Economics & Marginalia April 29, 2022

April 29, 2022


Hi all,

It’s incredible how much there is to catch up on after just two weeks away. We went away over Easter to the wilds of Northumberland, where my son spent hours tramping around the forest, pointing out birds (ornithology clearly runs in the family) and demonstrating the bravery—or bad judgement, if you’re not feeling charitable—to run at full pelt into the absolutely freezing North sea. It was a near-complete break from economics (though I did follow, with relief, the French elections); I returned to an RSS feed 700 articles deep, so forgive me if something brilliant was published that I just haven’t got round to reading yet; I’d have done more justice to the list if NBA League Pass wasn’t eating up all my spare time. My hot take before the playoffs started was that the Nets would be swept, so I’m feeling pretty good about my predictions at the moment. Tips available on application.

  1. The big news of the week, of course, is that Stefan Dercon has finally joined twitter. He claims that he’s going to limit his tweets to promoting his new book, Gambling on Development, but he’s already testing the limits of that promise: there are cat photos, stories about how he might have accidentally drawn up a blueprint for corrupt politicians in Malawi, stories about monarchs complaining about their politicians and cat photosAn obvious follow.
  2. Martin Sandbu interviews Branko Milanovic, a superb read (part of a longer series of FT writers interviewing top economists). It’s an excellent discussion, starting with global inequality—and the fact that China no longer contributes to its decline—but continuing into the themes of his book, Capitalism, Alone, which argues that capitalism (in different forms, but unmistakably only capitalism) is the only system of economic organisation in serious play globally now. There is a brief coda on the impact sanctions on Russia at the end. Related: Tyler Cowen interviewing Thomas Piketty; largely about inequality, but wide-ranging within that. He talks about his attitude towards data that stretches back many centuries, reparation to Haiti and his vision for European federalism. Highly recommended.
  3. Very good reflections by Berk Ozler on the power and ethical considerations involved in blogging about and criticising papers (especially working papers) by other, often more junior, researchers. I particularly like his use of Agnes Callard’s “arguing is collaborating” exclamation, which I think is generally true of my style of collaboration—though I have learnt that reining it in helps get the best out of both me and most (but not all) of my collaborators. One point he doesn’t make enough of, though, is dissimilarity of audience. When one side of an argument has a much larger audience than the other, there can be reputational effects that are undue and unrelated to the strength of the arguments being made, especially when (some of) the audience is not well placed to independently adjudicate on the relative merits of the positions being taken. When Big Person X criticises Little Person Y, many readers will make assumptions about who is right, and that should induce some reflection. That said, for DI specifically, I’ve never read something I thought was out-of-bounds. It always focuses on the ideas, and is always constructive and a good teacher.
  4. I loved this Tim Harford piece about AI and the Turing Test, which made a point that had never occurred to me before. One way of helping a machine pass the Turing test is to raise the machine’s ability to match its human counterpart. Another is to drag the human down the machine’s level. It reminds me of the aphorism commonly attributed to Twain: “Never wrestle a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”
  5. Diane Coyle has a really good Project Syndicate piece discussing different forms of competition and how a narrow view of what constitutes competition can reduce, rather than increase welfare; she concludes: “healthy markets require competition between business models, as well as along traditional dimensions such as price, quality, and innovation. Achieving this will require either more active enforcement or regulatory intervention.”
  6. This one is close to home, literally: Planet Money cover the prolonged train wreck that is the Sri Lankan economy. It’s hard to explain how bad things are getting there (the show does a decent job). Sri Lankans in the UK are collecting money and medical supplies to send home; the situation has shades of the sort of comically bad economic management that characterised the 1970s; with policy—including the complete, near-overnight ban on the use of chemical fertilisers—made up almost on a whim, but implemented strictly, the worst of all worlds. This is what happens when Government descends into a family affair. Transcript here.
  7. My son has been suffering from a sleep regression recently: he wakes up at 4am with bright eyes and his mind on mischief, after a usually broken night of sleep. I get up with him to catch the end of the last playoff game, make breakfast and play, while my wife catches up on sleep from her interrupted night. It has the result that neither of us has the mental energy for anything more than brainless TV once the cycle starts again the next night. So the Ringer’s series on the best rom-coms of all time is a life saver—this is basically going to be our viewing for the next couple of months. Though, obviously and objectively, the list is completely ridiculous and ludicrously wrong: missing Some Like it Hot alone is a criminal offence. What other easy-going movies should we be watching? Recent(ish) hits include The Half of It and Always be my Maybe.

Have a great weekend, everyone!



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