Economics & Marginalia: February 2, 2024

February 02, 2024

Hi all,

Today’s links are coming at you even later on Friday evening than usual: I made a gigantic parenting error earlier this evening and made my son’s new bed just before bedtime. Now, several hours later and after much protestation that he doesn’t like the bed and would like it to be put in the bin please, he’s still running amok and periodically coming to my computer to whack my keyboard with great enthusiasm. I can’t guarantee the links will be completed at a decent hour either, so if you get this on Monday, blame the moment of madness when I decided that a new bed right before my overtired child was just the thing for a Friday night. Gah.

  1. Parenting often feels like a sequence of mistakes and rectifying brainwaves (or assumed brainwaves that turn out to be massive blunders). It’s appropriate that the new issue of Asterisk is all about mistakes. Asterisk is a wonderful magazine (it looks gorgeous both in print and online). It takes interesting themes and gets interesting people to write about a wide range of topics. Online, the articles for each issue are published slowly, spread out over time so, like a good Netflix show dropping a new episode every Thursday, you can space out the reading. The issue on mistakes has, ironically, not had a miss yet. Two articles in particular are excellent: Justin Sandefur’s longer, more detailed version of his argument that economists got PEPFAR wrong; and Daniel Treisman’s Democracy By Mistake, about how autocrats create democracies through political miscalculations. Further articles from Todd Moss and more to come. Keep your eyes peeled.
  2. Justin argues that economists got that judgement wrong. Angus Deaton suggested that we got the whole definition of our field wrong. Diane Coyle’s reflections on Deaton’s Economics in America highlights two things: Deaton’s high regard for Tony Atkinson (which, as Diane suggests, is shared by virtually everyone who knew him, a notoriously kind man); and Deaton’s suggestion that the commonly cited Robbins definition of economics (“the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends”) was a ‘terrible narrowing of scope’. I think in practice economics has largely outgrown Robbins, but we have yet to settle on a new, pithy definition. If you have any suggestion, please send them in on a postcard.
  3. Tim Harford considers ‘addition by subtraction’—the idea that removing items is a neglected way of improving things. Anyone who has sent a paper for comments with the note that ‘it’s already too long, so suggestions on what to excise are very welcome’ will know that the vast majority of replies nevertheless suggest additions rather than deletions. He quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote that perfection is achieved when there is nothing more that can be removed; it reminds me of the line attributed to Blaise Pascale: “I’m sorry I have written such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
  4. Two wonderful pieces on VoxDev this week about Pakistan. First, a piece by Ali Cheema, Sarah Khan and co-authors about increasing voter turnout among women, which finds that interventions need to target both men and women to have an effect (reminding me of something a colleague once told me: a big constraint to women’s empowerment is men: so if there are no men in the room, the meeting is probably not doing all it should). And Sultan Mehmood and Bakhtawar Ali on the unexpected ways the Government undermines judicial independence there.
  5. Jason Kerwin outlines some witchcraft that gets papers written in 10 weeks. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the step: procrastinate by building a toddler’s bed, which may be why my research papers take more than 10 weeks.
  6. This may not be for everyone, but I found it extremely interesting: Jessica Hullman on designing experiments that investigate human decision-making. Since this is one of the areas I’m particularly interested in, and I’ve done a few studies (which are stretching that 10 week rule way beyond reason) in exactly this, I wish it had been written before I started designing them. It’s very good. The key issue, which is common to many research problems, is that when we design an experiment or a study, we typically have too little imagination to anticipate all the varied ways that people will respond to the problems we’re investigating or setting them. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, when all we want to do is look at the outcomes. But the more we care about why and how we get to the results we find, the more important it becomes.
  7. So, after last week’s links, I took some heat for criticising Hairy McClairy, and I feel obliged to issue a clarification (and not in the dril sense): I love the original books, and indeed can be reliably found reading them on repeat to my toddler (who has just fallen asleep and has been transported into the hated new bed, this time after I read one of the Mog books six times in a row). By coincidence, this week Tim Harford has also listed his favourite children’s books, and it’s an excellent list, with Asterisk, I Want My Hat Back and Maurice Sendak included (among other for older kids); and for the grown-ups I rather loved Branko Milanovic’s reflections on his love of newspapers. I remember buying the Sunday papers every week and laying them out on my bed and reading them as a teenager and in my early twenties. It’s been ages since I bought a physical paper (I subscribe to a few online), but I do love reading them when visiting my in-laws, who still have the weekend papers delivered. It’s sometimes quite startling to think about how much the small details of our day-to-day lives have changed over the last twenty years. I was gifted a fountain pen recently, and writing with it has reminded me of doing essays in pen at university. A different world, when planning your writing was far more important than it seems today (I say as I conclude this unedited stream-of-consciousness).

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.