Links round-up

Hi all,

I normally start these links with chat about the cricket or some other frivolity, but today’s start with a bit of personal news: at the end of the month, after a brilliant near-decade here, I’m leaving DFID to join the Center for Global Development. I’ve had an amazing time working here, and have learnt a huge amount from people all across the organisation. I aim to keep the links going from CGD, though, as writing these has always been both great fun and a really good way of keeping my horizons broad. I learn something every week not just from the reading I do to write these, but also from the attempt to summarise and talk about the things I’m recommending. So if you want to keep receiving these e-mails after I move over to CGD, please reply to this e-mail, or write me at to let me know, even with an empty e-mail titled ‘Keep me signed up’. I’m happy to send them to institutional or personal e-mails, so let me know which e-mail address you’d like me to use. There will be 2 more links e-mails after this one, so I’ll keep reminding you till then. And now, to the links.

  1. As seems inevitable these days, the links will have a strong flavour of Coronavirus this week (though thankfully, not bleach). And this op-ed by Michael Kremer and co-authors is a good place to start: arguing that given the sheer scale of the costs of the virus and the response to it, there is virtually no possibility of over-spending on actions that might accelerate the widespread availability of a vaccine to those people who most need it. The team have done a lot of work looking at what specific bottlenecks there are to overcome, what specific prices and incentives are needed and make a convincing case; it’s on policymakers and politicians now to listen. Further coverage from Bloomberg here.
  2. Last week I gave a training course in how to use academic research evidence in designing development programmes. A lot of the talk focused on how you translate the things that a research paper reports (and omits) into a practical plan. One of my key bits of advice was to follow and read smart people who make a habit of doing careful deep-dives into the literature and can communicate the nuances of research effectively – especially those who do research themselves and thus know what to look for. This piece by David McKenzie on peer learning among small and medium-sized firms is an exemplar par excellence of this: he digs into different approaches, discusses the differences between the intent-to-treat and treatment-on-treated estimates, uses his own knowledge to discuss sample sizes and effect sizes… it’s just a masterclass in using research to learn something practical.
  3. Tennyson made the case for human interdependence rather beautifully in Ulysses: “I am a part of all that I have met”. Diane Coyle makes the same point with economics in an excellent Project Syndicate column. This is not a weakness. As she says, “Underlying it is the steady shift from an economy in which the classical assumptions of diminishing or constant returns to scale hold true to one in which there are increasing returns to scale almost everywhere.” This is what makes modern life so much easier and more varied than what came before. Related: Tim Harford wants our economy to fall off the wall, but bounce back like Jackie Chan, rather than shatter like Humpty Dumpty. More economics should be expressed in Jackie metaphors.
  4. Sticking to Covid for a moment: Emily Oster is one of my favourite economists because she uses her superpowers (high patience for reading research, carefulness to the point of pedantry, and an ability to discuss trade-offs without hysteria) to help the general public and improve their decision making. Expecting Better is a masterclass of economic writing for this reason; she’s now turning her brilliant hand to Covid-19 and deserves a wide audience. Another really good piece on Covid, which has already been misinterpreted by some, is this work by Mushfiq Mobarek and Zachary Barnett-Howell on the distribution of returns to lockdown. Please note, they are not saying that poor lives are worth less; but that in poor countries the gains from lockdowns come at a greater cost in terms of other ways of improving lives.
  5. If I’m talking about distributions, Branko Milanovic cannot be far away: and as usual, he has a take completely unlike any other economist. In this lovely digression of a blog, he looks at what Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina tell us about the distribution of income and social mobility in their respective settings. More on inequality: Jonathan Ostry and co-authors suggest that Covid will be greatly inequality enhancing, very plausible; another VoxEU piece looks at the positive impact of pay transparency on the gender pay gap in Denmark; while this one points out the depressingly predictable fact that women are bearing the brunt of lockdown in terms of productivity among economists.
  6. I loved this Planet Money piece on the effect of Covid on two different bookstores in Italy (transcript). A while back I speculated on twitter that firms are learning a lot about their capabilities that they would never have reason to learn in normal times; this will lead to many innovations and behaviours that would otherwise note have happened, and many of these will stick. This story is exactly this in action. Related: when Nick Bloom disagrees with you, question your priors: Bloom and co argue that the Covid shock is skewed in a way that is largely unrelated to productivity and the fate of individual businesses may matter much more than I had previously thought.
  7. My first month or two on social media has been eye-opening. It seems to me that it’s about 70% banality, 25% half-formed political rantery, 3% reasoned intellectual debate and about 2% hilarious idiocy. A few links in praise of the idiocy: Lockdown Gin and Juicethe Governator’s yoga routinea toilet dressed up to look like a smoking frog; the Spanish flu as Sharknado; and one of the greatest Fry & Laurie sketches of them all, revived on Twitter.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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