In the mid to late 1990s, there was a spate of ‘disaster’ movies, focusing on plausible but unexpected or unlikely natural catastrophes. They had names like Volcano (in which Tommy Lee Jones kicks a volcano’s ass), Dante’s Peak (in which Pierce Brosnan frowns disapprovingly at a volcano) and Twister (in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman repeatedly screams ‘awesome’ about the wind). They were followed by a spate of monster movies about semi-plausible and terrifying creatures went on rampages, often the result of human intervention gone awry (like Deep Blue Sea, in which LL Cool J fights a massive shark, and Thomas Jane decided as his biceps got larger his name had to become shorter, and became Tom Jane; and Lake Placid in which a nonagenarian invents new swearwords). All these movies followed a similar pattern: there would be a few unusual events which politicians ignored, but which some off-the-reservation scientist would identify as the first signs of Something Bad (lava covering LA; or a massive, genetically engineered shark outsmarting LL to get out to the open water). I used to think this was a trite and ridiculous narrative affectation, but after the polar bear invasion I reported a while back, there’s now a humpback whale in the Amazon. Something Bad is definitely happening, and the politicians seem, true to the movies, very slow to recognise it.
- Speaking of the first signs of Something (that might be) Bad: last week the Supreme Court ruled that the IFC (and presumably, other international organisations) can, in fact be brought to trial in national court systems. Vijaya Ramachandran has the details here. Tyler Cowen’s take on this is that it’s a blow to multilateralism and (presumably) Something Bad. I have much more sympathy with Vij’s view, which is that when an institution fails to protect the vulnerable and exposes them to harm without some working system of justice to rectify or redress this, they must expect that justice will be imposed on them. That this is right, though, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about: down the line you can see, in extremis, exploitative firms in developing countries litigating if an international organisation does something (like perhaps help a country reform its legal code) that unambiguously raises social welfare but harms their bottom line.
- Last term, I taught Optimal Taxation Theory, a body of work I’d regarded as unlovely and unlovable when I studied it myself, knee-deep as I was in the maths and up to the eyeballs in the data. I had an epiphany, though, when the course convenor pulled my eyes away from the trees and showed me the landscape all those details were describing: an elegant theory which fundamentally rests on three sets of beliefs and how you calibrate them. That was how I then structured my classes, and its become one of my favourite areas of economics. Few people have the clarity of thought and language to do what my colleague did, though. Tim Harford gets close to that epiphanic description here.
- This is really nice: the Development Impact crew have given David Evans a fitting send-off as he leaves for CGD, a round-up of what we’ve learnt from him via his blogging on their platform. It’s a good sign about just what an asset CGD are gaining that reading it – specifically this piece on how to think about insignificant results – prompted me to rewrite the thing I’m working on now, and (I think) improve it substantially. His (presumably) parting post, on how best to communicate the impact of learning interventions is here. No more standard deviations! Abhijeet Singh is probably pleased.
- “Protectionism! What is it good for?! Very little, according to the academic consensus!” as an early, unreleased, demo by Edwin Starr said. A panel of IMF researchers preach very much to the choir over at VoxEU, and either they or the sub-editors or both make my skin crawl by using ‘loath’ when they seem to mean ‘loathe’. But that’s not enough to prevent me from linking it, because who wants a policy that dents productivity, jukes inequality and has no effects on the trade balance to make up for it (well, apart from the millions who voted for it).
- I recently linked Kaushik Basu’s excellent three minutes on VoxDev which contained as much to digest as a short paper. I have to say, this one by Justin Lin doesn’t have quite the same power does it? I’ve watched it twice now and still can’t quite work out what mainstream economics (which is what? Put three economists in a room, you get four opinions and a broken lightbulb) is meant to be saying that a new economics would refute.
- Planet Money are doing a series on unsung economists, and they’re going *really* unsung. I’d never heard of Sadie Alexander before I this, and wish I had (transcript).
- I’m going to go on the last link and indulge myself, but they’re my links dammit: Georges St. Pierre, the black hole of charisma who turned his lack of a personality beyond ‘niceness’ and his relentless dedication to hard work into one of the most magnetic sporting presences of this millennium, has retired. Fighting might not be your favourite sport, but GSP made it equal parts art form and science. If my own tastes can be understood as a mix of aesthetics, obsession and analytics, he was the perfect sportsperson for them.
Have a great weekend, everyone!