Economics & Marginalia: April 14, 2023

Hi all,

I’ve been away for the last couple of Fridays, so this week there is an absolute mass of material to get through this week. I’ve been brutal in editing it down: there are probably ten times as many interesting bits of esoteric statistics, development economics and political commentary from the last three weeks as I’ve managed to fit in here, and another twenty times more that I didn’t manage to read at all. I think the best solution to this problem is for the world to stop when I have to take a break from the links for work or travel reasons. If we could all agree to coordinate on my movements, I will be most grateful, please and thank you.  And now, back to the links, which are back to weekly for the foreseeable future (which, given the amount of stuff still to sort out in the new house and the coming of the NBA playoffs is not very far into the future at all).

  1. It’s Spring Meetings week, which means the world converges on DC to discuss the World (Bank, that is); it’s a week of particularly high-powered navel-gazing as we talk about billions, even (fictional) trillions of dollars, global challenges, high politics and big personalities. And what comes of it all? This time, a sense of creeping disappointment, so far at least. The Bank had a big job this week: to present a realistic plan to being a bigger World Bank, working on all the biggest global challenges; and to reassure its poorer client countries that it wouldn’t leave them behind. It hasn’t done either. I wrote earlier in the week about why it needed to address the trade-offs between an expanded role on more problems and meeting the need to fight global poverty, but it has signally failed to do so, despite pushing from African leaders. The clearest way out of this trade-off was a lot more money, which it isn’t going to get. Ken Opalo has written very well about the puzzling geopolitics behind both the reform process and its lack of clarity about trade-offs and the US’s apparent uninterest in mobilising a big capital increase. Highly recommended (as is this excellent piece about the US’s inability to compete with China in Africa).
  2. While we’re talking about failure, here’s Tim Harford on the economics profession and its continued, glaring failure to diversify the voices that constitute its collective (disharmonious, but not disharmonious enough) voice. What I like very much about this piece is that doesn’t just focus on academic economics (which is terrible, terrible on diversity), but also on the undergraduates and Masters students who go on to become policymakers, often with a great deal of influence on Government policy. Economics being disproportionately male and well-off has an influence on policy, not just on who appears in the latest issue of JPE. In contrast, Planet Money look at publishing, which has made enormous strides towards (gender) equality, though the reasons aren’t all that encouraging. Being lower-paid, more women may be selecting in (or men select out), and the innate flexibility of writing makes it more compatible with an unequal burden of childcare. Even the successes have the taint of deeper failure.
  3. Over the last couple of years I’ve had a number of conversations with specialists on agriculture in Africa and in developing countries more broadly, and I am increasingly convinced that one of the biggest wins for long term global welfare that we simply aren’t paying enough attention to is the need for research and development that is specifically geared towards African agriculture. What global R &D that does happen is usually particularly unsuited to African crops and conditions and as a result are of limited use and rarely adopted—leading to an expanding productivity gap, when it should be shrinking. This really nice VoxDev piece by Jacob Moscona and Karthik Sastry document the shocking extent of this, well-worth reading. It’s not all bad, though—a blockbuster set of authors (Kelsey Jack, Seema Jayachandran, Namrata Kala and Rohini Pande) have a great new RCT which points to promising ways of reducing crop residue burning in India, a practice with enormous local welfare implications, as well as global carbon costs.
  4. David McKenzie’s round-up of what we know about direct support by governments to firms in developing countries is really superb. One of the stories he tells here, about how access to some of these schemes was made unduly complicated to reward politically connected firms (note that overall his assessment of such direct support is positive, though) really chimes with something I saw in Nepal when visiting for what was then DfID. I spoke to a bunch of businesses, who all gave me the same happy assessment of the regulatory environment they were working in—a product of immense survivorship bias: any firms well connected enough to emerge from that labyrinth were definitely grateful for the maze behind them to keep the competition off their backs.
  5. I was unpacking a box of my favourite economics and philosophy books last night and pulled out a sequence about inequality in some way or another (the best of which from that box were probably Anthony Atkinson’s Inequality and Anne Phillips’ Unconditional Equals). One of the things that has always struck me about the study of inequality is just how many ways there are to both conceptualize and measure it, and how much you need to pay attention to these details to catch subtle differences in how we should interpret work taking different measures or ideas of inequality as their basis. Branko Milanovic always writes very clearly about this, and I very much like this piece comparing the Italian and English schools of conceptualizing what we do when we measure inequality.
  6. This might be one for the statisticians in the audience (or those armed with a strong cup of coffee). But Andrew Gelman is writing about p-values, and what they mean. If that sentence chimes with you, let me assure you, it is every bit as good as that sounds.
  7. I came to twitter late (though pretty enthusiastically, as my wife points out, as I scroll endlessly through the arguments, basketball highlights and Khoa Vu memes that make up my timeline). When I joined I would occasionally see tweets from an account with a grainy Jack Nicholson avatar that made no sense to me whatsoever. My epiphany, my gateway into the world of dril was the ISIL tweet. For reasons I can’t quite grasp it still makes me gasp with laughter whenever I see it, quite possibly the best tweet ever made. Anyway, I could cater to the three readers who are as obsessed with basketball or cricket as I am (and here is a basktetball x small sample size mash up you might like), but for the rest of you, the Ringer meet @dril, in real life: read it, and maybe it will be your gateway to some of the funniest things the internet has produced.

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.