Economics & Marginalia: May 10, 2024

Hi all,

It was hit-and-miss for a while—there were a good few weeks when I thought the UK would just completely forego spring and summer and transition directly from winter into autumn—but there are tentative signs of summer in London. London in the summer is a bit like a bird that spends 11 months of the year dressed in drab brown plumage and then suddenly develops a bright pink mohawk, green leggings and a tail that looks like Rapunzel’s hair for its breeding season. It is *transformed*. Flowers bloom, gardens suddenly spring to life with barbecues and conversation. People even smile at each other occasionally. It’s over in the blink of an eye, so you have to enjoy it, which in my case means reading about economics on a bench in the back garden rather than in my office. And there was plenty this week.

  1. It’s almost Mother’s Day in the US, and to celebrate, Nancy Birdsall has a piece out about motherhood in the international financial institutions, though really it could apply to mothers in any development agency. She considers her own journey to senior leadership positions in both the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank and counts the ways in which she was lucky in her experience as a mother and a wife (or partner). The barriers to success she identifies are still there (though perhaps better known, which is the first of many steps to being dismantled). But it’s good to read this sort of reflective piece by someone who made it; too often the impulse is to suggest that their own success means that anyone can succeed. That may be true in one sense. When the stars align, anyone can complete the course at Takeshi’s castle; but that’s not the point. The problem is the massive boulders still get thrown at the next person in line. And while we’re talking about gender: Bilge Erten and Pinar Keskin on how WTO accession in Cambodia was associated with higher rates of intimate partner violence.

  2. I really enjoyed this: Branko Milanovic on how the changing nature of higher education provision helps explain how the spate of protests on US university campuses has been handledHis argument is that the commercialisation of higher education means that leadership is pursuing a different set of values in its actions (unrelated to what they say their values are). You don’t need to agree to think this is a fantastic and evocative sentence: “universities … were … not seen exactly like sausage factories. They were supposed to produce better people. But this was forgotten in the scramble for revenue and donors’ money. Thus the sausage factory cannot stop, and the police needs to be called in.

  3. While we’re on the subject of how the sausage gets made, Girija Borker’s job market paper (which investigated how the threat of harassment shaped Indian women’s educational choices) was one of my favourites of the last few years. In this podcast, she describes the story behind how it came about, and how her own experiences shaped the research question she asked. This is why diversity matters so much in policy and research: our life experiences are very different depending on who we are. The questions we even think to ask are a product of that.

  4. Now we’ve warmed up, here’s a techy post about calculate adequate sample sizes to answer a specific research question, complete with code, by Andrew Gelman. I think this is absolutely fantastic, and it will change how I approach these problems in the future. It is hard to summarise, but if this is a problem you ever deal with, I think this is worth reading.

  5. The Data Colada crew have an update on their experience of being sued by a Harvard Professor for their careful examination of her highly cited research, which they suggested indicated research fraud had been committed. They are trying to get the case thrown out, but if it isn’t the next stage should get very interesting indeed.

  6. This was very good as well: David McKenzie’s reflections on a recent conference he attended, and specifically the lessons he took from it on the use of experimentation in public policy in Europe. Much of what he says resonates. Though my own interests lie in organizational decision-making, I’ve found that persuading policymakers of the benefit of experimenting on their processes and using randomization to learn about how their systems work is very difficult. There is a squeamishness there, and a feeling that if a system has survived it must add value. As David points out, the last point is particularly egregious. The whole thing is worth reading.

  7. Finally, my favourite thing of the week (though I’m very late to is), was this fantastic article about why some people are good at navigation and others aren’t. I am really good at directions in chaotic, enclosed cities like Hong Kong but terrible at finding my way on highways and between large cities in the UK. It turns out that this isn’t unusual: people become good at finding their way through experience, and what you experience determines what skills you develop (to a large extent, anyway). It also explains some gender differences in navigation—a great deal simply reflects social norms (and danger, to call back to link three) that make it harder for girls to ‘roam’ and learn landscapes than boys.

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.