On not getting into a PhD program

This profession has a way of subtly placing blinders on the impressionable young people it attracts or keeping them too occupied or insulated to expand their horizons. I think people get hung up on the idea of ‘I just need to clear this obstacle and then the rest of my life can begin’, but academia is just a series of checkpoints exactly like that. Each one should give us pause when we come to them.

02 Mar 2021 · Matthew Alampay Davis

'We can't comprehend this much sorrow'

The official tolls are almost certainly an undercount. The morgues are overflowing. Those are the facts. But where is the grief? When we first started getting the news out of Italy, and then Spain, with frightening daily numbers comparable with what is now happening in New York, that news seemed to be delivered with holy awe. In the American papers, I usually have to do some searching to find how many people have died in the past day. The front pages here seem to often carry news of the financial markets or of the political squabbles of the day. But what I want is to be directly confronted with the fact, the enormity, the irreducible sadness of all these deaths.

19 Jun 2020 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Reflecting on the first year of an economics PhD program

I’ve been in academia now for around five years and I have yet to run into a grad student who I felt wasn’t working hard enough: effort is never why students fail. The admissions process is random and biased and flawed, but it reliably overselects on work ethic. I worry that telling prospective or current students that they will fail if they aren’t ready to commit all their waking hours to a subject they’re really only just sinking their teeth into will be self-fulfilling with deterrent effects on people with underrepresented or non-traditional backgrounds and less entrenched in the self-preserving microculture of academia.

28 May 2020 · W. Matthew Alampay Davis

Protests in Modi's India; the meat-substitute industry; and fun reviews of bad pop science

Early on, we had two goals that were fully aligned: to be identical to a burger from a cow and to be much better than a burger from a cow. Now they’re somewhat at odds, and we talk about the chocolate-doughnut problem: What if what people really like in a burger is what makes it taste like a chocolate doughnut, so you keep increasing those qualities and suddenly you’re not making a burger at all?

13 Jan 2020 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Female politicians in developing countries; development lessons from the Congolese Ebola response; revisiting Wong Kar-Wai; and Barry Jenkins' signature close-ups

The biggest impediment to containing Ebola in Congo is not its contagiousness, but suspicion of the state and of aid personnel… The international responders aggravated the community’s distrust by interpreting reluctance to follow rules about safe burials and patient isolation as a lack of understanding of public health that required reeducation. In fact, the reluctance reflected an understandable lack of enthusiasm for practices that required total separation from loved ones during their illness, denial of human touch at the point of death, and the abandonment of traditional funeral rites, which are of central importance to social and cultural life.

10 Jan 2020 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Climate change underrepresentations; the 'productive disappointment' of the Obama era; and 'Parasite' (2019)

The choice of the name ‘game theory’ was brilliant as a marketing device. I think it’s a very tempting idea for people, that they can take something simple and apply it to situations that are very complicated, like the economic crisis or nuclear deterrence. But this is an illusion. Now my views, I have to say, are extreme compared to many of my colleagues. I believe that game theory is very interesting, I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about it. But I don’t respect the claims that it has direct applications… If I could repeat my life, I would probably follow my unfulfilled dream to be a lawyer.

04 Nov 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

HBO’s Chernobyl; the assassination by Patricia Lockwood of the coward John Updike; and stratified randomization

The trafficking of arms from the United States is rarely discussed as a cause of the violence people are fleeing; the drug war, she argues, is also hemispheric: it ‘begins in the Great Lakes of the northern United States and ends in the mountains of Celaque in southern Honduras’. Consumers and producers of prohibited drugs bear responsibility in each country along the route, as do the dysfunctional laws that push the trade into a violent underground. The migrant children, she writes, are more accurately described as refugees of a hemispheric war.

03 Nov 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

The remarkable efficiency of the kidnapping industry; the science of suppressing disease-vector mosquitoes; and the monotony of op-eds

The UN forbids the transfer of money to designated terrorist groups. Private persons and entities cannot legally make concessions to proscribed groups, and if they do, their insurers cannot legally reimburse them, though ransom-payers are rarely if ever prosecuted. But it’s not always clear which category kidnappers fit into. Some terrorists pretend to be part of criminal organizations so that they can legally collect ransoms. Shortland reports that when a Somali told British negotiators that he represented the ‘commercial arm’ of al-Shabaab, the jihadist fundamentalist group, ’they had to explain that this was not sufficiently removed from the parent organization to have a payment authorized.’

09 Aug 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Sex workers' rights; and 'Dark Money' by Jane Mayer

Is sex work degrading or empowering? Mac and Smith reject this dichotomy from the start. ‘This book—and the perspective of the contemporary left sex worker movement—is not about enjoying sex work,’ they write. Work need not be a good time for workers to deserve autonomy, respect, safety, and better pay. The British coal miners who battled Margaret Thatcher hardly claimed that their coal pits were fun. The question ‘Is sex work good?’ has little to do with ‘Should sex workers have rights?’ But this obvious truth is often ignored by writers who get hung up on the ‘sex’ part, painting sex workers as brainless bimbos or voiceless victims. ‘Sex workers are associated with sex, and to be associated with sex is to be dismissible.’

08 Aug 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Mechanism design and social justice; and 'Go Tell It on the Mountain' by James Baldwin

This paper investigates the peculiarities that arise when mechanism design is deployed in contexts in which social, racial and distributive justice are particularly salient. The paper draws on the distinction between ideal theory and non-ideal theory in political philosophy and the concept of performativity in economic sociology to argue that mechanism can enact elaborate ideal theories of justice. A normative gap thus emerges between the goals of the policymakers and the objectives of economic designs. As a result, mechanism design may obstruct stakeholders’ avenues for normative criticism of public policies and serve as a technology of depoliticization.

23 Jul 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis