Mexico round-up

1. Mexican maquiladora industry cry foul on new taxes

2. Educating Journalists: Alfredo Corchado & Mónica Ortiz Uribe at Columbia University

3. Entrevista con un Zeta

4. NPR: Riding ‘The Beast’: Alt.Latino Interviews Salvadoran Journalist Oscar Martinez

5. From Mansfield to Mexico: Man of two countries is at home in neither 

6. Death and Corruption: Organized Crime and Local Govt in Mexico

Borders, Ethnicity and Trade

My stack of reading material is increasing daily.  The latest addition is called “Borders, Ethnicity and Trade” and it is forthcoming in the JDE (click here for an earlier, ungated version).  The paper looks to be really interesting on the topics of geography and ethnicity.  Below is the abstract:

This paper uses unique high-frequency data on prices of two agricultural goods to examine the additional costs incurred in cross-border trade between Niger and Nigeria, as well as trade between ethnically distinct markets within Niger. We find a sharp and significant conditional price change of about 20 to 25 percent between markets immediately across the national border. This price change is significantly lower when markets on either side of the border share a common ethnicity. Within Niger, trade between ethnically distinct regions exhibits an ethnic border effect that is comparable, in its magnitude, to the national border effect between Niger and Nigeria. Our results suggest that having a common ethnicity may reduce the transaction costs associated with agricultural trade, especially the costs associated with communicating and providing credit.

Orwell in Venezuela

The news out of Venezuela would be a lot funnier if it weren’t so tragic.  In honor of the late President Chavez, Maduro has decided to create a new cabinet post called the Minister of Supreme happiness.  So what will said minister do?  Apparently he or she will  “serve the elderly, children, people with disabilities, and the homeless.”

The always excellent Fausta writes that “the minister will begin imposing cheer on December 9, in time to coincide with the first ever “Loyalty and Love to Hugo Chavez Day” and notes that  Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called the agency a “social advance in the struggle against the perfidy of capitalism.”

Wow, you really can’t make this s**t up!

Apparently the Earth Institute ranked Venezuela as the happiest country in South America (and 20th worldwide) in 2013.  Given that the country faces constant shortages of toilet paper, food, and feminine pads, it makes me wonder about EI’s survey methodology or worry about the mental state of the rest of South America.

Fausta also reports that the new ministry will be headed up by a military officer, as is the “office of Sovereign People, the Superior Office for the Defense of the Economy, and the Strategic Superior Centre for Homeland Security and Protection.”

Truth is stranger than fiction, Brazilian edition

I get why a government or non-profit might want to raise awareness about cancer, but I cannot imagine why they would feel the need to have a mascot for the campaign (especially when the cancer in question is testicular cancer).  It does make the campaign memorable though, so maybe that’s the reason.

In an unbelievable article called “Mr. Balls, aka ‘Senhor Testiculo,’ goes to bat for cancer research,” the NY Daily News writes that a Brazilian testicular cancer awareness group that has created a mascot that is a “wide-eyed, dual-toothed, rosy-cheeked, mole-sporting scrotum that will cause a lifetime of nightmares for anyone who lays eyes on him.”  I would second that last sentiment.  Here is Senhor Testiculo in all his glory.  Who are the parents that think it’s a good idea to let their kids take pictures with the mascot.  I found clowns scary as a kid–god knows what kind of therapy I would have needed if I had confronted Mr. Balls on the street.

Word of warning:  while at least some Brazilian parents would beg to disagree, I would argue that the following photos are NSFW.



“One of the costliest railways in the world”

I’ve gotten increasingly interested in the ways in which geography shapes economic development, and vice versa.  For instance, in a video for MRUniversity called Transportation & Infrastructure in the 19th century, I discuss the difficulties of transportation in 19th Century Mexico and why railroads took so long to get established.  Here’s some notes from the video:

Cardenas (1997, 78) notes that as late as 1877, when Porfirio Diaz took over the Presidency, Mexico only had 684 km of railroad track and most of that covered the traditional route from Veracruz to Mexico City.

It had taken more than 40 years to build that track and according to a contemporary American observer it had been an extremely costly endeavor:  “Due to the wasteful methods of its construction, to its many extrinsic misfortunes, and to the enormous outlay of money required by the very difficult character of the work, this railway in proportion to its length, is one of the costliest railways in the world.” (Pletcher, 1950, 56).

There’s a new working paper on a similar topic called “Big Push or Big Grab? Railways, Government Activism, and Export Growth in Latin America” that I’m looking forward to reading this weekend. The authors are Vincent Bignon, Rui Esteves, and Alfonso Herranz-Loncán and here’s the abstract:

Railways were one of the main engines of the Latin American trade boom before 1914. Railway construction often required financial support from local governments, which depended on their fiscal capacity. But since the main government revenues were trade-related, this generated a two-way feedback between government revenues and railways with a potential for multiple equilibria. The empirical tests in this paper support the hypothesis of a positive two-way relationship. The main implication of our analysis is that the build-up of state capacity was a necessary condition for railway expansion and, given the importance of the export sector in these economies, for economic growth and divergence in the region.


Work cited:

Cárdenas, Enrique, 1997, A Macroeconomic Interpretation in Nineteenth-Century Mexico, in Stephen Haber (Ed.) How Latin America Fell Behind: Essays on the Economic Histories of Brazil and Mexico (Stanford University Press).

Pletcher, David M., 1950, The Building of the Mexican Railway, The Hispanic American Historical Review 30(1): 26-62.

“Some are skeptical”

One of the best sub-titles ever, in this case from the WSJ’s article named “In Nigeria, Wedlock Seen as Terror Fix: One Islamic City Tries Mass Weddings to Coax Single Men Into Peaceful Ways.”

Northern Nigeria has been wracked with violence from an Islamic sect called Boko Haram and the Kano State Hizbah (“a local bureau that implements Islamic law,” whatever that meansis getting creative.  The institution is funding mass weddings under the theory that good wives make men less interested in terrorism.

Policymakers who tried the same thing in India and Yemen might disagree.  So far 1,350 couples have been married so far in the last year and a half and there are more than a 1,000 scheduled for the rest of the year.  The policy appears to be popular as the waiting list is around 5,000 people.

So why are people so interested in having the government play matchmaker for them?  Well, for the men, the government pays the traditional dowry of $60.  The brides receive “a bag of rice, two crates of eggs, some cooking oil, a mattress, about $125 to start a business, and sometimes a sewing machine.”  They also get help in learning the Nigerian marriage basics are, which includes being able to “make perfume from local plants and to cook bite-size butter cakes.” Who knew?

As an extra enticement, the couple receives hand-sewn “flowing white Islamic wedding robes” and afterwards, a “chicken and yogurt lunch with the governor.”

Not all women are convinced; Faiza Iza argues that the mass weddings are unlikely to reduce terror.  She argues instead that it is just a “superstition to discriminate against unmarried women.”

How good are the institutions match-making skills?  The chairman of Reports and Documentation confidently claims that “It’s usually a match.”  That’s understandable after the government’s thorough questionnaire, which asks men (in all caps), “Do you want a tall and elegant girl? Fine?”

Not all of the matches seem to be totally on the up and up though.  For instance, police recently arrested 20 prostitutes and gave them the option of participating in a mass wedding or going to jail.  The new husbands shockingly weren’t informed of this.  Sounds like a match made in heaven!  The divorce rate in the region is around 50%, so what happens to terrorism when the marriages go sour?

Cool education news from Mexico

I just got done covering education and the difficulty of reform in my Mexican economic development class and it was pretty depressing.  Given that, I was thrilled to read about some very cool news on the educational front in Mexico.

Wired has an article about a middle school teacher who was intrigued by the grannies in the cloud idea and decided to try to implement something similar in his class.  The result is something like a Hollywood movie.  Here’s the scene:

“José Urbina López Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment.”

Here’s the hero teacher of the story:

Sergio Juárez Correa started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of the world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes. Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat.

Here are some of the (pretty big) obstacles he faced:

A key component in Mitra’s theory [the granny in the cloud guy] was that children could learn by having access to the web, but that wasn’t easy for Juárez Correa’s students. The state paid for a technology instructor who visited each class once a week, but he didn’t have much technology to demonstrate. Instead, he had a batch of posters depicting keyboards, joysticks, and 3.5-inch floppy disks. He would hold the posters up and say things like, “This is a keyboard. You use it to type.”

As a result, Juárez Correa became a slow-motion conduit to the Internet. When the kids wanted to know why we see only one side of the moon, for example, he went home, Googled it, and brought back an explanation the next day. When they asked specific questions about eclipses and the equinox, he told them he’d figure it out and report back.

The Hollywood ending:

The previous year, 45 percent had essentially failed the math section, and 31 percent had failed Spanish. This time only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent failed Spanish. And while none had posted an Excellent score before, 63 percent were now in that category in math.

The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was well above the national average. Then he noticed the math scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. Zavala Hernandez [the principle] looked over at the top score in the state: It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on his arms stood up. Paloma received the highest math score in the country, but the other students weren’t far behind. Ten got math scores that placed them in the 99.99th percentile. Three of them placed at the same high level in Spanish.

That’s right.  Not only did the scores go through the roof after one year of the new teaching methodology, but Juárez Correa discovered that he had the smartest math student in the country in his class.

The evil administrator tries his best to denigrate Juárez Correa and his students’ achievement, makes an idiot of himself, and hopefully (but unlikely) signs his own letter of resignation with this dribble:

Francisco Sánchez Salazar, chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros, was even dismissive. “The teaching method makes little difference,” he says. Nor does he believe that the students’ success warrants any additional help. “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.”

Our hero remains undaunted though and I can only hope that other teachers find inspiration in his story (and that administrators like Sánchez Salazar are canned).

More path dependency from the slave trade

I just came across an interesting new working paper on the issue of social capital, slavery, and literacy.  The author’s name is Nonso Obikili and the paper is called “The Impact of the Slave Trade on Literacy in Africa: Evidence from the Colonial Era.”  I haven’t read the paper carefully yet but it looks promising. Here is the abstract:

Recent studies have highlighted the importance of Africa’s history of slave exporting to its current economic development. In this paper I show that differences in investment in education may be one of the channels through which that history has affected current development. I combine data on literacy rates of administrative districts from the colonial censuses of Nigeria and Ghana from the 1950’s with data on slave exports of different ethnic groups. I find a negative and signicant relationship between slave export intensity before the colonial era and literacy rates during the colonial era. I also use contemporary data on literacy rates from the 2010 Nigerian Literacy Survey and find that this negative relationship is still present and significant. Thus, I show that the slave trades affected development through channels other than inter-ethnic group confliict or formal nation-state level institutions.

Scaling up is hard to do

Blogging by Boz has an interesting post about rooting out corruption in the Mexican police force.  He notes that the government had set a goal to vet all of the police in the country but so far has only vetted 75% of the force.  I’m not sure when this goal was originally set, because 75% actually seems quite high to what I would expect.  There have been inevitable delays and some unfortunate unintended consequences.  Here are a few that Boz lists:

1. “Can they define “corruption”? There is a difference between a cop who takes bribes to let drivers out of traffic tickets and a cop who takes bribes to ignore extortion by cartels. The tests have allegedly been far better at finding the former than the latter.

2. Fired police have been recruited by criminal groups. In one particularly awful example in Jalisco, a fired police officer was working as a sicario for a cartel killing other police officers less than two weeks after he was removed from duty. If firing police simply increases the ranks and skills of criminal groups in certain states, that’s not a good policy. These fired officers need an opportunity and training to obtain an honest job.

3. Continued corruption. Even after these tests have taken place, there have been incidents of police who passed the tests working for criminal groups, sometimes in the role of kidnappers. That has harmed the population’s confidence in the testing process.”

Boz concludes by making the excellent argument that vetting is (1) hard to scale effectively; and (2) something that must be done continuously and not just a one-time deal.

On a different note…

I was planning on blogging about this article: El Salvador: Where women may be jailed for miscarrying but it seems that most of the news (and blog posts) about Central America are depressing.  So I decided to change tack and post something positive.

From the WSJ (via the excellent Fausta’s blog), is news about a very cool Scandinavian design firm making waves in El Salvador called Carrot Concepts.  Here’s a description of their story from the WSJ:

“Among other road blocks, there is no large-scale furniture manufacturing to speak of, unreliable export and import capabilities and storage problems. If it’s become trendy in America to esteem handmade, locally sourced products above industrial ones, Salvadoran designers are in the unenviable position of being artisanal by necessity.

“Wood and metal are the basics we can use,” says Claudia Washington. (The aluminum molds that plastic products require can cost upward of $100,000 each, a prohibitive price for boutique designers.) On the other hand, PVC cord, a material many of the Carrot Concept designers work with, can be found in everything from machinery to Salvadoran truck drivers’ seats. As a result, their work tends to have a discernible handcrafted element—a friendliness that’s often absent from comparable professional-grade objects in other countries. “[Our pieces] are industrial looking, but they have a heart,” says Claudia’s husband, Harry. “So while Scandinavians can be very polished or the Japanese very tailored, these pieces have a lot of character. They have a lot of punch and sauce to them.”

I would agree.  Here is a photo of their work and click here for the WSJ’s slideshow (ungated).