I’m giving a talk on How to be Wrong on Monday, a topic I know intimately. The idea behind the talk is simple: most of us are wrong about most things for a large chunk of our lives, and that consequently there’s a high return to being actively open-minded about our views, and to learn what kind of mistakes we make most often (there are more Wile E. Coyote’s in this world than there are Road Runners). As part of this, I was thinking about what the most persistent mistakes I’ve made were. I immediately thought about Michael Jordan. I must be one of the only fully sentient people in the 1990s who didn’t believe that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time (at least to that point). Part of this was sheer contrariness – wanting to find a flaw in an accepted argument; another part was conflating aesthetics with results (I would still watch highlights of Magic Johnson over Jordan any day). There was more to it, but I still worry about these tendencies. Even after scoring a century, again, and a year of consistent brilliance, I still can’t convince myself that Ben Stokes is the best all-rounder England has produced. Am I wrong?
- Right and wrong feel like binary categories, and in a deep philosophical sense, it may be that they are. But in practice, for most things that matter, we are unlikely to ever have certainty of right and wrong. Tim Harford argues that this is partly because the distinction is less clear cut than it seems – the Salvator Mundi problem, as he describes it – and partly because we may only observe one outcome. His answer is to embrace and be explicit about uncertainty and probabilities. It isn’t perfect, but if the alternative is to pick a side and fight for it, it may be preferable.
- I’ve written a lot about the navel-gazing that the economics profession has been doing recently; Dani Rodrik picks up this theme in Project Syndicate. He argues that increasing the inclusiveness of the profession will also widen the topics we are interested in and understand well – and bring them closer in line with the things that matter to the wider world, beyond the economic mainstays of productivity, growth and trade. I’d argue we’ve already done a lot outside of these fields but I do like the focus he puts on the moral and ethical content of economic policies – an area that I think is deeply under-rated. Related: I very much like Berk Ozler’s rules for better seminars, though I note that DFID seems to have already adopted many.
- Economics isn’t all bad, of course, and this Planet Money episode is a great way to remind yourself. They go to the AEA conference in San Diego and ask a bunch of eminent economists the same question: what is the most important idea in economics? They ask some brilliant people: Emily Oster, David Autor, Betsey Stevenson… and for the record, I think Lisa Cook’s answer is the best one (transcript).
- Two good pieces on migration. First Rebekah Smith on a really clever idea: using outcome-based financing to better connect potential migrants to jobs. The mechanism bears some similarity to new ways of funding higher education (essentially buying a small percentage of the future earnings of a student you fund). I really like the careful consideration of the underlying economics: they have clearly thought this through as a principal-agent problem, and thought about alternative contracts to solve it. Related: Lant Pritchett on the predictable big problem of the future in rich countries: aging populations, and asks why there is so little policy traction over it.
- Related: Marginal Revolution on a new paper that uses the lottery for assigning high-skilled visas to companies to show that even in the US, the returns to domestic firms of higher migration appear massive.
- Two good pieces on gender: first a study in Tanzania looks at the role of men in optimising gender outcomes, demonstrating that engaging both men and women lead to better outcomes (an effect driven in part by poor communication between spouses). And secondly, a good piece from the Florence Kondylis and John Loeser on female labour force participation and what can be done about it.
- Lastly, I went down a musical rabbit hole while writing this. I started when I was writing about binary knowledge, thinking about how pointless it is to argue about who the best guitarist in the world is… before thinking it was probably Christone Ingram, before discovering that he’s recorded a song with Rakim, easily the best news of the day so far… and then that led me to this brilliant Vox video about science of rapping – which, obviously, starts with Rakim. I’m back to Ingram now, and I hope you are too.
Have a great weekend, everyone!