Economics & Marginalia: August 5, 2022

Hi all,

We’re losing legends at a frankly alarming rate: one week after I lamented the loss of Diana Kennedy, we open by lamenting the loss of Bill Russell. If you’re a basketball fan, Russell is to Jordan and LeBron what Thanos was to Loki: the big bad. We argue about whether LeBron (10 finals, 4 wins) or Michael Jordan (6 finals, 6 wins) was a better player; while in the background, this guy looms menacingly—13 seasons as a professional, 12 times in the finals, 11 times the winner. But Russell was much more than a basketball player: as he is quoted in his Ringer obituary: ““That’s what I do, that’s not what I am. I’m not a basketball player, I’m a man who plays basketball.”  Even better is this piece by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, especially this extract: “if you see the complete photo, you’ll see about three dozen White people watching him, most of them frowning, glaring, or just staring. But standing beside the post is one young Black kid with a smile on his face. A kid who suddenly saw the possibilities for achievement…” I’m an absolutely sports nut, and a big part of it is just the athletic spectacle. But you can’t separate it from the social context in which sport happens, and what it means. It’s why the England women’s team winning the Euros is such a big deal. And why Bill Russell still matters even after the game has evolved so much beyond his day. (It’s also why LeBron is always my choice over Jordan, who could have mobilised millions but kept quiet his whole career).

  1. This is an interesting one: a new paper by Raj Chetty and many, many co-authors has made a big splash by arguing that ‘economic connectedness’, a measure of how many people of high socio-economic status a person of low socio-economic status has, explains a large amount of the variation in social mobility across different parts of the US. It’s a big, big data paper, with more than 2 billion data points (somehow these big data papers always make me think of the Ludacris rapping on Stand Up: “I roll up with a million trucks / lookin’, feelin’, smellin’ like a million bucks”) and got an NPR write-up more euphoric than the gospel choir on You Can’t Always Get What You Want—indeed, they compare him to Beyonce. I’m a big fan of much of Chetty’s work, but there are downsides to your every release being greeted with the sound of trumpets: overclaiming either directly or on your behalf eventually becomes the norm. For a more sceptical (but still appreciative) take on the paper, liked this thread by Ethan Buena de Mesquita. It’s worth reading it alongside the popular coverage, and indeed the paper.

  2. Perhaps the Chetty papers would have suffered in their prospects if journals and reviewers didn’t know he was one of the authors? Perhaps not: via Marginal Revolution, this thread on a paper from 1991 reports on an experiment using double-blind reviews. The result: even representation of the authors at the biggest universities.

  3. Also on MR, Alex Tabarrok scares the crap out of me by reporting that lead—yes, lead, the heavy metal that is a poison in even tiny quantities—is routinely added to turmeric to make the powder look yellower. As a Sri Lankan, roughly 14% of my body is reconstituted powdered turmeric, added liberally to literally every curry I make, so if I start behaving (more) erratically, you know what to blame. GiveWell has a good piece here, also linked by MR. My colleagues Rachel Silverman, Susannah Hares and others at CGD have starting a project on lead poisoning: hopefully they’ll be able to direct me to the turmeric that isn’t killing me.

  4. One thing we do far too little of in development (and by we, I mean both researchers and donors funding and implementing programmes) is basic ongoing monitoring and evaluation of how well the things we fund are being implemented. When it’s a major study, researchers devote a large amount of time to checking on compliance, but that is usually one of the elements that is sacrificed when go from pilot to scale. A nice new VoxDev write-up by Karthik Muralidharan and others finds that simple phone-based monitoring can substantially affect the quality of implementation. This is an important study, less flashy than many others, but with potentially much larger impacts on human welfare.  

  5. Via Paddy Carter (who also has a good thread on it here), a new World Bank working paper looking at how to measure job quality, one of those things that development finance institutions and donors love to talk about but rarely have a very strong grip on.

  6. I talked last week about migration: this week, FiveThirtyEight have a really good piece on how different parties (and their voters) think about migration in the US. The upshot is that when Republicans talk about limiting migration, many of them aren’t just talking about illegal entry into the country, but all migration; this is increasingly being reflected in the upper reaches of the party. One positive note: even though most want to reduce legal migration, that proportion is nevertheless declining over time.

  7. Since Covid hit, childcare has been a bit of a nightmare: hard to get family down to watch your kid, constant closures and illnesses, and god forbid: the whole family isolation lock-in. In some ways it’s wonderful: I spend way more time with my son than I ever would have in a pre-covid world. In other ways, it’s… a bit of a challenge. So when my wife sent me this rewriting of the first lines of classic novels as if the main characters had no childcare arrangements it cut very close to the bone.

Before I sign off, a summer PSA: the links will be off for the next two weeks and then more intermittent than usual until the end of September. Life, travel and work are going to get in the way, but from mid October at the latest, we’ll be back to our usual routine.

Have a great weekend, everyone!



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.