Economics & Marginalia: March 10, 2023

Hi all,

Apologies in advance if this week’s links seem somewhat truncated: we moved house this week, and between carrying various heavy items up and down (not least my son, who has been rather unimpressed with the whole process) and unpacking (a process somewhat slower than downloading a photo on a dial-up internet connection in 1998), it has all been something of a blur. I’m currently working with the laptop perched upon a box full of things I’d thought we’d thrown away, using my phone’s wifi hotspot and running up a truly ludicrous bill. Still, it will all be worth it when we’re finally unpacked and settled—the new kitchen features a wok hob and a vast amount of storage for wine, and we’ve finally got all our books out of storage, so my happiness is basically guaranteed. Well, provided we find enough space for the books. We’ve got many multiples more boxes full of books than we have boxes of all our other possessions combined, so I’m starting to worry we’ll need to open a bookshop. Called Economics and Marginalia, obviously.

  1. Economics and Marginalia would also have been a good name for Seinfeld, it seems. So much of Seinfeld is about the minutiae of everyday life, and if Gary Becker taught us anything, it’s that the minutiae of everyday life is the very stuff of economics. Planet Money speak to three economists who use the show to demonstrate how Seinfeld offers practical, lived examples of economic reasoning (transcript). My favourite section is Avinash Dixit (already the author of the paper that made me fall in love with economics) developing a model of ‘spongeability’ based on a tricky problem Elaine faces: how to—ahem—allocate her finite and yet perishable stock of her favourite contraception. It’s all fun until Dixit tries to sabotage my social life by pointing out that the logic of his model also applies to wine; essentially as stocks of a particularly good vintage decline, it makes sense to share them only with the people you value the most. So if any of you come round for dinner and I crack the 1977 Graham’s know you’re in rare company. But try not to overinterpret the Chateau Thames Embankment, if you get that instead.
  2. Also on Planet Money this week, a reminder that social norms are local: a story about how a woman with bad teeth found it difficult to find a job (transcript), something inconceivable in the UK, which is lucky as if you’ve met me you may have noticed that my smile is like a tube carriage at rush hour, much in line with British stereotypes.
  3. It’s been a really shocking week for the British: the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have been falling over each other in their race to use xenophobic, borderline racist and inflammatory language to justify essentially trying to make claiming asylum in the UK illegal. Meanwhile Matt Hancock’s text messages continues to reveal his staggering self-regard and willingness to sacrifice the electorate for his political career. And now, as if to drive home how low our governance has sunk, Singapore has published a 92 page White Paper critically examining its Covid response. No “we got the big calls right”, just an open and transparent assessment of failings and well-thought through ideas of how to try and avoid their repetition. No amount of blathering about being ‘world class’ can substitute for this sort of intelligent self-reflection, something we haven’t seen for a while on these shores.
  4. It was International Women’s Day this week, and I hope you were following the Gender Pay Gap app on it: it scours twitter for tweets mentioning IWD or gender equality and then automatically uses public information to compute the gender wage gap at the institution tweeting, and whether it has gotten better or worse since last year. Follow to see where the platitudes turn into action. And, with thanks to Anna, two more links for the weekend: first, Betsey Stevenson on the IMF podcast, talking about work-life balance; and for readers in the UK, the newly launched Royal Economic Society Women in Economics network.  
  5. Two good VoxDev write-ups on similar topics: first Miriam Bruhn and co-authors find that extending mobile money to very deprived rural areas in Uganda had little effect on the newly-covered, perhaps because they needed additional support to make the most of the services. Secondly, and more promisingly, Giorgia Balboni and Natalie Theys find introducing flexible repayment structures is good for both borrowers and lenders in India.
  6. Tim Harford has often written on the problem of bullsh*t—that is stuff that is plausible, but wrong or meaningless. It turns out that the new AIs like ChatGPT are prone to the same problem. This shouldn’t be surprising: they are language models, I believe—so they operate by simply stringing words together in a vaguely plausible manner, much like a British politician in the face of an even moderately challenging interview.
  7. I haven’t had time for very much fun reading this week—moving with a little toddler who also has to switch nurseries is mentally exhausting, and it’s taken every bit of economics on the internet to keep me going (of course, there are wonderful things about it too, as he has just found a box of clothes he’s outgrown and put them on, looking like that Steve Buscemi meme, and demanded I read him Hairy McClary eleven times in a row, hence this late email). But if you want cheering up at the end of the links, how’s this: after calling out the Government for its disgraceful treatment of refugees Gary Lineker (all-time World Cup leading scorer for England and all-round loveable chap) has been suspended from presenting the BBC’s flagship football programme—prompting all his co-presenters to step down, too. Good for them, and maybe there is some hope for England.

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.