Data management, powered by Google

This looks really useful (via Andrew Gelman):

Confidential to Thomas S.: I hope you’re feeling the urge to try this with some of the datasets you’re working on…


Adventures in international election monitoring

Switzerland regrets the conditions in which the elections in Myanmar were held, but isn’t the Swiss government being hypercritical considering that, after all, the elections were monitored by North Korean diplomats? (h/t James Vreeland)

By the way, here is a recent working paper on why even autocracies invite international monitors, with an interesting argument on how this practice can develop into a well-established norm endogenously, that is, without norm entrepreneurs playing a significant role.

The second WTO

The World Toilet Day of the WTO is in 10 days. Why do we have a World Toilet Day? It is nothing to celebrate. It is a reminder that more effort is needed to provide 2.6 billion people without access to sanitation with a toilet. Whereas a lot of progress has been made in the last decades to supply people around the world with access to safe drinking water, little or no progress has been made to provide them with adequate sanitation. But if we belief the health literature, adequate sanitation is as (if not more) effective to reduce child morbidity and mortality as safe water access (a recent literature review can be found on the website of 3ie). A recent Lancet’s editorial even argued that “adequate sanitation is the most effective public health intervention the international community has at its disposal” (The Lancet Editorial, 2007).

If the health impacts of improved sanitation are as large, why are still so many without it?  There are several economic reasons I can think of, why this might be the case: first, the direct health benefits of improved sanitation – involving invisible bacteria and parasites – are hard to understand and internalize, especially for populations with little or no formal education. Improved water access – in contrast – has in addition to health benefits often direct economic benefits in form of large time savings to collect water. Second, with high initial costs of sanitation facilities and (uncertain) health benefits that might only occur in the far future, individuals with limited access to credit and/or high discounting rates will generally under-invest in precautionary health care measures. Third, with disposal of human feces in public areas as a natural alternative to sanitation facilities, the social benefits of proper sanitation are likely to exceed the private ones: positive externalities of sanitation might lead to underinvestment.

But despite possible sub-optimal market outcomes, public investments remain low. Most donors focus their water and sanitation policies on water supply at the expense of sanitation and investments in adequate sanitation are usually not high on the policy agenda of domestic governments. The cynical observer might argue that sanitation, or the disposal of human waste, is an unpopular subject, which might not be appealing for both international aid agencies and national governments. But I can also think of two other closely linked reasons. First, there is still a lack of clearly defined solution strategies – not from an engineering but from a social science point of view – and second, and directly linked to the first point, the lack of research in social sciences on sanitation is striking. Being an economist, I did a quick economic literature review. Research on sanitation barely exists beyond cost-benefit analysis. Between 1970 and 2009 only ten articles with a focus on sanitation were published in 100 of the top economic journals. And the situation is probably not much different in political science…

Proust, Nabokov, and intertemporal choice

In a recent post on whether the Fed can credibly pledge itself to higher inflation, Paul Krugman wittingly notes that “commitments are hard, especially in the future.” Making credible promises is a classic decision-making problem well beyond monetary policy, with a large literature in economics (e.g. Kydland’s and Prescott’s classic article) and in the social sciences more broadly (see, for example, this book). In fact, the root of the problem, namely the temporal dimension of choices, is a surprisingly common occurrence even in everyday life. An article on procrastination (aptly titled “Later”) in the October 11 issue of The New Yorker gives many examples and sums up effectively two key arguments. The first is the idea of a “divided self:”

[The] person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person […] In that sense, the first step to dealing with procrastination isn’t admitting that you have a problem. It’s admitting that your “you”s have a problem.

The second argument is that a solution to this problem is self-binding, namely using “external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work.” The classic example, discussed at length by Jon Elster (for instance in this book), is Ulysses asking to be tied to the mast to resist the irresistible voices of the Sirens.

The reason I am writing this is that several years ago I came across two literary passages that illustrate the two points perfectly, and this looks like a good time to share them.

First, Proust on the “divided self” (Du côté de chez Swann, Paris, Folio Gallimard, 1987, p. 371):

Jadis ayant souvent pensé avec terreur qu’un jour il cesserait d’être épris d’Odette, [Swann] s’était promis d’être vigilant et, dès qu’il sentirait que son amour commencerait à le quitter, de s’accrocher à lui, de le retenir. Mais voici qu’à l’affaiblissement de son amour correspondait simultanément un affaiblissement du désir de rester amoureux. Car on ne peut pas changer, c’est-à-dire devenir une autre personne, tout en continuant à obéir aux sentiments de celle qu’on n’est plus.

And here is Nabokov on self-binding (King, Queen, Knave, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1968, p. 86):

Martha had decided that tonight he would kiss her for the first time. Characteristically, she chose one of her monthly days lest she succumb too soon, and in the wrong spot, to a yearning that otherwise she could no longer resist.

Isn’t that beautiful?

PS: Nabokov being Nabokov, “he” is Martha’s nephew.

How to Study Things that Can Go Around in Circles

Two voters plus three voters makes five voters. If a party that used to hold four ministries loses one, it still controls three ministries. For many phenomena that we analyze in political science this linear world view seems appropriate or at least an acceptable simplification. But for many it does not. If terrorists used to attack at around 11pm, but now these attacks tend to happen two hours later, this means that they occur at 1am. If political candidates compete on a circular issue space, then a candidate moving far enough to the left will eventually end up at the extreme right. We measure such phenomena on circular scales: the 24-hour clock, compass direction, or calendar measurement. They do not have an origin, since the endpoints are connected.

Although examples for political events measured on circular scales abound, we still lack appropriate methodological tools to analyse this type of data. In an article recently published in Political Analysis, Jeff Gill and Dominik Hangartner start filling this gap. One of their applications analyzes the direction of party movements. This relates to a post by Romain Lachat (“Which Way from Left to Right“), where he conceptualized political competition in the Zurich municipal elections as taking place on a circle. The figure below shows the direction in which parties moved from 2002 to 2006. Most parties shifted to what many would call the economic right.


Figure: Directions of party movements in Europe from 2002 to 2006. Source: Gill and Hangartner 2010 (working paper version)

Another application contributes to research on violent conflict. Experts estimate the number of civilian fatalities in Iraq since the beginning of the Second Iraq War to exceed 80’000 deaths. An analysis of the time at which these incidents occurred (table 1), measured on the 24-hour clock, suggests that fatalities due to gunfire or mortar rounds happen on average earlier during the day than incidents due to bomb attacks, which form the reference category.

Table: Results for timing of attacks involving civilian fatalities in Iraq


While the signs of the coefficients indicate the direction of the relationships between the predictors and the time of incident, interpreting their size requires some trigonometric computations which the article describes in detail. The results suggest that gunfire casualties happen on average about one hour earlier than bombings. Moreover, their timing has shifted over the years. Directly after U.S. forces had invaded Iraq in 2003, bomb attacks used to occur Saturdays shortly before 8am on average. Such attacks now happen later during the day. The annual shift equals about one hour on average. I look forward to seeing papers that analyze circular data in political science!

“For to all those who have, more will be given…” The Matthew effect and welfare politics

The “Matthew effect” denotes the phenomenon of accumulated advantage: those who have (power, capital, resources, fame, citations, etc.) get more, whereas those who have not get less. Welfare politics is not so different. Since the important works of scholars like Esping-Andersen, Evelyne Huber and John Stephens, or Kees van Kersbergen, we know that “social policy” is not always about helping the weak and the poor. Indeed, continental European welfare states – such as Germany, Switzerland, France or Austria – tend to provide social benefits that are proportional to people’s incomes. It’s called social insurance and it’s meant to stabilize social stratification. Hence, the patron saint of continental welfare states is certainly closer to Matthew than to Robin Hood, and this explains why the mere level of social spending is a pretty bad indicator of “redistribution”.

All this has been known for a while now, but what many do not realize is that the battle between Matthew and Robin Hood is very much alive in current West European welfare politics. Consider the reform of the Swiss unemployment insurance that was adopted a few weeks ago: benefit levels for the core workers with stable, well-insured jobs were left intact, whereas cutbacks were enacted in particular for the young, the elderly and for women re-entering the labor force. Matthew sends his regards.

This represents just an example of a current welfare reform trend that the literature calls “dualization”, meaning that generous social security and income protection is maintained for labor market insiders with stable, good jobs, whereas outsiders in atypical and unstable employment are relegated to means-tested safety nets, such as social assistance. Thereby, welfare states create two categories of (potential) beneficiaries: the core workers and the rest.

In a recent paper, Hanna Schwander and I have shown that continental European welfare states create deeper insider-outsider divides than the Nordic or the anglo-saxon welfare states. What is more, taxes and transfers in continental Europe are designed such that they not only reproduce, but even increase the gap between insider’s and outsiders’ incomes. In a different paper, we also found that these differences are reflected in the attitudes of insiders and outsiders towards welfare policies: insiders want more social insurance and outsiders want more redistribution. Both groups seem well aware of what they benefit most from. Hence, dualization may very well become a major conflict line in current distributional politics.

Two questions, however, are crucial in evaluating the importance of dualization for the distribution of resources and life chances in the countries of continental Europe. First, what level of benefits and services is provided for the outsiders? If outsiders rely on relatively generous safety nets, dualization must neither lead to increasing poverty levels nor to political conflict. Countries vary largely in the generosity they provide for the “losers” of post-industrial capitalism in terms of income and social investment. Second, what are the politics of dualization? Who do insiders and outsiders vote for? Who represents their interests in the policy-process and why? Both questions are obviously related: where welfare states create deep divides between insiders and outsiders, this divide is more likely to become a political conflict line structuring representation. And these patterns of representation in turn affect the distributive outcomes of current reforms.

The Swiss National Science Foundation has just decided to fund a new project Hanna Schwander and I will start in January to find answers to precisely these questions. By means of new data on incomes, electoral behavior and party positions, we want to shed light on the cross-national variation of insiders’ and outsiders’ economic situation and political representation. Thereby, we hope to understand better why the battle between Matthew and Robin ends so differently in different countries.

We matter, but maybe not as much as we think

What difference does the quality of education make for student outcomes? Establishing a causal relationship is difficult especially for PhD students, because it is likely that the best students are drawn to the best departments, so that a positive correlation between departmental strength and students’ success is at least in part due to a selection effect. An article in the latest issue of the Journal of Political Economy uses a smart identification strategy, namely the expulsion of mathematics professors in Nazi Germany as an exogenous shock to faculty quality. The abstract sums up the main results:

I investigate the effect of faculty quality on PhD student outcomes. To address the endogeneity of faculty quality I use exogenous variation provided by the expulsion of mathematics professors in Nazi Germany. Faculty quality is a very important determinant of short- and long-run PhD student outcomes. A one-standard-deviation increase in faculty quality increases the probability of publishing the dissertation in a top journal by 13 percentage points, the probability of becoming a full professor by 10 percentage points, the probability of having positive lifetime citations by 16 percentage points, and the number of lifetime citations by 6.3.

These effects look sizeable but maybe not as large as we, as professors, like to think. Self-selection is probably as strong a determinant of success as departmental quality, possibly even more.

As an aside, this research is a nice illustration of the causal inference trend that is well established in economics and is catching up quickly also in political science. In this regard, see also this previous post.