Friday Morning with Frank in Petionville

IMG_7798I’m just now getting to some writing I had started, but couldn’t quite finish, on a trip I took to the Dominican Republic and Haiti earlier this year…

On an beautiful, uncharacteristically quiet Friday morning in Petionville – the neighborhood in a post-Independence Day/New Year’s Day hangover – I met a guy the way a lot of travelers meet a guy (and it is usually a guy): he stops you on the street and starts a conversation.

His name was Frank, or France – he introduced himself a few times and his name flip-flopped – and he spoke “American English, not British English,” as he proudly said more than once. He wanted to know how I was doing.

If you have spent any time traveling in any part of the world, this routine is, well, routine for you. Someone is selling something – a painting, a tour, some currency – and you’re a potential buyer.

Frank, an older-but-not-elderly man in linen pants and an oversized button-down, had drawings he claimed were “special” and “unlike anything you’ve ever seen!”

His secret: “Ball. Point. Pen.”

“You’ve never seen anything like it,” he repeated, and not for the last time.[1]

I demurred, saying I wasn’t interested in them, and mentioned I was looking for some of the ironwork art that I’d heard about: old oil drums that artisans cut into sculptures and then sell to tourists, middle-class Haitians, hotels, and the like. When done poorly, they’re chintzy and the definition of knick-knack; when done well they are simple and beautiful.

Fortunately, Frank knew a guy “two blocks away” who sold sculptures like that. This struck me as… unlikely, but as I was just wandering around anyway and had nothing better to do, figured I may as well see where this would lead. It was a bright, beautiful day, the sun bearing down on the neighborhood, and adventure abounds on such days. So away we went.[2]

Ever the pesky erstwhile journalist, I pestered Frank about his life on the considerably-longer-than-two-blocks walk. He said he was 52 and, without my prompting, mentioned that the 2010 earthquake took his home in nearby Jacmel, his wife, and his three children. The earthquake came up in a lot of my conversations with Haitians, not dissimilar from how I’d talk about the cold weather with colleagues.

He said this in the seemingly-affectless, matter-of-fact way that other survivors I’ve interviewed or spoken to – whether of natural catastrophe, disease or premature death, sexual assault or war – describe near-unspeakable tragedy: as speakabale, commonplace. Normalized.

The earthquake took more than a home and a Home from Frank; it took his health and peace of mind. “I was sick from losing my family,” he said simply.

The earthquake eventually took his job, too. Frank told me that he was once a translator for NGOs and that he could still speak six languages. He ticked off a few for my benefit: English, Haitian Kreyol, Spanish, German. I believed him but must have looked more incredulous than I was, so he spent the next few minutes asking me questions in languages I recognized but mostly didn’t understand. And then he asked why Americans only speak English.

We walked down one street, then another, passing by dozens of storefronts – including a Domino’s. Every time I’d ask how much further, Frank would say “close, close” and continue on. We were perpetually “two blocks away”.

Walking over some rubble on the side of the road, I asked Frank a few questions about the cleanup and reconstruction efforts, and he angrily decried the government’s inability to make the city different; to, as Bill Clinton would say more than once, “Build Back Better.” He said that, even five years later, his country was “much worse than it should be” and that corruption was the proximate cause of this failure. I didn’t have a whole lot to go on, but anecdotally downtown Port-au-Prince was still in shambles, the ghostly hollowed-out husks of buildings still standing on many blocks, so I took his word for it.


“We don’t have a government,” he added, and he didn’t expect the impending dissolution of Parliament to change anything.


“Why do Americans like Haiti?” he asked me a few minutes later. I gave a few anodyne reasons and asked why he was curious.


“It’s dirty, and there’s trash all around. Why would someone want to come here?” Trying to find coming ground, I mentioned that a lot of places have trash all around – New York City, for example – but people still enjoyed visiting them.


Eventually, we arrived to his seller of choice, right off of the main road. The items were actually pretty nice and, after a lot of bargaining, I bought a few small things.


It was at this point that Frank’s words slurred together a bit more, and I realized he’d been slurring them for a while. He didn’t smell like alcohol, but the combination of slurred words and a suddenly-hostile disposition was a pretty clear indication that things had taken a turn for the worse.


Playing it cool, I gave him some money as a token of appreciation for bringing me to the ironworks shop; when he said “this is nothing, this is shit!” I gave him a bit more and made my way back to the part of the neighborhood I knew.


After that mini-encounter, Frank’s story made a bit more sense. The earthquake took his home, is family, and – likely – his sobriety. It took his peace of mind and his mental health, and there were too many physical problems for NGOs and governments to attend to already.


Some part of me is tempted to turn this into a Friedman-esque tale of how mental health problems, left to rot, impede economic growth and opportunity for future generations. How a small investment in counseling could have helped bring Frank and others back from the brink.


But this is not that story; it’s just a story about a man and the things he lost in an earthquake.


[1] I had seen something like it, actually – in Kigali a while back – and, to my great discredit, the fourth of fifth time he said this to me I said as much (I. Know.)


[2] Yes, you’re right: walking off with a stranger in an unfamiliar direction in an unfamiliar neighborhood of an unfamiliar country can be almost poetically stupid.


But really, most of the time it’s not: no matter where you live or travel, people are, on average, pretty great; anyone who has spent a bit of time traveling, and has been in a situation where help was needed, knows this – the young kid who steps in to translate your awful Kinyarwandan for the moto driver; the kind woman who offers you a blanket on an overnight bus from Nairobi to Uganda; the man who, for no reason other than human kindness, drives you from one city to the next, late at night in southern Malawi – and refused to accept any money for gas. If traveling has crystalized only one thing for me, it’s that people are wonderful.


NB: This is not to say you should be willingly naïve or unnecessarily risk-seeking – testing your luck is a great way to run out of it – merely to point out that there are times to be over-vigilant and times to be calm.

How the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is Re-Thinking Philanthropy

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a massive, and massively powerful, philanthropy. In 2014, it gave $3.9 billion dollars to efforts ranging from college readiness in the United States to engineering a better toilet for low-income countries. It has the ear of presidents around the world, and can change policy with its heft.

Which you probably already knew. But, rather quietly, it is also profoundly affecting the nature of philanthropy itself, by becoming an active equity investor in early-stage startups. Though it didn’t invent this model, the foundation’s sheer size and scope may convince other foundations to give it a shot, and the foundation’s public prominence draws attention to the model.

According to a recent article in The New York Times,

“The foundation has made about a dozen direct equity investments in companies over the last couple of years under the umbrella of program-related investing, as it is called in foundation circles.”

The foundation directly invests in for-profit ventures for two reasons: it believes that markets are efficient mechanisms to achieve progress; and it believes that a return on investment can be thought of not only in financial terms – the financial return on investment that most equity investors yearn for – but also in terms of social good.

Or, to put it another way: it invests in organizations that are under-valued when viewed solely through a financial lens, but are a good bet when the social return on investment (SROI) is properly accounted for.

From The Office, a co-working space in Kigali (photo: me)

From The Office, a co-working space in Kigali (photo: me)

I’ve written about this basic philanthropic model a number of times (and even have a ‘chapter’ in a short eBook about it), though previously I focused on situations where a foundation could wholly own a for-profit social enterprise – a model I termed ‘Foundation-Owned Social Enterprise,’ or FOSE.

The most salient benefit of a large equity stake in a business is that it allows a foundation to attack a problem using more traditional market mechanisms to solve market failures; as I wrote in an article at the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

Owning a social enterprise (or creating a disregarded entity) allows a foundation to efficiently effect change using market mechanisms to sell a good or service, while using philanthropic resources to address market failures and advocate a cause.

This strategy isn’t wholly positive, and sometimes it can even be self-defeating. When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invests in a company, it signals to other investors two things: 1) it isn’t obvious to us that this organization can provide a market-driven financial return on investment; and 2) even if it can, we will push it to focus on low-ROI priorities, because we care more about SROI. It scares the other investors away, which could lead to a lower SROI.

And, as I’ve written previously, it can be an inefficient use of philanthropic dollars:

The FOSE model isn’t appropriate for all social enterprises or all foundations. If it’s likely that a social enterprise will be profitable, a foundation’s funds are probably better invested in higher-risk, lower-return ventures, as the social enterprise can probably raise capital in more traditional debt and equity markets.

But then again, so can issuing grants to poorly-run non-profit organizations. Many venture investments won’t pay off – but some will. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seems to think that is a suitable value proposition, and hopefully its implicit advocacy for the model will push other foundations to do the same.

I’m a Published Book Author!*

About a year ago, I woke up to find that I‘d been published in the print edition of Marie Clare Australia. This was news to me, as I had not written a piece for Marie Clare Australia.

(The lesson, by the way: always read contracts)

Today, I noticed that I am now ‘published’ in an eBook*:

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.18.20 PM

Did I write the articles? Yes.

Did I know they would be used in this way? No.

Am I happy they’re now in an eBook? Yes.

Two out of three isn’t bad.


*Though you could argue this doesn’t really count, I’m not going to make that argument, because vanity.

C. diff is even more common than we thought. The cure? Poop.

C. difficile was responsible for almost half a million infections and was associated with approximately 29,000 deaths in 2011″

From a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Clostridium difficile, or c. diff, is a truly awful hospital- and nursing home-acquired infection that is not easily cured with antibiotics; in fact, antibiotics are often the proximate cause of a c. diff exacerbation (from a previous post I wrote on the infection):

C. diff is more difficult to treat than most other bacteria; a powerful antibiotic such as ciprofloxacin (every traveler’s favorite) will wipe out much in the gut microbiome, but not c. diff. Once the other bacteria is killed off, c. diff spreads, causing inflammation of the colon, which manifests symptomatically as diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever in mild cases, septicemia in severe. Treatment has historically involved metronidazole or a vancomycin/rifaximin combo, which (typically) does works on c. diff.

But those antibiotic courses are long – up to a month – and only work initially 60% of the time; less often for a second or third bout of c. diff. Sometimes, a patient will have to be in a hospital bed to receive the treatment (in an isolation bed, which are always in high demand).

The solution? Poop. I’ve written enough about fecal transplants that it isn’t worth re-hashing here, but suffice it to say that the procedure is remarkably effective at tamping down a c. diff  exacerbation.

Nearly 30,000 Americans are killed annually by c. diff, which is nearly as many as are killed by motor vehicle accidents. They don’t have to be; fecal transplants are a cheap, and effective treatment, with few side effects to boot. Cue all the frustration.

The Underpants Gnomes Fallacy and Design

Details are the worst.

We’re enamored by The Big Idea but bored by The How. We love the well-designed device but loath the discussion of a distribution strategy. We rave about the Sexy Silver Bullet that will solve [enter your pet social concern here] but gloss over the plan to do so.

As Adrianna McIntyre, wunderkind health policy wonk and writer, put it to me recently on Twitter, “Implementation just isn’t good fodder for the thinkpieces.”



She’s absolutely right. It isn’t. The details are, to put it mildly, unnervingly boring for all but the most wonky of us. The pessimistic take is that journalists write what will be read, and there isn’t demand (or, if it’s in print, space) for the messy discussion of how it will actually work. Implementation, therefore, necessarily takes a backseat to the quick description of a “live-saving” or “world-changing” technology, and society is worse off for it.

Adrianna was referring to policy, but the sentiment rings true for other sectors, too – particularly, I’d argue, the large umbrella of “technology for development.”

Take this recent article about D-Rev’s redesigned phototherapy unit, BrilliancePro; it’s an exemplar of this type of article. The general formula is simple: focus on a social problem through the lens of a technology-reliant solution; make a bold claim about the solution’s impact on the world; qualify the claim with a “to be sure” paragraph; end on an optimistic note.

BrilliancePro is used to treat neonatal jaundice, an extremely common condition – according to UCSF Children’s Hospital, 50-60% of newborns are jaundiced in the first week of life – with an extremely simple treatment: shining blue light on jaundiced babies for a few days.  Brilliance and BrilliancePro exist because traditional phototherapy units aren’t designed for low-resource environments, a topic about which I’ve written previously and won’t revisit here; suffice it to say that widgets should be designed for the environments in which they’ll be used in.

And Brilliance Pro is well designed for the environment it will be used in. The article highlights all of the improvements and innovations that make BrilliancePro a great product, of which there are many: it’s sleek and includes a light meter, for example, which low-resource hospitals value but typically can’t afford.

But buried at the end of the article is this: “Getting Brilliance into hospitals is a challenge unto itself, and D-Rev’s success in that regard has been more measured.”

Frustratingly, the article gives a situation and hints at the conflict, but fails to provide any resolution; the ‘so what’ is left out.

This article was put up on Wired’s Design vertical, so you could argue that the business side of the business was purposefully – even appropriately – neglected. But this seems odd; an award-winning product without an end user is just a failed, award-winning product. The design of a business is just as important as the design of a product, and a product that wins plaudits for its design without actually getting to the end user is just as much a failure as one that doesn’t win awards and fails. Design is about more than design.

This shouldn’t be read in any way as a criticism of D-Rev. I wholeheartedly support its process and its products, and think it is probably the best at what it does. I’ve met Krista Donaldson, the organization’s CEO, and other members of its team in the past, and found all of them to be smart, pragmatic, and passionate. Above all, the team is incredibly thoughtful about how it designs products – “user-obsessed” isn’t just marketing spin – and it spends nearly as much time working on how to get its well-designed products to these users (who really like the product, based on my interactions with a few of them).

And anyway, D-Rev has actually been pretty successful. According to the Health Impact Dashboard D-Rev has on its website, it currently has 779 Brilliance units in nine countries*, and a lot of lives have been affected.


From D-Rev’s Health Impact Dashboard


But it’s fair to say that D-Rev has set its sights a lot higher than this. The Wired article can’t answer the questions it never asks: How does D-Rev plan to get these brilliantly-designed products into hospitals? Why hasn’t it seen the type of success it should expect?

Yes, these are difficult questions to answer; it’s simpler to state that the “payoff from the incremental changes could end up being far more profound” than to investigate whether that is actually likely to happen. By not asking or answering these difficult questions, the journalist commits the Underpants Gnomes Fallacy:

Step One: Design a Cool-Sounding Product. Step Two: ? Step Three: Change the World!

Phase One: Design a Cool-Sounding Product.
Phase Two: ?
Phase Three: Change the World!

I’d argue that D-Rev’s to-market issues have less to do with its design or business model than with a variety of exogenous factors it can’t control (and will do so in an upcoming piece). This only underscores the point: in low-resource markets, distribution is hard. Even a smart organization like D-Rev still has trouble getting its product into the hands of end users.

In other cases, though, an appropriately skeptical look at an overhyped design could have actually made a difference.

Here the PlayPump is instructive**. Invented in 1989, the device – which uses a merry-go-round to pump water into a tank, which can then be drawn from a nearby spigot – came to international acclaim in the early 2000s, winning an award from the World Bank and $16.4 million from USAID, PEPFAR, and the Case Foundation.

The PlayPump's design seems great, but the hype about it far outpaced its impact

The PlayPump’s design seems great at first glance (if you squint and don’t think about it too much), but the hype about it far outpaced its impact

Amy Costello, then a PBS Frontline reporter, produced a positively glowing feature on PlayPump in 2005. But she went back to Mozambique in 2009 and found PlayPumps broken and unused, their promise unfulfilled. Costello then filed a much more critical report, and PlayPump’s grand schemes and overblown rhetoric never came to fruition.

To its credit, one of PlayPump International’s backers, the Case Foundation, admitted that it made mistakes in rolling out the device and committed to changing course. This is a great, laudable, and difficult thing to do. But I suspect that a bit of well-placed skepticism at the outset would have led all involved in this directly much earlier.

Skepticism is good for designers and potential designers, too. It forces them to question their assumptions and to think deeply about more than just the physical design of a product. It forces them to up their games.

To a person, journalists are hungry to tell difficult, engaging stories. But, especially when it comes to design, telling the whole story requires a deeper examination of how the design will lead to the impact they claim it will. Readers deserve it.


*The Wired article had much different figures – 1,100 units in 23 countries. Not sure where the discrepancy comes from, but here I’m using D-Rev’s figures.

**There are plenty of others – the Soccket immediately comes to mind – but the PlayPump is more or less the platonic ideal of an over-hyped design that little-to-no skepticism

The “Misuse” of Bednets Shows the Need for More Community-Led Development

What’s worse: malaria, or hunger?

If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve never had to Would You Rather that question.

Millions of people, though, have to weigh the relative chance of their children getting malaria vs. not having enough to eat. Every day. As Jeffrey Gettleman writes in a long piece for The New York Times, many choose the former:

But Mr. Ndefi and countless others are not using their mosquito nets as global health experts have intended.

Nobody in his hut, including his seven children, sleeps under a net at night. Instead, Mr. Ndefi has taken his family’s supply of anti-malaria nets and sewn them together into a gigantic sieve that he uses to drag the bottom of the swamp ponds, sweeping up all sorts of life: baby catfish,banded tilapia, tiny mouthbrooders, orange fish eggs, water bugs and the occasional green frog.

And later:

For Mr. Ndefi, it is a simple, if painful, matter of choice. He knows all too well the dangers of malaria. His own toddler son, Junior, died of the disease four years ago. Junior used to always be there, standing outside his hut, when Mr. Ndefi came home from fishing.

Mr. Ndefi hopes his family can survive future bouts of the disease. But he knows his loved ones will not last long without food.

Emphasis mine. For those who haven’t used one before, this is what a long-lasting insecticide-treated bednet (LLIN) looks like (though they aren’t always pink):

A bednet at the Dive Inn, in Kampala

A bednet at the Dive Inn, in the Kabalagala neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda. Yes, the Dive Inn; worth every penny of the 10,000 UGX ($4) per night cost. (Credit: Mike Miesen)

When used correctly – as they almost always are – LLINs are an incredibly cheap and effective way to prevent malaria and the child deaths, anemia, and other issues it causes. That understates it; they are the best means of preventing malaria. Full stop*. GiveWell helpfully reports on the evidence supporting LLIN distribution here, and it has listed the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) as one of best uses of charitable funds for the past few years.

But as Gettleman notes, sometimes people use LLINs in other ways, ranging from the sartorial (as a dress or veil) to the life-saving – just not in the way the global health experts assumed they would.

Because it turns out that LLINs are, well nets – and really cheap ones at that. They have incredibly small holes, meaning they’re great at catching small fish like these, from Lake Malawi:

fish like this

Fish drying on the shore of Lake Malawi. Fun fact: with some salt, they’re pretty good. (Credit: Mike Miesen)

For communities living on the shores of large lakes and small streams in east Africa, fish are one of the most reliable sources of calories – and, crucially, protein. They provide live-saving calories to children and adults.

And yet there are people that are shocked – shocked – that some choose to use the nets that “we” gave them to prevent malaria for fishing; that the nets are being “misused” or that “our” benevolence is spurned by ungrateful recipients.

This is misguided. Using LLINs for catching food rather than preventing malaria is an entirely rational decision; it’s so rational that nobody should be the least bit surprised.

The problem isn’t “misuse.” It’s poverty, an utter lack of opportunity. When there’s no work to be done, individuals and families – even entire communities – make do the best they can. They may sell the excess vegetables that come from their plot of land so they can afford school fees, or they may “hack” the LLINs given to them to prevent malaria into a net used to catch fish.

At a broader level, “misuse” is really just another way of saying that NGOs and multilateral organizations failed to do what they were established to do. They impose their answers onto communities, rather than simply ask those communities what they actually need.

This is why integrated, community-led development provides a better path to real and sustainable development. It refuses to tell communities what they need or to implement solutions that aren’t agreed on by the community. Community-led development looks different than top-down development, and so it scares a lot of development experts, many of whom think that communities need solutions brought to them.

So, what does it actually look like? Often, like this:


A community in Nyagisenyi, Rwanda. (Credit: Mike Miesen)

This is a community in Nyagisenyi, Rwanda, a chilly village near the edge of the country’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. The community is building a vocational school that will teach its children and young adults the skills to be seamstresses, carpenters, and more. The project is led, planned, and executed by the community, with support and facilitation from Spark MicroGrants, an NGO that provides small grants — just $3,000 – $10,000 — to entire communities. Spark MicroGrants places virtually no restrictions on the funds, provided that the community (women included) comes to consensus on a project.

Community-led development also looks like this:


How one woman used the approximately $1,000 given to her by GiveDirectly. (Credit: Mike Miesen)

School fees, maize, some nails, a table with some chairs. This list is an accounting of how one woman in Siaya District, a mostly-rural area in western Kenya, used the approximately $1,000 given to her by GiveDirectly**. The innovative NGO simply donates cash, unconditionally, to poor individuals on the phone-based mobile payment system, M-PESA . They use it on whatever they believe they need most. A randomized controlled trial, the most robust and reliable study design, showed that GiveDirectly recipients disproportionately used the money on health and education and home durables – not on the tobacco and alcohol many development “experts” predicted. Those who received funds were, unsurprisingly, happier and less stressed.

The largest expense on this woman’s list is “mabati” – a metal roof. Previously, her home was made of thatch, which does its job pretty poorly. It looked something like this:

A home in Siaya district with a thatch roof. Thatch roofs are terrible at their job - they let in rain and need to be replaced every few months

A home in Siaya district with a thatch roof. Thatch roofs are terrible at their job – they let in rain and need to be replaced every few months. (Credit: Mike Miesen)

Now, her roof looks like this:


A home with a metal roof. According to everyone I spoke with, a metal roof is much better than a thatch roof, for a variety of reasons. Nearly every person I spoke with in Siaya district used GiveDirectly funds to purchase a metal roof. (Credit: Mike Miesen)

How many NGOs exist to provide sustainable roofing for communities? I can’t think of one. But every single individual I spoke with in Niaya district used at least a portion of their GiveDirectly funds on a roof.

This is not to say that the Against Malaria Foundation is doing a poor job. By all accounts, it is doing an outstanding job; it’s worth reiterating that almost everyone uses an LLIN as a means to prevent malaria. AMF is, along with the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, the best counterexample to my argument***. But there are too few organizations like Spark MicroGrants and GiveDirectly, and too many that assume they know what is best for those they try to help.

*Here, I’m referring to immediately feasible means of preventing malaria. Eradicating malaria is feasible, of course – we did it in the states after World War II, using DDT – but difficult, and currently implausible (if not impossible) in much of the world. It’s a long-term fix; LLINs are a short- and medium-term patch. Other methods – like genetically modifying mosquitoes – are interesting but unproven for Anopheles gambie, the species that transmits falciparum malaria. And it’s unclear what the downstream ecological effects would be of eradicating mosquitoes in regions where they are native

**GiveDirectly is also one of GiveWell’s top charities

*** Also a top-rated charity by GiveWell, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) distributes de-worming pills to children in school

Gratuitous Photography Interlude – Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Independence Park in Santo Domingo

Independence Park in Santo Domingo




















A statue of Christopher Columbus

A statue of Christopher Columbus, a very, very awful human being






















Caribbean Sea

Caribbean Sea




















Calle Las Damas, supposedly the oldest street in the Western Hemisphere

Calle Las Damas, supposedly the oldest street in the Western Hemisphere





















Fort Ozama

Fort Ozama






















Book-Blogging – Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Scarcity coverAs I’m writing this, it’s the middle of the holiday season, which means that you’re probably a little dumber right now. A bit more scatterbrained. Likely reaching for that extra holiday cookie or for one more egg nog than you really need.

Upon reflection, you’d probably admit that this is at least partly because you have a lot on your mind; more last-minute gifts to wrap than time; and, after purchasing a plane ticket home, buying gifts, and (over-)indulging with friends, a much thinner wallet. You’re stressed out.

In the parlance of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, you’re experiencing “scarcity” – you’re “bandwidth-taxed.” In their excellent read, Scarcity, the authors seamlessly weave real-world examples with clarifying experiments to show just how pernicious scarcity can be. I highly recommend picking up the book; it will change the way you look at your finances and your time. And hopefully it will change the way you think about how poorly-aligned our society’s understanding of individuals in poverty is; how a reimagining of anti-poverty policy could make everyone – but especially the poor – better off.

As Mullainathan and Shafir point out, scarcity isn’t all bad; as anyone who has written a last-minute paper or crammed for a test knows, a time constraint provides a useful “focus dividend” – it gets you to get stuff done[1].

But the costs of scarcity often outweigh its benefits. A packed schedule or a bank account near zero (or below) cause tunneling: focusing on the most pressing issue, often at the cost of the long term. You take out a payday loan to pay the late bill, even if it leads to usurious interest rates you’ll have an even harder time paying off next month; all your meetings start 10 minutes late, and none of them are all that productive; you choke on that first date you really wanted to go well.

It’s not just your free time or wallet that are depleted, though; it’s your bandwidth – a wonky way of describing “brainpower.” The correct understanding of bandwidth, Mullainathan and Shafir argue, is akin to a gas tank; you use it up over time, and when you’re working on a thoughtful task, you use it up faster than when you’re doing something mindless[2].

And when your bandwidth is taxed, you are dumber. Literally. In one of Mullainathan’s and Shafir’s studies, mall-goers –some well off, others poorer – were asked about a hypothetical decision to spend either $150 or $1,500 to fix some short-term car trouble, and then were given a test of Raven’s Progressive Matrices to judge fluid intelligence.[3] When given the $150 hypothetical, the rich and poor looked equally intelligent; when given the $1,500 hypothetical, the poor did significantly worse. As the authors note, this was significant both in the statistical sense and in the real-world sense:

 Our study revealed that simply raising monetary concerns for the poor erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep deprived… our effects correspond to between 13 and 14 IQ points. By most commonly used descriptive classifications of IQ, 13 points can move you from the category of “average” to one labeled “superior” intelligence.

Thinking about money issues temporarily made people less intelligent, by nearly an entire standard deviation. Mullainathan and Shafir found similar effects to executive control:

 The same farmer fared worse on fluid intelligence and executive control when he was poor (preharvest) than when he was rich (postharvest). Much like the subjects at the mall, the same person looked less intelligent and more impulsive when he was poor… The postharvest farmers got about 25 percent more items correct on Raven’s. Put in IQ terms, as in the earlier mall study, this would correspond to about 9 or 10 IQ points

This is why, the authors note, “scarcity creates its own trap.” Tunneling, and the juggling it forces, distorts decision-making:

Scarcity, and tunneling in particular, leads you to put off important but not urgent things—cleaning your office, getting a colonoscopy, writing a will—that are easy to neglect. Their costs are immediate, loom large, and are easy to defer, and their benefits fall outside the tunnel. So they await a time when all urgent things are done. You fail to make these small investments even when the future benefits can be substantial.

You make dumb long-term decisions because you only think about the most immediate and pressing things to do.

A proper understanding of, and reckoning with, these ideas leads to significant individual, social, and political changes.

For individuals, it may mean scheduling high-bandwidth tasks earlier in the day, or at least not scheduling all high-bandwidth tasks back-to-back; perhaps you should put mindless tasks – doing expenses, maybe, or clicking through low-priority emails – after something that requires your full attention.  And it means trying to turn all of the hard, repetitive decisions you have to make into one-time decisions; you can either have to say no to the chocolate bar every time you open the pantry, or just say no to it once at the grocery store. Same deal with habits: if you go on a run or to the gym on a consistent basis, choosing to go today will be, well, less of a choice.

As a society, these ideas should lead us away from viewing the poverty problem as a moral one – thinking that those in poverty are lazy or dumb or what have you – to a practical one. We know – or, more accurately, have a strong factual basis to believe – that a bandwidth-taxed individual is liable to make worse decisions, and that those in poverty are, by definition, bandwidth-taxed individuals. Properly considered, the research should lead to a greater level of empathy; we all know what it feels like to be bandwidth taxed – but most of us are fortunate enough to not feel like that all the time. Many aren’t, though.

If you view poverty through this lens, it’s easy to see how specific policy changes could help increase bandwidth and reduce scarcity. One stark example: payday loans[4]. Mullainathan and Shafir put it better than I can:

Many workers, as we saw in chapter 5, resort to payday loans. Yet it’s worth observing that a payday loan is often simply a loan against work that has already been done. The worker who takes a payday loan halfway through the pay cycle has already earned half her paycheck. The need for a loan is largely due to the fact that payment happens with a delay. Why should an employer have workers taking these loans, potentially falling into scarcity traps, taxing bandwidth, and resulting in lower productivity, especially when the employer can himself give pay advances at low cost? How valuable would it be for employers to improve productivity by offering the right financial products and creating bandwidth?

This is a pretty nonideological solution to a politically-fraught issue. There are costs to it, sure, but as the authors point out, it’s easy to see how they could be outweighed by productivity benefits.

Finally, policymakers and policy wonks need to learn how to craft programs that take the already-limited bandwidth of the poor into account:

We treat education as if it were the least invasive solution, an unadulterated good. But with limited bandwidth, this is just not true. While education is undoubtedly a good thing, we treat it as if it comes with no price tag for the poor. But in fact, bandwidth comes at a high cost: either the person will not focus, and our effort will have been in vain, or he will focus, but then there is a bandwidth tax to pay. When the person actually focuses on the training or the incentives, what is he not focusing on? Is that added class really worth what little quality time he managed to spend reading or with his children? There are hidden costs to taxing bandwidth.[5]

Scarcity is a problem we all face, in one form or another. And we face it together, too, as a society. Read this book and you’ll have a much better understanding of it.

[1] Though, in those cases, neither the paper nor the studying is as good as it would be sans procrastination

[2] You may recognize this idea as “ego depletion,” Roy Baumeister’s model for how willpower is reduced when people are faced with difficult decisions. In this model, willpower is a muscle that can be used, depleted, replenished (with a sugary treat, say), and strengthened over time

[3] You know – and likely loathe – these:

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[4] Speaking of which, the John Oliver segment on payday loans is excellent

[5] As an aside, if you’ve worked in international development in any sector, you recognize how difficult education/”sensitization” (for those in east Africa) is. Add bandwidth to the long list of reasons why.

Eight Podcasts to Fill that Serial-Sized Hole in Your Commute

Because selection bias, if you’re reading this I’m willing to bet you listened to, and loved, Serial.

Maybe you had never previously listened to a podcast before and picked up Serial halfway through, on the recommendation of a rabid fan. Maybe you heard it on This American Life. However you got to it, it’s over – at least for now.

Here are a few excellent podcasts to fill the Serial-sized hole in your Thursday morning commute. If you already listen to podcasts, you’ll almost certainly know the first few.


WNYC_Radiolab_logo.svgRadiolab is my favorite podcast, and one of my favorite things, period. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have consistently put out eminently re-listenable, curiosity-driven inquiries that rival the best efforts of journalists and entertainers everywhere. It has an extensive back catalog of episodes, so it’s the perfect companion for a long run/bus ride (during which I’ve listened to literally hundreds of hours of it) or your daily commute.

Start With: Memory & Forgetting; Falling; Colors; Translation; Blood; Patient Zero





Planet Money


Born from the 2008 financial crisis and This American Life, Planet Money is an economics-focused podcast consistently delivers entertaining, thoughtful, and edifying 15-20 minute episodes.

Start With: Just download the most recent two or three






The Memory Palace 

The_Memory_Palace_logoHost Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace highlights historical ephemera – entertaining vignettes that could be footnotes in your college history textbook. DiMeo has an uncanny ability to dredge up the fascinating, humanist, often-heartbreaking tales behind World Fairs, elevators, and the Civil War. New episodes are rare these days, but it has a long back catalog to pull from.

Start With: Picture a BoxAfter PartyDistanceSix StoriesLost LobstersSix Scenes from the Life of William James SidisGiants in Those DaysCrazy Bet






99% Invisible


99% Invisible is all about design, and the little things that so blend into the background of our daily lives that we forget that they were once made. Roman Mars is a remarkable storyteller, and this podcast will teach you to look at the daily things in your life differently.


Start With: Higher and HigherOctothorpe; Queue Theory; Future Screens are Mostly Blue; Reversal of Fortune









In some ways, the most similar to Serial, StartUp (now Gimlet Media) is a, well, serialized look at starting a business. It’s hosted by Alex Blumberg, a great storyteller who was a founding member of Planet Money and a former producer for This American Life.

Start With: Episode One








Very Bad Wizards


A philosophy and psychology podcast for a (smart, curious) lay audience. Hosts Tamler Sommers (a philosopher) and David Pizarro (a psychologist) are friends and have a natural rapport, which they use to cover complicated philosophical concepts — but always in a way that is easy and entertaining to follow.

Start With: Trolleys, Utilitarians, and Psychopaths; Paul Bloom and the Perils of Empathy








The Gist


The only daily podcast I listen to, The Gist is hosted by Mike Pesca, an entertaining guy who was made to be a daily podcast host. He’s smart, funny, and clearly in love with the job.

Start With: yesterday’s episode






Slate’s Political Gabfest

slates-political-gabfestSlate’s Political Gabfest is a weekly digest of the most important stories in American politics. The hosts are informed, smart, and entertaining, and I learn something every episode.


Start With: last week’s episode