Media engagements

The chief goal of any academic is to have scholarly impact – to be published in elite journals and for your work to be read, shared, and cited. But it’s also common to seek wider impact, and publicise those findings and implications with society at large.

One problem is that our research topics are often driven by the existing literature. Therefore pursuing an academic career can easily become a slide towards wider irrelevance. As we focus on scaling the ivory tower, we lose track of what anyone else cares about. Before we realise it, the landscape looks like this:

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we can identify the areas where media interest overlaps with our research interests. Therefore we can create a list of topics we feel qualified to talk about, and seek media engagements. We can be available for comment and publish op-eds on newsworthy issues. But be careful. We might have made scholarly contributions to the field, and we may well be experts, but those topics won’t map perfectly onto “my research”.

Once we abandon the solid grounding of our published competence, we’ve started a dangerous journey. There is a risk that we end up like this:

By being receptive to media engagements we are opening ourselves to the pull of opportunity. But what your PR company deem to be a “hit” (i.e. being quoted in an article in a magazine no one cares about) is not really a “hit”, and a desire to do this tempts us to stray outside our areas of expertise. If someone wants a comment we provide it – it builds the brand and it’s fun. The ego is nourished, we feel that we’re representing our institution, we’re being productive. (However our titles and status carry authority, and the wider public are likely to confuse the light blue dot for a dark blue dot. I believe that it is unethical to utilise our credentials for matters outside of one’s expertise. I could add links here, but I won’t…).

The holy grail, therefore, is to end up like this:

I think fame seeking academics have two potential strategies. However both of them carry risks.

  1. If you can’t beat them, join them. The first option is to move our research towards wherever the media interest lies (either by tweaking our current research projects in that direction; or by starting new research projects from scratch). However using current media interest as the guiding principle of your academic strategy has the potential to backfire. It takes time to gain academic legitimacy and what’s to say interest won’t move on? In addition, the media interest will draw in other academics to create a contested and competitive environment that is attracting opportunists. As I see more and more people jumping on the blockchain bandwagon I assume that they’re following this strategy (although this is a charitable interpretation because in many cases it’s probably a light blue dot rather than a dark blue one…). I’m wary.
  2. Hope the mountain comes to Mohammed. The second way to occupy the overlap is to get your head down, do quality work, rise to the top of your field, get widespread recognition, and become the go to person for that topic. That, in itself, can be newsworthy. Win prizes, break records, give talks at elite institutions.

Personally, I am not sure what to do. I’ve tried to be entrepreneurial by choosing a few topics that I think have the potential to become important, and I am working hard to improve the quality of my scholarly work. But I’m largely abandoning the aim of creating a media profile for my research.

Let’s be honest, the media do not care about academic research. When we issue press releases for a new publication it’s because we want to share it. However even if it’s published in an open access journal newspapers will rarely link to the actual paper anyway. Even PR companies act as gatekeepers for the actual paper, and promote the top line findings without allowing third parties to actually verify them. We have a crisis of scientific replication, and yet there’s a complete disjoint between how research is presented and our ability to engage with it.

Journalists don’t care about your research, they care about their article. They are writing articles to a deadline and need to fill them. They need contacts who will be available and tell them what they expect to hear. Editors don’t care about your research. They care about copy. They need people who supply well written content on a theme they want to publish.

I am aware that my profession and institution are underrepresented by people who aren’t white males. And as a white male I should reflect on my role in that. As I lose the novelty of youth I question whether the best use of my time is supplying free content to unremarkable publications by crowding out other voices.

***

Pivoting away from attempts to promote our research profile, however, doesn’t mean wallowing in academic irrelevance, and it doesn’t mean giving up on communicating economic ideas. It just means a recognition that our biggest value to the media is almost certainly a result of our teaching knowledge rather than our research findings. This is because the pool of media interest in which we’re able to play in is much wider when we act as teachers rather than researchers.

This may seems as though I’m risking becoming a light blue dot. But wearing our teaching hats massively expands our scope of “expertise”, provided we recognise the topics will be broader. As Steve Horwitz recently said on Facebook,

Advice for young economists who wonder whether they have enough expertise on a topic to do media requests on it: If you think you can explain your views to an Intro class, you can do media on that topic.

My caveat to that was:

But you need to be able to explain it to an Intro class and it needs to be an issue that you would indeed explain to an Intro class.

So rather than send our new PR agency a list of my research topics, I’ve sent the following:

  • Price gouging – if a firm raises prices during a natural disaster I’m happy to defend their choice to do so and explain why it can actually benefits consumers.
  • Creative destruction – if a firm goes bankrupt through entrepreneurial error I’m happy to explain why this is crucial to a competitive market.
  • Free trade – if there’s a story about tariffs I’m happy to explain how they harm consumers and make us collectively worse off.
  • Offshoring – if a firm offshores production I’m happy to defend their decision and explain how this benefits workers in (typically) poorer countries.
  • Corporation tax – I’m happy to defend cuts to corporation tax on the grounds that they boost the wages of that companies employees.
  • Tax avoidance – I’m happy to defend the use of “aggressive” tax avoidance schemes and explain why the problem is complexity in the tax code.
  • Efficient Market Hypothesis – if an investment firm claims to be able to outperform a market index I’m happy to argue that this is bad investment advice.

I also think it’s potentially legitimate to comment on hot topics such as:

  • The gender pay gap
  • Brexit
  • A specific companies strategy
  • Executive pay
  • Congestion charging
  • Pandemics

Provided you limit your comments to the simple application of the economic way of thinking. However I fear that this won’t be providing journalists with what they want (which is a hook, or something controversial), and there’s a very real danger that you do turn into a light blue dot. So I personally avoid these topics. Leave them for commentators and opinion leaders and academic experts in the field. Don’t wade in as one masquerading as the other.

Finally, Steve Horwitz is also right to point out that such media engagements are also advantageous for the institution. Indeed I’ve stopped seeing media work as part of my research profile. It’s actually organisational (and civic) citizenship.

Travel Guide to Minsk

I visited Minsk expecting a Soviet time machine.

I thought it would be like Moscow was in 1992.

But I was wrong.

Yes, it’s architecture and visible insignia reflect the fact that most of the city was completely rebuilt straight after the second world war. Military uniform is everywhere, tractors roam the streets, school children look immaculate. And the absence of a democratic transition casts an intriguing shadow of communist rule. But the city is vibrant, affluent, and spotlessly clean. It feels more like a Baltic city break than an Eastern European industrial wasteland.

Outside of Minsk there’s an efficient train network and the surrounding countryside is beautiful and famously peaceful. I strongly recommend a visit to Belarus, and hope these notes are useful.

Flights

Belarus has connections to most major European cities. The national airline, BELAVIA, do a direct flight from London Gatwick to Minsk several times per week. If you want to travel by train, there’s only one man to ask.

Arrival at Minsk airport

  • Customs officials will ask to see proof of Travel Insurance (and they may also request to see an associated membership card).

Accommodation

    • Using a travel agent used to be a necessity because they could provide a letter of invitation (which was mandatory to obtain a visa). I used MinskLuxx who have an array of city-centre apartments and helpful services.

Getting around

    • Taxis to/from the airport cost ~ €20. Licensed taxis have yellow plates and can be trusted, and Uber is also available. There’s also a bus service to the train station.
    • Trains are cheap and easy to use.
  • The Metro is simple to use and has a regular service. Each journey requires 1 token (60 Kopeks) which can be bought at the ticket office.

Things to see

Minsk itself is easy to explore on foot. I recommend the following:

Day 1:

    • City gates (outside the train station)
    • Independence square (and the shopping centre underneath)
    • GUM shopping centre
    • Victory Square
  • Gorky Park

Day 2:

    • Great Patriotic War Museum
    • Botanic Gardens
  • National Library

For more: http://www.belarus.by/en/travel/belarus-life/minsk-attractions and https://34travel.me/gotobelarus/en/post/minsk-english-guide.

Restaurants

There are clusters of cafes and restaurants in the following places:

  • The upper town (vulica Zybickaja) – this is the main tourist area and contains several bars and restaurants on the banks of the river. 442 is the best place to watch soccer and sample interesting beer. Cherdok do great burgers in a laid back setting. Malt & Hops have a long and classy bar serving beer and many malts. El Pushka is a fun and intimate tequila bar. Beer Cap is a classic Eastern European-style bar – an outdoor labyrinth with interesting beers and a range of customers.
  • Trajeckaja nabiarežnaja (the old town) – the only real area of pre-WW2 buildings, it has a nostalgic feel compared to the rest of the city.
  • Karl Marx street – a number of classy bistros and restaurants with sincere cooking.
  • Kastrycnickaja Street – former industrial units now famous for bright murals and hipster coffee.

For a distinctly Belarusian experience, Rakovsky Brovar is a large, popular brewery serving traditional food in a friendly atmosphere. And watching the world pass by at the bar at Centralny is one of Minks’s cultural highlights.

Typical prices (as of 2017)

Minsk provides a fascinating mixture of standard European ambience and a gripping historical context. Belarus is not quite Poland and not quite Russia – it is something else. Something tangible and settled. But forward looking and optimistic. It’s truly unique.

Also check out Joe Jenkins’ “Postcard from . . . Minsk” Financial Times, April 21 2017

Update: my Travel Guide to Minsk was featured by Belarus Digest

Podcasts

I use Overcast to listen to podcasts. The smart speed setting quickens the pace without you even noticing and I usually listen to 1.2x normal speed. If you want to get into podcasts I highly recommend tweaking these settings to get through them faster. An added bonus is that if you’re listening to a proper series or radio play at normal speed, you “feel the benefit” and get super engrossed. 

Economics

  • EconTalk – the original economics podcast featuring an array of fascinating guests. Each episode is typically over an hour long which can be daunting, but permits a relaxed and casual conversation. As a former student of Russ Roberts, I thoroughly enjoy recapturing some of the intellectual curiosity and excitement of grad school through EconTalk.
  • Macro Musings – David Beckworth is a wonderful economist, and by focusing on monetary macro he provides a consistently high quality conversation on a topic I know I will want to listen to. I think it’s pitched at the perfect level to walk listeners through the career trajectory and major insights of an impressive guestlist.

Business and management

  • Planet Money – Short (20 minute) episodes that illuminate important economic concepts through interviews. Can’t get enough of them.
  • Stuff You Should Know – Well produced, entertainingly presented, always interesting.
  • Making Sense with Sam Harris – Lengthy and deep conversations with fascinating thinkers on topics such as the multiverse, AI, identity politics, and meditation. (Frustrating when it switched theme music and annoying now that free episodes are cut short.)
  • The Investors Field Guide – I don’t listen to it (yet) but it’s been highly recommended to me.
  • Adam Buxton – on the surface this is a comedy show, where likeable comic Adam Buxton (from Adam & Joe semi-fame) chats with his “showbusiness” friends. I enjoy it because it provides an honest and sincere look at the thought process behind public speaking, professional success, and the art of humour.
  • The Edge with Joey Barton – I have sympathy for Barton and find him a highly engaging character. In this series of interviews he demonstrates his curiosity for what drives peak performance with applications for sport, politics, and all forms of management.

True Crime

  • Generation Why – two American friends present and dissect famous cases in an informal, engaging manner.
  • Casefile True Crime – the Australian narrator, following a well crafted script, provides an engrossing experience.
  • Criminal – somewhat hit and miss collection of interesting cases, but the good ones stay with you.

History

  • Slow Burn (Season 3 Biggie and Tupac) – Engrossing account of the East Coast/West Coast rivalry and the emergence of Tupac as a cultural figure perhaps unrivalled. I couldn’t help imagining being a school teacher listening to the perspective of each side, and simply concluding “grow up”. Fortunately, the civilising force of commercial success means that those still alive have done so.  B.
  • Slow Burn (Season 2 Clinton) – I loved this. Very well presented featuring interviews with key players in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I particularly liked the broader focus on the controversy surrounding Clinton prior to him becoming President, and how that laid the ground for his impeachment. This was a historic event that I remember experiencing, but it was enlightening to do deeper. Especially relevant given the #metoo movement. B.

Self contained series

  • Things Fell Apart, BBC Sounds – Jon Ronson looks at the different origins of the culture wars, which are defined as “the battle for dominance over conflicting values”, or the things we shout about on social media. B.
  • Death by Conspiracy – an 11 part podcast documentary on Gary Matthews, who died from covid in January 2021 having been drawn to social media claims that it was a hoax. C. 
  • The Coming Storm, BBC Sounds (7 part podcast documentary on the rise of QAnon). A.
  • The Last Days of August – Jon Ronson does another excellent job at sympathetically telling a series of tragic stories, providing a few plot twists and narrative intrigue, without losing sight of the victim. B.
  • 13 Minutes to the Moon – released by the BBC to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, the series focuses on the audio recordings from the Apollo 11 mission. Having done a thorough job of explaining what was being said, and the importance of each intonation from those involved, the uninterrupted playback is truly mesmerizing. A. 
  • End of Days – the siege of Waco told from a British perspective, talking to family members of those who went. C.
  • Uncover – Season 1: Escaping NXIVM – a disturbing account of a women’s efforts to escale a cult. C.
  • Caliphate – an exquisite series that reports on the rise of Islamic State and documents the fall of Mosul. It’s a deeply absorbing production centred around an interview with someone claiming to have joined IS, and provides a perfect balance of background information. A. (Update: In December 2020 the New York Times retracted the series)
  • Atlanta Monster – all the ingredients for a fascinating sequence of plot twists and information about a case I wasn’t familiar with. But I felt it dragged on and I gradually lost interest. B.
  • This Sounds Serious – a well conceived and executed spoof of the true crime genre. Some daft comedic moments and surprisingly subtle nods to The Day Today. A.
  • The Butterfly Effect – very touching business history emphasising creative destruction and unintended consequences. High recommend. A.
  • Missing Richard Simmons – originally presents itself as having the ingredients of a unique and enjoyable mystery, but sadly turns into a slightly disturbing hounding. C.
  • S Town – a fascinating and gripping story, but I was somewhat annoyed by the presenter’s self-serving presence. B.
  • Tracks – a radio play that delves into a reasonably interesting conspiracy theory, but ultimately fails to replicate the engagement that comes from a discovery. C.
  • Homecoming – more of a play than a podcast, but one that utilises the medium very nicely. Season 2 was meh. B.
  • Serial Season 1 – a documentary about the death of Hae Min Lee featuring interviews with Adnan Syed, who is in prison for the murder. But did he do it? This helped build the genre of the developing real time podcast, and bingelistening to this with noise cancelling headphones, on a transatlantic red eye, was super sweet. The theme music still gives me shivers. A.

And finally:

Classic interview questions

  1. If you had to kill someone, who would it be?
  2. What have you been most wrong about?
  3. When have you spent < £100 on something that gave you an immense amount of satisfaction?
  4. What’s the biggest coincidence you’ve ever experienced?
    • A coincidence is “A surprising concurrence of events with no apparent causal connection.”
    • I like this one
    • Another famous one is a man picks ups ringing pay phone, and it’s a lady trying to get hold of him but she dialled his payroll number by mistake. Then again, it can’t be that good an example of coincidence if David Spiegelhalter has 10 other examples of it happening! (see his website)
    • Luck = chance taken personally
    • We may underestimate the likelihood of chance meetings due to hidden networks
  5. Do you sincerely believe in any conspiracy theories?
    • Joscha Bach argues that the main difference between a conspiracy theory and a consensus narrative is that latter tried to unify society, but the former tries to splinter it. Yet both of them “gives meaning to the world by connecting significant dots with confabulation and motivated reasoning, making truth and fiction indistinguishable”. Perhaps he’s right that the internet is making it harder to debunk conspiracy theories.
    • Note that some events can cease to be a conspiracy theory – as Mick Herron said, “It’s not a theory once it’s proved. After that, it’s just a conspiracy” (Slow Horses, p.147)
  6. Is cunning a good trait?
    • “Instead of following an open, clearly understandable line of behaviour, cunning is calculating how other people will react to certain forms of behaviour which are hiding the end game”… “this ability to assess things rapidly and then to act in a way that is not immediately readable/ understandable by the people around us in order to get an advantage that some people will doubtless feel is an unfair advantage” (Tim Parkes, translator of Machiavelli who, incidentally, was always truthful towards his wife)
  7. Tell that story, the time you did the wrong thing because you were scared. (link)
  8. When were you at your happiest?
  9. Tell me about the time you met the right person at the wrong time. (It doesn’t need to be romantic).
  10. Do you have a favourite joke?
  11. Imagine your funeral, and your family and friends have had a few drinks and are thinking of you. They want to make an idiosyncratic gesture to your memory. What would they do? What should they do?

Performance Review

The underlying problem is that all performance reviews (especially corporate ones) tend to be costly and arbitrary. Deloitte have a new approach that intends to simplify the process by asking 4 questions:

  1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus (five point scale)
  2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team (five point scale)
  3. This person is at risk for low performance (yes/no)
  4. This person is ready for promotion today (yes/no)

I like the idea but not the questions chosen (they are too hierarchical). Mine would be something along the following lines:

  1. Does this person excel at their job?
    • For example, is there documented evidence of other people attempting to learn from them?
  2. Is this person a pleasure to work with?
    • For example, would other colleagues look forward to making a transatlantic trip with them?

I recently became aware of the concept of a Personal Boardroom. I think it is a good way to recognise whether you have an effective support network, and to identify why your career may be stalling. The idea is that you should have people in your life – with whom you are in regular contact – that perform each of the following roles:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 18.37.00 Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 18.36.47 Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 18.36.54

The Krupnik Medal

As an educator it’s a real priviledge to have the opportunity to engage with so many ambitious and intelligent students. My colleagues that teach on PhD programmes tend to have lists of their former students (I even appear on one!) but working in a business school means that I don’t produce future academics. I do, however, look on with pride when I see the achievements of former students in their professional careers.

A Krupnik Medal (🏅) is my way of saying “well done!”

Krupnik Medal holders:

To nominate someone, or reconnect, email me!

Personal finance MOT

john_vernon_lord_ant_grasshopper


In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

Source.

See Martin Wolf’s re-telling of the Ant and the Grasshopper as a modern fable here.


I endorse Chris Dillow’s four general principles of investing:

  1. Live within your means. The safest way to get rich is to save. How you invest your savings – cash, shares, gold, whatever – is a secondary consideration, unless you are really silly.
  2. Minimize taxes and charges. Most people can save tax-efficiently through ISAs and pensions, and should do so. Also, don’t be tempted by high-charging funds – they are usually not worth it. And if you hold shares directly, don’t trade much.
  3. Remember that high prices, on average, mean low expected returns. Don’t jump on bandwagons.
  4. Remember G.L.S Shackle’s words: “knowledge of the future is a contradiction in terms.” Don’t pretend you can see what’s coming. And don’t pay others in the belief that they can do so. The essential fact about the financial world is risk (and/or uncertainty). The key question is: what risks are you prepared to take, and which aren’t you? This paper by John Cochrane discusses this well.

I also like Harold Pollack’s attempt to put financial advice on a 4×6 index card:

Photo by Harold Pollack

Photo by Harold Pollack

And I like this investment philosophy from Jim O’Shaughnessy.

Many people will say that they want to take more control over their current spending and future financial security, but often find it difficult to actually achieve this. I’m not a qualified financial adviser, I can’t demonstrate past success at investment decisions, and do not encourage you to blindly follow my advice. All I can offer is a process by which you can gain a better understanding of your personal finances, and something that seems to work for me.

You probably don’t have time to follow these steps now. So find a date a few weeks or months from now and put it in your diary. Don’t shift it. Treat this seriously. Do it when you have time…

Start

Picture yourself at 65, and make it as vivid an image as possible – not so much what you look like, more where you are and what you are doing (for more see Chapter 9 of this book). A large reason why people are careless with their financial situation (and constantly undermine their future happiness), is because we’re conditioned to focus on immediate rewards. But we need to shift perspective and think about what actions your present self needs to take in order to make your future self happy. What resources do you need to deliver to your 65 year old self? Picture your children at 20. What do you want to be able to give them? Don’t adjust your future goals to meet your financial resources. Adjust your present behaviour to hit your targets.

Practice self-control and delayed gratification. If you want to watch a movie, try waiting a few days. Treat it as a reward.

Create your own version of my Personal Finance MOT (download a PDF here).

  • Fill in the date at the top left – do this at least once a year.
  • Go through your last 6 payslips and use your typical (i.e. not including bonuses) net (i.e. after tax) income. Unless bonuses are a significant part of your regular income treat them as a bonus and save them. This goes in the “In” box (top left). Make sure you include a total.
  • Then look at your outgoings. All of the sections in the thin black boxes should be summed together in the box where it says “Out”. There’s probably some categories that I’m missing out, and so use it as a basis. Check your direct debits to make sure there’s nothing that you’re regularly spending money on that isn’t being captured here. There will be lots of expenses that aren’t on this list (e.g. food, clothes, etc), but I find that if you try to be too exhaustive it becomes arbitrary. These are all essentials and are a lower bound of monthly outgoings.
  • Use a blue pen to complete it. As you can see for the mortgage entry write there is a row underneath to write down the provider in the left half and the amount in the right.
  • If there are any bills that are paid annually fill in the amount in green (and there is space below to add the renewal month). Divide each green number by twelve and sum together in the separate box called “monthly equivalent”.
  • Finally, your wealth is captured in “Shake it all About”. These can be estimates but if it takes a long time to find a current balance then perhaps that’s a problem. (Although if you’re checking them more than once a year that may also be a problem. Set it, and forget it). The dotted line signals that the top part is current wealth, and the bottom is the current value of savings that will be accessible to the children when they’re older. For many people most of their wealth is tied up in housing, so you can add the current value of your property less the outstanding mortgage. But I’d keep that separate to the main wealth calculation (it’s hard to shake about).
  • The two grey boxes are some metrics:
    • Months of imports covered is =(wealth/out). It shows how long you can keep spending money at the same rate if your income dried up.
    • Savings as % of income is =[(wealth/in*12)]*100.
    • Include your personal and employer’s contribution to your pension. Make sure you max out any matched contribution and have a figure as hugh as you can afford (>25%).
    • Total wealth is the sum of “Shake it all About” and house equity.

Some general comments:

  • Get a good credit card. Make sure you pay it off each month but make sure you’re getting rewards for spending. An easy way is to link it with Airmiles.
  • For advice on what type of pension, life insurance, savings vehicle are appropriate for you consult a professional financial advisor (this is helpful). If you don’t think it’s worth paying a few hundred quid to sort out your financial future then you’re an irresponsible idiot!
  • It is really important to start saving early. “Someone who starts saving at the age of 21 and then stops at 30 will end up with a bigger pension pot than a saver who starts at 30 and puts money aside for the next 40 years until retiring at 70“. Also look at the calculators here.
  • Have a look at the interest rates you’re paying. Make sure that you pay off your most expensive loans first (you don’t want the “loans” box to outgrow anything in the “shake it all about” box).
  • Act as though the Efficient Market Hypothesis is true (see the second half of this page). The best investment strategy is a low cost well diversified index fund. Vanguard are the original and remain the best (and even after the turmoil in Spring 2020, if your goals are long term you shouldn’t even be looking).
    • I use the FTSE Global All Cap index
      • The ESG Developed World All Cap Equity Index Fund is very similar but reduces emerging market risk (I think)
      • The Lifestrategy 100 is more UK based, which reduces exchange rate risk

Charity

I don’t enjoy being asked to make donations to charity, and not solely because I’m a tight, selfish bastard. It’s because it’s a form of bullying – you are put under social pressure to make a quick decision.

My response is to have an articulated approach to charitable donations, which serves as a defense mechanism and means I can avoid treating each request as something that requires my attention. I prefer to have a charity rule, rather than have to judge each request on its case-by-case merits. In a nutshell here it is:

charityPerhaps some points of explanation and elaboration are in order:

  • I believe that the best way to help people out of poverty is through economic liberalisation. I find the empirical and theoretical evidence compelling, and devote my career to pursuing it. This sounds glib and self-satisfying but writing a book about the power of markets is my chief contribution. Economics is my Ikigai and when my children ask me what I’ve done to make poverty history, my response is “public education”. And I sleep well at night.
  • Of course, I can do more. However I’m very concerned about inefficiencies within the charity sector. Since they exist largely outside the profit and loss framework that I deem to be the cause of the success of markets, it is to be expected that they are subject to bureaucratic inefficiencies. I suspect that the charities I’m most familiar with, are not necessarily the most important. I suspect that the causes that generate most media coverage, are not necessarily the most pressing. So I try to discount charities that have good branding, good PR, and are emotionally draining.
  • I think it’s important to have direct debits to charities that you believe in. I set a percentage of my income that I feel is appropriate and split that between a few well known charities. One is focused on democracy and basic human rights. One is focused on humanitarian assistance and medical aid. If another charity wants me to contribute to them, they’ll need to convince me either that (i) they are more deserving than a charity I currently support; or (ii) I should increase the percentage of my income I assign to charitable giving. A Tithe requires 10%, but I already donate more than that to the UK government to administer charitable giving on my behalf. So I don’t give 10%. Less than that. If the state shrank, I’d give more.
  • I never donate based on cold calling, be it at home or in the street. This is a rule and the more you encourage me to break it, the more resolute I will be. Don’t bully me!
  • I regularly make donations of clothes, toys, DVDs etc to my favourite local charity shop.
  • Whenever I bet on beliefs I suggest to donate proceeds to charity.
  • I am not as skeptical of government-to-government foreign aid as most free market economists, because I believe that even with large scale bureaucratic inefficiencies the end result could still be beneficial. If for every £1 that gets sent abroad 50p is lost to bureaucracy, 25p goes to prop up a bad regime, and only 25p goes to intended recipients; that may be better than 0. But there’s important incentive effects that should be considered.
  • As an alternative to foreign aid, I’m delighted that the practice of giving cash transfers is generating more coverage. The economic logic is simple, and it seems that it’s working. Yes, they may spend it on booze. But as Chris Blattman points out this pessimism and paternalism is pretty unfounded (do read that whole article). Other good articles on cash transfers are this one and this one.
  • There are also important incentive effects with direct charitable giving. I don’t give money to beggars or homeless people. It’s not because I believe that they’re most likely to be under cover police officers. But if there are rents, I expect rent-seeking. I also expect beggars to invest resources to acquire prime begging locations. And I don’t want to encourage self-mutilation. I assume that any dogs I see are borrowed or rented, and whilst I am tempted to give warm clothes or a cup of tea I find this to be too much hassle. That sounds awful, but I also try to place more weight on the needs of starving people in underdeveloped countries than those where I live, so I don’t feel too guilty from walking on by.
  • I try to tip generously, but mostly when abroad. In many countries the service providers you encounter – taxi drivers, waiting staff, housekeepers – will be on low incomes, and so it’s directed at deserving people. This is a nice way to administer cash transfers. But in richer countries tipping is a horrible practice and I favour an automatic 15% service charge that gets split at the discretion of senior management.
  • I have an annual budget to use for friends that ask for sponsorship. I don’t keep a close record but this generally means that if it’s someone dear to me I will sponsor. This is a nice way to ensure that I have a wider range of giving than if I chose the charity myself.
  • I don’t wear ribbons and resist social media gimmicks. The fact that the Ice Bucket Challenge involved nominations and a deadline involved an amount of peer pressure that I consider to be a form of bullying. I find such expressive gestures self-satisfying and hollow and believe that genuine charity should be understated. Having said that, I’m also aware of evidence to suggest that the more public people are about their charitable activity, the more it encourages other people. Which is why I wrote this post.
  • Don’t conflate environmental concerns and other forms of “doing good” with charity. Avoid virtue signalling, which occurs when you value the image your project more than the solving of a problem. As an example, What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong (e.g. lazy compost is worse than landfill). And understand the benefits of packaging before lamenting the costs.

If you’ve never given a cash transfer before, I recommend https://www.givedirectly.org. Here’s what I used to think of charity.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is community work, and I’ve often wondered if I’ve used shyness as a mask for selfishness. However Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character’ reassured me that we shouldn’t overstate community involvement. He says, “community service is sometimes used as a patch to cover over inarticulateness about the inner life”. He provides an example of asking a headteacher how her school teaches character, and the response was the number of hours of community service. According to Brooks, “when I asked her about something internal, she answered by talking about something external. Her assumption seemed to be that if you go off and tutor poor children, that makes you a good person yourself”. It isn’t a massive leap to consider “how can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I”. He says (p.133),

Today, when we use the phrase “public-spirited,” we tend to mean someone who gathers petitions, marches and protests, and makes his voice heard for the public good. But in earlier eras it meant someone who curbed his own passions and moderated his opinions in order to achieve a larger consensus ands bring together diverse people.

If you struggle to find the balance between donating 80% of your income to charity and retraining as a doctor to work in a children’s hospital in Africa, versus doing nothing, I recommend ‘Stubborn Attachments‘ by Tyler Cowen. In particular, may this passage reassure you:

fullsizerenderOr, as George Eliot ended Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”

 

Decision making framework

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When struggling to make a decision a simple first step is to create three columns and list:

  • Reasons in favour
  • Reasons against
  • Further information required

I like the advice from Jack Reacher,

Evaluate. Long experience had taught me to evaluate and assess. When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don’t waste time. Don’t figure out how or why it happened. Don’t recriminate. Don’t figure out whose fault it is. Don’t work out how to avoid the same mistake next time. All of that you can do later. If you survive. First of all you evaluate. Analyse the situation. Identify the downside. Assess the upside. Plan accordingly. Do all that and you give yourself  a better chance of getting through to the other stuff later.

The following is a great template for requesting decision rights within an organisation:

  1. Describe the authority that is being requested
  2. Provide a background and summary of the value proposition
  3. Outline the objective with the strategic fit
  4. Prepare an economic summary with the base case, as well as other plausible scenarios that could make the project much better or worse
  5. Identify the key value drivers
  6. Describe the key risks and mitigants
  7. List alternatives considered and why they’ve been ruled out
  8. Project the timeline for future steps

See Koch, C., 2015, Good Profit, Crown Business

And all those points should be evidence-based. Not necessarily extensive, but easily digestible. As management guru Joey Barton points out, three key points are “the limit of relevant, easily digestible information”.

Rejection

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In May 1997 I applied for the Everton managers job, and received a nice reply from Peter Johnson. Over the next few years I decided to apply to as many Premier League managers jobs as I could, and eventually built a collection of rejection letters. I rediscovered them in November 2015 and here they are:

I still live in hope.

Update: here’s my pitch for the Everton job 2016