Economics & Marginalia: September 29, 2023

September 29, 2023


Hi all,

By the end of the day, eight inches of rain may have chucked down on to New York’s streets; the UK’s decision to water down its environmental and climate policies look—against all odds—even stupider one week on than they did on the day of their announcement. As an act of wanton vandalism (something the Government has previous for), it rivals the actions of the miscreant who cut down the Sycamore Gap tree earlier this week. Quite apart from its meaning to Northumbrians (my wife, born in that part of the world, told me that there are memorials, memories and the ashes of many people beneath the tree), I found it more distressing than seemed reasonable; but the more I thought about it, what made it so disquieting was that there could be no motive beyond a wish to inflict pain on others, or to deprive them of something with meaning for them. The odd thing is that, at times, I get much the same sense about our political ructions over the last ten years or so: much of it seems to have been motivated by the desire to destroy things, rather than build them.

  1. On the topic of the wanton destruction of places that my wife was born to, Planet Money have a show on the latest economic disasters to befall—or be self-inflicted upon—Argentina (transcript). Truth be told, it’s a collection of cliches (tango! black market exchanges! moonlighting police officers!), but one thing it does rather well is paint a picture of what its like on a day-to-day basis to live in a place in economic freefall. There are many adaptations firms and workers make to try and adjust, some of which help prolong the crisis, but provide much needed short-term respite; and for most life goes on, just in more straitened terms. And when these crises are regular, it has a corrosive effect on political and economic institutions, to the point where it becomes a little difficult to see any way out short of tearing it all down and starting again.
  2. I really liked this, on David Deming’s new Substack, a celebration of papers that ask difficult but consequential questions using the best (but very imperfect) methods available. Like many other economists, it pains me that the incentives facing researchers mean that its sensible to compromise on the importance of the research question rather than the credibility of the method used. This makes a lot of sense at the level of an individual paper, but the advancement of human knowledge does not usually come one paper at a time, but through the development of whole literatures, and these literatures can be convincing even when no individual paper is the kind of slam dunk that makes people think of Vince Carter (and, as an aside, I increasingly question whether there is such a thing as a slam dunk paper, no matter how good it looks the first time you read it in QJE). I don’t think its on individual researchers to buck this trend (the game is the game, as Avon Barksdale often remarked) but it is incumbent on us, who use research in policy, to give due love to the good papers on great questions.
  3. Of course, sometimes the game is being gamed; Tim Harford has a good piece on scientific fraud (and its close cousin, bog-standard crap research), taking as its leaping-off point the Gino-Colada brouhaha (which, by the way, also prompted the best tweet since the dril masterpiece).
  4. Two research write-ups that I think are as interesting for the incidental detail and basic descriptives as they are for the central result: first David McKenzie on his new paper on zoom-based training for microentrepreneurs (in particular, one thing that had never occurred to me, but would have been obvious to a practitioner, is that one of the key constraints to delivering the training to more people at once is simply finding enough people who want to and are able to take the class at a specific time). And second, this very cool write up of a very cool experiment by 8 authors (seven women and one man, a ratio I’ve never seen before) on job applications in Pakistan. The best thing about the write up is how much I learnt about the ecosystem of job advertising and application the experiment took place in.
  5. Humanitarian aid to Somalia has been in the news recently for ‘widespread theft’. This piece by Erik Bryld explains that, with a proper understanding of exactly how refugees exist and find places to live in Mogadishu, things are much more complicated than they seem. Again, this is one of those things that you could only really know (and indeed critique) with a very practical understanding of the context, something I imagine relatively few outsiders have.
  6. I always greatly enjoy Branko Milanovic’s politically and economically literate recollections of his own childhood in Communist Yugoslavia. This, on the idea of a ‘red bourgeoisie’ that ruled countries like his is typically thought provoking, given a sense of the political and social complexity of the societies he is talking about. Always, if you have your eyes open and a curious mind, you will see the society you live in as much more complex than others observing from the outside have noticed (though they will of course see things you miss), but not everyone can or does express that well.  
  7. When my son was very very small and much less prone to rampaging into my meetings (apologies to my 1430 today), he couldn’t sleep for more than around 45 minutes at a stretch, and some nights even less than that (we later discovered the medical reason, and things are much better now). In those early days of his life, I would hold him in my arms for long stretches of the night while binge-watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Disney plus while half asleep. Accordingly, I regard the show with an affection out of all proportion to its actual quality. But if The Ringer want to celebrate its 10th anniversary with a celebration of all that was good about it, you’re going to get it here. And while we’re being nostalgic, its final closure prompts me to ask if any of you used Netflix’s actual mail-order service (or LoveFilm in some countries)? I still remember it, and still have boxes full of DVDs. The digitization of everything is generally a good thing, but somewhat perversely I do miss waiting for stuff sometimes.

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.