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Economics & Marginalia: April 21, 2023

Hi all,

John Mortimer’s third autobiography (he was very long-lived; after each one he found he went through a lot of unexpected life, hence the trilogy) opens with the reflection that the marker of elderliness is the moment you realise you cannot put on your own socks. I think the Rubicon of middle-age is when the highlight of your Friday is loading the car with the accumulated debris of the cardboard boxes you’ve unpacked in the house and taking them down to the tip (I suspect that would be a ‘municipal garbage dump’ to my American readers). I hit that landmark today and clearing space in the living room and tidying up was a deeper satisfaction than I got from any cocktail bar I went to in my twenties, let me tell you. A hoarder at heart, I used to laugh at Marie Kondo, but I’ve reached that stage of life where I’m no longer thanking my old possessions before throwing them out so much as cackling gleefully as I hurl them into the landfill. Even the economics and politics I read this week didn’t bring me that much joy, but on to it anyway:

  1. Very few interviewees are as consistently thoughtful, self-reflective and interesting as Daniel Kahneman. He always seems willing to reflect on mistakes, his own biases and how he has come to where he is intellectually. This Jolly Swagman podcast interview with him is great, and difficult to pick a favourite part of: talking about his collaborations and relationship with Amos Tversky, how he changed his mind on happiness and the discussion of how teams develop (which I really relate to). Highly recommended.
  2. Not Neo-Liberalism or Interventionism, but a secret, third thing: this piece by Yuen Yuen Ang on the third way between the false binary of economic policy philosophies we often reduce policy choice to is excellent, and in particular this passage: “As an economy becomes more complex and technologically advanced, it becomes harder – perhaps even impossible – for governments to pick winners. Innovation, after all, is inherently uncertain.”
  3. I bang on in these links about the need to know what your measures actually measure; indeed, there was a 12 month stretch of my career where that was essentially my entire schtick: I would give presentations giving examples of how moving in time or space can dramatically change the meaning of a statisticsMy two favourite examples were trees and corpses. The legal definition of what a tree is varies between the US and the UK, so counting ‘tree cover’ means very different things (it boils down to how thick the trunk needs to be before it can count as a tree, which has implications for whether a young tree is counted as a tree or not); similarly, in the US, to be legally dead and recorded as such, some states require two medical examiners to declare a person to be deceased, others only one. A corpse crossing state lines could theoretically become a zombie until a second opinion is obtained. This kind of thing matters enormously in development statistics, too, and I’ve always been fascinated by what we choose to count as ‘working’ and ‘in the labour force’ for the purposes of globally comparable dataKathryn Beegle has a great blog that sets out how that definition has recently changed, and why it means that Rwanda’s labour force participation rate has recently ‘plummeted’; and why this change is particularly important for counting what women do. Also on the data front from the Bank: Julian Ashwin and Vijayendra Rao on a new approach to coding qualitative data.
  4. If, like me, you rub your hands together with glee whenever Dave Evans publishes something, you should read this: he discusses how he decides what to publish, how and in what formIf you write, and (again like me) aspire to be as productive and effective as Dave you should definitely read it.
  5. Once again: when people reading polls make very strong and incorrect claims, that does not mean the polls were wrong. Usually, it just means that people misstated what the polls actually said. Andrew Gelman on the myth that the 2022 US polls got it badly wrong: they didn’t, and are almost always pretty darn accurate. It’s just that people can’t help themselves from seeing that X is slightly favoured over Y and thinking X is going to happen. Much of the issue is that polls are probabilistic; most punditry isn’t. And Tim Harford on how pundits can basically always be right.
  6. Two good pieces from VoxDev this week: first, kids have agency, and that matters for how you encourage their enrolment and performance in school. And secondly, Barthelemy Bonadio on the relative impact of investments in roads improvements and ports improvements in India. His modelling-based approach finds larger welfare benefits from port improvements than roads (exports, baby!) and also have a better return-on-investment than roads.
  7. I began the links celebrating my leap into middle-age; some would say my birdwatching habit is another symptom of that (it’s not, unless I became middle-aged as a teenager, which is plausible). But birding is becoming harder and harder in the UK, the US and probably almost everywhere else in the world. And this isn’t because I increasingly go birding with my two-and-a-half year-old, who acts as my own personal bird repellent with his running, shouting and singing. We’re in the middle of a mass die-off of birds, and it’s happening at an alarming rate, as Mark Cocker writes in the Grauniad here. One of the issues we have is that we have far too little data, so let me end the links with a couple of app recommendations. If you like going for walks and find you can never identify the bird you’re hearing or seeing, download Merlin to your phone: it has an incredible sound recorder app which identifies all the birds whose calls are audible and brings up a picture of each as its singing to help you identify them (you can also use it to identify birds by what they look like and where you see them). And if you’re really keen, download eBird and start keeping lists of what you see. The data from each is shared with researchers and helps, modestly, the cause of conservation.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

R

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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.