Happy Birthday to Kevin Kelly

70th birthday that too!

Who is Kevin Kelly, you ask? Lots of ways to begin, but my favorite learning from Kevin Kelly (so far) has been the idea of 1000 true fans:

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.
A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.

https://kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans/

I cannot for the life of me remember where I read about 1000 true fans first, but it most likely was via Tim Ferriss. (As an aside, Kevin Kelly has advice about this as well!) The extract above is an assertion, and if your reaction is along the lines of “but why is this assertion true?” – and I hope that is the case! – you will want to read the rest of the essay. It’s got spin-offs too, this essay, which only drives up my opinion of the original.

But Kevin Kelly is a person who you should spend time learning more about. Start with his Wikipedia page, listen to his multiple episodes with Russ Roberts over on EconTalk, visit the Cool Tools section on his website, subscribe to his related newsletter, listen to his podcasts with Tim Ferriss, and as a bonus, listen to Tyler Cowen’s podcast with Stewart Brand. And read his books, of course.

Long story short, he is a person worth knowing about, and trust me when I say we’ve only scratched the surface, if that. But today, I wanted to point you to his birthday gift to all of us, a lovely set of 103 observations that he has called “103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known“. It goes without saying that all 103 are worth a ponder, but I’ll list here ten that especially resonated with me right now:

  1. About 99% of the time, the right time is right now.
  2. Anything you say before the word “but” does not count.
  3. When you forgive others, they may not notice, but you will heal. Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.
  4. When you lead, your real job is to create more leaders, not more followers.
  5. It is the duty of a student to get everything out of a teacher, and the duty of a teacher to get everything out of a student.
  6. Productivity is often a distraction. Don’t aim for better ways to get through your tasks as quickly as possible, rather aim for better tasks that you never want to stop doing.
  7. The consistency of your endeavors (exercise, companionship, work) is more important than the quantity. Nothing beats small things done every day, which is way more important than what you do occasionally.
  8. Half the skill of being educated is learning what you can ignore.
  9. When you have some success, the feeling of being an imposter can be real. Who am I fooling? But when you create things that only you — with your unique talents and experience — can do, then you are absolutely not an imposter. You are the ordained. It is your duty to work on things that only you can do.
  10. Your best job will be one that you were unqualified for because it stretches you. In fact only apply to jobs you are unqualified for.
  11. It’s possible that a not-so smart person, who can communicate well, can do much better than a super smart person who can’t communicate well. That is good news because it is much easier to improve your communication skills than your intelligence.
  12. For the best results with your children, spend only half the money you think you should, but double the time with them.
  13. Don’t bother fighting the old; just build the new.
  14. You are as big as the things that make you angry.
  15. Efficiency is highly overrated; Goofing off is highly underrated. Regularly scheduled sabbaths, sabbaticals, vacations, breaks, aimless walks and time off are essential for top performance of any kind. The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.

The observant among you might have noticed that I ended up picking fifteen rather than ten, but why short change myself and my readers? I didn’t bother culling out five – and to be clear, this is not to imply that the other eighty-eight are somehow inferior. These fifteen resonated the most with me, and I sincerely hope that your list is completely different from mine.

Note to self: of the ones I have selected here, the fifth one is the one where I really need to pull up my socks.

And speaking of hope, it would be nice if this list sparked conversations and your own lists!

Past mentions of Kevin Kelly on this blog are here.

Reflections on Whole Numbers and Half Truths

Single narratives have never been able to explain all of India.

S, Rukmini. Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India (p. 220). Kindle Edition.

There is this line that is often quoted when big picture discussions about India take place, and it is only a matter of time before it comes up: whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true. The quote is attributed to Joan Robinson, and I can’t help but wonder if I will end up creating a paradox of sorts by agreeing wholeheartedly with it.

But I do agree with the spirit of the quote, which is why that one line extract from Rukmini S’s book, Whole Numbers and Half Truths, resonated so much with me. All countries are complex and complicated, but India takes the game to giddying heights.

Take a look at this map, a version of which is present in Rukmini’s book:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_and_union_territories_of_India_by_fertility_rate

What is India’s TFR? First, for those uninitiated in the art and science of demography, what is TFR? It stands for Total Fertility Ratio, or as Hans Rosling used to put it, babies per woman. Well, it’s 2.0, which is good, because roughly speaking, two parents giving birth to two children will mean we’re at the replacement rate (note that this is a very basic way of thinking about it, but useful as a rough approximation).

But as any student of statistics ought to tell you, that’s only half the story (or half the truth). Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand are well above the so-called replacement rate, and that will have implications for labor mobility, taxation, political representation and so, so much more in the years to come.

Data then, is only half the story. How is the data collected? If it is a sampling exercise rather than a census, how was the sampling done? Has the sampling method changed over time? If so, are earlier data collection exercises comparable with current ones?

How should one think about the data that has been collected? What does it mean, and how much does context matter? For example:

‘That’s data about marriage, madam,’ he said—not about love. ‘I think if your data asked people if they have ever fallen in love with someone from another caste or religion, many will say yes. I see that all around me among my friends. But when it comes to getting married, most of us are not yet ready to leave our families. That’s why your data looks like that,’ he said. As for the rest? ‘There is a lot we will not admit to someone doing a survey. But things are changing. At least for some of us,’ he said.

S, Rukmini. Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India (pp. 127-128). Kindle Edition.

Rukmini’s excellent book is, in one sense, a deep reflection on the data that we have, have had, and would like to have where India is concerned. It speaks about how data has been collected, which are the agencies and institutions involved, how these have changed (and been changed) over time, and with what consequences.

But it also is a reflection on a truism that many economists and statisticians underrate: data can only take you so far. As the subtitle of her book puts it, it is an analysis of what data can and cannot tell you about modern India.

And what data leaves out is often as fascinating as what it includes:

Yet, most people know little about the NCRB’s processes and methodology. For instance, the NCRB follows a system known as the ‘principal offence rule’. Instead of all the Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections involved in an alleged crime making it to the statistics, the NCRB only picks the ‘most heinous’ crime from each FIR for their statistics. I stumbled upon this then unknown fact in an off-the-record conversation with an NCRB statistician in the months after the deadly sexual assault of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in September 2012. In the course of that conversation, I learnt that the crime that shook the country would have only made it to the NCRB statistics as a murder, and not as a sexual assault, because murder carries the maximum penalty. This, I was told, was to prevent the crime statistics from being ‘artificially inflated’: ‘If the FIR is for theft, there will be a[n IPC] section for assault also, causing hurt also. If you include all the sections, people will think these are separate crimes and the numbers will seem too huge,’ he told me. After I reported this,2 the NCRB for the first time began to include the ‘principal offence rule’ in its disclaimer.3

S, Rukmini. Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India (p. 13). Kindle Edition.

The paragraph that follows this one is equally instructive in this context, but the entire book is full of such Today-I-Learnt (TIL) moments. Even for those of us involved in academia, there is much to learn in terms of nuance and context by reading this book. If you are not in academia, but are interested in learning more about this country, recommending this book to you is even easier!

Rukmini’s books spans ten chapters on ten different (but obviously related) aspects of India. We get to learn how Indians tangle (or quite often choose not to!) with the cops and the courts, how we perceive the world around us, why Indians vote the way they do in the first three chapters. The next three are about how (and with whom) we live our lives, and how we earn and spend our money. The next trio is about how and where we work, how we grow and age and where Indians live. The final chapter is about India’s healthcare system.

Each chapter makes us familiar with the data associated with each of these topics, but each chapter is also a reflection on the fact that data can only take us so far. When you throw into the mix the fact that the data will always (and sometimes necessarily) be imperfect, we’re left with only one conclusion – analyze the data carefully, but always bear in mind that the reality will always be more complex. Data is, at the end of the day, an abstraction, and it will never be perfect.


One reason I liked the book so much is because of its brevity. Each of these chapters can and should be be a separate book, and condensing them into chapters can’t have been an easy task. But not only has she managed it, she has managed to do so in a way that is lucid, thought-provoking and informative. Two out of these three is a good achievement, to achieve all three and that across ten chapters is a rare ol’ achievement.

If I’m allowed to be greedy, I would have liked a chapter on the world of data that the RBI collects, and to its credit does share with us via its website. But it does so in a way that is best described as unintuitive. In fact, a book on how data sharing practices with the citizenry need to improve out of sight where government portals across all verticals and at all levels are concerned would be a great sequel (hint, hint!).


I’d strongly recommend this book to you, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

We will be hosting Rukmini on the Gokhale Institute campus this coming Friday, the 29th of April. The event will be from 5.30 pm to 7.00 pm at the Kale Hall. She and I will speak about the book for about an hour, followed by a Q&A session with the audience.

If you are in Pune, please do try and make it!

The Case For Doubling Spending on R&D

Timothy Taylor, author of the blog The Conversable Economist, has a nice post out on the case for doubling R&D spending. He speaks of doubling spending on R&D by the US government, but the point is equally applicable to all governments, including India’s.

The post is a reflection on a chapter in an e-book published by the Aspen Group. The chapter has been written by Benjamin F. Jones, and is titled “Science and Innovation: The Under-Fueled Engine of Prosperity.” (pp. 272 in the PDF that has been linked to above). Timothy Taylor shares an extract that ought to familiar to us in terms of the direction in which scientific progress has been headed, and perhaps even the magnitude – but every now and then, it helps to remind ourselves how far we’ve come:

Real income per-capita in the United States is 18 times larger today than it was in 1870 (Jones 2016). These gains follow from massive increases in productivity. For example, U.S. corn farmers produce 12 times the farm output per hour since just 1950 (Fuglie et al. 2007; USDA 2020). Better biology (seeds, genetic engineering), chemistry (fertilizers, pesticides), and machinery (tractors, combine harvesters) have revolutionized agricultural productivity (Alston and Pardey 2021), to the point that in 2018 a single combine harvester, operating on a farm in Illinois, harvested 3.5 million pounds of corn in just 12 hours (CLASS, n.d.). In 1850, it took five months in a covered wagon to travel west from Missouri to Oregon and California, but today it can be done in five hours—traveling seven miles up in the sky. Today, people carry smartphones that are computationally more powerful than a 1980s-era Cray II supercomputer, allowing an array of previously hard-to-imagine things—such as conducting a video call with distant family members while riding in the back of a car that was hailed using GPS satellites overhead.

https://conversableeconomist.com/2022/04/19/the-case-for-doubling-us-rd-spending/

The latter part of the extract, which I’ve not quoted here, is about the increase in life expectancy, and is also worth reading. Post the extract, Timothy Taylor goes on to speak about how it is important to celebrate the fact that we were able to push out vaccines in the space of a little less than a year, which is a stellar achievement. And indeed it is! You might have differing opinions about the efficacy of these vaccines, and you might even be of the opinion that the firms doth profit too much from their creation, but I hope you agree that the fact that we were able to do this at all, and as rapidly as we did, is testimony to have far we have come as a civilization.

As an aside, read also this Washington Post editorial about the discovery of the virus, and how the message didn’t get out nearly quickly enough (duh.)

Both points are important to understand as students. Which two points, you ask? That progress as a civilization depends on two things: the rate of technological progress, and the underlying culture that enables it, embraces it and uses it properly. For reading the editorial, I came away with the opinion that China had the technology, but lacked the culture.

I would urge you to think about how this might resonate with each of us as individuals: we have the technology to be ever more productive, and the technology improves every year. But have we built for ourselves a culture of allowing ourselves to use this technology as efficiently as we should? What about the institutions that each of us work for or study in? What about the countries we stay in? Technological progress without an enabling culture doesn’t work, and as students of productivity (that’s one way to think about studying economics), you need to be students of both aspects.


Anyway, back to scientific progress. One of the points that Jones makes in his chapter is that the US has been lagging behind the current leaders on two different metrics: total R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP, and public R&D expenditure as a share of GDP. China’s R&D expenditure has seen an annual increase of 16% since the year 2000, while the US is at 3% annual growth.

What about India, you ask? Here’s a chart from an Indian Express article about the topic:

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/unesco-stats-on-global-expenditure-on-r-d-7775626/

As the article points out, let alone trying to compute the rate of increase, we actually seem to be on a downward trajectory for a metric called GERD, which stands for Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development. Here’s the link to the data from the World Bank.

https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/GB.XPD.RSDV.GD.ZS?end=2018&locations=IN&start=2000&view=chart

We clearly need to do better. That article in the Indian Express ends with this paragraph:

A commitment from the Centre to raise GERD to 1 per cent of the GDP in the next three years could be one of the most consequential decisions taken in the 75th year of India’s independence.

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/unesco-stats-on-global-expenditure-on-r-d-7775626/

And that is a nice segue back to the blog post that we started today’s post with. If you’re asking (and I hope you are!) questions along the lines of why it should be the government and not the private sector, I have two answers for you. One, the truth always lies somewhere in the middle, and so you need both private and government spending. And two, there is an economic argument for your consideration:

Jones’s essay reviews the argument, fairly standard among economists, that a pure free market will tend to underinvest in new technologies, because in a pure free market the innovator will not capture the full value of an innovation. Indeed, if firms face a situation where unsuccessful attempts at innovation just lose money, while successful innovations are readily copied by others, or the underlying ideas of the innovation just lead to related breakthroughs for others, then the incentives to innovate can become rather thin, indeed. This is the economic rationale for government policies to support research and development: direct support of basic research (where the commercial applications can be quite unclear), protection of intellectual property like patents and trade secrets, tax breaks for companies that spend money on R&D, and so on.

https://conversableeconomist.com/2022/04/19/the-case-for-doubling-us-rd-spending/

Now, how much of the lifting should be done by government, and how much should be done by the private sector is a debate that will never end, but here is an EFE post that might help you start to think through the process.


Timothy Taylor and Benjamin F. Jones argue that the US needs to spend more on R&D, and that the U.S. government should do more in this regard.

My contention is two-fold: that this point applies with even more urgency in the Indian context, and that an enabling culture is an equally important concept, but an underrated one the world over.

In Praise of Last Among Equals

In 1997, I experienced a life changing event.

I had gone with my parents to their friends’ house for dinner, and rather than being bored to death (which is the usual experience for all kids of that particular age), I spent the most fascinating evening of my life until that point.

They had, you see, a Compaq desktop. I don’t remember now which specific model it was, and I don’t remember which website I visited, but that was the first time I heard the unforgettable crackle, hiss and pop associated with a dial-up connection. I was online, for the very first time in my life.

It was a life changing event for me because I discovered a world I didn’t know existed back then.


Contrast my experience with that of Sanjay Sahni’s, when he first went online:

And then he spotted it. In a corner, sandwiched between ‘Munger’ and ‘Nalanda’, was a familiar name: Muzaffarpur. His heart racing, he clicked on it. He then saw another unfamiliar set of names in English, but soon he found his block (Kurhani) and then, with another click, he navigated to his panchayat (Ratnauli). One final click more and, suddenly, he saw names, not of places, but of people. The first name he saw—etched clearly in his mind almost a decade later—was ‘Mahender Paswan’. As he went down the list, he saw more names, all familiar: ‘It was like I was sitting in Delhi, but also in my village.’

Sharan, M.R.. Last Among Equals: Power, Caste & Politics in Bihar’s Villages (pp. 27-28). Kindle Edition.

Me, I discovered a world I didn’t know existed back then. Sanjay? He discovered that his world was also online, and therein lies the tale narrated in M.R. Saran’s excellent, excellent book: Last Among Equals. I have dropped the “h” in his last name deliberately, and to find out why, you’ll have to read the book.

What is the book about?

It is about Bihar, as the title suggests, but it is not a dry academic tome that you might have to force yourself to read. It is, instead, a warm, rich history of real people with real problems. It is a narrative that is instructive, engaging and thought-provoking. It is, above all, a wonderful way to start to learn about one of India’s largest states. Largest not in terms of area, but in terms of population, and that’s a good point to keep in mind as you read the book.


The book is about many things, all at once. It is about NREGA, it is about the fascinating journey of one man in particular, Sanjay Sahni, but it is also about the lives of people in Bihar’s villages. And what makes the book work is the choice that M.R. Sharan makes in shaping the form that the book takes:

In writing it, I tried to follow a style that the economist Albert Hirschman endorsed in his brilliant 1970 essay ‘The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding’. Following Hirschman, I eschewed exciting, novel ‘insights’ for facts, and forwent theory for stories. This was partly because I am not sure I am the type of scholar capable of formulating a theory of anything, let alone the entire rural political economy of Bihar. In addition, I believe it would be a travesty to rein Bihar in. To straitjacket its trajectory—full of chaos and brilliant humanity—into neat, summarisable boxes would be doing disservice to it.

Sharan, M.R.. Last Among Equals: Power, Caste & Politics in Bihar’s Villages (p. 12). Kindle Edition.

There are, indeed, no boxes, no tables, no dry statistics, and although there is a mention of a Regression Discontinuity Design, it is a harmless threat that breezes past the reader without the slightest inconvenience. Why, Sharan actually explains what an RDD is using the English language, which is a rare feat for folks from my tribe.

But stories there are aplenty. There are stories involving Sanjay Sahni, as I have mentioned, and there are stories involving the people he works with, works for, and works against. The book is eminently readable for this reason, but I do not recommend it just because of this factor. Sharan achieves what I would have thought was impossible: he narrates each of these stories with an adroit mixture of dispassionate analysis and passionate involvement, all of it backed up by minute observations. The word “ethnography” doesn’t come up once in the entire book, but if you are a student wondering what the word means, this book is a very good introductory answer.

But not just people! He also writes from the point of view of the state, and we get a sense of the state’s empathy, apathy and rage, all in just the one book. Keep an eye out for narratives involving BPGRA, Circular 6278, and the tale of a guy called Jeetendra Kumar to learn more about each of these, in that order.


For having done the work that he has in the state, and for having written the book, M.R. Sharan leaves us with five key takeaways as regards challenging (and distributing) the power of the mukhiya. But I would argue that these five points matter for more than just challenging and distributing the power of the mukhiya alone. These five points form a good framework to think about power and its distribution more generally in India:

  1. Reservations
  2. Decentralisation
  3. Building transparency
  4. Social movements
  5. Voting and elections

You don’t need to agree with all, or even one of them. In fact, as students, I hope you approach the book wanting to disagree with some or all of these points. But I also hope that you finish reading the book, and then ask yourself if your view regarding any of these has changed, and whatever your answer, the why behind it.

It’s a short book, spanning nine chapters and 244 pages, and it shouldn’t take you much time to read it. But I hope you spend much more time reflecting on it. And I also hope you use the bibliography to add to your reading list, as I have.


I was chatting with a student of mine yesterday about the book, and he mentioned that the book exuded “the kind of research I want to do” vibe. My sincere hope is that many more students read this book, and are inspired along similar lines.

The world will be a better place for it.

The Most Important *Economic* Event of the 20th Century

Before you read any further, I have a question for you: what, according to you, would be the most important economic event of the 20th century?

There is no right or wrong answer, of course. This exercise is, by definition, subjective in nature, and I’m hoping that there will be many different responses.

Here’s how I would set up my framework to answer this question:

  • The event should have affected a significant number of people
  • That effect should persist and preferably spread (positively) over time.
  • The opportunity cost of that event shouldn’t be too high
  • It would be great if positive spillovers from that event could be plausibly identified

Consider, for example, the end of the Cold War. In my view, it ticks almost all of the boxes, with the possible exception of the second, and maybe the third. But it would certainly make my shortlist.

Or what about India’s independence? Again, definitely makes the shortlist, although you could argue that the partition was a very, very high cost to pay.

China moving towards a reform based process? India? The next fifteen years after the second world war, and the slow move away from colonialism and imperialism? The defeat of Japan and Germany in the second world war? Keynes’ magnum opus being published in 1936 (or am I just being a wee bit provocative)?

Chris Blattman points us towards his choice:

We estimate the impact of the Green Revolution in the developing world by exploiting exogenous heterogeneity in the timing and extent of the benefits derived from high-yielding crop varieties (HYVs).
HYVs increased yields of food crops by 44 percent between 1965 and 2010. The total effect on yields is even higher because of substitution towards crops for which HYVs were available, and because of reallocation of land and labor.
Beyond agriculture, our baseline estimates show strong, positive, and robust impacts of the Green Revolution on different measures of economic development. Most striking is the impact on GDP per capita. Our estimates imply that delaying the Green Revolution for ten years would have reduced GDP per capita in 2010 by US$1,273 (PPP adjusted), or 17 percent, across our full sample of countries.

https://chrisblattman.com/2022/02/01/the-most-important-economic-event-of-the-past-century/ (Note that the excerpt is from a paper that he has quoted from)

And well, it’s hard to argue against his pick! It gets an endorsement in one of my favorite books of the past decade:

In the 1970s, when I was in high school, about one out of every four people in the world was hungry—“ undernourished,” to use the term preferred by the United Nations. Today, the U.N. says, the figure is one out of ten. 1 In those four decades, the global average life span has risen by more than eleven years, with most of the increase occurring in poor places. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have lifted themselves from destitution into something like the middle class. In the annals of humankind, nothing like this surge of well-being has occurred before. It is the signal accomplishment of this generation, and its predecessor.

Mann, Charles C.. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet (Kindle Locations 63-68). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Elsewhere in the book, the author (Charles C. Mann) points us towards a Wall Street Journal editorial that praised Norman Borlaug, the ‘Wizard’ in the book for having saved potentially a billion lives because of the Green Revolution.

But that book also contains a warning about the opportunity costs of this signal achievement:

Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College demographer Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism”— the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from Earth than it can give. If we continue, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale, perhaps including our extinction. Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose!

Mann, Charles C.. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet (Kindle Locations 89-94). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Please do read the book, I cannot recommend it highly enough. One reason I enjoy ed the book as much I did is because it doesn’t take sides, but shows both the pluses and the minuses of the Green Revolution, and that as thoroughly as possible.

But while Mann doesn’t take sides, I do. On balance, it is hard to argue against the Green Revolution having been the most significant economic event of the twentieth century.

A video and a book recommendation

For your Sunday morning:

Fans of science fiction will know which book is coming next, of course. But for the uninitiated, do give Seveneves a whirl if you haven’t read it yet. And if this happens to be your first Neal Stephenson book, well, your timing couldn’t be better. Go read this one next. The OG metaverse!

A Postcard Sized Idea

I had cause to re-read the excellent “Discover Your Inner Economist” by Tyler Cowen recently, and came across a passage that resolved a little puzzle in my head. This is the passage:

It should be possible to take a good economics argument and write it out on the back of a moderate-sized postcard. If an argument has too many steps, at least one of those steps is bound to be radically uncertain. Or, if there are too many steps, we won’t know how all those different steps fit together to establish the argument’s conclusion.
When my Ph.D. students come to me with new ideas, I first say in my sternest voice, “Give me the postcard version.” Those who know me well enter my office shouting: “I have the postcard!” Those who say it is necessary to read their entire forty-six page essay to grasp their central claim are told to go back to the drawing board.

Discover Your Inner Economist, by Tyler Cowen

Some of my own students reading this blogpost might find that excerpt familiar. I have used a variant of this advice – I ask students to tell me their idea in one sentence, and one sentence alone. I then ask them to split up that first sentence into four parts, and those four parts into four further parts, and so on. This helps them write out their essays/theses/assignments – or so I hope! I know this structure helped me write my own thesis, and I still use a variant of this when I want to write longer pieces.

The puzzle of course was the fact that I knew the idea wasn’t mine, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I had read about it.

I’m not bringing up this excerpt and my experiences simply because I happened to read the book again. The idea is to share with you something that might help you create a video, or an essay or even a twitter thread.

Whatever it is that you are planning on creating, can you describe it in one sentence? Try and avoid punctuations (colons, semi-scolons, commas) and conjunctions. What is that single, simplest possible sentence that describes for me what you plan to do in this project?

Can you then break up that one sentence into four further sentences? These sentences can then become sections in your essay, or chapters in your thesis.

… and on and on.


In my own experience, two things happen. Condensing down towards that first sentence is the hardest part, and it often takes the longest time. But that agonizing experience (and I do not enjoy it one little bit), forces one to excise the weaker parts of your idea, and both reinforce and modify the strongest parts.

And once that is done, the expanding to four sentences is both a lot easier and a lot of fun. And from there on in, it’s all generally downhill (at least the planning phase).

But that first sentence? That’s the really hard bit.


And on a related note

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?

Jeff Bezos, ex-CEO, Amazon

I thoroughly enjoyed going through these pictures, and you probably will too.

Here are three things I’d recommend you read about Amazon, to get a better sense of the company and what it has been up to:

  1. The Everything Store, by Biz Stone
  2. The Amazon Tax, by Ben Thompson
  3. A fascinating story about how Amazon developed it’s batteries.

Books about Macro

Praneet asked me this on the basis of yesterday’s post:

And so here we go:
  1. I and my batchmates spent hours reading Snowdown and Vane. Like any good book on macroeconomics, we were more confused for having read it, and I mean that as a compliment. (As an aside, I loved the bit in Amit Varma’s conversation with Karthik Muralidharan where they spoke about N Gregory Mankiw’s quip about being confused about economics. Don’t ask me what it was about, this is me trying to incentivize you to listen to the conversation!)
    But this really is an excellent book to read. It is mostly accessible, contains very very good explanatory diagram, and best of all, each chapter concludes with an interview with an economist who was most representative of that particular field of thought. If I remember correctly, the last question always used to be about whether Keynes would have won the Nobel prize had he been alive then. Fun book, and it would still be my top pick. (The listed prize on Amazon is barking mad, please note)
  2. I think I came across this paper via Marginal Revolution, but am not sure. It’s a pretty good paper to read as a macro student today, because it gives you a very good idea about what folks in the field have been up to in the last four decades or so. I personally think DSGE models are a little bit overrated, but you can’t ignore it if you want to build a career in academia as a macroeconomist. Most of all, though, as a student, you really want to understand the difference between description, pure theory, falsification, and model fitting papers. But on all accounts, if you want to read just one survey paper, this would be a good pick.
  3. Speaking of Marginal Revolution, this blogpost is a wonderful read, in the sense that it is full of wonderful reading references. By the way, I’ve been promising myself for well over a decade now that I will read more about Henry Thornton, but have never gotten around to actually doing so. As Professor Cowen says, please do read the second comment (the one by Kurt Schuler).
  4. Brad DeLong lists out books you should read on the Classical Economists over on FiveBooks.com, and that should serve you well. I have not read all of them, I should say. One book that I would add to the list (because the concept was so interesting) is Linda Yueh’s “The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today”.
    Well, ok, another book: PJ O’Rourke On The Wealth of Nations. Easily the most fun book of the lot.
  5. Raffaele Rossi picks the five best macro textbooks here, and alas, DBF doesn’t make the cut. It was my first macro text, and I still remember working through IS-LM for the first time. I’m still working through it, because I still don’t understand it, but that is another story. Arnold Kling put up his own list, and I would personally prefer his list, especially Leamer’s book. And psst, Kling’s own book is very, very underrated.
  6. Now, India secific macro books: Joshi and Little’s book about post-91 reforms deserves mention, as does Macroeconomics of post-reform India. Joshi’s Long Road is also worth reading, as is The Turn of the Tortoise, by TN Ninan. TCA Srinvasa Raghavan had recommended an excellent collection of essays called Towards Development Economics, if you want to understand what India’s earliest modern (poor phrasing, I know) economists were up to. The festschrifts honoring Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and Manmohan Singh are also very good, as was Bibek Debroy’s book about getting India back on track. Bhagwati and Panagariya’s Tryst with Destiny also!
  7. Finally, a book I am really looking forward to reading is Alex Thomas’ book on macro. I’m a GIPE student, so heterodox is a good wonderful thing. But that is a whole different blogpost in its own right!
  8. Lists like these can never be comprehensive, and I’m sure there will be people reading this who will be chomping at the bit to add to this list. Please, have at it, and share. That’s the point of the internet, no?