Links round-up

Hi all,

I’d say that I sit here in the kitchen sink, but it’s more accurate to say that I’ve no idea where the kitchen sink is; I’m surrounded by boxes of books, (so, so many books), multiple packs of playing cards, several editions of Pandemic and a tsunami of clothes. I moved house earlier this week, and the links are going to reflect their environment: chaotic, half-thought-through and absolutely rammed with reading material. For those interested, I can confirm that moving house during an unprecedented heatwave, with an 8-month pregnant wife, during a global pandemic is not a walk in the park. It’s a recipe for chaos only slightly less pronounced than this Pakistan side, or the A-level results. Anyway, to the links:

  1. A quick diversion before we start. The A-levels chaos has inspired a lot of very, very bad coverage from all angles, but I liked this piece: a concerned father dug into the algorithm (ahead of time) and predicted what would happen. He explains very clearly why the statistical adjustment can be unfair, even if based on reasonable assumptions. The analogies he uses to explain it are really good, much better than most of the journalists have come up with.
  2. The best thing about Tyler Cowen’s Conversations series is, when he’s not asking gimmicky questions about whether satsumas are underrated or overrated, his habit of really pushing his interviewees to explain the ‘why’ behind all their research: why things happen the way they do, why some alternative explanation isn’t true, why it’s taken so long to work something out. It brings out the best in some of his interviewees, and I think it does with Nick Bloom here. He pushes Bloom hard on why productivity among scientists seems to be falling, and what the value of a management consultant (“someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time”) is. I’m particularly taken by Bloom’s suggestion that much of what appears obvious ex post isn’t beforehand. I’ve seen a version of this many times with friends: people who are very smart and frustrated that others don’t notice things they consider obvious. It’s a constant battle to remember that we’ve all noticed different things, and what seems obvious to one of us may be a complete blind spot for the rest.
  3. Related: Dietz Vollrath on Silicon Valley and innovation, pointing out the limitations of the ‘great man’ theory of innovation, and the importance of pre-existing networks of collaborators and thinkers; and this very good VoxEU piece on the pace of technological adoption. The essential point seems to be that after an innovation is made, it takes a long time to work out how best to take advantage of it, even when it’s something as concrete and obvious as a new machine for production – you still have to work out how to structure your factory around this new production process.
  4. This has been a bad week for immigration coverage, with the TV channels chasing after people risking their lives in the channel for a cheap bit of Farage-lite coverage. I’m not going to link that gutter journalism, but instead, here’s an antidote: Matt Yglesias on Kamala Harris as an example of the contribution of migration to US life (both her parents were academics who came to the US to study and become researchers). And on the subject of the US elections, here’s FiveThirtyEight’s model, which – rather worryingly – gives Biden the same chance it gave Clinton last time – and that’s not factoring in the gaming going on.
  5. Penny Goldberg continues to live her best life post-World Bank, with another really interesting piece: in an era of deglobalisation, developing countries need to do much more redistribution to create internal markets capable of sustaining poverty reduction. One the points I tried to make in every country I ever visited while in the Chief Economist’s Office in DFID was that a big reason why most firms in developing countries struggle was simply that there was hardly anyone to sell much to. Penny says it rather more convincingly.
  6. Next time someone says economic assumptions are unrealistic, show them this: classical economic theory with rational actors near-perfectly predicts price movements in a series of lab experiments. I’ve helped run one of these myself and it works, almost like magic. As Tabarrok says, the market works whether or not the people in it understand it.
  7. There comes a point in life when even re-watching classic episodes of the Simpsons (like Flaming Moe’s or Lisa’s Rival) loses its lustre; even the gifs become tired. But there is always a deeper rabbit hole to go down, as this New Yorker article shows. Pop culture may be the last link to normalcy we still have, which explains why I’m still reading articles about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, published for no reason other than just needing a break from coronavirus, political idiocy and 2020.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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