Links round-up

Hi all,

It seems like every week I’m opening these e-mails with a reference to the death of a beloved artist of some description. While the economist in me is aware that it’s purely an artefact of the fact that many cultural icons for people my age being roughly the same age, and thus prone to dying off in clusters, in the spirit of last week’s links, it’s hard not to put a narrative on it – 2016 as the year in which many good things died. I should clarify that I’m talking about Andrew Sachs today, a German Jewish migrant who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and became a British icon for playing Spanish low-skilled worker with a ropey understanding of English. I can only reiterate my insistence that someone repair to Brighton forthwith and bubble-wrap Nick Cave. If he goes, who else will come up with similes as amazing as ‘my heart tumbled like the stock exchange’?.

1.       Of course the other fellow who did some mortal-coil shuffling in the last week was Fidel, causing massive awkwardness as a number of global leaders tried to acknowledge his death without accidentally suggesting that they admired him (Trudeau and Zuma bucked the trend – with Zuma’s response being informed by the extensive support Castro gave the anti-apartheid struggle). No-one ever accused Branko Milanovic of not having the courage of his convictions, though, and Castro’s death prompted two very good pieces from him. The first considers communism in historical perspective, noting that it went against two fundamental human impulses that ultimately defeated it (the impulse to be free, and the impulse to acquire things). The second develops the themes he introduces here and considers whether the 20th Century was primarily a long story about globalising capitalism or a shorter story about the conflict between capitalism and communism.

2.       Speaking of Branko, this piece about his famous elephant graph questions whether the popular interpretation of the graph – that globalisation has exacerbated inequality – is the correct story to draw from it. It’s very good, but it’s worth noting that it was always those whose frame of reference was restricted to the rich, Western countries who peddled this narrative most strongly. More internationally minded commenters immediately saw the main implication of the graph: the world’s poor, for whatever reasons, have been converging towards Western incomes, on aggregate.

3.       A friend in Zimbabwe has been telling me about his attempts to secure and transact business in the new kinda-currency that Zimbabwe has just launched. It’s either one of the craziest or one of the most brilliant pieces of macroeconomics ever, the monetary equivalent of facon. What is it? Technically, the notes are just pieces of paper that correspond to real, existing US dollars. If those real dollars exist, and the central bank has them (even electronically), and – crucially – everyone trusts that this is true and won’t be abused, then Zim bond notes should simply be avatars for real dollars and function in exactly the same way. If the Central Bank resists the urge to print more than they can back up with real US dollar deposits, and the economy is managed effectively, this may wind up being a way back to Zimbabwe having a functioning domestic currency again. How do we guage whether the market believes this will happen? Well, one indication is whether there is anything other than a 1:1  exchange rate between the Zim bonds and the US Dollar. Early indications are not good. Economists should be getting the popcorn out now – this is going to be fascinating.

4.       Let’s talk about people who do have credibility for a moment, though. Nate Silver and 538 might be the only political commentators who came out of the US election with any credit – they were consistently better at reading the true likelihood of a Trump win from the polls than anyone else, as this rating of the pollers and predictors suggests. Underlying that has been Silver’s uncanny ability to recognise when he’s been lucky and where he can improve – even when he was getting everything right, he was looking for flaws he could exploit for more accuracy later. He’s still thinking about that now. This is a lesson in good practice for researchers and policy makers everywhere.

5.       One of the best blog series’ of the year is Development Impact’s sequence of blogs by young economists entering the academic job market with their best papers. This one has been my favourite so far: on the costs of patronage and nepotism, using British appointments in Colonial India and a truly heroic bit of data coding.

6.       Also via DI – Jishnu Das is apparently getting hate mail for some of his brilliant research into healthcare provision in India. This strikes me as a bit like that moment where Carmen Sandiego trots across your screen – you must be on the right track.

7.       Lastly, two links (one hilarious) about the academic idiosyncracy and malpractice. First, The Economist on the idiosyncracy: the rise of multiple-authored papers, explained as basically a response to the pressure to publish. Secondly, a hilarious article looking at the use of fake names, fake referees and fake journals to bolster academic careers. Sometimes it’s malign, as when Hyung-In Moon peer reviewed his own papers. Sometimes it’s harmless as when Polly Matzinger began to co-author papers with her Afghan hound to avoid using the passive voice. And sometimes it’s just hilarious, as when ‘Stronzo Bestiale’ (I’ll let you translate that yourselves) was introduced as a co-author from a prestigious-sounding university to boost the publication prospects of William G. Hoover’s research.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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