Links round-up

Hi all,

2020 is on it’s last legs, and like Usain Bolt looking over his shoulder at Justin Gatlin, I will be happy to see it behind me. For all the good things that happened this year, my son being by far the best (along with the seven-letter word on a triple word score that preceded him), humanity took an L this year. We got dunked on by a virus, by wildfires and by ourselves. The last part was the really hard bit – we constantly made things worse for ourselves with impatience, intolerance, stupidity and garden-variety selfishness. Still, not everyone sucks, and there was some really good writing throughout the year – some about how we fix this year’s problems, and some about how we fix more well-established ones. I normally do a sort of best-of-the-year list in the links, but this year Susannah Hares and I have written something on the CGD blog instead – some of our favourite writing of the year. Take solace that even in a terrible year, good things get written.

Just a note – this is the last links until early January. I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks to try unwind from one of the most personally and professionally intense years imaginable. Perhaps I’ll be less grumpy on my return, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  1. We need to talk about Doing Business again. I know. Every time I bring it up, it’s to lay the smack down on it again, but sometimes the smack just needs to be laid down. After its suspension earlier this year for ‘data irregularities’ (on top of the fact that it, y’know, doesn’t measure anything), the Bank undertook a thorough audit of the index, and the report is a *doozy*. The press release is rather understated, but a bit like Flerken, a pretty dramatic creature emerges from its quiet exterior. The full report seems to confirm that World Bank management pressured staff to fiddle the numbers to favour specific countries – and that almost all of them complied. This is actually even worse than I had expected when this all kicked off, and I don’t see how the Index can possibly recover. Justin Sandefur has the thread for those who like it tweet-sized.
  2. I need something wholesome after that. Here’s a Slate piece about how the betting markets are making bank bank bank from Trump supporters. When people said they were confused by the difference between election modelling and the betting markets, they forgot there was selection bias in both polling and the betting.
  3. Tim Harford is singing my song with this piece about the importance of redundancy in systems. The number of times I find myself one step away from doing something stupid is amazing. Having simple not-strictly-necessary checks can improve system performance substantially, even at the cost of a per-transaction inefficiency. Most of the time, we don’t make mistakes and consider it an inconvenience. But when mistakes are disproportionately costly, the redundancy proves highly valuable. One of my favourite examples is something civil servants will recall: when you send an email from a Government account a little pop up appears, asking you to check your security marking (or used to, at any rate). I often found myself taking advantage of that pop up to reword a sentence or check that I hadn’t said the quiet part out loud when responding to something I thought insane.  
  4. This is great: Katherine Stapleton and Michael Webb on the effects of automation in Spanish firms on their supply chain engagement with firms in developing countries. They find that contrary to common fears, automation does not induce net reshoring. Rather, its effect on productivity result in the expansion of supply chain relationships with developing countries. As so often, there is an income effect as well as a price effect, and they work in opposite directions. In this case, the increased income from better production induces more transactions and hence more supply-chain engagement, including by firms that were previously not productive enough to afford the fixed costs of off-shoring. Research: constantly proving that your gut feeling deserves a sense check.
  5. In the US, Raphael Warnock’s campaign ads in Georgia are undermining subtle but strongly help stereotypes about black people there. I found this one of the most shocking things I read all week, but also shockingly plausible.
  6. Being better at collecting the tax you should be getting is more important than raising your tax rates. Not surprising, necessarily, but important.
  7. I thought long and hard about how to end the last links of the year. Would I do a pop culture round-up? Something about John Hughes movies, or why Kendrick Lamar still isn’t as great as Rakim? Or something sporting, pointing out for the 1,303,291,181,393rd time for those at the distant back of the classroom that LeBron James is not just historically great, he’s historically great and being historically great. But the thing I’ve missed the most during this year (close family apart) has been birdwatching. You can do great stuff in London, but nothing beats going to the middle of nowhere and seeing something truly special, like this Scottish engineer found when he discovered that a starling murmuration was the cause of rolling blackouts out there. The video is stunning. But as much as I love birds, I don’t love them as much as this crazy person, who spent two years living as a wild turkey. That takes it to another level.

Have a great break everyone!


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