Blog

Interesting academic articles for January 2020

Here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this month!

Shelby Grossman.  2019.  “The Politics of Order in Informal Markets: Evidence from Lagos.”  World Politics.

Property rights are important for economic exchange, but in many parts of the world, they are not publicly guaranteed. Private market associations can fill this gap by providing an institutional structure to enforce agreements, but with this power comes the ability to extort from group members. Under what circumstances do private associations provide a stable environment for economic activity? The author uses survey data collected from 1,179 randomly sampled traders across 199 markets in Lagos, Nigeria, and finds that markets maintain institutions to support trade not in the absence of government, but rather in response to active government interference. The author argues that associations develop protrade policies when threatened by politicians they perceive to be predatory and when the organizations can respond with threats of their own. The latter is easier when traders are not competing with one another. To maintain this balance of power, an association will not extort; it needs trader support to maintain the credibility of its threats to mobilize against predatory politicians.

Sabrina Karim.  2020.  “Relational State Building in Areas of Limited Statehood: Experimental Evidence on the Attitudes of the Police.”  American Political Science Review.  

Under what conditions does state expansion into limited statehood areas improve perceptions of state authority? Although previous work emphasizes identity or institutional sources of state legitimacy, I argue that relationships between state agents and citizens drive positive attitude formation, because these relationships provide information and facilitate social bonds. Moreover, when state agents and citizens share demographic characteristics, perceptional effects may improve. Finally, citizens finding procedural interactions between state agents and citizens unfair may adopt negative views about the state. I test these three propositions by randomizing household visits by male or female police officers in rural Liberia. These visits facilitated relationship building, leading to improved perceptions of police; shared demographic characteristics between police and citizens did not strengthen this effect. Perceptions of unfairness in the randomization led to negative opinions about police. The results imply that relationship building between state agents and citizens is an important part of state building.

Sarah Brierley.  2019.  “Unprincipled Principals: Co-opted Bureaucrats and Corruption in Ghana.”  American Journal of Political Science.

In theory, granting politicians tools to oversee bureaucrats can reduce administrative malfeasance. In contrast, I argue that the political control of bureaucrats can increase corruption when politicians need money to fund election campaigns and face limited institutional constraints. In such contexts, politicians can leverage their discretionary powers to incentivize bureaucrats to extract rents from the state on politicians’ behalf. Using data from an original survey of bureaucrats (N = 864) across 80 randomly sampled local governments in Ghana, I show that bureaucrats are more likely to facilitate politicians’ corrupt behavior when politicians are perceived to be empowered with higher levels of discretionary control. Using qualitative data and a list experiment to demonstrate the mechanism, I show that politicians enact corruption by threatening to transfer noncompliant officers. My findings provide new evidence on the sources of public administrative deficiencies in developing countries and qualify the presumption that greater political oversight improves governance.

Raúl Sánchez de la Sierra.  2019.  “On the Origins of the State: Stationary Bandits and Taxation in Eastern Congo.”  Journal of Political Economy.

A positive demand shock for coltan, a mineral whose bulky output cannot be concealed, leads armed actors to create illicit customs and provide protection at coltan mines, where they settle as “stationary bandits.” A similar shock for gold, easy to conceal, leads to stationary bandits in the villages where income from gold is spent, where they introduce illicit mining visas, taxes, and administrations. Having a stationary bandit from a militia or the Congolese army increases welfare. These findings suggest that armed actors may create “essential functions of a state” to better expropriate, which, depending on their goals, can increase welfare.

Pedro Carneiro, Lucy Kraftman, Giacomo Mason, Lucie Moore, Imran Rasul, and Molly Scott.  2019.  The Impacts of a Multifaceted Pre-natal Intervention on Human Capital Accumulation in Early Life.”  Working paper.

We present results from a large-scale and long-term randomized control trial to evaluate an intervention targeting early life nutrition and well-being for households residing in extreme poverty in Northern Nigeria. The multifaceted intervention provides: (i) information to mothers and fathers on practices related to pregnancy and infant feeding; (ii) high-valued unconditional cash transfers to mothers, each month from pregnancy until the child turns two. We document two- and four-year impacts among 3600 pregnant women and their children. The intervention leads to large and sustained improvements in anthropometric and health outcomes for children, including an 8% reduction in stunting by endline. These impacts are partly driven by information-related channels (such as improved knowledge, practices and health behaviors of mothers towards new borns). However, the value and certain flow of cash transfers is also key: these induce labor supply responses among women, and allow them to undertake investments in livestock. These are both a source of protein rich diets for children, and generate higher earnings streams for households long after the cash transfers expire. The results show the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of scalable multifaceted pre-natal interventions in even the most challenging and food insecure economic environments.

Kanika Jha Kingra, Francis Rathinam, Tony Tyrrell, and Marie Gaarder.  2019. Social protection: a synthesis of evidence and lessons from 3ie evidence-supported impact evaluations.”  3ie working paper #34.

The paper synthesises evidence from evaluation of transfer programmes in Ecuador, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe and from public works programmes in Ethiopia and India.  [Key findings include the following.] Cash versus in-kind or food transfers and conditional versus unconditional transfers are issues of extensive debate amongst implementers of social protection programmes. Transfers can positively affect non-beneficiaries and the wider economy. Information on cost-benefit remains a gnawing gap. Analysis of gendered outcomes remains limited.

How much do African countries collect in taxes?

Not very much compared to global standards, according to this Economist article.  As they note,

Government revenues average about 17% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF. Nigeria has more than 300 times as many people as Luxembourg, but collects less tax. If Ethiopia shared out its tax revenues equally, each citizen would get around $80 a year. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is so penurious that its annual health spending per person could not buy a copy of this newspaper.

Globally, wealthy countries have tax revenues equivalent to about 34% of GDP, and Latin America averages 22%, according to the OECD.

taxes

One of the paradoxes of taxation in many African states is that low tax revenues co-exist with relatively high tax rates, because the overall tax base is very narrow.  Most economic activity goes untaxed, and taxes are concentrated on a small number of firms in the formal sector.  And the largest firms, or those which are politically connected, can often negotiate further tax breaks, further narrowing the tax base.

(H/t to Ken Opalo for this article.)

 

What happens to Africa if climate change goes unchecked?

Via Susan Comrie, I came across this alarming map of what the world will look like if global temperatures rise by 4°C.  The outlook for Africa is extraordinarily grim.  (The blue dots north of the Sahara reflect potential for solar energy installations, and the red bits are coastline permanently lost to sea level rise.)

A map showing that Africa will mostly be desert at 4 degrees Celsius of global warming, with a bit of greenery in the Sahel

According to Our World in Data, the world’s current set of climate policies will lead to warming of 3.1-3.7°C relative to pre-industrial temperatures by 2100.  That’s not too far off the future depicted in this map.

There’s a desperate need for the countries which emit the most carbon — primarily China, the US, and the European region — to put better policies in place.  African countries also need to plan for climate change mitigation, although it’s unclear exactly how much can be done in the face of 4°C of warming.

Who counts as a household head?

If you’ve done much survey research, you’re probably familiar with controversies over how to map out households, and in particular whether to assume that a married man is by default the household head.  The Center for Global Development and Data2X recently shared the discussion from an interesting event on this topic.  As the authors Mayra Buvinic and Dominique van de Walle note,

Traditionally, the uses of household headship have been both practical and conceptual. First, the delineation of a head is universally used in household surveys as a practical organizing principle to map out the household roster and relationships between household members. Second, comparing households according to the sex of the designated head has been used as a way to assess gender inequalities. Indeed, female headship has been interpreted as a proxy for women’s poverty.

They lay out three reasons why assigning headship according to gender can be a bad idea.

First, headship as a concept is value-laden and reinforces patriarchal gender stereotypes that are important to resist. Gender-biased concepts and measures can perpetuate stereotypical notions that only men should be heads of household. Second, assigning a head also depends on subjective assessments by household members. Finally, headship may also perpetuate gender bias if interviewers are themselves predisposed towards attributing headship to adult males. The conclusion to this line of reasoning is that getting rid of these data and organizing the household around a “primary household respondent” would solve the problem of using a construct that is not reducible.

However, they don’t feel that the concept should be dropped immediately.  One salient point is that many cultures still do in practice designate one adult to make the major household decisions, and ignoring this designation would throw away useful data.  In addition,

We would argue that analyzing households by their head’s gender can be a reliable source of information for:

  1.  Monitoring changes in society and family dynamics. The growing number of women heading households in prime adult age groups can signal social change towards gender equality and away from patriarchal family structures.
  2.  Female headship, when it captures marital dissolution and widowhood (Africa) or unpartnered motherhood (Latin America), often signals vulnerability and disadvantage for women and children.
  3.  The growing numbers of female heads resulting from wars and violent conflict signal both vulnerabilities and economic and political opportunities for women.

 

The 25 best longform articles of 2019

A drawing of a rocket with the text "top reader, one percent" next to it, and the text "you're a top reader" below it
A snapshot of my year in Pocket

Here’s my annual round-up of the year’s best articles!  If you’d like to read more articles like these, come follow me on Pocket where I share the most interesting things I read throughout the year.  (Previously: best of 2018, 2017, 2016.)

White Words.  Popula.  “At the same time, ‘did you know that the Hopi only have one word for flying things?’ never became a thing either, nor did ‘did you know that the Aztecs, etc.’ And the reason is pretty random, basically; as Martin shows, ‘Eskimos have fifty words for snow’ became a thing because that particular example was taken in isolation: it was cut out of Whorf’s article and propagated through a series of textbooks that were much sloppier than Whorf, from whence it has gone on to become an exotic story about an exotic people.”

How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger.  NPR.  The culture views scolding — or even speaking to children in an angry voice — as inappropriate, says Lisa Ipeelie, a radio producer and mom who grew up with 12 siblings. ‘When they’re little, it doesn’t help to raise your voice,’ she says. ‘It will just make your own heart rate go up… With little kids, you often think they’re pushing your buttons, but that’s not what’s going on. They’re upset about something, and you have to figure out what it is.'”

US Workers Are Paying High Taxes. But Without Any of the Benefits.  Jacobin.  “The OECD may not be able to include employer-based health insurance premiums into its model, but I certainly can. And when I add them into the OECD model, I find that the average American worker has one of the highest compulsory payment rates in the developed world.”

How ICE Picks Its Targets in the Surveillance Age.  New York Times.  “The winter after Donald Trump was elected president, strangers began appearing in a parking lot on southern Washington State’s Long Beach Peninsula, at the port where the oyster boats come and go. Rather than gaze at the bay or the boats or the building-size piles of bleached shells, two men — one thinner, one thicker — stared at the shellfish workers. The strangers sat in their vehicle and watched the workers arrive in their trucks. They watched the workers grab their gear and walk to the docks. The workers watched them watching, too, and they soon began to realize that the men were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When the workers made eye contact, the officers nodded politely, but they said very little. For weeks, they just watched. Then the workers began to vanish.”

Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts.  Emergence Magazine.  “My grandfather raised pigs and cured hams that hung from the rafters in the smokehouse. My grandmother was a domestic worker. She cleaned houses for white folks. Before and after she went to work, she fetched water from the well. She slopped the hogs. Canned vegetables and stored them in the cellar. Fed chickens. Milked cows. Shucked corn. Sewed clothes for herself and me. Quilted. But still there were always three meals on the table. Precise. Orderly. Delicious.”

Dial Up!  The Verge.  “Participation is what keeps Hmong conference line radio alive. A caller dials the conference call number, usually shared through word of mouth or on Facebook groups. The lines have hourly programming and themes: call in the afternoon, and you might find someone singing traditional Hmong folk songs. In the evening, maybe it’s business advice from Hmong entrepreneurs. Whatever the topic, the shows are all in Hmong, a key factor that’s both unique to the medium and essential for its survival. An oral culture for much of their history, the Hmong did not have a written language until the 1950s, and only 40 percent of foreign-born Hmong Americans were English-proficient as of 2015.”

Yaa Naa Rides to Yani: A Saga of Restoration.  The Scarab.  “The Asantehene intentionally invoked the ancient tributary treaty by referring to certain Dagbon royals as his ‘children’. This was obviously provocative, considering that Dagbon is nearly 300 years older than Asante, but it was meant to play back Manhyia’s ancient pact with Naa Ziblim and send coded messages to key actors within the Dagbon establishment: the steel axe is falling; realpolitik is here.”

Decolonizing Science Writing in South Africa.  The Open Notebook.  “In some respects, a fossil find was the perfect subject for my first foray into reporting in Zulu. That’s partly because South Africa is rich with paleontological finds and research. But also, paleontology is a storytelling science—one that lends itself to imaginative tales about origin and how things came to be. Such stories are a staple of Zulu culture. To Zulu speakers encountering dinosaurs through the lens of their native tongue for the first time, the ancient creatures seem like mythical beings straight out of a fireside folk tale.”

Bombay Nights.  Aeon.  “While workers fought battles against employers for a shorter workday, they were also attending night schools established in cooperation with social-reform organisations. As soon as the mills closed and the dusk descended, many workers turned into students. Though tired, many went straight to night school at 7pm, and spent two hours enjoying the pleasure of reading, listening to the teacher and holding a book. The night became reserved for aspiring.”

The Coming Fight for the Dalai Lama’s Soul.  Foreign Policy.  “That makes the next life of the Dalai Lama critical. Beijing claims that the Chinese government has the sole right to determine both whether the Dalai Lama, officially the 14th in an ancient spiritual lineage, will reincarnate and in whom he will reincarnate. This might seem a contradiction in terms for an atheist state, but it’s part of the messy legacy of China’s religious-imperial past under the Qing Dynasty. Since Beijing’s claim to Tibet rests largely on the Qing-era borders, picking the lamas ostensibly comes with the territory.”

Four is ForbiddenChinaFile.  “It was the first and last time I asked about June Fourth while in China. For a Chinese family like mine, politics and death were the two biggest taboos. Seven years later and 7,000 miles away, I finally understood the full meaning of the ominous phrase. Now, another decade has gone by since I moved to the U.S. Every time I see a mass demonstration take place, my mind rushes to that fateful night in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese government sent three hundred thousand regular troops with tanks and machine guns to crush a student-led pro-democracy protest. Born after the tragedy with no family members involved, I am nevertheless a child of Tiananmen, its aftermath shaping my life and education from the moment they began.”

Ghost Ships, Crop Circles, and Soft Gold: A GPS Mystery in Shanghai.  Technology Review.  “Nobody knows who is behind this spoofing, or what its ultimate purpose might be. These ships could be unwilling test subjects for a sophisticated electronic warfare system, or collateral damage in a conflict between environmental criminals and the Chinese state that has already claimed dozens of ships and lives. But one thing is for certain: there is an invisible electronic war over the future of navigation in Shanghai, and GPS is losing.”

The Strange Story of Hay Fever in Japan: Construction, Conspiracy Theories, Climate Change. Gaijinpot.  “Artificially planted cedar forests make up 18 percent of the nation’s forests, while artificial native cypress trees, or hinoki (檜), make up around 10 percent. The unluckiest cedar hayfever sufferers also develop an allergy to cypress pollen, too.  In 1964, Japan’s lumber market was opened to cheaper, foreign imports and consumption of domestic timber dropped from roughly 90 percent to less than 30 percent. Turnover of the trees slowed and vast areas of cedar were left to mature to around 30 years of age when they began to produce pollen – in vast amounts.”

It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel.  Wired.  “Nelson also points out that most astronauts have no prior experience relying on technology for their movement and lives, whereas people with disabilities do so every day. In a space suit, for a space walk, an astronaut has to be trained in how to move their body in unison with a piece of technology. They have to get used to the idea that, if that technology should fail, they could be in grave danger. This, again, is an experience people like Nelson live with every day. ‘I’m always moving my body in motion with another object. That’s all we do,’ Nelson says.”

Modern Waste is an Economic Strategy.  Discard Studies.  “In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Packaging Inc., famously (and controversially at the time) declared: “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Stouffer’s idea addressed an emerging problem for industry. Products tended to be durable, easy to fix, and limited in variation (such as color or style). With this mode of design, markets were quickly saturating. Opportunities for growth, and thus profit, were rapidly diminishing, particularly after America’s Great Depression and the two World Wars, where an ethos of preservation, reuse, and frugality was cultivated. In response, industry intervened on a material level and developed disposability through planned obsolescence, single-use items, cheap materials, throw-away packaging, fashion, and conspicuous consumption. These changes were supported by a regimen of advertising that telegraphed industrial principals of value into the social realm, suggesting the difference between durable and disposable, esteemed and taboo. American industry designed a shift in values that circulated goods through, rather than into, the consumer realm. The truism that humans are inherently wasteful came into being at a particular time and place, by design.”

A 4-Year-Old Trapped in a Teenager’s Body.  The Cut.  “Having a mutant LHCGR gene leads to what doctors now call familial male-limited precocious puberty, an extremely rare disease that affects only men because you have to have testicles, which is why it’s also called testotoxicosis. The condition tricks the testicles into thinking the body is ready to go through puberty — so wham, the floodgates open and the body is saturated with testosterone. The result is premature everything: bone growth, muscle development, body hair, the full menu of dramatic physical changes that accompany puberty. Only instead of being 13, you’re 2.”

Ancient switch to soft food gave us an overbite—and the ability to pronounce ‘f’s and ‘v’s.  Science.  “Don’t like the F-word? Blame farmers and soft food. When humans switched to processed foods after the spread of agriculture, they put less wear and tear on their teeth. That changed the growth of their jaws, giving adults the overbites normal in children. Within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like ‘f’ and ‘v,’ opening a world of new words.”

I Assure You, Medieval People Bathed.  Going Medieval.  “And yeah, some holy people didn’t bathe, notably saints who would forego bathing themselves but bathe sick or poor people. But if you bring that up you are missing the point. Medieval people thought that bathing and being clean was really nice, so giving it up and living with your stank was a sign that you had given up on the corporeal world and only thought of heaven. It was holy because it was uncomfortable, like wearing a hair shirt, or eating vegan, and hitting your chest with rocks and sitting in the desert trying not to wank. You know, standard saint stuff. It is mentioned because it is uncommon and uncomfortable.”

One Couple’s Tireless Crusade to Stop a Genetic Killer.  Wired.  “Within a few weeks of the diagnosis, Sonia had quit her job to study science full time, continuing classes at MIT during the day and enrolling in a night class in biology at Harvard’s extension school. The pair lived off savings and Eric’s salary. Sonia had expected to take a temporary sabbatical from her real life, but soon textbooks and academic articles weren’t enough. “The practice of science and the classroom version of science are such different animals,” Sonia says. She wanted to try her hand in the lab. She found a position as a technician with a research group focusing on Huntington’s disease. Eric, not wanting to be left behind, quit his job too and offered his data-­crunching expertise to a genetics lab. The deeper they dove into science, the more they began to fixate on finding a cure.”

Hyperinflation and Trust in Ancient Rome.  Notes on Liberty.  “Unlike modern economies, the Romans did not have paper money, and that meant that to ‘print’ money they had to debase their coins. The question of whether the emperor or his subjects understood the way that coins represented value went beyond the commodity value of the coins has been hotly debated in academic circles, and the debasement of the 3rd century may be the best ‘test’ of whether they understood value as commodity-based or as a representation of social trust in the issuing body and other users of the currency.”

Why Do so Many Egyptian Statues Have Broken Noses?  Artsy.  “‘The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job,’ Bleiberg explained. Without a nose, the statue-spirit ceases to breathe, so that the vandal is effectively ‘killing’ it. To hammer the ears off a statue of a god would make it unable to hear a prayer. In statues intended to show human beings making offerings to gods, the left arm—most commonly used to make offerings—is cut off so the statue’s function can’t be performed (the right hand is often found axed in statues receiving offerings)… Even if a petty tomb robber was mostly interested in stealing the precious objects, he was also concerned that the deceased person might take revenge if his rendered likeness wasn’t mutilated.”

The Kitenge Route: The Algorithms and Aesthetics of African Fabrics.  The Elephant.  “Depending on the origin, fabric and production process, ‘African fabric’ is not homogenous, but goes by many names and designs. Kitenge or chitenge is found in East and Central Africa, notably Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ankara is West African, but not quite exactly – the fabric we now know as Ankara finds its origins not in Africa but in Indonesia, where locals there had long created prints on fabric by using wax-resistant dyeing (batik). It was brought to West Africa by Dutch traders. Shweshwe is a printed cotton fabric design found in southern Africa, and traditionally was only produced in three colours – brown, red and blue. Baoule is a heavy, thick cloth from Côte d’Ivoire made of five-inch-wide strips of cloth woven together. And kente is that distinctive Ghanaian pattern made of strips of orange, yellow and green.”

Was Shakespeare a Woman?  The Atlantic.  “Bassano lived, Hudson points out, “an existence on the boundaries of many different social worlds,” encompassing the breadth of the Shakespeare canon: its coarse, low-class references and its intimate knowledge of the court; its Italian sources and its Jewish allusions; its music and its feminism. And her imprint, as Hudson reads the plays, extends over a long period. He notes the many uses of her name, citing several early on—for instance, an Emilia in The Comedy of Errors.  (Emilia, the most common female name in the plays alongside Katherine, wasn’t used in the 16th century by any other English playwright in an original work.) Titus Andronicus features a character named Bassianus, which was the original Roman name of Bassano del Grappa, her family’s hometown before their move to Venice. Later, in The Merchant of Venice, the romantic hero is a Venetian named Bassanio, an indication that the author perhaps knew of the Bassanos’ connection to Venice.”

What Do so Many Global Cuisines Have in Common? A Bright Yellow Package of Maggi Magic.  Washington Post.  “Peek into homes and restaurants in China, Poland, the Philippines, France and Australia, and you’ll probably find Maggi products — most often a seasoning sauce, bouillon cube, noodle or soup mix — on one of the shelves. The seasoning sauce Maggi Würze, which is reminiscent of the flavor of lovage, has become so popular and beloved in Germany that Germans often colloquially referent to lovage as ‘maggikraut.’ Like salt, fat, acid and heat, Maggi is one of the few great unifiers of the world’s kitchens and may be Switzerland’s largest and most influential culinary contribution.”

The Understory.  Emergence Magazine.  “That day I read aloud a poem that was important to us both, ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost, in which climbing the snow-white trunks of birches becomes both a readying for death and a declaration of life. Then he told me about new research he had recently read concerning the interrelations of trees: how, when one of their number was sickening or under stress, they could share nutrients by means of an underground system that conjoined their roots beneath the soil, thereby sometimes nursing the sick tree back to health. It was a measure of my friend’s generosity of spirit that—so close to death himself—he could speak unjealously of this phenomenon of healing. He did not have the strength then to tell me the details of how this belowground sharing operated—how tree might invisibly reach out to tree within the soil. But I could not forget the image of that mysterious buried network, joining single trees into forest communities. It was planted in my mind, and there took root. Over the years I would encounter other mentions of the same extraordinary idea, and gradually these isolated fragments began to connect together into something like understanding.”