Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Not-Quite-So Goodwill?

I've been spending a lot of time in the field lately visiting tailors for the Returns to MSE Management Consulting project. I've found the older tailors to all moan about the same thing: They just can't compete with secondhand clothes.

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

GFAG #3: People Carry Crazy Things on Their Heads

It's true -- people carry some weird stuff on their heads. There's even a word for it in Twi: "suo", meaning to carry on one's head.

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

I'm on the IPA Blog

I took another crack at posting on the IPA blog. Given the chance, I would definitely rewrite the first paragraph. Take a look and let me know what you think.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I like my length

From whence came this happiness? My height, perhaps? The abstract to a new paper by Angus Deaton and Raksha Arora

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


A couple of articles in the NYT recently have highlighted all the hard work and practice that goes in to being a blissfully happy monk. One of them even invokes the (totally bogus - see earlier post) 10,000 hours argument. Nonetheless, I think they are on to something.

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

A Wish for Ashley

I don't know how much of a bump this will be with all of my 20 visitors, but please do try to help a friend find a friend:

A Wish For Ashley

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Security and Development Wonkery

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

Back in Ghana, with Barak

I returned to Ghana on Tuesday from 17 intense days in Europe, just in time for Obama's arrival yesterday. I will perhaps share some stories from what was my first trip to "the continent" later, but now, having just watched Obama's speech to parliament in a dingy bar next to my office, I feel compelled to record my impressions.

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.