What Am I Optimizing For on EFE in 2023?

Six principles, three big picture questions, and three bonus questions.

Anybody who’s attended a principles class taught by me knows what is coming next. It is my deeply rooted conviction that almost every single problem/concept/idea in economics can become more relatable by simplifying it down to one out of these twelve things: six principles, three big picture questions and three bonus questions. If you get the hang of these twelve things, you can go a very long way in terms of both understanding what economics is about, and how economics can be used to make the world around you a slightly better place.

And while mastery over these twelve things will likely take a lifetime – and almost definitely more than that – familiarity with them isn’t so difficult. And my aim is to write blogposts – in one way or another, and as much as possible – centered around one of these twelve things.

Not just blogposts, but we’ll leave that for aother day. For today’s blogpost, a simple list of what these twelve things are.

First, the six principles:

  1. Incentives matter
  2. TINSTAAFL – There is no such thing as a free lunch
  3. Costs matter
  4. Trade matters
  5. Prices matter
  6. Externalities matter

If I’m teaching a class in a semester at a college, I would dearly like to spend as much time as possible in speaking about just these six principles. Different teachers the world over may have a slightly different list, but I would be surprised if there were to be no overlap at all between two different lists. We may define concepts within these principles slightly differently, we may disagree on some of the underlying mechanisms, but here’s a nice way to think about my list. I am more than willing to listen to arguments about what I really should be adding to my list, but you’ll have to do a lot of convincing to make me remove an item from this list.

These six principles really do define economics for me. They can be expanded upon in multiple ways, a million derivatives can be constructed, there are endless tangents that can be drawn, and the nuances for each can be separate books in their own right. But at it’s heart, these six principles do most of the weight-lifting when it comes to economics.

Next, the three big picture questions:

  1. What does the world look like?
  2. Why does it look the way it does?
  3. What can we do to make the world a better place?

I don’t much like the artificial divide of the subject into “micro” and “macro” economics, but if you like, you can think of the six principles as a way to think about an introduction to microeconomics, while these three questions are a way to get started on thinking about macroeconomics. Depending upon how you want to go about answering the third question, there is yet a further division that is possible, between short term macroeconomic fluctuations and long term growth theory. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

But you can’t really begin analyzing macroeconomics without having a sense of what the world looks like today. Which countries in the world are doing well today, and how do you define “doing well”? Which countries in the world are not developing as rapidy as one would have hoped for? A comparative analysis of what the world looks like is where the study of macroeconomics should start.

At which point, the second question comes into its own. Why is Afghanistan doing so poorly when compared to its peers (howsoever defined), or when compared to its neighbours? Is it because Afghanistan is a landlocked country? Are all landlocked countries poor? If not, why not? Is it because of natural resources in Afghanistan? Is it because of geo-politics? Is it because of colonization? Does religion have a role to play? The list of questions is nowhere near complete, and this is just one nation. We can go on and on like this for all nations – and multiple careers have been spent on answering only parts of one question for just one nation.

And then we come to question number three, the most vexatious question of them all. Just two little words in that sentence, but what a world of (intellectual) pain they bring forth into the world.

“What can we do to make the world a better place?”

Who is we? What form of government works best to make one’s own country a better place? Is the answer to this question always the same regardless of the stage of development? Is your answer based on ideals and hope, or on empiricism? For which part(s) of the world and in which time period?

Does the word better mean the same thing to all people? Are we in a better world when everybody has access to a washing machine? Or are we in a better world when we don’t generate more carbon emissions? Can we have both? If yes, how?

These three questions define macroeconomics for me. Most of what we do in big picture economics (a term that I prefer to macroeconomics, for reasons I’ll get into in a later blogpost) can be thought of using this framework.

There are many good things that have happened as a consequence of blogging regularly here on EFE. But one of the best things to have happened is that I’ve been able to come up with three additional questions – questions that I find myself asking ad nauseam, both to myself and of other people:

  1. What are you optimizing for?
  2. Relative to what?
  3. Over what horizon?

That first question, strictly speaking, isn’t really a question economics can answer. What you are optimizing for is a question that requires deep introspection, and the answer likely comes from either other domains, or from a place that will perhaps forever lie beyond the fartherest probes of academia. But I will say this much – it is impossible to proceed further in economic analysis of any kind, without clarity about the answer to this question.

The second question here really is just another way of saying opportunity costs. But it is surprising to see how easy it is to forget that opportunity costs are real. This is particularly true in the case of public policy, but “relative to what” is a question that more people need to ask of themselves (myself included).

And finally, that most problematic of all questions: time. Just when you think you’re done with intellectual wrestling, trying to answer that third question can often bring you all the way back to square one. Is your answer to the first two questions the same over all time horizons?

I could have optimized for playing (judge me all you like) Subway Surfers instead of writing this post, because I was optimizing for relaxing myself. Or that, at any rate, is the story I tell myself when I give in to temptation. That choice is the best for me (if at all) only in the very short run. That is, over a very short horizon. So is playing yet another round of Subway Surfers really the best thing that I can do? Back, as I said, to square one.

India can optimize for (extending PMGKAY/ reviving the old pension scheme / pick whichever topic makes you the most uncomfortable), and ask yourself why what India is optimizing for. Ask what the opportunity costs of doing so will be. And finally ask if your answer (whatever it may be) remains the same if you ask what is best for India over the course of the next two years. What about two decades? What about two centuries? Which is the best timeframe to use to answer this question, and whatever your answer, what are you optimizing for? Back, as I said, to square one!

In one way, this is exactly what I have been doing in any case these past six years – writing blogs about these topics. A little bit of circular logic is involved here, of course. If I say that this framework:

six principles | three big picture questions | three bonus questions

can be used to think about any topic in economics, maybe I say I’ve been writing about this because I now think about those blogposts that I have written using this framework.

Be that as it may, writing here on EFE has convinced me that this framework can be used to think about all questions in economics, regardless of whether you have been formally trained in the subject or otherwise. And my attempt, this year, is going to be to think about as many questions as I can, explicitly using this framework. Of course I’ll benefit, but hey, as the sixth principle reminds us, externalities matter. You’ll benefit too!

Or is it the other way round?