Economics & Marginalia: January 19, 2024

January 19, 2024

Hi all,

I’ve got to write these links quickly, before my fingers freeze altogether and I’m left tapping icicles on the keyboard in an attempt to make my points here.  It’s about -3 degrees centigrade outside (about 26 Fahrenheit), and before the Americans and Canadians burst out laughing, our houses are not built for this: poorly insulated with random gaps to allow the ingress of small critters and cold air—though thankfully it’s only the cold air I’ve had to contend with here. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because we’re considering switching to using a heat pump for our heating, and to qualify for a grant to get one, we need a couple of energy-saving improvements to the house… which are no longer subsidised. I’m reading Hannah Ritchie’s excellent book Not the End of the World (buy it—especially for any young people in your life, it is an important book as well as a well-written, researched and enjoyable one) and one thing I’ve been repeatedly struck by is how bad public policy often is on environmental damage. It makes me both hopeful and sad: sad because there are so many unnecessary frictions (and so much missing help) that prevent people from taking steps against climate change and environmental degradation; but hopeful because even with this disastrous public policy we’ve made such strides.

Also a PSA for my subscribers in the FCDO: if you signed up to these links with your old DFID email address, they will soon be undeliverable. Please use this link to subscribe again with your FCDO email address if you still want to get the links email. Here again:

  1. Influencing policy is difficult (by design: policy should not be too fickle). Some people, though, are better at it than others. Here, one of the rare breed who mastered it is remembered by another: Kaushik Basu writes about his friendship with Robert Solow, who died just short of century recently (ProSyn, you may need to register to read it). Basu recalls how, in his early days working in policy, he found it difficult to adjust and yearned for a return to his life of thinking and writing in academia; it was Solow, himself an advisor to JFK in the 1960s (and later, deeply influential, if not formally in an advisory role, in East Asia) who encouraged Kaushik to stay the course. As Basu writes, “He was not just an exemplary scholar; first and foremost, he was an exemplary human being.” Another interesting point: Solow did not initial train as an economist, but as in anthropology and sociology with Talcott Parsons. That might explain why he was such a good writer.
  2. It’s a rare paper that makes you realise that your entire way of thinking about a problem has been incomplete. This summary of new research by David McKenzie, Simone Bertolie and Eli Murad falls into that category. They point out that thinking about migration as a person leaving a defined family for a new place, but remaining a part of that family is often fundamentally, profoundly inaccurate. The act of migration changes the universe of potential families that you might form, which means that thinking of a migrant anchored to home by spousal connections is at best incomplete; and yet it is the typical way in which migrants are thought about in the economics literature. This may sound like a small point, but it has potentially large implications: for how we model and understand the decision to migrate and behaviour after migration (could a failure to imagine ‘potential alternate families’ be part of the puzzle of why so few people migrate?), and for how think about the impact of migration on those left behind. But the idea behind this paper applies to more than just migration: any policy that might affect marriage and household formation (and many policies do!) could be affected by these issues.
  3. This is very good: my colleague Thomas Ginn and co-authors have a nice write-up in VoxDev of their research which shows that the massive influx of young Syrian refugees to Jordan had… wait for it… basically no effect on education for Jordanians. This is not magic. It’s policy. As they write: “The effects of refugees in any context depend on policy, and this context shows that more inclusive policies do not mechanically lead to more negative effects on hosts. In this case, local policymakers allowed refugees to attend local public schools with minimal barriers, and foreign donors allocated resources to cover the resulting shortfalls.” This pattern repeats in many areas of public policy: outcomes are rarely written in stone. How we shape policy matters.
  4. Another very good one from Project Syndicate (seriously, register: you can read some articles for free, and there are some very good ones in there). Ashwini Deshpande writes about the role of culture in female labour force participation, and points out that considering culture as some sort of exogenous, unchanging imposition from the heavens is historically inaccurate and can focus our attention away from things that may matter more. I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that culture always follows material conditions (anthropologists and historians can likely find no shortage of anachronistic cultural practices that undermine rather than reinforce economic change), but her general argument is correct and important.
  5. There’s a chunk of academic twitter in which plagiarism has been on the mind for last few months (I do not have the energy or patience to explain why: just google Claudine Gay, but don’t forget to cite whichever website you crib from). Tim Harford does not go into that saga at all, but rather has broader, more sensible thoughts about the idea of plagiarism and what it is. Highly recommended.
  6. Rachael Meager has a substack! And they open this year’s set of posts with one about quitting: “Quitting is just as natural and good as not quitting, but people don’t ask you too often why you don’t quit.” There is a lot here: about academia, about The Odyssey (and I will read virtually anyone with half a brain write about The Odyssey, let alone someone with two brains like Rachael) and about self-knowledge. Always read Rachael.
  7. Rachael took us to ancient Greece; via Andrew Gelman, this essay by Nikhil Krishnan brings ancient Greece to us, specifically bringing Aristotle to Reddit’s AITA thread (if you don’t know what AITA is, google it, and I am NTA here; also, this is on the New Yorker, you get a couple of free views and then you need to subscribe, still NTA for linking it). What’s specifically wonderful about this is the way he deconstructs the premise of it as an entry point to Aristotle: for most interactions, AITA is not even a comprehensible question. Sometimes everyone is, sometimes no-one is; and it takes a great deal of life experience, judgement and luck not to be it. It’s a fantastic essay: about how to be a better person, and the temptation of rules, and guides that show you how; and about why they are all ultimately incomplete.

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.