I really liked Patrick OShaugnessy’s reply to a question that Kunal Shah asked on Twitter recently:
It’s not just mediocre team members at a start-up, of course, it’s everywhere. As Gulzar Natarajan pointed out in a blogpost a while ago, it is also a problem with bureaucrats in government:
Are meetings organised most effectively – in terms of their periodicity, whether clear and brief agendas are communicated in advance, what gets discussed, and how the minutes are recorded? How are the meeting outcomes followed-up? How are failures to comply addressed?
The answer, by the way, is usually no, except for what gets discussed and are the minutes recorded. That part is done scrupulously, but the rest of it, not at all. Meetings are not periodic, clear and brief agendas are not sent beforehand, and worst of all, meeting outcomes are not followed up, and there is no clear understanding of what happens if failure to comply is observed.
In fact, I’d add one point to Gulzar Natarajan’s list, the meetings never end with a clear plan of action, who is responsible, and when and how a follow-up is to happen.
Here’s a point that people often miss out on they call a meeting: meetings are expensive. A meeting that lasts for an hour and involves ten people has cost the organization ten hours of work. The meeting had better have been worth the work that could have been done otherwise.*
In fact, the entire blogpost ought to be read by everybody involved in any kind of administrative set-up. Often, people in an organization have no clue about what the organizational objective is, whether work-allocation is effective or not (both in terms of the quantum of work that a person does, but also whether this person is truly equipped to do the work allocated to them), and how monitoring is done.
Human resource management is, quite simply, an alien concept.
The last paragraph from his post is worth pondering over:
While waiting for such a leader is not an institutional solution, it’s a pointer to prioritising the adoption of basic management practices. This is about the adoption of very simple and basic work, people, and situations management techniques, and not the sort of stuff one learns from management schools. Unfortunately, it’s not an area that receives any attention in conventional academic research and management consulting.
All that is well and good: a high quality, low scale, not very cheap university that gives away it’s plans and implementation details for free. But what would students and faculty in such a university, well, do?
There are two ways to answer this question.
First, work out what they do in most universities today, reach a conclusion about whether what they do is desirable, and if not, work out what needs to change and in what order.
Second, start with an idealized worldview of what they should do, while ignoring all constraints, and ask if that idealized worldview is realizable. If the answer is no, figure out what’s stopping you, and therefore work out what needs to change and in what order.
I prefer the first approach1, and that’s the approach I’ll be using in this essay.
So what do students in a university do today? They learn, they show that they’ve learnt, and they form networks. College is a bundle.
Let’s begin with the one in the middle: showing that they’ve learnt. I’d want to chip away at that first.
How do students today show that they’ve learnt? They write examinations. These are supposed to be a proxy to show how much you’ve learnt, and how much you’re able to apply of whatever you’ve learnt. Is my understanding of why examinations exist correct? I’m genuinely asking.
That leaves us with two potential answers: change the examination system for the better. Or replace it with something else that has the potential to be better, and a guarantee of not being worse. At the very least, experimentation is called for.
My personal preference will be for a student to do, not for a student to show that she has learnt. That is, examinations need to be replaced with projects. These projects can’t be submissions as you and I understand them today. Not half-assed stuff that a team “works” on – let’s be honest, that’s code for nobody works on it. This is a project that sits on its own individual website, and that forever. That project is the student’s CV. It contains everything about the journey that led up to the creation and shipping of that project.
I’ll use an example from the field in which I teach, which is economics. What I am about to say should also apply to most of the other subjects in the humanities, and perhaps less so in, say, STEM fields.
Most students of economics acquire a degree to usually do one of three things: teach, research or work in a corporate job.
So your only “examination” comes at the end of your third year degree, where you ship a project based upon one of these three areas.
If you are learning economics in order to be a teacher, you have to teach a class, and document that entire class on your website. And when I say class, I mean at least a twenty hour course. Subject? Your choice. Students? You have to recruit them. Will this class be for free? No, you have to convince your students to pay a fee that is not trifling. How many students? At least ten, not more than thirty. But your degree is awarded for having taught this class, and is based on the feedback from that class. Designing the syllabus for that class, coming up with the reading material, arranging for guest speakers, hiring your TA’s from among your juniors, coming up with assignments, evaluating these assignments, handouts – the whole shebang. Do the work, teach your students, and then say that you have graduated from the course. And the entire three year journey leads up to this moment. If what you want to do is teach, then we should have taught you how to teach – and what skills you need to pick up in order to be able to teach students who are willing to pay you for your expertise.
If you are learning economics in order to do research, then you have to work on and publish a report on a topic of your choice. Come up with a topic in your second year, refine it, apply for a grant for it, prepare a plan for how you will work towards it, hire out your team, design your questionnaire, collect your data, clean the data, do the analysis, reach your conclusion and submit the report and the presentation to the funding agency, and on your website. Again, the entire three year journey leads up to this moment. If what you want to do is research, then we should have taught you how to do research – and what skills you need to pick up in order to be able to do research for an agency that is willing to pay you for your expertise.
If you are learning economics in order to work in a firm or start a business of your own, then, well, you have to do these things to get the degree. You have to convince a firm to hire you for an entire semester, or you have to spend an entire semester building out a team, pitching for funding, and get a product to market in order to be awarded a degree.
Long story short, you are evaluated for what you have done, not for what you have submitted for internal review and assessment.
My Almost Ideal University would have no examinations, but only a specific end-goal. Do the work, and if you’ve done it well enough, you’re awarded the degree. There’s no first place, no last place, no grades, no marks, nothing. If your work is good enough, we say that you are good enough to go out and start doing more of what you just finished doing.
Will this system have problems in terms of implementation. It’s a guarantee. Can I pick flaws in the design that I have put up? A dozen.
But does it have a fighting chance of being, at least along some dimensions, better than the status quo? Even if you happen to disagree, I think it to be a question worthy of further discussion. So especially if you disagree, please, do tell me why! 🙂
So that’s what the students will do. What will “faculty” do in my Almost Ideal University? We’ll talk about it tomorrow!
It’s been about two and a half years since I read that post. I would still like to believe that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong, and that you can too teach undergraduates to think like economists. But well, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
A common goal for principles of economics courses is to teach students to “think like economists.” I’ve always been a little skeptical of that high-sounding goal. It seems like a lot to accomplish in a semester or two.
Both Tim Taylor and Deirdre McCloskey (whose essay I excerpt from below) aren’t saying that you can’t teach economics to undergraduates. You most certainly can, and you don’t need to run a fancy-pants model to ascertain this. What they are saying, however, is that it is one thing to teach them the principles of economics. It is quite another to teach them to apply these principles in their lives, at all times.
Bower thinks that we can teach economics to undergraduates. I disagree. I have concluded reluctantly, after ruminating on it for a long me, that we can’t. We can teach about economics, which is a good thing. The undergraduate program in English literature teaches about literature, not how to do it. No one complains, or should. The undergraduate program in art history teaches about painting, not how to do it. I claim the case of economics is similar. Majoring in economics can teach about economics, but not how to do it…. (Emphasis added)
It is one thing to teach opportunity costs. And most students we’ve taught will tell you the definition. The “good” students will tell you three different definitions, from three different textbooks, and maybe cite a couple of academic papers that ruminate about what the definition means. Well, great. Do these students apply the concept of opportunity costs in their daily lives? Do they ask themselves if this (whatever this may be) is the best use of their time, and what are they giving up in order to do this?
Does winning matter more than learning? Does winning matter more than doing? If you end up defeating somebody else – a person, a team, a tribe, a party or a nation – what do you gain? And to go back to the previous paragraph, was it but a Pyrrhic victory?
Consider this hypothetical:
Let’s say there’s two teams in some corporate environment somewhere. And for whatever reason, these teams don’t get along well together. Both sides believe that they’re in the right, and the other side is in the wrong, and we’ve reached Mark Twain territory.
Are they going to go to their manager(s) and ask them to resolve this issue? Sure, it may seem like a good idea initially. But said managers, I can assure you, have things to do. Deliverables to, well, deliver. Teams to manage. Projects to initiate. Other people to manage. And so the manager(s) might listen to both teams long list of complaints once, perhaps twice.
But eventually the price mechanism will come to the party. The more the two teams spend time on this, rather than on work, the more expensive the situation becomes for the enterprise. Because a commodity that is limited (time) is being spent on non-productive work (productive, in this case, can be thought of as remunerative).
Since the whole point of the firm’s existence is to maximize revenue, this will not be tolerated for too long. The manager(s) will eventually say one of the following:
Figure it out yourselves, but get the work done, for that’s what matters. Or else.
Let’s reallocate, forcibly, both teams on to other projects. This will usually be accompanied with a mental note to themselves that truly important projects in the future should not be given to these team members. For obvious reasons.
Or let’s shut down the project, because the point of a firm is to do the work that earns one the money. Start something new, with a new set of people.
Now, since the team members are old enough to know that eventually pts 1 to 3 will occur, they usually swallow their differences and get the work done. Sure, bitching about the other team will happen in bars and pubs in the evening, and sure the other team won’t be called home for dinner anytime soon. But in the workplace, professionalism will win out, due to the price mechanism. In more explicit terms, they will get the work done because they know that otherwise they will be fired.
The reason all of this will happen is because these team members will have families, responsibilities, loans to pay off. The money they will lose out on by losing their jobs is far too important, and the threat of losing out on their income forces them to behave professionally.
The opportunity cost argument comes into play. Playing politics may be good for your ego, but it ain’t good for your wallet. But that lesson comes with age, it doesn’t come from attending principles of economics classes.
A nineteen-year old has intimations of immortality, comes directly from a socialized economy (called a family), and has no feel on his pulse for those tragedies of adult life that economists call scarcity and choice. You can teach a nineteen-year old all the math he can grasp, all the history he can read, all the Latin he can stand. But you cannot teach him a philosophical subject. For that he has to be, say twenty-five, or better, forty-five. …
Adults don’t necessarily grasp the argument that the opportunity cost of politics is work. But they understand the rules of the game called life. They do understand that the opportunity cost of politics is an increase in the probability of losing their wages. And so they still practice politics, but more covertly. Not, in other words, an ideal situation if the system is trying to optimize work, but hey, better than overt politics.
How to get students to understand that the opportunity cost of politics is learning? That the opportunity cost of politics is not getting fun projects done? That the opportunity cost of resolving arguments, or adjudicating who said what to whom and when is not being able to start other fun learning based projects? There’s no price mechanism at play, there’s illusions of immortality (they don’t get that time is limited), they don’t have the responsibility of putting food on the table (they come from a socialized economy called a family), and they haven’t experienced the tragedies of adult life.
To them, winning a political argument against the other side is the best use of their time.
Principles of economics, if taught well, and if learnt well, should in theory help you understand that the opportunity cost of politics is work. Philosophy should in theory teach you that good work is better than bad politics.
I’ll say this much: I was convinced that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong when she said that you couldn’t have undergraduates do economics, even if we taught them economics.
This post is based on a discussion with a student about (what else?) unhappiness with marks.
What is the point of an education? Is it to score marks? Or to score a job? Or to better oneself? Or all of the above? And if it is all of the above, is it 33.333% weightage to each? Or are some objectives more important than others?
Now, if it isn’t clear already to long-time readers of this blog, my own personal answers to the questions I listed above have scoring a job and bettering oneself at about 99% weightage, with marks getting – maybe – 1%. There are many reasons for I thinking so, and maybe next Friday’s post could be all about that. But if you, for the moment, accept that the point of an education ought not to be marks maximization, it still begs the question: well then, what instead?
Much more importantly, what is the proof that you have learnt? Marks you score in an exam, or tangible proof of work done that is out for consumption in the public domain? What do you have more fun doing? What teaches you to work better in a team? What teaches you to lead people, and therefore learn perhaps the important life-skill of all?
More people in academia ought to know about project based learning, and when I say know, I mean implement.
Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. Students learn about a subject by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, challenge, or problem. It is a style of active learning and inquiry-based learning. PBL contrasts with paper-based, rote memorization, or teacher-led instruction that presents established facts or portrays a smooth path to knowledge by instead posing questions, problems or scenarios.
No system, anywhere, ever, is perfect. So also with PBL. I’m sure it has its flaws, and having worked on the projects I have linked to above in this past year, I am going to speak about some of these flaws in this post. But I remain convinced that it is a better way to learn. And my conviction is multiplied many times over when it comes to the question of certification: projects over marks, every single day of the week, and twice on Sundays.
There are many reasons for this, and again, perhaps that is worthy of another post, but the most important one is this one: project based learning is a non-zero-sum game. Examinations are a zero-sum-game.
For me to win (or score well, or do well, or whatever ghastly phrase you want to use when it comes to doing well in an examination), you have to lose. But the successful completion of a project requires that everybody wins – in fact, it’s even better. For you to win as a participant in the project, you have to help others win. You have to persuade, cajole, berate and drive your team members to do their jobs well, in addition to doing your own task well – and you win only when everybody wins.
Which, if you ask me, is a better education than having to constantly look at how well others have done in order to feel satisfied with how well you have done. Plus, either a project has shipped, or it hasn’t. You don’t have to depend upon the subjective assessment of a professor to judge whether it is a job well done or not.
Besides, there is the rather important consideration that a podcast, a website, a Twitter account (and everything else up there submitted as evidence m’lud) benefits its viewers. You may sneer and ask for metrics, but so long as it is more than zero, it trumps your submitted answer sheet.
But there are downsides, to be sure. Of course there are.
PBL teaching takes more time to plan, more curriculum and technology resources, more day-to-day problem solving about how to scaffold student growth and success in their project work, more effort to authentically assess student learning, more communication with persons in the community, more support from the administration in terms of suitable scheduling and curriculum alignment, and more opportunities to collaborate with their teaching colleagues
Lee, J. S., Blackwell, S., Drake, J., & Moran, K. A. (2014). Taking a leap of faith: Redefining teaching and learning in higher education through project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 8(2), 2.
(The word “more” is italicized in the original every single time. WordPress’ formatting italicizes the whole thing. Sorry.)
In other words, it is expensive. There is a part of me that wants to say so what, but hey, I work in a University, and reality means that this must be a consideration. But how to make PBL more efficient in terms of time and money is – to me – a more worthwhile and pressing challenge than explaining to students why x marks out of y (“when that student got z. And his wasn’t even all that good an assignment!”) actually isn’t that bad.
Second, it is very much dependent on the team working on the program. If there is a change in personnel (that is, the faculty members who are running the show), and sooner or later that is inevitable, the PBL system can break down overnight. It is comparatively easy to set up processes for the efficient conduct of examinations by making personnel irrelevant – but all but impossible to do for PBL. Well, impossible is a strong word, but it’s close enough. How to increase the supply of profs who are willing to work in such a system is a major, major challenge.
Third, and this takes me into what I think are very deep waters: culture. Part of the reason the Sharmaji ka beta meme is funny is because it is true. In certain cases that I personally know of, it is devastatingly, distressingly true. We judge our successes, our children’s successes by asking if our performances were better than everybody else’s. And the more I work in this industry, the more convinced I get that until our culture changes, very little else will.
I, of course, have not the faintest idea about how to change culture. Except, perhaps, through running PBL experiments – which is what I try to do.
And until it (culture) changes, I’ll have to do that part of my job that I detest above all: talking to students about how many marks they scored and why it isn’t all that big a deal.
I’ve been watching MKBHD videos for a while now, but a favorite activity for my daughter and I this past summer has been to watch them together.
As anybody who has watched them will attest to, they’re impeccably produced, and always manage to strike that perfect balance between being fun and informative. And trust me, getting that balance right is hard. But my daughter, who notices these things much more than I do, also points out his (Marques Brownlee‘s) diction, the way he sets up his backgrounds (or set, or whatever you call it) – and also how much better his voice seems to be than in other videos.
And since she’s mentioned it, it’s hard to ignore. It’s clear that a lot of work goes into producing these videos – and to put out over a hundred of them in one year is seriously impressive – which his channel did last year. What’s even more impressive is the fact that he plans to launch more channels this year, let alone videos.
I got to know about this in a very well done podcast, in which Nilay Patel spoke with Marques about what I wrote about in the preceding paragraph, and a whole host of things besides. Reading the transcript as an economist was interesting, for a lot of things resonated with concepts we teach (and don’t, but should) in class. They weren’t referring to the concepts, of course, for both are (probably) blessedly unaware of boring ol’ econ texts – they were just solving, or thinking, about the challenges they face in the course of their work.
But if you’re somewhere between the age of 18 to 24, and wondering where the hell (and how) to apply things we teach you in your classes – well what better way to learn than this? Ec101 applied to MKBHD videos – whatay way to learn, no?
Notes and brief explanations follow:
“You’ve got to embrace uncertainty.”
A point that both of them agreed upon, and the context was noise in the background. As a statistician, when I think noise, I’m thinking randomness, and that makes this quote even better. You can have the most refined system in the world for doing stuff, but you have to make leeway for unanticipated stuff. Things can go wrong, pandemics can spread, neighbours can make lots of noise. Anticipate it: embrace it!
The larger point, in simpler words: make a plan, of course, but budget for chaos. It’s always there.
“I couldn’t believe I was finding something that I didn’t see in those other videos. So I was like, the obvious answer is to add to that collection of information, so when someone else is choosing what to buy, they can make a better choice than I did.”
Scratch your own itch is advice that you often hear in entrepreneur world, and Marques is speaking about exactly that over here. Except of course, he isn’t just speaking about it, he is quite literally doing it. In fact, he did it 11 years ago, and has just kept at it ever since. That’s a pretty good business model, if you ask me.
Teach like you wish you had been taught is what I want to do in life, by the way, although I cannot claim to have come anywhere close to figuring a business model out.
“So there’s a lot more going on, but I think the teamwork of it all is something that can be pretty underrated.”
Marques says this in the context of how he plans to scale up his work this year. Here’s the thing – learning how to do something (assuming you want to learn it in the first place) is a lot of fun. Teaching others how to do it is also a whole lot of fun.
Building a team of such people, and getting them to do what you want to get done – and that too, just so – that is oh-my-god-hard. “Pretty underrated”? That’s pretty understated!
“We have a big cast of characters at The Verge. MKBHD, that’s just you. You are a pretty unscalable property. That group of people you’re bringing in and hiring, is that to help you spend more time in front of the camera or is that an attempt to scale you in a different way?”
Marques’ answer is pretty instructive, but if you’re looking to start a business, and looking to scale it, one challenge you will face is getting folks to do what you want them to do, plus anticipating the fact that in businesses such as this one, Marques himself is the biggest draw. Imagine The Seen and the Unseen without Amit Varma, or Mark Wiens’ videos without Mark Wiens. You have two choices: plan on not scaling, or fight a very hard battle. It’s easy to draw a diagram that teaches you the theory of scaling – doing it in the real world is bloody hard.
“You were just intently focused on completing a motion graphics course that you had been taking. And now it’s several years later and you’re not that deep in the weeds. You’ve just hired a motion graphics person and you’re talking about scaling your business and using your facilities in a different way.”
That’s part of a question that Nilay asked Marques, but if you’re not thinking pin factory, your econ prof and you need to talk. One important part of scaling is what Adam Smith referred to as the division of labor. You can’t – nobody can – do every single thing in a business. Some parts of it need to be outsourced to lawyers and PR firms, as they speak about in the interview later, some parts to motion graphics persons – whatever.
But you have to let certain tasks go. Which tasks? To whom? How to recruit the most perfect person possible? How to get that person to stay? How to get that person to work with the other folks on the team? Pretty underrated indeed!
Oh and by the way, this part we don’t teach you in college. We should, if you ask me, but we don’t.
“We’ve basically shot all of our videos with my directors on Zoom and I’m just like, “man, this is not even close.” It’s very fun, and then that novelty fades and you just miss having everybody there.”
This might not be true (hopefully!) after 2021, but if you’re looking to intern this summer, or start work this year, this is a real problem. Americans have this thing they call “watercooler conversations”. If you’re Indian, we’re talking about chai/sutta breaks. Doesn’t matter if you’re a smoker or not, that’s not the point. Conversations in a more relaxed environment after you’ve been in the heat of battle together is where informal debriefings happen, and that is going to suffer this year. There are businesses trying to virtualize this – but color me skeptical. In person is always better, and that’s the worst part of graduating in this of all years.
“One question from our video team that I thought was really interesting: as you’ve been on the path of growing bigger and bigger, you haven’t had a boss. How do you grow and improve when the audience is overwhelmingly telling you that you’re great? Where do you find the incentive or the self-criticism to improve? You’ve obviously wildly improved over time, but where does that really come from?”
Marques’ answer to this question is worth reading in its entirety, but the larger point is that you need people who have the ability to give you frank feedback. That’s hugely underrated. A spouse, a friend, a significant other, a business partner, a junior – whoever. But you need it!
“But the other kind is so rare, so scarce, so precious I only get little dribs of it now and then. Which is someone who gets you, someone who can see right through to your soul who, with generosity and care, can look you in the eye, hand you back something and say: I think this would be better if you did it again. I had a business partner, Steve, who was like that in 1979 and ’80, ’80 and ’81. And finding that again in a consistent way is really precious and really hard.”
“We’ve never really set view count goals, but we did have a goal to make 100 videos in the calendar year and we did end up doing that, which is great. A lot of that stuff that we’re aiming for is more, I guess qualitative is the word, but it’s hard to define.”
What are you optimizing for? This is related to yesterday’s post, and it ought to be a question you ask yourself everyday. I don’t ask myself this question everyday, but I wish I did. It really and truly helps, because if what you are doing isn’t helping what you’re optimizing for, then you shouldn’t be doing it.
Marques isn’t optimizing for views. He’s not looking to maximize hits, views or any of those metrics. He’s setting a target for quantity, as he says in the quote above, but he also is (implicitly in the quote, but trust me explicitly in his work) optimizing for quality. As I said towards the end of yesterday’s post, get the process right. The rest takes care of itself. (See also: Goodhart’s law)
“When we think about things at Wikipedia — for example, we could probably increase engagement if we use some of the very basic machine learning techniques to start showing people random promotional links to other things than Wikipedia and then have the machine learn over time how to show you links that are more interesting so that you end up staying on the site longer.
Now, it might turn out that that’s completely normal and thoughtful, in fact, if you go to a well-known economist, that it turns out that the way to keep you on the site longer is to show you other concepts of economics and economic theory. But it might turn out, and probably would turn out, the best thing to do is, when you go to look up Tyler Cowen, to show you on the sidebar links to Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, whatever the hot topic of the day is and so on, which is not really what you want from an encyclopedia.
When we think about that, our incentive structure at Wikipedia is not to optimize time on-site. It’s to say, look, every now and then, normally at the end of the year, we say, “Hey, would you donate some money?” Nobody has to donate. The only reason people do donate — and this is what donors tell us — is they think, “This is meaningful. This is important to my life. This should live. This should exist.”
Bottom-line: If you are not clear about what you’re optimizing for, you will struggle. Get that clear, for yourself, and be ruthless about sticking to it. (It’s easy for me to say this, but it is very difficult for me to do it. Just so we’re clear!)
“I live inside of Google Calendar and Google Tasks. I would be a lost human without those things. I kind of think about this a lot — how much time I spend doing the thing versus managing how we make the thing. And it turns out that the management part has become a lot more of my job, but almost necessarily, to make it a better thing.”
Managing time is hard. It is really, really, really hard. I have tried I don’t know how many different things, apps, methods and what not, but it is hard. If you are going to make a plan (for spending your day, for studying for your exam, for starting a business, whatever) budget twice the amount of time you think you will take to do something, because you will waste time. That, I am sad to say, is my lived reality.
Nilay’s next question is about exactly this, by the way.
“I think I tweeted a couple of weeks ago how many emails I get that are just like, “Hey, this is us. We’ve got this idea. When can we hop on a call?” But I don’t really want to do that. If you can’t get your idea down in a couple sentences in an email, it’s probably not a good enough idea.”
Something that I have started to do over the last two years or so: whenever I have to give an assignment, it’s usually along these lines.
“Write in fifteen sentences (or lesser) your understanding of [whatever it is that they’re supposed to write about]. No conjunctions, no colons, no semi-colons.”
It is fascinating to me how what seems to be good news to the students turns out to be a problem, because Pascal.
“We say no to 99 percent of the things that we get offered to do. But that last 1 percent of things, we think very deeply about, and work with a lot of people to try to make the right decisions and pull it off well.”
“If it’s a bad product, it’s not worth doing it at all, even if we would’ve made a ton of money. If it’s a bad integration or if it’s a bad company to work with, I have to say no, because it just doesn’t fit. So that fit is often more important than the math of the per-minute or per-project basis.”
The preceding questions (to this quote) are about what metrics Marques uses, and you should read about it if you are in this business, but the larger point is what Marques is saying here – and this was referred to earlier in this post as well. Metrics are all well and good, but do the work – and work means quality work. The rest follows.
“I know celebrity culture is different in everyone’s heads, but I look up to Michael Jordan the athlete and nothing else about him.”
My personal opinion, but that is exactly how it should be. But that is a separate post in its own right.
“The way I see YouTube is, it’s kind of like driving for Uber. If you stop driving for Uber for a week, you won’t make any money that week. And I think adding more people to this team makes it feel like putting that Uber on autopilot so I’m not doing quite as much of the lifting, but it still has to drive.”
Up until the last bullet point above, this post was 2,455 words in length. That, I suppose, is about enough for a blogpost. But there’s more, much more, in this interview. So please, read/listen to it in its entirety.
But hey, I’m clearly on a roll, so I cannot resist one final piece of advice. Take notes, and write down your thoughts about what you’ve consumed. Even if nobody else is ever going to read it.
“The rising cost of textbooks, then, is a sign of one of the greatest paradoxes of higher education: As everything from tuition to housing to books gets more expensive, the people who are tasked with making sure students receive a good education are being forced to do more work for less money. The result is a world where students and professors alike struggle to get by.”
Full of interesting snippets, this article helps you understand how expensive education can be abroad. Not just the cost of tuition though, which is large enough as it is – but the cost of textbooks. Just buying your textbooks for the academic year can set you back by around INR 40,000/-.
“What is the traditional lecture? It is a model of learning in which a teacher possesses the knowledge on a given topic and disseminates it to students. This model dates to the beginning of education, when it was the only way of sharing information. In fact, you occasionally still see the person presenting the lecture called a reader, because way back before the internet and even the printing press, a teacher would literally read from a book so students could copy it all down.”
Classroom lectures are unbelievably boring. There exist a million alternatives that can do a better job, and this article lays out some of them. But at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the idea that we can teach the same way we did throughout the twentieth is just wrong.
“Whichever way one looks at it, the very public unravelling of the enterprise is reminiscent of the past, the saga of Air India and Kingfisher Airlines. There is no denying poor governance –particularly in a business with high cash flows. Equally, the sequels illustrate how vegetating policy and misplaced notions of what constitutes strategic interest left the sector episodically chasing its tail. Consider this: Passenger traffic rose from 68.4 million in 2009-09 to 103.7 million in 2013-14, and to 183.9 million in 2017-18. Clearly there is no dearth of demand and of growth in traffic. Yet three airlines have crashed into the red in the period.Can India afford three Mayday calls in less than a decade in a critical sector?” A breezy read about an extremely serious topic. The excerpt above is a sobering read: passenger traffic in India has about tripled over the last ten years. The last ten years have also seen three airlines go under. Something, somewhere, is really and truly wrong.
“Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.”
Word for the day: incuriosity. A state of the world in not only do you not know, but do not wish to know. But that apart, the entire post – although a little long – is worth reading to learn more about the specifics of what ails subway construction in the USA.
“Structurally, it is impossible because Kim Jong-un has a very detailed network of surveilling the leaders around him. If you are of high rank, then all the high-ranking officials have to live in the same apartment. They can’t choose where to live. They have to live collectively. You are not allowed to have private time with your friends around you, so the control system of North Korean society is really unimaginable.”
An interview with a North Korean defector who now lives in South Korea about Kim Jong Un. It is difficult for any of us to understand the extraordinary life of ordinary South Koreans
“So in the end what we get for policy to decide is whether the Indian aviation business should comprise large, medium or small oligopolies. If resolved sensibly it yields a solution to the problem of cross-subsidisation: the larger the number of firms, the greater will be the need for intra-firm cross-subsidisation as firms focus on a variant of the Ramsey Rule which says that network firms must maximise revenue instead of profits.This is best achieved via a public monopoly which far from reducing output, raising prices and making excessive profits as monopolies are expected to, can do the opposite just as Air India and Indian Railways do. In short, if we want to avoid a return to public sector transport monopolies, we must decide on the size of the oligopolies in the sector.”
.. A very short article, but an immensely interesting one, talking about airlines, India, monopoly, oligopolies, and regulation and policy in India.
“All that said, zero is still the best price. I think it’s appropriate for foundations or other funding sources to support a multiplicity of free textbook options. (I’m not looking at you, Bill Gates.) INET has done this with its CORE project, but no one else. I don’t think funding is the whole story, however. Economics needs to regard pedagogy as one of its central missions. This is not only a matter of having more panels about it at the national meetings; there needs to be more disciplinary reward for putting one’s time and energy into the development of strategies and materials for the classroom. This means promotion, prizes and esteem, and it would require a substantial cultural shift. Where to begin? I suspect we have a vicious circle that could well become virtuous. Today we have a bleak landscape of minimal innovation in pedagogy and little institutional recognition for those who do this work. In a world well-populated with innovative experiments in teaching and learning, it would be natural to reward the most successful or even just provocative projects. So again the next step seems to belong to the funders.”
.. A fairly interesting take on textbooks (econ textbooks, to be clear), what they cover, what they should cover, and what the price should be. Meta, but out of necessity.
“We find that the probability of seeing an outcome within 180 days from the date of admission is less than 5%. However, it picks up once the 180 day deadline is passed. Within 270 days, the chances of case closure are between 10 to 30% depending on the bench and case characteristics (e.g., creditor type). We observe high closure rate just past the 270 day period. Within 360 days of admission, the probability of seeing an outcome is significantly higher (30 to 70%). Quicker outcomes (liquidation or resolution) are observed for resolution proceedings triggered by the debtors themselves. Similarly, proceedings triggered before some benches result in resolutions speedier than those before some others.”
.. On the impact of the IBC on dealing with bankruptcies in India. Visit the link to find a link to a fairly good data-set pertaining to the issue being discussed.
“The estimated cost of NYAY is substantial – Rs. 3.6 trillion a year. It would be broadly six times what has been allocated to MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) in the interim budget presented in February 2019. It is also nearly 13% of total central government expenditure for the fiscal year 2020. It is hard to see how such a large incremental spending programme can be funded through cuts in other expenditure items alone, including non-merit subsidies. That will be a very difficult political economy call, given that non-merit subsidies mostly benefit vocal interest groups. There thus has to be either fiscal expansion or an increase in tax collections. The latter could – but need not – entail higher tax rates. India could be at an inflection point at which its tax-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio begins to grow rapidly, but that is a guess rather than a hard fact. In short, there is ample reason to worry about the fiscal burden of NYAY. ”
.. Niranjan Rajadhakshya on the economic feasibility of NYAY. Students of public finance especially should read this to get a sense of how to judge questions such as the ones put forth in the interview.
We’ve, in our Thursday posts this year, learnt about incentives and costs. But, and this is a really, really big “but” – they become operational only when we live in a world where we’re able to choose.
Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarok – two people who have probably done more for educating people in economics than anybody else over the last thirty years or so – have written two of the best textbooks on economics available anywhere – one on micro and the other on macro.
In the book on microeconomics, they summarize ten different “big ideas” in economics: incentives, the invisible hand is the best kind of magic*, trade-offs matter, thinking on the margin matters, trade matters, wealth matters, institutions matter, business cycles are unavoidable, printing more money will lead to inflation and central baking is hard.
*I’ve paraphrased practically all of the big ideas, but this in particular is my phrasing, not theirs.
Two other asides before we proceed: in retrospect, it is interesting (at least to me) that at least one of their PhD’s (Tyler Cowen’s) and quite a few of their books are based literally on nothing more complicated than an exposition of these big ideas. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Also, they say that the biggest idea of them all is that economics is fun. I’d paraphrase that too: learning about the world is fun, and economics is a great tool to use towards that end.
Now, that allows for a neat segue to the topic du jour. At the very start of the book, even before the table of contents, they provide their definition of economics, one that I agree with wholeheartedly: economics is the study of how to get the most out of life.
Here’s the two word version: choices matter!
Unless we live in a society that is free to choose, at an individual level or otherwise, none of the other big ideas even come into play. So, to me, economics is first and foremost about being free to choose – and then about the benefits and costs of the choices that you make.
Which, I’d argue, means that learning about choices is plenty important. Ergo, this post.
First things first. What is choice?
I chose (see what happened there?) this Quora post not because it is the “best”, but simply because it is so typical. Here’s what I think choice is: it is an admission of the fact that you can’t have everything. A particularly relevant example for me: what to eat from a buffet at a five star restaurant? With every passing year, “everything!” becomes an increasingly unrealistic answer. So choose those dishes that are likely to taste the best (maximizing happiness), or those dishes that are likely to cause the least harm (minimizing unhappiness) along some dimensions such as spiciness, oiliness or what have you.
Or hey, do both at the same time! Choose the dish that is likely to taste the best andthe dish that is likely to do the least harm. That’s half your micro paper right there – the rest is just math and diagrams. (I am kidding, of course, but only a little bit.)
Choice is an admission of the fact that you can’t have everything, but that’s a good thing! It forces you to go with the best. Which paintings should you look at when you’re at the Louvre? “Every single one!” is unrealistic. Force yourself to choose, therefore, the very best of the lot. Constraints help you understand your own tastes better: aesthetics is, among other things, a matter of acknowledging the existence of constraints.
So having too many choices is a bad thing? It would seem so:
“It all began with jam. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.”
But hang on. Of what use is an economics theory that doesn’t have a on-the-other hand angle? Tim Harford, as is so often the case, to the rescue.
“But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments – such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.”
And on a related note, have you heard of Herbert Simon and satisficing? This excerpt is from a Wikipedia article on Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, but it is actually about Herbert Simon.
“A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. Ultimately, Schwartz agrees with Simon’s conclusion, that satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.”
And the final word goes to Tyler Cowen. Or is it Herbert Simon all over again? Choices, choices.
“What if you asked people the following: do you wish to choose your own means of limiting your (subsequent) choices, or do you wish to let someone else, perhaps the government, do the work? I suspect the answers would overwhelmingly favor the former option, namely voluntary choice at the meta-level. And if you reexamine the experiments mentioned above, they are all about ways in which people voluntarily limit their own choices. Maybe you don’t wish to run your own cancer treatments, but you wish to choose the doctor who will.”
That was a question sent in by a student recently, and today’s essay is an attempt to answer the question.
Have you heard of the tsetse fly? Unless you are a student of biology, or from Africa, it is unlikely that you have. And there’s no reason for you to have heard of it, of course. On the other hand, if you were to be from Africa, and from a long time ago, you likely would not only have heard of the tsetse fly, but you would have dreaded it.
Why would you have dreaded it? Because the tsetse fly feeds on the blood of vertebrate animals, and in doing so, also manages to transmit diseases between species. And this fly was so very efficient at transmitting diseases that it actually prevented the emergence of animal husbandry in those parts of Africa where it was both present and dominant.
Worse: research has established that the existence of the tsetse fly in certain parts of Africa has at least partially contributed to those parts of Africa remaining relatively underdeveloped today.
Ethnic groups inhabiting TseTse-suitable areas were less likely to use domesticated animals and the plow, less likely to be politically centralized, and had a lower population density. These correlations are not found in the tropics outside of Africa, where the fly does not exist. The evidence suggests current economic performance is affected by the TseTse through the channel of precolonial political centralization.
That’s what development economists do: they try and figure out which parts of the world are not doing well. Then they try and figure out why (imagine being able to identify a fly as a potential cause of underdevelopment!). And finally, they try to recommend policies that might make the situation better.
Three Big Questions
When I teach courses in development economics, I often introduce the subject by speaking about three “big picture” questions:
What does the world look like?
Why does it look the way it does?
What can we do to make it better?
And honestly, that is really all you need to think about when you want to understand what development economists do. Let’s tackle each of these questions in turn.
What does the world look like?
Good development economists don’t begin with recommendations and policy measures. That’s a long way down the road. They begin by trying to paint for themselves a picture of the world.
My favorite way to paint for myself a picture of the world is by using a freely available online tool called Gapminder.
What are we looking at? Hans Rosling, the Genius (I don’t use the word lightly, and the capitalized G is intentional) who came up with this tool, used to call this chart the “Health and Wealth” chart.
Well, here’s what it tells me – see if you agree with my understanding. It tells me that the reason economists harp on so about increasing income (GDP) for all nations is not because getting rich is an end in and of itself. It is the means to an end – that end in this case being better health.
Two caveats: higher life expectancy doesn’t necessarily mean better health. But in this case, I think it is an acceptable proxy. Second, correlation is not necessarily causation! Higher wealth may not necessarily be causing better health. Maybe better health is causing higher wealth? Maybe some other variable is causing both of these things? Maybe it is all of these and more?
But all those caveats aside, at first glance, a basic fact emerges:
There is no country that is at the top left of this chart, and there is no country at the bottom right of this chart.
Poor countries tend to not do well in terms of life expectancy, and rich countries tend to do well in terms of life expectancy. If I want the members of my family to live longer, I would want my country to be towards the top right of this chart.
But back to the central question: what does the world look like? This is a generalization, of course, but most of the African nations tend to lie towards the bottom left. Most of the European nations tend to lie towards the top right. And Asian nations (and some South American nations) tend to lie somewhere in the middle.
That’s one answer to the question we were trying to answer in this section: what does the world look like?
But there are other answer possible! Here are just two to get you started:
I have been using Gapminder for over 12 years now, but I am yet to get tired of watching that video. In fact, as I often tell my students, you could do a lot worse than spending time with Gapminder open in one tab, and Wikipedia in the other.
(On a tangential note, take a look at what happened to the world between 1918 and 1921. That’s the Spanish flu at work.)
Why did I include this video in this blogpost?
Because it helps us begin to think about the answer to the second question: why does the world look the way it does?
The world looks the way it does today because some countries were able to steal a march on others about two hundred years ago. The United Kingdom, the United States of America, Japan, Germany and some other nations started moving towards the right top of the chart before other countries could. You could, in fact, make an argument these countries were able to move to the right top by making sure that the other countries stayed at the bottom left!
And when you make that argument, you begin to try and answer the second question – this argument is the anti-imperialist stance. The Asian and African colonies of the European powers of the 19th century lag behind as much as they do today because they were colonies: that’s one candidate for explaining why the world looks the way it does.
The tse-tse fly (remember?) is another candidate for a more localized answer to the second question. Politics, race, religion, geography, caste, gender, openness to innovation – there are so, so many candidate answers! People can (and do!) spend entire careers making their way through just one of these candidates.
By the way, if you would like to read books about this topic – why does the world look like the way it does – here are two absolute must-reads:
I’m not joking! That was a genuine proposal, made by this guy who you may have heard of. Started a software firm, dabbled in philanthropy, and is now engaged in trying to literally save the world. Yes: Bill Gates. His master plan to save Africa involved giving everybody a chicken.
Our foundation is betting on chickens. Alongside partners throughout sub-Saharan Africa, we are working to create sustainable market systems for poultry. It’s especially important for these systems to make sure farmers can buy birds that have been properly vaccinated and are well suited to the local growing conditions. Our goal: to eventually help 30 percent of the rural families in sub-Saharan Africa raise improved breeds of vaccinated chickens, up from just 5 percent now. When I was growing up, chickens weren’t something you studied, they were something you made silly jokes about. It has been eye-opening for me to learn what a difference they can make in the fight against poverty. It sounds funny, but I mean it when I say that I am excited about chickens.
Well, I exaggerate, of course. Not literally giving everybody in Africa a chicken – but something along those lines.
Development economists were less than impressed:
But first, let’s talk about poultry. I think we can agree that we can only give away so many chickens. You’ve said that a family that receives five hens could eventually earn $1,000 annually, assuming a per-bird price of $5. But would that still be true when a third of your neighbors are in the same business? As supply goes up, I’d expect the price and profits to come down. And moving to an economy in which 30 percent of rural Africans sell chickens is a humongous increase in supply.
And to make matters worse, other development economists were less than impressed with the development economists who were less than impressed with Bill Gates’ chickens:
I have friends/alumni/colleagues working around the world in many facets of the challenge of development. I have friends working for the Prime Minister of India. I have friends working for the President of Indonesia. I have friends working on the conflict in Yemen. I have friends working as civil society activists in Egypt. I have had policy discussions with policy makers all over the world. I worked for 15 years in the World Bank. I have taught development at Harvard for 15 years. In all of those conversations with friends, colleagues, policy makers, and students all kinds of difficult and pressing development questions have arisen that research could address. Never, ever, ever has “chickens versus cash” arisen as an issue at all, much less as the remotely possible “best investment” in research.
Why am I telling you all this? Because allow me to let you in on a dirty little secret: there is zero consensus on what is the correct answer to the third question.
Well, OK, zero consensus is an exaggeration. But it ain’t a settled issue, no sir.
That is, nobody has come up with a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “What can we do to make the world better?”
Let’s parse through the question. That might help us understand why it is such a controversial one.
What can we do to make the world better?
Who, exactly, is “we”? That is, who is in charge of decision making when it comes to making things better? Do democracies work better? Or do autocracies? Or something in between? Remember, we are not asking which political system is the best from a moral, or political, perspective. We are asking which system is likely to give us the most rapid growth. Was Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew a true, participatory democracy, or was it a democracy with Asian characteristics? What about South Korea under General Park? And while we’re on the subject, an autocracy is not by itself a guarantee of rapid growth! Pakistan, Cambodia are two examples from our own neighborhood. Also remember: just because a system may give us more rapid economic growth doesn’t mean it is the best system to use. China is the obvious country to think about in this regard!
Do we really need to “do” stuff, or is it more about just getting out of the way, and letting the economy work it’s magic?
3. Are we agreed on what “better” means? Lesser pollution comes at the cost of lesser industrialization, for example. Are we so sure that all seven billion of us can identify the exact point on the spectrum that works best? And if not, then we’re back to the first point: who is “we”?
And hey, even if you could imagine a world in which we somehow, magically get everybody to agree on “What can we do to make the world a better place?”, we’d begin a new round of battles, centered around a new question.
Still, there is some good news. The unsettled nature of the debate means that this is extremely fertile ground to work upon, and you can count on development economics as a field remaining a fundamentally interesting one to work in for years, if not decades, to come.
And that, my friend(s), is what development economics is all about!
“We seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. There’s this epidemic of listicles. Why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim “The 20 Most Expensive Paintings in History?”I’m very guided by this desire to counter that in myself because I am, like everybody else, a product of my time and my culture. I remember, there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim.
I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it.”
Have you heard of Maria Popova? This interview helps you understand who she is, and her importance in combating what I linked to a couple of days ago – David Perell’s article about the Never Ending Now.
“Thanks to government backing, the state-owned company building the bridge is unlikely to default or go bankrupt. But bridges like Chishi leave local governments and developers struggling with debt, and those who live below nonplused.“If you don’t build roads, there can’t be prosperity,” said Huang Sanliang, a 56-year-old farmer who lives under the bridge. “But this is an expressway, not a second- or third-grade road. One of those might be better for us here.”” The New York Times on bridges in China – and how there might be one too many of them. Economists have worried for many years now about how China’s economy will slowdown in the years to come, and also about how China’s economy has masked it’s imminent slowdown by building bridges, roads and entire cities when the immediate need is not apparent.
“Turns out the reason was likely the same as the one behind every one of my life choices: it involved the least effort. As Frankie Huang, a writer and strategist based in Shanghai, told me over email, numbers are far easier to type for purposes like websites’ names, as compared to pinyin, the Romanised system for Chinese characters.”
…speaking of China, Mithila Phadka explains why the Chinese prefer using numbers evreywhere possible – even preferring to use numbers rather than text for URL’s. 12306.cn is preferred to ChinaRail.com, for example.
“In Study the Great Nation, you can catch up on the latest state media reports on Mr. Xi’s decisions, savor a quote of the day from Mr. Xi or brush up on “Xi Jinping Thought.” You can quiz yourself on Mr. Xi’s policies and pronouncements, or take in a television show called “Xi Time,” which is … well, you get the picture.Doing each of these activities can reward users with “study points,” which can be redeemed for gifts in future versions of the app.” I worry that China won’t be the only country doing this for very long – far too many leaders in far too many countries are likely to be tempted to be, um, inspired.
“This conclusion, if it withstands open-minded analysis in India, does not mean that India lacks ways to punish Pakistan and motivate it to demobilize groups that threaten to perpetrate terrorism in India. Rather, it suggests that more symmetrical and covert operations would yield a better ratio of risk to effectiveness for India. There are many ways to make Pakistani military leaders conclude that the cohesion, security, and progress of their own country will be further jeopardized if they fail to act vigorously to prevent terrorism against India. Limited, precision air strikes are not India’s best option now or for the foreseeable future.”
This is from 2015 – but as of that point, this rather well researched article points out that India may not be able to carry out precision air strikes against Pakistan – because of the threat of escalation, because of the technology available with Pakistan today, and because other ground based options may be more operationally feasible.