Links round-up

Hi all,

Quick PSA before I start in earnest: there will be no links next week, as I will be off work and away from my laptop, definitely not reading everything on the internet with an almost compulsive dedication as is my normal life. In an odd twist, I’m almost hoping that my son will wake me up at four am, as I’ll be able to take him to the living room to watch the cricket, and potentially still catch up on sleep later in the day. Every day I have a little bit more optimism that this year is going to become gradually more normal. Some things have continued just as they left off: LeBron James is still the King; Pakistan are still completely unpredictable; and Marvel are still threatening to slowly takeover the entire pop culture universe with its gathering expansion. Maybe by the time he’s old enough to enjoy it, Test cricket will be back at Lord’s and I can take him to the real thing, in all it’s ludicrous glory.

  1. I’m not the only one hoping for some normality this year, and in seeing some green shoots that I want to believe in, I have good company. Tim Harford sets out some of the signs that might portend our much delayed spring of 2020 – and invokes Hemingway to describe the pattern he expects: everything will happen slowly, until it happens suddenly. In 2020 I was one of many people who failed to understand the importance of exponential spread early enough (though fortunately, my failure was quickly picked up and corrected by friends and colleagues). I wonder if exponential improvement might also take us by surprise, at least in the UK. Of course, as many have pointed out, it’s not over till it’s over everywhere and on that front we are not doing well enough at all.
  2. Literally ever other week I learn something jaw-dropping about how messed up criminal justice system in the US is (on the other weeks, I learn something about how messed up the healthcare system is). This week it was this astonishing piece on NPR, which documents the scandalous extent to which charges and fines completely unrelated to the crime a person has been convicted of can be levied against them, and how much local Government depends on these fines to provide services (transcript). This is about as appalling a set of perverse incentives as you can design, and it’s widespread. If you want to take a foul mood and make it worse, read this paper by Bocar Ba and co-authors which documents how race and policing interact in Chicago – where the ethnicity of the officer on the beat has a large effect on the likelihood that they will make arrests in majority-black or Hispanic neighbourhoods, or use force, especially against black civilians. I mean, yes, cat lawyers are funny (when they’re not abusing their power to harass their ex-girlfriends), but the system is a deep pit of dysfunction.
  3. While we’re all in a vile mood, here’s the IGM panel of economists on the likely effect of Brexit, with the majority agreeing with the statement that the UK’s economy will be several percentage points smaller as a result of this particular piece of self-flagellation-by-policy than we would otherwise have been by 2030.
  4. I thought this write-up in VoxDev was great: Ama Baafra Abeberese on how cross-subsidisation of household and agricultural electricity in India reduces firm output and productivity growth in industry. Trade-offs are everywhere. Related: a cool experiment from Mexico which looks at the effect of information at different levels of specificity, coupled with a grant, affected agricultural productivity. Two interesting findings – the less specific information was actually the more cost-effective policy (costing less and having the same impact), and unrestricted grants had the same effect on purchase of agricultural subsidies as restricted ones, which might be because people associated the money with that purpose or simply that in that context, it proved to be the best use of the cash.
  5. On the subject of excellent paper summaries: two more from Development Impact. First, Berk Ozler and P. Facundo Cuevas write up amazing new findings that discovers that a cash transfer programme that stimulated widespread reallocation of school-aged children among households in the treatment area, with the result that the programme had effects on both treated families and widespread benefits on those who were not eligible. I’m going to need to read the full paper, because this is remarkable. There are reflections on the technical challenges this behaviour posed for the research team, but these take second billing to that amazing mechanism. And secondly, Markus breaks down a methods paper that provides a new approach to measuring women’s agency in his typically clear, careful style.
  6. I found this piece of techno-pessimism from Dani Rodrik really interesting: large firms in manufacturing sectors in Ethiopia and Tanzania are using much more capital-intensive methods of production than you would expect given the relative cost of labour in those countries. He suggests this might be because manufacturing processes in these industries are globally so automated that you can’t actually do them in a labour intensive fashion anymore. He describes this as  dilemma for them, and it might be. Increasingly I am drawn to Doug Gollin’s argument that we need to obsess less about sector and more about characteristics of production when thinking about structural transformation. As with most things, I think Doug is right.
  7. Imagine your job being to slowly train a pig to play Pac Man – and then getting a journal article out of it. This, apparently, seems to be the life of scientists publishing in Frontier Psychology. I’m not sure what exactly the motivation for the paper was (“there has been increasing concern that barnyard animals have been excluded from online multiplayer gaming systems…”), or if it’s building on an extensive literature of other animals playing compute games, but it is getting in the media, so perhaps this is what I should pivot my work towards… In animal news I’m much more taken by, here’s a thread of all the version of Big Bird around the world, including the absolutely terrifying Brazilian Big Bird Garibaldi, who looks like he’d eat you and bury the bones somewhere they’ll never be found.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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