Economics & Marginalia May 6, 2022

May 06, 2022

Hi all,

Local elections are rarely pulse-quickening affairs in the UK; turnout tends to be something akin to county cricket match on a rainy day—that’s two men and a dog, for those who have never partaken of the peculiar pleasures of the English County Championship—but today something a little more exciting is happening: an acceleration of the realignment of British politics. No longer is Labour the party of the working class, but increasingly the party of ‘everywhere with a university’; no longer a the Conservatives the rich southerner’s party. It’s remarkable how much of political history appears to consist of things staying the same for an excruciatingly long period of time and then changing incredibly quickly. I suppose it’s because the underlying forces that drive change, change continuously; but change itself—in political systems, economic power and national policy—happens in 0/1 binaries. When one reaches the tipping point, many others tend to be close behind it.

  1. Speaking of gradual shifts that lead to sudden, binary changes: the news that the Supreme Court, trending conservative over time, are poised to repeal Roe vs. Wade—the judgement that essentially meant that some form of abortion service must be made legal in every state—will change 50 years of practice nearly overnight. There is a huge amount to read on this, but two pieces I found particularly striking: first, 538 dig into the polling numbers and show that most voters are not in favour of this change. The story is complex, varying with the precise question and details, but also suggest that the likely impact—22 states outlawing abortion in all or most cases—is way out of line with popular opinion. And this in the FT highlights one particular way this matterschildbirth is a dangerous business in the US, with maternal mortality rates shockingly high for such a rich country; and black women—those least likely to be able to afford to simply travel to a state in which abortion remains legal have far worse outcomes than average, and they are getting worse at an alarming rate. Every few weeks, I see a new statistic about US healthcare that makes my jaw drop, but this graph left me completely speechless.
  2. That graph says something quite shocking about the lottery of birth (and by the way, I am planning to start including graphs directly in the links in the future—do let me know if you think this will somehow interrupt your reading experience). Nancy Birdsall has started an autobiographical series about her life and career and how they relate to big themes in international development and economics over timethe first of which focuses on precisely this: her good luck in being born in a time, place and milieu that made progress and prosperity possible, or easier. The second touches on how the casual, pervasive sexism of America in the 1960s proscribed the choices available to her; both are well worth reading. You can subscribe to future updates here.
  3. I mentioned last week that Stefan’s new book was shortly to be published: it was released yesterday, and he summarises the key themes on Duncan Green’s blog; but if you want to order it, you might need to move fast: the bookstores appear to be running out of copies. And Stefan is not the only one who has a new book out:  his some-time co-author Chris Blattman’s Why We Fight has also been recently released, and he’s on superb form talking about it in conversation with Tyler Cowen. I particularly liked this passage “there’s usually a narrow set of people who decide whether or not to go to war, and those people are either accountable or not accountable to lots of people. In the places where they’re accountable to everybody else, people have an enormous amount of stake not to go to war…”; there is a lot of intellectual chemistry between Stefan and Chris’s work. And if you want to hear more from Chris about this, be sure to sign up to the next Future of Development seminar I’m organising with Shanta Devarajan, where Chris will discuss some of the ideas from his book with Kate Cronin-Furman.
  4. James Robinson proposes a novel (to economists, at least) explanation for low tax compliance in Africa—that tax aversion with deep historical roots continues to play a role today. And also from VoxEU, a good piece suggesting that remote collaborations are now becoming more productive as the lack of face-to-face and coincidental engagement that helps spur innovation is offset by the effect of multiple networks of thinkers and collaborators being connected by non-co-located teams.
  5. I really enjoyed this piece by Tim Harford on the limits of nudges: that shifts in behaviour only solve problems when behaviour is the root of the problem. Very often, though, systemic issues are much more important that the behavour of individuals within that system. I think it’s a straw man to say that the best proponents of nudges don’t recognise this; but much of the appeal of nudges to Governments has been precisely that it absolves them from solving harder, more complex systemic issues. And related, if you’re planning on giving to charity this month, consider this appeal from Tim, to support hospice care. The thread is very moving indeed.
  6. Really nice VoxDev write up of research from Colombia on the effect of hidden deals among politicians on the quality and expense of public policy.
  7. Lastly, I assume everyone who gets these links already follows Khoa Vu’s twitter account, but if you don’t you absolutely must. Khoa’s stock-in-trade is economics memes (he’s a proper researcher and everything too, of course). The memes are frequently hilarious, but even better they are accurate, and quite brilliant. You can actually learn something about economics by working out why some of his memes are funny; and at the very least the kind of brain that sees connections like he does deserves to be followed. Recent highlights include his thread on Met Gala outfits, his spot-on depiction of the effect of multiple rounds of peer review on a paper, and, in a tweet that felt like an attack, his take on the three-paper dissertation.

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.