The unbearable lightness of being a dead salmon

Oh my god, how many salmon died by my hands during my Odell Lake sessions?

Oh my god, how many salmon died by my hands during my Odell Lake sessions?

The neuroscientist Gregory Burns describes how he used functional MRI scans to show that dogs have similar basic emotional reactions to humans roughly equivalent to a level of sentience of a human child:

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

Interesting. I’m not so sure that sentience is a necessary prerequisite for the humane treatment of animals, but it certainly would add weight to them oral argument.

Except I’m not so sure I believe the result. So I had a quick look at the study and it appears this entire result is based off of just two dogs, and the statistically significant increase in caudate activity appears to be restricted to a specific point in time after the test (so while the caudate activity seems to be significant X seconds after, it doesn’t appear to be significant X-1 or X+1 seconds after, which does raise some suspicions that the researchers cherry-picked the results ). The presence of similar activity in two dogs does bolster the result somewhat…. but come on, two dogs?

This might be a good time to bring up the famous dead salmon study again. fMRI studies are known for being particularly dodgy on the statistical inference front. A few years ago a group of Dartmouth scientists highlighted this point when they put a dead Atlantic salmon in a fMRI, showed it pictures of humans, and managed to get a statistically significant emotional response.

You see, fMRI is apparently a particular noisy way of measuring brain activity, so it’s fairly easy to throw up false positives, especially given the unit of analysis is essentially a voxel. The Dartmouth study revealed what happens when you don’t make simple corrections to account for this. Now, Burn’s study did make these corrections, so we can’t quite claim that dead salmon have a similar level of sentience to dogs. Still, we should be somewhat sceptical of an fMRI result until it is replicated again.

When every argument begins with “is it better than cash?”

"Where the hell is the Jaeger?" "Oh the government couldn't figure out how to evaluate the anti-Kaiju programme, so they just do cash transfers now."

“Where the hell is the Jaeger?” “Oh the government couldn’t really figure out how to evaluate the giant robots-fight off giant aliens programme, so they basically just do cash transfers now.”

Kevin Grier grumbles about the IDA, arguing that its investments couldn’t possibly stack up to cash transfers:

The last 3 year replenishment of IDA was for 49.3 billion dollars. So for a decade of IDA, we can use 150 billion dollars as a cost number. People, for $150 billion dollars, you could give 75 million people each $2000 in cold hard cash. From my point of view, that sounds a lot better than giving them “access” to services. Now sure, there are aid agencies worse than the IDA (phone call for USAID), but there is nothing in Mombrial’s post that backs up his claim that the IDA is a good investment, and in my opinion, it’s actually a bad investment relative to unconditional cash transfers.

Even without the growing body of empirical evidence indicating that just giving cash is an incredibly cost-effective way to increase welfare, there is an extremely compelling theoretical case to be made for cash transfers. Poor households have preferences (replace these with `needs’ if you are so inclined, although there are important distinctions between the two), and no one will ever have better information on these preferences than these households. Transferring households cash allows them to best allocate these new resources to meet these preferences – otherwise, we run the risk of wasting resources on stuff that households just don’t want.* Combine this with the fact that cash transfers are getting quite easy to make, especially in the era of mobile money, and they appear to be a reasonable standard by which to compare all other interventions.

Yet, the most ardent supporters of cash transfer programmes often forget that many societies (read: all societies) are still struggling with pretty severe collective action problems which inhibit the provision of public goods. It’s far from clear that distributing cash will solve these problems: if a village of people haven’t banded together and produced a well-functioning school by now, although giving them cash certainly increases their purchasing power to do so, it’s unlikely to solve the basic collective action problem resulting in the failure to produce the school.

This is important, as there are a range of public goods (or semi-private goods which have substantial externalities) which we can imagine might increase welfare a great deal more than a cash transfer of equivalent cost: schools, health facilities, roads, a functioning police force. Basically, any semblance of a local or national state. How many of you would vote for your own government to transfer its entire budget evenly across the population and then shut down all its operation for good? It certainly would make it easier to pay the rent next month, if your apartment complex hadn’t been burned down by the marauding hordes yet.

Now, if the collective actions problems we care about have already been solved by the market, we should be less worried. Despite a steady flow of misinformed rhetoric from NGOs suggesting that private schools in developing countries are a distraction, there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that in settings where the state is failing to provide quality schooling, private schools present a reasonable (and probably strictly superior) alternative for poor families. In these settings, unconditional cash transfers should be enough. However, there are going to be a lot of contexts where markets are not filling these gaps. For example, rural health clinics tend to be the preserve of government or NGO work, rather than the private health sector, so the effect of income on health outcomes in these contexts is going to be more complex.

The hypothesis “is intervention X better than cash?” is relatively easy to test for a whole slew of interventions: run an RCT and see if this is the case. Yet, while development economists are getting quite good at making and replicating these comparisons for private or small-scale interventions, many of the large public-good investments that have the potential for a large payoff remain difficult to convincingly empirically evaluate (I am somewhat optimistic that we will get there, but we’re certainly not there yet). The current bias towards cash represents not only a positive assessment of the returns to these types of interventions, but also a preference for interventions that can easily be shown to work.

Yet we know that public goods matter and that cash-transfers, to the extent that they cannot be taxed by the state, are unlikely to help in this regard. Multilateral lending/aid organisations like the IDA tend to focus more on projects which have some public good element, such as infrastructure. Whether or not these organisations are any good at producing successful, cost-effective projects is certainly a question we should be asking. But the choice that Grier presents us with is a false one: that we must choose between wasteful public good spending and cash, as if the cash-only equilibrium is the only one that could ever make any sense.

I am frequently guilty of wheeling out the “but is it better than cash?” argument whenever I see an intervention which looks wasteful or too paternalistic** for my taste, but we should be cautious not to use cash transfers as the appropriate gold standard for every intervention. There are plenty of public-good-type interventions which are (currently) hard-to-measure but important. Whether or not aid donors and governments are any good at funding these interventions should be the starting point for the discussion.

*I’m ignoring a lot of potential problems here by using households instead of people, as well as ignoring issues with time-inconsistency, etc, because I want to focus on one particular argument in this post.

**There are those that doubt the efficacy of unconditional cash transfers due to concerns over the ability of households to discern what they should be spending the money on. These concerns are not entirely unfounded – we are all subject to a variety of cognitive biases which can lead to suboptimal decisions. I choose to ignore these concerns here, not because I don’t think that they apply, but because I’m pretty skeptical that aid agencies and charities would be better at determining optimal private expenditure patterns than households.

Of tribes and titles


“Sol, we’re new here and don’t really know anybody, so get over to Swearengen and secure us a title deed to some property.”

Things have been a bit quiet recently – part of this is due to a lengthy field-based ethnographic research trip focused on the interaction between late 80s and early 90s UK dance music and Croatian culture. I also was tied up by the always-impressive `Growth Week‘ held by the International Growth Centre Growth at LSE. I’ll let you guess which was more fun.

So let’s start with some blatant self promotion – I’ve got a new working paper out. Here’s the short, short version: most unplanned settlements or `slums’  in most of SSA are dominated by informal tenure, where your right over land is more likely to be determined by customary law, social connections, or ad hoc semi-formal methods of establishing occupancy, than it is by a formal land title. Some households are going to have an easier time of securing their tenure through informal means, others who face higher costs to doing so might be more likely to accept property rights provided by the state. I examine this by looking to see whether or not households in Dar es Salaam which are ethnically-isolated (surrounded by neighbours from other tribes) are more likely to buy property rights offered by the Tanzanian government.

For more detail, head over to the CSAE blog, where I talk about the paper in a little more detail.

I’ll leave you with an image which sums up all the fears and uncertainties of tenure in slums: a landowner on Oxford Street, Accra, who desperately wants to avoid the sale of his/her property (thanks to Elwyn Davies for this photo):


The property ladder here and there

Once plentiful, land has become scarce, and competition fierce. The district population has been growing fast………. Youths struggle to find any land to sustain their new families. In some villages, it is difficult to get even one hectare. In the village of Amanikrom a young man eager to farm could only get a fifth of a hectare. So the landless youth work their way up by starting as labourers or sharecroppers. In the past, sharecropping attracted migrants only from other parts of the country. Today, young members of the landowning family have to resort to sharecropping too. Meanwhile, much land is in the hands of absentee landlords who work in Accra and use part of their wages to pay for agricultural labourers.

That is from Lorenzo Cotula’s recent book on land grabbing in Africa. For those of you who consider this to be a third world problem: read the segment above one more time, but replace “land” with “housing”, “fifth of a hectare” with “studio apartment”, “sharecropping” with “renting”, and “agricultural labourers” with “council-approved extensions.”

Immigration smimmigration

"If you choose the red pill, then I'll show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. But then we're going to stop releasing people from the Matrix. We're worried about wage effects in Zion."

“If you choose the red pill, then I’ll show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. But then we’re going to stop releasing people from the Matrix. We’re worried about wage effects in Zion.”

Paul Collier writes about immigration for Bloomberg. I’m sure we’re only a matter of minutes away from some very serious commentary from the folks at CGD or from Roving Bandit, but here are a few of my own thoughts.

Firstly, Collier argues that new immigration inevitably will hurt the status of the recently-migrated, even if it does not hurt the native population:

The answer is that those who have already migrated lose, at least in economic terms, through the subsequent migration of others. Migrants lose because they compete with one another.

Migrants aren’t in close competition with indigenous workers. The advantage the indigenous have may be that they have better command of the language or that their greater tacit knowledge of social conventions makes them more productive.

The effects of immigration on the wages of indigenous workers vary between very small losses and modest gains. If immigration policy were to be set by its effects upon wages, the only interest group to campaign for tighter restrictions should be immigrants.

The individual behavior of immigrants evidently belies this interest: Immigrants typically devote considerable effort to trying to get visas for their relatives. But these two interests aren’t inconsistent.

An immigrant who enables a relative to join her receives benefits such as companionship. The increased competition in the job market generated by the extra migrant is suffered by other immigrants. In effect, a tightening of immigration restrictions would be a public good for the existing immigrant community as a whole.

So immigration doesn’t hurt the`indigenous’ population, but will hurt new migrants? Solution: every country in the world allows just one immigrant in its borders, then closes them forever. Seriously, it is unclear here what Collier’s assumed social welfare function is.* It’s perfectly understandable why immigration restrictions might be endogenous to levels of migration, but I’m struggling to recall any high-profile cases of recent-migrants calling for a curb on future migration.**

If we cared about general welfare and not just that of recent migrants, loosening restrictions are a bit of a no-brainer. Yes, it might depress wages in the short run for other migrants (evidence?) but compared against the enormous welfare benefits from the migration itself, this is really a second-order concern (a bit like arguing that we shouldn’t let anyone else into the life-boat because, damn it, it will be less comfortable).

Next, Collier argues that new immigration creates another set of externalities on existing migrants: more hate

There may be further social reasons that the existing stock of immigrants has an interest in tighter restrictions. The size of the immigrant stock also affects attitudes of the indigenous population. Contrary to the hope that exposure increases tolerance, the opposite appears to happen.

Heightened intolerance is a public bad suffered by immigrants as a whole, and is thus inadvertently generated by the individually maximizing migration decisions of each successive migrant. Hence, the paradox of migration. Individual migrants succeed in capturing the huge productivity gains from migration. But migrants collectively have an interest in precisely what individually is most detrimental: entry barriers.

Haters gonna hate – and haters gonna hate even more when there are more immigrants around, apparently. Again, no evidence is given to support this case. While I do think there is a worthwhile conversation to be had about how immigrants integrate into societies and how best to maintain social cohesion, falling back on the “We, the indigenous, are inherently racist, and are just going to get more racist as more foreigners show up and there’s nothing to be done about it” argument seems a bit silly.

Finally, Collier argues that migrants might not actually be that much happier and that, combined with the psychological cost of being in a new culture, immigration might be a bad deal. He turns to evidence from several studies showing happiness doesn’t increase when people are allowed to migrate.

This seems to me to be a better argument against using happiness as a welfare indicator, rather than against migration itself. It also leaves us with an entirely unsatisfactory explanation for current migration: that people are deluded about the benefits and would have preferred never to have traveled in the first place. This is particularly hard to swallow in an era where information is particularly cheap – it is relatively easy to send information back to one’s friends and family to clarify that, actually, it isn’t as cool here as I thought it was going to be.

In general, these feel like highly theoretical, armchair rationales for limiting migration. Surely we’ve moved past this by now?


*Update #1: To clarify, I mean the SWF Collier is using to make his case, not necessarily his personal preferences over migration!

**Update #2: a friend noted (via e-mail) that this is historically quite common – waves of immigrants turn around and try to stop the next group from landing. While I’d conceded that former-immigrants tend to resist those coming from a different national/ethnic origin, are there any cases where immigrants tried to close the door on immigration from their own country of origin?

On the ethicical approval of RCTs

From Nicolas A. Christakis:

Incidentally, another thing that’s fascinating to me is that, there’s a very funny saying when it comes to the ethical review of science, or an anecdote, which is that if a doctor wakes up in the morning and decides that, for the next 100 patients with cancer that he or she sees that have this condition, he’s going to treat them all with this new drug because he thinks that drug works, he can do that. He doesn’t need to get anyone’s permission. He can use any drug “off-label” he wants when, in his judgment, it is helpful to the patient. He’ll talk to the patient. He needs to get the patient’s consent. He can’t administer the drug without the patient knowing. But, he can say to the patient, “I recommend that you do this,” and he can make this recommendation to every one of the next 100 patients he sees.

If, on the other hand, the doctor is more humble, and more judicious, and says “you know, I’m not sure that this drug works, I’m going to only give it to half of the next 100 patients I see,” then he needs to get IRB approval, because that’s research. So even though he’s giving it to fewer patients, now there’s more review.

It would be interesting to think of the off-label analogues in development. You could argue that a lot of new government policy is essentially off-label.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolutio

NIMBY! Wait, where is my back yard?



Most governments enjoy the ability to rely on eminent domain whenever land needs to be acquired for large scale development projects. China, a country where one would expect this sort of power to be exerted all the time, appears to be home to a surprising number of `nail houses‘ – property where owners refused compensation from private investors and refused to move out. If the government doesn’t exercise eminent domain and compensation cannot be agreed on, investors often go ahead anyway and build around the remaining property. There result is striking and more than a little funny - I stumbled across this collection of photos of Chinese nail houses (and a few from the US and Europe) on io9 – a few examples:




It’s hard to know how to feel about these situations. For the past few years I’ve been working on a project that has been trying to extent formal property rights to slum residents in Dar es Salaam. I’ve often sold the benefits as being primarily expropriation-related, but several seminar attendees have (rightly) pointed out that sometimes it’s better off for society if people can’t, on the margin, hold out for enormous compensation amounts. This opens up the enormous can of worms which is the rights-versus-efficiency debate, something I’m not going to get into at the moment. Yet, it’s still worth pointing out that this issue is far from straightforward: we want large investment projects to be successful, and to do so they need land. We also don’t want to trample on the rights of owners, especially the poor, especially when compensation is often neither fair nor transparently handled.

Sexist reasons for gender equity

I’m doing some reading on joint-titling in low income countries. In an article in Feminist Economics, I came across a description of the city of Chandigarh in northern India, where the local government decided to implement a joint titling policy for slums, not because they particularly cared about getting women access to land, but because they felt that nagging wives would stop their husbands from selling it!

One last, important reason why Chandigarh is an interesting place for studying informal settlements is that it recently introduced an innovative way to prevent property sales in regularized settlements – ‘‘joint titling.’’ The government has decided to allot houses in the name of both husband and wife, replacing the earlier policy of recognizing only the head of household, usually the male, as the homeowner. Joint titling was implemented because government policy-makers believed that women are inherently more attached to their homes than men and would therefore resist any attempt by their husbands to sell the house for profit. These gender differences in attitudes towards the home, officials assumed, would reduce property sales and enhance the effectiveness of housing policies.

On day care and large impacts


“Stop whining! You kids are soft. You lack discipline. Think of the cognitive benefits.”

When I was five I distinctly remember my parents debating whether or not they should leave me at a day care centre for the afternoon, or bring me with them to the showing of Tim Burton’s Batman. They eventually decided I was old enough to come along. I was absolutely terrified, especially during that scene where the Joker shocked some guy to death with an electric buzzer.

I’m sure my traumatized state detracted from my parent’s enjoyment of Michael Keaton’s performance. Indeed, there are a lot of reasons to think why day care might be a valuable service for households – not only because they can go off and enjoy Batman films unhindered by easily-scared children, but because – if the child is young enough – the alternative to to day care involves someone in the family staying home, rather than working or going to school.

Today at the Young Lives conference I saw Pedro Carneiro present a paper (see the talk here) which suggests that the effects of access to daycare might actually seriously improve household welfare, at least within the context of poor slums in Brazil. Carneiro was luck enough to stumble across a nice national experiment: although there were several eligibility factors, and a little bit of discretionary selection, most households living in the favelas only received access to state-provided daycare if they were allocated a slot through a lottery. Thus it was relatively simple to see how households fared several years later after being allocated a slot.

The results were a bit astonishing – household income went up (8%!), as did the labour supply of the carer (usually the mother). Children also fared better in terms of cognitive and anthropometric outcomes. Carneiro very much sold this as as story of day care freeing up the time of the carer, which led to more work and thus more income. It is still unclear whether or not the effects on children were directly due to the day care centres themselves or indirectly through the change in household and carer characteristics. This is kind of an important distinction – if all the effects are driven by the latter channel, then we might focus on just getting kids out of the favelas for the day, rather than worrying as much about the educational quality of day care. If the latter – especially if carer work effort is one of the activities which are complementary to child education (I see my kid is learning a lot at the day care centre, so I’ll work a bit more to buy, for example, some books for her to read at home).

During the discussion, I asked a question which economists love to ask when they aren’t sure what else to ask: if there are $100 dollar bills on the sidewalk, why is no one picking them up? Translation: if day care in Brazil offers these amazing returns to people living in favelas, why aren’t we seeing either A) a lot more private provision or B) more local collective action, where neighbours coordinate to watch each others kids and free up time to go out and work more. Carneiro argued that not everyone understood these benefits – I found this hard to believe, given the extremely high levels of demand for day care (50% of those who didn’t win the lottery still managed to get their kid into a day care centre). Lee gave a more convincing answer: perhaps violent favelas are just awful places to have daycare centres.