Assistant Professor of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota
Ceteris Non Paribus
Ceteris Non Paribus is my personal blog, formerly hosted at nonparibus.wordpress.com and now found here. This blog is a place for me to put the ideas I have, and the stuff I come across, that I’ve managed to convince myself other people would be interested in seeing. See the About page for more on the reasons why I maintain a blog and the origin of the blog’s name.
My most recent posts can be found below, and a list of my most popular posts (based on recent views) is on the right.
This piece from NPR about the challenge of targeting gay men in Kenya for HIV prevention messaging (NB: at least while in Malawi I typically just read the columns on NPR stories since getting the audio to load is pretty much a pipe dream on my current internet connection).
The thing about MSM (men who have sex with men, which is the academic term for gays since the latter is an identity that many do not share) in Africa is that we have no idea how common the practice is because it’s heavily stigmatized and often illegal. That matters a lot – in the US, where MSM is relatively common (something like 7% of men have ever had sexual contact with another man), they are important for the HIV epidemic. In Africa we don’t know because we can’t measure this stuff accurately.
In the article they say: “But the rate among men who have gay sex is more than three times the national average.” There’s no way they know that. Most studies I’ve seen of MSM in Africa use the “snowball” approach, which means that the researcher approached a set of gay friends, had them contact their friends, and so forth. This is useful for finding marginalized populations, but is terrible if what you want is a representative sample. The reason for doing it is that any technique that gives you a probability sample of the population will almost surely cause people to lie about having same-sex sexual contact. This article even admits that most MSM in Kenya keep their same-sex partners a secret. Lacking statistics on MSM that are representative of the population means we can’t get meaningful measures of the prevalence of the practice or of the relative HIV risk for MSM. We also can’t study their importance in driving the heterosexual epidemic (which is an issue since many MSM have female partners as well). And as this article notes we also have trouble identifying them for interventions. All of these factors tend to make the HIV epidemic worse, even for women and men who are exclusively heterosexual.
Discriminating against men who have sex with men isn’t just morally reprehensible – it has practical negative consequences for everybody else.
On Sunday night a shipment of Fanta Passion arrived in Zomba. I saw some of the first crates being rolled out – at Domino’s, I knew they had it in stock before the staff did:
One of my Malawian friends tells me that they actually make it locally, at Southern Bottlers (which may now be Carlsberg, because here in Malawi everything is made by Carlsberg). This is great news, as it definitively expands the number of places where I can get Passion Fruit-flavored soda to two. He theorizes that it is in fact low demand that leads to limited production – suppliers cut back because people weren’t buying enough of it. To test that theory, I’ll observe how quickly this shipment dries up.
As a bonus, I found a bakery that makes soft-serve ice milk, which is like soft-serve ice cream only way better. More liquid, less gelatinous. The only other place I’ve found it is Pic-Nic-Fry on the Southern Californian island of Santa Catalina.
I was unsurprised to learn that Gary Gates’ careful estimate of the proportion of Americans who are LGBT prompted a huge controversy. The answer is that 3.8% of people self-identify as a member of one of these groups, which is an average across eleven population-based surveys. One common reaction from the LGBT community was anger at such a low estimate; Larry Kramer called Gates a “horse’s ass”. The probably reason is that much LGBT activism has seized on “one in ten” as the true frequency (I first heard it as the share of homosexuals), as a way to emphasize how the importance of the group and to promote LGBT status as part of the mainstream. Those are both noble goals, and worth pursuing, and these pesky facts assembled by Gates threaten the means chosen to promote them.
This is far from the only situation where activists or intellectuals take a noble goal as justifying the means of statistics that are misrepresented or just fake outright. For example, the semi-anonymous Chris of Aspiring Economist deconstructs the claim that one in four women are raped here. It’s probably not true, and the top comment is telling – Angie more or less admits the statistics are a means to an end, rather than facts. And it happens on all sides – in the Gates article above, he talks about conservative groups just ignoring the bisexuals in the LGBT figures to downplay the percentage of people in the overall group.
I’m increasingly obsessed with the way people are misinformed or misled about statistics, by well-intentioned activists and policymakers, due to my own research – lots of people have totally wrong impressions about how HIV is transmitted and the course of the disease once you get it. I’m not sure how intentional the creation of those misconceptions is.
Gates’ whole piece defending the original estimate is carefully considered and worth looking at. Fascinatingly, the share of people who admit any same-sex attraction in their lifetimes is just over one in ten – with a slightly different initial spin, this study might have been heralded by the same activists who denounced it.
In Malawi, as in every developing country I’ve been to, it’s possible to hire someone to do almost anything imaginable, and to do it by hand. This includes a lot of things that rightly make Westerners uncomfortable since they are far too reminiscent of colonialism. Every residence I’ve visited in Malawi, for example, has someone referred to locally as the “house boy” or “boy” who is a grown man who manages security, maintenance and cleaning (foreigners rightly avoid the local terms, which are even more degrading when uttered by a white person). You can also hire people to wash your clothes by hand, for example, or to pedal you around on a bicycle, and all of these tasks come very cheaply. This is reflective of fairly massive unemployment in the country, in which a large share of people state that they are “just staying”, meaning they have no job and are just hanging out waiting for one to show up.
So it’s pretty surprising that at least in Zomba there are no baggers at the grocery stores. I don’t mind this at all personally – I don’t like being waited on, and have nothing else to do while I’m being rung up – but it’s an odd choice considering how cheaply you could hire somebody to do it. One explanation is that it might not have any associated returns. While the lines are long at all these stores, and baggers would help, Malawians seem very accustomed to waiting in lines to the point where maybe they don’t put a high price on their own time spent that way. In that case a retailer who has shorter lines would not be able to charge more.
I was born and grew up in Hawaii, and didn’t move to the mainland (what I guess other people call the “lower 48”, although that’s an absurd misnomer) until I was 19. Since moving away, I fairly often have to parry assertions that Hawaii is not a real state. The obvious answer is that of course we are, and the rest of the US needs us – otherwise they’d have an inelegant 98 senators and a horrendous 49-star flag to deal with. The obvious mathematical importance of the 50th state is still lost on plenty of people: of the 38% of Americans who doubted that President Obama was born in the US in 2009, fully 10 percentage points were aware he was born in Hawaii – 6 percentage points thought Hawaii was not in the United States and 4 points “weren’t sure”. That’s 10 in every 100 Americans doubting that there are 50 states in the US. Forget geography – let’s teach counting in schools.
I had a chance to stop in Salima and Senga Bay over the weekend, to see a friend of mine from the Malawian Army who is headed to Ivory Coast to join a peacekeeping force there. While there I got to thinking about national greatness. One thing many Americans point to when asked what makes America a great country is its natural beauty. But Senga Bay is just one example of the stiff competition Malawi puts up in that department:
I’m not writing this just to show off the sweet pictures I took of the beautiful place I stayed (okay, it’s partly about that). I also want to make the point that my friend the peacekeeper exemplifies how Malawi’s greatness is exactly the opposite of America’s. Beyond our amber waves of grain, Americans are raised to be proud of their country’s martial tradition. When I was a kid I learned we had never lost a single war out of the many we had fought, and that we had single-handedly defeated Hitler and Imperial Japan. It was only much later that I learned about Vietnam and the war of 1812 (most American still insist that we won the latter, which was a sideshow to the Napoleonic wars in which the British razed our capital), and also about the crucial role played by Stalin’s Russia in stopping the Nazis.
The accuracy of the narrative aside, a history of aggression and warfare is a very primitive thing to rest one’s national pride on. And we certainly do – despite our country being founded by a set of brilliant intellectuals, we mainly remember the one who led our army, and focus on his military accomplishments rather than his political acumen. Malawi’s military history is a stark contrast to our own. To the best of my knowledge, the army’s only non-peacekeeping engagement was an intervention in Mozambique’s civil war in the 1980s. Zero wars in fifty years of existence is an impressive track record.
Instead, their army has been engaged in keeping the peace in other countries. Sometimes war is necessary, but peace, peace is worth being proud of.
One of the many pleasant surprises I encountered on upon arriving in Malawi last year was learning that the country’s markets stock Passion-fruit flavored Fanta, which is arguably the greatest soda in the world. I’ve always been fond of passion fruit juice, and when I discovered it came in soda form (back in 2004, in Tanzania) it was love at first sight. It doesn’t hurt that Passion Fanta mixes quite nicely with Konyagi, a Tanzanian liquor that I mainly came across in what are basically ketchup packet shots.
If last summer was a happy reunion, then this summer so far – foreshadowed by my week-long visit in April – has been a slow, painful farewell. Passion Fanta is stocked out (“finished”, in Malawian English) virtually everywhere and almost no one seems to know quite why. In Lilongwe, other than the dregs of past crates still available in a very few restaurants, it’s been relegated to the back of a single shelf at Spar:
What happened to my favorite soda? One theory advanced by a clerk at Metro Cash & Carry is that Fanta Passion sells out fast because it’s more popular than the other flavors – he said they got 100 crates of the stuff last year (that’s 2400 bottles),and it’s all gone now. While this flies in the face of basic economic theory (high demand should lead to a larger quantity traded in the market, not lead to stockouts) it’s consistent with stuff I’ve read in the past about why certain items (bananas, t-shirts that fit a regular human) always sell out first.
A major hindrance in tracking down the source of the shortage is that I’m not even sure where exactly Fanta Passion comes from. Fanta is famously obtuse about which flavors are available where, probably because most are made by local franchisees. Passion fruit flavor is, as far as I know, found only in this part of Africa; it used to be in Australia and allegedly was a promo flavor in Brazil. The bottles themselves are no help at all; they are reusable glass with no markings of an origin.
My working theory, based on conversations with wholesalers, is that Fanta Passion is being made in Tanzania and was previously imported into Malawi, a trade that was screwed up by foreign exchange shortages. The only shortcoming of this theory is that it makes no sense: Fanta Passion flowed like water last year at the height of the foreign exchange crisis, and now, with forex relatively plentiful, it’s gone. Another option is that the trade just wasn’t smart business. All flavors of Fanta sell for the same price (even now, with Passion almost extinct); why offer Passion, which costs you far more to transport to the point of sale, when the Orange flavor is made in Malawi?
Everyone knows that the cost of college has skyrocketed over the past few decades, and also that it’s better to take classes taught by tenure-track faculty and a damned shame that all these fricking TAs are leading sections. It’s just common knowledge. Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program tells us what we already know in this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. (NB: I’m on Malawian cell-phone internet right now so I just read the article and can’t listen to the actual recording, but the article is mostly verbatim quotes from Carey).
Unfortunately, neither of these facts are particularly backed up by the evidence. The latter point is kind of weird to begin with: have any of the people bemoaning the rise of lecturers in teaching actually taken any classes taught by faculty on the tenure track? Adjuncts and lecturers are hired for, and evaluated on, their teaching. I’ve had almost uniformly good experiences in their classes. Tenure-track professors, on the other hand, are paid for and focused on their research. Some are amazing teachers, especially for graduate-level courses, but back when I was an undergrad I had lots of professors who were awful teachers. Carey even admits as much later in the article, so why make this hackneyed complaint about adjuncts? If we want to improve higher education, one place to start would be to give this much-maligned group credit for being the dedicated and highly-qualified educators they are, rather than deferring to the archaic status system of academia.
But costs are definitely rising, right? I wouldn’t be so sure: the alleged increases of inflation + 4% are the sticker price of college, not the cost people actually pay, which includes grants and financial aid. Those prices have been rising far slower than the sticker price, and for private universities have actually fallen in nominal terms, according to this graph (ironically taken from a different NPR article which I found via Susan Dynarski):
That doesn’t include room and board, but financial aid can help with those ancillary costs as well. Assuming I’m reading it properly (the article is sparse on details) then the true price of college has risen slower than inflation and has actually fallen in real terms for both public and private schools. That’s very different from the take you typically get in stories like the Carey interview.
The only downside to this positive trend is that not enough people are aware of how much financial aid is available to them, and often the worst-informed prospective students come from the poorest families. It does them a major disservice to harp on the huge and rising costs of a college education without also noting that very few people pay full price. One reason for America’s poor college attendance figures is that while people understand the payoffs to a degree, they overestimate the costs. This hits disadvantaged students the hardest – they stand to benefit the most from financial aid and tend to understand it the worst – but even the well-off need help figuring out what college actually costs and learning how to work the system in their favor. One of my dad’s businesses focuses on coaching students and their parents through the college application process, and the area where people consistently need the most help is in understanding costs, financial aid and scholarships.
HIV may be harder to measure than anything else we study in public health and social science. It is largely invisible to the naked eye, its transmission is low-probability and highly variable, and perhaps most importantly, people have strong incentives to hide their status and avoid testing. These incentives arise from everything from stigma to a desire to maintain access to sex partners to a perception that HIV testing is just a death sentence, with tests highly likely to be positive and bringing no benefits. We’ve gotten a lot better at measuring things like the prevalence of the virus, but even now our estimates have to be taken with a grain of salt.
Despite all that, we do have a decent sense of how common it is in different regions of the world. In urban Malawi, which includes the place I’m currently sitting, the answer is that a little over 20% of the population has the virus. For historical reasons, those rates are typically computed for the population aged 15-49, so the overall rate might differ, but that’s still a decent range for prime-aged adults (and indeed there’s no reason to think the prevalence drops drastically above that age range). HIV takes around ten years to lead to death, with visible AIDS lasting for something like one year. So as a basic estimate, 20% of people are carrying the virus, but just 2% would be visibly ill. That second number is small enough to ignore, so about one out of every five people in Lilongwe is infected with HIV.
This is a nearly-incomprehensible figure for me. Sometimes if I pass through crowds I try to imagine that every fifth person I pass has an incurable virus (although many don’t know it). I honestly can’t do it – they all look like regular people to me, because that is exactly what they are. But all the evidence I’ve seen indicates that people here do manage to wrap their minds around the idea that one in every five people in the street (or one in every five potential sex partners, or one in every five people on their soccer team) is infected with HIV. I have no idea how they manage it, either psychologically or in terms of making important life decisions about stuff like whom to marry. People often wonder what an economist is doing studying HIV prevention. The answer is that the choices people make about sex and marriage in the face of HIV constitute what I would argue is the hardest – and the most interesting – decisionmaking problem in the world.
Last night I met a former hotel employee who hand-calculated inflation figures for the region around his resort, using year-on-year price changes for the official consumer price basket. He came up with an annual inflation rate (if memory serves) of 28%, which is nearly two and a half times the official Reserve Bank of Malawi figure of 11.4% (as of March).
I’m really surprised that the local rate would be so much higher than the national one, since a lot of the goods in the basket are fairly tradeable. I don’t, however, suspect that things are being intentionally gamed: I know lots of folks who currently or formerly worked at central banks and even interned at one myself, way back when, and they’re uniformly well-intentioned data geeks like myself. But this is a way bigger spread than we see, for example, across US regions, so I’m at a loss to explain what’s going on.