Links round-up

Hi all,

It’s all change heading into this long weekend. As we emerge on the other end of it, DFID will no longer exist, being replaced by the new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office. I’ve vented my feelings about that change in previous editions of the links, and have taken a more constructive and forward looking approach in my day job (here, and here). There hasn’t been much public writing that sets out concretely what a separate development agency changed about how the UK does aid, and the international landscape, beyond this piece from Bond. If I had to pick one thing I think we got from a separate agency devoted to development, it would be an appreciation of deep expertise and facility with evidence. Certainly, it was uneven, and not always followed, and we could always do better. But having an organisation with a simple, well-defined vision meant that there was an expectation that people develop deep knowledge. That must be protected, and nurtured.

It’s not the only big change I’m gearing up for (it’s been a disorienting week – for the first time in my life, I was glad there was no basketball) – we’re expecting a baby imminently, and this is likely to be the last links email for around four weeks. I had considered keeping them going through the first portion of my paternity leave, but have been reliably informed it would descend to incoherent gibberish and discussions about the bowel movements of a tiny human, so the break is for the best. Wish us luck!

  1. For the second week in a row, I’m going to have to use the “he’s already dead gif”: the Doing Busines survey took an absolute beating this week. The World Bank announced that the DB survey was being suspended while ‘irregularities’ in the methodology of the rankings it produces; it turns out that the rankings were manipulated to favour certain countries (Saudi Arabia have been named in this WSJ report) for political reasons – Justin Sandefur explains for those behind the paywall here. This is not even the first time evidence of such manipulation has been uncovered, as Justin explains in this thread (I have no idea how he’s resisted gloating, given that his scholarly takedown of the indicators resulted in his being branded a ‘Marxist’ by a then-Bank economist). And to make matters worse, even without any methodological manipulations, the methodology underpinning the indicators reveals an anti-tax, anti-regulation bias that doesn’t square with World Bank operations in many of the countries covered, as alluded to in the last paragraph of the coverage from the FT. Add this to the already-established empirical reality that the indicator scores bear virtually no relation to actual practice in the countries they purportedly rate, and it’s this must surely sound the death knell for them. Even Wolverine would struggle to get up after that.
  2. Some good practice, as an antidote. I recently praised Andrew Haldane’s skills as an economic communicator, but he has absolutely nothing on the Bank of Jamaica. If we don’t get a musical video from Andrew Bailey soon, I’m going to be sorely disappointed.
  3. This interview of Jason Furman by Tyler Cowen is absolutely superb: Cowen starts with some important, difficult questions and basically never lets up; Furman totally rises to the challenge. I loved this sentence: “I think the China shock literature is a fantastic contribution to labor economics and is less important in thinking about trade.” What he’s talking about is the (excellent) research that shows that China’s rapid entry and dominance in certain sectors of the global economy had lasting negative consequences for workers in richer countries who worked in the same sectors. Furman, correctly in my opinion, identifies this finding as telling us more about the failure of developed countries to protect workers, their skills and their ability to cope with a changing economy, than about the deleterious effects of trade. That was a policy choice, not a deus ex machina. The problem is that much of the disinvestment in protection for the vulnerable (see also legal aid in the UK) takes time to really undermine our structural resilience. The costs are borne later, when it’s too late to fix.
  4. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been becoming more and more interested in biases that affect the way we think about statistics and probabilities – initially I wanted to research them, but have settled into trying to understand them better, and to spot them in my own behaviour. This BBC piece on the Gambler’s fallacy (the belief that the odds of a coin coming up tails is somehow higher after a sequence of five heads than after a mixed sequence) is excellent, demonstrating how pervasive it is. The thing about biases that people often struggle to understand is that knowing about them does not really make one less prone to them. They’re buried in deep. Related: the last edition of the Planet Money Summer School, on risk (transcript).
  5. Working alongside Dave Evans and Charles Kenny is a bit running laps on the track as Kenenisa Bekele. You’ve just finished stretching and they’re on the fourth lap: in this case, Charles’s prolific streak (is it a streak if it’s decades-long?) continues with this piece on how the FCDO should approach global public goods. Read it. I agree with virtually every word.
  6. And I couldn’t go into paternity leave without leaving you with some Tim Harford to read, could I? This piece on self-fulfilling prophecies is full of his typically vivid stories and sharp analysis. But remember: some things are so big that no amount of visualisation or wishful thinking can make them go away.
  7. And a bit more reading for you all: the CGD summer reading list. While vanity nudges me to suggest you check out my recommendation, the one that I have begun to act on is from Nancy Birdsall, Zora Neale Hurston. Let’s see how much of that I get through with the baby. If I get a chapter read in the next month, I’ll be happy (and this is from someone who averages between two and four books a month…). If the books don’t work out with the baby, I’ve got a backup: the Ringer has inspired me to create a collection of every great teen movie of the last 60 years, including the greatest of them all, one of the few greats that isn’t based on a literary classic. And just to end on an on-brand note, the numbers behind them have been crunched: the average “teenager” in Grease was played by a 29 year old; Friday the 13th 7, though, clocks in at just 26 years old, the whippersnappers.

Have a great few weeks, everyone! I will eventually emerge, bleary-eyed, armed with more economics, but till then, take care.


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