links round-up

Hi all,

 As threatened, this week’s links culminates with a self-indulgent ‘best of 2016’ section. Now, I know talking about the ‘best of 2016’ is a little like celebrating the five best punches to the face I’ve taken, but there’s some merit to the exercise. As Kahneman says, people need a narrative, and a retrospective look at the year is one convenient way of constructing one. One narrative might be that 2016 was a slow, brick-by-brick dismantling of the cultural firmament (Gah. Gah. NOOOOOOOOOO!) but that probably wouldn’t be the most helpful framing. Anyway, before we get to the best of, a few last links for the year.

 1.       Of course, one way 2016 might seem better in retrospect is if it turns out to be the last complete year in recorded human history. I’m not getting Millenarian, but one can’t deny the End-of-Days-ish vibe of this tweet (does it remind anyone of this great video I linked a few months ago, via Tom C?). It couldn’t come at a worse time, either, given that Thomas Schelling passed away a week or two ago, taking with him a lifetime of practical and theoretical knowledge of how to avoid nuclear war.

2.       Nick Bloom is consistently linked to some of the most interesting and inventive research out there. This time, he’s using data on researchers by sector to measure actual technological productivity. It’s an excellent working paper, finding that it now takes more researchers to make further progress on existing measures of technological advance, thus pointing to declining productivity in innovation. One problem – by definition, the biggest leaps in productivity are where new ideas entirely are devised, and these sectors are systematically different to the ones we know how to measure. So we’ll never really truly be able to measure how innovative we are. Still, a great paper, worth reading.

3.       An excellent note from Lee at CGD, looking at the random and improvable ‘LDC’ classification – something that might take on a very policy-relevant hue if the UK begins negotiating new trade deals post-Brexit.

4.       Branko has been the economist of the year, surely? He’s published the full text of his interview with the New Republic, and he makes it clear that he believes that globalisation has come with costs but that it is a desirable process nonetheless because it is inclusive – it ‘reduces the obstacles between people in the world’. I agree with him. Nevertheless, in 2017 I hope to see a proper consideration of the Tortoise graph, and whether it has overtaken the elephant.

5.       But let’s end (almost) the links with a happy one: the newest utility-scale solar energy is now cheaper than new-built natural gas. This is incredible.

 And now chosen entirely capriciously and with little recourse to consultation or democratic representation, my favourite links of the year, arranged by category.

1.       Over the year, there were a number of superb long reads about economics and the people who studied and shaped it as a discipline. One of the great weaknesses of academic economics as it is taught is the extent to which the history of economics as a discipline of ideas is neglected, though it bears many lessons for current economists. One of the best links of the year was from January, a long article about the Orthodox Jewish economist Nathaniel Leff, and his influence on the study of Brazil’s economy – interesting because of the human drama, but also because it reveals much about the ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ ways of doing economics and the political currents that determine the direction of research. Similarly, only a couple of weeks ago, Michael Lewis’s piece on Kahneman and Tversky did much the same. There’s not much new economics in these articles, but much to learn.

2.       I remember describing 2015 as the year of inequality writing. I spoke too soon. 2016 featured a great deal of good new research and good new writing on various aspects of inequality: I recently linked to this write up of Raj Chetty’s most recent piece of brilliance, charting the death of the American Dream, but the NYT also had a great piece in January, in which Justin Wolfers looked at gender inequality and how women do not get any credit for work performed in teams, a terrible outcome for society. Of course Branko’s book came out this year, prompting an excellent review from Chico Ferreira, one inequality guru reviewing another. But there were signs that the limits of the research driving the increasing policy focus on inequality might be being reached: first, 538 pointing out how difficult it is to link inequality with global turmoil, despite the grand claims of many politicians and policymakers, and secondly, the revised elephant-that-is-really-a-tortoise.

3.       There was also a great deal of brilliant research published or covered in the media this year. My favourite was this experiment by Ben Vollaard, which showed that honesty falls dramatically when even a slight cost is introduced. A seemingly frivolous experiment which hints at a profound behavioural insight. Another was the one Chris Woodruff came to DFID to present, on an experiment which both helped explain the low numbers of female managers in Bangladeshi garment factories and to rectify it. I’ve also been waiting for the papers from Stefan’s experiment with Chris Blattman for ages, and was really pleased when Tim Harford covered it here. My favourite job market paper of the year was Guo Xu’s, partly because of his extraordinarily diligent data coding, but also because it’s a very clever way of proving one of those things we all suspect but never had the evidence for. And lastly, getting meta for a moment, Christie Aschwanden’s series about the state of scientific  inquiry was brilliant.

4.       Getting towards the end,  three brilliant opinion pieces, all inspired directly or indirectly by the political upheavals of the year and the standard of the discourse around it. Sarah O’Connor’s piece (and the Andy Haldane speech that inspired it) is superb, and came via Nick Lea: she says the best economist is the one with dirty shoes, the one who goes out to understand the reality his or her spreadsheets depicts. Tim Harford was angrier, I suspect, when he wrote about ‘bullshit’ – and the fact that it remains relevant today makes me even angrier still. Lastly, possibly my favourite piece of writing of the year was Owen Barder’s excellent, impassioned ‘More in Common shortly after Brexit. I was looking for a quote to garnish this recommendation with but the only honest way of selling it is to tell you to read it all.

5.       I leave you with three pieces of glorious marginalia: my favourite new poem (I think it was new, but am unsure), Karibu ya Bintou from the DRC, and  the best Taylor Swift gif of the year.

 No links next week, so have a great Christmas and wishing you all a happy and healthy new year.


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