are the safer ways for a non-governmental actor to promote migration?

Did legalizing ivory trade reduce elephant poaching?


International trade of ivory was banned in 1989, with global elephant poaching data collected by field researchers since 2003. A one-time legal sale of ivory stocks in 2008 was designed as an experiment, but its global impact has not been evaluated. We find that international announcement of the legal ivory sale corresponds with an abrupt ~66% increase in illegal ivory production across two continents, and a possible ten-fold increase in its trend.

An estimated ~71% increase in ivory smuggling out of Africa corroborates this finding, while corresponding patterns are absent from natural mortality and alternative explanatory variables. These data suggest the widely documented recent increase in elephant poaching likely originated with the legal sale.

More generally, these results suggest that changes to producer costs and/or consumer demand induced by legal sales can have larger effects than displacement of illegal production in some global black markets

A new NBER working paper by Sol Hsiang and Nitin Sekar. Ungated version here.

My post-tenure plans, and why I’m giving up social media

Within a few days of me getting tenure, Tyler Cowen coincidentally posted this new paper from Brogaard, Engelberg and van Wesep:

Using a sample of all academics that pass through top 50 economics and finance departments between 1996 and 2014, we study whether the granting of tenure leads faculty to pursue riskier ideas. We use the extreme tails of ex-post citations as our measure of risk and find that both the number of publications and the portion that are “home runs” peak at tenure and fall steadily for a decade thereafter. Similar patterns holds for elite (top 10) institutions, for faculty with longer tenure cycles, and for promotion to Full Professorship. We find the opposite pattern among poorly-cited publications: their numbers steadily rise after tenure. The decline in both the quantity and quality of publications points to tenure incentivizing less effort in publishing rather than more risk-taking.

I can see how it’s tempting to move from the fast lane to the middle lane. I can also see how at some point you get sick of the ridiculous acrobatics and endless rounds of revisions in the top journals, and realize the opportunity cost of your time is high.

But  I can also see how you diversify your output into other things: editing journals, running departments, mentoring students, policy advice, coordinating large regranting programs or research initiatives, writing more generalist books, and so on. For all these reasons, “home run” publications is not a great metric of risk-taking, let alone productivity.

As it happens, I am still keen to play the journal publications game. I get a perverse pleasure from perfecting an article. And I think home run publications have out-sized impacts. And that’s important. But I can see how that will get old in five or ten more years.

Meanwhile, I’m already making some other bets.

  • I would like to start spending more time in Latin America, finally get fluent in Spanish, and start to do more research there. I’d like to shake up my thinking.
  • Actually if I really wanted to shake up my thinking I’d do more work in East Asia. But it’s so distant from what I know, and so distant geographically, that with two small kids I’m not sure I can study anything well. But we will see.
  • I will continue to just say no. The only reason I still have my sanity and a semblance of a life is because I politely decline most professional invitations that are not academic talks. I see no reason to change that.
  • I am moving to Chicago partly to avoid getting sucked into a Clinton administration. I love the idea of President Hillary, and the quality and quantity of the development and humanitarian people around her are unmatched in the history of the country. Really. But I am not ready to get off the academic train just yet. Perhaps in a second Clinton term, but right now even that seems soon. Maybe when Chelsea beats Jenna Bush.
  • I have about three book outlines on my hard drive. All of them are some variation on “what I wish more people understood about development or violence”. I’m not sure I will write any of these books soon, since I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to academic writing—a trait my regular readers will notice I do not carry over to my blogging.
  • I’d like to write a book of letters. My brother in law, Kent Annan, runs a faith-based NGO in Haiti and writes books on faith and international development. Here is his latest. We have very different reasons for getting into what we do, and we work very differently too. We’ve talked about writing a book about these different philosophies by having a conversation in letters. Maybe we’ll do it online. The problem is I want to teach a class on political philosophy/theory on this first in order to force myself to read all the books about this carefully. See the perfectionist point above.
  • Most of all, I’d like to read more books and write about them. I think this is the best path not just to learning but to writing my own book. Chasing tenure and toddlers has crowded that out lately. But I need a commitment device. I am thinking about starting a reading group in Chicago. And maybe even committing to writing about each of the books read. Again, we will see.

My baby step forward: I am going to give up social media for a month, and possibly for good.

I was inspired by this Ezra Klein interview with Andrew Sullivan, who after endless years of blogging decided to give it all up. Sullivan not only stopped blogging, he turned off the cacophony of tweets and likes.

Sullivan is a man of extremes, and I am not that. I’m not giving up blogging. I will still write. Maybe I will even write more. But I’m going to broadcast only.

This morning I deleted Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit from my phone. My blog posts will still get auto-posted to those feeds, but I’ll never know. I won’t read them or anyone else’s. That also means no retweets or replies or comments will reach me. I plan to keep reading the New York Times and maybe Vox. And I subscribe to a handful of blogs by email. But that will be all. The rest is books and magazines. Most of all, my beloved Kindle is loaded up. Because let’s not talk crazy: I still plan to stare into a glowing screen all the time.

I’ll let you know how it’s going July 10.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Economist Deirdre McCloskey (formerly Donald), has an essay in the WSJ about transitioning publicly to being a woman at the age of 53, after already being established in her career. The moment when she knew she’d been accepted as a woman by her colleagues:

In early 1996 I was standing around with a half-dozen other economists at tolerant Erasmus University in Holland, talking about economics, as economists tend to do. I was the only woman. I made a point. The men ignored it. Two minutes later, George made the identical point. They all grew excited: “George, that’s a great point! You’ll get it into the American Economic Review! A Nobel can’t be far behind!”

(h/t Dina Pomeranz)

  • Radiolab has a new podcast about the stories behind important Supreme Court cases, More Perfect, produced by my old colleague Suzie Lechtenberg, a gifted radio producer. The first episode is about the death penalty and tracks down the guy based out of a London driving school upon whom all U.S. executions depended on for a time. (Web, iTunes)

“According to the UN, of the 60 largest troop contributing countries, only 14 have not reported cases of sexual abuse committed by their forces in the past five years.”

Tom Murphy may have summarized the problem best in this headline. But even if officials don’t care about their troops’ actions (which it seems), these reports are a wonderful excuse for recalcitrant local governments to keep the U.N. out.

  • ICYMI most of the new Handbook of Field Experiments is available online.
  • There’s a new STATA cheatsheet on programming, and here are some for R (which recently passed SAS in academic publication popularity).
  • The GRIM (Granularity-Related Inconsistency of Means) test is an easy way to test if a researcher dropped data from summary statistics without reporting it (or made a mistake). It works for means of Likert scales or any question that requires a whole number response (say, a seven-point scale where the only options are 1,2,3,4,5,6, or 7, no 3.2’s) . If researchers report a sample size of 350, with a mean of 4.7 on a 7 point scale, it just checks if it’s possible to get a mean of 4.7 from 350 whole-number responses. When two researchers looked through 260 psych papers, they found that half contained means that didn’t pass the test, and found mistakes in all of the corresponding the data sets they were able to get. (h/t  Stephanie Wykstra)
  • Here’s a good explanation of what the Venezuelan government did to send their country into a rapid tailspin.

Come work with me in Ethiopia

For the last few years I’ve been running a study of industrial jobs, and the long run impacts on worker health and wealth. Starting this fall I’ll be running the four-year endline survey with Simon Franklin and Stefan Dercon. This is a great pre-PhD training experience. We need someone to run the show. Any nationality is welcome, but Ethiopians with relevant experience are especially encouraged to apply.

Apply here. This is the ad: Continue reading

What’s the chance you have drunk the same water molecule twice?

Short answer: For any given water molecule, the odds are basically negligible. But the odds that you’ve drank at least one water molecule twice are pretty much 100%.

Long answer: Think in terms of the numbers of water molecules on earth. In a cup of water there are about 1024 water molecules (100 g / 18 amu ~ 1024).

The total mass of water on earth is approximately 1024 g of water, which works out to about 1046 water molecules on earth.

So if you pick 1024 molecules out of 1046, put them back into the 1046 and mix them back up, and randomly choose another 1024, what are the odds you’ll pick at least one atom twice? We can approximate it in the same way we do the birthday problem: P = 1-e-n2 /2m where n=1024 and m=1046. Turns out this number is basically equal to 1, so the odds are almost certain that any two glasses of water will have at least one atom in common. This generalizes between every cup of water – in that cup of coffee you’re sipping right now, the odds are good that it has shared atoms with basically every person to ever live.

A Reddit AskScience thread

Why is Sanders staying in the race? Three political answers

This question is all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Strangely, despite the calculating economists and political scientists that fill my feeds, I have not seen anyone give a rational or political answer.

I see three possibilities that aren’t as cynical or simplistic as “ego”, “he’s a lone wolf” and “because Hillary might go to jail”.

  1. He just spent a year building more political influence (and small donors) than almost any other Democrat in the country. Now he’s going to spend that influence to get policy concessions from Clinton and the party. He will focus on the issues he thinks are in the best interest of the country and his supporters. Negotiations will take at least a few days.
  2. He wants to sit down with his close advisors and friends and think hard about the best way to change the policies he cares most about. A lot of democrats think “fight to the convention and the setting of the party platform” is not the answer. But someone playing the long game might reasonably disagree, and he is taking some time to decide.
  3. He needs time to call all his major supporters and donors and surrogates, and make them feel consulted and mollified before he concedes publicly. This way they come along with him to Clinton’s side.

None of these are mutually exclusive. And all are also consistent with “give the poor guy a night or two to sleep on it”.

Today’s travel tip: The absolute must-look site if you ever rent a car

My new favorite site is Autoslash.

I made a rental car reservation in Florida at Christmas and Thanksgiving, to visit family. Hertz gave me a price over $700 for one and $500 for the other. I reserved. But then I entered my reservation details into Autoslash, and it has been automatically emailing me as prices fall, allowing me to re-book, at about $200 in both cases. So savings of $800. The same happened last year with a New York rental (though those miracle prices took many more weeks to appear).

I have no idea how they make money. I suspect they don’t.

In case you are wondering, this is an unsolicited endorsement. I’m just ecstatic that I saved $800 for five minutes of form filling, and figure the frequent travelers that read the blog will be eager to do the same.

While we’re on the subject of travel tips, here are some older posts on what to bring with you into the sky, and what to bring for field work parts one and two.

Does war foster cooperation?

Screenshot 2016-06-06 10.01.23

In the past decade, nearly 20 studies have found a strong, persistent pattern in surveys and behavioral experiments from over 40 countries: individual exposure to war violence tends to increase social cooperation at the local level, including community participation and prosocial behavior. Thus while war has many negative legacies for individuals and societies, it appears to leave a positive legacy in terms of local cooperation and civic engagement. We discuss, synthesize and reanalyze the emerging body of evidence, and weigh alternative explanations. There is some indication that war violence especially enhances in-group or “parochial” norms and preferences, a finding that, if true, suggests that the rising social cohesion we document need not promote broader peace.

A new NBER paper of mine with Michael Bauer, Julie Chytilová, Edward Miguel, Joseph Henrich, and Tamar Mitts. Coming out this summer in Journal of Economic Perspectives.

The personalization of power in China

…Xi is different from Mao in important ways. He has more accurate information than Mao did, thanks to extensive, organized, and professional systems of intelligence and analysis, and thanks to what he has gathered during his travel at home and abroad. He uses inner-Party star chambers and charges of corruption rather than screaming Red Guards and accusations of revisionism to purge rivals, and the political police rather than a mass movement to repress dissidents. Mao was a thinker and literary stylist; Xi has banal ideas but is more deliberate and consistent in decision-making. His personal habits appear to be orderly, compared to Mao’s chaotic ways of spending time.

That is my colleague Andy Nathan on China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in NYRB. I’m rather ashamed at how little I know about Xi.

Something that makes a place like China or Ethiopia relatively stable is that power is dispersed in a party. In a Uganda or Rwanda or Turkmenistan, or even Russia, power is concentrated in a President, and I fear for stability. The most treacherous step in a dictatorship is managing transitions of power.

Nathan argues that Xi is heading in the less stable direction.

…once Xi acceded to top office he was widely expected to pursue political liberalization and market reform. Instead he has reinstated many of the most dangerous features of Mao’s rule: personal dictatorship, enforced ideological conformity, and arbitrary persecution.

…Xi has made himself in some ways more powerful than Deng or even Mao. Deng had the final word on difficult policy issues, but he strove to avoid involvement in day-to-day policy, and when forced to make big decisions he first sought consensus among a small group of senior leaders. Mao was able to take any decision he wanted regardless of the will of his senior colleagues, but he paid attention to only a few issues at a time. Xi appears to be running the whole span of important policies on a daily basis, without needing to consult senior colleagues or retired elders.

…He may go even further. There are hints that he will seek to break the recently established norm of two five-year terms in office and serve one or even more extra terms. He has had himself designated as the “core” of the leadership, a status that his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, did not take for himself. At this point in a leader’s first term we would expect to see one or two younger politicians emerging as potential heirs apparent, to be anointed at next year’s nineteenth Party Congress, but such signs are absent.

Well worth reading in full.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • That aspiring sitcom about the high-pressure Nigerian immigrant family is impressively close to its kickstarter goal.
  • MDRC recently released its report (PDF here) on what did and didn’t work in New York City’s randomized controlled trial of conditional cash transfers (early results had been out for a while). The cash seems more effective than the conditions:
    • It involved 4,800 families with 11,000 children. Surveys at 18 & 42 months after payments began.
    • Families got on average $8,700 over three years, made in individual payments around meeting benchmarks in childrens’ education, preventative healthcare, and parents’ work & professional training.
    • It had significant effects on poverty reduction (poverty, hunger, housing).
    • Effects on education were mixed, accruing mostly to older kids who were more proficient at the start (although young siblings may have benefitted).
    • Effects on parents’ work were small or for some subgroups, negative.
    • Families were generally already getting medical checkups (one of the major health benchmarks), there were limited effects on health.
    • A second trial sought to improve the design, with fewer conditions aimed at a more targeted population, faster payments, and adding case management (coaching) in both New York and Memphis. Results are due out later this year.
  • The MacArthur Foundation announced a contest for a single $100 Million award for a solution to a “big problem.” Anybody can enter as long as it’s a problem of global social significance and there’s some evidence behind the proposed fix (must register by Sept. 2 on their site).
  • Leah Bevis looks at the “productivity paradox” in agriculture – why farmers with bigger plots don’t get proportionally larger yields. She and Christopher Barret find in Uganda, that farmer behavior, investing more in the parts around the visible/accessible perimeter seem to explain it (working paper here).
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is announcing new regulations on payday (and other similar short term, high interest) loans, out of fear some borrowers might get in over their heads. Jonathan Morduch thinks it won’t make much difference, Allison Schrager in Quartz thinks removing that emergency borrowing option may hurt the poor.
    • The CFPB is also looking for input in how to redesign the information student borrowers are given about loan payback options.
  • IPA is hiring a director for our Uganda office! (And many other jobs here.)

And, this is useful – how to tell if a Canadian is mad at you.

Stefano DellaVigna and Devin Pope take A-B testing literally

Here they are at VoxEU on how to motivate effort:

The task for the subjects is to alternately press the “a” and “b” buttons on their keyboards as quickly as possible for ten minutes. The 18 treatments attempt to motivate participant effort using i) standard incentives; ii) non-monetary psychological inducements; and iii) behavioural factors such as present-bias, reference dependence, and social preferences. Figure 1 presents, in somewhat shortened format, the phrasing of the 18 treatments and the average effort (number of button presses) per treatment.

dellavignafig1Via the fantastic Development Impact blog.

Tenure! And… a move to the University of Chicago

First thing first: tenure at last!

For those of you thinking “Wait, weren’t you an Associate Professor already?” or “What are you talking about? Didn’t you graduate ages ago? Shouldn’t you be retiring by now?”: the answer is yes, Yale and Columbia have looooong tenure clocks (I started in 2008) and a peculiar non-tenured Associate stage, and I have been dwelling in that limbo for some time. But no longer.

The other news is that, four weeks from now, I will join University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy as the Ramalee E. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies.

This is exciting but bittersweet news, because I leave an amazing group of colleagues and students behind at Columbia University. There were many attractions to staying at Columbia, and it was a difficult decision to leave. But what U of C and Harris are building is simply too exciting an opportunity to pass up.

Last year, Chicago received the second largest gift in the university’s history, $100 million from The Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Members Foundation, to start The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. The Pearson Institute is going to have a large number of new senior and junior faculty. Besides me, the other inaugural hire is my good friend and collaborator Oeindrila Dube, from NYU, who will take a second chair.

The Institute will also host The Pearson Global Forum, a huge annual global forum devoted to the study and resolution of global conflicts. As Jackson Hole is to macroeconomic policy, the Global Forum aims to be to the policy and academic forum for global security.

This is all part of the Harris School’s scheme to become the best place to study the political economy of development. Last year, Jim Robinson joined from Harvard and Konstantin Sonin from Moscow’s New Economic School. Also working on security and development issues are Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Roger Myerson. Austin Wright from Princeton is joining as an Assistant Professor. Next year there will undoubtedly be more names you know. In development more broadly there’s Michael Greenstone, Anjali Adukia, Ofer Malamud, and Alicia Menendez.

If I can continue the sales pitch to prospective students and hires: Harris is also an amazing place to study urban issues (it is home to the famed Crime Lab) and U.S. education, health, and labor markets. It has a incredibly strong group of labor economists and political economy scholars.

If you want to think about where to place the Harris School in the constellation of U.S. policy schools, as far as I can tell (so far) the best description is probably: the hard one. Harris believes in training undergraduates, master’s students, and PhDs in rigorous quantitative social science. I’m kind of amazed by what the students learn and can do. Dean Karlan at Yale (founder of IPA) is a graduate. People like me, Jim, Oeindrila, Ethan, and the exciting new hires to come are going to help push that in an international direction.

When you get $100 million, that also means you make a flashy video. So here is The Pearson Institute: