Links round-up

Hi all,

Well, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, could I? No sooner did I suggest England were on top than… well, watch for yourself. England now place their hopes in Jofra Archer, who has never played test cricket before, though in his defence, he’s basically a Game of Thrones character and has just taken six wickets and scored a century in a warmup match. No doubt the England brains trust are working on a way to comically screw this up, too, but take solace in the hope for as long as it lives and remember – it has sometimes been worse (in that 06/07 series, I remember thinking at one point that Mike Hussey should just change his name by deed poll to Michael Hussey Not Out, because that was all anyone ever called him).

  1. “An iPhone, it seems to me, is a bottomless bowl of digital cashews.” Tim Harford has lunch with Richard Thaler and in a moment of fan service worthy of a Marvel movie, places a bowl of nuts in front of him. The joke is this: when Thaler invited some friends (academic economists, all) to dinner, they were eating so many of the cashews left out as a snack that they were destroying their appetite before the main course arrived. He removed the nuts and was thanked – a sequence of events that he credits with the inspiration for behavioural economics because a rational consumer would never benefit from having less choice. It’s a fun read: if you know your behavioural economics, there’s nothing new here, but Thaler takes gleeful aim at politicians on both sides of the pond and the announcements on the tube, all while managing to resist the temptation of the nuts. Related, Tim has an angry and evidence-based rant about the atrocious state of US healthcare.
  2. A really cool piece of work by Abi Adams and Alison Andrew is summarised on VoxDev. They use a very clever set of survey instruments and vignettes to elicit information on preferences to understand how education can affect the age of first marriage of young women in India. What they find is that education is seen as a way of improving marriage prospects – but such prospects decline rapidly after the end of formal education. This means that those girls who drop out of school early for any reason are at great risk of early marriage – and there appears to be little intrinsic value attached to education for girls, beyond its marriage benefits. Great research, depressing findings.
  3. Planet Money examine the long and strange history of research into twins –  a history that covers some pretty grim episodes in science (transcript). I cannot for the life of me understand why they didn’t interview Arnie and Danny de Vito, though.
  4. A good piece in Vox about how software and information might be the next big margin on which we reduce carbon emissions, by carrying out large-scale synchronisation of electricity demand, which is now possible thanks to computing power and the digitisation of the household.
  5. Branko reviews Paul Collier’s new book, The Future of Capitalism. It’s the first part of a putative two-parter (the second is yet to be published), and this part focuses on what Branko disagrees with. As with any good review, of course, you need not agree with either the original book or the reviewer, but it does introduce a lot of ideas worth thinking about. There’s one point in particular that struck me, however: how much progress relies on conflict (either latent in the form of a threat or active in the form of protest). Eric Hobsbawm put it thus: ‘the world will not get better on its own’, and I think he’s right.
  6. Toni Morrison died this week; I think she would very much have agreed with Hobsbawm’s sentiment. A very good appreciation by Yiyun Li was published in the NYT, and for those (like me) who have not read enough of her work, The Ringer have a handy syllabus of her work. And lastly, because I don’t want to end on a downer, scientists have discovered the remains of a three-foot tall parrot, and they have named it Squawkzilla, because of course it has to be called Squawkzilla.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

I’m assuming none of you have done any work today, right? I haven’t: it is the Ashes after all, gloriously sunny outside and Steven Smith has just scored one of the great centuries of our time (and before my boss starts writing out my dismissal letter, I’m off work altogether today and my only meeting started with five minutes reviewing the highlights from yesterday). And whisper it, despite that century, England are very much in the driver’s seat. I have to apologise to the hard-of-cricket: the links will, for the next few weeks, likely start with Ashes talk each time, especially towards the end: I’ve got an entry to the office sweepstakes that might yet win.

  1. VoxDev has been running a series of pieces about electrification and development. Two pieces caught my eye in particular. The first, by Dana Kassem, looks at the expansion of electricity in Java and finds that extending the grid led to important changes in firm structure: in particular, it seems associated with much higher firm entry and exit. The second part of this turns out to be especially crucial: heightened competition drives the worst firms out of business more effectively and consequently leads to the reallocation of business (and resources) to the more productive ones – leading to a 40% increase in productivity. For those of you who haven’t suffered through an economics degree, that sentence is basically erotica for economists: this is exactly what we dream of when we dream of markets working effectively (what do you mean that’s not what you dream of?). The second piece stops us getting overly excited, pointing out that electricity access for households doesn’t actually achieve much at all in terms of poverty reduction.
  2. Women who leave the workforce after childbirth face a substantial and long-lasting penalty to their labour force earnings (substantially more than just any foregone earnings during a maternity absence). However, enforced shared parental leave appears to reduce this effect, and in an almost magical way. It barely puts a dent in the incomes of fathers, but leads to substantial reduction in the penalty faced by women, one which lasts so long that it may also be shifting gender norms.  Lest you get all optimistic, however, here is a headline from our Not-the-Onion section: Saudi Arabia – Women allowed to travel without male permission.
  3. A super Planet Money podcast on the German experience in appointing workers to the boards of large companies (transcript). What makes this so good is that it does what very little of the economics on institutional economics does, namely focus on the cultural and historical reasons it works the way it does, and considers whether they are portable or idiosyncratic.
  4. This one isn’t economics but is a rare case: a private individual producing a public good. A deaf Scottish man invents new signs for extremely complex scientific terms to facilitate learning for other hearing-impaired people. As someone who has gone through lectures with a much less-severe hearing problem, the fact that he found energy to do this after the incredibly draining process of concentrating intensely through multiple hours of talking (never any deaf person’s favourite activity) is frankly astonishing. I wonder if someone’s done this in economics yet, and if so, how you sign ‘multicollinearity’?
  5. Tim Harford asks where the margin for better economics is – is it through ever more precise methods and ‘hardness of science’ or is it through softer approaches and synthesis? He argues that it is likely to be at the softer end of the discipline. He’s preaching to the choir with me, a committed fox, but it appears that econ journal editors may not agree: Marc Bellamare’s piece on getting published in economics suggests that the peak of the profession is occupied by those who do few things, but do those things enormously influentially.
  6. Speaking of the peak of the profession, I have to say I found this VoxEU piece by Stiglitz, Martine Durand and Fitoussi really underwhelming. The Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi commission was asked to consider how better to understand the sense of economic dislocation and deprivation that many people have even in economies that seem to be getting better. The gist of this piece is basically “don’t just look at GDP per capita”. Thank goodness we called them, eh?
  7. Lastly, I’m a sucker for trashy pop culture, as anyone who reads down to the last link knows. But even I have limits, and have never managed to sit all the way through one of the Fast and Furious movies, films that exist solely to celebrate the ability to push the pedal labelled ‘go fast’ on a car really hard and to flex muscles hard enough to break a cast. However, this completely cracked me up – a detailed statistical breakdown of the Fast and Furious movies, informing us, for example, that the Rock spent 90% of the first Furious movie he was in drenched in either sweat, water or baby oil. Even better, he apparently has a contract which states that he can’t get beaten up in the movie more than the other stars. I’m deeply disappointed that he needed that in writing. Surely he could just drop Vin Diesel with the People’s Elbow?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Change can be surprising. Sometimes it seems to happen all at once (hmm, any good examples to hand?) and sometimes it just creeps up on you. Today is Lasith Malinga’s final ever ODI match, and with him goes just about Sri Lanka’s last shred of competence. About fifteen years ago, Sri Lanka were rolling out bowling line ups that included Murali, Malinga, Vaas and Nuwan Kulasekera, bowling at targets set by Jayasuriya, Dilshan, Mahela and Sangakkara. There were some great moments, though, and many from Malinga. One hopes at these low ebbs that from the ashes something will rise. Let’s see.

  1. England isn’t really built for the heat (it doesn’t seem to do all that well with the cold, either, but let’s put that aside for a moment). Yesterday was one of the hottest days on record in England, and if the latest research is to be believed, a few readers might have just felt a nagging urge to engage in some wanton destruction (Brockwell Lido certainly seems to have experienced some). A new NBER paper looks a bit deeper than raw correlations and, controlling for the amount of social activity and whether schools are in or out of session, discovers a clear relationship between heat and violent crime (but not property crime). There is a clear policy recommendation here: the Government needs to urgently install some nice-looking ceiling fans in my flat if it wants to keep the peace in the greater Stoke Newington area…
  2. I have a few friends whom I can rely upon to routinely argue that I’m wrong about almost everything I say; it’s a good discipline – even on the rare occasion I’m not, it forces me to find and patch up any holes in my thinking. Charles Kenny found himself, indirectly, criticised by Rory Stewart’s book, Can Intervention Work?, and here does some erudite and thoughtful navel-gazing as a result. He looks at whether ‘best practice’ is always out of place and when – and how – it is appropriate.
  3. Speaking of being wrong, there’s nothing more likely to make me spit my tea out in rage than one of those irritating Grauniad articles that argue that economics is all wrong about the world, written by someone who betrays a sub-GCSE grasp of the subject. That said, conventional wisdom in economics has been wrong about a lot in the past, and is changing and Planet Money do a much better job of investigating this (transcript). Some of the topics are old hat (no serious economists think that the relationship between minimum wages and unemployment is straightforward anymore – most would say that it really depends on the levels considered and market structure); but it’s still worth a listen.
  4. Is Facebook a product or a production technology? Until fairly recently I hadn’t even thought about this. Increasingly, though, it’s become clear that it operates more as a way of creating virtual crowds and generating data about them; this data is where the value of the company lies. The best comparison is not a company that makes chocolate bars and sells them to people cheaply, but rather a company that creates goose down blankets – but we’re the geese in this analogy. Facebook is essentially just the comfortable location used to lure the geese. If that’s right, then we’ve been trying to value these companies all wrong; VoxEU run a techy article thinking about better ways of doing so.
  5. In development, we very often assume that the relationship between a policy and its outcome is very stable – if I keep running the policy the outcome will keep getting better. But there are strong reasons to believe this will often not be so, especially in developing countries. We often look at the effect of certain policies when the sector we run them in is at a nascent stage – once it’s developed (often because of our earlier policies), new things will be needed to keep driving improvements, and the old things might no longer work. Bottom-up accountability might be an example of this, as evidence from Uganda suggests.
  6. Via Matt – a really detailed look into how tax havens – in this case Mauritius – operate.
  7. Finally, Rutger Hauer died this week. If you were a film geek in the 1990s, Roy Batty in Blade Runner was very likely to be one of your cultural touchstones. His final scene, describing the things he lived through, was totally improvised and incomprehensible (where is the Tanhauser gate? What are c-beams?) but it’s still one of the greatest monologues in cinema history. Despite casting the guy from Kim’s Convenience, I somehow doubt Marvel’s Stage 4 (for which, yay!) will reach those heights…

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R  

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Links round-up

Hi all,

So, you go away for a few weeks and the whole world gets upended: Kawhi and Paul George play for the Clips? Aberdeen is the home of whisky? London is finally, finally catching up with Hong Kong’s MTR (in a very limited way) by rolling out phone networks underground? England are World Champions?! I managed to miss the most thrilling one day international ever played, sadly, but England couldn’t have won in more fitting fashion: slightly unsatisfyingly and possibly the beneficiary of an epic error. Still: show me the champions of anything that didn’t benefit from an enormous stroke of luck somewhere – England deserved to win the tournament, a sentence that I could not have imagined my fingers tapping out in an intro to the links even 12 months ago. And to cap a brilliant tournament, Sri Lanka weren’t a complete and total national embarrassment. It’s been a pretty excellent few weeks, it has to be said.

  1. There are many things I like about this excellent article about Raj Chetty, Nobelist-in-waiting, but one of my favourites is the first line: “Raj Chetty got his biggest break before his life began.” No matter how brilliant you are, if you are successful you are also lucky, even if it’s not obvious immediately. Chetty’s work on inequality and mobility in America isn’t without some flaws, but it remains to me one of the most impressive and important projects in modern economics. Much of it is simply descriptive, though he and his co-authors are also exploiting natural experiments and running some RCTs to see how to change mobility dynamics in the US; but the sheer scope of the project and it’s ambition is amazing. Best of all, it seems fundamentally geared towards informing large-scale public policy. At some point the lack of political analysis in the work will constrain it, but it’s a long way from there still.  
  2. This one is definitely for the economists, but is very much worth reading: Morgan Kelly summarising his new paper looking at an overlooked empirical problem with the large and growing literature on the deep roots of development. He demonstrates how spatial correlations (i.e. correspondences between regions next to each other) can significantly bias the results of all those empirical results that say things like ‘if you your country had pointy headwear in the 1700s, you are 3% poorer today’. He doesn’t attack individual papers, but suggests that this problem is widespread. A good companion piece to Dietz’s recent series on this literature.
  3. Also for those with both time and inclination: I highly recommend taking a scan of what underlies March 2019 update of the World Bank’s poverty figures. The paper is a primer on the varied and non-standard problems with poverty statistics and how we do our best to overcome them. If you use these numbers a lot, it’s good to have at least a passing knowledge of what goes into them.
  4. A new paper from Joyce Sadka, Enrique Seira and Chris Woodruff on a simple experiment to try and improve outcomes from Mexican Labour Courts. Dispute resolution is one of those hidden problems that I suspect underlies a lot of the problems we see in developing country markets, and yet there’s a horrible paucity of good research in the area, so this is to be welcomed.
  5. Good CGD summary of recent innovations in promoting legal, regular and safe migration. I sometimes despair of ever having sensible policies (let along politics) around migration, so this shot of hopefulness helps.
  6. Branko Milanovic is going to be spending part of his year in the UK, which is good news for us. Two of his recent posts help demonstrate why: he asks questions that other economists don’t and the breadth of his knowledge and his willingness to speculate mean that he generates ideas at a faster rate than most. Here he is on population density, and on the evolution of oligarchy in Russia.
  7. This is terrifying for any civil servant who routinely sends out massive e-mails rammed with pop culture references and the occasional rap video: the Head of Iowa’s Department of Human Services may have been fired over loving Tupac too much, and more specifically for sending out reminders on his birthday, the anniversary of his death and inspirational quotes from his songs (though presumably not “Grab your glocks when you see Tupac! Call the cops when you see Tupac!”). I’m going to restrain myself from tempting fate by linking to more Meek, Jidenna and Rakim, but instead will geek out over this: they are making a Top Gun sequel. This is not a drill: A TOP GUN SEQUEL IS COMING OUT! Whether this means more one liners, more volleyball (seriously, how low is the net when the famously 3-foot-1 Tom Cruise is spiking?), or more sad motorbike moments, I think we can all agree that one day we will look back on this as the moment when humanity peaked.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

These are going to be the last links for a few weeks. I’m getting married next week, and will be on a strict no-laptop regime for a couple of weeks after that it will be radio silence until mid-July as I get over the extended process of wedding planning, an ordeal which tests emotional resilience, organisational capacity and financial reliability. Of course, all of that is rather useful information for your partner prior to putting pen to contract, so perhaps weddings are a costly signalling device, much like a long and gruelling university qualification – which makes me worry about exactly how much of my life is dedicated to signalling at the moment. It’s not all signalling though – it’s also a way of getting as many behavioural biases to work in favour of the marriage as possible. We’ve got sunk cost bias after spending so much time on the wedding. It’s deepening status quo bias. It’s a big party for optimism bias. But junk all of that – Tim Harford apparently describes a marriage somewhere as ‘rational addiction’, and I’m definitely going with that description.  And yes, I’m getting all of this out now because I’ve been banned from making econ jokes in the speech.

  1. Come for the research stay for the amazing graphics: Pamela Jakiela and Susannah Hares have a really good descriptive post looking at the gender gap in education across the world and over time. They find lots of good news (women have never been more educated, and in more educated countries, the gender gap almost always disappears) and some bad news (the gap is still there, and usually get worse before better). The graphics throughout the piece are really creative – they don’t all work equally well, but they try make complicated points with elegant pictures. And bonus women-in-economics links: the Planet Money newsletter (yes, I get the Planet Money newsletter, what of it) has a section focusing on Joan Robinson and her development of the concept of monopsony. It is always worth reading about Joan Robinson.
  2. I wish my digressions were as scholarly and thoughtful as Branko Milanovic’s. Here he ponders if being a great social scientist requires leading an interesting, full life – whether you can understand people without being among them and seeing their best and worst up close. It’s clearly not going to make a blind difference to how well you can use stata, but he may be on to something. Interesting questions come from interesting lives (and interesting times).
  3. FiveThirtyEight’s writers have such a gift for expressing difficult truths simply. I loved this piece about the difficulties of sustainability:  “It becomes a mess, because the environmental damage we don’t like is deeply embedded in our lifestyles. Even simple-seeming changes like getting rid of plastic drinking straws turned out to be much more complicated when … able-bodied Americans discovered their disabled neighbors viewed the straws … as a necessity.” The point that is that we tend to focus on those parts of sustainability that are relatively costless to implement – but most of the work requires a fundamental reimagining of life, which is why I think technology rather than behaviour change has to form most of any solution.
  4. Tyler Cowen interviews my microeconomics textbook, also known as Hal Varian. There’s a section on online journals and their ridiculous cost, an issue which I alluded to last week. It turns out that my rant was at least partly incorrect – DFID at least actually do have institutional journal access, through an E-Library anyone on the DFID system can access. Apparently, it just needs a little more publicity…
  5. This seems well-timed for all sorts of reasons:  Emily Blanchard explains why, in a world of global value chains, tariffs are particularly and multiply damaging to both producers and consumers in both countries.  Apropos of nothing (of course), I also really enjoyed this article about the roots of Brexit in the student population of Oxford in the late 1980s.
  6. Yesterday, in order to illustrate a point about how much of our life is determined by sheer luck, I pointed out to someone that just knowing their country of birth, you could probably guess their income to within around 5 or 6 percentage points of the global income distribution; given a bit more information (say gender, or parent’s educational status) you could probably narrow it to around a single percentage point. Tim Harford makes the same point from a different perspective, pointing out how much of swings in performance are simply ‘noise’, an idea I’m exploring as part of my first paper.
  7. So this last link is basically being written as I’m balanced on the end of my seat as Sri Lanka get closer and closer to what would be a ridiculous win over England – though never doubt Sri Lanka’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And in another case of cocking up enormously, I rather loved this, via Matt: a religious group with the faintly hilarious name The Return to Order have been petitioning Netflix to cancel a TV show… produced and shown by Amazon. And in the best news all week, researchers from Cornell have literally written a paper about detecting sarcasm. It’s obviously going to be central to human progress in the next decade.

Have a great few weeks, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Sports can be so bittersweet. I’ve been watching Sri Lanka’s stately progress through the World Cup, one raindrop at a time, as we surf a wave of washouts towards the knockout stages and wondering shame-facedly if it might be preferable to take points from games by actually playing some cricket. Then I remember what happened the last few times we tried to play real cricket and quietly return to my rain dance. On the other side of the pond, I’ve been waiting for some malfunction in the Warriors infinity gauntlet of NBA superstars, but it’s still kind of sad to see it happening in flurry of snapped tendons and potentially ruined careers (I should stress though, I think the Raptors might have won even against the full-Thanos Warriors). There’s a high-profile horse race going on in England at the moment, too, though in this case I suspect a few readers would be very happy if much of the field was somehow hobbled before the finish line.

  1. Every once in a while, I used to convince myself that I could buy a tube of Pringles (original flavour, obviously), and eat a few crisps before putting them away for the next time I needed a snack. Obviously I was wrong: the hint is in the slogan, and once I opened the packet, I would not stop until every last salt-caked board of reconstituted potato was gone. There is a word for someone like this in behavioural economics: a naïf; standing in contrast to a sophisticate. What makes a sophisticate sophisticated is that they know they suffer from a bias and therefore take measures to avoid the problem in the first place: using commitment mechanisms or automatic savings, or just never buying Pringles in the first place. A new VoxEU piece has some hope for us, though, finding that in lab experiments people can learn about their own behavioural shortcomings and become sophisticated with enough experience. A particularly interesting finding is that people don’t foresee that they’ll learn from putting themselves through these decisions, and so may be suboptimally trying new things. In the interests of becoming more sophisticated, I have bought a gross of Pringles and will report back on how long they last.
  2. Just in case you don’t think overcoming my addiction to Pringles is an important enough research topic for the links, however, here’s something rather more informative: our Chief Economist, Rachel, on the 80,000 hours podcast. Highly recommended. She talks about how she thinks aid and development work has evolved to date, and says part of the reason she came to DFID was our role in that. They also give Rachel a grilling over the external validity of RCTs (citing Eva Vivalt’s work), and one of the nicer things about the podcast is how she’s willing to point out some of the massive successes economics has had including – by and large – the eradication of serious hyperinflation.
  3. I’m generally quite sceptical of the potential of supply-side interventions in the labour market in developing countries. There are a number of nice papers which find positive results – VoxDev have Stefano Caria summarising some of his work in which job seekers are paid to apply for jobs, and write-ups of the effects of providing reference letters to job seekers in South Africa and information on soft skills in Uganda –  but in countries where firms find it so hard to either expand or die, how much is this likely to shift the overall problem? This isn’t a criticism of the papers, of course – they’re not pitched as ways of eradicating unemployment, but simply to improve matching of workers to jobs. There is a bigger question looming, however, and I’m not sure how it will be answered.
  4. “Aging… is more complicated — an ongoing process in which our very cells stab us in the back with the second law of thermodynamics. (Et tu, physics?)”. Where else will you read a sentence like that than 538, this time fielding a question from a toddler about whether a raisin can be turned back into a grape and using it to consider the whole damn process of senescence and maybe, one day, desenescence. As someone who now makes audible groans when I have to bend over to pick up my backpack, I say it bring it on and call me Dorian.
  5. Vox have a fantastic write-up on the tyranny of the academic journal paywall. It seems astonishing to me that science and research is so expensive that virtually no civil service department I have worked in any country (i.e. UK or East Africa) has ever had institutional access to peer reviewed published research. Think about that – billions of pounds of public spending, a huge proportion of science funding, and no institutional access to, say, AER. It’s so obviously unjust that I know hundreds of people who get around the system, either by asking individuals to send them PDFs or by using illegal sites to avoid the charges. I hope this will change soon, but I’m not holding my breath.
  6. Sometimes telling people things really is enough to change their behaviour – and David Evans has the evidence. (He won’t mind my pointing out that very often, it’s not, because he knows that. It’s just that it’s not always pointless).
  7. So, have you seen Always be my Maybe yet? Between that and John Wick 3, there seems to have been an entire cottage industry of stories about how awesome Keanu Reeves is – from stories of random acts of niceness to literary pieces about his cultural importance to mixed race kids. I don’t need any convincing of the man’s coolness (his name means ‘cool breeze over the mountains’, for goodness’ sake), so here, for your viewing pleasure are some of his career highlights: “Morpheus is fighting Neo!”, every “Johnny Utah” in Point Break, John Wick and his puppy, “pop quiz a**hole…”, and last but not least, Battleships.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

I normally start the links with something happy, but I saw this in the Grauniad and it made me so angry I couldn’t concentrate on anything except my seething rage for about fifteen minutes. On the tiny chance anyone who reads this witnessed anything, get phoning to the police. The idiots responsible urgently require comeuppance. People are crap sometimes. In happier news, I was at the cricket on Wednesday, and the Bangladesh fans turned South London into a suburb of Dhaka – a truly amazing atmosphere. Andy Bull got it right when he said that even if England host the event, the rich cultural mix here makes this everyone’s World Cup. Well, everyone except Sri Lanka’s; we’ve been abysmal, and the wash out today with Pakistan did us far more favours than them. Can we rain our way to the final? What’s worse, in trying to prove a point about mean regression to a hammered Kiwi fan on Tuesday, I spent ages loading up highlights on when we were actually good. What a come down.

  1. It won’t surprise anyone reading this that I’m a massive nerd, but I am: I still get properly excited when I see good new data on firms in developing countries. One of the most important seams of research in development economics over the last ten years has focused on how the characteristics of firms that exist in developing countries differs to those in more successful economies. Much of this work is just descriptive: describing how big firms are, how they change over time, the rate at which they die and how productive they are. VoxDev run a summary of a new paper comparing firms in Colombia to those in more developed economies, reinforcing some of the key findings of this literature: that it’s the extremes of the firm distribution that seem to drive most of the action in the economy; and that firm death is too slow in developing countries. It may seem like a perverse conclusion, but when crap firms can pootle along, neither thriving nor being forced out of the market, it represents a failure to reallocate scarce economic resources to those firms that are actually growing and a penalty to the economy.
  2. While I’m geeking out, last week I linked to some of Alex Tabarrok’s work on service prices in the US because it focuses on Baumol’s cost disease, one of the more under-rated theories in modern economics. Well, Alex has gone one better with two excellent posts explaining the Baumol effect and why it’s not so much a s disease as the sign of something going very right in the economy, which is exactly the most important point to take from it. Highly recommended.
  3. Also via MR: Sam Bowles and Wendy Carlin suggest a radically different approach to teaching basic economics. As I’ve said before, I think the problem with a lot of econ foundation courses is that many students never go any further. They instead go into the world with some fundamental misconceptions of what ‘economics’ thinks about the world and how it can be used to make it better. I think this proposed approach is actually a substantially better starting point for demonstrating what economics has to offer the world’s biggest problems.
  4. “Does evidence matter when it tells us something we’d already thought was true?” Maggie Koerth-Baker at 538 adds another one to their collection of brilliant pieces about how science and social science gets better and tries to influence the world. This time she uses the struggle of researchers to prove that money matters in politics as a starting point to question how research can also change the way we ask questions, rather than answer them.
  5. Pam Jakiela at CGD summarises a bunch of papers using lab-in-the-field techniques to understand preferences and how people make decisions.
  6. So, the absolutely appalling reviews for Dark Phoenix have left me tapped out for good pop culture geekery to sign off with (seriously, how many times are they going to screw this story up?). So instead, I’ve been looking for fun songs for a wedding party in languages other than English. Some of the better ones we’ve come up with are Jaan Pehchan Ho, Siku ya Badaaye, the non-Bieber Despacito and Aicha. But we need more: suggestions please!

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Hi all,

We are about to enter a period of intense productivity decline for me. We are witnesses of a rare confluence of events that conspires to take up virtually all of my attention and mental energy: the co-incidence of the Cricket World Cup and the NBA Finals. Either one of these events would normally be enough to turn my head, but both at once, on different time zones, is costing me both sleep and sanity. The NBA Finals are a novelty this year: there are people for whom this is the first time in their adult lives in which LeBron James has not been competing for the trophy. Not only has he been in the last 8 consecutive finals (as 538 point out, a lot has changed since the last time he wasn’t here), but the Finals MVP every single one of those times has either been him or the person tasked with guarding him. If that isn’t discombobulating enough for sports fans, we also have to somehow process the idea that England (yes, England) are favourites for the Cricket World Cup, and playing like it. They also have the most exciting fast bowler in the world to boot. And unlike the standard England quick, Jofra Archer isn’t a petulant child but sounds like a character from Game of Thrones and has one-liners to rival The Man With No Name. I feel like I’ve woken up in bizarro world.

  1. Pour one out for Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan writer who died just 48 last week. He’s best known for his essay in Granta, How to Write about Africa, but everyone should read his autobiography, One Day I Will Write About This Place. He came out as gay after writing it, in a difficult time and place to do so, and it’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to write what would have been an important second memoir.
  2. Since actually starting to do research myself, I’ve come to realise how hard it is to predict ahead of time exactly what the most sensible way to approach a question is, especially if you haven’t even seen how the data behaves first. Very often you notice things that are wrong with a data source (maybe you realise the question isn’t measuring what you thought it measured) or the potential of a data series only when you’ve had some time to work with it. All of this makes pre-registration of research difficult – and important, since all of these judgement calls can be made, even unconsciously in such a way as to maximise the likelihood of finding something of interest, rather than true. So it’s not surprising to me that the pre-registration movement in psychology has had teething problems. I would expect that many deviations from the registered plan – that can as much be the sign of good research as bad. But I would not expect to have found so many to go unreported, which is much more worrying.
  3. Dan Honig, whose work on bureaucracies and how organisations functions is among the most interesting stuff I’ve read in the last few years (and whom I owe an e-mail – it’s coming, sorry, I’ve been snowed under!) has written a blog over at CGD summarising his new paper with Lant Pritchett about how to think about functional accountability beyond what can be counted. This is a concern most of us have faced in some form or another: how does measuring things distort the things they measure?
  4. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has a really interesting descriptive series on the costs of services in the US, based on his new book. He investigates and debunks a number of theories as to why prices for some services increase, and settles on the cost disease theory of William Baumol as the explanation that does best in explaining observed phenomena. It’s interesting because Tabarrok has very clear and well-defined priors, which he has never hidden. But his work doesn’t pander to them: the standard Libertarian tropes don’t do much of the explanation he finds. He’d point out that this is obvious: it just means he’s a good researcher. And, of course, anything giving love to Baumol (and it’s close cousin the Balassa-Samuelson effect) needs a shout-out.
  5. Dave Evans is still doing weekly updates on education research at CGD – the team they’ve got there looking at this stuff is great. Last week I commented on the diversity of research they cite, which Alexis le Nestour defended on twitter. He’s quite right: when we don’t have much research we need to consider everything, just carefully.
  6. Through a metaphor so tortured I feel certain it contravenes the Geneva Convention, the ex-Finance Minister of Colombia writes about into the political economy of health taxation. All taxation is political – we were talking in the office recently about fuel subsidies in this vein, too; you need to be both clever and secure to tackle them.
  7. I’m writing this with one eye on the cricket, as the West Indies obliterate the Pakistani batting lineup. Pressure is a funny thing: some teams, like England through most of their history, have folded under it like origami. Others, are more like Bruce Lee, using it to their advantage (as an aside, do you notice how he talks with his whole face? It’s slightly menacing). ESPN ran a really good piece about pressure and fear this week – reminding us that Magic, Jordan and LeBron all had high profile failures as well as successes.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

It’s sometimes a struggle to write an intro to the links. Some weeks, cricket and basketball, plus a brief rundown of the birds landing in my garden get me through the first paragraph. Other weeks there’s an incredibly obvious topic to comment on which given my inability to moderate my opinions, , I nevertheless have to ignore for fear of laying waste to the civil service code. Moving to the economics for fear of an ill-chosen comment:

  1. It feels appropriate to start with this piece from Duncan Green’s blog, a rant about the short-sightedness and negative impact of the UK’s labyrinthine visa application procedures. Visiting academics from Africa appear to have been particularly hard-hit; and the examples in the blog are only the tip of an iceberg. I recall that one of the people I’ve invited to speak at DFID in the past declined citing the disutility of applying for a visa here (he eventually came while on a trip for which his visa was handled by another organiser).
  2. Raj Chetty has clearly touched a nerve. A number of people have sent me or shared this Vox piece on his new economics course in Harvard, Economics 1152, which upends the traditional theory-first approach to teaching economics in favour of an empirically-based course. Introducing students to the complexity of the real world, measurement and rigour early on in their studies can only be a good thing, but I’m not sure I buy the set-up of the piece, which pits the Chetty course as a disruptor and competitor to traditional introductory economics. The issue isn’t that economists learn theory early on, because good theory is necessary to understand empirical results. It’s that they are taught economics in layers that rarely reveal the nuances and complexity that will be introduced in the next layer or by empirical work. As a result the many students who stop after a few basic courses leave with the impression that economics as a discipline has a simple faith in the market, or that it believes that the world moves according to well-defined and understood rules. It’s why ‘economics’ articles in the newspapers written by journalists with a year of econ from a PPE degree are so uniformly terrible.
  3. Nor is empirical economics quite the finished product yet, either. Eszter Czibor and co-authors (including John List) argue that experimental economics still has much to do in order to adequality report on the generalisability and applicability of the evidence they produce. I tend to agree. Part of this is really the responsibility of the reader, who needs to be able to think in a detailed way about the theory of change being tested by an RCT, but many papers reporting on the results of an experiment make this difficult.
  4. In the run up to the elections in India, VoxDev ran a series of podcasts about what economics is teaching us about politics in India. Lakshmi Iyer talks about the lack of female politicians here (VoxEU write up here), and Abhijeet Banerjee reports on the results of an experiment providing report cards on politicians here.
  5. David Evans and Alexis Le Nestour write about the effect of female teachers on girls’ outcomes in school; they appear decidedly mixed. There seems to be a lot going on here, and I’m not sure how meaningful it is to compare evidence across settings so broadly, but this is definitely worth a read.
  6. I’ve read speculation recently that Andy Haldane may be next Governor of the Bank of England. They could do much worse: few public intellectuals in the UK are as thoughtful, and few economists as comfortable handling so broad a range of topics. In this Guardian profile, he talks about the role of civil society in the UK and the consequences of its neglect.
  7. Lastly, The Ringer have stoked my outrage with this list of the 25 best high school movies of all time. Where the hell is Pretty in Pink? Why the heck is Carrie so low (did anyone who watched that movie as a kid not have nightmares?) At least they give due props to Kid’n’Play and the greatest haircut of all time.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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Links round-up

Hi all,

Even after a week in Hong Kong, I still get culture shock returning to the UK. People complaining about crowds here after I’ve been fighting my way through Causeway Bay at rush hour make me feel like Crocodile Dundee; my four pounds at lunchtime now buys me a soggy disgrace of a sandwich instead of this magnificent bowl; and the phrase “it’s really hot today” means wearing a slightly thinner jumper rather than a slow descent into a puddle of human sweat. Still, there are benefits to being back, including writing the links again, my favourite task of the week even when my RSS feed is an avalanche of geekery. Once more unto the breach:

  1. Every once in a while, the stars align and my central interests in life collide to form a supernova of incandescent geekery. It happened when Kirk Goldsberry introduced spatial mapping to the analysis of professional basketball and it is happening again now, as a few economists decide to surf the zeitgeist with articles and books about the economics of the Marvel superheroes. Starting gently, Tim Harford investigates whether the Malthusian-with-an-Infinity-Gauntlet, Thanos actually had a point when he wiped out half of humanity in Infinity War. After all, in Endgame [redacted] tells [redacted] about a pod of whales he saw swimming in the Hudson. Was Thanos right? Was Malthus? Lest you succumb to homicidal mania in pursuit of ecological balance, Tim Harford is here to put you right. Thanos is not right (and while I’m at it, the doughnut is just a nice pair of trousers lacking the suspenders of sound analysis). Planet Money dig deeper. Ever wonder why Jessica Jones has a job, and everyone in Luke Cage’s life complains that they need him to make some money? It’s because they’re producing public goods without the benefit of a taxation system to pay for it. Why doesn’t Superman take over the world? If he can instead defend the institutions that do the hard work of governing properly without doing so, why bother? (Transcript).
  2. Why do economists love taking on the frivolous in this fashion? I do it a lot myself, and most of my explanation of economics in teaching takes the form of metaphor and similie. David Evans, himself one of the best communicators in economics, summarises a paper that demonstrates that clarity pays off handsomely in influence. I can hear all the non-academics facepalming now (“really? Did we need research to know that incomprehensible gobbledygook is ignored?”) but the message is important for those of us who do any analysis or research. Explain yourself simply and it’s simple to understand.
  3. Meanwhile, always resist the other temptation, to pimp up your finding to make it sound much more than it is. The twitter feed @justsaysinmice digs into sensationalist headlines and points out when the findings are based entirely on trials conducted in mice. Economics needs a version of this, for all the partial equilibrium results trumpeted as solutions to problems like unemployment.
  4. Really excellent VoxDev video in which Erick Gong shows results that find that people who are given HIV tests and are surprised to discover they are positive are less likely to take due precautions in future sexual activity. He calls this the ‘nothing left to lose’ effect. I call it the ‘people are effing appalling and maybe Thanos was right’ effect.
  5. When is a conditional cash transfer unconditional? When there’s an election round the corner. Eliana La Ferrara drops knowledge, covered in the Economist.
  6. Rich parents tend to have rich kids. Part of this effect is simply though inheritance, after which the only skill a rich child has to show is the ability not to fritter away a fortune on wine, women and amateur dramatics. Part of the effect, though, is what this research summarises as nurture: having (most likely) well-educated parents and a stable home life, as well as the various connections a rich parent affords you (one would imagine). This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it should make you even more committed to doing something about inequality.
  7. Good news for exports geeks: a VoxDev piece digs into the data on the domestic content of Chinese exports and suggests that its extraordinary growth was at least partly due to bucking the global trend in declining domestic content in exported goods. Unfortunately, it’s not so good on how you replicate this.
  8. Lastly, it’s playoff times, a magical time of year when the committed witness 4am buzzer beaters from absurd distances by Dame Lillard in a state of fatigued hallucination. But the best story of the playoffs by far is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis lays a strong claim to being the greatest player in the world now and has a good chance of becoming a champion in the next couple of weeks. He is also a refugee, the son of Nigerian refugees to Greece. He was stateless until one month before he finally joined the NBA, still selling sunglasses on a Greek beach to make money, with his asylum application being processed. He’s now a Greek Olympian and a proper feel-good story.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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