Economics & Marginalia: January 6, 2023

January 06, 2023

Hi all,

How did you bring in the new year? Were you on a hill or balcony somewhere, watching fireworks? At a party somewhere, working on a hangover for January 1st? Watching The Wicker Man on Channel 4? I ticked the seconds off to midnight reading Slinky Malinki to a sleepless 2-year-old, who was simultaneously demanding that my wife read Up and Down, both on repeat. Eventually we confused him to sleep; they tell you that your life will change when you have kids, but they forget to add that it becomes much more fun. 2022 was, on the whole, terrible, an assessment that could equally apply to almost every year since 2016 (or even 2008) in the UK, which is quite hard to square with all the ways that the world has gotten better since then too. We forget that the escalator is going up—we tend to only notice the jolts and bumps as we’re on it. I hope 2023 is better for all of you, and that the escalator keeps moving up, albeit with fewer jolts.

  1. That said, we start with a jolt. As 2022 came to a close, we had the terrible news that Martin Ravallion had passed away, at 70 years of age. It is hard to overstate the influence Martin had on development economics; indeed, virtually everyone working in development today speaks Martin’s language without even realising it. If you talk about global poverty as a unified concept, or default—as I still do—to discussing ‘dollar-a-day’ poverty, you’re quoting Martin’s work. Equally, you’re quoting the work of a generation of economists he directly mentored or inspired, and a whole chunk of the World Bank still made in his image. This was a very lovely personal tribute to him, by David McKenzie and Berk Ozler on Development Impact; this older piece is a rare but excellent personal insight into ‘The Greatest Anti-Poverty Crusader you Never Heard of’.
  2. A good new year’s exercise is to take stock of what you got wrong in the previous year (my list includes everything from NBA predictions to political appointees in the UK, though my proudest prediction was that Liz Truss would last less than three months as Prime Minister). 538 do it annually, and Nathaniel Rakich’s piece is particularly good reading for followers of US politics.
  3. I had an interesting experience recently: someone read a few of my papers back to back, and off-handedly commented of one that it was substantially longer than the other two; I pointed out that of the three it had much the smallest word count. What was different about them was that two were written very much in my own voice, for good and ill: full of metaphors, turns of phrase and following a few digressions till they died a natural death. The third was much more ‘scientific’ in that it was terse, dense and more academic in style.  This lovely long read in Works in Progress by Etienne Fortier-Dubois looks at the evolution of scientific style, takes stock of the good and asks why so much academic writing is so bad (it also makes a few suggestions to fix this, though I’m less convinced by the solutions than the problem definition). There are still economists who write well: Sam Bowles leaps instantly to mind, for example. But the pursuit of scientific style has drummed the individuality out of most writers. You can tell Herbert Simon or Amartya Sen two paragraphs in. Who else, these days?
  4. Although he published it on 29 December, I didn’t get to Dietrich Vollrath’s piece on the European growth slow down till this year, but it’s a good way to ease into the year with data and a puzzle. Europe, like the US, sees a distinct growth slowdown since the turn of the century. But the reasons why are slightly different—both collectively and between each other. In particular, Germany and Italy both look rather puzzling to me. Part of me instinctively worries that data issues are a big part of this, but it’s based on nothing more than a gut feeling. If I find time this year (ha!) my resolution is to dig into growth numbers seriously.
  5. An auspicious start to the year for us few ornitho-economistsa new paper by Eyal Frank and Anant Sundarshan has found the use of a livestock drug in India induced the near-extinction of India’s vulture population (birds I remember marvelling at in a visit during the mid-1990s); sad on its own grounds but it also had a public health impact for humans. Vultures operated (and indeed still do elsewhere) as a sanitary means of getting rid of animal carcasses that would otherwise fester and provide rat fodder. The loss of the vultures led to an increase in diseases harmful to humans and a clear effect on human health. What a super paper.
  6. Tim Harford also started the year with a banger: a screed against the 7 worst email practices around. Shamefully, I am regularly guilty of one of them, which I am now committing to eradicate from my own practice (it’s the midnight email—which given that I’m often sending them to colleagues in the US is less bad, but his advice that I should just schedule them for 0800, when I am never at my desk, is probably good). Even better is this piece from last year, about the merits of storage—an investment in capacity which is usually not needed, but incredibly valuable on a small minority of occasions, when it cannot easily be purchased.
  7. I started the first links of the year with bad news. Let’s end it with some good (at least for fans of The Sopranos, the greatest television series ever made). In one of my favourite discoveries ever, it turns out that Frederico Castellucio, who in a near-miraculous demonstration of the actor’s craft managed to wear a ponytail and be terrifying at the same time when playing Furio Giunta, turns out to be a bona fide expert in baroque Italian artHe spotted a work by Guercino, a 16th Century Italian master whose paintings hand in the National Gallery, going on auction without having been identified and snapped it up. It turns out, after verification, to be worth $10 million, which would probably have been enough to put him in Tony’s good books forever. And if that’s not the pop culture you’re here for, perhaps I can interest you in this epic thread of Simpson’s trivia, from one of the show’s writers?

Happy new year, 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.