Fall 2015 conference highlights

The omnibus conference blog post has returned!  Loads of interesting papers to report on from this fall.

indexMelissa Dell, Nathan Lane, and Pablo Querubin. “State Capacity, Local Governance, and Economic Development in Vietnam.” Presented at the Berkeley Center for Economics and Politics.

Abstract: There has been a large divergence in economic prosperity between Northeast and Southeast Asia since the mid-20th century, and the governance organizations and norms of Asian societies plausibly help explain this divergence. This study examines the impacts of dierent historical governance norms on development using Vietnam as a laboratory. Northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) was ruled by a bureaucratic state inherited from China. It governed through a centralized, competitively selected bureaucracy, and the village was the fundamental administrative unit. Southern Vietnam was a peripheral tributary of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire. It followed a patron-client model with weaker, more personalized power relations and no village intermediation. The Khmer region was not brought under Vietnam’s control until just prior to French colonization. We use a regression discontinuity design across the Dai Viet-Khmer boundary to compare villages that had a bureaucratic state to nearby areas that had a patron-client state. We find that areas historically under the bureaucratic state have higher living standards today. Using rich data from South Vietnam and the unied Socialist Republic of Vietnam, we document that in villages with a bureaucratic historical state, citizens have been better able to organize for public goods and redistribution through stronger local governments and civil society. However, today foreign companies are less likely to invest in historically bureaucratic areas, which have a long history of being relatively closed towards outsiders. Overall the study suggests that the bureaucratic state in East Asia – deeply embedded in civil society – played a central role in this region’s growth.
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Christopher Blattman, Julian Jamison, and Margaret Sheridan. “Reducing Crime and Violence: Experimental Evidence on Adult Noncognitive Investments in Liberia.”  Presented at the Berkeley comparative politics colloquium.
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Abstract: We show self control and self image are malleable in adults, and that investments in them reduce crime and violence. We recruited criminally-engaged Liberian men and randomized half to eight weeks of group cognitive behavioral therapy, teaching self control skills and a noncriminal self-image. We also randomized $200 grants. Cash raised incomes and reduced crime in the short-run but effects dissipated within a year. Therapy increased self control and noncriminal values, and acts of crime and violence fell 20–50%. Therapy’s impacts lasted at least a year when followed by cash, likely because cash reinforced behavioral changes via prolonged practice.
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Sara Lowes, Nathan Nunn, James Robinson, and Jonathan Weigel.  “The Evolution of Culture and Institutions: Evidence from the Kuba Kingdom.”  Presented at the Berkeley comparative politics colloquium.
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Abstract: We use variation in historical state centralization to examine the impact of institutions on cultural norms. The Kuba Kingdom, established in Central Africa in the early 17th century by King Shyaam, had more developed state institutions than the other independent villages and chieftaincies in the region. It had an unwritten constitution, separation of political powers, a judicial system with courts and juries, a police force and military, taxation, and significant public goods provision. Comparing individuals from the Kuba Kingdom to those from just outside the Kingdom, we find that centralized formal institutions are associated with weaker norms of rule-following and a greater propensity to cheat for material gain.
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Abstract: What accounts for political violence in competitive electoral regimes? Why do elites instigate violence, and how does it aect voting behavior? Most theories of elite-instigated political violence make a crucial yet untested assumption: that if politicians employ violence as a tactic, then it must accord them some objective strategic benefit. Employing experimental and qualitative survey and interview data from Kenya, I argue that, in fact, violence is often the result of strategic miscalculation on the part of elites. In particular, I nd that politicians overestimate the electoral benets of violence and more crucially underestimate its costs, particularly with respect to their core voters. The same is true of heated ethnic rhetoric, which I show to be ineffective in garnering coethnic support yet an important predictor of future violence. The results highlight an important yet overlooked explanation for political violence in competitive electoral regimes and raise thought-provoking questions about when and why office-seeking politicians fail to accurately infer voter preferences over salient political issues.
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Abstract: The Islamic insurgency in the Sahel followed different trajectories and led to varying outcomes: in Mali a powerful Islamic insurgency emerged and lead to the collapse of the state whereas in Mauritania the state was able to defeat the insurgency, and in Niger no cells of Islamic insurgents emerged at all. This variation of trajectories and outcomes constitutes the puzzle of this paper. The paper makes three major claims: first, the root causes of the Islamic insurgency in the Sahel can be traced in the sociopolitical and religious transformations that resulted from the democratization process (1990-2012). Second, after 20 years of democratization, the growing discontent vis-à-vis the state combined with a rising religiosity and ethno-racial tensions created a fertile ground for the incidence of Islamic insurgency in all of Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Yet Islamic insurgency emerged only in Mali and Mauritania where greater political and strategic opportunities incentivized jihadist leaders to frame a discourse that collectivized the grievance of the masses. Success of the insurgency in Mali and its failure in Mauritania were determined by the level of popular support and the state repressive capacity in each of those two countries. Third, state capacity, particularly repressive capacity, is to a greater extend the determinant of the onset as well as the success of an Islamic insurgency.
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Alexandra Minnis, Evan vanDommelen-Gonzalez, Ellen Luecke, William Dow, Sergio Bautista-Arredondo, and Nancy Padian.  “Yo Puedo – a conditional cash transfer and life skills intervention to promote adolescent sexual health.”  Presented at the Berkeley Population Center.
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Abstract: We designed and evaluated for feasibility an intervention – Yo Puedo – that addresses social network influences and socioeconomic opportunities in a neighborhood with substantial gang exposure and early childbearing.  Yo Puedo combined conditional cash transfers for completion of educational and reproductive health wellness goals with life skills sessions, and targeted youth 16 to 21 years old and same-aged members of their social network. We conducted a 2-arm study with social networks randomized to the intervention or a standard services control arm. We evaluated intervention uptake, adherence and safety; and assessed evidence of effects on behavioral outcomes associated with unintended pregnancy and STI risk.  Seventy-two social networks comprised of 162 youth enrolled, with 92% retention over six months. Seventy-two percent of youth randomized to the intervention participated in intervention activities: 53% received at least one CCT payment; and 66% came to at least one life skills session. We found no evidence that cash payments financed illicit or high-risk behavior. At six months, intervention participants, compared to controls, had a lower odds of hanging out on the street frequently (OR = 0.54, p = 0.10) and a lower odds of reporting their close friends had been incarcerated (OR = 0.6, p=0.12). They reported less regular alcohol use (OR = 0.54, p=0.04) and a lower odds of having sex (OR = 0.50, p = 0.04).  The feasibility evaluation of Yo Puedo demonstrated its promise; a larger evaluation of effects on pregnancy and sustained behavioral changes is warranted.
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Abstract: Property rights are important for economic exchange, but in much of the world they are not publicly provided. Private market organizations can fill this gap by providing an institutional structure to enforce agreements, but with this power comes the ability to extort from the group’s members. Under what circumstances will private organizations provide a stable environment for economic activity? Using original survey data collected from 1,900 randomly sampled traders across 292 markets, 68 market leaders, and 55 government revenue collectors across 57 local governments in Lagos, Nigeria, along with market case studies, I find that strong markets maintain sophisticated institutions to support trade not in the absence of government, but rather as a response to active interference. I argue that market organizations develop and enforce pro-trade institutions when threatened by politicians they perceive as predatory, and when the organization can respond with threats of its own. Under such a balance of power, the organization will not extort because it needs the support of the traders it represents in order to keep threats credible.
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Abstract: Both Benin and Ghana are amongst Africa’s most celebrated examples of democratic success, but there is growing divergence in the capacity of their state institutions to act as effective agents of development. Why? This dissertation argues that modes of party financing are integral to understanding patterns of patronage-based recruitment to public office, and that these patronage practices have consequences for the broader developmental capacities of the state.  The first part of the dissertation shows that leaders use political patronage not only as a means of “buying” votes, but more fundamentally as a means of exerting control over the state’s resources. How leaders choose to access and control these resources depends on the size of the private sector and the strength of party organizations, both of which vary considerably across African countries. Where party organizations are strong and the private sector large, patronage is likely to be concentrated primarily at the elite level to facilitate the exchange of contracts for financial support to the party [as seen in Ghana]. Conversely, where private capital is more scarce, leaders will concentrate patronage at the public service level, enabling political supporters to access state revenue and rents for their party [as seen in Benin].  These varying patronage practices have consequences for the broader developmental capacities of the state. Elite level patronage leads to more stability and cohesion in the executive which, among other things, strengthens commitment to development programs over time even in the face of serious implementation challenges. High levels of public service patronage, by contrast, heighten organizational problems including technical deficiencies amongst public personnel, the frequent disappearance of state resources for political use and excessive control over bureaucratic agencies. This latter environment is particularly challenging for the implementation of development programs.
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Links I liked

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  • African Arguments is running a fantastic ten-part series on African political thought, complete with reading lists and videos
  • Helicopter parenting in the US can’t just be attributed to a status-obsessed culture; it’s more fundamentally driven by our lack of economic mobility
  • Just for Berkeley grad students: are you beginning an original research project soon?  Do you want to learn more about the logistics and ethics of doing research?  Justine Davis and I are launching the Research in Practice Working Group at the D-Lab with a kickoff meeting on Thursday next week.  Come to talk about your research design, stay for the wine!
  • Song of the Week: it might be too early to conclude that this is the video of the year, but Blitz the Ambassador’s video for Shine is a perpetual favorite.  A gorgeous meditation on tradition and contemporary culture, race and vulnerability, familial love, and exuberant confidence.

Cash transfer programs aren’t just for low income countries

Eduardo Porter had a fantastic article in the NYT last week about the myth that welfare programs make their recipients lazy and entitled.  He highlights recent research from a team of MIT and Harvard economists which finds that cash transfer programs in low income countries don’t discourage people from working, and connects this to other studies which find the same result for American welfare programs.  In particular, most of the ostensible success of the 1990s welfare reforms were attributable to the strong economy, and poverty increased again with the recessions of the 2000s.  Meanwhile, pushing people off welfare probably led to worse outcomes for children who grew up in poverty.

If the evidence base for cash transfers in low income countries is so strong, should we expect to see the same effects in high income countries?  My prior on this is that we should, and there seems to be an increasing amount of evidence supporting this position.  Aside from the study that Porter mentions on the Mothers’ Pension Program, which took place in the early 20th century, I’ve found two relatively more recent studies that evaluate the use of cash transfers in North America. One looks at a town in Manitoba where poor residents were given basic income grants for four years in the late 1970s.  People with no other sources of income were given grants up to 60% of the poverty line, and people with some outside income received smaller grants on a sliding scale (the precise value is not specified in the study).  Evelyn Forget analyzed administrative data from the town some years later, and found that grant recipients experienced a range of benefits.   They were less likely to be hospitalized for work-related injuries, car accidents, domestic abuse, or mental illness.  Children’s test scores increased, even as their dropout rates decreased, and more adults went back for continuing education.  While there was a small decrease in hours worked, this mostly came from mothers of young babies and teenagers, who are arguably investing in other types of human capital by raising children or staying in school.

The second study tracks a group of children in North Carolina who were members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and whose families began receiving an extra US$4000 per capita each year after a casino was build on their land in the mid-1990s.  Researchers found that the grants lowered rates of behavioral and economic problems among treated children, and improved their relationships with their parents.  It also increased personality traits that are correlated with financial success later in life, like conscientiousness and agreeableness.  (The researchers don’t discuss the grants’ impact on children’s incomes or educational achievement in this paper, although I assume they’ll do in future work if they have the data.)

Links I liked

The persistence of extreme poverty in the US

Vox had a thought-provoking article last week on people in the US who live on less than $2 per person per day.  It’s adapted from the book of the same title by Kathryn Edin & Luke Schaefer.  They find that millions of Americans (including up to three million children) have months where they live on next to nothing, frequently going hungry and facing homelessness as a result.  The entire article is essential reading.  Here are some of the main points:

  • There’s no clear demographic pattern among people who face extreme poverty.  As Edin says, “It’s racially and ethnically diverse, it’s regionally diverse. You see both married and unmarried couples in this situation.”  However, poverty tends to be worse in rural areas and in the South, where fewer services are available.
  • People want to work, but find it difficult to hold down jobs.  Edin notes that “almost all of these households actually do have workers… You still see these pretty lengthy spells in extreme poverty, but these people are in and out of the low-wage labor market. Seventy percent of them have had a worker in the low-wage labor market in the past year.”  Schaefer adds that “it’s very hard to find a job. The unemployment rate has been very high for low-educated workers for a long time. These folks are at the back of the line.”
  • Social services and family support networks rarely help.  Many eligible households either don’t apply for TANF, or (in some cases) have been told mistakenly that they’re not eligible.  Only a million people in the entire country receive TANF at present, although 15% of the population or 45 million people live below the poverty line.  In addition, few people seem to receive much assistance from their families.
  • People come up with creative ways to access even small amounts of money if they can’t work.  Selling plasma is one of the most common, followed by cashing out food stamps (which cuts the value of the stamps by about half), collecting scrap metal for redemption, and doing sex work.  Selling sex can be a way to access housing or food as well as cash.
  • And my own takeaway: While the availability of formal employment is different, overall this is quite similar to what extreme poverty looks like in countries around the world.  People find various ways of making claims on others in order to access food, shelter, and clothing, or the cash to buy the same.

Perhaps what’s most striking in this context is that, while we do have a wide range of social safety nets, none of them are designed to address this type of poverty. Nor has half a century of prolonged economic growth done much to reduce it.  I came away from this article thinking that it’s one of the strongest claims I’ve yet seen for the value of a universal basic income grant.

Going the last mile in ending extreme poverty

Brookings had an excellent blog series last month on going the last mile to end extreme poverty.  The posts were adapted from a book of the same name which was just released.  I was most struck by Raj Desai’s article on the role that welfare programs played in ending extreme poverty in today’s high income countries.  As he pointed out, when the US, UK, and Germany adopted major welfare programs in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had the same GDP per capita (in real terms) as India, Indonesia and China do today.  Welfare subsequently played a major role in eliminating extreme poverty in these countries.  So why haven’t today’s middle income countries done the same?

His answer is worth quoting at length.

The earliest social protection programs in Western Europe were of the contributory variety—financed out of taxes on wages—as a way of preventing social conflict. Otto von Bismarck’s pension, sickness insurance, and worker compensation programs were, after all, created to pre-empt a Social Democratic victory in Germany. These systems, combined with the political changes taking place in the continent, would lead to dramatic expansions in social protection in later decades. Even as industrialization initially caused poverty, it also created rising wages for workers. Eventually, organized working classes formed a strong alliance with the fast-growing, urban middle class. This political coalition sought policies that would protect itself from economic cycles—especially after the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s—that would eventually result in the postwar welfare system. Indeed, the durability of these welfare programs may be attributed to the participation of the middle class, which shaped program design: welfare programs provided universal coverage so that the middle class itself was not excluded from benefits.

Many of today’s developing countries have followed a very different path. Labor tends to be less organized and have weaker relative bargaining strength. Much of the labor force remains in the informal sector and is left out of any contributory schemes, which tend to have limited scope. Social protection is more reliant on a fragmented system consisting of a large number of non-contributory programs financed out of general revenues. More importantly, the preferences of both governments and donors are mainly for programs that target particular sub-populations to achieve cost efficiency.

Consequently, an opposite political dynamic appears to be playing out in developing countries. Instead of middle class “buy-in” resulting in broader and more comprehensive programs, targeted and fragmented programs are inhibiting median-voter support for social protection and leading to middle-class exit. The consequences are familiar to designers of targeted social protection—their vulnerability to shifts in political winds, their susceptibility to abuse or capture by elites, and their occasional failure to outlive the aid programs that may finance them. The overall result is that the demand for comprehensive welfare programs in middle-income countries remains weak.

One of the best succinct descriptions of the political economy of social protection that I’ve yet come across, and an interesting consideration thinking about novel social protection delivery mechanisms like GiveDirectly’s potential partnerships with regional governments in Kenya.