Say It Ain’t So, Fed, Say It Ain’t So

The Federal Reserve broke my heart recently.

Now you might think that today’s post is about something to do with monetary policy, or the taper, or something high falutin’ like that.

Nope. It’s about a game. The Fed Chairman game, to be specific. And I’m heartbroken because the Federal Reserve took it down:

Thank you for your interest in the monetary policy game, Chair the Fed. The game has been a useful and fun tool to learn more about monetary policy. However, the Fed has updated its approach to monetary policy, and the changes are not readily accommodated within the existing structure of the game. As of June 1, 2021, the game is no longer available.
You can learn more about the Fed’s policy updates here. Be sure to also check out FOMC Rewind, a texting video series that summarizes the FOMC’s meeting statements.
In the meantime, we encourage you to connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

https://www.sffed-education.org/chairthefed/default

So what was the game all about? Well, you got the chance to “be” the Fed Chairperson for sixteen quarters, or four years. You had to “react” to events that took place in the economy by raising or lowering interest rates, in order to meet two objectives. First, you had to make sure that inflation was as close to possible to 2% over the duration of your term, and second, you had to make sure that unemployment was as close as possible to 5% over the duration of your term.

The game was designed with some sort of a payoff between inflation and unemployment, and the reason I use the phrase “some sort of” is because I do not know quite what the functional form was. If you played the game long enough, you figured out pretty quickly that there would be a “crisis” at the end of your fourth quarter in charge. And the remaining 12 quarters were essentially an exercise in firefighting.

Inflation in the game had a way of getting out of hand pretty quickly, and unless you were quick enough to react and adjust real interest rates quickly enough, each successive quarter would have the economy spiraling quickly out of control. Of course, if you knew your monetary theory well enough you could figure out how to “win”.

Here’s a screenshot of the game layout:

Source: The Hill

And here’s an example of how quickly things could get out of hand:

Sourcehttps://i.ytimg.com/vi/5PAJtUjikis/maxresdefault.jpg

The last sentence from the previous version bears repetition: Of course, if you knew your monetary theory well enough you could figure out how to “win”.

That’s the point!

And that’s why I wish the Fed would reinstate the game. Because playing the game was a great way to get students to learn what monetary policy looks like in action. Sure, you can have students read Mishkin, or any other monetary text. And sure you can have them go through as many PDF’s released by both the Federal Reserve and the RBI. But nothing beats having the class split up into two teams, and playing three rounds each of this game.

After that, explaining the monetary transmission mechanism, or the Philips curve, or inflation expectations, or what “dovish/hawkish” means was child’s play. Because you see, they’d seen the effects for themselves.

So, dear whoever-is-in-charge-of-this-at-the-Federal-Reserve, I completely agree with you when you say that “the Fed has updated its approach to monetary policy, and the changes are not readily accommodated within the existing structure of the game”. No game could (or should) have envisioned the last eighteen months, and its ramifications on monetary policy.

But the game still served as such a magnificent jumping-off point for discussions about what transpired in the last eighteen months. “So now you’ve understood how monetary policy works under usual circumstances and most crises”, you could say at the end of the session. “But what about what the world went through in the last eighteen months? Would these tools be enough? Why or why not? What other tools does the Fed have in its arsenal? Which are most appropriate to use under these circumstances? Why?”

My point is that it was, and it still remains, a great way to introduce the subject to anybody, and especially those of us who’re learning about monetary policy for the first time. And there’s, in my case, about twelve years of students who I subjected to this game – and I’m pretty sure they would all agree with the request I’m about to make.

Please, dear ol’ Federal Reserve. Pretty please, with a cherry on top. Please bring the game back. It’s a great teaching tool, and classrooms are more boring without it.

Soccernomics, Literally

The book is a great read, but the title of today’s blogpost relates to, well, this:

The Vajpayee Moment in Telecom, IO and Porter’s Five Forces

Vijay Kelkar and Niranjan Rajadhakshya had on op-ed out in Livemint recently on the mess in the telecom sector, and their suggestions for (at least partially) resolving it:

It has been about a year since the Supreme Court instructed telecom companies to share not just their core telecom revenues with the government, but also to take into account promotional offers to consumers, income from the sale of assets, bad debts that were written off, and dealer commissions. The apex court has allowed the affected telecom companies to make a small upfront payment and then pay their excess AGR dues to the government in ten annual instalments, from fiscal year 2021-22 to 2030-31, in an attempt to ease their immediate burden, which has raised concerns about the financial stability of Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea. Analysts estimate that the extra annual payments by all telecom firms could be around ₹22,000 crore a year.

https://www.livemint.com/opinion/online-views/a-new-vajpayee-moment-for-the-troubled-indian-telecom-sector-11631123688457.html

Their suggestions for the resolution of this problem involve the issuance of zero-coupon bonds by the telecom companies, along with an option for the government to acquire a 10% equity stake. As always, please read the whole thing.


Now, this may work, this may not work. The more I try to read about this issue, the more pessimistic I get about a workable solution. But we’re not going to get into the issue of finding a “workable” solution today. We’re going to learn about how to think about this issue.

That is, what model/framework should we be using to assess a situation such as this? Kelkar and Rajadhakshya obviously have a model in mind, and they hint at it in this excerpt:

There are three broad policy concerns that need to be addressed in the context of the telecom sector: consumer welfare, competition and financial stability. Possible tariff hikes to generate extra revenues to meet AGR commitments will hurt consumer access. The inability to charge consumers more could mean that the three-player telecom market becomes a duopoly, through either a firm’s failure or acquisition. The banks that have lent to domestic telecom companies are also worried about their exposure in case AGR dues overwhelm the operating cash flows of these companies.

https://www.livemint.com/opinion/online-views/a-new-vajpayee-moment-for-the-troubled-indian-telecom-sector-11631123688457.html

So a solution is necessary, they say, because we need to have a stable telecom market that doesn’t hurt

a) the consumers,

b) the current players in this sector and

c) the financial sector that has exposure in terms of loans to the telecom sector

To this list I would add the following:

d) make sure the government doesn’t get a raw deal (and raw is a tricky, contentious and vague word to use here, but we’ll go with it for now)

e) make sure new entrants aren’t deterred from entering this space (if and when that will happen)

f) suppliers to the telecom sector shouldn’t be negatively impacted

In other words, any solution to the problem must be as fair as possible to all involved parties, shouldn’t change the status quo far too much in any direction, shouldn’t hinder the entry of new competition, and should give as fair a deal as possible to consumers.


Take a look at this diagram:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porter%27s_five_forces_analysis#/media/File:Elements_of_Industry_Structure.svg (Credit: Denis Fadeev)

Students who are familiar with marketing theory are going to roll their eyes at this, but for the blissfully uninitiated, this is the famous Five Forces Analysis.

Porter’s Five Forces Framework is a method for analysing competition of a business. It draws from industrial organization (IO) economics to derive five forces that determine the competitive intensity and, therefore, the attractiveness (or lack thereof) of an industry in terms of its profitability.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porter%27s_five_forces_analysis

Michael Porter’s Five Forces Framework can be traced back to the structure-conduct-performance paradigm, so in a sense, it really is an industrial organization framework:

In economics, industrial organization is a field that builds on the theory of the firm by examining the structure of (and, therefore, the boundaries between) firms and markets. Industrial organization adds real-world complications to the perfectly competitive model, complications such as transaction costs, limited information, and barriers to entry of new firms that may be associated with imperfect competition. It analyzes determinants of firm and market organization and behavior on a continuum between competition and monopoly, including from government actions.

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

The point is that if you are a student trying to think through this (or any other problem of a similar nature), you should have a model/framework in mind. “If I am going to recommend policy X”, you should be thinking to yourself, “how will that impact Jio? Airtel? Vi? How will that impact government revenues? What signals will I be sending to potential market entrants? Will consumers be better off, and if so, are we saying that they will be better off in the short run, or on a more sustainable basis?”

Now sure, the diagram doesn’t include government, but the Wikipedia article on the Five Forces does speak about it later, as does the excerpt above from the Wikipedia article on Industrial Organization. More importantly, this framework gives one the impression that we’re dealing with a static problem, with no considerations given for time.

I would urge you to think about time, always, as a student of economics. Whether it be the circular flow of income diagram, or the five forces diagram, remember that your actions will have repercussions on the industry in question not just today, but for some time to come.


So whether you’re the one coming up with a solution, or you’re the one evaluating somebody else’s solution, you should always be evaluating these solutions with some framework in your mind. And tweaking the Five Forces model to suit your requirements is a good place to start!

Ashwini Deshpande interviewed by Scroll.in

We were lucky enough to get the chance to speak with Alex Thomas on Friday, and the video of the conversation should be up on YouTube soon enough. In a wonderful coincidence, Scroll.in published an interview with Ashwini Deshpande just a day later. It is a coincidence (to me) because Alex’s textbook is the first macro textbook that I read that speaks extensively about caste, gender and ecology.

Who is Ashwini Deshpande? An economist, currently with Ashoka University, Ashwini Deshpande has been working for a while on the economics of discrimination and affirmative action. The interview, conducted by Rohan Venkat, is a fun and instructive (and what a rare combination that is!) read on both the arc of Ashwini Deshpande’s career, and also on the work that she has done, and is currently doing.


Here’s an excerpt from a different source, before we get to the Scroll interview:

There’s a lovely new working paper by Ashwini Deshpande and Jitendra Singh on female labor force participation in India. We talked a little bit about this last time. Our last conversation was about the honor-income tradeoff, how there are all these things at home that are holding women back: public safety issues, child care issues.
They find something quite remarkable, which is that they don’t find much evidence of supply-side demographic characteristics, like household income, structure, motherhood or timing of childbirth, et cetera, to be very significant in the labor force participation. In fact, it has an effect on the level, but it’s not like the timing of the childbirth—you see this big drop-off and then they come back to the labor force and so on. They find that it’s mostly demand-driven, that actually female labor force participation is so low in India because the demand for women is very low.
There’s a second finding that they have. It’s bad news for India going into the immediate future, which is adverse economic shocks actually make this problem worse. Because a lot of the lack of demand or the fallen demand for female labor is because they’re getting displaced by the employment of male workers.
They find that when there’s an economic shock, like demonetization or current COVID constraints and things like that, you see women being driven out of the labor force.

https://www.discoursemagazine.com/culture-and-society/2021/09/16/ideas-of-india-female-friendships-and-fraternal-capital/

Why this excerpt? Well, as a young student, you often get to hear that economists are working on topic “x”, or feature “y” – and when you start to read the work itself, one tends to miss out on asking the big picture questions. This exceprt, I think, helps you focus on just that: the big picture question.

What is the big picture question, you ask? Simple: is women’s participation in the labor workforce so low because the supply is low? Or because demand for labor supplied by women is low? Or both? And how does one go about answering this question? So yes, the age at which women get married, how much education they receive, and cultural impediments to they working are all factors to be considered – but hey, maybe there just is a preference to hire males instead of females as well?

It goes without saying: read the paper, but this should help you read it better 🙂


The first part of the interview is about how Ashwini Deshpande got into this field of research, and is useful reading to understand the role of “luck” in the development of your research interests, and also to understand the resistance to change in terms of new research areas for economics twenty to thirty years ago.

There are a lot of interesting points in the interview, such as, for example, problems with recording women’s work better than is done right now (and what happens if it is not recorded correctly). There’s stuff in there about the lack of meaningful linkages between women’s education levels and the jobs that ought to become available as a consequence – and this could be because of (a lack of) sanitation, and increased mechanization on farms, among other things.

The interview is also useful reading because it introduces you to the so-called “Indian enigma“. (Please read “Where India Goes” if you haven’t already, and here’s an old review of the book on EFE.)

Here’s a chart from her paper that posits a different explanation (I’ve copied it from the Scroll interview, but it is from the paper as cited below):

UC: Upper Caste, SC-ST: Scheduled Castes, Schedules Tribes, OBC: Other Backward Classes. Credit: Ramachandran, Deshpande, The Impact of Caste: A Missing Link in the Literature on Stunting in India

We found that regions where the self-reported practice of untouchability was higher, the child height for upper caste children was unaffected, which means that, for example, Brahmin children were not shorter, compared to regions where untouchability was lower. But the average height of Dalit children was shorter in areas with higher practice of untouchability, compared to heights in areas with lower prevalence of untouchability.
That gives us a mechanism about how stigmatisation and social ostracism might affect child height. The fact that you have to be at the end of the queue in terms of receiving social services, maybe you get excluded actively. There’s a whole set of social and economic processes which either completely exclude these children or put them at the end of the queue.
What this suggests is that the greater prevalence of societal discrimination is associated with a worsening of the stunting problem.

https://thepoliticalfix.substack.com/p/interview-ashwini-deshpande-on-the

Now, you may agree, or you may disagree with her assessment – and that, of course, is more than absolutely fine. The idea, especially if you are a young student starting out on a voyage of discovery in the field of economics, isn’t to either form or change your opinion. It’s awesome to have opinions, and it’s awesome-r to have it change because of something you read or learn. But for the moment, to be informed about this body of work, and to go through it, would be a very good place to start.

As Ashwini Deshpande herself says in the interview:

Sometimes no number of facts can make people change their minds. Some people already have their minds made up. But such people are at the extremes. I believe a very large number of people believe in something because they don’t know better. They’ve just never been exposed to another way of thinking, another way of looking.
The idea is to expand that community of people. Reach out to the people who believe in something, maybe very strongly, but that’s only because that’s all they’ve ever heard. What CEDA is trying to do is to create an evidence base which is accessible. You can always produce evidence that is so obscure and so difficult to understand that nobody would want to engage with it.
But what we are trying to do at CEDA is, through pictures, through little data narratives, through short pieces, to summarise issues in a way that a lay person will find accessible. It’s like a ball that you set into motion, and hopefully it will spread to more and more people.
The more the number of institutions or portals that allow people access to data and debates in a democratic manner, the better.

https://thepoliticalfix.substack.com/p/interview-ashwini-deshpande-on-the

There are some great recommendations at the end of the interview, both to read and to view, and if you haven’t consumed them already, you have your work cut out for you.

If you are interested in reading more about Ashwini Deshpande, here is her CV, here is her faculty page, and here is her Twitter profile. A word of advice: do not click open her Twitter profile if you are feeling hungry. You can thank me later. 🙂

On Serendipity, Housing and a Request

Just the other day (the 15th of September, if we want to be exact), a student from GIPE sent across a video that I found to be very interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I scheduled it for this coming Sunday’s post. It is about housing in Singapore, and I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

And then, just yesterday, I finally got around to reading some of Shruti Rajagopalan’s interviews of doctoral candidates and postdoctoral researchers for her excellent podcast: Ideas of India. The third interview in the series is of Tanu Kumar, a postdoctoral fellow at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute.

That’s where the serendipity bit in the title of today’s post comes in – the interview is in some ways closely related to the video. (Interesting aside about the etymology of the word serendipity. Got nothing to do with anything, but hey, it’s Friday)


Tanu Kumar’s paper is about housing subsidy programs, and how they might affect political behavior. The paper is about the effects of a housing subsidy program in Mumbai, and local political participation, it would seem, went up among the beneficiaries of the program.

Just a broad overview of this paper is that the Indian government—and actually, governments everywhere—they invest a lot in making housing affordable and accessible to lower-income residents. So, I wanted to understand how these programs actually affect beneficiaries and shape their behavior and their decision-making.
Because these programs are such a large scale—maybe even 5 percent or more of the Indian population benefits from them—any effects on political behavior would have implications for the broader political landscape. What I find is really in line with what you just said—benefiting from a subsidized housing program in Mumbai makes people more politically active at the local level. They’re more likely to complain about local services, attend meetings about local public issues, and they also know more about local politics.
What’s particularly interesting is that they actually care more about local-level community issues like water, electricity, and sanitation. This is different from what we’ve seen in the past, where we find the people who benefit from different programs might participate less in politics. And the difference here is the outcomes that I focus on. I’m focusing more on, really, everyday politics, everyday making of complaints and stuff in cities to make services better as opposed to voting and turnout.

https://www.discoursemagazine.com/politics/2020/12/24/ideas-of-india-how-does-subsidizing-housing-prices-shape-political-behavior/

Read the whole thing, but the reason I found the discussion so interesting is because my intuitive guess would have been that political engagement will go down, not up after getting the benefits of a subsidy such as this. Tanu Kumar thinks that one reason political engagement at the local level is going up is because people have more capacity (time) to spend on these issues.

RAJAGOPALAN: What do you think is driving this? Is it because now people have succeeded once through winning the lottery for subsidized housing that it changes their perception of what is possible in terms of the interaction with the state? Is it that now the need for housing has been satisfied, they push their clientelist efforts towards getting other things?
Is it a locational thing? Now that the housing problem has been solved, they are geographically fixed, but they’re also fixed electorally. Now they know that they are constituents of a certain group of people, and maybe now they want to push more, given the geographical elements. Maybe some of these things wouldn’t transfer if it were a different kind of subsidy which wasn’t so geographically rooted. What do you think is driving this push for greater participation?

KUMAR: There could be many different things going on. It would probably vary across the whole population. But what I think is actually going on is two things. First of all, people have greater political capacity. They’re wealthier. They have more time.
I don’t really see more political participation across the board, but I actually see it targeted in a very specific way, like targeted around local, very community-level services. There is probably some element of having better expectations or changed expectations of what the government might provide, but it’s also action that’s very motivated by protecting the value of these homes, is what I argue.

https://www.discoursemagazine.com/politics/2020/12/24/ideas-of-india-how-does-subsidizing-housing-prices-shape-political-behavior/

I have two questions. First, it is interesting that the beneficiaries choose to spend their greater capacity (time or money) on local political issues rather than elsewhere. Why might this be?

Tanu Kumar in a way answers this question, for she says that folks are motivated to protect the value of these homes. What I find fascinating is that if this is true, then the beneficiaries truly believe that the best way of protecting the value of these homes is through greater involvement in local politics – which is a Very Very Good Thing Indeed.

And my second question: if it really is skin in the game that is at play – and that is the simplest way to think about this, correct? – then how should we think about doing more about it at the local grassroots level? And not just for housing, but other goods?

Which brings me to the last part of the title of today’s post…


Do any of you know where I might get to read more about whether involvement in local politics goes up given public housing subsidies? Did this happen in Singapore? In Hong Kong? In other parts of the world?

If yes, it would make the argument for subsidies in public housing (among other things) even stronger, and that is a topic worth thinking about, no?

On The Inverted U Shaped Curve of Online Tribalism

An article in the Washington Post about vaccine hesitancy caught my eye recently, but for a weird tangential reason. The post is titled “How wellness influencers are fueling the anti-vaccine movement“, and it is about how “influencers” are impacting the vaccination drive in America.

Glance at Jessica Alix Hesser’s Instagram page and you may feel a little like you’ve just opened up a pamphlet for a meditation retreat. Amid photos of lagoons and a waterfall, Hesser (eyes closed, one hand touching the side of her face) is awash in rainbow-hued lens glare or soaking in a bath with flowers floating on top. Her website contains blog posts recommending natural cardamom floss and Gregorian chants.
Sprinkled throughout, however, are posts where Hesser urges her nearly 37,000 followers to question the safety of the coronavirus vaccines. “Would you sign your children up to be part of a pharmaceutical trial and take them into a lab to get shot up with some experimental drug created by a criminal company?” she asks in one June post. In another from April, she writes that “many of you have heard about the large number of poke-free women” experiencing changes in their menstrual cycles “after spending time with people who got the jab.” Medical experts say that’s impossible. Hesser did not respond to requests for comment.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/09/12/wellness-influencers-vaccine-misinformation/


But there are influencers and there are influencers, it would seem:

Still, it’s those with anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000 followers — sometimes known as “microinfluencers” — who are believed within the marketing industry to have an especially outsize impact on their followers. In a post last year for a blog owned by the Association of National Advertisers, Lesley Vos wrote that social media users “don’t trust celebs or experts with more than 100,000 followers anymore.” Micro-influencers, on the other hand — and their even more niche cousins, nanoinfluencers, with fewer than 10,000 followers — can seem less sold-out and more authentic, approachable or relatable.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/09/12/wellness-influencers-vaccine-misinformation/

So who are micro-influencers, and what is special about them?

Micro-influencers aren’t typical celebrities, experts, or public figures. They specialize in a particular vertical and share content about their interests only. Their audiences are hyper-engaged; so, if a brand works with a highly-relevant micro-influencer, it can extend the reach and user engagement significantly.
No surprise: consumers are more likely to buy from someone they know and trust. So if a micro-influencer whom they follow recommends something, they’ll trust this recommendation more than a direct ad from a brand. It’s where word-of-mouth marketing takes the stage.

https://www.ana.net/blogs/show/id/mm-blog-2020-02-micro-influencers-better-content

This, apparently, is different from the market dominated by influencers without prefixes:

The problem is that users don’t trust celebs or experts with more than 100,000 followers anymore. Only 4 percent trust what influencers say online: People understand they post about a brand because it paid them for this ad. Authenticity and relatability are more important than popularity now. So, if you still want to get the most out of your influencer marketing endeavors, make sure to focus on micro-influencers in 2020.

https://www.ana.net/blogs/show/id/mm-blog-2020-02-micro-influencers-better-content

Solve, as they say, for the equilibrium.

Hint: if we should be making sure to “focus on micro-influencers in 2020”, who should we be focusing on in 2021? 2022? 2023?

In plain English, here is what is happening: the incentive to monetize your following goes up with the number of followers you have. Alas, the folks who have reached “influencer” status have monetized their following a little bit too much, to the extent that there has been, it would seem, an erosion of trust.

That erosion is apparently across the board – for all influencers. Not just a particular influencer. And so the conclusion is that we should not trust influencers altogether, but rather trust micro- and nano-influencers. But then advertisers will want to, well, influence micro- and nano-influencers to influence their followers, and down the spiral we go.


I will note two things:

  1. There are a little less than four thousand people who follow this blog, and I can assure you that I have not been paid to hawk any good or service on these pages.
  2. I am not sure if I am a micro or a nano influencer, but if my urging you makes the *slightest* difference, please, go and get yourself vaccinated! 🙂

What is common to online calls from the UAE and football match broadcasts *in* England?

I traveled to the UAE for work a coupe of times in 2018 and 2019. One of the most surprising things during both trips was the realization that online calls were banned in that country. So for example, calling my family back home in India over Whatsapp was not possible. Duo wouldn’t work, and neither would any other app (save for one weird app that I had never heard of before or since – Botim, I think it was called).

The pandemic meant that Zoom, Google Meet and MS Teams now work just fine (duh), but Whatsapp and FaceTime are still a strict no-no.

Why, you ask?

While Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype for businesses now enable remote work and learning, WhatsApp and Facetime audio and video calls are still banned, the official said. This means residents have to use the paid services provided by telecom operators in the country.

https://www.khaleejtimes.com/news/whatsapp-calls-in-uae-talks-to-lift-ban-continue

The key sentence is obviously the last one. The regulation is an attempt to get more people to use conventional (have we reached a stage where we ought to wonder if regular phone calls are still “conventional”?) methods, presumably to help those telecom companies recover their investments. That last bit is a surmise on my part, but hey, what else could possibly explain this?


But its not just the UAE, of course. Here’s England:

CRISTIANO RONALDO makes his long-awaited return to Manchester United this Saturday, in a match against Newcastle. Tens of thousands of fans will chant “Viva Ronaldo” from the stands of Old Trafford, but the match will not be televised live in Britain. Instead, fans not lucky enough to be in the stadium will have to turn up the radio or find an illicit online stream from a foreign broadcaster. The rest of the world can watch the game live. Why are British fans not allowed to?
Blame the “blackout rule”. On Saturdays only two matches in the Premier League, English football’s top flight, are shown live, at 12.30pm and 5.30pm.
The measure is supposed to encourage football fans to get off their sofas and support their local teams.

https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2021/09/10/why-cant-english-fans-watch-ronaldos-return-on-tv

I have been watching EPL matches for the past two decades, but have been happily unaware of this rule. I’ve had friends and family both visit and stay in the US, but this rule never came up for discussion. Or at least, I have no memory of speaking/reading about this. But the similarity between the two things we have spoken about is striking, is it not?


In my introductory econ classes, I often speak about STD/ISD booth owners and how they effectively lost their business to those devices that you now carry about in your pockets.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6c/STD_ISD_PCO_India.jpg

I’m yet to meet a student who thinks that there ought to exist regulations that ban us from using our cellphones so as to protect the employment of STD/ISD booth owners.

As a certain French economist might have said, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas

I’m not a fan of recommending a particular textbook to my students in any course that I teach. I’m not a fan of textbooks in general, but that’s a story for another day.

The reason I am against the idea that you should read “a” textbook for a course is because I find the idea that you can learn a subject by reading just one book to be a deeply repugnant one. I’m happy to recommend ten, or more. And students should learn by dipping into all of them!


But if you were to put a gun to my head and tell me that I must absolutely recommend just one macro text for Indian students who are learning macro for the first time, A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas would be it.

Why? For the following reasons:

Rare is the textbook that begins with a disclaimer to the effect that the author did not want to write a textbook. Rarer still is the preface that goes on to say that other textbooks (and more besides!) should also be read. If you are an econ prof, you must have read multiple prefaces by now that dispense advice about how chapters such-to-such, followed by chapters these-to-those ought to be included in an introductory course, but on the other hand chapters extra-but-still-necessary only need be included in an intermediate course.

The preface to this book does no such thing. Read the whole book, it says, and read more besides.

But the second most important part of the preface, and the part that got me hooked to the whole book is that includes a reference to a novel. That in itself is, well, novel. Second, it is an Indian novel. Third, it is a novel that has nothing to do with macroeconomic theory. This is a book that teaches you that macroeconomic theory – that after all, is the job of a textbook – but it is also a book that teaches you what to do with that theory. It teaches you to apply that theory to get a handle on the society that you need to study, and it helps you understand that this society is so much more than the abstractions of economic theory. Use this book to appreciate life better, it seems to say. Or, in the language of us economists, Alex Thomas has written the book as a complement to everything else that you will read and learn about Indian society. Not as a substitute. That is a rare old achievement, and one well worth celebrating.

The most important part?

Finally, this book adopts a problem-setting approach rather than a problem-solving one, as is the case with most economics textbooks. To put it more clearly, this text helps you to identify, conceptualize and discipline a macroeconomic problem. Therefore, this book does not contain exercises in problem solving, but it contains discussions and questions that make you think about the nature of assumptions, the logic of the theory, the limits of the theory, the interface between theory and policy, a little about the gaps between theory and data, and occasionally, the nature of past and present economic thought.

Preface, pp xvi, Macroeconomics An Introduction

There are nine chapters in the book, and I hope Alex Thomas won’t mind me listing them out over here:

  1. What is economics?
  2. Conceptualising the macroeconomy
  3. Money and interest rates
  4. Output and employment levels
  5. Economic growth
  6. Why economic theory matters
  7. The policy objectives of full employment
  8. The policy objective of low inflation
  9. Towards good economics

Say you want to teach a course in macroeconomics to students who have not studied the subject before. Conceptually speaking, here are the questions I would want to answer as an instructor:

What are we studying here, exactly? What are we abstracting from all of reality and of those abstractions, which features matter more than the others? Why are we studying whatever it is that we’re studying? If we (students and the prof) agree on the answers to the first few questions, how do we go about defining and measuring “success”? Why put the word success in inverted quotes?

Chapter 1 | Chapters 2,3,4 | Chapters 5 and 6 | Chapters 7 and 8 | Chapter 9 is how I interpret the layout of the book, in line with the questions above. Personally, I would have wanted to put chapters 5 and 6 right after chapter 1, but after having read the book, I can understand why the book was structured the way it has been. In particular, the four sections of the sixth chapter can only become truly comprehensible after you’ve gone through chapters 2,3,4. If I were to be teaching a course on macro, I would still be tempted to jump from 1 to at least the spirit of chapters 5 and 6, but that’s just my personal preference at play. Growth matters, and helping students appreciate why growth matters can be hugely motivating.


This book deserves a separate section of the review dedicated exclusively to the richness of the text. I challenge you to find me another textbook, from anywhere in the world that can go from talking about Tony Aspromourgo’s chapter on Piero Sraffa on pp 100, to talking about a Telugu novella on pp 102 (Kesava Reddy’s Moogavani Pillanagrovi: Ballad of Ontillu, 2013) to talking about Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari on pp 103! To be clear, the challenge isn’t finding another textbook that talks of these three sources specifically (I can guarantee you that there isn’t another one!), but one that manages to traverse such breadth. Breathtaking stuff, and I never imagined I would use that phrase while reviewing a macro text.

But it’s not just that one series of excerpts. Every chapter is liberally sprinkled with a list of reading recommendations that stand out for their sheer breadth. All of them have been listed out between pages 200-208 in the text, and just these eight pages alone are worth the price of admission. Well, these eight pages and the two that precede it. In those two pages, Alex Thomas lists out all the data sources that have been used in the case of each table from each chapter.

In particular, this book deserves to be praised for raising repeatedly issues of caste, gender and ecology at various points through the text. Growth, but at what cost? Land as a factor of production, sure, but rooted in which society, and with therefore what consequences?

Consider this excerpt from pp 128, for example:

A village economy cannot be understood as a simple departure from the competitive macroeconomy we have discussed thus far. It requires us to understand how village space is divided and demarcated (typically on the basis of caste). The spatial inequality present in a village economy is captured very well by Kota Neelima in her depiction of a poor and indebted farmer’s house in Death of a Moneylender (2016).

The very next paragraph touches upon aspects of religion and its linkages to labor mobility. As always reasonable people can and should argue about how much of an impact these aspects (and other aspects of Indian society) have on the cold austere ivory tower approach that most macroeconomic textbooks adopt. I think it is a very significant impact, and you may not – and that is, of course, absolutely fine. But we are debating the quantum of significance and relevance, not questioning its very existence – and that is very, very welcome indeed.

Indeed, this is a book that ends with an exhortation: if you take one thing away from this book, Alex Thomas seems to be saying, take away an appreciation for the pluralistic approach (pp 196):

If you are a student of economics, you will soon study “statistics for economists’ and ‘mathematics for economists’. In both these methods of economics, there exist multiple concepts, theories and approaches, just like in macroeconomics and microeconomics; pay attention to the fact that these ‘methods of economics themselves both originated and are used within a social context. Moreover, a pluralistic approach to economics by itself is not sufficient when employing economics in the service of public policy; it is important to keep in mind the collective wishes of people as Xaxa’s poem in Section 1.4 pointed out.
I end this book with the hope that you take pluralism as a friend, sometimes a difficult one, in your journey of learning.


The pluralistic approach isn’t just restricted to moving across (and beyond) the social sciences. Even within the domain of macroeconomic theory, Alex Thomas takes the time and trouble to make sure that all views about the macroeconomy are fairly represented. The fifth chapter in particular is notable for this, but that should be taken to be especial praise for that chapter, not a faint damning of the others!

What could have been done better? If this book is intended for people learning about macroeconomics for the first time, I think this books errs on the side of doing a little bit too much. Some sections might be a little bit too involved for a reader who still has to cultivate a taste for macroeconomic theory (and god knows it is very much an acquired taste). And some first time readers might also not appreciate some of the macroeconomic controversies and the role they have played in pushing the field further.

This should beg the obvious question: well, what, exactly, should be cut? Well, not cut exactly, but some of the more involved explanations can be turned into, say, accompanying YouTube explainers (about which more below).

There are also some notable names missing from an introductory text of macroeconomics, but I’m all but certain that this is a case of conscious choice rather than inadvertent omission.

A tip to the students reading this review: help Alex out by coming up with videos that will act as accompaniments to the text. That is, if you are doing the hard work of reading through the text and understanding it, help others by creating content that will act as a complement to the reading of the text. Many students should do this, and in many languages! As Alex says, embrace plurality, both in terms of approach and understanding, but also linguistically speaking.


My biggest problem with the book is a bit of a meta-problem, and I hope I turn out to be wrong in what I am about to say. The biggest requirement, I think, of this book is a teacher who will do it justice. I honestly do not think that this book can be read by a first-time student of macroeconomics without some sort of mentoring and guidance. To be clear, this is not about the book being difficult or inaccessible – I am of the opinion that macroeconomics just is that hard.

But if what I’m saying is correct, then the success of the book is as dependent on the guide/mentor/professor as it is upon both the book and the reader. And that brings me to my answer to whether or not I would recommend that you read this book. It is not, I think, for everybody. But that’s not a criticism of the book, or its contents or the author. It is an acknowledgment of just how hard macroeconomics really is. In fact, Alex Thomas himself says that a year of undergrad studies in economics is recommended before you tackle this book.

But hey, hopefully I turn out to be wrong! Hopefully you can and will read this book and understand it.

And if you are already a serious student of economics (whether formally enrolled in a university or otherwise), then I absolutely and unreservedly recommend this book to you. As a student of Indian macroeconomics, you simply couldn’t do better. Period.


P.S. Alex Thomas will be speaking about his book to the students from the Gokhale Institute on the 17th of September. I don’t think livestreaming is possible, alas, but we will be putting up the recording on our YouTube channel for sure. If you have questions you’d like to ask Alex Thomas, pass them along here in the comments. We’ll try to work them in!

The Difference Between a Sociological and Psychological Story

I grew up in an age where the television series “Friends” was revered.

People considerably younger than me tell me that Friends is still revered, and there is probably some truth to that hypothesis. Every time I open up Netflix on my TV, Friends is regularly in the Top 10 shows in India.

Don’t worry, this is not about to turn into a snooty ol’ discussion about how Friends could be different/better. But I will say this much: I much preferred the first two to three seasons to the rest of the show. And the reason I preferred the first two or three seasons is because in my opinion, the first two or three seasons were about life happening to those six people in New York. It was observing New York through the eyes of these six people.

It helped that these six people were attractive and young. That helped in generating the kind of appeal that Friends has had for years now. But the reason why the first two or three seasons were, in my opinion, better than the latter ones is because they were sociological observations, using these lives of these six characters as a canvas. The latter seasons? Oftentimes, it seemed as if they were an extended riff on the “We were on a break” theme. In other words, it became a psychological story about what happened to these six people, and what about their psychological make-up made them take the decisions they do.

Not my phrasing (I wish it was). It simply is me applying Zeynep Tufekci’s model to the television series Friends. Here is Zeynep talking about Game of Thrones:

COWEN: TV show Game of Thrones — why does it interest you as a sociologist?

TUFEKCI: It interested me until the last season and a half —

TUFEKCI: — because before that, it was a very, very sociological thing. Here’s the thing. Here’s the difference between a sociological story and a psychological story.

In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil characters and good people, where you just identify with the good ones — which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one — it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.

The second sign of a sociological story, for me, is when nobody has plot armor because it’s the setting that’s carrying the story, with lots of people, but it doesn’t rely on one person dying or not dying. For six seasons, you have a very institutional sociology, very interesting. It’s like The Wire. People can die, but the story is still gripping because it’s sociological.

Here comes season — whichever the last season is — and all of a sudden, Arya can walk through fiery dragons and nothing happens. It just misses her by an inch. I’m like, “All right, you lost the plot here.” Plot armor essentially means you no longer have a solid sociological story.

I watched it with great interest until the end, and in the end, I’m like, “What just happened?” I wasn’t really very clear with the novel world. I learned that the novelist had run out of material, and the Hollywood showrunners were now writing the script. I’m like, “Ah, that’s what happened. They switched to the good-versus-evil story.”

They took a great story that was going to be how power corrupts, which clearly was the story, and in the end, they made the dragon lady snap just because she heard the church bells or something. [laughs] That’s not a good sociological story.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/zeynep-tufekci/

It’s a really good way (to me, at any rate) to think about why people say Seinfeld is better than Friends. Of course, you may not agree, and that’s obviously fine. But one reason why people say this might be is because Seinfeld is, to go back to my first example, about life happening to these people.

Roger Ebert, my favorite movie critic, often used to say that one shouldn’t ask what a movie is about. One should, instead ask how a movie is about whatever it is about. I can’t find the exact quote right now, but I think he was getting at the same point.


So ok, if you’re a student reading this, you’ve got one way to frame what everybody has felt about Game of Thrones. And you’ve got a way to think differently about Friends. But the large point is this: when you watch a movie, get lost in the plot and its intricacies, sure. But please, also ask yourself what you are learning about the society in which the plot, and the characters are based.

And here’s homework, if you are so inclined. How much of Michael Corleone’s decision making is a function of he being Michael Corleone, and how much of it is a function of he being who he is, in the family that he is from, the society in which he grew up, and his army background?

Or put another way: the really interesting question isn’t whether Michael and Sonny were different. In what ways were they similar, and why?

A fun thing to think about, if you ask me.


Final point: are you, like me, reminded of the Mahabharat when you read this paragraph?

In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil characters and good people, where you just identify with the good ones — which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one — it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/zeynep-tufekci/

Past EFE posts on Zeynep Tufekci here. Past EFE posts on sociology here.

What is a market?

Oddly enough, this is a question that most (not all, but most) economic textbooks don’t answer. Even more oddly, neither do most (again, some, not all) online dictionaries of economics.

I’ll restrict myself to just a couple of sources here, but if you are an economics student, have fun looking up your favorite textbook and let me know if it contains a definition of a market.

The Economist has a website called “Economics A-Z terms”, and the page for all things economics beginning with the letter M doesn’t have a definition of the market. A search on springer.com for “market” yields a lot of results about features and aspects of markets, it doesn’t actually define the term itself. I know Pindyck and Rubinfield have a definition, on the other hand – and this is an excellent textbook, by the way, and there are some others besides. But long story short, it is a topic that seems to have remained curiously undefined. Especially curious considering the fact that we spend such a long time talking about aspects of markets!

The field of law, on the other hand, does define markets, and does so very thoroughly indeed.


But the reason I bring this up today is because of an excellent post by Tim Taylor over on his blog recently, the title of which is “Thomas Sowell: Why “The Market” is a “Misleading Figure of Speech”. The post is a rumination on Thomas Sowell’s take on, well, the market.

“The market” is another such misleading figure of speech. Both the friends and foes of economic decision-making processes refer to “the market” as if it were an institution parallel with, and alternative to, the government as an institution. The government is indeed an institution, but “the market” is nothing more than an option for each individual to choose among numerous existing institutions, or to fashion new arrangements suited to his own situation and tastes.

https://conversableeconomist.wpcomstaging.com/2021/09/03/thomas-sowell-why-the-market-is-a-misleading-figure-of-speech/

So as per Sowell’s take here, the market is what each individual fashions to suit her own needs at a particular point of time. If I’m hungry, for example, I’m in the market for a meal. Now, that could mean that I choose to use Zomato or Swiggy to order food online and have it delivered home. It could also mean I spending some time in my kitchen rustling up a meal for myself. Or it could be I going to a restaurant and having a meal. Or something else altogether, including something that literally doesn’t exist until I invent it!

The market is simply the freedom to choose among many existing or still-to-be-created possibilities. The need for housing can be met through “the market” in a thousand different ways chosen by each person–anything from living in a commune to buying a house, renting rooms, moving in with relatives, living in quarters provided by an employers, etc., etc. The need for food can be met by buying groceries, eating at a restaurant, growing a garden, or letting someone else provide meals in exchange for work, property, or sex. “The market” is no particular set of institutions.

https://conversableeconomist.wpcomstaging.com/2021/09/03/thomas-sowell-why-the-market-is-a-misleading-figure-of-speech/

It’s an interesting take, and as Tim Taylor himself says later on in the post, if the definition of a market is “nothing more than an option for each individual to choose among numerous existing institutions, or to fashion new arrangements suited to his own situation and tastes”, that applies equally to government institutions too.

This is a bit of a nuanced take, but I’d actually go a bit beyond and ask if Sowell’s definition can be taken to mean that government itself is nothing but one of those numerous existing institutions. And whichever society in a particular place came up with some form of government first – well, that society was simply fashioning a new arrangement suited to that society’s own situation and tastes. This gives me the mischievous ability to drive both capitalists and socialists up the wall, for can I not then say that the government is nothing but another form of a market?


But that gentle leg-pulling aside, there is an important distinction between government and markets, as Tim himself points out:

Perhaps instead of thinking about government vs. the market, it’s more useful to think about government as embodying the set of ground-rules under which markets then operate.

https://conversableeconomist.wpcomstaging.com/2021/09/03/thomas-sowell-why-the-market-is-a-misleading-figure-of-speech/

So even if both were to be institutions that serve our needs (and can indeed therefore be thought of as “markets”), some markets are more equal than others. Governments get to embody (and indeed enforce) the set of ground rules under which markets operate.


And not to get all meta on you, but as public choice economists would rush to tell you, there also happens to be a very real market whose sole reason for existence is to influence the market we call government into making rules that suit, well, some forms of markets more than the others.

Yes, that is a long sentence, but an important one!