My Christmas card from Esther and Abhijit

Circular arguments ensue after a round of experiments. And Thomas’ culinary efforts return to the earth.

I must admit that last week was exciting. We had Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, the Nobel Prize winning couple, round for dinner. They were in London on a whirlwind tour but were kind enough to visit. Esther had been one of my Ph.D students.

I am so glad that they won. This isn’t only because that meant my bête noir, Granman, didn’t win. I really think they are on to something. They actually try and use real experiments to test their economic interventions. A brilliant idea.

“It is amazing what you conclude with what look like really simple assumptions.”

Of course, I was very much in thrall to theoretical economics which was all the rage in my day. It is amazing what you conclude with what look like really simple assumptions. I managed to totally avoid the challenging business of evidence.

I did take some interest in lab-based experiments which became popular in the ‘90s. But somehow decisions of desperate students playing on computers never seemed particularly realistic. Still, at least they were cheap and easy to conduct, and the students seemed pleased with the cash handouts they got.

Esther and Abhijit actually go to some pretty hairy places to find out what really works on the ground. They even used the medical trick of creating a control group so one lot get the “intervention”, which is supposed to help the dears and the others don’t. And they can then check the difference in outcomes.

They have made some great discoveries. They proved once and for all that if you gave away bed nets to the poor rather than charging for them, the take-up was hugely greater. As a result, many fewer suffer from malaria.

Now I might have concluded that from theory, but there is nothing like an experiment to really convince people.

What is really clever is that they don’t have to bother getting into the muddling world of what causes what and who knows whom. The data speaks for itself.

I was somewhat worried about what to cook for them now they were international stars, but they insisted that they just wanted potluck. They were pretty fed-up with all the grand dinners and rich food they were being forced to consume.

Thomas was very pleased by this. He has recently become quite keen on not wasting any of our leftovers. So he planned different dishes for each of us from accumulated scraps from the last fortnight or so. He reckons it will make a really good trial of his food recycling strategy.

There was one quite major challenge. Our dining room had become a storage space for Queenisha’s “vintage” clothes business. She had teamed up with Martina the cleaner. As Martina was charged with house clearance, it seemed a business partnership made in heaven.

“Decisions of desperate students playing on computers never seemed particularly realistic.”

After much toil moving clothes and sorting out leftovers, we were all ready for our esteemed guests. Of course they were somewhat late having been detained by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who just love their no-nonsense and direct approach to tackling poverty. Apparently they find all discussion of big questions of global inequality very tiresome.

However it was not quite the occasion for heart to hearts as the poor dears seemed unable to leave their iPhone screens as they struggled to keep up with what they called a “twitter storm”. Not a lot of Thomas’s carefully prepared fare actually got eaten.

“Their elevation has led to all the ghastly heterodox economists attacking them.”

Apparently their elevation has led to all the ghastly heterodox economists attacking them for not addressing what they call the “real issues” of global inequality. They have been labelled “randomistas” for their use of randomised control trials. All very unfair as they seem pretty interestingly “heterodox” to me.

Anyway Thomas is now looking for a local bulk composting service as even he recognises that the accumulated leftovers are past it. Meanwhile the antique clothes are back in residence.

Miss Ettie Kett
This month Otterly Goode writes from Henley

Dear Ms Kett
I recently visited the Branson-Ecclestanes in the Cotswolds for an astounding spread of pre-Xmas fare in their very roomy mansion. I was somewhat shocked though when I spotted their kitchen bin full of unrecycled plastic containers as I was helping clear up. I doubled-checked and they were definitely marked as recyclable. The Branson-Ecclestanes are my most dear friends but I don’t know how to bring this up.

My Dear Ms Goode
In these moments the sainted Richard Attenborough can come to the rescue. Next time you have a cosy tête-à-tête with them, why not suggest you watch one of his Blue Planet series together. That should give you the chance to have the conversation you want. You might also check out their home insulation while you are at it. If that doesn’t work, get some new friends.
My best wishes to you
Ms Ettie Kett

Ms Ettie Kett provides advice on modern manners. Please send your requests for advice to

Verity Bastion

Verity is an emeritus professor of economics now living in a retirement apartment with her husband, Thomas, after a distinguished career. She writes a regular column for The Mint on …

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