Let’s build African research centers in Africa

The image shows a photo of LSE and text reading "LSE is the perfect setting for a centre dedicated to Africa and the ongoing education of future generations of African leaders" - Firoz LaljiImage from Africa@LSE

Via Duncan Green, I just learned about the new Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID), which is hosted at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at LSE and funded with a £5 million, five-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.  According to LSE’s announcement, CPAID will “study how families, clans, religious leaders, aid agencies, civil society, rebel militia and vigilante groups contribute to governance, along with formal and semi-formal government institutions. The research will mainly focus on the lives of ordinary people, in particular vulnerable and marginalised groups and populations … in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ethiopia.”

These are important topics, and a good corrective to the type of political science research that focuses overmuch on formal institutions in places where the state is weak.  These countries are certainly deserving of additional study.  LSE has great research infrastructure, and I’m sure they’ll do a good job managing the center.

And.

Why is it seen as neutral and acceptable to build prominent centers of African studies outside of Africa, managed primarily by people who are not from Africa?

Why does the Africa Centre’s founder, who is himself from Uganda, feel that future African leaders are better off being trained in London than in their own countries?

Why are Northern academics so good at studying inequality and uneven post-colonial power dynamics in the South, and so bad at recognizing their own role in perpetuating inequality within the international scholarly community?

Let me be clear: I think it’s really important for every country to have scholars who are interested in international affairs.  Places like the Centre for Africa or Berkeley’s own Center for African Studies do important work making African affairs accessible to their university communities, and to the broader scholarly community.  And I myself am one of those foreign scholars who’s deeply interested in Africa.

My criticism is of the way in which the exclusion of African scholars from knowledge production about Africa is seen as normal and unremarkable.  Even in the field of African studies, where local scholars would seem to have a comparative advantage, only 15% of studies are written by authors based on the continent.  The situation is even worse in the sciences, where less than 1% of the world’s scientific research comes from Africa.  We must be missing so many interesting voices, so many valuable contributions to knowledge, because we’re systematically underinvesting in African academics.  Spending £5 million to set up a research center in the UK rather than somewhere like Accra or Nairobi (or Tamale or Eldoret or Kisangani) only perpetuates the problem.

Fortunately, there are other organizations working to remedy this inequality — and I’m in the process of starting one of them.  Stay tuned for more announcements about this project in the next few days.

Cartographic literacy and the rise of Uber in Africa

uber

Yinka Adegoke set off an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday with the above observation about Uber.  People chimed in to agree that this was common in Accra, Nairobi, Abuja, Bangalore and Beijing as well, and seemed connected to poor local mapping (see the whole thread on Storify).  I was put in mind of a conversation I had with an Uber driver in Accra last year:

  • Driver: “Where should I pick you?”
  • Me:  “Do you see my location on the map?”
  • Driver: “Yes.”
  • Me: “Ok, please pick me there.”
  • Driver: “But where is that?  Tell me where to turn.”

This didn’t actually reflect a problem with the map, as Google Maps is quite accurate in central Accra.  But it did remind me of a point I’ve been making in conversation for years now: cartographic literacy is a historically recent skill.  For most of human history, the average person never would have seen a map, let alone needed one to navigate a well-known environment.  Mentally translating a eye-level view of (say) an urban street into a bird’s-eye view on a map and using this to navigate is a rather unusual task, and an understandable challenge if one hasn’t had to do it very often.

A bit of a detour through European and African cartographic history here.  People have been making maps for a very long time, but up until roughly the Enlightenment, it would have been difficult to use them for overland navigation in the way that we assume maps are to be used today.  In part this was due to limitations of cartographic knowledge and the difficulty of accurately depicting the spherical Earth on a two-dimensional map. However, many maps were also intended to depict connections between places of political or religious significance rather than a literal representation of the terrain between them.  Here are two European maps from the 1480s that capture this variation in intent.

The Martellus world map was made in Italy around 1489.  There’s a clear attempt at cartographic accuracy here, and the coastlines of Europe and northern and western Africa are presented in great detail.  Knowledge of coasts and maritime routes was quite important at the time because the vast majority of long-distance trade went by sea (as in fact it still does today).  The interiors of most countries are largely unlabelled, however, even for European states which were presumably better documented at the time.

The image shows a map of the world from 1489Source: Wikipedia

Compare that map to this Mappa Mundi produced in Germany around 1480.  This is an example of a politico-religious map which places Jerusalem in the center of the world.  It lists a number of contemporary Christian European cities and states, such as Rome and England, but makes no attempt to accurately depict the terrain between them.

The image shows a map of the world from 1480Source: The Morgan Library

In States and Power in Africa, Jeff Herbst argues that many early maps drawn by African cartographers adopt the same politico-religious schema.  He gives the example of a map drawn by Caliph Muhammad Bello of Sokoto for a British explorer in 1824. There’s a brief acknowledgement of some natural features, like major rivers, but this is primarily a map of political relationships between the Sokoto Caliphate (shown many times its actual size) and the smaller cities which were vassals or rivals.  Check out the tiny, misplaced Timbuktu (“Tonbaktoo”) at upper left and Kano (“Kanoo”) at lower right.

denham12Source: Princeton Library

For comparison, here’s an 1844 map of the same area from a British cartographer. It’s a bit hard to read, so I’ve labelled the relevant cities.  Putting aside the “uncharted” areas of the interior, this looks like a recognizably accurate map of the region.

The image shows a map of West Africa from 1844Source: David Rumsey Map Collection

One of the key points here is that these maps are serving different purposes.  For west African merchants, or aspirants to the Caliphate, the roads between these major cities were probably well known, but a map of contemporary political alliances would be quite useful.  For foreigners coming in to conquer, a detailed road map was important to make up for their lack of local knowledge.

All of this brings me back to Uber.  If you’ve lived in a city for most of your life, why would you need to read a map rather than navigating by well-known landmarks?  It’s like being asked to calculate distance in inches when you’re used to kilometers — an inefficient means of producing the same result.  And the mental math of doing a 3D rotation of a familiar street and projecting it onto a horizontal map is rather challenging — perhaps especially for places you know well.

I’ve got my own story about this from the time I was living in Tamale in 2010.  Google Maps hadn’t really made it to Africa yet, my guidebook had only a very small map of the city center, and I wasn’t able to find a paper map of the area.  I bought a bicycle and ended up getting to know the city quite well without ever glancing at a map.  I’ve been back four times since then, now in possession of Google Maps, and to this day I can’t look at a map of the city and make it match up to the streets I know so well.  I have to find the same landmarks that I used at the time and use them to orient myself before the map makes sense.  And I say this as someone with a BA in geography — I am not unaccustomed to maps as a rule!  But it’s given me sympathy for Uber drivers who might be facing the same challenge.

 

 

 

The 20 best longform articles of 2016

The image shows text that reads, "Longform means story, plain and simple"

(Image source)

The future of journalism may be uncertain, but I think there’s no disputing that we’re in a golden age of longform reporting in English.  Here are my picks for the 20 best longform articles of the year, in no particular order.  If you’d like to read more like this, check out my recommendations on Pocket.

  • The white flight of Derek Black Washington Post.  “But the unstated truth was that Derek [Black, a youth leader in the white supremacist movement]  was becoming more and more confused about exactly what he believed. Sometimes he looked through posts on Stormfront, hoping to reaffirm his ideology, but now the message threads about Obama’s birth certificate or DNA tests for citizenship just seemed bizarre and conspiratorial….   He had always based his opinions on fact, and lately his logic was being dismantled by emails from his Shabbat friends. They sent him links to studies showing that racial disparities in IQ could largely be explained by extenuating factors like prenatal nutrition and educational opportunities. They gave him scientific papers about the effects of discrimination on blood pressure, job performance and mental health…  ‘I don’t hate anyone because of race or religion,’ Derek [later] clarified on the forum.”
  • 28 days in chains. The Marshall Project. “According to inmates’ lawyers, Lewisburg staffers, and more than 40 current and former prisoners … restraints are used as punishment at Lewisburg, often for those who refuse their cell assignments. Inmates have no say over who shares their cell, even if guards place them with someone who has a violent history, is from a rival gang, or is suffering from a severe mental illness. If they try to refuse a cellmate out of fear, as [inmate Sebastian] Richardson said he did, they are locked into metal “ambulatory restraints” for hours or days until they relent…   Richardson said they ignored his complaints: his swelling hands, his soiled clothes, his cut ankles. Instead they reiterated his options — be locked in a tiny cell with a violent man or cope with the restraints.  [He] remained cuffed for 28 days.”
  • When detectives dismiss rape reports before investigating themBuzzFeed. “Across the country, some police departments claim a vast number of rape reports are false. A BuzzFeed News investigation into a year of ‘unfounded’ rapes in Baltimore County reveals that detectives often don’t investigate them at all — even when the man had been arrested for rape before.”

  • The real Spectre1843 Magazine. “The ’Ndrangheta (pronounced ehn-DRANG-eh-ta, with the stress on the second syllable) originated in Calabria, the toe end of the Italian ‘boot’. Over the past 20 years its reach has extended to the farthest corners of the world… ‘There is no other criminal group with the same ability to insert itself in unfamiliar social environments by means of day-to-day infiltration,’ says Federico Cafiero De Raho, the chief prosecutor of Reggio Calabria, the biggest city in the organisation’s native region. ‘The ’Ndrangheta colonises.'”
  • Here I have nobody:” life in a strange country may be worse than GuantánamoThe Guardian. “On really bad days, Lutfi Bin Ali retrieves his Guantánamo Bay suit from under a pile of clothes and pulls it on. The outfit, which by this point has faded from its infamous orange colour to more of a salmony pink, reminds him he was once worse off than he is now, and helps him to calm down.  Sometimes, though, he wonders if his current predicament might actually be even worse than the 13 years he spent in the notorious prison. Lonely and isolated in the Kazakh steppe, the 51-year-old Tunisian has found life since his release from Guantánamo no easier than life inside.  ‘At least in Guántanamo there were people to talk to. Here I have nobody,’ Bin Ali said during the Guardian’s two-day visit to his new home, a dusty town in northern Kazakhstan famed for being a Soviet nuclear testing site.”
  • My bloody ValentineBuzzFeed. “Valentine Strasser was once the world’s youngest dictator, ruling Sierra Leone for four turbulent years. But his fall from power left him broken, exiled, and eventually back home as a mysterious and feared recluse. BuzzFeed News makes an uninvited house call.”
  • The alphabet that will save a people from disappearingThe Atlantic.  “‘Why do Fulani people not have their own writing system?’ Abdoulaye Barry remembers asking his father one day in elementary school. The variety of writing styles made it difficult for families and friends who lived in different countries to communicate easily. Abdoulaye’s father, who learned Arabic in Koranic schools, often helped friends and family in Nzérékoré—Guinea’s second-largest city—decipher letters they received, reading aloud the idiosyncratically modified Arabic scripts. As they grew older, Abdoulaye and his brother Ibrahima began to translate letters, too. ‘Those letters were very difficult to read even if you were educated in Arabic,’ Abdoulaye said. ‘You could hardly make out what was written.’  So, in 1990, the brothers started coming up with an alternative.”
  • How spring rolls got to SenegalRoads & Kingdoms.  “France sent more than 50,000 soldiers from African colonies to Southeast Asia in the decades leading up to its final defeat by Vietnamese liberation forces in 1954. Senegal was particularly well represented among the ranks. While the colonial infantry corps was drawn from many countries in West Africa, they became known collectively as the tirailleurs sénégalais, the Senegalese riflemen.  As many as 100 Vietnamese women moved to Dakar during the Indochina War as soldiers’ wives, according to Helene Ndoye Lame, the unofficial historian of this community.”
  • King Ruinous and the city of darknessRibbonfarm.  “Legend has it that the ruler of Gujarat declared that there was no room for immigrants, pointing to a pitcher of milk, full to the brim.  ‘The country is full,’ he said.  The Zoroastrian priest leading the refugees responded by adding a pinch of sugar to the milk, which dissolved without causing the milk to spill over. That sweet little visa application earned them asylum… Of course, they hadn’t really escaped their dumpster fire. The fight followed them to Gujarat within a century. History is not geography. History can follow you across borders.  One does not simply exit history.”
  • Two women unite to take ‘honor’ out of killing in PakistanYahoo News.  “Naeema Kishwar shrouds herself in a burqa, showing only her eyes. She belongs to a political party that has been linked to the Taliban. And she comes from deeply conservative tribal lands where girls have been killed for going to school.  Sughra Imam sometimes wears a scarf draped lightly on her hair, but often her head is bare. She belongs to a liberal party whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of this predominantly Muslim nation, was assassinated by extremists…  Although they have never met, and usually are on opposite sides of the aisle, Kishwar and Imam became unlikely allies in the battle to pass a historic law to protect women from murder by members of their own families.”
  • I’m on the Kill List. This is what it feels like to be hunted by dronesIndependent.  “I am in England this week because I decided that if Westerners wanted to kill me without bothering to come to speak with me first, perhaps I should come to speak to them instead. I’ll tell my story so that you can judge for yourselves whether I am the kind of person you want to be murdered.”

  • The price of a lifeNew Statesman.  “In 2014, Islamic State fighters murdered thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped many others, mostly women and children. Their desperate relatives are now trying to buy them back.”
  • The irrational downfall of Park Guen-HyeAsk a Korean.  “For years, [South Korean President] Park’s aides complained about the mysterious off-line person to whom the president would send her draft speeches–when the drafts returned, the professionally written speeches were turned into gibberish. We now know that one of [cult leader] Choi Soon-sil’s favorite activities was to give comments on the presidential speeches… The aides who dug too deep into the relationship between Park and Choi were dismissed and replaced with those close to Choi, to a point that Choi’s personal trainer became a presidential aide. No, really. I wish I were joking.”
  • Your brilliant Kickstarter idea could be on sale in China before you’ve even finished funding itQuartz.  “Lindtner compares the culture of Shenzhen’s manufacturing ecosystem to the open-source movement among software developers. Much like how programmers will freely share code for others to improve upon, Shenzhen manufacturers now see hardware and product design as something that can be borrowed freely and altered. Success in business comes down to speed and execution, not necessarily originality.”
  • The secrets of the wave pilotsNew York Times.  “For thousands of years, sailors in the Marshall Islands have navigated vast distances of open ocean without instruments. Can science explain their method before it’s lost forever?”
  • The mirror effectLapham’s Quarterly. “The development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics…  People’s ability to appreciate their unique appearance led to a huge rise in the number of portraits commissioned, especially in the Low Countries and Italy.”
  • How woodpeckers will save footballNautilus.  “An audience member, worried by mounting reports of traumatic brain injury from blasts among American soldiers, mentioned, of all things, woodpeckers. If someone could figure out how woodpeckers do it—they slam their beaks into trees thousands of times per day, generating forces far beyond what most people experience in car wrecks—then maybe we could better protect soldiers.”
  • Physics makes aging inevitable, not biologyNautilus.  “If this interpretation of the data is correct, then aging is a natural process that can be reduced to nanoscale thermal physics—and not a disease. Up until the 1950s the great strides made in increasing human life expectancy, were almost entirely due to the elimination of infectious diseases, a constant risk factor that is not particularly age dependent. As a result, life expectancy (median age at death) increased dramatically, but the maximum life span of humans did not change. An exponentially increasing risk eventually overwhelms any reduction in constant risk. Tinkering with constant risk is helpful, but only to a point: The constant risk is environmental (accidents, infectious disease), but much of the exponentially increasing risk is due to internal wear. Eliminating cancer or Alzheimer’s disease would improve lives, but it would not make us immortal, or even allow us to live significantly longer.”
  • When the US Air Force discovered the flaw of averagesThe Star.  “In the late 1940s, the United States air force had a serious problem: its pilots could not keep control of their planes…  Back in 1926, when the army was designing its first-ever cockpit, engineers had measured the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots (the possibility of female pilots was never a serious consideration), and used this data to standardize the dimensions of the cockpit. For the next three decades, the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 pilot. Now military engineers began to wonder if the pilots had gotten bigger since 1926.”

Links I liked

The cartoon shows Jacob Zuma sitting in a kiosk labeled "Black Friday," with the items for sale including "parastatals," "principles" and "prosecutors."

The Mail & Guardian‘s editorial cartoonist has been on point about Zuma lately

  • Zimbabwe is descending deeper into economic crisis as shortage of dollars have forced the reintroduction of a domestic currency.  Rudo Mudiwa writes a moving account of daily life amongst cash shortages in Harare.  For background, check out the excellent long-form essays on Zimbabwean law and politics by Alex Magaisa at The Big Saturday Read.
  • Here’s a new graphic from UNICEF addressing common myths about cash transfers. If you’re interested in learning more about social protection and welfare policy, check out the excellent short course offered by the Centre for Social Protection at the University of Sussex next June.  I attended this year, and can attest to its quality.

The image has too much text to easily summarize, but it points out that cash transfers make poor people better off, and aren't wasted.

  • Video of the week: I’m choosing to believe in Sinkane’s message of positivity in his glossy new video for “U’Huh.”  Okayafrica has a great summary of the Sudanese-American singer’s work.

Get angry. Don’t shout. Keep working.

The image shows text which says,

Image source

This post is intended as a guide for white Americans who would like to find productive ways to oppose the policies of Donald Trump.  I specify white people here for two reasons.  First, white voters put Trump in office.  Many, although certainly not all, of those voters were motivated by hostility towards women, people of color, and Muslims, and his policies reflect this.   We as white people are well placed to connect with our peers who hold these attitudes, and work to shift them.

Second, I’m writing from my own experience as a straight white US citizen with a Christian background.  I’m in no position to tell people of color, queer people, immigrants, or people of other faiths how to manage their activism.  In fact, insofar as I know anything about activism for social change, much of that comes from reading about the experiences of activists from minority groups.  They’ve been out there contesting the threats posed by people like Trump for their whole lives, and I’ve had the luxury of growing aware of much of this recently.  So I am specifically speaking to other white people in the same position as I am — those who want to keep working towards the dream of a diverse and inclusive America.

Here’s where to start.

Get Angry

Or feel sad!  Or numb, or confused, or a newfound interest in whether Nova Scotia is nice this time of year.  There’s no right or wrong way to feel.  It’s also normal to cycle through different feelings — from anger to grief to shock — and to be uncertain about how to respond to any of this.

There is great power to naming emotions, in my experience. It helps them seem less unmanageable, and can be an important way to guide your future work.  So sit with your feelings for a while.  Think about what you’re feeling and why.  If you’re angry, are you angry at the political system, or at specific people?  If you’re sad, is it out of a feeling of personal powerlessness, or on behalf of others who might be harmed by Trump’s policies?  And if you just want to put your head in the sand for a bit, that’s all right.  Have a drink, go for a walk, do something kind for someone else.

Whatever you’re feeling is valid.  And conversely, whatever others are feeling is also valid, even if it’s diametrically opposed to your own sentiments.  This brings me to the next point:

Don’t Shout

There’s a great deal of both literal and metaphorical shouting going on at the moment.  We’re taking out our anger at third-party voters, at racist voter ID laws, at the Electoral College, at Hillary Clinton, at ourselves — and, of course, at Trump supporters.  It’s the latter category that I want to focus on today.

However angry you’re feeling, and however satisfying it would be to write a scathing Facebook post to a Trump voter on your timeline, this is not helping our cause.  You will feel better for a moment.  You will have lost an opportunity for productive conversation with that person in the future.  And you will be hardening the political divide between liberals and conservatives in a way that is very difficult to change.  Whatever you’re feeling is valid, but not every response to your feelings is equally useful.

Put it like this: many Trump supporters already expect that white liberals will insult them. Some aspects of this complaint carry more weight than others.  We have a troubling record of calling conservatives idiots and mocking them for being poor, using terms that would be justly condemned if they were targeted at a person of color.  On the other hand, calling someone a racist is seen as rude even if they genuinely hold racist views.  From a strategic perspective, though, the point is that insulting your opponents just confirms their existing beliefs, which does nothing to promote change.  (Homework: please think of a time when someone called you an idiot and you immediately agreed with their position, rather than doubling down on your own.  Due Monday morning, 1000 words, APSA-style citations.)

Even if it’s difficult, even if it feels distasteful, the key tactic here is respectfully engaging with people whose views you don’t share.  Respect does not mean passively agreeing with them.  It does mean seeking to understand their position; addressing the factual basis for their views; and refusing to use ad hominem attacks.  This is hard work, and it isn’t going to be successful with everyone.  But when it is, the results can be phenomenal.  One of the best articles I’ve read all year is this piece on the changing politics of Derek Black, who grew up as a youth leader in the white nationalist movement.  He left the movement in college after some of his classmates learned of his views and decided to engage him, as a friend, with facts that challenged the narratives he had always known.  Inviting the head of a KKK-affiliated group to Shabbat dinner is arguably the opposite of purity politics, and slowly, unevenly, spectacularly, it worked.

We as white people have a particular obligation to carry out these types of conversations.  It is your family and friends, your colleagues and neighbors, who are more likely to support Trump.  You are more likely to have relationships that can serve as the basis for conversations about racism, sexism, religion, economic growth, the fear that the country is changing without you and leaving you behind, all of it.  This is true even if you feel that you haven’t been directly affected by these issues, or might not be fully knowledgeable about them.  It isn’t fair to leave the work of fighting prejudice to people who have already been harmed by these types of injustice — an unwanted double burden for them, and an abdication of responsibility for the rest of us.  If you’re not sure where to start, check out these resources on racism, sexism, homophobia, and prejudice against immigrants and Muslims.  You don’t have to jump into conversations right away if you don’t feel prepared, but it’s important to keep educating yourself about these issues.  In other words:

Keep Working

Many of Trump’s proposed policies do pose real threats to Americans.  He’s likely to restrict access to abortion and possibly even birth control, denying women control over their own bodies.  He wants to expand the use of stop-and-frisk policing programs, which don’t lower crime rates but do lead to many pointless arrests of black and Latino men.  He would like to privatize the country’s roads, which is likely to lead to higher costs for people with the least access to public transit — the rural poor.  He has apparently taken back his statement about banning Muslim immigration to the US, but he’s still peddling in harmful stereotypes about women and Latino immigrants, leading to concerns that hate crimes might increase.  It’s important to keep talking to Trump supporters about why these policies are problematic, and hopefully shift some opinions there, but for may of us this won’t feel like enough.

You can do more, through both legislative and civic channels.  Here are eight great options to choose from.

  • Contact your members of Congress and ask them to oppose Trump’s policies.  You can find your representatives and senators online.  Email, call, or write to them to ask for their support in this.
  • Get involved with local politics.  Most of us will never be high profile politicians, and that’s fine!  But there are loads of opportunities to promote progressive political change beginning at the local level.  You could get involved with the campaign of a candidate from a historically underrepresented minority group, or start thinking about running for local office yourself.
  • Connect with a national advocacy group.  Think back to that moment of sitting with your feelings.  Which issues really leapt out at you?   Check out this list of national organizations doing work in support of the rights of women and minority groups, and see if there’s a way to get involved in something that you care about.  Most groups will primarily be seeking donations, but you might also find opportunities to volunteer.  At minimum, sign up for their mailing lists to stay informed about the issues at hand.
  • Check out local volunteering opportunities.  If you haven’t got much money to donate, but can contribute your time or skills, look for local organizations working in your area of interest.  They can often make better use of volunteers than can national organizations.
  • Push for change where you work, study, and worship.  People often underestimate how much good they might do by working within existing institutions.  You don’t have to openly discuss politics in these spaces if you think it wouldn’t be helpful, but you can still push them to become more diverse and inclusive.  If you’re a hiring manager, think about whether women and minority groups are underrepresented compared to their share of the national population.  Then check out these tips for recruiting for diversity and avoiding bias in hiring.  If you’re a student, look for activist groups on your campus, or start your own if you can’t find one.  And within your place of worship, think through what your tradition has to say about supporting the poor, empowering women, or welcoming immigrants.  Most faiths have a diverse variety of interpretive perspectives, and can be more supportive of progressive values than commonly assumed.
  • Take your activism online.  Share news with your network on Facebook.  Write an op-ed or a blog post for a progressive site.  Volunteer as a web designer for a non-profit. Start a petition through Change.org or the White House petitions site.
  • Build strong relationships in your community.  Perhaps none of the options above seem feasible.  That’s all right!  Building strong and inclusive communities is valuable in its own right, and there are many ways to contribute to that.  Join the PTA and fight for quality public education.  Volunteer as a tutor for students whose first language isn’t English.  Greet your neighbor with the Trump sign in his yard.  Even small acts are something.
  • Remember to take care of yourself.  Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by politics right now.  Maybe you’d love to get involved, but can’t imagine balancing that with work and taking care of your kids.  Maybe you don’t think it would be safe to be open with your political views in the area where you live.  Taking care of yourself and your family is important.  If that’s your priority right now, it doesn’t make you any less of a progressive.  Be well.

You may feel energized by the work ahead, or discouraged by it.  I take to heart a line from the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 2:21): “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but nor are you free to desist from it.”

North American basic income pilots in the news

Large sidewalk mural reading, "What would you do if your income were taken care of?"

(Image source)

There were two interesting developments around universal basic income schemes in north America this week.  (I’ve previously covered some other stories in this space here.)  First, the government of Ontario confirmed that it plans to launch a UBI pilot project in early 2017.  Notably, the pilot was designed by a conservative political strategist, and follows on the earlier success of a social pension program for the elderly.

[Strategist Hugh] Segal’s interest in the idea was sparked in the mid-1970s. A series of news stories documenting high rates of seniors living in poverty in the province – including one report of some resorting to eating pet food to get protein in their diets – had ramped up pressure on lawmakers to address the issue. The response was a basic income policy for seniors in the province.

The policy sent poverty rates among seniors in Ontario downwards, from the low 30s to 5%, and sparked a slew of ripple effects. “Food security went up, longevity went up, independence of the healthcare system in terms of needing long-term care, all those indicators went up,” said Segal. The program soon spread across the country.

Second, Marginal Revolution pointed to a new paper by David Price and Jae Song evaluating the Seattle-Denver Income Maintenance Experiment (SIME / DIME), which gave several thousand US families up to $25,900 in annual grants over 3 – 5 years in the 1970s.  Because of some program rules involving taxation of outside income, the average increase in an individual’s income during the treatment period was about $2400 annually.  The authors used data from the Social Security Administration to track the earnings of the experiment participants over the next 40 years.  Their findings are somewhat counterintuitive:

We find that treatment caused adults to earn an average of $1,800 less per year after the experiment ended. Most of this effect on earned income is concentrated between ages 50 and 60, suggesting that it is related to retirement. Treated adults were also 6.3 percentage points more likely to apply for disability benefits, but were not significantly more likely to receive them, or to have died. These effects on parents, however, do not appear to be passed down to their children: children in treated families experienced no significant effects in any of the main variables studied.

They find that treated adults were slightly less likely to work whilst receiving the grants, but no less likely in the period immediately after the program ended.  There’s some circumstantial evidence that the reduced lifetime earnings might have been caused by earlier retirement, although it’s also possible that time out of the labor force during the SIME / DIME program years led to lower wages afterwards.

For me, the headline point about this experiment was that it actively discouraged work effort during the program period by taxing non-grant income at marginal rates of 50% – 80%.  This is a bad design choice if you care about continued engagement with the labor market, and it’s not clear to me why the program’s designers made it.  At any rate, this is very different to most modern proposals for a universal basic income, which are intentionally not conditioned on recipients’ employment status.  If the drop in lifetime earnings was driven by time out of the labor market during the SIME / DIME program period, it should be clear that these results aren’t generalizable to UBI proposals which are employment-agnostic.  Of course, if the program lowered lifetime earnings due to early retirement instead, the concerns raised here may still be relevant.  I’m hard pressed to understand how receiving receiving an extra $2400 for 3 – 5 years in the 1970s would affect one’s retirement decisions potentially decades later, however.