Economics & Marginalia: February 24, 2023

Hi all,

Roughly seven years ago, the UK voted to leave the European Union (I simultaneously cannot believe it was that long ago and cannot believe it was so recent, which is somehow apt). I remember the next day clearly: it was a Friday and a colleague of mine entered the office with a stream of extremely uncharacteristic expletives; as an economist who spends a great deal of time with fellow economists, I was quickly to learn that this would be a common reaction. Most of us expected things to go poorly, being obvious that the project was simultaneously politically perilous, economically risky and logistically and bureaucratically complex (a good rule of thumb in government is that no policy that has two of these characteristics should ever be attempted, a rule someone clearly forgot to tell Liz Truss). Still, most of us thought gentle decline would be the result (I once described it as scuttling the ship, not hitting the iceberg). To the best of my recollection, none of us predicted that within a decade a Cabinet Minister would stand up in the House of Commons and tell us that we should ‘cherish the turnip’ in response to shortages of salad vegetables. Let them eat turnips, indeed. It’s just a shame we keep electing them.

  1. I am very, very late to this, but if you need something to bring a smile to your face over your breakfast turnip, Planet Money’s Valentine’s show is an absolute delight (transcript). Every year, they record a show in which the presenters describe something underappreciated that they love, and then call up the person responsible for it to tell them and bring a little sunshine to their day. This year, valentines go out to statistical revisions by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, ImportYeti, and audio description on movies and TV shows. The last one really tugs at my heartstrings, because when I lost my hearing I discovered closed captioning (basically subtitles, with little additional descriptions of noises in the movie). Now all of my family watch TV with captions on because—on average—even people with perfect hearing only hear about 70% of a movie’s dialogue without them, and even more importantly, descriptions of music in closed captions are at least 127 times more fun than the actual music.
  2. One more entry in our ongoing childcare-as-a-complete-failure-of-both-private-and-public-provision series: Dave Evans and Lycia Lima on their study that shows that childcare provision in Brazil increases caregiver’s employment, incomes for beneficiary households, nutritional intake for the kids and cognitive improvements.
  3. Every once in a while, economists benefit from going through a small crisis of faith in which we question everything about how economics is done and whether its salvageable (for most people, the first iteration of this is called “a PhD”). This post from Andrew Gelman is largely an economist working through one themselves. I don’t agree with all the points here, but I link it because I hope it leads some of you to Herbert Simon, the best-represented economist on my own bookshelves, who had indeed thought of everything interesting we’re likely to think of, and said it better too.
  4. I very much like this David McKenzie piece about how widely (really, narrowly) jobseekers conceptualise their careers, and how this can be self-limiting in their search for new or first jobs. I think two things that he doesn’t get into here probably matter very much. First, it might be rational to be closed off to alternative career paths if you think there is high path dependency in the kind of jobs you do (for example, if you have a dream job but think there’s only one way to get there). And secondly, I think jobs aren’t purely instrumental—they’re not just ways to make money. You may care about a job’s mission, which may not have many close substitutes; but also jobs can be ‘identity goods’ in that they contribute to your sense of self. That might matter on its own terms, if being ‘an economist’ or ‘a civil servant’ is part of how you see yourself; and again, that can mean there are relatively few substitutes to a specific set of jobs.
  5. Tim Harford on bubbles, foresight and why the Dutch tulip mania was mainly fake news. The central insight, that it’s hard to distinguish what is real and what is artificial in economic value is important, and if you pull at that thread can leave the sweater of economics looking rather forlorn indeed.
  6. Another hit from Ken Opalo’s substack, this time on African agriculture. It’s a really good piece that looks at many of the reasons why there’s so little effective agricultural policy in in Africa. One thing I was hoping for more of, though, was the paltry record of investments in technological advancements that are specifically for African agricultural development. The green revolution that transformed Asian agriculture has mainly just not been attempted in Africa; achieving one would be, almost by definition, transformational.
  7. I don’t know if it’s something about the kind of things I search for on twitter (mainly Markelle Fultz highlights to see how his shooting form is evolving, pictures of birds and tips for using R), but I’ve been assailed this week by promoted tweets for a movie called C*caine Bear (I’m not sure if spam filters will get annoyed at that word). It’s apparently an intentionally terrible movie starring Downtown Clay Davis that’s trying to capture what I can only imagine is the miniscule market of people who miss Snakes on a Plane. But the thing is, most beloved terrible movies were never shooting for terrible: that’s the charm of them. Roddy Piper running out of bubblegum is only funny because he’s clearly not being arch. John Cena and Robert Patrick make the bad movie hall of fame mainly because Cena is trying so hard it’s slightly pathetic. You can’t fake that. If I’ve missed any other great terrible movies, please send them my way (and yes, Matt, I do include American Ninja in this category).

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.