A little better all the time

The image shows a series of graphs documenting improvements in global health and governance over the last 200 years

On the off chance you’ve not seen these graphs yet, they’re a fantastic reminder of the slow and ultimately hopeful progress of development.  I wrote about this earlier at Progressive Action Daily:

For many people, 2016 felt like a year filled with injustice and loss.  There is undoubtedly a great deal of work still to be done to make our society more just and inclusive.  However, it’s also worth reflecting on the fact that societies around the world have made huge strides in improving average well-being over the last 200 years.  At Our World in Data, Max Roser shares six key charts of long-run global improvements in health, education, and governance.  And these improvements happened because people kept working for them, even when things felt difficult.  Let’s commit to do the same in 2017.

Links I liked

The photo shows a beachfront scene, framed by a window, in Durban, South AfricaThinking of this beautiful view in Durban on a rainy day here in Berkeley

The image shows a tweet from Tolu Ogunlesi, expressing admiration for the percentage of books on South Africa which are by South African authors

  • Enthusiasm for universal basic income is spreading, with new pilot projects recently announced in Scotland and Finland.  An interesting argument for the positive effects of UBI is that it already exists for the 1% in the form of capital income.

The 20 best longform articles of 2016

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

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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.”

North American basic income pilots in the news

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

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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.

 

Fall conference highlights

Three weeks, three conferences, many great papers to share!

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Ryan Briggs.  “Power to which people? Electoral politics and electrification targeting in Ghana.”  Presented at APSA.

This paper isn’t available yet, and there isn’t an abstract online for it.  However, it focuses on a very interesting puzzle: why do the two main political parties in Ghana differ in their willingness to provide electricity to their core supporters?  I won’t give away the ending here, but the general message is that history and ideology matter more for distributive politics in Africa than is often assumed.  There’s some background in a blog post here.

Abhit Bhandari.  “Political Determinants of Business Formalization.”  Presented at APSA.

This paper also isn’t available yet, which I should take as a sign that I found all the panels where people were presenting genuinely new research!  Another extremely interesting question, though: do the owners of informal businesses have political, rather than economics, reasons to enter the formal sector?  Abhit uses a new dataset of all formal business registrations in Senegal to explore this issue.

Shervin Malekzadeh. Education as Public Good or Private Resource in Postrevolutionary Iran.”  Presented at APSA.

A third great paper that’s not online yet!  It seems to draw from Shervin’s PhD thesis, so I’ll share the abstract for that.

Abstract: This project examines efforts by the Islamic Republic of Iran to produce loyal “Islamic Citizens” through its postrevolutionary school system as way of securing the hegemonic rule of the state. Drawing upon eighteen months of fieldwork in Iran, including archival research of textbooks published from 1979 to 2008, as well as interviews and participant observation in two private Islamic high schools in Tehran, I show that Iranian schools have both emancipatory and disciplinary effects on students. Ordinary Iranians do not blindly accept or internalize the ideology of the state, instead resisting, reinterpreting or even ignoring aspects of the postrevolutionary project taught to them in school. Yet they often do so using the language, practices, and formal procedures of dominant groups. The dissertation demonstrates the incoherent and contested nature of the New Islamic Citizen, a concept that has changed often and dramatically over the past 30 years. Competition between rival groups for the moral authority to insert their vision of the ideal Islamic society into the education system accounts for the variation in the political and religious content of formal education. These ongoing and unresolved conflicts have resulted in a postrevolutionary curriculum layered with contradictions and tensions that in turn provide students with the resources and opportunities to challenge the totalizing project of the state. The dissertation reveals the relationship between the politics of schooling and the politics of nationalism in Iran. Looking beyond the usual antinomies of domination/resistance, modern/traditional, or secular/religious attached to the study of political socialization in postrevolutionary Iran, this dissertation contends that interactions of state and society around the topic of schooling contributes to the production of a mutually produced and shared Islamic-Iranian framework for consent and opposition to state rule. This discursive framework is but the latest manifestation of a 200-year effort in Iran to produce an indigenous modernity rooted in an “authentic” and shared national culture.

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Ken Mitchell.  “Taxation after the Commodity Boom: Argentina, Chile and Brazil.”  [Paper forthcoming.]  Presented at DSA.

Abstract: Latin America’s commodity boom crested round 2010, and the regional terms-of-trade deteriorated thereafter. How commodity price declines might impact the region is a pivotal and potentially a troubling socioeconomic issue. Taxation is a significant area of interest because tax-to-GDP ratios rose fast during the commodity boom (2002-2010) and paid for new social programs (conditional cash transfers, popular sector pensions, etc.) and public employment schemes that expanded the middle class and lowered poverty. More consumer spending resulted, which fueled economic growth. Latin America has been the world’s lowest taxed region post-WWII, and the regional tax-to-GDP ratio flattened during the 1990s, so the end of the commodity boom rightly raises concern that public revenue mobilization might revert to its historical, low norm. Did tax-to-GDP ratios decline with commodity prices? Aggregate taxation combines varied taxes (i.e., income, corporate, consumption, trade, etc.), and here country case studies differ. The Value Added Tax (VAT) merits special attention due to its rising importance as a revenue tool across Latin America. Which national tax strategies managed to maintain commodity boom-era tax-to-GDP ratios? This paper tries to answer the above question by comparing Argentina, Chile and Brazil between 2002 and 2014, with special attention to the period 2010-2014 (i.e., post-commodity boom). Counterintuitive given the literature on taxation specific to Latin America, Argentina, historically an especially low tax country outperforms its neighbors after 2010, something the paper tries to explain. The paper will use OECD tax data to make cross-national comparisons.  [Note: the interesting conclusion is that rising use of credit cards in Argentina explains strong VAT collection even though economic growth slowed after 2010.]

Miguel Niño-Zarazúa.  “Natural resources, electoral behaviour and social assistance in Latin America.” [Paper forthcoming.]  Presented at DSA.

Abstract: The introduction of social assistance in Latin America in the late 1990s coincided with a democratization process in the region and a significant increase in the contribution of revenues from non-renewable resources to the public budgets. This paper provides an analysis of the distributional effects of revenues from the natural resources via social spending. A primary concern is to establish whether the redistribution of income via social spending would have not taken place in the absence of natural resources. Another aspect of this relation is that lessons from Latin America can also provide insights into the political incentives that natural resource rents generate to the incumbent. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies suggest that social assistance programmes can produce electoral gains to the incumbent. Our working hypotheses are the following: H1) revenues from non-renewables have facilitated social spending in Latin America, and H2) natural resources have generated electoral gains to the incumbents in increasingly more competitive political systems. In order to test our hypotheses, we first examine the economics of redistribution via revenues from natural resources, with a particular focus on the incentives that drive incumbent decisions on social spending. Second, we consider a model of income redistribution in which an incumbent can make allocation decisions of public funds in the presence of taxation. We expand the model by allowing revenues from natural resources facilitating social spending without affecting the disposable income of better-off households. We empirically test our hypotheses using fixed effects estimators with instrumental variables in three stages. The results indicate that the expansion of social spending in Latin America over the period 1990-2009 has indeed been facilitated by the natural resource rents; however, the electoral gains hypothesis is not supported by the empirical analysis.

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Nasreen Jessani, Caitlin Kennedy and Sara Bennett.  “The human capital of knowledge brokers: An analysis of attributes, capacities and skills of academic teaching and research faculty at Kenyan schools of public health.”  [Ungated draft here.]  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Abstract: Academic faculty involved in public health teaching and research serve as the link and catalyst for knowledge synthesis and exchange, enabling the flow of information resources, and nurturing relations between ‘two distinct communities’ – researchers and policymakers – who would not otherwise have the opportunity to interact. Their role and their characteristics are of particular interest, therefore, in the health research, policy and practice arena, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. We investigated the individual attributes, capacities and skills of academic faculty identified as knowledge brokers (KBs) in schools of public health (SPH) in Kenya with a view to informing organisational policies around the recruitment, retention and development of faculty KBs. During April 2013, we interviewed 12 academics and faculty leadership (including those who had previously been identified as KBs) from six SPHs in Kenya, and 11 national health policymakers with whom they interact. Data were qualitatively analyzed using inductive thematic analysis to unveil key characteristics. Key characteristics of KBs fell into five categories: sociodemographics, professional competence, experiential knowledge, interactive skills and personal disposition. KBs’ reputations benefitted from their professional qualifications and content expertise. Practical knowledge in policy-relevant situations, and the related professional networks, allowed KB’s to navigate both the academic and policy arenas and also to leverage the necessary connections required for policy influence. Attributes, such as respect and a social conscience, were also important KB characteristics.  Several changes in Kenya are likely to compel academics to engage increasingly with policymakers at an enhanced level of debate, deliberation and discussion in the future. By recognising existing KBs, supporting the emergence of potential KBs, and systematically hiring faculty with KB-specific characteristics, SPHs can enhance their collective human capital and influence on public health policy and practice. Capacity strengthening of tangible skills and recognition of less tangible personality characteristics could contribute to enhanced academic–policymaker networks. These, in turn, could contribute to the relevance of SPH research and teaching programs as well as evidence- informed public health policies.

Taryn Young.  “Policy BUDDIES – BUilding Demand for evidence in Decision making through Interaction and Enhancing Skills.”  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Summary:  Policy BUDDIES is a collaborative project including the Centre for Evidence based Health Care (CEBHC and Health systems and services research unit at Stellenbosch University, the South African Cochrane Centre (SACC), the Centre for the Development of Best Practices in Health (Cameroon) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The collaborations draw on partners experience in working in the area of knowledge translation. The collaborations draw on partners experience in working in the area of knowledge translation. The project is being conducted in South Africa and Cameroon. The project consists of 5 phases  and commenced with a situational analysis which informed subsequent phases. The situational analysis aimed to understand policymakers’ capacity, as well as enablers and constraints related to demanding evidence during policy formulation and implementation, and to map existing communication between policymakers, research intermediaries and researchers. Health programme managers and programme coordinators in programmes related to MDGs 4, 5 and 6 at provincial level in Cameroon and South Africa were purposively selected and interviewed. One of the aspects which emerged is the need for capacity development in evidence informed policy making and the use of systematic reviews.  We drew on experiences in offering similar workshops as part of the Effective Health Care Research Consortium and the SUPPORT Collaboration and offered workshops in both Cameroon and South Africa in January 2014 and November 2013 respectively. We are currently implementing the buddy model linking researchers and policymakers to work together towards promoting evidence-informed policy making.

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Yvonne Erasmus.  “What works to build capacity to use research evidence in South Africa and Malawi.”  Presented at Evidence 2016.

Summary: The use of research evidence in decision-making by policymakers in the health sector is critical for enabling the formulation and implementation of the most effective policies and programmes. Despite that reality, many scholars have documented that policymakers often do not sufficiently use research evidence to inform their decisions because of several common barriers (see Innvaer et al 2002; Oliver et al 2014). One of the well-documented barriers to research use is the lack of knowledge and skills in finding, appraising, interpreting and applying evidence as part of the policymaking process.  The DFID-funded Strengthening Capacity to Use Research Evidence in Health Policy (SECURE Health) programme being implemented in Kenya and Malawi has designed a training programme for policymakers in the health sector to strengthen their knowledge and skills in accessing, appraising, synthesising and applying research evidence in policymaking (i.e. the SECURE Health evidence-informed policymaking (EIPM) training programme).  Through these workshops, 76 policymakers comprising Ministry of Health (MoH) and parliament staff from the two countries were trained.  The training workshops effectively increased the knowledge and skills of policymakers in finding, assessing, synthesizing and applying research evidence in their work.

Decolonizing African studies

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The team at Democracy in Africa has done a major public service by putting together a very long reading list of articles on African issues by African scholars.  I’m reproducing it here.  If you need access to a gated article, just let me know and I’ll see if I can get it through Berkeley.  Other useful resources include the Oxford Bibliographies list for African studies and African Journals Online.