Economics & Marginalia May 20, 2022

May 20, 2022


Hi all,

There are some upsides of a baby that rises in anticipation of the first rays of the morning sun, and for whom the period between ‘completely asleep’ and ‘maniacally wired’ is measured in seconds (sadly a trait inherited from his father). One of them, which lasts for just a few weeks each year, is that it means I’m effectively operating on the right time zone to watch the NBA playoffs, and this year has been one of the best in memory: the giants have mainly been felled, Luka has a arrived (and treated us to perhaps the greatest moment in NBA history, when he shot this look at Devin Booker while happily burying the Suns), and if Golden State win, we’re going to have to add Steph Curry alongside Jordan and LeBron as the greatest player ever. This is the only few weeks of the year when I’m happy to be woken up at 3am.

  1. The best thing I read all week was this incredible twitter thread by Chris Blattman. He tells the story of how, on a trip to Liberia in 2009 he became an early case in the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic of that year, and how it scuppered his plans to do field visits on a research project with his partner. Instead, he stuck around in Monrovia and visited a friend, who ran a programme helping young people involved in crime leave that life behind. This became, eventually, an RCT which looked at the effects of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and cash transfers on criminal activity—finding large reductions. The ten-year follow up has now been written up, and the results are quite extraordinary: the effects on crime are large and sustained, making this likely to be one of the most cost-effective interventions you can run. He also has a great blog this week, discussing how violence reduction in cities often goes hand-in-hand with more powerful and organised crime syndicates.
  2. Euan Ritchie and I published a couple of pieces this week, too: after scraping an inordinate amount of data down from DevTracker, the UK’s aid programmes database, we’ve published a paper looking at the effect of the Quality Assurance system on how UK aid programmes are structured. We find that in DFID, the establishment of QA led to clear manipulation of the threshold for review—that is people making projects smaller to avoid having to run the QA gauntlet, but this wasn’t paired with an obvious difference in quality above or below the threshold. We’re very clear in the thread, though: we don’t necessarily see this as proof that review doesn’t work, but as a window on how difficult it is to structure and to measure the effects of. We also have a piece, with Sam Hughes, about how hard it’s going to be to scale up to 0.7 next year if the OBR projections are correct and the Chancellor’s two tests are indeed met. In it, I compare Liz Truss to Richard Pryor, which I’m confident is a first in UK political commentary.
  3. Staying on UK policy, John Burn-Murdoch’s FT piece this week is an excellent data-driven look at immigration and attitudes to it in the UK. The headline is a good summary: the UK is now a high immigration society, and most people are fine with that.
  4. Normally in the mornings, after the basketball and trying to prevent my son from scaling various dangerous items of furniture or finding where we keep the wine (he’s got a nose for it, somehow), I hand over to my wife and sit glassy-eyed for a few minutes before starting work; it’s rare I read anything while getting ready, so low is my mental capacity. But I was so engrossed in Branko Milanovic’s review of Amartya Sen’s autobiography (which I loved and have discussed before) that I read it even while brushing my teeth. Branko makes a point that in retrospect seems obvious, but which I didn’t fully register as I read the book. The first part is full of critical analysis of Indian politics and thought; but with the exception of Joan Robinson, Piero Sraffa and Maurice Dobbs very few of the figures and thinkers in the second part get the same treatment, flitting across the page briefly and in glowing terms. Perhaps it will all come out in a sequel. Related, via Vijayendra Rao, Brad DeLong’s appreciation of JK Galbraith, who also features in Sen’s book briefly.
  5. Do you subscribe to Data is Plural? You should. Jeremy Singer-Vine’s newsletter is fantastic, and 538 reprint an edition to whet your appetite.
  6. Interesting VoxEU write-up of research that suggest that autocracies stifle innovation relative to places with better institutions, though, fortunately, the policy implication is not just ‘have a better history’, but a little more practical.
  7. Lastly, this week I’ve needed cheering up occasionally, and these three links did it for me pretty well. First, this is why the internet exists: someone, for some reason, has put the final dance in Dirty Dancing to the Muppet Show theme song, and it is everything you imagine and more (by the way, if you watch the Muppet Show, you might notice during the closing credits that the musical coordinator is Ray Charles. Is it the same one? I like to think so). Higher brow, but only marginally less uplifting: the incredible prologue of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography, which has sent me scurrying off to my online retailer of choice. And finally, after the recent opening of Parliament, here’s the Black Rod’s entry to the House, set to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, with every ‘Thunder!’ replaced with ‘Black Rod!’. You may not know you need this, but you do.

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.