Economics & Marginalia: November 3, 2023

Hi all,

There is something about writing an email while perched on a tiny seat in a cramped bus with your laptop on your knees and your phone (to whose wifi you're tethered to) precariously balanced on a ledge that inspires brevity (yes, I appreciate the irony of me describing this as 'brevity', but you need to imagine the counterfactual intro, so long it could be published in three volumes like War and Peace). Anyway, while the temptation to describe the highs (Victor! Old LeBron!) and lows (with no thanks to Stefan for inducing me to look at the Sri Lanka-India score) let's go straight to the links.

  1. This week has seen some of the most interesting (and horrific) evidence from the UK's Covid Inquiry be given. While headlines will no doubt be dominated by Boris Johnson's belief that Covid might be cured with a well-aimed hairdryer up the nose, or by Dominic Cummings's bad language and misogyny (all appalling, don't get me wrong), but one of the two things that I've been most struck by was how poorly the whole response was managed. I don't think the very top of the senior civil service leadership has come out of this particularly well, even accounting for the miserable political class they were working for. One of my ex-colleagues sent me this Stumbling and Mumbling blog on the failure of management in the UK, including the civil service, and much of it rings true.
  2. Another point that has been made crystal clear by the inquiry is how the monoculture among the leaders of the crisis affected what fell within the scope of their imagination, and hence the range of issues they considered to be policy priorities. Women, unsurprisingly, lost out. Helen McNamara's evidence on the scant attention paid to the experience of women, particularly those at risk of domestic violence or engaging with the health service was particularly triggering to me, having witnessed the unnecessary difficulties my wife had to go through during the pandemic, when we had our child—usually alone as I was not allowed to accompany her to any appointments. And it's not just in Covid that these sorts of blind spots emerge. This nice VoxDev piece suggests female leaders notice and pay attention to different problems; diversity has practical consequences that must not be neglected.
  3. I very much enjoyed this: Branko Milanovic's reflections on Kaushik Basu's new paper on the exit strategies of dictators. Both are highly recommended; I am minded to agree with Branko that the lust for power itself can be an incredible lure for the kind of leaders who become dictators. Dictators come in all flavours: those who bathe in perfume and the most abstemious of men like Stalin; but all love the exercise of power.
  4. This is quite amazing work looking at the effect of indoor air pollution on productivity in Dhaka (via David McKenzie's great links); they find simply using air purifiers in factories has a large and material positive effect on productivity. Related: Besley and Azhar Hussain find that correctly accounting for the gains to air quality alone is enough to justify the phase out of virtually the entire global coal-fired power generation stock.
  5. Tim Harford mounts a (justified) defence of behavioural economics after the recent Gino/Ariely scandals. He is correct to say we should not throw out the behavioural baby with the tainted bathwater, but I worry that we have barely gotten a drop of said bathwater out so far.
  6. I like this blog by Paddy Carter on the ways in which development finance and specifically investments not directly aimed at the poor can play a role in poverty eradication. The question is always 'is there a better use for this money?', but I think simply finding something better that could possibly be done isn't quite the end of the discussion—it's also about whether the overall portfolio that 'better' distribution looks like is (politically and technically) feasible, and whether it makes sense. 
  7. I normally end on sports or pop culture, but I can't resist this one: shortly after I moved to Malawi, I saw my first turaco, and have been quietly obsessed with them ever since. Not quite my favourite birds (that award goes to the Carmine Bee-Eater), but they are incredible: almost the epitome of what comes to mind as a 'tropical' bird. They are also incredibly varied, from the deep blue of the Ross's to the sharp peak of the Livingstone's. Anyway: these photos from Will Wilson (and the attendant writing) almost made me drop everything and hop on a plane: highly recommended, whether you are a bird lover or not.

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.