- Love this – local problem, local idea, local solution
- Adrianna and Austin of the Incidental Economist on why they think the recent article on RCTs at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) is a hit piece, and why RCTs are likely impossible for most of CMMI’s experiments
- Nerdy Jeopardy aside: I don’t understand what all of the hubbub is about with the latest current leader, Arthur Chu. The guy is doing nothing wrong. What’s strange is that more people don’t hunt for the Doubles
- Can Marriage Cure Poverty? – interesting piece by Annie Lowrey (hint: no.)
- Diane Ravitch – the one-time charter school/voucher/testing enthusiast who is now a vociferous opponent of all three – is either cannily stirring up controversy ahead of her book release, or she has radicalized far beyond where she was even recently. Her latest attacks are on schools trying to teach “grit” (basically, perseverance) and other life-long skills
- Relatedly, Jonathan Chait points out the strange fault lines the education debate lies on
- David Frum with an anti-immigrant screed. I point it out not because it is well-argued (it isn’t) but because it’s worth understanding the myopia of a substantial percentage of Americans. Certainly technological progress is going to render some jobs unavailable (as it has, consistently, for a few hundred years) but we always find some way to avail ourselves of opportunity. And, fundamentally, inequality is a choice. We’ll know we will have failed as a country when foreigners no longer want to come to our shores
- Community health workers: good for Ethiopia, good for America.
- Think you have “Low T” (the medicalization of a decrease in testosterone)? Then lose some weight rather than taking a risky, heart-attack inducing shot
- An age-old tale, but not less sad for it: a modernizer is killed in India, almost certainly for his heretical stances on “black magic”
- The Great Golden Rice Debate continues. It drives me all kinds of crazy. The idea that golden rice is tailor-made to be a “gateway GMO” – that the creators only made it “good” (in this case, filled with Vitamin A) to soften the public to GMOs – is laden with conspiracy-theory nonsense
- A man goes to prison for robbing banks, learns the law, has a case accepted to the Supreme Court, leaves prison, goes to law school, and snags one of the most prestigious clerkships. Adam Liptak better lock this story up for its eventual movie rights
- Saline is expensive. Saline is saltwater
- Two Minds on Syria. This may end up being a debate between principles (like the Responsibility to Protect doctrine) and practicalities (America’s bombing of Syria may not actually have a positive effect).
- Interesting, though not particularly informative, article on Google X, Google’s “Moonshot” group
- Indian economists (living in America) at loggerheads over the direction India should take. Seems strange to conclude that Amartya Sen is “at the extremes of the spectrum,” as one Indian professor asserts
- Compelling defense of gerrymandering, on one level. But a result that Bernstein simply tosses aside is “lopsided districts that give incumbents from both parties easy re-elections,” which seems a worse outcome than silly-looking district shapes
- An American escapes from rebel captors in Syria after seven months of captivity. Glad he’s out, but there’s a much larger question about whether an inexperienced photographer should have been there in the first place, on which more later
- Lobster isn’t a commodity, it’s a luxury good, so restaurants are wary of dropping the output price (what customers pay) even as the input price (wholesale lobster) plummets
- The comments section is getting fun for my article about why young, healthy people (read: me) should be OK with their premiums (potentially) increasing with the Affordable Care Act
- High-risk, high-reward philanthropy – an interesting profile of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. It sounds like it’s trying to take the venture capital mindset to public policy and intractable issues like poverty and obesity
- On privilege – a paragraph I think rings very true for a lot of us: “A friend recently tried to console me by saying that I’ve failed at more things than most people have ever tried. Most people, I said, try more honestly. Most people do not owe so much to those who believe in them. That is another privilege we don’t discuss: The unrelenting luxury of high expectations, and with it, the chances to fail.”
- Sterilization quotas in India – pretty horrifying. Not the right way to do family planning (as Amartya Sen delves into in his book Development as Freedom, which I’ll review soon enough)
- An interesting take on U.S. drone policy, likening it to the Eisenhower administration’s preference for poison and exploding cigars
- “Should Africa Beware Tech Companies Bearing Gifts?” There are all kinds of “last mile” problems with ICT – a great example being One Laptop Per Child bringing 1,200 laptops to a school in Rwanda that had one electrical outlet. But it doesn’t seem to me that the donors are maliciously donating tablets and laptops; more that they need to care about the actual use of the devices, which they acknowledge
- For $2.50 per year, researchers believe they can purify water using silver nanoparticles, eliminating the pathogens that cause diarrhea
- Finland provides all new mothers with a box of goodies (including a mattress that the infant can sleep on… in the box) provided the mother attends antenatal care visits. Great way to incent mothers, and potentially scalable to developing countries (“Maama Kits” for the actual birthing process are a similar idea). But the article was insinuating that the box was partially responsible for reduction of infant mortality, when it seems that it’s really more of a correlate than a cause – the types of institutions it’s indicative of are exactly the ones that can help improve and sustain health. Also, antibiotics.
On January 1st, India began a pilot program that could revolutionize the way it provides aid to its considerable impoverished population, one that could stretch every rupee spent further. Along the way, it would provide an incentive for India to scale its identification program and significantly increase access to banking for the poor. If the program can get over the logistical hurdles inherent in scaling a government program in a country with 1.2 billion people it will be a game-changer.
Stop what you’re doing and start reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Really.
Katherine Boo’s heartbreaking, enraging, and moving book is the culmination of her years reporting in a slum of Mumbai, and it shows: her acute understanding of the community allowed her to construct a narrative so engrossing that you’d be forgiven for assuming its fiction.
If only. In fine detail, Boo lays out the daily trials and tribulations of the residents of Annawadi, a settlement next to the gleaming Mumbai Airport. There’s Abdul, a 16-to-19 year-old garbage appraiser who earns most of the money for his 11-person family; Asha, an aspiring slumlord who lies, cheats, and steals in order to make enough money to send her daughter, Manju, to college; Sunil, a young garbage-picker who desperately wants to grow taller; and many more.
This is a book that, time and time again, will make you feel restless. You’ll read about Abdul and Sunil, two of the many children who are forced by circumstance to spend their childhoods earning, not learning – and how even if they had the time to learn, they wouldn’t have the place, or someone to teach them. This will make you restless – you’ll want to do something, probably donate some money to an education-focused NGO doing work in India. But then you’ll read about Asha and how she pockets donor funding rather than uses it to create the schools it’s meant for; about the fake microfinance groups that she creates to impress donors. Hence the restlessness; you want to help, but it doesn’t seem like you can. Make it your charge to not let that sense of unrest turn into a sense futility.
It will stir up your preconceived notions of the impoverished, cause you to reevaluate what you think. The Annawadians aren’t lazy squatters living off the government dole; by and large, they’re resourceful, innovative, hard-working people afflicted by devastating poverty – not causing it. Abdul hones his skills at appraisal to provide his parents and siblings food; parents care deeply about education for their children, “…getting by on roti and salt in order to pay for private school tuition.” Like the vast majority of people on earth, they’re simply doing the best they can under the circumstances to provide for themselves and their families. There is far more that unites us than divides us.
The rampant corruption will make you viscerally angry. From the police officers who beat innocents in order to extort a larger payout, to the doctor who demands a bribe to decide on Abdul’s age, with significant consequences hinging on the outcome – it’s everywhere. Throughout, nearly every person in a position of power abuses it – even the nun who runs an orphanage sells donated food meant to feed the orphans she purports to care for. It’s heart-wrenching to read, and imagining what it would be like is near-impossible for someone who grew up with little reason to distrust institutions and the people in power of them.
And you’ll feel a deep sense of unease, too, as you recognize that solidarity isn’t possible in the Annawadi community; it’s so common in middle-class America that it’s treated as a given. One of the recurring themes of the book is how, when push comes to shove, the Annawadians are incented to treat each other poorly just to stay afloat; Asha recognizes that its exceedingly unlikely that Manju would have the money to go to college if not for her machinations, and neighbors are forced to treat all opportunities as zero-sum – either they feed their kids, or their neighbor does. In Boo’s words:
“In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets…”
The weight of this string of emotions is nearly crushing, but it’s partially lifted by a sense of hope brought by Annawadians striving to be better in the face of corruption and poverty. Boo paraphrases Abdul, who puts this sentiment in a beautiful way:
“Water and ice were made of the same thing… But here is the interesting part. Ice was distinct from – and in his view, better than – what it was made of. He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals…He wanted to be recognized as better than the dirty water in which he lived. He wanted a verdict of ice.”
Or, as Boo puts it, in Mumbai, “…it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be…” That’s where you’ll find hope in the midst of overwhelming poverty and seeming futility.
This is a remarkable book that I can’t recommend highly enough – it’s one that will change the way you see and feel. You really should read it.
- An important piece on sexual harassment and rape in India that gets to the crux of the issue: laws, rules, and regulations can only do so much – it’s up to the society to demand cultural change
- A quote from Esther Duflo in this smart The Atlantic piece: “[N]either economic development nor women’s empowerment is the magic bullet it is sometimes made out to be… Equity between men and women is only likely to be achieved by continuing policy actions that favor women at the expense of men, possibly for a very long time”
- Short take on the tension between Westerners trying to fully appreciate their past transgressions in Nigeria (to the point of being less effective at delivering the aid they’re there for) and getting things done
- “That sounds crazy. What molecule could be responsible for a steep and sudden decline in violent crime?Well, here’s one possibility: Pb(CH2CH3)4.” It’s hard to believe that there is a singular cause for something as complex as the rising violence of the 70s and 80s – far too many factors likely weigh in, which Drum acknowledges – but it’s pretty disconcerting to think that a simple decision by a car company for what was basically an aesthetic issue could lead to some portion of the rise. In any event, an excellent reminder that the proximate cause of a thing is often outside the field it exists, and that a broader view is sometimes needed
- A long and wonky article by the excellent Jerome Groopman on the flaws with comparative effectiveness. I think his frame – between the “Nudgers” and the “Standardizers” – is misguided; it seems to me that there’s a significant zone of agreement between the two groups, and that the approaches aren’t all that different