Public Policy: The SenKulkarni Household Edition

If you thought economics was hard, wait till you get to public policy.

Last week on Monday, I’d written about screen-time in the SenKulkarni household. If you’d like the TL;DR version here it is:

  1. We had a contest about who would have the least screentime between I, my wife and my daughter.
  2. Winner gets to choose what to do for Sunday lunch, while the loser has a horrific (personalized) punishment inflicted on them.
  3. I promised an update a week down the line.

And so here’s the update: we’ve learnt that designing interventions is tough.

  1. Our daughter simply parked her tablet in our car. Her personalized punishment was ugh vegetables in her lunchbox, and the thought filled her with such horror that she chose to forsake screen-time altogether. That’s the good news.
  2. The better news is that she finished one book, and got started on another. Since she’s not a bookworm, this is a particularly welcome development. (The Young Pandava series, if you’re curious.)
  3. My wife was trailing badly at the end of the first day, and she simply gave up and conceded defeat for the entire week. Lesson learnt.
  4. What lesson, you may ask. Well, if you design a policy, a very long time horizon probably won’t work. Seven daily contests might have been better than one weekly contest.
  5. Since she conceded defeat, she would have to live with our dog’s fur on her favorite sofa in the living room, for that was the punishment for her. She got around the issue by saying that she wouldn’t clean the sofa, but nor would she make tea in the morning.
  6. This is what comes of having two people who’ve been taught game theory in the same household. Pah. Designing incentives is tricky, folks!
  7. My screen-time went down by 20%, roughly speaking, this past week. But that’s not saying much, since it was pretty bad the week before. I simply had no incentive to reduce my screen-time once the contest was “over” after the first day.
  8. I’m not going to be in Pune for much of this week because of work, so we’ll get back to this contest with some tweaks next Monday.
  9. If, in the meantime, you have suggestions and tips, send ’em in.
  10. Navin tweeted about last week’s post, and got some fascinating responses. This one was my favorite:

11. Goodhart’s law is everywhere!

But in all seriousness, think about this:

This was a simple policy designed to get three people in one household to reduce their screen-times, and the first iteration has been a glorious failure. The next time you want to blame any government the world over for a poorly thought out public policy, do keep in mind that it is harder than it seems. Don’t get me wrong, blame ’em, make fun of ’em, and feel free to lament about how things never work around here.

But throw in a sprinkling of grudging respect for having tried at all in the first place 🙂

The Invisible Barrier Keeping Two Worlds Apart

RCT’s and the Lenalidomide plus low dose dexamethasone (Rd) regimen

This is a really old threat be Twitter standards, of course, but I learnt about it only recently. Hence sharing now 🙂

Have a chat with ChatGPT about RCT’s, use this prompt to get started.

To work from home or not to work from home?

The Economist says not to work from home because “it is not more productive than being in an office, after all”.

A gradual reverse migration is under way, from Zoom to the conference room. Wall Street firms have been among the most forceful in summoning workers to their offices, but in recent months even many tech titans—Apple, Google, Meta and more—have demanded staff show up to the office at least three days a week. For work-from-home believers, it looks like the revenge of corporate curmudgeons.

They cite the case of the paper that went from showing an eight percent increase in productivity due to working from home when it was a working paper, to showing that there was a four percent reduction instead. There was no problem with the paper or its methodology, to be clear. The difference was simply because of better quality of data. There is a world of other research worth going through in The Economist article, and I would urge you to read it.

What reasons come through for the decline in productivity? Well, it’s just hard to work from a dining table! The ability to go to a co-worker’s desk to chat about work, to get some help, to resolve an issue – that is harder to do online. Why is it harder? Because “teleconferencing is a pale imitation of in-the-flesh meetings”. That’s a fancy way of saying online sucks. To use Coasean terminology, as the article in The Economist does, coordination costs matter.

Most important of all, networking becomes harder. We are, at heart, a social species, and we need proximity to other people. Not only for the psychological benefits, but also because we learn best in person. That might seem like a contradiction given yesterday’s post, but it is not. Learning in person doesn’t necessarily mean listening to someone like me drone on in a classroom!

But to me, the article came alive towards the end. As with all well written articles, this one too segues into an implicit “on-the-other-hand” section.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of remote work is that it leads to happier employees. People spend less time commuting, which from their vantage-point might feel like an increase in productivity, even if conventional measures fail to detect it. They can more easily fit in school pickups and doctor appointments, not to mention the occasional lie-in or midmorning jog. And some tasks—notably, those requiring unbroken concentration for long periods—can often be done more smoothly from home than in open-plan offices. All this explains why so many workers have become so office-shy.

“What are you optimizing for?” remains an underrated question! If you’ll allow me to cite an example from my own life: I’ve been working from home for the last year and a half, approximately. I stay on Baner Road in Pune, and not having to battle University signal everyday is something that saves me time, gives me more energy and enthusiasm to work, and frees up time to do other stuff (work/exercise/napping/whatever). I have the pleasure of picking up my daughter from her bus-stop every day. I get to go for morning and evening walks with my dog. Sure I miss the conversations with some of my colleagues, and god knows I miss being able to interact with my students on campus. But hey, opportunity costs are everywhere, no?

As the article goes on to say in its concluding paragraph, hybrid weeks are here to stay. Sure it is not as productive as working in an office, but woking from home is more soul satisfying. And so the answer to the question “work from home or not” is, well, both.

The truth, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, lies somewhere in the middle.

A chat with Pi about blended learning in Indian higher education

Arnold Kling:

I tried Personal Intelligence (Pi) from Inflection AI. As a chatbot companion, it charms you by offering encouraging reactions to what you tell it. After commenting on what you have to say, it always asks an interesting question. Think of it as a very skillful and probing interviewer. Yes, it’s only software playing a game with you, but it plays it well.
To get an idea of where a conversation with Pi can go, see part of my chat with Pi. The excerpt I posted starts with its message after I’d told it about my Marginal Revolution is Dead post. I predict that you’ll be impressed by it.

I did go and see Arnold’s chat with Pi, and yup, I was impressed.

Impressed enough to have a conversation with Pi myself. What topic would you guess I chose? The one closest to my heart in a professional context, of course:

I am convinced that classroom education in higher education in India is inefficient, takes too much time, leads to sub-optimal learning and rote memorization for examinations. This is because of a lot of different factors, most of which are interlinked with each other in many different ways. But long story short, young people in India, even in the very best universities, do not learn as well as they could. And since best practices trickle down to other universities, we end up creating a culture of learnng that is sub-optimal at all levels.

If you, like me, are convinced that classroom learning is overrated, please do go and read my conversation with Pi. If you, unlike me, are not convinced that classroom learning is overrated, definitely go and read my conversation with Pi, and please do tell me where I’m wrong.

Three points that I would like to highlight:

  1. Far too much of student’s time is spent in passive listening (and that for hours on end). Reduce it dramatically, and even the bit that remains should be online. If your choice is between packing a hundred and fifty students into a classroom like sardines or allowing students to learn online, go online. Is online bad? Well it’s not perfect, sure. But relative to what alternative? If the alternative is the sardines-in-a-can approach, then why not?
  2. To me, the job of a professor in higher education is to mentor, not to teach. This is not a binary variable, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but more mentoring than classroom teaching, that much is for sure. So if anything, the workload for a professor will go up in my proposal, not down. But more personalized teaching/mentoring. Leave the large scale classroom to online education. What else is it for?
  3. AI in education is coming. You may not like it, you may resist it and you may say (as a professor) “but what are we here for then?”. But read the rest of Arnold’s post and ask yourself if the median professor in your university is better or worse than AI tutoring. Then ask yourself how many students this professor can mentor/tutor. Again, AI in education is coming. But the answer to the question “but what are we here for?” lies in learning to think of ourselves as complements to AI. Ask what AI can’t yet provide, and provide that. What the “that” will be changes based on a variety of factors, but in my specific case, I would think it is working on projects with students. And that is what I am focussing on this year.

I sent my conversation with Pi to two friends of mine, who gave me extremely thoughtful responses.

Samrudha Surana highlighted the fact that I should also be thinking about the question “what is college for?”. Different students want different things from the same course. Some may wish to become professors, while many more may wish to join the corporate world. This is as it should be: higher education is not a replication machine, whose sole job is to produce more professors over time. But we need both (future professors and future employees in the corporate world), and people trained in many other professions besides. Blended learning, and AI’s introduction allows for more customization, and that is a good thing.

He also pointed out that we should carefully think through how the online courses will be chosen by the students, and to what end. What he means by this is how much of a say a student should have in choosing their course(s), and how much of it should be the decision of the professor. Not just the choice of the courses, but also the choice of the project/assignment/paper for which the course is being taken. He favors more autonomy for the student, and while I’m inclined to agree, the magnitude will be tricky to set as a rule. In general, a higher degree of autonomy in later semesters, I would think.

Much more discussions are needed in our classrooms. Much, much more. We professors need to be challenged in class, our assumptions and claims scrutinized, our premises questioned and our conclusions critiqued. Learning is best achieved through Socratic discourse (in my opinion). But our classrooms are more about proclamations by the professor rather than any of the above. Smaller class sizes will help, as will more seminars, discussion groups and workshops. That matters, and is rendered more probable under such an arrangement.

Undergraduate courses, finally, might involve much more of classroom learning in the initial semesters. Although under the new four year undergraduate programme (and the likelihood of them more or less replacing Masters programmes altogether), even here you would want to shift to more of blended learning towards the end of the degree.

We need to teach students in higher education better, of that I am convinced. What I have suggested here is worth further discussion, I’m fairly sure. Whether you agree with me or otherwise (and I hope it is otherwise), please tell me why 🙂

In which Alex Tabarrok and Prem Panicker Teach Us About the Overton Window

What is the Overton window?

Here’s ChatGPT:

“Range of ideas or policies that are considered acceptable and within the mainstream”.

I’ll give you two recent blog posts that speak about the Overton window without mentioning the phrase. The first talks about geo-engineering. The second talks about us Indians.

The good news is that climate change is a solved problem. Solar, wind, nuclear and various synthetic fuels can sustain civilization and put us on a long-term neutral footing. Per capita CO2 emissions are far down in developed countries and total emissions are leveling for the world. The bad news is that 200 years of putting carbon into the atmosphere still puts us on a warming trend for a long time. To deal with the immediate problem there is probably only one realistic and cost-effective solution: geoengineering. Geoengineering remains “fiendishly simple” and “startlingly cheap” and it will almost certainly be necessary. On this score, the world is catching up to Levitt and Dubner.

Remember, the Overton window doesn’t say anything about whether you agree with the idea or not. Nor does it have anything to say about whether the idea is ethical or desirable. You may well disagree with the concept of geo-engineering; I personally do not. (By the way, as Alex points out in his post, carbon emissions themselves are a form of geoengineering!). Like the rest of the planet, I do not know how well it will work, what the consequences might be, and whether we should go ahead with it all guns blazing right away. But is it an idea worth exploring, is it something that should be on the table for discussion? One hundred percent yes, in my opinion.

And it is the fact that MR is talking about it, that the NYT is talking about it, that the White House is talking about it that makes it about the Overton window. Alex is making the point that this discussion would have seemed kooky to even talk about twenty (ten?) years ago – now, not so much.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The fact that it is now “acceptable” to talk about it? Each one of us gets to decide for ourselves, and that is how it should be.

How did we get from that to this?

How did we become a people so thoroughly inured to high crimes and misdemeanors that even a chilling, graphic video of women being stripped and paraded in public prior to their being gang-raped did not merit a single placard, a solitary candle lit in sympathy?

How did we become a people so anesthetized that our instinct in the face of heinous crime is to stand not with the victim but with the political party of our preference?

To misapply a quote: Gradually, then suddenly.

What is the idea that we’re talking about over here? The idea (or the argument, if you prefer) that we have become anesthetized to heinous crimes.

Remember, the Overton window doesn’t say anything about whether you agree with the idea or not. Nor does it have anything to say about whether the idea is ethical or desirable. You may well disagree with the concept of us having become anesthetized as a people; I personally do not. (By the way, as Prem points out in his post, the anesthetization is wide-ranging!). Like the rest of the country, I do not know how well the anesthetization will work, what the consequences might be, and whether we should go ahead with it all guns blazing right away. But is it an idea worth exploring, is it something that should be on the table for discussion? One hundred percent yes, in my opinion.

Let me be clear: the idea worth exploring is the idea that we have become numb to horrific crimes. I think we have, because I do not see the same kind of outrage in society as with the Nirbhaya case. You may disagree, which is absolutely fine.

You could argue that we as a people have always been numb to rape being used as an instrument of oppression in various contexts. You could argue about the fact that “othering” has a long and tragic history across all of humanity, let alone India. You could point out a million (to our collective shame) incidents of similar or more horrific nature from our past (recent, ancient or somewhere in the middle, take your pick).

But we as a society – and that includes everybody who is Indian within it – we have never been as numb as we are today. Our anesthetization has never been as acceptable to us as it is today. We’re openly accepting of our anesthetization – that is the shifting of the Overton window here.

That is the claim that I think Prem is making, and I am inclined to agree.


  1. Do you agree with the first, the second, both, or neither?
  2. Whatever your answer, why?
  3. Best of all, if you disagree with one and agree with the other, what changes in your analytical framework and for what reason(s)?

Answering these questions will help you become clearer in your own thinking, and I wish you all the very best 🙂

Caste, Cricket and Classical Economics

… among other things, I should note.

All of what you read in the title of today’s post is from a nice little write-up on the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) website.

The shiny red ball at the centre of a game of cricket, is made by highly skilled craftsmen in Meerut district who work long hours tanning, greasing, cutting, stitching, shaping, lacquering and stamping it. Despite the glamour surrounding the game, this continues to be a caste-based occupation

My takeaways:

  1. The prices of cricket balls ranges from Rs. 250 to Rs. 3500. Three and a half thousand, for one ball?!
  2. Three ingredients go into the making of a cricket ball: Alum-tanned hide, cork and cotton thread. But note that ““People do not have a problem with leather in the form of a cricket ball, but they do when it comes to working with it,” he adds.”
  3. Making cricket balls, like so many other professions in our country, is associated with a specific caste.
  4. Move aside, pin factories: “Line se kaam hove hai aur ek karigar ek hi kaam kare hai [The tasks are sequential and a craftsperson specialises only in one task],” he explains.
  5. Pig bristles are used instead of needles to stitch the balls, and therefore Muslims don’t take up this profession.
  6. Why is Meerut big on making cricket balls? Partition, migration and specialization.
  7. The author, Shruti Sharma, is a PhD scholar working on “the social history of sports goods manufacturing in India“. What a lovely topic!
  8. What questions do you have after having read either this post or the article by Shruti? Here are mine:
    • How do they make ’em in Sialkot?
    • How do they make ’em in, say, Australia?
    • Are there quality standards for cricket ball manufacturing? Of course there are.
      There are standards that specify the “construction details, dimension, quality and performance of cricket balls”. And they’re updated. You can read ’em, if you like, but it will cost you one hundred and forty two pounds.
    • What else has Shruti written? This lovely metaphor, from an essay written by her: “The two sides of the ball divided by a seam is a metaphor for the simultaneous embedding in and distancing from the social norms and relations concealed in the ball in its commodified form. The shiny side – nurtured and maintained – symbolizes the aesthetic spectacle that cricket is in a stadium and on television. This aesthetic fuses play with nationalist fervor. The rough side of the ball becomes a signifier of the spaces where cricket is produced – socially, spatially, and temporally distant from the aesthetic site of play.”
  9. Rabbit holes are underrated. When you read an article, go down one, and see where else it can take you!

Incentives Matter, The SenKulkarni Household Edition

The other day, I, the wife, and the daughter were driving somewhere in the car. We stay near Baner Road in Pune, and with the ongoing Metro construction, and the top-notch condition of Pune’s roads, traffic was inching along at best.

And so I wondered how to pass the time.

I keep fiddling around with the home screen on my phone. The row of icons on the dock stays the same, the folders above it stays the same, but I like trying out different widgets every now and then. And one of the widgets that I had tried just that morning was a rather sobering one. It was the Digital Wellbeing widget.

Three hours isn’t, I suspect, all that bad. But that was on a Saturday. As you can see from the graph, Tuesday and Thursday were particularly bad days for me this past week – nearly six hours on both these days!

Now, in my defence, I read a fair bit on my phone. Feedly, Chrome and the Kindle app are all part of the six hours, so it isn’t quite as bad as all that. But, I must confess, I am being rather manipulative in my reporting. The biggest culprit is YouTube.

YouTube’s accursed algorithm has figured out that I like watching cricket, tennis and football videos, along with recipes. And so the damn thing will parade an endless list of videos for my viewing pleasure, and I will happily watch ’em all. And don’t even get me started on YouTube shorts.

My phone addiction, in other words, is a major problem, and my YouTube addiction is a rather large chunk of my phone addiction.

“So how about this”, I said by way of conversation in the car the other day. “How about we have a contest to see who has the highest amount of screentime between the three of us?”

“We can all check our stats, Monday through Saturday, both days included. The person who has the least amount of screentime can decide where we go to have lunch on Sunday afternoon.”

We’re big on celebratory Sunday meals in these parts. It’s usually either mutton at home, or pigging out at some suitably gourmandish restaurant. A lavish Sunday brunch, in other words.

This idea was met with wholehearted approval on part of the rest of the car’s population, and all would have been well if that’s where we had stopped.

But do I even deserve to call myself an economist if I don’t complicate a simple fun game?

Positive incentives are all well and good, but with the carrot should also come the stick. What about the person who has the most amount of screentime? What “punishment” should that person get?

And by the way, it’s not just because us economists don’t know when to stop. Negative incentives work better than positive ones (of course).

And so we spent a pleasant few minutes thinking about what punishment would work best for all three of us. And after some moments of mirth, this is what we have:

  1. If the daughter should end up having the most screen-time, she will have to take the most ugh vegetables ever in her school tiffin for three days running. Most ugh vegetables ever is an intensely subjective call, of course, and I’ll spare you the gory details. (We all agreed that karela would be taking things too far, if you were wondering).
  2. If the wife should end up having the most screen-time, we will remove a protective drape over her favorite piece of furniture in the living room. Said drape protects a particularly cozy sofa in our living room from being liberally festooned with our dog’s fur. I, the daughter and the dog are perfectly fine with fur on the sofa, but the wife isn’t. So for three long days, she can’t clean the sofa of all that fur, and nor can she cover it with a protective rug. Oh, the horror.
  3. And me? If it is me, then I have to make the first cup of chai in the morning, three days running. This is a horrific punishment, since I only take on a somewhat human form about ten minutes after the first cup of chai in the morning. And even that, my near and dear ones will tell you, isn’t a guarantee.

Phone calls are fine, they do not count towards screen time. Ordering groceries, ditto. But everything else does, and today onwards, we’re off to the races.

I’ll let you know come next Monday who won, promise.

But half a day into the contest, here’s where we stand:

  1. My daughter doesn’t even have her tablet with her. She’s kept it in our car, rather than at home.
  2. I’m at 19 minutes for the day (of which 11 minutes have been on the phone, so 8 in all)
  3. The wife was at 20 as of three hours ago.

God help that sofa.

How did we save the ozone layer?

Correlation, Causation and Cricket