Using Data, Networks and Complexity to Study Trade, Aid, Economics

Today counts as an exciting day in the life of a researcher whose reading list consists more of Twitter and blogs than it does of JDE papers. (Should I be admitting to this in public? Something about the narrow micro-focus and lack of interest in external validity of most published works in the JDE and the like make me less worried about this than perhaps I should be. (Or am I reading the wrong journals?))

Following a piece I heard on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 about wealth inequality, two of my favourite bloggers, Duncan Green at Oxfam and the mighty Owen Barder at the Centre for Global Development had a minor public disagreement in the comments section of a blog post from Green about the same story.

The story, originated by Oxfam, is that the additional wealth earned by the world’s richest hundred in 2012 could have ended global poverty four times over, and it was in this exact form which the story was reported on the BBC. Green’s blog post went into more detail about how the figures were arrived at (something which I think characterises his lucid and reasoned blogging style) but Barder questioned the accuracy of the “end global poverty” part of the Oxfam status.

The definition of ending global poverty was giving people enough money to take them over the $1.25-a-day threshold, the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty. Barder pointed out the difference between this narrow definition and that which many people will have had in mind when they heard the phrase “ending global poverty”. (I’m paraphrasing/expanding here, but I think the sentiment is correct. The actual tweet is here.) Green then admitted that the ending of global poverty would only happen in “the narrow sense of extreme income poverty” to which Barder hilariously countered that Green had written an entire book attempting to get away from such narrow definitions of poverty (which comes with a recommendation byline from Amartya Sen himself).

The argument for me seems to exemplify the growing distinction between the world of blogging and the world of let’s call it “traditional” media: blogging at its best is all about honesty and straightforwardness; something I admire in both Green’s and Barder’s blogs. But the “traditional” media need simple one-phrase headlines which will capture the attention of the driving, snoozing, train-riding or otherwise partially-engaged listener/reader.

I think there is room for both, and I can completely see the benefit of simple headline stats like the world’s richest hundred one from Oxfam. (In fact, I think that stats like these should have some kind of permanent home: a kind of shockingfactsaboutinequality.org)

But the world also needs the Barders, Harfords and Goldacres to keep the lid on the sometimes overzealous preachings of those at the interface between statistics and the media.

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