Balaji S on The New Search Engines

Today’s Twitter Story will require a little more clicking through in the diverse Twitter threads that are linked to. I found this one interesting, for example:

In other words, assuming I understand him correctly, synthesis engines search for you, and synthesize for you. It’s not just the mechanical trawling of the many alleys of the internet, it is also the packaging together of the results of the search.

I think (covered earlier) is a good example, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.

It’s not just a bicycle for the mind anymore, it’s the bicycle and the mind.

A Shared Plate at Bedekar’s

My first assignment in the Principles course at the Gokhale Institute is essentially Robert Frank’s famous assignment (pp. 61 in this PDF). Submissions are due on the 5th of September, and I look forward to reading them.

In today’s blogpost, I am going to try and write one of these myself! Three reasons for doing so:

  1. Skin in the game, practice what you preach, only ask others to do something if you’ve done it yourself.
  2. Some students might find an example essay useful
  3. It will be fun!

The essay is below the fold.

One of my favorite places to eat in Pune is Bedekar Misal. The place has been around forever, and the quality of the food has remained consistently good. If you haven’t yet been there, consider trying it!

The last time I was there, though, I noticed something interesting. The menu is printed on two flex sheets that have been put up at both ends of the premises. And the menu says that a regular plate of misal costs 90 rupees. If, however, two people choose to share one misal, then the price goes up to 130 rupees.

Why should this be so?

The costs of production don’t change depending on how many people eat a plate of misal. Neither do the costs associated with serving a plate go up depending upon how many people share a plate. Why then should the owners be charging a higher price for a shared plate?

Because what is scarce, and therefore at a premium, is a place to sit within the cramped confines of the restaurant. Try visiting the place at around one pm, and you’ll see a queue of hungry but patient would-be patrons waiting outside.

Now, if two people occupy a table but have only one plate of misal, that is revenue foregone for the restaurant. If two strangers were sitting at the same table, that would be revenue worth two plates of misal. Even if they knew each other and ended up having one plate each, that would still count as revenue worth two plates. But if they share a misal, well, that’s a loss.

And so what Bedekar Misal does is it puts up a negative incentive in place. Sure, they say, you can have one misal between two people. But you must then pay more. In effect, you are getting half a plate of misal for 65 rupees. At the margin, there will hopefully be folks who will consider this deal and reach the conclusion that paying just 25 rupees more is worth it. If they do, Bedekar Misal gets revenue worth two plates.

And if people choose to walk away from the restaurant rather than pay more for the same plate, well, it still works out just fine for Bedekar Misal. Why? Because there is no shortage of hungry people waiting in line!

So the problem of scarcity of space is solved by not explicitly charging for renting a seat. It is solved, instead, by increasing the price of the good you consume while occupying the scarce resource. That lowers the demand for a shared plate, and therefore increases the number of customers paying full price, while occupying space.

And that’s why this rather odd policy makes sense, once you apply simple principles of economics. Incentives, as it turns out, do matter.

I ended up having two plates all by myself, for the record, but alas, Bedekar’s doesn’t yet offer bulk discounts.

This essay clocks in at 484 words, well within my strictly enforced limit of five hundred words. To everybody reading this, an invitation – and especially to my students: feel free to tell me how the essay could be better! In effect, grade my submission, because I will soon be returning the favor 🙂

P.S. There are some folks who don’t like misal, but that’s fine. Nobody’s perfect.

Argue, Why Don’t You?

We had an excellent class recently (my students and I) on how to define markets.

That’s a whole other blogpost in itself, and I have a friend to thank for helping me discover that the legal world’s definition of markets is very different from the one that economics textbooks supply us with (if at all they do so in the first place).

But the students and I had a lot of fun talking about how to define a market, and at one point of time, the class turned into a very passionate debate about a particular case. The debate lasted for about an hour, a lot of fun was had, and all was well with the world.

After the class, one of the students came up to me to apologize. They wanted to apologize because they had argued with me, and had ended up debating about an issue.

Which, as you might guess, was just too horrible a thought for me to contemplate. What a world to live in – one in which we have a culture where students come up to apologize for having debated an issue in class.

I’d much rather live in a world where students come up to apologize for not having participated in a debate in class – that ought to be the default, dammit. A student who has the enthusiasm, the passion, the willingness and the desire to go up against the prof in a spirited debate, dishing out as good as they get is a great example of an awesome participant in a class discussion! Why apologize for it – that’s your job as a student!

And the reason this needs to be said is because if you are a student reading this, you need to know that arguing in class is A Very, Very Good Thing.

And you don’t have to take my word for it: listen to Adam Grant make the point very persuasively.

  1. Argue as much as possible in class, but always respectfully.
  2. Disagreement is fine (it’s great!), disrespect is not.
  3. That cuts both ways – it is equally fine for the prof to disagree with you, but always respectfully.
  4. Don’t argue to prove that you are right, argue to learn the truth. (Adam makes the same point early on in that podcast)
  5. I don’t always succeed at this, and I probably fail more often than I succeed.
  6. But I work at this, and try and get better at it, and I invite you to do the same.
  7. Arguing with somebody forces you to make your arguments and line of thinking clearer, and that alone is worth the debate. Ditto for writing.
  8. Adam makes the point that growing up in a household where your parents are arguing respectfully is good for you, and I’m happy to report that my wife and I have unknowingly been great parents in this regard.
  9. Adam has a great line in the podcast: the pen might not be mightier than the sword, but it lasts for longer. Whatay.

But bottom-line: please, pretty please. Argue more!

Opt-In, Opt-Out

I ended up paying somebody else’s electricity bill by mistake, and therein lies a tale.

About three weeks ago or so, an alert popped up on my phone. It was a notification from the Cred app. Or it may be that I saw this notification while doing something else on the Cred app. But whether it was a notification on my phone or within the Cred app, the call to action was clear. Two days left to pay your electricity bill, it said, inviting me to go ahead and pay.

Now, I usually pay the electricity bill by using either Amazon Pay or Google Pay, but I had no aversion to paying it via the Cred app. I already pay my credit card bills using the app, so why not electricity bills too? The amount that I had to pay looked right (based on what I remembered from the bill that the utility had sent me), and so I went ahead and paid.

And that was that, I thought.

Except we received, some days ago, the next month’s bill. And this latest bill said that we had to pay a whopper of an amount. Upon going through the fine print, we realized it was a whopper because I had not paid last months’ bill.

Except, of course, I had!

And so I dug through Cred’s sections, hunting down the notification re: I having paid the bill. And sure enough, there it was… except, on closer perusal, for one crucial fact. The consumer number wasn’t correct.

So what had happened?

I still get notifications in my inbox for electricity bills from the last apartment I used to stay in. We shifted out of that place in 2016, but I continue to get electricity bills for that apartment. And Cred, for some reason, decided for me that this was an electricity bill I needed to pay. And told me to pay it. And I went ahead and paid for it.

What is Cred? It is a start-up through which you can pay your credit card bills. There is a lot more going on there, but that is (maybe) a story for another blogpost. For now, it is an app that helps you pay your credit card bills, and that is good enough for us.

How do you go about adding your credit cards on the app? Well, you enter the number, you enter an OTP that you get on your phone, you jump through a couple of other hoops, and then you’re set. You get bill alerts, payment due day alerts, and there’s some gamification after you’ve made payment via the Cred app.

But the most important thing is that you have to opt-in when it comes to adding your credit card. It is not added in by default, you have to choose to add your credit card.

But the electricity bill? Ah, that was opt-out. I wasn’t asked to confirm if this was my bill. I’m sure I must have pressed yes at some point of time to a question along the lines of “Can we trawl through your inbox to identify bills you need to pay”, and I’m well aware of the fact that I was a lazy chump to do so. This blogpost is not me complaining about Cred, or saying something illegal happened.

But it certainly is about choice architecture. Having trawled through my inbox, and having surfaced an electricity bill, I sure do wish that Cred had added an additional verification step. If the name on the bill doesn’t match my name on Cred, maybe ask if this bill is mine? Or even if it does, still check if I should be paying this bill (maybe I’ve rented out that flat, and my tenant should be paying it, for example?).

And only post this confirmation should you be sending me a message to pay “my” electricity bill?

This is, of course, a well known problem in behavioral economics. See here, for example. Or open up the Zomato app! Just before you make payment, take a look at the fact that you’re paying INR 4 to the Feeding India Foundation – this is opt-out. That is, Zomato assumes you are willing to pay the 4 rupees, and you have to opt-out of paying it.

And Zomato will not send you cutlery by default – you have to opt-in to have the cutlery be sent to you.

And I do wish that electricity bill payments on Cred were opt-in, not opt-out!

P.S. This is a true story, but is also a useful way to segue into announcing that GIPE is hosting a week-long seminar on behavioral economics. I will be taking a couple of these sessions, and I now have skin in the game when it comes to talking about choice architecture. An ironical thank you is due to Cred, I suppose.

P.P.S I’m in touch with Cred about this, and while I am not asking for a refund, I do hope that they change their choice architecture. I’ll keep you guys updated 🙂

How To Get the Most Out of Life

Oof, it’s taken me a long, long time.

About a month ago or so, I wrote a blog about parsing my favorite definition of economics, and Akshay Alladi responded on Twitter thusly:

And coming up with a reply to this tweet is what has occupied my mind for all this while. I don’t mean that as a complaint – quite the opposite, in fact. It has been a very enjoyable thing to keep gnawing away at, and it has resulted in more than a couple of lovely, relaxed conversations. It has also taken me down many a rabbit hole online, including on the etymology of the word religion. I have, in fact, a whole other draft of a post in response, but it ended up being so chaotic and full of links that I decided to start anew instead.

And in this new post, I decided to keep things simple. Rather than try to define religion (and I invite you to take a stab at it), or think about why one should be (or should not be!) religious, I decided to step back for a bit and take a look at the definition again:

Economics is the study of how to get the most out of life

And here’s my first line of defense against Akshay’s question. “What might be the thing that will give you the most out life?” is a question whose correct answer may well be religion for some. What is religion?

Here’s the definition Google will give you:

“the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”

Wikipedia goes on an extended trip, with a twist at the end of the sentence, if you prefer a more thorough definition. But whichever definition you go with, you may well decide that it is this – the practice of this thing called religion – that will get you the most out of life. And I say this will all sincerity: good for you, if that be the case!

Again, to be clear, religion isn’t my own answer to the question of how to get the most out of life, but it may well be yours.

But now that you have decided to get the most out of life by practicing religion, economics absolutely can help you from here on in.

What is the cost to you of practicing religion? What are you giving up in order to do so? What incentives can be put in place for you to be religious – both positive and negative? Should you be needing incentives at all in the first place when it comes to being religious? What are the short term benefits and costs, and what are the long term benefits and costs? Economics can help you frame these questions, and can help you answer them.

Or put another way, economics does not help you decide what “most” should be. In fact, it cannot help you decide what “most” should be. It may well be the case that something associated with religion (or even religion itself) helps you answer this question. But once you’ve decided that this – whatever this may be – is your definition of “most”… then the how to go about it is all economics.

Remember, economics is about choices, horizons, costs and incentives. Choices regarding what? Costs pertaining to what? Incentives for what? The answer to this question must come from you.

The how?

That’s economics.

Econ Ain’t About Money

A somewhat less sexy, but more accurate title would have been ” Economics Isn’t Just About Money”.

But the decision to jettison the word “just” is deliberate, and not just for the sake of a headline that makes you want to click through. It is, instead, to emphasize the point that economics is about so much more than just about making money.

I have some close friends to thank for inspiring this post, with whom I had a conversation about tomorrow’s blogpost. They told me that they had been under the impression that economics is about money, and to my surprise, that seems to be an idea that most people I have spoken to are comfortable with.

But these people I have spoken with, and whoever has taught them economics, have less than half the right answer. Economics isn’t about money alone.

I’d written a post a while back about Choices, Horizons, Incentives and Costs. And to me, that’s what economics is about.

No matter what you do in life, you have a range of choices to choose from. Should I watch Netflix for an hour or study for an hour? Should I read a couple of pages from a book, or should I quickly scroll through Twitter? Should I enroll in an engineering course, or should I pursue law instead? Should I start with the salad at a buffet, or should I start with desserts instead?

Life is all about choices, every single second of your life. Economics helps you be clear about your choices, and also helps you potentially expand your choice set. One option regarding the last question in the paragraph above, is to say neither, and fast instead. Be aware of your entire choice set, and only then set about choosing one.

Horizons is about thinking about the long term, rather than the short term. My favorite example in introductory economics is to ask my students if I should have a second gulab jamun for desserts after lunch today. I tell them that present day Ashish will definitely say yes, and seventy year old Ashish (assuming I live for that long) will definitely say no. Because the consequences of choices I make today truly matter in the long run, bur are underestimated in the short run.

Incentives are about what motivate you to do (or not do) things. Economics teaches you how to use your own incentives, and those of others, to Get Things Done. My favorite example comes from Tyler Cowen, who helps us understand how to use incentives to not be bored in a museum. Ask yourself, he suggests, which painting would you choose to steal from each room, to install in your own home – and you cannot choose more than one per room. Your incentives have flipped – now it’s not about “seeing” each and every painting having paid the price of admission, but instead about asking yourself which painting will look best in your home.

And costs are about the realization that nothing in life comes for free. No matter what you are doing, you could always be doing something else. Instead of having read this far (thank you!), you could have given up halfway through and watched funny cat videos instead. Opportunity costs are everywhere, and whatever your choice, it ain’t for free.

The point that unites each of the examples above is that none of them are about money! They are economics-y concepts: choices, horizons, incentives and costs. But what to have in a buffet, whether to have a second gulab jamun, deciding which painting to steal and watching cat videos are not about money.

You could put a monetary value to all of them using subjective valuations, of course, but some things shouldn’t have numbers attached to them. Not because they’re not important, but because they’re fundamentally unquantifiable. What price (and I’m not joking here) can you possibly put on a parent choosing to read a story to a child? Economists have an answer to this question, of course, but it isn’t one that I am entirely comfortable with, especially if it involves a definitive number.

And that’s what I mean when I say that economics is about so much more than just money.

That still does not answer the question of what economics is about – I have written about it earlier, and will defend my answer in tomorrow’s post.

Can the economy grow forever?

Why Are We Not Doing More To Fight Climate Change?

What Lies Ahead for India?

Towards the end of his column, Niranjan highlights three key areas for India to work on in the years to come:

  1. Jobs, and those preferably in manufacturing.
    There is no sugarcoating this: we need to do much better in this regard, and if anything, we have been doing marginally worse in the last decade or so.
  2. Irregular and inefficient access to energy.
    We’ve tried to solve this problem the way teenagers clean their rooms. And the results have been exactly as bad as in the case of those teenagers. Niranjan offers hope by speaking about the transition to green energy, and I wish I could share his optimism.
  3. Political economy: will India resemble East Asia or Latin America?
    I put on my Straussian hat to think about the points Niranjan is making here, and I would encourage you to do the same.

Each of these points is spot on, to which I would add the following:

  1. More expenditure on the capital side.
    We need to build. More roads, more airports, more dams, more electricity projects, more ports, more housing units, more everything. One of my favorite factoids in the recent past has been about China pouring more concrete between 2012-2016 than the USA did in the entire 20th century. India needs to join this conversation, and real quick. But that is a hard political economy problem.
  2. Preserve and improve the quality of our institutions.
    Easier said than done, but the quality of our executive, our legislature, our judiciary, our monetary policy authority, our media, our regulators and our public policy institutions needs to not regress and become better over time. There is an unfortunate tendency to have a discussion about this very quickly turn into finger-pointing and yelling, but the sad truth is that these institutions are nowhere near as good as they need to be, and are arguably getting worse. Institutions matter!
  3. Better education, better health:
    Not more schools and colleges, not more degrees. But better know-how, a better trained work-force and a focus on improving the quality of education at all levels rather than the quantity of institutes and organizations.
    India’s healthcare system is a mess, and we don’t yet realize how bad it is. But twenty years down the line, there is waiting for us a ticking time bomb: a rapidly ageing population of India’s size, going up against our healthcare system as it currently exists is something that should fill all of us with dread.

Each of these are truly hard problems, with no easy solutions. But hey, nobody ever claimed that this was going to be a walk in the park. If you are a student of economics in India today, you have your work cut out for you, and time is of the essence.

My thanks to Niranjan Rajadhakshya for writing this excellent column, and I hope his column and these blogposts spark many conversations, debates and projects in the days to come.


Land, Labor and Capital

A very long extract to begin with today, because it just is that important:

The first tentative economic reforms began after Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980. Political scientist Atul Kohli has written of how she made her peace with Indian business houses. The licence raj was eased. Taxes were reduced. VP Singh presented a reformist budget in 1985, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. Manmohan Singh helmed the seventh five-year plan. It focussed on technology, productivity and efficiency. The Reserve Bank of India allowed the rupee to gradually depreciate in a bid to promote exports.
The growth spurt in the 1980s was supported by a large increase in fiscal deficits as well as international borrowing. It was unsustainable. The road to the 1991 crisis lay ahead. The macroeconomic crisis—in the midst of political and social instability —was a turning point. The duo of PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh abolished industrial licensing, slashed import tariffs, opened up the financial sector, attracted foreign capital, fixed public finances and made the rupee convertible on the current account. In his landmark budget speech in July 1991, Manmohan Singh cogently argued that the balance of payments crisis was a symptom of a deeper malaise: macroeconomic imbalances, low productivity of public sector investments, loopholes in the tax system, indiscriminate protection that had weakened the incentive to export, lack of domestic competition, a weak financial system that was not allocating capital efficiently, lack of access to the latest technology, and much more. The great achievement of 1991 was not each reform in isolation, but the rollout of a comprehensive reform programme where different parts complemented each other.
The development state was replaced by the regulatory state. The government was no longer the main vehicle of investments. That job was handed over to the private sector, while new regulators were set up or empowered to ensure markets functioned well in a wide range of areas.

The entire column is excellent – that’s why we’ve spent four days (and counting) on it. But it is awe-inspiring to see how concisely and yet how thoroughly Niranjan has spoken about the 1991 reforms in three short paragraphs. Shruti Rajagopalan and her excellent colleagues at the Mercatus Center have an entire website dedicated to the events of 1991 and what came after, and I would strongly encourage you to spend a lot of time on it.

If you are younger than thirty years today and are reading this, you need to understand why you are able to read this today. You need to understand how the Indian economy changed enough for me to be able to write this blog in addition to all of what I do to earn my daily bread, and you also need to understand how your own income (or that of your family’s) went up enough to be able to afford the device that you are using right now to read this. To say nothing of the job/business that paid for this device- both the device and the job likely wouldn’t have been available prior to 1991.

I hope to write more about how the 1991 reforms changed lives on the ground for those of us who were around in the 1990’s and the early 2000’s. In all my classes, I tell my students that they have a secret superpower that they should make full use of. This secret superpower is called TMKK. It stands for Toh Main Kya Karoon? In English, that means ‘so what should I do?’, although a more accurate translation would be ‘so why should I care?’.

Consider this sentence once again: “The duo of PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh abolished industrial licensing, slashed import tariffs, opened up the financial sector, attracted foreign capital, fixed public finances and made the rupee convertible on the current account.”

Especially as a young student, you should absolutely be asking TMKK. How did the life of the average Indian change because industrial licensing was abolished? So what if import tariffs were abolished? What could I buy and consume that I could not earlier? How did opening up the financial sector help ordinary folks who were around in the 1990’s? What changes in the lives of ordinary citizens when India finds herself able to attract foreign capital?

You get the drift. I suspect most folks nod along when they hear us economists rhapsodize about 1991, without really getting what was in it for them. But they need to know. One, to better understand why exactly 1991 was so important, and second, to realize how fragile our economic freedom is, and to do our utmost to preserve it in the years/decades to come.

In their book, Tryst with Destiny, Bhagwati and Panagariya speak about how far India has come since 1991. And it really has come a long way! But they also speak about the need to have sustained and accelerated growth from here on in (the book was published about a decade ago). And they say that this needs two kinds of further reform.

Track I reforms are all about accelerating and sustaining growth, while making it even more inclusive, while Track II reforms are about making redistribution even more broad-based and effective. And they make the point that while 1991 was a great start to Track I reforms, there is a long, long way to go:

If truth be told, India is far from done on Track I reforms for two broad reasons. First, the potential for growth remains grossly underexploited. The economy remains subject to vast inefficiencies. Removing these inefficiencies not only offers the opportunity to arrest the recent decline in growth but to push the economy to a double-digit growth trajectory. Second, the poverty reduction that directly results from growth, in terms of enhanced wages and employment opportunities per percentage point of growth, can be increased: we can get a larger bang for the buck.

Panagariya, Arvind; Bhagwati, Jagdish. India’s Tryst With Destiny . HarperCollins Publishers India. Kindle Edition.

Every single economics student is taught, sooner or later, about the three factors of production: land, labor and capital. The link I have added here mentions a fourth, but let’s keep things simple for now. And I find it instructive to think about what Bhagwati and Panagariya choose to talk about in Part II of their book. This section of their book is about accelerating, widening and deepening what they refer to as Track I reforms, and the these are the first three sub-sections:

  1. Labor laws
  2. Land Acquisition
  3. Infrastructure

That is to say, even now, a full 75 years after India’s Independence, it isn’t as easy as it should be to utilize land, labor and capital to the fullest extent possible. You may agree or disagree with their solutions to these problems, but I would argue that the diagnosis is spot on.

The Indian economy is freer today than it was in 1990, and that is really and truly awesome. But it isn’t free enough, and much more work remains to be done.

Quite what this work is, and how to best go about it, is the journey that we need to undertake on the long road to breaking free.

And if this challenge excites you, well, like it or not, you are a student of the Indian economy – welcome to our tribe!