Links round-up

Hi all,

Winter is coming. More accurately, winter has arrived, taken off its shoes and declared its intention to crash on our couch until further notice, much like John Belushi. I’m sitting in the DPhils office at BSG, looking out the window onto an incredibly grey and depressing day, made worse by Sri Lanka’s third consecutive capitulation to the Aussies. On the plus side, the Challenges of Government Conference is running here at the same time, and the benefit of the pitiful weather is that it discourages attendees from straying too far from the coffee point during the breaks. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the NBA season, there would be no reason not to hibernate from mid October until April.

  1. Twitter seems like an extremely risky pastime to me. Every once in a while, people seem to let slip with a spectacularly ill-considered opinion that will forever more be brought up to mock them. Even by the standards of the twidiocracy, though, this tweet by Larry Summers in the middle of his critique of Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez’s new work on the tax system in the US was ill-considered (he noticed, too). The economics underlying this debate are fascinating though: Zucman and Saez argue that the American tax system is regressive, and in doing so make a number of methodological choices that depart from the norm in tax policy analysis; in particular, many economists from across the ideological spectrum have focused on the exclusion of tax-based transfers to poor people in their assessment of the progressivity of the tax system.  The NPR write-up of the debate is very good; I can see both why it seems strange to exclude tax refunds from the analysis, but also that Zucman is surely correct to point out that the rich also benefit from Government transfers, ones that are probably much less transparent. (In Twitter’s defence, it does facilitate the occasional zinger, too. Round 1 to Zucman, surely.)
  2. Zucman and Saez are at the centre of another, closely related debate: whether the US should implement a wealth tax, an idea associated in particular with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Tw pieces in Project Syndicate discuss the ins and outs of the idea, one by Jean Pisany-Ferry and the other by Michael Spence, who points out “The fact is that incremental wealth gains… above $1 billion… have little to do with consumption and lifestyle. They are signals of success and status.” This seems about right to me, though with the caveat that the closest I’ve come to being a billionaire was in Zimbabwean dollars. And Branko Milanovic discusses the extent and effect of inequality in Chile, in light of the recent unrest.
  3. Lee Crawfurd, Susannah Hares and co. take a critical look at the construction of the World Bank’s new metric for educational quality, Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS). Their concern isn’t the unfortunate acronym (do we really want to talk about how many LAYS our kids got in secondary school?), but rather that the metric will need to subjected to quite a lot of scrutiny over quite a long time to ensure it keeps improving. While that is certainly true, it’s important not to forget that it is still a big improvement from where we started. It’s a huge thing that we have a metric that provides us with information about both schooling time and learning achieved, imperfect though it may still be. Related: the crew also take a look at the literature on low-cost private schooling, updating a review DFID funded a few years back with new findings.
  4. Is this the greatest example of Principal-Agent Theory in practice ever? A man in China (the Principal) hired a hitman (the Agent) to kill a business competitor; and being a rational young man, the hitman promptly turned around and sub-contracted the job – a possibility only because the Principal was unable to effectively monitor the effort exerted by his hitman of choice. So far, so classic, but it gets better. The subcontracted hitman in turn decides to farm out the dirty work to yet another subcontractor; but even he decided that the effort of killing a man was too great, and subcontracted the work out yet again. This goes on, seriously. Eventually, the fifth subcontractee decided to collaborate with the intended victim, collect payment and then inform the police. There has to be a way for me to incorporate this into teaching this term.
  5. People are the worst, part 12,393,393,191 of a continuing series: apparently, fact checking fraudulent claims about migrants and minorities hardens attitudes against them. In other words, once primed to think negatively about migrants, learning that in actual fact they are not out to steal your job and mug you in a dark alleyway does not at all reduce negative attitudes towards them. People: mindlessly bigoted since walking upright.
  6. It used to be a running joke among some of my friends that I would begin answering any question with some variant of the line “It’s actually a little more complicated than that” (I swear this was before Ben Goldacre published a book with that title). Tim Harford goes on a magnificent rant against virtually every politician in the UK, accusing them of seeing simplicity where complexity lies and selling clarity when a fog is the reality. Can we make him Emperor?
  7. Lastly, in the latest example of Japan being far cooler than any of the rest of us, it turns out that there is a tradition there on Halloween whereby people dress up as the most horrifyingly mundane thing they can think of. There is a real art to capturing the horrors of everyday life, and these people have absolutely nailed it.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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