Links round-up

Hi all,

Six days. That’s how long it took 2021 to plumb depths that even 2020 thought were too tacky and over-the-top. Like a sequel that decided that the only way to top the original was to forego all sense of shame and cast Willem Dafoe to spend the whole movie doing bug-eyes and putting leeches on his body (yes, I’m looking at you, Speed 2) 2021 decided that after a global pandemic, the death of Diego Maradona and the interminable delay of the Black Widow movie, the only place to go was an imbecile wearing what appears to be a dead groundhog and some bison horns on his head trying to stage a coup. But let’s not make light of it. There were a number of complete spanners on show there, but the implications are incredibly serious. I thought 2021 would give us at least a few weeks to enjoy the good news glow from the vaccine rollout, but instead it’s left me with that familiar feeling of being simultaneously outraged, slightly scared about where we’re going and cycling through funny-but-not-really comments about the absolute clown show readers in the US and UK are living through (with sincere apologies to the World Clown Association who do not deserve this comparison.) A massive sinkhole just opened up in Naples, too. At least it wasn’t filled with rats this time. At least that’s one way 2021 is improving on it’s predecessor.

  1. Shall we start with something uplifting? I think we need to. I really, really liked Duncan Green’s comments to recently graduated MSc students at the LSE. He discusses the mountains behind the mountain they have just scaled and suggests four excellent rules for making the world a better place: evidence-based humility, permanent curiosity, reflexivity and pluralism. Both as a student of decision-making and a sometime decision-maker, I couldn’t agree more with these rules and especially the second. It’s the characteristic I most prize in friends, colleagues, and myself. Never stop asking why, how and why not.
  2. That kind of curiosity leads you to unexpected places: thinking carefully about a pencil can lead you through to the wonders of globalisation; a toaster can make you appreciate the value of specialisation. But I read the examples in Tim Harford’s blog and see not just a paean to the free market but the invisible hand of the Government, whose policies, subsidies, taxes and protections make such everyday economic miracles possible. And I see a tale of such deep interdependence that the idea of [insert nation here] First is not just risible but incoherent. Maybe 2021 will start unravelling this, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
  3. Back to the crazy we saw earlier this week: Maggie Koerth at 538 digs into the much-discussed asymmetry of police response to the (primarily white) rioters at Capitol Hill and the typical response to Black Lives Matter protests. It turns out that ACLED have started collecting data in the US and the data show what the smell test suggests: there is a marked disparity in how they are policed, epitomised by this tweet. Before the year turned, they also ran this great collection of their best graphs of the year – some of them are brilliant.
  4. Something else I missed in my end-of-year internet abstinence (spent reading The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie and Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, in-between cleaning baby vomit from every item of clothing I own; both are excellent, btw) was Andrew Gelman comprehensively dunking on regression discontinuities again. One line I particularly liked was this: “If you want to make a big claim and convince me that you have evidence for it, I need that trail of breadcrumbs connecting data, model, and theory.” This is exactly right, but its important to note that the theory thing isn’t just a mathematically consistent model – it’s got to be something plausible and triangulated with much more than your starting assumptions and (usually rather small) field experiment. Does it fit with what we know about the world from other sources of knowledge? If not, you really need to work hard to convince us.
  5. Another pair of excellent year-end reviews, both from the Development Impact crew: first their pick of the best papers of the year – a typically excellent and varied selection; and secondly their summary of their brilliant job market papers series.
  6. I very much like this piece by Mariana Mazzucato and Simon Sharpe about the importance of dynamic analysis in government decision-making, arguing that the returns to a decision should take into account its impact on the future path of decisions it sets up as well as its static values. I have two objections: one, that good cost-benefit analysis can and should do this, and two, that this opens up so many possible future paths of benefit that it may become either impossible or meaningless to genuinely analyse the expected payoff of different decisions, which is still necessary.
  7. With the cricket resuming (Australia and India playing out a hugely entertaining series and Monty Panesar on the Christmas University Challenge, the latter being more unexpected than the former, not to mention the forthcoming Sri Lanka tour), I was tempted to fill the last slot with cricket videos, but I’ll restrain myself. Instead two pieces of marginalia, one very serious and one not so much: first we need to occupy Disney+ until they liberate the hundreds of hours of Muppets content they are denying us. This is essentially a global human rights abuse and my DVDs and old VHS tapes are nearly worn out. My son needs to have his supply of Muppetry secured! And in less Deadly-serious news, apparently people have been trying to cook chicken by slapping it. I thought this was a smutty euphemism until I opened the link. It’s literal. 2021.

Have a great weekend, and happy new year, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Leave a comment

Links round-up

Hi all,

2020 is on it’s last legs, and like Usain Bolt looking over his shoulder at Justin Gatlin, I will be happy to see it behind me. For all the good things that happened this year, my son being by far the best (along with the seven-letter word on a triple word score that preceded him), humanity took an L this year. We got dunked on by a virus, by wildfires and by ourselves. The last part was the really hard bit – we constantly made things worse for ourselves with impatience, intolerance, stupidity and garden-variety selfishness. Still, not everyone sucks, and there was some really good writing throughout the year – some about how we fix this year’s problems, and some about how we fix more well-established ones. I normally do a sort of best-of-the-year list in the links, but this year Susannah Hares and I have written something on the CGD blog instead – some of our favourite writing of the year. Take solace that even in a terrible year, good things get written.

Just a note – this is the last links until early January. I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks to try unwind from one of the most personally and professionally intense years imaginable. Perhaps I’ll be less grumpy on my return, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  1. We need to talk about Doing Business again. I know. Every time I bring it up, it’s to lay the smack down on it again, but sometimes the smack just needs to be laid down. After its suspension earlier this year for ‘data irregularities’ (on top of the fact that it, y’know, doesn’t measure anything), the Bank undertook a thorough audit of the index, and the report is a *doozy*. The press release is rather understated, but a bit like Flerken, a pretty dramatic creature emerges from its quiet exterior. The full report seems to confirm that World Bank management pressured staff to fiddle the numbers to favour specific countries – and that almost all of them complied. This is actually even worse than I had expected when this all kicked off, and I don’t see how the Index can possibly recover. Justin Sandefur has the thread for those who like it tweet-sized.
  2. I need something wholesome after that. Here’s a Slate piece about how the betting markets are making bank bank bank from Trump supporters. When people said they were confused by the difference between election modelling and the betting markets, they forgot there was selection bias in both polling and the betting.
  3. Tim Harford is singing my song with this piece about the importance of redundancy in systems. The number of times I find myself one step away from doing something stupid is amazing. Having simple not-strictly-necessary checks can improve system performance substantially, even at the cost of a per-transaction inefficiency. Most of the time, we don’t make mistakes and consider it an inconvenience. But when mistakes are disproportionately costly, the redundancy proves highly valuable. One of my favourite examples is something civil servants will recall: when you send an email from a Government account a little pop up appears, asking you to check your security marking (or used to, at any rate). I often found myself taking advantage of that pop up to reword a sentence or check that I hadn’t said the quiet part out loud when responding to something I thought insane.  
  4. This is great: Katherine Stapleton and Michael Webb on the effects of automation in Spanish firms on their supply chain engagement with firms in developing countries. They find that contrary to common fears, automation does not induce net reshoring. Rather, its effect on productivity result in the expansion of supply chain relationships with developing countries. As so often, there is an income effect as well as a price effect, and they work in opposite directions. In this case, the increased income from better production induces more transactions and hence more supply-chain engagement, including by firms that were previously not productive enough to afford the fixed costs of off-shoring. Research: constantly proving that your gut feeling deserves a sense check.
  5. In the US, Raphael Warnock’s campaign ads in Georgia are undermining subtle but strongly help stereotypes about black people there. I found this one of the most shocking things I read all week, but also shockingly plausible.
  6. Being better at collecting the tax you should be getting is more important than raising your tax rates. Not surprising, necessarily, but important.
  7. I thought long and hard about how to end the last links of the year. Would I do a pop culture round-up? Something about John Hughes movies, or why Kendrick Lamar still isn’t as great as Rakim? Or something sporting, pointing out for the 1,303,291,181,393rd time for those at the distant back of the classroom that LeBron James is not just historically great, he’s historically great and being historically great. But the thing I’ve missed the most during this year (close family apart) has been birdwatching. You can do great stuff in London, but nothing beats going to the middle of nowhere and seeing something truly special, like this Scottish engineer found when he discovered that a starling murmuration was the cause of rolling blackouts out there. The video is stunning. But as much as I love birds, I don’t love them as much as this crazy person, who spent two years living as a wild turkey. That takes it to another level.

Have a great break everyone!

Ranil

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

There’s an oft-quoted line in the classic 1995 mystery/heist/Benicio Del Toro mumbling movie The Usual Suspect: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I was thinking about that today. With Brexit lurking around the corner like Keyser Soze, it’s marked primarily by the many guises it’s worn since 52 percent of the population voted for… something, not quite defined. We’ve gone from “of course we won’t leave the single market” to “we’ll do a trade deal over a cup of coffee” to “no deal is going to be wonderful” (if you’re Boris Johnson) or “we’ll survive” (if you’re Oliver Dowden) to this, if you’re me. How did that happen with so little fanfare? One of the most damaging things about 2020 for the UK has been the way Covid so dominated the public attention that it completely distracted us from the Brexit negotiations. Would a clearer, less fatigued public mind have put more pressure on the Government to achieve a deal? Perhaps not: I’ve been predicting no deal since 2016, but my goodness if it comes to pass we’ll be wondering about it in a few years’ time. One of my friends exports goods to the UK, and he’s describing a state of absolute panic among the people moving his goods in the UK. Fun and games for 2021.

  1. Ok, so the intro was about as much fun as a smack in the face with a roll of quarters, but I’ll make it up to you. This interview with Michael Clemens is absolutely brilliant, and I cannot recommend it enough. In fact, if you’re short of time, just open it and ignore the rest of the links. Michael is given a proper grilling here, but answers every questions with such clarity, exposing logical and moral fallacies in the arguments around immigration while also drawing on a huge range of evidence to explain why so many stated positions about migration are drawn from faulty logical foundations and how they can be tested (and disproved) by evidence. What I liked most about the interview, though, was how Michael was able to discuss not just the fine details of US migration law, but also their genesis (as he puts it, it is of the “here’s a number I pulled from where the sun don’t shine” school of policymaking) and how different kinds of policies might offer a partial improvement – and what problems they won’t resolve. He ends on a note that is a little pessimistic and a little optimistic, quoting the classicist Jeremy McInerney: “Wisdom only comes through suffering”, which may turn out to be our verdict on Brexit, too. Bonus: a VoxEU write-up on the importance of migrants as key workers in Europe. Spoiler: it’s huge.
  2. Andrew Gelman and Aki Vehtari have a new paper out summarising what they think the most important statistical ideas of the last 50 years have been. It’s readable, fun and a super introduction to ideas that you should probably understand better than you do – I certainly should.
  3. It’s a great week when we get new content from both Michael and Dietz Vollrath, so take advantage of it. Dietz digs into the decline in TFP in the US, commonly thought to be a phenomenon of the last decade or two. It isn’t. TFP jumps around, and has periods both above and below trend since the 1960s, but if you took the trend from then and used it to guess productivity today, you’d be about right. It gets really interesting when he starts discussing what these findings mean for his explanations of US economic performance. Worth reading in full, including his suggestion that the brilliance of Innervisions may have led some people to the milk and honey land, where all men feel they’re truly free at last. Stevie Wonder caused the slowdown, everyone (which also explains how bad some of the later albums were).
  4. Hugo Slim at BSG has written an excellent blog at ODI arguing for a complete restructuring of global humanitarian operations, based around platforms built on local partnerships and delivery structures. It’s excellent, and makes the point that vaccine rollout platforms offer an opportunity to move outside the established, and sclerotic, humanitarian delivery models we’ve been reliant on to date, and can be used for future priorities, including social protection. In a similar vein my colleagues Jeremy Kondynyk and Patrick Saez argue for reform to the system here.
  5. Josh Angrist, David Autor and Amanda Pallais have a write-up of their new paper out about the use of financial aid to support college students; what makes it cool is not just that it’s every bit as careful and well-done as you’d expect from them, but they conclude with a proper discussion of the cost-benefit ratio of the intervention. They – correctly – argue that scholarships in the context they measure them are largely transfers, and this has profound implications for how cost effective the intervention is; it would look even better if they explicitly weighted the worst off students more highly. I love teaching CBA because there’s a lot more economics in the conceptualisation of it than there is the summing up of numbers, as they recognise.
  6. If you’re like me, you lost a few hours to reading the Lancet write-up of the early Astra-Zeneca results (they make me more, not less, optimistic about the vaccine) and the FDA summary of the Pfizer vaccine data. But if you want a summary of the former, this Science piece is good; even better is Karleigh Rogers on the difficulties of getting people to complete their vaccination course, and how to overcome them (she missed a trick not citing Anna Karing, though).
  7. And lastly, I know some of you argue that economics is divorced from the real issues that matter to people. Some of us have heard you: Stephanie Karol, for example has a new paper out modelling how households make decisions when cats are present: obviously, the finding is that cats rule the household. And another paper sets out – with examples – how to teach economics using K-Pop; as much as Blackpink might offer something here, nothing summarises the economics of conspicuous consumption like Aaye Laariye (and – even better, it turns out that Sheheryar Banuri’s sister Wajiha Navqi has an – amazing – Coke Studios song out this season!). And on that happy note…

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

2020 jumped the shark today, when we CGD Europe had our work Christmas do over Zoom; brilliantly organised and fun as it was it drove home exactly how over this year I am. I’ve avoided pubs and restaurants for the duration of the pandemic, ditto cafés, yoga studios and the like, knowing that I have vulnerable people in my extended circle, and it’s been mainly a great year – but there’s something irreplicable about the social bonds built through physical proximity and collective action, whether that action is an escape room, axe-throwing, mini-golf, or having just enough drinks to say that 10% more than you’d normally reveal about yourself at work. I wonder if we – or I – will look back at this experience and be glad we went through it, because we built something better out of it, the way I imagine people in the UK felt with the creation of the welfare state after 1945. Then I read stories like this and am reminded that no – for the most part, things will be as they were before, but a bit worse. Hoellebecq was right, as annoying as it is to admit.

  1. After that little dose of sunshine, maybe I should lead with some happy stories? Well, every year the Federal Reserve in the US publishes a report, ‘The Beige Book’, which consists of little more than stories and anecdotes about the economy, and this year Planet Money trawled through it to find the happy economic stories of the year (transcript). Even the happy ones have a little hint of sadness to them, though, like the firm that started a bus service to bring workers in to work… because it’s normal workforce couldn’t come in because they lacked childcare options. And staying on the theme, these aren’t ‘just’ stories. Stories can have real economic power, the idea that Robert Shiller has been pursuing with his recent research. Again, PM have the scoop (transcript).
  2. Staying on things that make me happy, the Development Impact job market paper series is still on-going, and this week’s have been typically excellent. I really liked two papers that looked at the effect of crime – one on the incomes earned by workers, and the other on gender inequality (finding that violent crime reduces women’s bargaining power). I love spotting the connections between otherwise unrelated papers; and the first one has links – in a completely different context – to the Chicago Uber paper which found that women were more likely than men to avoid high crime areas, and thus their higher Uber fares.
  3. I’m on record as a vocal detractor of all but the best systematic reviews in economics, being unconvinced by the quality assurance that goes into paper inclusion or the pedigree of the authors of them (with exceptions, such as most of the surveys published in the Annual Review). In a blow to my priors, though, VoxDev have launched what promises to be a superb series of ‘VoxDevLits’ – literature surveys compiled by the outstanding economists in each field, and – crucially – regularly updated to include new studies as the dimensions of our knowledge expand. The first, on enterprise training has an absolute who’s who of economists who know this field intimately, and led by David McKenzie and Chris Woodruff. The full note is great, as is the summary.
  4. I really love this piece by Diane Coyle, who makes a point about public investment I don’t think is made often enough: that it is a form of intergenerational redistribution, or as she puts it “Investment is also an essential form of compensation to younger people, who have been one of the hardest-hit groups in the economic downturn. Many who had the bad luck to enter the job market during this crisis may find their career and lifetime earnings prospects damaged as a result.” I don’t know what Building Back Better actually means in any concrete sense yet, but I suspect Diane would have a very good programme for it.
  5. An interesting piece by Homi Kharas and co-authors on which countries should get ODAthey use measures of ‘need’ and ‘capability’ and suggest that it makes a strong case for more investment in middle income countries. It’s an interesting idea, but reading it made me think that it must be extremely sensitive to the precise metrics used – a point that Marcus Manuel demonstrates on the ODI blog.
  6. It’s incredibly hard to prove what many suspect, that the distribution of road infrastructure in most of Africa is hopelessly poor, and driven by other concerns than welfare maximisation of the population, but this cool piece on VoxEU has a novel approach: they find that autocratic leaders build roads that lead from the interior to the coast much more than those that connect parts of the country to each other. It’s not a total slam dunk, but a really interesting piece of research.
  7. I can be quite old-fashioned, and perhaps default into thinking that our cultural touchstones today are – for the most part – rather less talented and interesting than those of previous years: more Messis than Maradonas, more John Legend than Marvin Gaye. Two pieces really dug my priors in this week: first, this LitHub article about the emergence of the NBA as a spectacle reminded me that the traditional celebrity singer of the national anthem at the All-Star Game wasn’t always Fergie being totally embarrassing, but Marvin in a suit and shades being far cooler than any human being has a right to be. And the Ringer take the occasion of Dolly Parton saving humanity to run this appreciation of her, and the tl;dr is that she is just incredibly cool, and independent-minded in a way that would put her in a field of her own in today’s pop landscape. PS – really watch the Marvin video – it’s absolutely incredible.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

Well that was a week, wasn’t it? The Spending Review confirmed what was feared for the ODA budget, and then on the same day Diego Maradona (see the last link) and James Wolfensohn (link 2) died. Just when 2020 was looking like it was going to try and rescue itself from the massive suck-fest it seemed so happy being, gaslighting humanity by giving us the news the Dolly Parton might have saved humanity (again – the first time was when she released the album Jolene) and that DeAndre Hopkins catch, it turned the tables again to reveal it’s true evil nature. If 2020 was a TV character it would be Tony Soprano – violent, abusive, but occasionally just likable enough to make you let your guard down again. When 2020 says ‘we had coffee’, this is what they mean.

  1. So… shall we start with the obvious? I’ve always disliked the idea that the amount of good we do on development can be reduced to the amount of aid we spend in a given year, but cutting the aid budget in the middle of a global pandemic that is likely to cause the first increase in global extreme poverty in decades is… not so great. Not when the IMF’s head is penning op-eds desperately arguing to maintain a focus on the poor, if we want this crisis to ever truly end. And certainly not when you consider the quality of some of the other spending this year. That said, I’m going to break a rule and repeat a link. If we’re going to cut, cut the worst of it. I also liked this take by Mark Miller, and in particular his twitter thread. But more than anything else, I’d point out that there is everything still to fight for. Cuts can protect what UK aid does best, but require real defence, real fight. If you care about getting this right, cut your losses on the fights that have already been lost and fight the ones that remain. Until they’re lost, they’re worth fighting, and require people who believe in it, and have the knowledge to make the case for keeping the best of our work.
  2. James Wolfensohn, whom Justin Sandefur described as the only good President the World Bank has had, passed away. Via Dan Honig, here is a truly amazing interview he gave as part of an oral history of the World Bank. As Dan said: you can learn more here about how the Bank works than from any other source available.
  3. Do you find ‘left’ and ‘right’ restrictive intellectual categories? That there is a complexity to your thought that reducing it to a single region on a single axis won’t capture? Pranab Bardhan (whose work on sharecropping in India had such an impact on me when I was a student) has a lovely piece setting the ideological diversity of the academe on a more complex scale than left/right, and in the process gives you a starter for ten on so many intellectual debates that you can wormhole down at your leisure.  
  4. Two super pieces on VoxDev this week – first Suresh de Mel and co-authors on an experiment that finds that rolling out free digital savings accounts to a cohort of poor people in Sri Lanka achieved… not much at all. Digital solutions are nice, but only once we’ve worked out the fundamental behavioural constraints to the problems we face. And another piece that finds that outsourcing of work from a parent firm leads to an increasing concentration of economic rents in the contracting firm – a finding that chimes very much with one of my favourite papers, Nick Bloom’s Firming Up Inequality.
  5. Two more pieces on the recent US election. First, a really sad look at the shockingly high number of Americans who report being close to no other person, and how strongly these marginalised people broke for Trump – one possibility for why polls underestimate his support so consistently. And a piece which looks at the ethnic breakdown of Trump’s support, attributing his increased popularity with some ethnic minorities in part to reversion to the mean, to the rural/urban split even within ethnic groups, and Trump’s ability to tap into the specific concerns of some minority groups.
  6. Because of course, Branko has written something about The Makioka Sisters, once again proving that he is a walking venn diagram, connecting unrelated topics in the mind of a single polymath again and again.
  7. So I didn’t say much about Diego in the intro, because I was saving the best for the last. I don’t really watch football anymore, but I idolised Maradona. In fact, my son’s first name was very close to being Diego, before it was nixed by my (half-Argentine, no less!) wife. I am just old enough to remember watching him play at his absolute apex – for Napoli and for Argentina. It was the clearest expression of genius I’ve ever seen: he was simply that much better than everyone else I have ever seen play the same sport. And it wasn’t despite his imperfections, they were very much part of him; his genius is inseparable from the mindset that led him to do so many crazy things. We could have thousands of links here, but I’ll try and be restrained: the FT on how Maradona is the perfect metaphor for monetary policy; but he wasn’t a metaphor for life – he was far more important than that, as L’Equipe understood. It comes across on the commentary of that goal, particularly the howl of “Siempre Maradona! Genio, genio, genio!”; and in his legendary Live is Life warm-up. I’m so sad he’s gone, but happy to spend hours watching this to celebrate him.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

I have extremely exciting news: I managed four hours of uninterrupted sleep last night. It’s true,  more exciting have happened in the world this week: there’s an election heist in progress somewhere, it seems, undertaken with all the panache of the Sticky Bandits; another vaccine company has seen fit to boost its share price with an announcement of efficacy before showing us the data; and a man in Australia is competing with the aforementioned election bandit for the title of the world’s most selfish man. But the world is made up both of things that are too big to move by yourself and small challenges to meet one-by-one. And in both cases, I really think they bend towards improvement, in the long run, as Lee might say. And if my little sleep-depriver is beginning to see it fit not to test how much wailing it takes to wake up a man who sleeps with his hearing aids in a jar next to him, then I’m going to enjoy that one while it lasts…

  1. I really did promise not to turn the links into the CGD Weekly, but my colleagues don’t make it easy. First Matt Juden and Ian Mitchell dig into the cost effectiveness of climate spending here, and spoiler alert, the answer is ‘no sod knows’, which is kind of disappointing. There’s a trend towards good analysis of cost-effectiveness right  now, and this gap needs to be filled, quickly. It would help, too if donors were honest about what they’re really spending on climate change – but my colleagues Atousa Tahmasebi and Euan Ritchie seem to have caught out a few being … shall we say, economical with the truth? This is excellent stuff, the kind of thing you only learn if you have the inclination and wherewithal to get into the weeds with the data. And lastly, in the spirit of shameless self-promotion: with rumours gathering pace that the ODA budget is going to be slashed in the coming few days, I’ve written a note on how to do these cuts without losing the best of what UK aid can achieve. The blog is here for the short-of-time, but I really recommend the full note. It names names, and there will be plenty to disagree with, but cuts are awful. And there needs to be a robust debate about what loses out, if they come.
  2. I’m a big fan of the idea of ‘pre-morteming’, that is starting a new project by listing all the ways it might go wrong; like Tim Harford I think it can work very well, but sadly I also agree that there’s rather a lot of completely stupid policy that would have been pursued even with a laundry list of ways they might fail.
  3. Planet Money’s newsletter takes aim at the absolutely insane number of civil servants that are personal appointees of the President in the US. I am always baffled by how the system is meant to work when it’s loaded with partisans with every change of administration. Compare and contrast with this thread on how things should work in the UK, by Calum Miller.
  4. Normally I’d link to a paper I want to talk about here, but I can’t seem to find a version of it online – so instead we’ll have to make do with the tweetstorm of what looks to be a fascinating paper using data from Uber drivers to investigate the gender pay gap. There is no formal difference in the pay rates by gender between men and women Uber drivers, but this paper finds significant differences in their earnings – much of which are driven by women doing less driving in more dangerous (and therefore higher-price) localities. This is really important: lots of people argue that pay gaps deriving from different preferences by gender aren’t a problem, they’re a reflection of what people want to do. But preferences don’t come from nowhere – they’re reflections of the society they emerge in, and if women feel less safe in certain places or ways, it can fundamentally reshape their preferences in really damaging ways. It reminds me of Girija Borker’s awesome paper on how street harassment changes the educational choices of young women in India. Also on gender: a crazy study in Nature that is stretching thin data so far it’s like they’re doing the Bake Off window pane test on it.
  5. This week on Development Impact, the brilliant job market papers series continued (the Borker paper I link to above was once one of them, too). Read them all, but my favourite of the week was Thomas Gautier’s on how refugee settlement patterns can affect their integration in the host community. He has the perhaps counter-intuitive finding that more refugees in a locality leads to more integration, not less. But read all of them – this is the most fun series in development blogging out there.
  6. Are you thinking about breaking the Covid rules for a small gathering – or a big one if you celebrate Thanksgiving? Let my favourite science writer, Maggie Koerth tell you why this is a terrifyingly bad idea. The graphics are like an epidemiologist’s horror movie.
  7. And lastly, it’s not just a virus that has learnt to kick humanities ass. I’m here to tell you that all of nature is after us. In the sea, the Orcas have risen up against us, and they are coming for your boat (if you have one, and if you do, please pay more tax). Are you a farmer? Well, it turns out that crops are learning how to hide from us. Evolution: it’s all fun and games until the fauna starts to rise up in rebellion.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links Round-up

Hi all,

I’ve struggled with the disjunction between my personal 2020 (quite possibly the best year since 1994 saw the release of – deep breath – American Recordings, Superunknown, Live Through This, F.U.E.L., Grace, Hard to Earn, Unplugged in New York, Welcome to Sky Valley, Let Love In, Jar of Flies and Troublegum, thereby providing the backbone to the soundtrack of my teens and 20s, via older siblings much cooler than I) and the dumpster fire of a year that it’s mainly been for the world at large. But it’s finally looking up: toxic political influences are starting recede from the scene, much like an overflowing sewer ebbing back into the drain from whence the muck arose; a vaccine seems to have been developed (and it might be more effective than we think!), with more likely to follow – migrants for the win, though I’d like the bar for migrants not to be demonised to one day fall below ‘end a global pandemic’; and AC/DC are releasing a new album, despite the fact that one member lost his hearing, another died and a third was done for hiring a hitman to kill someone. If the Peak-End rule isn’t rubbish, we may even wind up looking back at this year fondly.

  1. Since I’ve opened the links with some glad tidings, let them continue: it is that magical time of year when the brilliant folk at Development Impact give their blog over to econ job market candidates. Some of my favourite papers have been featured in this series, and this year has gotten off to a banging start. I absolutely love this field experiment by Muhammad Yasir Khan, who demonstrates that making the organisational mission more salient induces bureaucrats to work harder, work smarter and achieve greater positive impacts in the communities in which they are stationed. I’m simultaneously pleased that he’s proven something I’ve long suspected, and jealous of how cool his paper’s set up is. I also really like Emma Riley’s post, which demonstrates that giving women loans in a separate account enables them to use the money to invest in their own businesses more effectively. It has a very clear and easily implemented policy implication, too. All of the posts are worth reading (this one on contract design helping farmers enter new markets by relaxing multiple constraints simultaneously is great, too, as is this one on liquidity constraints and time cost). The series is continuing, and a joy.
  2. It’s not exactly an unusual prediction, but Raj Chetty is going to win the Nobel for economics; the only question is when, and for what (think about how wild that sentence is, and the fact that it’s barely an exaggeration). He’s done some awesome causal work, but I think it’s the rigour and creativity he and his team at Opportunity Insights bring to descriptive economics that will win it for him/them. Planet Money cover their latest innovation – a faster, more granular way of tracking changes in employment and consumer spending (transcript). In the middle of the podcast, one of the hosts just blurts out “Raj, I love you, please call me.” As you do, he’s nerding out. Don’t judge him.
  3. Dominic Cummings has apparently just resigned – so a good time to link to this excellent thread from January (via Sarah O’Connor) suggesting that his ambitions to ‘remake the state’ were doomed. It reminds me of a point I make when teaching about life as a policy economist: policy is hard to change, and this is a feature, not a bug. If it was easy to change policy, or indeed the apparatus of government, there would never be enough stability to actually achieve anything.
  4.  Last week I talked a bit about the polling and how it wasn’t either as bad as it seemed, or useless. Three more entries: Nate Silver on the polls being about as wrong as they usually are, Tim Harford on the difficulties underlying the polls; and Jessica Hullman on what the alternative to using poll-based forecasting is. As she says: “What would happen if there were no professional forecasts?… A deep stillness as we all truly acknowledge the uncertainty of the situation does not strike me as the most likely scenario”. Indeed.
  5. This week in people are the worst: male loan officers in Chile are – if they carry pre-existing biases – much, much less likely to grant them loans than they will to otherwise identical applications from men.
  6. I hugely recommend this EconTalk with Steven Levitt, not just because he absolutely lays the smack down on the University of Chicago Econ department, but because he talks a lot of sense. In particular, I like the section where he complains that companies and people constantly approach him about learning the ‘tricks’ of behavioural economics and he feels compelled to advise them that there’s a lot more mileage in just getting a bit better at the basics of regular economics.
  7. One of the best things about becoming a new parent is getting excited about sharing your favourite things from childhood with your kids; you have a brief period where you can imagine they’ll love the same things before reality intervenes and you realise their favourite song is going to be Let it Go, not Let it Be; my son is still at that lucky age where I can play him all my favourite childhood songs and read him my favourite books without him being able to register enough displeasure to induce me to stop, so he’s been listening to Letter B, Put the Duckie Down, and Brown Sugar (spot the odd one out, but apparently it was my favourite song as a toddler). I hope they don’t cancel Roald Dahl before he’s old enough to read him, though – despite the fact that as LitHub puts it “Roald Dahl was despicable and looked like Mr. Burns. Mixed with an Egghead.” What are the best books to read to a child mere weeks old? Does it matter that I am reading him extracts from Causality by Judea Pearl? Recommendations please!

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links Round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

Some weeks the intro just writes itself. I’m sure virtually every reader of the links has learnt a great deal about the micro-political economy of the United States in the last week; I’ve got friends in Hong Kong texting me with back-of-the-envelope calculations of the number of votes remaining in Maricopa County, and despite not knowing if London is in an English county (is it in Middlesex? I always leave the county line blank when making online purchases), I now know which US county Las Vegas and Pittsburgh each belong to. I’ve never even been to the US. One friend pointed out a strange feature about the experience of watching this election unfold: though we experience an ebb-and-flow of fortunes over time as one candidate or another gains in the latest batch of votes to be counted, in a very real sense, the election result itself has not evolved at all since Tuesday when the ballots closed. The votes being counted have already been cast: the result is unchanging. All that changes is our own perspective or position in relation to this unchanging result. Of course, if you want to go full universe brain, this is pretty much exactly how space-time works (click here if you want the Marvel explanation).

  1. Once again, the polls have taken a battering in the press as a result of the “early” election results; and once again, the truth seems a little more complicated than that. In defence of the polls, the results in almost every state have more or less fallen within the margin of error of the polling averages; what’s more, they are mainly moving towards the central estimate as more vote counts are released. On the other hand, the actual results definitely demonstrate a systematic bias from the expected results based on polls. Andrew Gelman describes the failings of the polls here (a more technical look at the results, with his R code is here) and with more interesting graphs here. It’s important to distinguish between the polls and the forecasts, which are modelled estimates of the electoral result based on polls. It’s kind of OK for the polls not to be great as long as we know how they’re flawed so we can correct for them in the forecasts. Nate Silver took a lot of flak for some odd adjustments he made to the 538 model, but in retrospect it looks like they helped mitigate the polling errors and brought their model closer to the result. I was asked this week is if the polls are good enough to be useful ahead of time anymore, if they so often seem to miss. My take is that they still are valuable – but perhaps this is ceasing to be true.
  2. It wasn’t only the Presidency up for grabs, of course – one of the more eye-opening results was that Oregon voted to legalise basically every class A street drug. This is going to be fascinating, and I foresee a slew of difference-in-difference papers in a few years’ time. Bunny Colvin would be proud – Hamsterdam in America.
  3. I can see a theme on state capacity emerging over the links. Tim Harford assesses the case for both the zero-Covid and the lockdown sceptics take on coronavirus strategy and instead argues that the most essential component of public policy in response to the pandemic is just to get the absolute basics right. Make sure standard services work; make sure contact tracing if effective; and make sure basic public health is effective. “Just stop bungling the basics. It is not much of a slogan. But it might just be a solution.” Quite.
  4. And still on the theme of state effectiveness, Planet Money had a good show on the origins of the Mafia in Sicily (transcript) – born of extremely weak state capacity, the Mafia emerges once a domestic product that is both valuable and easy to steal emerges, in this case those glorious Sicilian lemons. With the state incapable of protecting producers who need to make large up front investments in lemon production, credible contracts with the Mafia become preferable to dealing with the tax-funded services being so poorly applied, like policing. And related: a nice write up in VoxDev of research that shows how organised crime can hamper economic development, this time in El Salvador.
  5. Two good things on firms: first, an IZA paper by Charles Ackah and co-authors on why female entrepreneurs export less than their male counterparts in Ghana; and a study by David McKenzie and Diego Ubfal on the optimal pricing for business training (spoiler: it’s not free).
  6. Two nice pieces on Amartya Sen: first his sometime co-author Jean Dreze on his vast intellectual legacy, a foreword to the new book How to Read Amartya Sen. It’s striking that Sen has written so much that some of his seminal contributions (I always remember his papers on Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem as particularly mind-expanding) don’t even make it into a book about how to read his work! And secondly, Branko using his On Economic Inequality as a launchpad for his own musings on the philosophical underpinnings to understanding inequality.
  7. I’m going to sign off the links now: I know most of you will be skim-reading between pressing ctrl-R to find out the latest from Clark County or Alleghany. But if it’s distractions you need, I got you: via Anna Karing, this adorable thread on how baby animals are weighed (porcupettes for the win!). If cute animals don’t do you, I have a backup – the sober Halloween tradition in Taiwan, where people dress up as mildly awkward day-to-day events. Larry David would be the king of this.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

I’m feeling very old today. Not just because my son has developed a brilliant system for keeping me on my toes: letting me get just enough sleep to need more but not so much that I feel rested. No, the realisation that the creep of time has, like the ocean eroding the White Cliffs of Dover, been doing rather more than I ever notice on a day-to-day basis came twice in quick succession this week. First, the news that Diego Maradona turned sixty this week (celebrated in the Guardian with this list of his six greatest goals for Napoli) brought home that the first footballer I ever genuinely idolised now qualifies for a bus pass. I remember watching (on one of those TVs that was about two feet deep and had a 10 inch screen) some of these exact goals on TV. Even worse was the WhatsApp I got from a friend today, informing me that today is the 20th birthday of OutKast’s Stankonia, an album I remember having the force of something genuinely new and exciting. I’ve been nostalgia-binging on the album today and only now realise that Dre was many times more apologetic to Ms. Jackson than I had thought – my own version of millions to trillions today.

  1. Just to rub salt in the wound, Tim Harford points out that these landmarks mean that I’m inching towards peak misery, which is apparently achieved at age 47.2 (don’t worry – I’ve got almost a decade till I start cheering up again). There are, in fact, two effects happening: one is the near inevitable mid-life dip in happiness, which is not just observed across countries but across species (apparently even Chimps have mid-life crises), and the other is specific to humans – the empirical observation that each successive generation is less happy and in more pain than the previous one. We can thank Anne Case, Angus Deaton and Arthur Stone for that cheerful research finding, one Tim summarises thus: “What Case, Deaton and Stone are finding is not a midlife problem but a swelling wave of suffering rolling through the generations.” And lest this entry to the links results in mass depression, click on this please.
  2. Away from the navel gazing, I think there might be some kind of election next week? I’m not sure. It’s not like millions of people have been waiting for this since November 9th 2016. The result on that day was put down, by some, to the influence of social media in generating coverage and support for Donald Trump. Thomas Fujiwara and co-authors try to put numbers on that here, and discover that twitter is, if anything, associated with a negative effect on Trump’s vote share, with more heavily-twittering states less likely to support him, an effect driven not by Trump’s own tweeting, but by the negative backlash it engenders. This finding runs directly counter to my own intuition, that the platform has been a boon to him by keeping him in the news, and providing a way to signal his alignment to specific groups in the country, but this may be down to what precisely their measuring (or, I’m wrong). Also: Andrew Gelman on why betting markets and forecasts have such different views on the 2020 election.
  3. One of the most baffling aspects of American politics to outsiders is the discourse around healthcare – there seems to be a widely held belief that systems based on public provision are death traps, contrary to almost all of the evidence. I’ve always wondered why so many Americans seem to think the UK healthcare system is basically The Running Man in a hospital, with death squads lined up to try and take you out from the moment you cross the threshold. It turns out that a lot of this misinformation stems from a campaign led by private insurers to systematically spread misinformation about systems that are not dominated by private healthcare insurance providers. Planet Money have the story and it’s deeply depressing (transcript). Occupying an enormous place of shame in this whole story is How to Lie with Statistics, the cult book on statistical bad practice whose author went on to work for the tobacco industry to undermine the case against smoking.
  4. I really liked this piece by Martin Ravallion about the idea of ending poverty – its politics and the progress towards it. It reminded me of this regularly updated wall of shame maintained by Owen Barder, a history of people claiming that we are the first generation to have an end to poverty in sight.
  5. Duncan Green summarises research into which countries have been successful in making a real dent in inequality, and how. Related: a summary of research into effects of minimum wages on employment in developing country settings. The tl;dr is that the effects vary quite widely, but the trade off between wages and employment levels seem to be sharpest when minimum wages appear to have the greatest potential to support the poorest.
  6. Pam Jakiela and Owen Ozier have the research that proves I should appreciate my big sister more: children (in developing countries) with an older sister do much better in terms of early childhood development – an outcome that would likely be strengthened with greater investments in these older sisters. I still don’t forgive her for ruining 9/10 movie twists for me, though.
  7. Lastly, it’s Halloween, and if horror is your thing, this is the single most horrifying thing I’ve ever read: a man in New York was waiting for the bus when a sinkhole opened up underneath him, plunging him into a several-foot deep pit filled with a seething swarm of rats. So deep in rats was he, he could not even scream for fear that they would crawl down his throat. It took hours for him to be rescued. I would need several lifetimes of therapy to recover from the trauma. If that’s too grim for you, then try LitHub’s ranking of the top 50 screen Draculas – excellent choices, though the top two should be reversed. I’d forgotten how Gary Oldman’s portrayal was basically Klaus from the Umbrella Academy crossed with a sapeur. And if Halloween just doesn’t do it for you at all, this is brilliant: the creators of some of the best TV shows of the last 20 years suggest what their Coronavirus episode would look like. If only Leslie Knope was leading us…

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up

Links round-up

Hi all,

2020 has been a brute, right? Although personally it’s been an extremely exciting (new job, new home, new baby, new coding language), and I’m one of the lucky ones who rather likes getting locked in with my family, it’s fair to say that for the world at large, this year has been a dog’s dinner. I joined Twitter in February, mainly for the memes, but 2020 has been the year of doomscrolling: you get up in the morning and watch the world burn, one tweet at a time. If it’s not the slow breakdown of an overwhelmed healthcare system, it’s confirmation that the learning effects of coronavirus have been truly devastating. So when you find something that cheers you up, share it. For me, it’s Marcus Rashford’s twitter feed. If you need a bit of optimism, read it: even if it doesn’t quite sit right with me that the private sector is having to provide social protection in place of the government – more than a whiff of Victorian social policy here – it’s  is stunning to me that the most admirable public figure in Britain right now is football player, not a group generally know for their good taste or altruism. And if football cheers you up, it’s Pele’s 80th birthday, and 15 minutes of his greatest moments is quite a thing to see.

  1. I wanted to open the links with something cheerful because the rest of the way is pretty gloomy. A couple of weeks ago, I linked to Sarah O’Connor’s optimistic piece suggesting that the pandemic might force a remaking of the economy, with a move towards better provision of childcare and other support to make it easier for women to enter and stay in the labour force. Well, if it’s going to happen, now would be a good time to start, as Planet Money point out: in the US, at least, women’s labour force participation has dipped to its lowest level since 1988 (transcript). And while we all love to dream of V-shaped recoveries, there is a lot of evidence that once women leave the labour force it’s especially difficult for them to get back in. This is such an obvious source of inefficiency that the fact that its persistence is almost – almost – shocking.
  2. The sheer breadth and depth of the knowledge of economics Michael Kremer displays in this interview with Tyler Cowen is deeply intimidating. He moves from talking fluently about RCTs to discussing theories of growth and technological change to peer effects… it’s quite amazing. Highly recommended.
  3. One of my favourite, geeky, recurring segments of the links is the occasional series ‘This Week in Rainfall Instruments for Everything’, but it’s beginning to look like I’ll have to retire it. After a couple of decades of economists heroically and shamelessly ignoring violations of the exclusion restriction provided by every other paper that uses rainfall as a instrument in a growth regression, Jonathan Mellon has finally put the rainfall IV out of its misery. He identifies 137 separate violations of the exclusion restriction (it has instrumented for everything from income to cycling), which is a surprisingly small number given how many rainfall papers I’ve seen. Even better, not only is the title of this paper a pun, so is every sub-heading, from Throwing Caution to the Wind, through Results of the Rain Check to The Tip of the Iceberg? That’s real commitment to the bit. More excellent geekery, with fewer puns: Ryan Cooper and David McKenzie on dealing with oddly shaped clusters.
  4. Apparently, 360 feedback isn’t just an excuse to anonymously tell your boss that they make your teeth itch: it also improves productivity and worker retention, as this cool experiment by Jing Cai and Shing-Yi Wang in China shows. I’m more surprised by the productivity result – the occasional vent definitely works to keep people from exploding and storming off.
  5. There’s a section in this Tim Harford piece which suggests that we generally overestimate our ability to explain things, think we understand the world better than we do. We think we know how a zipper works, but asked to explain and draw a diagram, quickly realise the limits of our knowledge. He also suggests that asking questions that expose this lack of knowledge helps moderate the views people hold. I’m a little dubious – I often ask for details and examples when I disagree with someone and its typically required that I duck thrown stationery than we reach a reasonable détente.
  6. For those of us working on economic development, credible estimates of the job creation effect of foreign direct investment are the holy grail. This paper by Gerhard Toews and  Pierre-Louis Vezina is the equivalent of the dusty clay cup in Last Crusade.
  7. My sister has a superpower. Within the first fifteen minutes of any movie, she can identify both if there will be a plot twist, and what it is. It’s uncanny. This is someone who never recognises an actor (to the extent that I once convinced her that Peter Falk was Robert De Niro), sleeps through about 30% of anything she watches, and yet within seconds of standing in front of the Sixth Sense, said “that guy’s dead, you know?” I thank my lucky stars I didn’t watch The Good Place with her. Anyway – The Ringer have a great list of the best twists in movie and TV history. Number 1 won’t surprise anyone – at least there’s no twist there – but the rest is great fun.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

Share
Posted in Links round-up | Comments Off on Links round-up