Links round-up

Hi all,

Last week, I was doing rather a lot of navel-gazing as I wrote a presentation on being wrong better, but it turned out to be one of the most illuminating exercises I’ve undertaken. Thinking through the things I’ve gotten wrong in the past (spoiler: there was a lot) also made me think much more about what I might be wrong about now, always a sobering exercise. Anyway, after a couple of whatsapp conversations with friends I’ve decided there is a lot of mileage to this topic. So if anyone is feeling brave, please e-mail me and tell me your best ‘being wrong better’ story: what have you believed in the past, but have changed your mind on, and what made you change your mind. It was really striking to me that many of the biggest changes of opinion I’ve had have been driven by arguments with friends, people whose beliefs or worldviews I have something, but not everything in common with (there were relatively unexplainable reversals). If I get enough responses, I’ll write something about them (anonymised of course). Who knows, maybe we’ll learn something.

  1. Looking for a gift for that one incorrigible economics geek in your life? Never fear, there is now a coffee-table book of portraits of famous economists. Tim Harford uses the occasion of its publication to ponder the many ways economics has and hasn’t changed over his career (I’ll give you a hint as to what hasn’t changed much: it starts with a ‘d’ and ends with ‘iversity’). Still, it’s not only econ that struggles here – Planet Money cover the extreme disparity in prices paid for male and female artists (transcript). If I had more money and faith in humanity I’d say the correct response to this is to by female art now and sell it at a higher price when we stop being so basic. But I’m not sure my time horizon is long enough for that particular bet.
  2. It’s kind of weird that a discipline as materialist as economics doesn’t often study the welfare implications of having more choice over what to buy. This deprecation of the value of choice is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to sell the importance of importing to politicians (seriously, why are they so convinced that selling stuff is better than buying it?). Jan Willem Gunning, Pramila Krishnan and co-authors look at the cost in human welfare of low choice in Ethiopia, where the poor transport networks make remoteness particularly costly in this regard.
  3. Two bits of glorious geekery: David McKenzie, who can apparently explain almost anything elegantly, goes deep on one of the key assumptions of Difference-in-Difference estimation. Typically, he keeps the discussion tight and keeps relating things back to actual research choices you might have to make. And secondly, Andrew Gelman trains his sights on regression discontinuity designs, arguing that they’re a lot less robust than we think or wish. I can’t be the only person who gets slightly petrified every time he clicks ‘publish’ for fear he’s taking down one of my methods.
  4. Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman question whether developing countries (specifically India and China) have the institutional wherewithal to generate a domestically-grown philosophy of development. They are not confident.
  5. Even as someone who has studied and does research involving behavioural economics, it does get quite annoying when people start using it to bury rationality alive, as Sigal Samuel does at Vox here. They’re going to find it harder to keep down than a Deadite if they keep ignoring the flip side to all the cognitive bias research: that for most things, including some very complex calculations, rationality is still the best starting assumption we can make.
  6. Anne Krueger extensively accuses Trump’s economic policy of cutting off its nose to spite its face, pointing out that while it has reduced imports from China (though, see point 2), it has also massively increased imports from Vietnam. It turns out people want stuff, and they’re going to find a way to get it.
  7. Finally, this is amazing: a maths teacher has taken a class from one of the most deprived areas of Cardiff and somehow helped them all reach A* grades in their GCSE maths exams – despite sitting them several months early. I’m sure there’s going to be some serious regression to the mean next year, but that’s pretty amazing, and rather heartwarming.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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