Economics & Marginalia: January 26, 2024

January 26, 2024

Hi all,

There have been a few important milestones in my parenting journey so far: first words, first steps, first meals cooked together. But few have been more rewarding than first time singing along to Victory Test Match by Lord Beginner, or first youtube video of cricketing highlights watched together (it was Mahela Jayawardene. Of course.) I haven’t quite introduced him to actual Test cricket yet, though, and judging by England’s performance in the first two days of the India series, I should probably wait a while. Only England could take three specialist spinners to India and then wind up taking their wickets with Joe Root’s part timers (for the Americans in the audience, this is like the Golden State Warriors starting Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and KD but having Draymond Green make the most three pointers). But if the boy wakes up at 4am tomorrow morning again, I’ll sit him in front of the TV—maybe he’ll bring us some luck. Or I’ll read him some of the links: even if the cricket is disappointing, the economics this week has been spot on. On to it.

  1. There’s a school of thought that there is no such thing as ‘development’ economics anymore: that the idea that the problems facing developing countries are uniquely and categorically different to those facing other countries is overplayed. I don’t think I’m quite sold just yet, but I do think there’s a lot in development economics that nevertheless provides a helpful framework for thinking about rich countries. Simon Kuper clearly agrees: he read Stefan Dercon’s book Gambling on Development and realised that it was the perfect framework for his own book on corruption in the UK. In this piece in the FT, he applies Stefan’s idea about the ‘Development Bargain’ to the UK, arguing that any such bargain has broken down here, and that the elites have begun using state power primarily for self-enrichment, at the cost of the great bulk of the population. He’s careful not to over-egg the comparison: the UK still works (in patches), but the similarities between what happened in Sierra Leone during Ebola, when emergency health procurements were used to privilege the politically connected and the misuse of the Covid-19 ‘VIP Lane’ for procurements during the pandemic are striking. And in an (un?)happy coincidence, the day I read this, it was also reported that Michelle Mone, elevated to the House of Lords in in 2015 as a Tory peer, is now being asked by her former lawyer to issue a public apology for claiming he advised her to lie about her own role in firm that won more than £200 million in contracts using that scheme.
  2. It goes without saying that you should read Gambling on Development. I’ve also been recommending Hannah Ritchie’s Not the End of the World a lot in these pages recently. Just in case you’re still on the fence, you can listen to her on Planet Money talking about one of the best sections of the book, the part about food production and our dietary habits. The interview captures what makes the book so good: it combines data-driven optimism (her explanation of the tremendous progress we’ve made against undernutrition), clarity about what things don’t matter (obsess less about where your food was grown, or if it came from an organic farm) and straight talking about where change really is needed (we need to eat less meat). I liked the book because it combines optimism with pragmatism, both of which come across clearly here (transcript).
  3. While I’m praising people, Ken Opalo’s latest, on the civil war in Sudan, is typically brilliant. The breadth and depth of his knowledge of African politics is astounding. This is a big, and very diverse place, about which he writes widely. And  no matter what the topic, the command of detail as well as mastery of the big picture is incredibly impressive.
  4. So, I try and avoid too much self-promotion on here, but this week, Rachael Calleja and I released a new paper looking at how the UK can reform the set-up of its international development institutions. If you’re reading this email you probably already know that Boris Johnson decided to cram DFID into the FCO like that suitcase fight meme, and unsurprisingly it did not turn out well. To the enormous credit of the civil servants who had to make the best of it, and Andrew Mitchell, appointed as Minister to restore a little sanity, things are much better now. But they’re still a way from perfect; much more still needs to be done to improve matters. We set out the options, and focus as much as we can on what the design features of a more effective arrangement are; that is, what are the things that need to be solved and protected. One of the key points we make is that no matter what arrangements are put in place, much of the effectiveness of UK aid will depend on others, including the Treasury, who have done so much damage to the predictability and quality of the UK’s development work in the last half-decade and more. Blog here for the short of time.  
  5. Andrew Gelman makes fun of economists: a discipline where we obsess about measurement when preparing a study and then forget about all of the implausible measures we’ve collected if the p value is below 0.05. The broader point, though, is on the importance of measurement, and I think economists do pretty well on this grounds. We argue interminably about what exactly all our different variables actually capture, and while it can be tiring, it forces us to be extremely precise about what our data tell us (even if we can then sometimes be a bit loose with that in the abstract…)
  6. A two-parter on Freakonomics covers the Francesca Gino/Dan Ariely fraud allegations, and as you’d expect, it’s excellent. They interview the Data Colada crew, who presented such convincing evidence of the fraud (part 1), and in the second part turn their attention to whether and how academic fraud can be stopped (part 2). Highly recommended.
  7. The links are being sent out a little later than usual today: I was drafted in to read about three thousand bedtime stories before the boy finally let exhaustion send him to sleep. There’s an art to making the bedtime stories fun for all concerned: it involves hiding all of the unbearable tosh (Hairy Maclary’s Caterwaul Caper, for example, is currently hidden behind a pile of textbooks at the very top of my bookshelf) and using the art of suggestion; to steer the conversation towards, for example, penguins before bedtime, thus maximising the chances of being asked to read Oliver Jeffers. Emily Temple at LitHub has clearly had the same experience: in an act of genius she has plotted children’s books on a graph in which the two axes are parental tolerability and children’s enthusiasm. It’s broadly right (The Gruffalo and I Want My Hat Back are both absolutely in the correct quadrant, and she is correct the We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a repetitive chore, unlike most of Michael Rosen’s brilliant books), but she has clearly had bad luck with the children she’s reading to: what child is not delighted with Where the Wild Things Are? The monsters are incredible. And on that note…

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.