On harmful traditional practices and disbelief

If you’ve ever read a news article about female genital mutilation or footbinding and found yourself wondering, why on earth would anyone submit another person to such a horrific act, I have just the article for you. Mackie and LeJeune, in this 2009 UNICEF working paper on harmful traditional practices, do an excellent job of explaining, without judgement and with grace, the persistence of FGM/C and footbinding (among other harmful practices) in an eloquent and approachable manner. I can’t say you’ll leave the article uplifted, but I promise it reads faster than its 42 pages might suggest. And, you’ll learn a lot. There’s even a little game theory in there for my economist friends. The abstract is here:

The essay refines the application of the social convention theory to the practice female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The theory compares footbinding in China to FGM/C in Africa, explains each practice in terms of simple game theory, and recommends that the methods used to end footbinding be adapted to end FGM/C. It hypothesizes that each practice originated in highly stratified ancient empires, and became an ongoing requirement of marriageability, general and persistent within the intramarrying community because no one family can give it up on its own. The continuation or the abandonment of each practice involves a set of social rewards and punishments and operates as what is known in social science as a social norm. The theory argues that each practice is a community practice that must be ended by the whole community coordinating on its abandonment, thereby solving the marriageability problem. The game-theoretic portrayal also identifies social dynamics of abandonment, observed in both China and Africa. An initial core group, called the critical mass, recruits others through organized diffusion, until a large enough proportion of the community, referred to as the tipping point, is ready to abandon. A moment or process of public commitment is essential to ensure a stable abandonment. The essay also refines the theory, in light of observed mass abandonments of FGM/C in different countries. Overcoming self-enforcing beliefs surrounding the practice requires credible new information, including about the feasibility and desirability of attaining the uncut alternative. FGM/C is maintained as a marriageability convention, social norm, or both. The process for reversing a social norm can be identical to reversing a social convention. Reversal is motivated by the fundamental moral norm of loving one’s children and wanting the best for them, as discovered and developed in transformative human rights deliberations. The essay establishes a conceptual foundation for programme design that facilitates community abandonment of a variety of harmful practices in ways that promote human rights and are respectful of the culture and the values of local communities.

Cited: Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune (2009), ‘Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look at the Theory’. Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices, Innocenti Working Paper No. 2009-06, Florence, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.


Child obesity, Latin America and a good reminder

A few weeks ago, Adam Ozimek and I of Modeled Behavior had a discussion in the comments section here about the soda ban in New York City and the debate around paternalism. When I was slow to respond, we continued over email, just proof that you’re never really going to end a debate with an economist.

Adam was kind enough to send me a link to a piece in the Atlantic, which I thought did a much better job of summing up the arguments against the soda ban and paternalism in general, which I had, up to that point, not seen as convincingly articulated. What I liked about the argument is that it alluded to culture and how creating laws that are both nonsensical and devoid of cultural understanding and social norms makes for really bad law. And this I can totally get behind.

With that in mind, I spent much of last week searching for recent programs in the developing world for adolescent girls. The scope of this new project is rather wide and includes programs aimed at increasing political and community participation by girls, delaying marriage and sexual debut, improving education, health status, and bargaining power, decreasing HIV and violence against women, and so much more. I was thumbing through websites on health and violence and found the program Agente F, partially sponsored by Telefonica, one of the major cell carriers in Latin America. It’s intended to teach kids about healthy eating habits and avoid obesity, which, apparently, is fast becoming a problem in Latin America. I didn’t know. I thought we were still dealing with hunger and poverty, but apparently I’m behind the times. I have been unable to ascertain how widely this program is used, or whether anyone has actually played the game, but it’s interesting in that it has a lot of institutional support, at any rate.

I consider myself somewhat adept at Latin American cultures, and some more than others, having lived and spent time in many Latin American countries. I tell people “buen provecho” when they’re eating and can sing happy birthday in Spanish, Portuguese and Venezuelan (it’s a different song). I know where it’s appropriate to wait in line and where you’ll never get your coffee if you don’t hustle your way to the counter. I can talk to you a little bit about Catholics and saints and am sure to take a shower immediately if I get wet in the rain (RIP, Tomas.). I’m not a native, by any means, and I surely make mistakes, but it’s not a completely foreign world to me.

So I was struck by how many of the questions on the Agente F game I was unable to answer. Not just the ones about how many bones are in the body or how many muscles. Those, I guessed on and mostly did fine. One question in particular asked what should you do to ensure a good night’s sleep? I said exercise, but the answer was take a cold shower before going to bed. I see the logic. Your body needs to cool down before going to bed, and it’s often hot in many Latin American countries, which can make it difficult to sleep, but I thought it was a very odd answer.

A few questions were in this vein. The answers seemed totally foreign to me and reminded me how important cultural context is in creating programs and legislation with the policy goals of influencing behavior and actions. Despite my experience living in Latin America, I’m not a native. I have no idea whether taking a cold shower before bed would sound like a reasonable thing to a Mexican or a Colombian; maybe it’s totally within the realm of reason. Heck, maybe it’s within the realm of reason for natives of the United States and I’ve totally missed the boat. Regardless, culture is an important element to take into consideration when designing programs and laws.

Compulsory education and girls in China

A new paper (gated) by a gaggle of economists (is this a new trend? I’ve never seen so many papers with five or six names on them than as of late), shows that compulsory schooling in China helped raise average educational attainment, and did a particularly good job of getting girls to stay in school. Girls stayed in school an average of 1.17 years longer, and boys an extra 0.4 years. I’ve yet to really get into this paper, but they use what looks like a neat instrument to identify the effect causally. The compulsory education policy was implemented at different times, so different regions were subject to the policy at different times.

The abstract:

As China transforms from a socialist planned economy to a market-oriented economy, its returns to education are expected to rise to meet those found in middle-income established market economies. This study employs a plausible instrument for education: the China Compulsory Education Law of 1986. We use differences among provinces in the dates of effective implementation of the compulsory education law to show that the law raised overall educational attainment in China by about 0.8 years of schooling. We then use this instrumental variable to control for the endogeneity of education and estimate the returns to an additional year of schooling in 1997-2006. Results imply that the overall returns to education are approximately 20 percent per year on average in contemporary China, fairly consistent with returns found in most industrialized economies. Returns differ among subpopulations; they increase after controlling for endogeneity of education.

“The Returns to Education in China: Evidence from the 1986 Compulsory Education Law.”
Hai Fang, Karen N. Eggleston, John A. Rizzo, Scott Rozelle, and Richard J. Zeckhauser
NBER Working Paper No. 18189, June 2012

Replication, or the lack thereof, in Economics

My scientist friends have always been puzzled by my responses to questions about replicating studies in Economics. It’s just not done very often. In fields like astrophysics and biology, replication is almost as important, if not more important in some cases, as the novel finding itself, but not so in Economics. I’ve seen evidence that other social sciences are similar and there was some recent debate about the replication of psychology experiments and the failure to come to the same conclusions using similar methodologies. (There were other pieces on this, but this is one that I found today). In short, journals favor novel and interesting outcomes, so obvious or unsurprising results are far less likely to be published. The publication of the novel results leads to a power imbalance (she already published this, so she’s the expert and gets the soapbox). No one wants to fund or highlight research that’s already been done. Replications that confirm are boring and replications that challenge established findings have to be 110% on everything.

It’s really hard to challenge established findings. Look at how long (three years after publication) and how many papers it took for Emily Oster to admit her paper on missing women and Hepatitis B was wrong. Regardless, she still has a job and now tenure at Chicago. Or how many papers have been written challenging Donohue and Levitt’s abortion paper and they still stand by it.

I got a bit far afield, though. Economists are not generally in favor of duplication of effort. If someone’s doing it already, unless you can do it a lot better, you shouldn’t really do it. Hence persistent ideas of comparative advantage and gains from trade.

However, the recent spate of randomized control trials, particularly in development settings, has prompted more and more debate about the validity of these experiments and appears to have resulted in at least one group that’s eager to test and replicate in order to confirm (or deny?) the validity of certain projects.

Clearly, there are limits to what can be replicated using existing data, and limited funding to collect new data using similar methods.It’s unclear to me how they will choose appropriate experiments to reproduce or test, and as much faith as economists tend to put in a sample size of one, I’d bet we won’t be too happy with a sample size of two, but I think it’s a good start. The Development Impact Blog by the World Bank will keep up with the process of replication, so worth following if you’re interested. I know I’ll be watching.

h/t @JustinWolfers

Though kind of dated now, Daniel Hamermesh’s paper on replication in economics is here.

The British were here first

I’m only beginning to get into this economic history literature. In much of the work I’ve done so far, my comparative advantage came in the form of data work. So while having skimmed, but not read in depth, most of the literature cited was formerly compelling and advantageous, I’m going to have a little catching up to do if I’m going to branch out on my own in this field. Hence, my tweet from yesterday afternoon with three fat volumes of The Constitution and Finance of Early English, Scottish, and Irish Joint-Stock Companies by Scott. It’s okay to say you’re jealous.

The decline of industry and manufacturing in America over the past few decades has been decried as one of the primary culprits behind the decline of the middle class and of blue-collar jobs. It seems as though, we aren’t the first ones to be in this situation.

At the same time that British capital was leaving the island at unprecedented levels, British industry began a decline that signalled the beginning of Britain’s transformation from world’s workshop to banker. While it was no surprise that a nation would eventually surpass Britain in industrial might, the speed of the reversal caused much consternation among the British elite. The city of London, with its perceived propensity to funnel capital overseas rather than into domestic industry, was widely suspected of hastening the decline of British industry.

The growing pains of developing from a manufacturing economy to a service-based economy aren’t new. I think that’s why I like history, because it reminds me that even though nothing is a replica of the past, it’s not like no one has ever been in a similar situation before.

1. Benjamin R. Chabot and Christopher J. Kurz. 2010. “That’s where the money was: Foreign bias and English investment abroad, 1866–1907”. Economic Journal 120 (September), 1056–1079.

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