Economics & Marginalia: July 14, 2023

Hi all,

One of the joys of being a cricket fan is following the Guardian’s Over-by-Over (OBO) commentary on the day’s cricket. I discovered it while working Malawi and trying to surreptitiously keep track of the Sri Lanka tour of England in 2006 (this was the tour in which Murali took the first 8 wickets to fall in England’s second innings before Chamara Kapugedera ran out Matthew Hoggard, much to the horror of every Sri Lankan on earth, Kapu’s friends and family included; it was followed the ODI in which we chased 300+ on the basis of twin centuries from Sanath Jayasuriya and Upul Tharanga as openers). I don’t raise this out of pure nostalgia, though it is incredibly nostalgic to think of a competent Sri Lankan team, but because of a quirk of the coverage: every so often, an over would be missed, or there would be an inexplicable 15 minute break in the coverage (you knew because you were clicking the refresh button every 15 seconds, it was not a very productive summer). They inevitably blamed this on ‘technical issues’, which was a euphemism for a bathroom break, a trip to the shops to get a high-powered caffeine drink called Relentless or a fifteen minute power nap. However, I can comprehensively promise you that the delay in getting last week’s links out was not due to any of these things, but to real, dyed-in-the-wool technical issues. The links are now automated (in the sense that the email is sent out by a programme, not in the sense that they’re outsourced to ChatGPT), and we had an issue with the programme we use last week. It looks like it’s fixed now, but if you get this on Monday (or heaven forfend, Tuesday), you know what to blame: Gremlins.

  1. It maybe cheating, but I am going to open this week’s links with a meta-link: that’s right, a link to a set of links. But these aren’t just any links, they’re Saloni Dattani’s Scientific Discovery links, which have been absent for about half a year. She reads incredibly widely and writes incredibly well, and you will learn an enormous amount in about 10 minutes spent on this page. She covers the global uptick in twin births, a fascinating study on conversation, cancer in the Tasmanian Devil population and a fantastic graph of ‘left-digit bias’, the phenomenon whereby people treat the jump in price from $3.99 to $4.00 as much more substantial than a one cent change. Highly recommended (and not just because she’s a fellow Hong Konger).
  2. Two good links on the economics of gender: first, Hannah Uckat summarises her research which shows that promotion for women increases their bargaining power at home, as well as having positive spillover effects on other women they work with. And secondly, Antonia Paredes-Haz has a really interesting paper on the consequences of a novel voting mechanism in Chile which enforces a gender quota among legislators. The quirks of how the system work seem to have affected voter behaviour positively, inducing them to vote for more competent candidates. Both of these came from VoxDev, still one of the best websites around.
  3. Somewhere in the middle of this excellent Planet Money interview with Emi Nakamura (transcript), she compares macroeconomics to Neurath’s boat, though she doesn’t use that phrasing herself. She explains that the global economy has changed so much and so fundamentally over time that, though macroeconomists have learnt a great deal about the hazards of navigating it, they are constantly needing to ‘rebuild their ship’ to brave the changing seas, without the luxury of ever calling in at a port to assess everything and design a new boat from scratch. She is an incredibly impressive interviewee (as well as researcher), despite the annoying framing of the interview (macro is fake blah blah blah; I’m not sure any microeconomists should be calling any other disciplines fake right now). She explains quite patiently how little data we have to answer such important questions, and how we make improvements, but are constantly chasing a moving target. It’s very good. (Also, Planet Money’s econ summer school has started again: follow it here.)
  4. Dani Rodrik in Project Syndicate (paywalled, register for free) on the limits of technological innovation as a strategy for welfare improvements. His argument is simple but compelling: a great deal of welfare improvements will come from less advanced firms becoming more advanced within the universe of known technologies. Too little of policy focuses on this relative to expanding the universe of known technologies.
  5. Alex Tabarrok covers an excellent new paper that argues that the effects of pollution on birthweight are likely overstated by the microeconomic literature; it is hard to reconcile the ‘causal’ estimates with the real-world data on how birthweight varies with pollution across cities with varying levels of pollution. It is very much worth reading both the original paper and Alex’s excellent commentary.
  6. I occasionally give lectures which include an intro to international development: what it means, what progress we’ve had and so on. Occasionally I start with a straw poll asking students if they think the world has gotten better or worse for the poor over the last century, and it’s always very striking to me how many people choose ‘worse’. Tim Harford’s latest post takes a rather longer view, but in looking at how much cheaper nails are today than when they were a treasure to be hidden from your enemies, there’s an element of the truth I’m trying to get across by the end of those lectures: there may be much left to do, but it’s a mistake to take for granted just how much better material conditions are today than they were in even the fairly recent past.
  7. Finally: on Monday, University Challenge resumes, and for the first time in my adult life, it will not be presented by Jeremy Paxman, who signed off at the end of his last season (after nearly 30 years!) by simply observing that he was looking forward to watching it with us—a gentle end to a sometimes savage tenure. I’m quite pleased with the choice of Amol Rajan as his replacement, but also anxious: for as long as I’ve been in the UK it’s been one of the most pleasurable half-hours of the week for me (my wife cannot believe that in neither stint at university did I apply to be on; I think she mainly wanted me to go on so I wouldn’t be annoying her by pressing the imaginary buzzer in front of me and barking out answers—many incorrect—each week). If you’re a fan of quiz shows, I can’t recommend it highly enough. And if quiz shows aren’t your thing (though the Venn diagram of people who enjoy reading these links and people who aren’t into obscure facts must be vanishingly small), let me give you nightmares instead: a truly horrifying AI trailer for Heidi.

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.