Monday, December 28, 2009
Their recent blog on microfinance is also worth checking out, whether or not you plan on giving this year. I've never been a big believer in microfinance as charity and feel somewhat vindicated that the pendulum is swinging back on it (although I would have rather been wrong). Unfortunately, I wasn't blogging early enough to be able to claim any credit for seeing around the corner on this one.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
My enigmatic coworker Jonathan enlightened us: "Christmas in Ghana is a time when the chickens will suffer. Many fowls will be laid to rest on Christmas."
Apparently, we have Christmas Ham in the US, while our friends have Christmas Chicken in Ghana.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
I did get to read a great New Yorker article this morning (Via marginal revolution). It's rewarding to see the rise in public policy experimentation, and left me feeling a lot better about the Senate health care bill.
But if the premise of the article is correct, why haven't extension farmers succeeded in Africa? IPA has done a few studies aimed at these types of questions (e.g., how do farmers share knowledge in Kenya?), and I believe there are a few evaluations of extension workers in the works. It will be interesting to see how the knowledge shakes out on these issues in the coming years, but I certainly hope the New Yorker guy is on to something.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
It's obvious where the rubbers end up: streets, gutters, vacant lots, and trash heaps are filled with them. But until the other day, I had no idea where they come from. What does it take to make a plastic bag? Are there giant cargo ships full of plastic bags arriving daily from China? Who profits off a rubber?
And then I discovered the Ghanaian rubber-making industry.
Meet Thomas, the rubber-maker. Using his feet, he can lower an arm that has a hot wire and a blade running across it. He stretches the tubular plastic roll out to proper rubber-size and lowers the arm down to seal the bottom of one bag with the wire and cut open the top of the next with the blade. Stretch, lower, stretch, lower, Thomas is a one man rubber-making factory.
"Please, no rubber" will be a little harder to say now that I know about Thomas and domestic rubber-making industry.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
First, congratulations to Dad, who completed his 50th year yesterday.
Next, congratulations to Mom for her successful rotator cuff surgery on Thursday.
Congratulations are also due to Girlfriend, for giving notice at her job, and deciding to move to Ghana. (OK, I'm still working on the second part, but it will come...)
Finally, congratulations to Brother, for purchasing a one way ticket to Chile on Wednesday.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
I read a little bit more of the paper but am still not convinced that Romer's analysis translates to the Pats situation. Using data from 3rd downs and the 1st quarter just doesn't translate to 4th and 2 with 2 minutes to go. I don't think I can write anymore about it without getting some thicker nerd-glasses, but two quick points: At the end of a tight game like that, the returns to getting exactly two yards are exactly equal to the returns to getting 20 yards -- you win the game in either case -- so the defense is going to sit right on the first down line and not let you past. If it's the first quarter and a third down, the returns to 20 yards are much greater than the returns to 2, so the defense has to respect the deep ball and play off the line, increasing your chance to make a 2 yard gain.
The second point is that points come in important, discrete bunches (3 points for a field goal and 7 for a TD). This may have been addressed in the paper and I just didn't read it closely, but you would have to do the analysis looking only at the probability of the opposing team scoring a touchdown to replicate the Pats situation. If you are just averaging the opposing points scored the field goals would raise the average but with a 6 point lead the Pats could care less if the Colts kicked a field goal at the end of their drive.
Monday, November 16, 2009
But was it? The claim is based on a paper by respected economist David Romer, which I haven't read, but assume deals with correlations between punting versus going for it and points scored. That is, non-experimental data: I don't think that anyone is actually randomly assigning 4th downs to punt on and 4th downs to go for it (following Romer's rules for what yardages are appropriate). This means there's no accounting for a coaches intuition, his observations about the relative levels of fatigue or any other hunch that can't be captured by statistics.
Glancing at the paper, Romer also used data only from the 1st quarter and used the expected yardage gain from 3rd downs as the expected gain from 4th downs (because there are too few actual 'go for it' 4th downs for analysis). So even if the paper was correct about punting to be a bad option, punting might only be a bad option in the 1st quarter and if the opposing defense plays the same way it would as if it were 3rd down (unlikely).
The data, then, might not be so clearly on Belichick's side after all. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Pats had a resident statistician who extended Romer's analysis to 4th quarters and 4th downs, but there is still no getting around the fact that coaches' unobservable impressions can't be accounted for in the data but could still be important.
So what were your impressions? Did the Pats look like they were going to succeed or did it look like a bad idea from the minute they walked on the field?
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
I was amazed when she sent me this link and asked if I could call. What could this link be? An online Ghanaian yellow pages? No, it looks like it has reviews and contact information! Amazing! But wait! Where is the contact information?!
I read it over three or four times without seeing a phone number before finally asking the colleague how she expected me to be able to call... Her response was brilliant: It's on the sign board in the picture!
(Unfortunately, they didn't answer and we had to go and wait anyway...)
Monday, November 9, 2009
It also occurs to me that I may not have linked to my previous post on the IPA blog back in September. It is here.
Friday, November 6, 2009
It's great to see such a well-respected economist getting behind the idea that we should limit suburbanization subsidies. My declining interest in urban planning was accompanied by an ascendant interest in economics; Glaeser's article is a nice reminder that the two are not so separate after all.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
This time, we were delivering envelopes to our respondents, with a paper inside that they had to remove. I stapled the envelope -- and therefore the paper inside the envelope -- to a page that described how to locate the respondent. I was obsessed with the idea that it would be impossibly difficult to remove the staple, everyone would get pissed, and the paper would be torn and ruined when they gave up and tore it out. Or, at least, that it would be a hassle.
I forgot that I was working with tailors -- they had the staple out and envelope open in no time flat.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
I was quickly put straight when I hopped out and picked a shared taxi, who was blaring music off a USB memory stick plugged straight into his CD player. When he stopped at a junction, he yanked it out to swap with his buddy, and I saw that there is a USB port right on the face of the CD player (when did they start making such things!?). We cruised on to the beach listening to Burning Spear.
Juxtapositions like this are all over the place in Accra. If I had to describe Ghana to someone who doesn't know Africa (something I was totally unprepared for on my recent trip home), I would use stories like this.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Here is a synopsis of my haircuts to date, in chronological order. No pictures, sorry – this is one of the moments better left uncaptured (and off the internet).
#1: ‘The Is this 1990 and am I Vanilla Ice?’. For my first hair cut, I decided to try out the barber closest to my house. Mistake! I told him: “Longer on the top and shorter on the sides” and received what would have been a flat top, if my hair were capable of such a thing. Instead, I was left with a Vanilla Ice Flat Top. Oops!
#2: ‘The Wet Ret’. Thoroughly traumatized, I decided to take on my next hair cut myself (while wearing glasses). Mistake! On the plus side, the process of cutting it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had alone, and my interior monologue was priceless. Some of the things that crossed my mind while cutting my own hair: “Wow! I don’t even need a mirror for the back!”; “I wish my scissors weren’t so dull…”; “Wow! I don’t even need my glasses!”; “Next time, I will use a comb”. On the minus side, when I put my glasses back on and found a mirror for the back, the first thought I had was that it looked familiar, but I couldn’t place why… Oh, that’s right, it looked like the hair on the wet rat I’d seen crawling out of the sewer the week before. Oops!
#2.5: ‘The Fade’. After two weeks of walking around with the ‘Wet Rat’, I realized that no one was going to take me seriously until I got it cleaned up. Back to the closest barber it was. This time, I told him, don’t cut the top, just clean the bottom and make a smooth transition to the top. Mistake! He cropped it right up to the skin until about halfway up my head, when it faded aggressively into the 3+ inches of ‘Wet Rat’ left on top. Oops!
#3: ‘The Egghead’. Tried a new barber this time, one who actually owned scissors. He had a picture of someone with `The Fade’ on the wall, and I carefully explained that I wanted exactly that, only all the same length in the back, and using scissors on top. Somehow that translated to: “Please make my head as ovular as possible. I really like looking like an egg.” Mistake! I got what would be a tight, hip afro, if my hair were capable, but instead just makes my head look bizarrely round, almost fascinatingly so. It could be worse, I suppose… but not much worse. The nerdy irony that my head is literally shaped like an egg does stir my pocket-protected soul. Oops!
Sunday, October 18, 2009
I watched the game on a 40' by 30' projector set up right smack in the middle of one of the most popular streets. The game itself was a slog. Ghana was playing a man down for most of the game, but managed to keep Brazil scoreless through the entire game and extra time as well, so it went to penalty kicks (about the only situation you ever want to see PKs). When Brazil missed their final kick to give Ghana a chance at winning... wow... I really wish I had a camera...
As Ghana set up to take their final kick for the game, I wondered aloud to my friend, "What percentage of Ghana do you think is praying right now?" The prayers were answered; it was a perfect kick. It was enough for Ghana's vice-president to decide that "God is a Ghanaian".
I originally thought I wanted to go to South Africa for the World Cup, but Ghana is looking like a pretty amazing place to be.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Getting off the plane in Ghana, I had forgotten that the tropics have their own distinct smell. Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's the humidity, but it's there. I was surprised how familiar it smelled -- it smelled like home.
The romance faded when I walked to work, and got a good whiff of open sewer. Ah, the smells of Accra!
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Come to think of it, Brooks has been on a roll recently. His Friday article was brilliant. The conservative critics would have a lot less power if there were an election right now, but since there isn't the attention is going to those who shout the loudest, not those with the most public support.
And Brooks is at his most formidable when addressing trends in American culture. His latest insightis somewhat terrifying.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The World Bank just released a new study using this type of guesswork to estimate that the costs of climate change could total as much as $100 billion every year for the developing world alone.
While I put even less faith in this study than I do in most cap and trade studies, it's worth noting a couple of things. First, this is only the cost to poor countries -- the cost to rich countries could be much higher. We have more roads, bridges, houses, etc, so we will have more to rebuild after a disaster (it could also be lower if poor countries get all the bad weather).
Second, $100 billion is a lot, but it's even more when you think about it in relation to the income of developing countries. The GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa (an area larger than the US and China combined) was $1.5 trillion in 2008, so climate change could cost Africa almost 7% of its GDP every year. This can't be good for business.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Exelon, PNM, and PG&E all quit the US Chamber of Commerce over its "obstructionist tactics" in opposing cap and trade legislation. Both Krugman and Freedman respond.
I know nothing at all about the Chamber of Commerce, but I did sit next to people who model the costs of cap and trade legislation for 2 years (and that makes me an expert, right?). The bottom line: the entire debate over the cost of climate change legislation boils down to what "societal discount rate" and technological growth rate you use. Simple, right?
In non-economist-speak, this translates to how much you care whether the price of electricity increases in the future and whether you think new technology will be able to keep prices low. Even simpler: It's all a bunch of "best-guess" rubbish that hinges on things we really have no idea about.
So if the cap and trade models are uninformative, does the fact that major energy utilities are on board with cap and trade mean that the price of energy won't rise? Probably not. Many utilities are on board, but many utilities also stand to benefit from higher prices. Exelon has ton of clean nuclear that it will be able to sell to people in Pittsburgh relying on coal. PG&E is Californian, so they're just odd (and also big on energy efficiency and renewables). PNM I know little about, except that they were stung by the high oil/gas prices in 2007-20008. Perhaps cap and trade would help them diversify away from commodity-driven generation (or maybe they're just odd as well?).
Who's a public politician to trust if you can't rely on the models and utilities are all playing their own games? Well... that's part of why I left the industry. It can be hard to find reliable data on energy policy issues. (I was very lucky to be working with a group with a strong belief in sticking to the facts as we saw them).
The truth is often somewhere in the middle. Cap and trade (if effective) will result in people losing their jobs, and it will suck for a lot of families to pay higher electricity prices. This much is certain. But I still think higher energy prices are desperately needed; climate change could result in many people losing their lives and many others struggling through persistent drought, displacement from natural disasters, etc, and I care about that a lot more.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
A little background: A common tradition in southern Ghana is to name your children after the day of the week they were born on. As best I recall, I was born on a Friday, so my Ghanaian name is Kofi. Kwesi is the name for a male born on Sunday.
So why did they assume I was a Kwesi? Well, it turns out – and this is something I am not at all comfortable with, but was explained to me by several people independently – it turns out that a common belief in some of the communities I work in is that more white people are born on Sunday. Sunday is a day of worship. It is God’s day; Sunday is closer to God. White people are very lucky to have been born white. It is a reward from God to be born white; white people stand closer to God. White people are therefore more likely to have been born on a Sunday.
Why is it hysterical that I insisted I was not a Kwesi, but a Kofi? You get paid on Fridays. It’s the end of the week. It’s a day to kick back. Friday is a day of sin. Kofis are partiers, chronic misbehavers, naughty. By saying that I was a Kofi, I was saying that I was down for a good time, which, apparently everyone else was too.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
The transition from an agrarian economy has never been shown clearer (ht Chris Blattman)
If only economists made graphs this clear...
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Part of the reason I don't believe in macro is the way that many essentially valid (if limited) insights are put in a blender, mashed together and poured into the leaky economics 101-level understanding of the media. Nevertheless, I will now make some of the same types of baseless generalizations and ridiculous caricatures for your enjoyment (?).
Neither Keynesians nor Free Marketers have it right.
Free markers are right to attack as patently absurd the idea that government technocrats can set this ephemeral thing called "aggregate demand" to whatever level they please using fiscal stimulus. But you don't need to believe in the fiscal multiplier -- the amount of money $1 of government spending generates -- to think that the stimulus package was necessary to restore confidence in the economy. What we needed was a sign that Democrats and Republican (or at least Democrats) would be able to get their acts together and pass some aggressive legislation if they really needed to, which they did.
Keynesians are equally right to attack as patently absurd the idea that the efficient market hypothesis -- the idea that prices are always our best guess given the available information -- makes regulation unnecessary. In Chicago economist John Cochrane's response to Krugman, he writes, "But this argument takes us away from the main point. The case for free markets never was that markets are perfect. The case for free markets is that government control of markets, especially asset markets, has always been much worse." This argument takes us away from the main point: the government has always, and will always, set the rules of the game in markets. And right now, we need some better rules.
The financial crisis happened because everyone got it wrong. Bankers, regulators, mortgage brokers, home buyers, economists -- everyone. In response, everyone needs to look at what they did wrong and how they can do better, not start flame wars in the New York Times magazine pointing fingers. Economists can help make better rules and more effective government spending by focusing on the microeconomics of the institutional, collective action, and behavioral fields. At this point, economics is such a young and naive science that "general equilibrium" -- the attempt to model everything -- is a purely academic exercise with less practical relevancy than attempts to model the movements of ants in anthills. Let's take our best shot at figuring out what's wrong the with regulations we have, and see if we can't do a little better. Of course technocrats aren't any smarter than bankers and the new regulations might make things even worse; that's why we should test our theories using experiments. If things get screwed up anyway, we can always challenge the new rules under the "just and reasonable" standard of common law.
Maybe one day I'll believe in macro, but right now I say focus on the nerdy specifics of microeconomics and leave the macroeconomy to its "animal spirits."
Monday, September 14, 2009
Power. When we got to the office, the lights were out and the machines were off. D'oh.
Eventually power came back and they worked all day Sunday to make up for lost time. Great! There isn't anything else that could possibly go wrong, right? Right?
Wrong. When they showed up today with 9 boxes of surveys, three of the boxes had the page 6 from the survey I printed last week...
Apparently, when the power went off one time, they mixed up the papers they were photocopying, so we have 8 pages on high school enrollment questions and one page of tailor business expenses. Oops!
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Kremer is one of the PIs on my education project, and in the talk he explains a little bit about why we do what we do, and how we do it. It's directed at economists, so beware the jargon and assumed knowledge.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The mobile computing technology is absolutely there. You can administer a survey on a cell-phone like PDA (or PDA-like cell phone), send the data back to the researcher's computer, and have the researcher send back a randomized treatment (eg, gets a loan/doesn't get a loan) instantly. Or you can use a $300 netbook, plug a little 3G modem into, and do the same. Sure, dealing with all this technology would be frustrating, but it would be an exciting type of frustrating, as opposed to the hassle of paper surveys, which just make you pull your hair out -- this I know from experience, having lost a lot of hair today...
I was supposed to have all of our paper questionnaires ready to go by 9 am this morning on a new survey for the consulting project. I went to one printing company, but gave up because his machine was too slow. Back at the office, I realized that his virus-ridden computer corrupted my file and everything I printed had errors and was completely worthless. So I spent the next hour re-doing everything I had done between 12 am and 1 am this morning. After sorting this out, I set up to print with the office printer, which just returned after three months of being MIA at a repairs shop. Well, it only lasted about 20 pages before breaking again. I set off for a second printing company thinking, "Wow, I'm really having bad printer juju today" -- I didn't know the half of it. The second print company is fast, but his machine kept jamming... and jamming... and jamming... until the moment I stood up to leave and find a third printer, when it miraculously starting working again... until he ran out of paper! That's right, the professional printing company ran out of paper. They started cutting A3 paper in half to make A4 paper, but of course that made the printer start jamming... and jamming... and jamming... until I stood up to go again, when it again miraculously began printing... until... they ran out of ink! The printing company. Ran out of paper. Then ink.
I found another printing company, and finally got the questionnaires to the surveyors by 2:30 pm.
When will paper surveys die? Not soon enough...
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Nonetheless, here is the view from my office in Accra, one of the few pictures I have taken. There's a nice little sliver of ocean in there somewhere.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
*Why I don't believe in macroeconomics
*Good summary of the recent research on microfinance that captures why I have zero (0) interest in the field. It's a business, not a development program.(HT: Rob)
*Technology is way, way overblown in education. (HT Rob)
*All of the Ghana RAs are currently in Accra, and we've been enjoying late-night Stata sessions -- there is value to the comradeship. (HT Alex)
*Usually, we are more alone together (HT: Alex)
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The Economix graph shows SAT scores versus parent’s income. Manikew goes off about omitted variable bias and claims the relationship is because smart people make more money and pass on their smart, money-making genes.
Marginal Revolution presents evidence from a grand experiment that seems to back this up. Turns out, Holt International randomly assigned children up for adoption to parents in the 70s and 80s. This means that we wouldn’t expect any difference between the innate intelligence of children assigned to rich folks versus poor folks so any difference in outcomes between children adopted by rich families versus poor families is due purely to nurture.
Wow! This graph seems to show a huge, huge role for nature and a very limited role for nurture. This rocked my world a little bit. I’m a firm believer in the power of early childhood education, etc, but this graph seems to show that even if you do the most extreme intervention imaginable – literally scoop up infants from poor families and drop them in rich families – they wouldn’t have the genes to keep up with the rich families’ biological children.
Sounds too crazy to be true, doesn’t it? Well, don’t worry, it probably isn’t true – the graph doesn’t control for age, sex or education. The adopted children are 30% male and have a mean age of 27.8, compared to the biological children who are 61% male and have a mean age of 34. There’s that pesky omitted variable bias again. Without controlling for these things, the average difference in biological versus adopted children’s income is $19,000, but this shrinks to just $1,600 when the controls are added.
The paper the graph is lifted from is interesting raises a more interesting question: why are biological children are getting more education? (Which they do appear to be) Hard to say – nature is certainly part of the answer, as is mother’s nutrition. Family size is also much more important in predicting adopted children’s education than biological children’s, suggesting that, as much as we’d like to think otherwise, there may be some preference for biological children in adoptive families.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Disposing of the vegetables proved somewhat more challenging than originally anticipated. For the tomatoes, I resorted to the old homage, "When life gives you tomatoes... make tomato sauce?" I now have enough frozen bolognaise sauce to feed every starving child in West Africa.
Despite eating avocado morning, noon, and night, I was left with two rapidly deteriorating specimens on Sunday. An avocado & tomato omelet for brunch was a no-brainer. Six down, one to go. For dinner, I made the mistake of going to the same friend's house where we had pizza with--you guessed it!--avocados and tomato sauce. Excellent pizza and even better company, but it used up precious avocado-eating capacity.
Returning home, a light bulb suddenly appeared above my head: Why not break out that blender gathering dust on the shelf and throw all my aging fruits and vegetables into a smoothie so I can drink, rather than eat, my last avocado? Thoroughly impressed by my own culinary brilliance, I chopped everything up, sliced open the avocado, threw it in the blender and.... nothing. Turns out, the blender doesn't work. D'oh.
(In hindsight, this was almost certainly a good thing -- an avocado-pineapple-paw paw smoothie doesn't sound very brilliant now that I’m over my fridge-full-of-over-ripe-fruit-and-vegetables delirium).
Salvaging what I could, I froze the fruit and made guacamole, bringing the total to three avocados eaten in one day. Never before has eating guacamole been such a struggle.
Tonight, I'm getting Chinese.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
It does feel rather like being a celebrity to have throngs of people crowding around you, trying to touch you. I can appreciate how difficult the loss of anonymity must be -- if I go certain places, I will need to deal with my adoring fans, whether I want to or not. I feel like a one-hit wonder with a single famous catch phrase; when they shout, "Obruni! Wo ho te sen?!" I respond, "Me ho ye" and they go wild (It's not a very glamorous conversation: White man, how are you? I'm fine).
Just as there are areas in the US where enough celebrities hang out that people are too cool to be impressed by seeing a one hit wonder, there are places here with enough Obrunis that we get left alone. There is also an interesting age dynamic. Very young children act either shy or terrified, while small boys and small girls think it's the coolest thing ever when I throw out my one liner.
Adolescents, being so worldly, often act smug and indifferent, while the most confident ones will try to pound fists, call you homie, and be your friend. My other big fan base is old ladies, who are just as thrilled as the kids when I drop some Twi.
Finally, there's the random curious dude that will suddenly and completely unexpectedly start petting your hair, or touching a freckle and saying, "Look! You have small-small black man in you!"
Such is the life of a celebrity in Ghana.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Catching up on the news, I was pleased to see that Kriftof and his wife took on the plight of women in a special issue of the NY Times Magazine this weekend.
I spent the first few pages of the article thinking, "Gah! Enough anecdotes, let's see some evidence!" Then pages 4-6 are filled with IPA's work. I read Kristof's op-eds regularly, and I'd never noticed any interest in evaluations before. Maybe that part was written by his wife, Sheryl? (I like the idea of an analysis-anecdote partnership).
All in all, I thought it blended the storytelling and the evidence well, but I was a little disappointed his take-away recommendations weren't more solidly grounded. I liked my coworker's description: "he spent most of the article saying, 'this is what works' then ended by saying 'here are some cool-sounding ideas'."
The problem is, all failures fueling the aid skeptics started off as cool-sounding ideas.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Nomenclature aside, it has been an enjoyable, if tiring, experience. I enjoy spending time away from the computer, and you do learn a lot (trips to the field supply the fodder for my Random Facts About Ghana). The computer-work doesn't go away, though, so days in the field often mean nights at the desk.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Her theories: Small business owners in the developing world are enterprising entrepreneurs whose primary constraint to growth is access to capital.
She developed her theories starting in the late '70s, and published them in a thesis in 1992. Radical at the time, they are now largely mainstream.
But how do we know that they are right? It's an appealing theory, but how do we test it?
Well, you could do something like give business training services to a random group of microenterprises, then give a capital grant to an overlapping random group of microenterprises and see whether it's only capital from preventing their growth, or also (or only) business know-how.
Guess what I'm doing in Ghana?
Sunday, August 9, 2009
I really liked Cape Coast -- it has exactly the character that Accra lacks. My gut reaction to this type of puff piece is usually very negative, but I actually think this one is pretty good. The only correction that I would make is that people don't shout, "How are you Obruni?": they shout, "OOOOObruni -- How are you?"
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Accra is rather a sprawling suburb of mixed communities, each with its own micro-culture. There's no "bad part of town" and no city center. It's a place characterized most by its lack of extremes. It has never felt particularly unfamiliar or even very foreign.
I try with this blog to deliver unexpected and (I hope) intriguing nuggets of Ghana's culture as fodder for the imaginations of my readers (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) when they picture my life here. But the very fact that I find it more interesting to seek out and identify differences over similarities betrays the fact that Accra is not that strange. As often as it's the differences that make life interesting here, it's the similarities that make life easy.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
On ever survey we administer, one of the first questions is about their nicknames, as it's often impossible to find someone with knowing the "neighborhood name". I ran into some great ones today: "Papa Tailor" was one, and another was "Emperor" (his other name is Laud).
In addition to Obruni (which will be the subject of it's own RFAG), some of the common names I've been called are:
* Tallah (because I'm taller...)
* Long John
* Peter Crouch (Apparently I bear a resemblance)
* Obruni Coco (A favorite of the school children in La Paz, it translates to "Red White Man" - I'm not sunburned, so I don't really get it...)
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
First, there's completely ridiculous marketing by ethanol makers. I remember writing a paper in 2004 for my Environmental Analysis class saying that ethanol was a bunch of subsidy-dependent hype that was, if not worse, at least not better for the environment. Public opinion is starting to catch up, and ethanol lobbyist are trying to reframe the debate: the claim is now, well we may not be better than conventional oil, but we're sure better than shale oil! Give me a break.
Next came an article in the Washington Post on email signatures that is surprisingly aware of good study design:
Brownstein asked his research team, StrategyOne, to catalogue the most common e-mail closing lines with an online poll. (The sample of about a thousand Internet users came from a nonrandom pool of respondents, so these numbers are rather more food for thought than hard data.)Major credit to the Post writers/editors on that one.
Finally, the Freakonomics blog links to a time article on the 50 worst cars of all time. And Steven Levit shares an amazing anecdote:
In talking with an auto executive a few years back, I got some insight into how disasters like this happen. I asked this auto executive how his company decided between the 10 or 15 concept cars that the design teams proposed.If that's true, it's completely out of this world, especially compared to how Google makes decisions.
His answer: The five most senior executives at the company looked over the possible vehicles and picked the ones they liked best!
The list of cars is impressive, and includes this gem. A 1986 version of the H2, which really got me thinking about the similarities between the eighties and aughts -- high oil prices, low growth, out of control financial markets, and a financial/real estate crisis at the end of the decade. Will the teens now be another period of low oil prices and high growth?
Monday, August 3, 2009
* It's a good time to invest in Africa (I am!)
* A rather different take on happiness
* I like M&E, and education, but also worry about tests
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Secondhand clothes are sold en mass at the "Dead White Man's Market" (why else would you donate your clothes?) for almost nothing. Tailored clothes are transforming into a status symbol, as cheap "Milford High School X-Country" t-shirts take over the bottom of the pyramid market.
(As an aside, every Obruni (white person) has their own "craziest secondhand clothing I've seen" story, usually involving a guy walking a goat and a jersey from an arch rival high school. My story: a security guard near my house was rocking Solomon cross country ski boots. Little metal toe clips and all. Damn proud of 'em, too!)
It would be hard to argue that people shouldn't be allowed access to cheap secondhand shoes, shirts, and pants, but spending time with the tailors, it's easy to appreciate how protectionist sentiment develops. So before you bring that next load of goods to the Goodwill, think of the tailors!
...then bring it anyway... I'm (pretending to be) an economist, after all.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Here's a list of the craziest things I've seen carried on a head:
* A basket full of puppies
* A tree (the whole thing)
* A table. While riding a bicycle. Down a dirt path. (Full disclosure: It was my friend's table -- I only saw the picture)
* A full grown man (This was in London, actually. They were street acrobats, but African, so I think it counts.)
And by far the craziest thing I've seen carried on a head:
* A baby in a bucket
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index daily poll of the US population, taller people live better lives, at least on average. They evaluate their lives more favorably, and they are more likely to report a range of positive emotions such as enjoyment and happiness. They are also less likely to report a range of negative experiences, like sadness, and physical pain, though they are more likely to experience stress and anger, and if they are women, to worry. These findings cannot be attributed to different demographic or ethnic characteristics of taller people, but are almost entirely explained by the positive association between height and both income and education, both of which are positively linked to better lives.
Via Marginal Revolution
Thursday, July 23, 2009
It can sometimes be difficult living an ocean away from your family and friends, especially when there's someone you love on the other side. Despite this, I have been rather successful at remaining happy here. I often attribute my happiness to my bad memory and general ignorance, but it is something that I work at, too. If you're one of the two lucky people I stay in touch with (chances are good here -- I think you're also the only two who actually read this blog) you'll know that, when I succeed in actively deciding to be happy, it's often the first thing I want to talk about.
One of my greatest successes came a week or so before I left for Europe, when I was traveling in the Central Region visiting high schools. We were in the middle of some awesome jungle, driving along poor dirt roads, when a fairly sizable city popped up out of nowhere. At first I loved the city, and thought the hotel we stopped at was great. But it didn't have running water, so we moved on.
As we approached the city's center I started getting sketched out by the huge, huge, huge old growth trees strapped to the back of flatbeds. The trucks had three sections of the trunk each,and with only three logs, they looked completely overloaded, about to tip over onto us as we passed. My coworker claimed that they all belonged to a single massive tree.
The next hotel we pulled in to was right across the street from these tree-trucks, and my bad vibe only intensified as we entered in. I didn't even need to look at the room to know I wouldn't want to stay there. Putting my foot down, I demanded we go to the third (and final) hotel in town, but alas, it had no vacancy.
We were stuck with tree-killers' hotel, so I decided to make the best of it and do a little workout -- only to realize once I had already broken a heavy sweat that a) the fan didn't work and b) there was no running water here, either. Add to that the fact that the door showed signs of being forced open recently, and the bed showed signs of being bled on, and I had that strange combination of outrage and self satisfaction that you can only get when it turns out that your hunch was right, but it was right about something very bad.
After fuming a bit, I settled down and thought, hey, I'm in the middle of some badass jungle right now and there's nowhere else to go... do I really want to only remember the sketchy hotel room? Not really. Instead, I thunk me some happy thoughts, and went over to my coworkers' room. We started a great conversation on why Abubakar loves Allah that I will never forget. (He had two inspiring reasons "I love to pray" and "the Koran says that you should see the sun rise every morning. I love watching the sun rise" and one not so great reason "If you pray hard, Allah will grant your wishes"). You can all me the Jungle Lama.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Saturday, July 18, 2009
There was a series of articles on bostonreview.net recently in response to an article by Peter Collier, the author of “The Bottom Billion.” They are by some of the biggest names in development, and are worth checking out if you’re into this sort of thing. Forgive the nerdery, but I’m going to take my own shot at a response.
I like Collier’s focus on public goods, but I disagree with almost all of his analysis and conclusions. We share the similar opinion that public goods (e.g., infrastructure, natural resources, etc) are both uniquely important to development and also uniquely difficult to provide. As the early American institutional economists knew well, public goods sit atop a complex pyramid of institutions, every one of which is wholly necessary for reliable electricity or clean running water (as an aside, I ran out of water for the first time here yesterday! Luckily it returned after a few hours).
We also agree that security is one of the most often overlooked perquisites for public good management. Emory Troxel, an economist writing in the 1930s, (I believe – Jeff Makholm may have to correct me if I’m wrong) made this amazing map of the public good pyramid that lies out the various institutional powers outlined in the US Constitution and state constitutions that are necessary for reliable utility service. They include the usual suspects of balance of power, regulatory commissions, ect., but it also includes one this that, at first, struck me as out of place: the police force.
In the US, we tend to take for granted the fact that the police will arrest you if they catch you breaking the law, but in so much of the world that is not always the case. Because it’s so second nature to us, economist-consultants often fail to realize how amazing it is that our police force works when offering their development prescriptions, and yet this was absolutely critical to our development. Good luck getting running water if someone can just make an illegal tap, pay off the police, and sell the water back to the people it was intended for at twice the price.
Of course, in Africa, the impact of bribery pales in comparison to the impact of civil war, which is still security, more broadly defined. One of the great questions of economics is: how does one generate national unity? I like Collier’s description of the problem, but I think he understates somewhat just how internally diverse the major economies were when they formed: the States who eventually became United initially thought of themselves as just as fundamentally different as Ghanaians think they are from Nigerians. He erroneously claims that China has a longstanding national identity (ask the Uighur what they think of that). India’s ethnolinguistic fragmentation is extreme. Even Belgium has at least four ethnic groups.
Collier’s prescription is an international peacekeeping force that would stage coups in any county where a leader steals an election, citing as his inspiration the combined effects of the Marshall Plan and NATO in redeveloping Europe. I find his assertion patently ridiculous. One need only look at a more recent redevelopment program, Iraq, to see why: it is just too expensive. Apart from the fact that Europe already had extremely talented people, while Africa has the lowest levels of human capital anywhere, it would just plain bankrupt the US.
My prescription is… well, I don’t have one (yet). Perhaps that we should avoid absurd prescriptions.
I’m brought back to a moment in my political economics class senior year at Pomona when a friend suggested that the US declare war on Africa. The continent. The idea would be to force Africa to think of itself as a national unit and develop the institutions necessary for defense. We could call the war before any fighting starts, so long as they get ready for a defense. Everyone thought he was joking, but there is a crazy logic to his idea. Perhaps I’m not entirely against absurd prescriptions.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
If you didn't catch it, Obama divided his speech into four sections: democracy, "partnership", health care, and leadership.
My small sample of about a twenty drunk Ghanaian men were intensely interested in the first section on democracy, and they carried on heated debate throughout. On the parts about elections, their pride in Ghana's democracy was on full display. Sections on corruption also resounded, with one man (shackily) getting to his feet to shout something or other in Twi.
The partnership section was about approaching America's relationship with Africa as a partner rather than a patron. The sections on oil wealth and other Ghana-specific issues were paid close attention, but as soon as he started talking about clean energy people started zoning out, leaving and talking on cell phones. They didn't care about or understand his focus on clean energy -- to them, plain old energy is enough. The focus on something they weren't interested in, but should be, felt patronizing.
People started coming back during the health care section, but the energy that was present at the beginning of the speech was gone. They ordered more food and drinks, and spent more time checking out the Obrunis in the back than watching Obama.
The section on leadership brought everyone back, and brought me back to another "I can't believe this man is president" moments, intensified by an "I can't believe an American president is so well respected in Africa" moment. As my friend and I choked up in the back, a chorus of church-like "yes" "mm-hhmm" and "amen" rose from the Ghanaians in the front as Obama called for young Africans to stand up and take hold of their own legacy. They were exactly the young Africans he was speaking to, and it was stunning to see their iron-clad support for his words. The terrible irony was that they were also hopelessly drunk at 1 pm in the afternoon. Perhaps it was their children he was speaking to...
I left clearing my eyes and feeling so lucky to be living in this moment.
The other lasting impression that I took was just how little transnational sentiment there was. People really drifted over anything that wasn't specifically about Ghana. Even the way the women thanked him after his speech and asked him to come back to Ghana soon made it seem like they were more interested in the fact that he came to Ghana than the fact that he announced a major paradigm shift in African policy. To Obama, this was a visit to Africa. To Ghana, it was a visit to Ghana. Our friends in the north of Ghana organized a huge (misguided) campaign to try to get Obama to visit their impoverished region. To people in the north, Obama visited southern Ghana. I don't know what to take from this, apart from maybe the lesson that, when you have enough of your own problems, it's hard to pay attention to anyone else's. I can't escape the feeling that this attitude is important and unhelpful.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I tweeted about the unexpected emergence of Frog Season. Up until now, the rainy season have been a little weak. It's rained sometimes, but not too hard and not too long. I was starting to think that Ghanaians think they have a rainy season here like they think it gets cold here; you can only appreciate it relative to the norm of extreme heat and zero rain.
This week, however, it's started raining in earnest, every night. On my rainy walk to work yesterday morning, something amazing happened: Frog Season began! All of what are normally open sewers had real, running water flowing through them, and the loudest chorus of frogs that I had ever heard echoing against the concrete walls.
I often wondered why the open sewers contain no life. I guess it's just too toxic until it rains.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
I've returned again after an interlude due to bad internet/power, travel, lots of work, and despair after I had to remove my only substantive blogs. I've decided to focus on shorter posts, and ones that don't necessarily keep you all up to date on what I've been up to, since that will always be a losing battle.
Ghana is famous for crazy store names. It's an extremely religious country, and most store names have to do with God, e.g., By His Grace Fashion, In Thy Name Taxi, etc. I keep a list of the craziest names I've come across so far. Here's a little sample:
My Jesus is Highly Recommended -- Sells biscuits/minerals (cookies and soda)
Pussy In Booth -- Right near my house, sells biscuits/minerals
Even Me Hotel -- Stayed there while I was in the field last week
Happy Store (Happy) -- In the middle of the jungle, sells biscuits/minerals
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Unfortunately, we aren't supposed to blog about the education project, so I had to take that part of the post down.
The most frequent question that I have been getting from friends/family is: what is it that you are doing? If I revealed all of what I’m doing in one post, I would have nothing to write about next week, so I will start with the basics here and expand on it later.
I am living in Accra, Ghana, and working for an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) (www.poverty-action.org). I have been here for two months now, and am signed up for 22 more. IPA is a research organization, and I am running two “field experiments” in public policy, one about education and one in small/micro enterprise business management. The idea behind field experiments is basically that, with a rigorous methodology, you can test different policies/programs to find out if they actually work the way you think they should. They are a whole lot of work, so they are usually only done with big programs/questions.