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Writing Worth Reading

Monopoly Is The Democrat’s Foe

We tend to worry about monopolies mainly on the grounds that they may raise prices; and past work in economics has shown, or claimed, that the effect of monopolies on pricing is relatively small. But the far bigger arguments against monopolies are that they stifle innovation; they capture regulators and legislators; they restrict choice, and, with it, individual freedom. They are anti-democratic (1,000 words)

An Astonishing Record Of Complete Failure

As late as September 2008, when the financial crash was well under way, the consensus among economic forecasters was that no country would fall into recession in 2009. “The obvious conclusion is that forecasts should not be taken seriously”. Economists should emulate dentists, who at least know how to treat problems effectively when they occur; they don’t pretend to know when your teeth will fall out (890 words)

Big Data: Are We Making A Big Mistake?

Big-data enthusiasts make four main claims: That data analysis produces uncannily accurate results; that every data point can be captured, making sampling techniques obsolete; that observable correlation supersedes theories of causation; and that scientific or statistical models aren’t needed because “the numbers speak for themselves”. At best these are simplifications, at worst they are “absolute nonsense” (3,260 words)

The Seductive Appeal Of Cultural Stereotypes

Critical review of The Triple Package, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, which claims that the “secret to success” in America is to be raised by Jewish, Chinese, Indian or Nigerian parents. The authors avoid “the grossest racism”. But they need be held to a higher standard of evidence. Too much of their argument relies on anecdotes. “We always find stereotyping plausible. That is why it is treacherous” (740 words)

A Universal Income Is Not Such A Silly Idea

Switzerland will vote on a providing a “basic income” of about $30,000 a year for all adult citizens. Which sounds on the generous side, but the principle of basic income has a surprising amount of support on the right as well as the left. Milton Friedman saw basic income as “an alternative to the current welfare state”. It may also gain plausibility if the advance of robots makes large numbers of people completely unemployable (785 words)

Ten Commandments For Mastering Email

One: Switch off the alerts. “Someone has always just sent me an email. I’ll answer when I am ready.” Two: Don’t bother sorting your incoming email into folders — just search the archive when you need to find something, it’s four times faster. And a pro tip: “If you’d like to really aggravate a busy person, send them an email with an attachment saying ‘please see the attached letter’, and add no elaboration” (3,330 words)

Lunch With Cory Doctorow

Conversation with sci-fi writer, Boing-Boing blogger. Self-recommending, as Tyler Cowen might say. “I arrive at Hawksmoor 10 minutes early, he’s there already, sipping sparkling water at the bar and reading a book. He’s wearing thick-rimmed spectacles worthy of Eric Morecambe, a Disney ‘Haunted Mansion’ T-shirt, and a jacket; he’s 41 but looks younger. Did I mention that I have a tiny crush on Cory Doctorow?” (Metered paywall) (2,400 words)

Kuwait Offers Windfall To Big Spenders

Gulf state considers $6bn consumer debt write-off. Sounds like a dreadful idea in economic terms. Penalises savers, rewards spendthrifts, encourages more of the same. All true, but are banking bailouts any better? “Kuwait might be talking about rescuing its debtors; in the UK, it’s the official policy of the fiscal and monetary authorities”

What Really Powers Innovation: High Wages

Why the rich get richer. “High wages lead to investment in labour-saving technology; that investment means each worker will be operating more powerful equipment and producing more; which in turn raises the productivity of labour and tends to raise wages. The incentive to innovate further continues”

A Gift For The Season That Keeps On Giving

Economics of Christmas. “Gifts from boyfriends and girlfriends tend to be well chosen. It’s the gift from grandma that tends to be hopeless — and that’s because grandma doesn’t see you very much. And whose fault is that, eh?”

Why Aren’t We Doing The Maths?

Neat illustration of how doctors don’t understand statistics. Which can be important when it comes to deciding whether to recommend a particular type of cancer screening. Politicians, who rate themselves highly, are even worse

Don’t Take Growth For Granted

Economic growth is a recent phenomenon, so why assume it will last? Modern inventions are less impressive than those of the late 19th century, debt repayments will have to rise and then there are resource constraints

What Babysitting Can Teach The World

Harford revisits Krugman’s economic parable of the Capitol Hill babysitting co-operative. Two key questions: Can an economy become mired in depression because of lack of demand? Can economic problems have simple technical solutions?

Beware Email’s Cunning Little Ways

“Some things are simply much easier to do when online, while other things are much easier to do when offline. That difference calls for a deliberate exercise of choice. Most of us allow circumstances to make the choice for us”

Is Payday Lending Really Wrong?

Instinctively, many would say “Yes!”. And when you consider annual interest rates in excess of 1300%, that’s no surprise. But is it really so clear cut? Harford thinks not, and may make you reconsider

We Are All Wealth Creators

Talk about squeezing public sector workers is just demagoguery. No categorical difference between public and private sector jobs. You could have a thriving 100% public-owned economy if only you got the incentives right

Honest Truth About Kickbacks

It’s better to steal 10 per cent of a booming economy than 100 per cent of a stagnating one. But is it wise to explain the best practices of banditry to government officials who aren’t supposed to be stealing in the first place?

New Ways With Old Numbers

On difficulty of requiring academics to justify the value of their research. A look at the history of mathematics demonstrates how benefits “can pop up in such unexpected ways, sometimes immediately and sometimes after centuries”

Statistics Are Not Silly, But Their Users . . .

Explaining to a child that a baby is not “late” in the same way that a bus is late. “Buses are a little different from babies—you wait ages for a bus and then several come along at once, and that’s definitely not the aim here.”

Ring-Fence Your Casino Marriage

Considering divorce, because your partner is misbehaving? Here’s an idea. Regulate your marriage as if it were a bank. Ring-fence the day-to-day side of the relationship, so that it doesn’t get hurt by occasional speculative excess

In Praise Of Pragmatism

“Because the pragmatist tries to take each situation on its own merits and figure out a sensible way forward, pragmatism tends to look hesitant, messy, and prone to error.” But that’s no reason to side with ideologues instead

Positive Black Swans

In telling the story of Mario Capecchi – a man who went from street urchin to Nobel laureate – Tim Harford masterfully shows how science thrives when great minds are given the leeway to pursue risky projects

Failure: It’s Everywhere

High incidence of business failure can be a sign, maybe even a cause, of a thriving industry. Compare Silicon Valley, where high-tech failures are a rite of passage, with Detroit, where the big three carmakers go on for ever

Priced Out Of An Alcoholic Stupor

“For a rational addict, every swig of Smirnoff planned for tomorrow reinforces the case for drinking Smirnoff today. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the corollary: if prices will rise in the future, the time to quit is now”

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