Ec101: Understanding Opportunity Costs

I mean, come on. Who doesn’t understand opportunity costs?

The cost of the next best alternative, of the opportunity foregone. We could have told you this in our sleep.

So answer me this (and please don’t cheat):

“Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga – there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b), £10, (c) £40, or (d) £50.”

  1. That is from Tim Harford, and is unfortunately behind an FT paywall. But here’s the original paper.
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    “We were surprised by the diversity of opinion regarding the value to which the
    term “opportunity cost” applies. As Table 2 indicates, the most popular answer
    was $50, with 27.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The second most
    popular answer was $40, with 25.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The
    third most popular answer was $0, with 25.1% of respondents choosing this
    answer. The correct answer, $10, was the least popular, with only 21.6% of
    respondents choosing this answer. In essence, the answers given to us by well trained economists appear to be randomly distributed across possible answers.” (Emphasis added)
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    So what did you guess?
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  2. People got plenty upset about the whole thing – check the comments, especially,
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  3. “I don’t have any quarrel with Alex’s economics; as far as I can see this point is semantic. (I’ll also admit that my gross perspective on opportunity cost is somewhat anachronistic; it is one reason why mainstream economists work directly with consumer surplus.) What disturbs me is how few economists gave $50 or $40 as the right answer; the actual answers were close to randomly distributed. Most Web-based sources appear confused on the net vs. gross issue, but at least they hover across the $40 and $50 options.”
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    Economists don’t always agree, but it mostly comes to down to splitting hairs? If only it were so
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  4. “This paper analyzes the relationship between opportunity costs of waiting and bribery in rationing by waiting situations. Assuming that a uniform waiting time clears the market for any given bribe and the bureaucrat chooses a bribe to maximize profit, the market equilibrium is characterized in terms of individual valuations of the good and opportunity costs of waiting. If individual valuations take discrete values and opportunity costs of waiting are uniformly distributed, then in an equilibrium individuals with low costs of waiting choose to wait while those with high opportunity costs pay the bribe”
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    While traveling on India’s highways, have you ever seen trucks waiting by the highway for no apparent reason?
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  5. For interested students, a big fat list of examples, drawn from multiple walks of life.

Choices, Costs, Horizons and Incentives

Economics, many people think, is about money and finance. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Which is not to say that economics is not about money and finance – it is about that as well, but you’d be doing economics (and yourself) a disservice if you thought that economics was only about money (and finance).

A larger, more general framework for thinking about economics is to realize that it is about four things that I mentioned in yesterday’s post: choices, incentives, costs and horizons. Of the four, perhaps the one that is most misunderstood is incentives. Yes, incentives can be, and very often are, monetary in nature – but very often is not always.

Tyler Cowen puts it well in his book “Discover Your Inner Economist”:

The central concept of economics is not money but rather incentives. Quite simply, an incentive is anything that motivates human behaviour, or encourages an individual to make one decision rather than another. An incentive can be money, but it can also be a tip, a smile, or an act of praise.

Something that acts as a push for us to do (or not do!) something is all an incentive is – and if you get incentives right, you can get people (including yourself) to do what you want them to.

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Not all incentives need be monetary

Incentives, and the way we interpret them, are what help us choose, and that’s the second key concept in economics: it’s a matter of being incentivized to make a particular choice, out of all the alternatives available. Quite often, though, understanding the set of choices itself can become tricky.

Think about this little puzzle (adapted from a truly wonderful book called “Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business”, by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff):

Amar, Akbar and Anthony are three friends who, having quarreled, have decided to settle that quarrel with a shootout. They stand at the three vertices of a triangle, and decide to take turns shooting at each other, one bullet per attempt, until only one person is left standing. Amar will go first, he can shoot at either Akbar or Anthony. Assuming Akbar survives, he’ll go second, and he can shoot at either Amar or Anthony, assuming Anthony is alive, and Anthony will go third. And on and on it will go, in this order, until only one person is alive. Amar is a lousy shot – he shoots with only 10% accuracy. Akbar is pretty good, he’s working with 80% accuracy, while Anthony is just plain lethal – fully 100% accurate.

Now, Amar hires you as a consultant and asks, whom should I shoot?

What would your answer be?

It turns out that Amar’s best option is to shoot in the air (because even if you succeed in killing whoever you aim at, the survivor is left with only Amar to aim at).

The point is: any well informed decision needs two things to begin with: a clear idea of all the choices available, and a clear idea of the incentives involved (“I hate Akbar! I want to kill him!” may be a great incentive, but a higher probability of staying alive is surely the better incentive).

And this applies to everything in life: one helping of desserts or two? (Hint: how about none?). Only one more YouTube video before I get back to completing this blog post, or ten? (How about re-reading “Thinking Strategically” instead?)

The trouble is, our brain isn’t always the best at interpreting incentives correctly, which brings us to the third key concept in economics: horizons. Or, if you have had enough nerd talk for one day, we could also call it the instant gratification monkey problem. Call it what you will, the problem is that we tend to prioritize choices that payoff in the short run, but create problems in the long run. If you’ve ever had that last “one for the road” drink, or ended up actually eating that second dessert (and who hasn’t?), you don’t really need an explanation for this. We tend to choose those options that payoff over the short horizon, and ignore the long term consequences.

And in retrospect, that pounding headache the next morning is really not worth it, or to put it another way, the cost is too high.

Costs are not just monetary in nature, of course, and hangovers are a great way to explain this. You don’t pay any money the next day, but nobody who has experienced one would argue that hangovers are in any way cheap. Worse, costs are almost always a little higher than you think.

The price of the party the night before isn’t just the morning after, but it is also the fact that you could have spent the last evening reading a book, watching a movie, going out for a drive – anything but the party. Not only do you not get to watch that movie (the opportunity cost, as we economists call it), but you also have the goblins drumming away inside your head.

Choices, incentives, horizons and costs.

The truly tricky thing, and this is what makes economics such a worthy endeavour, is that each of these four aren’t understood by all of us in a rational, objective manner. Our brain processes each of these for us in ways that are subject to the way we are raised, the environment in which we are raised, our emotional state at the time of making decisions, and much else besides. Our decision making, predicated on these four concepts, is gloriously uncertain, fickle and inconsistent.

But it is exactly this that makes studying economics such a lot of fun.

Ec101: Links for 9th January, 2020

Five articles on sunk costs today.

  1. First up, a somewhat basic introductory article. Feel free to skip it if you’re sure you know what sunk costs are (pausing only to note that it is not so much the knowing that matters with sunk costs, but remembering to apply it)
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  2. “The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted”
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    The quote itself is a quote (if you see what I mean) from this paper, which is a wonderful rumination on sunk costs. Read Taleb on the subject (and not just his tweets!)
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  3. This entire post by Alex Tabarrok is very short (and I have linked to it before, I think), but it is worth reading. Especially the last sentence: do think about it, if you are an economics student.
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  4. “Once your model of choice is at all complex, no one knows what a sunk cost means any more. So a theoretical scolding of those who honor “sunk costs” is not completely well-defined. That being said, there is still the empirical question of whether most people attach too much weight to previous plans and have a status quo bias. The experimental evidence suggests that we are more rigid than we need to be. The propensity to honor previous commitments may have efficiency properties, but we cannot discard this proclivity when we ought to.”
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    The bottom line from Tyler Cowen’s post on the topic. He was responding to Tabarrok’s post above.
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  5. “Suppose that you are trying to pursue a morally worthy goal, but cannot do so without incurring some moral costs. At the outset, you believed that achieving your goal was worth no more than a given moral cost. And suppose that, time having passed, you have wrought only harm and injustice, without advancing your cause. You can now reflect on whether to continue. Your goal is within reach. What’s more, you believe you can achieve it by incurring—from this point forward—no more cost than it warranted at the outset. If you now succeed, the total cost will exceed the upper bound marked at the beginning. But the additional cost from this point is below that upper bound. And the good you will achieve is undiminished. How do the moral costs you have already inflicted bear upon your decision now?”
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    I am reminded, very strongly indeed, of the Mahabharata. That is the abstract of this paper.

EC101: Links for 11th July, 2019

  1. “The two approaches reflect different attitudes toward risk, the role of government and collective social responsibility. Analogous to America’s debate over health insurance, the American philosophy has been to make more resilient buildings an individual choice, not a government mandate.”
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    Risk, how (not) to measure it and therefore understand it. As Taleb is fond of saying, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.
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  2. “Is it possible that interest rates are a net input cost in the Indian context? This existential monetary question is yet to be even acknowledged by economists, let alone addressed.”
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    A superb (and I use the word advisedly) overview of monetary policy and how it works in India.
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  3. “I would challenge my students at the start of the new semester with the following three questions; 1) how much does it cost you to go to the beach (we lived in a coastal city)? 2) should Tiger Woods mow his own lawn? or 3) should Lebron and Kobie go to college?”
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    Opportunity costs, economic costs and accounting costs – all in one article, and therefore a great read.
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  4. “The cornerstone of Harvard professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics textbook, Principles of Economics, is a synthesis of economic thought into Ten Principles of Economics (listed in the first table below). A quick perusal of these will likely affirm the reader’s suspicions that synthesizing economic thought into Ten Principles is no easy task, and may even lead the reader to suspect that the subtlety and concision required are not to be found in the pen of N. Gregory Mankiw.”
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    A hilarious (but perhaps only to an economist) take on the ten principles of economics.
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  5. “And the long version of the history is crucial here. It shows that for much of the 20th century, total taxes on the very wealthy were much higher than they are now. Before World War II, the average rate hovered around 70 percent. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, the average rate was above 50 percent.”
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    David Leonhardt on taxing the rich in America. His newsletter is worth subscribing to, by the way.

Links for 11th February, 2019

  1. “We probably would not have planes, trains, or automobiles if we had insisted on today’s safety levels during the early days of those technologies’ development—likewise, we should have laxer safety standards for new emerging technologies.”
    Worth reading this for many reasons. Don’t miss the bit about the need to change ideological commitments on the basis of rationally-arrived-at conclusions, for example. But that excerpt above is a great way to understand the concept of, and the importance of, opportunity cost.
  2. “I want to make it clear that although enriched environment dominated the 20th century, IQ gains are not destined to persist like the law of gravity. Factors that were immediate triggers of IQ gains included more adults per child in the home, more and better schooling, more people at university, more cognitively demanding jobs, and better health and conditions of the aged. There are signs that these are beginning to show diminishing returns.”
    The Flynn effect is one of the more interesting things you can learn about – and having learnt about it, it might interest you to know that the Flynn Effect may now be reversing.
  3. “They’re having a fight about the wall except the wall is the English Channel: half of these people want to turn the English Channel into a wall to keep out their version of the Mexicans.”
    An interview with Anand Giridharadas about the perils of philanthropy. Worth reading, not necessarily to agree with everything he has to say, but to think about was in which he may be right.
  4. “So, for example, if people don’t take into account the macro consequences of their borrowing, then they could borrow collectively at the same time, which might be rational from an individual perspective but that collective borrowing leads to future problems such as a foreclosure problem that has spillovers for everyone in the economy. When people borrow individually, they may not take into account those spillovers. And so, again, from a macro perspective, people might over-borrow.For all of these reasons, a possible result conceptually is that if and when credit expands, it is possible for households to over-borrow, to overstretch from a macro kind of social perspective. And that over-borrowing, that overstretching during the boom phase of the credit cycle, can then come back to hurt on the downside and lead to a deeper recession than it would otherwise have been.”
    This much is straightforward for a student of macroeconomics – but the rest of the interview with Atif Mian is worth reading for how he teases out the mechanisms of thinking about the follow-up questions in the context of today’s economy. If you want to learn how to think like a macro-economist, this interview will help.

Ec101: Links for 4th July, 2019

  1. “I’m more worried about the part where the cost of basic human needs goes up faster than wages do. Even if you’re making twice as much money, if your health care and education and so on cost ten times as much, you’re going to start falling behind. Right now the standard of living isn’t just stagnant, it’s at risk of declining, and a lot of that is student loans and health insurance costs and so on.What’s happening? I don’t know and I find it really scary.”
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    An article that spanned an entire book (about which more below). But do read this article very, very carefully, especially if you think you really understand microeconomics.
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  2. “Here, for example, are two figures which did not make the book. The first shows car prices versus car repair prices. The second shows shoe and clothing prices versus shoe repair, tailors, dry cleaners and hair styling. In both cases, the goods price is way down and the service price is up. The Baumol effect offers a unifying account of trends such as this across many different industries. Other theories tend to be ad hoc, false, or unfalsifiable.”
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    A short excerpt from an article on the book that materialized from the article on Slate Star Codex above (and by the way, you might want to start following Slate Star Codex). I have linked to some of them already, but do scroll through to click on “Other posts in this series” to read them all.
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  3. “The 23 times increase in the relative price of the string quartet is the driving force of Baumol’s cost disease. The focus on relative prices tells us that the cost disease is misnamed. The cost disease is not a disease but a blessing. To be sure, it would be better if productivity increased in all industries, but that is just to say that more is better. There is nothing negative about productivity growth, even if it is unbalanced.”
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    An excerpt from an excerpt, admittedly, but still well worth your time, to help you understand why the cost disease isn’t really a disease. It’s all about productivity, and how it grows unevenly (and hey, that’s a good thing!)
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  4. “State intervention to fix market failures that preclude the emergence of domestic producers in sophisticated industries early on, beyond the initial comparative advantage.
    Export orientation, in contrast to the typical failed industrial policy of the 1960s–1970s, which was mostly import substitution industrialisation (ISI).
    The pursuit of fierce competition both abroad and domestically with strict accountability. ”
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    You really should be reading How Asia Works by Joe Studwell – everybody should read that book, and multiple times. But that being said, here is the TL;DR version.
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  5. “There doesn’t seem to be evidence that hiring from outside is better. What evidence does exist seems to be that internal hires get up the learning curve faster, and often don’t need as much of an immediate pay bump. If you persuade someone to leave their current employer by offering more money, what you get is a worker whose top priority is “more money,” rather than on work challenges and career opportunities. (“As the economist Harold Demsetz said when asked by a competing university if he was happy working where he was: `Make me unhappy.’”)”
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    Tim Taylor on the difficulty of hiring (and retaining) right.

Links for 23rd May, 2019

  1. “Ec 1152 is an introduction to that kind of economics. There’s little discussion of supply and demand curves, of producer or consumer surplus, or other elementary concepts introduced in classes like Ec 10. There is no textbook, only a set of empirical papers. The material is relatively cutting-edge. Of the 12 papers students are required to read, 11 were released in 2010 or after. Half of the assigned papers were released in 2017 or 2018. Chetty co-authored a third of them.And while most economics courses at Harvard require Ec 10 as a prerequisite, Ec 1152 does not. Freshmen can take it as their first economics course.

    “I felt increasingly what we’re doing in our offices and our research is just totally detached from what we’re teaching in the intro classes,” Chetty says. “I think for many students, it’s like, ‘Why do I want to learn about this? What’s the point?’”
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    Honestly, I am not really sure about this. My own take is that if anything, there is too much of an empirical bias in economics today, not too little. And this class seems to take that trend forward, which is… not great?
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  2. “Economists think historians are teaching it. Historians think it is being done by economists. But in truth the study of economic history is almost absent from the university curriculum. Economic history has fallen through the cracks. And economics students across universities are suffering because of its absence.My contention is that our economic past should play a far more central role in the education of economists today. Because I think the study of economic history will make economists into better economists. My mission is to make academic and professional economists aware of the key problems associated with missing out this training from the education of new economists. And then, once the problem is fully acknowledged and understood, to present easy-to-implement pedagogical solutions.”
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    This, on the other hand, I am all in favor of. Economic history needs to be taught. Forget needs to be taught, I need to learn more of it!
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  3. “It was one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history—and it had happened almost entirely in secret. The Soviet Union was a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year. By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect, in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the country’s fleets had killed nearly 18 times that many, along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. It had been an elaborate and audacious deception: Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades. In the estimation of the marine biologists Yulia Ivashchenko, Phillip Clapham, and Robert Brownell, it was “arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.””
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    Speaking of economic history, Alex Tabarrok at MR serves us a timely reminder about its importance.
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  4. “In democratic countries, we often talk about this concept called audience costs, which is, if you tell your public one thing and then you do another thing, your public is going to punish you for it. But leaders are not elected in China, so there’s a lot less popular-audience cost. And the regime prides itself on total control over the media and censors everything that it doesn’t like. So even if it, in reality, made important concessions to the U.S., it can simply hide that fact from the Chinese public. Of course, the educated public will find out about it, but so what? The vast majority of Chinese people will be almost completely ignorant of that fact, and that’s fine. So when the U.S. is negotiating with China it should not worry about things like that, because China prides itself on its total control over the media—and there’s a lot of documentation showing that they’re pretty successful in what they do.”
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    The first time I heard the phrase audience costs, which alone is reason enough for sharing this article. But the rest of the excerpt speaks to how audience costs can be waved away – and that is scary!
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  5. “When an American buys a chair from China for $50, it decreases net exports by $50, but it raises consumption by exactly the same amount. The two effects net out exactly. Unfortunately, the way economists decided to define GDP makes imports’ negative contribution to the equation highly visible but hides their positive contribution from view.”
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    And in a neat way to circle back to the set of links today, please read this link in its entirety. Econ 101 matters!

Etc: Links for 19th July, 2019

  1. “Almost half of all U.S. rice comes from Arkansas. When a rice farmer who was also a state legislator bought some and tasted it, he decided the label had to be banned. So, during March, Arkansas legislators prohibited the cauliflower rice name from all food labels in the state. Saying that the word rice has to refer to actual rice, the law included a $1000 fine for a “mislabeled” product.”
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    What’s in a name? A rice by any other name, it turns out (forgive the pun), ain’t quite the same thing, legally speaking.
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  2. ““By lowering the barrier to initiate communication, the hidden side effect is that Slack has the quiet capacity to exponentially increase communication overhead. Resulting in much more voluminous, lower quality communication.”In other words, talk is cheap and we’re spending like crazy.”
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    The problem with all these awesome tools that help us communicate better is that they help us communicate better. Folks with GIPE id’s… tried out Hangout Chat on your phone just yet?
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  3. “I kind of have a perfectionist type of mentality. Things kind of irritate me and get more and more irritating over time and it was just really confirmed to me that I couldn’t make it better. So I threw out this problem to the group: “Wouldn’t it be great if customers just gave us a chunk of change at the beginning of the year and we calculated zero for their shipping charges the rest of that year?””
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    The most popular form of the sunk cost fallacy in the world: it’s origins explained. If you’re confused about how this is about the sunk cost fallacy, ask yourself this: how often have you checked the Flipkart app after you became a Prime member?
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  4. “Influencers won’t receive a cut of the sales their posts generate. They will, however, have access to a shared analytics dashboard with robust metrics that the tagged brand can also see. Previously, influencers relied on screenshots and other imperfect methods to communicate engagement numbers with brands, so tying their influence directly to sales was nearly impossible. Having a more streamlined framework and detailed analytics will be incredibly valuable for influencers. “It gives you more leverage when you’re negotiating rates,” says Aimee Song, a fashion influencer.”
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    The evolving economics of Instagram influencers. What do you think will happen next?
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  5. “In his time around Italy, especially in Venice, Ghosh was struck by the fact that the language he heard the most after Italian, is Bengali. He explains, “The people who literally keep Venice going are Bengalis. They are the ones making the pizzas, the hotel beds. They play the accordion even. Bengalis have absolutely become the working class. It is such a striking thing that people don’t seem to notice. The tourists don’t notice. Even the Indians who go there, don’t seem to notice. Venice is like a gigantic stage set. So people only notice the setting. They don’t notice who keeps it going; it is literally the Bengalis.””
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    Just in case you have not read any of Amitav Ghosh’s works, this might get you interested in them. If you are looking for a good place to start, I’d suggest The Hungry Tide.

Etc: Links for 13th September, 2019

  1. The filmy divide in India.
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  2. Man or woman?
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  3. “Bau once told Rahul Bhattacharya, in an encounter for the ages from the book Pundits from Pakistan, that the action was “all artificial”, part of a carefully created persona built to defeat batsmen. It wasn’t the bowler or the ball that beat batsmen, it was this persona. They say that about Shane Warne too, about how batsmen were dead just from the theatre of Warne at the top of his mark, but man, did it ring true with Bau.”
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    Osman Samiuddin on Abdul Qadir.
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  4. “When we seek Western fads at Indian levels of income, the economic cost of our perceived moral rectitude will be borne by the poor.”
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    On opportunity costs.
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  5. On food, history, India and Asia.

Links for 23rd December, 2018

  1. if something looks too good to be true, it usually is.
  2. Making sense of China. Great (if somewhat hastily edited) read.
  3. Trying to make sense of India.
  4. “Blockchains are NOT about cutting computational costs (at least relative to centralized servers). Blockchains are about incurring a sacrifice in the form of INCREASED computational costs to achieve a *decrease* in *social costs*.” It is worth your while to read this tweetstorm.
  5. Moneyball 2.0.