Links round-up

HI all,

In the search for silver linings to this car crash of a pandemic (and pandemic response), till this week I had found only one: additional time spent with my son while working from home (I don’t dislike commuting itself, as it’s a guaranteed 90 minutes of reading time a day, and I like working in the office, surrounded by colleagues). This week, another has emerged: I have extremely limited face-to-face exposure to anyone who watches cricket, and can thus blissfully pretend that there isn’t a series going on in Sri Lanka, and that our means have not been so diminished by retirement and mismanagement that our bowling attack has an average closer to forty than my age. Instead I can watch clips of the glory days and pretend we aren’t heading for an innings defeat – in Galle of all places, the sheer shame of it, where Mahela Jayawardene would hit a century every time picked up his bat – to an England team whose line-up you could easily mistake for a thesaurus entry for ‘uninspiring’. It’s been a grim couple of days.

  1. It’s now been a bit more than a week since the absolute scenes in Washington, DC and I’m still sorting through the sheer range of emotions it brought up, and I’m clearly not the only one. Branko Milanovic wrote a reflection on his ‘ideological education’ that really resonated with me – three stories from his life about moments when he realised that ideas he believed impossible to take hold among sensible people were, in fact, widely adopted. I’ve had a number of such moments, realisations that the people who believe things that seem absurd to me are not crazy, fringe cranks but the kind of people I interact with regularly, but too shallowly to realise it. Reading the backstories of some of the insurrectionists in DC reinforced that, but at least it seems to have inspired a (perhaps far too limited) reaction: Trump’s approval rating has plummeted, hopefully signalling that the events in DC do not in fact represent even most of the country. And secondly, as much as it seems like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, actions taken to reduce the reach of inflammatory rhetoric does seem to have an effect, not least by partly cutting down on its ability to infect those as yet unaffected by it.
  2. I really liked this piece on the benefits of using financial diaries, by Sandrine N’Simire and co-authors on Duncan Green’s blog. I’m also a fan of using financial diaries – indeed they were one of the first things I looked at when I was interested in the early effects of Covid lockdowns in developing countries.
  3. The latest in Dietrich Vollrath’s investigations into the productivity slowdown in the US is worth reading in full (he dates the slowdown to the mid-1960s, and blames it on the labour force effects of the baby boom), but there’s I was specifically interested in one idea he floats: could there be a fundamental asymmetry in the productivity effects of expanding and shrinking labour forces? I think there’s something to this: an economy can absorb a lot of workers and find work for them that could have been done by fewer (by introducing redundancy in production processes for example); but could find it very difficult to reverse this process again when it needs to make do with fewer workers. I can think of a few reasons why this might be possible, but I’ve never seen it modelled before.
  4. Most misinformation isn’t shared because the sharers are credulous idiots (some is), but because they simply haven’t taken a moment to examine the claims they’re propagating before hitting that retweet button. Tim Harford points out that many cognitive traps share this basic characteristic: they aren’t hard to avoid when time and care is taken, but time and care are taken far too rarely. This is true regardless of how well educated one is: I saw professors sharing tweets about the Capitol Hill events that turned out to be misleading, even if the ultimate narrative they were propagating was right. His Planet Money show on pandemic statistics is also worth a listen (transcript)
  5. If you’ve worked with me before, you’ve probably heard me rant about the millions of pounds wasted on bad training programmes that don’t teach people things that they probably wouldn’t use even if they learnt it. Well, few people have know more about how and why training programmes work (or don’t work) than David McKenzie, and his new research with Steve Anderson comes up with a much more promising approach to improving business practices. Instead of teaching a business owner how to be a bad accountant in three days painful to both student and teacher, introduce her to someone who does accounts well and does it for a living. Insourcing or outsourcing professional services has a much larger effect on the quality of business practices than trying to teach those already in the firm. This shouldn’t be a surprise – just because I’ve got a good idea and a bit of entrepreneurial drive does not mean I’m likely to have any aptitude at all to do the accounts.
  6. A new paper from Cristina Belles-Obrero and Maria Lombardi shows legal reform in Mexico banning child marriage had no effect on its negative consequences since cohabitation was considered an acceptable alternative: kids didn’t get married, but they still formed relationships, dropped out of school and had children early.
  7. Finally, as a birder with a real soft spot for virtually all wild animals, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of sharing only videos and pictures of the cute, adorable side of nature. So as a public service, I am here to remind you that animals are horrifying, even the cute ones, and if you need evidence, this is what the inside of a penguin’s mouth looks like. Enjoy your nightmares. Even more horrifying, apparently macaques are evolving into an even more invasive species: economists. They have learnt how to judge the value of tourist items in order to steal the most valuable of them, and are learning ransom techniques. It’s only a matter of time before a macaque wins the Nobel for work formalising the game theoretic structure of ransom demands.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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