Pretty geeks, screwed millennials and downbeat BRICs

Top of the Charts

Afternoon all,

From this morning’s news you get the sense that half of Britain is snowed in. Now it’s just possible that the British media may have overreacted to a bit of sub-zero precipitation – in which case Top of the Charts is here to prevent you having to read another news story about how some slush puppy is causing a national emergency.

But maybe I’m wrong and you are all stuck at home, hunkering down around the fire. In that case we can’t help – one of the downsides of electronic reading over the physical kind is that it doesn’t burn so well…

This week’s reads include warnings for the ugly and the young, and take you to as far and wide as Russia, China and the US. And Birmingham. Enjoy.

Torsten Bell,
Director, Resolution Foundation

Pretty economists. It’s not surprising that being attractive makes a big difference to whether or not someone makes it as a TV presenter – easy on the eye is both an awful phrase and something humans (including babies…) have a strong preference for. But in academia, surely, physical attractiveness shouldn’t have much of an effect on one’s career prospects? Wrong, finds a paper examining which academics get published in which economics journals – where the selection process is often name blind and rarely involves face-to-face interactions. It turns out attractive economists (everything’s relative…) get published in better journals. What’s going on? The paper suggests that attractive researchers get into better universities, get better PhD supervisors, AND have bigger social networks – so are more likely to be known by those judging their work. Lucky them.

Poor millennials. We think intergenerational trends are quite a big deal for how a society changes. We wrote over 20 papers and a 229 page book on the subject. Across the pond they’ve got many of the same issues, but less of the thoroughness – so you get a long, angry New York Times column instead. It’s not perfect, but does include some great charts of the living standards challenges facing American millennials. Key takeaway – low productivity growth and low interest rates are rubbish for young workers, whatever your accent.

Perilous China? The current performance of the Chinese economy is in the news, due to slowing down a fair bit. But what does the future hold? Most discussions note the current challenges but continue with the basic assumption that China’s future is one of continued economic dynamism. After all, they’ve still got lots of ground to catch up and seem pretty good at doing so. But an article for Barron’s offers a distinctly bearish retort: ‘China’s long boom is over’. The argument is distinctive for focusing on the extent to which a lack of 40 year olds (I’m not kidding), along with government control of investment decisions, means the Chinese can’t get the productivity improvements they need. The backdrop is a fast ageing population, with the share of the population aged 70+ trebling to 20 per cent in the next two decades. A thought-provoking read.

Post-Putin? Russia’s role in British debates is a bit odd. We’re generally anti (often for very goodreasons) but rarely pay much attention to what actually goes on inside Russia and how that shapes the world of foreign affairs. In that context a new paper from the Centre for European Reform provides a valuable overview. It sets up a discussion of where the country may be heading as Vladimir Putin contemplates his (at least within current rules) final term as president. Well worth a read for those of us wanting a swift way to catch-up on developments in a country that has real reasons to moan about the snow.

(un)Productive Birmingham. Bigger cities are meant to be productivity hot houses in the 21st Century – bringing ideas and people together in greater numbers to create new firms and ways of doing things. This is what economists call agglomeration benefits. But in the UK our big cities outside London are less productive than smaller ones like Cambridge. Why? Well a simply brilliant new bit of clearly argued research on Birmingham tries to answer this economic paradox with a practical insight: buses can be rubbish. More specifically, they’re very unreliable in terms of knowing how long it will take to get from A to B. Because our non-London big cities are so reliant on them, compared to similar cities in Europe that have tram or metro systems, the impact is to shrink the effective size of city economies and make them less productive. You can’t be part of Birmingham’s agglomeration effect if you can’t reliably get to the city centre in rush hour.

Priors on migration. Lots of energy goes into thinking about how to change people’s minds about migration – in a positive or negative direction. These debates assume that people’s views about immigration are fairly malleable and can change over time. But a new working paper cautions against this stance, having dug into how voters’ views change over time. Yes our views may have some wriggle room, but they don’t change very much. The conclusion: don’t put too much of our politics down to changes in attitudes to migration – or have too much faith in your ability to move those attitudes. Unless you get in early with the young.

Chart of the Week Yesterday was a red letter day for those interested in housing trends with lots of data released. The figures confirmed a slight tick up in home ownership (as we’ve recently discussed) and the ongoing disgrace of far too high homelessness – particularly in our big cities. Chart of the week however highlights a lesser discussed housing trend – overcrowding. The last two decades have seen huge increases in overcrowding amongst those renting – be that privately or in the social sector. This should also remind us that – interesting as long reads about graduates returning to live with their owner occupying parents are – that’s not the real story of crowded housing in Britain today…