Links round-up

Hi all,

The benefit of being away for three weeks (apart, that is, from being somewhere sunny and reasonably even-keeled for a while) is that it gives me ample opportunity to ignore any unpleasant cricketing events that occur during the links hiatus, though try as I might, I haven’t been able to ignore all the other unpleasant events going on, ad infinitum, elsewhere. Returning brings a few downsides, ranging from the near total-absence of warmth and daylight to an RSS feed so over-stuffed with information I’m fairly sure a portion of my brain exploded trying to clear it. My original plan was to do a sort of best-of-2018 round-up to kick off the year, but then I remembered what 2018 was like and realised it was akin to having a list of the best times I ran face-first into a wall. I just home my go-to 2019 gif isn’t this.

  1. Planet Money had the right idea, though – their end-of-year bash was an awards show for the lowlights of the year (transcript), ranging from sexist Doritos to Elon Musk’s late-night tweeting habits. Amazingly, they manage to avoid giving awards to any policy makers. I can only assume they were exempt from the competition this year. That provides a nice segue into one of my favourite annual traditions, the 538 ‘What I Got Wrong this Year’ piece, in which their main forecaster looks at what predictions didn’t pan out, and why. On a slightly more cheerful note, they also list their 45 best graphs of the year, with my favourite being the graphical summary of the sexual adventures of Mr. Prospector the horse who begat virtually every horse in this year’s Kentucky Derby. And ending this link on a positive note, the Development Impact crew pick their favourite papers of the year and Pinelopi Goldberg, their Chief Economist, does the same (that they did not extensively cover separately), an excellent starting point for good things you might have missed in 2018.
  2. The first half or two-thirds of this interview with Daniel Kahneman is fantastic: because Kahneman is acutely aware that he might be wrong about anything, he’s both extremely precise about what he does know and extremely honest about the limits to the various ideas he’s made his name on. He has begun researching the same kind of questions about organisations that I’m interested in, which is both great and terrifying. The last third goes off the rails a bit as Cowen, who has never met a speculation he wasn’t willing to make, discovers that Kahneman just doesn’t go in for wild connections.
  3. There was a late slew of economics on equality to close the year (increasingly, I find the most interesting research in economics is on questions of attitudes and behaviour, both of which are crucial for understanding gendered outcomes). First, Markus summarises Seema Jayachandran’s new paper on changing attitudes towards gender among adolescents (related: at the AEA annual meeting this year, gender was high on the agenda). Then the Economist ran an article on the growth implications of increased equality (I’m not 100% convinced about all of the underlying research, and even less convinced that the way to motivate working on equality is because it makes us richer). And lastly, a VoxEU piece summarising research suggesting that same-race teachers can improve the outcomes of minority students, though it doesn’t really isolate why. They speculate that role model effects are important, but another possibility is that it’s simply the absence of bias against minority students among minority staff.
  4. Branko Milanovic summarises the ways in which Marx has helped him better understand the world, and to be a better economist. Like Branko, I think Marx is particularly important when you work on economies that, while private and market-based, aren’t fully capitalist.
  5. Dietrich Vollrath is developing a new course on the ‘deep roots’ of economic development, covering institutions, geography, culture and more. The first of a series of posts summarising his teaching is an absolute belter. One of the problems with all of the literature on ‘deep’ development is that when the events you explore happen far in the past, it becomes increasingly difficult to even distinguish geography and institutions or culture even conceptually; and this makes it hard to interpret the results they find. Dietz does a great job of explaining this, and explaining how you still can use this research to understand the world better.
  6. Have you come across the Joy of Destruction game? No, it’s not NCAA basketball in the Zion Williamson era, but a lab game in which you can give up some of your own winnings in exchange for decimating another players’. In a finding that will probably not surprise anyone who reads the news these days, joining a group seems to induce a heightened appetite for destruction (and not the good kind), with groups more likely to give up winnings just to harm others.
  7. That seems an appropriate way to sally into 2019, if a bit downbeat. Is there anything to look forward to? Well, we’ve got Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spiderman: Far from Home and the new season of the Punisher, so escapism is definitely on the cards. And just think, this time next year we’ll be watching Mount Zion up against Luka in the battle for the NBA’s future…

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Well, that was an eventful week. Has everyone caught their breath? I continue to alternate between abject terror and resignation. Alonzo Mourning acceptance, every day. Anyway. I’ll be taking a break over Christmas and the new year (which will, of course, involve vast quantities of street food, reading and birdwatching). That means no more links till January 11 or 18, depending on what my brain function is like when I get off the plane, which may be no bad thing: if things get bad enough, the links will probably descend into one long compilation of disaster gifs.

  1. This is, apparently, the season for giving (and often for giving novelty gifts that presumably live above ground for about three days before going into a drawer and being forgotten evermore), so it’s a good time to remember than actually, in spite of the fairly broad economic recovery in much of the world since 2008, there are still a huge number of people living in great economic insecurity. Planet Money investigate (transcript) and uncover some pretty shocking statistics from the US, including that more than one-fifth of all Americans expected to miss at least one bill payment in the month of the latest Fed survey, and that a stunning one-third would expect to do so in the case of an unanticipated $400 income shock (for example, needing medical treatment, or a car repair). With signs mounting that the next recession is just around the corner, none of this is good news.
  2. Dynastic succession in democratic politics sounds like an oxymoron, but actually, it’s the second and third generations of political leader in a family that tend to be the morons. A fantastic job market paper by Siddharth George from Harvard uses data from India to see what happens when fathers are succeeded by sons or daughters in positions of political power. He finds that, as theory would predict, politicians who think their offspring will also be in power might have a longer time horizon and thus make larger long-term investments, but their children face a moral hazard: because they have a core of voters loyal to the parent who will basically support them whatever they do, they do very little but self-enrich. The net effect is negative, a result that aligns with my priors and provides new and interesting evidence of how politics works.
  3. And in related, less surprising news, places where men have worse attitudes towards women tend to carry a ‘gender penalty’ in voting, whereby women are less likely to win votes. Since this is likely to be unrelated to competence, this is again, not good news.
  4. Not to make it too much of a pattern, but also to file under ‘not good news’: that dude who claims to have genetically engineered twins in China. How does this happen in a discipline that’s supposed to follow some pretty stringent ethical standards? As FiveThirtyEight point out, there are systems in place to stop rogue scientists, but they don’t always work. The most shocking thing about that article, btw, is the news that one research team wants to use a blast of calcium to make the sun less intense in order to mitigate climate change. This is not a good plan guys! Don’t any of you remember Morpheus? “We know it was us who scorched the sky”, anyone?
  5. I loved this: Hope Michelson and others demonstrate that one reason that poor farmers take up products such as fertiliser at what seem like sub-optimal rates is because they form incorrect opinions on the quality of the product, partly driven by media reporting. In news that will surprise no-one who lives in the UK, relentless media negativity can make people question the value of things that turn out to be rather quite good for them after all.
  6. Last year, I was given Messy for Christmas, and this year I’m giving a copy to someone else. It’s a great book, and Tim Harford distils some of the key lessons in this fantastic blog about the benefits of a space that isn’t too strictly regimented. Remember that the next time you see me working behind a huge pile of papers, with a dripping tea cradle and two books open. It’s my own personal Building 20.
  7. And lastly, because it does no good to end the year with links full of pessimism, let’s remind ourselves that sometimes things do work out better than expected: I have previously linked to Zion Williamson back when he was in high school, looking like a full grown man playing against infants, but against all odds, he’s actually exceeded the hype, and may be the best college player since statistics were collected. While Zion does it by basically being The Thing with a three-stroke, Luka Doncic might become a superstar without a single defined muscle on his body. If basketball can’t cheer you up, how about London trolling the New York Times’ twitter? And if that doesn’t work, here are the best memes of the year (American Chopper wins, obviously).

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Before we start, a quick PSA: I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting the links out the last couple of weeks, due to a laptop upgrade (even with the extra stress in getting the links done, it’s definitely an upgrade), so please let me know if you’ve not been getting all of the e-mails. I’m aware that sending an e-mail to check if my e-mail is working is getting to Darwin awards levels of stupidity but I’m relying on those who do receive it to hear the complaints of those who don’t and tell them to e-mail me. There are more holes in this theory of change than in Hank Williams’ bucket, but it’ll have to do. And while I’m linking great songs filled with euphemisms for drinking, pour one out for Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks, punk superstar and writer of one of the most perfect pop songs since Teenage Kicks, Do Anything.

  1. In time-honoured links tradition, we dive straight in to the bad news. A portion of the US yield curve inverted yesterday [cue dramatic music: Dunn-dunn-dunn!] After a wine-fuelled refresher course in the yield curve with a friend last night I can try and explain: investors typically requires extra compensation for holding longer term bonds because they lose the opportunity to make productive investments today. When the yield curve inverts, it means that they do not need such extra compensation, a sign that they think the shorter term investments aren’t going to be profitable – i.e. they expect a recession. As an indicator for a recession, a particular form of this inversion has a 100% hit rate, but luckily we haven’t seen that form inversion quite yet. Planet Money, whose Cardiff Garcia stans hard for the yield curve, dig deeper (transcript).
  2. If a recession is coming, try very hard not to enter the job market for the first time during it. Tim Harford lays out the role of luck in career earnings, with one big source of that luck being whether you enter the job market in good times or bad. It shouldn’t matter, but does, because humans are hopeless at computing complicated problems.
  3. However, we can learn. Christie Aschwanden, one of my favourite writers on science, has been covering the extended and sometimes acrimonious replication crisis afflicting social psychology since 2015. And she comes with good news: all this pain is doing what it was meant to, and improving the standard of research in the field.
  4. When I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, I watch basketball highlights. Branko Milanovic, on the other hand, casually shoots off an erudite blog linking contemporary French politics, the history of violent protest and the fight over who has to suffer for the greening of our economies. He takes off from the Gilets Jaune protests to again remark on the central flaw of Kate Raeworth’s doughnut economics: that in order to comply, rich countries will either need to agree on how to distribute a net halving of our incomes (which is politically impossible) or use technology to dramatically green all our production (which renders it indistinguishable from the techno-optimism that characterises market capitalist approaches). For balance here’s Kate’s latest write-up, and as far as I can see it still cannot address Branko’s point.
  5. Lagarde and Ostry on the macroeconomic implications of gender diversity. This is one of the more convincing ways of setting out the macroeconomic effects of better female participation in the workforce (using a model based on complementarities arising from differences in how women and men work, which could be controversial). But still, why do we need economics for this question? Surely gender equality should be pursued for its own merits, and not for the benefits it brings the economy?
  6. Michael Clemens and Kate Gough on what we need to do to make a Global Skills Partnership work. In case you need convincing that this is an important thing to do (and you shouldn’t), Perry Bacon, Jr. (whose name manages to simultaneously make me hungry and nostalgic) details all the ways Trump has managed to affect migration without putting a single brick in the wall.
  7. Finally, to cheer ourselves up, 538  answer the important questions, like: who would win a fight between an anaconda and a Komodo dragon? Amazingly most actual academics asked got into the spirit of things and gave an answer. And one more bit of musical bliss from Pete Shelley, this time squarely on the punk side.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

It’s the last day of term, so this week’s links are simultaneously exhausted, demob happy and descending into a rabbit-hole of panic at the gap (or alternatively, gaping chasm) between where my research is and where I was hoping it would be at this point. Quickly, before I think about that too much, I’m going to distract myself with Luka Doncic and economics.

  1. My favourite thing this week, by a country mile, was Planet Money on the economics of the office (transcript), taking three well-known laws of bureaucratic dysfunction and examining their genesis. It starts with Goodhart’s Law, the idea that any good measure of a phenomenon ceases to be a good measure once it’s turned into a target, a law that anyone who has ever designed a set of performance indicators knows intimately (it is a close cousin of the Lebowski Theorem of Machine Superintelligence). It then considers The Peter Principle, the idea that everyone is ultimately promoted until they reach such a level that they cannot function effectively at. In equilibrium, therefore, everyone in an office is bad at their job. And it continues though to Parkinson’s Law: the idea that any task will expand to fill the time allocated to it, a law I prove every Friday with Links e-mails of varying quality. I’m always so struck by how much academic work paints offices as these dens of incompetence and iniquity. They must really hate their administrators. Alice Evans pops up at the end to propose a new law, though not one limited to the office.
  2. This is fantastic. Exploiting a massive new dataset linking Italian firms and their employment of serving political officials Ufuk Akcigit, Salome Baslandze and Francesca Lotti demonstrate the extent to which Italian firms invest in political patronage, and also the extremely stark negative correlation between their success in attracting such patronage and their level of innovation. They attempt to build a causal story using ‘coin toss elections’ and it reinforces their analysis: politically protected firms both do better in terms of growth and do worse in terms of innovation, the implication being that the payoff to political patronage is the establishment of friendly market frictions or impediments to their competition. I dread to think what this kind of analysis would show in some of the countries DFID work in.
  3. And while we’re talking about buying influence: let’s check in on what happens to aid from the US when you’re on the UN Security Council.
  4. We are quickly approaching the point where the largest source of uncertainty in our climate models is not the science of climate change, but human behaviour. Maggie Koerth-Baker (one of 538’s army of great science writers) reports.
  5. More great job market papers on Development Impact: Katy Bergstrom suggests that the conditions attached to a cash transfer programme can sometimes improve targeting to the extent that it renders them superior to unconditional programmes. And a really cool paper by Faraz Uzmani which estimates the welfare impact of rural grid electrification both in the presence and the absence of a major economic opportunity which would require a large amount of reliable power. In the absence of the economic opportunity, electrification confers minimal gains, but it generates large welfare improvements with it.
  6. The magic of migration, episode 45,301,919: remittances to Mexico act to reduce inequality and move to protect the poor faster during economic shocks, meaning that migration is good for the migrants, good for inequality at home and are increasingly pro-poor when need is highest.
  7. This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of Kal Ho Naa Ho, the film that apparently introduced Bollywood to America – and Shah Rukh Khan’s particular brand of charisma, made up of equal parts dancing ability and complete lack of self-consciousness. I’d always assumed Bollywood first hit the West with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, in which SRK plays the least convincing teenager since Steve Buscemi. I mention this for little other reason than to link to those videos, btw, but it’s the last link and we need frivolity dammit. And from Bollywood to Hollywood: The Ringer rails against the Hollywood Handshake on Bake Off, suggesting he’s one doughnut filled with more hot air than anything else…

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round up

Hi all,

Am I allowed to ignore disastrous failures of judgement in the weekly links? You know, the kind of slow-motion car-crash disasters that make you despair, question your future and engage in cut-rate Kierkegaardian – massive props to autocorrect for recognising that, btw – fatalism? I am, of course, referring to the ongoing omnishambles that is the Sri Lankan cricket team, currently in the process of throwing themselves into a deep well of cricketing incompetence. Of course I was talking about the cricket. What else has been going on that fits that description?

  1. The annual Development Impact Job Market Papers series is pretty much the best regular thing that happens on the internet, with the exception of NBA twitter memes (Alonzo Mourning acceptance is pretty much how the I react to the front page of the papers every day now). Two really interesting papers caught my attention this week: the first, by Erin Kelley is a clever experiment that uses mobile phone tracking data to reduce informational asymmetries between the owners of Kenyan Matatus and their drivers, which also seems to sharpen incentives. The really interesting stuff from this paper isn’t the core result per se but the implications: one issue is that this appears to be at least partly a transfer of power from labour to owners, but high proportion of workers reported a better employee-employer relationship afterwards (Erin rings the external validity klaxon herself on this point, though). Also this week: Christian Meyer suggests present-bias results in reduced in-employment job-search, with the implication that workforce churn isn’t high enough in Ethiopia. I will need to read this one in detail, as it goes fully against my priors.
  2. Duncan Green speculates about what an Oxfam programme run entirely on experimental lines would look like. “Expensive”, is one answer. More generally, it would require a commitment to subjugate any narrative spin to a specific kind of evidence which will sometimes be contradictory – is an advocacy-heavy organisation ever going to do that? Or a politically-controlled donor? Maybe the real answer is “like J-Pal, so why not fund them instead?”
  3. On a recommendation, I recently read Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, a book that examines the use of machine learning and smart algorithms to target services and learn about markets (my review: Type 1 error matters; feedback is crucial; market power is a problem; and equity and efficiency sometimes trade off – in sum, learn economics). This piece by Monica Andini and others suggests that machine learning, while unable to generate causal policy value (i.e. proving that X causes Y, so we should/shouldn’t do it) does have predictive policy value (i.e. predicting that X will happen, so we should prepare for it). They should have read O’Neill. One of the issues with this is that we would have to limit the information used by these machines, because some of it will lead to discrimination: if race correlates with likelihood of default, should we start thinking about restricting access to student loans on that basis? If the answer seems obvious, you may be surprised by some of the algorithms in current use.
  4. W. Gyude Moore at CGD argues that ‘Billions to Trillions’ is more slogan than reality in Africa, and will be until a different approach is developed.
  5. Reasons to globalise: firms with more global networks of customers and suppliers are much less affected by natural disasters than those with a more local scope. While this should be obvious anyway, it’s nice to have evidence that the retreat from international economic exchange is perhaps a bad idea.
  6. And finally, because my head feels like the Incredible Hulk has been negotiating with me, two bits of marginalia that reflect my headache-induced mood: first, is this the grossest thing that happens in fast-food joints? I certainly hope so (warning for the faint-of-stomach: it involves a grilled rat). Second, are you, too, disgusted by how early Christmas stuff starts every year? Then this Ringer appreciation of Scrooged is for you. It’s made me want to go home and rewatch it, if only to see Bill Murray literally scare someone to death.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Sri Lanka have been extremely Sri Lanka-y today. In the cricket, we’ve veered from preening brilliance and unplayable spin to dead-eyed incompetence in letting England get to what is very likely a winning position in the second test. And in the shambles that constitutes Government, MPs have been literally throwing chilli powder at each other in the middle of a punch-up. It’s ridiculous: the chilli powder is almost certainly the only thing in that room that is actually useful for its primary job, and yet it’s used as a weapon. Let’s not compare things with what’s going on closer to home, shall we?

  1. One point: amidst all the chest-thumping and related political machinations this week, there is a real policy issue with real impacts over which we are collecting real evidence. And by we, I mean Nick Bloom and co-authors. Worth reading.
  2. “The key reason that poor countries are poorer than rich countries is that they see less… use of productivity enhancing technologies.” Charles Kenny, from whom that quote comes (emphasis mine, though) is a noted optimist, author of a book called Getting Better and a cheerful and pleasant person. He is not, though a blind optimist, and in this piece called ‘What Robopocalypse?’ is entirely correct. There is very little evidence that automation has thus far been a risk to jobs, and every reason to expect a spread of high productivity technology to be good for poor countries.
  3. So, it should come as no surprise that the Planet Money crew love economics. But Stacey Vanek-Smith nearly loses her religion for econogeekery over the issue  of the ‘pink tax’ (transcript), the higher price paid by women for certain goods (like razors). Some economists argue that this kind of price discrimination enables the market to function more efficiently, by allocating resources in a more precise fashion. I sit in Joan Robinson’s camp, though (I often do): it seems likely that market power has more to do with this, making it an inefficiency, designed to maximise rents. I do have to ask, though – if men’s razors and women’s razors are identical, and men’s razors are cheaper, why don’t women just buy the men’s one? Also on gender: estimating the effects of more liberal abortion policy using maternal mortality is likely to substantially underestimate the benefits. Much of the gain seems to be from reducing non-fatal, but nevertheless severe, health problems.
  4. Branko gives an update on global inequality. It seems criminal that his ability to work on this topic for lack of data, so friends in the World Bank: work out how to give him access!
  5. Does an extra thirty minutes of sleep substantially improve your life chances? This entry to Development Impact’s fantastic job market paper series suggests so, and my priors and baser instincts are begging me to accept it without any critical thinking.
  6. Are you familiar with the Lebowski Theorem of Machine Superintelligence? It posits that the true risk from AI is not that it will become supremely competent and ambitious, but rather that it will discover, as humans have, that it’s not really worth effort and instead game the system and cheat. Well, chalk one up for the Dude: Jason Kottke has found a few hilarious examples of machine sloth, including an AI that generated a population growth strategy of basically lying around having sex and eating some of the children for nourishment.
  7. In news that makes me feel incredibly old and incredibly nostalgic: this year marks the 25th anniversary or Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York concert, and The Ringer celebrates with an oral history of one of the greatest concerts ever. Fun fact: somebody from MTV had the bare-faced cheek to ask Kurt to go back on stage after he’d finished vomiting out his soul on Where Did You Sleep Last Night? And while that made me feel old, news that Stan Lee managed an innings of 95 reminds me there’s some way to go yet. LitHub celebrates his achievements as a storyteller and creator of characters, and Vox mashes up every film cameo he ever made.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

By the time I actually send this e-mail out it will be all over one way or another, but right now, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the prayers of thousands of Sri Lankan cricket fans. Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka’s Mr. Potato Head spin bowler is batting for the final time in his test career, and typically, he is all that stands between the team and defeat. For someone so great at what he does, he does it with extraordinarily little fuss. In a world where sportspeople are (for the most part) venal, immoral or immature, he stands out like a beacon: a man so down-to-earth and humble despite being the greatest Sri Lankan bowler since Murali, that asked about his post-retirement plans, he explained that he would go back to his day job as a bank manager. Even at the height of his career, after winning the T20 World Cup, he went into office as normal on his return home.

  1. Well, that was a kiss of death. He just got run after reverse sweeping Rashid (the sounds of prayer have been replaced by a national facepalm). Anyway, while I’m depressed: Raj Chetty and colleagues have released the newest tranche of the epic, amazing research they are doing in the Opportunity Insights team at Harvard. And it makes for grim reading. Chetty and co. have released an ‘Atlas of Opportunity’, which demonstrates how small differences in place of birth and childhood can have massive (and totally varied) impacts on lifetime earnings, likelihood of incarceration and other outcomes. Chetty (whom I think will win the Nobel either for this or his stuff on tax) is doing things with observational data that could lead to a fundamental change in policies to address inequality. Every release deserves attention.
  2. David McKenzie knows more about firms in developing countries than almost anyone else around – so when he puts down his evidence-based musings about the trade-offs involved in aiming to support job creation and productivity versus direct poverty reduction, anyone interested in either of these things should read it. We need to know what the choices we make cost us. Also from Development Impact: David Evans summarises Oxfam’s lessons for policy impact. I have a concern he doesn’t raise – when research is designed to motivate a change too explicitly, the temptation is always there to juke the findings to maximise the impact. I think Oxfam have done this more than once, so I’m more cautious in taking this advice wholly to heart.
  3. “People like to understand things. It’s an earnest and charming quality of the human race.” Clare Malone on the US mid-terms is exactly the kind of person people on any part of the political spectrum should read. The elections were complicated, and don’t mean any one thing, and be wary of anyone who starts any sentence with “The elections proved…”. Also from 538: the gender gap in voting patter was massive.
  4. One for the economists only: I had a discussion on the sides of the DFID economics conference about discount rates, so this paper (summarised at MR) is timely. Many experts think we should not have any positive rate of time preference at all, welcome news for those worried about climate change (though, of course, time preference is not the only salient component of discounting).
  5. Apparently, I’m not the only person who immediately translates pop culture into economic theory. Stacey and Cardiff (Garcia!) at Planet Money do too, and examine the use of ‘Customer Lifetime Value using Pretty Woman (transcript). Apart from the film being appalling rubbish and the fact that they should never encourage anyone to watch it, the message that algorithmic methods of price or service discrimination might be both inaccurate and hard to argue with is good.
  6. Dietz adds his $20 dollars to the cross-country convergence debate (he’s so good, I couldn’t say 2 cents). His grasp of detail, and ability to communicate it clearly is stunning. I can only envy the lucky students who learn macro from him.
  7. And finally, not only has the NBA started up again, but so has the NCAA, which gives me cause to once again mention young Zion Williamson, an 18 year old hewn from stone and more destructive than Thor in a bad mood. He’s already doing things that properly belong on the set of Space Jam 2, and nothing will stop my posting the entire set of results for the google image search “Zion Williamson dunking people into oblivion gif.” He’s still not as cool as Herath, though.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R.

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Links round-up

Hi all,

This week’s links round-up is on better-than-nodding terms with fatigue and mental exhaustion after a series of early starts to run up and down the country (or rather, running west and slightly further west) to attend two conferences focused on policy and policy-makers, the first at DFID and the second at BSG, my first Challenges of Government conference. I’d really recommend having a look online at any videos and write-ups of the latter. One thing I really liked about both of these conferences was the number of questions of the ‘why do we care about this’ and ‘what can we do about this’ genre. I find in academic settings those questions can be almost totally drowned out by the ‘how do we know this’ question. Of course, that’s incredibly important, but it isn’t the only thing that matters.

  1. Speaking of things that matter: it is a moral responsibility to be outraged by the lies, tone and content of Donald Trump’s speech yesterday, whatever your politics or opinions on migration. Michael Clemens bites his tongue hard and restricts himself to doing a little fact-checking of the major claims made on the CGD blog, but head over to his twitter to see what happens when an intelligent and well-informed person is made furious. Trump is obviously engaging in political posturing to try and win votes (regardless of the cost), and FiveThirtyEight checks in on whether it looks like it will work. Now I need to take five minutes to walk off my rage before I write the next paragraph.
  2. Okay, I’m back. (I’m still angry). I was talking the other evening about an old teacher I had. He had a foul temper, and used to go silent when a student would arrive at one of his lectures more than a couple of minutes late. His strategy was to do so until another student did the job of telling the latecomer that he had to leave. It always struck me as an approach which, while effective, was stupidly costly once you looked up from the immediate aim of inducing punctuality. Nadja Dwenger and Lukas Treber find a similar example in the use of public shaming of tax offenders to induce them to pay their back taxes. On the face of it, this sounds like a pretty good thing. But firstly, it seems to affect relatively few people, and secondly if they genuinely cannot afford to pay at the time of the shaming, what are we reallocating money away from? Food? Maybe they’ve gone to a moneylender? What’s the final cost of this? What’s more, does it ‘spoil’ the tax-paying relationship for the future?
  3. David Evans is something of a genius. He and Almedina Music summarise around 160 new papers in a single sentence each at Development Impact. I am continually impressed by the range of things he is interested in and his ability to summarise them.
  4. Pop culture lied to me, mark 2. A few weeks after I complained that Pretty in Pink is an inaccurate depiction of high school, I am devastated to discover that Mick Jagger could indeed have got some Satisfaction, if only he’d managed to win the lottery. Planet Money talk to the economist Eric Lindqvist (transcript), who has studied the impact of lottery winnings on life satisfaction and happiness, and discovered that winning does indeed cause a substantial and long-lasting improvement to the former. It does not, however, lead to an increase in happiness. I suspect this is because the correct musical hypothesis to check wasn’t Mick Jagger’s, but Paul McCartney’s. (While I’m linking songs I’m just going to throw in David Ruffin’s version of Rainy Night in Georgia. It connects to nothing here, but should be heard far more widely).
  5. James Heckman and Sidharth Mokton take a sledgehammer to the idea that the rate of publication in top-five journals is a good metric by which to determine tenure and professional success as an academic economist. I’d add the argument that one of the most valuable products academic economists produce is good economists, even if they never become researchers. A good policy economist is worth their weight in gold, and the teachers that help them along should be encouraged.
  6. Francis Teal writes about apprenticeships in Africa, and as ever when Francis Teal writes about labour markets, you should read it.
  7. So, the Bank of England are after a dead British scientist to be the face of a note that you most likely will never use. They’re trying to Boaty McBoatface-proof the process by accepting nominations but taking the final decision themselves. If they’d only stretch to consider economics a science, I’d suggest Tony Atkinson (despite the irony of an inequality researcher on a 50 quid note) or Joan Robinson. Any others?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Last week I fielded a bunch of e-mails noting that my strategic silence on the cricket results was unbecoming of such a rabid sports fan. Far be it from me to make the same mistake twice: Sri Lanka absolutely hammered England this week, putting on their biggest ever defeat in one-day internationals, and did it with nary a century. I’d love to gloat more, but I’m kept humble by the knowledge that for some reason, this generation of Sri Lankan batsmen is obsessed with high-variance shots: the reverse sweeps and scoops and late, late cuts for which a matter of millimetres separates a stylish four from a humiliating return catch. We’ll come crashing back to earth soon enough. Speaking of which, maybe I was distracted by the NBA but this week’s web-based econogeekery was a little thin. Duncan Green offered some advice on how to improve blogging but missed out the cardinal rule: say something interesting.

  1. Saying something interesting is definitely not a problem for Berk Ozler. He digs in deep to the McIntosh and Zeitlin cash-vs-‘traditional’ programming paper, focusing on a less-well reported result: one arm of the study (a large transfer, not part of the strict benchmarking exercise) had negative effects on non-recipients. Why? The authors speculate it might be because the large fiscal stimulus increased prices over the time period covered by the study. Two points. First, these results aren’t statistically significant, even though the size of the effects seems large. This could be because they’re a chance artefact of the data or because they study wasn’t structured to measure these effects properly.  We don’t know, so we can’t say which is true. Secondly, the paper itself is still a goldmine, because it confronts us with a series of tough trade-offs that as policy makers we should be explicitly considering but often just ignore. Negative spillovers do not mean it’s not worth it. Just that we have to ask the question.
  2. Lies, damned lies and narrative? There’s a great quote in this Tim Harford post about the importance of statistics, from Hetan Shah, to the effect that while it’s easy to lie with statistics, it’s even easier to lie without them. Harford discusses why people disengage so readily once numbers are brought into the discussion. He concludes what we need may not be more learning, but more curiosity. Add in a dash of extra perseverance and I think he’s probably right.
  3. If we’re talking about lies and misdirection, this is a good time to mention that Michael Clemens and Kate Gough are here to point out the what the facts say about migration (and specifically, the caravan Trump seems to be getting upset about). They’re too polite to put it like this, but most of what people instinctively believe about migration is bullshit, most of the policy we’re seeing enacted around the world is bullshit, and most of the rhetoric being used to win votes on it is bullshit. Again, in more polite terms, this is what Ian Goldin and Benjamin Nabarro get at on VoxEU.
  4. Owen Barder and Andrew Rogerson lay the smack down on the International Finance Facility for Education, with good reason. The answer to every problem is not ‘throw money at it until it disappears’. You’d think that smart people would understand that, but nope. Maybe we should spend more on their education?
  5. Shahra Razavi and Silke Staab argue that the recent World Development Report on the future of work is as anachronistic as the Rivera mural it takes its front cover from. They argue it fails on gender, fails on social protection and fails on the need for intervention in labour markets. I’m not sure their positions are right on any of these points, but I do have to agree that there was a thoughtful debate to be had about a lot of this stuff that just isn’t there. Anyone, on either side, saying the answer is clear is lying to you, but ignoring difficult decisions does not make them go away.
  6. Maybe I missed the rest, but that was all I saw this week that made me really sit up and take notice, so it’s on to the marginalia (and also the only bit most people actually click on the links for): LitHub brings the pedantry and tries to make the case for using words properly, losing battle though it is. And in news that somehow managed to escape my attention until now, someone literally tried to steal the Magna Carta this week. I mean, what was the plan? Was he going to try and sell it down the Dog and Duck? Or auction it at Christie’s?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

 This is not a drill: the NBA is back. With the news basically being unremitting bleakness and irritation, I am seizing every possible opportunity to overreact outrageously to everything. Already, I’ve found time to seriously consider whether LeBron James has discovered a cure for aging, joined the city of Philadelphia in entering a state of rapture on the event of Markelle Fultz actually making a shot and have extrapolated from Luka Doncic’s slight puppy fat to the assertion that that physical fitness and athletic ability is no longer a requirement for being a star. This is going to be fun (until the Warriors win the Championship with crushing inevitability).

 1.       A colleague pointed me to this little nugget that I’m stunned was not a bigger deal: a few years back, when Michael Clemens was playing whack-a-mole with Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Village Project (smacking it on the head with a large cudgel labelled ‘no evidence of impact’ in his right hand and one labelled ‘refuses to commission a proper evaluation’ in the left whenever it popped up in discussion), Sachs’ team literally threatened to sue him for an academic paper. And it’s not a one-off: apparently the same thing happened to Nina Munk when she published her brilliant book, The Idealist. Anyone who cares about the integrity of research should be up in arms. Having said that, trust the Daily Heil to use the headline “New study proves foreign aid doesn’t work” (no, you’re not getting a link, they will not get advertising revenue from me). Funny how the failure of stop-and-search didn’t prompt a splash titled “New study proves policing doesn’t work”. Mendacious [insert insult of choice here].

2.       And now to the optimism: Dev Patel, Justin Sandefur and Arvind Subramanian check in on the state of the world 20ish years after Lant Pritchett’s massively influential paper, ‘Divergence, Big Time. Lant looked at the historical growth paths of the then-rich and poor countries and found that the rich were putting distance between them and the poor more or less consistently over time. That appears to no longer be the case – the subsequent period has seen consistent and significant convergence, even between the poorest group of countries and the richest, an effect that exists even discounting China and India. A superb read.

3.       Want a give a cash transfer, but worried it will turn the recipients into a mindless, work-shy zombie? Never fear, Sarah Baird and co-authors have your back. They explain why the standard work-leisure trade-offs might not be in play, and summarise the evidence that shows cash does not reduce labour supply.

4.       Migration is good for the poor, part 23,929,139,102: a new study uses a random historical shock to generate causal impacts of internal migration within China on household welfare. They’re good, but we knew that. Related: ending violent crime is good for business. Nice to confirm, but you’d probably guess it anyway. Well, except for gun-runners, I assume their business suffers.

5.       This could have been a very short article: Maggie Koerth-Baker on why political science research doesn’t seem to inform much actual political campaigning. It’s a variation on an old theme: what maximises academic value doesn’t always maximise practical value.

6.       I don’t know why I was surprised that Dietz Vollrath is a fan of Clifford Geertz (they both write beautifully, to start with), but his post on ‘involution’ and growth is fantastic, a treatment of how some technological and market changes generate rapid productivity growth, but others don’t. It’s probably for the growth geeks (and those who haven’t had the good fortune of encountering Geertz yet), but very good.

7.       Some random sources of happiness for the weekend: first, not only does Chow Yun-Fat look awesome in a trenchcoat and have the ability to say ridiculous things with a straight face (“save my corneas for Jenny!”), he’s also going to give around $700 million to charity. Second, LitHub are doing a series on the books that defined every decade of the 20th Century – 1920s here, and 1930s here, massively anglo-centric but fun. And lastly, Joel Embiid is still going to son you whenever you get in his face.

 Have a great weekend, everyone!

 R

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