There’s an oft-quoted line in the classic 1995 mystery/heist/Benicio Del Toro mumbling movie The Usual Suspect: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I was thinking about that today. With Brexit lurking around the corner like Keyser Soze, it’s marked primarily by the many guises it’s worn since 52 percent of the population voted for… something, not quite defined. We’ve gone from “of course we won’t leave the single market” to “we’ll do a trade deal over a cup of coffee” to “no deal is going to be wonderful” (if you’re Boris Johnson) or “we’ll survive” (if you’re Oliver Dowden) to this, if you’re me. How did that happen with so little fanfare? One of the most damaging things about 2020 for the UK has been the way Covid so dominated the public attention that it completely distracted us from the Brexit negotiations. Would a clearer, less fatigued public mind have put more pressure on the Government to achieve a deal? Perhaps not: I’ve been predicting no deal since 2016, but my goodness if it comes to pass we’ll be wondering about it in a few years’ time. One of my friends exports goods to the UK, and he’s describing a state of absolute panic among the people moving his goods in the UK. Fun and games for 2021.
- Ok, so the intro was about as much fun as a smack in the face with a roll of quarters, but I’ll make it up to you. This interview with Michael Clemens is absolutely brilliant, and I cannot recommend it enough. In fact, if you’re short of time, just open it and ignore the rest of the links. Michael is given a proper grilling here, but answers every questions with such clarity, exposing logical and moral fallacies in the arguments around immigration while also drawing on a huge range of evidence to explain why so many stated positions about migration are drawn from faulty logical foundations and how they can be tested (and disproved) by evidence. What I liked most about the interview, though, was how Michael was able to discuss not just the fine details of US migration law, but also their genesis (as he puts it, it is of the “here’s a number I pulled from where the sun don’t shine” school of policymaking) and how different kinds of policies might offer a partial improvement – and what problems they won’t resolve. He ends on a note that is a little pessimistic and a little optimistic, quoting the classicist Jeremy McInerney: “Wisdom only comes through suffering”, which may turn out to be our verdict on Brexit, too. Bonus: a VoxEU write-up on the importance of migrants as key workers in Europe. Spoiler: it’s huge.
- Andrew Gelman and Aki Vehtari have a new paper out summarising what they think the most important statistical ideas of the last 50 years have been. It’s readable, fun and a super introduction to ideas that you should probably understand better than you do – I certainly should.
- It’s a great week when we get new content from both Michael and Dietz Vollrath, so take advantage of it. Dietz digs into the decline in TFP in the US, commonly thought to be a phenomenon of the last decade or two. It isn’t. TFP jumps around, and has periods both above and below trend since the 1960s, but if you took the trend from then and used it to guess productivity today, you’d be about right. It gets really interesting when he starts discussing what these findings mean for his explanations of US economic performance. Worth reading in full, including his suggestion that the brilliance of Innervisions may have led some people to the milk and honey land, where all men feel they’re truly free at last. Stevie Wonder caused the slowdown, everyone (which also explains how bad some of the later albums were).
- Hugo Slim at BSG has written an excellent blog at ODI arguing for a complete restructuring of global humanitarian operations, based around platforms built on local partnerships and delivery structures. It’s excellent, and makes the point that vaccine rollout platforms offer an opportunity to move outside the established, and sclerotic, humanitarian delivery models we’ve been reliant on to date, and can be used for future priorities, including social protection. In a similar vein my colleagues Jeremy Kondynyk and Patrick Saez argue for reform to the system here.
- Josh Angrist, David Autor and Amanda Pallais have a write-up of their new paper out about the use of financial aid to support college students; what makes it cool is not just that it’s every bit as careful and well-done as you’d expect from them, but they conclude with a proper discussion of the cost-benefit ratio of the intervention. They – correctly – argue that scholarships in the context they measure them are largely transfers, and this has profound implications for how cost effective the intervention is; it would look even better if they explicitly weighted the worst off students more highly. I love teaching CBA because there’s a lot more economics in the conceptualisation of it than there is the summing up of numbers, as they recognise.
- If you’re like me, you lost a few hours to reading the Lancet write-up of the early Astra-Zeneca results (they make me more, not less, optimistic about the vaccine) and the FDA summary of the Pfizer vaccine data. But if you want a summary of the former, this Science piece is good; even better is Karleigh Rogers on the difficulties of getting people to complete their vaccination course, and how to overcome them (she missed a trick not citing Anna Karing, though).
- And lastly, I know some of you argue that economics is divorced from the real issues that matter to people. Some of us have heard you: Stephanie Karol, for example has a new paper out modelling how households make decisions when cats are present: obviously, the finding is that cats rule the household. And another paper sets out – with examples – how to teach economics using K-Pop; as much as Blackpink might offer something here, nothing summarises the economics of conspicuous consumption like Aaye Laariye (and – even better, it turns out that Sheheryar Banuri’s sister Wajiha Navqi has an – amazing – Coke Studios song out this season!). And on that happy note…
Have a great weekend, everyone!