The 25 best longform articles of 2019

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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.”

Interesting academic articles for October 2019

Ok, I’ve concluded that I’m not very good at not-blogging!  There are lots of interesting articles that I wanted to share in a format beyond Twitter.  So I suppose I’m off hiatus for the time being.

With that, here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this month.

Rose MbayeRedeat GebeyehuStefanie HossmannNicole MbargaEstella Bih-NehLucrece EtekiOhene-Agyei ThelmaAbiodun OyerindeGift KitiYvonne MburuJessica HabererMark SiednerIruka Okeke, and Yap Boum.  2019. Who is telling the story? A systematic review of authorship for infectious disease research conducted in Africa, 1980–2016.”  BMJ Global Health.

Africa contributes little to the biomedical literature despite its high burden of infectious diseases. Global health research partnerships aimed at addressing Africa-endemic disease may be polarised. Therefore, we assessed the contribution of researchers in Africa to research on six infectious diseases.  We reviewed publications on HIV and malaria (2013–2016), tuberculosis (2014–2016), salmonellosis, Ebola haemorrhagic fever and Buruli ulcer disease (1980–2016) conducted in Africa and indexed in the PubMed database using Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses protocol. Papers reporting original research done in Africa with at least one laboratory test performed on biological samples were included. We studied African author proportion and placement per study type, disease, funding, study country and lingua franca. We included 1182 of 2871 retrieved articles that met the inclusion criteria. Of these, 1109 (93.2%) had at least one Africa-based author, 552 (49.8%) had an African first author and 41.3% (n=458) an African last author. Papers on salmonellosis and tuberculosis had a higher proportion of African last authors (p<0.001) compared with the other diseases. Most of African first and last authors had an affiliation from an Anglophone country. HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and Ebola had the most extramurally funded studies (≥70%), but less than 10% of the acknowledged funding was from an African funder. African researchers are under-represented in first and last authorship positions in papers published from research done in Africa. This calls for greater investment in capacity building and equitable research partnerships at every level of the global health community.

 Caroline Viola Fry.  2019.  “Building Bridges: The impact of return migration by African scientists.”  Job market paper.  

Despite significant interest in the potential for ‘returnee’ scientists moving back to developing countries to connect developed and developing countries, prior work has found limited evidence of success. I shift the focus to the broader network of the returnee, and study the extent to which the return home of Amerian-trained HIV researchers to African institutions impacts publication outcomes of non-migrant scientists in Africa. I find that following the arrival of a returnee in their institution, non-migrants experience increased productivity, mostly in HIV research. I find strong evidence that the mechanism driving this effect is that of the returnee providing a bridge to their central connections and subsequent knowledge and resources thus affecting outcomes. In settings where ‘outsiders’ struggle to access knowledge and resources that are usually reserved for exclusive ‘insiders’, this kind of bridge in the network can help through providing legitimacy to the outsiders. These findings inform a network perspective on the consequences of the mobility of skilled individuals, the development of national innovation ecosystems, and the globalization of knowledge production.

Norma Altshuler and Sarah Jane Staats.  2019.  “A New Look at Impact Evaluation Capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Hewlett Foundation Research Brief.*

Impact evaluation and other forms of research that have the potential to inform policy decisions are becoming more prominent in sub-Saharan Africa. Andwhile researchers working in their own countries bring contextual knowledge, relationships, and sustained attention that help ensure results are used in policy decisions, many research teams funded by donors do not include them in a meaningful way. This may be due to a common perception that there is a lack of qualified in-country researchers. The results of this study, conducted by Yvonne Erasmus and Sunet Jordaan at the Africa Centre for Evidence, show that perception is mistaken. The study found 1,520 African researchers with African affiliations had authored at least one impact evaluation. These researchers, many of whom were trained at elite U.S. and European institutions, represented 34 different African countries. This brief highlights the study’s high level findings and offers recommendations for leveraging—and building on—existing capacities.

*Full disclosure: the Mawazo Institute is currently in talks with Hewlett about funding.

Susanna B. Berkouwer and Joshua T. Dean.  2019.  “Credit and attention in the adoption of profitable energy efficient technologies in Kenya.”  Job market paper.  

What roles do credit constraints and inattention play in the under-adoption of high return technologies? We study this question in the case of energy efficient cookstoves in Nairobi. Using a randomized field experiment with 1,000 households we find that the technology has very high returns—we estimate an average rate of return of 300% and savings of $120 per year in fuel costs, around one month of income. In spite of this, adoption rates are inefficiently low. Using a Becker-DeGroot-Marschak mechanism we find that average willingness-to-pay (WTP) is only $12. To investigate what drives this puzzling pattern, we cross-randomize access to credit with an intervention designed to increase attention to the costs and the benefits of adoption. Our first main finding is that credit doubles WTP and closes the energy efficiency gap. Second, credit works in part through psychological channels: around one third of the impact of credit is caused by inattention to future costs. We find no evidence of inattention to energy savings. These findings have implications for second-best regulation of pollution externalities using taxes and subsidies. In the presence of credit constraints, Pigovian taxation alone may no longer be the optimal policy. Factoring in financial savings and avoided environmental damages we estimate that a subsidy on the energy efficient technology would have a marginal value of public funds of $19 per $1 spent.

Valerie Mueller, Clark Gray, Sudhanshu Handa, and David Seidenfeld.  2019.  “Do social protection programs foster short-term and long-term migration adaptation strategies?”  Environment and Development Economics.

We examine how migration is influenced by temperature and precipitation variability, and the extent to which the receipt of a cash transfer affects the use of migration as an adaptation strategy. Climate data is merged with georeferenced panel data (2010–2014) on individual migration collected from the Zambian Child Grant Program (CGP) sites. We use the person-year dataset to identify the direct and heterogeneous causal effects of the CGP on mobility. Having access to cash transfers doubles the rate of male, short-distance moves during cool periods, irrespective of wealth. Receipt of cash transfers (among wealthier households) during extreme heat causes an additional retention of males. Cash transfers positively spur long-distance migration under normal climate conditions in the long term. They also facilitate short-distance responses to climate, but not long-distance responses that might be demanded by future climate change.

Kristina M. Bott, Alexander W. Cappelen, Erik Ø. Sørensen, and Bertil Tungodden.  2019. “You’ve Got Mail: A Randomized Field Experiment on Tax Evasion.”  Management Science.

We report from a large-scale randomized field experiment conducted on a unique sample of more than 15,000 taxpayers in Norway who were likely to have misreported their foreign income. By randomly manipulating a letter from the tax authorities, we cleanly identify that moral suasion and the perceived detection probability play a crucial role in shaping taxpayer behavior. The moral letter mainly works on the intensive margin, while the detection letter has a strong effect on the extensive margin. We further show that only the detection letter has long-term effects on tax compliance.

William N. Evans, David C. Philips, and Krista J. Ruffini.  2019.  “Reducing and Preventing Homelessness: A Review of the Evidence and Charting a Research Agenda.”  NBER Working Paper No. 26232.

Homelessness may be both a cause of and one of the more extreme outcomes of poverty. Governments at all levels have a variety of tools to combat homelessness, and these strategies have changed dramatically over the past quarter century. In this paper, we catalog the policy responses, the existing literature on the effectiveness of these strategies, and the major gaps that need to be addressed in future research. We focus on studies from randomized controlled trial evaluations and the best quasi-experimental designs, and discuss outstanding questions that can be addressed with these same methods.

Rosangela Bando, Emma Näslund-Hadley, and Paul Gertler.  2019.  “Effect of Inquiry and Problem Based Pedagogy on Learning: Evidence from 10 Field Experiments in Four Countries.”  NBER Working Paper No. 26280.

This paper uses data from 10 at-scale field experiments in four countries to estimate the effect of inquiry- and problem-based pedagogy (IPP) on students’ mathematics and science test scores. IPP creates active problem-solving opportunities in settings that provide meaning to the child. Students learn by collaboratively solving real-life problems, developing explanations, and communicating ideas. Using individual-level data on 17,006 students, the analysis finds that after seven months IPP increased mathematics and science scores by 0.18 and 0.14 standard deviations, respectively, and by 0.39 and 0.23 standard deviations, respectively, after four years. We also identify important gender learning gaps with boys benefiting substantially more than girls. Our approach not only provides strong causal evidence, but also high external validity. These 10 experiments in four countries allow us to examine the effects of IPP across a wide set of geographic, socioeconomic, teacher background, and age/grade contexts (i.e., preschool and third and fourth grades). The results prove to be robust across these different contexts. The 10 RCTs were registered in the American Economic Association Registry for randomized control trials. See the supplementary materials for trial numbers.

Omar Al-UbaydliMin Sok LeeJohn ListClaire L. Mackevicius, and Dana Suskind.  2019.  “How Can Experiments Play a Greater Role in Public Policy? 12 Proposals from an Economic Model of Scaling.”  Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago.   Working paper.

Policymakers are increasingly turning to insights gained from the experimental method as a means to inform large scale public policies. Critics view this increased usage as premature, pointing to the fact that many experimentally-tested programs fail to deliver their promise at scale. Under this view, the experimental approach drives too much public policy. Yet, if policymakers could be more confident that the original research findings would be delivered at scale, even the staunchest critics would carve out a larger role for experiments to inform policy. Leveraging the economic framework of Al-Ubaydli et al. (2019), we put forward 12 simple proposals, spanning researchers, policymakers, funders, and stakeholders, which together tackle the most vexing scalability threats. The framework highlights that only after we deepen our understanding of the scale up problem will we be on solid ground to argue that scientific experiments should hold a more prominent place in the policymaker’s quiver.

“Kinshasa is only slightly better connected to the global economy than the North Pole”

This striking quote is from a recent profile of the city in CapX.  Over at The Pudding, that observation sparked some interesting work visualizing the number of flights leaving from cities around the world each day.

Matt Daniels notes that Kinshasa, with its 13 million residents, has about 13 outbound flights each day.  That’s just slightly more than Barrow, Alaska, which has 10 daily flights for its population of 5000 people.  Conversely, over 900 flights depart from Paris each day (pop. 13 million as well).

A map of the world on a black background. It shows the routes of the 900 flights that leave Paris daily, bound for destinations all over the world. Conversely,

As shown in the graph below, Lagos also has substantially fewer flights than one might expect given its size.  In general, you’re better off predicting the number of flights from a city by looking at its economy, rather than its overall population.  New York seems to be an outlier here because it’s a primary transit point between two wealthy regions (Europe and North America).

Two bar graphs. The one on the right shows the population of various global cities, ranging from Tokyo's 35 million to Bangkok's roughly 12 million. The graph on the left shows the number of flights each day leaving those cities. In general, larger cities have more flights, but this doesn't hold true for very poor cities like Lahore or Lagos

 

The 25 best longform articles of 2018

Text on a green background reading "6.8 million words" and "92 books," and an image of a badge saying 'Pocket reader 1% club"

My year in Pocket

Continuing my tradition from 2016 and 2017, here are the 25 best articles I read last year, in no particular order.  I share lots of snippets from the interesting things I read at Pocket if you’d like to follow along.

An Internment Camp for 10 Million Uyghurs.  Meduza.  “I was able to find a couple of surviving mosques, but locks held their ancient doors closed. Not far from the madrasah, which was also closed, a furrier sat at an intersection in traditional dress and crafted an Uyghur hat. Both the furrier and the hat were made of bronze. Real fur hats were sold in the city’s souvenir shops, but real furriers were now impossible to find. The marvelous ancient knives that had graced the city on people’s belts and in market stalls had also disappeared. When I greeted a few salesmen and used the word ‘pchak,’ they recoiled, and only one antiques dealer could find a heavy knife case in his stand. Inside were several sumptuous, ancient knife handles — the blades themselves had been cut off. Even when they buy everyday kitchen knives, Uyghurs are now obligated to brand the blade with a laser-carved QR code that identifies the knife’s owner. In Aksu, knives in restaurant kitchens are attached to the walls with chains.”

How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China.  The New Yorker.  “Li pointed to a whirring speck in the sky. As it drew closer, the first thing I could make out was a red box under the belly of the drone. A minute later, I saw three spinning propellers, which seemed improbably small for the size of their load, like the wings of a bumblebee. The children pointed their fingers upward, faces lifted, and cheered for the ‘toy plane.’ But no one else seemed terribly excited. A young man with gelled hair, who arrived as the drone was descending, said that, for a few weeks, these landings had drawn big crowds, but that people soon had got used to them: ‘Things change so fast around here, there’s no time to be surprised about anything.'”

Everyday Politics.  Aeon.  “The original Ming dynasty policy held that in every military household men serving as soldiers would eventually be replaced by their eldest son. In principle, the policy initiated a simple and endless cycle of conscription, but in reality families developed in different ways that complicated the basic selection algorithm. In many military households there were multiple sons; in others none. In the hope of reducing its overhead expenses, the state left it up to families themselves to decide who should fulfil their obligation. Different families faced this challenge in different ways. Families developed a range of strategies to address the lack of fit between their own reality and the demands of the algorithm. One common solution for a family with more than one son was to arrange for responsibility to serve in the military to rotate among the sons on a set schedule. When the rotation was complete, the cycle would begin anew. Such a system could continue for generations. This was the method used by the Cai family of Quanzhou – whose genealogy I collected in the village where their descendants live today.”

“Give Us His Breath or His Body.”  Roads and Kingdoms.  “In August 2004, twelve men left their village in Nepal for jobs at a five-star luxury hotel in Amman, Jordan. They had no idea that they had actually been hired for subcontract work on an American military base in Iraq. But fate took an even darker turn when the dozen men were kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists. Their gruesome deaths were captured in one of the first graphicexecution videos disseminated on the internet—the largest massacre of contractors during the war. Compounding the tragedy was the reality that their deaths received little notice. Why were men from a country so removed from the war, in Iraq? How had they gotten there? And who, exactly, were they working for?”

Inside the Haywire World of Beirut’s Electricity Brokers.  Wired.  “‘We cover where there is no state,’ says Abdel al-Raham, an owner and operator of generators in East Beirut. He began with a small generator, which he used to power his house, around the start of the civil war in 1975. But the generator was loud and noxious, so over time, as a gesture of good faith, he would give his neighbors a lamp connected to his generator. “Just enough for them to light their house and to make up for all the annoying noise,” he says. But because of his generosity, his wife soon became unable to run the washing machine. He went out and bought a new, bigger generator. Then shop owners nearby needed more power, and his brother came to him and proposed they split profits on the power they could sell to the neighborhood. Self-sufficiency turned into entrepreneurship.”

She Ran From the Cut, and Helped Thousands of Other Girls Escape, Too.  The New York Times.  “Ms. Leng’ete never forgot what her sister suffered, and as she grew up, she was determined to protect other Maasai girls. She started a program that goes village to village, collaborating with elders and girls to create a new rite of passage — without the cutting. In seven years, she has helped 15,000 girls avoid the cutting ritual.”

My Great-Grandfather, the Nigerian Slave Trader.  The New Yorker.  “My grandmother Helen, who helped establish a local church, is buried near the study. My umbilical cord is buried on the grounds, as are those of my four siblings. My eldest brother, Nnamdi, was born while my parents were studying in England, in the early nineteen-seventies; my father, Chukwuma, preserved the dried umbilical cord and, eighteen months later, brought it home to bury it by the front gate. Down the hill, near the river, in an area now overrun by bush, is the grave of my most celebrated ancestor: my great-grandfather Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku. Nwaubani Ogogo was a slave trader who gained power and wealth by selling other Africans across the Atlantic. ‘He was a renowned trader,’ my father told me proudly. ‘He dealt in palm produce and human beings.'”

What Putin Really Wants.  The Atlantic.  “But most Russians don’t recognize the Russia portrayed in this story: powerful, organized, and led by an omniscient, omnipotent leader who is able to both formulate and execute a complex and highly detailed plot. Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first presidential campaign, in 2000, and served as a Kremlin adviser until 2011, simply laughed when I asked him about Putin’s role in Donald Trump’s election. ‘We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia,’ he said. ‘Now it’s just funny; how much Americans attribute to him.”

A Silver Thread: Islam in Eastern Europe.  LA Review of Books.  “The Sultan sent three thousand troops and a vizier to deal with them, but Musa killed them all, and some mercenaries too. So the time had come to summon Marko again. Marko was a Serb, a Christian, and a prince. He had a terrible temper and an enormous moustache.”

Blood and Oil: Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Gasoline Industry.  Rolling Stone.  “All that has changed over the past few years, as Mexico’s drug-trafficking cartels have moved to monopolize all forms of crime, including fuel theft, muscling out smaller operators with paramilitary tactics honed in the drug war. Black-market gasoline is now a billion-dollar economy, and free-standing gasoline mafias are gaining power in their own right, throwing a volatile accelerant onto the dirty mix of drugs and guns that has already killed some 200,000 Mexicans over the past decade. The most violent year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2017, and some observers now say the conflict has as much to do with petroleum as it does with narcotics.”

Safe House.  California Sunday Magazine.  “Valentina isn’t a social worker or a therapist or a lawyer. She is an immigrant who opens her home to women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them. The women who come are waitresses, saleswomen, fruit and vegetable pickers, housecleaners. Like Silvia, many are ashamed, reluctant to point a finger or to file for divorce. Most are undocumented, and before President Trump’s election, they went to Valentina when they didn’t know their rights or when shelters didn’t have space. Since Trump, even those with papers avoid shelters and mistrust the law. Silvia had stayed at Valentina’s house for a week, and now Valentina has taken to checking on her. She’s hoping Silvia will leave her partner, but she can’t predict if she will or how long it might take.”

Signs and Wonders.  1843 Magazine.  “López first saw sign language on an American television programme in 1977. During a trip to Venezuela to compete in an international track-and-field tournament, he managed to get his hands on a guide to the sign language used in Costa Rica and brought it back to Nicaragua. But oralism was enforced even more strictly at the vocational school than at Melania Morales – teachers were known to slap the hands of students caught gesturing to each other – and López’s instructors confiscated his dictionary. Undeterred, he snuck into the room where the teachers had left the book and hid it inside a folk-dancing costume as he walked out. Armed with the contraband dictionary, Lopez and some deaf friends began to gather regularly. At first, they tried to pick up the Costa Rican vocabulary. But trying to learn to communicate using a foreign rulebook felt unnatural: none of the group had ever used anything like those signs with their families or each other. ‘I didn’t identify with those signs,’ López says. ‘I felt the signs had to be something that belonged to us.’ As a result, they scrapped his dictionary, and began trying to make one of their own.”

Could An Ex-Convict Become an Attorney?  I Intended to Find Out.  The New York Times.  “After the 15-minute ceremony, I turned to everyone, without thinking, and began speaking as my uncle kept recording: ‘The last time my mom saw me in court, I was sentenced to nine years in prison.’ I wanted to say something about the journey. I’d already revealed too much. Miles, sitting beside his brother, paused and looked up. I could tell something confused him. He had questions in his eyes. He stared, listening, as I confessed the thing that I’d been holding back. What man wants to tell his child he’s done time in prison? But I had. And, in that single breath, I’d given him this: an image of his father as both a convict and an attorney.”

The Waiting Room.  The Marshall Project.  “The freed detainees will carry their possessions in plastic garbage bags, knotted and sealed. Any money they had when they were arrested will have been converted to a Cook County–issued check that is unusable for the “release and run,” as it is known. Some will have no idea which way to turn as they leave the jail, and no one will know what to do with a check. There is a currency exchange on Kedzie Avenue and 26th, but that is a 13-minute walk, past the desolate zone next to the 26th Street wall of the jail, where it’s not unusual to get jumped by gangs. The Popeyes at California Avenue used to be a good place to get your check cashed, and it was such a reliable sanctuary in the neighborhood that the sheriff’s department would send the newly released detainees there, making it a regular stop in the out-processing.”

The Real Origins of the Religious Right.  Politico.  “But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”

Híyoge owísisi tánga itá (Cricket egg stories).  Carte Blanche.  “Biologists used to have a comfortable dogma. We believed that everything about an organism could be found somewhere in its DNA. That is not wrong, but neither is it the whole story. Now I am here in the Natural Sciences Building, having discovered a new function of hormones in crickets. What I—an Indigenous woman and a scientist in defiance of every obstacle—have found is not limited to crickets. Researchers studying humans have found that our hormones, too, transcend generations and genes. What I have found may be new to biologists, but not to the peoples of what settlers call the New World. We have known for hundreds of generations that we carry our histories within us. They are part of who we are.”

Embarrassment of Obscurities.  Times Literary Supplement.  “Although NASA was at great pains to present these suits as the pinnacle of modern technological achievement (and indeed each comprised twenty-one layers of fabric, mostly new synthetics such as nylon and spandex), the reality was a little different. Each suit was also a marvellous example of skill and creativity; and it was, almost exclusively, the handiwork of women schooled in the frequently undervalued craft of textiles. The sub-contractor responsible for their assembly was ILC, a firm best known for making Playtex bras, girdles and nappies. Teams of deft-fingered seamstresses and pattern-cutters, working on Singer sewing machines, assembled the spacesuits stitch by painstaking stitch. When the firm received feedback that the prototypes were chafing, they began inserting sections of fluffy material usually used to line girdles; the nylon mesh used to prevent the rubber layer from ballooning in zero gravity had originally been developed for bras.”

The Untold Story of NotPetya, The Most Devastating Cyberattack in History.  Wired.  “Disconnecting Maersk’s entire global network took the company’s IT staff more than two panicky hours. By the end of that process, every employee had been ordered to turn off their computer and leave it at their desk. The digital phones at every cubicle, too, had been rendered useless in the emergency network shutdown.”

Ready for a Linguistic Controversy?  Say “Mmhmm”.  NPR. “Once upon a time, English speakers didn’t say “mmhmm.” But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa’s influence on the Americas. In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say ‘yay’ and ‘yes.'”

Orange or Fruit?  On the Unlikely Etymology of “Orange.”  Literary Hub.  “What happened between the end of the 14th century and the end of the 17th that allowed ‘orange’ to become a color name? The answer is obvious. Oranges. Early in the 16th century Portuguese traders brought sweet oranges from India to Europe, and the color takes its name from them. Until they arrived, there was no orange as such in the color spectrum. When the first Europeans saw the fruit they were incapable of exclaiming about its brilliant orange color. They recognized the color but didn’t yet know its name. Often they referred to oranges as ‘golden apples.’ Not until they knew them as oranges did they see them as orange.”

Slivers of Sciences in Homer’s “The Odyssey.”  Discover.  “One of the most common arguments is that Circe was feeding the crew jimson weed. While that sounds innocent enough, Datura stramonium, as it is known in the scientific world, belongs to the deadly nightshade family and contains high levels of anti-cholinergic alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine. These compounds block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from interacting with its receptors in the brain. When this neurotransmitter is blocked, we can’t distinguish reality from fantasy, we exhibit bizarre behavior, and we can suffer pronounced amnesia. ‘Patients who consume this stuff often have vivid hallucinations and become seriously delirious,’ says Harvard Medical School toxicologist Alan Woolf.”

Tea if by Land, Cha if By Sea.  Quartz. “With a few minor exceptions, there are really only two ways to say ‘tea’ in the world. One is like the English term— in Spanish and teein Afrikaans are two examples. The other is some variation of cha, like chay in Hindi. Both versions come from China. How they spread around the world offers a clear picture of how globalization worked before ‘globalization’ was a term anybody used. The words that sound like ‘cha’ spread across land, along the Silk Road. The ‘tea’-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe.”

How to Spot a Perfect Fake: The World’s Top Art Forgery Detective.  The Guardian.  “Like criminals of every stripe, modern forgers have kept easy pace with the techniques that attempt to trap them. The mismatch between the purported age of a painting and the true age of its ingredients is the workhorse of Martin’s technique. So forgers have grown more rigorous in their harvesting of materials, taking the trouble, for instance, to source wooden panels from furniture they know is dateable to the year of the fake they are creating. (The trick isn’t wholly new; Terenzio da Urbino, a 17th-century conman, scrabbled around for filthy old canvases and frames, cleaned them up, and turned them into ‘Raphaels’.)”

A Birth Plan for Dying.  Longreads.  “River’s birth was scheduled for September 26. She would be born in the same hospital where I had given birth to our daughter, whom I’ll call M, two years before. The staff were ready for us. A kind nurse checked us in at noon and led us to a delivery room with a small sign on the door — a leaf with droplets of water that looked like tears. It’s a secret code. It alerts everyone who comes in the room that your baby is going to die, so people don’t accidentally congratulate you for being there.”

Migration is What You Make It: Seven Policy Decisions that Turned Challenges Into Opportunities.  Center for Global Development.  “No case study or academic paper can—ever—spell out what ‘the’ effect of ‘immigration’ is. Asking this question has as little use as asking whether “taxes” are inherently “good” or “bad.” The answer depends on what is taxed and what the revenue is spent on. Those choices make the policy harmful or beneficial. The same is true of migration. But the world’s wealth of experience in regulating migration can still be a useful resource for setting better policy. We must ask a more fruitful question: how can different policy choices generate positive economic effects from immigration and avoid negative ones? Immigration is not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Its effects depend on the context and the policy choices that shape it.

Interesting academic articles for December 2018

I recently figured out that most journals have RSS feeds, which has shifted my strategy for learning about new articles from occasionally remembering to check journals for updates every few months to automatically getting new articles in Feedly.  It’s been great!  Here are some of the things that I’m looking forward to reading in political science and economics.

Peter Van der Windt, Macartan Humphreys, Lily Medina, Jeffrey F. Timmons, Maarten Voors. 2018. Citizen Attitudes Toward Traditional and State Authorities: Substitutes or Complements? Comparative Political Studies.

Do citizens view state and traditional authorities as substitutes or complements? Past work has been divided on this question. Some scholars point to competition between attitudes toward these entities, suggesting substitution, whereas others highlight positive correlations, suggesting complementarity. Addressing this question, however, is difficult, as it requires assessing the effects of exogenous changes in the latent valuation of one authority on an individual’s support for another. We show that this quantity—a type of elasticity—cannot be inferred from correlations between support for the two forms of authority. We employ a structural model to estimate this elasticity of substitution using data from 816 villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo and plausibly exogenous rainfall and conflict shocks. Despite prima facie evidence for substitution logics, our model’s outcomes are consistent with complementarity; positive changes in citizen valuation of the chief appear to translate into positive changes in support for the government.

Arthur Thomas Blouin and Sharun W. Mukand. 2018. “Erasing Ethnicity? Propaganda, Nation Building and Identity in Rwanda.Journal of Political Economy.

This paper examines whether propaganda broadcast over radio helped to change inter- ethnic attitudes in post-genocide Rwanda. We exploit variation in exposure to the gov- ernment’s radio propaganda due to the mountainous topography of Rwanda. Results of lab-in-the-field experiments show that individuals exposed to government propaganda have lower salience of ethnicity, increased inter-ethnic trust and show more willingness to interact face-to-face with members of another ethnic group. Our results suggest that the observed improvement in inter-ethnic behavior is not cosmetic, and reflects a deeper change in inter- ethnic attitudes. The findings provide some of the first quantitative evidence that the salience of ethnic identity can be manipulated by governments.

Viviana M.E. Perego. 2018. “Crop prices and the demand for titled land: Evidence from Uganda.Journal of Development Economics.

I investigate how agricultural prices affect demand for titled land, using panel data on Ugandan farmers, and a price index that weighs international crop prices by the structure of land use at the sub-county level. Higher prices increase farmers’ share of titled land. I also present evidence of a positive impact of prices on agricultural incomes. The effect of prices on land tenure is stronger when farmers have access to roads and markets, when they have undertaken investment on the land, and when households fear land grabbing.

Johannes Haushofer, Jeremy Shapiro, Charlotte Ringdal, and Xiao Yu Wang. 2018. “Income Changes and Intimate Partner Violence: Evidence from Unconditional Cash Transfers in Kenya.” Working paper.

We use a randomized controlled trial to study the impact of unconditional cash transfers on intimate partner violence (IPV) in western Kenya. Cash transfers to women of on average USD 709 PPP led to a significant 0.25 SD increase in a female empowerment index, while transfers to men led to a non-significant increase of 0.09 SD, with no significant difference between these effects. Physical violence was significantly reduced regardless of whether transfers were sent to the woman (0.26 SD) or the man (0.18 SD). In contrast, sexual violence was reduced significantly after transfers to the woman (−0.22 SD), but not the man (−0.10 SD, not significant). Our theoretical framework suggests that physical violence is reduced after transfers to the wife because her tolerance for it decreases, and is reduced after transfers to the husband because he has a distaste for it. We observe a large and significant spillover effect of transfers on domestic violence: non-recipient women in treatment villages show a 0.19 SD increase in the female empowerment index, driven by a 0.16 SD reduction in physical violence. Together, these results suggest that poverty alleviation through unconditional cash transfers can decrease IPV both in recipient and neighboring households.

Marcel Fafchamps and Simon R. Quinn. 2018. “Networks and Manufacturing Firms in Africa: Results from a Randomized Field Experiment.” NBER working paper #21132.

We run a novel field experiment to link managers of African manufacturing firms. The experiment features exogenous link formation, exogenous seeding of information, and exogenous assignment to treatment and placebo. We study the impact of the experiment on firm business practices outside of the lab. We find that the experiment successfully created new variation in social networks. We find significant diffusion of business practices only in terms of VAT registration and having a bank current account. This diffusion is a combination of diffusion of innovation and simple imitation. At the time of our experiment, all three studied countries were undergoing large changes in their VAT legislation.

Margaret McConnell, Claire Watt Rothschild, Allison Ettenger, Faith Muigai, Jessica Cohen. 2018. “Free contraception and behavioural nudges in the postpartum period: evidence from a randomised control trial in Nairobi, Kenya.” BMJ Global Health.

Short birth intervals are a major risk factor for poor maternal and newborn outcomes. Utilisation of modern contraceptive methods during the postpartum period can reduce risky birth intervals but contraceptive coverage during this critical period remains low. We conducted a randomised controlled experiment to test whether vouchers for free contraception, provided with and without behavioural ‘nudges’, could increase modern contraceptive use in the postpartum period. 686 pregnant women attending antenatal care in two private maternity hospitals in Nairobi, Kenya, were enrolled in the study. The primary outcomes were the use of modern contraceptive methods at nearly 3 months and 6 months after expected delivery date (EDD). We tested the impact of a standard voucher that could be redeemed for free modern contraception, a deadline voucher that expired 2 months after delivery and both types of vouchers with and without a short message service (SMS) reminder, relative to a control group that received no voucher and no SMS reminder. By nearly 6 months after EDD, we find that the combination of the standard voucher with an SMS reminder increased the probability of reporting utilisation of a modern contraceptive method by 25 percentage points (pp) (95% CI 6 pp to 44 pp) compared with the control group. Estimated impacts in other treatment arms were not statistically significantly different from the control group.

Elizabeth R. Metteta. 2018. “Irrigation dams, water and infant mortality: Evidence from South Africa.Journal of Development Economics.

Irrigation dams enable farmers to harness substantial water resources. However, their use consumes finite water supplies and recycles agricultural water pollutants back into river systems. This paper examines the net effect of irrigation dams on infant mortality in South Africa. It relies on both fixed effects and instrumental variables approaches to counteract potential bias associated with non-random dam placement, with the latter approach predicting dam placement based on geographic features and policy changes. The analysis reveals that additional irrigation dams within South Africa’s former homeland districts after Apartheid increased infant mortality by 10–20 percent. I then discuss and evaluate possible channels. Dam-induced increases in agricultural activity could increase water pollution and reduce water availability, and I provide supporting evidence that both channels may contribute. These results suggest a potential trade-off between the health costs of agricultural water use and the economic benefits of increased agricultural production.

Ellora Derenoncourt. 2018. “Can you move to opportunity? Evidence from the Great Migration.” Job market paper.

The northern United States long served as a land of opportunity for black Americans, but today the region’s racial gap in intergenerational mobility rivals that of the South. I show that racial composition changes during the peak of the Great Migration (1940-1970) reduced upward mobility in northern cities in the long run, with the largest effects on black men. I identify urban black population increases during the Migration at the commuting zone level using a shift-share instrument, interacting pre-1940 black southern migrant location choices with predicted outmigration from southern counties. The Migration’s negative effects on children’s adult outcomes appear driven by neighborhood factors, not changes in the characteristics of the average child. As early as the 1960s, the Migration led to greater white enrollment in private schools, increased spending on policing, and higher crime and incarceration rates. I estimate that the overall change in childhood environment induced by the Great Migration explains 43% of the upward mobility gap between black and white men in the region today

Medical ethics can tell us why disinviting Steve Bannon was a good idea

Far-right figurehead Steve Bannon has been back in the news recently for being invited to headline the New Yorker’s annual festival, and then promptly disinvited after a liberal outcry that this was giving legitimacy to his xenophobic ideas.  One of the more surprising defenses of Bannon’s invitation came from writer Malcolm Gladwell, who said in a series of tweets that the festival’s audiences should be exposed to competing ideas, and that he hoped Bannon’s views would be discredited by a public debate.

Two tweets from Malcolm Gladwell.  The first says, "Huh.  Call me old fashioned.  But I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas.  If you only invite your friends over, it's called a dinner party."  The second says "Joe McCarthy was done in when he was confronted by someone with intelligence and guts, before a live audience.  Sometimes a platform is actually a gallows."

Gladwell has been roundly criticized for the first tweet in particular, with people noting that he’s making an apolitical, process-oriented claim (“we should be able to discuss different ideas”) about a set of ideas which are deeply political (xenophobia and white nationalism).  This discussion sets two valid points in tension with each other.  I certainly think that freedom of expression is important.  But it’s also true that there’s a real cost to saying that racist ideas should be discussed on the same footing as ideas about diversity and social justice.  When it is appropriate to say that an idea is so bad that it shouldn’t be given a platform for debate?  And how can we take a more nuanced approach than simply banning all ideas that don’t agree with our own politics?

Medical ethics has a concept that’s useful in this situation: clinical equipoise.  Equipoise means that the medical community is genuinely uncertain about whether a treatment will be effective.  They have reason to believe that it could help patients, and at minimum won’t harm them, but don’t yet have proof of its benefits.  This is the ethical justification for conducting randomized controlled trials to determine whether the treatment works.  If a researcher knew in advance that a treatment would definitely help a patient, then there would be no ethical justification for randomly withholding the treatment from the control group.  Similarly, if a researcher already knew that a treatment didn’t work, or might even injure patients, there’s no ethical justification for testing it at all.  RCTs are a tool to improve medical quality of care, not an excuse to test out harmful procedures for the ostensibly neutral sake of “scientific progress.”

The ethics of public debates are arguably similar to those of medical trials.  Debates let people try out new concepts and see how others respond to them, and are ideally done with the goal of leaving the world a better place for having had the debate.  Like clinical trials, they’re most productive when they focus on issues with a range of possible solutions, and with genuine uncertainty about which one would be best.  You could pick any number of examples here: how to best reform failing schools, how to manage the opioid crisis, how to balance the gains from free trade with the harm caused to industries exposed to trade, and so forth.  Debates on such topics can bring out useful arguments from various sides, and enrich the overall conversation.

Many of Bannon’s ideas fail the equipoise test because we already know with certainty that they are harmful to people, and don’t bring any commensurate benefits.  Take his desire to ban all immigration to the US from majority Muslim countries.  This is justified with an ostensible concern about terrorism.  However, there’s data showing that right-wing groups in the US carry out significantly more acts of random public violence than Muslim groups, and that Muslim immigrants in particular virtually never participate in this type of violence.  In addition, many studies have shown that immigration is on average good for economic growth in both sending and receiving countries.  Banning immigration on the basis of religious or national identity is thus discriminatory, harmful to the immigrants themselves, and harmful to citizens of their countries of origin and reception.  The only “benefit” of this policy is that it provides comfort to racists, which clearly should not be the goal of an ethical public policy.

Inviting Bannon to headline a prominent festival suggests that his ideas are worthy of discussion and could enrich the overall debate.  It’s an unethical position to take with someone who has a clear interest in causing harm to others and no credible data on the supposed benefits of his ideas.  The New Yorker made the right choice in disinviting him.