I’ve only ever cancelled the links just because I was in a
foul mood once, on Friday 24 June, 2016 (if you live in the UK, you won’t need
google to remember the headlines that day). Today, almost exactly four years
later, I was considering doing the same but I’ve thought better of it. I’m not
going to go through the five stages of grief here: rather, I’m just going to
hold on to two for the next few months: anger and acceptance, simultaneously.
The anger is self-explanatory – DFID is a brilliant organisation, one which
exemplifies the qualities of a mission-driven
bureaucracy where people live the work they do and care deeply about
getting it right. It became so because its mission was clearly articulated,
inspiring and genuine: working in the department meant arguing with people over
what the right thing to do was. During my days at DFID I had many, many
conversations with angry, frustrated colleagues, furious because someone else wanted
to do what they saw as the wrong thing. These weren’t “someone disagrees with
me” conversations, but “we’re going to get this wrong, and that’s completely
unacceptable” conversations. An organisation that achieves a culture like that
discards it at its peril. It’s the kind of culture that contains within itself
a constant drive to improve and learn, to excel. It can’t simply be recreated
by putting nice words on the new letterhead; it has to be lived. People
self-select into organisations, choosing to work where they both get paid and
appreciated and contribute to something that they believe in. That’s the anger.
The acceptance, though, is that the change is now coming, and the future has to
be something better than simply sewing together DFID and the FCO. What came
before was not a political equilibrium, which led to many compromises and
fudges. The chance to shape a new organisation into one that both does good and
is a political equilibrium can’t be missed. I’ll write something about this
next week, but the main point is that the mission driven bureaucrats, on both
sides of the merger, still have agency and can use it for good.
- That was a long intro,
and I am still pretty angry, so just to cool off: a man
very reluctantly wading into a pond. Watch to see why, it is joy.
- As long as I’ve studied
or worked in development (which is now more than half my life),
agricultural productivity has been something of a puzzle; it’s one of those
areas where every advance seems to directly set the seeds for new ones. VoxDev
have a nice write up of work that looks at the effect of using
multiple survey methods to improve the accuracy of productivity estimates
for smallholders; long story short, measurement error is substantial,
and can be meaningfully narrowed, with real implications for policy.
- In a similar vein, Markus
Goldstein summarises a new paper by Lucia Diaz-Martin and co-authors
on what women’s groups actually achieve on a range of different metrics.
What I love about these blogs Markus does is that they basically teach you
how to read a paper well: you learn not just about the paper he’s read,
but also from what details he picks up, and how he presents the
information. There is still a lot we’re learning about how to do
development well; and I hope the capacity to keep doing this (and funding
this kind of thing) is one that we protect.
- In non-DFID news, the
world out there is still pretty terrible; and on Juneteenth, it seems
appropriate to highlight the failings of the economics discipline on
race. Ben Casselman has been covering this for the NYT for a while and his
latest piece makes for sobering reading, again. Econ is lousy with
insider networks and petty exclusionary politics, which makes life doubly
hard for those from outside the pre-existing networks, be they race,
class, institution or gender-based. And they may be self-perpetuating: a
new paper finds big effects from having a paper tweeted by an influential
Collin’s twitter thread digs in (and yes, the effect size is only two
citations, but for many academics that’s a really big effect!).
- I don’t think it’s
controversial to say that 2020 has completely sucked: between the
global pandemic, mass social unrest, imbeciles defending statues of
slavers and the pause in the NBA season, you’d imagine all the major
economic indicators are doing the statistical equivalent of the
scared Bruce Lee gif. But nope: the stock market’s not exactly
been chill, but it’s definitely got a lit cigar and a glass of scotch
right now. Planet
Money run through some of the theories, including the ‘perfect
storm of stupid’ theory, which is pretty much my meta-theory for 2020.
- More from our ‘the whole
world sucks’ department: another
paper to add to the growing pile of Coronavirus-is-making-gender-inequality-worse
Case and Angus Deaton on how the Coronavirus is hitting those who most
suffered from deaths of despair particularly hard; and a behavioural
scientist on how
she fell prey to the very biases she studied.
- One for the stats geeks: I know he’s a bit of a
spanner sometimes, but I found this
piece by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the uselessness of single-point
estimates in a pandemic very good.
- I’m struggling to find
stuff that put me in a good mood this week. I published my
first blog at CGD (on how to improve decision-making under extreme
uncertainty), which was fun. And I’ve discovered that AI cannot
distinguish between a lung infected with coronavirus and a cat –
though I suppose this is technically bad news. So to cheer us all up,
let’s instead turn
Have a great weekend, everyone!
What a week it’s been. It’s been quite odd to hear public
figures complain that protests against symbols and statues associated with
racism and oppression are a threat to the learning or protection of history; do
they propose the Parthenon marbles be brought back to Athens and replaced? That
we demolish all the buildings and religious monuments built over old ones? Part
of the story of history is the toppling of old icons. The British Museum houses
a head of Augustus,
one of the most spectacular objects in the collection. If you look very
carefully, you can see sand embedded in the bronze. That sand tells a story: of
the Sudanese Queen Candace, blind in one eye, who led her army into Egypt and
captured a number of Roman towns and forts, one of which was home to a
celebrated statue of the Emperor. She punctuated her campaign by building a
temple at Meroe, where under the stairs leading into it she buried the
decapitated head of her rival’s statue, so that all who came to celebrate her
victory would literally trample him into the dust. That
is history. And it would make me extremely happy if a future historian
fished from the harbour a waterlogged and rusted bronze of a long-dead slaver and
learnt the depth of the contempt with which people in 2020 held those of his
- Speaking of blind in one eye,
there has been a great deal of scrutiny of race in the economics
profession this week.
Those of you who have read these links for a while will know that I’ve got
a very low opinion of the diversity of the economics profession, and the
costs this imposes on our discipline’s ability to speak to matters of
great social importance. Two really striking examples of that this week:
Money cover the extreme difficulties Lisa Cook endured in publishing
her paper on the long term behavioural and economic effects of lynchings
on black Americans (transcript).
Apparently, reviewers considered the topic too niche to have broader
significance. Those reviewers need to look around them; violent
exclusion is a fact of life in many parts of the world. Secondly, Anna
Gifty Opoku-Agyeman points
out the scarcity of black academic voices in coverage of issues that
disproportionately affect minority groups (often black).
- I don’t just want to
dump on academia all the time (flawed, yes; irredeemable, no), so here’s a
great set of comments on a blog by Andrew Gelman, on what the best
scientific papers ever written are (read and enjoy the papers, but
also be struck by how monocultural the suggestions are – including the one
I make next). His criteria are that they should be important, fun to read
and thought provoking. My candidate is a largely forgotten paper:
Herbert Simon, writing in 1978, about Rationality
as a Process. What makes this brilliant? First, it’s a joy to read
(it was originally a speech), written clearly, with a few personal touches
and clarity of every concept discussed. Second, it both looks right back
into the history of economics and recognises the importance of
contemporary results (he cites Kahneman and Tversky). And thirdly, the
issues he raises are still relevant for economics – indeed Nobels
have been won for investigating them.
- A really
good blog by Samik Adhikari from the World Bank about the importance –
and neglect – of the effect of Covid-19 on remittances from internal
migrants. I know Mushfiq Mobarek is doing (excellent, of course) work on
this in Nepal, but the blog is right to highlight that internal
migrants are both much more numerous than international migrants and much
less apparent in the data.
- Does migration make
people turn inwards, and away from social protection and redistribution?
Some studies have suggested that it may do in the short run (indeed, in
one of the late Alberto Alesina’s more depressing results, he and
co-authors found that even *thinking*
about migrants reduced support for redistribution). New
work by Paola Giuliano and Marco Tabellini offers some hope, and finds
that in the longer term, migrants from places where social protection
is more widespread and generous may seed more redistributive beliefs.
- Dani Rodrik and Stefanie
Stantcheva argue that the
post-pandemic social contract should be structured around a
comprehensive understanding of the full, extended, universe of
externalities arising from production, including those embodied by ‘bad’
- NPR had a good week this
week – covering the appalling
influence of police unions in the US (seriously, how many locally
terrible equilibria are there in the US institutional structure: the
Second Amendment, tipping, police armed like a murderous
Inspector Gadget…?); the history
of vaccinations; and the difficulties of predicting
the path of the Coronavirus in Africa (which others at CGD have just
novel contribution to).
- Finally, we all need
some good news
(and it’s not coming from cricket, where Darren
Sammy has discovered the casual racism endemic in the subcontinent and
– rightly – blown a gasket at his ex-teammates); so let’s instead marvel
at the transformation Nikola Jokic has made from adorable
manatee to swole
giant in skinny jeans – just in time for the playoffs. If that
doesn’t cheer you up, The Ringer has you covered, with a deep dive into
the iconography of Indiana
Jones’ hat. And if it’s still not your bag, do what I’m going
to do: spend the evening investigating
wine pairings for all the different chicken wings sauces there are.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
I’ve been dreading writing the intro to these links all
week. How on earth do I come up with something mildly amusing and facetious
when all week the news on the front pages, the videos and stories on my twitter
and the garbage being spewed by (some) people in positions of authority has
been so profoundly depressing – and enraging? I’m not going to pretend I have
anything helpful to add to what’s going on in the US, where one-third of people killed by
strangers are killed by the police, and where just
6% of white police officers believe changes are needed for black people to
have equal rights. Instead, let me repeat something I said about race and
recruitment in the UK in a meeting I had while I was still a civil servant. I
think most people understand the world in part by using simplified ‘mental
models’ as shorthand for complexity. If they think ‘economist’ they have a
mental model of what an economist looks like, behaves like, speaks like. Even
if these models are only lightly held, they represent a hurdle for those that
don’t fit them, and in a world where competition for jobs is fierce, this
matters. As an economist, one thing I’ve learnt is that small
frictions can have big effects.
- Economics has more than
its fair share of counterintuitive concepts. I recall a friend of
mine, one of the smartest people I know, sheepishly admitting that they
didn’t understand how the gains from trade worked. I had to reassure him
that this was because no-one gets comparative advantage without studying
it (damn you, David Ricardo!) One of the best things about Planet Money
is how well they explain basic economics for non-economists, and I
loved this podcast, in which they answer questions like ‘where does
the money go when people stop spending?’ without ever needing to use such
arcania as ‘velocity of circulation’ (transcript).
- On the other hand,
sometimes economics really is completely intuitive. Anna
Stansbury and Laurence Summers look at the declining share of national
income accruing to labour in the US and come to the conclusion that many,
many non-economists would have leapt at: it’s because of declining worker
bargaining power. The whole piece is worth reading, particularly the
conclusion that there is no reason to be fatalistic about the distribution
of market income; the policy prescription is fairly obvious.
- This is a great
write-up of a new paper by Emma Riley looking at the effect of using
mobile money to provide finance to female entrepreneurs. In previous
studies, finance provided to female entrepreneurs has had much less effect
on their profitability, but this paper finds substantial effects, in
part because disbursing money this way gives women more control over the use
of the funds. Related: Emma also has new results (with Mahreen Mahmud)
the effects of Covid lockdowns on incomes and consumption in Uganda. Spoiler:
they’ve been bad.
- There’s absolutely no
need to dunk on economics’ track record in forecasting again here: it’s already taken
more hits than Cool
Hand Luke. But this
piece by Branko Milanovic is really good: it breaks down the various
kinds of uncertainty that are particularly problematic for attempts to
forecast the economic recovery from Covid19. Related: Tim
Harford on the asymmetric impacts of the recession and how some
sectors and firms may never bounce back, while others will change
- As I said last week, I’m
not going to use this blog to round-up of all the great CGD writing every
week – that job does is
done elsewhere. But I
really liked this piece by Scott Morris, Clemence Landers and Alysha
Gardner, which considers four scenarios for the future composition of IDA
allocations. Of their four plausible scenarios three see a substantial
increase in the grant component of IDA allocations – a good thing, but one
that might require a few gymnastics to finance.
- More Tim Harford, proposing
that you do stuff as early as possible, rather than at the last
possible minute. As you have no doubt inferred from the fact that this
e-mail is getting to you some time after six pm on a Friday evening, I am
most definitely on his side here.
- This week I have
discovered how I’m going to bankrupt myself: it’s called Cameo and
it’s the most ridiculous and brilliant thing ever. Ever wanted to send
your enemies a demotivational message from The Million Dollar Man, Ted
DiBiase? It’s yours for
60 quid! Do you want to append a video of Samir screaming ‘This is a
suck!’ to your latest referee report, followed up with a pithy suggestion
for a new robustness test? Sold for
thirty pounds! Wee-Bey’s realisation
gif? Recreated for a cool £50!
On the off chance you don’t want to spend your life savings buying
videos of Bruce Buffer announcing your entry into your Zoom meetings (a
mere £250 a pop), please
distract yourself with Jean-Ralphio.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
Better late than never: I’ve finally got my machine
sufficiently set up to send the links out from its new home! Before we dive
into this weeks’ geek-out, a quick note. I could very easily fill the links
with CGD content every week, especially during these Covid-relentless times,
given the amount of great stuff we’re producing here. I’m going to resist that
temptation, and will continue to use this as a platform to fire off rants and
indulge whatever niche interests happen to have me that day. Besides, there’s
already a way to get access to everything CGD put out: you can subscribe to CGD’s weekly newsletter
as well as its COVID-19 work and event invitations at this link.
And now the
real introduction, one which in the absence of any new basketball or cricket to
tear my hair out over (as Michael said when I joined: CGD does not take
institutional positions on cricket, so its lucky I’ve got a ‘views my own’
disclaimer on twitter), defaults to less happy news. This week, economics lost
two giants in the field, Oliver Williamson and Alberto Alesina. Williamson in
particular is a foundational intellectual influence for me, about one-third of
my citations manager database, and his
obit in the NYT gives a good indication as to why (and for a bonus, one
of my favourite of his papers). Alesina was a political economist (in the
way you might say Magic Johnson was a basketball player), and one of the
cornerstones of the field, but it’s also striking how many of the tributes to
him are about him personally – as a colleague, friend or mentor, as in these reflections at
- While I’ve got everyone depressed, let me pile it on. Jishnu Das and co-authors have released a working paper with
distressing relevance to the Coronapocaplypse: students whose education
was interrupted by the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan suffered
deep, lasting and inequality-enhancing effects on schooling outcomes.
On average, these students were set back by 1.5-2 years of schooling, but
the effect seems to be ameliorated among those with more educated mothers;
this despite substantial financial assistance to reduce the impact of the
earthquake (blog here,
full paper here).
Stefan Dercon suggests
three ways in which policy now can try and avoid this playing out all
over again (in many more places) as a result of Covid: keeping
learning going wherever possible, investing now in remedial support for
later which (Abhijeet Singh approves);
and looking now for which models of digital learning can work in
- If you’ve been following the news out of Hong Kong, you’ll already
be in a foul mood this week, as China’s grip over the freedoms nominally
enshrined in its Basic Law slowly turns them to dust. This has sparked
a few calls for more liberal visa regimes for Hong Kongers, something that
obviously in favour of. However, there’s a second strain of
thinking here, which has been to essentially argue that *all
of Hong Kong* can relocate, which seems to miss something
fundamental. The global stock of migrants is tiny: 3% of the human
population. Yes, partly because there are all sorts of crazy restrictions
that bar people from crossing borders when it would clearly be a win all
around. But in large part it’s also because most people don’t want to
move; more migration is both obviously a good thing and not enough at
the same time. People may be ‘irrationally’ attached to home, but if
you care about improving human welfare the answer is to let people move
and make it better to stay, both.
- Trying to pick the mood up a bit (it’s really not that easy, everybody
on the internet seemed to be on a massive downer this week), Tim
Harford has a great piece on why
a strictly policed lockdown may not be necessary at all – because
most of us are quite good, most of the time, at not being a d*ckhead.
Yes, there may be prominent exceptions testing their eyesight by William
Telling their kids, but most of us don’t need a great deal of
encouragement to consider the lives of others. Of course, he doesn’t have
to be much wrong for disaster to strike.
- While we’re at least trying to be positive, Planet Money have a
good show on three
big ideas to fight the virus: one I’ve spoken about a lot, going
big on vaccines (as Alex Tabarrok correctly puts it, every
stock is a vaccine stock, which also neatly explains why it cannot be
left to the market); the second is kind of already happening in the UK, Claudia
Sahm’s suggestion that we turn Coronavirus payouts into an automatic
stabilizer (actually, the key aspect which we have not adopted, is
linking the payments to macroeconomic indicators); and the third is the
prospect of quarantining the entire NBA and its support staff to let the
league roll again. Clearly, the net welfare gain from not wasting this historically
brilliant age-35 season from LeBron James is similar in magnitude to
that of a vaccine. Make it happen! (Transcript).
- Speaking of basketball, the latest
in the Hot Hand saga is upon us. A new paper, which as far as I can
tell, adjusts for the
incredibly subtle statistical bias that ruined previous attempts to
quantify it, and… it kills the hot hand again. Dadgummit. Whatever the
numbers say, we’ll
always have Reggie.
- Not to end on too much of a downer, but Richard Baldwin suggests
effects from Covid may well dramatically slow the economic recovery
alone). Mention of hysteresis is all the encouragement I need to
link to one of my favourite macro papers ever: Dixit on Investment
and Hysteresis, 1992.
- Lastly, rest assured, my new home does not prevent me from fully
exploring the web for the marginalia none of us can survive without. My
discovery of the week is that John
Steinbeck’s dog literally ate his homework once. The twist is that his
homework was probably a bit better than yours. It was Of Mice and Men,
and he had to rewrite it. Can you imagine his publisher listening to that
excuse? Though if this week has taught me anything, some
bosses will believe even the most outlandish lies.
great weekend, everyone!
So, these are the last links I’ll send from DFID, before I
start at the Center for Global Development next week. I made a spectacularly
inarticulate speech at my virtual leaving do on Wednesday, luckily not recorded
for posterity; it was really difficult to find the right words to express my
appreciation of the last decade or so here. It still is. But I’ll make a brief
attempt in this intro. I had an amazing time here for three main reasons:
firstly, what we do matters; DFID advisers have influence on what happens in
developing countries, what research gets undertaken and how much is spent on
matters of fundamental importance for human welfare. Getting it right, or
better, is a big deal.
Secondly, DFID is full of amazing people: there are so many people here who
know things I don’t know and think about them in ways that do not occur to me,
and there are many opportunities to learn from each other and to swap ideas. A
friend today said he was glad I bang the drum for cognitive
diversity, and I’m happy to do so, because I really believe in its value.
And thirdly, there are always new problems to tackle. Describing something as a
‘treadmill’ is meant to be an insult, but the challenge to keep learning and
keep moving on to new problems made me happy. Not all treadmills are
Thanks to the many of you who have already signed up to
receive these from CGD. I won’t be checking this e-mail any more, so if you
haven’t done so yet, please e-mail me at email@example.com
(both cc’d). For GDPR reasons, I won’t be taking other e-mail addresses across
with me. And now, the links:
- I wrote a note about
being an adviser in DFID this week as well, an one of the things I
emphasised was how important it is to keep in touch with the data –
keeping track of it, understanding what it really means, and getting to
grips with how it’s collected. This is not a nerdy point about numbers, a
way to cultivate a technical view of the world. Data matters because it
records human experience, and this absolutely
brilliant piece from Maggie Koerth illustrates this better than I ever
could. She tells the story of a man named Bob Duffy, who died recently.
She describes his life, his death (which can be distressing, so please be
aware), and his entry into the mortality statistics in the US. She looks
at the forms his doctors had to fill out, the decisions they made and the
impact this had on how his death was counted – excluded from the count of
Covid deaths, despite the likelihood of this being the cause. It is
amazing data journalism, and captures perfectly why data matters, and why
it matters that we understand its genesis. Related: data is one thing;
organising and presenting data another. Andrew Gelman has found the
worst Coronagraph of them all, and it will test your faith in
Economist on Leonard Wantchekon and the African School of Economics he
founded, highly recommended. It also dips into his extraordinary life,
including his imprisonment and escape; and considers how the questions he
asks are shaped by his heritage (he is from Benin).
- George Akerlof has a
habit of doing the kind of economics that fundamentally revises what
the consequence of a mind that seems to home in on extremely big
fantastic interview (and podcast) covers a lot of very important
terrain, but particularly focuses on the role of collective identity on
the structure and behaviour of economies and economic agents. He talks
about the role of teams, groups and the narratives they build in achieving
progress, and how economics has failed to adequately capture this. And not
just economics, countries. As he says, “… the fundamental problem here
is … that the American people have lost the concept that we are a we.”
And if you need more eminent economists in conversation, here’s
Josh Angrist, laying the smack down on peer effects.
- People are terrible,
French electoral politics edition: A very
clever paper looks at French local elections and finds that for
right-wing parties, having a woman listed first on the ballot causes
them to lose votes (all ballots require one male and one female
candidate from each party, listed alphabetically).
- This week in rainfall
instruments for everything: a
new paper uses rainfall to investigate adherence to lockdowns, and
their effect on the spread of Coronavirus. In 20 years time, when people
are still using rainfall as an IV for institutions or something, I foresee
seminar participants raising their hands to ask how the dealt with the
effect of Coronavirus, which as we all know is also instrumented for by
- This week in dip-my-priors-in-honey-and-feed-them-to-me-on-a-thick-slice-of-cake: a really
cool experiment in Pakistan finds that under conditions of weak
performance (and the possibility of corruption) greater autonomy,
rather than greater oversight, may be the best way of generating
improvements, a finding that will not doubt chime with Dans Rogger
and Honig, who both have research pointing in this direction.
- There is so much
glorious marginalia this week that I’m not even going to attempt a theme, it
all deserves to be CLICKED RIGHT NOW: first, Senator Ben Sasse has
most hilariously terrible high school graduation speech in history;
as bad speeches go, this beats even Michael Jordan’s historically
petty hall of fame induction speech.
Staying on odd features of American politics, this thread collects the
most outrageous facial hair in American political history (only facial
hair, Donald Trump’s attempt at the
Johnny Bravo look doesn’t qualify). And in sports news (irritating
both the anti-cricket and anti-basketball camps at my leaving do),
FiveThirtyEight have dipped their toes in the world of cricket, with a
piece on the prospect that Coronavirus will force the
retirement of India’s greatest captain (it’s actually second greatest,
MSD < Ganguly).
And since The Last Dance dissed him as ‘Gary Payton’s dunking partner’, a
reminder that prime
Shawn Kemp was a serious problem.
I may need a week or so to get to grips with CGD IT, so
there may not be a links next week, but I will do my best.
Have a great weekend, everyone – and an enormous thanks to everyone in DFID!
This week, Jerry Stiller died, 8 short of his century. If you don’t immediately have a mental image (and inimitable voice) in your head, you probably aren’t a Seinfeld fan. He played Frank Costanza, one of the all time great characters on TV, a man made of memes, anger and irrational self-confidence. Fortunately, The Ringer has collected his greatest moments, including the best outtakes I’ve ever seen: Stiller making Elaine burst out laughing time after time with his pitch-perfect delivery of the otherwise mundane line “what the hell does that mean?”.
- While, like many others, I increasingly find myself completely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of writing about Covid and would love nothing more than to ignore it altogether, it just isn’t feasible yet. Luckily, there are still a few really good pieces each week, and I’ll try and space them out through the links. First up, some links on the numbers: a great piece from Unherd explains Simpson’s paradox, which the R-number in England has been nicely demonstrating. Simpson’s paradox arises when we care about a single indicator which operates in two (or more) distinct populations of different sizes. It is possible for the indicator to move in one direction in all of these populations, but in the other direction overall – to great confusion. Secondly, yet another good 538 piece uses modelling to explain how herd immunity is reached under different circumstances, complete with a handy and scary simulator explaining what that means for cases and deaths. And lastly, Phil Price looks into the years of life lost to Coronavirus in the US.
- There’s been a lot of chatter about how we (eventually) repurpose all of the effort spent on the Covid response to climate change down the road; Tim Harford has a novel take on this. He argues that rather than trying to actively incentivise accelerations, we should remove all the roadblocks that slow down progress. This has a real analogue to the Covid response, too: regulations made for non-emergency situations may need to be temporarily rethought during emergencies, when the relative costs and benefits of slow deliberation and rapid action have shifted.
- I liked this, a paper looking at the impact of tax audits on the flow of finance to firms in Ecuador. What I like about this is the mechanism: the argument is that by getting audited, firms are (involuntarily) signalling their soundness, and this signal makes them more attractive to banks and lenders. The take-away isn’t that we audit everyone (too costly) or that these firms in particular need support (they’re all big already), but that the mechanism – credible third party signals of long-term sustainability – is valuable elsewhere in the economy if we can find a cheap way of activating it.
- This week in big ideas: Paul Krugman calls for a permanent fiscal stimulus in the US (possibly overegging it here, but I could definitely be convinced; I have much more sympathy for this take than the ‘more austerity to pay for it’ take); a VoxDev write-up of research suggesting that we measure ‘life-years lost’ in addition to ‘years in poverty’ as a metric for development (less convinced: we have enough bad data, and it largely lines up with headcount poverty); and Penny Goldberg argues that the correct response to the Covid stress on global value chains is to double down and build redundancy in to the system. Third time’s a charm: I am 100% on board with that one.
- Two more Covid pieces: Bill Maloney and Temel Taskin argue that mobility declines and distancing are only partially accounted for by lockdowns, and that the majority of the effect has been self-imposed by individuals who have decided that they wish to minimise potential exposure to the virus. Eyeballing the data, it looks to me that lockdowns are having a pretty big effect in most places; and they seem to show that this is particularly the case in LICs. And the CGD Education team has a good look at what damage education budgets can expect to suffer as a result of the coming recession.
- A bit of data nerding – something that every economist should indulge in regularly – from Berk Ozler. He looks at the data about how data was entered into surveys he’s run, and what use it could be to a researcher.
- So much good distraction material this week: do you want to lose half an hour of your day, immediately? If so, check out This Word Does Not Exist. It’s glorious: a machine learning algorithm that creates, defines and coins a usage for new words. Lest I decipulate, let’s move on to the next link: The Ringer mourns the delayed release of Top Gun: Maverick by ranking every call sign from the original Top Gun (and yes, they massively underrate Merlin, wtf). And best of all, a good way to go to the weekend: LitHub on the origins of Sesame Street as a tool to reduce inequality.
Serenity now, everyone!
I normally start these links with chat about the cricket or some other frivolity, but today’s start with a bit of personal news: at the end of the month, after a brilliant near-decade here, I’m leaving DFID to join the Center for Global Development. I’ve had an amazing time working here, and have learnt a huge amount from people all across the organisation. I aim to keep the links going from CGD, though, as writing these has always been both great fun and a really good way of keeping my horizons broad. I learn something every week not just from the reading I do to write these, but also from the attempt to summarise and talk about the things I’m recommending. So if you want to keep receiving these e-mails after I move over to CGD, please reply to this e-mail, or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know, even with an empty e-mail titled ‘Keep me signed up’. I’m happy to send them to institutional or personal e-mails, so let me know which e-mail address you’d like me to use. There will be 2 more links e-mails after this one, so I’ll keep reminding you till then. And now, to the links.
- As seems inevitable these days, the links will have a strong flavour of Coronavirus this week (though thankfully, not bleach). And this op-ed by Michael Kremer and co-authors is a good place to start: arguing that given the sheer scale of the costs of the virus and the response to it, there is virtually no possibility of over-spending on actions that might accelerate the widespread availability of a vaccine to those people who most need it. The team have done a lot of work looking at what specific bottlenecks there are to overcome, what specific prices and incentives are needed and make a convincing case; it’s on policymakers and politicians now to listen. Further coverage from Bloomberg here.
- Last week I gave a training course in how to use academic research evidence in designing development programmes. A lot of the talk focused on how you translate the things that a research paper reports (and omits) into a practical plan. One of my key bits of advice was to follow and read smart people who make a habit of doing careful deep-dives into the literature and can communicate the nuances of research effectively – especially those who do research themselves and thus know what to look for. This piece by David McKenzie on peer learning among small and medium-sized firms is an exemplar par excellence of this: he digs into different approaches, discusses the differences between the intent-to-treat and treatment-on-treated estimates, uses his own knowledge to discuss sample sizes and effect sizes… it’s just a masterclass in using research to learn something practical.
- Tennyson made the case for human interdependence rather beautifully in Ulysses: “I am a part of all that I have met”. Diane Coyle makes the same point with economics in an excellent Project Syndicate column. This is not a weakness. As she says, “Underlying it is the steady shift from an economy in which the classical assumptions of diminishing or constant returns to scale hold true to one in which there are increasing returns to scale almost everywhere.” This is what makes modern life so much easier and more varied than what came before. Related: Tim Harford wants our economy to fall off the wall, but bounce back like Jackie Chan, rather than shatter like Humpty Dumpty. More economics should be expressed in Jackie metaphors.
- Sticking to Covid for a moment: Emily Oster is one of my favourite economists because she uses her superpowers (high patience for reading research, carefulness to the point of pedantry, and an ability to discuss trade-offs without hysteria) to help the general public and improve their decision making. Expecting Better is a masterclass of economic writing for this reason; she’s now turning her brilliant hand to Covid-19 and deserves a wide audience. Another really good piece on Covid, which has already been misinterpreted by some, is this work by Mushfiq Mobarek and Zachary Barnett-Howell on the distribution of returns to lockdown. Please note, they are not saying that poor lives are worth less; but that in poor countries the gains from lockdowns come at a greater cost in terms of other ways of improving lives.
- If I’m talking about distributions, Branko Milanovic cannot be far away: and as usual, he has a take completely unlike any other economist. In this lovely digression of a blog, he looks at what Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina tell us about the distribution of income and social mobility in their respective settings. More on inequality: Jonathan Ostry and co-authors suggest that Covid will be greatly inequality enhancing, very plausible; another VoxEU piece looks at the positive impact of pay transparency on the gender pay gap in Denmark; while this one points out the depressingly predictable fact that women are bearing the brunt of lockdown in terms of productivity among economists.
- I loved this Planet Money piece on the effect of Covid on two different bookstores in Italy (transcript). A while back I speculated on twitter that firms are learning a lot about their capabilities that they would never have reason to learn in normal times; this will lead to many innovations and behaviours that would otherwise note have happened, and many of these will stick. This story is exactly this in action. Related: when Nick Bloom disagrees with you, question your priors: Bloom and co argue that the Covid shock is skewed in a way that is largely unrelated to productivity and the fate of individual businesses may matter much more than I had previously thought.
- My first month or two on social media has been eye-opening. It seems to me that it’s about 70% banality, 25% half-formed political rantery, 3% reasoned intellectual debate and about 2% hilarious idiocy. A few links in praise of the idiocy: Lockdown Gin and Juice, the Governator’s yoga routine; a toilet dressed up to look like a smoking frog; the Spanish flu as Sharknado; and one of the greatest Fry & Laurie sketches of them all, revived on Twitter.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
If feels odd these days to focus on any specific loss, given how many people are grieving for either someone specific or just for the sheer number of people passing in such a compressed period of time, but I took Irrfan Khan’s death hard, and I was definitely not the only one. It’s not quite like when Prince died, which felt like a constellation being erased from the sky, but as I said on Twitter, a bit more like losing a distant yet much-loved relative. I liked this LiveMint appreciation of his career very much; and I loved re-reading this interview with him (how well-adjusted and reasonable he sounds) but I can’t recommend enough that you simply watch his movies. A lockdown treat, maybe? Just don’t call it Bollywood.
- The best thing I read all week was another appreciation of person who died too young, but in this case, he died in 1930. Economists will – or should – know Frank Ramsey’s name, but they may not know his story. Last year I taught a seminar class (partly) about The Ramsey Rule, and in my head, Ramsey was an elderly, staid man in glasses with an accountant’s demeanor; nothing could be further from the truth. Frank Ramsey died at 26, having made pioneering breakthroughs in economics, maths and philosophy and becoming part of the Bloomsbury set. This New Yorker profile (on the occasion of a new biography, which I’ll be ordering) is fantastic; this sentence is glorious: “Although Ramsey didn’t bear grudges, the two men had no contact for four years, except for a distinctly cool exchange of letters in 1927 about the logic of ‘=.’”
- I can imagine Clemence Landers and co clicking publish on this blog and then immediately closing the door and putting up an umbrella to protect themselves, but it’s very good: they argue that debt relief from IDA (the World Bank’s concessional lending arm) would be counterproductive, reducing the flexibility the Bank has to respond to the crisis.
- Increasingly, I see the possibility that globalisation will be a victim of the longer-term response to Covid; not in the sense that it will be unwound completely, but more in that there will be some judicious vandalism to its edifice. Charles Kenny went on Planet Money to make the unambiguous case against this (highly recommended, transcript here), pointing out that our ability to fight disease has been immeasurably strengthened by globalisation. He is not alone: this piece by Anna Stellinger and co-authors also makes clear that protecting global value chains is an important component of protecting global health. And Anne Krueger takes solid aim at Trump’s war on public health, not least his attack on its global institutions.
- Two more Coronavirus links, before I try change the subject: first, FiveThirtyEight’s brilliant Maggie Koerth writes about what we know about the difference in deadliness of the disease by sex; and second, Andrew Gelman on the updated Imperial College model of the disease and its response to policy actions.
- On a completely different note, Branko Milanovic on how Marx and Ricardo conceptualised inequality. I don’t think nearly enough people spend nearly enough time learning about the history of economic thought, and I really like that Branko will sometimes just take a random topic and expound on it – it is always a learning experience.
- And finally, in definitive proof that I have too much time on my hands, my latest discovery: a research project which is trying to build a computer that tells jokes. It is TERRIBLE. The jokes are sub-Christmas cracker, and yet completely addictive. For example: What temperature is a son? Boy-ling point. I feel like these jokes are what Aubrey Plaza is thinking about to keep her face this dead on Parks and Rec. And speaking of Parks: this is old, but it bears repeating – Ron Swanson is a model human being.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
Just in time to distract you from eyeing up the Dettol, the Links arrive. Can we take a moment to discuss this, please? Despite that particular advice going directly into the Dunning-Krueger Effect Hall of Fame, and followers of it likely putting themselves in immediate contention for a Darwin Award, it was, stunningly not the dumbest thing I heard this week. Nope: that was the plan to ban immigration in response to a disease that is being transmitted locally, and with exceptions in no way correlated to likelihood of carrying the disease. At times like this, words fail me, and I turn to gifs. This is will do. Anyway – just in case you can catch dumb by reading about it, here’s the best of the internet’s economics and general geekery this week as an antidote (and some pretty intense basketball nostalgia prompted by The Last Dance).
- Tim Harford had a fantastic long read at the FT, looking at why Governments (and individuals) fail to prepare for disasters. This all touches on the kind of research I do, how our decision-making processes are prone to different kinds of failure, and it’s a great, rounded and engaging take on the topic. He talks about behavioural biases, of course, but a lot of this is driven by the reward structures we face and the accountability we face. We get credit for mending things that break, not for taking care of them in the first place; we find it easy to spend on the visible current problem, even if it’s small, rather than the potential big problem, even if it could be apocalyptic. For those who don’t have time to read the whole thing, his Planet Money interview was excellent, too (transcript).
- I’m going to try and keep a lid on Coronatalk today (I will likely fail). In that vein, I really liked Markus Goldstein’s blog on Esther Duflo and co.’s suggestions to keep Pre-Analysis Plans proportionate and light touch in economics. One of the reasons I really like Markus’s writing is that he often grounds it in his own experiences and tells us something about who he is as a researcher, a great service as most of us can learn a thing or two (or three or four) from him. Related: Cyrus Samii has a different take on PAPs.
- Apropos that immigration ban: as if you need any confirmation, it doesn’t really seem to have much to do with Coronavirus at all. And another great FiveThirtyEight explainer, this time on how to read Coronavirus graphs. It’s important: there are so many, with so many subtly but importantly different characteristics, and many of the people I speak to seem to treat them all the same.
- This week in giving my priors a good shoeing: a VoxEU piece on how the demand for restrictive employment regulation seems to be really high among people who are likely to lose out from it in developing countries. I can think of a couple of good reasons for this: it might be that people overestimate their likelihood of getting a ‘good’ job and therefore are in favour of good jobs being protected, or it might be that they simply don’t think about these relationships the same way economists do – for them, their labour market status is a lived experience, rather than an analytical problem, and when asked a question about making anyone’s labour market experience better, they agree. Still, this bears a lot more thinking about.
- A bit more Coronacoverage: more from CGD’s super education coverage, this time looking at when schools should reopen. And Heather Marquette has a pair of very good blogs about how to respond in developing countries. Part 1 sets out the framework and part 2 on what the response should be. I really liked this line: “in every crisis there are chances to make better decisions, to ‘do things that you didn’t think you could do before’”
- This is fascinating: research by Benjamin Enke and Thomas Graeber shows that when people are confronted by difficult calculations relating to uncertainty, they can default to thinking about them in 50/50 terms – even if the correct assessment of the uncertainties is very different. It’s a clever piece of research with implications for a number of behavioural economics findings. I’m pretty sure it has around a 50/50 chance of being right.
- Lastly, are you watching The Last Dance? For people of my generation, this is a massive nostalgia trip. It’s fun even for non-basketball fans – my wife enjoyed it and she couldn’t spell Giannis Antetokounmpo if she tried. It also sent me down a rabbit hole on youtube, watching the old basketball videos I had in the early ‘90s. Back then the NBA used to release music videos with basketball highlights on VHS, and I must have watched my copy of NBA Jam Session about 100 times. The NBA was really into subtle racial stereotyping back then: they gave Mark Price a highlights package, but set it to the whitest song in history (I am, of course, referring to Black Gold by Soul Asylum). There was some pretty good songs, too: Eric B and Rakim show up for a song about defence. Listen to that on a loop, and ignore the Dettol.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
They should really rename the virus Covid24/7, because it
really feels like almost everything I read, work on, talk about or do is
somehow related to the pandemic. This isn’t really surprising given how
inescapably big all the problems associated with it are, but I do wonder what
the mental health toll will be at the end of this all. I can imagine a
post-Coronavirus world a little like Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, where the
event is never really mentioned, but still seems to pervade the lived
experience all the way through. Still, it’s better than The Road, so I suppose
we should count our blessings. This week’s post-Easter links still retain a big
chunk of Coronablether, but also a little to take your mind off it, including
some fantastic Daron Acemoglu memes.
- One of my favourite things this week: Stefan Dercon
has written a piece for CGD on no-regret policies in response to Covid in
developing countries. Stefan’s key point is that given how deep the
uncertainty is over both the impact of the virus and the impact of the
response to it, in the context of scarce resources for developing
countries it’s prudent to focus on no-regret interventions – ones
which will be good investments whether the virus is as bad as the worst
case scenario or relatively minor, and whether the economic costs of
response turn out to be deep and lasting or shallow and short. The full
note is here,
and the summary blog here;
I summarised the key arguments on twitter here.
- There’s a line in Stefan’s piece where he says “I have
no answer about what the best policy is for tomorrow or next week”, given
how much uncertainty we’re operating under – an important statement given
how many strong opinions I’ve seen built on shaky foundations recently. Contrast
this humility with Tyler
Cowen’s summary of his opinion of epidemiologists. What I found
most hilarious was that he asks the question ‘how smart are
epidemiologists?’ and then immediately suggests that his preferred metric
is their GRE scores. It appears that a lot of his criticisms were
prompted by the controversial IHME modelling, which was led by… an
economist. I leave you
with Daffy Duck.
- Apropos of my rant about Covid and inequality last
week, FiveThirtyEight have a great piece on how
New York’s inequalities are reflected in its death tolls. The last
lines are magnificent: “in New York’s epidemic, death attends to the haves
and have-nots differently: For the city’s poor, it hovers closely, and
when it comes, it leaves them as crowded as ever.” Related: Rema Hanna
and Ben Olken on how
to protect the poor from Covid shocks in developing countries. And
Duncan Green has a
great roundup of African coverage of the pandemic and its response.
- For brief relief from Covid, though not exactly
cheerful, here’s Nathan
Fiala arguing that micro-interventions to reduce poverty may not work in
the long run. He’s correct to say that many studies show that short
term gains don’t persist relative to control groups, which suggests
that there may be multiple sets of barriers or systemic factors that
need to be addressed for sustainable exit from poverty. But some
studies do show long term effects; and the fact that one-off interventions
are not necessarily enough to power continued income growth does not mean
they are neither important nor part of a broader solution.
- More on the global response to Coronavirus. First
FiveThirtyEight has yet more excellence, with Maggie Koerth explaining why
global supply chains are so tight and its so hard to source
ventilators and PPE; then a couple of pieces looking at ventilators
specifically – one suggesting that the market for ventilators has actively
discouraged the search for cheap technologies (resulting, for example in Liberia
having just one ventilator in the whole country): Project
Syndicate and VoxEU.
Owen Barder calls for the US’s
freeze in WHO funding to be made up by other countries, pointing out less
US influence in this sphere is probably good thing (can someone
explain the Love, Actually reference? I’ve never seen it). And Justin
Sandefur and Julian Duggan have a truly magnificent graph on the World
Bank’s response to Covid here.
- And, almost finally: a little philosophy to help you
make sense of it all. This great piece on FT
Alphaville tries to dig into what the lockdown is for, not just in
terms of healthcare and the economy and QALYs but morally. It quotes Jo
Wolff from BSG; and one of his students (and my DPhil peers) Vafa
Ghazavi has a
great, hopeful piece on how the crisis can spawn ‘radical hope’, and a
reimagining of what our societies conceive as the good life, a life of
worth. Vafa is a ridiculously good writer: I’ve read early drafts of
his that are better-written than published, edited books, so I really
- Ending this on a cheerful note still: I have discovered
via twitter that there is a page full of Daron Acemoglu memes for the
hopelessly geeky on Tumblr. Think the trend for Chuck Norris memes
from a few years ago, but applied to an MIT professor and focusing on
econometrics, modelling and general nerdiness. They are all completely
hilarious – provided you’ve studied economics. For the non-economists
in need of a laugh, one of my favourite cartoons ever: Bugs Bunny conducting
Have a great weekend, everyone!