Muddy charts and the silencing of grief

Top of the Charts 'Hidden gems' round-up: November 2020

The latest from Resolution Foundation Chief Executive Torsten Bell’s weekly Observer column, Hidden gems from the world of research and academia. Read more of the latest economics and policy research in our weekly reading email, Top of the Charts.


Vanity number plates are now status symbols not to be sneered at

We humans care about social status. It shapes how we behave, what jobs we do and what we spend our money on. When we choose a car, it’s about the badge as much as where the wheels can get us.

But it’s hard to measure how much we value status, because it’s almost always mixed up with the value of actually using the thing – even a Ferrari can in theory get you from A to B. But a new study cunningly gets around this by examining the market for number plates in the US state of Delaware. There is no practical or aesthetic difference between plates, which are just numbers that have been increasing over time as they’re issued. They all look the same and allow a car to be legally driven.

But there are huge differences in value, with lower numbers worth more. Number 6 went for a bonkers $675,000 (£600,000) in 2008. But it’s not low numbers per se that we want – we’ll pay a fortune to be part of the club of plates with the fewest digits: a two-digit plate sells for more than $180,000, while a five-digit one is worth less than $1,000.

And don’t roll your eyes at the Yanks – we’re not immune. The DVLA has sold nearly 6m personalised number plates8% of us have one, with a total value of £2bn . It turns out we’ll pay through the nose for social status, whichever side of the pond we’re on.

Originally published in the Observer.


Confusing charts muddy the government’s Covid message

Charts matter, particularly to those of us in the economics business. But it’s sometimes a battle to convince other people.

It turns out the best way to make the case for good charts is showing a TV audience truly terrible ones. The awfulness of the presentation by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, before the prime minister’s national lockdown announcement last Saturday, is impossible to overstate. You couldn’t actually see the charts. Even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to understand them. If you could, you’d have no idea why there were so many. Sixteen slides in 12 minutes might make sense if your business is Covid-related performance art, but it’s madness otherwise.

Far from aiding the public’s understanding of the difficult decisions that the government faces, rapidly flicking through unintelligible charts undermines public support for collective sacrifices ahead and gives succour to irresponsible MPs opposing any restrictions.

Confusing charts also hide mistakes – the government later admitted that its claim that deaths could reach 1,500 a day by 8 December was wrong. Frustratingly, it does have a simple case to make. As Boris Johnson said on Friday, the number of people admitted to hospital is up 25% in the past week. One chart would suffice.

Clearly, decent charts come after halting the pandemic on the to-do list, but they wouldn’t hurt.

Originally published in the Observer.


The flu pandemic of 1918 can teach us to remember our dead

Why is the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 not more prominent in our history and almost absent from our literature? It’s a staggering absence, given that almost 250,000 people died here.

Interesting new research gives us an important part of the answer, by examining how those deaths were thought about at the time. Not a lot, is the sobering main takeaway, with a surprising lack of public or political focus on the deaths, even accounting for them coming after the bloodbath of the First World War.

In contrast to the war, there was a lack of commemoration of the pandemic’s victims – what the authors call “a silencing of grief”. Given how many memorials and statues we have (the less said about this week’s addition the better), the fact there wasn’t a single public memorial to the influenza pandemic stands out.

The researchers argue that our failure to remember left us underprepared for this pandemic. And we do seem to be repeating the mistake, collectively pretending that the disgraceful number of deaths in care homes never happened.

How we remember shapes what comes next. There is a hope that the experience of this crisis will prompt major change. Building Back Better is the slogan everyone shares, while agreeing on nothing else. But if the public want to forget the pandemic, they may choose to party afterwards, rather than demand change. After all, the 1920s were called the Roaring Twenties for a reason.

Originally published in the Observer.


Nigel Farage’s populist instinct has failed him over lockdown

A few weeks back, I was pondering whether it’s a case of once a sceptic, always a sceptic. Specifically, what the overlap might be between Euroscepticism and lockdown scepticism in Britain. It’s this exact overlap that Nigel Farage is seeking to exploit with his rebranding of the Brexit party as the anti-lockdown Reform UK.

Luckily, a timely piece of political analysis from Professor Tim Bale and Dr Alan Wager sets out to assess how many people sit with Nigel in “the centre of that Venn diagram” of scepticisms.

Their report rightly notes that inside parliament most lockdown sceptics are ardent Leavers – 30 out of 34 Tory MPs who voted against the second English lockdown also voted Leave in 2016. It’s their libertarian bent that has led them to rail against the business impact of lockdowns while pushing a hard Brexit that will, even its biggest supporters agree, have a large business impact.

The more interesting conclusion is that the public aren’t serial sceptics certainly having voted Leave doesn’t make you a lockdown sceptic. While age was a strong predictor of how you voted on Brexit, the same cannot be said for those who think lockdown has gone too far (which includes one in five of under-24s and over-65s).

There’s also the fact that more than seven in 10 Britons support lockdown. So, scepticism does not appear to be a lasting habit. Oh, and Farage’s relaunch ambitions are on a hiding to nothing.

Originally published in the Observer.


It’s been a bad year for the number crunchers

This has been a bad year for bad news. Last week’s disappointment was laser-targeted at those of us who spend our days analysing the likes of GDP and unemployment figures: apparently, no one believes a word of it. So says new research supported by the very people producing the nation’s statistics (the imaginatively named Office for National Statistics). Having surveyed the public, the authors conclude that they have a pretty loose understanding of the economic statistics thrown at them. Worse, they don’t trust them. Less than half could define GDP and many believe unemployment and inflation are higher than official figures show.

This comes hard on the heels of the data fail that saw 16,000 positive Covid test results drop off the bottom of an Excel spreadsheet, meaning thousands more people at risk of infection were not contacted.

So, it’s not going well for number crunchers but there are some silver linings. That spreadsheet error was exploited by economists to measure the impact of contact tracing. They conclude that it reduces infections and saves lives (, thus, they also conclude, the mistake may have contributed towards 1,500 deaths).

Maybe there are upsides for us wonks if people don’t get economic stats. It’s a gentle nudge to us to communicate more clearly and, even if it’s not great that the public doesn’t get important economic concepts, at least no one is coming for our jobs. Competition, after all, is a very dangerous thing.

Originally published in the Observer.