Economics & Marginalia: March 3, 2023

Hi all,

I’m writing the links from my in-laws’ place in Northumberland this week. There are many joys of being out here: having a woods just behind the house to take my son for a walk in, good food and beaches and most of all, the wildlife. Previous visits have been enlivened by pine martens, weasels and hedgehogs; the highlight of this trip has been an absolutely enormous starling murmuration a few minutes down the road from us. My wife and I just stood by a highway watching them ebb and flow for 30 minutes, until neither of us could feel our fingers anymore. Almost as fun, to find the best spot to watch them, we needed to get out an old Ordnance Survey Map, and as a result I’ve discovered that within 5 miles of this house, we have a Hangman’s Hill, a Devil’s Causeway and a village called Pity Me. I often drag the UK in the links, and it’s true that we elect turnips and vote for policies that increase our turnip intake, but the birding and rural place names really are top class.

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  1. Everyone likes to bash consultants. As a species they are slightly less-loved than spiders, though substantially more likely to infest your place of business (and no one has yet made the Jerry Maguire about a loveable consultant working for the betterment of their client). Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington have a new book out about what they call The Big Con, and summarise their key arguments in Project Syndicate here (you may need to register to read this article, but you should be able to access one each week for free). I have some sympathy for their discontent with the profession, but also a reservation. Lots of companies exist to do things that in a well-functioning economy, company or state you wouldn’t need. When complex regulations, opaque rules or vested interests make things like transporting a good, or servicing a fleet of vehicles, or reorganizing a division of a company or Government department very difficult, people who specialise in doing these things from the outside will always spring up. They may not even be very good at them, but they take it out of your hands for you. So consultancies may simply reflect imperfections elsewhere; blaming them is like blaming the water for entering a leaky roof. And they may be useful even if they’re bad at what they do. Being the hate figure for an organizational restructure is sometimes more important than the work in designing it.
  2. Meta-analyses have been getting an absolute kicking on EconTwitter recently, after the Cochrane collaboration paper on masking came out, and one of the authors made some fairly unsupported statements about one of the studies it covered. Over at Data Colada, their third piece in their series eviscerating the very conceptual basis for meta-analysis is out, and is a wonderfully clear and enjoyable read—including the footnotes. Their basic argument is that at a fundamental level, the quantity we manage to extract from a meta-analysis may be something very different to what we actually want to know, and may not be a meaningful number in any fashion at all.
  3. Speaking of EconTwitter, Planet Money have a show about economics memes, which—as everyone knows—means paying homage to Khoa Vu, a true genius. His ability to distil some of the absurdities of economics into a single image is incredible, and I genuinely think it demonstrates a clarity of thought and understanding few economists have achieved (transcript).
  4. I’ve linked a lot to Ken Opalo’s substack recently, but he just keeps churning out the good stuff. This piece on the World Bank, and the reform that poor countries need (but almost certainly will not get) is excellent from start to finish.
  5. One of the striking things that research into working patterns, which has really taken off since the onset of the pandemic, has shown is that things that seem like concessions to worker preferences tend to increase productivity; and yet, many employers resolutely oppose them. FiveThirtyEight have a good summary of this, pointing out that the downsides that employers assume are mainly not evidenced, while the upsides increasingly are. Employer resistance to making work more amenable to the private lives of workers seems to stem from a deeply-held belief that their workers are, at some level, constantly trying to avoid their job, and the work of a manager is to hound them into exerting effort (to be fair, many economic models assume basically this relationship). That’s how we wind up with Jacob Rees-Mogg walking the rooms of Whitehall looking for unoccupied desks; it’s not just his idiocy that’s tiring, it’s his assumption that by making life easier for workers, you’re facilitating their desire not to work. Life, and management, is so much easier when you trust people and manage them to maximise their abilities, not harry them.
  6. I don’t know quite how to summarise this piece by Branko Milanovic, but it’s not very long so just read it. He talks about Governments of ‘limited vice’, who take their role to be keeping vice to its allowable arenas. I have no idea if it’s right, but it is—as always—interesting.
  7. Finally, it takes a certain amount of style to pull off a good moustache; I knew a man in Zanzibar who managed to sport a florid moustache, wear a bowler hat, a shirt and a pair of very short shorts and still be the subject of only mild heckling whenever he left the house. LitHub selects some of the best moustaches in the world of literary adaptations, and have a few very good ones in the list, notably Daniel Day-Lewis’s from There Will Be Blood. But it manages to omit the two best moustaches in televisual history, specifically David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot and Sam Elliot as The Stranger in The Big Lebowski, and now I can never trust LitHub again.

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.