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What a week. We had a cancelled test match (thus depriving us of the spectacle of England once again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, unless you count their rapid backtracking of the claim that India had forfeited the match) and, even worse, lost Michael K. Williams. There are people of a certain age (my age, mainly) who can have an entire conversation quoting Omar Little, never sounding one tenth as charismatic as he did; but he was much more than Omar (that single episode of the Sopranos was pretty great too). After Charlie Watts the last time round, I’m starting to worry that 2021 will turn into another 2016 – when every week I seemed to introduce the links with the obituary of one icon or another.
There was some good this week, too, though – most notably the ten-year anniversary of Michael Clemens’s seminal Journal of Economic Perspectives paper, Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk? The anniversary prompted Michael to discuss the struggles he had in getting it published, generating a quite extraordinary response from the many, many economists who owe the very shape of their worldview to it. It was released a couple of months before I – a multiple migrant – came to the UK. I remember opening it and laughing out loud when I got to table 1, a summary of the gains to global GDP that different distortions were holding back. I’d just started working at what was then DFID, and my first piece of analysis had been looking at the content of DFID’s work on labour markets in developing countries; it was a revelation to realise just how marginal the changes I’d looked at were in the grand scheme of things. Many years later I finally got to work on promoting migration for development as part of my day job there, to sadly little effect. The trillion dollar bills are still there, gathering dust thanks to the meanness and stupidity of so much policy in the West. The full paper is in the first link in this paragraph, if you haven’t already done so, get a cup of coffee and read it.
Michael did in the end manage to publish his paper, and the economics of emigration now benefits from many brilliant scholars. Not all research agendas or researchers have been so lucky.Planet Money’s newest show on Sadie Alexander is a case in point: the first black PhD economist in the US, she was unable to find a job in academia – being black and female left all doors closed – and instead became a brilliant and trailblazing civil liberties lawyer (not a bad second career). Until recently, it was assumed that she’d abandoned economics altogether, but that wasn’t quite the case: she kept using economic thinking, and methods, and her insights and innovations (such as the use of audit studies to discover discrimination) are now being rediscovered (transcript). Speaking of podcasts, this one doesn’t have a transcript that I can find, but I’m going to link it anyway, because how often does Veronica Mars (or Eleanor Shellstrop, if you prefer) interview Esther Duflo?
I really liked this write-up on VoxDev of new research by Rachel Glennerster, Joanna Murray and Victor Pouliquen on the impact of a mass media campaign on contraception uptake in Burkina Faso. I particularly like that once the basic design and results are described the remainder of the piece is structured around five important and policy-relevant questions, including the all-important one (for anyone hoping to replicate it) of why it seemed to work.
This week in research that confirms my priors and therefore must be correct: a new paper using a huge treasure-trove of data from Microsoft confirms what I’ve found to be my experience of remote working, that it makes collaboration with new people and across new networks more difficult, and makes collaborative effort more ‘static’ and less dynamic. As we slowly return to the office, the chance to talk to, work with and learn from new colleagues is the thing I’m most excited about. (There’s a twitter thread to the hard-of-reading).
I liked this piece by Lant Pritchett, who has a way of homing in the question that I want to ask, but didn’t think to, in this case, on Afghanistan: “how does one fail after 20 years of effort but also, how does one sustain 20 years of effort while failing?” With it, he nails something that should cause a lot of discomfort from the many agencies who worked on or in Afghanistan over the last decades: were they able to separate what was working from what wasn’t? Did they know what could last and what couldn’t? Did they even have a way of asking these questions?
This week I went to the cinema for the first time since December 2019 (The Rise of Skywalker, if you must ask, which was a horrible way to go into an unplanned 2-year break). I saw Shang-Chi, and as someone who grew up in Hong Kong idolising Tony Leung (and is now grown up in the UK, idolising Tony Leung), it was every bit as good as Skywalker was disappointing. Even better, it’s full of careful depictions of Chinese culture, from the beautiful use of Mandarin (the vast majority of which went over my head) to the look of the bar Tony Leung destroys wearing that iconic suit with the sleeves rolled up. I only wish there were more scenes around eating – it seems odd to have an Asian film about family which doesn’t take place largely around the table.
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