This week, Jerry Stiller died, 8 short of his century. If you don’t immediately have a mental image (and inimitable voice) in your head, you probably aren’t a Seinfeld fan. He played Frank Costanza, one of the all time great characters on TV, a man made of memes, anger and irrational self-confidence. Fortunately, The Ringer has collected his greatest moments, including the best outtakes I’ve ever seen: Stiller making Elaine burst out laughing time after time with his pitch-perfect delivery of the otherwise mundane line “what the hell does that mean?”.
- While, like many others, I increasingly find myself completely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of writing about Covid and would love nothing more than to ignore it altogether, it just isn’t feasible yet. Luckily, there are still a few really good pieces each week, and I’ll try and space them out through the links. First up, some links on the numbers: a great piece from Unherd explains Simpson’s paradox, which the R-number in England has been nicely demonstrating. Simpson’s paradox arises when we care about a single indicator which operates in two (or more) distinct populations of different sizes. It is possible for the indicator to move in one direction in all of these populations, but in the other direction overall – to great confusion. Secondly, yet another good 538 piece uses modelling to explain how herd immunity is reached under different circumstances, complete with a handy and scary simulator explaining what that means for cases and deaths. And lastly, Phil Price looks into the years of life lost to Coronavirus in the US.
- There’s been a lot of chatter about how we (eventually) repurpose all of the effort spent on the Covid response to climate change down the road; Tim Harford has a novel take on this. He argues that rather than trying to actively incentivise accelerations, we should remove all the roadblocks that slow down progress. This has a real analogue to the Covid response, too: regulations made for non-emergency situations may need to be temporarily rethought during emergencies, when the relative costs and benefits of slow deliberation and rapid action have shifted.
- I liked this, a paper looking at the impact of tax audits on the flow of finance to firms in Ecuador. What I like about this is the mechanism: the argument is that by getting audited, firms are (involuntarily) signalling their soundness, and this signal makes them more attractive to banks and lenders. The take-away isn’t that we audit everyone (too costly) or that these firms in particular need support (they’re all big already), but that the mechanism – credible third party signals of long-term sustainability – is valuable elsewhere in the economy if we can find a cheap way of activating it.
- This week in big ideas: Paul Krugman calls for a permanent fiscal stimulus in the US (possibly overegging it here, but I could definitely be convinced; I have much more sympathy for this take than the ‘more austerity to pay for it’ take); a VoxDev write-up of research suggesting that we measure ‘life-years lost’ in addition to ‘years in poverty’ as a metric for development (less convinced: we have enough bad data, and it largely lines up with headcount poverty); and Penny Goldberg argues that the correct response to the Covid stress on global value chains is to double down and build redundancy in to the system. Third time’s a charm: I am 100% on board with that one.
- Two more Covid pieces: Bill Maloney and Temel Taskin argue that mobility declines and distancing are only partially accounted for by lockdowns, and that the majority of the effect has been self-imposed by individuals who have decided that they wish to minimise potential exposure to the virus. Eyeballing the data, it looks to me that lockdowns are having a pretty big effect in most places; and they seem to show that this is particularly the case in LICs. And the CGD Education team has a good look at what damage education budgets can expect to suffer as a result of the coming recession.
- A bit of data nerding – something that every economist should indulge in regularly – from Berk Ozler. He looks at the data about how data was entered into surveys he’s run, and what use it could be to a researcher.
- So much good distraction material this week: do you want to lose half an hour of your day, immediately? If so, check out This Word Does Not Exist. It’s glorious: a machine learning algorithm that creates, defines and coins a usage for new words. Lest I decipulate, let’s move on to the next link: The Ringer mourns the delayed release of Top Gun: Maverick by ranking every call sign from the original Top Gun (and yes, they massively underrate Merlin, wtf). And best of all, a good way to go to the weekend: LitHub on the origins of Sesame Street as a tool to reduce inequality.
Serenity now, everyone!