Economics, links, Uncategorized

A few good links

The last week or two have been admin-intensive, but I stumbled across a few interesting bits along the way and want to share the links:

  • I attended a UNU-WIDER and National Treasury conference in Pretoria and enjoyed it a lot. The theme was “Growth and development policy – new data, new approaches and new evidence”. All that was from the different projects that have been using SARS administrative data for a firm-level look at employment, productivity, exporters etc. It was really interesting.
  • My old Warwick classmate Nick Powdthavee launched a new book on happiness research at the LSE and shared links on Facebook and Twitter. Here is a Vox.EU post on “The origins of happiness”: mental and physical health, and having a partner explains life satisfaction and then income matters…
  • And I caught a Chronicle post on “The personal lecture” with interesting ideas on big undergraduate groups, and on MOOCs.

Check it out.


Big data analytics

It is that dangerous time of the year when I am already done with 2016 (in my head) and start to think about things to do in 2017 with all the idealism of new year’s resolutions. Can an old dog economist still learn new big data analytics tricks?

So this is a note to self: Coursera has a course in R and Code School also has one that looks cool.

And then, a shout out to colleagues and their student featuring on the Development Impact blog: Martin Abel’s job market paper “The Value of Reference Letters”, is coauthored with Rulof Burger (SU) and Patrizio Piraino (UCT).

academic publication, Economics

Academic publishing and the market place of ideas

I came across two interesting posts this morning that may be worth sharing.

In a BloombergView post Justin Fox writes about the profitability of academic publishing. It is a costly business and the internet and Open Access should have killed it a long time ago – but that is if it were about disseminating ideas. He argues what most of us already know: that publishing in academic journals is about trying to certify the quality of those ideas and awarding status. (I have written about my worries about publication earlier).

On a related tangent Federico Fubini writes about the closed market place for economic ideas in a Project Syndicate post. His analysis of RePEc rankings shows remarkable persistence of the positions of top-ranked economists. He has some choice bits:

… persistence at the top is striking across the board. Among the top ten economists in September 2015, six were already there in December 2006, and another two were ranked 11 and 13.

Mobility in the RePEc rankings remains subdued even after widening the sample. For example, of the top 100 economists in September 2015, only 14 were absent from the much wider top 5% in 2006, and only two others had advanced more than 200 spots over the previous decade. Among those recently ranked from 101 to 200, just 24 were not in the top 5% in 2006, and only ten others had moved up by more than 200 places. The rate of renewal among the 200 most influential economists was as low as 25% – and just 16% among the top 100 – during a decade in which the explanatory power of prevailing economic theory had been found severely wanting.

He goes on to show that in 2015 only 11 of the top-200 economists were from emerging countries (10 of that 11 worked in the U.S. or U.K. since their student days), there were only 4 women and no black person. He goes on to ask whether this is a closed inefficient market with high entry barriers?

I think that the two posts point to a number of different issues. Since it is the start of a new year and all of us have resolved to get that paper in, it mostly reminds us that it is tough to “make it”.
You will need to have good work to get into those good journals: Throw in the mathematics, search for those large and novel data sets, learn the latest techniques, crunch the numbers, see if you can identify those causal relationships. It will take time, effort, lots of revisions and incremental improvements before you submit.

But to break through those barriers to entry you also need to work at overcoming the disadvantages of distance, our developing country context and a dearth of old friends at Harvard or the LSE. You should be heard speaking about your good work at the right seminars and conferences. Don’t go to nice places for conferences, go to where the journals’ editors and reviewers are. Get your work out on RePEc, blog and tweet about it. Build a network with the right people. Locally and internationally.

Economics, MOOCs, syllabus

Economics research and some MOOC thoughts

I want to write a post about students calling for an overhaul of how Economics is taught. You have probably seen the posts – too mathematical, more heterodox stuff…(yada, yada). I think there is a possible project in there – asking fourth years about this, maybe starting a blog on which they can help co-create a syllabus. I’m going to get a team together and do something like this for a paper at next year’s ESSA conference. But at the moment I can’t make the time for enough reading for a sensible post. Give me a shout if this sounds like something you and your students would be interested in.

I have written about MOOCs before and following my reading of Average is over I also think that there are limits to what students will teach themselves online. There is a big role for professor as missionary and coach, and face-to-face higher ed is here to stay. And then I had my ideas confirmed by a post at the Education Outrage blog. It makes some good points, for example:

What is education? Its an experience, mentored by an expert, in which the student tries to accomplish something, fails, and then after some discussion with peers and mentors, tries again.
This is not a new idea, Most PhD programs work this way. But since universities care about undergraduates just enough to require a thousand of them to fill a lecture hall, now they are doing it online so the numbers can get much bigger. It’s all about money. (And, to be honest, the fear of seeming to be falling behind.)

For me the big insight was how boring those lectured captured MOOC video’s are. Watch any of them, or watch all that the post links to – you will have to be really motivated to work through a whole course like that on your own. I doubt if many of my students are. And that probably means that they are coming to class for other reasons than to hear me speak.

Luckily we are close to the end of the semester now, with more sensible posts (and hopefully classes) to follow after the exam.

academic celebrity, Economics, professor, Vox, wonks

A few good links: Economics and academia

Next month we are hosting the annual campus open day and I am thinking that the School of Economics should lead with the slogan: Come for the signalling, stay for the human capital! As it turns out, it is probably a combination of the two that matters. The blog Cognito Mentoring has an interesting post on why Economics majors in the US earn more than majors in the other social sciences. It could be:

  • That we teach them more employable skills,
  • That they have greater pre-existing ability,
  • That economics students seek higher paying jobs,
  • That they have a pre-existing desire to make money,
  • Or some signalling combination of all of the above.

The blog promises some evidence soon.

I also found a excellent post at The Blue Review on how academics spend their time. It is a long post, explaining the study, the sample, the method and results, but worth the read. We sometimes think that US academics are all important, high-impact researcher types, so it is heartening to read that the the average Joe also spend lots of time on the mundane tasks of academia. Scary amounts of time go towards meetings and emails. It also says that Departmental chairs work slightly fewer hours per week, so I am clearly doing something wrong!

But, if you are not caught in that rat race you may be an academic celebrity. The Chronicle had a good post this week on TED speakers, celebrity authors and bloggers. I wonder who their South African counterparts may be…

Finally, Felix Salmon had an interesting bit in Politico magazine and asked if there is a wonk bubble. It is all about the data journalism, storytelling and policy etc that you see in new sites like and and other familiar sites / mega blogs. He argues that the wonk bubble is still relatively small and the more wonkery there is, the more valuable it becomes. I am following both of the above via Flipboard and both have interesting content. 538 has more US content, sport etc that I am less interested in (but there was an interesting post on ‘peak beard’ today), but Vox has had some good pieces and posts with a nice flip card, web native format. Check it out and support the wonks.

Average is over, Economics

Average is over: Future of Economics

For the final part of my Average is over posts I want to share some of Tyler Cowan’s thoughts on the future of Economics.

In chapter 11 of the book he writes about the end of average science. He argues that science is going to become harder to understand for three reasons:

  • The problems are ever more complex and simple, intuitive, big breakthroughs are unlikely.
  • Individual contributions are becoming more specialised, and
  • Soon intelligent machines will become researchers in their own right.

He goes on to explain how machine intelligence and specialisation are reshaping theoretical mathematics and physics, and how the average age of Nobel Prize winners has increased over time. Once machine science goes beyond human understanding – think of proofs in the multi-dimensions of string theory – science will also become harder to regulate. But what does all that mean for Economics?

Cowan argues that in recent times data gathering and crunching has been pushing out theoretical intuition. (if this sound interesting, also read Noah Smith’s post on the death of theory) Economists still like their models but, “the real action and value-add comes from the data and its handling, including data from field experiments, laboratory experiments and from randomised control trials”. Sooner rather than later, big data will reinforce the use of machine intelligence in Economics. Data from, for example, your social media profiles, online shopping and loyalty cards will be looked at by a computer programme and it will search for patterns in more complex ways than researchers can do. Cowan hopes that this will reinforce our understanding of some basic regularities behind economic phenomena. He goes on to write:

We are not far a way from having a single de facto, more or less unified, empirical social science. In that social science, researchers invest a lot in learning empirical techniques and then invest some marginal energies in the simpler theories that surround their chosen field of study. Finally, they spend their research time looking for new data sets, or looking to create that data, whether by detective work or by lab and field experiments.

I’m sure this sounds familiar.

He goes on to write that economists who favour more intuitive approaches will have to take a different approach to survive. They will focus less on producing their own original research and will become clearinghouses for and evaluators of the work of others. That means translating the work of others for fellow economists and for the public. It is about seeking out, absorbing and evaluating information.

If you are blogging already, this will sound familiar too.

Economics, JP Landman, Review, South Africa

Review: The Long View

I thought that I am too slow in getting started with a post about JP Landman’s The Long View, but yesterday The Economist posted an article about South Africa (Braai, the beloved country) that has Twitter up in arms, so that makes my timing perfect.

In his new book JP Landman argues that if you look at the newspaper headlines, you are very likely to get swept up by this week’s drama (this week it is Nkandla).  Very quickly you will become very negative about the country and its future prospects. We should rather take the long view.
He asks what makes a modern successful society and evaluates the progress made since 1994 and future prospects against each of these requirements.
The first is a growing economy and he throws out some numbers: Over the last 19 years the SA economy grew by 77% in real terms, there has been social development and investment in infrastructure. The successes are ascribed to the end of sanctions, the opening up of the economy, prudent fiscal and monetary policies and increases in productivity. I would qualify this “success” and ask why did South Africa not receive much FDI, why have many sectors struggled to compete in an open economy (and are now asking for protection), how capital intensive is the growth in productivity? But the book just goes on to argue that South Africa has reached a level of economic development where democracy has a reasonable chance of surviving.
The second argument is that demography is pushing us towards modernity: population is growing slower than the economy, but it is still a young population, though not that young that it could cause instability.
The third requirement for a modern, successful economy is employment. The book first unpacks some numbers, showing that South Africa has not experienced jobless growth as some have argued. We have had low rates of economic growth and low rates of job creation – this has a lot to do with the capital intensity of growth. Then there are three sets of constraints to faster job creation and the NDP are said to address them: NDP for faster growth, NDP for improved transport and dense cities to bring people and jobs together, NDP for better health and education! Here JP draws on Prof Frederick Fourie’s Three Discourses article and it is worth it to have a good look at the original work or at least the econ3x3 post – his is a much more nuanced story. The book goes on to argue that there are no quick fixes and we should systematically chip away at the obstacles. The structural measures include better education (also FET), expanded measures to link work seekers with jobs, improved public transport etc. The so-called elastoplast measures include the expanded public works programme and the jobs fund.
I feel that “taking the long view” and doing some hand waving about education, transport or public works may understate the depth of the challenges facing South Africa. Prof Servaas van der Berg and the RESEP group’s work on education paints a more somber picture.
The other requirements for a modern successful society include open societies, creative individuals, learning and social capital. With these you are either an optimist, pointing at the Constitution, the success of the World Cup and talking about leadership. Or you are a pessimist listing fraud and corruption, talking about extractive institutions. The Long View strikes a positive note, but with few examples and no evidence.
In the final sections JP presents a balance sheet of forces pushing growth up and down. The down-side forces are the familiar challenges of political uncertainty, strikes, social unrest, poverty, inequality, crime, weak public sector institutions, low productivity. The up-side forces that are listed include planned infrastructure investment, rising employment, property rights and a sound legal system, the ability to adopt new technologies, increasing relations with the BRIC countries and integration into sub-Saharan Africa. It is argued that we can muddle through with growth of 3%, that “even low growth weaves its magic”. The long view is that our bigger ambitions lie in the NDP. The stepping stones to this are massive infrastructure development, the Industrial Policy Action Plan and “various proposals under the NDP”, including promoting exports, support for SMEs and a more responsive labour market. Moving beyond economics, the arguments are that government and the private sector need to trust one another, that we need an ambition to perform and that leadership is critical.

Overall I think that there is a lot that recommends the book, but we probably don’t need another one like it. Amongst policymakers and pundits there is agreement on the challenges and the possible solutions, also about the fact that it will take time. I wonder about the political sustainability of a middle-income, low-growth trap. Will we muddle through, or just muddle? Are there examples of countries that have muddled through? What did they do, how did they do it? Why will the NDP be different from all the previous plans? Are there examples of an NDP making all the difference? How exactly will the social capital-trust-leadership thing work? Who are those future leaders? How can we make institutions and growth inclusive?