Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cost Effective Treatment for Criminals and At-Risk Teens

In an experiment in Liberia, researchers took 999 of the most violent, high-risk criminals in their capital, and for only $535 of expenses per person (nothing to these kinds of programs or compared to the cost of crime and prisons), they bought 20-50% lower incidents of crime in that population for a year. The treatment was asking 1500 candidates if they wanted therapy – 2/3 of them said yes – and they ran a cheap cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) course with them.

CBT was then brought to Chicago youths with similarly positive results in three separate randomized controlled trials. Graduation rates rose and crime rates fell, crucial in bringing a new generation out of poverty with access to better opportunities.

Image By Jty33 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0


In the two studies participation in the program reduced total arrests during the intervention period by 28–35%, reduced violent-crime arrests by 45–50%, improved school engagement, and in the first study where we have follow-up data, increased graduation rates by 12–19% […] These large behavioral responses combined with modest program costs imply benefit-cost ratios for these interventions from 5-to-1 up to 30-to-1 or more. 

If the improvements in participants’ high school graduation lead to other future benefits such as increased earnings or longer life expectancies, these estimates may understate the full value of the program’s social benefits
“Thinking, Fast and Slow?” Heller, et al

 

To investigate, we recruited 999 of the highest-risk men in Liberia’s capital, generally aged 18 to 35. Most were engaged in part-time theft and drug dealing, and regularly had violent confrontations with each other, community members, and police.

Men who received therapy reduced their antisocial behavior dramatically. Within a few weeks, for instance, drug dealing halved and thefts fell by a third, compared to controls. With therapy alone, these effects diminished after a year. When therapy was followed by cash, however, effects were lasting. For example, a year later, those who received both therapy and cash were 44% less likely to be carrying a weapon, 43% less likely to sell drugs, and reported lower aggression. In the control group, men reported stealing almost once per week on average, and with therapy and cash this fell nearly 40%—equal to 25 crimes per year, per person. 
Poverty Action Lab

The Second Life of a Cell Phone, and How it’s Saving the World

One of the best ways get rural impoverished farmers and fishers out of poverty: getting a cheap cell phone in their hands. Study after study shows the benefits of having access to a mobile phone so that they can better coordinate farming life and check market prices to find the best places to sell their stuff.

The best thing about this is that it is easy and profitable to help this. At least in the US, your cell provider is required to take your old phones for free, if not pay for them, and even pay for shipping if you want to mail it in. They then sell phones too old to be sold in their stores to e-cycling companies that then refurbish and ship them to the developing world. So the takeaway is – don’t let your old iPhone sit in your desk or chuck it in the trash.

Image by Bilco at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“An emerging body of research shows that the reduction in communication costs associated with mobile phones has tangible economic benefits, improving agricultural and labor market efficiency”
Mobile Phones and Economic Development in Africa, Jenny C. Aker, Isaac M. Mbiti

 

” However, when a previously missing informal-financial sector component is integrated into the definition, mobile phone penetration has a positive correlation with informal financial development. ” 
How has Mobile Phone Penetration Stimulated Financial Development in Africa?, Simplice A. Asongua

 

“This study investigates the use of mobile phones among farmers in rural Tanzania in order to supply empirical data on the developmental role of this technology. The results show that the improved access […] has resulted in considerable changes in the entire livelihood constructs, increased opportunities and reduced risks for rural farmers.”
The Developmental Contribution from Mobile Phones Across The Agricultural Value Chain in Rural Africa, Bjorn Furuholt and Edmund Matotay

 

Recycling Disclosure to Maryland Customers: Device recycling is always free. […] and often customers can be paid to recycle. […] If you choose to return a device by mail, shipping is free. Trade in returns are automatically provided free packing for shipment. 
Verizon Trade-ins

 

“You’d be surprised, but these wholesalers find demand for those items around the world — usually in developing countries where there’s not a lot of supply for those products,” said Israel Ganot, CEO of Gazelle. […] Gazelle said about 90% of its devices are resold.
CNN

Circumcision to Fight HIV Transmission

Voluntary male circumcisions (VMMC) in high-risk areas reduce HIV acquisition among men by approximately 60%, for only about $6 per treatment. The evidence is strong enough that the treatment has gotten heavy hitters like the CDC, WHO, the Gates Foundation, and the White House (at least the last one …) onboard.

Kenya made it its long-term goal to circumcise 80% of its male population in 2008. In the first couple years, they circumcised almost 400,000 people. Since then, 13 African countries have followed suit, getting 3 million done from 2008 to 2012, and doubling from 2011 to 2012.

Image Credit: UN AIDS Global Report 2013


Male circumcision provides a degree of protection against acquiring HIV infection, equivalent to what a vaccine of high efficacy would have achieved. Male circumcision may provide an important way of reducing the spread of HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa.
Public Library of Science

 

Kenya’s 4-year VMMC target is to circumcise 860,000 (80%) of uncircumcised males aged 15–49 years by 2013. During 2008–2011, trained clinicians performed 391,383 VMMCs for HIV prevention in Kenya, of which 340,958 (87.1%) were conducted in 260 MOH sites supported by CDC-funded partners, from which the data were obtained
The CDC

 

“Providing men with information about male circumcision and HIV risk can encourage safer sexual behavior among uncircumcised men, and fears that information will lead to riskier behavior among circumcised men may be overstated. The 2008 information campaign led uncircumcised men to adopt safer sexual behavior one year after a short information session, suggesting that VMMC information can have longer-term effects on sexual behavior.”
Jameel Poverty Action Lab

 

While challenges persist in preventing new infections, opportunities to dramatically lower HIV incidence have never been more promising. In recent years, evidence has emerged that antiretroviral therapies can reduce the risk of HIV transmission by as much as 96%, voluntary medical male circumcision by approximately 60% […]
The UN

 

The number of those responding positively is below the ages of 18. Maybe this is due to peer pressure. Once school children are circumcised, they tend to influence others to undergo the procedure. I think there is need to teach everyone a lot about these programmes.
VOA Zimbabwe

Peacekeeping is an Investment

Every year, the Institute for Economics and Peace Research puts out a report breaking out the status of peace and war over the last year. It’s the nerdiest and most amazing thing for political science nerds who obsess over data, so I highly recommend it.

One of the findings is that war costs the world economy over a trillion dollars per year. Peacekeeping cost less than 1% of that. Peacekeeping can be hard to motivate support for. It simultaneously seems scarily globalist, abusive, rapey, and ineffective, all at once. But that’s a shame. Because despite any flaws, it’s an incredibly productive investment. Crimes committed by the police very rarely result in calls for the abolishment of the idea of having police at all.

Cost savings from peacekeeping can be over 16 times the cost. 53% of peacekeeping activities are in active warzones, and the average length of an operation is only 31 months (with a few ongoing outliers). If the world could put the resources needed into peacekeeping in the next 10 years, the cost avoidance could be almost $3 trillion. And hidden behind those sterile dollars are a lot of real human lives. 

Image by Dawit Rezene, via Wikimedia Commons


IEP estimates show that the cost of violent conflict in 2013 was over 120 times higher than
peacebuilding and peacekeeping funding.
The potential benefits from investing further in peacebuilding are substantial. Based on IEP’s model of the cost-effectiveness of peacebuilding, the total peace dividend that the international community would reap if it increased peacebuilding commitments over the next ten years could be as high as US $2.94 trillion. 
Global Peace Index 2017

Congratulations, World. We’ve Almost Eliminated Poverty

The world is dominated by negative headlines. Single horrible events, like terrorist attacks or natural disasters. But, in the background, millions of people are making slow and steady progress making our world infinitely better than the world of our ancestors. 

One striking example is the global poverty rate. As recently as the 90s, the portion of humanity that lived in extreme poverty was well over half. Now? As of 2015, it’s estimated that fewer than one in ten people suffer through the same meager existence. The biggest gains have been in India and China, but the progress is truly global. 

It’s entirely possible that someone reading this post will see a world within their lifetime where almost no person ever has to wonder where their next meal is coming from.

Image By Jonathan McIntosh (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“In East Asia and Pacific the extreme poverty rate fell from 61 percent in 1990 to 7 percent in 2012, and in South Asia it fell from 51 percent to 19percent (figure 1a). In contrast, SubSaharan Africa’s extreme poverty rate did not fall below its 1990 level until 2002. Based on national growth rates over the past 10 years, the global extreme poverty rate is estimated to be below 10 percent in 2015, a drop of more than two-thirds since 1990.”
The World Bank

The One Economic Principle that Explains the Power of Lobbyists

Pay attention to politics at all, and you’ll come across the term “special interests” to describe lobbyists: the idea that a small minority of the population control Washington and politics in general.

There’s some truth to that idea. And it comes from an economic principle called “concentrated benefits and diffuse costs.” Say there’s a law that will take a dollar from a million people and give it to one person. How hard would you fight to save that dollar?  Would you fly to Washington D.C., hire a lawyer or lobbyist, and go to Congressional hearings for it? The person receiving the million dollars certainly would.

This simple concept explains why a small group of elites with time and money can often out-lobby millions of people, even in a democracy.

Image By Martin Falbisoner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“One reason for this lobbying imbalance was identified by the political scientist James Q. Wilson more than 30 years ago. He noted that many policies tend to concentrate benefits and costs on companies, while dispersing benefits and costs among citizens. The former motivates political action; the latter does not. This makes it much easier for a company like Citigroup to spend $5.3 million a year in lobbying expenditures but much harder for Citigroup customers to organize to, say, reduce fees.”
The Washington Post 

 

Many members explained their “no” votes by saying they were unwilling to sacrifice the subsidies to airports in their districts. “It’s that old problem of concentrated benefits with diffuse costs. The benefits are lavished on a few select communities, and the costs are diffused across the entire tax base,” McClintock said afterward. The beneficiaries, he said, are the only ones who care enough to fight.
The CATO Institute

 

Popular Opinion on War is Mostly Based on How Hard We’re Winning

The most important factor that statistically impacts the popularity of a war is whether we are winning. If we’re winning, we as a people tolerate pretty high casualties.

Dr. Feaver, the person who originally published these results from their conflict studies research heavily influenced the Bush administration in how it communicated the Iraq war (as reported by several journalists in 2005-6), and may have been responsible for the emphasis on winning quickly that Bush took with his speeches.

This same effect seems to have been picked up on in general by American politicians (e.g.: Mr. Trump and his fixation on repeating the words “win” and “lose;” Obama consistently downplaying the difficulty of destroying ISIS and repeating simple easy win conditions), so watch out for the impact of that analysis the next time you’re watching a speech.

Image By U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos
(101211-A-7125B-303) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Our core argument is that the U.S. public’s tolerance for the human costs of war is primarily shaped by the intersection of two crucial attitudes: beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of the war, and beliefs about a war’s likely success. The impact of each attitude depends upon the other. Ultimately, however, we find that beliefs about the likelihood of success matter most in determining the public’s willingness to tolerate U.S. military deaths in combat.
https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=5CBB7CBC784DB26C!385&authkey=!AOvcFBNMiNcM2JE&ithint=file%2cpdf (Success Matters: Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq, Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver, and Jason Reifler, International Security, Vol. 30, No. 3)

 

He used the word victory 15 times in the address; “Plan for Victory” signs crowded the podium he spoke on; […] reflected a new voice in the administration: Peter D. Feaver […] They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed.
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/politics/bushs-speech-on-iraq-war-echoes-voice-of-an-analyst.html?_r=0 (Bush’s Speech on Iraq War Echoes Voice of an Analyst, Scott Shane, The New York Times)

 

[The administration] recognizes that flagging domestic support will translate into a strategic straitjacket […] The Feaver/Gelpi solution to this conundrum is to have the President spell out a clear definition for victory…
http://foreignpolicy.com/2005/12/06/political-science-enters-the-white-house/ (Political science enters the White House, Daniel W. Drezner, Foreign Policy)

 

These results suggest [given] substantial disagreement about the prospects for success, the public’s support is likely to remain low or even decline.
http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/0162288054894616#.V2tkO7grK70 (Victory Has Many Friends: U.S. Public Opinion and the Use of Military Force, 1981–2005, Richard Eichenberg, International Security)

 

As the Washington Post reported nine months ago, Bush’s domestic political spin on the war is guided by the work of two Duke University political scientists, Peter D. Feaver and Christopher F. Gelpi, […] Public support for the Iraq war has faltered because the American people cannot see progress toward a well defined goal and toward success.
http://www.salon.com/2006/03/23/civil_war/ (Civil War? What Civil War?, Juan Cole, Salon)

 

“We will have so much winning if I get elected, that you may get bored with winning.”
http://www.salon.com/2015/09/09/donald_trump_if_elected_well_have_so_much_winning_youll_get_bored_with_winning/

“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”
http://www.cnbc.com/2014/09/10/obama-us-will-lead-coalition-to-fight-isis-no-us-combat-troops-fighting-on-foreign-soil.html

“We Do Not Negotiate With Terrorists!” … Sometimes

It’s an old adage, and official policy of many governments. In fact, some upstart terrorist groups count on it in order to pump up their troops and escalate things with the governments they hope to agitate.

But while governments are hesitant to talk to them at first, the more terrorism a terrorist organization does, the more likely the government caves and comes to the table. That also may not actually be a bad thing when you crunch the numbers on it, as it tends to end conflict faster when everyone is able to get together and hash things out.

See the studies below for more details:

Image By BLAKE R. BORSIC, CIV, USAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


When the weakest rebels make demands from the government, they make large demands, ensuring that sufficiently weak types of government reject, preserving their optimism about their chances of victory. As these weakest rebels grow stronger, they are freed to demand less from the government, because the credibility of their threat to fight is no longer in question; they no longer need to believe that the government is very weak in order to credibly threaten to fight. Thus, we show that some common results from the standard approach to crisis bargaining, which assumes the credibility of threats, do not hold when credibility is an issue for uninformed players.
http://www.jakanathomas.com/uploads/2/7/1/6/27169143/final_rebel_credibility_dilemma_io.pdf (The Rebels’ Credibility Dilemma, Jakana L. Thomas, William Reed, and Scott Wolford, International Organization)

 

Using the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the southern Philippine region of Mindanao as illustrations, the article argues that the legitimation of `terrorist’ groups through talks can be a means to transform a conflict away from violence, while complexity may in fact open up new possibilities for engagement. The article concludes by examining how the naming of a group as `terrorist’ can and is often designed to forestall nonviolent responses to terrorism.
http://sdi.sagepub.com/content/39/4/407.short (`We Don’t Negotiate with Terrorists!’: Legitimacy and Complexity in Terrorist Conflicts, Harmonie Toros, Security Dialogue)

 

Using new monthly data on the incidence of negotiations and the number of concessions offered to groups involved in African civil wars, this paper demonstrates that rebel groups are both more likely to be granted the opportunity to participate in negotiations and offered more concessions when they execute a greater number of terror attacks during civil wars.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ajps.12113/abstract and https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/22/actually-sometimes-terrorism-does-work/ (Rewarding Bad Behavior: How Governments Respond to Terrorism in Civil War, Jakana Thomas, American Journal of Political Science, reported on by the Washington Post)

 

Take a look at some of the most glaring – as well as some of the least well known – examples of U.S. negotiations with terrorists throughout history. [Iran Hostage Crisis, Iran-Contra Affair, Bill Clinton and the IRA, GW Bush and the Abu Sayyaf, Meetings with Hamas, Prisoner Exchanges in Iraq].
http://sotu.blogs.cnn.com/2014/06/07/timeline-of-u-s-negotiations-with-terrorists/ (Timeline of U.S. negotiations with terrorists, CNN)

Sesame Street was, by the Numbers, a Great Investment

Education is important for reducing long-term poverty.

Sesame Street has done a great job improving test scores and education outcomes in children, which a study by the National Bureau of Economics Research was able to tell by mapping out where the show rolled out over time, and looking at statistics before and after in each school district.

While it alone can’t miraculously solve poverty, the show did have a small effect on future wages as well, and was incredibly cheap to roll out compared to other programs aimed at poverty reduction.

Image By Staff Sgt. Dijon Rolle (United States Army)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


It cost pennies on the dollar relative to other early childhood interventions. Well-designed research studies conducted at that time, reviewed in detail below, indicate that the show had a substantial and immediate impact on test scores,
[…] Our analysis takes advantage of the county-level variation in viewer’s ability to watch Sesame Street generated by these technological constraints that existed when the show was introduced in 1969
[…] The small estimated impact on wages in adulthood, though, is consistent with forecasts based on the estimated improvements in test scores and grade-for-age status brought about by the show’s introduction.
http://www.nber.org/papers/w21229.pdf (paywall) (Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street, Melissa S. Kearney, Phillip B. Levine, National Bureau of Economics Research)

The Lottery Has Held Back a More Effective Type of Savings Account for Years

Nearly half of the population of the US doesn’t have enough savings to come up with $2,000 dollars in 30 days, and in 2015 the US spent over 70 billion dollars on the lottery.

While lotteries are good for raising state money, savings rates are even more critical (saved money doesn’t just sit around). Some groups have created a sexier alternative to traditional savings accounts (and their practically 0% interest rates), an alternate form of banking that leaves your principal alone and lumps together everyone’s interest. Occasionally, it pays out those lumps of interest to some lucky saver.

This basically trading a guarantee of tiny payments for a tiny chance of huge payments. It has been incredibly successful in enticing people to open savings accounts where it has been tried, but has been held back by government regulations. They were determined to be a form of lottery, which are often illegal for private organizations to organize. The states were in no rush to change that, either, given that competition to their own lotteries isn’t something they’re eager to allow.

Still, prize-linked savings accounts are starting to build steam despite the resistance, and legislation designed to make them easier to implement have been passing through legislatures across the US.


Lawsuits from government lotteries arguing that this is technically a form of lottery have blocked them in the US so far, despite success overseas. Not that any legislatures intentionally targeted this program, but it happens to run foul of lottery laws almost by accident. Consensus is building on it, though. A federal law was passed on the federal level on 2014 and some state legislatures have taken action to pave the way.
MAMA attracted more than a million new customers to Keip’s bank. Other banks in South Africa took note — and they complained to regulators. And then the Keip’s bank heard from someone else: the South African National Lottery.
So this preference for highly skewed payoffs or, you know, the kind of payoffs that are usually present in gambling or lottery products when combined with savings turned out to be tremendously effective around the world, but it was completely absent for legal reasons in the United States.
http://freakonomics.com/podcast/freakonomics-radio-who-could-say-no-to-a-no-lose-lottery/
http://freakonomics.com/podcast/freakonomics-radio-could-a-lottery-be-the-answer-to-americas-poor-savings-rate/

 

While prize-linked savings accounts were previously legal only at credit unions in a handful of states, federal legislation passed at the end of 2014 will make the practice legal for big banks and credit unions in any state that does not prohibit it.
[…]
The bill, which flew through both houses with rare bipartisan support, removed federal hurdles across several laws and will allow institutions to copy successful programs in Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina and Washington. At least six other states have recently passed laws explicitly allowing similar programs.
http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/11/pf/prize-savings/index.html