Economics & Marginalia: April 5, 2024

Hi all,

These links, the second since our makeover, are exceptional in another way: I’m writing them on a Wednesday evening, and they’ll be sent out some time on Friday by my brilliant colleagues in communications. I don’t normally write these ahead of time: they’re drafted directly into an email, with the only formatting the bolding and the numbering (comms put it in the fancy new design), right before I sign off on Friday evenings, but this week I’m taking off for the next three Fridays and I wanted to write one more Marginalia before going. We’re going to Argentina, the first trip for my son and I, and we intend to embarrass the life out of my wife by loudly declaiming in our variously mangled Spanish (the boy has learnt his from watching Peppa Pig in Spanish, which is mildly less grating than the version in English; mine was learnt from various narconovelas, with the bulk of the learning coming from the original version of La Reina del Sur). I’ve never been to South America, and having downloaded the e-bird Argentina pack, am giddy at the additions to my life list this trip promises. We’re only seeing a fraction of the country this time, but we’re staying in the jungle at Iguazu, and my hopes are sky-high.

  1. We lost Daniel Kahneman last week. I still remember the first time I read his original, seminal papers (in Science and Econometrica) with Amos Tversky, something I recommend everyone do. They are simple, beautifully written and incredibly fun to read: you can just imagine them sitting in a room bouncing ideas off each other in the writing of them. It was less the findings of these papers than the approach and the subject matter that fascinated me, leading me in turn further back to Herbert Simon (probably my favourite economist ever); their influence on how I think about problems has been profound. In a field where findings are often overturned or complicated, where effects vary across time and space, and not much stays ‘true’ forever, the way we think about the world is as important as what we think about the world. Kahneman’s way of thinking was a great model: endlessly curious, ready to think the best of opposing viewpoints and constantly questioning himself. Listening to him, on The Edge, about adversarial collaboration, and changing one’s mind, is instructive. He talks about getting things wrong in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and how difficult it is to change his mind about the things that matter. He was an unusually self-reflective person, and I think that is what made his research so interesting.

  2. You know who else is an interesting thinker? Rachael Meager. You may know them mainly from mind-bending Bayesian statistics and econometrics, but they write beautifully about almost anything, because they think deeply about almost everything. On their Substack, they have a glorious essay (well, it’s half way between a ramble and an essay, like many of the best essays) in defence of criticism—in the sense of art criticism rather than personal sniping from distant relatives (though that, too, is criticism). This one resonated particularly, because I’m currently reading On the Art of Writing, by Quiller-Couch, a collection of lectures on literary criticism from around 1914. Q is to me the perfect example of a critic: one who loves his subject and field and so treats it with total honesty, and holds it to incredibly high standards. The book is hilarious. He absolutely savages bad writing and reading him makes me realise how much of my own writing he’d savage, too. Criticism, as Meager says (and I paraphrase here and possibly misunderstand), improves both the original work and sharpens how the world sees it.

  3. You will need to register for this one, but I promise it is worth the time it takes: Yuen Yuen Ang in Project Syndicate on how measurement of corruption systematically underestimates corruption in Western countries, and does little justice to the idea it attempts to measure. I loved this piece. She points out that when you disaggregate different kinds of what I might describe as ‘icky activity’, countries that score well on corruption indices like the UK and US do much worse: but their ickiness is legalized and formalised and therefore ‘not corrupt’; though to many, politics in each is a ‘swamp’ in need of ‘draining’ (even if those promising to do so may themselves be sewage).

  4. Hannah Ritchie crunches the numbers on how much electricity it would take to decarbonise steel production, and it’s not a trivial amount: it would add one quarter again to global electricity demand. Increasingly, I recognise that the solution to the climate crisis will require incredible energy abundance. Related, my old BSG colleague Jose Maria Valenzuela has a superb note about retaining institutional capacity in energy planning (it is much better than that description makes it sound!).

  5. Tim Harford on publication bias, and on Ben Goldacre (he of Bad Science fame) and his innovation aimed at reducing it.

  6. I have yet to read all of this, but it does look fascinating: Hypertext have an issue on evidence-based policy, a topic I and colleagues at CGD hope to have a lot more to say on soon. I enjoyed (even if I didn’t wholly agree with) Alex Tabarrok’s piece on the difficulty of changing people; he suggests changing the constraints or environments that bind them is more promising. Matt Grossman’s article, on the difficulty of making change also looks interesting, and contains a nod to Charles Lindblom’s brilliant The Science of Muddling Through. He’s right that the world is hard to change; and so is policy, for good reasons. I’ll be reading more of this on the plane tomorrow.

  7. So one of the things I’m most excited about on my trip is the new birdlife. I am quite capable of neglecting all the usual social niceties and daily requirements of life (like sleep, breakfast, showering) if there’s a good bird at the end of the expedition, as my wife has discovered to her cost—thankfully mainly after the sunk costs of marriage had been incurred. I do this because I enjoy it: there is something peaceful and endlessly fascinating about birding, an activity with just enough challenge to engage the brain and just enough quiet to relax it. Ed Yong gets close to explaining what it is to be a birder (to me) here (thanks to Vij for this one, register). But one thing I don’t do that most birders do obsessively is count my life list. I have a life list, but it’s not numbered. Why? Goodhart’s law applies. I go birding because I enjoy it. When the measure of my enjoyment (the birds I see) become a target, it ceases to be fun and begins to look like 3am journeys to a parking lot behind a Morrisons in Colchester to get a 3-second glimpse of a bird blown off-course by a storm when I’m going to see the same bird in abundance in it’s natural habitat in two weeks on holiday. And like all measures, it is open to manipulation, as the wild story of the race to 10,000 birds seen in a lifetime attests (I love that the photo of the successful birder deliberately echoes Wilt Chamberlain).

And on that note, have a great weekend, everyone! Next links due on 26 April!



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.