Links round-up

Hi all,

This week’s links will be leaning heavily on spellcheck and recycled wit. I’ve just “returned” from my first tranche of paternity leave, in inverted commas since my commute is around 8 feet and the baby’s nappy changing station is, at a certain angle, the background to my Zoom meetings. (I also have a new occasional officemate, one who likes staring up at me while I type and occasionally loudly passes wind to undercut whatever profound thought I’m trying to have).  I have a few observations. First: sleep is deeply, deeply underrated. Much like oxygen, it’s most appreciated when in short supply, and the effects of too little of either are liable to turn you into living version of the confused Nick Young gif. Second: a surprising number of TV shows improve for being watched on mute, at 3am, with a wailing baby being rocked back to sleep in your arms (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in particular benefits from a lack of critical thought and, indeed, attention). On a similar note, Robelinda2 on YouTube has probably improve the welfare of parents of young children (well, at least the cricket-lovers among them) substantially enough to be on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. Thirdly, no amount of sleep deprivation makes LeBron James any less incredible. And lastly, no matter how much you – correctly – predict about what becoming a parent will feel like, it will still feel completely unlike anything you could have imagined.

  1. This week’s links are going to be a hodgepodge, as you’d expect the results of attempting to boil down around 2,500 articles from my Old Reader feed into seven pithy paragraphs on a few hours of sleep a week. But as always, I can rely on Tim Harford to write something brilliant that I barely need to summarise. His new book, How to Make the World Add Up, is out and to celebrate the occasion he summarises five lessons about statistics we should be learning from the Coronavirus pandemic. It’s all good, but one particularly important point he makes is that at times of crisis, the value of having a reliable system of collecting basic information routinely takes on an outsize importance. The UK’s Office of National Statistics produces a huge amount of basic, routine data that allows us to analyse and understand novel events with greater confidence. We can say something about who has suffered disproportionately from coronavirus in large part because we have good information on how things look in ‘normal’ times. In developing countries, this basic statistical bedrock is normally riddled with potholes or missing altogether; a strategy for building a world better able to handle the next pandemic needs to do something about that.
  2. Sticking with Coronavirus for a moment, three pieces from Project Syndicate I really liked. First, Kaushik Basu (who always seems to have something simple but profound to say) demonstrates how the behavioural analysis at the heart of economics is necessary to understand how the virus spreads – and how hard it is to separate the characteristics of the virus from the behaviours of the population it’s moving in. Secondly, Nancy Birdsall’s great piece on the costs of the pandemic on that tranche of global strugglers just above the extreme poor, and the implications of the virus on their horizons – which may shape political outcomes in many places. And finally, Penny Goldberg presents an alternative path to poverty reduction in a world of (partly Covid-induced) deglobalisation, with an emphasis on regionalism and tackling domestic inequality.
  3. Right before I left, the Doing Business indicators was engulfed in flames, while colleagues at CGD were very politely refraining from fanning the fire too vigorously. Vijaya Ramachandran toasts her marshmallows on the embers of the survey here, asking four basic questions that should determine whether and how the indicators should be resurrected. The depth of the problems with the project are clear from how fundamental the questions Vij is asking are: is the scientific basis for the index sound? Can its data be handled in a way that inspires trust and is impartial? Should it inform Bank operations? There’s a good case that the Bank should be thinking systematically about how the private sector functions in developing countries; there’s also a good case that it should not be like this.
  4. If all that supports my priors, it’s only fair to report on something that seriously undermines them. I’ve often argued that interventions looking to train developing country enterprises are completely pointless, or at least not useful enough to be worth spending much on; it turns out I may have been rather over-egging the pudding. David McKenzie, who knows more about this than virtually anyone alive, points out that the evidence suggests that they do achieve something – just maybe not a huge amount. I still query whether this means we should do more of this (it seems like a small return for a lot of spending and design effort), but I have to now accept I have probably been too negative about these programmes in the past. Also from Development Impact, Markus summarises a paper which in turn summarises 27,000 papers – and tells us how partial research on Africa really is.
  5. There was far, far too much good stuff on VoxEU while I was away to do it justice, but here’s a whistlestop tour: Abi Adams and co on how working from home has worked surprising well, but also exacerbated existing inequalities; Nick Bloom and co on how Americans are using the commuting time they’ve saved (though Twitter would like you to believe it’s all gone into sourdough, it’s mainly been spent working on their main job); Amma Panin and co. on their cool paper showing that formal insurance in Ghana crowds out religious donations; and Arun Advani and co. on how migration has shaped inequality at the top of the income distribution in the UK (a lot, and indicates that migrants are disproportionately being recruited into the very highest income occupations, doing things the domestic labour force is not supplying adequately).  
  6. VoxDev wasn’t exactly quiet while I was away, either. I really liked this paper (with a genuinely brilliant bunch of co-authors) on the impact of interning in management roles on employment in Ethiopia. One thing that struck me: for the self-employed interning in better firms led to higher earnings, but there was no such effect among the wage-employed – implying that firms’ selection processes are not sophisticated enough to distinguish between candidates with more or less useful experience – which certainly chimes with a lot of recruitment I’ve seen in the UK. The other really interesting paper I spotted was Jonathan Weigel’s piece that suggests that taxation in the DRC leads to greater engagement with the state (I think I was meant to be discussant on this at the CSAE Conference before it was cancelled). It is very good. Read it right to the end, he is very careful in discussing where he expects these results to generalise to.
  7. I normally end with some bit of pop culture that reveals my age and/or unhealthy obsession with 1980/90s teen comedies, but the last four weeks have seen a dramatic decline in my ability to find time for or process fun reading; so I’m afraid I’m leaving you with Planet Money – though at least it’s all about basketball. The gang meet Kirk Goldsberry – one of my favourite hoops writers since his Grantland days – an ex-Harvard professor who uses his spatial analysis for good now, analysing basketball data. It’s a good look into the data-driven revolution in basketball, but it omits one causal relationship that trumps all others: when you have LeBron James, the championship runs through you. Fun fact: his team made it to 9 of the last 10 NBA Finals (three different teams!), and in 8 of the 9 Finals series that have been completed, the series MVP was either LeBron James or the man tasked as his primary defender. The King stay the King.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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