Six days. That’s how long it took 2021 to plumb depths that even 2020 thought were too tacky and over-the-top. Like a sequel that decided that the only way to top the original was to forego all sense of shame and cast Willem Dafoe to spend the whole movie doing bug-eyes and putting leeches on his body (yes, I’m looking at you, Speed 2) 2021 decided that after a global pandemic, the death of Diego Maradona and the interminable delay of the Black Widow movie, the only place to go was an imbecile wearing what appears to be a dead groundhog and some bison horns on his head trying to stage a coup. But let’s not make light of it. There were a number of complete spanners on show there, but the implications are incredibly serious. I thought 2021 would give us at least a few weeks to enjoy the good news glow from the vaccine rollout, but instead it’s left me with that familiar feeling of being simultaneously outraged, slightly scared about where we’re going and cycling through funny-but-not-really comments about the absolute clown show readers in the US and UK are living through (with sincere apologies to the World Clown Association who do not deserve this comparison.) A massive sinkhole just opened up in Naples, too. At least it wasn’t filled with rats this time. At least that’s one way 2021 is improving on it’s predecessor.
- Shall we start with something uplifting? I think we need to. I really, really liked Duncan Green’s comments to recently graduated MSc students at the LSE. He discusses the mountains behind the mountain they have just scaled and suggests four excellent rules for making the world a better place: evidence-based humility, permanent curiosity, reflexivity and pluralism. Both as a student of decision-making and a sometime decision-maker, I couldn’t agree more with these rules and especially the second. It’s the characteristic I most prize in friends, colleagues, and myself. Never stop asking why, how and why not.
- That kind of curiosity leads you to unexpected places: thinking carefully about a pencil can lead you through to the wonders of globalisation; a toaster can make you appreciate the value of specialisation. But I read the examples in Tim Harford’s blog and see not just a paean to the free market but the invisible hand of the Government, whose policies, subsidies, taxes and protections make such everyday economic miracles possible. And I see a tale of such deep interdependence that the idea of [insert nation here] First is not just risible but incoherent. Maybe 2021 will start unravelling this, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
- Back to the crazy we saw earlier this week: Maggie Koerth at 538 digs into the much-discussed asymmetry of police response to the (primarily white) rioters at Capitol Hill and the typical response to Black Lives Matter protests. It turns out that ACLED have started collecting data in the US and the data show what the smell test suggests: there is a marked disparity in how they are policed, epitomised by this tweet. Before the year turned, they also ran this great collection of their best graphs of the year – some of them are brilliant.
- Something else I missed in my end-of-year internet abstinence (spent reading The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie and Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, in-between cleaning baby vomit from every item of clothing I own; both are excellent, btw) was Andrew Gelman comprehensively dunking on regression discontinuities again. One line I particularly liked was this: “If you want to make a big claim and convince me that you have evidence for it, I need that trail of breadcrumbs connecting data, model, and theory.” This is exactly right, but its important to note that the theory thing isn’t just a mathematically consistent model – it’s got to be something plausible and triangulated with much more than your starting assumptions and (usually rather small) field experiment. Does it fit with what we know about the world from other sources of knowledge? If not, you really need to work hard to convince us.
- Another pair of excellent year-end reviews, both from the Development Impact crew: first their pick of the best papers of the year – a typically excellent and varied selection; and secondly their summary of their brilliant job market papers series.
- I very much like this piece by Mariana Mazzucato and Simon Sharpe about the importance of dynamic analysis in government decision-making, arguing that the returns to a decision should take into account its impact on the future path of decisions it sets up as well as its static values. I have two objections: one, that good cost-benefit analysis can and should do this, and two, that this opens up so many possible future paths of benefit that it may become either impossible or meaningless to genuinely analyse the expected payoff of different decisions, which is still necessary.
- With the cricket resuming (Australia and India playing out a hugely entertaining series and Monty Panesar on the Christmas University Challenge, the latter being more unexpected than the former, not to mention the forthcoming Sri Lanka tour), I was tempted to fill the last slot with cricket videos, but I’ll restrain myself. Instead two pieces of marginalia, one very serious and one not so much: first we need to occupy Disney+ until they liberate the hundreds of hours of Muppets content they are denying us. This is essentially a global human rights abuse and my DVDs and old VHS tapes are nearly worn out. My son needs to have his supply of Muppetry secured! And in less Deadly-serious news, apparently people have been trying to cook chicken by slapping it. I thought this was a smutty euphemism until I opened the link. It’s literal. 2021.
Have a great weekend, and happy new year, everyone!
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