Links round-up

Hi all,

2020 jumped the shark today, when we CGD Europe had our work Christmas do over Zoom; brilliantly organised and fun as it was it drove home exactly how over this year I am. I’ve avoided pubs and restaurants for the duration of the pandemic, ditto cafés, yoga studios and the like, knowing that I have vulnerable people in my extended circle, and it’s been mainly a great year – but there’s something irreplicable about the social bonds built through physical proximity and collective action, whether that action is an escape room, axe-throwing, mini-golf, or having just enough drinks to say that 10% more than you’d normally reveal about yourself at work. I wonder if we – or I – will look back at this experience and be glad we went through it, because we built something better out of it, the way I imagine people in the UK felt with the creation of the welfare state after 1945. Then I read stories like this and am reminded that no – for the most part, things will be as they were before, but a bit worse. Hoellebecq was right, as annoying as it is to admit.

  1. After that little dose of sunshine, maybe I should lead with some happy stories? Well, every year the Federal Reserve in the US publishes a report, ‘The Beige Book’, which consists of little more than stories and anecdotes about the economy, and this year Planet Money trawled through it to find the happy economic stories of the year (transcript). Even the happy ones have a little hint of sadness to them, though, like the firm that started a bus service to bring workers in to work… because it’s normal workforce couldn’t come in because they lacked childcare options. And staying on the theme, these aren’t ‘just’ stories. Stories can have real economic power, the idea that Robert Shiller has been pursuing with his recent research. Again, PM have the scoop (transcript).
  2. Staying on things that make me happy, the Development Impact job market paper series is still on-going, and this week’s have been typically excellent. I really liked two papers that looked at the effect of crime – one on the incomes earned by workers, and the other on gender inequality (finding that violent crime reduces women’s bargaining power). I love spotting the connections between otherwise unrelated papers; and the first one has links – in a completely different context – to the Chicago Uber paper which found that women were more likely than men to avoid high crime areas, and thus their higher Uber fares.
  3. I’m on record as a vocal detractor of all but the best systematic reviews in economics, being unconvinced by the quality assurance that goes into paper inclusion or the pedigree of the authors of them (with exceptions, such as most of the surveys published in the Annual Review). In a blow to my priors, though, VoxDev have launched what promises to be a superb series of ‘VoxDevLits’ – literature surveys compiled by the outstanding economists in each field, and – crucially – regularly updated to include new studies as the dimensions of our knowledge expand. The first, on enterprise training has an absolute who’s who of economists who know this field intimately, and led by David McKenzie and Chris Woodruff. The full note is great, as is the summary.
  4. I really love this piece by Diane Coyle, who makes a point about public investment I don’t think is made often enough: that it is a form of intergenerational redistribution, or as she puts it “Investment is also an essential form of compensation to younger people, who have been one of the hardest-hit groups in the economic downturn. Many who had the bad luck to enter the job market during this crisis may find their career and lifetime earnings prospects damaged as a result.” I don’t know what Building Back Better actually means in any concrete sense yet, but I suspect Diane would have a very good programme for it.
  5. An interesting piece by Homi Kharas and co-authors on which countries should get ODAthey use measures of ‘need’ and ‘capability’ and suggest that it makes a strong case for more investment in middle income countries. It’s an interesting idea, but reading it made me think that it must be extremely sensitive to the precise metrics used – a point that Marcus Manuel demonstrates on the ODI blog.
  6. It’s incredibly hard to prove what many suspect, that the distribution of road infrastructure in most of Africa is hopelessly poor, and driven by other concerns than welfare maximisation of the population, but this cool piece on VoxEU has a novel approach: they find that autocratic leaders build roads that lead from the interior to the coast much more than those that connect parts of the country to each other. It’s not a total slam dunk, but a really interesting piece of research.
  7. I can be quite old-fashioned, and perhaps default into thinking that our cultural touchstones today are – for the most part – rather less talented and interesting than those of previous years: more Messis than Maradonas, more John Legend than Marvin Gaye. Two pieces really dug my priors in this week: first, this LitHub article about the emergence of the NBA as a spectacle reminded me that the traditional celebrity singer of the national anthem at the All-Star Game wasn’t always Fergie being totally embarrassing, but Marvin in a suit and shades being far cooler than any human being has a right to be. And the Ringer take the occasion of Dolly Parton saving humanity to run this appreciation of her, and the tl;dr is that she is just incredibly cool, and independent-minded in a way that would put her in a field of her own in today’s pop landscape. PS – really watch the Marvin video – it’s absolutely incredible.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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