Two Magic Questions

I’ve linked to this magnificent paper by Robert Frank quite a few times by now, and will begin today’s blogpost with a quote from it as well:

Again, the important point is not whether this is the best possible short list of principles but rather that instructors will teach their introductory students more effectively if they begin with a well-articulated short list of some sort and then doggedly hammer away at it, illustrating and applying each principle in context after context.

His list of principles is worthy of discussion, because it is different from mine. Of course, as he himself says, a different list is just fine (I would argue it’s a good thing, because there is then more to learn), and when I say worthy of discussion, I mean that as a “Yes, and” discussion rather than a “No, but” discussion. (Have I linked to this tweet before? Yes. And I will do so again, as will I link to Robert Frank’s paper again, because one should doggedly hammer away at points that need to be reiterated, giving context after context!)

But the reason I begin with this excerpt is because I want to add to my own list of principles two different questions which I believe help one become a better economist. I’ll speak about the first of these questions today, and add the second one in tomorrow.

Here’s the first question:

What are you optimizing for?

Here is a list of questions that I usually get at the start of every academic year:

  1. Which stream should I take, or if from a parent, which stream should my child take?
  2. Should I accept admission in xyz college, or should I go to abc college instead?
  3. Which universities should I apply to in which country once I graduate out of this course?
  4. Which textbook should I read to understand subject xyz?

And my answer to all of these questions is the same. I respond with a question of my own: what are you optimizing for?

With regard to the first question in the list, here are questions you might want to think about. Are you optimizing for a course that maximizes the likelihood that your (or your child’s) passion will be nurtured? Or are you optimizing for future income streams, regardless of passion? Are you optimizing for the ability to graduate without breaking into a sweat? Or are you optimizing for the best possible brand of university/college to graduate from? Or something else?

With regard to the fourth, here’s another list of questions. Are you looking for a book that will help you learn the most about this subject? Or are you looking for a book that will help you score well? Or are you looking for a book that will help you score reasonably well without working too hard? The fact that there are meaningful answers to each of these questions is an indictment of the way we teach and conduct examinations. But the fact that entirely acceptable (and different) answers exist for each category is the point.

And of course, one can come up with a similarly long list for virtually every single question that you can come up with, or will encounter. The reason you can always do so is precisely because of the fact that choices matter.

As a politician in power, are you optimizing for long run growth, or are you optimizing for votes in the next election? As a politician in the opposition, are you optimizing for toppling the current government, or are you optimizing for what’s best for your constituency/country? As a judge, are you optimizing for the best application of accepted and laid-down principles of justice, or are you optimizing for currying favors? As a teacher, am I optimizing for pretending to finish a syllabus by putting in the least amount of effort, or am I optimizing for making sure that my students leave the class wanting to learn more? As students, are you studying a particular subject in order to learn as much about it as possible or are you optimizing to score the highest amount of marks for the least amount of effort? As an employee in an organization, are you looking to do the best possible job in your role, or are you looking to meet the minimum amount of effort required to keep your job?

Always remember, the question “What should I do?”, whether asked to yourself or to somebody else, always deserves to be met with a question in response. The answer to this question will go a very, very long way in terms of helping you answer the original one.

Here is the question once again:

What are you optimizing for?