Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jeff Sachs on aid

I almost didn't read this column because Sachs often sounds like a broken record. But it turned out to be great.

Hosting this year’s G-8 summit reportedly cost Canada a fortune, despite the absence of any significant results. The estimated cost . . . reportedly came to more than $1 billion. This is essentially the same amount that the G-8 leaders pledged to give each year to the world’s poorest countries to support maternal and child health.

If only more economists had that kind of passion.

Of all of the G-8’s promises . . . the most important was made to the world’s poorest people at the 2005 G-8 Gleneagles Summit . . . The G-8 promised that, by this year, it would increase annual development assistance to the world’s poor by $50 billion relative to 2004. Half of the increase, or $25 billion per year, would go to Africa.

The G-8 fell far short of this goal, especially with respect to Africa. Total aid went up by around $40 billion rather than $50 billion, and aid to Africa rose by $10-$15 billion per year rather than $25 billion.

He can't say this, but look at those numbers. Aid to Africa increased by $10-15 billion. Millions of bed nets were distributed, measles vaccines injected, Rwanda has universal health insurance, and treatment for HIV is up 10,000% over the decade.

Would that have happened without the concerts, columns, and citizenship?

Shirt sizes

I found an old plain white t-shirt that I got from the Netherlands a few years ago (long story). The label says it's a 2XL but it didn't look like a 2XL. In fact, when I put it on, it felt more like the L's I usually wear.

Are American t-shirts sizes bigger than European sizes?

I did a little research on the web but no one had a clear answer. A few people think so, and it makes sense because Americans are pudgier.

But here's the rub: that theory leads you believe European shirts would be tighter but just as long at any given size. This shirt, though, isn't that much tighter while being significantly shorter than an American 2XL.

The average Dutch male is 6'1'' so what size do the many Brobdingnagians where?

No comment

No comment:

Darrell Bess . . .  likes to be around good books, has an appreciation for international foods and music, and believes in cleanliness. By most accounts, he seems like a man of refinement.

Yet . . . police say that on Wednesday Bess . . . was found bathing naked in a library restroom sink while in possession of four pounds of parmesan cheese and two stolen CD's.


“Is that haircut intentional?” I asked.

Aubrey rolled his eyes. “It’s ironic.”

“Do you mean sideways?”

“I hope that question is ironic.”

“It is,” I lied. He was so cool.

from an investigation of hipsters.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Should we cheer for Ghana?

A few developmentbloggers have been following the World Cup enthusiastically, cheering for African teams (now just Ghana).

I don't understand.

Does anyone really believe that if Ghana wins the World Cup the Africa will grow faster? That malaria incidence will drop? Is the World Cup an AIDS vaccine that someone eluded researchers all these years?

I understand that many Africans are rooting for Ghana. They want their team to win just like most Germans want Germany to win. If Ghana wins, Africa will celebrate. It might help Africa's image, somewhat, in part of the world and, maybe, raise a few African''s self-esteem. It might also draw a few people toward soccer and away from academics, though, too. Or it might distract governments from priorities like health and toward . . . well, building stadiums. Most likely, the marginal, ephermal joy of a victory will fade quickly and Africa will remain largely the same place it was a month ago.

There is a utilitarian argument that we should cheer for Ghana since Ghana probably has the largest fanbase (unless East Asia has likewise unified behind it's representatives). But that logic would force everyone to root for the Yankees every October. After all, New York is the biggest city and the Yankees are the most popular team. It also presumes that who you cheer for will impact the game's outcome. Any argument that compels me to both cheer for the Yankees and believe in a "spooky action-at-a-distance" principle is asking too much.

Goodbye, Taiwan

I don't know much about Sino-Tawaienese relations, but I suspect this pact is the beginning of the end for Taiwan.

Taiwan has never had a strong democracy, so it's liable to be captured by business interests. I think that's what's happening.

Unconscious intelligence

A very good blog post on two types of intelligence.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The latest trailer:

<a href="" target="_new" title="'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' Trailer">Video: 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' Trailer</a>

I was a little disappointed with the trailer, but I think the movies will turn out well, though. The artwork, tone, and scale look good.

Steve's list of most anticipated movies:

1. Batman 3

2. Deathly Hallows (1 & 2)

3. Inception

4. Bond 23

5. Avatar 2

Sen. Byrd died

Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) died early this morning. He was probably best known for being a former member of the KKK and defending big steel and other special interests.

The man had a way with words. In a letter (quoted on Wikipedia) to Sen. Bilbo in 1944 he wrote:

I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side... Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.

But the thing is, Robert Byrd used his elegance to describe all races. In 2005 he pointed out to Fox News that " . . . there are white niggers" too. (See video.)

Joking aside, Byrd does have a point. Isn't it true that the lastseveralflaps over race were the product of someone getting indignant?

Before Barack Obama was president he wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope. One of the chapters concludes with the new Sen. Obama asking with the elder statesmen for advice:

I told him how remarkable it was that he had found the time to write [four long volumes on the history of the senate].

"Oh, I have been very fortunate," he said, nodding to himself. "Much to be thankful for. There's not much I wouldn't do over." Suddenly he paused and looked squarely into my eyes. "I only have one regret, you know. The foolishness of youth . . ."

We sat there for a moment, considering the gap of years and experience between us.

"We all have regrets, Senator," I said finally. "We just ask that in the end, God's grace shines upon us."

He studied my face for a moment, then nodded with the slightest of smiles . . . "God's grace. Yes, indeed."

I guess he had a good life.

Another good name

Fuk Yu Chik, a very nice name.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kartik Athrey on Macroeconomics

He writes

Comparing, even momentarily, [work in professional economics journals] with its explicit, careful reasoning, its ever-mindful approach to the accounting for feedback effects, and its transparent reproducibility, with the sophomoric musings of auto-didact or non-didact bloggers or writers is instructive. For those who want to really know what the best that economics has to offer is, you must look here. And this will be hard.

He's surely right that there is a lot of trash on the Internet. I don't watch CNN or MSNBC because you're not going to learn shit from that kind of news.

But he's biased by the type of macro he learned--this comes out clearest when he compares recessions to earthquakes as if they both are natural disasters. He puts an excessive emphasis on mathematical clarity, as if passing Tyler Cowen's "notecard test" is irrelevant. (The notecard test is that you should be able to articulate your argument in the space of a notecard your grandmother would understand. Or you argument isn't clear.)

Also, from what I've read DeLong is the leader in hammering bloggers, journalists and even economists for not having a clear model behind their claims.

I think he's also mistaken that people don't pretend to be experts on other issues in the news. Last May everyone in the news became an expert overnight on deep-sea oil drilling and marine ecology.

Greg Mankiw on Stimulus

Greg Mankiw has a good article on clinical economics and the stimulus package. It summarizes all the point he's made on his blog in the past year and a half.

WARNING: Mankiw is a Republican and it's probably best to keep that in mind when his writing leans toward politically charged issues.

While I think most people would benefit from a careful reading, I think one of his take-aways will be missed. Mankiw thinks economists should have more humility, yet he goes through the trouble of citing a few papers on why his favorite remedies might be best. A lot of people (maybe including Mankiw) put too much weight on those studies.

He also points out that maybe people won't spend because they fear future tax cuts, reviving Ricardian equivalence, an idea with even less empirical support than a large government-spending multiplier. He then suggests that long-term interest rates may rise, choking off investing spending, without noting that this never happened. Brad DeLong has flogged that point like a dead horse, and Mankiw could have done reader a favor by pointing it out.

Still, I like Greg Mankiw. Along with Oliver Blanchard, Ben Bernanke, and perhaps Nouriel Rubini he is one of the best macroeconomist commenting on the crisis.

Update: Brad DeLong with a counter point.

Awesome Links

1. Michael Bay has an awesome sense of humor

2. Do we need a Secular Religion? No. But he's right that

. . . religion [is] not just a matter of belief, but that it sat upon a welter of concerns . . . and that by getting rid of God, one would also be dispensing with a whole raft of very useful, if often peculiar and sometimes retrograde, notions that had held societies together since the beginning of time.

Religion makes people happy. We do need something to fill the void.

3. Uwe Reinhardt, a very good health economist, on insurance mandates

4. A slightly bloated but good edition of Why U.S. Food Aid Policy Sucks

5. Health halo effects. I think some of this reporting is misguided. First, lab experiments don't necessarily translate well into "the field." Second, most people probably have more to gain by finding a better mix of calories than cutting down on calories. Subway does provide a better balance than McDonald's even if you'll eat more calories there.

Experiments about touch

Discover Blogs reports on some experiments at MIT:

Weight is linked to importance, so that people carrying heavy objects deem interview candidates as more serious and social problems as more pressing. Texture is linked to difficulty and harshness. Touching rough sandpaper makes social interactions seem more adversarial, while smooth wood makes them seem friendlier. Finally, hardness is associated with rigidity and stability. When sitting on a hard chair, negotiators take tougher stances but if they sit on a soft one instead, they become more flexible.

Think of how you can use this to get a steal in negotiations. You start with a handshake and smooth hands prime the salesman to view you are friendly. Maybe you tell a joke. At the same time, the soft touch primes them to be more flexible with their offers. Then you hammer away. Of course, you need soft, smooth hands like these for it to work:



Bad math

A study found that "39.1% (95% CI 36.6–41.7%) of men's partnerships were ‘not (yet) regular’ vs 20.0% (95% CI 18.2–21.9%) of women's partnerships." and "[s]ex occurred within 24 [hours] in 23.4% (95% CI 19.7–27.5%) of men's and 10.7% (95% CI 8.3–13.6%) of women's partnerships."

But here's the catch, which is not reported in the paper's abstract, the real percentages have to be the exact same for men and women. For each male who is in a partnership that is "not (yet) regular" there has to be a female to complete the partnership. There was a big debate between mathematicians about this a few year back, but I think everyone eventually agreed on this point.

So what do the data really say? Well, since the first CI's don't even overlap, we have significant evidence men and women view their relationships differently, women viewing things are relatively more seriously. The data also show that either men significantly inflate the amount of casual sex they have when surveyed, or that women do the opposite. You can guess which is more probable.

Both of these findings are sure to shock no one.

But one possibility I left out is shocking. Perhaps the 19.1% of irregular partnerships men have and women don't are between men. Maybe 50% of the casual sex men have is with other men. As it turns out that the study only included heterosexual partnerships so we can rule out that hypothesis.

History of Soccer

Two things everyone should know about soccer:

1. Soccer is the "original" name for the game. There were many kinds of "football" in the 19th century which is why FIFA is the international organization for "Associaton Football." British people added -er to everything back then, dropped the a, and ended up with "soccer."

2. Back in the day, what made a game a type of "football" was that you played on foot, not on horseback. It has nothing to do with whether you kick the ball with your feet. If you have quasi-Marxist sentiments like me this story should warm your heart.

More here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"One Bad Day"

Is it true that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger?

One fascinating study was spurred by discovering that both Ariely and Hanan Frenk (a double-amputee after driving over a landmine) refused painkillers for dental work (why bother?). Frenk and Ariely studied whether people who had suffered traumatic injuries had a higher tolerance for pain. They do.

from Tim Harford's blog.

The the thing, the flip side of the coin is that on "one bad day" whatever doesn't kill you can leave you "half dead." To inject some politics, some events, like a layoff, can mentally cripple people for years, often triggering major depression. A study using the German socio-economic panel found that on average it takes around 5 years to recover from a layoff. This is more relevant now than ever, with so many people slipping into long-term unemployment.

I don't understand how anyone who spent some time in the real world could think debt is a bigger worry than structural unemployment.

The Dark Knight: Maroni

Gordon: I didn't get a chance to thank you.

Batman: And you'll never have to.

[6 months later]

Gordon: Thank you

Batman: You don't have to-

Gordon: Yes, I do.

When the Joker is in the car with Maroni, Two-Face flips and Maroni is spared. But then he flips again to decide the fate of the driver. Why does Two-Face cheat is he is so committed to fairness? Later he lets Ramirez, who is as responsible for Rachel's death as anyone, off the hook.

Also, Maroni talks about his wife in that segment with Two-Face. But earlier in the movie, at the club he's with a woman half his age whom he asks "why would I want to hear you talk?" Is she his wife? No, according to the script she's a mistress.

I only noticed this the last time I watched the movie: when Gordon leaves Dent's room at Gotham General he meets up with Maroni, who is there recovering from his fall. Maroni then tells Gordon (off-camera) where the Joker is meeting to divy up the funds. That is why Gordon has all of his men at the ready when the Joker's threat (to blow up a hospital) is broadcast.

With Maroni dead (presumably) by the hand of Two-Face and the Chechen and Gambol slayed by the Joker--and their men at his command--what is the fate of the mob? Presumably Maroni's right hand man will step up and lead the Italian mob, but the rest could be in disarray with the Joker behind bars. I think this is something that needs to be wrapped up in the next film. It should be the last one.

Batman Began as a means to clean up Gotham. The Dark Knight was a side-show about "one man" when the target was "the whole mob." The Caped Crusade (which should be the next film's title) needs to complete the story arc.

Fact of the Day: In the original script for The Dark Knight, Maroni tells Batman "No one's gonna tell you anything" but no Italian mobster would say "anything." In the film it's changed to "nothing."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Krugman on unemployment

I think Krugman has dominated the debate about fiscal stimulus. He has more good commentary on his blog today.

On a less depressing note: one man finds true happiness.

More comedy

This circulated the web last year but it's still funny.

A local new station put together this billboard advertisement. To spice things up they added electronics to display tweets about local news.

They didn't anticipate this.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


I read my entire backlog of news yesterday so today I'll post comedy.

This is an instant classic: 20 Worst Names

Note: The true worst name of all time is Shithead (Sha-teed).

Class Differences

I’ve always thought it was strange that basketball fans can do just about anything imaginable to distract an opposing player at the foul line, whereas you can’t make a squeak as a tennis player is about to serve. - Stephen Dubner

That is why I have no respect for tennis or golf.

Birthright Citizenship

I have mixed feelings about this bill, like all immigration bills. The issue is whether the bill will just make the immigration system fairer or is an attempt cut down on immigration period.

But I think two argument against it are disingenuous:

1. Denying citizenship to "anchor babies" would disincentivize illegal immigration. To say otherwise is horseshit.

2. The Constitution does not say that anyone born on U.S. soil is a U.S. citizen. It says:

All persons born . . . in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Gay Adoption

More reason to support (and promote) adoption by lesbian couples:

Regardless of socioeconomic status, [sperm] donor offspring are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25. They are more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems.

I re-read that and it's possible they have equally bad, or worse, outcomes than adoptees. But if that's the case I'll stop trusting Slate.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Rwandan Health Insurance

A great article on health care in Rwanda. Note that Rwanda takes in $20 million in premiums but spends $300 million, about 6% of GDP.

Soda Tax

I watched Family Feud the other day. The survey asked 100 people to name a food or drink some say is bad but others say is good for you.

The guy on the show said "soda" which, shockingly, got 22 votes in the survey.

Maybe they were referring to this:

In addition to more recent medical studies, she cites research by Robert Fogel, the Nobel laureate in economics, on height and weight in different countries over many years. He found that overweight [but no obese] people often lived longer. For people in their seventies and beyond, Ms. Kolata explains, “having a bit of extra fat appears to be protective, stimulating the body to make more muscle and more bone.”

from David Leonhardts discussion of a soda tax.

When I mention this relationship between weight and life expectancy to people they say I'm full of shit. I wonder why people are so convinced their intuitions about nutrition are so good when the evidence is so inconclusive about so many specifics (e.g. multivitamins).

Good news, Bad story

I have mixed feelings about newspaper articles like this. It's a good story on an important issue. There is no doubt that this industry preys on poorly informed customers.

But the story is long and doesn't present enough data. There are a few tidbits here and there but they are hard to remember. The anecdotes are nice, but they aren't informative, just memorable.

Civil Rights Office: Our Bigoted Ideology > Your Health

Alex Tabarok on kidney policy.

He is a radical libertarian, so I don't understand why he appeals to the original position.

Should we be impressed by Hispanics who ace AP Spanish?

Jay Mathews discusses this on his blog.

I think the key point here is that AP test are meant to signal intelligence and effort. Most kids don't learn calculus, physics or Latin at home, so if they ace they test it signals to college their aptitude. AP Spanish doesn't have this effect for native speakers because all the work was done in the distant past, and because it is so easy for children to learn language it wasn't hard work.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Links plus Thoughts

1. How Shy People Work. I think this signaling game is poorly played. It's probably true that if you tasked a third party to pick which people a person likes spending time with it'd be easier if the person was shy. The problem is that the view from inside your head is very different from reality--e.g. it's probably easy to see if someone is interested in your best friend but hard to see if someone is interested in you--so I think no one notices. If you treat everyone like they're your #1 customer or best friend they might all believe it.

2. The legacy of Peter Orzag. More economist should try to be like him, though I think he went overboard on the Dartmouth data.

3. Mark Thoma explains a big debate in macroeconomics. The issue here is the shape of the aggregate supply curve--it is vertical or does it just slope upward? My intro macro teacher did a poor job explaining the relation between micro-foundations and the curve and it killed most people on the final.

4. Can you buy happiness? If you're buying ice cream, TIME reports.

Appropriate Technology

“The technology is the least difficult part of the problem,” Mr. Prestero said. “Manufacturing, financing, distribution, regulatory approval: those are major barriers. There aren’t many examples of a successfully scaled product to serve the poor.”

from a very good overview of one appropriate technology project.

Liar's Poker

Michael Lewis wrote Liar's Poker in 1990 about the ignorance and excesses of the financial industry in the 1980s. In his new book, about the latest financial meltdown, he reflects:


The irony is that I know people who are going to work for investment banks yet consider Liar's Poker one of their favorite books.

Does that mean people on Wall Street are dumber than we think (scary prospect)? Or that they know what they're doing (scarier prospect)?

For-profit Colleges

The big puzzle is why . . . the for-profit college market is not self-regulating . . .

The solution of the puzzle may be . . . that the private-college industry . . . has targeted a class of people who cannot gain admission to [public] colleges because they do not meet their entrance standards. There is evidence that just as in the case of the marketing of mortgage loans during the housing bubble of the early 2000s, the for-profit colleges use aggressive advertising to attract students from low-income families that lack financial sophistication and the ability to evaluate the benefits of attending a for-profit college. These people . . have little information about higher education and are therefore prey to skillful marketing that even if literally truthful may create a misleading impression of the benefits of attendance at a for-profit college. For-profit colleges often pay recruiters by the number of enrollments that a recruiter generates.

from Richard Posner on his blog. It could be more concise but it's worth reading.

Two things (Posner mentions #1):

1. Public colleges also prey on misinformation and youth. No one warns you that majoring in English is not going to lead to the same career satisfaction or pay as a degree in Computer Engineering.

2. All the evidence suggests that the average effect of college education makes college a great value. But the effect could be highly heterogenous. Why isn't there more public, easily accessible and understandable information on the payoff to this and that degree? And (this is a common refrain for me) why isn't "work satisfation" reported side-by-side?

Monday, June 21, 2010


Some reads are just fun, human interest pieces that leave you feeling pensive and satisfied even though you can't identify what you learned. I think there is value in this kind of reading--from time to time--and a favorite example from recent years is There and Back Again: Soul of a Commuter.

Other reads are complete tripe. One type is bad because the author don't make an argument. They are often dealing with a trade-off that necessities thinking about the costs on one hand and the benefits on the other, but they fail to see the big picture and obsess over benefits (if they are pro) or costs (if they are con). This "assessment" of Teach for America is a good example.

Another type of tripe masquerade as being about some important issue--global governance, ethics, religion--but makes trite, unverifiable, and often poorly formed claims. This deeply unsatisfying, but popular, piece from Ross Douthat fits that bill. Conservatives love it for pouring oil on the fire of their unexamined prejudices, but if you're a deep thinker that should be anathema.

The best reads are concise and make an explicit argument. They benefit from giving a sense of the big picture, but their value comes from teaching you something you didn't know before or only had a vague sense of. They can be particularly helpful if you've asked the question they ask but never found an answer. They are hard to find because good ideas don't grow on tree, but if you look in the right places you'll probably find a few each week. This paper, by Angrist and Pischke, is the best I've read the past few days, but I'd only recommend it for people who write empirical economics papers.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Greatest Movie Ever Made?

Sometimes is fun to put things in perspective.

Is it the greatest motion picture ever made? Probably not, although it is the greatest motion mural we have seen and the most ambitious film-making venture in Hollywood's spectacular history.

Take a guess what movie he's talking about. I plan to write a post about the greatest movies ever made and the biggest box office hits one day. This movie will feature in both.

"What to Say"

I noticed someone who I think is pretty smart sometimes writes in "netspeak" and asked a mutal friend what the deal is with that? They didn't seem to think it's a problem. I agree, "to each his own," but doesn't it send a bad signal?

Well, the evidence is in and its clear: "netspeak = fail"

Other not so shocking findings:

1. Don't be shallow (e.g. focus on her appearence)

2. Mention some specific (mutual?) interest

3. Show you read her profile

The one finding that contradicts the conventional wisdom is that it's good for guys to be self-effacing. I think this makes sense if you consider the forum. Confidence is a good thing, but it's conveyed by posture and tone. If you try to say or write the same message it's understood as arrogance. That theory doesn't have much explanatory power for this case though.

Note: I used feminine pronouns based on an assumption based on no evidence whatsoever that men, by tradition, send most of the messages. It's probably false.

Housing Prices

A good explanation of the fundamentals of housing prices. This was something I was thinking about earlier today and didn't understand.

What he calls "Survivor Investing" is a hot topic now.

Evaluating TFA

Rethinking Schools published my letter to the editor.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Is the SAT biased?

Jay Mathews reports that a controversial study found African Americans at a given score (e.g. 370) performed better on harder questions than Whites with the same score. He suggests this is evidence that smarter blacks are harmed by a bias in the easy question. The researcher has a implausible theory for why this might be the case. Commentators provide a more reasonable theory--the whites are more familiar with the material the hard questions test and are thus susceptile to fall into the "traps" the SAT test-makers design into the hard questions.

I think an important point left out of the debate is that Blacks with a given score tend to have lower college GPAs than Whites with the same scores. This means that, if we think that GPAs are the best available measure of academic achievement, the SAT is biased in favor of Blacks.

For race/ethnicity, the pattern of results supports previous findings. Specifically, American Indian, African American, and Hispanic students are overpredicted for all measures and combinations of measures. African American students’ FYGPAs tend to be the most overpredicted, with mean standardized residuals ranging from -0.32 to -0.17.

The previous finding summarized:

Ramist et al. found Asian American (mean residual = 0.08) and white (mean residual = 0.01) students were underpredicted while American Indian (mean residual = -0.29), black (mean residual = -0.23), and Hispanic (mean residual = -0.13) students were overpredicted.

I wouldn't necessarily interpret this as evidence the test is biased in favor of Blacks. Blacks with a given score tend to go to more selective colleges because of Affirmative action and thus lower GPAs would be expected since they compete with smarter peers.

Source: Differential Validity and Prediction of the SAT


Search for "recursion" on Google. (HT: Freakonomics)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Whither Growth?

Probably not from an army of small-scale entrepreneurs. Chris Blattman notes these good points from Abhijit Banerjee:

1. The poor are not particularly well-suited to be entrepreneurs: They neither have the risk bearing capacity nor the human capital

2. Nor will anyone give them enough capital to really grow the businesses;

3. This suggests that the main source of dynamism has to be growth of medium to large firms.

Good sentences

The famous Pew poll last year, in which 44 percent of Americans said that the world’s “leading economic power” was China, said less about economic realities—hundreds of millions subsist on China’s farms, where heating and indoor plumbing are luxuries—than about America’s downcast self-image.

from James Fallow on America's inferiority complex. So much for Obama being the next Reagan.

How could he not be a lefty . . . given that (and here’s another assumption shared with the far right, an uglier one) he’s black?

from James Bennet. Also, how is it that the first thing on his list of disaffections with Obama is "Afghanistan," that is, Obama implementing the plan he promised on the campaign trail,  while "Iraq," that is, Obama breaking the biggest promise he made on the campaign trail, fails to make the list.

Easterly on Development

I like this summary of Easterly's thoughts about development.

DRI and the John Templeton Foundation from DRI on Vimeo.

I think an important point here is that there are (at least) two perspectives on development. One is that development is about going from being poor to being rich and you achieve this with economic growth. I think this is what he has in mind and why he talks about entrepreneurs, technology, decentralization, and spontaneous development. The U.S. and Europe grew because of technology and free markets. But growth isn't good on it's own--the hope is that it leads to people buying better health outcomes and happiness.

Another view is that development is mostly about getting people the basics. Thousands of kids die every day because of preventable disease and the goal is to prevent those deaths and pick other low hanging fruit. When we look at the history of health in the U.S. and Europe we see most of the gains came recently from improved diets, vaccines, clean water and improved sanitation. From this perspective development is about getting everyone anti-malaria nets, vaccinations, access to clean water, and three meals a day. In the U.S. we ensure all these things (largely) through free public provision (food stamps, public health clinics, infrastructure the government has a heavy hand) so it's reasonable to think we can "do development" by having governments do it with a pot of say $50 billion from rich donors.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Question from Jon Haidt

Would you be happier if you had more meaningful conversations and spent less time shooting the bull? My guess is no but there is some evidence to the contrary.

With that in mind I submit this question, from Jon Haidt for discussion:

Suppose you faced this choice: if you choose option A, then tomorrow your life would become wonderful, full of happiness until you are 80, at which point you have 1 year of misery, feeling that your life was a mistake and a failure, and then you die unhappy. If you choose option B, you become miserable tomorrow, and until you are 80 you feel like a wretched failure. Then, at 80, you achieve a kind of epiphany, find meaning, and feel that your whole life was deeply worthwhile. Then you die. Whichever option you choose, your memory of choosing is wiped out, and you just live out the life that you chose without knowing why it is happening. Which option would you choose? Why?

Digg Random

HT: Digg Random

I don't know whether to file this under "Asian people are crazy" or "Why reparations are a bad idea."

Maybe she's just impressed with the high savings rate in China.

What I'm wondering is whether Taiwanese students count. China was still part of Taiwan in the 30s and 40s, so I think they should.

Do voluntourists do more harm than good?

I've heard a lot of people throw fits about wasted aid. It would be nice if development projects were more successful or even if even knew which ones worked (see "Taking evidence seriously").

What I don't understand is why people insist it's easy for someone to do more harm than good? Does anyone really believe that in expectation people going on short-term development trips do more harm than good?

There are obvious benefits to the trips. The people who go are probably more likely to stay in the field of international development. They may be more likely to donate money in the future and have a network effect on their peers. They spend money in-country which increases aggregate demand in the economy, surely in good thing for most developing countries (esp. during the recession). How valuable are these actions? Probably, on average, not that significant, but they are benefits?

What are the costs associated with voluntourism? People have provided plenty of examples of how aid projects can not live up to their potential. But that is different from doing harm. I'm stunned that so few people can tell the difference between tripping someone and watching them trip when you might have prevented it. As far as I can tell (this may be revised over time) voluntourist's are bad because they might annoy some people who don't want them meddling in their community and they might make those people feel they can't help themselves. Those don't sound like big costs and it's hard to understand why, if someone is such a nuisance, people just let them hang around.

Someone should put together a compelling case for why students shouldn't do their little touristy trips abroad that no one thinks helps much but I can't imagine, on average, do more harm than good.


Yesterday was Bloomsday. I never finished Ulysses, but I re-read some classics from Dubliners.


I used to like this one. I think it's most people's favorite and the most anthologized. Now I roll my eyes. I used to want to not be like the narrator, but now I realize I'm just like him. I don't have time for adventures in Araby and unrequited love is part of life.


This is the next most anthologized. It's very similar to Araby, but from a female perspective. That is probably why I used to like it less. But it's a bit more mature and a better story.

Two Gallants

This is the best story in the book. Characters make or break a story.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pepsi Refresh

I looked at some of the Pepsi Refresh ideas. I think there is potential for contests like this, but they're not quite there yet. The big problem that I see is that there isn't any incentive to a random outsiders to vet ideas. How do ideas end up winning? Is it mostly marketing? Spreading links on social networking sites? I'm not sure crowd sourcing will be that effective in selecting great ideas.

Some of the top entries didn't seem that impressive. The top in the $5k category is an investment of $100 in leadership training and video games. I'm a little skeptical of leadership training, and the whole program reminds me a lot of the retreats colleges love so much but that I tend to think are a waste.

Maybe the idea is great, which is the key insight here. in the long run models programs that can be replicated in different communities will emerge. We can take these "abstract" programs, do randomized evaluations of them, and build a list of proven interventions worth brining to scale.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Development Contradictions

All debates are plagued by some messy thinking here and there. But "development" debates, I've noticed, tend to have particularly murky thinking. I think this is rooted partly in the political and racial overtones and partly in the complexity of the issues (they tend to be multi-dsiciplinary). I've complied a list of my top six example of doublethink in development.

1. Some people are against farm subsidies because they lower food prices worldwide--Haiti was flooded with cheap "Miami rice," West Africans complain about cotton subsidies, etc.
But when food prices spiked in 2008 everyone was in outrage. We need to increase supply to ensure low enough prices for the urban poor. So which is it--are high prices good or low prices good? (There is a nuanced position here but I didn't hear anyone taking up that complexity.)

2. A lot of people are for a "human dignity"-based approach. We should listen to what people need and make the technologies they want. The patronizing attitude that we know what they need is wrong.

Then I hear this classic D-lab story: someone built a latrine with locks and the ownered ended up using it as a shed. This is explained as an example of a failed project. But wasn't the result good? The owner chose what they needed (a shed, not a latrine). There is also the malarial net version: they give out nets, people use them to fish, Easterly says this was a waste. But shouldn't some people say "well look they needed a fishing net more than a malarial net?" (There is again a nuanced position here that acknowledges on some issues, esp. health, we know best and should be patronizing.)

3. Some people love this idea of making everything a business. Sure, Nike pays low wages but it's not exploitation, it's the only way to develop. Micro-finance institutions charge usurous interest rates but it's better than the moneylenders.

But then when poor people contract with Millennium Villages to make money giving tours to American tourists in Rwanda, it's a bad thing. It's an affront to human dignity and exploitation. What?

4. Some people think we need to sell things, otherwise people won't understand the value of them. And in any event if you charge a price you ensure the people who need the limited resource are most likely to get it. Plus, it's bad to give things away because it promotes a culture of dependency.

But one tour of India let tourists donate goats to one village they toured. The "problem" was that they contracted with the only guy who could speak English in the village and he just took the goats and sold them. It was, of course, an outrage. It was fostering corruption in the village.
But doesn't it follow the principles we like--allocating the few goats efficiently, promoting a business, making sure people put the goats to use?

5. Daimbisa Moyo wants to end aid. But then says she only means development aid. Humanitiarian aid for health project is necessary and NGOs are ok in her book. But she dislikes PEPFAR. What gives? Is she for AIDS treatment or not? I have no clue after reading the whole debate and her book. You'd think the most influential book in development in several years could be clear on a basic point like that.

5.1 Moyo, like many others, notes that donations can be bad because they put Africans out of work. If we just donate bed nets then it will put the Africans who could have gone to work making the nets out of business. This simple story is not so obviously wrong. But it should be to economists like Moyo. It goes by the name broken window fallacy. I agree that a more complicate story, which emphasizes one of: the value of learning by doing, increasing returns to scale, and positive production spillovers. But people need to note those things if they're important, and explain which ones.

6. The biggest contradiction in development is between the constant exhorting that our goal is to help them help themselves and the reality that we don't. Paul Farmer makes this point--although people want to pretend they are in a position of equality with the people they help they are not. Your health care is better. You can go home. If you live in the community you'll never be treated as an equal, if you're not black. Some people try to become equals by living in the communities for extended periods of time. But how much can that help? Most people argue that the people are smart and are doing what they can for themselves. If you become one of them then you have nothing to do that they haven't tried. Also, the more context specific the project the less likely it is to scale.

If people really believed the goal was to help them develop themselves they'd spend their time on anti-corruption measures (these are complicated), lobbying to reform trade deals, including cutting farm subsidies, and raising funds for NGOs that employ local people to do the work. We'd also lobby for immigration to let more Africans come here, get skills, send remittances, and eventually go back with their human capital and be leaders, entrepreneurs etc. But I don't see a lot of people working on any of the above.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Conservative Hacks

I posted a revised version of my "quiz" of economic knowledge on EconLog, a far-right blog praising the study.

Tom commented that I got my own questions wrong. Tom has never heard of an optimal tariff, externalities, or adverse selection. That is a pity since the later two are taught in Econ 101 and the first concept in any discussion of trade.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Do conservatives know more about economics?

Probably not. But that's what the Wall Street Journal would have you believe.

One problem with the study is that it asks these questions:

Good Questions

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable. (No problem)

2. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago. (Good question that everyone should know the answer to.)

3. Rent control leads to housing shortages.

Questionable Questions

4. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of the services.

That is a complicated issue. They should just have asked if a quota on taxi medallions increases the cost of taking a taxi.

5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly

This is a stupid question of semantics.

Bad Questions

6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.

This is a matter of opinion. Most smart people will agree they aren't--working is better than not working. But research shows that protesting sweat shops improves their conditions--so maybe its fair to say the people are being exploited relative to what they would have if we protested.

7. Free trade leads to unemployment

This is true. Some workers are displaced and others (probably more) gain jobs. The "right" answer is false.

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.

This is disputed in the literature and there are models where minimum wage laws raise unemployment. There is no "right" answer here.


The bigger problem with the study, though, is that the questions are chosen so that conservative ideology will lead you to the "answer" while liberal ideology will lead you astray.

How would conservative fare on this test?

1. Free trade is preferable to a small tariff. (Optimal tariff)

2. Society will be better off if companies must pay for pollution

3. Insurance markets will collapse without regulation

4. Inflation is a bigger concern than unemployment

5. When interest rates are 0%, governments should spend stimulus money to fight a recession.

6. Income tax cuts would increase government revenue by stimulating growth.

Obvious things that I can't see

Everyone takes for granted these days that the future belongs to cloud computing and China. Google will dominate cloud computing, the PC will die, and everything will be stored and processed by big server farms. China will . . . I don't know what people think China will do but it will become the world's "superpower."

The thing is, the cloud is far from certainty. A lot of people are uncomfortable with trusting companies with all of their personal data, without an on-site backup. (Google admitting to spying on people didn't help their case.) More importantly, our wireless networks aren't even close to fast or reliable enough to do anything other than back up data on the cloud. Amazon just launched a new data service to utilize their server farms, but, as anyone in the know would expect, they are asking users to send large chunks of data through ... FedEx.

China, meanwhile, has a GDP (PPP) per capita of about $6,000. Hong Kong is rich, and a few mainland cities (e.g. Shanghai and Beijing) are comparable to Mississippi in development, but the fact is that China is a very poor, technologically backward, uneducated country. Even if China manages to grow 8% a year and the U.S. has anemic growth at 2%, it will take China 35 years to catch up with the U.S. But that seems unlikely as, right now, China is playing catch-up, utilizing cheap labor and old technology to manufacture products developed countries used to make for themselves. Korea, Taiwan, and Japan did the same in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and as all growth models predicted, their rapid growth tapered off before they caught up with the U.S.

Taking evidence seriously

Banerjee (brief) on taking evidence seriously

Tim Harford's experimentalist manifesto

Never ending backlog of links

1. Political economy of education (never finished reading this)

2. Second best commencement speech I've read (on positive psychology)

3. Death by Caffine

4. Maybe we should just let Africa host more World Cups instead of sending aid

5. Glaeser on climate change legislation

6. Charter Cities

7. The "ethicist" at the New York Times gives horrible, unethical advice about kidney donations

Saturday, June 12, 2010

More Assorted Links

1. How to Read

2. Ariely thinks we should experiment more

3. Glaeser on epistemology in macroeconomics

4. Good advice from Stephen Dubner

5. What career helps the most. I agree with the framework, but I'm not sure about the answer.

6. Tyler Cowen is an interesting character

7. The Internet makes people happy (maybe)

8. Bill Simmons might be the best American writer. (Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian.) Even though it's an unimportant issue, and his analysis of the the quality of players is poor, and his narrative is contrived, it is fun to read.

9. Kristof on poor people wasting money

10. Does Facebook pigeonhole our identity? My Facebook says I have a complicated relationship with a dog, am a Jedi, and have an "Other" stance on politics. I guess that sums me up nicely. Now if only it asked if I think the h in "humor" is silent people would have me all figured out.

11. Development experts focus too little on migration

12. Women in Science

13. Oil spill in context

Cultural Imperialism

I'm puzzled about all the excitment over the World Cup.

Isn't it just the legacy of colonialism? Soccer's historical roots in England are weak (the game is less than 200 years old) and in the rest of the world it's a legacy of the British Empire and cultural imperialism.

Economists and other sensible people would have us believe that soccer is popular because people like to play the game. The rules are simple; all it requires is a ball, some rocks to mark the goal, and a field; and everyone enjoys a little exercise and competition--especially kids.

But this belies the truth. Every people has its own historical set of games and recreational activities, just as it has its own language, music, and culture in general. Soccer is popular because it was imposed through imperialism and globalization. The fact that Africans love soccer isn't something to celebrate--because it provides some joy in what is for many a short, drab life--it's something to protest. Africans should play African games, just as they should wear African clothing and speak African languages.

If Africans don't like that, too bad. If we allow soccer to become the "world's sport" and the World Cup to become a semi-annual ritual sucking up the time and talent of countless billions of young men (and, one day, women), everyone will suffer from the lost diversity. Everyone has a stake in ensuring that languages, sports, and musical traditions don't die.


Has American Pop Music Displaced Local Culture?

Kwame Anthony Appiah with relevant thoughts

Assorted Links

1. Good analysis of Rand Paul.

2. Are the Republicans governed by extermists or corporations? There is some tension in these theses.

3. Big story only black people are allowed to speak the truth about. Perhaps that, not racism, is why it get too little press.

4. "the fastest-growing group . . . are men who self-identify as 'mostly straight' as opposed to labels like 'straight', 'gay', or 'bisexual." I don't know what to make of that.

5. Landsburg on psychiatry. I don't think this is fair. It would be like economists asking the public what should count as a recession or unemployment, or biologists asking what should count as life.

6. Cell phone banking in Haiti. I wish I knew more about M-PESA.

7. Is Chinese education as great as everyone thinks? No.

8. I haven't kept up with financial regulation but I liked this summary

9. "Horizontal" health care programs were all the rage a few year ago. Now a Gates Foundation study says they don't work. I'm a little skeptical of the methods based on this AP report. Easterly weighs in.

10. A high school in MA is forcing every student to buy a MacBook.

11. Maureen Dowd wrote a good column for the first time in her life.

12. Ezra Klein on the word "bailout"

13. "Good" professors are easy professors.

14. More debate on whether the Internet is good for you

Friday, June 11, 2010

BP on Spills

Steve Landsburg found this picture. I like his blog, books, and old column.

Things Everyone Should Know

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity does some good research and better lobbying. They created the Forbes college ranking, which I think they far superior to the U.S. News and World Report one.

But why do they insist on arguing college education isn't worth it?

Going to college is still worth it. The article buries the lede, which is that those who go to college are half as likely to be unemployed and make (for females) 75% more money. (And those aren't artifacts of selection bias, as numerous instrumental variables studies have found.)

There should be a basic requirement for education bloggers, pundits, and researchers to be familiar with the fact that--despite the rising costs, despite the diminishing rate of return, despite that education may just have signaling effect, and despite the fact that some people are too dumb for it--college education pays off.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Prison Population vs. Economic Freedom

If we graphed the percentage of the population in prison against the amount of economic freedom in a country, what relation would we expect?

My guess is a weakly positive correlation. Income inequality, which capitalism generates, gives people an incentive to steal. That would create a positive correlation between crime and economic freedom. More importantly, the institutions that make an economy free for business (enforcing contracts, functioning justice system, private property) are related to the institutions that lead to arrests (functioning justice system, capable police force).

Mike Konczal, blogging for Ezra Klein, finds the expected positive correlation. (Then says it's counter-intuitive and provides a number of bizarre explanations. File under "???" or "Liberals who hate the Cato Institute?")

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sandel on Justice

Sandel's TED talk on improving policy debate. His big idea is that we spend too much of the time asking the wrong questions because we ignore the fundamentals. We should ask "what is the purpose of universities?" before we ask who they should admit (affirmative action). I think it's a good talk.

But I have two big problems with philosophers and both apply to Sandel. When Sandel asks the audicence about the Supreme Court case they end up in a situation where A says letting a disabled golfer use golf cart would not give him an unfair advantage. B says that it would. A's only response is, to paraphrase, "I believe it wouldn't as an article of faith." In situations like this our thoughts should jump to "why don't we do an experiment and find out?" The facts are almost always absolutely essential to a debate, even after it has been framed properly.

The second problem is that Sandel says "musical performance isn't just [about] mak[ing] . . . us happy, but to honor and recognize . . . excellence." For decades this kind of virtue ethic has been in vogue. I understand appeal--consequentialism brings too many unsavory paradoxes. But isn't it obvious, when you really stop and think, that act utilitarianism is the only sensible ethical system?

This debate has an analog in economics. Sometimes people don't behave like the homo economicus would. We take that as evidence that some economic models are bad. Fair enough. But it's also evidence that a lot of people make stupid choices. Utilitarianism doesn't predict people's intuitions AND it shows people have bad intuitions.

Does David Brooks believe what he writes?

David Brooks is at it again. It used to be that you studied the humanities to enlighten your self or some shit like that. Now its because it'll help your career, even though engineers make about twice as much as humanities majors.

I wonder if he believes what he writes. He implies the subprime mortgage crisis and the BP oil disaster and if more bankers and businessmen read Gibbon. Social skills are important, but can you really build them by reading books? Maybe. But wouldn't it be better to read books by psychologists--or talk to people?

Quote of the Day: MIT Edition

Will a day come when American parents will be as thrilled to hear that their child got into Qinghua University as Chinese parents are to learn their child is going to MIT?


I like reflecting on how things change over the years. Yesterday, I was on the Authentic Happiness website and I took some of the tests. I knew I took a few of them 3 years ago and was wondering if anything had changed.

Things did. I went from 6.83/7 (100th percentile) to 5.83/7 (99th percentile) on "Attachment-related Avoidance." That's what college can do for your social skills.

My favorite test is the "Brief Strengths Test." I think it's pretty accurate. My main strengths are
  1. Judgment / Thinking things through
  2. Perspective / Wisdom
  3. Self-regulation / Self-control
  4. Prudence
  5. Humor (and I thought my jokes were bad)
while my weak areas are
  1. Vitality / Enthusiasm
  2. Love
  3. Leadership
  4. Mercy / Forgiveness
  5. Appreciation of art
I had the most dramatic declines in kindness (100th to 10th percentile), leadership (94th to 6th), and mercy (48th to 7th). I know why mercy declined; it did and its not a bad thing. Leadership is probably all in self-perception. I do wonder if I'm a much less kind person than I used to be.

Technology's Downsides

Change scares people and technology causes change. So it shouldn't be any shock that people have been warning computers will rip the fabric of society apart for some time.

At first I was a skeptic. Computers are helping to hallow out the middle class. The effects are real and "retraining" isn't the answer. I understand this all first hand. But in the long run technological progress always has been worth it. I felt the same was true for claims that computers are hampering our ability to think. Google isn't making us stupid. My sympathies lay with Tyler Cowen, who emphasize the cognitive benefits of searching and sorting a surfeit of information.

But the more I read about technology, the more I have to acknowledge some of it's downsides.

Update: Tyler Cowen comments on the story.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Technical Jargon about Growth

. . . the baseline growth theory blithely assumes away poverty traps (for example, in the famous Inada condition of the first day of growth theory) . . .
From this old book review. I wish I knew more about growth theory, but I did Jeff Sachs' commentary in particular. Everyone interested in development hates Sachs for one reason or another. But I like him.

Measuring Poverty

Robert Samuelson explains why the new poverty measure should not be used as a political tool. (HT: Greg Mankiw).

I think he doesn't go far enough explaining how poorly (and why) income and consumption can be correlated. This story from Mankiw demonstrates how. When you include implicit marginal taxes from lost government benefits the marginal tax rate hovers around and can even exceed 100%, meaning families pay $0.80-$1.05 in taxes for each dollar earned. I don't completely trust this source, but they document implicit taxes in Virginia and you can see how bad it can be.

One other point worth emphasizing is that Democrats should want the poverty rate to pick up progress. We've made of progress improving the standard of living in this country over the years and reducing poverty, but the poverty line currently used (and the one proposed by Obama) ignores that. Some Democrats think that's a good thing as it keeps people's attention focused on poverty. But that's not true. It makes people think helping the poor is a lost cause, so we should give up. It also obscures our priorities, making us think, for instance, that people who choose not to work because they make more money on welfare, are in desperate straits, so we continue to focus on them, while we largely ignore mentally ill, homeless people who actually need help.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


1. Is foreign aid bad? No

2. 1999 TIME story on AIDS drugs. (Related: UAEM.) Do health beat writers still have their heads that far up their ass?

3. Yes. These guys do. Leonhardt cleared some of this up a while back.

4. More on foreign aid, RCT edition.

5. If you think Arizona is cruel to immigrants, wait until your read about Mexico.

6. Does travel make people happy? No one knows. I suspect it doesn't. Vacations probably do.

7. An old TIME story about positive psychology

Deal or No Deal

I just saw a Million Dollar Mission episode of Deal or No Deal where there were 3 $1,000,000 cases in play. The lady had 2 of them still in play with something like 8 cases left.

She had an offer of ~$207,000 and turned it down to open two cases. She opened both of the million dollar cases. The offer dropped to $45,000. Then she continued to open cases and eliminated the only big amount remaining, $400,000.

She played through until there was $0.01 and $10,000 left.

Social Intelligence

I found a book at the library by Daniel Goleman, the psychologist famous for studying emotional intelligence. The new book is about a related concept, social intelligence. But I don't like to commit to reading a book without reading some commentary first, so I did a search online.

I found this forum filled with comments criticizing the concept (and a test based on it). It turns out most of the posters had low scores, which seems to be the source of their gripes. Then I noticed the forum is for people autistic spectrum disorders, mostly Asperger's, which is characterized by:

  • Displaying unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures
  • Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects, such as baseball statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes
  • Appearing not to understand, empathize with or be sensitive to others' feelings
  • Having a hard time "reading" other people or understanding humor
  • Engaging in one-sided, long-winded conversations, without noticing if the listener is listening or trying to change the subject
  • I've read a lot of stories about autism where people claim they are happy to be autistic, that is isn't really a disease, just a difference, at least in high-functioning variants. But Goleman's research suggests that these symptoms cause real harm by making it hard to bond with friends, a major determinant of happiness, and putting people at risk of depression.

    I typed in all the reported scores (n = 81) and the average is 83.4, a little more than 1 standard deviation below the theoretical population average. The distribution is bi-modal (one around 78 and another near 100) but has the same standard deviation as the population. The comments are consistent with the possibility low scorers do tend to be unhappy. One person wrote that they scored low because "[b]ecause I'm depressed and am honest about my problems and limitations I am therefore [socially] retarded" and a number of others felt the test was a diagnostic for depression, seemingly acknowledging they have symptoms. On the whole, then, it seems probable that autism does make people unhappy, which should be the measure of whether any condition is a problem.


    It's been 66 years. I read in a couple places they had 5,000 boats in the channel that night. I wonder if it's true.

    This movie was made for the 60th anniversary. I haven't watched it since, but I think it's great.

    Charter Schools as a "Development Model"

    I don't understand exactly what makes a social enterprise a social enterprise as opposed to just an NGO. I think it's one of those things where if the organization self-identifies as one then it is one. In my head they're all just NGOs, businesses, or confused foreigners.

    I was reading the website of a new "social enterprise" that is split into two parts, the non-profit Manna Energy Foundation, and a for-profit, Manna Energy Ltd. As they share the same website, I think, for all intents and purposes, they run as one organization.

    Their big idea is to install 400 water purification systems in Rwanda with government support. I'm not sure if the government is financing this or if donations are, or if they plan to charge people for the water. Over a longer time horizon, but I believe in the same communities, they are installing 300 biogas generators which will allow them to selling carbon credits to the U.N. The money will finance future projects (and make a profit for someone?).

    It sounds like a good plan to me. I like "template" solutions for the developing world. There are a ton of great technologies that never scaled up. Some people argue the reason is that they can't be effectively implemented without a close and long-term collaboration with the community. Most of the technologies have to adapted with requires expertise, lots of travel, and a ton of money. Yet health technology, e.g. vaccines and bed nets, have been successfully scaled up, and it seems natural that infrastructure could and should be scaled and financed by the governments (it was in developed countries) . In a sense the "education technologies" of paper, pencils, schools, and educated instructors have been scaled in such a way, albeit the implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

    What I think is interesting about this project is that while it claims to be a social enterprise and is technically for-profit, it reminds me most of the charter school movement in the U.S. Manna is more of a pseudo-government agency than a business. They do work that the government is supposed to do, but with more expertise and energy, the same premise behind the KIPP schools and other charters modeled on KIPP. Both charters and Manna are funded by the government.

    Perhaps the "charter model" should be a new buzzword and source of inspiration in development. Charters are certainly making headway in fixing U.S. education, despite a few lingering questions about scalability.

    Worst Book Review of All Time

    The worst book review I've ever read.

    Ehrenreich drives me nuts. She thinks that, without having any background in a subject, she can do a little research and make novel insights that have someone escaped everyone else. In her new book, she takes on positive psychology despite knowing nothing about psychology.

    She, as the review notes, doesn't understand regressions or statistical significance. (She's doesn't understand what a categorical variable is either.) She does know how to ask asinine questions about dimensional analysis and note that the functional form might be misspecified. But she doesn't understand non-parametric regression, which makes her criticisms moot. Somehow, the reviewer takes all of this as the mark of genius.

    The worst part, though, is the reviewer's conclusion, a collection of platitudes about how knowing the truth is more important than being happy. It makes his ignorance about positive psychology to obvious. Does he know "[s]tudies indicate that depressed individuals have more realistic views than non-depressed people?" Is he saying we should all become depressed, lest (to paraphrase) fantasy take precedence over reality?

    Saturday, June 5, 2010

    What is wrong with Republicans?

    Jonathan Haidt explains why you shouldn't believe all those bad things you are say the political opposition is true.

    Some liberals use the fact that Democrats/liberals tend to be more educated than Republicans/Tea Party people as if it were proof liberals (at least in Cambridge) don't manipulate facts, ignore evidence, and, from time to time, make some pretty stupid statements. Some of my favorite examples of liberals being stupid are below:

    In 2003, Barack Obama wasn't a member of congress, so he didn't vote against the war. In 2006, he was a senator, and voted against withdrawing the troops from Iraq. These are facts. In April 2008, I pointed these facts out to someone and said it made me wonder if he would actually have the troops out of Iraq in 16 months like he promised. She insisted I had no idea what I was talking about. Indeed, I must have been lying on purpose and a Republican stooge.

    MIT, like most universities, has lower admissions standards for minorities. That is also a fact. (I think it's a rather blunt instrument, but it's better than nothing.) I've met a lot of people who think it's a good thing, but never once met a person who benefited from those lower standards. You can back out an estimate (by comparing MIT to a peer without affirmative action) that about 73% of URM students at MIT benefited from affirmative action so the odds are in 485,693 that I just happened to meet people who would have been qualified if they were White. When I made that comment to someone they said I must have done the math wrong.

    My favorite example, though, of people being completely delusion is the Palin Test. Watch these two interviews, two of Palin and one of Biden, by Katie Couric. Somehow, probably because no one watched the interviews, people got the impression Couric asked them both hard hitting questions and Joe "Slave State-7-Eleven-Scholarship" Biden hit them out of the park while Palin stumbled.

    Friday, June 4, 2010


    I have 5,000 entires to sort through from my RSS feeds, and about 120 articles I opened but never read. I guess I should start posting about those some time soon. Also, I need to weight on this story. I think the Dartmouth data story is more complicated than the reaction on the liberal blogosphere suggests, but, at the same time, its obvious the story's authors are tools.

    In the mean time I've been doing some research on the validity of this model and it brought me back to the best article I've read in the past 6 months, An Animal's Place.

    Journalists don't make good points to often, but I think Michael Pollan has a worthwhile thesis. Or maybe he just looks good because his competition on this topic is academic philosophers.

    My other favorite Times Magazine stories are Leonhardt's The Big Fix and Krugman's How Did Economists Get It So Wrong? for content and The Aria of Chris Matthews for entertainment value.

    While I'm at it I'll link to my two favorite essays: Inside the Machine: Toward a New Development Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.

    Thursday, June 3, 2010

    Historic Night in Baseball

    Yesterday, Ken Griffey Jr. announced his retirement.

    He was probably one of the most popular players in history, and easily one of the best. He hit 630 home runs, just one of just four players to do without the taint of steroids. Without being hampered by injuries late in his career he might have hit 750 or more.

    My favorite Griffey moment was Griffey's winning run. Video here.

    But yesterday will be best remembered for the biggest blown call in sports history.

    Armando Galarraga threw a perfect game, but a bad call broke it up after 8 and 2/3rds innings. The two biggest stories this season, bad umpiring and perfect games, clashed last night for what might go down as the biggest story of the year.

    I firmly believe Bud Selig will have the league officially change the call and give Galarraga his perfect game. It will be unprecedented, but appropriate, similar to the pine tar incident.

    The call may also go down in history as a tipping point in the case for instant replay.

    Update: Selig won't reverse the call. More evidence he will be remembered as the worst commissioner in baseball history.