So You Want to Work in Public Policy…

If you’re between the age of 18-24, and aspire to work in the field of public policy, how should you prepare for such a career? Outside of the academic requirements and the network that you will build, reading about what public policy experts have done when on the “front-lines” is a useful exercise.

In today’s blogpost, I aim to get you started on this journey by referring to a book, an interview and an article.

The book? To Move the World, JFK’s Quest for Peace.

The book is about the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the crisis itself, its succesful resolution, and the aftermath. It is a short book, and well worth your time if you are an aspiring public policy student.


At the very start of the ExComm process, Kennedy made the basic decision—one that was never second-guessed within the group—that the Soviet weapons must go. Either the weapons would be removed peacefully by the Soviets themselves, or they would become the cause of war.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 529)

Decide upon a goal. In this case, the goal was to get the Soviet weapons to go. Professor Sachs lays out the consultations that led to this goal being chosen in subsequent pages. But that is step 1. Without a clear goal, the rest of the process is meaningless.

Be crystal clear about the “What are we trying to do here?” question, first and foremost.


That brings you to step 2. And once step 1 has either been decided, don’t make your arguments from now on about step 1. The time for that is now gone. Step 2 is about clear-eyed assessments about what maximizes your chances of getting step 1 done.

The ExComm held divergent views on the substantive effect of the missiles on the East-West military balance. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara held that the missiles had zero net effect, given that the Soviets had intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could target the United States from Soviet territory anyway. The military brass felt otherwise, that Soviet missiles just off the U.S. coast would substantially enhance Soviet military power, especially since the Soviet strategic forces at that point depended overwhelmingly on bombers with a long and difficult flight path to the United States. All agreed, however, that the missiles must go.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 548)

“How should we go about getting to our goal?” is the difficult, contentious issue. This is where your expertise is called upon as a public policy expert.

This forced a thorough review of options, and it allowed some time for communication between Kennedy and Khrushchev, albeit through a laborious and confused process of letters, public pronouncements, telegrams, and messengers. It gave time for heated emotions—panic, fear, and desire to lash out at the adversary—to be kept in check so that reason could be invoked. “Slow” rational thinking was given time to dominate the “quick” emotional thinking.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 558)

It sounds peaceful and professional – “a thorough review of options”. But this is where you have to:

  1. Really, really know your subject, or admit that you don’t and get out of the way.
  2. Have a strong point of view on the basis of your expertise, and defend it passionately. Arguing at this stage isn’t just fine, it is expected.
  3. The really, really difficult bit: figure out where your argument is weak, and listen to folks on the other side of this issue. What are they saying that is worth including in your recommendation? What are they saying that makes you want to refine/exclude parts of your proposal? Can a happy medium emerge? Remember, The Truth Always Lies Somewhere In The Middle.

Even if you think the article is mostly fluff, I found this excerpt relevant for this blogpost:

Before making up his mind, the president demands hours of detail-laden debate from scores of policy experts, taking everyone around him on what some in the West Wing refer to as his Socratic “journey” before arriving at a conclusion.
Those trips are often difficult for his advisers, who are peppered with sometimes obscure questions. Avoiding Mr. Biden’s ire during one of his decision-making seminars means not only going beyond the vague talking points that he will reject, but also steering clear of responses laced with acronyms or too much policy minutiae, which will prompt an outburst of frustration, often laced with profanity.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/14/us/politics/joe-biden-policy-decisions.html

And finally, for those of you who are hoping to get into public policy and are currently studying economics:

I would like economists to be working with engineers, to be working with public health, to be working with the medical professionals so that we’re actually working on the real systems of our time and adding our pieces to that, understanding and studying that so that we have an answer to robotics, not a pure theoretical model, which is nice and fun, but something that can be helpful.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/jeffrey-sachs/

The point isn’t to build a theoretically correct model. The point is to build a model that maximizes the chances of getting to the goal we established in step 1: What are we trying to do here?

Or put another way, if you have to choose between being theoretically correct and doing whatever it takes to achieve step 1, choose the latter. If I had to choose between the two, that is what I would do.


There’s tons of other books, papers, blogs and newsletters to read on this topic, of course. If you asked me to pick just one, make it Anticipating the Unanticipated. Spend the summer reading every single one of their posts and taking (and then publishing!) notes. Better, if you ask me, than any other way to learn.


[Thank you to all those who reached out to check if I was ok. It means a lot. There’s been a covid death in the family, and a covid scare. We’re getting back to a semblance of a routine, but it has been tough and slow going. Please, stay safe, all. And again, thank you for your wishes.]

Forecasting The Future

All forecasting models are fun to learn about, and to tinker with in your software of choice. But it is equally true that all forecasting models are problematic.

First, they’re based on the assumption that the future will look like the past. Eventually, that will not be the case – this is a guarantee.

Second, even if they are based on the past, there is the problem of survivorship bias to consider in your sample of choice (my thanks to Aadisht for helping me realize this better).

And third, your predictions cannot – I repeat, cannot – account for all the underlying complexities. Forecasting is a ridiculously risky thing to do, and kudos to those who try, for this very reason.

I’d done a round-up of posts I had read in January 2020 (remember January 2020? Those were the days) that tried to predict what the world would look like when it came to India, technology and the world. I bring this up to re-emphasize the point I was trying to make in the previous paragraph: no matter how sophisticated your model, no matter how careful your sampling, and no matter however many dots you connect: reality will always have you beat.

That’s just how it is. Forecasting models work well until they don’t, and that one time they don’t can often be more costly than all the times they did.


And that brings me to this tweet:


What should you take away from this tweet (and the rest of the thread)?

My primary audience when I write here is, in a sense, myself back when I was an undergrad/post-grad student. So what advice would I want to give to myself after having read that Twitter thread?

  1. As Nitin Pai himself goes on to say in a subsequent tweet, this is a useful principle to have: Don’t try to predict the future.
  2. Respect skin in the game. Did he get it wrong? Sure he did. But hey, it takes courage to put your reasoning, your thoughts and your conclusions in the public domain. Feel free to disagree with the conclusions, but accord people who write in public the respect they deserve for having done so.
  3. Have the courage to admit you were wrong. We have two examples in front of us. One is the usual “I was misquoted/misunderstood” weasel talk. The other is an admission of error, straight up, and without qualifiers. Like the tweet above.
  4. Work at getting better. A publicly available record of your thoughts is invaluable, because it forces you to write after thinking carefully. It is also invaluable because you can outsource the “where can I get better” to the internet. And there are enough (trust me) people on the internet who will enthusiastically point out where you’re wrong. Use that advice constructively. By that I mean this, specifically: continue to write in the public domain, and that will mean making mistakes. Try not to make the same ones twice.

Like Nitin, I have written about what we’ve been going through, and how we might get out of it. All of it is available here on this blog. Some of it might turn out to be wrong – in fact, there’s a guarantee that if I write enough, some of it will be wrong. And given the pandemic that we’re going through, the stakes are impossibly high.

But it is the process of writing in public, and giving feedback on what other people write in public that drives our thinking forward.

So again, if you’re a student reading this: write. Write in the public domain. Make mistakes. Develop a thick enough skin to take on the criticism. Learn the (almost impossible to acquire) skill of figuring out when you’re wrong, and develop and hone the courage it takes to admit it.

And then, write again.


(Quick note: posting will be sporadic for some time.)

Experiments With Google

A Chrome browser (preferably), and a working Internet connection. That’s all you need to have hours of fun at home. And if there’s a young ‘un around, even better!

Do try Experiments With Google. The Arts and Culture collection is a personal favorite, as is the Experiment with Learning collection.

And this one is just beautiful. Just beautiful.

Correlation, Causation, Coffee…

… and so much else besides!

Alexey Guzey’s newsletter is a treasure trove of interesting things he finds on Twitter, and in Guzey’s case, interesting is an understatement.

But even by his high standards, the article I am sharing with you today is something else altogether.

Said article begins the same way most articles I have shared here:

“The break point in America is exactly 1973,” says economist Tyler Cowen, “and we don’t know why this is the case.” One possible culprit is the 1973 oil embargo, because many of these trends have to do with energy. But Cowen doesn’t think this holds water. “Since that time, the price of oil in real terms has fallen a great deal,” he says, “and productivity has not bounded back.”
Another possible culprit is the US going off the gold standard in 1971, part of the set of measures known as the Nixon shock (also the name of our new Heavy Metal band). This makes some sense because many of these trends have to do with the economy. But it’s not clear if this is a good explanation either, as many of these trends seem to be global, and most of the world is not on the US dollar.

https://slimemoldtimemold.com/2021/04/19/higher-than-the-shoulders-of-giants-or-a-scientists-history-of-drugs/

But it then takes on a life of its own. And if this excerpt doesn’t make you curious to read more, nothing ever will.

Bier of course was a surgeon, and so when it was his turn to give Hildebrandt the injection, he performed it flawlessly. Soon Hildebrandt was very anaesthetized. To test it, reports Regional Anaesthesia, “Bier pinched Hildebrandt with his fingernails, hit his legs with a hammer, stubbed out a burning cigar on him, pulled out his pubic hair, and then firmly squeezed his testicles,” all to no effect. In a different account, this last step was described as “strong pressure and traction to the testicles”. They also pushed a large needle “in down to the thighbone without causing the slightest pain”, and tried “strong pinching of the nipples”, which could hardly be felt. They were thrilled. With apparently no bad blood over this series of trials, the two gentlemen celebrated that evening with wine and cigars, and woke up the next morning with the world’s biggest pair of headaches, which confined them to bed for 4 and 9 days, respectively.

https://slimemoldtimemold.com/2021/04/19/higher-than-the-shoulders-of-giants-or-a-scientists-history-of-drugs/

The whole article is impossibly fascinating, and is peppered with Today I Learnt moments. Along with the surgeon above, Tesla (as in the scientist, not the firm), Robert Louis Stevenson, Freud, and the Beatles also make guest appearances – as do two Popes.

Please, do read.

Navin Kabra on the Power of Networking

Besides putting out super-awesome threads on Twitter, Navin Kabra also writes a newsletter. (He also runs a firm, and makes time for being interviewed for podcasts, and much else besides, but thinking about that will only depress the rest of us, so let’s stop)

So he sent out a post yesterday on that newsletter, which I found fascinating:

There are 3 kinds of power in an organization and most people focus on the wrong ones.
Jacob Kaplan-Moss has a great article about The Three Kinds of Organizational Power: role power, expertise power, and power through relationships. Most people focus on the less important ones. Understanding what these powers are and how to use them is key to becoming effective at your work.

https://futureiq.substack.com/p/understanding-organizational-power

First, if you haven’t already, please subscribe to his newsletter. It’s not just free, it ends up being worth more than the time you spend reading it, and if that is not a bargain, I don’t know what is. Second, maybe I’m guilty of over-fitting, but it was fascinating to me how role power is LinkedIn, expertise power is Coursera and networking power is Starbucks:

College is a bundle: education | credentialing | peer networks

https://econforeverybody.com/2020/03/12/signaling-bundling-and-college/

If I were to write that blog post again today, I would remove the word peer. That part, I really do think that role power is about signaling, expertise power is about learning, and relationship power is about networks (the last one is obviously true, it is the others that make me think I might be over-reaching).

Food for thought, as they say.


Navin’s article speaks about the last bit, relationship power, as the most powerful/useful one. And anybody who is in any part of the higher education supply chain would likely agree: it is networks that get things done.

Now, as a student, what should you take away from this?

You need to consciously spend some time in developing your networks. And that means putting yourself out there as often as possible. Write blogposts. Make videos. Start podcasts. Make TikTok or Takatak (or whatever else we’re calling it these days) clips.

And once you do all of that, as often as possible, start sending those links to folks. Ask them for feedback, and ask them specifically for areas of improvement. Ask them for learning recommendations. The magic of the internet will mean that conversations, debates and opportunities will crop up on their own.

But networking does not mean sending people requests on LinkedIn. That just means you’re added to a person’s network. Networking matters, not the network itself. It is a garden that needs regular tending to. The bad news is that it is hard work, the good news is that there are surprisingly large payoffs, and over surprisingly large periods of time.

Make connections with your peers, your professors and your potential mentors. Use this network to share your thoughts, and put those thoughts out for public consumption. Optimize for quantity, and quality will be the eventual outcome. Respond to other people’s publicly available output.

Most importantly, do this for its own sake.


Job opportunities is one of the benefits of doing all this. It is not the only goal, and it is not the end-goal.

For you will change your job eventually, but your network will either shrivel or grow. Please, learn how to nurture it, and keep at it every day.

Navin promises towards the end of his post that he will share his own tips about networking. I’ll link to that post whenever it comes out, of course. But in the meantime, start learning, and help others learn, and build out your network.

Why would you want to not acquire a superpower, eh?

Help Me Understand This, Somebody…

A fellow Puneri citizen sent out this tweet yesterday:

It was hard not to be snarky, and I didn’t even bother trying to resist:

But in my day job, I try to be an economist, and so I have questions. Just two of them, and they’re fairly simple ones. Here they are:

  1. He (or SII) was free to set the price, correct? Free market economics: let the seller decide the price, and let the buyer decide if she wants to buy at that price.


    So the price now stands reduced by a whopping 25%. Does that mean that it was set too high in the first place?


    That is, let us assume that SII is able to increase capacity expansion at a price of 300 per dose. Also assume that it can make a normal or “super” profit at this price – then was 400 not too high?


    If we assume that he was going to earn an extra 100 rupees per vaccine sold, and that he was going to sell say 200 million vaccines to the states, that’s 200 million into 100 rupees.1

    I don’t want to do the math, but were we ok with at least that much “extra” money going into the Poonawalla coffers until yesterday?

    If yes, why?


  2. Unless, of course, that was not the case, and capacity expansion will suffer at a price of 300. A raise in the minimum wage will mean switched-off air-conditioning, correct? Well, in that case, is it not our moral duty to ask him to take the price back up to 400? Because if the opportunity cost of his philanthropy is reduced capacity expansion, isn’t that worse?

(By the way, all this is taking the assumption that SII “needs” the proceeds from the sale of this one vaccine alone to fund capacity expansion. That may or may not be true. And this also assumes that this is the only vaccine that SII will be producing and selling, which is obviously not true. Even in this “best-case” scenario, my questions hold up – if we do a full reckoning, they become even more important!)

If it is the first point above, us economists must explain why we think it is ok for those 100 rupees (per dose) to go into SII’s coffers.

If it is the latter, there ought to be a stream of op-eds beseeching Mr. Poonawalla to roll back his offer, for that would be truly philanthropic.

Which will it be?

And I know I said only two questions, but forgive me my greed, and let me ask one more: what is the definition of “transparent pricing”?

  1. Where do I get that number 200 million from? Who knows? I assumed that for the 960 million people in total who become/continue to be eligible on the 1st of May, he gets to sell only 200 million doses to the states. And yes, I am assuming only a single dose for these 200 million. Since nobody knows what the quantities are actually going to be, this is as reasonable an assumption as any other. If anything, this is a very conservative estimate. No?[]

Taiwan, China and TSMC

Let’s say you knew nothing about Taiwan, China and TSMC. Where to start?

You don’t really hear about Taiwanese pop music, TV, or other pop culture. Taiwanese food exists, but except possibly for bubble tea, most Americans probably wouldn’t recognize it.
This seems like something that ought to change. Most importantly, because Taiwan seems really cool. But also because it’s geopolitically important, because it’s probably the most likely flashpoint for great-power war.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/taiwan-is-a-civilization

Flashpoint for a great power war? Unfortunately, yes:

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s election in January 2016 upended Beijing’s plans for reconciliation with the Nationalists. Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party was founded on the promise of independence, refused to accept Ma’s position that both sides belong to “One China.” Beijing responded by cutting off communication, curbing travel and resuming efforts to lure away Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners. Beijing has also withdrawn its support for Taipei’s participation in global bodies such as the World Health Assembly and pressured airlines, retailers and other multinationals to revise policies that treat Taiwan as a country. More recently, the People’s Liberation Army has stepped up exercises around the island, including “encirclement patrols” and incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-27/why-taiwan-is-the-biggest-risk-for-a-u-s-china-clash-quicktake

Ok, so that would be worrying, but a great power war? Because of chips. Microchips, to be more precise. And manufactured by a firm that you may not have read of: TSMC. Don’t blame yourself if you haven’t heard of it – and even if you have heard of it, this chart will still be informative:

Original Article in The Economist is here.

I don’t know about you, but I was amazed by that chart.

From that same article, here is additional information about the firm:

The most important firm in this critical business is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). It controls 84% of the market of chips with the smallest, most efficient circuits on which the world’s biggest technology brands, from Apple in America to Alibaba in China, rely to make their snazzy products and services possible. As demand for the most sophisticated chips surges thanks to the expansion of fast communication networks and cloud computing, TSMC is pouring vast additional sums of money into expanding its dominance of the cutting edge.

https://www.economist.com/business/2021/04/26/how-tsmc-has-mastered-the-geopolitics-of-chipmaking

By the way, the story of the founder is fascinating in its own right:

Read the whole thread, of course, but also note that you should also really read… and stop me if you have heard this from me before… How Asia Works by Joe Studwell.

Now, about China and the TSMC:

First, read this article for some useful background. Second:

Some experts claim that China now has the military capacity to quickly overwhelm Taiwan. Even if this is correct, invasion remains a high-risk endeavor that, even if successful, would still entail major negative ramifications for China. It can be expected only in conditions under which China’s leaders see the immediate political stakes outweighing the military risks, implying a narrow range of scenarios.

https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/would-china-invade-taiwan-for-tsmc/

The rest of the article goes on to explain the supply chain considerations in light of a war. And they’re very real indeed!

On January 13th Honda, a Japanese carmaker, said it had to shut its factory in Swindon, a town in southern England, for a while. Not because of Brexit, or workers sick with covid-19. The reason was a shortage of microchips. Other car firms are suffering, too. Volkswagen, which produces more vehicles than any other firm, has said it will make 100,000 fewer this quarter as a result. Like just about everything else these days—from banks to combine harvesters—cars cannot run without computers.

https://www.economist.com/business/2021/01/23/chipmaking-is-being-redesigned-effects-will-be-far-reaching

Finally, read this for further details. (Long, but very detailed, and therefore very interesting)

If you are a student of economics in 2021, this is one story you want to keep an eye on, apart from the other, obvious ones.

The Vaccine Responsibility by K. Sujatha Rao

I and a friend have been exchanging messages about the idiocy that was the European Super League (or whatever the name was. I’m not even going to bother looking it up). He asked me if I would post anything here about the economics behind the league, either defending the idea or refuting it.

Here’s one paragraph from a previous post of mine that I would want to base that essay (if I ever write it) on:

When David Perell says that we have made the world cheaper, what I think he is saying is that we have figured out ways to cheapen the effort that we are willing to put into the act of consuming something. That something could be a meal, but it could also be extended to reading, viewing, or listening as well – and more besides.

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/03/08/maximizing_soul/

To me, the ESL is based on the assumption that a large number of us fans are willing to cheapen the effort that we are willing to put into the act of consuming football matches – that we are not looking to maximize soul. Thankfully, so far, that assumption seems to have been ever-so-slightly off the mark.1

Anyways, he wrote a post about it, and we’ve been sharing stuff about it on and off. I sent him one written by Jonathan Wilson, and he sent me this response: “I seem to have covered largely the same points with way less finesse.”

To which my response was, that is my middle name.


Now, I didn’t need to write any of that, and any half-decent editor would have lopped off that whole bit – and quite rightly too. But hey, this is my blog, I had fun writing it, and it was a welcome break from you-know-what.

But “I seem to have covered largely the same points with way less finesse” is all too applicable in my case when reading K. Sujatha Rao’s excellent article in the Indian Express today on India’s vaccination drive. It is worse in my case of course, because I haven’t even covered largely the same points, forget the finesse.

I won’t excerpt from it, because it deserves to be read in its entirety.

But I will reiterate (in my won words) points that I thought were especially crucial, and also list out some questions that I had after I finished reading it.

  1. The point about the utilization of the vaccines that will be procured by the Government of India (GoI) is really a request for clearer communication. You simply cannot overstate the importance of clear communication.
  2. If SII has received grants from GAVI and from the Central government, would a publicly available dashboard about capacity, supply chain bottlenecks, vaccine allocation by states/countries and specific timelines for capacity expansion be possible? I’m not trying to be snarky, I am genuinely asking. What are the reasons against such a dashboard being made publicly available?
  3. I’ll ask again: Imagine a good with large positive externalities. Let’s call this good a vaccine. Let’s say that the supply of these vaccines is going to be tight. Let’s say that demand is very inelastic. Would you recommend fragmenting total market demand into smaller constituent curves? If yes, why?
    K. Sujatha Rao makes the legal argument in her article, and then makes the economic argument. Read both (and again, not being snarky), please tell me why we are choosing to do what we are doing – in this year of all years, and for this good of all goods.
  4. She speaks of halving the estimated cost of INR 60,000 crores by invoking compulsory licensing and expanding production through the 18 manufacturing facilities in India. These must be back of the envelope calculations, obviously. But if anybody reading this has information on how one might create such an estimate (and an estimate of how much production will go up by via this route), please let me know.

Please, do read the article.

  1. Sarcasm alert: the evil idiots who dreamt up that monstrosity have gotten exactly what they deserved. Not enough of it, if you ask me.[]

Some Really Simple Questions about the Supply of Vaccines

  1. Do we have enough vaccines for India to roll out doses to everybody who is 18+?
    No.

  2. Will increasing the price at which these vaccines are purchased increase the supply?

    Yes. I teach this for a living, as do thousands of economists the world over, and there is no way our answer to this question ought to be anything except a resounding “Yes”.

    An increase in the price at which we’re willing to buy a good will increase the supply of that good.

  3. Is that the only way to increase the supply of these vaccines?

    No. Murali Neelakantan and I outlined some of the possible ways in this article. A fuller explanation is available here, but it is behind a paywall, alas.

  4. But… aren’t we suggesting nationalization, or something like that? It doesn’t sound free-market-ish.

    And indeed it isn’t. Price based market mechanisms are, under normal circumstances, infinitely preferably to other mechanisms. I strongly disagree with anybody who states otherwise.

    Growth maximization above all, subject to the right to live and climate considerations is a philosophy that is hard to argue against. And growth maximization happens best with market based price mechanisms.

    But I also strongly disagree with people who will say that these are normal circumstances!

    And under these circumstances, I think it makes sense to ask if other options have the ability to increase supply. Especially in the short run. A 350,000 daily caseload number with a CFR of even 0.1% is reason enough for me.

    Put another way, if the opportunity cost of sticking to only market-based price mechanisms is lives lost because of insufficient vaccines, is it worth the trade-off?

    To me, no. This is that one year out of a hundred where you do what it takes, no matter what.

  5. So what do we do next?

    Run the numbers! If we adopt the solutions that have been outlined in the Scroll piece, how much does vaccine production go up by? And by when? If we find out that it goes up by only 1% against the baseline (do nothing) scenario, and that only after six months, then it is not worth it.
    But, on the other hand, if we find that it is possible to increase supply by 25% by the end of May as against the do-nothing scenario, then sign me up for this plan.
    Again, run the numbers.

  6. So have we run the numbers?

    As best as I can tell, no. There is no analysis that I can find online (published by the government or otherwise) that has run these scenarios.

    Running the numbers is complicated, I appreciate that. It is not just a simple question of saying “x” is the monthly capacity of plant “y”. There’s supply chain bottlenecks, efficiency considerations, learning curves, technology transfers and much more involved. But is developing this model necessary? For reasons answered in questions 1-5, I think so, yes.

  7. So why don’t I run the numbers?

    Why not indeed? But before I try, if any of you have…
    …any information about whether or not this has already been done by somebody
    …arguments for why this should not be done…
    Please, do let me know.

    Also, if any of you have any links that will be helpful in this analysis, please, do let me know.


Education and Signaling

I’d linked to this video this past Friday too, but just in case you haven’t seen it yet:

And a bonus today, Bryan Caplan on the same topic: