Links round-up

Last week I mentioned the incidental tariffs discussion in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (apparently, they chose to discuss the Smoot-Hawley act because “Smoot” sounds funny). This prompted a few people to send me other examples of economics in pop culture, from the seriously excellent (Richard Thaler and Selena Gomez in The Big Short) to the … well, also seriously excellent – Rodney Dangerfield bringing the real world to his economics class. That one really reminded me of teaching econ to a group of students from around the world at BSG: barely is a concept introduced before someone shatters its nice clean edifice against the real world of rent-seeking, messy data, bad incentives and imperfect information. Imagine being a tax economist, brought up on all the glorious clarity of optimal taxation theory and then starting work in a country where 8% of the population is registered for tax? Life comes at you fast.

  1. I’m massively sceptical about the degrowth movement for many, many reasons: I don’t think the Government policy starts from the premise of maximising growth at all costs anyway, I think it’s politically a complete non-starter and I think it has never adequately addressed the problem of how to handle development within its framework. Tim Harford finds another reason to be sceptical: it wouldn’t work. Global lockdowns made a dent in emissions but nowhere enough, and at an enormous cost to welfare. In a way, degrowth is a cop out: a nominally radical change to avoid the genuinely difficult-but-achievable policy problems we should be turning our attention to – the right pricing for carbon, the right mechanisms and incentives for research and development, the right economic model for clean energy. Yes, they’re hard, but they’re the best we’ve got.
  2. This week in learning about stuff that completely horrifies me: Planet Money did a show on prison labour in the US (transcript), and I advise you queue up a nice meditation for after you listen to it, because it is rage-inducing (or, you know, stay angry and do something about it). And just in case that didn’t set you off, here’s Lithub, publishing a letter from an imprisoned child thanking the Liberation Library for a book. That some see this is as a functional approach to justice is mind-boggling.
  3. I spent four great years living in Malawi, one of my favourite places in the world, so I took particular pleasure in following the recent elections – you could see a movement for change from what friends were putting on social media, and the exhilaration when it came to pass. FP2P ran a good piece by Nic Cheeseman and Golden Matonga on the genesis of this moment, making the point that it had deep roots in institutional choices and structures that were put in place well before this election. The general point that many reforms can be deeply important even if they lie in disuse for long stretches of time is something we don’t always handle well in development. After all, the fact that a careful driver will very rarely be in a car crash is not a good argument against installing air bags.
  4. Development Impact continues to be a fantastic resource for economists everywhere: here David McKenzie answers questions about research in his typically thoughtful and precise manner. Related: Andrew Gelman’s discussion of varying treatment effects is a great and readable piece of statistics that everyone should read. I feel like I learn things every time I open the blog, though it’s kind of terrifying how easy it is to cock up statistical analysis, even with the best intentions.  
  5. Branko Milanovic’s excellent review of Yuen Yuen Ang’s new book, on corruption in China is fantastic, and really makes me want to read the book.
  6. How are you finding working from home? I’ve generally been ok with it (counting my lucky stars that I’m not yet juggling parenting with work), but I’ve really struggled with two things: delineating the three parts to my existence, DPhil, job and family; and finding a comfortable place to read and take notes that isn’t in front of my distraction-machine. I cannot wait for the return of the office, and I’m not alone. Nick Bloom’s policy brief finds a number of reasons to be wary of swinging too far to one end of the WFH spectrum – from inequality to creativity, there are a few things taking a hit.
  7. Finally, as basically everyone who has ever met me knows, I’m a complete sucker for sports as a vehicle for economic analysis, so this video from the NYT using the NBA as a model for what the American economy could and should look like was like catnip. It’s actually pretty good, though it conveniently ignores that even with all the socialist leaning of America’s greatest sport, the game is still shaped by a few superstars, and where LeBron goes, success tends to follow. Regardless, the NBA is a *much* better model than football; and this 538 piece (based on research done elsewhere) suggests that football commentary is rammed with coded racism; indeed, it’s not even that well coded. But let’s not end on a sour note: instead calm yourself down by watching this mesmerising video of the sun released by Nasa earlier this week.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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