MethodLogical is now at

MethodLogical is now at

Due to some persistent technical issues we've been having with Blogger, we're now posting at Please update your RSS feeds, etc. For the time being, our new posts will automatically be mirrored here, but you'll have to visit the new site to comment.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011



The Government of China Must Read MethodLogical

Posted: 28 Mar 2011 09:30 PM PDT

Last year I blogged about the global disease burden of smoking. The BBC is reporting there may be some progress on that front.

China–the largest manufacturer of cigarettes in the world–announced a ban on public smoking, effective May 1, 2011. Given that 25% of China smokes (equivalent to ALL of the population in the United States), resulting in one million smoking-related deaths per year (20% of the global total), the effects of this policy may be tremendous.

Take it inside!

The policy also bans cigarette vending machines in public areas while initiating a public awareness campaign on the dangers of smoking. However, smoking in the workplace will still be permitted.

My guess is that the Chinese government started to consider the health care costs of treating millions of people with emphysema, lung cancer, and heart disease (as well as the countless other ailments smoking precipitates), and realized it was easier to try to curb the nation’s habit.

While the finer details of enforcement haven’t been worked out yet, I think the repressive totalitarian state will be able to come up with something…

Friday, March 25, 2011



The Horror of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Posted: 24 Mar 2011 01:08 PM PDT

In terms of incomprehensible enormity, what is commonly known as the “Spanish Flu” is in a league of its own. It is commonly estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people. If it were a genocidal dictator it would outrank all its peers by an order of magnitude. Compared with the World Wars, it .

In doing research on Indian census coding schemes for one of my projects, I just stumbled across this table that helps put the Great Influenza into perspective. Wikipedia cites a mortality rate of 5% in India from the 1918 pandemic. In that table, you can see that (ignoring other factors) it appears to have totally undone an entire decade of population growth in that country. Stunning.

Incidentally The Great Influenza is among my favorite books, a wonderful mix of medical history, scientific thriller, and horror novel. Read it if you want to freak out about the next flu strain that Adam brings up on this blog.

Idealizing the rural poor: American Heritage Edition

Posted: 24 Mar 2011 08:21 AM PDT

In a recent NYT article, Robert Shiller makes the case for indexing state-funded pensions to state GDP. This is a really sensible idea, but his framing device rubs me the wrong way:

NOT so very long ago, most Americans lived on farms, with three generations under one roof: grandparents, parents and children.

Farming was — and still is — a risky undertaking. Sometimes, you have good weather and abundant crops, sometimes bad weather and meager crops. How did our forebears manage their risks, which were as significant for them as the booms and busts of our 21st-century economy are to us?

In good times, all three generations consumed a lot. In bad times, all three consumed less. The risks were spread among the extended family. This is risk management at its most basic level. It is called sharing.

This is a perfectly good example of sharing the costs of aggregate volatility (although he makes that link poorly, waiting until the ). But that’s not why he chose it. Shiller repeatedly references “the old-time farm” to take advantage of Americans’ incorrect perception that things were “better” and “simpler” back in the old days. We commonly take a similar (and similarly incorrect) view of contemporary rural poverty around the world: witness the bullcrap-tacular email forward about the Mexican Fisherman and the American CEO.

I object to this kind of rhetoric because it feeds all sorts of misguided advocacy and political action. For example, people often campaign to ban so-called sweatshops because they do not realize how much worse the outside option is.

Hat tip on the Shiller piece: Ben Meiselman

Thursday, March 24, 2011



A New Vision of India?

Posted: 23 Mar 2011 09:00 PM PDT

In India Calling, Anand Giridharas painted a tepidly optimistic picture of what he describes as a complex process unfolding in India – a process of reinventing the self, a coming of modernity, and a deviation from traditional societal norms of family, marriage, and class.  I deeply admire the way Giridharas transformed his astute observations from encounters with individuals and families in India into insightful and artistic observations with a broader relevance.  Giridharas has catalytically provoked me to reflect on my own encounters with India on a more meaningful level.

Like Giridharas, I too grew up defining myself not by the blood in my veins but by the soil under my feet. I grew up in America as the product of a Minnesotan mother and an ex-pat Punjabi father.  Throughout my life I have seen India through the looking glass of bi-annual trips back to my father's hometown, Jalandhar, India, where my father's six siblings and their families still reside.  To me, India is being ushered through the chaos of the Delhi airport by relatives eager to serve us tea and biscuits even though it's 2:30am. India is hastily weaving through the chaos of the tongas, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians and cars on the back of my cousin's scooter.   India is a never-ending stream of cousins to play with, all of who speak far more perfect and sing-songy version of English than I ever will.   India is warmly being passed from one 'Thaiji' to the next 'Chachiji', accepting their warm embraces and enduring their cheek pinches.

The Cousins of Durga Niwas (2008)

My mother, a homegrown Minnesotan straight out of a Garrison Keillor story, has somehow comfortably embraced the Indian culture of my father.  I can't imagine what it would be like to carry a conversation with your mother-in-law through translating cue cards and generous hand gestures, or to experience the rich spices of Indian cuisine after growing up eating exactly one spice (salt).  Did she too have to grasp my father a little tighter at the sight of the sleeping, blanketed bodies sprawled across the Delhi train station, like I did?  Was she too taken aback by the beggars pulling an old crippled man in a rudimentary cart, waiting for the light to turn so that they can knock on the rolled-up air-conditioned car windows?

Mom and Dad (1990)

While I share Giridharas' hopeful vision of an India that finally feels an "independence of the soul, not just of the nation," I also share his hesitancy and caveats to this forward progress.  As much as I see the strengths of India—its strong familial support system, its entrepreneurial spirit trickling all the way down to barefoot street vendors, and its rapid growth on the world economic stage—I also see a country full of paradoxes.  It is paradoxical to me how my family can simultaneously so open-mindedly encourage all of their daughters to pursue careers, yet so traditionally insist that their daughter-in-laws do not.  It is paradoxical to me how my aunts can show such compassion in their charitable endeavors in the outskirt slum areas, then how quickly that compassion dissipates when they return home and interact with their own household servants. It is paradoxical to me how despite a systemic lifting of the odds for all Indians that Giridharas describes, upward mobility rags-to-riches stories are still far more prevalent in Bollywood than in real life.

Giridharas heard India calling, and decided to answer. The question I ask myself is, if India calls me, will I answer?

Another Flu Pandemic?

Posted: 22 Mar 2011 09:30 PM PDT

By now, you should be use to worrying about the flu. Avian flu (H5N1) and swine flu (H1N1) have dominated global health news cycles in recent years–probably because pandemic flu is one global health issue that can affect rich countries–spurring calls to increase our public health preparedness.

That neither epidemic reached catastrophic proportions should not lead one to believe that the risk is not real. In fact, it may have been our rapid and widespread response to swine flu that stemmed its spread. Having said that, it’s not immediately clear that flu preparedness should receive the same funding as anti-HIV  or anti-diarrhea campaigns.

Most doctors agree having the flu sucks.

Nevertheless, it appears there may be a new strain of flu to watch out for. According to an editorial published in Nature this month, people under 50 may have low levels of immunity to H2N2 strains of the flu. Such strains killed millions in the 1950s and 1960s, but after the threat subsided, these strains were left out of annual inoculations.

Researchers are suggesting that giving people under 50 a one-time vaccine containing an H2N2 strain will offer sufficient protection in the event of future outbreaks. Others are less confident about the cost-effectiveness of such an approach. Which leads to the same unanswerable questions we asked ourselves when staring down avian and swine flu epidemics: how big is the risk of a pandemic and how devastating would it have to be to merit resource-intensive preemptive intervention?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011



Even at low prices (and in poor places) the demand curve slopes downward

Posted: 21 Mar 2011 02:00 AM PDT

My UM econ classmate Austin Davis sent me a link to this great piece by Michael Kremer and Rachel Glennerster in the Boston Review, which summarizes what we’ve learned from RCTs in developing countries and how the results generalize to human behavior around the world. The entire thing is worth reading – they capture, better than I probably could myself, the reasons why I’m working in development economics and the sorts of issues I study.

The best part, though, is this plot of the (inverse) demand curves for a bunch of different products across various settings:

Both uptake and utilization of a variety of goods declines monotonically with their price

I like it for two reasons. First, as the authors point out, it’s fairly common to argue that “people won’t use [whichever good] if it’s free”. All the evidence I’m aware of indicates the opposite: not only the rate at which people take goods, but also the extent to which they use them, is drastically higher if the price is zero.

Second, I’ve occasionally been asked (including once by my roommate who is a fellow economist) whether we “really know” the demand curve for anything. The answer is yes: field experiments that randomly vary prices can identify actual demand curves, eliminating the unavoidable uncertainty that comes from estimating them observationally. From there we can figure out the optimal price to set in terms of cost-effectiveness (since we can use user fees to fund the provision of goods to more people) and, if we’re willing to make some strong assumptions, do social welfare analysis. Beautiful.