Don’t damn the man, migrate away from him


“Sorry Luke, it would frankly be immoral for me to suggest you leave your aunt and uncle’s farm to fight the Empire. Keep your head down and consider moving somewhere a little less Empiresque.”

In a recent blog post, Bryan Caplan goes after the argument that poor people who wish to migrate away from dysfunctional states should stay there and fix their political system.

When I point out that would-be immigrants are trying to save themselves and their families from hellish Third World conditions, my critics often respond, “They ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems!”

For many of the world’s poor, the chances for successful change are slim to none. When compared with the gains from migration, the decision is a bit of a no brainer. Furthermore,  a persons’ decision to migration (flee) should already contain some information about their ability or will to influence their own political system, so these are often the last people who should be sticking around. Given that most of us living in rich countries go out of our way to protect ourselves and our families from unnecessary risks, the suggestion that poor migrants should put themselves on the line is a little unfair.*

Yet Caplan takes what should be a straightforward counter-argument based on the expected returns to political activism and instead tries to moralize it by hatin’ on political activists.

Thus, suppose Jacques the desperate Haitian father has an opportunity to escape to Miami, where he can shine shoes and send money home to feed his kids.  Instead, he chooses to let his kids go hungry so he stays in Port-au-Prince and fights tyranny with political leaflets and soapbox speeches.  Noble?  No more than John.  The righteous man knows that meeting his family responsibilities is more important than playing Don Quixote.

Then he goes after the very notion of activism itself and, in a one-man demonstration of Godwin’s law, manages to link activism with Hitler.

Indeed, triumphant activists routinely give new meaning to the word “tyranny.”  See Lenin, Hitler, and Mao for starters.

Yikes. It’s one thing to point out that staying in Haiti is not always the most cost effective way to improve your life, it’s quite another to condemn those who have what I would describe as “activist preferences.” The decision to stand up to the man isn’t an easy one, nor does it often make economic sense, therefore we should never condemn anyone for failing to stand up against the man when they have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

Yet judging whether or not political activism will be successful is pretty difficult stuff. Actually, I would argue that successful political activism is defined by its unpredictability, which makes it terribly hard to put a normative judgement on. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi which kicked off the Tunisian revolution and possibly the entire Arab Spring made very little rational sense – Caplan would label Bouazizi as irresponsible for the family he left behind when he killed himself.

I agree that it would have been wrong to condemn Bouazizi if he had instead taken a boat to continental Europe, and I would like to live in a world where other people can easily escape, but shouldn’t we also do our best to support those who have revealed a preference for `fighting tyranny?’ While the world would be immeasurably better off with more open borders, achieving that milestone does not permit us to ignore the injustices that remain around the globe, be they political or economic.


 *Although it should be noted that the migration decision, especially if done illegally, can itself be very risky.

Development as freedom from back pain

The Batman solution to back pain: repeated punches to the back, lots of push ups, gruelling climb out of a pit of despair. Sounds a lot like life during my PhD.

As if turning 30 wasn’t enough of an incentive to start feeling anxious about getting older, I recently started having back trouble. The other day, getting out of bed, I threw my back out, and so ended up on the floor with my iPad, as usual contemplating how I could turn this unfortunate turn of events into a blog post.

Lower back pain is particularly frustrating, because as far as the medical establishment is concerned it is an ailment without a clear treatment. Even the most standard type of treatment prescribed by the NHS (rest, painkillers and physio) only shows very moderate success.

This frustration pales in comparison to that of having everyone tell you what they think you should be doing. Physiotherapy,  Yoga, massage, chiropractor, better posture, swimming, acupuncture, eating rare herbs and lying down (this suggestion came from a Tanzanian friend), or the standard GP response of just deal with it.

Many people, often those who have suffered from pain themselves, will swear by their given treatment. I’ve always found this perplexing: surely if there was a obvious method for curing lower back pain, that method would quickly have spread and someone would have become very rich. There are of course reasons why this might not be the case. Let’s consider a few:

1. None of the treatments work, and people just randomly recover from back pain.

This is particularly disconcerting, but given that most of these treatments haven’t been proven with rigorous methods, it’s perfectly possible that people are just recovering at random. If you are trying out treatment X when you happen to get better, it’s likely that you’re going to start seeing a casual relationship where there isn’t one.

2. People have back pain for random reasons and some treatments only work for some types of lower back pain.

This is possibly even more disconcerting. There are a myriad number of potential causes for back pain, and not every treatment will work. So even if you run an RCT examining the impact of a given treatment on pain, if the proportion of people suffering from the exact ailment that the treatment will fix is small enough you might end up failing to reject the null hypothesis anyway. So no particular treatment wins because we don’t have a good sense of what causes back pain, nor which treatment is most appropriate for a given circumstance.

I feel that most of development is (unfortunately) a lot like back pain. There are a lot of people out there who think they know the answer, but if they are living in worlds 1) or 2) where development is random or counties exhibit heterogeneity in the underlying structural prerequisites, then we’re in for a tough time. This isn’t a call to start lamenting – we just need to be aware of the various biases which lead us to over-prescribe certain policies (situation (1)) and under-prescribe others (situation (2)).

On science fiction

The new trailer for the upcoming science fiction film Elysium just came out – (you can see the first trailer above, the second gives a little too much away). I can’t think of any other big-budget films coming out this year that consider some of the most relevant issues for development today. From the Wikipedia entry on the film:

In the year 2154, the very wealthy live on Elysium, a massive high-tech utopian metropolis located in orbit around earth that is free of crime, war, poverty, hunger, and diseases, while everyone else lives on an overpopulated, ruined Earth below. The citizens of Elysium live a life of luxury while the citizens of the Earth struggle to survive on a daily basis and are desperate to escape the planet, but those who maintain Elysium will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve their citizens’ lifestyle.

Wow – films which focus  on class divide and immigration are far and few between –  the most recent film that had fallen on my radar which covered immigration was last year’s Senegalese drama “La Pirogue“. Elysium looks like it was 100 million times more expensive to make, which will likely be reflected in the number of people who eventually see it.

I’ve always had a deep fondness for sci-fi, having grown up reading the work of authors like Heinlein, Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Whenever I need a break or just want something reliable to read I almost always snatch a hard science fiction novel off my shelf. It is a genre that seems to have be particularly appealing to economists (including some high profile ones). This should be unsurprising – many of the greatest works take a basic premise (such as Asimov’s three laws of robotics) and turn it into an extended thought experiment – what would the natural implications be of technology X or Y?

While much of popular science fiction has been concerned primarily with thinking about what the future will bring, the trappings of the genre are often used to conceal careful examinations of our current situation. Elysium’s extremes of inequality and immobility are obviously reflections on the current global divide, wrapped up in a action-heavy story involving robots and cool exoskeletons. Similarly, director Neill Blomkamp’s last film District 9, ostensibly a film about aliens and genetic mutation, tackled apartheid and inequality in South Africa in a new and refreshing way.

Another great example is the more recent iteration of the television series Battlestar Galactica, which came out during the initial years of the second Iraq war. At first glance, it was just a particularly gritty show about robots and space battles, yet it tackled serious ideas related to post-9/11 society, including torture, occupation, religious extremism and suicide bombing, all at a time when the most popular TV show about terrorism involved Kiefer Sutherland gleefully torturing and punching people in the heart.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this – perhaps I’m trying to convince those that have been dismissive of the genre before to give it a chance. There’s so much out there which lends itself to developmentistas. Fans of immigration policy would find a lot in Alfonso Cuarón’s incredible Children of Men to sink their teeth into, for instance.

In the summer of 2004, I took a train to Oxford to chat with a few people involved in the MSc in Development Economics (to which I planned to apply) – one of them was the late Sanjaya Lall. While waiting on a sofa in his spacious office in Queen Elizabeth House, I glanced at his bookshelf. A lot of it was what you’d expect from an accomplished, senior development economist – but the very top shelf was reserved for a slew of classic sci-fi books.

Journal of negative results, immigrant edition

Perhaps a diverse classroom isn't the worst thing in the world

Blogs and journals don’t publish enough `negative’ results (cases where we fail to reject the null hypothesis). So I’ll start with a paper I recently skimmed through:

In this paper, we analyze how the share of immigrant children in the classroom affects the educational attainment of native Dutch children. Our analysis uses data from various sources, which allow us to characterize educational attainment in terms of reading literacy, mathematical skills and science skills. We do not find strong evidence of negative spill-over effects from immigrant children to native Dutch children. Immigrant children themselves experience negative language spill-over effects from a high share of immigrant children in the classroom but no spill-over effects on maths and science skills.

The authors rely on differences in immigrant class shares within schools (i.e. they used school fixed effects), and also show that there are no observable differences in the allocation of resources between these classrooms – a standard objection would have been that head teachers may have allocated more resources to immigrant-heavy classrooms, although the authors show that these classrooms don’t receive any observably different teaching inputs (materials, teacher quality, etc is no different for these classes).

Also interesting is a result that while there appear to be no peer effects of immigrants on non-immigrants, immigrant children are helped by the presence of other immigrants in science and math, but hindered in language.

Google+ Throwdown

Tom Murphy has started a list of the most popular aid and development people on Google+. Yours truly is fourth from the bottom.

Now, as an institution, Aid Thoughts is above this kind of competition, but I’m certainly not. If you’re on Google+, you can find my profile here where you can add me. While the likes of Bill Easterly and Chris Blattman are out of my reach, at least get me ahead of the Roving Bandit.

Snark holiday

The winner of the HDI portion of our recent contest was allowed to select a single blog to be shielded from our criticism for an entire month, and that blog is Development Impact, the recent impact evaluation blog run by Berk Özler, David McKenzie, Jed Friedman, and Markus Goldstein.

To make things a little more difficult (DI is already an incredibly good blog), I’m going to extend the coverage of our snark-ban to all criticism of RCTs for an entire month. The only exception, will be my long overdue review of Karlan and Appel’s More Than Good Intentions (as well as Poor Economics, should we finish that in time).

So DI, we are at your complete mercy until July 12th.

Extreme Third World Farmer Challenge: the winners

I have to apologize for taking so long to put together the winners list for the Aid Thoughts Extreme Third World Farmer Challenge. Finally, here we go:

The entry with the best overall score is *drumroll*…

Minae Seog from Dartmouth College! With a score of 4,485, Minae beat out the competition by a whopping 2,645 points. As soon as we can arrange it, Minae will win a free copy of our special Aid Thoughts  edition of Dead Aid, scrawled with critical notes and expletives by Ranil and myself (she’ll need to e-mail me her address first). Congrats Minae!

The entry with the highest Human Development Index is….

Bet Caeyers from Oxford University with an HDI of 0.75. As no one reported very reliable life expectancy figures, the HDI measure is limited to just the income and education dimensions. Since the winner of this category isn’t a blogger, Bet will get to nominate which blog will be free of Aid Thoughts snark.

When I have a little more free time on my hands, I ‘ll put up a link with all the entries, and a little more detail on how the scores were put together. Until then, congratulations to the winners, and thanks for playing.