With the New Year approaching, permit me the opportunity to wish you and yours peace and prosperity.
The end of 2016 marks the fifth year of my blog, and I’m grateful to my students and readers for making it worthwhile, and particularly to those who have taken the time to reblog, comment on, or otherwise share one of my 148 posts.
Rather than offer you the usual top ten most popular posts, here are links to my favourite posts written at some point since I started blogging in November 2011. They are not necessarily the most viewed, but I like them because they best illustrate the principles motivating my writing:
- Write about what you know, and give readers the opportunity and resources to learn more.
- Focus on what is relevant—what people want to read, and what contributes to a constructive conversation about public policy.
- Do this in a professional way that uses the principles of economics.
Here are links to my ten favourite posts of the last five years.
My blogging is an extension of my teaching, and in particular I’ve enjoyed my course called “Economics for Public Management and Policy,”—a very odd name, but the course is generally known in my department, both by the administration and students, as “Baby Economics.” The course is meant to give graduate students who have never studied the subject a one semester introduction to economics, the hope being that they will be better prepared for the next courses they are required to take.
The most challenging lesson for these students, and for many of us, is to appreciate the scientific method. So the first of my favourite posts is “Economics is a science.”
It is important to realize that economics is a toolkit that is always being refined, but also always subject to abuse in public policy to provide cover for veiled interests. We need a critical understanding of the subject to engage in policy conversation, and that understanding starts with the distinction between normative and positive economics, the subject of this post, which also gives you access to the course outline.
The second favourite post I offer up follows in this vein. It is called “The right way to think about social and economic rights.” This posts illustrates fundamental principles of economics—the meaning of “scarcity,” and the concept that follows from it, “opportunity costs”—by asking us to question how we commonly think about human rights. Civil and political rights are matters for the courts, not the economist, but economic and social rights are different. They require resources that could be used in different ways. Without a grounding in economics, we may think the wrong way about human rights.
Generally economics is divided into two broad subject areas. This post introduces microeconomics, and one of the great thinkers who contributed to its logic, Lionel Robbins.
But the subject of my third favourite post is macroeconomics, and another great thinker who challenged the use of microeconomic reasoning to understand broad changes in the overall level of economic activity, and particularly high and persistent unemployment.
I’m speaking of John Maynard Keynes in this post: “Macroeconomics celebrates its 80th birthday this year.” These are interesting times to be studying macroeconomics, and all engaged citizens should have an intuitive understanding of the Keynesian model and its public policy implications. In my introductory macroeconomics course I use a wonderful book by the Financial Times columnist Tim Harford. It’s called The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run or Ruin an Economy. You should read it.
The birth of macroeconomics happens in 1936 with the publication of Keynes’s book–arguably the most influential economics book of the 20th century—The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Keynes’s main concern was to develop a theory to understand involuntary unemployment, the type of unemployment associated with business cycle recessions.
One of the most important legacies of his book was a framework for the statistical measurement of the macro-economy, and my fourth favourite post deals with the subtleties in measuring the unemployment rate. This post, “The gap between US and Canadian unemployment rates is bigger than it appears,” written more than four years ago in May 2012, continues to be one of my most viewed. Statistical agencies have to make subtle choices to render measurement possible, and as good economists we need to have a strong understanding not just of the broad definitions of concepts like “unemployment” but also of the fine details.
Unemployment and unemployment insurance have been a part of my research agenda for decades, but the public policy interest in them waxes and wanes. We are in a period of growing interest, but it is fair to say that the last five years has also witnessed the rise of income inequality to the very top of the public policy agenda in many countries. I’ve also been working in this area–particularly as it pertains to social mobility—since the mid 1990s.
Several of my remaining favourites deal with the relationship between inequality and intergenerational mobility. Much of this has found its way into public policy through a graph that has become known as “The Great Gatsby Curve,” which illustrates that countries with higher levels of inequality a generation ago are also countries with lower levels of social mobility, that is with a greater stickiness between the incomes of parents and the incomes their children earn in adulthood. Parental origins are more tightly correlated with child outcomes in countries with more inequality.
Read “How The Great Gatsby Curve got its name,” but more importantly learn about the economic theory of intergenerational mobility, and how it informs a policy relevant understanding of the curve, in the sixth of my favourite posts: “The Economics of the Great Gatsby Curve.”
And my seventh favourite post describes some of my research with Danish co-authors highlighting that the children of the top 1% face very different prospects than many others. “A little secret Denmark shares with Canada about social mobility that Americans and Brits should know” describes the extent to which the children of the very rich work for the very same employers as their fathers, and the impact this has on income mobility across the generations.
Many of my very first posts were inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the need for concerned citizens to appreciate how jobs have changed, the way in which inequality has grown, and what should and can be done about it. These helped inform a paper that slowly took shape in my mind over more than two years, and was finally published in late 2016. You can get access to it in this post: “Can you change your mind about inequality? Read my just published paper.”
Obviously there was a lot of reading that went into informing my thinking. There are a number of great books to put on your reading list. I’ve offered a couple of summer reading lists, and the most recent is described in a post called “Your summer reading list on inequality and opportunity” Another is “My summer reading list was about inequality and opportunity; you might like some of these books.”
My book review of Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality was published in the Spring 2016 issue of The American Prospect, and reprinted in this post: “The winners and losers of globalization, Branko Milanovic’s new book on inequality answers two important questions.”
There are many other policy issues that are highly relevant, immigration being near the top of this list. In a post called “Immigrants face challenges in finding jobs that are not of their own making,” I summarize some important research by a University of Toronto economist, Philip Oreopoulos. His research paper uses what is called an audit study. Oreopoulos applied to over 6,000 jobs in the Toronto area, carefully adjusting the experience, education, and last names on his fake cv’s to show that those with immigrant sounding names received fewer call backs for job interviews.
Finally, the 13th of my top 10 all-time favourite posts—okay, I’ve lost track of the numbers, my bad—is called “How to think about “think” tanks.” It is inspired by Jonathan Haidt’s insightful book The Righteous Mind, which just goes to show you that you need a lot more than just economics to understand public policy. This post takes us full circle—recalling the distinction between positive and normative economics—and asks us to cast a critical eye on the information peddled in the public arena:
Organizations, like individuals, are more likely to be open-minded and engage in exploratory thinking when they are accountable to a broad audience, whose views are not fully known ahead of time, and who are well-informed. So when you think about think tanks, think about who they are speaking to, and recognize that quite possibly we get, in the end, the think tanks we deserve.