What Would Your “The Question” Be?

I ask my students to ask me five random questions at the end of each class. And I was asked a fascinating question today: “If you could ask god a question to which you would get an answer, what would it be?”

My answer was that I would ask god if there is a point to all this. That is, is there meaning and purpose to the universe, or does the universe just go completely cold and dead at some point in the future?

But on reflection, I am not so sure that I would want the answer to that question. If there is no point to the universe, will I have the motivation to do anything? And if there is a point, well, carry on!

That is, a point to the universe implies I should do what I was doing anyways. Because if there is a point to the universe and I’m not contributing meaningfully, then what is the point of my existence? I should do more!

And if I think that I am contributing meaningfully (in my opinion), then the answer doesn’t change anything in my life. So on balance, I would rather not find out the answer, which means I shouldn’t ask this question. Would you agree?

But then what question should I ask? Asking god if she exists is a fun candidate, but surely I can do better. Resolve a conjecture in mathematics? Ask if traveling back in time is possible? What was there before the Big Bang?

What about this: “What is the one question you are hoping I ask?”. Or its converse, for that matter. But if god has a Puneri sense of humor, she might well say “the one you just asked!” Back to square one, then.

“Do the ends justify the means?” is a question that I would like an answer to, but I worry that I will no longer want to read another version of the Mahabharata, and why deny myself that pleasure? The search goes on!

I honestly don’t know of a really “good” question, so I’ll go with a question that is meta, fun and one I would genuinely enjoy having answered. “Would you classify Douglas Adams as a fiction writer? Yup, I think this is it!

Or as a tribute to an author whose work I have always enjoyed reading, here’s another: “Is good a noun?” Either of these two, then, and not being able to decide is a privilege, I suppose. Finally: what would your question be?

Top Gun Maverick and Straussian Takes

I am in the habit of asking my students to ask me five random questions at the end of each class. They don’t get a choice in the matter: they have to ask me five random questions, and the only rule is that the questions cannot be about whatever I spoke about in class on that day. That apart, anything is fine.

One question that usually comes up in the course of a semester is about my favorite movie, and in response, I usually end up walking the students through my model for judging a movie to be truly awesome.

To be truly awesome, I tell ’em, a movie must do three things:

  1. It must inform. I must know more about a part of the world at some point of time than I did before.
  2. It must provoke thought. I should be able to think differently about a topic than I did before I saw the movie.
  3. It must entertain. I shouldn’t feel bored/restless while watching the movie.

Each of these, to some extent are subjective, and the last two points especially so. But that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to decide for everybody what their model for judging a movie should be, I’m merely explaining my own, and even if you were to adopt this model (or a variant of it), we might still end up judging the same movie differently. In fact, that would be better! Room for more disagreements and discussions, and what else is there in life, no?

So, Top Gun: Maverick. So-so, good or great? (spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you might want to skip the rest of the post)


I watched the movie sometime last week and thoroughly enjoyed watching it. It didn’t really inform me of anything (and given that my knowledge of military hardware is non-existent, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on much in the first place), and it didn’t really provoke much thought either. Some, but not a lot.

Did it entertain? Gawd yes, it did. Good popcorn fare, or to use a very Indian phrase, phull paisa vasool.

And that, I thought, was that. Until Marginal Revolution linked to a Ross Douthat tweet, that linked, in turn, to a The Bulwark review of the movie. And that provoked some thought. Again, spoilers ahead, so if you’re still reading, this is the last chance to, well, jettison.

It’s almost like Mav, rather than miraculously surviving an ejection at 7,000 or so miles per hour, perished in that test flight and before he could head on up to fighter-pilot heaven he had to work through his own personal purgatory. All I’m saying is that when Hangman saves Mav’s bacon in the final dogfight while uttering the line “This is your savior speaking” in the tone of voice that can only be labeled “pilot”—memorably described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff as a lineal descendant of “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager”—I don’t think the invocation of the almighty is entirely metaphorical.
And this is what, really, gives Top Gun: Maverick its power. Despite being almost aggressively generic in terms of plotting it is also deeply personal, a window into the regrets of one of pop cinema’s legendarily beloved characters. Maverick is at peace now. He has been to the danger zone and back. He can rest.

https://www.thebulwark.com/top-gun-maverick-review/

Huh. I’ll happily admit to not having thought about it quite that way.


Which brings me to the second part of the title of today’s blogpost: Straussian interpretations.

Like many fans of Marginal Revolution, I’ve been reading the phrase for many years, and wondered what it meant. Here is a link to an essay that does (if you ask me) a good job of explaining exactly what Straussian reading is, and here is an extract twice removed:

Imagine you have received a letter in the mail from your beloved, from whom you have been separated for many long months. (An old-fashioned tale, where there are still beloveds—and letters.) You fear that her feelings toward you may have suffered some alteration. As you hold her letter in your unsteady hands, you are instantly in the place that makes one a good reader. You are responsive to her every word. You are exquisitely alive to every shade and nuance of what she has said—and not said.
“Dearest John.” You know that she always uses “dearest” in letters to you, so the word here means nothing in particular; but her “with love” ending is the weakest of the three variations that she typically uses. The letter is quite cheerful, describing in detail all the things she has been doing. One of them reminds her of something the two of you once did together. “That was a lot of fun,” she exclaims. “Fun”—a resolutely friendly word, not a romantic one. You find yourself weighing every word in a relative scale: it represents not only itself but the negation of every other word that might have been used in its place. Somewhere buried in the middle of the letter, thrown in with an offhandedness that seems too studied, she briefly answers the question you asked her: yes, as it turns out, she has run into Bill Smith—your main rival for her affection. Then it’s back to chatty and cheerful descriptions until the end.
It is clear to you what the letter means. She is letting you down easy, preparing an eventual break. The message is partly in what she has said—the Bill Smith remark, and that lukewarm ending—but primarily in what she has not said. The letter is full of her activities, but not a word of her feelings. There is no moment of intimacy. It is engaging and cheerful but cold. And her cheerfulness is the coldest thing: how could she be so happy if she were missing you? Which points to the most crucial fact: she has said not one word about missing you. That silence fairly screams in your ear.

https://lacker.io/books/2017/03/26/straussian-reading.html

It’s not just what is written on the page (or shown in a movie, or sung in a song, or even painted on to a canvas), but is about so much more than that. While reading a book, or listening to a song, or watching a movie or viewing a painting, you might want to ask yourself some questions:

  • What are some of the non-obvious messages that the creator wants to you recieve, if only you’re paying attention?
  • What is it about the time and place in which this creation was created that might have prevented the creator from being more open about whatever they wanted to covney?
  • Might your appreciation of the work of art become better if you are able to peel away one layer at a time?

This is by no means a complete list, and once you realize that Straussian readings are possible, you can go back and consume much of what you have already read/seen/listened again (and again). Interpretations become so much richer, nuanced and uncertain (but in a good way).

That’s what a Straussian reading is, and once you’ve seen Top Gun: Maverick again, you might want to think about whether this Straussian interpretation is correct.

Me? I’m very much tempted to agree with it.

As Studwell Puts It, Chinese Medicine

I end every single class that I teach with a request to my students: ask me five random questions. The topic can be anything under the sun, but please get into the habit of asking me (and indeed everybody else!) questions.

One question that usually pops up in the course of a semester is this one: “If you could recommend only one book that all of us should read, which would it be?”

It is impossible to answer a question like this, of course. But still, it is a fun game to play. And if the class comprises of an Indian audience (which is usually the case), my answer almost always is How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell. It is an eye-opener of a book about growth in North-Eastern Asia (Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) during the latter half of the twentieth century, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I’m not the only one to be head over heels in love with that book – here’s exhibits A, B and C.

But the reason I bring up Joe Studwell today isn’t such a happy one. He also writes a blog1 – updated only sporadically, it is true – and the blog is full of useful articles to read about topics that he is interested in. And today’s post is about a New Yorker piece about Xingjiang that he shared the other day.

And it is not, to say the least, pleasant reading.

Usually, I would have excerpted from it and added my own takes, but not today. Please, go ahead and read the whole thing.

Speaking of those random questions, “Why can’t we be more like China?” is also usually one of them. My usual answer is to say “be careful what you wish for”. The New Yorker article only serves to reinforce that point.

Again, please. Read the whole thing.

  1. the intro to the blog is exemplary writing. And what is it with economists and homes in Italy? First Mundell, now Studwell.[]

A Pro-Classroom Argument

I am, if anything, against how learning is delivered today. Much lesser classroom teaching, much more discussions, much more of arguments, much more of thinking and writing (this ought to turn into a separate post!) is how I would prefer learning takes place.

But, if I had to force myself to think about what about traditional classroom teaching is good…

  1. Traditional classroom teaching, where the teacher talks and the students listen for the most part, allows for a much more systematic completion of the syllabus, and reduces the burden on the teacher. Teaching ought to become easier, and therefore (assumption alert) better.
  2. The teacher is able to focus on one particular aspect for the duration of that one class, and therefore is able to prepare accordingly. Random questions and answers, taking the class off on a tangent is all well and good, but you suffer, inevitably, a loss in depth when you go wide.
  3. A one-to-many mode of teaching ensures that all students have the same notes, and are in agreement about what was taught. Group based discussions (breakout rooms is what we call these things these days) for example, leaves students unaware of what was said in the other groups. Debriefing helps, but never completely.
  4. Do we underrate “sit still and listen” these days? Yes, long classes and having to focus on the voice that drones on is easy to make fun of, but have we collectively lost the art of sitting still and listening? Might we be inculcating the value of sustained concentration by having traditional classes, and might this in fact be a good thing?
  5. If a class is going to be about listening on a one-to-many basis, does this reduce the cognitive load on the student? Freed from all other requirements, classroom teaching might free up the student to learn more, by reducing the amount of effort demanded from her?
  6. Two points about discussions and debates. Doesn’t limiting the scope for discussions and debates in class make it better, by having only genuine doubts and disagreements being raised? Forcing students to take part in a discussion or a debate, when most of them seem to not want to, can end up making them uncomfortable. It can also be a time-consuming affair, and all for points that perhaps were not worth it. On the other hand, leaving only ten minutes or so for discussion at the end will “bubble up” only the most willing, most eager and most well-thought out responses. That is a good thing, right?
  7. Is a classroom really the best place to debate and discuss? Is not the opportunity cost of having to listen to your peers, rather than the person with the most amount of knowledge about the subject (the professor), very high? Students can (and should!) debate issues raised in class – but outside.

I find myself unable to come up with more, but I’m sure there are other arguments to be made for classroom-based, one-teacher-talks-many-students-listen-based model. What am I missing?

Hearts As Well As Minds

Tim Harford comes up with a blogpost about a topic that is very close to my heart:

Writing a few years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schwartz argued that one of the goals of a university education, especially a liberal arts education, is to teach students how to think. The trouble is, said Schwartz, “nobody really knows what that means”.
Schwartz proposes his own ideas. He is less interested in cognitive skills than in intellectual virtues.
“All the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension,” he says, before setting out the case for nine virtues: love of truth; honesty about one’s own failings; fair-mindedness; humility and a willingness to seek help; perseverance; courage; good listening; perspective-taking and empathy; and, finally, wisdom — the word Schwartz uses to describe not taking any of these other virtues to excess.

https://timharford.com/2022/07/learning-to-think-well-involves-hearts-as-well-as-minds/

And from the original essay, this excerpt:

Knowing how to think demands a set of cognitive skills — quantitative ability, conceptual flexibility, analytical acumen, expressive clarity. But beyond those skills, learning how to think requires the development of a set of intellectual virtues that make good students, good professionals, and good citizens. I use the word “virtues,” as opposed to “skills,” deliberately. As Aristotle knew, all of the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension. I won’t provide an exhaustive list of intellectual virtues, but I will provide a list, just to get the conversation started.

https://www.chronicle.com/article/what-learning-how-to-think-really-means/

There is so much to unpack in both essays that I’m not even going to bother trying to condense this down to one blogpost, and consider yourselves warned, there will be many posts in this series. Because if you are as passionate about teaching as I am (the only thing I may be more passionate about is food), this topic is always front and center in your mind.

I’d distill the implicit topic in both these posts/essays down to this question:

Should education make you a good person, or do you have to be a good person in order to be educated?

It seems like a simple question, but when you begin to think about it, you can end up spending hours on it.

Learning how to think, Barry Schwartz says, “requires the development of a set of intellectual virtues.” Which begs the question: what is virtue?

Here are two of Google’s answers (I’ve selected the two here that I think to be the most appropriate, but you can see all other answers by clicking here):

behaviour showing high moral standards | a good or useful quality of a thing (emphasis added)

Which, if you know your Pirsig, ought to remind you of a passage or two:

The one thing that doesn’t fit what he says and what Plato said about the Sophists is their profession of teaching virtue. All accounts indicate this was absolutely central to their teaching, but how are you going to teach virtue if you teach the relativity of all ethical ideas? Virtue, if it implies anything at all, implies an ethical absolute. A person whose idea of what is proper varies from day to day can be admired for his broadmindedness, but not for his virtue.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 338). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

And:

Kitto had more to say about this aretê of the ancient Greeks. “When we meet aretê in Plato,” he said, “we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavour of it. ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; aretê, on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.” Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing aretê.
Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency—or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 341). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

Or put another way, if Robert Pirsig were to edit Barry Schwartz’ essay, he would probably have edited his sentence about virtue to “requires the development of excellence”.

That is, education is very much about developing excellence (or virtue, if you insist), and in a sense, that is all it is about. Words matter, so I’d argue that you might want to think about what the word education means to you, and rather than link to Google’s results, allow me to post a screenshot instead:

https://www.google.com/search?q=define+education

Note how the first definition comes with synonyms galore: teaching, schooling, tuition, tutoring and so on. But the second definition? Just an example of the usage of the term. When, during random questions, students ask me why I enjoy teaching so much, I say that the highlight of my teaching experience are the “Aha!” moments – when you, as a teacher, can actually see a lightbulb switch on above a students face. Not, I should hasten to add, literally so, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Education is very much, to me, an enlightening experience.

And that, to me, is not the imparting of skillsets. That is a part, without a doubt, of education, but it is only a part. I do not mean to denigrate the imparting of knowledge, or skillsets. This is not about saying that giving systematic instructions about, say, the put-call parity theorem is trivial, unimportant or irrelevant. This is about saying that education is about so much more than that: it is about helping students be good.

So my own answer to my own question would be that education is very much about making a student a good person.

Ah, but then what does being good mean? As it turns out, Robert Pirsig wrote an entire book about this question, called Lila, and ended the book by saying that good is a noun. Which is a whole different story, and will take much more than a blogpost. So what we’ll do instead is focus, in future blogposts, on this topic, on the list of nine virtues that Schwartz speaks about in his essay, and tackle them one at a time.

We’ll begin with a nice easy (sarcasm alert) component of virtue: love of truth.

On Doing Different Things

One of the more interesting random questions that I was asked in class recently was about whether it makes sense to “do different things”.

By this, the student who asked the question meant the following: should one focus on doing one thing, and one thing only in terms of studies, in terms of a career and in terms of hobbies, or does it make sense to do a lot of different things in each case.

The obvious answer to give these days is that one should read Range, by David Epstein – and it certainly is a good way to start thinking about the subject. And I agree with the central idea in David’s book – variety is good! You can take a similar lesson from statistics, if you like, or you can focus on the English phrase “variety is the spice of life“… or you can read and reflect on a wonderful profile of one of the winners of the Fields medal this year.

One might say the same of his path into mathematics itself: that it was characterized by much wandering and a series of small miracles. When he was younger, Huh had no desire to be a mathematician. He was indifferent to the subject, and he dropped out of high school to become a poet. It would take a chance encounter during his university years — and many moments of feeling lost — for him to find that mathematics held what he’d been looking for all along.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/june-huh-high-school-dropout-wins-the-fields-medal-20220705/

The entire essay is, of course, well worth your time, and I would strongly recommend that you read it. Your eyes might glaze over some of the mathematics in the profile (mine certainly did), but there is a lot to be learnt by reading the essay carefully, especially if you want to think about whether “doing different things” is a good idea or not.


The profile is much about June Huh as it is about ruminations on productivity, daily routines, the connection between beauty and mathematics and the role that luck plays in our lives. Consider for example, the fact that Huh never works for more than three hours in a day. Folks who work in the corporate world, especially in India, take an almost perverse pride in the number of hours that they spend in office, but I would argue (from personal experience, more than anything else) that the actual work done doesn’t take more than four to five hours at best.

It gets even better, because there is mention later on in the article about an inversion of the Pomodoro technique:

Huh can still muster only enough energy to work for a few hours each day. “Other people work one hour and just take a five-minute rest,” Kim said. “He is like, one hour do something else, and just focus for five minutes, 10 minutes.”

https://www.quantamagazine.org/june-huh-high-school-dropout-wins-the-fields-medal-20220705/

Me, I’m very good at the doing-something-else-for-one-hour bit. It’s the five minutes of deep and focused work that I struggle with!

But the bit that I enjoyed the most was the part about somehow, just knowing:

For Huh, when he is working, there’s something almost subconscious going on. In fact, he usually can’t trace how or when his ideas come to him. He doesn’t have sudden flashes of insight. Instead, “at some point, you just realize, oh, I know this,” he said. Maybe last week, he didn’t understand something, but now, without any additional input, the pieces have clicked into place without his realizing it. He likens it to the way your mind can surprise you and create unexpected connections when you’re dreaming. “It’s just amazing what human minds are capable of,” he said. “And it’s nice to admit that we don’t know what’s going on.”

https://www.quantamagazine.org/june-huh-high-school-dropout-wins-the-fields-medal-20220705/

Two references that this reminded me of:

Poincaré then hypothesized that this selection is made by what he called the “subliminal self,” an entity that corresponds exactly with what Phaedrus called preintellectual awareness. The subliminal self, Poincaré said, looks at a large number of solutions to a problem, but only the interesting ones break into the domain of consciousness. Mathematical solutions are selected by the subliminal self on the basis of “mathematical beauty,” of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. “This is a true esthetic feeling which all mathematicians know,” Poincaré said, “but of which the profane are so ignorant as often to be tempted to smile.” But it is this harmony, this beauty, that is at the center of it all.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 240). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

From further on in the same book:

Then Poincaré illustrated how a fact is discovered. He had described generally how scientists arrive at facts and theories but now he penetrated narrowly into his own personal experience with the mathematical functions that established his early fame. For fifteen days, he said, he strove to prove that there couldn’t be any such functions. Every day he seated himself at his work-table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results. Then one evening, contrary to his custom, he drank black coffee and couldn’t sleep. Ideas arose in crowds. He felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. The next morning he had only to write out the results. A wave of crystallization had taken place. He described how a second wave of crystallization, guided by analogies to established mathematics, produced what he later named the “Theta-Fuchsian Series.” He left Caen, where he was living, to go on a geologic excursion. The changes of travel made him forget mathematics. He was about to enter a bus, and at the moment when he put his foot on the step, the idea came to him, without anything in his former thoughts having paved the way for it, that the transformations he had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. He didn’t verify the idea, he said, he just went on with a conversation on the bus; but he felt a perfect certainty. Later he verified the result at his leisure.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (pp. 239-240). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

And finally, a fascinating paper, of which I learnt via a blogpost on MR, by Alex Tabbarok:

Many people have claimed that sleep has helped them solve a difficult problem, but empirical support for this assertion remains tentative. The current experiment tested whether manipulating information processing during sleep impacts problem incubation and solving. In memory studies, delivering learning-associated sound cues during sleep can reactivate memories. We therefore predicted that reactivating previously unsolved problems could help people solve them. In the evening, we presented 57 participants with puzzles, each arbitrarily associated with a different sound. While participants slept overnight, half of the sounds associated with the puzzles they had not solved were surreptitiously presented. The next morning, participants solved 31.7% of cued puzzles, compared with 20.5% of uncued puzzles (a 55% improvement). Moreover, cued-puzzle solving correlated with cued-puzzle memory. Overall, these results demonstrate that cuing puzzle information during sleep can facilitate solving, thus supporting sleep’s role in problem incubation and establishing a new technique to advance understanding of problem solving and sleep cognition.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797619873344?journalCode=pssa

And what better way to end then, than with this perfectly appropriate final extract:

The office is spare, practically empty. There’s a large desk, a couch for sleeping — Huh typically takes a nap later in the morning — and a yoga mat rolled out on the floor (just for lying down, he said; he doesn’t actually know how to do yoga).

https://www.quantamagazine.org/june-huh-high-school-dropout-wins-the-fields-medal-20220705/

Applied Microeconomics

Every single class that I teach, I end with a little tradition: students must ask me five completely random questions. These questions must necessarily have nothing to do with whatever it is that I taught in that class, but that apart, they can be about absolutely anything under the sun.

There are many, many reasons for this little exercise: a fun way to wrap up class, helps students ask better questions, keeps me on my toes are just three of them. One of the questions that I was asked recently was about the whole Kunal Kamra/Arnab Goswami incident.

Here’s the quick summary of how I answered that question in class: I am not (and this is putting it mildly) a fan of Arnab Goswami, but I wish Kunal Kamra had not done what he did.

In what follows, I try to think like an economist in explaining the latter half of the summary above.

  1. Many more people have a heightened awareness of both Kunal Kamra and Arnab Goswami than before the incident took place, and to the extent that their professions benefit from more publicity, they gain in this one regard. (It is, of course, more complicated and nuanced than that, but this is a blog post.)
    ..
    ..
  2. One reason I wish Kunal Kamra hadn’t done what he did is because the ensuing publicity of the video normalizes heckling somebody on a flight/in a public space. Yes, I have seen the video in which Tejaswi Yadav was heckled by the Republic employee, and of course I wish that hadn’t taken place either. My point remains the same in both cases: it has become more acceptable to heckle somebody in a public space, and that isn’t great for civilized discourse.
    In economist-y terms, the price one pays in terms of social disapprobation is lower for everybody. In plain English, it is now ok to do that, is the message that people are left with.
    ..
    ..
  3. Both points above taken together imply there is a higher benefit (in terms of attention on social media) to be gained at a lower cost (lower social disapproval), which should lead the economist to predict that we should see more such incidents take place in public. The point remains true no matter who is doing it to whom in terms of the (for lack of a better phrase) ideological divide.
    ..
    ..
  4. But then again, the fact that the supply of such incidents will rise effectively means a shifting out of the supply curve (with the quantity of such incidents on the horizontal axis and time spent being informed of these incidents on the vertical one). In English, the more such incidents are reported, the less time we will spend thinking about them.
    ..
    ..
  5. That will either disincentivize people from being a part of such incidents, or normalize it entirely to the point of it becoming almost banal. As a cynic, my bet is on the latter.
    ..
    ..
  6. Which, by my standards, is society becoming definitively worse off.
    ..
    ..
  7. And by that standard, my normative prescription is that one should not engage in heckling somebody in a public space…
    ..
    ..
  8. … and, in equilibrium, one should also make this the last article about this topic! This applies as much, of course, to the writer as it does to the reader.

 

Addendum: a friend to whom I had sent this post for feedback pointed out that in equilibrium with regard to point 5., people will have to be ever more attention seeking. My friend was horrified by that conclusion, and I agree on both counts.

 

 

 

The Return of Protectionism, Writing Better Papers, 100 True Fans, Corona Virus and Classics on the Kindle

Five articles that I enjoyed reading this week, and figure you might as well.

 

Vivek Dehejia raises an uncomfortable question: are we more protectionist now than at any point of time since 1991, and examines some of the possible impacts.

Even the most well-inclined observers can no longer palm-off previous tariff increases by the current government as mere one-offs or aberrations. It is abundantly clear now, unfortunately, that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in its second innings even more than the first, has abandoned an almost three-decade commitment to trade liberalization, going back to the initial liberalization impetus of 1991. Notably, even governments that did not further liberalize, at the very least refrained from sliding back into protectionism. No more, though—we are now witnessing a more or less explicit embrace of import substitution, which had been thought abandoned in 1991 and beyond.

Useful advice for writing academic papers on development better. Even if you don’t write these yourself, this article might have useful advice about selecting which ones to read.

You win or lose your readers with the introduction of your economics paper. Your title and your abstract should convince people to read your introduction. Research shows that economics papers with more readable introductions get cited more. The introduction is your opportunity to lay out your research question, your empirical strategy, your findings, and why it matters. Succinctly.

Some years ago, Kevin Kelly wrote an article called 1,000 true fans (he does a lot else besides, by the way, and learning more about him is worth your time). Li Jin has written a follow-up piece that I hope rings true in the years to come.

Today, that idea is as salient as ever—but I propose taking it a step further. As the Passion Economy grows, more people are monetizing what they love. The global adoption of social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, the mainstreaming of the influencer model, and the rise of new creator tools has shifted the threshold for success. I believe that creators need to amass only 100 True Fans—not 1,000—paying them $1,000 a year, not $100. Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans.

I have so far resisted linking to or speaking about the Corona virus, primarily because I don’t know enough about the topic to speak responsibly about it. That, I’m sorry to say, hasn’t changed, but reading this article was helpful for me, and hopefully is for you as well!

The next two months will be critical, and it is important for all of us to do everything in our power to minimize viral spread. The simple stuff includes washing hands more frequently, greeting others without handshakes, getting a flu shot (if you haven’t already), and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects. All of these actions are recommended by the CDC. Hopefully, through behavioral changes such as these, we will be able to keep R0 below 1 and prevent this virus from becoming a pandemic.

A random question asked in class this week spurred this search, and maybe you find this list useful yourself? I certainly did! Free classic literature on Kindle.

Understanding the idea behind the NFHS

Why should you, as an informed citizen of this country, be aware of how well India is doing in terms of health?

The question isn’t rhetorical. For its own sake is a more than good enough answer, of course, but here are additional reasons for keeping track of how well we’re doing as a country in terms of health:

  • If you think that the Solow model is a good way to start to think about the long term growth prospects of our nation, then thinking about the health of that workforce is important
  • If you think it is possible that different states may have different health outcomes, it makes sense to try and understand whether this is the case.
  • It also makes sense to dig into the data and try and understand the particulars of these differences. (A state may do poorly on life expectancy in comparison to other states, for example, but better along other dimensions. Why might this be so is an excellent question to ask, and this is just one of many possible questions.)
  • This is true for many other ways to “slice” this data. Are there different outcomes by, say, gender? By urban/rural divide?
  • The answers to each of these questions is important because it helps us understand how to build a framework to answer the mot important question of them all: if we have to improve India’s health, where should we start?

And for all of these reasons (and so many more) it makes sense for all of us to be aware of the results of the NFHS survey.


What is the NFHS Survey?

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) is a large-scale, multi-round survey conducted in a representative sample of households throughout India. The NFHS is a collaborative project of the International Institute for Population Sciences(IIPS), Mumbai, India; ICF, Calverton, Maryland, USA and the East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW), Government of India, designated IIPS as the nodal agency, responsible for providing coordination and technical guidance for the NFHS. NFHS was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with supplementary support from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). IIPS collaborated with a number of Field Organizations (FO) for survey implementation. Each FO was responsible for conducting survey activities in one or more states covered by the NFHS. Technical assistance for the NFHS was provided by ICF and the East-West Center.

http://rchiips.org/nfhs/about.shtml

Why is the NFHS important?

Why do we have something like NFHS? To obtain data on health and nutrition, disaggregated to the level of districts. We want to take stock of developmental targets at a single point in time and wish to track improvements (or deterioration) over time.

https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/columns/2021/dec/13/nfhs-andwhy-surveys-are-better-than-asking-a-cab-driver-2394809.html

How often is the NFHS carried out?

That’s a little tricky to answer, but I can tell you that there have been five rounds so far. The first one was in 1992-93, the second in 1998-99, the third in 2005-06, the fourth in 2015-16 (and this decade long gap is why this question is a little tricky to answer) and the fifth in 2020-21.

OK, so we can use this data to see how health in India has evolved over time?

Um, not exactly:

To gauge improvements over time, ideally, we should have what statisticians and economists call a panel. In a panel, across time, questions are asked to the same individuals/households. For something like NFHS, that’s not possible. In addition, for NFHS-5, compared to NFHS-4 (2015–16), additional questions have been asked. For those questions, gauging improvements over time is naturally impossible.

https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/columns/2021/dec/13/nfhs-andwhy-surveys-are-better-than-asking-a-cab-driver-2394809.html

Then what can we use the data for?

Especially because the answer to the first question in this series included this: “wish to track improvements (or deterioration) over time.”

Well, yes, it did. And we do use this data to see how health in India has evolved over time. But it’s not a perfect comparison, because we aren’t tracking the same households over time, and it therefore isn’t an apples to apples comparison. But the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, especially in public policy! The fifth round has in fact been structured in such a way so as to make the results as comparable as possible.

How many households are covered?

NFHS-5 fieldwork for India was conducted in two phases, phase one from 17 June 2019 to 30 January 2020 and phase two from 2 January 2020 to 30 April 2021 by 17 Field Agencies and gathered information from 636,699 households, 724,115 women, and 101,839 men

http://rchiips.org/nfhs/NFHS-5_FCTS/India.pdf

What questions are asked in this survey?

That’s a great question to ask!

Four Survey Schedules – Household, Woman’s, Man’s, and Biomarker – were canvassed in local languages
using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI).

In the Household Schedule, information was collected on all usual members of the household and visitors who stayed in the household the previous night, as well as socio-economic characteristics of the household:

water, sanitation, and hygiene; health insurance coverage; disabilities; land ownership; number of deaths in the household in the three years preceding the survey; and the ownership and use of mosquito nets.

The Woman’s Schedule covered a wide variety of topics, including the woman’s characteristics, marriage, fertility, contraception, children’s immunizations and healthcare, nutrition, reproductive health, sexual behaviour, HIV/AIDS, women’s empowerment, and domestic violence.

The Man’s Schedule covered the man’s characteristics, marriage, his number of children, contraception, fertility preferences, nutrition, sexual behaviour, health issues, attitudes towards gender roles, and HIV/AIDS.

The Biomarker Schedule covered measurements of height, weight, and haemoglobin levels for children; measurements of height, weight, waist and hip circumference, and haemoglobin levels for women age 15-49 years and men age 15-54 years; and blood pressure and random blood glucose levels for women and men age 15 years and over. In addition, women and men were requested to provide a few additional drops of blood from a finger prick for laboratory testing for HbA1c, malaria parasites, and Vitamin D3.

http://rchiips.org/nfhs/NFHS-5_FCTS/India.pdf

Whoa, that’s… a lot!

Indeed it is! If you haven’t clicked through to those PDF’s that have been linked to in the previous question, take the time out to go and do so. Conducting one of these surveys isn’t easy. All of these, and across these numbers (636,699 households, 724,115 women, and 101,839 men) is pretty tough, and kudos to the team that did the work.

So how are these households selected?

Another excellent question. From the interview manual (and if you are a student of statistics, this manual ought to be mandatory reading):

All 29 states and seven union territories (UTs) will be included in NFHS-5. NFHS-5 will provide
estimates of most indicators at the district level for all 707 districts in the country as on 1 March
2017.

For NFHS-5, the sample consists of approximately 30,456 clusters (small geographically defined
areas) throughout the country. The households in each of these clusters have recently been listed or
enumerated. A sample of households was then scientifically selected to be included in NFHS-5 from
the list in each of the clusters. Each of these households will be visited and information obtained
about the household using the Household Questionnaire. Women and men within these households
will be interviewed using an Individual Questionnaire. Women age 15-49 years will be interviewed
using the individual Woman’s Questionnaire. Men age 15-54 years will be interviewed using the
individual Man’s Questionnaire. We expect to complete interviews with about 7,45,488 women and
1,19,501 men in 670,032 households in this survey.

http://rchiips.org/NFHS/NFHS5/manuals/NFHS-5%20Interviewer%20Manual_Eng.pdf

And how are the surveys conducted?

During NFHS-5 fieldwork, you will work in a team consisting of one field supervisor, three female
interviewers, and one male interviewer. Each team will be provided with a vehicle and driver for
travelling from one Primary Sampling Unit (PSU) to another to conduct the fieldwork.
In addition, the team will include two health investigators. These individuals will be responsible for
drawing blood from eligible persons for testing for anaemia status, blood pressure, and blood glucose. In
addition, the health investigators will collect blood drops from a finger stick on filter paper cards,
which will be tested for malaria, HbA1c, and Vitamin D3 in ICMR laboratories. They will also be
responsible for the anthropometric measurements of eligible women, men, and children. The supervisors
will also receive some biomarker training so that they can supervise the health investigators and assist
them as needed. All interviewers will be trained to assist the health investigators in taking the
anthropometric measurements(height, weight, and waist and hip circumference measurements).
Each team supervisor will be responsible for his/her team of interviewers and health investigators.
The specific duties of the supervisor are described in detail in the Supervisor’s Manual.

http://rchiips.org/NFHS/NFHS5/manuals/NFHS-5%20Interviewer%20Manual_Eng.pdf

This PDF, the one that I have excerpted from, is 182 pages long. I am not for a moment suggesting that all of you must read every single word. But I’ll say this much: if you are currently studying either statistics or economics, you should go through it more than once. It is one thing to learn from textbooks, and quite another to understand the on the ground realities.


In tomorrow’s post, let’s dig in and take a look at the data itself, and see what the NFHS-5 results tell us about our country’s health.

Where Next For the NITI Aayog?

The NITI Aayog must be converted from a Department of Development Implementation to a High Command of Development Strategy.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/reforming-the-niti-aayog-122051601487_1.html

That’s the very last sentence of a thought-provoking column by Nitin Desai. The column is about why the NITI Aayog (in Nitin Desai’s opinion) hasn’t done all of what was hoped of it, and what needs to change for some of these hopes to be realized.

But for us to reach the end of this column, we need to start somewhere, and we’ll start with the setting up of the Planning Commission.


The Indian planning project was one of the postcolonial world’s most ambitious experiments. It was an arranged marriage between Soviet-inspired economic planning and Western-style liberal democracy, at a time when the Cold War portrayed them as ideologically contradictory and institutionally incompatible. With each Five-Year Plan, the Planning Commission set the course for the nation’s economy. The ambit ranged from matters broad (free trade or protectionism?) to narrow (how much fish should fisheries produce to ensure protein in the national diet?). The Commission’s pronouncements set the gears of government in motion. Shaping entire sectors of the economy through incentives, disincentives and decree, the Planning Commission’s views rippled across the land to every farm and factory. Despite this awesome power, economic planning in India was considerably different from the kind practised in communist regimes. The Planning Commission was reined in by democratic procedure that required consultation with ministries in an elected government, with people’s representatives in Parliament—and ultimately with the popular will—through citizens voting every five years.

Menon, Nikhil. Planning Democracy (p. 9). Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

That’s from a book I’m currently reading (and thoroughly enjoying), Planning Democracy. There’s a lot to like about the book, and I hope to write a full review once I’m done, but for the moment, think about just the title. There’s a (hopefully healthy) tension implicit in it, because as the excerpt above puts it, the Planning Commission was to be reined in by democratic procedure.

What was it supposed to do? Further on in the same chapter from the book I have just quoted is a nice compact description of what was supposed to have happened:

Its potency stemmed from its authority to draw up an economic roadmap for the country and back it with all the resources and policy instruments available to the Government of India.

Menon, Nikhil. Planning Democracy (p. 21). Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

That is, there are two separate but interlinked things worth noting: it had to develop an plan of economic development for a newly independent India, and in order to do so, it had the backing in terms of resources and policy instruments. By the way, there is a reason the word “resources” has not been qualified with a word like financial – the back was not just financial, but also political, given the presence of the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers as members.

The story of how the Planning Commission evolved, struggled, and refined itself over time (not always successfully, it should be mentioned) is a fascinating one, but not one that we can cover in a single blog post, alas. But long story (very) short, the Planning Commission came to an end in 2015:

Born the same year, Modi and the Planning Commission shared another milestone together. In his first Independence Day address as India’s leader, Modi declared that the Planning Commission had once merited its place and made significant contributions. Now, however, he believed it had decayed beyond repair. ‘Sometimes it costs a lot to repair an old house,’ he said, ‘but it gives us no satisfaction.’ Afterwards we realize ‘that we might as well build a new house’, Modi explained with a smile. He would build it by bulldozing a decrepit structure and raising a shiny new one, the NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India).

Menon, Nikhil. Planning Democracy (p. 8). Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.

And how has the NITI Aayog done?

But despite progress in these areas, some 7 years since the establishment of NITI Aayog, questions are being raised as to whether India can continue to function without medium-term planning. Annual budget allocations are made by the Finance Ministry to meet various investment goals and objectives but without a well-defined plan. NITI Aayog’s advice is also not taken seriously by state governments as it comes without resources. Some feel that NITI Aayog should have resources it allocates to address development imbalances and that the Ministry of Finance is naturally focused on budgetary management rather than development outcomes.6While no one wants a return to the old Planning Commission, a more involved and competent NITI Aayog, with a stronger voice is clearly needed.

Ajay Chhibber, 2022. “Economic Planning in India: Did We Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater?,” Working Papers 2022-03, The George Washington University, Institute for International Economic Policy.

The idea itself isn’t all that new. Back in 2019, Vijay Kelkar had given a speech in which he proposed “NITI Aayog 2.0”:

It should rather strive to be a think tank with “praxis” possessing considerable financial muscle and devote its energies to outline coherent medium and long term strategy and corresponding investment resources for transforming India. Towards this, my preliminary study suggests that the NITI Aayog 2.0 will annually need the resources of around 1.5% to 2% of the GDP to provide suitable grants to the States for mitigating the development imbalance. These formulaic annual grants, whether capital grants or revenue grants for the relevant CSS will need to be conditional to ensure that (1) outcomes are commensurate and (2) it discourages an individual State to adopt policies that have negative policy externalities, e.g., creation of populist subsidies and thus avoid race to the bottom. Such presence of “negative policy externalities” we notice often, e.g., the provision of free “electricity,” irrigation water subsidies, etc. “Gresham’s Law” seems to be relevant not only for the currency markets alone!

Towards India’s New Fiscal Federalism, No. 252, NIPFP Working Paper Series, Vijay Kelkar (https://www.nipfp.org.in/media/medialibrary/2019/01/WP_252_2019.pdf)

If you don’t know what Gresham’s Law is, take a look here.


All of which eventually gets us back to the column that we started with, by Nitin Desai:

The real problem of strategy formation for development is that it is not being done. The NITI Aayog has produced some vision documents; but they are not agreed strategies formulated after widespread consultations with experts and discussion with the states. The word “niti” in the name of this organisation is an abbreviation for National Institution for Transforming India. This task requires looking a level above the designing of programmes to a strategy from which programmes must be derived.
A grand strategy for development must spell out the opportunities and threats faced by the key objectives of development which are growth, equity and sustainability. It must then identify the changes in the role of the public and private sector, shifts in global economic alliances and policy shifts that are required to maximise benefits from opportunities and manage risks from threats. The time frame for a grand strategy has to be long-term but the more specific strategies derived from it must take into account short- and medium-term challenges that the country faces.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/reforming-the-niti-aayog-122051601487_1.html

We need, that is to say, a NITI Aayog that focuses on not just reporting what has been (or is being) done, but also on explaining what needs to be done, over what time period, and why, along with some pointers towards what risks we might encounter. Or as Nitin Desai puts it, “The new Vice-Chairman, Suman Bery, must bring in the talent required and launch a process of broad-based consultation, particularly with the states, to secure a broad national consensus on a long-term growth strategy. Specific programmes must be based on the implementation of this strategy.”

Easier said than done, of course, but this is where NITI Aayog needs to go next.