It’s kind of stunning how little and how much changes in a year. I was reading through all of the links emails I sent out over the year (40 so far – one every week, with a couple of gaps to get married – hooray! – and go on holiday) to pick some of my favourite ones for today’s email, and my preoccupations and concerns have barely evolved. In January, I started by first links of the year talking about political ructions and said that, and I quote, “I just hope my go-to 2019 gif isn’t this.” Between politics and the various stages of cricketing grief, I can imagine that 2020 will bring many of the same emotions – and the same gif in constant use. And whatever else it brings, I can predict there will be a lot of good writing, analysis and economics; great analysis is borne of curiosity and chaos – as Harry Lime would say, stability only brings the cuckoo clock (transcript). 2019 hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, and look what we got:
- Crisis drives us to ingenuity. When I mentioned to a friend that I’d do a round-up of 2019 today, he immediately picked his favourite link of the year: NPR’s coverage of the amazing elephant census that uses sound recordings and an algorithm to develop an accurate count of how many forest elephants – notoriously difficult to count from either air or land – remain in the wild (transcript). This is such a great piece because it brings in so much about what goes into good research. The original idea came years ago, but until recently technology hadn’t advanced far enough to try it. Then, once it was tried, researchers discovered they had much more to do: to build what was essentially a neural network so that the computers could learn their own way to recognise elephant calls. And finally, they discovered that there was something else in their data: poachers, and their idea for a census may evolve into a potent anti-poaching tool. Great research is unpredictable: you never wholly know what you’ll learn from it.
- Reflecting my own research interests, I also linked to a bunch of stuff throughout the year on the enormous welfare implications of the structure of firms, markets and contracts. This stuff sounds really dry, but once you dig into it and realise how much of what we care about ultimately derives from these imperfect transactions and institutions, it becomes mesmerising. I loved this piece about the impact of monopsony on economic outcomes in the UK and its regional variation; this is one of the most underrated issues facing UK public policy right now (bonus reading: Joan Robinson and her development of the monopsony concept). In a completely different context, Rocco Machiavello and Arthur Bluoin show how much poor contract enforcement can cost developing countries: in this case completely undoing any good from linking to global markets. And on a similar theme, this VoxDev piece focuses on how the slow movement of complaints through the courts in India causes firms to sacrifice productivity for reduced risk of getting fleeced.
- I also absolutely loved the podcast series that uncovered Studs Terkel’s original interviews for his book, Working. No-one illuminated ordinary lives better than he did.
- My interest in Studs probably reflects that I think a lot about inequality and discrimination, and how we can improve these things. To the extent that the econ profession turned its gaze inwards in 2019 and examined its own performance on these fronts, it discovered some very ugly truths. The NYT reported on widespread sexual abuse and gender and racial discrimination in the discipline; and shone a light on the treatment of black women in particular. The AEA, whose survey uncovered all this, also produced a report that should make us very uncomfortable.
- That said, though our house is in some disarray, economists have also done some amazing studies of inequality and what to do about it. Planet Money (again!) cover Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren’s amazing work on the Moving to Opportunity project (transcript). And I absolutely loved this paper by Eliana La Ferrara and co-authors which finds both that Italian teachers were biased against migrant children, and that revealing this to them helped them reduce this bias. Sticking to education, the graphics in this piece by Pam Jakiela and Susannah Hares about gender gaps in global education are amazing.
- It’s annual, but the Development Impact Job Market Papers series always throws up little gems from younger researchers. I loved this one by Asad Liaqat about how little Pakistani politicians know of their constituents and how information can change their policies. And though I didn’t link to it earlier in the year (it was published a few days ago), this is another great one, by Susannah Oh about how caste identity shapes what kind of jobs people will accept in India – even huge wage premia do not overcome this.
- There is so much more I could mention – I haven’t talked about the coverage of this year’s Nobel, such as this herculean summary of Michael Kremer’s life-work by David Evans – but I’ll add just one more series to read: Dietrich Vollrath’s series on the deep roots of economic development. Dietz is an amazing macroeconomist who reminds us at every turn why all economists should still care about macro and how it’s possible to be careful, interesting and important in the field.
- There was a huge amount of happy geekery over the year, too, to end the links on a frivolous note. I was alerted to the brilliance of the Bank of Jamaica’s twitter feed, displaying how you communicate to the public. The BBC uncovered the greatest Principal-Agent problem of all time, one so amazing I structured a lecture around it. The Ringer developed a standardized test to measure what really matters: our knowledge of the lyrics to Gin and Juice. And finally, they answered the question we all had going into The Rise of Skywalker: what is the monetary policy of the First Order?
I won’t be doing the links again till the New Year, so have a great Christmas and New Year, everyone!