Economics & Marginalia: March 24, 2023

March 24, 2023

Hi all,

This week’s edition of The Chronicles of Unpacking is entitled “How much of my lifetime income was spent on all of these books, and why are there never enough shelves?” We’ve been unboxing books over the last four days, and we’re almost finished, but ran out of shelf space some time ago—a few are still to be chosen or installed, so the books are crowded together, piled upon each other like residents of a Hong Kong high rise (one of my favourite ways to live, by the way), or piled on the floor, in the space where we keep hoping a new bookcase will appear without us having to buy or assemble one. I’ve always firmly believed that there is no such thing as too many books, but as I put the third duplicate copy of Tender is the Night for the charity shop pile, I increasingly realise we need a home library app where my wife and I can keep track of what books we already own and what we’ve read and given away or lent to friends. Even the toddler has this problem: three copies of some inanity about a dinosaur that feels the need to solve everyone else’s emotional problems, when the ideal number is 0; and a copy of The Cat in the Hat where none is necessary, as everyone in the household has committed the whole thing to memory. And on that note, we now turn to the fun that is funny:

  1. Well, we know where that books-at-home app won’t be banking, don’t we? The Silicon Valley Bank collapse has now shifted off the news cycle, and is no long the point-and-laugh du jour of Twitter, but you could do much worse than start your weekend with this episode of Planet Money, which looks at the human side of the panic withdrawals which spelt its doom (transcript). So much of economics is behavioural: about how people process and respond to information, and each other. Often the best way for us to generalise these phenomena is to model them to abstraction, but it’s hard to do that well until you’ve spent a lot of time engaging with how people respond to things in real life (another reason why I think more economists—all people really—should read Studs Terkel).
  2. Today in things that left me gobsmacked: it turns out that in most states in the US, it is *not* mandatory to give kids a play break during the school day. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that it was even possible to run a school without recess breaks, and the research is pretty clear that such breaks are good for the kids. FiveThirtyEight are on it.
  3. Speaking of kids, anyone who has spent time in the presence of a verbal child can attest to the fact that they like asking questions, a lot. Tim Harford’s new book wants to put that characteristic to use in fighting disinformation. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it’s also pretty lethal to lies, provided it’s coupled with a little bit of context and open-mindedness.
  4. Two extremely cool write-ups in VoxDev this week: first, Faraz Usmani and co-authors look at what the size and source of the ‘NGO premium’ in project implementation isGenerally, projects implemented by NGOs have larger effects than the same interventions implemented by Governments. There are lots of reasons for this (NGOs may recruit more mission-driven and competent staff, for example), but the authors home in on one: NGOs may develop strong reputations in the areas they operate in, which means future interventions they run are more likely to be seen favourably and may garner higher and higher quality engagement from the people they aim to help. So when a pilot is implemented by an NGO, you may need to mentally discount the size of its impact if you’re thinking about replicating it. And secondly, Muhammad Haseeb and Kate Vyborny show that data-driven targeting of the BISP cash transfer programme in Pakistan made it both more pro-poor and more popular; their conclusion is music to my ears: invest in administrative data, because it’s an investment in state capacity.
  5. Extremely sadly, I missed the CSAE conference this year, but luckily for those like me, David Evans was there and summarises every paper with an education angle in his customarily concise-yet-informative manner. Maybe if I got Dave to do this with all those boxes of books, I could downsize a little?
  6. I enormously enjoyed this, by Jessica Hullman, on understanding versus researchIt captures the dilemmas of trying to understand the world versus trying to research it incredibly well, despite (or perhaps because of) having few clear-cut conclusions. There is too much I want to quote from it to do so here, but here is an edited excerpt that resonated very closely with me: “Pursuing understanding is why I like my job. I think of it as tied to the questions that I am chewing on but I can’t yet fully answer, because the answer is going to be complicated, connecting to many other things I’ve thought about in the past but without the derivation chain being totally clear. Maybe it even contradicts things I’ve thought or said in the past… I used to think that … real learning or understanding would manifest through bodies of work. Like if you look at my papers over the last ten years, you can see what I’ve come to understand. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate.
  7. We still don’t have a reliable internet connection at home (apparently our provider need to dig up the earth and summon some kind of internet demon before the wifi will appear), so my hoarding and luddism has finally been rewarded: since I still own a DVD player and lots of physical DVDs, we can still watch any episode of Columbo, Frasier or Veronica Mars ever made, which must surely the definition of luxury. It does mean we’ll be late on both University Challenge and the final season of Succession (a show I can only enjoy in very small doses, so unlikeable do I find literally everyone on camera, children included). The Ringer trail the new season in the most appropriate manner possible, ranking the top 100 uses of the f-word in the history of the show (frankly, the only reason it isn’t the top 1000 is the word limit). Still Succession isn’t close to the best show for profanity in TV history. Nope: that title belongs to Deadwood and only Deadwood. The only competition to the swearing in Deadwood Season 1 is the swearing in Deadwood Season 2. And lest I start cursing myself I’ll stop here.

Have a great weekend, everyone! The links are off for the next two weeks as I’m on leave and then travelling on Easter Friday.



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