Dissertation

There is a large debate in the economics community about the value of putting out working papers. When a working paper creates significant buzz, whether in the media, on twitter, or even just among economists, the conclusions in the paper take hold. That first impression is shown to be very persistent, even when a later version of the paper comes up with opposite results.

At least as long as I’ve had this blog, I’ve had a note on my research page saying that links to working papers are forthcoming. I’ve completed my dissertation and am working on revising the chapters to submit to journals. I’m fairly certain that the big picture of these papers isn’t going to change and my advisors were insistent that each of my chapters was very close to that point. Consequently, revisions are small at this point, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t benefit from a little help from the internets.

Over the next few weeks, I will post each of the chapters of my dissertation here. Comments, suggestions, typos, criticism, etc. are welcome.

Violence and Venezuela

I spent much of the last few weeks of the semester trying to convince my Latin American economics students that Venezuela is unabashedly the craziest place on earth. I may have made this claim about several places I’ve lived, but new evidence shows that I may actually be correct about Venezuela.

In Al Jazeera this week, former Fulbright scholar and current Stanford PhD student, Dorothy Kronick, discusses the prevalence of violence in Venezuela and how Chavez amazingly escapes the blame for it. Comparisons of Venezuela’s level of violence have been made to Iraq during the height of the war, Ciudad Juarez, and other dangerous places, but Dorothy points out that unlike Iraq or Ciudad Juarez, there is no war going on in Venezuela. Petty crime often ends in murder, gang-related deaths are all too common, and I’ll add that violence against women, at least in my anecdotal knowledge, is rather high.

Despite the relative impunity with which these criminals act and the astounding levels of violence that permeate society, President Chavez does not seem to suffer electorally. In fact, Dorothy shows that the areas showing the highest growth in rates of crime have lost very few Chavez and chavista votes.

“People don’t seem to blame the government for the security problem,” Gerardo Gonzalez, an analyst with one of Venezuela’s top polling firms and a Central University of Venezuela graduate, told me in an interview. “In fact, it seems to us that violence might even help Chavez: the more people talk about violence, which they don’t attribute to him, the less they’re talking about unemployment, which they do attribute to him.”

So, there’s only so much you can complain about, but I still find it most amazing that Venezuelans don’t attribute la inseguridad (violence or insecurity, loosely) to Chavez. I never knew a pre-Chavez Venezuela, but it can’t have always been like this.

Over on Caracas Chronicles, my former editor gives his take on the same article: it can’t go on forever.

What’s the matter with Kansas?, redux

I saw mutterings that a repeal of domestic violence laws might actually take place in Kansas a few weeks ago, but I had a hard time believing that it might actually come to pass. It did, and now the mainstream news is covering it. I’m not a lawyer, but I have to believe this violates equal protection clause of the Constitution. It’s unbelievable to me that anyone would use the economy to justify picking and choosing which crimes to prosecute. Beyond that, though, I’m astounded that even if you are able to justify your actions so callously–as those in charge in Topeka are doing–you cannot see that it’s incredibly short-sighted to repeal domestic violence laws. You create such perverse incentives–increase in battering, reduction in reporting, decrease in intervention by police, family members, neighbors. Haven’t we established that domestic violence is extremely costly? To individuals, to society, to workplaces, to the insurance system, to children. Endangering women and children is not the way to make a point.

Cartoon Violence

There are all sorts of studies that claim that cartoon violence, particularly of the video-game variety, encourages children to be violent, but this morning I was treated to a cute little analysis of violence that most likely isn’t actually engendering any violence. It does bring up questions of exactly what is being represented, though. Does violence in New Yorker cartoon articles correlate with rates of violence in the real world?

There are myriad questions, of course, that one could ask that might strengthen or weaken the relationship. Whether the total number of cartoons (violent or not) is constant over decades, turnover in the cartoonists, who the cartoonists are, etc.

I’ve never really known any cartoonists, so I can’t say much about their average temperaments, or sources of inspiration, or how much they read the news, or how much their cartoons reflect other trends in society. It’s reasonable to assume that, however inaccurately, they have some idea of what’s going on, even if they don’t metaphorically have their finger on the pulse of the nation. But more than rates of actual violence or murder in real life, I wonder if the increases can be associated with differing levels of depression or other mood disorders. A quick google search did not reveal an easy way to get depression statistics in the same format as the New Yorker cartoon violence data (and even if it did, it’s unlikely that there are enough data points to get a statistically significant answer). I’m sure a health economist friend (or even my mom) could help me out with this, were I to pursue it.

Then, I thought, maybe confidence in government? This WSJ graph has historical presidential approval ratings. The discontinuities would make it difficult to analyze, but  could be aggregated over each decade. There might be a story, or even better, might be a story about stability. Perhaps more volatility in presidential approval ratings over time means more violence. Or some combination of level and volatility?

Regardless of the outcome of such a search, this is clearly not a case of causation. Even asking whether cartoon violence is predictive or reflective of actual trends in depression or presidential approval ratings would take much finer data and many more assumptions. But I think it’s fun to try to link trends in media to trends in other facets of life. I used to tell a friend, who complained often about seemingly obvious journalism–“People use technology to do stuff”-type articles, for instance–that they’re necessary for the historical record. They’re also for nerdy economists to read and try to find patterns over time.

Revictimizing the victim

Since I posted here about Mac McClelland’s piece on her own PTSD, and how she used violent sex to lift herself out of it, I thought it appropriate to give voice to one of her sources. A Haitian woman whose experiences were tweeted by McClelland has found the means to say that she never gave McClelland permission to share her story in such a way. The author here even suggests that McClelland put her source’s life in danger.

There’s a fine line when we choose to share someone else’ experiences through any media outlet, be it social media, a newspaper or an online magazine. I don’t remember who said it, but I was once told that in order to be a good reporter, you have to be warm enough to earn people’s trust, and then callous enough to betray it by telling their story to the world.

We’re all talking more about the problem of rape in war-torn or disaster-affected countries as a result of this story, I’m sure. Haiti, Congo, Syria. Not many of us likely have ideas about how to fix it, but I think we can all agree that retraumatizing a victim does not add up to good work.

A lawyer, an economist and a social psychologist walk into a bar…

Over the last few months, I’ve been hard at work on an amazing project with two even more amazing coauthors. Through my undergrad, I’ve come into contact with so many fantastically smart people and as we all grow professionally, we’re starting to collaborate and work together on various academic projects. It just so happens that this most recent collaboration was proposed to me by a lawyer, to write a handbook chapter on gender-based violence, or GBV, from a social psychology perspective, with the other coauthor being a social psychologist. It starts to sound like a joke, but I promise it’s not.

I delved into this world of social psychology with some trepidation. My advisors expressed their qualms about the project, and not just because it would take time away from finishing my dissertation (it has, but it’s all going to get done). Academics in general, and economists in particular, are wary of crossing disciplinary lines, and there are good reasons for that hesitation. We’ve all been “raised” in very different academic environments, with not only different advisors, but different canonical texts, different standards for what constitutes research, for what constitutes a conclusion, different styles of writing, of citation, etc. In this light, our differences can seem overwhelming, to the point of excluding all possibility of collaboration. When it comes down to it, though, we’re all interested in asking interesting questions and finding answers to them. It’s that curiosity, that drive to solve problems, that I think unites us as academics. Certainly, we all took these (at least theoretical) pay cuts for a reason other than “summers off”.

In the research I did for this paper, and am still doing as organizations get back to me, and more sources and programs come to light, has opened up a whole new world in terms of how we present information. While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we ask questions, and particularly survey questions, I’ve spent less time in thinking about how we present information to change behavior. It’s easy to agree that gender-based violence is an undesirable outcome, but with the wealth of experience that tells us how easily we can alienate those we try to teach, how teaching can backfire in the face of culture and how unique individual situations are, it’s harder to say that we know how to combat it.

Programs that follow the dicta of social norms marketing fall squarely in this idea of how do we present information to change behavior. It’s a term that at first confused me, the economist, but quickly took hold. We talk about social norms all the time from what constitutes appropriate dinner talk to the acceptability of practices like FGM or honor killings in certain communities. As regards gender-based violence social norms, is gender-based violence acceptable? Or, rather, are there certain situations under which beating your wife is acceptable? We find that the answers to these questions are rather different, and how we pose them to survey respondents greatly affects the data to come out of such surveys.

The marketing part is the presentation of information. Through pamphlets or television shows or radio programs, advertisements, participatory workshops or events, social norms marketers try to present information about social norms, or rather present information about desirable social norms, using methods that are familiar, or not. Some of the most successful social norms marketing programs for gender-based violence rely on what are essentially soap operas and likable characters to portray desirable behavior.

Perhaps it’s my relatively naivete in the subject, but it really warms my heart to see new campaigns like this coming out. While in all reality, they really haven’t been sufficiently evaluated, the glimmers of promise in their success at creating desirable social norms around violence (it’s not okay to hit your wife, ever; rape is not something real men do, etc) bode well.

My coauthor recently sent me these videos from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, featuring a famous Congolese rapper in various roles portraying strong, loving, respectful real men. Real men who make their wives dinner when they’re late coming home from work instead of beating them and real men who treat women as equals instead of demanding sexual favors in return for employment. The videos don’t have subtitles and I don’t speak much French, but they’re cool nonetheless. I don’t see them winning an Oscar by any means, but hopefully they’ll change someone’s mind.