Protected by randomness



The Random Darknet Shopper, an automated online shopping bot with a budget of $100 a week in Bitcoin, is programmed to do a very specific task: go to one particular marketplace on the Deep Web and make one random purchase a week with the provided allowance. The purchases have all been compiled for an art show in Zurich, Switzerland titled The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland, which runs through January 11.
The concept would be all gravy if not for one thing: the programmers came home one day to find a shipment of 10 ecstasy pills, followed by an apparently very legit falsified Hungarian passport– developments which have left some observers of the bot’s blog a little uneasy.

The title of the piece (Robots are starting to break the law and nobody knows what to do about it) elicits worries of AIs gone amok, but the basic conundrum of this piece and others about the Random Darknet Shopper is more complex: if I design an AI which takes a random, blind action in a space which is largely – but not uniformly – illicit, am I legally culpable?

Take this thought experiment: imagine going around your office with a ten dollar bill, offering to buy whatever your colleagues would be willing to sell to you at that price, but under the condition that you do not see the item until the transaction has taken place. If one of your colleagues slipped you some cocaine, who would be at fault? What if you chose to repeat the experiment in an area of town infamous for drug-deals, are you suddenly more culpable?

When I was young, I used to order what they called “Grab Bag” comic packs, where I would pay a set amount of money for an unknown, random assortment of comic books. If someone had slipped a pornographic comic into my grab bag, it’s hard to see how I would be at fault. But where I choose to make my blind transactions seems to augment how we perceive culpability.

Several years ago I wrote a piece about how randomness can complicate our standard notions of guilt. The intersection of randomness, culpability and the law sounds like an area that – if someone hasn’t written about it a lot already – is ripe for further work.

The Lynchian Randomization

"We're going to estimate treatment effects via an ancient rock-throwing technique."

“We’re going to estimate treatment effects via an ancient rock-throwing technique.”

We developmentistas often associate randomized impact evaluations solely with development interventions (I’m looking at you Eva Vivalt), so it’s easy to forget that there are other researchers out there doing some really bizarre RCTs. For example, did you know that randomzing paracetamol  is still a thing? Psychologists seem to think that it augments an individual’s emotions, in addition to the palliative effect it has on pain. In a recent Psychological Science article, several researchers wanted to observe whether paracetamol blunted our emotional responses to distressing events.

The first experiment they ran was, well, moderately distressing. There were two types of treatment: some participants were asked to write about a `placebo subject’ – something innocuous, where the treatment group was asked to write about their own death (distress! distress!). This was cross-cut with a standard double-blind randomization of paracetamol. Then the researchers recorded their outcome of interest, which was a bit….odd:

Finally, participants read a hypothetical arrest report about a prostitute and were asked to set the amount of the bail (on a scale from $0 to $999). This measure has been used in a number of other meaning-threat studies (Proulx & Heine, 2008; Proulx et al., 2010; Randles et al., 2011; Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989). Participants are expected to increase the bond amount after experiencing a threat, because trading sex for money is both at odds with commonly held cultural views of relationships and against the law. Increasing the bond assessment provides participants an opportunity to affirm their belief that prostitution is wrong.

Um, I think we’ll probably leave that out of our next household survey, but fine.  What was the result? The average bond levels set by each treatment group was similar, except for the group which received a distressing event but not paracetamol.


The researchers claim this means that acetaminophen (paracetamol) is actually blunting people’s normal response to the emotionally-distressing task (i.e. punishing prostitutes). In the difference between the control placebo and the `mortality salience’ placebo – approximately $120 dollars more, but there appears to be no significant difference between the treatment and control groups who were not given the drug.

Now things get even a little more bizarre. The researchers want to replicate the experiment with a similar premise but a different outcome measure and a different distressing activity. So this time they made the control group watch a four minute clip of The Simpsons, where the treatment group had to watch four minutes of the David Lynch short film “Rabbits”, which is composed of creepy humanoid rabbits You can watch the entire thing here. I recommend having something lined up to cheer you up afterwards.


In this case the respondents had to choose how much to fine a group of public rioters. The results were very similar to the first experiment: the treatment group which did not receive any paracetamol ended up fining the rioters substantially more, but there was little difference between the other three groups. Again the researchers argue that the paracetamol made the difference.


Before you start slipping people paracetamol before you give them bad news, there’s a number of reasons we might be very wary of these results. First, the theoretical groundwork is a bit shaky – while there are some psychology experiments that paracetamol does influence what they call “social pain,” there is no compelling physiological link, other than some inconclusive evidence cited at the beginning of the article. We should discount results more heavily when they don’t have such a strong grounding in either theory or prior evidence. We certainly shouldn’t use them for anything as headline-grabbing as “What is Tylenol Doing to Our Minds?”


The results also rely on what the psychologists call a meaning-maintenance model which predicts that individuals will seek compensatory affirmations of their beliefs when their expectations or `meanings’ are threatened by outside stimuli. Thus, punishing a prostitute or a rioter – the authors argue – gives the respondent a chance to affirm their belief that these practices are wrong. I don’t know enough about the subject to say whether or not the meaning-maintenance model is a sensible way of describing human behaviour, but the result seems dependent on a few too many assumptions: A) that paracetamol interacts with a part of the brain that generates these compensatory desires B) that the treatments in this experiment themselves would generate compensatory desires and C) that the outcomes of these experiment are meaningfully measuring this desire to assert one’s beliefs after a distressing event.

That said – this is why we do replications, and the researchers do well to set up two separate experiments. Plus they got to randomize David Lynch. This is awesome.

Branko Milanović and the Spam King of Development


A few weeks ago, I received a bizarre e-mail addressed indirectly to former World Bank economist and inequality/wealth guru Branko Milanovic. An excerpt:

Marry me, CUNY Prof. Branko Milanovic. Become part of our family of Expert Dreamers. Join the Serbia Strategic Team and help us design, create, imagine a Wonderful future for Serbia, for the World and for the Sollar System.

Yes I am positive. I want to become President of the Sollar System before 2050 with you in our team. Yes I am positive. I want to contribute my best efforts, to devote my lifetime to this wonderful challenge. And I want you, CUNY Prof. Branko Milanovic, I want you to come with me, to come with us.

Following this e-mail, a slew of my colleagues and I began to receive e-mails requesting that we receive chapters for a book known as “The Monfort Plan,” a sort of grand scheme to end global poverty by assembling a team of “Expert Dreamers” to essentially act as the world’s largest peer review body. A bit like The Avengers but without all the charisma and one-liners.

The source of these e-mails was a man named  Jaime Pozuelo-Monfort – or `JP Monfort’ as he likes to call him self. JP Monfort is a professional development spammer. As described on his bio for the Huffington Post (further proof that the only binding prerequisites for bloggers at HufPo are a hindbrain and access to a keyboard), Monfort has six or seven masters degrees in a variety of economics or finance-related subjects, although he apparently has yet to learn of the concept of diminishing returns.

Monfort is infamous for his frequent spamming of university departments and research institutes, either to recruit scholars to join his team of Expert Dreamers or to rope people into reviewing his inane book chapters. This incessant behaviour has actually resulted in not one, but four entire threads dedicated to him at, a website which itself will likely confirm any suspicions you might have that economics comprises a disconcertingly-large number of self-obsessed sexist, racist, socially-inept douchebags. If you’re in the mood for a little more entertainment, JP Monfort has a slew of videos online in which he mumbles through various aspects of his master plan – awkward, amateurish productions set in bizarre locations such as the side of a road or what appears to be a swimming pool shower. He also has an online site dedicated to “The Clinton Letters”, chronicling correspondence between him and Bill Clinton, which appears to amount to standard brush-off replies from the latter’s office, including a thank you for the Monfort Plan t-shirt that was sent his way.

His book is currently available on Amazon, although plagued by one-star reviews from irate academics targeted by his e-mails. One reviewer notes:

 While I can’t comment on the content of the book, if it’s anything like the vague, grandiose drivel I receive weekly in my inbox, I doubt it has anything practical to say about modern economic, social, and political problems…

Indeed, from reading the book chapters he has sent my way, it is difficult to discern whether Monfort is deluded, a scam artist, or some sort of weird meta-troll. His prose is circular and vague, nonsensical but coherent enough to pass for an NGO report. Some sections are devoted to describing – essentially paraphrasing – the of work other mainstream development experts, including Milanovic himself, Daren Acemoglu and our own Nancy Birdsall, rather than contributing anything new to the development debate.  Chapter 29 of the seemingly-never-ending, rambling book describes the role of the “Chief Dreamer” (inevitably Monfort himself) who would be in charge with leading the way in the fight against world poverty:

“The Chief Dreamer must remain awake while others sleep, must work in the interest of the developing world and propose forward-looking ideas that are realistic so that the reader find sufficient matter to employ his or her speculations for the rest of her life. The Chief Dreamer must be a twenty-first century Jules Verne who conquers through persuasion and not imposition. The Chief Dreamer must combine the qualities of George Kennan and Jean Monnet and be determined to defend the priorities of the vulnerable. The Chief Dreamer must be multilingual to address a variety of audiences in different geographies and must be multidisciplinary to understand the complex roots that drive today’s increasing inequality gap and inequality.”

The only novelty in the book is born out data generated by the sheer number of people Monfort has managed to piss off. You see, so many people have requested to be removed from the ever-growing list of Expert Dreamert that Monfort dedicates an entire segment of his book to analysing the breakdown of which academic disciplines are most likely to click unsubscribe:

I soon realized academics were overwhelmingly requesting to be removed from The Decem List. The trend was so notorious that I decided to create this subsection to express a concern. There is a subset of academia who may be reluctant to embrace a new economic paradigm, as it relies on new ideas not supported by the orthodox theories that for decades have been feeding the intellect of university professors from the world’s best universities.


I’m curious as to what it is about Mr. Monfort’s incoherent ramblings that appeals more to anthropologists and agricultural engineers than to economists, psychologists and sociologists. Alas, it will remain one of life’s great mysteries.

Oh, by the way, Mr. Monfort could you please drop me from your mailing list?

The Twelve Days of Christmas (Aid Edition)™

It’s an oldy but a goody, and the only thing I always  repost. Go on, sing along:

On the twelfth day of Christmas my donors gave to me

twelve delayed disbursements!

eleven sketchy studies

ten consultants calling

nine economists arguing

eight mission meetings

seven worthless workshops

six gender trainings

five RCTs!

four 4x4s

three acronyms

two empty schools

and a lecture on M&E!

Still on sale.

You just don’t get me

Timothy Taylor has an excellent write up on the behavioural economics results coming out of the recently-released 2015 World Development Report. One of the most striking findings is that World Bank staff tend to overestimate the tendency for poor people to be fatalistic. From Taylor’s post:

What do development experts think that the poor believe, and how does it compare to what the poor actually believe? For example, development experts were asked if they thought individuals in low-income countries would agree with the statement: “What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me.”  The development experts thought that maybe 20% of tthe poorest third would agree with this statment, but about 80% actually did. In fact, the share of those agreeing with the statement in the bottom third of the income distribution was much the same as for the upper two-thirds–and higher than the answer the devleopment experts gave for themselves!

A number of other bloggers have picked up on this result, albeit without too much discussion about what this implies. I think the implicit assumption here are that development professionals are out of touch with the poor. I think there’s a number of ways we can interpret these results. Here’s the graph in question:


So the first possibility is the implicit one, that Bank staff don’t know what the poor believe, and possibly even that they assume the poor are fatalistic, possibly to a fault. Development economics is only starting to turn its head towards the convergence of fatalism, aspirations and economic outcomes (see, for example, the recent paper by Kate Orkin and her co-authors on aspirations in Ethiopia). The story that development experts buy into this belief is an easy one to believe, but not necessarily the right one. Note that it doesn’t at all take into account what the truth is, only perceptions.

Imagine your life’s outcomes are determined by (A) your own actions and (B) everything else, including randomness. How much weight would you put on (A) vs (B)? There’s no easy answer to this, but it is perfectly possible that the world’s poor ARE poor because (B) is actually much larger than (A). When you live in a country with terrible institutions, no social safety net, frequent economic or environmental shocks, it becomes very clear that (B) dominates (A).

So the second possibility is that Bank staff aren’t assuming the poor are being fatalistic, but that they are being realistic. That they (correctly?) judge that they have little control over their own lives. If they did, then they probably wouldn’t be poor. In this case, if the responses from the above sample are genuine (we might worry that respondents would be unwilling to admit that they have little control), then it’s the poor who have it the wrong way around: they are too optimistic about how much control they have over their own lives.

The second possibility isn’t necessarily any more likely than the first, but we should be cautious about what stories eventually emerge out of the above figure – there are a number of potentially overlapping biases at play, to the extent that it is not just a straightforward story of development professionals not `getting’ the poor.

Make love, not development goals

"Son, we need to talk about your development indicators."

“Son, we need to talk about your development indicators.”

I was pleasantly  surprised to see this post by Chloe Safier on Duncan Green’s excellent blog. From her final paragraph:

Ignoring that people have – and enjoy – sex diminishes the full reality of people’s experiences and relationships. If the development and donor communities, could shift their conversations around sexual and reproductive health and rights, empowerment, and gender to include the people’s whole sexual lives, we’d all be better off.

Safier is basically making the case that a focus on reproductive rights is not enough, that the development industry also needs to start discussing how to improve people’s sex lives – not so much in a broad sense (e.g. maximizing per capita orgasms) but more of a Sen-style capabilities approach to ensure everyone has the potential for a decent sex life.

I’m not sure I can fully embrace Safier’s recommendations – that the ever-growing list of NGO/donor priorities should include sexual enjoyment, but this is more due to a general unease about NGO mission creep than about a focus on sex.That said – I am astonished by infrequently developmentistas talk about how important sex is for human welfare. At risk of sounding ageist, I suspect this because the field is still dominated by the middle-aged and older crowds, cohorts who have a pretty solid history of looking down on talking openly about sex. I don’t know whether this is purely generational, or just a fact about getting older – I’ll report back in 10 or 20 years or so.

Economists, in turn, see almost incapable about talking sensibly about sex. Last year, at a seminar in Oxford – I witnessed a group of academic economists argue over why birth rates went up in regions of Spain after outbursts of Basque separatist violence. The consensus was that violence forces people indoors, which in turn lowers the opportunity cost to sex. That is, now we are unable to go to the park, we’re more likely to stay at home and, well, get it on. Upon reaching this conclusion, the room of mainly-male academics erupted in a bout of giggling.

This may well be true – but it’s emblematic of the way that we (economists) tend to bulldoze over sex with standard Econ 101 explanations. We can, in part, thank the late Gary Becker for taking all the fun out of sex.

Or the emotion – there’s a lot of reasons we jump into each other’s arms. To take the Spanish example: extreme stress tends to drive us to do things which mitigate stress, sex being at top of that particular list.

Time for a global sexual satisfaction index? Maybe not – but it’s still refreshing to see this being discussed openly.

Come work for me (in London)


CGD is hiring a research assistant to work full time here at in the London office with Vijaya Ramachandran and me. The work would primarily be on Illicit Financial Flows, but also to support other research which Vij and I work on, which include humanitarian assistance/firm growth in Africa as well as land tenure work.

You can read the full ad and apply here.

This is a great opportunity to get involved with a really important and exciting line of research. Let me also take this moment to say: CGD is a fantastic organization to work for. My 10 months in the London office have been some of my happiest to date – it is one of the rare places where I actually feel excited on a Sunday evening knowing that I’ll see my colleagues the next morning. Even though many of us all work on different things, we act like a big family, one which I would encourage anyone to join.

We wish to become your friends if we may

“Kikuchiyo, a fake birth certificate and stolen armour does not make you a samurai.”

I recently received an e-mail from the renowned “Journal of Economics World” whose tagline is “From knowledge to wisdom!”

Dear Matthew Collin ,

This is Economics World (ISSN 2328-7144), a professional journal published across the United States by David Publishing Company, New York, NY, USA.

We have learnt your paper “ Persistence in the effect of  birth order on child  development: evidence from the Philippines ” in the 2014 CSAE Conference on Economic Development in Africa, March 23-25, 2014, St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, UK.

We are very interested in your research and also would like to publish your other unpublished papers in Economics World (ISSN 2328-7144). If you have the idea of making our journal a vehicle for your research interests, please feel free to send electronic version of your papers or books to us through email attachment in MS word format.

Currently, we are trying to invite some scholars who are willing to join our editorial board or be our reviewers. If you are interested in our journal, please send your CV to us. Hope to keep in touch by email and can publish some papers or books from you and your friends. As an American academic publishing group, we wish to become your friends if we may.

Economics World is, as best I can tell, a `paper mill’ – a place where the truly desperate send their work (paying roughly $60 a page!) to show that it can be published.

Not today EW, not today.

Rule of Law, Goma edition

Jessica Hatcher over at Vice News has an amazing piece about a Peace One Day-sponsored concert in Goma, hosted by none-other than R&B/hip-hop star Akon and…… Jude Law?

Well worth a read. My favourite passage:

Akon, in black PVC trousers, diamond studs, and a black hooded cardigan, burst onto the stage. The people of Goma responded. Police strained to hear on their walkie-talkies. “Ladies say yeah!”, he shouted, communicating in neither Kiswahili nor French. The crowd, who couldn’t understand, echoed distorted versions of his chants. “I wanna make love now now now now,” he sang, to an almost all-male crowd.

The music was intoxicating, the stage-craft ambitious. At one point, Akon stepped into a giant clear plastic ball and surfed the crowd — though the audience of five or six thousand wasn’t quite dense enough so he fell three times, and at one point a team of robo-cop style United Nations police went to the rescue. The speakers pumped out gunshot sounds for a few seconds, but that was quickly cut off. Foreign aid workers cringed at the song, Smack That, which glorifies domestic violence. Much of the audience looked bemused, but those at the front kept up the arm-waving and screaming. “It’s amazing!” said one British aid worker as he drifted past aglow.

Land grabs in everything: couldn’t you have just have bought your daughter a pony edition

By most accounts, the recent swath of large scale land acquisitions are being driven by investors wishing to capitalize on rising food prices or expectations of greater demand for land. However, some just want to give their daughter a nice birthday present:

Within months, Heaton was journeying through the desolate southern stretches of Egypt and into an unclaimed 800-square-mile patch of arid desert. There, on June 16 — Emily’s seventh birthday — he planted a blue flag with four stars and a crown on a rocky hill. The area, a sandy expanse sitting along the Sudanese border, morphed from what locals call Bir Tawil into what Heaton and his family call the “Kingdom of North Sudan.” There, Heaton is the self-described king and Emily is his princess.

Uh, what?

Heaton says his claim over Bir Tawil is legitimate. He argues that planting the flag — which his children designed — is exactly how several other countries, including what became the United States, were historically claimed. The key difference, Heaton said, is that those historical cases of imperialism were acts of war while his was an act of love.

At 200,000 hectares, this partially qualifies the, uh, Kingdom of North Sudan to be counted as a land deal in the Land Matrix. This dude even wants to use the land for large scale agriculture:

The next step in Heaton’s plan is to establish positive relationships with Sudan and Egypt by way of converting his “kingdom” into an agricultural production center as his children, especially Emily, wanted.

Hat tip to Karol Bodreaux.