Was 2016 a statistical aberration? Did things that were really unlikely continually happen? Did famous people die at a historically unprecedented rate? This seems to be the prevailing narrative at the moment, but if Kahneman and Tversky taught us anything (thanks to my brazen signalling on this e-mail, I did indeed get The Undoing Project for Christmas) it’s that narratives can’t really be trusted. In fact, what’s most likely is that 2016 was a year in which the actual outcome of two major votes was within the margin of error of the polls, but crossed a binary outcome threshold; and a year in which roughly the expected number of famous people died, but the random sample of them that were taken happened to touch some cultural nerves. Should that make us feel good or bad about 2017? Well, 2016 is the year stuff happened. 2017 is the (first) year we’ll live with the consequences. I suppose it all depends on what narrative we build for this year.
1. Let’s not leave 2016 just yet, though. Harry Enten covers some of the ground above, but with more rigour and more nuance here, in a piece which looks at all the mistakes he made in his political reportage for 538 in 2016, many of which served to underestimate the odds of Trump. It’s a great, informative exercise, something that everyone should do – reviewing the year that’s gone past and picking out what we can learn from it to do better in the future. I can’t think of anyone, least of all myself, who shouldn’t do so.
2. It’s not been a great few weeks for foreign aid in the press (when even something as well-regarded as cash transfers comes under fire, it’s a hard week), but here’s something to be optimistic about. Chris Blattman did a study looking at whether ODA in politically dodgy places may prop up bad regimes and finds that it doesn’t. Ok – so it’s only one context, and the findings need to be replicated and explained properly but this is great, and his proposed explanation is plausible – that good aid programmes give people an alternative to chasing after patronage from dubious leaders.
3. The Bank of England has been taking a shoeing recently, too, which puts aid in good company. Andrew Haldane admitted that the Bank got the immediate response to Brexit wrong (though he noted that he’s still confident in the medium-long term analysis). With their bad press, it’s worth reminding ourselves how strong the Bank’s technical skills are, and how well the bigwigs communicate their ideas. Here’s Haldane’s most recent speech about how the structure of an economy contributes to inequality, and here’s Mark Carney on global inequality, how economics needs to raise its game and the role of monetary policy. It’s brilliant, and I recommend everyone with half an hour read it.
4. Of course, that kind of detailed analysis won’t make it into the public discourse; this is something we wonks haven’t really mastered yet, how to get the ‘it’s complicated’ point across when others are willing, often mendaciously, to say that it’s really very simple (and by the way, I have all the answers). I’ve not really followed the whole fake news thing, which seems like an offshoot of this tendency, but there’s an excellent long read at 538 about where it comes from, and why fact checking isn’t enough to stymie it.
5. Ok, the last few links were pretty apocalyptic and depressing (an appropriate start to the year?), so let’s end on a positive note. First, an article about the (all-too-brief) collaboration between Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman (here’s the song it’s about – that solo is ridonkulous); and a great NYT profile of Charles Feeney, perhaps the greatest philanthropist of all time.
Happy new year, everyone!